Both praised and criticized for often speaking and writing in bite-sized pronouncements that made economics more digestible, Lester Thurow addressed topics that resonate as loudly in today’s political debates as they did when he was a professor and dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From inflation to poverty and unemployment, “all our problems have solutions,” he told the Globe in 1979, “but not necessarily politically feasible ones.”
Having just turned in the manuscript for what would become his best-selling book “The Zero-Sum Society,” he added in the interview that “these solutions, whether they are planning-oriented or market-oriented, have the common denominator that the government must be willing to impose large economic penalties on one group or another.”
Dr. Thurow, who years ago focused on the emergence of what is now commonly called income inequality, the widening gap between the poor and the rich, died Friday in his Westport home. He was 77. MIT, which announced his death, did not disclose the cause.
He began teaching at MIT in 1968 and served as dean of the Sloan School of Management from 1987 to 1993.
“Lester Thurow spent his life trying to make society more farsighted and more fair,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. “As a member of the faculty, as dean of MIT Sloan, as a successful author, and as an advisor to political giants, he embodied MIT’s mission to advance knowledge and educate students in service to the nation and the world. He left an indelible mark in the world of economic policy, and his pioneering instinct for building connections with people, institutions, and ideas around the world is woven deep into the daily life of MIT.”
Dr. Thurow was 48 when he was named dean of the Sloan School of Management in March 1987. “A big part of our competitive problems stem from top management that doesn’t understand the technology they are supposed to manage,” he told the Globe at the time. “Somehow we need to give managers without formal training in science and engineering an understanding, a competence, in technology.”
Robert Reich, who was then a public policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and later was secretary of the US Labor Department during the Clinton administration, called Dr. Thurow’s appointment “marvelous” in a 1987 interview. “What it implies is that many of the themes he’s worked on, like competitiveness and productivity, are coming into the mainstream, that they are important considerations for managers to understand and learn,” Reich said.
More widely known outside academia for his books and public speaking, Dr. Thurow wrote best-sellers and advised politicians. His books included “Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe, and America” (1992); “The Future of Capitalism: How Today’s Economic Forces Shape Tomorrow’s World” (1996); and “Building Wealth: The New Rules for Individuals, Companies, and Nations in a Knowledge-Based Economy” (1999).
He referred to public speaking as “part of public education” in a 1992 interview with the C-SPAN program “Booknotes.”
“If you have ideas, one of the things you want to do is try to sell those ideas to people in the United States and in the rest of the world,” he added. “You sell ideas partly by writing books, but you also sell ideas partly verbally by giving talks, and you sell ideas by being on television programs like this one. It is a question of how you can sell the ideas that you think are important for Americans or people in the rest of the world to hear if we’re going to have a successful world economy in the 21st century.”
There was another reason for his prolific writing and speaking. Dr. Thurow had advised President Jimmy Carter’s campaign, but did not secure a position in his administration. “I decided that if I could not have the king’s ear, I would talk to the public,” Dr. Thurow told The New York Times in 1997. “That’s the other way to have an impact on the economic system.”
Born in Livingston, Mont., Lester Carl Thurow was a son of Willis Carl Thurow and the former Alice Thickman. His mother taught math and his father was a Methodist minister. “I grew up in Montana, America’s Siberia,” Dr. Thurow quipped on “Booknotes.”
The family moved around the state once every four or five years for his father’s church postings. Dr. Thurow’s Montana high school years, for example, were divided between Glendive, near Montana’s border with North Dakota, and Anaconda, on the opposite side of the state near the Idaho border.
He graduated from Williams College with a bachelor’s degree in political economy. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, he attended Balliol College of Oxford University, from which he received a master’s in philosophy, politics, and economics. Returning to Massachusetts, he graduated from Harvard in 1964 with a doctorate in economics.
Dr. Thurow subsequently taught at Harvard until joining MIT’s faculty in 1968, and in 1964-65 he was a member of the Council of Economic Advisors. He told “Booknotes” that he was the liaison between the council and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, “and we really believed we could cure poverty.”
He added: “The sad thing is, I think maybe it could have been done at that time.”
MIT said plans for a memorial gathering for Dr. Thurow will be announced, and that he leaves his wife, Anni; his sons, Torben and Ethan; his brother, Chuck; two stepchildren, Yaron and Yael; and seven grandchildren.
During his decades writing about political topics and advising Democrats, Dr. Thurow was not without detractors. Conservative critics whimsically dubbed him “Less Thorough.”
Paul Krugman, a former MIT colleague who went on to become a New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winner for economics, disagreed so frequently with Dr. Thurow and for so many years that a 1997 New York Times piece on the two was headlined “Like Oil and Water.” Krugman even declined to be photographed with Dr. Thurow for the article.
Unruffled, Dr. Thurow continued to focus on speaking to the public, rather than to the king, as he said in an interview for that Times piece.
In “The Zero-Sum Society,” he wrote: “There is really only one important question in political economy. If elected, whose income do you and your party plan to cut in the process of solving the economic problems facing us?”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.