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A True Scholar

Martin Feldstein, 1939–2019

Martin Feldstein at the Reuters Investment Outlook Summit, June 2008 Reuters / Brendan McDermid

Martin Feldstein, one of the world’s great economists, passed away on June 11, at the age of 79. To the general public, he was best known as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the author of hundreds of popular opinion pieces and a frequent commentator on public policy. During his tenure at the CEA in the early 1980s, Feldstein was famously willing to take principled stands when he disagreed with his boss, as when he argued that Reagan-era deficits might come at a cost in terms of lower public and private investment. As a public intellectual, he was a rare moderate voice. During the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, he strongly argued for higher government spending rather than tax cuts to stimulate the economy, even though his own research suggested that cutting taxes would lead to higher long-run growth. Similarly, although he firmly believed in the importance of enforcing contracts, he championed an innovative plan for writing down subprime debt after the crisis.

But Feldstein’s reputation extended well beyond the general public. Within the economics profession, he was a towering figure. Few economists in modern memory can rival his impact on the field. He was one of the most cited economists of his time, and even today, decades after his peak research output, he still ranks 13th in Research Papers in Economics’ list of economists by citation. Feldstein championed a renaissance in empirical, policy-oriented research through his influential work on public finance; through his students, who included Lawrence Summers, Raj Chetty, and Jeffrey Sachs; and, above all, through his three-decades-long leadership of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which he transformed from a sleepy academic institute into the backbone of contemporary empirical economics research. The bureau’s Summer Institute, in particular, has become the place for researchers to learn new ideas before they hit the academic circuit.

Feldstein published perhaps his most famous paper in 1980, setting out the “Feldstein-Horioka puzzle.” Together with his

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