Wassily Leontief

Faculty Profile

One of the most carefully guarded files in the Littauer Building is a folder of eighty odd sketches of members of the Economics Department by Professor Wassily Leontief. The secretaries of the building regard the collection jealously as theirs by right of salvage; after each conference one of them Leontief's memorandum pad, date it, and add it to the series. "Not many professors know about it," says the current holder. "But some of them sneak in once in a while to see themselves."

One secretary tried to complete the gallery by sketching Leontief himself during one of his lectures. She had to give up; "He moves too fast," she said. On and off the lecture platform, Leontief walks with a quick and jaunty stride; he talks with the same compelling enthusiasm. A friend, remarking on the fact that Leontief usually nurses one drink through a cocktail party, pointed out: "It takes everyone else two or three drinks to reach the same state of ebullience he's in all the time."

Bolshevik officials were not amused by his exuberance during his student days at the University of Leningrad. In 1921, when he was 15, they gave him two months of solitary confinement for leading demonstrations against the arrest of university professors. Despite such delays (he was jailed for a few days each year, "usually around Easter time," as a reminder), he graduated as a "Learned Economist" in 1925; soon after he got permission to leave the country, to recuperate from an operation on his jaw. He never returned.

After receiving a Ph.D, from the University of Berlin he did research at Kiel, spent 1929 as economic advisor to the Ministry of Railroads of the Nanking government in China (where he first began speaking English), and came to Harvard in 1931.

Meanwhile, a shortage of good economists in Russia made his government restless for his return. He has always done a considerable amount of traveling, and his requests for extensions on his Russian passport would be answered with notes asking pointedly, "are you planning to revisit Russia this trip?" "'I am sorry,' I would tell them, 'it is not on my itinerary'."

The Kremlin took these gentle snubs for a number of years, but in 1934 his passport expired. To replace it he procured from the University an awesome document covered with a huge golden Harvard Seal, pronouncing him a professor in good standing, and an affidavit signed and sealed by the Secretary of State of Massachusetts declaring the first document "genuine." The twin seals, under which an array of visas was soon attached, never failed to dazzle frontier authorities.

"Put-Put'

Leontief came to Harvard with the understanding that he could begin research on what has become famous as "input-output" economics, which studies the inter-relationships of the commodity-flows among the various sectors of the economy. The terms of his initial small grant were pessimistic; one clause provided, "Mr. Leontief will report even if he fails." "They wanted at least a memorandum for their money," he recalls.

It was his hope to discover structural relationships within the economy that would serve as the basis of quantitative economic laws. For ten years he collected data, aided only by a single assistant. In order to have a manageable theory that could encompass the whole economy, and that could absorb the masses of detailed statistics already available, Leontief had to work with assumptions considerably cruder and more restrictive than most economists were willing to accept. He had to bet that the advantages of examining all industries at once would compensate for the lack of sublety. These advantages could not appear until the data was virtually complete; meanwhile, there was little to publish, little on which to sustain a reputation. The professional risks were considerable. "He gambled his whole career on it," a colleague points out. "It took a lot of devotion."

The result, in 1941, was "The Structure of American Economy, 1919-1929." Almost immediately the theory attracted the attention of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which wanted to forecast the effects of mobilization on the structure of the economy and on the postwar demand for labor. Five years later the theory had passed its first great test--not perfectly, but with a better showing than its rivals. Moreover, Leontief was virtually alone in correctly predicting the 1947 steel shortage two years in advance. At that point a host of government agencies, headed by the Air Force, queued up to sponsor his research. Leontief estimates the total amount now being spent yearly at various universities and government bureaus at one and a half million dollars yearly, about $70,000 in developmental work at Harvard. In keeping with its new stature, the official title of the field has become "interindustry economics'; partly because of a noxious tendency of Washington bureaucrats to use the nickname "put-put."

Some critics of Leontief's work fear that it will encourage central planning (a word that is carefully avoided in all sympathetic literature). "What else can you use it for?" asks one Harvard professor. "I say to Leontief. 'You'll have everything ready for the commissars.'" An article in Business Week depicted, under a slightly sinister picture of Wassily Leontief, American business men already shivering under "the chill shadow of a robot-planned and robot-managed age, the age of input-output approach to economics."

Ironically, it would be hard to find an economist so averse to giving advice (especially to politicians) as Leontief himself. It is time to make a science of economics," he says. Economists have wasted too much time trying to advice like lawyers." He shuns Washington (he commuted bi-weekly from Boston during the war, when he was Chief of Russian Economic Sub-division of OSS), where "everyone is political." Their minds are trained to ask always, 'How to do it?' I am interested only to answer, How does it work?'" Nevertheless, he readily admits that the argument of his critics has some foundation: "No doubt, if you do want to control something, it helps to understand it a little."