April 2015 newsletter – Frederic S Lee

Frederic Sterling Lee passed away on October 23, 2014 after having been diagnosed with stage four-lung-cancer early last year. The heterodox economics community has lost an important figurehead and scholar. By scholar I do not mean having an academic rank in a certain university or college or the modern restricted view of an academic actively engaged in research and publications. By scholar I mean an academic that is engaged in teaching practices and all the challenges of research but also the service to the scientific and academic community. I also mean that scholars are engaged in processes of creative work and integrity is reflected by their ability to learn from others and how to communicate their knowledge to students, younger colleagues and so on. Fred Lee was and will remain of model of scholarly integrity for all of us and for the coming generations of heterodox economists through his energy and dedication to ‘a healthier economics discipline’, generosity and support towards younger scholars in sharing from his knowledge and academic experience.

Fred Lee was unusual in the sense of pursuing both the academic life and activism with the same vigour, having made both academic and institutional contributions to the development of economics as a discipline. To Fred Lee (amongst many other radical economists) we owe gratitude for his efforts to help the institutional establishment of heterodox economics in UK, the organization of the Association of Heterodox Economics in UK, work on the Research Excellence Framework and the impact on heterodox economics as also research on alternative and pluralist rankings of academic journals. In How I Became a Heterodox Economist . Fred explains how he was ‘predisposed; to become a dissenting economist. Born on November 24th 1949, both his parents’ family backgrounds and his father's interests in current economic and social issues, contact with Marxist and Institutionalist writings created a very progressive environment where politics, civil and workers rights issues were frequently discussed. Having a background in history, graduate classes in philosophy and philosophy of science that contributed to his own intellectual growth, Fred Lee confesses his realization that economics was the discipline that posed very interesting social questions. Being interested in understanding the way capitalism functions, Fred Lee decided to study economics. Under the mentorship and influence of Alfred S Eichner (a Post-Keynesian economist) whilst pursuing his doctoral studies at Columbia University the initial ambition of Fred Lee was to contribute towards a coherent underlying theoretical framework for Post-Keynesian economics. This was to be achieved through a coherent and realistic theory of prices that could ground the macroeconomic theory. The project has evolved and transformed into more essential concerns of building coherent foundations for heterodox economics as a complete alternative to neoclassical economics.

I met Fred Lee for the first time whilst I was still a doctoral student in 2004 at the Association of Heterodox Economics Conference in Leeds when I encountered his passion for heterodox economics and his commitment to build a thriving community of heterodox scholars and his availability to engage with young scholars and their ideas. Whether this is desirable or not, Fred’s vision was of a unified heterodox economics as a coherent alternative to neoclassical economics. His economic system and intellectual thinking has evolved through various cornerstones but it has crystallized during his last two years of life especially regarding the principles and philosophical grounding of an alternative heterodox (micro) economics and their methodological implications. There is no doubt that Fred’s historian background is present throughout his approach and understanding of economics. The main focus of investigation of a historian is ‘what is real’. For Fred, the economic science is a systematic body of knowledge that is trying to understand and explain socio-economic phenomena and the functioning of capitalism. Fred Lee used to tell me quite often that heterodox economists have the same unrealistic theories that neoclassical economists do — and this was the motivation behind Post-Keynesian Price Theory (1998). For me, this is one of two particular books that stand out amongst Fred Lee’s intellectual achievements: the other is A History of Heterodox Economics (2009).

The aim behind Post-Keynesian Price Theory was to supply a consistent and realistic price theory in the Post-Keynesian tradition ‘by developing an empirically grounded pricing model in conjunction with an empirically grounded production schema’(Lee, 1998: 3-4). The methodology used to develop the pricing foundations of Post-Keynesian theory has been inspired by the empirically grounded theory as developed by Glaser and Strauss, 1967. Based on 100 studies, this is a synthesis of the three costing and pricing doctrines used within the Post-Keynesian Theory of Price: ‘The pricing model developed above is based on the ideas, arguments, theory, and formal and informal methods of analysis found in the administered prices, normal cost prices, and mark up prices doctrines coupled with their empirical grounding and thus represents a synthesis of the three doctrines’ (1998: 229). According to Fred, only a synthesis of these three perspectives on costs and prices can ensure a coherent and real description of the mechanism of prices and the functioning of the economy. In A History of Heterodox Economics, Fred was interested in writing a history of non-neoclassical economics, ideas, concepts and ‘social system at work’ and about all the ideas involved in a community of non-neoclassical economists. In the preface of the book he has acknowledged the perspective of the storyteller and the difficulty in reconciling various perspectives and the life histories of so many economists and their ‘particular events’.

Finally, Fred Lee will be remembered as an important heterodox economist who has contributed towards building a community of heterodox scholars and attempted to unify heterodoxy in a similar vein with Passinetti: for Fred, economics should be grounded in the empirical world and should be orientated to improve the well-being and the quality of life of individuals around the world.

Ioana Negru
School of Oriental and African Studies