Follow the Money

The best economists are formidable intellects, but do they really know what they are talking about?

Mankind missed a bet 2,000 years ago when no one thought to invest $100 or its equivalent in Roman coin in a certificate of deposit compounding at 2% a year forever. The principal balance today of this ungifted benefaction would come to the astounding sum of $15,861,473,276,036,900,000. That would be $2.3 billion, before tax, for every man, woman and child on earth. But the ancients bungled, perpetuating the problem of scarcity and leaving the way open for Sylvia Nasar to write her "Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius," a survey of economic thought from Charles Dickens to Paul Samuelson and beyond.

Economic genius would seem to be in short supply these days. On the say-so of economists, Congress has spent upwards of $1 trillion to "stimulate" an economy that remains unstimulated. The best economists are formidable intellects, as it goes without saying—Ben Bernanke was the spelling champion of South Carolina—but you begin to wonder if they know what they're talking about.

Ms. Nasar divides her book into three "acts," like a play. They are "hope," "fear" and "confidence." "Hope" is what the Victorian thinkers, including Dickens, in his role of social reformer, and Karl Marx (of all people), gave the world concerning the possibility of solving the economic problem through conscious effort. "Fear" is what the interwar economists—confronting first hyperinflation and then the Great Depression—had to wrestle with and surmount. "Confidence" is what returned after World War II, as governments implemented the allegedly constructive notions of the Keynesians and monetarists.

Her collected geniuses, Ms. Nasar claims, were "instrumental in turning economics into an instrument of mastery." I find nothing in these pages remotely to substantiate that contention. Economics may be an "engine of analysis," as Alfred Marshall said, or an "apparatus of the mind," as Keynes put it. But economists no more set the world to producing and consuming than baseball statisticians hit home runs. Then, too, you'll never see Bill James, the dean of the baseball sabermetricians, trip up a base runner the way the government thwarts an entrepreneur. The intervention-minded economists are the ones who give the government its big ideas.

Ms. Nasar, the author of "A Beautiful Mind" (1998), the story of the mathematician John Nash, is a superb writer, fully meeting the standard set by Robert Heilbroner, in his "The Worldly Philosophers" (1953), for graceful writing on a difficult subject. You may or may not agree that the word "genius" fairly describes the mental apparatus of each of her heroes, but you can't help becoming engrossed in their lives. In her telling, Karl Marx has never seemed more repugnant or Joseph Schumpeter more persevering.

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