Martin Feldstein, a Chief Economist Under Reagan, Dies at 79

Martin S. Feldstein, a conservative Harvard economist and a former chief economic adviser in the Reagan administration who was unafraid to publicly disagree with fellow White House officials, died on Tuesday. He was 79.

His death was announced in an email 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, Professor Stein said.

Professor Feldstein, who lived outside Boston in Belmont, Mass., had had a long career teaching at Harvard, where he nurtured many of today’s top policymakers.

He later counseled the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and for three decades, from 1977 to 2008, was president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a once-sleepy think tank that under his leadership became a gathering point for economists, particularly those focused on policy-oriented work.

Professor 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 H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary who once worked as a research assistant for Professor Feldstein, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. He credited Professor Feldstein, his former dissertation adviser, with “bringing serious empirical analysis, particularly with respect to incentives, to the whole field of public sector economics.”

Professor Feldstein entered the national spotlight in 1982, when he was appointed chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, just as the country was heading into a deep recession. (He replaced Murray L. Weidenbaum, who had returned home to St. Louis, where he taught at Washington University.)

Professor Feldstein helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the “supply-side” economic theory that underpinned much of Reagan’s economic policy, which came to be 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 Professor Feldstein was “not a polemicist,” Mr. 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 like 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 and other publications.

Professor Feldstein clashed at times with members of the White House staff and Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan in particular. He publicly questioned their reluctance to raise taxes to reduce the federal budget deficit and raised doubts about the strength of the recovery in the wake of the recessions of the early 1980s. He argued that economic growth alone would not erase the deficit.

At one point in early 1984, Mr. Regan pointedly distanced himself from Professor Feldstein’s annual Economic Report of the President, telling a congressional hearing that lawmakers could “throw away” the 343-page document. Mr. Regan described one of its conclusions, that the dollar was overvalued, as the product of “confused thinking.”

Mr. Feldstein maintained that the federal budget deficit was more serious than Mr. Regan and other administration economists had acknowledged, finding them too cautious about jeopardizing Reagan’s three-year tax-cut program.

“I know he butted heads with Donald Regan, though Ronald was always on his side,” N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, who was a staff economist under Professor Feldstein at the time, said in an interview. “Marty was a deeply principled man who believed in calling it like he saw it, and that was true when he was the president’s chief economist, as a scholar and as an op-ed writer for many, many years.”

Some saw Professor Feldstein as an awkward fit in the White House, where he was occasionally referred to as Dr. Gloom.

“In temperament, timing and strategy, Marty Feldstein — as he’s widely known — is proving to be the odd man out in the economic policy ranks of the Reagan administration,” the economics reporter Peter T. Kilborn wrote in The Times in 1983, adding, “He has shown little clout even in areas, like Social Security policy, where his academic credentials were strongest and his timing superb.”

Lawrence A. Kudlow, who had been economic policy director in Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget and is now an economic adviser to President Trump, was quoted as saying of Professor Feldstein, “He has failed at making the transition from academic economist to political economist.”

But on his return to Harvard in 1984, in accordance with its strict two-year limit on leaves, he won praise from The Times in an editorial.

“Of his dozen predecessors, some may have been brighter, or better at Washington politics,” the editorial said, “but none were more willing to stand up and speak out. He’s served the country well.”

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. The family later moved to Rockville Centre on Long Island, where Mr. Feldstein attended South Side High School and won a scholarship to Harvard.

He graduated from Harvard in 1961 and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Oxford University, where he received attention for his papers on the British public health service. While in England he met his future wife, Kathleen Foley, who is also an economist.

Professor 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 like 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.

He maintained his ties to Washington after his service in the Reagan White House. In 2006 he was appointed to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Mr. Bush, and in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis of the year before, he was named to the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board by Mr. Obama.

He was also a director on corporate boards, including those of JPMorgan and Eli Lilly, and was on the board of the American International Group, better known as A.I.G., during the financial crisis, when the company received an $85 billion bailout from the federal government to rescue it from bad bets made on the American housing market. A congressional inquiry later concluded that those bets — and A.I.G.’s failure to hedge them appropriately — had been “a profound failure of corporate governance.”

In addition to his wife, Professor Feldstein is survived by their daughters, Margaret Feldstein Borden and Janet Feldstein McKillop; a sister, Helen Feldstein; and four grandchildren.

Professor 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. Professor Poterba, who was an undergraduate when he met Professor 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 Professor 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,” said Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Professor Elmendorf said the luckiest break of his career was when Professor Feldstein hired him to be a research assistant in graduate school.

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

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