Tributes to David Houston

David Houston changed my life.  If it weren’t for Dave, I wouldn’t be a political economist, a political activist, and I wouldn’t have a sense of my life as part of a larger historical struggle for economic and social justice.

Dave, along with his friend David Bramhall who concentrated on teaching undergraduates, were the sole Marxists in the economics department at the University of Pittsburgh. Dave directed my dissertation in Marxist crisis theory, and protected me from his many traditional colleagues who held a near-religious conviction that market outcomes were desirable.

I met Dave in fall 1973, my first year of graduate school,  (just as Michael Yates was finishing his graduate work in our department) when I took his course in Radical Political Economics.  I enrolled in the course half out of curiosity and because I had mistakenly thought that doing graduate work in economics would enable me to apply my training in mathematics and social science to crafting public policy that would better the lives of working people and poor people. Yeah, I was pretty naïve. 

Dave was a magnetic presence in class.  I can still remember Dave imitating Richard Nixon giving his Checkers speech to illustrate the shallowness of U.S. politics and then recommending that we check out Emile de Antonio‘s film. What I didn’t appreciate until later was that Dave’s humor was not just for show. Dave used humor to disarm students, especially graduate students, and even his neoclassical colleagues in a way that signaled his respect for their beliefs and engaged them in a subversive dialogue that often exposed their privileged position in our society, and how their work perpetuated an exploitative system.  It sure worked on me.

The Making of A Radical Economist

By 1973 Dave was already a Marxist economist, a leader of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), a seasoned antiwar activist (who was spit upon, jailed, and beaten when he led a protest at the Duquesne Club intended to convince Pittsburgh’s business elite to oppose the Viet Nam War); a leader of the Gulf Action Project that sought to nationalizing Gulf Oil, headquartered in Pittsburgh; and was busy organizing protests against the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. All that political activity brought Dave to the attention of the FBI, who couldn’t understand why the University just didn’t fire him.

If they could have, the University surely would have fired him (and in today’s political climate they might have done just that).  But Dave came to the department in the late 1960s as a tenured professor, recruited to head the department’s concentration in urban and regional economics.  Within a year, Dave was one of the youngest full professors in the University.  He was fully deserving of that rank. He had amassed a record of wide-ranging and important scholarship that included articles on risk, insurance, and sampling; on metropolitan finance; on economies of scale in the life insurance industry; and on what drives the growth of regional economies. His articles are still referred to as classic studies in literature reviews, in urban and regional economics textbooks, and in recent insurance articles.

By the time Dave came to Pitt, he was well along the way of an intellectual and political journey that would make him a Marxist who would dedicate himself to exposing and correcting the injustices of capitalism through his intellectual work and political activism. Dave never went to graduate school in economics. During the 1950s, he earned a PhD in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, where he also taught insurance to undergraduates at the Wharton School.  (His father was an insurance broker, and Dave had worked in the insurance industry in New York City.) Disaffected with a curriculum that he thought amounted to little more than elite studies, Dave wrote his dissertation on Elizur Wright, the mid-nineteenth century reformer of the insurance industry.  Wright, as commissioner of insurance in Massachusetts, instituted a non-forfeiture policy that put an end to the practice of making people who were unable to pay their life insurance premiums lose all their previous contributions. But Wright, a classmate of John Brown, was also a staunch abolitionist, who devoted much of the early years of his life to campaigning against slavery.

Even as he took a job in the business school at UCLA and wrote about insurance, Dave was looking for a way to pursue economic justice issues.  He soon befriended Charles Tiebout, the influential and innovative urban and public finance economist, who shared some of those concerns. With Charlie, Dave began writing about regional and urban economic policy.  Although their collaboration would become strained as Dave continued to move to the left, their joint work helped Dave move into economics and eventually to Pitt, where he spent the remainder of his career in the economics department.

Our Guide

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Dave attracted a group of loyal graduate students interested in studying political economy and Marx.

