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December 28, 2003
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Our Marshall

This is not an age for statuary. As a rule, we honor not the doer but the deed. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has done about as much to define our times as any other single institution, made this point long ago with a sly joke.

 

When chief architect W. Welles Bosworth in 1913 designed a main building for its new campus in Cambridge, with a million square feet and a great dome patterned on the Pantheon in Paris, he specified that a fifty-foot-tall statue of Minerva dominate the building’s Great Court.

 

Later, when he added a new building to the complex with a grand entrance hall, Bosworth placed four marble pedestals in its corners, with instructions that atop three of them should be placed the busts of great men to be designated by the Institute’s trustees, while on the fourth should rest a likeness of the great architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

 

All four pedestals still stand empty. The statue of Minerva was never built. Nor, as far as I know, is the stone likeness of any human being — scientist/engineer, benefactor, administrator — to be found anywhere else on the campus. Even paintings are hard to find. For many years, most lecture halls and laboratories had numbers instead of names. (Names of the saints of science, safely dead, are carved upon the main building’s frieze).

 

It might be time to rethink those premises.

 

The great physical chemist Arthur Noyes left MIT in 1919 for Pasadena to help found the modern Caltech. Cyberneticist Norbert Wiener is long dead. So is molecular biologist Salvatore Luria. But economist Paul Samuelson is still around. He has been around so long, in fact, more than 60 years, that people tend to take his presence for granted. It is all very well to endow those chairs, create those awards in his name, but perhaps there should be more emphasis on the man’s human qualities.

 

To understand Samuelson’s place in the 20th century, it is necessary to know something about Alfred Marshall, the man whose role in economics he assumed, more than fifty years ago.

 

Marshall was born in 1842 in a London suburb. He studied mathematics at Cambridge University, graduating with a B.A. in 1865, and gradually came to prefer political economy to all other pursuits. He taught at Bristol, then briefly at Oxford, and in 1885 became the first-ever professor of political economy at Cambridge. In 1890 he published Principles of Economics – the first of eight editions. Almost overnight, it became, in Phyllis Deane’s description, “the bible of the English neoclassical school.” At that point, Marshall had already been teaching for 20 years; he had trained half the other professors in England.

 

For the next fifty years, he was the world’s greatest all-around economist and the personification of its authority – until, with Foundations of Economic Analysis, Samuelson took his place.

 

In 1890, it was easy enough for outsiders to miss the epoch-making quality of Marshall ‘s textbook. From its very first sentence, the book emphasized its continuity with the past and sought to ground itself in a commonsensical understanding of Victorian life: “Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of well-being.”

 

Its mathematical logic was banished to the appendices. The little geometrical drawings of intersecting supply and demand curves that it introduced are confined to the footnotes. But so thorough (for the most part) was its logic, and so polished its presentation, that “the Cambridge school” eclipsed the Austrian and Lausanne variants and became the economics of the English-speaking world for the nest half-century.

 

Foundations appeared in 1947. The title appeared to be a deliberate echo of mathematicians’ tomes, including those of Frege, Brouwer and Hilbert, itself perhaps a sly dig at Keynes, who a dozen years before had borrowed the title of his “General Theory” from Einstein. These kinds of inside jokes will, of course, take decades to get straight. In a 35th anniversary edition of Foundations , Samuelson wrote, “What interested its young author most … was the success it could achieve in formulating a general theory of economic theories.”  

 

From the very beginning, however, Foundations took dead aim, not at Keynes, but at Principles.

 

For a time, Samuelson explained, he had hoped to render his discussion non-technical, at least of basic topics. Then it became clear that such an effort, though possible, would have required a book many times longer than the equation-packed 439-page Foundations that eventuated – and very much harder to read.

 

So why bother translating intrinsically clear mathematical logic into literary propositions? “I have come to feel,” he wrote, “that Marshall ‘s dictum that ‘It seems doubtful any one spends his time well in reading lengthy translations of economic doctrines into mathematics, that have not been made by himself’ should be exactly reversed.

 

“The laborious literary working over of essentially simple mathematical concepts such as is characteristic of much of modern economic theory is not only unrewarding from the standpoint of advancing the science, but involves as well mental gymnastics of a particularly depraved type.”

Hence the frontispiece, “Mathematics is a language,” a sentiment attributed to J. Willard Gibbs the great American physicist of the mid-19th century.

   

“Most economic treatises are concerned either with the description of some part of the world of reality or with the elaboration of particular elements abstracted from the reality,” began Samuelson. “Implicit in such analyses there are certain recognizable formal uniformities, which are indeed characteristic of all scientific method.

 

“It is proposed here to investigate these common features in the hope of demonstrating how it is possible to deduce general principles which can serve to unify large sectors of present-day economic theory.”

 

Whereupon he did just that – restating the theories of consumption and production in more general terms than ever before, using mathematics to reason through to many conclusions otherwise invisible even to a sophisticated intuition.

 

Much of Foundations had originally appeared as papers, some as early as 1937. The manuscript itself had been accepted by Harvard as a dissertation in 1941. It languished unpublished throughout World War II, its essentials circulating freely among the relatively small community of elite theorists, the whole finally emerging between hard covers only in 1947.  

