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An Obituary You Probably Won’t Read Elsewhere

I once bought a house from a man named Michael Levine, a musician who scores movies, TV shows, etc. Afterward, we became e-mail pals. Last year, when Freakonomics was first published, he wrote to say that Levitt’s research reminded him a good bit of his father’s research. His father, Solomon B. Levine, was also an economist:

My dad (now 84) was an expert on Japanese labor relations, a somewhat narrower field than Levitt’s but equally full of surprising truths that were in opposition to conventional wisdom. I have fond memories of him railing against some talking head on TV who was somberly offering as received wisdom what was in fact the latest fad explanation about the then booming Japanese economic phenomenon.

Among the things we supposedly “knew” about Japan that were either unsupported by hard data or were actually completely false were:

Japanese labor was/is more docile than American labor – fewer strikes, more loyalty to their companies. Completely untrue.

Japanese workers have/had lifetime job security, or at least much great job stability than Americans. Even at the height of their prosperity, this was unsupported by any reliable data.

Japanese students were/are better educated and studied harder than Americans. This is more complicated, but the answer is “in some ways yes, in some ways no.” Although entrance to Japanese colleges was, and is, more competitive than in the US, actual college work was, and is, less demanding. There is a reason many of the very best Japanese students come to the US and Europe for post-graduate work.

The Japanese prize individual creativity less than the west and accomplished much of their gains by clever imitation of original western ideas. Basically, bullshit.

There were dozens of other examples along the same lines. In each case, the conventional wisdom lined up with someone’s economic or moral agenda and had little or no real evidence to support it.

These theories that “explained” the meteoric rise of the Japanese economy have failed to explain why it sputtered after the bubble of the late 1980s and has not yet regained the same momentum it once had. My dad’s theories — which were that the Japanese economic revival had much more to do with technical reasons (the rebuilding of the Japanese industrial infrastructure from scratch after the war, for example) — were not considered very sexy at the time, but look pretty solid now.

That doesn’t mean that if people are given the facts they will come to sound conclusions. One of my dad’s friends, John Dower, wrote a book called “Embracing Defeat” a few years back, about the post-war transition to democracy in Japan. Supposedly, it was required reading for the Bush administration architects of the Iraq war, who viewed it as a kind of blueprint on how to turn around a formerly hostile country. John tried to warn them – publicly – that the situations were entirely different but by then the administration “knew” what they believed and his cautions became just so many more WMD’s under the rug.

Well, Michael wrote to me again this week, with the news that his father has died. He also attached an obituary the family wrote, which they sent to the N.Y. Times but will probably not get published. This is not extraordinary. Many accomplished people die without having their obituaries printed in the Times; there simply isn’t enough space.

But given the compelling nature of Solomon B. Levine’s research, I thought I’d go ahead and post the obituary here. Newspapers, as much as I love them, should hardly be the sole guardian of posterity.

Solomon Bernard Levine
August 10, 1920-October 3, 2006

Solomon B. Levine, 86, one of the country’s foremost experts on Japanese labor relations, died on Tuesday, October 3, in Madison, Wisconsin of natural causes. Levine’s book, Labor Relations in Postwar Japan, published in 1954, was considered a landmark in the field, influencing a generation of Asian scholars.

Levine was a naval intelligence officer in WWII and learned to speak Japanese as part of the war effort. While in the language program, he met his wife, Betty, also a naval intelligence officer. Levine participated in the Okinawa landing and, later, the occupation of Japan where he served as a translator for a Japanese admiral/engineer who led the team that designed the battleship Yamato.

After receiving a BA and an MBA from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T, Levine was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois and began researching Japanese labor relations though he was told no one was interested in Japan. During his academic career, Levine served as the Director of the Asian Studies Center at the University of Illinois-Urbana. In 1969 he joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he had appointments in the Business School, the department of economics, and the Industrial Relations Research Institute. He served a number of years as chair of the East Asian Studies program.

Widely respected by scholars, Levine’s work often ran counter to popular beliefs. For example, Japan’s postwar boom was often attributed to an extraordinarily loyal and docile workforce; Levine showed that Japanese workers were as likely to strike as American workers. And he contended that the supposed cradle-to-grave job security offered by Japanese corporations was a myth — long before the economic decline of the 90s demonstrated this on a widespread basis.

He is survived by his wife, Betty (née Elizabeth Billett); four children, Jan Levine Thal, Samuel Levine, Michael Levine, and Elliott Levine; and six grandchildren, Jeremy Thal, Sean Levine, Sybil Levine, Reed Levine, Joshua Levine, and Zoe Levine.

Here is where Levine’s papers are held.