Dave had a profound influence on us.  Part of the reason was his scholarship. Dave continued to write about regional and urban issues.  His articles offered a Marxist interpretation of capital accumulation in Pittsburgh, the decline of the steel industry, and urbanization and capitalism. He also entered into several debates about Marxist theory, including the importance of the distinction between productive and unproductive labor, and developed value-theoretic-based empirical studies. He even penned a popular Marxist guide for community organizing in the midst of the deindustrialization and population flight of the Pittsburgh region.

But even more so than his writing, Dave’s personal example inspired us. We use to call him “Dr. Dave” or “fearless leader.” And he was just that. Dave put his career on the line to teach political economy and to speak out against injustice.  Dave went from the presumptive next head of the economics department to someone whose work was marginalized by the department leadership.  He became an inconvenient presence in a department that had set its sights on national rankings; Dave was alien to that goal and alienated by the means employed to achieve it. Still, even his most ardent critics in the department respected his intellect and his honesty. Of course, that didn’t stop the department from freezing his salary for many years.   

Dave was never deterred in his fight against orthodoxy. With a fierce determination (or an outright pigheadedness), Dave championed political economy in Pitt’s neoclassical economics department.  At the same time Dave helped lead the university-wide effort to unionize faculty and graduate employees.  Outside the University, he pursued his socialist politics in the New American Movement and organized the community surrounding the University through People’s Oakland.  That he was always a willing spokesperson for the Palestine Solidarity Committee was just another example of how Dave felt compelled to tell his truth.

But there was another source of Dave’s profound influence on us.  He saw himself as on a never-ending intellectual and political journey.  That made Dave an ideal guide for others’ political journey. I remember our seminar on reading Capital as one of the most exciting intellectual experiences of my life.  The seminar attracted radical faculty and graduate students from outside of economics, as well as the political economy students. Class was a shared exploration of Marx’s writings that Dave chaired.

That was always Dave’s approach to engaging students. A few years after I left Pitt, Dave showed me the end-of-the-semester letter he wrote to the students in his seminar on the labor theory of value.  Predictably it closed with these words: “We should look at our studies as a beginning, as a first step on a road that like history has no end.”

Nor did Dave ever lose track of where his political journey began.  That awareness helped Dave to engage the traditional economists in the department in a dialogue about the value of political economy that, much to our amazement, got some of them to recognize the merit of our work, even our dissertations.   

I also am sure that explains why Dave dedicated himself to introducing us to the world of radical political economics.  I first attended the URPE Summer Conference with Dave in 1975, and we continued to attend the summer conference together for two decades. 

All that time I never doubted that Dave was on my side.  He even sent a letter to the dean of my college promising that I would soon finish my dissertation when there was little reason to believe that was true.  (He did scribble “Don’t I lie good” across the top of the copy he sent me.)  And once I was finally done with my dissertation, we got on with the more serious business of becoming close friends.

In 1988, Dave assumed the job as managing editor of the Review of Radical Political Economics (RRPE), which was badly floundering having fallen a year and half behind schedule.  He quickly brought order to the chaos he inherited and got the RRPE back on schedule.  Dave was a consummate manager whose leadership combined strength with tact and diplomacy.  Dave relished his work, despite being denied the support the department extended to editors of other journals.  Dave took early retirement to focus on the journal, when his friend Frank Giarratani became department chair in 1992.

That was a happy time in Dave’s work life.  Editing the RRPE, planning special issues on topics such as the future of capitalism, filled his days and allowed him to overcome the isolation caused by a lack of graduate students interested in political economy.  Also with Frank, Dave wrote a series of papers that assessed the policy options for Pittsburgh and other regions suffering from a chronic population loss.  While their articles didn’t change policy-making in the Pittsburgh region, some regions in eastern Germany used the approach outlined by Dave and Frank to cope with their structural adjustment to Germany’s western regions.  In his retirement, Dave also began a cultural and political economy study of Miami as a postmodern city with his former New American Movement comrade, literary critic John Beverley (see John Beverley and David Houston, “Notes on Miami,” boundary 2 23.2, Summer 1996).

Love and Struggle

In June 1996, Dave suffered a severe stroke and massive cerebral hemorrhage that left half his body paralyzed and much of his brain not functioning.  He returned home to stay only after spending more than a year in the hospital and rehabilitation center.  Through his courage, his physical and personal strength, and the love and support of his wife Jan Carlino, Dave has been able to affect a recovery that has astounded his doctors.

David Houston and Jan Carlino

Dave remains the same person.  He is still engaged politically with the world, he listens regularly to political economy read to him by his nurse, and his impeccable comic timing endures (as shown in the sign that Dave carried at the Washington march against the war in Iraq: “He wanted to be a tree but he was only a Bush.”)

David Houston at an Anti-War Demonstration in Washington. DC

In other ways, Dave’s life has changed profoundly. But as he put it in his December 1997 holiday letter to friends and family, “The most significant changes in me are not the physical and mental impairments.  Living through the stroke has helped me to develop a rich appreciation for relationships with others.  Jan tells me I’ve found my spirit.  And while I rejected the idea in a religious sense, I believe she is right. Before the stroke I never realized how important love is and the healing effect it can have.”

No so long ago, Dave told me, “Our values are love and struggle.” He is right.  And Dave is the very personification of those values — “a beacon for anyone who strives to guide their personal decisions by being honest, open, and true to ideas,” in the words of his friend Frank.  That is why my partner Ellen (who was an undergraduate student of Dave’s in a program called the Alternative Curriculum) and I named our son Samuel David.

John Miller was a graduate student in the economics department at the University of Pittsburgh from September 1973 to September 1979, when he left to take a job in the economics department at Wheaton College, where he still teaches today.  He completed his dissertation in spring 1982. He served on the steering committee of the Union for Radical Political Economics during most of the 1980s, and for the last decades he has been a member of the Dollars & Sense collective and a frequent contributor to the magazine. He is currently editing a reader on the debate among economists about sweatshops and the antisweatshop movement.

[The following owes a great debt to Gloria Rudolf. She not only rigorously edited two earlier versions of this tribute, but also provided me with valuable information about Pitt’s alternative curriculum.]

I began graduate school in economics at the University of Pittsburgh in September 1967. I hated nearly every minute of it. But one professor saved my sanity that first year. His name was David Houston. David was in his mid-thirties and already a full professor; at the time he was the youngest full professor in the history of the department.

David Houston

David impressed me right away. He was different, as his appearance immediately suggested. While my other professors dressed like, well, economists — unstylish and often ill-fitting salt-and-pepper sports coats, white shirts, black shoes, and short hair — David came to class in jeans and a black tee-shirt adorned with a bead necklace. His hair was long, and he wore a headband. And, while most of the professors filled the blackboard with mathematical symbols, elucidating the hypothesis that when every person acted selfishly, society as a whole would be in an optimal state, David skipped much of the mathematics and tried to get us to think. His colleagues never mentioned the war raging in Vietnam and the exploding city streets in the United States, but David had the courage to talk about these and to suggest that economics, conceived as it was originally as political economy, could tell us a lot about why these things were happening.

David’s teaching style also set him apart from my other teachers. He
conducted his classes with
wit and intelligence. He didn’t pretend to know everything. He dared to
suggest that maybe we
should be more skeptical about what we were learning. I felt that I could
relate to him. I was
always filled with dread when I entered the economics department and scared
to death in most of
my classes. But David’s classes were comforting, and it was easy to have a
conversation with
him, in class or in his office. His course wasn’t easy; he actually gave a
couple of students “D”
grades, something unheard of in graduate school. But he made me want to
learn this material. He
made it seem important and relevant. Thanks to him, I wanted to know about
inflation, economic growth, the distribution of income between labor and
capital, the business
cycle, and the Great Depression. These were no longer just things
represented by symbols in
equations; they were the outcomes of the actions of real people.

David taught macroeconomics, the most important course we took in the second
semester of our
first year. Although I enjoyed all of his classes, one of them, held
sometime around mid-semester of that second term, changed my life. David told us he was going to
talk about Vietnam.
And he did, and some of us participated in a discussion, for the entire
class. I cannot tell you
how unbelievable this was. Most of the students were dumbfounded, not a few
were enraged.
David had violated the most fundamental rule of the graduate economics
classroom. He had
deviated from the script of “teaching” us mainstream economics. You may not
believe this, but I
don’t think it would have been much different if an army drill instructor
had done the same thing,
telling his charges that he wasn’t going to talk about how to clean rifles
today but was going to
talk about the pros and cons of the war in Vietnam. After class, many
students complained
bitterly that Houston had wasted their time. How would they ever pass their
comprehensive examination when the professor had done something so utterly
unprofessional as
take up precious class time with an irrelevant discussion of the war? Some
said they were going
to complain to the department chairman.

