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January 11, 2005

Robert Heilbroner Is Dead

Steve Schurr of the FT writes a very nice obituary:

Robert Heilbroner, author of Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers and among the most influential economic historians of the 20th century, has died in New York. He was 85.... A professor at the New School in New York for five decades and author of more than 20 books, Dr Heilbroner remains best known for his first book, Worldly Philosophers, an engrossing account of the lives and contributions of economists from Adam Smith and Karl Marx to John Maynard Keynes. Written as his doctoral thesis in 1953, Worldly Philosophers has sold nearly 4m copies - the second best-selling economics text of all time (after Paul Samuelson's Economics)-and remains required reading in the economics departments of virtually every American college. The book is also credited with inspiring the careers of generations of economists.

In his later years, Dr Heilbroner became a critic of the modern economics, cautioning that the focus on mathematics and esoteric models to the exclusion of any societal factors diverged from the great strides made by his Worldly Philosophers. This failure of vision, he warned, threatened to render the field irrelevant.... "Bob Heilbroner was a man of very strong and sincere feelings about the world," said Peter Bernstein, economic consultant and author of Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.... Born in 1919 and raised in Manhattan, Dr Heilbroner attended Harvard in the late 1930s, studying under Worldly Philosopher Joseph Schumpeter and other luminaries at a time of great ferment and upheaval in economics caused by the Great Depression as well as the revolutionary theories of John Maynard Keynes. After graduating, Dr Heilbroner worked for a commodities trading firm before leaving to serve as an intelligence officer in the Pacific in the second world war....

"He was clear about how he wanted to describe, not only the lives and ideas of each man, but the crucial linkages between them," Mr Bernstein wrote in a tribute to his friend in the Summer 2004 edition of Social Research. "The result was this extraordinary, and apparently immortal, history of economic thought."...

Economics will not, and should not, become a political torch that lights our way into the future," he wrote in the new coda, "but it can and should become the source of an awareness of ways by which a capitalist structure can broaden its motivations, increase its flexibility and develop its social morale."

He is greatly missed.

Posted by DeLong at January 11, 2005 07:33 PM

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Tracked on January 12, 2005 06:46 AM


Something happened to the format again. Header is very large, too large.

Posted by: dilbert dogbert at January 11, 2005 09:17 PM

We had to read The Worldly Philosophers in my sophmore year of high school, back in 1982. I fell in love with the book and since reading it I've had an interest in the subject of economics. Mr. Darton was my history teacher that year, and again my senior year, when he reassigned the book for AP history. It was very good to come back to that book after two years and reread it. When the school year ended we had to hand the books back in, but I wanted very much to always have a copy of that book, so I went to the mall the next day and bought a copy at the Walden's bookstore. The book is wonderful for bringing out the flavor of each writer, their personal history, the history of their times, and their original thinking. The only economist who I thought was not well represented was Marx, whose labor-theory of value was misrepresented.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at January 11, 2005 11:34 PM

Heilbroner fed my interest in economics all of my educated life to date. His later books which excoriated the stagnant economic theory we currently have, also seemed to me to be largely pessimistic in tone. Economists as we know them suffer, as do most "soft" sciences, from physics envy, and sometimes remind me of Asimov's Foundation series, where people belive all human future outcomes can be calculated. A cautionary tale. Heilbroner sought to pin their feet back to the ground of reality.

Posted by: Carol at January 12, 2005 04:18 AM


Robert Heilbroner, Writer and Economist, Dies at 85

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 living standards.

Posted by: anne at January 12, 2005 09:29 AM

I just purchased, only two days ago, his compendium of excerpts from a dozen-and-a-half of the greatest economists, "Teachings from the Worldy Philosophers" (1996). It is another superb book; and like his first one, it may be around for a very long time. Heilbroner was a light in the darkness who saw that economics is a moral science beyond a mathematical one. Everything he wrote, sparkled.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold at January 12, 2005 05:09 PM

I treasure a hardback copy of "The Worldly Philosophers" 1956 edition which I picked up from a used book store in Sunnyvale in 1994.

He will be missed.

Posted by: Atanu Dey at January 13, 2005 02:00 AM

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