History of Economics Playground

Paul Samuelson and the History of Economics

    Paul Samuelson is well-known to have been a compulsive citer and for having a particular Whig program for the history of economics. Until late in his career he kept writing on "old economists" like Cassel, Böhm-Bawerk, and Ricardo, for example (for instance, see his co-authored article on Ricardo published in HOPE in 2006) .

    However, it is indeed quite curious to see this same man making the following comment about a candidate that he was suggesting to his friend, Lionel McKenzie, to be hired at Rochester. After pointing out that the person was considered to be one of the best teachers at Harvard, who taught a course on development economics but had a temporary position there, Samuelson wrote:

Also, to be meticulously honest, I did hear one criticism of his course on economic development, that he spent a large amount of time on Ricardo's and other ancient writers' theories rather than on exciting current topics

(Lionel McKenzie Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Box 6, Letter to McKenzie, December 13, 1956)

Worth noting that Samuelson did not say that the person spent much time reading Ricardo and ancient writers in the original, but rather spent time with their theories. Nothing against someone willing to see courses covering the frontier of knowledge, but I found interesting to see Samuelson writing this at the same time he himself spent a good part of his career connecting his theoretical developments to those of ancient great economists.



I wonder what are the "exciting current topics" by 1956? Earlier it would have been Stolper-Samuelson but that would have been a decade old by 56 I am not sure what was the rage in development economics theory... 


Good question! And I don't know the answer. I just know that "development" was a rather tricky  word at the time, used in varied contexts (for instance, you can find people talking about studying the effects of inflation on development).


Steve, I think I agree with you partially. I completely agree with you and Anthony Waterman --there is also a nice piece you both publish in 2010 in the History of Economic Ideas issue (#3) devoted to Samuelson, edited by Riccardo Faucci-- on PAS's search for a mathematical logic underlying the works of 18th and 19th century figures (and his opposition to "antiquarianism and gossip"). But my point is that he was not unconfortable, in this search for mathematical logic, in relating his (and his contemporaries') work to the ("mathematical") ideas of old figures. Given this, I found it curious his negative comment that someone would spend too much time with the ideas of old figures (and again, although it is not clear from this passage, he is not criticizing someone for wasting time gossiping about or even reading old figures in the original).

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