Stanley Lebergott: In Memoriam –and swimming naked with the President

Yesterday’s Wesleyan Connection newsletter brought the sad news that economics professor Stanley Lebergott passed away at the age of 91. When I was an economics student at Wesleyan in the 1980s, Lebergott was already semi-retired. I never took one of his classes, yet he was one of the professors who had the most impact on me.

I worked for Lebergott as a research assistant. Lebergott was seeking to understand the strength of the railroad monopolies in the 19th century. There was no published information about the price of freight, so Lebergott sought to derive it by comparing prices of grain at two ends of the journey: Midwestern cities like Chicago compared with East Coast ports like New York. I entered the data, ran regressions and discussed the results with Lebergott.

Meanwhile a classmate of mine working for Lebergott was uncovering a hidden side of the Great Depression: the fact that some sectors of the economy actually thrived during that time.

Most campus jobs paid minimum wage, but Lebergott paid significantly more and I was happy for that. After I’d been working for a couple of months, Lebergott surprised me with a significant raise. I said, “thank you,” but he told me that I shouldn’t thank him because he expected that he would be getting value from what he was paying. I was grateful anyway, because he really didn’t need to do it and I think he was just being a nice guy.

He also shared stories with me from the olden days, including what it was like to work in Washington, DC in the days before air conditioning. He also felt that criticism of then-president Ronald Reagan regarding his attack on organized labor was overdone. The Reagan Administration had stopped collecting data on union membership –probably as an attempt to weaken the labor movement—and other economists were lamenting the demise of this statistic. So Lebergott (or more likely another research assistant) just got on the phone and called the biggest unions to get their membership numbers in order to extend the time series.

One of my fondest memories is the story he told about Douglass Cater, who’d been at Wesleyan in the 60s along with Lebergott and Bill Moyers (of CBS News fame). In any case President Johnson invite Cater to come down from Wesleyan to the White House for a job interview. Cater was ultimately hired as special assistant to Johnson, but not before a memorable interview.

Rather than inviting Cater into the Oval Office for a traditional interview, the President brought him to the White House swimming pool. There Johnson (and Moyers) got naked and started swimming. Johnson beckoned Cater into the pool and after some hesitation Cater, too stripped and jumped into the pool, where he was compelled to swim alongside the President and expound on policy. Not that I disbelieved the story, but I was always thought it might have been exaggerated. Recently I checked it out and found it was true.

Lebergott stayed active for years after I graduated. His book, Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century, published in 1993, got excellent reviews in the general media, even though it’s about the dismal science of economics.

Professor Lebergott, I’ll miss you.

October 9, 2009

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *