Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, has undertaken another ambitious project, this time a larger survey of economic thought. The result is a colorful and fast-moving narrative, brimming with fascinating characters and lively anecdotes. In a word, this book is a pleasure to read. Sylvia Nasar’s experiences as a successful writer and professor of journalism enable her to bring a distinct talent for story-telling along with outsider’s perspective to a field too often overlooked within and without the citadels of academe. (source: EH.Net by Robert E. Prasch, Department of Economics, Middlebury College – July 2012)

Though this book is a history of economic thought, it is far from comprehensive. Why certain figures or subjects are included and others neglected is, it must be said, something of a mystery. As far as I can tell, the answer seems to be how well they fit the larger project, which is to present an unabashedly Whig history of economics. However, that said, I was pleased that she elected to devote several pages to figures such as Henry Mayhew (pp. 18-22 and 28-32) and a full chapter to Beatrice Webb (Chapter 3). As Nasar correctly points out, each of them made substantial contributions to popular and elite discussions of poverty and what might be done to alleviate it. Unmentioned, but as important, was they set an example of engaged empirical work that would lead to improved methods of data collection and analysis. Over time, these efforts would greatly improve our understanding of what we know, or think we know, about the actual economic condition of our fellow citizens. Again, Nasar is to be commended for this inclusion because, as readers of EH.Net are probably aware, books on history of economic thought generally stress the development of economic theory to the neglect of other pursuits.

Now, that said, historians of economic thought will find much to criticize. As mentioned, this history is far from comprehensive. With its whiggish perspective providing a powerful filter, some important movements and writers are treated at length, others mentioned briefly (and too-often inaccurately), and others neglected altogether. For example, German Historicists are summarized and then dismissed as if they all merely echoed Gustav Schmoller on matters of economic theory and policy. Elsewhere, Nasar makes a passing reference to “so-called institutionalists” without suggesting why she wishes to downplay their role, although in another place Wesley Mitchell is referred to as a leader in business cycle research. John Commons makes no appearance whatsoever despite the prominence of the Wisconsin School in policy discussions throughout the Progressive Era. Another peculiar omission, since she so clearly appreciates the empirical studies conducted by Mayhew and Webb, is that several prominent figures of the English Historical School fail to appear at all. With regard to the subjects covered, the weakest link is her treatment of Karl Marx. She clearly dislikes him, which in itself is not objectionable, except insofar as it constitutes a barrier to her analysis. For example, Labor Theory of Value is dismissed in a cavalier manner before any serious effort is made to present or understand it. She suggests things might have gone better if Marx had “engaged brilliant contemporaries such as John Stuart Mill”. She appears not to notice John Stuart Mill dutifully followed his mentor David Ricardo in adhering to the Labor Theory of Value. If Marx was confused on the theory of value, he was in excellent company.

The Treatment of the post-World War II scene is also idiosyncratic. She begins with an extended and highly compelling treatment of Paul Samuelson. Few would doubt rationale for this emphasis. However, the discussion moves on to a lengthy discussion of Joan Robinson followed by a similarly in-depth review of the life and work of Amartya Sen. Now, I have read and learned from the work of both of these prominent scholars. However, economists and historians of economic thought would likely agree that even a passing discussion of past fifty years of economic analysis must include more than a brief reference to the work of John Hicks, Kenneth Arrow, the Chicago School, rise and decline of Monetarism, Rational Expectations “revolution” of the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, most mysterious lacuna of all, in light of Nasar’s wonderfully successful book on John Nash, may be the absence of any discussion of how Game Theory evolved from a fringe subject to its now-central place in contemporary microeconomics, Organizational Theory, Industrial Organization. But let us set these objections aside so that we may emphasize most important aspect of this book. For too long the history of economic thought has not had an accessible, fun, and potentially popular book we can recommend to our friends, colleagues, and students who are not members of our “guild”. While Nasar’s political commitments are very different, her entertaining style and captivating narrative suggests that her book has potential to occupy the several niches once dominated by Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. Should this occur, her work contribute to a revival of interest in history of economic thought, we will be in debt to Professor Nasar.

Link: https://eh.net/book_reviews/grand-pursuit-story-economic-genius 

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