Wassily Leontief

Wassily Leontief

W. W. Leontief at Harvard
Born Wassily Wassilyevich Leontief
(1906-08-05)August 5, 1906
Munich, German Empire
Died February 5, 1999(1999-02-05) (aged 92)
New York City,[1] United States
Citizenship Russian Empire, Soviet Union, United States
Fields Economics
Institutions New York University
Harvard University
Alma mater University of Berlin, (PhD)
University of Leningrad, (MA)
Doctoral advisor Ladislaus Bortkiewicz
Werner Sombart
Doctoral students Vernon L. Smith
Robert Solow
Paul Samuelson
Karen R. Polenske
Hyman Minsky
Khodadad Farmanfarmaian[2]
Kenneth E. Iverson
Dale W. Jorgenson[3]
Known for Input-output analysis
Influences Léon Walras
Influenced George B. Dantzig
Notable awards Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (1973)

Wassily Wassilyevich Leontief (Russian: Васи́лий Васи́льевич Лео́нтьев; August 5, 1906 – February 5, 1999), was an American economist of half Russian-Jewish descent notable for his research on how changes in one economic sector may affect other sectors. Leontief won the Nobel Committee's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1973, and three of his doctoral students have also been awarded the prize (Paul Samuelson 1970, Robert Solow 1987, Vernon L. Smith 2002).


Early life

Wassily Leontief was born on August 5, 1906, in Munich, Germany, the son of Wassily W. Leontief (professor of Economics) and Zlata (German spelling Slata; later Evgenia) Leontief (née Becker).[4] W. Leontief, Sr., belonged to a family of old-believer merchants living in St. Petersburg since 1741.[5] Genya Becker belonged to a wealthy Jewish family from Odessa.[6] At 15 in 1921, Wassily, Jr., entered University of Leningrad in present-day St. Petersburg. He earned his Learned Economist degree (equivalent to Master of Arts) in 1924 at the age of 19.

Opposition in USSR

Leontief sided with campaigners for academic autonomy, freedom of speech and in support of Pitirim Sorokin. As a consequence, he was detained several times by the Cheka. In 1925, he was allowed to leave the USSR, mostly because the Cheka believed that he was mortally ill with a sarcoma, a diagnosis that later proved false.[7] He continued his studies at the University of Berlin and, in 1928 earned a Ph.D. degree in economics under the direction of Werner Sombart, writing his dissertation on The Economy as Circular Flow (original German title: Die Wirtschaft als Kreislauf).

Early professional life

From 1927 to 1930, he worked at the Institute for the World Economy of the University of Kiel. There he researched the derivation of statistical demand and supply curves. In 1929, he traveled to China to assist its ministry of railroads as an advisor.

In 1931, he went to the United States and was employed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

During World War II, Leontief served as consultant at the U. S. Office of Strategic Services.

Affiliation with Harvard

Leontief joined Harvard University's department of economics in 1932 and in 1946 became professor of economics there.

In 1949, Leontief used an early computer at Harvard and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to divide the U.S. economy into 500 sectors. Leontief modeled each sector with a linear equation based on the data and used the computer, the Harvard Mark II, to solve the system, one of the first significant uses of computers for mathematical modeling,[8][9][10] along with George W. Snedecor's usage of the Atanasoff–Berry computer.

Leontief set up the Harvard Economic Research Project in 1948 and remained its director until 1973. Starting in 1965, he chaired the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Affiliation with New York University

In 1975, Leontief joined New York University and founded and directed the Institute for Economic Analysis.


In 1932, Leontief married poet Estelle Marks. Their only child, Svetlana Leontief Alpers, was born in 1936. Leontief's wife Estelle wrote a memoir [Genia and Wassily] of their relations with his parents after they came to the US as emigres.

As hobbies Leontief enjoyed fly fishing, ballet, and fine wines. He vacationed for years at his farm in West Burke, Vermont, but after moving to New York in the 1970s moved his summer residence to Lakeville, Connecticut.

Leontief died in New York City on Friday, February 5, 1999 at the age of 93. His wife died in 2005.

Major contributions

Leontief is primarily associated with the development of the linear activity model of General equilibrium and the use of input-output analysis that results from it. He has also made contributions in other areas of economics, such as international trade where he documented the Leontief paradox. He was also one of the first to establish the composite commodity theorem.

