The Institute Blog

Sylvia Nasar on The Story of Economic Genius: Great Thinkers in History

Today INET presents you an interview with Sylvia Nasar, who discusses her book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, with INET Executive Director Rob Johnson. Nasar discusses the work of economists leading up to the early 20th century. She suggests that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was a work of economics that influenced later economists such as Alfred Marshall. Nasar also talks about the intellectual debates between Keynes and Irving Fisher on one side and Joseph Schumpeter and Hayek on the other.

Part 1: Charles Dickens, Economist

Part 2: The Discovery of Productivity Growth and the Welfare State

Part 3: Keynes and Fisher

Part 4: Joseph Schumpeter and Hayek - Keynes' Challengers

Part 5: The State of Economics



Interesting that there is a complete absence of discussion of Marx when talking about an alternative to the dismal science(A Christmas Carol published in 1843, Capital Vol. 1 published 1867). Was Marx not someone who provided an alternative to the idea that the poor had to accept their lot?


Could Michael Moore be the Dickens of our time ?


Though the idea of exposing Dickens as an economist is obviously interesting as well as introducing Marshall's initial radical instinct is really a question which today's world is still struggling to answer. But, while listening part-1, I got little doubt with my little knowledge regarding her statement
" They (Founder of political economy- Smith, Malthus and Mill) are making assumption that are no longer seem to be true.. in particular The founders of political economy have assumed that certain things are frozen and endurable.. that Marshall sees are in flux for example the tremendous technological progress and rising productivity and there was a mechanism in the core of new commercial society which tended to drive living standard higher."

I'm just wondering

1. Was it not Alfreld Marshall who introduced the methodology of partial analysis?

2.Which founder of political economist have undertook the assumption of freezing certain things like technology and productivity?

As I remember Smith's thesis of evolution of new commercial society is very much based of technology of division of labour resultant productivity surge. Though, Malthus essentially missed to account for the possibility technological breakthrough in food production while proposing his controversial thesis of dooms day of humanity because of population growth being in geometrical progression whereas food production in arithmetical progression.
As it is evident from the writing of political economy before Marshall like Smith, Ricardo and Marx that they all have recognized and analysed the importance of industrial revolution which was a technological breakthrough in context of so called new commercial society.

Though her conclusion is very much valid that juncture of history with the rising productivity through technological change has questioned the hypothesis of wage being merely at subsistence. But this question itself invites an inquiry which is " How subsistence is conceptualized?".
And as I remember from the readings of political economy, theoretically subsistence has not been conceptualized as something constant and it is very much variable and it respond to the changes in other quantitative and qualitative variables like price, population growth, geographical location, customs and habits of the society and most essentially with the progress of society. So, with the progress of society the notion of subsistence will essentially change. But, subsistence has not been linked to the productivity mostly..because..subsistence being a broader notion which also include subsistence of non-worker class like landlord/Capitalist apart from working class and as a historical category notion of subsistence across the class across the time and space varies accordingly. So, using subsistence as some fixed notion might be misleading. Finally the concern expressed by her is very much genuine and have no issue in that regard.


Marshall read Kafka in the 1860's. Indeed...

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