|Inspiration to generations of economists
Published: January 10 2005
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.
Dr Heilbroner, who had suffered for the past three years with Lewy Body
disease, a rare Alzheimer's-like illness, died of a stroke last Wednesday,
according to his son, David.
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. In 1996's The Crisis of Vision in Modern
Economic Thought, co-authored with Will Milberg, he noted that "the high
theorising of the present period [in economics] attains a degree of
unreality that can be matched only by medieval scholasticism".
"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. Mr Bernstein attended Harvard with Dr
Heilbroner and the two remained lifelong friends since boyhood.
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.
After returning to the business world at the war's end, Dr Heilbroner turned
to writing and the study of economics, enrolling at the New School in New
York City under the mentorship of Adolph Lowe. It was during this time that
Worldly Philosophers was born.
"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
Dr Heilbroner's other prominent works include A Primer on Government
Spending, a influential treatise in favour of President John F. Kennedy's
income tax cuts co-authored with Mr Bernstein; and Economics Explained,
written with Lester Thurow.
Dr Heilbroner is survived by first wife, Joan, second wife, Shirley, and his
two sons, Peter and David.
Dr Heilbroner stopped writing three years ago but he remained a prolific,
passionate and controversial voice well into his late 70s. The seventh
edition of Worldly Philosophers, published in 1999, included a new final
chapter entitled "The End of Worldly Philosophy", which included both a grim
view on the current state of economics as well as a hopeful vision for a
"reborn worldly philosophy" that incorporated social aspects of capitalism.
"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