Leontief earned the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on input-output tables. Input-output tables analyze the process by which inputs from one industry produce outputs for consumption or for inputs for another industry. With the input-output table, one can estimate the change in demand for inputs resulting from a change in production of the final good. The analysis assumes that input proportions are fixed; thus the use of input-output analysis is limited to rough approximations rather than prediction. Input-output was novel and inspired large-scale empirical work; in 2010 its iterative method was recognized as an early intellectual precursor to Google's PageRank.[11][12][13]

Leontief used input-output analysis to study the characteristics of trade flow between the U.S. and other countries, and found what has been named Leontief's paradox; "this country resorts to foreign trade in order to economize its capital and dispose of its surplus labor, rather than vice versa", i.e., U.S. exports were relatively labor-intensive when compared to U.S. imports. This is the opposite of what one would expect, considering the fact that the U.S.'s comparative advantage was in capital-intensive goods. According to some economists, this paradox has since been explained as due to the fact that when a country produces "more than two goods, the abundance of capital relative to labor does not imply that the capital intensity of its exports should exceed that of imports."[14]

Leontief was also a very strong proponent of the use of quantitative data in the study of economics. Throughout his life Leontief campaigned against "theoretical assumptions and non-observed facts".[15] According to Leontief, too many economists were reluctant to "get their hands dirty" by working with raw empirical facts. To that end, Wassily Leontief did much to make quantitative data more accessible, and more indispensable, to the study of economics.



In honor

The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University awards the Leontief Prize in Economics each year in his honor.



Much of current academic teaching and research has been critizied for its lack of relevance, that is, of immediate practical impact. ... The trouble is caused, however, not by an inadequate selection of targets, but rather by our inability to hit squarely on them, ... by the palpable inadequacy of the scientific means with which they try to solve them. ... The weak and all too slowly growing empirical foundations clearly cannot support the proliferating superstructure of pure, or should I say, speculative economic theory.... By the time it comes to interpretations of the substantive conclusions, the assumptions on which the model has been based are easily forgotten. But it is precisely the empirical validity of these assumptions on which the usefulness of the entire exercise depends. ... A natural Darwinian feedback operating through selection of academic personnel contributes greatly to the perpetuation of this state of affairs.[16]

We move from more or less plausible but really arbitrary assumptions, to elegantly demonstrated but irrelevant conclusions.

The role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.[17]

See also

References and sources

  1. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~iohp/farmanfarmaian.html
  2. Jorgenson, Dale W. (1998). Growth, Vol. 1: Econometric General Equilibrium Modeling. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press(Accessed September 2016)
  3. See birth data, provided October 4, 2005. In his Nobel Prize website biographical information Leontiff gives his birth year as 1906 and says he grew up in St. Petersburg.
  4. Svetlana Kaliadina et al., "The Family of W.W. Leontief in Russia", Economic Systems Research, vol.18 (2006), 335-345 (http://econpapers.repec.org/article/tafecsysr/default18.htm).
  5. Estelle Leontief, Genia & Wassily. A Russian American Memoir, Zephyr Press: Somerville Mass., 1987
  6. Svetlana Kaliadina et al., "W.W. Leontief and the Repressions of the 1920s: an Interview", Economic Systems Research, vol.18 (2006), 347–355 (http://econpapers.repec.org/article/tafecsysr/default18.htm).
  7. Lay, David C. (2003). Linear Algebra and Its Applications (Third ed.). Addison Wesley. p. 1. ISBN 0-201-70970-8.
  8. Polenske, Karen R. (2004). "Leontief's 'magnificent machine' and other contributions to applied economics". Wassily Leontief and Input-Output Economics. Cambridge University Press. p. 12.
  9. See also, Leontief, Input-Output Economics (Scientific American, 1951) reprinted in Input-Output Economics (1966).
  10. http://science.slashdot.org/story/10/02/17/2317239/PageRank-Type-Algorithm-From-the-1940s-Discovered?art_pos=3
  11. http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/24821/
  12. Massimo Franceschet (2010). "PageRank: Standing on the shoulders of giants". arXiv:1002.2858Freely accessible [cs.IR].
  13. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Leontief.html
  14. "Wassily Leontief (1906-1999)". Econlib. Library of Economics and Liberty. 5 May 2014. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  15. Leontief, W., Theoretical Assumptions and nonobserved Facts, American Economic Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (March 1971), pp. 1-7; Presidential address to the American Economic Association 1970.
  16. Hallak, Jacques; Caillods, Françoise (1995). "Educational Planning: The International Dimension". ISBN 9780815320241.
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