Agreeing & Disagreeing With Lester Thurow

September 1991By John C. Cort

Lester Thurow is an interesting man. I first encountered him back in the 1970s when he was an invited speaker at a weekend retreat for left-wing activists. Young, handsome, brilliant, he was stretched out on the floor, surrounded by admiring youth, pontificating with style and an impressive array of facts and figures on the economic ills to which flesh is heir.

The next time I saw him was in the 1980s at a conference for religious types at Tufts University -- rabbis, priests, ministers, nuns, and a few pious lay folks like myself. He mentioned that his father had been a Methodist minister.

Thurow, who has become Dean of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, one of the most prestigious academic appointments in the country, has written a number of books, including one that was even popular with the general public, The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities or Economic Change.

Recently I encountered him again, this time at Boston College, during one of the many conferences celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII's social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. What he said was an excellent summary of the truth and falsehood of the theories of Adam Smith, Malthus, Spencer, and Marx, and he gave some salutary warnings about the growing inequality between rich and poor in the U.S., and the crummy education we give our work force, especially as it compares with the education supplied by the Japanese and western Europeans. For example, in Japan 93 percent of high school students learn calculus, a must for high-tech production, as compared with about one percent of U.S. students. In the U.S. the school year is 188 days. In most of the Western world, and Japan, it runs between 220 and 240 days. And the school day is several hours longer. No wonder our high-tech products can't compete with theirs.

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