Lester Thurow, an author, commentator and MIT professor who was an influential economist and an early and outspoken voice on such pressing public issues as the expanding inequality in incomes, died March 25 at his home in Westport, Mass. He was 77.
His death was announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The cause could not immediately be determined.
Through best-selling books, in provocative articles and sharp speeches, and in interviews and television appearances, Dr. Thurow showed himself to be a scholar with a wish to be heard by a broad public and a gift for explaining complex topics in clear language.
Over the years, he had been a dean at MIT, advised presidential candidates and made significant contributions to the national debate on an array of economic issues.
He gained particular attention in the 1980s as the author of “The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Change” (1980). In that book, he argued, as the title suggests, that a more equitable sharing of economic burdens and benefits might give more to some and less to others, but need not preclude prosperity.
By propounding new economic ideas in the public arena and seeking the attention of a broad audience, he told an interviewer, he aimed “to make the world better.”
In the service of this goal, he expanded his horizons over time to move beyond income distribution to talk about the wider range of economic issues that affected American well-being.
Many of the matters he dealt with have resonated during the current presidential campaign. They include the nation’s ability to compete at a time of increasing globalization and the overall state of working America as jobs and capital flow abroad.
In his book “The Future of Capitalism” (1996), he was credited with diagnosing the economic anxieties and ailments that have gained increasing attention — including not only the income gap, but also sluggish growth and widespread joblessness.
To preserve the American standard of living, he proposed a variety of measures, including protection of American intellectual capital in an increasingly idea-based economy. Recognizing the economic importance of research, he advocated policies that fostered investment in ideas and products that might bring rewards.
Quick to grasp how overseas trade could depress blue-collar pay, he emphasized the need for education and reeducation, training and retraining.
“Those with Third-World skills will earn Third-World wages,” he once told an audience. “Anything can be made anywhere on the face of the earth and sold everywhere else on the face of the earth.”
A climber of mountains as an avocation, he was known for intellectual and physical daring. In his book “Fortune Favors the Bold” (2003), he offered prescriptions for a new and durable global economy. He wrote to make economics accessible to everyone: businessmen and government workers, scholars and citizens.
A review in The Washington Post indicated, however, that Dr. Thurow’s vision of the future was not unrealistically rosy.
“Thurow’s most valuable advice, in fact, is that ‘many of the globe’s economic problems, however, are dilemmas . . . problems for which there are no acceptable solutions,’ ” wrote reviewer Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation.
In a statement, MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said Dr. Thurow “spent his life trying to make society more farsighted and more fair.”
Although he had been a staff member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers and an adviser to prominent public figures, he never found a satisfactory position at Washington’s highest levels.
Certainly he had wished to. “He was hoping to be able to make policy,” his wife, Anna, said Tuesday.
However, she said, a meeting between Dr. Thurow and President Jimmy Carter did not go well. She said her husband, in his forthright way, “told (Carter) what policies he didn’t like, and Carter didn’t like it.” No job was forthcoming.
It was a source of regret and a turning point in his career, setting him on the path of exerting his influence from outside the corridors of power.
He was one of the five founders of the Economic Policy Institute, which distinguished itself for both setting and anticipating the American economic agenda.
Many institute positions were also Dr. Thurow’s. Steven Pearlstein wrote in The Post that the institute was “worrying about rising income inequality” when many economists “were still claiming it was all just a statistical mismeasurement.”
Quick to spot the significance of the Chinese economy, Dr. Thurow helped set up programs in China for MIT.
He was frequently skeptical of the doctrines espoused by many of his fellow economists.
“Economists, can, for example, always retreat to unobservable variables to explain unwelcome facts,” he said.
Lester Carl Thurow was born May 7, 1938, in Livingston, Mont., where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother a teacher.
He received a bachelor’s degree in political economy from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., then won a Rhodes Scholarship and received a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford’s Balliol College.
His doctorate in economics came in 1964 from Harvard University, where he taught before moving in 1968 to MIT, where he spent almost his entire career in the economics department and at the Sloan School of Management. He was Sloan’s dean from 1987 to 1993.
His first wife, Emily Fooks, predeceased him. His second marriage, to Gretchen Pfuetze, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 18 years, the former Anna Soldinger, of Westport and Tel Aviv; two sons from his second marriage, Torben Thurow and Ethan Thurow, both of Boston; two stepchildren, Yaron Karasik and Yael Shinar, both of Tel Aviv; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
His last name was pronounced about the same way as that of the 19th-century author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. They were not related, but people sometimes asked Dr. Thurow if they were. He did not mind the question, his wife said.
In Montana, during summers off from school, he held jobs in the copper mines.
As an individual and as an economist, he “was always very respectful of working people,” his wife said. Faced with great and growing inequalities in society, she said, he was “always promoting equality.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Dr. Thurow’s first wife. She was Emily Fooks, not Emily Rooks.
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