Walter Heller (1915-1987), who was an economic advisor under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, said this in 1979: “An economist is a man who, when he finds something works in practice, wonders if it works in theory.” The joke means that many economists are too theoretical and don’t really know what will work in the real world.
President Ronald Reagan repeated the line in the 1980s, saying that he could make jokes about economists because he had a degree in economics.
Wikipedia: Walter Heller
Walter Wolfgang Heller (1915–1987) was born to German immigrant parents in Buffalo, N.Y.
Heller was a leading American economist of the 1960s, and an influential advisor to President John F. Kennedy as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, 1961-64. He was a Keynesian who promoted cuts in the marginal federal income tax rates. This tax cut, which was passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress after Kennedy’s death, was credited for boosting the U.S. economy. Heller developed the first “voluntary” wage-price guidelines. When the steel industry failed to follow them, it was publicly attacked by Kennedy and quickly complied. Heller was one of the first to emphasize that tax deductions and tax preferences narrowed the income tax base, thus requiring, for a given amount of revenue, higher marginal tax rates. The historic tax cut and its positive effect on the economy has often been cited as motivation for more recent tax cuts by Republicans.
The day after Kennedy was assassinated, Heller met with President Johnson in the Oval Office. To get the country going again, Heller suggested a major initiative he called the “War on Poverty”, which Johnson adopted enthusiastically. Later, when Johnson insisted on escalating the Vietnam War without raising taxes, setting the stage for an inflationary spiral, Heller resigned.
In the early phases of his career, Heller contributed to the creation of the Marshall Plan of 1947, and was instrumental in re-establishing the German currency following World War II, which helped usher an economic boom in West Germany.
Heller was critical of Milton Friedman’s followers and labelled them cultish: “Some of them are Friedmanly, some Friedmanian, some Friedmanesque, some Friedmanic and some Friedmaniacs.”
4 July 1979, Seattle (WA) Daily Times, “Take an economist, any economist...” by Ernest B. Furgurson, pg. 12, col. 5:
Heller has his own definition of his breed: An economist is a man who, when he finds something works in practice, wonders if it works in theory.
29 January 1983, Baltimore (MD) Sun, “Debate & Discussion” by Roy H. Webb, pg. A10:
A current economist joke describes one as a person who, on finding something that works in practice, immediately wonders if it really works in theory.
5 October 1983, New Orleans (LA) Times-Picayune, “The unfriendly skies” by James J. Kilpatrick, sec. 1, pg. 19, col. 4:
WASHINGTON—The story is told of an economist pondering a successful innovation. “It works in practice,” he said to himself. “I wonder if it works in theory.” It is the flip side of that proposition that now troubles the airline industry so sorely.
Google News Archive
8 January 1984, Milwaukee (WI) Journal, Business, pg. 2, col. 3:
The situation “served to verify the definition of an economist—‘A person who finds something working in practice and wonders if it will work in theory,’” he contended.
26 August 1985, New York (NY) Times, “A Fed Camp in the Rockies” by Robert D. Hershey, Jr., pg. D6:
The economists here, including the theorists, seemed well aware that their profession has much to be humble about these days. Self-mockery abounded, perhaps best summed up by Walter W. Heller, a top economic adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson. “An economist,” he averred while moderating a panel discussion, “is a person who, when he finds something that works in practice, wonders if it will work in theory.”
Google News Archive
23 September 1985, Miami (FL) News, “Quote unquote,” pg. 1, col. 1:
Economist Walter Heller: “An economist is a person who, when he finds something works in practice, wonders if it will work in theory.”
New York (NY) Times
ECONOMIC SCENE; The Reagan ‘Revolution’
By Leonard Silk
Published: September 30, 1987
WASHINGTON— PRESIDENT REAGAN’S speech here to the joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank played well before the top financial officials and private bankers from all over the world.
Mr. Reagan contended that even economists had learned something from his record. ‘’You know,’’ he quipped, ‘’it is said that an economist is the only professional who sees something working in practice and then seriously wonders if it works in theory,’’ and then, as though to lighten his attack, he added, ‘’I can say that because my degree was in economics.’’
Managing the Service Economy:
Prospects and Problems
By Robert P. Inman
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Taking off from the Sherlock Holmes quotes of Mr. Summers, Mr. Baumol paraphrased a line of Leonard Silk defining “an economist as someone who takes something that works very well in practice and worries whether it works in theory.”
Industries, Firms, and Jobs:
Sociological and economic approaches
By George Farkas and Paula England
New York, NY: Plenum Press
Putting the matter humorously, Senator Rollings from South Carolina says that an economist is a person who sees something working in practice and wonders if it will work in theory.
New York City • Banking/Finance/Insurance • (0) Comments • Friday, November 26, 2010 • Permalink