Paul Samuelson dies at 94; 1st American to win Nobel in economics

Paul Samuelson's 1948 book "Economics: An Introductory Analysis," which sought to explain Keynesian theory to beginning economics students, has sold more than 4 million copies in more than 40 languages.
(Bob Child / Associated Press)
Times Staff And Wire Reports
Paul Samuelson, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in economics, the author of a landmark college textbook on the subject and a presidential advisor who helped shape tax policy in the Kennedy administration, has died. He was 94.

Paul Samuelson obituary: The obituary of economist Paul Samuelson in Monday’s Section A said that in 1970, he became the second person to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. He was the third. Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen were co-winners in 1969, the first year the prize was awarded. —

Samuelson died Sunday at his home in Belmont, Mass., announced MIT, where he had taught for several decades. No cause of death was given.

“Paul Samuelson transformed everything he touched: the theoretical foundations of his field, the way economics was taught around the world, the ethos and stature of his department, the investment practices of MIT and the lives of his colleagues and students,” MIT President Susan Hockfield said in a statement.

In 1970, he became only the second person to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The citation said Samuelson “has done more than any other contemporary economist to raise the level of scientific analysis in economic theory.”

“It is nice to have hard work recognized,” he said at the time.

Like many of his generation, Samuelson was a follower of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who proposed that a nation needs an activist government that could foster low unemployment by steering tax and monetary policies, even if it meant deficit spending at times.

Samuelson’s nephew is Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s chief economic advisor.

“In the old-fashioned laissez-faire economy, prosperity was indeed a fragile blossom,” Samuelson wrote in a 1970 New York Times article. “But for a modern ‘mixed economy’ in the post-Keynesian era, fiscal and monetary policies can definitely prevent chronic slumps, can offset automation or under-consumption” and can ensure “that resources find paying work opportunities.”

He was among advisors who led Kennedy to recommend a historic income tax cut that Congress eventually passed in early 1964, after the president was assassinated.

“A temporary reduction in tax rates on individual incomes can be a powerful weapon against recession,” Samuelson had written in a report to Kennedy in early 1961.

The cut was widely credited with helping to foster the 1960s economic boom.

“People had JFK all wrong,” Samuelson, who was Kennedy’s chief economic advisor during the 1960 campaign, told the New York Times in 1993. “They thought of him as a dashing, deciding type. He was an extremely hesitant person who checked the ice in front of him all the time. He said it was vanity to use your political capital on lost causes.”

Samuelson’s work as an educator might have been his most influential role.

“Economics: An Introductory Analysis,” published in 1948, sought to explain Keynesian economics to beginning economics students.

The late economist Robert Heilbroner wrote in The Nation in 1997 that Samuelson’s book “changed our vision of economics from the dismal science to a study of social possibilities.”

“Economics” has sold more than 4 million copies in more than 40 languages.

“I knew it was a good book, but what I didn’t realize would be its lasting power,” Samuelson told the Associated Press in 1998. “I think economics -- and this is what I’ve tried to impart -- has a tremendous amount of human interest in it.”

Paul Anthony Samuelson was born in Gary, Ind., on May 15, 1915. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1935 and received master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard. He joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of economics in 1940 and became a full professor in 1947.

He married Marion Crawford, a fellow economist, in 1938, and credited her with helping in his early research. She died in 1978.

“Perhaps more important than the causal role of casual luck was the salutary fact that economics was just right for me,” Samuelson wrote in a 2003 article, ,” in which he traced his interest to a 1932 classroom lecture at the University of Chicago. “This field was then entering a mathematical phase in both theory and statistics. As a precocious youngster I had always been good at logical manipulations and puzzle-solving IQ tests. So if economics was made for me, it can be said that I too was made for economics.

“Mine has been a grandstand seat from which to observe most of a century of basic economic history. Bliss it was to be in the forefront of the revolutions that have changed economics forever.”

In 1947’s “Foundations of Economic Analysis,” which was also Samuelson’s PhD thesis, he referred to economists as “highly trained athletes who never ran a race.”

Also in 1947, he was awarded the American Economic Assn.'s John Bates Clark Medal for distinguished contributions by an economist under 40.

At MIT, Samuelson was part of an economics department that over the years included fellow Nobel laureates, among them Robert Solow and Franco Modigliani.

Samuelson had “a mar- velous intuition about how a market economy had to be,” Solow said in a statement. “ ‘It must work like this,’ he would say. ‘Now all we have to do is prove it.’ There was no one like him.”

Samuelson wrote a column for Newsweek magazine from 1966 to 1981. Conservative economist Milton Friedman, a fellow Nobel winner, also wrote for Newsweek during that period. He officially retired from MIT in 1985 but continued to work there.

Among his many honors, Samuelson was awarded a National Medal of Science by President Clinton in 1996.

Samuelson is survived by his wife of 28 years, Risha Samuelson; six children from his first marriage: Jane Samuelson Raybould of London; Marnie Crawford Samuelson of Brookline, Mass.; William Samuelson of Belmont, Mass.; Robert Samuelson of Boston; John Samuelson of Sherborn, Mass.; and Paul Samuelson of Newton, Mass; a stepdaughter, Susan Miller, of Lexington, Mass; and 15 grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Services will be private. MIT plans to hold a memorial.