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For those about to read: Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit

Submitted by Alex_Wukman on October 8, 2011 – 5:05 pmNo Comment
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By: Dario Brumen

In a time where most American discourse avoids nuance like a bad peanut allergy, and talk of bipartisanship is as cheap as a Hollywood hand job, Sylvia Nasar’s book Grand Pursuit reminds us of times where honest intellectual discourse was possible between economists. Nasar begins her pan-economic odyssey by finding the origins of economic thought through exploring the lives of economists from Charles Dickens influence on an increasingly filthy and hungry England, to the ever puzzling booms and busts of the industrial revolution.

Grand Pursuit is not intended to be a history of economics but a narrative that weaves the beginnings of modern economic thought with the lives of economic thinkers. Nasar saunters through the salacious life of Karl Marx and his sexcapades that leads to the impregnation of the house staff, crawls through Beatrice Webb’s diary and touches on Keynes’s homosexuality creating characters that would otherwise be sterile in ordinary economic books palpable. She peppers her narrative with theory among the men and women who form the circles of intellectuals that would shape modern economics, under seasoning some, and over seasoning others.

Some of Nasar’s best narrative comes from her descriptions of all the great minds meeting at the Majestic hotel after World War I. Here her story shines when the political leaders from the Allies, Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, John Foster Dulles, and a smattering of others converge at the Majestic in Paris with Maynard Keynes to determine what is to be done about Europe’s plunge into crippling debt. Nasar uses the ferment of the Majestic with Ho Chi Minh as a dishwasher, Lawrence of Arabia in the lobby and the circles of intellectuals it harbors as a stage setting up the tragedy waiting to befall Europe almost twenty years later.

Dancing between the rise of fascism in post-WWI Europe and the run up to the great depression in the United States, Nasar begins shedding light on the importance of interaction among intellectual circles by showing how the lives of economic thinkers dovetail into each other’s lives through common social circles, serendipity, and university life. She shows that many of the theories did not spring Athena-like from the minds of economists, but had to be mulched from interacting with groups of intellectuals so as to create the fertile soil from which to grow.  Where would Marx be without the young Hegelians to argue with or Engels taking care of both Marx and his illegitimate children?

Nasar’s exploration into the relationships of opposing economic geniuses upturn today’s preconception that opposing economic outlooks are irreconcilable. Keynes and Hayek’s relationship even though rocky at times (Keynes calling Hayek a “public enemy” at one time), showed the two working together. After having help evacuate the London School of Economics and helping Jewish intellectuals flee German occupied areas as well as praising some of Keynes’s articles during the war, Hayek accompanied Keynes on a ship bound for the United States to work together on the Bretton Woods conference to create economic policy so as not to repeat the mistakes of hyperinflation and unemployment rampant after World War I. Today, it is hard to imagine Alan Greenspan and Paul Krugman ever working together or even being in the same room together.

Through the lives and interactions between these economists, we see that modern economic policy has not been shaped by a “purist” formation of supply or demand side economic policy, nor of “purist” free-market versus communist, but by a series of compromises. Sadly though, today’s “market fundamentalists” such as Greenspan (an acolyte of Milton Friedman) resemble the communist purists of the 1950s. The failures of Stalin’s five or ten year plans was chalked off as a failure of being “not communist” enough with too little government intervention just as some think of the market crash of 2008 as a failure of not “free” enough free-markets and too much government intervention.

As Nasar’s flock of characters trudge through booms and busts of the Industrial Revolution, World Wars, and the Great Depression, she shepherds in some of the longer narratives and weaves in and out of European and American economists. Nearing the end of the book, one tends to feel that the third world has been wholly left out until she pole vaults from Milton Friedman, Joan Robinson, and Paul Anthony Samuelson in the 1950’s straight to Amartya Sen. The last chapter of Grand Pursuit is beautifully written and saturated with the struggle of Sen, a Bengali economist. This gut wrenching bildungsroman makes all the previous chapters feel almost unpolished and incomplete. The book also feels as though Nasar left out the impact that European and American economic policy had on the third world, many being former colonies.

After finishing the book, one starts to get the feeling of a bit of theoretical apple-polishing of free-markets and rushing over ideological blind spots. For instance, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, who was an influential contemporary of Beatrice Potter Webb, wrote extensively on women and economics during the industrial revolution is never mentioned. Max Weber is mentioned once briefly quoted as having disagreed with socialism, but with no elaboration why, especially considering that he wrote one of the more influential books explaining the rise of capitalism in his 1904 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A book written on such an unwieldy subject as economics cannot completely cover all economic geniuses and all ideas, but ideological balance should be on the mind of a journalist when writing such books and take care to neither leave out too many people nor too little ideas. As Karl Kraus once put it, “No ideas and the ability to express them- that’s a journalist”.

Leaving out the later relationship between Hayek and Friedman also bowdlerized the impact that they would have on the third world. Especially when Friedman would later repudiate everything Keynesian and begin working with brutal dictators for a  “purer” free-market system going so far as to  praise Augusto Pinochet’s newest economic reforms in a letter after the bloody coup and assassination of  democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile as “extremely wise”. Thankfully, through Sen in her last chapter, begins to acknowledge that ethics and economics are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, that chapter only lasted fifteen pages at which point I handed back the jar of peanut butter, zipped up my pants, and excused myself from Nasar’s table of tepid neo- and Paretian liberals to go pick up Amartya Sen’s book Collective Choice and Social Welfare.

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