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Martin S. Feldstein, Harvard professor and economic adviser to presidents, dies at 79

Dr. Feldstein had spent much of the last half century teaching and conducting research at Harvard University.
Dr. Feldstein had spent much of the last half century teaching and conducting research at Harvard University.(Suzanne KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/1999)

While Ronald Reagan was campaigning for president in 1980, Martin S. Feldstein was teaching at Harvard University, a top rising star in economics though he hadn’t yet held an influential position in government. Would he head to the White House if Reagan were elected, a reporter asked. “I haven’t really thought about that,” he told the Globe that June. “I’d have to consider it.”

Summoned to Washington, D.C., after the election, Dr. Feldstein said yes, and became a chief economic adviser in the Reagan administration — building a reputation as someone who was unafraid to publicly disagree with other White House officials.

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Dr. Feldstein, who lived in Belmont, died Tuesday at the age of 79. His death was announced in an e-mail sent to colleagues by Jeremy C. Stein, the chairman of Harvard’s economics department. It did not say where he died. He had been treated for cancer for some time, Stein said.

During his long career at Harvard, Dr. Feldstein nurtured many of today’s top policy makers. He later counseled the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and for three decades — from 1977 to 2008 — he was president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a once-sleepy think tank based in Cambridge that under his leadership became a gathering point for economists, particularly those focused on policy-oriented work.

Dr. Feldstein rose to prominence early in his career as he sought to take serious economic research out of the classroom and apply it to public policy.

“He was a dominating scholar and teacher of public sector economics of the last half century,” Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury secretary and former Harvard president, told The New York Times Tuesday.

Summers once worked as a research assistant for Dr. Feldstein, who was his dissertation adviser. He credited Dr. Feldstein with “bringing serious empirical analysis, particularly with respect to incentives, to the whole field of public sector economics.”

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Dr. Feldstein entered the national spotlight in 1982, when he was appointed chairman of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, just as the country was heading into a deep recession. Dr. Feldstein replaced Murray L. Weidenbaum.

Dr. Feldstein helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the “supply-side” economic theory that underpinned much of Reagan’s economic policy, and which was known as Reaganomics. It held that the nation could be restored to economic health through the stimulus of tax cuts — the heart of supply-side theory — and by restricting the money supply to contain inflation. Critics called that combination contradictory.

But Dr. Feldstein was “not a polemicist,” Summers said, and viewed himself as a scholar, not a political actor.

He was also a prolific writer, the author or editor of several books, on topics such as taxes and capital formation, the Social Security system, and the economics of art museums, as well as hundreds of academic papers. He frequently contributed opinion pieces to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Globe, and other publications.

He assembled a staff that included Summers and Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics and is now a columnist for the Times.

At first, Dr. Feldstein’s support of tax cuts and deficit reduction matched the White House’s goals, but campaign rhetoric soon collided with everyday reality. When the Reagan administration called for the dual aims of cutting taxes and increasing military spending, Dr. Feldstein looked at the numbers and they simply didn’t add up.

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‘‘It will not be possible for us to grow our way out of these deficits’’ without raising taxes, Dr. Feldstein said in 1983.

His economic analysis may have been right, but his politics were wrong.

Reagan largely ignored the advice and turned instead to Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Secretary of State George Shultz, an economist by training. Administration insiders privately called the Harvard economist ‘‘Dr. Gloom.’’

White House spokesman Larry Speakes shot down Dr. Feldstein’s call for a tax hike, saying, ‘‘Feldstein’s wrong; the president’s right.’’

Speakes all but called for Dr. Feldstein to step down immediately, deliberately mispronouncing his name, in his Mississippi drawl, as ‘‘Feld-steen.’’ (The proper pronunciation is ‘‘Feld-stine.")

When Dr. Feldstein submitted a report to Congress in February 1984, Regan undercut him, telling a Senate panel, ‘‘As far as I'm concerned, you can throw it away.’’

Dr. Feldstein refused to step down and even made light of Regan’s comment, saying, ‘‘I suppose that was just a throwaway line.’’

He returned to Harvard later in the year, earning the admiration of members of Congress from both parties.

‘‘It may very well be that you leave Washington with an economy in ruins,’’ said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, ‘‘but you leave with a reputation intact.’’

Upon his return to Harvard, a Globe editorial said his tenure as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers was “notable for candor.”

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“Reagan would do well to look for a replacement as straightforward as Feldstein,” the editorial said, adding that he was “leaving with his honor very much intact. Whatever one thinks about his conservative views, he has earned access to the ears of the rest of the world, access he seemed not to have had in the White House.”

Martin Stuart Feldstein was born on Nov. 25, 1939, in the Bronx to Meyer and Esther (Gevarter) Feldstein. His father, who was known as Mac, was a lawyer. Martin Feldstein won a scholarship to Harvard, from where he graduated in 1961.

He had considered becoming a physician before becoming fascinated by economics while attending graduate school in England in the 1960s. His analysis of the efficiency of the British health-care system helped influence national policy and helped define his future.

‘‘I figured if a 25-year-old graduate student could do something,’’ he later told the Globe, ‘‘then economics was a pretty good activity to be in.’’

He went on to earn a doctorate from Oxford University. While in England he met his future wife, Kathleen Foley, who is also an economist and with whom he would cowrite columns — including dozens for the Globe’s business section in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Dr. Feldstein returned to the United States before the end of the decade to be an assistant professor of economics at Harvard, where he studied the legacies of programs such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. He said he found that such programs, while created by Democrats with good intentions, had ended up worsening economic conditions.

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In addition to his wife, Feldstein leaves their daughters, Margaret Feldstein Borden and Janet Feldstein McKillop; a sister, Helen Feldstein; and four grandchildren. Funeral services will be held 2 p.m. Thursday at Levine Chapels in Brookline. Burial will be private.

Dr. Feldstein was an “extraordinary research economist” from an early age, winning the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal for economists under the age of 40, said James Poterba, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Poterba, who was an undergraduate when he met Dr. Feldstein, succeeded him as the president of the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2008. “He was a terrific and inspirational teacher,” he added, “clear, exciting — got you feeling like economics could really make a difference in the world.”

Many of Dr. Feldstein’s students, of various political persuasions, went on to prominence in their own right, among them Raj Chetty, the Harvard economist known for his work on inequality and social mobility, and Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist known for his work on global poverty.

“If you look at the economists who have played important roles in economic policy in this country over the past four decades, an incredible number of them were students of Marty’s or students of students of Marty’s,” Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, told the Times.

“Marty taught people how to think about economic policy in a rigorous way with a real commitment to making policy better, in order to make the world better,” Elmendorf said.

Indeed, Dr. Feldstein conceded that he had little time to devote to anything other than economics. Nearly all his friends were economists.

“It’s one thing to have other interests, and another thing to have time for them,” he told the Globe in 2005. “I keep accumulating books, and saying, ‘Maybe next year.’ ”


Material from The New York Times, Washington Post, and Globe was used in this report.