Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

Release Date: 
September 12, 2011
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

Let’s for a moment get our bearings after the summer of 2011’s little economic unpleasantness.

To help us through the process, imagine you’re a well-ensconced editor at one of the major publishing imprints. Your already meager 401-K has been decimated despite all the economists’ books you’ve shepherded through and the wisdom you’ve presumed to glean from them.

More galling, you’ve repeatedly stuck out your neck in editorial meetings arguing that economists are the rock stars of our recessed era, despite the fact they pepper their prose with conditional verbs like “could,” “might,” and “should,” use the passive voice, and repeat the words “perhaps” and “maybe” a lot.

Lately, the feedback from your peers hasn’t been kind because your econ-author books aren’t exactly flying off the shelves.

And now, Sylvia Nasar’s agent is sitting in your office (because your expense account is kaput—no more lunches at Michael’s Pub in your future) trying to sell you a history of economics in which thinkers such as Marshall, Keynes, and Schumpeter are portrayed heroically. In fact, the title of author Nasar’s compendium is Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius.

Suddenly something snaps. You’ve had it . . . with the economy, markets, dismal practitioners, even your holding-cell of a studio on the Upper West Side. These feckless con men, with their Ph.D.s and named university chairs, have been no help to anyone since 2008. Justice is demanded.

A vision of throwing Robert Reich through a plate-glass window overwhelms you. Larry Summers, Joseph Stieglitz, and Ken Rogoff being frog-walked down Wall Street to the braying voices of Goldman Sachs traders passes before your eyes. You want to say something polite to Ms. Nasar’s agent, but the bile is rising in your gorge and you can only pronounce the sounds of your distant forebears . . . aaaggh . . . aacckkk . . . eeeyowww.

Ms. Nasar’s agent’s survival instincts are well honed; he bolts from your office.

You sit. You stare at the Columbia diploma on the wall. Have you made a terrible mistake? And there’s the manuscript of Grand Pursuit left on your desk in the wake of the agent’s dash for life.

You pull the pages toward you and read the prologue. It’s interesting . . . Ms. Nasar has a big idea: that economics is an engine of analysis essential for making the most of the world’s possibilities. She has chosen people from London in the 1840s, moving to Germany and Austria, then America, and ending in Calcutta in the 21st century.

All these thinkers, you learn, will be striving for one thing: to battle the acceptance of “fate” so aptly put by Robert Heinlein: that poverty is the normal condition of man.

So far, so good, you think.

Ms. Nasar starts with Charles Dickens of all people, who, along with Henry Mayhew and Karl Marx, describes a world in which the conditions and thinking that condemn humanity to poverty are becoming less fixed and more malleable.

She moves on to Alfred Marshall, who shows how competition encouraged productivity, which in turn promotes higher wages and living standards.

There’s Beatrice Webb and her invention of the welfare state; Schumpeter and Hayek make recurring appearances; Irving Fisher enters to show how powerfully money affects the real economy and how government can increase economic stability by managing money better.

Ms. Nasar seems, almost by default, to pit collectivism against capitalism. Yet she makes no judgments, which is a bit maddening to you. Instead, socialists come and go; then John Maynard Keynes takes center stage for a while. There are many other economists as well; Ms. Nasar’s cast is huge and, at times, unwieldy.

It’s dinnertime, and you decide to head to your favorite bistro to continue reading. Fueled by an Old Fashioned, you flip the pages. People should read this book, you think. After all, the country may be in its most profound economic crisis since The Great Depression, perhaps even its greatest challenge since the Civil War.

Yet, as you continue reading, something bothers you.

You start to fret that Ms. Nasar is torn between history and narrative. As bold as her prologue is, that dramatic tension—the essential author’s viewpoint that the best historians wield—disappears as she delves into her economists’ lives. Despite the backdrops of the Industrial Revolution, world wars, depression, and recovery, there’s a certain passivity in the way things are recounted—not good for a book weighed down by so many theories and different thinkers.

You rub your head; you need another drink. You’re not looking for economists to become Mattel action figures, but heck, a reader needs shepherding over 150 years of economic thought, some guidance, a few author-placed conclusions.

And the book is heavy with Keynes. Russell Crowe played John Nash, the protagonist of Ms. Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind. Who will play Keynes when Grand Pursuit hits the silver screen? Vigo? Brad? Tom?

But this isn’t movie material, you realize. No gunfights between Frederich Hayek and Joan Robinson (did they even meet?); no 3-D effects to illustrate demand-side economics—and supply-side theory is almost invisible (so, no cameos by Ronald Reagan or Paul Volker).

The waiter ignores you; no second drink. You sigh and give up ordering dinner. Instead, you shuffle off to your canary cage to satisfy your hunger.

A microwaved bowl of Campbell’s cream of something doesn’t do the trick. You have to make some decisions, including how to make up with Ms. Nasar’s agent. But what do you say about Grand Pursuit?

The book is a little like eating your greens, healthy for you but . . . well, you can’t say that.

Ms. Nasar starts with a great concept, but she has a hard time making good on it. That’s constructive criticism, right?

Businessmen should read it, as well as Obama’s people—yes.

“We need a history like this,” you’ll tell him. (You’ll say the same thing to your editorial committee.) It can provide the backdrop to what will inevitably be some serious decisions the U.S. has to make. It’s a continuum, all this economic thought. And someone will emerge, a new Keynes, a Hayek, whoever.

That’s what you’ll tell Mr. Agent, along with: “I’ll buy it.”