Charles R. Morris, Iconoclastic Author on Economics, Dies at 82

Charles R. Morris, Iconoclastic Author on Economics, Dies at 82 1

Resisting ideological labels, experienced in government and banking, he critiqued policymakers’ “good intentions” and the costs of health care and forecast the 2008 financial crisis.

Charles R. Morris, a former government official, banker and self-taught historian of economics who as a prolific, iconoclastic author challenged conventional political and economic pieties, died on Monday in Hampton, N.H. He was 82.

The cause was complications of dementia, his daughter, Kathleen Morris, said.

Mr. Morris wrote his signature first book, “The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment” (1980), after serving as director of welfare programs under Mayor John V. Lindsay and as secretary of social and health services in Washington State.

The book was a trenchant Emperor’s New Clothes analysis of how the Lindsay administration’s unfettered investment in social welfare programs to ward off civil unrest had delivered the city to the brink of bankruptcy, and it pigeonholed Mr. Morris as a neoconservative.

But as a law school graduate with no formal training in economics, he defied facile labeling.

While his 15 nonfiction books often revisited well-trodden topics — including the Great Depression, the nation’s tycoons, the cost of health care, the Cold War arms race and the political evolution of the Roman Catholic church — he injected them with revealing details, provocative insights and fluid narratives.

“The Cost of Good Intentions” (1981) was less a screed about liberal profligacy as it was an expression of disappointment that benevolent officials had become wedded to programs that didn’t work. He concluded that the best and the brightest in the government, as well as complicit players on the outside, had figured that if a day of reckoning ever came, it would not be on their watch.

Steven R. Weisman wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Mr. Morris, as a former city budget official and, at the time, as a vice president for international finance at Chase Manhattan Bank, was more intent on adding perspective than affixing blame.

“He exonerates neither his current nor his former employer,” Mr. Weisman wrote.

In the book, Mr. Morris quoted Peter Goldmark Jr., then the state budget director, as saying: “Remember the 14th century and the advent of the plague? Was it possible for those people to stand on the docks in Genoa or Venice, watch the rats pouring off the ships, and not understand?”

“Yes,” Mr. Morris wrote dubiously, “it was possible.”

He would also belie Thomas Carlyle’s characterization of economics as “the dismal science” by injecting tantalizing nuggets.

Reviewing Mr. Morris’s “A Time of Passion: America 1960-1980” (1984) for The Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley wrote that “some of the most vivid moments in this book come when he stops the rush of history to describe incidents from his own time as a poverty-program and prison administrator.”

“He truly has been ‘mugged by reality,’ in Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative,” Mr. Kinsley added, but concluded, “Overall, his book radiates a generosity and good will that set it apart from the typically sour neoconservative creed.”

Charles Richard Morris was born on Oct. 23, 1939, in Oakland, Calif., to Charles B. and Mildred (Reid) Morris. His father was a technician for a printing ink manufacturer; his mother was a homemaker.

After attending Mother of the Savior Seminary in Blackwood, N.J., Mr. Morris graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in journalism in 1963. He was director of the New Jersey Office of Economic Opportunity from 1965 to 1969.

He earned a degree from the university’s law school in 1972 while working for New York City government. He was recruited by Washington State on the basis of his reputation as the city’s assistant budget director and welfare director.

Praising Mr. Morris’s service to the city and his proficiency as an author, Edward K. Hamilton, first deputy mayor during the Lindsay administration, said that he nonetheless differed with some of the conclusions and recommendations in “The Cost of Good Intentions.”

“Many of its stated or implied remedial nostrums, even if desirable in theory, were simply infeasible in the real-world circumstances,” Mr. Hamilton said, “given the complex web of intersecting state, local and federal authorities and the politics overshadowing all of it.”

Mr. Morris later served as director of the Vera Institute of Justice in London.

He is survived by his wife, Beverly Gilligan Morris, along with their sons, Michael and Matthew; their daughter, Kathleen Morris; and four grandchildren. A sister, Marianne Donovan, also died on Monday. Mr. Morris lived in Hampton.

Among his other books were “A Rabble of Dead Money: The Great Crash and the Global Depression: 1929-1939 (2017); “Comeback: America’s New Economic Boom” (2013); “The Sages: Warren Buffett, George Soros, Paul Volcker, and the Maelstrom of Markets” (2009); “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown” (2008); “The Surgeons: Life and Death in a Top Heart Center (2007),” which dissects the cost of care to the public and to practitioners; “American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church” (1997); and “The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy” (2005).

Assessing “The Tycoons” in The Times Book Review, Todd G. Buchholz, a former economics adviser to President George H.W. Bush, wrote of Mr. Morris, “I admired his drive to delve into competing theories of the Great Depression, sleeves rolled up, digging evenhandedly into the muck of academic research and the tumbleweed of the Dust Bowl.”

Rarely allowing himself to be typecast, Mr. Morris would debunk what he called the conservative conventional wisdom that raising the minimum wage costs jobs. He complained in the Jesuit magazine America that the nation’s existing health care system benefits the wealthiest Americans. In an interview on the business blog bobmorris.biz in 2012, he criticized graduate schools of business.

“Business schools tend to focus on topics that are suitable to blackboards, so they overemphasize organization and finance,” Mr. Morris said. “Until very recently, they virtually ignored manufacturing. I think a lot of the troubles of the 1970s and 1980s, and now more recently the 2000s, can be traced pretty directly to the biases of the business schools.”

In “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers and the Great Credit Crash” (2008), which won the Gerald Loeb Award for business reporting, Mr. Morris precisely predicted the collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns and the ensuing global recession.

He wrote the book in 2007, when most experts were still expressing optimism about the economy. He also appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job” (2010) about the 2008 financial crisis.

“I think we’re heading for the mother of all crashes,” Mr. Morris wrote his publisher, Peter Osnos, the founder of Public Affairs books, early in 2007, adding, “It will happen in summer of 2008, I think.”

Mr. Osnos recalled that after the book was published, “George Soros and Paul Volcker called me and asked, ‘Who is this Morris, and how did he get this so right, so early?’”