Like Robert L. Heilbroner’s 1953 classic “The Worldly Philosophers,” “Grand Pursuit” traces the evolution of economics through personalities, or “protagonists who were instrumental in turning economics into an instrument of mastery”: 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 she’s shown before, Nasar is good at finding a compelling story amid academic drudgery. Author of the John Nash biography “A Beautiful Mind,” Nasar turned a schizophrenic, allegedly anti-Semitic mathematician into Russell Crowe. “Grand Pursuit’s” triumphant thinkers get a similar treatment – 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 “deafness epitomized his isolation.” “The Accumulation of Capital” by Joan Robinson, who defended John Maynard Keynes’s “General Theory” as well as Chairman Mao’s totalitarian regime, is the unlikely work of a debutante “being groomed to support a husband’s career rather than to pursue one of her own.” And Bengalese economist Amartya Sen’s complex theoretical innovations are more remarkable because of his brutal colonial childhood.
“The landlady of his rooming house, who had begged the college not to send her ‘Coloreds,’ fussed at him about such things as drawing the curtains at night,” Robinson writes of Sen’s journey to Cambridge from Calcutta, where he survived primitive treatment for oral cancer. “The effects of the radiation appeared: weeping skin, ulcers, bone pain, raw throat, difficulty in swallowing.... the misery lasted for nearly six months.”