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In addition to his wide-ranging influence within the academic and policy spheres of economics, Harvard Economics Professor Martin S. Feldstein ’61 has perhaps had his greatest impact in the classroom.
While sitting in a meeting about Social Security reform in the West Wing of the White House in 1999, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey B. Liebman—once a Ph.D. student of Feldstein’s—realized he shared something with the others at the meeting.
“[I noticed] that three of the four economists in the room—Larry Summers, Doug Elmendorf, and myself—had been Marty’s students,” he said. “The fourth economist had studied at MIT under someone who himself had been a student of Marty’s.”
Feldstein, a professor at Harvard since 1967, has taught every level of economics, from introductory to upper-level graduate courses—training some of the world’s foremost economists in the process and spurring the Wall Street Journal to term him perhaps the “most influential economist of his generation.”
But his influence reaches far beyond Harvard. Feldstein served as the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1984 and led the National Bureau of Economic Research as its president from 1984 to 2008.
AN INSPIRING TEACHER
In his 21-year role as head of Harvard’s introductory economics course, Economics 10: “Principles of Economics,” Feldstein introduced hundreds of students to the discipline each year, beginning each fall with the same sentiment: “This is a particularly good year to be studying economics.”
“I always enjoyed teaching Ec 10, thinking about how to explain key issues to students with little to no background in economics,” Feldstein says.
Every year since he stopped teaching Ec 10, Feldstein has returned to Sanders Theatre to give a guest lecture on Social Security.
According to Harvard Economics Professor N. Gregory Mankiw, who took over the course from Feldstein in 2005, Feldstein never took a sabbatical in the 21 years he taught Ec 10.
“He’s a very dedicated teacher,” Mankiw says, “More dedicated than anyone I know.”
Mankiw conducted his graduate work at MIT under a professor who was a former student of Feldstein’s.
Although Feldstein now devotes all of his time in Harvard classrooms to the study of economics, as an undergraduate, Feldstein’s courses were much more diverse.
In fact, Feldstein completed the required pre-medical coursework and was debating between pursuing economics and attending medical school.
In the end, he chose economics, and in his over 40 years as a professor at Harvard, has taught students including University Professor and former University President Lawrence H. Summers, current Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75, Columbia Business School Dean R. Glenn Hubbard, and prominent economist and Columbia University Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs ’76.
James M. Poterba ’80, a professor at MIT and current NBER president, says his interest in academic economics was first sparked when he worked with Feldstein as a research assistant the summer after his sophomore year of college.
Liebman, for whom Feldstein served as dissertation advisor and who now co-teaches Economics 1420: “American Economic Policy” with Feldstein, says that Feldstein inspires his students to “get out into the real world and figure out what is really going on, rather than hiding behind models and regression results.”
When Liebman was struggling to understand seemingly inconsistent results about the Earned Income Tax Credit, “Marty said, ‘Jeff, you aren’t studying fish. You can go out and talk to people,’” Liebman says. Acting on Feldstein’s advice, Liebman conducted field research and ultimately solved the puzzle.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Feldstein has also had an enormous impact on the academic field of economics.
“He’s really one of the great men of economic policy,” Mankiw says. “There’s no question in anyone’s mind that he’s one of the stars of economics.”
Feldstein’s research focuses on issues of macroeconomics in the public sector, especially taxation and social insurance.
Feldstein is famous for his analysis of social welfare systems, which won him the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal in 1977, an award that goes to an economist under 40 judged to have made significant contributions to the field.
Over his career, Feldstein has penned over 300 articles, making him one of the most prolific economists in the world.
And Feldstein is often listed among those likely to win the Nobel Prize in economics in a given year.
“From my perspective he’d be a very plausible choice,” Mankiw says.
Feldstein has also played a significant role in encouraging the research of other economists as former president of the NBER, a nonprofit economic think tank based in Cambridge that gathers researchers together and sponsors academic articles.
“Marty had a transformative effect on the NBER,” Poterba says. “Under Marty’s leadership, the NBER had an enormous influence in promoting the expansion of empirical economic research, and in encouraging economists to carry out research on topics that would provide valuable input for policymakers.”
Additionally, Feldstein has worked in the government helping to implement policy, most notably as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Reagan, but also as an adviser to nearly every president since.
In 2005, when President George W. Bush was choosing Alan Greenspan’s replacement as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Feldstein was considered one of the two top contenders, ultimately losing out to current chairman Ben S. Bernanke ’75.
—Staff writer Benjamin M. Scuderi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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