Farewell, George Johnson

One of my best friends in the profession, George Johnson, passed away this week at age 70.  He was a long-time professor at the University of Michigan, and was probably best-known for his study demonstrating and exploring the sharp rise in earnings inequality in the U.S. in the 1980s.  Regrettably much less known is a neat and original paper on the economics of featherbedding—union practices imposing, for examples, minimum labor demand, or particular ratios of productive inputs (labor to capital, such as now-defunct requirements of three pilot-qualified staff in commercial aircraft cockpits).  These practices also arise outside the union sector through custom, and have not been studied as much as they should be.  Aside from his many contributions, George was without doubt the funniest economist (not an oxymoron in his case) I’ve known.  Every conference anyone attended with him was more enjoyable for his presence.


I worked for him one semester as a TA. He was indeed a funny guy. He'll be missed.

John Heywood

The year I took his graduate labor class it included both a pop quiz on variations of chowder (yes, the soup) and a nearly slapstick discussion of wine varieties and the people who drink them. George's daily humor added to a rigorous and enjoyable class . Thanks to Dan for sharing the news and bringing back memories


I was in his class almost 30 years ago. He was a great teacher and yes, had a quirky sense of humor. He dismissed class early one day so that everyone could watch Luke and Laura get married on General Hospital.

Li Yabin

To be honestly, I have little intetrest on economists` work, of course, usually they are logically complicated & intellectually sophisticated, above an unusual level. Those works are very skilled, deep-thought, well-woven,...but, difficult to say, just a little bit pageant, though, ...how to say...might not be so acurately to sketch those knowledge. But the scholars those who are engaged in the field, should be very interesting...charming article.

Devinder K.Sharma

I entirely agree with Hamermesh. His paper on the economics of featherbedding is an excellent insight into the changing scenario of union practices and its implications in the modern times. This work certainly deserves to be carried forward and linked with the need for labour sector reforms, especially in the context of emerging economies in the BRIC block.

Alex Johnson

He was my father. I was lucky to have a dad who was so committed to living his life (and that includes his profession) on his terms. It carries over to his descendants. His tolerance for pomposity and arrogance both in academia and elsewhere was about zero. While he was never mean-spirited (except when referring to the truly reprehensible) his wit and humor were both scathing and brilliant.

Thanks to Professor Hamermesh for this article and to all commenting for the kind words. He is missed deeply but he'll never be forgotten.

Joan Larcom

In 1952 our seventh grade social studies teacher sat George and me beside one another in the back row of her class. I became fascinated by the cute, red headed neighbor who spent most of class drawing pictures of fighter plane 'dog fights' or naval battles while softly making engine noises.

Later in high school, college and graduate school, his satirical wit and ability to see the funny side of anything helped keep me sane. We then lost touch for a few decades till our 40th high school reunion when Gloria (his wife) and he became great friends. I have 58 years of stories and memories of him. Lucky me, but I will miss him big time.

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn

Professor Johnson was one of my first economics prof's at the University of Michigan in the Institute of Public Policy Studies. He profoundly influenced my thinking about applying economics to real-real life, resulting in my continuing on at U-M through the health economics track. His students loved him dearly. I will always be grateful to his teaching talents and keen sense of justice that he communicated to us through his curriculum and research. Rest in Peace, dear teacher.

Victor H. Miesel

Dr. Johnson was a splendid professor and I enjoyed his classes. He was one of the reasons I studied economics. Both my sisters took his classes as well and share fond memories of a great professor with an excellent sense of humor and happy, but cynical "world view".

David Jaeger

George was one of my thesis advisors and I'm very saddened to learn this. He was incredibly helpful, generous with his time, and just a great person. I agree with Dan, his contributions are under appreciated in the profession.

Will Binder

If not a Mahatma, he will be soon. As most have mentioned, he taught some of the few classes worth going to, no matter how hung over one might be. Would pay hard money for his macroeconomic model/flow chart! I have scoured the net for it over the years, as I am now, and in actuality the reason I am here. Thank the maker for Max Keiser to carry on Dr. J's torch.
Anyway, I am not joking about that macroeconomic flow chart, I'll give an eagle [silver eagle] to anyone who can get me one! As far as I'm concerned that flow chart was the only thing worth knowing in economics.