John Rees Harris passed away on July 7, 2018 at the age of 84. He was at home surrounded by his children and grandchildren after a sudden decline. John was born on February 7, 1934 in Rockford, Illinois, where he grew up, to parents who had emigrated to the United States as young adults from Ireland and Scotland. After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1955 he joined the Army and served in Korea, rising to the rank of captain. John continued to serve in the Reserves until 1964.
After deciding not to join his father in his construction related business John worked as a pharmaceutical salesman until realizing that he wanted to pursue graduate work in economics at Northwestern University. John’s wife Ruth-Ann Mellish Harris went to work to support the family (they had two daughters by then) while John was in graduate school pursuing his PhD. John’s thesis research took the family to Ibadan, Nigeria for a year, supported by the Ford Foundation. It was in Nigeria that John’s youngest child was born.
John received his PhD in economics from Northwestern University in 1967. He joined the economics department faculty at MIT in 1966 as an Assistant Professor, moved to the Economics and Urban Studies department as an Associate Professor in 1971 and then to the Economics department at Boston University in 1975 as Professor.
During 1968-69 he visited the Institute for Development Studies in Nairobi. His paper with Michael Todaro in the 1970 American Economic Review (AER) on a two-sector model of migration and development subsequently became a classic in the field, and the only paper in development economics which appeared in the Top Ten list of most cited AER papers in the 20th century. Growing out of his experience of problems of urban unemployment in Nairobi, the paper reversed the standard formulation of rural-urban migration in developing countries by Arthur Lewis from the 1950s. In the Lewis theory, the problem of economic development is a misallocation of labor between rural and urban areas owing to institutional rigidities in agriculture which prevent workers from migrating to urban areas where they are more productive. The Harris-Todaro turned the logic of the Lewis theory on its head, where institutional rigidities appeared in the form of labor market frictions in the urban sector instead of the rural sector. These resulted in excessive migration and urban unemployment. The theory generated a paradoxical result whereby urban unemployment is aggravated by efforts to generate more employment in urban areas, owing to induced effects on migration. The paper had a profound impact on both policy and research on migration and development, becoming the standard workhorse model of rural urban migration in development economics to this day.
From the early 1980s, John became involved in research and policy projects in Indonesia and Africa. He served as an advisor to the National Planning Agency and Central Bureau of Statistics of Indonesia and was a member of the Advisory Group of Macroeconomic Research Network for Eastern and Southern Africa (precursor to the African Economic Research Consortium). At Boston University he was Director of the multidisciplinary African Studies Center between 1975 and 1987. During the 1990s, his research switched to effects of financial liberalization on capital structures of firms. In the past decade he was involved in a multidisciplinary project with the Pardee Center at Boston University on effects of remittances by migrant workers in the rehabilitation of post-conflict African countries.
John’s rich academic life was balanced by a full personal life – he was a man who lived his life to the fullest, leavened by his wonderful sense of humor. He was passionate about sailing, earning his captain’s license and chartering and cruising in various areas around the world with his wife, children and grandchildren. Throughout John’s love of oysters and good wine would be evident and in his last 20 years he took enormous pleasure from his Jamaica Plain neighborhood and walking around the pond.
John is survived by his three children – Catherine Harris, Dorothy Harris, and Rees Harris – and he reveled in his role as grandfather to Tayler Levesque, Sora Harris-Vincent, Alice Giguere, Rebecca Giguere, Marilla Harris-Vincent, Kaelyn Harris-Vincent, Cameron Harris, and Abigail Harris as well as becoming a “great” great-grandfather to Adeline Levesque. John will be sorely missed by his brother, his brother-in-laws, nieces, nephews, cousins, and a multitude of colleagues and friends. He has made a lasting impact on the lives of hundreds of students and colleagues around the world.
John’s memorial service is scheduled for September 29th at 11:00 in the Marsh Chapel at Boston University.