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L'enfant Terrible Emeritus: Why Economists Are Like Eskimos

December 14, 2009, 8:18 PM

Textbooks--and perhaps, uniquely, economics textbooks--are not known for their literary brilliance. Why should they be? Does math need metaphor? In college when we think about numbers we think about things derived at the opposite end of campus from the Comp. Lit. department, things that are hard and certain and not about nuance. And then we grow up, and see this is silly.  If only we had been economics majors we might have come to this conclusion earlier, as we would have no doubt read Paul Samuelson


Even if you're no longer in school but know little about the world of economics, and economists, Samuelson is someone worth knowing. And, apparently, someone worth reading. He died yesterday.

If you missed the New York Times obituary, or are daunted by its length, you can read the beautiful, brief (and equally reverent) post on Paul Krugman's blog.  Both pieces comment on Samuelson's skill not simply as a theoretician, and as a thinker, but as a writer.  As the Times put it:

[Samuelson's] speeches and his voluminous writing had a lucidity and bite not usually found in academic technicians.  He tried to give his economic pronouncements a "snap at the end," he said, "like Mark Twain."  When women began complaining about career and salary inequities, for example, he said in their defense, "Women are men without money."

The obit mentions another cool Samuelson quip: "Economists are said to disagree too much but in ways that are too much alike: if eight sleep in the same bed, you can be sure that, like Eskimos, when they turn over, they'll all turn over together." The image is is striking because it is clear--and a bit absurd. We see the Eskimos. We see them rolling over. We concede the point as we embrace the humor. And then we remember. Math, metaphor.

This inclination toward wit is an elegant echo of Samuelson's hero, John Maynard Keynes.  "Hero" may not be the best word but to a layperson, it's apt.  Samuelson fought for what Keynes believed, which shows that communication does not necessarily insure success in argument--or policy.  Keynes was an excellent communicator, too.  And witty. ("In the long run, we're all dead.")

Samuelson was a model (or rival) for a generation of our finest economists.  He had the Nobel. He tutored Kennedy. He created what we think about when we think about M.I.T.'s mystique today. Yet, according to the Times, he was deeply humble.  While his nephew, Larry Summers, also possesses a unique and necessary brilliance, it is doubtful Summers ever said to his students--as Samuelson did, "[economists] have much to be humble about."  The line is a reference to Churchill's sly dig on Clement Atlee: "he is a humble man, with much to be humble about."



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