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Murray L. Weidenbaum: Washington University Economist, Chief Architect Of 'Reaganomics'

Washington University

Murray Weidenbaum, an influential scholar widely known as the key architect of President Ronald Reagan’s economic theory dubbed “Reaganomics,” has died.

In 1980, Reagan campaigned on a fix for an economy plagued by rising inflation, unemployment and a growing deficit. He appointed Mr. Weidenbaum as his economic adviser.

“Whether justified or not, I take some considerable pride in the success of the Reagan presidency, and, of course, I am ready to take my full share of the blame for any shortcomings,” Mr. Weidenbaum wrote in his memoir, “Advising Reagan: Making Economic Policy, 1981-82,” detailing his time as chair of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The policies are still hotly debated; Mr. Weidenbaum’s crucial role is not.

Mr. Weidenbaum, Washington University’s Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of Economics in Arts & Sciences, died Thursday (March 20, 2014) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 87 and had lived in Clayton.

A memorial service is being planned.

He issued the first written version of Reagan’s economic plan in 1981, outlining the “four pillars” of the program: tax cuts, spending cuts, reduced government regulations and tightening the money supply.

For each tax cut, Mr. Weidenbaum was determined to find a corresponding cut in government spending. That proved easier said than done. A mushrooming military budget that Reagan would not rein in would inevitably, he believed, lead to a burgeoning national budget deficit.

Mr. Weidenbaum found this untenable and quietly tendered his resignation. The two remained friends and Reagan continued to seek Mr. Weidenbaum’s counsel. 

“Murray had very strong beliefs and convictions that he defended with logic, humor and imagination, never with rancor or bitterness,” said William H. Danforth, chairman emeritus of Washington University. “He had what you would hope for in someone working in Washington.”

The peddler’s grandson

Mr. Weidenbaum — the first in his family to complete junior high school, high school or college — served five presidents.

He was a staff member of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget during the Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower administrations. He became the first assistant secretary of the treasury for economic policy under Richard Nixon. After serving as Reagan’s economic adviser, Mr. Weidenbaum spent five years on the President’s Economic Policy Advisory Board. George H.W. Bush dispatched him to Poland, his father’s homeland, on a special mission with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Advisory Committee.

It was a long way from the streets of the New York borough where his grandfather, a peddler who sharpened knives, had the ear not of presidents, but housewives and passers-by. His father had struggled to put food on the table, selling shoes, running a small grocery store and driving a taxi.

Mr. Weidenbaum had worked since graduating from high school at age 16. He joined the Merchant Marine and later served six months Army duty in Arkansas and Georgia as World War II wound down. He might have made lance corporal had he shown more deference to his superior officer, who had a distinctly southern dialect.

“Dad being the smart aleck Yankee that he was, he kept correcting his pronunciation of ‘automobile,’” his son laughed.

Nevertheless, he believed his brief military service to be a godsend. He attended college on the GI Bill. In 1948, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from City College of New York where he “majored in extracurricular activities,” according to his “Vignettes from a Peripatetic Professor,” and campaigned successfully for president of the student body on a platform of “Wine, Women and Weidenbaum.”

He joined the New York State Department of Labor after receiving his master’s degree from Columbia University. He would later earn a doctorate from Princeton University.

 Straddling worlds

Mr. Weidenbaum held several jobs with corporations, including General Dynamics and the Boeing Co., where he was chief economist. Most of his life, however, was spent straddling the worlds of government and academia, moving frequently and seamlessly between the two.

He taught and did research at Stanford University before coming to Washington University in 1964, as an associate professor. In 1966, he became full professor and chair of economics.  He concurrently directed the NASA Economics Research Program, the department’s largest research project.

But teaching was rumored to be his first love.

“I was always surprised that he would hear from students from 30 years ago and he would know who those people were,” said Christine Moseley, Mr. Weidenbaum’s longtime assistant. “He was able to explain things so that anybody could understand.”

In 1975, he founded the Center for the Study of American Business at the university and served as director. Upon his retirement in 2000, the center was renamed the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy.

Mr. Weidenbaum was a fiscal conservative happily ensconced in an environment often called a “bastion of liberalism.” He had grown up in a very liberal environment. 

“As a youngster, I recall attending a Democratic rally in 1944,” he wrote in his vignette. “I had no difficulty in joining the group singing ‘Up with Roosevelt, down with Dewey, we want FDR again.’ However, when a speaker proceeded to denounce the Republican Party as ‘the party of fascism in America,’ I knew something was wrong.”

“Murray demonstrated to the community that people in academia have various political beliefs,” Danforth said.  “He was a faculty member respected by everybody. He was valued as an important national asset.”

Mr. Weidenbaum was the author of 10 books, including “One-Armed Economist: On the Intersection of Business and Government,” published in 2004. The book was lauded by an old colleague, former Federal Reserve chair Paul A. Volcker. He published several hundred articles in publications ranging from the American Economic Review to The Wall Street Journal.

He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and his multitudinous honors included the National Order of Merit from France in recognition of his contributions to foreign policy.

Over the years, his board service included Centerre Bank, Harbour Group, the International Center for Corporate Accountability, Beatrice Foods, Contel of Texas, May Department Stores, the Medicine Shoppe and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Golden Rule

Murray Lew Weidenbaum was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Feb.10, 1927, the elder of David and Rose Weidenbaum’s two children. His father had immigrated from Poland and his mother from Austria.

While attending Princeton, he met and married Phyllis Green, a Democrat.

“Mom was not a quiet Democrat,” his son said. “Being married to a Democrat played a major role in keeping Dad honest.”

One of his best friends was also a Democrat: the late U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton.

“Dad was as close to a Golden Rule-type of guy as you can get,” said his son. “He was very, very grateful for how life played out for him.”

Mr. Weidenbaum was preceded in death by his parents.

In addition to his wife of almost 60 years, his survivors include his son, James (Kathleen) Weidenbaum of Portland, Ore., two daughters, Laurie (Victor) Stark of Olivette and Susan (Richard) Juster-Goldstein of Delray Beach, Fla.; his sister, Marilyn (Stanley) Cohen of Silver Spring, Md., and six grandchildren.

Washington University is planning a memorial service.

Memorials may be made to the St. Louis Zoo, One Government Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63110, or a charity of the donor’s choice.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.