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Some Recollections about G. Warren Nutter

Summary:
At the midcentury mark, economist G. Warren Nutter (1923–79) provided one of the lone dissenting voices to challenge what had become a matter of conventional wisdom among Sovietologists. Whereas others perceived vibrancy and vitality in the socialist society’s industrial growth, Nutter recognized its long-term economic decline concealed behind a politically crafted veneer of propaganda about socialist industrial prowess. From 1956 onward, he labored on providing a statistical corrective that painted a picture of a society gradually succumbing to the weight of its own central planning and the wasteful accretions of a graft-riddled and politically repressive bureaucracy. The early reception of Nutter’s work expressed doubt about its accuracy compared to more

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Some Recollections about G. Warren Nutter

At the midcentury mark, economist G. Warren Nutter (1923–79) provided one of the lone dissenting voices to challenge what had become a matter of conventional wisdom among Sovietologists. Whereas others perceived vibrancy and vitality in the socialist society’s industrial growth, Nutter recognized its long-term economic decline concealed behind a politically crafted veneer of propaganda about socialist industrial prowess.

From 1956 onward, he labored on providing a statistical corrective that painted a picture of a society gradually succumbing to the weight of its own central planning and the wasteful accretions of a graft-riddled and politically repressive bureaucracy. The early reception of Nutter’s work expressed doubt about its accuracy compared to more optimistic portrayals from the textbooks and accompanying Sovietology literature, yet history proved him right. Nutter had scooped the field and accurately identified an economy with deep structural problems—most of them directly traceable to its destruction of a functional price mechanism through the tools of state management.

Nutter’s assessment was no abstraction, but rather the result of years of close study of the relationship between state policy and industrial concentration in the United States – the subject of his dissertation at the University of Chicago. But he also possessed an uncommonly keen eye for extracting observations from his surroundings. He deployed the latter during a twenty-eight-day visit to the Soviet Union in 1956 as a self-described “tourist” researcher, which he contrasted with other American experts whose longer visits occurred under the heavy scrutiny and management of handlers from the Soviet government.

This is from Phillip W. Magness, “The Soviet Economy Was Not Growing; It Was Dying,” AIER, January 10, 2019.

Warren Nutter was an impressive man, as I think you’ll see if you read the whole of Phil’s piece. He went against the conventional wisdom of the day about economic growth in the Soviet Union and turned out to be, as Marisa Tomei’s character says in My Cousin Vinny, “dead-on balls accurate.”

When I took off the 1970-71 academic year to read economics on my own and worked my way through a huge percent of the back issues of the Journal of Law and Economics, I found Nutter’s 1959 piece on growth in the Soviet Union. I was lucky to have found that rather than the many inaccurate articles and books that were floating around. In fact, I drew on his piece in an undergraduate essay I wrote while at the University of Western Ontario from 1971-72. I didn’t know until reading Phil’s piece that Nutter had had a famous debate at UWO with U.S. Communist Herbert Aptheker in 1967.

One other personal note: When I was a summer intern with President Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers from June to August 1973, I made a point of trying to meet every interesting libertarian or conservative intellectual in Washington. I found out that Nutter was at the American Enterprise Institute and I called him up to arrange a meeting. The main thing I remember was that he was a nice man.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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