The cause of death was liver cancer, members of his family said. The disease struck last summer, two years after Mr. Silk wrote his last Economic Scene column for The Times.
But he was too deeply engaged in his work to really retire. He continued to write, to lecture and to travel. And even in his final weeks, he managed to work for a while most mornings on a book -- his 15th -- about the future of capitalism.
Mr. Silk was a rarity in journalism: a reporter with a Ph.D. in economics, who taught the subject at a college level and worked in government before becoming a full-time journalist. He started at Business Week in 1954 and moved to The Times in 1970. Departing from the dense coverage of markets and statistics that characterized economic reporting in the 1950's, he found ways to describe, in simple prose, the economic forces shaping his readers' lives.
"He was one of the earliest properly trained scholars who decided to devote himself to the problems of journalism and public writing about economics," said Paul A. Samuelson, the Nobel laureate in economic science. "And he had a gift for making the intricacies of economics understandable."
Mr. Silk did it at times with vivid touches. In a 1955 essay on forecasting, for example -- an essay illustrated with Charles Addams cartoons -- he explained not only the role of economic forecasting and its shortcomings, but how readers could use a forecaster's tools and equations.
Such clear reporting of complex issues is more common now than it was then. In pioneering the new style, Mr. Silk said his models were the science writers of the day, particularly William L. Laurence of The Times, who were making nuclear physics familiar to Americans.
"I did not want to write down to people," Mr. Silk said in a recent interview. "I wanted to make economics accessible, just as science writers were making science accessible. I thought any idea could be plainly stated."
His role in American journalism went beyond plain writing. For most of the 1970's, Mr. Silk wrote most of The Times's editorials on economics. He had been hired in 1970 by John B. Oakes, then the editor of the editorial page, to provide expertise in economics, and Mr. Silk and Mr. Oakes determined what The Times would say on most economic issues.
After Mr. Oakes stepped down in 1976, Mr. Silk also left the editorial board, to become a full-time columnist. For most of the next 16 years, his column appeared twice weekly in the business pages under the Economic Scene rubric.
His editorials, in The Times in the 1970's and in Business Week in the 1960's, reflected Mr. Silk's view that his expertise in economics should be used, as a journalist, to interpret what he saw in the real world, without being doctrinaire.
Thus, Mr. Silk favored President John F. Kennedy's proposal to cut taxes to stimulate a flagging economy in the early 1960's. But later, with the economy booming again, he urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to reverse the cut and raise taxes, a step Johnson delayed taking. Without a tax increase, Mr. Silk's editorials argued, there would not be enough revenue to pay for Mr. Johnson's Great Society programs and the Vietnam War. The budget deficit would shoot up, he wrote, and so would inflation. They did.
During the Administration of Richard M. Nixon, editorials in The Times by Mr. Silk endorsed the President's watershed decision, in August 1971, to impose price and wage controls to restrain inflation, and to suspend the dollar's convertibility into gold, which had the effect of devaluing the currency to stimulate the economy.
"We have varying degrees of enthusiasm about the specific approaches Mr. Nixon plans to employ, but we applaud the scope and daring of his effort to get the economy off and running," Mr. Silk wrote at the time.
After an initial honeymoon, the Nixon measures failed to achieve their goals, and Mr. Silk later altered his view. "In retrospect, I saw the merit of the criticism that was leveled at Nixon, but you don't have that hindsight in the moment of action, when you have to write," Mr. Silk said in the recent interview.
As a columnist, Mr. Silk preferred to make his points through analysis and reporting, rather than outright advocacy. "I felt it should be an analytical column, but the logic should be so persuasive that you convince the reader this is the way to go," he said.
In airline deregulation, for example, his initial columns sent readers away with the conclusion that deregulation was a good idea. But as time passed and the Carter Administration pressed successfully to implement the idea, Mr. Silk grew doubtful. He conveyed all of this to his readers.
The Depression drew Mr. Silk into economics, while he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930's. For a generation of economists who emerged from that era, economics seemed to offer solutions to hardship and devastating unemployment.
Mr. Silk first heard the name of John Maynard Keynes at Wisconsin, and like many of his classmates he was taken by the Keynesian thesis that a stimulus from deficit spending by the government could revive the economy. Keynesian economics suddenly meshed with political action, becoming a powerful force that endured into the 1970's.
Mr. Silk eventually shed his enthusiasm for Keynesian theory. He refused to lock himself into any set of theories or beliefs that became, as Mr. Silk put it, "more real than reality itself." What survived instead from those heady Wisconsin days was a view that government must step in from time to time to supplement or regulate free markets. Capitalism, he reasoned, needed to be saved at times from its worst tendencies. The goal of this process -- of economics itself -- should be to improve people's lives, he thought, by combining theory with human concerns.
These remained Mr. Silk's guiding principles, and he restated them in his farewell column on May 29, 1992. "I see economics as a branch of philosophy -- moral philosophy as it was called in the days of Adam Smith," Mr. Silk wrote. "Its mission was and still is to improve the lot of humanity, especially for the poor."