 

Theorist-turned-historian-of-thought Jurg Niehans described Foundations this way:   “Displaying a mastery of calculus, differential and difference equations that was stupendous at the time (but soon became standard under its influence), the book restated, clarified and developed the intuitive reasoning of John Hicks’ Value and Capital in the lucid language of mathematics… Among the many fundamental ideas the book put forth, none was perhaps more pregnant than the insight that Lagrange multipliers have an economic interpretation as prices, later to be called shadow prices.”

 

(So vexed by the bold mathematics was the chairman of the Harvard department, Harold Burbank, who had been required to publish his thesis by the rules of a prize Samuelson had won, that he insisted the laboriously hand-set plates with their extensive mathematical notation be destroyed after a press run of only 1,500 copies – thus insuring that no new edition would appear until Harvard understood a revenge-served-cold 35 th anniversary edition. Long before 1947, however, Samuelson had responded to the series of Harvard snubs by moving two miles down the street to MIT).

 

And since no longer was it possible to speak to all those who needed economics with a single book, the very next year Samuelson published a second, very different work. The first edition of Economics: An Introductory Analysis appeared in 1948 – and quickly became the single best-selling college text of all time, the model on which virtually all its successful competitors have been patterned ever since.  

 

For the college text, Samuelson stripped away the concern with the scientific fundamentals that animated Foundations . He emphasized instead the quick-and-dirty consensus that had developed in the previous ten years around the bare bones of Keynesian macroeconomics – what within a few years he would dub “the neoclassical synthesis.” Thus did he deliver on the subtitle he had chosen for his thesis barely a decade before: “The Operational Significance of Economic Theory.”

 

Again, Niehans on Economics , the text: “No other book has contributed so much to the emergence of a universal body of economic theory that is considered standard wherever teaching and learning are free.” Virtually everywhere in the industrial democracies but the University of Chicago, Marshall ‘s Principles and its near-substitutes were swept aside.

 

To Samuelson, the comparison with Marshall today must seem no better than a “left-handed compliment.” That’s because the compromises that Marshall made in the name of Victorian common sense were precisely those to whose clearing-up Samuelson devoted his career. In 1967, he put is this way: “[T]he ambiguities of Alfred Marshall paralyzed the best brains in the Anglo-Saxon branch of our profession for three decades.”   To outsiders, even a large-scale reduction in ambiguities may not seem as important as the influence over others that Foundations achieved, unless, of course, they conclude that the history of economics more or less ended with the appearance of the book. To a thorough-going scientist like Samuelson, however, pedagogical immortality must seem like second place.

 

Yet Marshall and Samuelson have three distinctive accomplishments in common. Each demonstrated the use of a language that immediately was adopted by the rest of the profession. With each, the mountain moved to Mohammed. While Marshall lived, Cambridge, England, was economics’ most vital center, and for another decade after he died in 1924. Thereafter leadership shifted to the New World, and, thanks to Samuelson, to Cambridge, Mass. Finally, Marshall, like Samuelson, was eclectic and ran an open system. Other economists were encouraged to join in.

 

To put their respective achievements in perspective, consider that Samuelson’s split-level codification is only the fifth basic text that economics has embraced since it was organized along scientific lines, the charter of each lasting around fifty years.   First there was Adam Smith, whose An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Forty years later, in 1817, David Ricardo’s The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation displaced it. A mere thirty years on, Principles of Political Economy by John Stuart Mill appeared in 1848. In 1890 came Marshall, and in Paul Samuelson in 1947. In due course, someone else will doubtless take Samuelson’s place.

 

That is not to say, of course, that there weren’t many other great and a perhaps a few even greater individual economists in those years, whose luck-of-the-draw discoveries may cause them to be remembered even longer. Consider, for example, John von Neumann. Or Kenneth Arrow. Or John Nash. Or Ronald Coase. But the intellectual history of a discipline is very different from its social history.

 

The two men differ in another important respect. Marshall was something of a failure as a human being. He never finished an intended second volume of his text. He spent his time giving testimony to commissions instead of scouting out and working through the contradictions in his work. “Frail and dyspeptic,” said a friend. “A man for all seasons – and none,” wrote his biographer.

 

Samuelson, on the other hand, is still going strong, tack-sharp and playing winning tennis twice a week. His collected papers fill five volumes and will require a sixth – reflecting a rich array of contributions across the length and breadth of economics. And “He had a hell of a lot of fun doing it,” says his friend Carl Kaysen.   Only a little adjustment (to reflect his dedication to 20 th century scientific ideals) is required to apply to him the economium Keynes bestowed upon the “master-economist” Marshall : “He must be a mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in word. He must study the present in light of the past for purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard.”

 

So as a vigorous Samuelson approaches 90 (he was born in 1915), it just might make sense for the gift committee to think of commemorating his vast and benign influence on scientific economics with something a little more personal and durable than another professorship. Those four empty pedestals in the great hall at 77 Massachusetts Avenue are not going to be filled any time soon – what a dustup if they tried! In fact, it is far too soon to know who most deeply has made the modern MIT.   But there can’t be much doubt that scientific economics in the second half of the 20th century belonged to Samuelson and Cambridge, Massachusetts, much as most of the first half belonged to Marshall and Cambridge, England. For that reason alone it would be nice to have a bust.

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