New York Times
February 7, 1999

Wassily Leontief, Economist Who Won a Nobel, Dies at 93


Wassily Leontief, who won the Nobel prize in economics in 1973 for his analyses of America's production machinery, showing how changes in one sector of the economy can exact changes all along the line, affecting everything from the price of oil to the price of peanut butter, died Friday night (February 5) at the New York University Medical Center. He was 93.

His analytic methods, as the Nobel committee observed, were adopted and became a permanent part of production planning and forecasting in scores of industrialized nations and in private corporations all over the world.

Following the model of his so-called input-output analysis, General Electric, for example, was able to load data from 184 sectors of the economy -- such as energy, home construction and transportation -- into a mammoth computer to help it predict how the energy crisis brought on by the Arab oil boycott in 1973 would affect public demand for its products and services, from light bulbs to turbines.

A well-known academic figure, Leontief was the director of the Institute for Economic Analysis of New York University from 1975 until 1991; even after his retirement he still taught at the university into his 90's. Before coming to N.Y.U. he taught economics at Harvard for 44 years and directed large research projects there as well.

Leontief was a thinker who often complained that too many of his academic colleagues spent too much time staring out their office windows instead of being out in the field, as any good economist ought to be, counting things. "Facts," he said. "You have to have facts. Theories aren't good unless you have facts to back them."

When asked how he developed the input-output analysis recognized by his Nobel memorial prize, he would invariably begin, "Oh, it's really very simple -- what I wanted to do was collect facts." The facts he sought were those that explained how segments of production were interconnected.

He showed that if you carefully studied changes in the cost and components of one type of product, you could determine the resulting changes in cost and components of others along the production chain.

Suppose you have a sudden rise the price of oil or steel? Leontief taught government officials and corporate executives to track how this influenced the costs of production in other segments of a local or national economy, both within an industry or more broadly across many industries and many nations.

Wassily Leontief was born Aug. 5, 1905, in St. Petersburg, the son of Wassily W. Leontief, an economist, and the former Eugenia Bekker. A brilliant student, he was allowed to enroll when he was only 15 at the newly renamed University of Leningrad. But he got in trouble by expressing vehement opposition to the lack of intellectual and personal freedom under the country's Communist regime, which had taken power three years earlier. He was arrested as he was nailing up anti-Communist posters on the wall of a military barracks and placed in solitary confinement. Released after several days, he promptly resumed his anti-Communist activities and was arrested several more times.

Finally, in 1925, he was allowed to leave the country, a turn of fate he attributed to a growth on his neck. He said the authorities believed that the growth was cancerous and that he would die and be of no use to the state. He left Russia to resume his studies in economics at the University of Berlin, and his parents soon followed. The growth was benign and he completed his doctorate in 1929. He spent a year as an economist advising the Government of China, particularly on the planning of a new railroad network.

Then he came to the United States and worked briefly in New York at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where his published work quickly attracted attention, and Harvard invited him to join its economics faculty. He agreed, provided the university help him develop his ideas about production. Harvard gave him a research assistant and a $2,000 grant to develop the system of input-output analysis that the world was to adopt. He and his assistant began constructing a table covering 42 American industries, taking months to compile figures and perform calculations that computers would latter handle in fractions of seconds.

During the war, he helped the United States Government with planning for industrial production, worked as a consultant to the Office of Strategic Services and supervised compilation of a 92-economic-sector table for the Department of Labor. In 1948, Leontief set up the Harvard Research Project on the Structure of the American Economy with the aid of large grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Air Force to expand and refine his input-output models. Soon he had a staff of 20 -- and a 650-punch-card computer from I.B.M., then the state-of-the art.

He did not, however, keep the Air Force grant long once the Eisenhower Administration came to power; some of its officials were critical of his input-output theory as smacking too much of a planned economy. That was precisely what he thought it should smack of.

One of his goals in studying the nature of changes in industrial production was to enable nations to plan in ways that would be economically beneficial and help them avoid periods of economic hardship. But to some economists the idea of national economic planning was ill advised: not only would it not work, they said, but it might make matters worse and also might open the door to excessive Government control. They maintained it would be better to let the private sector and the free market determine the course of future economic events.

To Leontief, it seemed short-sighted for nations to devote little or no thought to the analysis of the future of the overall economy, especially after what he regarded as the effective work of modern economists in devising projections that are mathematically and statistically sound. He spoke out often on the subject in the 1970's and 80's.

He and Leonard Woodcock, then president of the United Auto Workers, proposed that the Federal Government establish an Office of National Economic Planning to help coordinate economic projects and make recommendations on policies they said could avert unnecessary unemployment, inflation, failures in health care, shortages in affordable housing, energy, public transportation and other requirements of a civilized society.

The idea never materialized.

If anything, the generation of younger economists who followed him, many of whom he taught, developed less respect for the abilities of national Governments to plan for the long term. It bothered him greatly that toward the end of the century many Americans seemed to have lost broad faith in their Government's ability to improve the lot of its citizens, particularly through economic programs.

In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 1992, he said there was little doubt that the United States Government had played an important role in a generally prosperous economy for more than half the century, from ending the Great Depression in the 30's to guiding the nation through most of the rest of the century in generally sounder economic health than most of the rest of the world.

Leontief was always fearful that employment problems would accompany widespread use of the high-speed computers that he himself relied on almost from the moment they first became applicable for nonmilitary purposes after World War II. He warned that computers would be for many workers what the tractor was to the horse -- great for the farmer but not great for the horse.

In an interview in 1996, when he was 90, Leontief, noting the trend toward corporate downsizing, said: "Individual entrepreneurs will continue to do better and better and better, but significant segments of the work force will do worse and worse. Ultimately, Governments will have to play a role in arbitrating and correcting this."

Leontief seemed to grow more liberal with age. During the student protests on the Harvard campus in 1969, he split with most senior faculty members and joined with a younger group more sympathetic to the protesting students. In 1975, he resigned from Harvard, where he was the Henry Lee Professor of Economics and chairman of the university's Society of Fellows, its most distinguished group of scholars. He left a year ahead of schedule, complaining that too often teachers at the graduate level did not teach and researchers did not do research.

Shortly before he resigned, he joined an internal report criticizing Harvard's economics department, which had long been regarded as among the world's best. The report said that the department had failed to adequately recruit minority faculty members, that it took an overly narrow approach in scholarship and that a "deterioration in attitudes and relationships" had occurred.

At N.Y.U., he continued to expand his work on input-output analysis and helped foreign nations adopt it. China was among the last to do so, as it intensified its industrialization in the late 1980's.

Wassily Leontief, a balletomane and connoisseur of fine wines, said he also thought of himself as a squire of Willoughby Brook in northern Vermont, where he and his family had a summer home. It was all very well to be an internationally regarded scholar, but landing a beautiful brook trout, he would say with his sly smile, was his passion.

He is survived by his wife, Estelle Helena Marks, a writer, whom he married in 1932, his daughter, Svetlana Alpers, the art historian, author, and professor of fine arts at the University of California at Berkeley, and two grandsons.