Pursuits, grand and lesser

Sylvia Nasar’s [amazon_link id=”1841154563″ target=”_blank” ]Grand Pursuit: The Story of the People who Made Modern Economics[/amazon_link] was published in 2011, but I only picked up the paperback in the holidays and have just finished. It’s a rattling good read, as you would expect from the author of [amazon_link id=”0571212921″ target=”_blank” ]A Beautiful Mind[/amazon_link], and also very thoroughly researched. But I was disappointed, perhaps due to overly-high expectations. Some of the chapters are simply excellent, but the book doesn’t add up quite to the sum of its parts.

[amazon_image id=”1841154563″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Grand Pursuit: The Story of the People Who Made Modern Economics: A Story of Economic Genius[/amazon_image]

I did pick up lots of delightful new facts, always a pleasure to my magpie mind:

– Alfred Marshall was a feminist, to the extent that he financed an essay competition for female students and contributed a significant sum of £60 to the construction of Newnham, one of the first women’s colleges in Cambridge;

– Beatrice Webb influenced Winston Churchill to say at one stage (1906): “I should like to see the State embark on various novel and adventuresome experiments,” and went on to advocate nationalisation of the railways, a job guarantee and a minimum standard of living;

– a visit to a Carnegie Steel plant persuaded Beatrice Webb that technology would replace human labour;

– Keynes did not like the Webbs, especially in their pro-Soviet phase. On being asked to contribute an essay celebrating Beatrice’s 80th birthday, he said: “The only sentence that came to my mind spontaneously was that, ‘Mrs Webb, not being a Soviet politician, has managed to survive to the age of 80.'”

– Joan Robinson does not emerge as a likeable character either, but this comment of hers is amusing: “We cannot be recommended to overthrow anything merely because economists have talked nonsense about it.”

– the number of economists working in Washington rose from 100 in 1930 to 5,000 in 1938;

– Isaiah Berlin was in the British Embassy in Washington during World War 2, writing dispatches on the various activities of Keynes, on the one hand, and Milton Friedman, on the other. One of Friedman’s policy innovations was introducing the withholding of income tax at source by employers. It was, wrote home Berlin, “A tax bill of unprecedented dimensions.”

There is a lot of interesting material here. I think the problem for me is that it doesn’t hang together to tell the story of modern economics as promised. This is partly due to the selection of characters: was it really for reasons of gender balance that Beatrice Webb and Joan Robinson feature so prominently? But the others are obvious – Marx, Marshall, Hayek and Schumpeter, Keynes and Samuelson. I think Mill and other Victorians are a big omission – the book leaps straight to Marshall.

There is also so much good storytelling about the individuals that the big picture on the ideas front is lost in detail. It never quite emerges as either a linear history of thought or a clash of ideas (which [amazon_link id=”0393343634″ target=”_blank” ]Keynes-Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics [/amazon_link]did very effectively). Nor do you get the sense of a whole intellectual milieu, as in the brilliant [amazon_link id=”0571216102″ target=”_blank” ]The Lunar Men[/amazon_link] by Jenny Uglow (one of my all-time favourite books); the individuals are too prominent. Nasar has much more on the historical context of the ideas than does Heilbroner’s [amazon_link id=”0140290060″ target=”_blank” ]Worldly Philosophers[/amazon_link] but the links between the personal experiences of her subjects and their work don’t quite come off.

This is picky because it’s a good read and would be informative for students or newcomers to the history of economics. Looking back at a few reviews, it was obviously very well received when first published. I was just hoping for something better than [amazon_link id=”068486214X” target=”_blank” ]The Worldly Philosophers[/amazon_link], and it doesn’t live up to my hopes. [amazon_link id=”0691148422″ target=”_blank” ]Economics Evolving[/amazon_link] by Agnar Sandmo is the best recent book I’ve read on the history of economics, a really excellent account but perhaps too hard for newbies. Put it down to Seasonal Affective Disorder.


2 thoughts on “Pursuits, grand and lesser

  1. Re Joan Robinson, Beatrice Webb and the matter of gender balance. They were a couple of heavyweights. At LSE in the 1950’s I recall some academics working themselves into a lather about all the interesting work going on at Cambridge with Robinson and Kaldor. Personally, I didn’t buy it, rather too many ifs and buts and no allowances for the increasing pace of technical and social change. The liking of Robinson for North Korea and Chinese models did not help.

  2. Joan Robinson may or may not have been a likeable person but Nasar is very unfair to Joan Robinson. She makes it out as if she made no contributions to our subject at all. Even Friedman said she deserved the Nobel Prize. I get the impression Nasar had something personal against her!

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