David M. Gordon

David M. Gordon – 1944-1996

Samuel Bowles

David Gordon, a leading economist of the left, died March 16, 1996, at the age of fifty-one. He succumbed to congestive heart failure while awaiting a heart transplant at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. At the time of his death he was Director of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis and The Dorothy Hirshon Professor of Economics at the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research.

Gordon came from a family of economists. His father, the late Robert Aaron Gordon, was President of the American Economic Association while his mother, the late Margaret S. Gordon, was well known for her contributions to the economics of employment and social welfare policy. His brother, Robert J. Gordon, is a prominent macroeconomist and Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. David Gordon and his family have been referred to as the Flying Wallendas of Economics.”

David Gordon is best known for his contributions to the theory of discrimination and labor market segmentation, his analysis of the institutions shaping long-term economic growth, and his trenchant criticisms of conservative economic policy. His contributions to labor economics, developed jointly with Richard Edwards and Michael Reich, challenged the conventional assumption of a single labor market and argued instead for the recognition of deep divisions along racial, gender, and class lines. His macroeconomic research involved theoretical, econometric, and historical analysis of the impact of political and social as well as economic institutions on long-term investment and growth. He coined the term “social structure of accumulation” and is credited with founding the school of economic thought bearing that name.

Gordon’s Fat and Mean: The Myth of Managerial “Downsizing” and the Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans, to be published next month by Martin Kessler Books at The Free Press, has won lavish pre-publication praise. A review to appear in The Atlantic suggests that it will be one of the most influential public policy books of the decade. The book documents the long term decline in the pay and living standards of American workers, and what Gordon has termed the increasingly top-heavy bureaucratic structure of American corporations.

As a student, Gordon wrote for the Harvard Crimson, and following graduation from Harvard in 1965 he helped found The Southern Courier, a civil rights newspaper based in the South. Throughout his life he maintained his interest in journalism, contributing an economics column to The Los Angeles Times and The Nation, as well as making frequent appearances on television and radio commentary programs.

Gordon received his doctoral degree in Economics from Harvard University in 1971, taught briefly at Yale University, and since 1973 has been a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research. Pointedly eschewing the career paths of the economics mainstream, he was a founder and active member of the Union for Radical Political Economics, a professional organization of leftist economists, as well as the Institute for Labor Education and Research, later the Center for Democratic Alternatives and most recently the Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

Gordon brought his brand of radical economics to the labor movement and to progressive community organizations through his work with these institutions. He also learned from his conversations with activists. In Fat and Mean he wrote:

We had just begun some outreach education work with local

union officials and rank and file workers. . . . (They were,

mainly) interested in talking about problems they were

constantly experiencing with their bosses on the job. They

complained that their supervisors were always on their case, that

bureaucratic harassment was a daily burden. They inveighed

against speedup, hostility, petty aggravations, capricious threats

and punishments, and-perhaps most bitterly-crude, arrogant

and often gratuitous exercises of power. . . . I do not know to

this day whether and when I might have paid attention to the

bureaucratic burden if I hadn’t been sitting in union halls in the

mid- 1970s chewing on stale jelly doughnuts listening to workers

grumbling about their continuing hassles with their employers.

Gordon was particularly beloved by his many doctoral students at the New School where he was known for his tireless attention to their research.

His major publications include Theories of Poverty and Underemployment (1972), Segmented Work, Divided Workers (with Richard Edwards and Michael Reich, 1982), and After the Waste Land: A Democratic Economics for the Year 2000 (with Samuel Bowles and Thomas Weisskopf, 1991). He regarded Fat and Mean as his legacy, working intensely on it over the past year as is heart weakened, and delivering it to his publisher on the day of the medical setback that led to his final hospitalization.

Asked four years ago to reflect on his professional life to that point, Gordon responded:

I feel pleased with the choices I have made and the work that my

collaborators and I have produced; frustrated by the condescending

complacency of mainstream economists; angered by

the greed and irrationality which dominate the U.S. political

economy; and still hopeful for the prospects of a significant

progressive mobilization toward a more just and humane society

as we turn toward the 21st century.

A memorial service was held at the New School for Social search on April 1. Contributions are welcome to the David M. Gordon Memorial Fund for graduate fellowships at the enter for Economic Policy Analysis of the New School for Social Research.

COPYRIGHT 1996 New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group