Thus Passes Samuelson

I realized that I’ve been neglecting this blog a bit. One huge event has happened in the past couple weeks in the narrow space of “things I’m interested in that many are not”: the passing of Paul Samuelson, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and more or less founder of the modern tradition of mathematical economics rooted in the synthesis of marginalist microeconomics with Keynesian macroeconomics. Samuelson wrote the dominant graduate and undergraduate economics texts of the mid-20th century. The undergrad text was the first to place Keynesian macroeconomics at the center of the field in a way that was understandable to undergrads.

There have been a number of good obituaries, mostly laudatory, with a hint of criticism from some of the more heterodox folks. Here’s Krugman’s, as usual probably the best at being both insightful and easy to read. But for a slightly more pessimistic take on Samuelson’s impact on the field of economics, here’s a paragraph by Arnold Kling (hat-tip to Organizations and Markets):

[P]rior to Samuelson’s formalization in economics, there were a lot of papers published that lacked clarity and insight. Now that formalization dominates, we also see a lot of papers that lack clarity and insight. If you compare the most insightful mathematical papers with the average non-mathematical papers, math wins. But one can also run the comparison the other way and reach the opposite conclusion.

Love it or hate it, heavy-duty math is here to stay in Economics, and it’s Samuelson who brought it. Let’s let him have the last word:
“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, or crafts its treatises, if I can write its economics textbooks.”

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