153 of 161 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2011
In the Grand Pursuit, Sylvia Nasar, the widely acclaimed author of A Beautiful Mind, writes a sweeping history of the evolution of modern economics through the lens of the discipline's most famous scholars and theorists. It is ambitious in scope, based on some very solid research and often a compelling read. But at the same time it is overly broad and, ultimately, does not yield many new insights into its subject matter.
The author argues, rightly, that the idea that human prosperity could be created and managed is a relatively new one. Before the mid-nineteenth century most assumed that the vast bulk of humanity was destined to live in poverty and squalor and that there was not much that could be done about this. But during this era, a group of scholars including Marx, Engels, and Schumpeter emerged and contended that the lives of human beings could be improved through the proper management of the economy. Nasar retells how difficult economic circumstances have been at certain points in world history and looks at the efforts of leading economists to contribute to prosperity during their respective eras. In Nasar's broad survey we encounter many of the best-known economists of the past 150 years and learn about their personal lives, their contributions to the discipline, and how they tried to influence policy. Throughout her skillfully constructed narrative, Nasar demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the major ideas of almost every major economist that readers could think of. She describes the importance of John Maynard Keynes, Beatrice Potter Webb (the inventor of the idea of the welfare state), Milton Friedman and Amartya Sen among others both to the discipline of economics and to policy making. In this sense, the book is probably the most comprehensive history of its kind.
But the great breadth of the work can also at times be a weakness. Often, Nasar can only manage to introduce a key economist before she moves on to the next thinker. Moreover, the author rarely offers a new interpretation or critique of the many economists that she introduces. The relatively limited number of pages that she can devote to each of the scholars that she talks about more or less precludes this kind of detailed analysis that those with a more serious interest in the topic will crave.
For me, the most significant disappointment in this book is it's misleading title. It is not really a history of economic genius. We do not learn very much about what made the many economists that Nasar introduces us to geniuses. She does not really even attempt to show how their minds worked, how they came up with their theories, and what made their thinking unique. She focuses much more heavily on how these scholars interacted and how they tried to shape what the different governments were doing. In this sense, the book is far more conventional than Nasar's compelling biography of John Nash, to which The Grand Pursuit will inevitably be compared.
Nevertheless, if you are interested in a broad retelling of the history of modern economics, there are far worse places to start than Nasar's new book. It does provide an informative, readable summary of the careers and thinking of the most important economists of the nineteenth and twentieth century even if it does not tell us very much that is exciting or revelatory about them.
77 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I liked the concept behind "The Grand Pursuit." Economic science has been increasingly under attack in recent years, so I'm pleased that Sylvia Nasar provided a mass-marketed perspective on the value of economic thought from the mid-19th century onwards. This book, or one like it, should be read by anyone who takes for granted modern economic growth and the ideas that helped make it possible. Yet the book is too much hodgepodge. Nasar's choices of which economists to portray and what aspects of their lives to profile seems arbitrary. She spices up the material by grouping it together in three acts - Hope, Fear, and Confidence - but such framing is no substitute for deeper care in the selection and organization of the material.
The organization is more like a sandwich than a 3-act play: the first five and last three chapters profile individual economists, while the meat of the story is the middle 10 chapters, portraying the interaction between economists like Fisher, Keynes and Hayek both between the World Wars and in the aftermath. The heroes of the early chapters like Marshall had less direct role in policy, but their ideas were crucial to shaping our understanding of the world.
