Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius
How much should the government intervene in the economy of a free society? Sylvia Nasar traces a century of debate.
Unlike mathematicians, economists donât excel at solving problems.
Some open questions: Did the New Deal work, or did we need World War II to escape the Great Depression? Did the Soviet Unionâs collapse prove Marx wrong? Should we return to the gold standard? Post-Bear Stearns, does America need stimulus or austerity? If free markets are superior to command economies, why is the US teetering at the brink of a double-dip recession and the Eurozone in crisis?
Economics: It canât be a dismal science if itâs not even science.
Why donât economists know more? Sylvia Nasarâs Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius sidesteps this elephant in the Fedâs Board Room by, well, focusing on what they do know. âNobody debates any longer whether we should or shouldnât control our economic circumstances, only how,â Nasar writes. âRather than a history of economic thought, the book in your hands is the story of an idea that was born in the golden age before World War I.â
Like Robert L. Heilbronerâs 1953 classic âThe Worldly Philosophers,â âGrand Pursuitâ traces the evolution of economics through personalities, or âprotagonists who were instrumental in turning economics into an instrument of masteryâ: Friedrich Engels, Joseph Schumpeter, Irving Fisher and other theoretical all-stars who helped policymakers understand that poor people might not have to be poor. As sheâs shown before, Nasar is good at finding a compelling story amid academic drudgery. Author of the John Nash biography âA Beautiful Mind,â Nasar turned a schizophrenic, allegedly anti-Semitic mathematician into Russell Crowe. âGrand Pursuitâsâ triumphant thinkers get a similar treatment â not hagiography, but dramaturgy.
For Nasar, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a lonely critic of government intervention just as Europe was gearing up for World War II, is an exile in Cambridge where his âdeafness epitomized his isolation.â âThe Accumulation of Capitalâ by Joan Robinson, who defended John Maynard Keynesâs âGeneral Theoryâ as well as Chairman Maoâs totalitarian regime, is the unlikely work of a debutante âbeing groomed to support a husbandâs career rather than to pursue one of her own.â And Bengalese economist Amartya Senâs complex theoretical innovations are more remarkable because of his brutal colonial childhood.
âThe landlady of his rooming house, who had begged the college not to send her âColoreds,â fussed at him about such things as drawing the curtains at night,â Robinson writes of Senâs journey to Cambridge from Calcutta, where he survived primitive treatment for oral cancer. âThe effects of the radiation appeared: weeping skin, ulcers, bone pain, raw throat, difficulty in swallowing.... the misery lasted for nearly six months.â
Keynes, however, is âGrand Pursuitâsâ superman. A closeted homosexual ârecognized as a genius in adolescence,â Keynes was reviled for speaking out against burdensome reparation payments in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. âKeynes blasted the treaty as a rank betrayal by the older generation of political leaders,â Nasar writes. âNot only had the Big Four done nothing to restore the prewar European economy, but they had not seriously considered the need to do so.â
After a great depression and another world war, the Marshall Plan would show the power of Keynesâs once-heretical belief that victors shouldnât charge vanquished, but help them rebuild. âBy 1941, Keynesians were scattered around the wartime bureaucracy in Washington like raisins in a cake,â Nasar writes.
But Nasarâs focus on big names means she overlooks smaller ones. At 77, Sen is the youngest economist she profiles. Prominent Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith wrote almost 50 books; Nasar gives him three pages. Post-Marxist Jean Baudrillard, whose âSymbolic Exchange and Deathâ offers a damning theoretical indictment of capitalism, doesnât merit a mention. Quibbles over whoâs left out of this whoâs who aside, âGrand Pursuitâsâ grander problem is that itâs a good book that comes at a bad time.
âKeynes and Hayek never fully resolved their long-running debate over how much and what kind of government intervention in the economy is compatible with a free society,â Nasar writes. Yet, this unresolved debate, dismissed in an aside, is the root of President Obama and Republicansâ inability to compromise on the national deficit, the trade deficit, entitlement reform, tax reform, health care and climate change. (Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann take note: Nasar offers a more nuanced view of Hayek, who claimed âWe cannot seriously argue that the government ought to do nothing.â ) A history of an almost century-old ideological feud is interesting, but doesnât pick a winner. In 2011, as European markets tumble and China challenges the West for economic dominance, a winner is what we need.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.