The Economist Who Helped Me Find My Calling


Martin S. Feldstein was a great economist who changed the world through research, teaching, public service, hundreds of op-eds in these pages over 40 years, and leadership of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Marty, who died Tuesday, June 11, at 79, didn’t lack for recognition. He earned the American Economic Association’s John Bates Clark medal and then its presidency, chairmanship of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, numerous honorary degrees, and memberships in prestigious scholarly and policy groups.

It was all well-deserved and has been well-chronicled in his obituaries. For me, though, Marty’s death isn’t merely the loss of an economics superstar; it is the loss of a mentor and friend who, through his teaching, generosity of spirit and example, made possible everything I have been able to achieve professionally. Countless others can say the same about him, in their own ways.

I met Marty in the summer of 1973 when he decided to take a chance on hiring a disheveled college sophomore as his research assistant. Marty was infinitely patient with my many questions about his research and remarkably tolerant of my inability to keep straight his data on international social-security comparisons.

Working for him, I saw what I had not seen in the classroom: that rigorous and close statistical analysis of data can provide better answers to economic questions, and possibly better lives for millions of people. A doctor can treat a patient. An economist, through research or policy advice, can improve life for a population.

Marty was appointed president of the NBER in 1977—a position he held for more than 30 years. The NBER became my professional home and occasionally my literal home as I slept near its computer terminals. In Marty’s work and what he created at the NBER, I can recognize many things that seem commonplace today but were new at the time. A network of hundreds of economists collaborating, debating and sharing data made far more progress than even geniuses working alone. More important, Marty’s research showed how data about individuals from the census, tax records or hospitals—information then rarely used by economists—could provide sharp answers to questions about policy.

At the time Marty was publishing more papers in top scholarly journals every year than most economists produce in a lifetime. I read them avidly and saw new frontiers open up for my generation of economists to study. Before Marty, public-finance economists had focused on who paid tax checks and who received government benefits, and on mathematically elegant abstract models of taxation. Marty persistently argued that it was also crucial to consider the incentive effects of tax and benefit programs. In the process he set the agenda for decades of research and contemporary debates on dynamic scoring and tax and social-insurance reform.

During his career Marty taught introductory economics to more than 10,000 undergraduates. The best economics course I ever took was taught by Marty. I learned from him what good and generous teaching is all about. I was one of dozens of graduate students whom he allowed to be listed as co-authors on studies of his design. On hundreds of occasions over the years, I was privileged to be a guest at the Feldstein home, where Marty and his wife, Kate, entertained students and junior colleagues.

Marty was a magnet for talent. I had the privilege of serving on his staff when he chaired the CEA. Marty didn’t care that I was a Democrat or that Paul Krugman was as well. That staff also included Greg Mankiw and Larry Lindsey, who went on to senior positions in Republican administrations. Marty cared about people’s economic analysis, not their political affiliation. That is why he mentored stars like Jeffrey Sachs and Raj Chetty, who disagreed with him on many questions, and why I so enjoyed working with him as he made valuable contributions to President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

I learned an important lesson about integrity in government from Marty’s service at the CEA. He was a powerful advocate for the Reagan administration’s agenda of lowering marginal tax rates and cutting government spending. But he wasn’t a deficit apologist and introduced into the public discourse ideas like “twin” budget and trade deficits and the adverse effects of anticipated future deficits.

For Marty, economics was a calling, never an intellectual game or a political tool. He represented the best in our profession and brought out the best in all those whose lives he touched. It has been the privilege of my professional life to follow in Marty Feldstein’s wake. Rest in peace, my mentor.

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