Friday, October 24, 2014

The Passing of Fred Lee: An(other) Old Wobbly Bites The Dust

Last night (Oct. 23) at 11:20 PM, CDT, prominent heterodox economist, Fred Lee of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, died of cancer.  He had stopped teaching during the last spring semester and was honored at the 12th International Post Keynesian Conference held at UMKC a month ago. While I do not know if he was a card-carrying member of the IWW, as was a friend of mine, Bill Grogan, who died over a month  ago and about whom I blogged here then; on more than one occasion, including at this conference at UMKC last month, I heard Fred called an "old Wobbly," and I never heard him dispute this description. For any who do not know, "Wobbly" has always been the nickname for a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a pro-working class universal union anarcho-syndicalist group.

Whatever one thinks of heterodox economics in general, or of the views of Fred Lee in particular, he should be respected as the person more than any other who was behind the founding of the International Conference of Associations for Pluralism in Economics (ICAPE), and also the Heterodox Economics Newsletter.  While many talked about the need for there to be an organized group pushing heterodox economics in all its varieties, Fred did more than talk and went and organized the group and its main communications outlet.  He also regularly and strongly spoke in favor of heterodox economics, the unity of which he may have exaggerated.  But his voice in advocating the superiority of heterodox economics over mainstream neoclassical economics was as strong as that of anybody that I have known.  I also note that he was the incoming President for the Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE), and they will now have to find a replacement.  He had earlier stepped down from his positions with ICAPE and the Heterodox Economics Newsletter.

It was both sad and moving to see Fred at the PK conference last month in Kansas City.  He was in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, with his rapidly declining health condition stunningly apparent.  There were several sessions honoring his work.  However, at one of the major ones, he spoke at the end. Although he was having trouble even breathing and could barely even speak, he rose and made his comments, at the end becoming impassioned and speaking up forcefully to proclaim his most firmly held positions.  He declared that his entire career had been devoted to battling for the downtrodden, poor, and suffering around the world, "against the 1% percent!" and I know that there was not a single person in that standing room only audience who doubted him.  He openly wept after he finished with those stirring words, as those who were not already standing rose to applaud him with a standing ovation.

Fred's own research agenda focused on developing a heterodox microeconomics, one based on the idea of markets being dominated by oligopolistic firms with price-setting powers and more.  In the Post Keynesian camp he drew heavily on the work of Alfred Eichner as well as Michal Kalecki, although he was also influenced by American Institutionalists such as Gardiner Means, hence his Presidency-Elect of the Old Institutionalist AFEE.  He wrote on many other topics as well, and in more recent years on the broader issue of the meaning and application of heterodox economics and how to develop a coherent alternative heterodox economics.  But his most famous work was and will probably remain his work on a heterodox, arguably Post Keynesian, approach to micreoeconomics.

At this point I must note that while we were always friends, and I knew Fred for a long time, we had some fairly strong differences of opinion in recent years.  A decade ago, I with David Colander and Ric Holt, wrote a book and an article, followed up by another book and some other articles, the first book being _The Changing Face of Economics: Conversations with Cutting Edge Economists_ (2004, University of Michigan Press) and the first article being "The Changing Face of Mainstream Economics" (Review of Political Economy, 2004).  We argued that "mainstream" is a sociological category, those running the show in the profession (top departments, journals, etc.), while "orthodox" is an intellectual category, the hardline version of which is widely called "neoclassical economics."  We argued that "heterodox" was both: not running things and also intellectually anti-orthodox.  This opened the door for a category of "non-orthodox mainstream economists," with people like George Akerlof being possible examples.  Several heterodox economists disagreed with this argument and viewed us as weakening the criticism of "the orthodox mainstream" with this sort of divisionist argument, and quite a few of those expressed their disagreements in print, with there actually being an entire book dedicated essentially to reading the riot act on us as a bunch of namby-pamby wafflers or worse.  Fiercest of all in this crusade, both verbally and in print, was good old Fred Lee, who saw us as undercutting and undermining and demoralizing the movement for a unified and strong heterodox economics battling that "orthodox mainstream."

I note that at the meeting in Kansas City I stood up to speak about this and to praise what I considered to be the strong and principled position held by Fred, despite our disagreements.  I also spoke to him privately afterwards, and we parted on friendly terms.  However, I note that he laid out in his public remarks a distinction between a "heretic" and a "blasphemer," both of these terms positives for him.  A heretic is someone who questions orthodox doctrine, but still at some level believes it, while a blasphemer is someone who utterly and totally rejects it.  He told me in our final private conversation that he viewed me as being a mere heretic, while he was a true blasphemer.

RIP, Fred.

Barkley Rosser

Addendum:  The book criticizing Colander, Holt, and me is "In Defense of Post-Keynesian and Heterodox Economics: Responses to Their Critics," ed. by Fred Lee and Marc Lavoie, 2012, Routledge.   In effect the bottom line may boil down to our saying that the heterodox can be the source of cutting edge ideas that the mainstream sometimes adopts, such as behavioral economics, whereas they say that any idea that can be accepted by the mainstream is simply being coopted, and that the heterodox must overthrow the mainstream orthodoxy root and branch.  This may be what separates "heresy" from "blasphemy."

Further Addendum:  I have been informed by email from Steve Ziliak, a former colleague of Fred's from when he was at Roosevelt University in Chicago, that like my late friend Bill Grogan, he was a card-carrying member of the IWW from 1985, and that indeed he became the Chair of the General Executive Council, with the IWW's national HQ in Chicago.  As a result of that and at that time, he ended up becoming the recipient and owner of the ashes of Joe Hill, which had apparently gone on some long odyssey.  But, given that Joe Hill was an honest-to-gosh Wobbly, maybe the most famous of them all aside from Big Bill Haywood, the IWW ended up getting at least some of his ashes, and it was Fred who was theiir overseer, at least for some time.
A link from Steve Ziliak to see Fred signing for Joe Hill's ashes on 11/18/1988, .


Matias Vernengo said...

Nice post, but I disagree that we said in the book that any ideas used by the mainstream are simple being coopted and useless. What we said is that the mainstream slectively uses ideas that will not hurt the main proposition, namely, that markets are self-adjusting. Fred will be missed among other things because of his ability to bring all of us to discuss issues, even when we could not agree.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

I dreamed I saw Fred Lee today, alive as you and me... said...

Steve has provided the following link where one can see Fred signing for Joe Hill's ashes on Nov. 19, 1988. .

Peter Dorman said...

I don't know Fred's politics well enough to place him in the anarcho-syndicalist camp, but I'm pretty sure the wobbly style appealed to him enormously. For those who don't know, this style combines intransigent radicalism and absurdist humor. It's the best thing about the wobs, and Fred had his share as well. Barkley describes the intransigence; when I remember Fred it is always the half smile accompanied by some weird speculation about an argument or trend taken to its illogical conclusion.

Fred knew I had taken out a membership ages ago when I was young and, well, intransigently radical, but that I had fallen a bit behind (ahem) in my dues. I suppose it showed him that, once one begins to back off a bit, the next thing you know it's a full-on retreat. Not Fred's way at all.