History of Economics Playground

HES 2011, Paul Samuelson and the Beatles

The 2011 Annual Meeting of the History of Economics Society (HES) took place in South Bend, Indiana, at Notre Dame University, under the auspices of Philip Mirowski, probably with fewer attendees than usual.

This time there were new elements in the way the meeting was organized: there were more plenary sessions, several of them with non-historians of economics (David Kaiser (MIT) on physics and economics; John Cassidy (New Yorker) on "How Markets Fail"; Rakesh Khurana (Harvard Business School) on the professionalization of business education), besides the regular HES Presidential Address, by Jerry Evensky (Syracuse University). There was also a screening of the documentary "Inside Job", followed by discussion led by our buddy Tiago Mata.

Another thing that I liked very much was that there were many roundtables: on Malcolm Rutherford's book, Institutionalist Movement in American Economics (Cambridge University Press); on Robert Leonard's book, Von Neumann, Morgenstern and the Creation of Game Theory (Cambridge University Press)--check also Yann's post on this book--, on the prospect of writing the history of Paul Samuelson as economist (more on this later), and on the teaching of the history of economics (organized by Avi Cohen).

I'd like to focus now on the roundtable session on Paul Samuelson, with Perry Mehrling (Columbia University, Barnard College), Michael M. Weinstein (The New York Times), E. Roy Weintraub (Duke University), and Wade Hands (University of Puget Sound). Perry Mehrling was first, and went over the MIT way and its economics department, drawing also on the work that other Kid of this Playground, Beatrice Cherrier, has been developing on MIT economics, in which Samuelson is very central. Then, Roy Weintraub started by pointing out that while historians of economics have payed a lot of attention to Chicago and Friedman (and Stigler, Knight, Becker, Lucas ...), for instance, almost no historical work has been done on MIT and Samuelson (Samuelson is MIT's economics, as there was no economics department at MIT prior to World War II). He then mentioned that the historical importance of the MIT economics department in the transformation of American economics is the subject of the 2013 HOPE Conference, that he is organizing. Wade Hands talked about his interest on the neoclassical synthesis and Paul Samuelson's role in it, and that he has already gone through a few boxes of Samuelson's archives (deposited at the Rare Book, Manuscritp, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, as part of the Economists' Papers Project) and have not found so far what he first expected to find. Finally, Michael Weinstein, who has been commissioned to write a biography of Paul Samuelson (and we know that Roger Backhouse is engaged in a similar project), stressed that he wants to write an intelectual biography of Samuelson and his ideas, and wanted to hear more from the historians about such enterprise.

The discussion was very interesting, with historians pondering on important issues related to biography writing, the role of textbooks and Samuelson's Economics, Samuelson as a mathematician, how to use the information about Samuelson coming from his peers and colleagues, the archival material and so on. John Davis asked a question that I found very important (I'm trying to remember the exact words, but I may be misquoting him): what are the challenges of writing about an exceptional figure (not only in the sense that one can often pull the "genialness" out of the hat)?

This is exactly the question that came right to my mind when I read that a new documentary on The Beatles is being released, "Beatles Stories", directed by Seth Swirsky, a song writer hugely influenced by the Liverpool band (and he is very explicit about his love for them). He simply bought a film camera and started interviewing people who interacted with them, in order to "uncover" stories never heard before, as John Lennon's alleged enthusiasm with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s (the trailer is available in Youtube).

So, how hard is to write the history of exceptional figures? Shall we buy film cameras?



Nice report, Pedro. I wish I was there!

Concerning Samuelson as a genius, I don't think it's a problem when writing history. The only thing that matters is the issue of relevance. It is perfectly possible to write the history of someone relatively unknown if the story you tell adds some understanding of how economics has developed at a certain moment in history - I am thinking here of contributions such as ERW's depiction of Cecil Phipps in HEBMS. The good thing with Samuelson is that his "geniality" being taken as granted you don't have to convince people that your subject is important. But of course, the main challenge in dealing with such "genius" - I am adding quotation marks here, because I think that discussons about geniality often lead to some normative waffle such as "Was Matisse a "real" genius, compared to Picasso?" -  is that you have to study him as anyone else, replacing his conributions in their context and never indulging yourself in that kind of narrative where you say bland things that people will read only because the guy is well known. The movie metaphor, here, is not bad at all. There are many biopics in which you're told (and shown) a lot of things that would be uninteresting had the guy not been famous. An example that comes to mind is the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. You see Cash arguing with his first wife, Cash taking amphets, Cash traveling from gigs to gigs and nobody would bother if it was not him. Because the guy is considered as a legend, the simple fact of showing him with a guitar is expected to suffice. Of course, it doesn't and then, you're kind of bored. On the other side of the spectrum, you have Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, based on Dylan. I say "based on", because that's what it is. It is not a biography but mostly a mix of different narratives playing with Dylan's image: Dylan as the outlaw, Dylan as the 60s pop hipster, Dylan as the young wunderkind, Dylan as a Born Again, Dylan as a family father, Dylan as a poet, except that none of the characters in the movies are named Bob Dylan. They are all fictional characters based on Dylan's image in the eye of the public and in its own self-reconstruction. The fascinating thing with Haynes' movie is that it also acts as a metanarrative on biopic making itself and incorporates a lot of parodies of the genre. As such, this is probably the only postmodern biopic ever intended for a popular audience - there is also Godard's Sympathy for the Devil that deals with the Stones' recording the song of the same name, mixed with reflections on nazi Germany and the Black Panthers, but well ... that's Godard. 

There is a very bad published biographical essay on Samuelson (Szenberg & al. Paul Samuelson On Being an Economist), which came out in 2005 at the occasion of the economist's 90th birthday. It is full of sentences such as "[Gary, Indiana] seems to instill a passion for supply and demand curves", and yes, it takes Samuelsons' genius as granted with a feeling of " who could have predicted that the young Samuelson bla bla bla ...". And of course, it does not use any archival material, only personal reminiscences which are taken out of context. One of the most laughable passages is in the beginning when the authors, having little to say about Samuelson's childhood, begin to wander into endless disgressions about the Great Depression in a way that my high school history text would look like a Pulitzer prize winning book in comparison. At this stage, I cannot make any recommendation about how a Samuelson's biography should look like but I know enough about how it shouldn't. 


Dear Pedro,
Thanks for the post--and for the news of the Beatles documentary. On that note, if John Lennon had expressed enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, as the filmmaker seems to claim, it must have been in the early 1980s indeed, for he was murdered on December 8, 1980.



you're right! I meant the early 1980. But, as you said, it is not incorrect to state the early 1980s... Cheers!



I'm with you (as usual)! I think the issue of "genialness" presents clear difficulties that people shoudl be aware of, because there are public images of the person constructed around it. On the other hand, it also presents nice ways of exploring the context in which to place the "genius" contribution...

And I also found the movie metaphor interesting! Thanks for reminding me about Godard's "Sympathy for the Devil"; I hadn't forgotten about it (though I have thought about Haynes' "I'm not there"). But as you said, that's just Godard, who keeps complaining that there are no longer an "author's film" (I'm not sure this is the correct term...).

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