December 14, 2009 in Nation/World

Economist Samuelson dies at 94

Patricia Sullivan Washington Post

(Full-size photo)

Economist Paul Samuelson, 94, who won a Nobel Prize for his effort to bring mathematical analysis into economics, advised presidents since John F. Kennedy on tax policy and wrote a textbook read by millions of college students, died Dec. 13 at his home in Belmont, Mass. No cause of death was reported.

For more than three decades, he was a major figure in national and international economics, synthesizing a century of economic insights, many of them apparently at odds with each other, into a coherent point of view.

He was among a circle of JFK advisers, including John Kenneth Galbraith and Walter Heller, who led Kennedy to recommend the historic income tax cut that Congress eventually passed in early 1964.

“A temporary reduction in tax rates on individual incomes can be a powerful weapon against recession,” Samuelson wrote in a report to Kennedy in early 1961. The cut was widely credited with helping foster the 1960s economic boom. More than a dozen years later, he was asked by President Gerald Ford to an inflation summit conference, where he told the country that America was stricken with a bad case of “stagflation,” a toxic mix of high unemployment and high inflation.

He also shaped professional and popular attitudes toward economics through his regular columns in Newsweek magazine from 1966 to 1981.

But perhaps his most lasting achievement was a 1948 textbook, compiled from his lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Economics,” now in its 19th edition, has sold over 4 million copies in more than 40 languages.

Samuelson in 1970 was the first American, and the second person, to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, created in 1968 by the Central Bank of Sweden.

In 1996, he received the National Medal of Science, America’s top science honor, from President Bill Clinton.

Born in Gary, Ind., on May 15, 1915, Paul Anthony Samuelson graduated from the University of Chicago in 1935 and received a master’s in 1936 and a doctorate in 1941 from Harvard University. He joined the MIT faculty in 1940 after Harvard failed to offer him a job based, at least in part, on his Jewish heritage. He stayed at MIT, building its economics department into a powerhouse, until 1985, when he officially retired.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email