Leonard Solomon Silk was born on May 15, 1918, in Philadelphia. His father, Harry, was a department store manager, a calling that took the family to New York, then to St. Louis, and finally, when Mr. Silk was 7, to Atlantic City. There, the journalist in him first surfaced. As punishment for misbehavior, his mother sent him into a large, well-lighted closet, where he was allowed to bring books and writing material. Soon he was composing stories about boys going to the West.
Mr. Silk entered Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 1936 and the following year transferred to Wisconsin on a scholarship.
There he edited Octopus, a humor magazine, and came under the influence of an economics department that was moving away from abstract theory, particularly the classical view that the economy would automatically right itself and restore a more prosperous equilibrium. Professors like Selig Perlman, a labor expert, argued that economists must also study specific situations, particularly the concerns of American workers.
From Wisconsin, Mr. Silk went to Duke University in 1940 for graduate study. America entered World War II and he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, which sent him to Alaska as a Morse code operator. But he soon got back into journalism, writing for Yank and other Army publications. In 1945, he covered the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco.
Back at Duke in 1946, Mr. Silk's mentor, the international economist Calvin Bryce Hoover, encouraged his student's interest in going abroad. Mr. Silk wanted to study Swedish housing, which had benefited from Keynesian-style government spending even before Keynes elaborated his theories.
Mr. Silk's research soon appeared as an article in Fortune magazine. A longer version became his Ph.D. thesis and then his first book, "Sweden Plans for Better Housing." That would be the pattern throughout Mr. Silk's career, with his journalism expanded into books -- three of the best known being "Economics in Plain English," "Economics in the Real World" and "The American Establishment," the last one written with a son, Mark, who is now a writer for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
In the postwar years Mr. Silk tried other careers. He taught at the University of Maine and at Simmons College in Boston. He married Bernice Scher, a concert pianist. He went to Norway on a Fulbright fellowship to teach at the University of Oslo. Mr. Silk also worked for the Federal Government, first as a housing expert in Washington and later in posts overseas, the last one as an economist for the United States Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
And then, while on home leave, he sought out Elliott Bell, the new editor in chief at Business Week, who hired him to be the mainstay of a new economics department.
A few years later, with the election of President Kennedy, the Keynesian era hit a high point. The late Walter Heller, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, convinced Mr. Kennedy to push for an $11 billion tax cut, the largest in American history. The goal was to put more zing in the economy even though the tax cut would initially increase the deficit. Mr. Silk had become acquainted with Mr. Heller while the economist was a professor at the University of Minnesota, and Mr. Silk found himself traveling to Washington to cover the story. Congress finally passed the tax cut in 1964, after Mr. Kennedy was assassinated.
Mr. Silk left Business Week in 1969, soon after Mr. Bell's departure. He spent a year as a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and then joined The Times. There, he wrote not only editorials and columns, but also frequently, in later years, major news stories on economics.
Besides his wife and son Mark, Mr. Silk is survived by another son, Dr. Adam Silk, a psychiatrist in Boston; two sisters, and five grandchildren. A third son, Andrew, also a writer, died of cancer in 1981. Services will be at 10:30 Monday morning at the Jewish Memorial Chapel, 64-70 Howe Avenue, in Passaic, N.J.
News organizations and titles: 22 years with the New York Times--columnist, "Economic Scene," 1970-92; editorial writer, 1970-76; fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, 1969-70; economics writer and columnist, Business Week, 1954-69.
Legacy: A rarity in financial journalism, Mr. Silk held a doctorate in economics and, through his writing, demonstrated how complex economic issues could be described in clear language that was understandable to the general reader.
Journalistic Progeny: At least two generations of economic writers looked to Mr. Silk for his leadership.
Personal: Born May 15, 1918, in Philadelphia; died Feb. 10, 1995, in New Jersey.
Family: Wife, Bernice Scher; three sons, Mark, Adam and Andrew. Andrew died in 1981.
Books: Author of more than a dozen books, including "Economics in Plain English," "Economics in the Real World" and "The American Establishment," with son Mark.
Awards: Gerald Loeb awards, 1961 and 1977; Elliott V. Bell Award, 1983; Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995.
Education: University of Wisconsin; doctorate in economics, Duke University. As a Fulbright fellow, he taught at the University of Oslo.
What he has said about himself: "I did not want to write down to people. I wanted to make economics accessible, just as science writers were making science accessible. I thought any idea could be plainly stated."About his column: "I felt it should be an analytical column, but the logic should be so persuasive that you convince the reader this is the way to go. I see economics as a branch of philosophy &emdash; moral philosophy as it was called in the days of Adam Smith. Its mission was, and still is, to improve the lot of humanity, especially for the poor."
What others have said about him:Paul A. Samuelson, Nobel laureate in economic science: "He was one of the earliest properly trained scholars who decided to devote himself to the problems of journalism and public writing about economics. And he had a gift for making the intricacies of economics understandable."From his Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award citation: "He sought through his writing to bring the intricacies of economics to life for his reader, and by so doing, to help create a society in which all could flourish."