The Washington Post

Murray Weidenbaum, economics professor and adviser to President Reagan, dies at 87

Murray Weidenbaum testifying on Capitol Hill on Sept. 21, 1981. (The Washington Post)

Murray Weidenbaum, an economics professor who counseled U.S. presidents, notably as the first chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, died March 20 at a hospital in St. Louis. He was 87.

His death was announced by Washington University in St. Louis, where he worked for decades and continued to teach until a few weeks ago. The school did not cite the cause of death.

A former government economist with defense industry experience, Mr. Weidenbaum served as assistant secretary of the Treasury for Economic Affairs under President Richard M. Nixon. Generally a foe of government regulation, he was tapped by Reagan in 1981 to head the three-man Council of Economic Advisers and helped shape the president’s economic agenda during a turbulent fiscal moment.

He told the New York Times that he viewed his assignment as “that of a balancer, struggling to achieve a ‘grand reconciliation’ between the traditional conservatives who would delay big tax cuts until inflation is brought down and the more radical supply-siders who would cut taxes deeply and promptly to cure both inflation and stagnation.”

The economy headed into a recession by the end of Reagan’s first year in office, which led Mr. Weidenbaum to recommend an increase in tax collections. This triggered a confrontation with Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, a principal advocate for supply-side economics, a belief that a reduction in tax rates prompts more people to work and creates a big increase in production.

Further disagreements with other powerful members of the administration, particularly over increased military spending that would enlarge the deficit, prompted Mr. Weidenbaum to resign in August 1982.

Murray Lew Weidenbaum was born in the Bronx on Feb. 10, 1927. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father worked as a taxicab driver.

The younger Weidenbaum graduated in 1948 with an economics degree from the City College of New York, where he also was president of the student council. He may not have been the only Republican on the notoriously left-wing campus, he liked to joke, but “I still haven’t found the other one.”

He received a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University in 1949 and spent much of the 1950s as an economist with the Bureau of the Budget in Washington.

He was awarded a master’s degree in public administration from Princeton University in 1958, then became chief economist with the airplane manufacturer Boeing in Seattle before joining the Washington University faculty in the mid-1960s. He served a stint as economics department chairman and became a government adviser with a speciality in economics and the defense industry.

In 1969, he was named assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic affairs and championed revenue-sharing to provide a more efficient way for states and localities to spend federal money. It would also make state and local officials more accountable to the electorate, he said.

“If the citizenry doesn’t like the way they are spending that money, they have direct recourse,” he told an interviewer. “It is their decision the next time they vote.”

The revenue-sharing program was disbanded by the Reagan administration, a casualty of budget cuts. After his two years at Treasury, Mr. Weidenbaum returned to Washington University and helped start the Center for the Study of American Business, now named the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy.

Mr. Weidenbaum, who continued serving on government commissions, was the author of economic texts and served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Economic Issues and other publications. He also wrote a memoir, “Advising Reagan: Making Economic Policy, 1981-82.”

In 1954, he married Phyllis Green. Along with his wife, survivors include three children; a sister; and six grandchildren.

— From staff and wire reports


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