In a sweeping narrative, the author of the megabestseller A Beautiful Mind takes us on a journey through modern history with the men and women who changed the lives of every single person on the planet. It’s the epic story of the making of modern economics, and of how economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.
Nasar’s account begins with Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew observing and publishing the condition of the poor majority in mid-nineteenth-century London, the richest and most glittering place in the world. This was a new pursuit. She describes the often heroic efforts of Marx, Engels, Alfred Marshall, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, and the American Irving Fisher to put those insights into action—with revolutionary consequences for the world.
From the great John Maynard Keynes to Schumpeter, Hayek, Keynes’s disciple Joan Robinson, the influential American economists Paul Samuelson and Milton Freedman, and India’s Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, she shows how the insights of these activist thinkers transformed the world—from one city, London, to the developed nations in Europe and America, and now to the entire planet. In Nasar’s dramatic narrative of these discoverers we witness men and women responding to personal crises, world wars, revolutions, economic upheavals, and each other’s ideas to turn back Malthus and transform the dismal science into a triumph over mankind’s hitherto age-old destiny of misery and early death. This idea, unimaginable less than 200 years ago, is a story of trial and error, but ultimately transcendent, as it is rendered here in a stunning and moving narrative.
Nasar's A Beautiful Mind mined a rich dramatic vein in the story of a solitary mathematical genius. Her new work looks to a broad sweep of modern economic history for similar magic with mixed results. While the author rightly sees a vital and indeed dramatic core to the "dismal science," the narrative can feel desultory at times. Tracing the accompanying rise of economic theory in the development of global capitalism, Nasar's cast of (mostly) famous men and women seeks to tackle the increasingly disconcerting problem of widespread want in the midst of enormous concentrations of wealth. Her chronological narrative emphasizes a key tension between antistatist laissez faire ideas and the logic of the modern welfare state. A final chapter on Indian economist Amartya Sen takes us beyond the West briefly, but the book concentrates overwhelmingly on the centers of capitalist power up through WWII. The attempt to squeeze a good story from her subjects can encourage a lopsided accounting, where Marx, for example, becomes a clownish personal figure whose economic ideas are all the easier to dismiss while the contributions of Alfred Marshall are arguably overemphasized. Historiographically thin, the book serves best as a curiosity-piquing introduction to figures and basic themes in modern economic history rather than a definitive study.
Essential reading for those interested in modern economic history.
This is essential reading for those interested in economic history. The book spans the development of economic thought from the mid-1800s up to the post World War II era. It is a great book that would work well as a lead up to Daniel Yergin's book The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, which covers the development of economic thought throughout the 20th century.
What I found most fascinating about this work was what it revealed regarding the personal lives of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Beatrice Potter (the inventor of the welfare state and the "think tank"), Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes and his Bloomsbury circle of friends, Milton Friedman (I had no idea that he initially supported Keynesian economics), and Joan Robinson.
Very intriguing as well to gain some insight into the potential relationships that developed between Cambridge economists who had leanings toward socialism and Soviet style communism and their influence upon the infamous British MI6 double-agents who became known as the Cambridge Five.