Chicago. Monopoly course proposal by Abram Harris with George Stigler’s (Dis)approval, 1961
The brutal honesty of George Stigler’s memo in response to the new undergraduate course proposal submitted by Abram Lincoln Harris at the University of Chicago is somewhat tempered by Stigler’s display of collegial tolerance for a colleague approaching retirement age. But the absolutely gratuitous zinger at the end to “advise our majors to forget it” leaves a dubious taste in this reader’s mouth.
Harris, Abram Lincoln, Jr. (1899-1963)
Source: Abram Lincoln Harris from BlackPast.org.
Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., the grandson of slaves, was the first nationally recognized black economist. Harris was highly respected for his work that focused primarily on class analysis, black economic life, and labor to illustrate the structural inadequacies of race and racial ideologies. Harris’s major published works include The Negro Population in Minneapolis: A Study of Race Relations (1926), The Black Worker: the Negro and the Labor Movement (1931), and a book co-authored with Sterling D. Spero, The Negro as Capitalist (1936). His final book, Economics and Social Reform, appeared in 1958.
Harris was a Marxist scholar and its theories influenced his work. His The Black Worker was recognized as the foundation for future economic histories and assessments of the black condition. The Negro as Capitalist argued that non-racial economic reforms were the key to solving black fiscal woes. He also argued that capitalism was morally bankrupt and that employing race consciousness as a strategic way to enlighten a public was self-defeating. W.E.B. DuBois described Harris as one of the “Young Turks” who challenged the then existing historical theories about blacks in a capitalist society while insisting upon using modern social scientific methods to further his analyses of African American life.
Born in 1899 in Richmond, Virginia to parents Abram Lincoln Harris, Sr., a butcher, and Mary Lee, a teacher, Harris grew up as part of the black middle class community in Richmond. After high school Harris earned a bachelor of sciences degree from Virginia Union University in 1922.
After graduation from Virginia Union, Harris enrolled at the New York School of Social Work and worked briefly for the National Urban League (NUL) and the Messenger, the leading black Socialist newspaper. Harris taught for one year at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now West Virginia State University) and then earned an M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1924. Harris was appointed head of the Department of Economics at Howard University in 1928 and later completed his doctorate in economics from Columbia University in 1930. Harris married his first wife, Callie McGuinn, in 1925 and later divorced in 1955. Harris married his second wife Phedorah Prescott in 1962.
In the 1940s Abram Harris, along with E. Franklin Frazier, Allison Davis, and Ralph Bunche, was selected by the Swedisheconomist Gunnar Myrdal as “insiders” to work on his groundbreaking study An American Dilemma which was published in 1944. Toward the end of the 1940s Harris began to retreat from his earlier work, progressive and race politics, and began to concentrate on economic philosophy.
Abram Harris died in Chicago, Illinois on November 16, 1963. He was 64.
Jonathon Scott Holloway, Confronting the Veil, Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919-1941 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002); William Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life(W.W. Norton: New York, 1996); Cook County, Illinois Death Index.
Los Angeles City College
[Memo: Abram Harris to Al Rees]
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
CHICAGO 37, ILLINOIS
DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY
Oct 26th, 1961
I am enclosing a preliminary statement of a course approved by the Policy Committee of the College Social Science Section. It is to be given in the Spring Quarter 1961-62. I wonder if the Department of Economics would want to include this course in its undergraduate offerings?
Professor Al Reese[sic]
Dept of Ec.
Univ. of Chicago
Countervailing Power, Monopoly, and Public Policy
A proposed 200 course in the College
Submitted by Abram L. Harris
The course will attempt to combine theoretical analysis in a survey of the ideas of some leading economists who have dealt with the problem of market imperfections and monopoly along with discussions of the early trust movement, federal anti-monopoly legislation, and some of the problems connected with the current administration of this legislation. Galbraith’s “Countervailing Power” has been selected as a stimulating point of departure.
A technical mastery of theoretical economics is not a prerequisite. One main purpose of the course is to stimulate undergraduate interest in theoretical economics, the history of economic ideas, and the relation of these ideas to current economic policy issues. The course should be open to beginning majors in economics, students who are undecided about a major in the social sciences, and to those who are just curious.
Class discussions are to be organized around the following topics: The Concept of “Countervailing Power”: Old wine in new bottles? Chamberlain on the use and derivation of the concept. Market imperfections and monopoly in some classical and neo-classical writings: Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Alfred Marshall. The trust movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States (John Bates Clarke and his student, Thorstein Veblen, on monopoly and “absentee ownership”). The Standard Oil and U. S. Steel cases and federal anti-trust legislation. Recent anti-trust cases: administrative interpretation and application of federal legislation. Marx’s thesis concerning industrial concentration and confirmation of it by the new liberalism of the 20th century. The extent and measurement of industrial concentration (Stigler, Nutter, Adelman, Adams, Wilcox, etc.). The ideal or goal of government (federal) policy and practice: monopoly or competition?
A term essay will be required of all students who take the course for credit. The essay may take the form of a review, e.g., Berle’s Twentieth Century Capitalist Revolution, Mason’s The Corporation in Modern Society, Chamberlain’s Labor Union Monopoly or may deal with some topic, relevant to the course, selected by the student in consultation with the instructor.
P.S. The content of the course may appear be heavy and, probably, cannot be entirely covered in a single quarter. The layout will have, no doubt, to be tailored as we proceed to give the course for the first time.
[Memo Al Reese to George Stigler]
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
DATE: Oct. 31 
TO: George Stigler
FROM: Al Rees
IN RE: Proposed Course by Abe Harris
What is your reaction? Please return his note and proposal when you have finished with them.
[Carbon copy of Stigler response]
[TO:] Al Rees, Chairman [DEPARTMENT:] Economics
[FROM:] George J. Stigler
[IN RE:] propose 200 level course in the College by Abram L. Harris
This new course of Abe Harris arouses no enthusiasm on my part. It sounds like a protracted bull session, in which large ideas are neither carefully analysed nor empirically tested.
Even if this is a correct prediction, it leaves open the question of our listing it. Abe is a nice guy, only about 3 years from retirement, and it serves no good purpose to hurt his feelings. My own inclination would be (1) to list it, with explicit proviso that it is only for as long as he teaches it, and (2) advise our majors to forget it.
Source: University of Chicago Archives. George Stigler Papers, Box 3, Folder “U of C, Miscellaneous [red folder]”
Image Source: Abram Lincoln Harris from BlackPast.org.