John Murray | J. R. Hyde III Professor of Political Economy
Office: 225 Buckman Hall | Phone: (901) 843-3577 | Email:



For a good 25 years I have been teaching principles of economics, and every term I learn something new. It’s a course that never gets old. Plus, every term several of those principles appear in the news, usually after a politician relearns them the hard way. From Econ 100, two courses go forward into the past. In spring 2015 I will teach Econ 339: Economic History, in which we use economic principles to make sense of historical trends and episodes. It’s a lot more than economics with old data. In alternating springs (2016 is next) I teach Econ 323: Classical and Marxian Political Economy. Here we read the beginnings of modern economics in the classical era writers: David Hume, Adam Smith, T.R. Malthus, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx. Both courses reveal that, as William Faulkner observed, the past is never dead; it’s not even past.

I usually run a section of senior seminar. In economics, students write a 25-30 page research paper from scratch. They find a topic, read the literature, estimate econometric models, and interpret them. Students find it a different experience from previous courses. In political economy, probably we will read one or two important books in the field that don’t appear in Search or Econ 323 reading lists. I am thinking of Democracy in America or Theory of Moral Sentiments, or possibly dividing the semester in two and reading two contrasting authors: Nozick vs. Rawls, Hamilton vs. Jefferson, or Hayek vs. Keynes.

In my own past, I have taught American, European, and world economic history, econometrics, demography, mathematical economics, freshman calculus, introductory statistics, and high school algebra. And Sunday School.

I direct the Program in Political Economy. If you are interested in this fascinating and rigorous interdisciplinary major, please come in and let’s talk.


My research in economic history examines institutions for accumulating and transmitting human capital through time. These institutions manage problems of individual incentives that do not line up with efficient provision of collective goods. And yet, people often do discover ways to come close to efficient provision--without government intervention. 

My first book, Origins of American Health Insurance (Yale University Press, 2007) explored how early sickness insurance funds covered a large minority of the American working class, despite problems of moral hazard and adverse selection among their members.  

My newest book, The Charleston Orphan House (University of Chicago Press, 2013) is a history of poor white families in antebellum Charleston, their methods for getting by, and their interactions with the Orphan House. The South Carolina Historical Society awarded it the George Rogers, Jr., prize for best book on South Carolina history in 2013. If there is a theme in these writings, it comes from Tocqueville: All people belong to communities that can voluntarily solve, however imperfectly, collective problems. For the most part, experts are superfluous.

I am not too picky in choice of ongoing research topics. With coauthors and by myself I am working on a variety of topics in American, European, and Asian economic history, from about the late 18c onwards.  I have become particularly interested in the history of European coal mining technology after the first Industrial Revolution, so in the second half of the 19c.


I was born and raised in an industrial suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Neither of my parents went to college, so if you are a first generation college student and find this brave new world hard to read, please come in and let’s talk about it. In past lives I worked at delivering newspapers, cutting weeds, painting houses, caddying, roofing garages, moving industrial flotsam from one storage area to another, mopping up chemical spills, wiping backsides, cleaning toilets in a popcorn-maker factory, waiting tables, scooping out sodas and sundaes, drawing blood, polishing silverware made by Paul Revere (beautiful stuff), making telephone survey calls from a cubicle, and writing marketing strategies from a different cubicle. Each job was an education. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: You can observe a lot of economics by just working.

 My family enjoys hiking with our dogs throughout the region, from the Old Forest to Village Creek State Park, Arkansas to Sipsey Wilderness, Alabama. My daughters love music and we have found that there is way more classical music happening in Memphis than we can keep up with.

Professor Murray′s Curriculum Vitae


B.A., Oberlin College
M.S., University of Cincinnati
M.A., Ph.D., The Ohio State University


ECON 100 - Introduction to Economics
ECON 201 - Intermediate Microeconomic Theory
ECON 323 - Classical and Marxian Political Economy
ECON 339 - Economic History
ECON 486 - Senior Seminar in Economics
HUM 201 - Search
PLEC 486 - Senior Seminar in Political Economy

Selected Publications

Co-edited with Ruth Wallis Herndon. Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

(with Javier Silvestre) Small scale technologies in European coal production, 1850-1900. Economic History Review (forthcoming).

History of health insurance in developed countries. In Tony Culyer, editor, Encyclopedia of Health Economics. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2014, Volume 1, pp. 365-372.

(with Werner Troesken) African-American labor supply after Reconstruction: Added worker effects in urban families. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44 (2013): 181-208.

Apprenticed labor.  In Melvyn Dubofsky, editor, Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor and Economic History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, Volume 1, pp. 61-62.

Child labor and social class in the American South. In Peggy G. Hargis, Larry J. Griffin, volume editors, and James G. Thomas, Jr., general editor, New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 20: Social Class. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012, pp. 332-333.

Asymmetric information and countermeasures in early 20th century American short-term disability microinsurance. Journal of Risk and Insurance 78 (2011): 117-138.