Gavin Wright received his BA in economics from Swarthmore College in 1965, and his PhD from Yale in 1969, where he began his career as an assistant professor. In 1972 he moved to the University of Michigan, before moving to Stanford, where he would spend the rest of his career.
In between, he held visiting positions at the University of California – Berkeley, Oxford University, and as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Development, a Fellow of the Society of American Historians, and a Fellow of the Cliometric Society.
Wright has garnered many awards for his research. He is a two-time winner of the Carstensen Prize for the best article published in Agricultural History. He has also been awarded the Cole Prize for best article published in the Journal of Economic History, the Alice Hanson Jones Prize for outstanding book in North American Economic History, and the Frank Lawrence and Harriet Chappel Owsley Award for the best book on Southern History, for Old South New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War.
In Old South New South Wright found that the peculiar labor market in the south was to blame for the prolonged “backwardness” of the region. He detailed the origins, workings, and ultimate demise of the south’s separate labor market and explained why the post-WWII southern economy is not the result of the evolution of the old system, but the product of a revolution brought on by the New Deal and WWII.
Wright has been generous with his time. He served on the board of editors of numerous journals, and edited the Journal of Economic History. He was Editor in Chief for the Millennial Edition of the Historical Statistics of the United States, has served on the Board of Directors of the NBER, and the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association. He has served as President of the Economic History Association, the Organization for the Study of Southern Economy, Culture, and Society, and the Agricultural History Society.
While he is best known for his work on the American south, he has also studied the role of natural resources in the growth and development of the American economy, the political economy of spending during the New Deal, comparative technology in the cotton industry, and property rights, among other issues.
His interest in the south was formulated when he spent the summer of 1963 working on voter registration in North Carolina. That exposure to segregation led him to ponder the linkage between racial justice and economic development.
Wright espouses the Stanford justification for studying economic history. Exposure to economic history is essential because some economic processes play out only over the long run. Only historical cases compel students to come to grips with institutional settings, like slavery, that are sufficiently different from contemporary institutions. Finally, certain economic processes result from historical path-dependence, which means that contemporary conditions and problems can only truly be understood by studying their origins.