Walter Heller

For the founder of Heller Financial, see Walter E. Heller.
Walter Heller
Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers
In office
January 29, 1961  November 15, 1964
President John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
Preceded by Raymond Saulnier
Succeeded by Gardner Ackley
Personal details
Born (1915-08-27)August 27, 1915
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
Died June 15, 1987(1987-06-15) (aged 71)
Silverdale, Washington, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Oberlin College
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Walter Wolfgang Heller (27 August 1915 – 15 June 1987) was a leading American economist of the 1960s, and an influential adviser to President John F. Kennedy as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, 1961–64.

Life and career

Heller was born in Buffalo, New York, to German immigrants, Gertrude (Warmburg) and Ernst Heller, a civil engineer.[1] After attending Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wisconsin, he entered Oberlin College in 1931, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1935. Heller received his masters and doctorate degrees in economics from the University of Wisconsin.[2]

As a Keynesian, he promoted cuts in the marginal federal income tax rates. This tax cut, which was passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress after Kennedy's death, was credited for boosting the U.S. economy. Heller developed the first "voluntary" wage-price guidelines. When the steel industry failed to follow them, it was publicly attacked by Kennedy and quickly complied. Heller was one of the first to emphasize that tax deductions and tax preferences narrowed the income tax base, thus requiring, for a given amount of revenue, higher marginal tax rates. The historic tax cut and its positive effect on the economy has often been cited as motivation for more recent tax cuts by Republicans.

The day after Kennedy was assassinated, Heller met with President Johnson in the Oval Office. To get the country going again, Heller suggested a major initiative he called the "War on Poverty", which Johnson adopted enthusiastically. Later, when Johnson insisted on escalating the Vietnam War without raising taxes, setting the stage for an inflationary spiral, Heller resigned.

In the early phases of his career, Heller contributed to the creation of the Marshall Plan of 1947, and was instrumental in re-establishing the German currency following World War II, which helped usher an economic boom in West Germany.

Heller was critical of Milton Friedman's followers and labelled them cultish: "Some of them are Friedmanly, some Friedmanian, some Friedmanesque, some Friedmanic and some Friedmaniacs."[3]

Heller joined the University of Minnesota faculty as an associate professor of economics in 1945, left for a few years to serve in government, and returned in the 1960s, eventually serving as chair of the Department of Economics. He built it into a top-ranked department with spectacular hires, including Nobel Prize winners Leonid Hurwicz (2007) and Edward C. Prescott (2004).[4]

Heller died in Silverdale, Washington.


  2. "Shorewood School District to honor alumni, ex-teachers", Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 7, 2003. Accessed September 17, 2007. "The other honorees are Walter Heller (class of '31), an economic adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a professor at the University of Michigan..."
  3. Memorandum to William Carmichael as quoted on page 206 of Valdes, Pinochet's Economists.
  4. Douglas Clement, "A Golden History", College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota

Primary sources

Political offices
Preceded by
Raymond Saulnier
Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers
Succeeded by
Gardner Ackley
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