Hendrik Houthakker; Harvard economist advised presidents and a pope

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 22, 2008

When Hendrik S. Houthakker was named to serve on President Richard M. Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers in 1969, his Harvard colleague John Kenneth Galbraith summed up the move in three words: "a distinguished appointment."

Dr. Houthakker had already filled the same role for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and years later would offer economic advice to his friend Pope John Paul II. And yet, Dr. Houthakker's intellect encompassed more than numbers and a deep understanding of economic theories, said his wife, the philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.

"My husband was a man who loved matters of the spirit," she said. "He loved music, literature, fine arts. He was the son of an art dealer, and he has carried from his home, which was so artistically inclined, this love for art and beauty. And that was how he was in life."

A longtime professor at Harvard, Dr. Houthakker had divided his time during the past 14 years between an office in Cambridge and a country house in Pomfret, Vt., where he placed into conservation hundreds of acres of rural land. He died in Genesis Healthcare in Lebanon, N.H., on April 15 of respiratory failure. Dr. Houthakker was 83 and had received a papal knighthood in 2003.

"His intellectual work, however, really was a part of his being," his wife said. "Whenever he had a minute he would sit down and make some calculations, some theory. To the last moment of his lucidity he was still writing."

In his life of the mind, Dr. Houthakker's work helped bridge economic theories on the purchasing behavior of consumers.

"He had very wide interests and was unusual in the extent to which he combined theoretical contributions with an interest in policy," said Christopher Sims, a professor of economics at Princeton for whom Dr. Houthakker had served as thesis adviser.

More than half a century ago, Dr. Houthakker wrote a paper that showed the connection between the "revealed preference" theory of Paul A. Samuelson, an economics professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and previous work by other economists.

"Revealed preference itself is the notion that a theory of behavior can be constructed just by observing what kinds of choices consumers make in the presence of lists of various prices," Sims said. "Before the revealed preference theory, the consumer behavior was formulated in terms of utility functions - so the idea was you tried to understand how much utility each basket of goods would deliver to the consumer."

Dr. Houthakker, Sims said, "also had a continuing interest in commodity markets and energy markets, and had quite a number of applied papers in those areas. He was a known expert in those fields."

Among Dr. Houthakker's most cited works, he said, were "The Analysis of Family Budgets," co-authored by S.J. Prais, and "Consumer Demand in the United States, 1929-1970," which he prepared with Lester D. Taylor.

Along with his work as an adviser during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Dr. Houthakker had served on the National Commission on Supplies and Shortages.

Born in Amsterdam, he studied at the University of Amsterdam and held doctorates from there and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Before joining the Harvard faculty in 1960, Dr. Houthakker had taught at Stanford University and was a visiting professor at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Tokyo.

He and his wife were friends of Karol Wojtyla before the Polish cardinal became Pope John Paul II. In the late 1970s, Wojtyla visited the Houthakkers at what was then their summer home in Vermont, and Dr. Houthakker later invited his friend to speak at Harvard, introducing him as "the next pope."

"It was just a casual remark," Dr. Houthakker told the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., three years ago. Nevertheless, he was not surprised when his friend was elevated to the papacy, telling the newspaper that Wojtyla was "a very serious man. He also has very considerable ability with people and he himself has been a hard-working scholar."

In 2003, Pope John Paul II selected Dr. Houthakker to be a Knight Commander with Star in the Papal Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great.

Though not a Catholic, "he led with us the life of an ideal Catholic father," his wife said. And when he spoke at the knighting ceremony, she said, "he finished by saying, 'All my life I have lived with the Catholics and shared with you everything, except for faith.' "

Along with the papal knighthood, Dr. Houthakker, who had been the Henry Lee professor of economics at Harvard, 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. In 1963, the association awarded him the John Bates Clark medal.

Despite the honors, his wife said, "he was also very modest. He was never, how to say it, playing the role of the famous and most distinguished person. He was humble, and that was the most adorable part of him."

Married to Tymieniecka for 52 years, he "supported morally and financially" the World Phenomenological Institute, she said. Tymieniecka founded and is president of the institute.

Since he retired from Harvard in 1994, the two spent much of their time in Pomfret, surrounded by the Vermont countryside.

"My husband loved it," Tymieniecka said. "We spent a life of idyllic adventure because we were doing things that we found fascinating and we were doing it for joy. Pomfret we called our paradise. When we were going back home from somewhere else, he would say, 'We are going back to our paradise.' "

In addition to his wife, Dr. Houthakker leaves two sons, Louis of Hanover, N.H., and Jan-Nicholas of Ludlow, Vt.; a daughter, Isabella of Ukiah, Calif.; and a brother, Lodewijk of Amsterdam.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. on Friday in Our Lady of the Snows Church in Woodstock, Vt. Burial will be in Riverside Cemetery in Woodstock.

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