To me David’s class on Vietnam was inspiring. It connected my growing
hatred of the war with
my studies and helped me develop an intellectual foundation for my
increasingly radical politics.
It was the only class I attended in graduate school in which the professor
allowed the real world
to show its face. I began to think that this was what we should have been
talking about. As
David argued, political economy had everything to do with the war. And it
struck me that if we
couldn’t discuss this, what was the point of trying to become a scholar.
Later when I became a
teacher, I did the same thing in an introductory economics class. If I was
going to be a teacher, I
was going to be one like David Houston.

After this class, I made it a point to try to get to know David better. I
overcame my shyness and
visited him in his office. I learned more about the antiwar movement and
began to participate in
it. I began to engage my fellow students in debate about the conservative
and authoritarian
nature of the economics department. I sought out the few students who also
had applauded
David’s Vietnam class, and I made my first friends in graduate school. I
began to challenge my
teachers, at least a little.

David took an interest in all aspects of his students’ lives. When I
received the first of three draft
induction notices in the summer of 1968, David put me in touch with a draft
counselor. Together
with an attorney, we filed suit on behalf of all graduate students, who has
just lost their education
deferments. When the local draft board was notified of the suit, they
decided to reclassify me I-A
again, eminently draftable, but with all my appeal rights intact again. On
the advice of my
academic advisor, I applied for a (draft-exempt) college teaching job at the
University’s branch
campus in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. David wrote a letter of recommendation
for me. I got the
job in 1969 and avoided the draft.

David also introduced me to the Union for Radical Political Economics
(URPE), of which he
was a founding member. He invited me to attend URPE’s annual convention,
which I did and
which began to make me feel part of a group aiming to radically change the
field of economics.
David was for many years the managing editor of URPE’s journal, the Review
of Radical
Political Economics
. In this position, David nurtured an entire generation
of radical economists.
He was a bit older than the most prominent sixties’ radicals, more mature
and thoughtful and
with a better sense of humor, so he served as a kind of elder statesman and
mentor to the younger
economists. When I later published a book, Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs, David
claimed editorial
privilege and wrote a review himself for the journal, skipping the
time-consuming review process
so the book would be reviewed soon after it was published. He called my
book “a little gem.” I
was thrilled.

Once I started teaching, I had to finish my graduate studies and write a PhD
dissertation. David
helped me every step of the way. He encouraged me to write from a radical
perspective in my advanced macroeconomics seminar. When I wrote a paper on
the distribution
of income between labor and capital for my labor economics seminar, David
ended up grading it
when the labor economics professor claimed not to know what I was writing
about. David joined
my PhD committee and brought along the department’s other radical, his good
friend David
Bramhall. He helped get the famous labor historian, David Montgomery, to
join as the outside
member. A committee with a majority of radicals. The most congenial
committee imaginable! I
wrote the dissertation over three summers in Johnstown and finished it the
year I came up for
tenure. David helped to make the process of writing a dissertation seem
like a collaborative
effort. He helped to ensure that committee members didn’t let their egos
interfere with my
efforts to complete the thesis. He made sure things went smoothly and, when
the thesis was good
enough, that no one said that I should do just a little bit more work. When
things almost
unraveled at one meeting, David took control and convinced one member not to
insist on major
revisions. I could do these afterward. I have never forgotten David’s act
of comradeship at that
meeting. In similar situations, I have always tried to act in the same

David Houston wasn’t just a radical teacher. He believed, and through him, I
came to believe,
that we had to change both the colleges and the world. So inside and
outside the university,
David practiced what he preached, protesting what was wrong and working to
create a better
world. He took part in teach-ins, marches, and demonstrations, often being
arrested. He helped
organize an “invasion” of the posh Duquesne Club, a hangout for the city’s
corporate elite, to
bring the Vietnam War home to those for whom it was really being fought. He
confronted the
University’s chancellor, a former head of the Air Force Academy and CIA
operative, who was a
strong supporter of the war. David and some friends held a sit-in at his
office and trapped him in
an elevator.