Nasar observes that throughout history, there have been powerful people who looked at the world purely in zero-sum terms. Her heroes understood that the future need not be so bleak. I wish this book made a more coherent and convincing case for such an important truth.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2011
This is a fine book, something that makes this review hard to write, because I don't wish to appear callous or nitpicking. While I like the book I also feel slightly let down, for while it has genuine merit -- It's a pretty quick read, it's very informative (on certain topics), and it is entertaining and interesting -- it really isn't what the title says it is. Specifically, as others have pointed out, it isn't a history of economic thought or economic theories. It is a series of quite interesting biographical snapshots of various important economic thinkers, warts and all. At its best, this book is good intellectual history: or more accurately, good intellectual historical contextualizing, and so it is definitely worth acquiring, if this interests you. But for a history of economic theorizing, look elsewhere.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
By opening the tale of economics with Charles Dickens, Prof. Nassar immediately sets the tone of this unorthodox history. Indeed, Charles Dickens, who most of us do not think is an economist, replaces Adam Smith, widely considered the first economist. Rather than stick merely to the economic theories, this book explores the environment in which those theories grew as well as how personal events shaped the economists. For instance, Sen was greatly affected by witnessing the famines of India as a child and Schumpeter by the suffering in Austria post WWI. For Irving Fisher, his own bout with tuberculosis transformed him into fanatical personal health advocate. I was further surprised by how often the works on socialism were written by people (Webb, Marx, Engels) who really had little common background with the common worker. Webb spent a mere 3 days attempting to live the common life (instead of her advertised 3 weeks) while Marx, the father of Communism, never bothered to visit factories despite being in the heart of the industrial revolution. Marx, perhaps unjustifiably, is portrayed as a bum constantly living on someone else's dime. While these moments are relevant to explain (or question) a person's views, Sylvia spends a significant amount of effort describing the various affairs / love conquests of Schumpeter, Robinson, and Keynes. I can understand that this gossip gives a sense of their personalities, but I think these moments are far less interesting and informative.
While this storytelling style offers insight, it unfortunately can be very confusing since a lot of names are introduced to the reader. If you are not already familiar with the major economic players and vaguely what they are known for it is very easy to get lost. Also Prof. Nassar has a bad habit of sometimes introducing a person without giving you their names. Two examples of this are the first mention of Hayek and Bela Kun. The first time Hayek is mentioned is in relation to his grandmother; my reaction to his name was "well, if I didn't know Hayek would be talked about later I would be confused why emphasis was placed on his name." Bela Kun is introduced without a name and then you are expected to make the connection when all of a sudden this guy named Bela Kun is discussed at length. I had to google him to make sure I was right about his identity. However, often these side tangents to minor players such as Dr. Harvey Kellogg and Herbert George Wells add cultural insight and are entertaining. If you are unwilling to cope with a lot of characters, then you will dislike the writing style.
The book is organized into three main Acts: Hope, Fear, and Confidence. This choice is succinct and emphasizes the evolution of thought. The first section, Hope, is all about how economics developed as the hope to improve daily life. This feeling is a sharp contrast to the dismal conditions of Malthus. The second, Fear, is strongly tied to the disaster caused by the First World War. Many economists believed this war could not happen due to the interconnectedness of the economies. War was viewed as economic suicide. The war and the following depressions created a fear that life couldn't / wouldn't get better. The last section, Confidence, is about how we finally felt like we knew what we were doing with the economy post WWII. Economists had confidence that they could eliminate great depressions. This conclusion, however, may be more debatable given the current economic events since 2009.
Since familiarity with the economists greatly enhances the readability of the text, a list of the major players is given below with a brief statement about their views/ contributions. These statements are purely based on my understanding from the text. Even though they are placed in the act they are introduced, many of them span several acts and are entangled with each other.
Act I: Hope
K. Marx (German): Father of Communism. No means existed to convert production increases into higher wages and living standards.
A. Marshall (English): Productivity. As opposed to the views of Malthus where humanity would forever be trapped in poverty, the cure to economic woes and higher living standards was to increase productivity.
B. Webb (English): Government safety net. Destitution is preventable in a population and public services (like education) are overall beneficial for the economy despite taxation to pay for it.
I. Fischer (American): Everything is interconnected in the economy and money greatly affects the real economy. He is perhaps best known in American history texts as an opponent of William Jennings Bryant and "the cross of gold."
Act II: Fear
J. Schumpeter (Austrian): Austrian finance minister tasked with fixing the economy post WWI. Unlike the traditional economic viewpoint that a nation's economic health depended on its resources, he believed what matters was what a country did with what it had. Innovation, entrepreneurs, and credit are necessary to drive progress.
