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Frederic L. Pryor Dies

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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

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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

rosserjb@jmu.edu
I remember how loud it was. I was a young Economics undergraduate, and most professors didn’t really slam points home the way Dr. Rosser did. He would bang on the table and throw things around the classroom. Not for the faint of heart, but he definitely kept my attention and made me smile. It is hard to not smile around J. Barkley Rosser, especially when he gets going on economic theory. The passion comes through and encourages you to come along with it in a truly contagious way. After meeting him, it is as if you can just tell that anybody who knows that much and has that much to say deserves your attention.

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