David R. Henderson  

Sylvia Nasar's Grand Pursuit

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The idea that humanity could turn tables on economic necessity--mastering rather than being enslaved by material circumstances--is so new that Jane Austen never entertained it.
With an opening sentence like that, I thought, Sylvia Nasar's Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius will be, well, grand.

But it's not. It goes downhill from there. A few months ago, I highlighted a paragraph from Bob Solow's critical review of her book. It was pretty negative. Surely, I thought, he exaggerated and we'll learn a lot about the grand pursuit of the idea of constant improvement in economic well-being. Well, I was wrong and he was right. The economics gets short shrift: it's almost an afterthought.

Moreover, she sometimes gets the history wrong, in important ways. As early as page 4, I got a little nervous. On that page, Nasar writes:

An Essay on the Principle of Population, published first in 1798 and five more times before his [Malthus's] death in 1834, inspired Charles Darwin and the other founders of evolutionary theory and prompted Carlyle to dismiss economics as the "dismal science."

Like Nasar, I had always thought that it was Malthus's essay that led to Carlyle's coining of the term, "dismal science." But that's wrong. And not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Here's a paragraph from David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart that sets the record straight:
While this story [essentially the one Nasar told] is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle's target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus's predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact--that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty--that led Carlyle to label economics "the dismal science." [bold mine]

What a party animal that Thomas Carlyle was. If opposition to slavery is "dismal," what was Carlyle's idea of "cheerful?"

Still, a lot of people still get the Carlyle point wrong, and so I read on.

I did learn a lot I hadn't known about Marx. Part of the reason is that she discusses Marx's economic views more than those of any of the other people she highlights [at least up to page 136, when I finally quit.] One shocker, on page 47, was that Marx lied about what British Prime Minister William Gladstone had said about the astonishing increase in income between 1853 and 1863. Gladstone had said that the incomes of British laborers had increased by an "extraordinary" amount. Marx, desperately seeking evidence for his idea that the working class was doing badly, claimed that Gladstone had said that the increase in income was "entirely confined to classes of property." A slight difference, that.

Where I started to have real doubts was when I hit the section on Alfred Marshall. There is one passage in particular, a section where Nasar discusses Marshall's support of unions. Nasar writes:

In fact, he [Marshall] had successfully demonstrated why labor markets do not always produce fair wages, and why unions can lead to greater efficiency as well as equity. [I wrote in the margin, "how?" Will Marshall make a "worker monopoly to offset an employer monopsony" argument? I wondered.] He'd "been asked to speak of the laws of supply and demand," Marshall began. He poured scorn on the union's opponents who held wages were at their "natural level" because, if they weren't, other employers would have offered the workers more, and if a worker's "wages be raised artificially they will come down again." This was Ricardo's iron law of wages, accepted even by many who sympathized with the plight of the workers. The argument was "excellent," Marshall admitted, but the assumptions false. No farmer would offer a neighbor's hired hands more to come and work for him. What's more, higher wages would make the workers more productive by allowing them to be better fed.

But wait. Anyone who has read much of Marshall knows what a sharp economist he was. Didn't he realize that if paying workers higher wages makes them more productive, and if the increase in wages were even slightly less than the increase in productivity, the employer would have an incentive to pay more, with or without the union? Now, it's true that Marshall wrote the quoted passages when he was 31. He had 50 years of being a good economist ahead of him. So, later in life, did Marshall understand my rather elementary point? Or is it possible that Nasar is inserting her own views, since the passage I quoted about workers being more productive is not in quotation marks? Inquiring minds want to know. Unfortunately, she doesn't tell us.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Mark Brady writes:

The story about Marx and Gladstone rang a bell and very quickly I found what I was looking for:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/brentano/2-docs.htm

There you can read the original documents in the continuing exchange between Karl Marx (and his defenders) and Lujo Brentano (and his defenders) about what Gladstone did or did not say in his budget speech of April 16, 1863, and make up your own mind.