F. Hayek (Austrian): Anti-Communist. He is perhaps best known for his book "The Road to Serfdom." This piece was an attack on the Soviet system and a defense of free markets. He believed that central planning was incompatible with freedom.
M. Keynes (English): Arguably the best known name in economics. Instability, not inequality, was the greatest threat to capitalism. While the traditional cure to stabilizing the economy was balancing the books to restore investor confidence, he believed the real solution was easier money. This approach avoided the liquidity trap and got money to those who could spend it: the government needed to be prepared to be the spender of last resort. His theories were the rational behind FDR's New Deal.
J. Robinson (English): Communist. The free market economy would tend to long-run unemployment, excess industrial capacity, and stagnation. Supposedly, she had a huge disdain for mathematics. I do not understand how this is possible for an economist.
M. Friedman (American): Permanent income hypothesis. During WWII, he constructed a huge database of consumers and their purchases. This put him in a unique position to analyze spending patterns. He believed taxation could be used to stabilize the economy.
Act III: Confidence
P. Samuelson (American): Unemployment. He emphasized the importance of preventing unemployment, particularly after the demobilization of WWII.
A. Sen (Indian): Freedom. The expansion of freedom is viewed both as the primary end and the principal means of development.
The test is full of pure facts; Prof. Nassar stays away from any topic where there is not a clear-cut conclusion and she would need to offer her opinion. For instance, she goes into great depth describing the economic fallout following WWI. No one will dispute this mistake since it led to another world war. However often she hints at more modern economic results, but does not go into what they are. Milton Friedman, for instance, is described as the future father of Reagan-era tax cuts (in opposition to his earlier positions), but this story is not explained further because the jury is still out on whether or not these tax cuts were a good idea. The one exception is that the author clearly believes the Soviet model of communism is a mistake (many western economists will not dispute this, but communists may disagree). Specifically, "China's remarkable leap in modernity left the Soviet Union in the dust and finally discredited the Soviet economic model." I wish the test included more modern economics (post - 1970s) and further explained such statements.
Overall the text is extremely well written and engaging as expected of a professor of journalism. The book is full of good references to historical texts (e.g. The Economic Consequences of Peace) as well as many solid one-liners. The main reason for reading this book is summed up in the epilogue: " economic intelligence was far more critical to success than territory, population, natural resources, or even technological leadership. Ideas matter." I don't entirely agree with this statement, but economic theory is nonetheless an important determinant for society. Furthermore, it is shown what has been done and whether or not it worked. These statements are particularly relevant to price controls, which surprisingly larger numbers of countries are still trapped in. This text should be required for all politicians and leaders.
Having looked at other reviews here, I noticed many recommend "The Worldly Philosophers" over this book. I'm currently in the process of reading that and it appears that book is a better reference for understanding the economics. However, I prefer to think that the books compliment rather than subtract from each other.
39 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2011
The Grand Pursuit, as Nassar writes, is the ambitious quest to improve the material well-being of everyone in a given society. The tale starts in the mid-1800s when it was assumed that "nine parts of mankind" would live in misery and poverty. But as Burke was making that claim, the Industrial Revolution was gaining steam thanks to the classical economists, and the world was changing forever.
While this book ably covers the big picture economic developments of the last 200 years (the Industrial Revolution, class warfare, the rise of the welfare state), it is really about the economists that thunk the thoughts that made up that history. We find out what kind of people Marx, Marshall, Fischer, Keynes, Schumpeter, Hayek, and Friedman were, and so get a better glimpse of the life and times behind the genius.
In engaging vignettes, the author reveals that Marx wrote Das Kapital without having visited a factory and that his income placed him among the top 2% in Britain; that it was a woman, Beatrice Webb who invented the concept of the welfare state; and that the prize monetarist Milton Friedman was the one who first suggested the automatic income tax withholding (a measure he later denounced).
