Jim Cullen, Review of Sylvia Nasar's "Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius" (Simon & Schuster, 2011)


[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is also the author of the recently published Kindle Single e-book President Hanks. Cullen blogs at American History Now.]

The novelty of this book lies in its unreserved embrace of that old-fashioned  stratum of culture we know as middlebrow. It's a cross between Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers -- which became a textbook evergreen by delivering edification seemingly effortlessly -- and Will/Ariel Durant works like The Story of Philosophy and The Story of Civilization. Such an approach is a bit surprising coming from a woman who's got top-tier intellectual credentials: former New York Times reporter; Columbia School of Journalism professor; National Book Critics Circle award winner (for A Beautiful Mind, her 1998 biography of economist John Nash that later became a Ron Howard movie). But there's something shrewd in the burnished simplicity of Sylvia Nasar's set of interlocking portraits of economic thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, like a natty comfort food restaurant.

These portraits include the usual suspects: Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Friedman. For the most part, the contours of their lives and thought will be familiar to any economics major (not the primary audience in any case; the point is to introduce these thinkers via biographically-cased capsule summaries of their work rather than risk trudging through it yourself). The first part in the book in particular has a bit of a checklist quality: we get the Alfred Marshall to cover productivity question, Irving Fisher to do the same for monetarism, Schumpeter for the dynamism of economies captured in his famous phrase "creative destruction," and so on.

But Nasar does provide a few forms of leavening. One is the addition of women into the standard Gallery of Giants. There's a fine chapter on Beatrice Webb as the architect of the modern welfare state, and Joan Robinson adds a dash of color, though her presence her seems more a matter of her outsized personality than her somewhat embarrassing determination to laud the economies of Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China. And the final chapter of the book, on Amartya Sen, feels a like a perfunctory Affirmative Action gesture toward globalization.

In classic middlebrow style, Nasar stakes out a middling ideological position. But she manages to put a little spin on it. We're told more than once that Karl Marx managed to develop his critique of industrial capitalism without ever setting foot in a single factory. On the other hand, Nasar also notes that F.A. Hayek was hardly the darling of the political Right in his own time that he became later. She quotes him repeatedly as condoning, even advocating, government intervention in economic activity.  "We cannot seriously argue that the government ought to do nothing," he says at one point, comments of the sort that contemporary libertarian extremists would rather forget.

Beyond the celebration of genius for its own sake suggested in the "story" of the title, Nasar does have a broader point to make, one that is as simple as it is forceful: a hope for a better material life is not simply an abstract hope, but a historical reality. She notes that as late as the time of Jane Austen, rampant poverty was widely considered a fixed condition, as indeed it had been since the beginning of time. And yet over the course of two centuries, economic progress has been a decisive force in human affairs, one that not even two World Wars or a Great Depression could entirely impede. In this time of widespread despair, even foreboding, in the Western world, this cheerful message is worth hearing. "There is no going back," she asserts. "Nobody debates any longer whether we should or shouldn't control our economic circumstances, only how." We should count -- and Nasar does mean count -- our blessings. And then we should go make more. I'll buy that.

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