Sylvia Nasar, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. Simon & Schuster, 2011.
I’ve been carrying around my copy of Grand Pursuit for a couple of months — it’s been my “airplane book” as I’ve traveled to give book talks. It has been perfect for this because each chapter tells a clear story and it is easy to pick up, set down, and return to once again. And now I’ve finally found time to finish it.
A Puzzle with One Piece Missing
Or almost finish it, because mine is an “advanced reader’s edition” — basically the uncorrected page proofs — sent out to reviewers ahead of the official release. It isn’t necessarily the final edition — the author can still change a thing or two before the final book goes to press
Or, as in this case, the author can actually finish the book after the review copies have been put in the mail. The last six pages of my edition, marked “epilogue,” are left intentionally blank to accommodate a last minute addition that I imagine ties the book’s themes tightly to current events, setting the hook as a fisherman might say
I guess I could go to the library and read these last few pages — it wouldn’t take much time — but since I’ve read the rest of the book I ought to be able to guess what Nasar says in the end.
A Book About the 90 Percent
Nasar starts and ends Grand Pursuit with a reference to the economic plight of the 90 percent — stated initially in a quote from Edmund Burke regarding the misery of the “nine Parts in ten of the whole Race of Mankind.” The final page of my edition returns to the “nine parts” theme with a comment made in reference to Amartya Sen’s work on poverty. I take this as a sign that the book is meant to address the “grand pursuit” to eliminate want and achieve prosperity for the majority of the world’s population.
This theme is either advanced or interrupted, depending upon your point of view, by Nasar’s decision to tell it through the lives of “economic genius” in the persons of Marx and Engels, Alfred Marshall, Beatrice Web, Keynes, Schumpeter and Hayek, Irving Fisher, Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, Joan Robinson and the already mentioned Sen. None of these “lives of the saints” (and the sinners) is comprehensive, but how could they be? Skidelsky’s three volume biography of Keynes runs well over two thousand pages. It is impossible to do complete justice to all the people and events found here in only about 500 pages. So compromises must be made.
Striking a Balance
Nasar’s extended biographical sketches actually pass my test for decent popular work. In the cases where I already knew a lot (Keynes, for example) I found the text somewhat superficial and I wanted more. But I think I learned a lot about the people with whom I was less familiar.
That suggests that Nasar has struck a good compromise between depth and breadth (although it doesn’t guarantee that she is always even handed or picks the events and ideas that I would have highlighted).
But this really isn’t the story of the economic geniuses or even their genius (which would be a history of economic theory, which this book clearly is not). Rather, and against the odds, it really is a history of the “grand pursuit” of broadly shared economic prosperity — the welfare of the 90 percent.
And, of course, it is an unfinished pursuit. The Occupy Wall Streeters may not have everything right, but they do have this. Much has been accomplished, I truly believe this, but it has come against the background of false starts, false gods, false optimism and false pride. (After all, the geniuses are only human.)
As Nasar proclaims on the first page, the idea that “humanity could turn tables on economic necessity — mastering rather than being enslaved by material circumstances” is audacious when set in historical context. The pursuit of this goal is grand, indeed.