January 2015 newsletter – George Zis

George Zis, who died on 21 October from lung cancer and related complications, was born in Cairo but spent most of his childhood in Khartoum, where his father ran a factory. After primary school in the Sudan he went to secondary boarding schools in Greece, Switzerland and the UK.

He took his first degree in economics at Woolwich Polytechnic and then his Masters at Manchester University in 1970, at the end of which he became a research assistant in the Inflation Workshop run there by David Laidler and Michael Parkin. He went on to become a lecturer in Manchester, before moving in 1980 to Salford University. After the public expenditure cuts in the early 1980s, which affected Salford University particularly heavily, he moved to Manchester Polytechnic, which became Manchester Metropolitan University in 1992. There he became professor and head of department.

George’s contributions to Economics span a range of areas. In the early days of the Inflation Workshop he and David Purdy wrote two influential papers (both included in Inflation and Labour Markets, D Laidler and D Purdy eds, Manchester University Press 1974), which argued that trade unions and/or trade union militancy could not be regarded as the causes of inflation in the UK. These papers combined careful discussion of the relevant data, new econometric results and a nuanced understanding of the meaning and possible measures of trade union militancy.

Later he worked with Michael Parkin and others on modelling money demand, money supply and inflation at the world level, and co-edited with Parkin the Manchester University Press volumes on Inflation in Open Economies and Inflation in the World Economy (both 1976). His work on inflation in open economies represented an empirical application of the ideas of Harry Johnson and Robert Mundell, among others, while his work on inflation in the world economy involved the application of Milton Friedman’s monetarism to the closed economy of the world under fixed exchange rates.

The first of these volumes also included George’s paper on ‘The political origins of the international monetary crisis’, which analysed the role of the US within the Bretton Woods system, and argued that the demise of that system was a reflection of the decline of US economic supremacy. By the end of the following decade George was arguing for an international monetary system rather than a ‘non-system’ in his contribution to the Festschrift volume he co-edited for Dennis Coppock, longstanding head of economics at Manchester University (Money, Trade and Payments, D Cobham, R Harrington and G Zis eds, Manchester UP 1989). This interest in international monetary relations, which included analyses of the international status of sterling and the issue of the sterling balances, later came to focus on European monetary integration.

George Zis and Michael Sumner hosted one of the earliest UK conferences on this topic in Salford in 1980, and the volume which they edited from it, European Monetary Union: Progress and Prospects (Macmillan 1982), included a wide range of authors, among them Roland Vaubel, David Marquand, David Laidler and Paul de Grauwe. Sumner and Zis’s own contribution surveyed the literature on fixed versus flexible exchange rates, and argued that the latter suffered from an inflation bias because the natural rate of unemployment is higher under flexible than under fixed exchange rates, and this complicates the control of inflation.

George became a firm advocate of European monetary integration and of UK participation in it (though not, according to anecdotal evidence, that of Greece, which he regarded as not being ready at the time of its entry to EMU in 2001). His contribution to a 1999 volume which he co-edited (From EMS to EMU, D Cobham and G Zis eds, Macmillan 1999) emphasised the unexpected success of the European Monetary System, while he argued for the euro on numerous popular platforms. He remained committed to (eventual) UK membership of the euro even when previous supporters of this position moved away from it in large numbers.

George retired from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2008, and devoted himself to his family (now including three grandchildren) and to a historical investigation of the Greek civil war, an investigation which unfortunately was never brought to fruition.

George Zis was sometimes described as a Marxist monetarist (especially by people who thought this amusingly oxymoronic), but essentially he was a mainstream economist with a firm, indeed fierce, political commitment to the left. In that sense he was more like the left-wing macroeconomists in Italy who had connections to the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s (such as the late Luigi Spaventa, who contributed to From EMS to EMU) than the more Marx-focused leftwing economists common in his generation in UK universities. He was particularly active in opposing the Greek junta during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he refused to take sides when the Greek Communist Party (KKE) split in 1968.

George was rigorous in his economics, but as a true social scientist (and a passionate Manchester United supporter) he was no ‘desiccated calculating machine’. As I know so well from my own experience (but this was widely shared), George was kind and generous to many people in their efforts to study and understand economics and to many more people in their lives. He will be greatly missed, by his friends and by his family – his widow Persa, his son Costa, his daughter Efthalia and their families.

David Cobham 
Heriot-Watt University