Monday, December 14, 2009

Paul Samuelson, 1915-2009

From the front page of Monday’s New York Times:

Paul A. Samuelson, the first American Nobel laureate in economics and the foremost academic economist of the 20th century, died Sunday at his home in Belmont, Mass. He was 94.

His death was announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which Mr. Samuelson helped build into one of the world’s great centers of graduate education in economics.

In receiving the Nobel Prize in 1970, Mr. Samuelson was credited with transforming his discipline from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.
Samuelson was a key JFK economic advisor and won a National Medal of Science from Bill Clinton. He built a braintrust of (mostly) Keynsian economists at MIT, including seven other winners of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences. Samuelson won only the second “Nobel” prize in economics, starting a domination of the field by Americans (and more specifically Cambridge, Mass. professors).

I knew he had the best-selling economics textbook, but the NYT said it was the best-selling textbook of any kind for almost 30 years. In the late 1990s, it was selling 50,000 copies a year — clearly one of the most lucrative textbook franchises of all time.

The NYT portrays him as the anti-Friedmanite, but one who apparently recognized some of the limits of his Keynseian worldview:
The experience of nations in the second half of the century, he said, had diminished his optimism about the ability of government to perform miracles.

If government gets too big, and too great a portion of the nation’s income passes through it, he said, government becomes inefficient and unresponsive to the human needs “we do-gooders extol,” and thus risks infringing on freedoms.
One thing I found extremely encouraging from the NYT account is that he kept egos in check at MIT, leading by example with his personal humility. Based on my experience of the last 15 years, humility is in scarce supply among academics — particularly successful ones.

1 comment:

John S. said...

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