David R. Henderson  

Lunch with John Nash

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Nobel prize winner John Nash is visiting my school, the Naval Postgraduate School, this week and is giving a speech tomorrow to the student body. Some of my economist colleagues and I had lunch with him today. He seems to be a gentle man.

Here's a highlight from the biography I wrote of him in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

As readers of Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, A Beautiful Mind, know, Nash contended with schizophrenia from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. As Nash put it in his Nobel autobiography, "I later spent time of the order of five to eight months in hospitals in New Jersey, always on an involuntary basis and always attempting a legal argument for release." His productivity suffered accordingly. But he emerged from his mental illness in the late 1980s. In his Nobel lecture, Nash noted his own progress out of mental illness:
Then gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.

That last sentence is my favorite.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
MHodak writes:

That should be engraved somewhere. I think it says something profound about people who build their entire lives around politically-oriented thinking.

Zac writes:

Not to go on a tangential Szaszian tirade, but I object to some of the wording here. Did he really "emerge from mental illness," or did he emerge from mental illness treatment? What disease did he have? How is he now cured? Plenty of people believe crazy and implausible things about the world, are they all sick? Involuntary commitment for "mental illness" is one of the great injustices of our society, and the use of the term "illness" to describe certain preferences and behavior patterns only serves to legitimize it.

For readers who've not seen it, here is a thought-provoking paper on the economics of mental illness (from a decidedly Szaszian perspective)

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Zac,
Good point. I'm quoting from what I wrote in 2005, well before I read Bryan Caplan's paper that you cite. Bryan took me a long way toward accepting Szasz's views, although not all the way. Although I don't, as Szasz does, totally reject the category of mental illness, I do wonder whether Nash was ever mentally ill.

Patrick writes:

I've been wondering if Nash has given any thought to how a "game" might be structured so as to allow the U.S. Government to purchase toxic assets from embattled banks in such a way that price discovery works to reasonable advantage for both sides.

MikeL writes:

Pardon the naive question, but what exactly did Nash mean by "politically oriented thinking"? Does that mean he has rejected political philosophy? Political strategy? Political parties? Please enlighten me.

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