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October 30, 2011
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Grand Minds, Beautiful Pursuits

It’s a recurrent theme here at EP that “news values,” nurtured in the West for the last hundred and fifty years mainly by broadsheet newspapers and magazines, are an important part of world culture, different from, but intimately related to, law, politics, history, the arts, science and religion.  News values have to do with truth, quickly and tentatively assayed. They are not easy to define (though, to his great credit, Jack Fuller, long of the Chicago Tribune, has tried, twice). You know them when you see them, however, or, more commonly, when they fail to show up.

Accuracy is still a must, but the old virtues of brevity and clarity are in trouble, thanks to ever increasing bandwidth on the news producers’ side. Standards otherwise have been raised. Today the higher virtues include completeness (including inconvenient facts even when they may be detrimental to your case), comprehension (knowing what constitutes an adequate causal explanation) and ambition (tackling hard questions).

News values are on display in a couple of recent books about economics by distinguished journalists:  Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, by Mary Gabriel, and Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar.

Both books have bright red covers. Both are exceptionally interesting on the London of the 1840s and 1850s (Gabriel even has terrific maps). Both authors have advanced far beyond the daily journalism of their youth to the higher art of biography. Nasar previously wrote the biography of Nobel laureate John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, which director Ron Howard turned into a highly successful film of the same name. Both offer assessments of the place in history of Karl Marx and his loyal friend Friedrich Engels. The resemblance ends there, however.

Love and Capital is exactly what its publisher says it is:  a story of “the unyielding love that bound together a man and a woman in the midst of history’s whirlwind” – plenty of love (and not a little passion), painstakingly documented, but otherwise all whirlwind and no history.

Grand Pursuits, on the other hand, is intellectual history, expertly related through biography – the century and a half since 1848, seen through the business conducted among economists Alfred Marshall, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek, all of it more or less in opposition to Marx, until Marx finally disappears in a puff of smoke in a chapter devoted to the late Joan Robinson, cleverly situated between climactic portraits of Paul Samuelson, her greatest antagonist, and Amartya Sen, her prize pupil.

Mary Gabriel, who lives in Italy, is the author of two well-received biographies: Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored and The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone. (She was previously a Reuters editor, in Washington and London, for nearly twenty years.)  In Love and Capital, she has produced a highly readable  biography of an ambitious pair of teen-age sweethearts, hounded out as troublemakers from Germany, France and Belgium in the turbulent decade before the revolutions of 1848, who finally settled down in London with their children to a life of Dickensian twists and turns.

Gabriel is a meticulous and tireless researcher. She deeply admires the human qualities of her subjects.  And she is attentive enough to the overall situation to have turned a few lines from Balzac, which occupy a special place in understanding Marx, both the man and his work, into a frontispiece to the chapter on the appearance of Das Capital.

It was the spring of 1867.  Volume I was finally finished, after many years of aggravating delay.  On the eve of delivering the proof pages to Engels, his single best reader, Marx recommended that his loyal supporter read the French author’s recent short story, The Unknown Masterpiece, about a painter who, similarly, after many years of work and much anticipation, has unveiled a masterpiece whose significance only he could discern.

“Do you see anything?” Poussin whispered to Porbus.

“No.  Do you?”

“Nothing.”

“The old fraud’s pulling our leg.”

Marx himself possessed a fine sense of irony, but his supporters only rarely did. As to what was done during the next hundred years in the prophet’s name, Gabriel is, as far as I can tell, pretty completely unconcerned. Her book ends with two young Russians bicycling out to the Paris suburb of Dravail to visit Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband Paul LaFargue at their home. Vladimir Lenin and his wife wanted to chat – he about the practical implications of Marxist theory, she about Laura’s gardens.

Eighteen months later the LaFargues were dead, a mutual suicide by potassium cyanide (“…For many years I promised myself not to live past seventy years…. Long live Communism!” read his note). And six years after that, Lenin traveled by train to Petrograd to take charge of the Russian Revolution. “[W]hether Marx would have recognized his ideas in their communist state is debatable,” write Gabriel.  The epigraph is from George Bernard Shaw:  “He did the greatest literary feat a man can do.  Marx changed the mind of the world.”   About many things, I would say.

Nasar’s topic, too, is men and women whose ideas changed the mind of the world, but she takes a much broader view, and puts Marx in historical perspective along the way. Her news values are first rate:  after a master degree in economics at New York University, she wrote for a time for Fortune magazine, then moved to The New York Times, where she was economics reporter until she left to write the book on Nash.  Today she teaches at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Fittingly enough, an early hero of the book is Henry Mayhew, a peripatetic journalist who had been co-founder of the humor magazine Punch.

