Obituary: John Wells

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The Independent Culture
JOHN WELLS was admired for his powerful economic and political analysis and loved for his integrity, kindness and, when his wretched health allowed it, enormous enthusiasm and energy. In his funeral address it was rightly said that though he was an academic he was not a snob; and that he was, it had also to be said, a member of the awkward squads of all the walks of life to which he belonged.

Wells was born in 1947 and grew up in south London in a family of modest means. Scholarships took him to Dulwich College, and then to Queens' College, Cambridge, in 1965 to read Modern Languages. He soon switched to Economics, obtaining a First in Part II in 1969. He went to the University of California, Berkeley, to do research on development processes in Brazil. He obtained a masters degree in 1971 and worked as a research assistant for Albert Fishlow.

He returned to Cambridge to write a doctorate on "Growth and Fluctuations in the Brazilian Manufacturing Sector" (1977) while working as a research officer in the university's Centre for Latin American Studies. In 1975 he was appointed to a University Assistant Lectureship in the Faculty of Economics and Politics; he became a University Lecturer in 1978, a position which he held until he took early retirement last summer. He was a Fellow of King's College from 1976 until 1988. He was a consultant for several international bodies, working on applied economic issues in Brazil and Chile especially.

Wells hated injustice and unfairness. He was fearlessly outspoken, whether discussing the lot of the wretched of the earth in developing countries or the emerging underclass, poverty and unemployment in Thatcher's Britain and beyond. For many years he was an active member of the Labour Party. He provided advice (unpaid) for Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Gordon Brown.

He resigned from the party when Tony Blair became leader, believing the party to have become unprincipled, uncaring about the most vulnerable in society and illiterate on macroeconomic policy. He condemned their refusal to raise government spending and taxation, to contemplate an appropriate incomes policy to go with a commitment to full employment; and the reliance on that coarse and blunt instrument, the interest rate.

Wells was teased (but admired) for taking over from the late Nicky Kaldor the provision of a steady stream of letters on topical economic issues to the broadsheets. The letters were thoroughly researched; they witnessed to Wells's superb feeling for orders of magnitude and what statistics could and could not mean. Arguments were clear and logical but the passion that motivated them could be discerned. He also wrote for what some might consider fringe outlets, the left-wing magazine Red Pepper, for example; there he applied the same standards of academic excellence as in his more orthodox publications.

He was not a careerist and he spent a large amount of time on issues he cared about. He did publish a number of outstanding pieces of applied economics, especially in his writings on Brazilian development where, typically, he analysed the issues and extent of poverty in that most unequal of societies. They included his path-breaking and widely referred-to article on the diffusion of consumer durables in Brazil (1977). With Bob Rowthorn, he did innovative research for their book Deindustrialisation and Foreign Trade (1987). Initially their findings were met with scepticism but they are now recognised as fundamentally sound. Sadly Wells was never to finish two large projects, one on development in Latin America, the other on British economic history and policy in the post-war period.

Wells was subject to volatile mood swings which periodically affected his performance and finally led to his early retirement. He set himself, I believe, impossibly high standards and was distressed when he could not always attain them. When on top of his form he was superb in the lecture room and supervisions and a caring, considerate colleague. He rewrote his lectures every year and took great care with handouts for his courses. The place where he was most likely to be found was in the copying room of the Austin Robinson Building.

Because of his mood swings, Wells would sense slights and take great offence. Mostly, though, he was positive and helpful, so much so that people were sometimes reluctant to ask him things, for he would do much empirical work to back up a casually mentioned conjecture. He was devoted to his students. Sometimes he could be a severe taskmaster; yet his pastoral care and basic intentions were admirable. The ancillary staff remember him for his kindness, infectiously hearty laugh, sharing birthday celebrations and welcoming newcomers.

John Wells was a genuine democratic socialist who lived his principles.

G. C. Harcourt

John Richard Wells, economist: born London 7 May 1947; Assistant Lecturer in Economics and Politics, Cambridge University 1975, Lecturer 1978-99; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1976-88; married 1971 Terry Bunch (one son; marriage dissolved 1981); died Cambridge 27 October 1999.