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A Tale of Two Books

Just published is Volume I of an exhaustive – occasionally exhausting – biography of Paul Samuelson. It’s titled Founder of Modern Economics: Paul A Samuelson Vol I: Becoming Samuelson, 1915-1948 and authored by Roger E Backhouse.

The two books of my blog title are Foundations of Economic Analysis, published in 1947, a revision of Samuelson’s Harvard doctoral dissertation, in which he unearthed the mathematical scaffolding of economic theory, and Economics: An Introductory Analysis, the first edition of his textbook which was published in 1948 and became an  instant bestseller which was to go through many editions. It’s a remarkable achievement, to simultaneously write a brilliant but quite inaccessible book on the foundations of economics and, at the same time, write a highly accessible first year text. The skills required to do both of these are combined in a single individual, which is a truly rare event.

Harvard had first hand knowledge of Samuelson’s genius but it somehow managed not to make him an offer sufficient to keep him at Harvard. Part of the reason was that MIT, having an economics department that taught economics to engineering students, was ready to launch itself into having a graduate program in economics, and Samuelson was the star around which they could assemble what quickly became one of America’s – if not the world’s – greatest economics department.

The challenge appealed to Samuelson. But it is made abundantly clear from this book that an anti-semitism that was pervasive in American universities was certainly in evidence at Harvard, but not at MIT.  (As for Canada. while a graduate student in economics at MIT, I dropped into the political economy department at the University of Toronto where I had done my undergraduate degree and one year of graduate study. I ran into one of the senior economics professors and when I told him I was at MIT he said in a matter of fact way, “That’s where they have that smart little Jew, Samuelson” – who was short.)

Back to the textbook. One of its distinguishing features was its focus on Keynes. Samuelson was a proponent of Keynes, though Backhouse makes the point that he partook of Keynes to a large degree through Alvin Hansen, who was at Harvard and was the key person who brought Keynesianism to America and Americanized it in the process.

As Backhouse hints,  that Americanization of Keynes consisted of embedding it as part of the essential base of America’s now central role in the world economy, of trade and finance. What began as revolutionary economics – of the Keynesian Revolution variety – was domesticated, reduced, to imperial economics. Progressive economists, like Samuelson,  were conservative, at best indifferent, outside their own terrain.

This latter  point escaped some MIT alumni on its governing council who thought Samuelson was a dangerous radical and tried to block the use of the text at MIT. Samuelson kept his cool and patiently dealt with complaints. The top administration totally backed Samuelson. A “compromise” was reached on the understanding that further readings included books by the American Chamber of Commerce and such like. Instructors showed their disdain for Samuelson’s critics by giving an assignment on finding all of  the errors in such screeds.

 

A second feature of the textbook was, notwithstanding Foundations, that the math in it did not go beyond that of Marshall. At MIT, where the text was, of course, used in  the introductory course for engineering students, Samuelson advised those of  us who taught sections thereof not to use any math beyond the text since engineering students would otherwise treat the course as applied math and not master the study of the economy.

 

 

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