Michael J Green writes:

Phew, thanks for this. I had put the book high on my wish list and was hoping to get it on Christmas; I did not. And luckily, I also didn't get Kahneman's book, so I picked that up for myself before rushing to buy this. Now I know to spend my time and money elsewhere.

It's unfortunate, as both this and Nicholas Wapshott's Keynes Hayek appear to be duds. I have the itch for some popular economic history.

Ken B writes:

I second the thanks.
Is there a good reasonably sophisticated book on the history of economic thought for those of us who didn't study economics?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Brady,
Thanks. As I started to work through the items on the link you gave, I realized that it was a lot of work to discover one fact. I’m guessing you’ve read it. Would you be willing to share with us your bottom line?
@Michael J Green,
You’re welcome. By the way, I don’t think Wapshott’s book is a dud. See my post on it here, which references my review of it here.
@Ken B,
You’re welcome. There are a number but it has been decades since I’ve read them. I’ll ask some of my history of thought friends. This probably isn’t what you want, but if you want bios of the great economists that summarize their views and give some of the analysis behind them, read the bios in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. I wrote almost all of them and, while I dreaded it in prospect, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the multi-year project. Believe it or not--and if Dan Klein reads this comment, he will probably be all over me--the best book I know of that goes through Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is P.J. O’Rourke’s book on The Wealth of Nations.

Ken B writes:

David,
Thanks, I would be interested. I did read PJ's book on Smith and quite liked it.

Speaking of odd books, the book that got me interested in Public Choice was Parasite Rex by Zimmer, which is a popular biology book. Once you start seeing parasitism everywhere ...

A bit off topic, but in software -- the fields where I moil for my daily bread -- libertarian ideas are rather popular (not as popular as Obama style dirigisme but more popular than on the random campus). This is beacuse the principles of good object oriented design read a bit like a political tract for localized autonomy and responsibility, and the centrality of contract. So I (mischieviously) recommend Meyer's Object Oriented Software Construction to people as a political book. (And it has a chapter where Meyer draws liberatarian style conclusions explicitly.)

Mark Brady writes:

@David Henderson

I guess I read more than you although I certainly didn’t read every word. It seems to me that Andrew Adonis is on target when he summarizes this exchange in his thoughtful article on Gladstone, Marx and Modern Progressives (see pp. 2-3).

“The Times’ report is a verbatim transcript, whereas speeches were ‘corrected’ by MPs before their appearance in Hansard. It is clear enough that Gladstone rewrote the passage to remove the implication that the labouring masses, unpropertied, had gained only a few crumbs from a boom for the rich. The time was not ripe for such an admission.”

(Adonis was a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and a Liberal Democrat when he wrote this essay. Subsequently he was ennobled and became a minister and, later, a cabinet minister in Gordon Brown’s administration.)

Mark Brady writes:

Oops! Here are links that work.

This is the link to the essay on Marx and Gladstone.

And this is the link to Adonis, who by then had left Nuffield College to work as Public Policy Editor at the Financial Times.

Mark Brady writes:

@ Ken B

I teach History of Economic Thought to students at San Jose State University. I used to require students to read Harry Landreth and David C. Colander's History of Economic Thought, 4th ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), really quite good but unfortunately no longer in stock with the distributors. (Don't settle for anything other than the 4th ed.) Last fall I used Israel M. Kirzner's The Economic Point of View (1960; Liberty Fund, 2009), which is not an easy read but a scholarly introduction to the changing character of economics since the eighteenth century (a revised version of his doctoral thesis under Ludwig Mises), and Bo Sandelin et al., A Short History of Economic Thought, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2008), which is remarkably comprehensive for such a short book.

Ken B writes:

Mark Brady: Danke sehr. I have found and ordered Landreth Colander via an online seller.

Next time I must be careful ask for a cheap recommendation!

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