David was one of a small group of academics who worked to establish and to
maintain an
Alternative Curriculum Program (AC) for first-year students at the
University. Based on similar
principles as those guiding David’s economic classes, such as openness,
critical thinking, and
democratic student participation, the AC program provided entering
undergraduate students the
opportunity to be more involved in making the decisions about the “what” and
the “how” of their
studies. It was a program dedicated to service learning as a powerful method
for teaching
students how theory and practice, academic learning and real life experience,
are interrelated.
The exceptionally strong relationships that David formed with many students
and faculty
colleagues in the course of this work remain today for all involved a source
of pride and joy.

David was a leader in “People’s Oakland,” a community group in the part of
Pittsburgh where
the university had its home. This group often had to confront the
university, which was
responsible for Oakland’s gradual deterioration. He worked with “Rainbow
organization for the homeless. He took up the cause of animal rights,
because, as his wife, Jan,
says, “David saw all of life as one piece.”

David Houston paid a heavy price for his political activism. He had been
hired in 1966 to beef
up the economics department’s offerings in urban, regional, and macro
economics. However, he
soon made his colleagues unhappy and uneasy by committing the unpardonable
sin: moving to
the left and committing himself to radical political action. To the
economists, nothing, and I
mean nothing, could be worse. What is more, what he was saying and doing was
undermining the
authority of the local power structure, which included the Board of Trustees
and the top
administrators of the university. The escalating protests against the war,
the upheavals in the
colleges and universities, the inner city uprisings, all were serious
business to those with power.
They wanted this stopped, and they took whatever actions necessary to stop
it. For David, this
meant that some of his colleagues tried to get him fired. They ostracized
him and treated him as
a pariah. The university froze his salary for years, to such an extent that
when he retired in 1993,
I was making more money than was he. The department refused to offer
support for his
editorship of the RRPE, despite the fact that it traditionally did so for
any other journal housed in
the department. At the time of David’s retirement, the department chair, a
man who had no love
for David, made it clear that he would take his office, which meant that he
would have no space
for his editorship duties. So David delayed his departure date until the
chair’s term of office was

Through all of this, David never failed to take a radical stand, whether it
be on a local issue like
housing for the poor and minorities or an international one like the rights
of Palestinians. He
always did the right thing, and he wasn’t afraid. I have tried to be the

In 1988, I moved to Pittsburgh and commuted to work. This gave me a chance
to visit David
more often. We worked together to try to unionize the faculty. We led a
seminar at a teach-in
protesting the first Iraq War. We talked about the state of the world and
the left, and I always
went away with insights I hadn’t had before. He decried the move to the
right of some of
URPE’s founders. After some leftists began to attack the labor theory of
value, linchpin of
Marx’s analysis of capitalism, I asked David what he thought about Marx’s
theory. Without
hesitation, he said, “I believe it’s the truth.” He inspired me once again.

David retired in 1993. He planned to continue editing the RRPE, to travel,
and, inspired by Mike
Davis’s City of Quartz, to write a book about the political economy of
Miami. But just three
years later, he suffered a series of debilitating strokes. Thanks to the
unstinting and devoted care
of his wife, Jan, and an indomitable will to live, he survived. Since then,
his life has been a
series of ups and downs. He has had numerous seizures, and he can no longer
do many of the
things we take for granted. But he has survived these past nine years. And
not just survived. He
still has a keen intellect. He keeps up with world affairs, and he still has
a sense of humor. He has also kept his radical vision and has even participated in political
protests. He is now seventy-four, and I hope he is with us a lot longer. I should have said this
sooner, but let me say it now, “David, you have been an inspiration to me. You helped make me a better
teacher, a better scholar, and a better person. Thank you.”

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh from 1967 to 1973 (last four years part-time) and received his PhD in economics in 1976. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.