Robert Solow on Sylvia Nasar
By David Henderson
But this suggested theme does not hold up. The book is not “The Story of Economic Genius” that is promised in the subtitle. It is instead the story of the public and private lives of a handful of major figures in economics, some of them pretty clearly possessed of “economic genius,” at least part of the time, and some of them pretty clearly not, unless one plays fast and loose with the notion of genius. Most surprisingly, there is not much about the evolution of economic ideas in this book, either in the way Dickens hoped or otherwise. There is a lot of quite fascinating biographical detail about a series of interesting economists, and even more about the political, financial, and economic setting in which they functioned. Nasar spends much more time on the public role of her subjects than on their thoughts about economics itself. They were indeed all public figures of one kind or another. Many of them were also important economists, but you do not hear much about that at all; and when you do, the book skimps on intellectual content.
This is from Robert Solow’s highly critical review of Sylvia Nasar’s new book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. Solow’s review is titled “Working in the Dark” and is in the September 28 issue of the New Republic. Solow, a long-time economics professor at MIT and the winner of the 1987 Nobel prize in economics, is one of the best writers in the business.
One of the most surprising statements in Solow’s review is the following:
When I first studied economics in 1940, we were not given Marshall to read as a textbook; it would probably have been an improvement if we had.
That got me wondering: what textbook was Solow assigned?
Another interesting passage:
So far as economics, as understood by economists, is concerned, Schumpeter contributed one important and fertile idea, and he had formulated it by 1912. It was the insight that the dynamics of a capitalist economy are driven by technological and organizational innovation, and the key figure in this process is the entrepreneur who mediates between sheer invention and the market economy. He also emphasized the importance of credit creation as the mechanism that places resources in the hands of active entrepreneurs.
It’s great to see Solow acknowledge the important role of entrepreneurs. Few of our textbooks today do so. In his own work, Solow tends to discount factors that are hard to quantify or leave them to an unidentified residual.
When I was an undergrad at the University of Western Ontario in 1971/72, Solow came to evaluate the economics department and to give a seminar. At the time, he was working on urban economics and had a model in which the value of property was directly related to the distance from the city center. I had gone to the seminar hoping to see him talk, in more economic terms than Jane Jacob, about what made cities “work” or not work. In Q&A, I asked him if he could link his work to that of Jane Jacobs in her Death and Life of Great American Cities. He answered, “Not really. There’s nothing ethnic in my model.”