NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Laurence J. Kotlikoff

GET UPDATES FROM Laurence J. Kotlikoff
 

Sylvia's Grand Pursuit Is a Grand Gift

Posted: 06/19/2012 3:30 am

Sylvia Nasar's Grand Pursuit is a marvelous intellectual and social history of economics, economists, and economic times during the century when economics came into its own, 1850 through 1950.

The book is a true page-turner. Nasar weaves people, places, politics, banking, social injustice, war, depression, recession, personal relations, personalities, sex, anti-Semitism, self-doubt, physical impairment, espionage, poverty, personal finance, self-delusion, self-interest, and much more in a book that educates as thoroughly and gracefully as it entertains.

Other economists, including Robert Solow, have reviewed this book and picked nits about the breath of its economic analysis. But for my money, Nasar does a truly splendid job conveying the essentials. Yes, much more could have been said about the contributions of each of the scholars covered in the Grand Pursuit. But spending pages trying to parse Marx or Keynes, when much of what they wrote is indecipherable, would detract from conveying their main and meaningful messages.

Nasar should, in fact, be deemed the Bard of Economics. She has the rare gift of making a subject as dry as it gets as exciting and clear as can be.

Some reviewers have also griped about the subtitle's reference to economic genius, worrying that some of Nasar's cast of economic glitterati were not true geniuses and that some geniuses missed her boat.

I think this misses the point. The book is primarily about a quest, not about specific accomplishments. The quest is by men and women trying to understand whether economies will grow and, if so, why and to whose benefit. Many of the "geniuses" we meet along the way are self-appointed and self-satisfied. So the book's subtitle may be read as partly tongue in cheek. Moreover, the geniuses who make Nasar's cut are illustrative of the entire cohort of economists and political philosophers who strove to make sense of their own and other economies in the often-terrible times through which they passed.

While the book doesn't belabor this point, its underlying message is that the grand pursuit for economic understanding and material justice is a messy work pursued by people that are all too human. We find economists sticking to empty guns, overstating their cases, playing modern-day oracles, drinking their own Kool Aid, gambling their fortunes, losing their shirts, getting depressed, disparaging one another, and descending into intellectual oblivion.

But against this backdrop of human foible and often painful senescence, we also learn of economists changing their minds, respecting others' opinions, reaching consensus, jointly advancing the discipline, forming close friendships, spending time with one another, and passing the torch to the next generation.

Thus Keynes and Hayek are shown by Nasar, at the end of their careers, standing shoulder to shoulder on many central questions of economic policy -- not arguing inflexibly as in today's popular Youtube videos. We learn of Keynes and Irving Fisher seeing eye-to-eye in the Great Depression. We learn of Milton Friedman's early days as a Keynesian, of Schumpeter encouraging his star student Paul Samuelson, of Amatyra Sen's awe over and repugnance with his imperious mentor, Joan Robinson, and of Alfred Marshall vanquishing Thomas Malthus, Schumpeter transforming Marshall, and Solow mathematizing and quantifying both.

What emerges is a picture of a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-generational team effort in which consensus is difficult, but does emerge, albeit with new views, new members, and new disputes occurring over time. It's a pursuit of economic truth, for its own sake, but primarily for the sake of mankind. This makes the pursuit very grand, indeed, and makes Grand Pursuit a deep inspiration for any economist, young or old, to read.

The book's one terrible flaw is that it comes to an end when the reader has become so very addicted to its pages. Sylvia Nasar's second fabulous contribution to economics, which reflects such careful, detailed, and prolonged scholarship, should not, cannot, must not be her last. The Grand Pursuit continues. Economics' postwar story, as compelling and intriguing as its prewar story, needs, nay, demands telling, and Sylvia Nasar is the one to tell it.

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the author's name as 'Nassar,' which has since been corrected.

 

Follow Laurence J. Kotlikoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kotlikoff

FOLLOW BOOKS