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James Medoff; Harvard professor helped many grasp economics

Dr. Medoff teaching his Harvard economics class in 1994.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

James Medoff was the kind of economist whose plain­spoken insights could shed light from Congress to a ­Harvard classroom, from arbitration hearings to a conversation with a child.

"Jim had the unusual talent of converting extremely dense and hard-to-grasp economic concepts into something that a normal person could understand," said Bruce H. Simon, a partner with Cohen, Weiss, and Simon, a New York City labor law firm that represents unions. "He had a way of boiling the incredibly complex into what you would think made perfect common sense, and he was able to speak in simple ­declarative sentences."

The halls of Harvard were Dr. Medoff's intellectual ­domain, but he could deftly translate academic theory into something that to be applied in the most ordinary setting.


"He taught me about supply and demand when I was 7," said his daughter, Susanna of Newton. "He said: 'If you ever run a lemonade stand, you can charge more when it's hot. You'll make more money.' "

Dr. Medoff — who formerly was the Meyer Kestnbaum professor of labor and industry at Harvard, where he began teaching as soon as he completed his doctorate at the university — died of complications of multiple sclerosis Saturday in the Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea. He was 65 and formerly lived in Concord.

"He was a teacher of surpassing generosity with an extra­ordinary passion for economics, who was a real inspiration for me and many others ­because of his very close attention to data and careful empirical work," said Lawrence ­Summers, a former president of Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary.

Summers, who had been a student of Dr. Medoff's, recalled that "he was extraordinarily imaginative in thinking about ways to use data to illustrate economic issues."

"To him, economics was not an intellectual game," Summers said. "It was a way of understanding the world better to make it better."


Robert Solow, an MIT professor emeritus who received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1987, said Dr. Medoff "was the sort of old-style labor economist who came to it because he was genuinely interested in how working people live and how their lives can be improved."

Because of the labor market's complexity, Solow said, "it's very easy for economists to run off into interesting, but more or less irrelevant details. Jim Medoff was a guy who looked at all the complications and tried to understand what was fundamentally important for both employers and wage earners."

Along with testifying in arbitration hearings on behalf of organ­izations such as the National Association of Letter Carriers, Dr. Medoff was a consultant for businesses and corporations small and large, including the Globe.

When a group of African-American ministers in Boston met with Globe officials in the early 1980s to discuss ways the paper could improve job opportunities for minorities, Dr. Medoff was called in to mediate and to monitor an agreement the two sides reached in 1983.

Dr. Medoff was often quoted by reporters because of his ­expertise on labor matters.

"He had a quick mind, and he also had this knack of being able to explain things in very simple terms," said John S. Driscoll, a former editor of the Globe. "I think that was why he was called on so often."

Driscoll said Dr. Medoff was memorable for his sense of ­humor and the attention he paid to details others might not notice. One rainy afternoon, Driscoll called and casually asked if Dr. Medoff was busy with his consulting work.


"He said, 'I never make any phone calls when it's raining,' " Driscoll recalled. "I asked why not, and he said, 'Well, people are always unhappy when it's raining. I only want to talk with them when they're happy.' "

James L. Medoff was born and grew up in Woonsocket, R.I., where his father was a physician and his mother was part of the Darman family that owned textile mills.

He graduated from the ­Moses Brown School in Providence, where he was a football cocaptain, wrestled, and played lacrosse.

At Brown University, he was also an athlete, and then decided "sometime in his junior year that he was going to put all his energy into being an economist, the way he had put all his energy into sports," said his older sister, Joanne Darman ­Medoff of New York City.

He graduated from Brown in 1969 with a bachelor's ­degree in economics. As an under­graduate, he met Leslie Miller, whom he later married. Their marriage ended in ­divorce.

At Harvard, Dr. Medoff ­received a master's in 1973 and a doctorate in 1975, both in economics, and promptly joined the faculty. Popular with students, he was awarded the Galbraith teaching prize, which was created by economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

"If students came to see him with questions, he took a real interest and became almost a father to a lot of them," said Dr. Medoff's son, Justin of Bedford. "He'd really go the extra mile to help anybody. That was his nature. For all his education and accomplishments, he was down to earth, too."


In 1984, Dr. Medoff co­authored with Richard B. ­Freeman, a Harvard colleague, the book "What Do Unions Do?"

"His work with Richard Freeman on unionism stands to this day, both for its creativity and for its empirical rigor," Summers said.

In other publications and research, Dr. Medoff challenged conventional wisdom about small businesses. Larger companies tend to create better-paying positions with better benefits, Dr. Medoff said in an interview, and small businesses should not be exempted from regulations simply because they create more jobs.

"Public policy should be for or against minority discrimination or a safe and healthy workplace, regardless of the size of the company," Dr. Medoff told the Globe in 1990. "If a business is so shaky it can't exist without exemptions, perhaps it should be put out of its misery."

A memorial service for Dr. Medoff will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in Concord Funeral Home in Concord. Burial will be in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

Though his opinions were sought by Washington lawmakers and Harvard students, Dr. Medoff "was not intimidating," his daughter said.

"He was one of those guys who was literally nice to everyone," she said. "He was a tenured Harvard professor, but he would shake hands with the janitor when he walked by him in the hall."


Bryan Marquard
can be reached at