The Economy: The Pragmatic Professor

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The Road Ahead. Among his fellow economists, Walter Heller is usually tagged as a "liberal," but he departs so often from what used to be liberal cliches that the identity tag is a bit blurred. A more descriptive label, one that he applies to himself, is "pragmatist." That is the vogue word among economists today, the term that most of them use to label themselves and one another. When economists call themselves pragmatists, they mean that they are the opposite of dogmatists, that they are wary of broad theories, that they lean to the cut-and-try approach to public problems, and that they believe it is possible to improve the functioning of the economy by tinkering with it.

Pragmatist Heller takes a rather cheerful tone about the economic road ahead. He considers the current recession "mild," thinks that the antirecession program that the President has submitted to Congress will be enough to get an upturn going, despite the complaints of labor leaders that the program is too skimpy. And, if necessary, the Administration will simply mix another batch of remedies, in keeping with the President's promise to "submit further proposals to the Congress within the next 75 days" if the recession deepens. Looking beyond the current recession to the goal of faster growth, Heller is "basically hopeful and optimistic about what can be accomplished," he says. "My awareness of the seriousness of the situation is balanced by a conviction that we can do something about it — and without interference in the basic freedom of our capitalist system."

Heller sounds so cheerful at times that he gets accused of being overly optimistic. In a TV interview a couple of weeks ago, a questioner charged him with being an "onward and upward predictor," contradicting the "gloomy view" that Kennedy took during the campaign. Was he really so confident that the Administration's antirecession measures would work? Replied Heller: "Yes." That confident yes is characteristic of Heller, and of the new pragmatic economics.

Dreary, Desolate, Dismal. Cheerfulness about the prospects of tinkering successfully with the economy, and doing a lot more good than harm in the process, contrasts strikingly with the gloominess that tinged economics during much of its history. To the British writer Thomas Carlyle in the middle of the 19th century, the classical economics, with its stress on the iron inexorability of economic laws, seemed "dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing . . . the dismal science."

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