[Paleopsych] NYT: Robert Heilbroner, Writer and Economist, Dies at 85
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Robert Heilbroner, Writer and Economist, Dies at 85
NYT January 12, 2005
By HOLCOMB B. NOBLE
[He was hardly a conservative, seeing as how he endorsed bigger government
at almost every turn.]
Robert L. Heilbroner, an economist and writer of lively and
provocative books that inspired generations of students
with the drama of how the world earns, or fails to earn,
its living - books that made him one of his profession's
all-time best-selling authors - died on Jan. 4 in
Manhattan. He was 85.
His death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was announced
Monday by the New School University, where he was professor
emeritus on the graduate faculty of political and social
science. The cause was a brain stem stroke after a
three-year bout with Lewy body disease, a brain disease
similar to Alzheimer's, his son David said.
Dr. Heilbroner's first book, "The Worldly Philosophers: The
Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers,"
written before he received his doctorate, is one of the
most widely read economics books of all time. He was also a
prominent lecturer as well as the author of 19 other books,
which sold more than 10 million copies and, in many cases,
became standard college textbooks.
A witty writer, he called himself a "radical conservative,"
an oxymoron suggesting that, like Don Quixote, he wanted to
rush rapidly forward, break the mold - and end up right
where he was. But in that he was only half joking. He did
indeed want to conserve the basic separation of the
national economy from the national government, as suggested
by Adam Smith in the 18th century. But he believed, too,
that when the economy was hit with severe recessions or
high unemployment or yawning income gaps, for example,
government had to intervene with public spending that
stimulated economic activity and generated jobs and the
construction of public works that contributed to higher
Although popular with students and the general reader, he
was regarded by mainstream economists as a popularizer and
historian whose insights made no great contribution to the
study of the field. He, in turn, saw their reliance on
mathematics and computer modeling as narrow in vision and
as losing sight of the very purpose of economics - to help
improve the well-being of people at work and of the society
they work in.
"The worldly philosophers," Dr. Heilbroner said in a 1999
interview, "thought their task was to model all the
complexities of an economic system - the political, the
sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical.
And modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex
a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying
to be scientific leave out too much and leave modern
economists without a true understanding of how the system
Dr. Heilbroner himself was the first to admit that he was
not an economists' economist. He preferred writing to
plotting the sale of widgets and calculating the effects of
a heat wave on corn futures. And he was interested more in
the history of economics and in what he considered its true
dynamics than in working within the field itself. He liked
to say that his chief accomplishment was in conning
millions of students into thinking that the field was both
interesting and in tune with their social ideas.
"The Worldly Philosophers," published in 1953 (Simon &
Schuster) and still in print, is widely regarded as one of
the best texts for infusing clarity and excitement into the
history of economic thought.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who, like Dr.
Heilbroner, was often shunned as an outsider by mainstream
economists, called the book a "brilliant achievement
handled nearly to perfection." It went into its 10th
edition in 1998 - 35 years after it was first published
while Mr. Heilbroner was pursuing a doctorate at the New
School for Social Research in Manhattan.
Mainstream economists, while critical of the way Professors
Heilbroner and Galbraith practiced economics, nevertheless
acknowledged the importance of several of their
observations. Milton Friedman, the godfather of American
conservative economists, who shared both assessments, said
Professor Heilbroner was right on point, for example, with
his attack in "The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic
Thought" (Cambridge University Press, 1996; written with
William Milberg). By the end of the 20th century, the
authors argued, economists had lost their concern for the
social or political implications of their work, seeing
themselves solely as sophisticated mathematical or
"He was correct," Mr. Friedman said. "There was an
increasing tendency to move economics in highly specialized
directions without any real view of its broader aspects."
Robert Lewis Heilbroner was born on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan on March 24, 1919, the third child and only son
of Louis and Helen Heiler Heilbroner. His father was raised
in a poor family in North Carolina but later prospered with
a chain of men's clothing stores he founded in New York. He
died when Robert was 5. The family business was sold, and
he and his sisters were sent to private schools.
The family chauffeur served as a surrogate father for 10
years, Dr. Heilbroner later said, playing a major role in
shaping his thinking. As a student at Harvard, Dr.
Heilbroner planned to major in writing but took a course in
economics and, he said, "I took to it like a duck to
water." After Harvard, he went to work in New York at the
retail chain founded by his father and found that he hated
the job. It took him 23 years after leaving Harvard to earn
his doctorate in economics, however.
Moving to Washington at the start of World War II, he
worked with the Federal Office of Price Administration
until he was drafted, assigned to Army intelligence and
sent to the University of Michigan to learn Japanese. Over
the course of the war, he interviewed some 2,000 enemy
prisoners in the Pacific, gaining valuable information from
voluble captives. The war taught him that he had a facility
with language and words, and, after a brief term with a
Wall Street commodities firm, he began writing freelance
magazine articles on economics. He sold several to Harpers
magazine, and caught the attention of editors at Simon &
Schuster, who suggested that he write a book. He took their
advice, quit business forever and from then on rarely
In 1952, he married Joan Knapp, an author of children's
books, and they had two children, Peter and David. His sons
survive him, as does Ms. Knapp, from whom he was divorced
in 1975, the year he married Shirley Eleanor Davis, who
also survives him.
Mr. Heilbroner completed his doctoral course requirements
by 1952 and finished "The Worldly Philosophers" the next
year. The book was an account that laymen could easily read
about the lives and theories of the economic superstars of
the past, among them Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, David
Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall,
Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph
Schumpeter. It was an immediate hit, and eventually sold
millions of copies.
But his Ph.D. took him 10 more years. He started and
abandoned three dissertations. After "The Worldly
Philosophers" was published his faculty advisers scolded
him, saying the book would have filled the bill
beautifully. So he submitted his next manuscript, "The
Making of Economic Society," and was promptly awarded his
doctorate. Later books included "The Limits of American
Capitalism" (1966); "Between Capitalism and Socialism"
(1970); "Marxism: For and Against" (1980), with Lester
Thurow; "The Nature and Logic of Capitalism" (1985); and
"Behind the Veil of Economics (1988).
In "21st Century Capitalism," (W. W. Norton & Co., 1993),
Dr. Heilbroner explained his radical conservatism with a
bow to Adam Smith. Dr. Heilbroner agreed with Smith that
the separation of the economy and the state was central to
capitalism and a nation's economic health, and essential
for political liberty. But he believed that from time to
time the people's government had to wade in with major
He said in an interview in 1998 that "feelings of dismay"
penetrate the contemporary mind over unstable or depressed
world economies and the widening income gap. He also noted
capitalism's shortcomings in dealing with "externalities" -
for example, "the higher laundry bills and health costs of
people living in Pittsburgh before the pollution of the
steel mills was brought under control." "Negative
externalities," particularly the pollution of land, water
and air by private enterprises intent on holding down costs
cried out for government intervention, he said, whether in
the form of taxes, subsidies, legislation or regulation.
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