Samuelson, the past and the widow

Paul Samuelson is known for his compulsion of citing past economists and of classifying them as those inside (and those outside) the pantheon of economists. For instance, Robert Solow has mentioned in the last HOPE Conference that his colleague cites compulsively (he has written this in an article that I can’t locate now).

In a book honoring Edmund Phelps (before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2006), edited by Philippe Aghion, Roman Frydman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Michael Woodford, Samuelson does the same. In a two-page account of Phelps as a scholar “in his times”, Samuelson sketches his views on the history of economics:

On the Midway at the University of Chicago, there stands a statue depicting Time, the work of Sculptor Lorado Taft (Senator-Professor Paul Douglas’s father-in-law). It portrays the stationary figure of Time, before whom draped figures of succeeding generations pass from left to right. Etched in the marble base is the legend that I paraphrase from imperfect memory. “Time passes, you say? Ah no. ‘Tis we who go.

The inner history of economics is a bit like that. Into the main ring of the circus each of us enters from the left and departs from the right. But it is not a simply ordered sequence ABC…XYZ: The better image is that of each epoch’s chorus of scholars: Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and the two Mills in the prime classical age. Then, in Victorian times, Jevons, Menger, Walras, Marshall, Pareto, Slutsky, Wicksell, and Cassel. Contemporaries of my teachers were Pigou, the Clarks, von Bortkiewicz, Keynes, Knight, Young, Viner, Schumpeter, and Hotelling—followed by the 1900+ vintages of Hayek, Haberler, Leontief, Hicks, Lerner, Kaldor, Robinson(s), Robertson, Tinbergen, Frisch, Ohlin, and Meade. Never are the hall lights so dimmed that a previous chorus can be replaced in one fell swoop by a new generation…

This construct enables me to place today’s birthday boy in his generation. For a surprisingly long time most of our productive economists had their roots in the pre-World War II epoch. This is true of Tobin, Modigliani, Alexander, McKenzie, Arrow, Kaysen, Baumol, and Solow—to say nothing of Methuselahs like Bergson and me…

But of course that could not last. The 1950s began with the Beckers, Ecksteins, Jorgensons, Grilicheses, von Wiezackers, Diamonds, Fishers, and Phelpses … and soon to come were the invading hosts of the Halls, Gordons, Stiglitzes, Mertons, Dornbusches, Fischers, and … but now I must stop…

… To polish Max Planck’s dictum: Science does progress funeral by funeral—as the chorus of Phelpses and Stiglitzes explicates those many ways that palsy can afflict the invisible hand of Smith, Say, and Lucas.

(Samuelson in Aghion et al. (eds.) (2003). Knowlesge, Information, and Expectations in Modern Macroeconomics. Princeton University Press, p. 2)

Samuelson’s use of the past illustrates the same issue historians of modern economics have in common with biographers, as summarized by Robert Skidelsky (in John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman. Penguin Books, 2003, pp. xx-xxi):

The biographer’s most important relationship, apart from that with his subject, is with what Virginia Woolf called the ‘widow’—the guardian of the Great Man’s memory. My two widows were Geoffrey Keynes and Richard Khan.

Is Samuelson a widow of modern economics?

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2 thoughts on “Samuelson, the past and the widow

  1. Solow’s comment about PAS being a compulsive “citer” first appeared in a letter he wrote to me in 1988, which I quoted in my 1991 Stabilizing Dynamics book, Chapter 3, page 56.

    The larger issue of PAS as “the widow” will not be answered until his own papers are both deposited and made available to scholars. At present they are in limbo.

  2. Thanks Roy for reminding me that the reference to Solow’s letter about PAS being a compulsive “citer” is in your book. And hopefully his papers won’t stay long in limbo.

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