A Christmas Story

Sylvia Nasar’s account of the social lives of great economists is an engaging portal to an otherwise technical subject.

|
Posted in Uncategorized

Having been brought up Christian, and still identifying thus, I am partial to the Christmas holiday, for all the variation of its interpretation over time. Therefore EP is taking the day off.

I did, however, spend part of the week re-reading, at a fast clip, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2011), by Sylvia Nasar, to refresh my memory of the story she tells about Christmas.

The book begins with an account of the circumstances in which Charles Dickens, the greatest chronicler of Victorian England, wrote A Christmas Carol. In 1843, against the background of national demands for universal male suffrage in Britain, Dickens set out to combat the gloomy views of Thomas Malthus and others of his ilk concerning the relationship between population growth and living standards then dominant in parlors of the English upper classes.

Elaborating a scholarly paper by economic historian James Henderson, Nasar describes how Dickens hoped his story might have “twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – of a political pamphlet.” And so it has. Dickens’ view of the importance of moral sympathy in a world on the verge of becoming a planet productive enough to share all around has become the standard interpretation of Christmas Present. God bless us, every one!

Grand Pursuit is not a chronicle of the intellectual development of present-day economics. Instead it is a social history of the lives of several great economists of the last hundred and fifty years. Her central character is Alfred Marshall, author of the late Victorian textbook that dominated the subject for forty years until mathematics began to take over.  Her anti-hero is Joan Robinson, who eventually replaced Marshall as personage-in-chief at Cambridge University, whose enthusiasm for the economics of Mao Zedong only grew greater with the passage of time.

In between are the lives of four figures of the first half of the twentieth century – John Maynard Keynes, Irving Fisher, Joseph Schumpeter, and Friedrich Hayek – and two of the second, Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman. A final chapter about Amartya Sen offers a glimpse of things to come.  All is as entertaining and cheerful as Christmas dinner with the Cratchit family.

Nasar’s take on the history of economics appeared at just the wrong time a dozen years ago – too soon after her  great success with a biography of surprise Nobel laureate John Nash, A Beautiful Mind; three  years after the financial crisis of 2008; just as the European debt crisis reached the boil. Ill-titled and orphaned by the retirement of its editor, Grand Pursuit did not get the attention it deserved. Yet it reads as well today as when it first appeared, perhaps better.

Why better?  Glints of Nasar’s own life turn up occasionally in the telling. Born in Germany in 1947 to a Bavarian mother and an Uzbek father (who worked for many years for the US Central Intelligence Agency), Nasar has lived much of her life against the backdrop of the Cold War. Her chronicle of those years offers strong reinforcement for those who identify with Ukrainian aspirations.

In reviewing Grand Pursuit, Robert Solow, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recommended Economics Evolving: A History of Economic Thought (Princeton, 2011) to those who want to know more about how economics has continued to unfold. He had some kind words for Nasar as well.

These performances on the public stage are one vehicle, maybe the most important vehicle, which carries the results of economic research to broader attention. Without them, serious economic ideas might never have the opportunity to influence policies and events.

In other words, social scientists and humanists need one another. Intelligent lay readers need both.