Since the author focuses on the lives of the economists, one doesn't get a fully-formed economic theory such as the one in Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It. The themes and implications do amount to something of an assertion--that industrialism is the source of the widespread increase in well-being, and that capitalism, not socialism is the best mechanism for supporting it.
Altogether, this is a welcomed addition to any economist's bookshelf, and a fantastic follow-up for one of the best storytellers in economics today.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2012
As an applied economist (Ph.D no less), I managed to escape taking a course in economic history during my formal course of study. Although I did not directly regret not taking the course then nor in the years immediately following, in hindsight, I have changed my opinion, and a course in Economic History is eminently useful and should be required of every Economics student. What Sylvia Nasar did for me in writing her book, "Grand Pursuit" was to open up the subject in anything but a dry fashion. I found the stories of the economists and the economic environment they lived eminently useful, instructive, and entertaining. Among other things, from this book I gained a sense that Economics as a social science grew out of and in response to the tremendous growth in income and wealth that Western Europe (and the United States). The `renaissance' men and women of that period kept asking `why' out of which, dictated by logic and eventually the discipline of mathematics, grew the profession which we know today, warts and all.
As I write this short review, I have not yet read all of the reviews which others may have written on this Amazon site, so I don't know if any else has picked up on the irony of placing the title of Sylvia's previous book "A Beautiful Mind" (about Professor John Nash) on the book's front cover just below her name, followed in much bigger print, the title of this book "GRAND PURSUIT". Judging by the way she researched and footnoted such a copious amount of material, she has earned the title herself by virtue of her intellect, as one who also has a beautiful mind. Kudos for her ability to synthesize such a gargantuan amount of non-quantifiable data and to present it as a nicely completed puzzle.
For those who are keenly interested in economic history via mini-biographies, I would also recommend Breit and Hirch's book "Lives of the Laureates: Twenty-three Nobel Economists" which is a compilation - of mini-biographies - of the lives and contributions of many of the same economists whom Nasar writes about in her own books.
26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2012
Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius is not a quality piece of economic analysis. The author has selected a handful of economists, some wildly famous like Marx and Keynes, others less known like Joan Robinson, and has declared them geniuses without anything other than the most cursory description of their economic analyses/theories. Most of the geniuses turn out to be pretty much worthless as predictors of economic events, and although she starts with Marx and Engels, it is not to appreciate their contributions but to condemn Marx to irrelevance, on the grounds that he never once visited an actual factory in Britain (that he had read thousands of reports and listened to hundreds of eyewitnesses of factory life does not impress Ms. Nasar - and I wonder how many factories she's visited?)
The book is a gimmick book that allows the author to be gossipy and opinionated about a handful of economists. She seems happiest when she can assert that the economists who have been embraced by the Tea Party and other anti-government groups - like Hayek and von Mises - were actually in favor of government regulation of business. She selectively quotes from texts and organizes her cursory analyses around gross generalizations and unenlightening analogies. The more you try to parse her paragraphs, the less sense they make.
The overarching theme - that only with challenge posed by modern economists has the Grand Pursuit of improving the lives of 9/10's of the world's population taken off - is not seriously pursued. And certainly the modern history of political economy is not addressed. I can't imagine who would gain from reading this book.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2012
Is the editor supposed to provide any service other than spell checking? If so then the author was poorly served by this editor. (Paraphrasing a line from Catch 22 "take the editor out and have her shot" or at leased reassigned to children's books). Issues:
1. No clear sense of direction, no sense of intended audience, no sense of purpose
2. Informative read or interesting read? --neither
3. Superfluous data--lots! (TANGENT ALERT --flashes on every page.)
4. In many cases sentences and paragraph need to be reread several time to tease out the authors intention.
The biographical information is useful in establishing the connection between the personalities and their economic contributions but in the end, in spite of the word count, the connections are not strongly drawn. (and after all was that the objective of the author?)
I'm sure that Nasar did a prodigious amount of research (the notes certainly indicate it) but some EDITING might have resulted in a more succinct work.
At page 277 I encountered the following paragraph: (Inserted parenthetical comments are mine.)
