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Harvard economist and adviser to presidents Houthakker dies at 83

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Harvard economist Hendrik Samuel Houthakker, 83, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers for two presidents and holder of a papal knighthood, died on April 15 at Genesis Healthcare in Lebanon, N.H. After his retirement from Harvard in 1994, he divided his time between his Cambridge office and family homes in Pomfret, Vt., and Hanover, N.H., where he continued his studies in economics. There he enjoyed life with his wife, the philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, his two sons, and his dogs.

Born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1924, Houthakker was the son of Marion (Lichtenstein) and Bernard Houthakker. After completing graduate studies at the University of Amsterdam in 1949, he did economic research at Cambridge University. In 1952, he visited the United States and joined the staff of the Cowles Commission for Economic Research at the University of Chicago. From there, he taught at Stanford University from 1954 to 1960. He joined the Department of Economics at Harvard in 1960. At Harvard, he became the Henry Lee Professor of Economics.

Both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon chose Houthakker to serve on their presidential Council of Economic Advisers. He continued his interest in public service as a consultant to numerous government agencies, including the Commission on Supplies and Shortages.

Probably his best-known work is “Revealed Preference and the Utility Function” (Economica, 1950), in which, through development of the strong axiom of revealed preference, he settled the last remaining question concerning the integrability of demand functions based on revealed preference. He also wrote two widely cited empirical books on consumption, “The Analysis of Family Budgets” (with S.J. Prais, 1955) and “Consumer Demand in the United States, 1929-1970” (with Lester D. Taylor, 1966). In a brief but classic article (“The Pareto Distribution and the Cobb-Douglas Production Function in Activity Analysis,” Review of Economic Studies, 1955) he showed how a Cobb-Douglas aggregate production function could emerge from a Pareto-distributed collection of fixed-coefficient firms. He wrote frequently on international trade, including the well-known article with Stephen P. Magee, “Income and Price Elasticities in World Trade” (Review of Economics and Statistics, 1969). His research also reflected continuing interest in commodity and energy markets.

Houthakker was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and the American Economic Association, from which he received the John Bates Clark Medal in 1963. He was vice president of that organization in 1972 and became a distinguished fellow in 1989. He also served as president of the Econometric Society in 1967. The University of Amsterdam and the University of Fribourg awarded him honorary doctorates.

Although known for his dedication to public affairs, scholarship, teaching, and humanitarian ideals primarily in the field of economics, he was also a longtime supporter of philosophy and the fine arts. For 40 years, he fostered understanding and friendship among cultures at the philosophical level through his generosity to the World Phenomenological Institute, founded by his wife. Although not a Catholic himself, he organized an economic symposium at the Vatican on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclical on the condition of the working classes. A friend of Karol Wojtyla, Houthakker invited the cardinal to speak at Harvard, introducing him to Harvard and America as “the next pope.”

In 2003, his old friend, then Pope John Paul II, chose Houthakker to be a Knight Commander with Star in the Papal Order of Saint Gregory, acknowledging Houthakker’s particular service to the Catholic Church. He was inducted into the knighthood by the Most Rev. Walter J. Edyvean, auxiliary bishop and vicar general of Boston, at St. Denis Church in Hanover, N.H.

Known by his friends and colleagues for his modesty and humility, combined with his elegant manner, Houthakker had a lifelong appreciation for art (he was the son of a renowned fine arts dealer in Amsterdam). In this country, he came to love the New England countryside, especially his farm in Pomfret, Vt. Years ago, he conserved 1,000 acres of property in Vermont.

He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka; his children Louis Tymieniecka Houthakker, Jan-Nicolas Tymieniecka Houthakker, and Isabella Romana Houthakker; and his brother Lodewijk Houthakker of Amsterdam.

A memorial service will be held in Cambridge, Mass., in fall 2008.