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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.
Heller was born to German immigrant parents in Buffalo, N.Y.. 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.
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 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 (2008) and Edward C. Prescott (2004).
Heller died in Silverdale, Washington.