By Arnold Kling
Since the name of Paul Samuelson came up recently, I thought I would toss out a few random impressions of him.
I only had Samuelson for one course, which I believe was in the Spring of 1977. It was part of the graduate theory sequence (gosh, I cannot remember if it was micro or macro–probably micro), and it covered capital theory. I think that what many students most enjoyed about the course was Samuelson’s pronunciation of the last name of Austrian capital theorist Eugen Von Bohm-Bawerk, which Samuelson rendered as “Bame-Bah-verick.” Both the pronunciation and the theory of capital as “round-about production” seemed exotic. My version of what Samuelson described of Austrian capital theory is given as part of my essay on The Sect of Austrian Economics.
Another salient memory from Samuelson’s class was a time he told a Gauss story. I had read the story before, which was that as a young boy Gauss did not like eating peas. His parents told him to simply eat half of them. He did, and then they told him to eat half of the remainder, and at that point he realized that if he continued to do this he would end up eating all of them, and he burst into tears. Samuelson told the story as “As a young boy, Gauss was fed some peas. Then he burst into tears.” Samuelson had no idea that he had skipped the entire middle of the story.
Samuelson’s famous papers also typically contained mistakes or skipped steps in his proofs. His work is riddled with careless errors, but he was almost always correct in his conclusions.
Samuelson belonged to a generation of economists whose leading lights were as brilliant as the top stars in any field. In the 1930’s, with the world economy in turmoil and the excitement created by John Maynard Keynes, economics drew a caliber of intellect that simply is not found in the profession today. Nowadays, a Samuelson or a Kenneth Arrow or a Milton Friedman would go into nanotechnology or computer technology or–most likely–biology.
Samuelson’s accomplishments are probably worth 2-1/2 times those of the average Nobel Prize winner in economics. His Foundations of Economic Analysis was exactly that–the basis for the bulk of all of the work published subsequently. However, if you removed that from his resume, you would still have his international trade theory, his part in the development of the efficient markets hypothesis, and his development of the “overlapping generations model” of the role of money as a store of value.
Although he certainly can hold his own in debates within the profession, Samuelson would be awkward and uncomfortable in contemporary media and politics. One cannot picture him appearing with Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly.
My guess is that Samuelson’s forthcoming paper, on the possibility of foreign growth being bad for a home country, will not make the highlight film for his career. The response by Bhagwati and others is a gentle but firm put-down.
For Discussion. Are the greatest minds in economics over the past three decades comparable to those of Samuelson’s generation?