Five Biographies of Economists
By Arnold Kling
This is a rich genre that is under-appreciated. With a quality biography, you can obtain a better understanding of the economist’s background and thinking.
1. Perry Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance. Portrays a unique individual. Besides revolutionizing finance with the Black-Scholes option pricing model, Fischer Black forever changed Wall Street by developing what is now known as quantitative finance.
2. Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946. If you can find it, read the original three-volume version. Skidelsky’s treatment of the Cambridge Apostles is fascinating, and it shows how anti-Victorianism influenced Keynes’ views about saving. (Note: Skidelsky was part of a live EconTalk panel discussion, “Capitalism, Government, and the Good Society”, in 2013. You can watch the video here.)
3. L. Randall Wray, Why Minsky Matters. Clear and accessible, unlike Minsky. (Amazon agrees: “Although a handful of economists raised alarms as early as 2000, Minsky’s warnings began a half-century earlier, with writings that set out a compelling theory of financial instability. Yet even today he remains largely outside mainstream economics; few people have a good grasp of his writings, and fewer still understand their full importance. Why Minsky Matters makes the maverick economist’s critically valuable insights accessible to general readers for the first time.”) I wrote a review of this book here for Econlib in 2015.)
5. E. Roy Weintraub, (ed.), MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Lots of great stuff, especially Beatrice Cherrier’s essay. This last one is really a collective biography. I recommend it more highly than the Samuelson biography by Backhouse, who contributes an essay in the Weintraub volume. (Here is my summary review of this book, also from 2015.)
I am probably leaving out some very good ones. A lot of folks have praised Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschmann. I did not come away with any new insights into economics, but Adelman offers a fascinating portrait of his subject, particularly prior to his becoming an economist. Other good collective biographies include Robert Litan’s Trillion Dollar Economists and, of course, Robert Heilbroner’s iconic The Worldly Philosophers. (Note: This last title also made Amy Willis’s list of the best books for introductory economics.)