From the cover of "Health Economics and Policy" by Victor Fuchs
From the cover of "Health Economics and Policy" by Victor Fuchs

At 94, Stanford economist is still at the front of his class

Why, at age 94, would one choose to relax over a good mystery novel or a Netflix series when there is so much to learn and research and impart to others similarly thirsty for knowledge?

He is far too polite to put it that way, but that seems to be the overriding perspective of 94-year-old Victor Fuchs, professor emeritus of economics and health research and policy at Stanford University, who has been referred to as “the dean of American health care economists” by New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt.

Fuchs hasn’t had time for leisure anyway, as he has just seen the publication of his 17th book, “Health Economics and Policy,” a compilation of some of his lectures, conference papers, journal articles and op-ed pieces over the past 50 years.

Victor Fuchs
Victor Fuchs

For those who would assume that “Health Economics” is dry, scholarly reading, they would be wrong.

Over the years, physicians, health-care administrators, patients and the average curious reader, along with students and fellow scholars, have turned to Fuchs to understand the links and intersections between economics and medicine, which he has explained in the clear, direct language he favors, including in his other books, including the groundbreaking “Who Shall Live? Health, Economics, and Social Choice” (1974) and “Women’s Quest for Economic Equality” (1988).

“The need to write clearly and simply forces me to consider and reconsider assumptions and conclusions in economics that might otherwise be accepted too readily,” he wrote in “Education and Its Consequences: My Philosophy of Life,” a 1993 article published in the American Economist in which he outlined the many positive influences in his life, including his family, schooling, mentors and Jewish heritage.

For many decades, Fuchs has written extensively about soaring medical costs in the United States, attributing them primarily to new drugs, surgical procedures and diagnostic techniques on the market, and he has advocated for a universal health care plan that would be financed by a broad-based tax. But barring catastrophic circumstances, such as a severe economic depression, Fuchs said he does not forecast any significant chances to the manner in which most Americans now receive and pay for their health care.

In person, as well as on the page, Fuchs communicates with directness, crystalline clarity and no shortage of self-effacing humor.

“Unlike me, my father was a good high school student,” the Bronx native said in a wide-ranging interview in which he recounted the various intellectual, professional and spiritual forces that have guided his life.

SRfuchs_bookPHis father, Fuchs said, was a Viennese immigrant who was forced to leave high school in New York to support his family. His industry and acumen reaped rewards: a successful international business in which he bought and sold furs.

“He was very self-made,” Fuchs said of his father. “He came here at 9. His English was perfect. He did a lot of reading.”

Fuchs assumed that he and his younger brother, Lawrence, would eventually work in the family business together, but when Lawrence applied and was accepted to the only graduate school to which he applied — Harvard — the young Victor decided to follow suit.

“We were very similar,” said Fuchs, recalling his brother, who went on to have a long and distinguished career at Brandeis University, where he became an authority in ethnic studies. “I figured that I was at least as smart as Larry, if not smarter. So, I applied to Columbia University.

“Fortunately,” he added, “they took in almost everybody,” referring to his middling grades.

Fuchs flourished at Columbia, where, no surprise, given his family background, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the economics of the fur industry. Following a teaching stint there, he worked for a short time at the Ford Foundation’s Economic Development and Administration program before joining the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he first became interested in economics and health care. That led to a joint appointment at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He stayed for six years before being recruited by Stanford, where he has been affiliated for 44 years and where he still resides today.

Over the years, Fuchs, the former president of the American Economic Association, has penned or co-authored more than 200 academic papers and articles on subjects that span the health economics spectrum, from health-care reform and universal coverage to the economics of aging and managed care and mergers. His ability to write so fluently on so many issues, he said, has been aided by the myriad scholars with whom he has collaborated over many decades.

“I am the Blanche DuBois of health economics,” he said, alluding to the character from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the Tennessee Williams classic. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers … different kinds of people, some theoretically inclined, some empirically inclined, some institutionally inclined, some interested in policy.”

Fuchs said that he also was inspired by his late wife, Beverly, who died in 2007.

I am the Blanche DuBois of health economics.

“My brother was my best friend for the first 20 years of my life,” he said. “Beverly was my best friend for the next 59.”

The couple raised their two daughters and two sons in the Reconstructionist movement and helped found a Reconstructionist synagogue on Long Island, later joining Conservative Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

Fuchs said they were attracted to Reconstructionist Judaism for its egalitarianism and its emphasis on Jewish history, culture and peoplehood. He continues to be an ardent supporter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, in suburban Philadelphia. That’s where his eldest child, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, was ordained and where she serves as an assistant professor and directs interfaith programs and activities. He also has been involved in Hillel at Stanford and continues to attend its services.

What has sustained him following the loss of his wife, Fuchs said, has been his work. His rabbi daughter wholeheartedly concurs.

“Work has always been a passion for him,” she said. “It feeds his deepest curiosity … When he meets people, he is interested in knowing everything about them. He’ll poke them about things he doesn’t know. He’ll plunge into conversations with everyone. There’s a humility and respect, allowing him to learn from others.”

She said her father reminds her of one of the teachings from the Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.