About the time the Marx family arrived in London, Mayhew undertook an 88-part newspaper series for the Morning Chronicle on the city’s overcrowded slums. “Labour and the Poor” expressed the view that an economics that did “justice as well to the workman as to the employer, stands foremost among the desiderata, or the things wanted, in the present age.”  To describe the London of 1849, Nasar enlists not just Mayhew, but Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Nathan Rothschild, Engels and the reports of a Prussian agent who spied on Marx, all within a few brisk pages.  This is rich, compulsively readable stuff.  To get an idea of how it all fits together, watch this four-minute video narrated by Nasar.

The digs at Marx come with some regularity. He only polished the rough drafts of theory that Engels, a part-time journalist, gave him. He quickly shipped off the son he fathered with the family maid to a foster family, while the maid remained behind to care for his family.  He never visited a factory. “Had Marx stepped outside and taken a good look around like Henry Mayhew, or engaged brilliant contemporaries such as John Stuart Mill who were grappling with the same questions, he might have seen that the world wasn’t working the way that he and Engels predicted,” writes Nasar, perhaps a little uncharitably.

But then she came by her opinions of Marxism the old fashioned way:  she earned them. Born in Germany in 1947, she was the daughter of a Bavarian Catholic mother and an Uzbek father who became a career officer for the US Central Intelligence Agency. The Cold War was a fact that thoroughly conditioned her daily life. (“It is almost axiomatic that behind every extraordinary woman there is a remarkable father,” she writes of one of her characters.)  Four years as a research assistant to Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief after college presumably brought those concerns into adulthood:  he had been among the technocratic refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution.  And as the daughter of an intelligence agent, Nasar devotes more attention than usual to the Soviet spies, including a handful of economists.

Her hero is Alfred Marshall, of Cambridge University, author in 1890 of the great Victorian text, Principles of Economics.  “The desire to put mankind in the saddle is the mainspring of most economic study,” he wrote, and Nasar credits him and the others who came after him with having made “one of the most radical discoveries of all time”: that intervention could ameliorate the lot of humankind. “Before 1870 [when Marshall and others of his ilk began their studies] economics was mostly about what you couldn’t do.  After 1870, it was mostly about what you could do.”

Thus Beatrice Webb, who by dint of founding the London School of Economics, more or less invented the welfare state, or at least gave its proponents a focal point. Irving Fisher put American economics on the world map with a hydraulic model that illustrated the mathematics of his thesis. The book really takes off when it becomes a quartet in which Fisher, Keynes, Schumpeter and Hayek debate the lesson of the 1920s and prescribe measures to end the Great Depression.

Instead of taking on the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions directly, she turns the fascinating Robinson, of Cambridge University, into a major figure.  A key member of the circle around Keynes, a vigorous theorist in her own right in the Marshallian mode, Robinson became infatuated with Marxism early on and, as a “trophy intellectual,” made repeated journeys to Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang between the 1950s and 1970s to argue that, as she put it in 1953, “private enterprise has ceased to be the form of organization best suited to take advantage of modern technology.” Nasar writes,

She relished her celebrity, her junkets, the VIP treatment, and bully pulpits. She liked playing the fearless outsider speaking truth to power.  Perhaps the Moscow bank account, friendships with Cold War spies, including Solomon Adler, Frank Coe, Donald Wheeler, and Oscar Lange, and the need for veiled allusions and careful elisions gave her a kick as well.

(The accusation that Polish economist Oskar Lange was “a central planner who collaborated with the KGB” is perhaps the only departure from good news practice in Nasar’s book. A first-rate technical economist who emigrated in 1937 and taught at the University of Chicago for a time, Lange returned to communist Poland at the end of World War II and held several posts in the government. He died in 1965.  “I never heard any allegations of spying or earlier association with the KGB,” Robert Solow, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote recently in The New Republic in a review of Grand Pursuit, “and Nasar provides no reference or evidence.”)

It’s a brilliant way to tell a story whole. Gabriel’s preface to Love and Capital ends with an intuition of great cataclysms yet to come, the result of the crisis that reached its “first peak” in the autumn of 2008, which renders Marx more prescient and compelling than ever. Nasar focuses Grand Pursuits on the revolution that has already happened, directing attention at the end to the life and times of Sen, the first Asian economist to win the Nobel Prize (for contributions to welfare economics) and an avatar of what economics is becoming once again in the twenty-first century.  It is hard to overstate the merits of Nasar’s book. Not since Barbara Tuchman has there been more imaginative and readable interpreter of historical trends.

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