Saturday, September 14, 2019

Frederic L. Pryor Dies

On September 2, 2019, Frederic L. Pryor died at age 86, which has now been reported in obits in both the  NY Times and the Washington Post.  These outlets have focused on his incidental role in 1861-62 as the unfortunate graduate student who was arrested in East Berlin on Aug. 25, 1961 while attempting to visit the sister of a friend, with the sister having already defected to the West.  Fred was also planning to give a copy of his PhD (Yale) dissertation to someone who had helped him with it, but when the Stasi watching this woman's place saw him and found a copy of his dissertation  on  the foreign trade patterns of the then East Germany, just in the midst of building the infamous Berlin Wall, he was arrested as a spy.  He would only be released early in the following February in 1962 as part of the "Bridge of Spies" exchange involving Francis Gary Powers of U2 fame and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (real name: William Fisher), with this being arranged by US attorney, James Donovan.  He would be played by Tom Hanks in the 2015 film version of this put on by Steven Spielberg, although Spielberg never communicated with Pryor and absurdly misrepresented him in the film.

Beyond this headline story there was much more to Fred Pryor, a personal friend to me and my wife, Marina, who wrote a back cover blurb for the second edition of our comparative economics textbook.  Coming to locate at Swarthmore College in 1967, where remained for the rest of his life including as an emeritus professor, he wrote many articles and books on a wide array of issues, including many highly innovative ones on comparative economics. He was one of the leading experts in socialist agriculture as exemplified in his 1992 The Red and the Green: The Rise and Fall of Collectivized Agriculture in Marxist Regimes (Princeton University Press), which subtly recognized the high productivity of Hungarian agricultural collectives, along with the  more widely recognized failures in many such regimes. 

He also was one of the first to recognize the variety of economic systems that did not neatly fall into either the market capitalist or command socialist categories.  In 1985 he wrote on the nature of Islamic economics and in 1988 on the complicated nature of "Corporatism as an Economic System" (Journal of Comparative Economics), which ranged from the authoritarian "corporate state" models of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and Austria, to the liberal versions found in Sweden and post-WW II Austria later, which had excellent records in controlling unemployment and inflation.  In these studies he understood the role of religion, not just in Islamic economics, but also the Roman Catholic Church as the origin of the corporatist model.  Marina and I would extend this approach to what we called "New Traditional" economic systems, an idea Fred approved of.

He also was a student of economic complexity as shown in his 2011 Economic Evolution and Structues: The Impact of Complexity on the U.S. Economy, although I disagreed with him on his view here arguing that what he really was observing was "complicatedness" rather than true complexity.  He wrote on many other topics as well.

Unlike the anodyne figure played by Will Rogers in the movie "Bridge of Spies," Fred was a sharp and witty character who I imagine gave his East German interrogators a hard time, even as he wisecracked that what they did to him ten hours a day for nearly six months amounted to  good way to learn German. He did not suffer fools gladly.

Fred arrived at Swarthmore four years after Marty Weitzman graduated from there as a student of comparative economic systems, although majoring in math and physics.  Also graduating then was my sister, Edwenna Rosser Werner, who would go on to get a PhD in psychology from Harvard.  That group at Swarthmore included such figures as social capital theorist Robert Putnam, as well as economists Duncan Foley, Roy Weintraub, and Gavin Wright.  My sister died on 9/11/19 of a burst brain aneurysm.

Barkley Rosser

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am so very sorry to read the news of your sister. So sad.

Anonymous said...

Superb remembrance. Why not write about your sister as well, however?

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I am about to go to Washington to be with my late sister's immediate family, who are still in a state of shock. They include her husband, Michael Werner, the former chief scientist for the Spitzer infrared space telescope, her daughter, Erica Warner, a reporter for the Washington Post who covers Congrees, and her son Alex Werner, who works on computer games in Silicon Valley. She also had three grandchildren.

For a long time she worked on various psychology research projects, although she took time off when her children were young. Later she did academic administrative work, including with the Stanford economics department and was in her last job an assistant dean at the University of Southern California (she and Michael lived in Pasadena in later years).

She was involved in many charitable and political activities and groups, and was also very musical, performing in several choruses.

As an undergrad at Swarthmore, she briefly dated George Akerlof, who was then at Yale.

I am missing her greatly and am gathering lots of old photos to take to show to her surviving immediate family members. She was six years older than me.

Bill H aka run75441 said...

Barkley:

I am sorry to hear of the loss of such a talented and giving sister. The passage of time hardly adjusts for such losses in our lives. There will always be a gap going forward.

Anonymous said...

I do appreciate learning of your sister and you have my thoughts and wishes.

Anonymous said...

A truly remarkable older sister and younger brother.

Anonymous said...

A candle was lit for your sister.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Thanks.

Wallfly said...

Sorry for your loss and thanks for the wonderful remembrances.
-Paul Meyer

rickstersherpa@msn.com said...

So sorry for the loss of your sister. My condolences to you & her entire family.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Thanks to all of you. I am still processing, but time does eventually heal.