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Stanford Report, July 9, 2003

Memorial Resolution: Moses Abramovitz

MOSES ABRAMOVITZ

(1912-2000)

 

Moses Abramovitz, William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History Emeritus, died December 1, 2000, at Stanford University Hospital, just one month before reaching his eighty-ninth birthday.

Known by his family, friends, and colleagues as "Moe," Abramovitz was one of the primary builders of Stanford's Department of Economics. He taught at Stanford for almost thirty years, taking leave only during 1962-63 to work as economic advisor to the secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. He served as chair from 1963 to 1965, and from 1971 to 1974, both critical junctures in the department's history. During his tenure at Stanford and after his retirement in 1976, Moe gained international renown and admiration for his pioneering contributions to the study of long-term economic growth.

Moe was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Romanian Jewish immigrant family. After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, he entered Harvard in 1928. Like many of his generation, Moe's interest in economics was stimulated by the experience of the Great Depression. So, in 1932 he continued his undergraduate studies of the subject at Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1939. At Columbia, Moe began a lifelong friendship with Milton Friedman. In later years, Moe liked to joke that he had been debating with Friedman for more than fifty years, and consistently winning -- except when Milton was present. Columbia connections also led Moe to join the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1937, where he helped to launch the business cycle studies for which the Bureau became famous, working with such figures as Wesley Mitchell, Simon Kuznets and Arthur Burns.

Also at Columbia, Moe became re-acquainted with his Erasmus classmate Carrie Glasser, who was also working for her doctoral degree in economics. Moe and Carrie were married in June of 1937, and were devoted to each other until Carrie's death in October 1999. When Moe came to Stanford in 1948, Carrie began what became a highly satisfying and successful career as a painter, sculptress and collage artist. Their only son, Joel, born in 1946, is a practicing neurosurgeon in Connecticut.

During World War II, Moe served first at the War Production Board, working with Simon Kuznets to analyze the limits of feasible production during wartime. He then moved to the Office of Strategic Services as chief of the European industry and trade section. During 1945 and 1946, he was economic advisor to the United States representative on the Allied Reparations Commission. Moe's modest but strong character was well displayed in an episode during the postwar reparations debate. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau had proposed a plan to deindustrialize the German economy. An OSS research team headed by Moe wrote a memorandum arguing that this plan would destroy Germany's capacity to export, leaving it unable to pay for food and other essential imports. At a meeting with Moe and two other OSS economists, Ed Mason and Emile Despres, Morgenthau angrily asked: "Who is responsible for this?" Moe recalled: "Mason looked at Despres, and Emile looked at me. I had no one else to look at. The buck stopped with me. So, rather meekly, I said I was responsible."

This anecdote and many others may be found in a charming memoir that Moe completed shortly before his death, "Days Gone By," accessible on the Stanford Economics Department website.

At Stanford Moe began the studies of long-term economic growth that established his reputation among professional economists. A 1956 paper provided the first systematic estimates showing that forces raising the productivity of labor and capital were responsible for approximately half of the historical growth rate of real U.S. GDP, and close to three quarters of the growth rate of real GDP per capita. Subsequently he made seminal contributions in identifying the factors promoting and obstructing convergence in levels of productivity among advanced and developing countries of the world. For these studies and others, Moe received many academic honors. He was elected to the presidency of the American Economic Association (1979-80), the Western Economic Association (1988-89), and the Economic History Association (1992-93). From abroad came honorary doctorates from the University of Uppsala in Sweden (1985), and the University of Ancona in Italy (1992); he took special enjoyment from an invitation to become a fellow of the prestigious Academia Nazionale de Lincei in 1991 -- "following Galileo with a lag," he said, with a characteristic self-deprecatory twinkle.

Committee:

Paul A. David
Ronald McKinnon

Gavin Wright