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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: Grand Pursuit - The Story of Economic Genius

I'll admit it. I'm an economics junkie, and enjoy even reading books like Minsky's Stabilizing an Unstable Economy. So I was excited when Sylvia Nasar of "A Beautiful Mind" tackled the history of great economic minds in Grand Pursuit.

By far the biggest disappointment is that with only limited space and spanning this much time, Nasar could only grant superficial coverage of many of the ideas. I was even more annoyed when she insisted on wasting precious pages on boring genealogy details rather than the big ideas of the man.

That said, Nasar does a passable job of describing economic history. Her description of Karl Marx as a person who'd never bothered to learn English despite writing his book there, and who never even visited a single factory to do his work. Several not very well known economists are covered, including Alfred Marshall, Beatrice Webb, and Joan Robinson. Strangely enough, she never talks about Adam Smith except in passing.

By the time we get to the greats like Schumpeter, Keynes, Friedman, and Samuelson, the repeated mini-biographies are starting to wear thin. However, this is where the action starts, so I was quite perked up. I learned quite a bit more about Keynes that I didn't know before. Nasar also "gets" Keynes, though she doesn't quite take the pains to explain why Keynes' General Theory was widely misunderstood, even more so than say, Einstein's.

The war years are covered in great detail, though big breakthroughs (like Irving Fisher's realization of the relationship between interest rate, the business cycle, and inflation) don't quite get the headline attention they deserve: sometimes you feel as though Nasar is more interested in Keynes' bi-sexuality than in his ideas.

What does come across to me as brand new information is the section on Hayek. For instance, he and Keynes were friends and supported each other's work. Hayek is definitely not the libertarian that his later followers make him out to be, and Nasar delights in pointing that out, especially when Republicans tried to court him and get his approval.

Ultimately, while the book was worth reading for me, I wonder how many non-economics junkies will be able to keep their eyes open during the long diversions. Not really recommended.

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