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In Memoriam

Professor John P. (Jack) Powelson

John P. (Jack) Powelson died on January 1, 2009 at the age of 88 after a brief illness. Jack had a long and distinguished career as an economist in public policy and higher education. He began his career as an accountant, following in his father’s footsteps, and then went on to pursue graduate degrees in business and economics. After receiving his AB degree from Harvard University, he earned an MBA in accounting from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He was offered a teaching position at the Wharton School, where he began his studies toward a PhD in economics. Jack later transferred to the graduate program in economics at Harvard, where he received his PhD in economics.

After graduation Jack accepted a position as research economist at the International Monetary Fund. There he published his first two books, Economic Accounting, and National Income and Flow of Funds Analysis. These books were translated into several languages and used extensively by foreign governments, especially in Latin America. Publication of these works opened up numerous opportunities for consulting and teaching in foreign countries. Jack often identified himself as a citizen of the world. As a young man he led student groups on tours abroad, giving lessons in square dancing as well as economics. Jack’s wife Robin and their children shared in and supported his distinguished career, often joining him on many assignments abroad.  Through these travels, the family made many lasting friendships. 

A prolific writer, Jack continued to write books and articles throughout his life.  He directed much of his research energy to understanding poverty and economic development. In addition to consulting with foreign governments, he worked extensively with non-governmental organizations.  Jack’s writing reflects this experience working with grass-roots organizations in developing countries. 

What is unique in Jack’s writing is the application of rigorous economic analysis to complex issues in economic development, such as land reform. In Latin America the promise of land reform was never fulfilled, often ending in negative outcomes for peasants. He challenged these dirigiste policies, and the governments and international organizations that promoted them, in books such as The Peasant Betrayed: Agriculture and Land Reform in the Third World, and The Story of Land: A World History of Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform.

After visiting him in his extensive library and engaging in discourse, one might describe Jack Powelson as a 21st century Thomas Jefferson. Philosophically he espoused a kind of direct democracy that we associate with Jefferson and the anti-federalists. As you would expect, conservative and libertarian groups were receptive to these ideas, providing him with financial support, and publishing his work. However, Jack refused to be categorized as conservative or libertarian. In the Moral Economy he proposes what he describes as a ‘middle path’ between intervention and libertarianism. Colleague Larry Singell notes, “Jack’s work was rarely confined by the narrow boundaries of economics.  Because he integrated and fused economic issues with philosophical, moral, historical and cultural issues, his work will have a lasting impact, not just on economics, but also on social science, as well as the pursuit of human betterment in the larger world.”

Jack’s intellectual interest and dedication to the academy never faltered, even after “retiring” as a professor of economics.  Jack taught courses at the University of Colorado until 2005 and in 2006 he joined other distinguished emeritus professors in a panel discussion of economics as part of the CU department of economics’ 50th anniversary celebration. He never lost contact with the economics department.

In his professional career, as well as his personal life, Jack followed a moral compass grounded in his Quaker faith. He once described a lecture he gave in South Africa in which he challenged the Apartheid policies being pursued by that government. He said that the lecture was met with a stony silence, until a small group of Australians in the audience stood up and clapped.

Jack founded and edited The Quaker Economist, in which he wrote his own obituary. In it he says “Despite my frequent political differences with Quakers, I still firmly believe in the three fundamentals of unprogrammed Quakerism: that of God in every man (the Inner Light), the Meeting for Worship, and sense of the meeting discussions in Business Meetings.” In his obituary, Jack expresses regret in leaving family and friends behind, and bids us all a fond, final farewell.

Jack Powelson was one of a kind.  While we will miss his Renaissance spirit, unbounded energy, and the twinkle in his eyes, we will remember his many contributions and that he made the world a better place.

Colleagues who contributed to this article: Barry Poulson, Keith Maskus, Chuck Howe, Larry Singell, and Nicholas Flores