"To make such calculations in a market economy, Mises said, individual business and consumer use price data. Take the question of whether the cost of making a car is more or less than the amount consumers are willing to spend on it. To figure the cost, add up the hours of labor, pounds of steel and rubber, marketing, distribution, and other inputs, multiply by their prices and add everything up. (ie. determine the total cost to manufacture,distribute and sell) To figure the value the consumer places on it, take the selling price and multiply by 1 (mathematically challenging but I'll hang in there) for one car. (but weren't we speaking of the cost of making "A car") Does it make sense to produce cars? If your cost is less than your revenue, you can keep on making them. (major concept, Dude!, as opposed to the proposition that "we loose a little on everything we sell but we make up for it in volume") If it costs more to make them than people are willing to pay, you'll have to reconsider. (really?; redundant!)
The meat of the subject was in the subsequent paragraph but this extreme elaboration of a rather basic concept leaves you in a bit of narcosis by the time you get to the point. It stands in contrast to explanations of other more challenging economic concepts (elsewhere in the book) that are glossed over somewhat superficially. This leaves you with the impression that the editor was not well versed in the subject matter or felt unable to challenge the author.
At this point I struck my colors and abandoned ship. It's unusual that I will stick with a book that annoys as long as I did with this. Which suggests that there was sufficient content to hold my interest. It had the makings of several more stars if the editor had served her author better.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Grand Pursuit is an easy reading study of the so called great economist of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nasar provides biographical sketches of each subject covered to some degree or the other depending on how she appears to rate the importance of each economist. For this reason, the book is somewhat lopsided with lots of information about people like Webb, Keynes and virtually nothing about people like Freidman.
The ending section on Sen seemed to hardly justify his inclusion versus almost all of the other economist and associated political ideologs such as Robinson. The very last chapter is an obvious afterthought trying to tie 2011 into the historical events covered in the book and doing so poorly.
This is really an enjoyable read. It is will documented and reminds us that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we fail to study history. In fact, this book has prompted me to take on Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" and probably start working through Keynes works. To me, the success of any author of non-fiction is to provoke further study of the subject. With this in mind, Grand Pursuit is a good starting place for further reading on economical theory. It is not the beef but rather an appetizer.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2011
History of Economics Popularized by Vignettes
Nasar is a journalist, and her book is perhaps best described as a popularization of history of economic thought, but the book does not read like the typical textbook. Her book also contains much economic history.
Nasar's approach suggests an institutionalist economist's orientation. A reader may be reminded of a famous refrain by the institutionalist economist Wesley Clair Mitchell stated in his Lecture Notes on Types of Economic Theory (2 Volumes): "The social process which constitutes the development of the social sciences is a process of incessant interaction between logically arranged ideas and chronologically arranged events." (Vol. I, P. 27)
But Nasar and Mitchell do not have identical approaches. Mitchell believed that there have been different types of economic theories both because different economists addressed different problems that were prominent in their day, and because different economists had different ideas of human nature - from Adam Smith's natural-law view to Thorstein Veblen's anthropological-institutionalist view. But Nasar mentions Mitchell only in passing, and she does not list "institutionalism" in her index.
Nasar does not ignore the different problems economists addressed in different periods, but she focuses on her central thesis that the history of economic thought is the story of how evolving economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing man's material circumstances in his own hands instead of Fate. It is a useful way to organize her material.
She allocates much page space to biographical vignettes of her selected economic geniuses. They include prominently Marx, Marshall, Schumpeter, Keynes, Hayek, Fisher and also the more recent Friedman and Samuelson. Her treatment of their theories is breezy.
She does not discuss the now-dominating analytical technique of econometric modeling for forecasting, simulation and optimization. Its ascendancy for policy analysis was a dramatic struggle achieved by several Nobel laureates. One would think that the role of this technique would have been discussed, since it not only makes economics an empirical science, but also is now extensively used for addressing the basic problem that she has made the central thesis of her book. However, the noneconomists will find her book entertaining as well as instructive.
Thomas J. Hickey, Econometrician