By Arnold Kling
Robert Solow, in the guise of a review of McCraw’s biography, reviews Schumpeter himself.
The man was all problems, and one very important idea.
Earlier, Solow describes his own experience of Schumpeter.
I attended his courses on advanced economic theory and the history of economic thought. The theory lectures bordered on incoherent; they alluded to everything but analyzed nothing. He would say: “Of course you know about X or Y, so I do not have to go into detail.” But we didn’t know about X or Y, as he must have realized. The history lectures were also disappointing. I do not remember where they began, but at the end of the term they had barely reached Adam Smith. The course felt like a stage display of multilingual erudition.
Solow charitably allows that he only encountered Schumpeter late in the latter’s career. But I would bet that Schumpeter was not much better early in his career–it’s just that Schumpeter’s surface sophistication went over better with students who didn’t have Solow’s keen baloney-sandwich detector.
Solow is not a fan of long, grandiose treatises of the sort Schumpeter published. When he called Galbraith a “big thinker,” Solow was being famously uncomplimentary, and more recently he graded Keynes’ The General Theory as unreadable.
Solow looks at Schumpeter as a rival to Keynes, and that probably is how Schumpeter himself saw things. But I think that it was Samuelson who drove the economics profession away from Schumpeter. Samuelson’s economics-as-physics made equilibrium and comparative-statics analysis more rigorous, but it blotted out the issues of disequilibrium and economic growth. As Solow points out, the last few decades have seen a return to interest in these subjects, and consequently a revival of Schumpeter’s “one very important idea”–that entrepreneurs and creative destruction are central to the process of raising the standard of living.