economic thinkers can show us the way forward
Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius
Published 13/10/2011 | 05:00
FAMOUS economists are often remembered as adversarial eccentrics. John Maynard Keynes is pictured as the government pump-primer who phoned his broker from bed, married a Russian ballerina and owned a Rolls-Royce.
Joseph Schumpeter was the Austrian upstart who celebrated "creative destruction", swanned around with prostitutes on his arm and lost millions in a stock market crash.
For all their differences, though, these economists -- along with Friedrich Hayek, Irving Fisher and others -- shared a conviction that gained ground in Victorian Britain, as Sylvia Nasar argues in her absorbing book, 'Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius'. They believed that mankind could improve the circumstances that long condemned nine out of 10 humans to grinding poverty.
Nasar is the author of 'A Beautiful Mind', a biography of mathematician John Nash that became an Academy Award-winning film. In 'Grand Pursuit' she chronicles the lives of thinkers, from Beatrice Webb to Amartya Sen, who believed that humanity could control its destiny.
To anyone in a funk over Europe's sovereign-debt fiasco or America's Misery Index, she offers a bracing reminder: Economic progress has dragged millions out of poverty and can continue to do so.
Like 'Lords of Finance' by Liaquat Ahamed, 'Grand Pursuit' is narrative history at its finest. Told with unpretentious verve and vivid detail, the story stretches from the days of Jane Austen, when farm labourers buckled under chronic hunger if not outright starvation, through the collapse of the Soviet Union and on to contemporary India.
In the beginning was Thomas Malthus, an Anglican clergyman who deduced that human populations multiply faster than the food supply. Charity simply encouraged early marriage and larger families, he concluded, inspiring an 1834 Poor Law that effectively limited public relief to people toiling in workhouses.
Charles Dickens, appalled, rebuffed Malthus with the tale of a flinty miser who had a change of heart. 'A Christmas Carol' is still in print.
From there, the narrative winds through the proletarian ruminations of bourgeois Karl Marx and the groundbreaking work of Alfred Marshall, a Cambridge mathematician of humble origins. Unlike Marx, who never set foot in a factory until the end of his life, Marshall tramped through copper mines, steel works, textile factories and slate quarries, collecting data.
Marshall's research revealed that competition boosted more than profits; it also raised living standards among workers and consumers, as Nasar deftly shows.
The narrative culminates with four economists whose ideas were forged in the furnace of financial panics, world war and depression -- Irving Fisher, Hayek, Schumpeter and above all Keynes. Though we're accustomed to thinking of these men as ideological opponents, Nasar shows how each was coming to grips with the same dynamic: violent swings of inflation, deflation and unemployment that threatened the survival of capitalist democracies.
The quest to make humanity "the master of its circumstances," as Nasar calls it, has direct bearing on our own turbulent times, of course.
"Economic calamities -- financial panics, hyperinflations, depressions, social conflicts and wars -- have always triggered crises of confidence," Nasar writes, "but they have not come close to wiping out the cumulative gains in average living standards."
It's a reassuring thought, even if you wish Keynes and Schumpeter were still around to advise Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. (Bloomberg)
'Grand Pursuit' is available with free P&P from Independent Bookshop. Telephone 01 405 9100 or visit www.independentbooks.ie