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Joseph A. Livingston.

JOSEPH A. LIVINGSTON, a fellow and a longtime member of NABE, died in Philadelphia on December 25, 1989, at the age of 84. Livingston was one of the premier and pioneer economic journalists of our time. Anyone who surveys the business pages of the large dailies during the 1930s and 1940s will be struck by the change that occurred sometime in those years. Before World War II, the writing on those pages was almost entirely the reporting of company news and the behavior of the financial markets. After the war, the same pages contained a large element of economic writing. That was not writing about economics and it was not usually writing by economists. But it was writing about the national economy, using the ways of thinking and, to some extent, the language of economics.

Joe Livingston (everyone called him joe and it is hard to say anything else) was a leader in this transition. As a nationally syndicated columnist for almost forty-five years, he carried this view of the economic scene far beyond his readership at the Philadelphia Bulletin and Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was headquartered.

Livingston may have been helped in making the shift from business reporting to economic journalism by a stint in Washington during the war. In 1943 he came to the War Production Board to start and run a weekly report called War Progress. We had then in Washington an enormous bureaucracy of war agencies, all engaged in new functions with new people. It was important to keep at least the top people who by that time numbered several thousands informed about what the others were doing. But it was also important - or at least so it was thought - to keep too many people from knowing. So Livingston had the task, with a very small staff, of learning what was going on in this confused and secretive environment and reporting it clearly in a classified report with a circulation of thousands. He did this with marked success.

In War Progress Livingston made much use of a technique of which he was the master, and possibly the innovator. That was the chart that told a story. He did not use a chart as only an economical way to present a lot of data in a small space. His charts depended on first extracting from the data what the real story was and then combining the chart and its captions in a way that made the real story stand out clearly and eliminated everything that was not part of the real story.

In 1945 Livingston moved from the WPB to the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, where he was in charge of preparing the Director's quarterly reports. There he covered as wide a field as at WPB but had more opportunity to cover some subjects in depth. I have recently had the occasion to look at these reports from forty-four years ago, and am impressed by the idea that they have left their mark on the style of the Annual Reports of the Council of Economic Advisers and other such documents.

After the war Livingston took up his forty-four year career as an economic columnist. One distinctive feature of his work was the semiannual Livingston Survey. Twice a year thirty or forty economists responded to a questionnaire from him asking their forecasts of a number of economic variables for the next eighteen months, and he would publish the results in his column. I have never seen any analysis of the accuracy of these forecasts. I suppose we can guess what the analysis would show. But the basic fact is that what people think is going to happen is a datum to be taken into account, even if their expectation is inaccurate. As economists became more impressed with the importance of expectations in determining economic behavior, they looked around for some measures of expectations. For a long time the Livingston Survey was the best indication they could find. His idea has since been copied extensively, although without any significant improvement.

This bare history cannot adequately convey the quality of the journalist and the man. joe was no armchair, thumb-sucking economic journalist, living on summaries of the studies of economists. He went out for the facts, to see for himself what could be seen and to talk with the active people, here and abroad. He was not the captive of any party, any school of economics or any pet economist. He was questioning and even skeptical, but he did not confuse that with being a cynic. And, most important for those who knew him, he was a good and true friend, a sensitive, considerate and humorous man.

Herbert Stein

American Enterprise Institute
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Title Annotation:In Memoriam
Author:Stein, Herbert
Publication:Business Economics
Article Type:obituary
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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