Many of the powerful forces that help business, hurt business, and shape our civilization today stem directly from the theories formulated by economists in the past, put into practice in the real world. That is the subject of Sylvia Nasar’s new book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2011). And yet, as Nasar would be the first to acknowledge, the field of economics has suffered from a lack of respect since its formative years; Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle dubbed it “the dismal science” in 1849. Today, when economics makes headlines, it’s typically as a whipping boy (“Why Economists Failed to Predict the Financial Crisis”) or as part of a sales pitch (“Prominent Economists Support Changes to Medicare”). Add the fact that economics has been delivered to undergraduates over the past 50 years in an off-putting package of mathematical equations and unintuitive charts, and it’s no surprise that most people tend to see it as a difficult subject producing dubious results.
But economics has in fact made profound contributions to our understanding of how society functions. Nobody has done a better job of bringing its story to life than Sylvia Nasar. Launching into her narrative via Charles Dickens and Jane Austen rather than Adam Smith and David Ricardo, she shows how some of the most important ideas of modern times came together in London in the mid-19th century, as Britain entered an era of unprecedented economic growth — the first time in human history that the living standards of average people began to rise significantly. The key insight around which the book revolves is that business productivity drives economic and societal improvement, and the book’s narrative shows us how an idea like that can be developed, debated, and accepted over the decades as empirical evidence mounts and the scholarly consensus builds.
Along the way, Nasar rights some perceptual wrongs of conventional economic history. One hero of the tale is British economist Alfred Marshall (1842–1924), who hasn’t always gotten the respect he deserves. Grand Pursuit reveals what Karl Marx was wrong about (practically everything) and why (intellectual laziness); it paints rich portraits of neglected thinkers such as prototypical feminist Beatrice Webb (1858–1943), who formulated the idea of the social safety net in the 1890s, and American economist Irving Fisher (1867–1947), who presciently discovered portfolio theory, countercyclical monetary pol-icy, and index numbers, as well as inventing the Rolodex and founding the company that became Remington Rand. Nasar also provides carefully reported assessments of the achievements of such better-known economists as John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich August von Hayek, and — the last in her line of profiles — Amartya Sen, whose work she sees as pointing to new directions for the field.
In Nasar’s view, economics has progressed to the point where it can explain definitively how to avoid the kinds of economic catastrophes that produced the Great Depression. All the nations that have grown steadily in recent years, she believes, are following the basic economic playbook that began to take shape as Marshall visited the factories of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, whereas countries that ignore those lessons are doomed to failure. But the dismal science has less to say about how to balance the roles of governments and markets or how to determine the optimal level of taxation. As examples, she cites the United States and Sweden, two countries with very different policy and fiscal profiles, but very similar — and enviable — standards of living.
Nasar, a former economist herself and a writer for Fortune and the New York Times, is the author of A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1998), the best-selling biography of mathematician and game theorist John Nash, later adapted into a hit Hollywood film. She is also the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She discussed her research and conclusions with s+b at Booz & Company’s New York office in May 2011.