Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sameulson stands alone

From the time I was in high school, I was told of a symmetry in economics: that the world had two leading economists, one on the right (Milton Friedman)and one on the left (Paul Samuelson). But once I started reading their works in college and graduate school, I came to the view that there was no symmetry: that Friedman was a brilliant economist, but that Samuelson was at a different level altogether. Friedman was more like Gershwin, whereas Samuelson was more like Mozart.

Friedman's two masterpieces were A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 (which he coauthored with Anna Schwartz) and Essays in Positive Economics. The former is an astonishing work of scholarship,and rigorously uncovers data to make an important point about the quantity theory of money. The latter reads like a series of clever puzzles to be solved--it challenges you to figure out the underlying assumption that drives the result.

But Samuelson's Foundation of Economic Analysis was like Don Giovanni and the Magic Flute--it changed everything. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that all economic thought since then has its (if you will excuse me for saying so) foundations in that work. At the same time, he was, like Mozart, astonishingly prolific, and had influence in pretty much every field of economics (macro, micro, public economics, trade, industrial organization, etc.), and at pretty much every level (as a scholar of original research, textbook author, popular press writer).


Don Coffin said...

Sounds about right to me. About the only place that I see no specific trace (as opposed to the use of the tools he developed in the Foundations of Economic Analysis) of Samuelson's work is in labor economics (and I might be missing something there)

Anonymous said...

It says something about economics vs. music that the impacts of two economists who lived well into their nineties are compared to two composers who didn't make it past forty.

ed c.