Keyserling, Leon

views updated


Leon Hirsch Keyserling (January 22, 1908–August 9, 1987) was a leading New Deal economic and legal adviser. After working briefly in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), he served as Senator Robert F. Wagner's chief legislative aide from 1933 to 1937. From 1937 until 1946, Keyserling was the general counsel for federal housing authorities. His last government appointment was as a member of President Harry S. Truman's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Jewish immigrants, Keyserling graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1928 and received a law degree from Harvard University in Massachusetts in 1931. He returned to Columbia for graduate work in economics with institutional economist Rexford Tugwell. Keyserling soon followed Tugwell to Washington, working first for the AAA and then for Wagner. In helping to draft the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act, Keyserling incorporated a purchasing power rationale into its preamble. In addition to quelling industrial unrest, the Wagner Act sought to restore equality of bargaining between employers and employees so that workers could bargain for higher wages that would in turn sustain consumer demand. A strong labor movement could coordinate wages and profits to bring about economic recovery and prevent a return of economic decline. Keyserling believed that only trade unions organized by industry with majority representation could serve as an effective check on corporate power. Having seen the failures of the labor provisions in section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act, Keyserling sought to insure that the Wagner Act endowed workers with sufficient rights to representation on the shop floor and created the National Labor Relations Board to enforce those rights.

In addition to the maldistribution of income, the other major problem that Keyserling and other New Dealers saw was the failure of the heavy goods industry, which was responsible for so much unemployment. The Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937, which Keyserling helped to draft, was intended to help stimulate the production of durable goods by giving a boost to home construction. After its passage, Keyserling used his authority as the general counsel for the United States Housing Authority to lobby for increased federal spending and government insured loans for home construction.

In 1940, Keyserling married Mary Dublin, executive secretary of the National Consumers' League. At the end of the war, Keyserling helped to draft the Employment Act of 1946 to commit the government to maintaining maximum employment, production, and purchasing power. The Act created the CEA, on which Keyserling served until 1953, first as vice-chairman and then as chairman. In the postwar period, Keyserling continued to support a vigorous labor movement as the way to redistribute national income and sustain economic growth. In the 1960s, he emerged as a leading critic of the Kennedy era tax cuts, arguing that they ignored fundamental questions of income distribution.



Flash, Edward S., Jr. Economic Advice and Presidential Leadership: The Council of Economic Advisers. 1965.

Irons, Peter. The New Deal Lawyers. 1982.

Louchheim, Katie, ed. The Making of the New Deal: The Insiders Speak. 1984.

Meg Jacobs