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Sylvia Nasar
Sylvia Nasar

Review: Non-fiction

A big subject, maybe too big Add to ...

When a writer’s first book is a triumph, the second is always a challenge.

Sylvia Nasar’s first, A Beautiful Mind, was a beautiful book. It told the story of Princeton mathematician John Nash, a Cold War genius who succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia just as his work in game theory began revolutionizing mathematics and economics. Over time, Nash slowly recovered, itself a stirring achievement that was then capped by a second: winning the Nobel Prize.

A Beautiful Mind became a bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle award and, four years later (in surely a first for mathematicians), reappeared as an Academy Award-winning film, with Russell Crowe as Nash.

Fast-forward more than a decade to Nasar’s second book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius.

Like her first, Grand Pursuit focuses on individual genius, has a rich narrative laden with wonderful contextual details and is determined to explain complex ideas and their real-world impact to educated generalists.

It focuses, however, on a far grander canvas because Nasar’s ambitions have grown. This is thus no longer the story of one man or one set of ideas, but of dozens of men and ideas, and covers not years but centuries, as Nasar tells us how modern economic theory emerged and then evolved, from Adam Smith in the late 18th century to Amartya Sen today.

To justify such scale and scope requires a far bigger unifying thesis, and Nasar has one: that the individual geniuses she portrays here – almost all of them economists – collectively represent the deeper underlying genius of economics itself.

In other writers’ hands, so bold a claim might fail at the start, but Nasar, a reporter by training who now teaches business and economic journalism, is adept at deploying anecdote, juxtaposition, telling detail and vivid characterization, knowing that telling her story to non-economists requires more than stories about economists. Thus, before we know it, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw are all trooping across the early pages of Nasar’s self-cast three-act drama to reassure former humanities majors that this pageant is not meant just for social scientists.

Soon enough, though, she has us on more familiar terrain with appearances by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Alfred Marshall, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and John Maynard Keynes, as she uses Victorian and Edwardian London to explain the rise of modern economics. It’s a period she portentously calls Act I: Hope. Here, she means us to see, suddenly human history awakens from its long history of ignoble poverty and ignorance into an entirely new era in which possibilities of all sorts suddenly seem boundless – thanks, she insists, in large measure to the discovery/invention of economics.

Act II: Fear then charts the roller-coaster years from the First World War to the Second World War, when the world made over by 19th-century economic genius suddenly seemed poised to fall apart, but then was stunningly remade. Grand Pursuit traces debates among Austrian (Schumpeter and Hayek), English (Keynes and Robinson) and American (Fisher and Friedman) economists on what exactly a post-laissez-faire economic world might be.

Act III: Confidence follows with the story of how Western prosperity spread after 1945, thanks, Nasar believes, in no small way to economists’ devotion to markets and mathematical models converged as the optimal tools for growth.

Unfortunately, so much is covered so quickly, it’s more than Nasar can manage. We learn many small things about her geniuses, but never get nuanced explanations of their theories. Marshall’s concept of equilibrium-based marginalism flies past us in a few paragraphs, our knowledge of his courtship of Mrs. Marshall and his kidney stones far richer in the end.

About some things, she is simply wrong: The Fabian Beatrice Webb, for example, did not “invent the modern welfare state” (Bismarck did) and the 1964 Kennedy/Johnson tax cuts quickly enough turned out to be the opposite of “a huge success.” On other matters, she is merely peculiar: Why Joan Robinson’s 1960s flirtation with Maoism is relevant to this story is never made clear, and why the global financial meltdown that began in 2008 yet seems far from over should go unmentioned is unimaginable.

Recounting history through great lives has always risky. Letting biographical detail substitute for cogent explanations is a mistake. Failing to show a complex intellectual, political and moral project as more than the March of Progress is jejune.

More than 60 per cent of senior economics professors in top American universities, for example, have told pollsters that economics is “over-mathematicized and unrelated to the real world.” That’s a point Nasar should have addressed, just as we’d like to know from her why, as the West struggles to recover from the Great Recession, income and wealth distribution worsens, unemployment stays dauntingly high and essential welfare systems are fraying.

Journalists may be accustomed to writing the “first draft of history,” which is fine; but writing actual history requires more skill and knowledge than that.

An Oxford-trained economist, Richard Parker teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His most recent book is John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics.

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