A Theorist Who Studied the Soviet Economy Dies

Abram Bergson, an economist who brought sophisticated analytical tools and a theorist's rigor to the study of the Soviet economy, died Wednesday in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 89.

For many years economists regarded Bergson, who taught at Harvard, as the dean of Soviet economic studies, and he lived to see the field shift its focus to the transition between economic systems. Yet he began his academic career as a theorist, publishing an extremely influential paper at the age of 23 on the measurement of well-being across society.

His best-known work later became linked with that of Paul Samuelson, a one-time classmate at Harvard who won the Nobel in economic science. The Bergson-Samuelson social welfare function, which combines individual gauges of well-being, has been a fixture in economic analysis for decades.

He pursued the theory of social welfare throughout his career, but the bulk of his attention -- and his sharp economic intellect -- were often firmly directed at the Soviet Union. "Abe Bergson gave a touch of class to the whole analysis of comparing a Soviet-style planned economy with a market economy," said Padma Desai, director of the Center for Transitional Economies at Columbia. "He really established the theoretical foundations for that, and in doing so, he raised the level of the field -- made it very respectable."

For his contributions to theory and the study of collectivist economies, "Bergson would be on anyone's short list for a Nobel Prize -- even two," wrote Samuelson, now an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in remarks released Wednesday.

Bergson was born Abram Burk in Baltimore on April 21, 1914. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University at 19 and immediately enrolled in graduate studies at Harvard. His mentor there was Wassily Leontief, who later won the Nobel in economic science.

During his graduate studies, Bergson and his brother, a physicist, decided to change their last names. The name Burk, they agreed, did not sufficiently convey their Jewish heritage.

Upon obtaining his doctorate in 1940, Bergson joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. Two years later, after the United States entered World War II, he accepted a position at the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

By the end of the war, Bergson had become chief of the Russian economic subdivision at the O.S.S., but he then left to teach at Columbia. After 10 years, he returned to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his career.

At Harvard, he served as director of the Russian Research Center, now called the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and was a vocal commentator on the capacity of the Soviet economy to grow. He deduced Soviet economic expansion was slowing during the Cold War, Desai said, but some of his estimated comparisons of the Soviet economy and Western economies later proved slightly inaccurate.

Bergson is survived by his wife of 63 years, Rita Macht-Bergson, and their three daughters.