Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius - Sylvia Nasar In her preface, Nasar describes Grand Pursuit as “the story of an idea that was born in the Golden Age before World War I,” the grand pursuit of “turning economics into an instrument of mastery” that could drive prosperity, rather than the “dismal science” that cautioned against government or even voluntary social intervention. Although she gives a glimmer of the ideas of such founders of classical economics as Adam Smith, Thomas Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, the focus is on their successors from the Victorian Age to present: Marx-Engels, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek. Milton Friedman gets little space, and the great critic of centralized planning seminal in the free-market movement, Ludwig Von Mises, has some scattered mentions. The blurbs of praise inside the cover run the gamut from the far-left Mother Jones and more moderate left The Nation to center-right publications such as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, promising a balanced view of modern economics. I’d say more “middle-of-the-road.” Nasar tips her hand to her own biases fairly early on, when for instance she claimed that Mother-of-the-Welfare-State Beatrice Webb “showed” that the welfare state could cure poverty and was “more likely to raise than be a drag to economic growth.” (Not claimed or argued but showed.) Nasar’s no fan of the free market, but no fan of Soviet-style central planning either. Her triumphalist narrative and blue skies epilogue can sometimes sound downright Candide-like, and certainly marks her as a champion of the status quo--from reviews seemingly the cause of annoyance to both socialists and libertarians alike who’d challenge her assumptions. I’ve also read complaints in the (few) negative reviews about this being a popular economics book, one not deep enough to merit the attention of an economics major. Well, except how many of us can say that? I took one course in Macroeconomics in college, and have read some books, and some excerpts of the works, of some of the thinkers listed above. As a general reader interested in history, economics and politics, I found the book valuable and fascinating. Especially given Nasar wasn’t shy about giving us the sweep of history as a whole, including literary figures from Jane Austen to Virginia Woof when they tied into the story. Certainly I’d heard of Marx, Keynes and Hayek, and knew something of their lives and ideas, but I’d never known about Beatrice Webb, for instance, who Nasar credits as tremendously important in creating the modern Welfare State. Nobel-prize winner in Economics Robert Solow called Grand Pursuit a “colorful, even exciting series of vignettes involving important protagonists in the history of economic thought.” Well, economic thought between 1850 and 1950, primarily, but I do think the book enormously entertaining and well worth the read.