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April 03, 2004

The Greatest Economist in the World

Maybe I'm wrong in my previous post as to who were the best economists. But I'm pretty sure I know who is the worst economist of the 20th century, in terms of what he did to the profession.

That would have to be Paul Samuelson himself, winner of the first Ignoble Prize in economics. Samuelson's story is a sad one, though it would be funny if so much weren't at stake. He was a child prodigy who entered U. of Chicago when he was 16 (like Robert Silvers and George Steiner), convinced (maybe by his mother?) that he was the smartest kid in the world. (This particular hang-up seems to be a Jewish phenomenon, don't ask me why; Murray Gell Mann is the only other person I ever heard of who had this problem.)

Anyway, when Samuelson gets to Chicago he wants to major in math and physics, but soon discovers that there are some other kids there who are a lot smarter than he is. If you have a tender ego, this can be a truly traumatic

experience, as maybe a few visitors to this site can attest. So Samuelson does the chicken-shit thing and changes his major to economics. Why economics? Because any fool can see that it has the mathematical form of physics (what with declining marginal utilities of income, productivitiy, etc) if not the actual substance.

Well, Samuelson may not have been the smartest kid in the world, but he was definitely the smartest mathematician in the department of economics, first at Chicago, later at Harvard. He was brash, aggressive, and determined to make fools out of everybody he met, which he pretty much succeeded in doing. Then, when Harvard refused to hire him to teach (even though Schumpeter himself said he was smarter than anybody else in the department) Samuelson goes to MIT, where he proceeds to establish mathematical economics as the reigning paradigm of late 20th century academic economics.

The problem with this, is that the kind of guys who are attracted to the field from this point are mostly drop-outs from math and physics, just like Samuelson himself, except they're not quite as good as Samuelson. Most of them don't even have a real interest in economics, but like to play around with mathematical equations, while the few who really do care about the subject spend so much of their time trying to master the mathematical manipulations that are required, that they have no time (or authority) to question whether what they are doing is at all appropriate to the material they are trying to analyze -- which, of course, it is not.

Thus we have a guy who, on account of his personal insecurities, managed to ruin an entire academic discipline, which just happens to affect the welfare of millions. You tell me, is this a tragedy or a comedy?

Posted by lukelea at 06:44 AM