Herbert Stein, 83, a noted Washington economist who was a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, died Sept. 8 at Washington Hospital Center. He had a heart ailment.
Dr. Stein was appointed to the Council of Economic Advisers by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969, and he served on the council until 1974. He spent his last two years on the council as its chairman.
Although recommended to Nixon for a high economics post by Milton Friedman, the legendary University of Chicago conservative economist, Dr. Stein was not doctrinaire about his work. During a long career as an economist in the federal government and Washington think tanks, he was a consummate pragmatist.
He has been half-jokingly called "a liberal's conservative and a conservative's liberal," shunning convenient labels. A longtime champion of market economics, he came to support wage and price controls for a time during the Nixon administration. He found more than a little fault with the economics of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Dr. Stein not only practiced the dismal science in the corridors of power but also wrote on economics with a firm grasp and an engaging wit. His work appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He also had taught economics at the University of Virginia in the 1970s.
In addition to his writings on economics, he wrote philosophical essays and a thriller with his son, writer-actor-lawyer Ben Stein.
Perhaps his greatest tool in influencing the public and public policy was his ability to write about his subject with a candor and wit that made his work memorable.
He once remarked that the Internal Revenue Service "believes that a conference including a lecture by an economist cannot be for the purpose of pleasure and therefore must be a deductible expense."
Dr. Stein also was known for his "law," "Economists do not know very much," and for his corollary to that law, "Other people, including the politicians who make economic policy, know even less about economics than economists do."
He also wrote in an American Enterprise magazine article about the art of giving economic advice to presidents. The article included the revelation that most advice given by professional economists is information found in freshman college economics courses. He meant simply that such advice, to be useful, must be practical and usable to those at the top and that cutting-edge, arcane economics was simply of little practical benefit to anyone at the top.
Dr. Stein also lampooned his own tendency to emphasize nuances when politicians wanted black-and-white answers. He would mournfully recall that President Harry S. Truman used to claim he wanted a one-armed economist who thus could not say ". . . on the other hand."
Dr. Stein did gain the trust, admiration and even the affection of his president. In his memoirs, "RN," Nixon mentioned his 1974 farewell to his staff upon leaving the presidency. He wrote: "To this day I can remember seeing Herb Stein, a man I had always respected for his cool and analytical intellectual ability and his dry sense of humor, with tears streaming down his face."
Nixon later wrote that he found Dr. Stein's advice "uncannily right. But what impressed me more is that, right or wrong, he always bit the bullet and took a stand."
Once, when Nixon and his advisers were contemplating a second freeze on wages and prices, one Cabinet member, who felt the first freeze might have worked but obviously did not want to try it again, quipped to Nixon that he could not walk on water twice.
Dr. Stein is said to have piped up, "You can if it's frozen."
Herbert Stein was born in Detroit on Aug. 27, 1916. His father, David, had come to the United States from Russian-controlled Poland. During the Great Depression, the family went to New York and made a patchy living in dry goods.
Shortly before his 16th birthday, he entered Williams College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics. He went on to receive his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.
He came to Washington in 1938 to take a job as a junior economist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In 1940, he joined the National Defense Advisory Commission, where he worked on price-stabilization projects. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he became head of the economic analysis section of the War Production Board.
He also worked for the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion and saw duty as a Navy officer in 1944 and 1945. About that time, he won a nationwide contest sponsored by Pabst Brewing Co. for an essay on the problems and solutions of postwar employment. The level of the competition can be judged by the fact that the prize was $25,000.
After the war, he joined the Committee for Economic Development, a private economic think tank, where he worked until 1967. He rose in that organization from staff economist to vice president and chief economist.
In addition to extensive writing for the CED, he took time to work in the successful 1952 presidential campaign of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. He spent a year at the Stanford University Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences and became a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, before being tapped by Nixon for the Council of Economic Advisers.
His years with the CEA were heady, turbulent and memorable. He was a point man for an administration that was trying to reduce inflation by slowing the economy and tightening the money supply--while hoping to hold down unemployment and taxes. He also headed a government group attempting to forecast effects on the economy of the end of the Vietnam War and was involved in actions that led to the suspension of dollar convertibility to gold.
One of Dr. Stein's revelations of those days concerned a Nixon economic summit at Camp David at which key economic decisions were reached. It seems the final problem to surmount was Nixon's fear of preempting the popular television show "Bonanza" to address the nation.
Dr. Stein's wife of 60 years, the former Mildred Sylvia Fishman, died in 1997.
In addition to his son, Ben, of Los Angeles, survivors include a daughter, Rachel Epstein of New York; and three grandchildren.
CAPTION: Herbert Stein was known as a pragmatic conservative.