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As I recently read Thomas K. McCraw's brilliant biography of Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), I was intrigued by the evolution of his career after he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna (1906). At age 24, he served as a secretary of state for finance in the new Austrian republic (1919-1920), and later became chairman and president of a Vienna-based Biederman Bank (1920-1924) that collapsed. As a result of that and several substantial investments in companies which also failed, Schumpeter suffered major financial setbacks (both professional and personal) but eventually repaid his debts, then taught at the University of Bonn (1925-1932) before accepting an offer to join the Harvard faculty as a professor of economics where he continued to teach until his death in 1950. McCraw also examines Schumpeter's personal life that, understandably, reflected the successes and failures in his career. For example, Schumpeter fell deeply in love with Anna Josifina Reisinger and married her in 1925. The next year, his beloved mother died and within a month, his wife died in childbirth, as did their son. McCraw suggests that Schumpeter never fully recovered from these personal losses.

Of greatest interest to me is the context or frame-of-reference the biographical material provides for one of Schumpeter's most influential business concepts, "creative destruction," which he introduced in his most popular book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy," first published in 1942. Scholars have divided opinions as to the influences on Schumpeter's development of this concept. They probably include Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Werner Sombart.

According to Schumpeter, there is a "process of industrial mutation-if I may use that biological term-that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in." He goes on to explain, "The first thing to go is the traditional conception of the modus operandi of competition. Economists are at long last emerging from the stage in which price competition was all they saw. As soon as quality competition and sales effort are admitted into the sacred precincts of theory, the price variable is ousted from its dominant position. However, it is still competition within a rigid pattern of invariant conditions, methods of production and forms of industrial organization in particular, that practically monopolizes attention. But in capitalist reality as distinguished from its textbook picture, it is not that kind of competition which counts but the competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization (the largest-scale unit of control for instance) - competition which commands a decisive cost or quality advantage and which strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives." (from "The Process of Creative Destruction," 1942) There are countless examples of applications of this concept, notably Jack Welch's determination to "blow up" GE after he succeeded Reginald Jones as CEO.

In his own review of Prophet of Innovation in the Wall Street Journal, Dan Seligman includes Schumpeter's widely quoted question-and-answer sequence: "Can capitalism survive? No, I do not think it can." Seligman then suggests that that answer "is hedged in later passages [in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy]. Even so, it will seem wildly counterintuitive to readers who have read Schumpeter on capitalism's huge successes." I agree. In fact, I presume to suggest that, from Schumpeter's perspective, no form of capitalism can survive and that continuous replacement of one form of capitalism by another confirms the enduring reality of creative destruction. Without it, there can be no innovation. In essence, that is the basic paradox of capitalism.
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on May 30, 2007
I have been impressed by this book, which is a good mix of the 'history' of Joseph Schumpeter and his ideas and contributions to economics. I think the author has obtained a very good balance between trying to understand this great economist, and presenting his work to the informed lay-person. Economists and non-economists alike will find a lot here, which is very relevant to today (perhaps even more so to economists working in academia!). Some of Schumpeter's major works (like Business Cycles published in 1939) are not easy to digest; but this book brings out enough to capture the essentials. Overall, this is the best book on Schumpeter I have seen.
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on April 30, 2007
Thomas McCraw is one of the best business historians in the world and with this output, late in his career (he is an emeritus professor at Harvard now), he can lay claim to being one of the best historians in the world, not just a business historian. It is hard to imagine a political biography in recent years that comes close to matching the lucid style, perfect prose, excellent quotes and commentary about life as this book.

The subject is one of the most famous economists of the twentieth century, someone who along with Frederick Hayek, Ludwig Mises and others from the Austrian School came to anchor the philosophical basis for the success of economic and political freedom. The book covers in detail the personal life of Schumpeter, including a lot of material not commonly available. His biography of the deaths of his daughter mother and wife within months is an excellent if tragic basis to delineate the first part of Schumpeter's life, which the author suggests made him an Enfant Terrible, from the second, which the author calls made him an adult. The final segment is his becoming a Sage. Peppered throughout the book are some of the best quotations from some of the most famous persons in history, including legendary poets, yet ones the reader would never have read before.

For all those reasons, Thomas McCraw has delivered a book that is filling like a all-you-can-eat buffet, yet with each dish of the same quality as fine dining. IT IS A TOUR DE FORCE.

Yet there is a contextual flaw which weighs down the narrative. From the very first pages it is clear that Thomas McCraw is attempting to also make a comparative evaluation of economic systems, a task that quickly appears tenous, and to do that while crowning Schumpeter as the king of economics, past and present, at which point the narrative makes one cringe. Here is why this brilliant history turns into tenous economic analysis.

Firstly, as Thomas McCraw's colleagues across the Charles River should tell him, Schumpeter was his best not so much as a pure AUstrian-School economist but as a chronicler of the economy, almost a contemporary historian of the subject. In that sense he shared much with Karl Marx, who he studied extensively, for both really shined with words not with mathematics. So the author's repeated references to Schumpeter as a mathematical genius, or as a competitor in that regard with John Keynes, fails and fails obviously. Schumpeter was the least mathematical of all the great economists of the twentieth century.

Secondly, McCraw makes the error common to passionate biographers to make a sage out of their subject. Here too the book overreaches, for Schumpeter was among the worst at foretelling the future. Here again it was because he was more a historian, and less an economist. He predicted capitalism would collapse, a prediction that the author just glosses over. Yet the author pillories Karl Marx for the same error without realizing that Karl Marx wrote without the full benefit of the technological revolution, the telegraph and railroad barely underway by the 1840s. Yet by Schumpeter's time, not only were those revolutions done, but so was the telephone, electricity, the internal combustion engine and the airplane. As such, Schumpeter's pessimism was unforgivable while Karl Marx's was fully understandable.

Third, McCraw makes a shocking mistake by glossing over Schumpeter's lobbying for heavy reparations on the Germans after WW I. He did so by offering calculations that the German economy would easily recover, and therefore could support reparations. The point was fully opposed by John Keynes, who resigned as representative of Britain when the Schumpeterian perspective was used to devastate the Germans with debt burdens. If McCraw had not been at Harvard, or of such fame, it would easily have been a career ending mistake. After all, it is well known that those reparations led to Adolf Hitler and WW II, a point so well understood by 1945 that John Keynes was made the head of the entire postwar economic decisionmaking, precisely why he got to build the World Bank, IMF and Bretton Woods. Schumpeter by contrast was thoroughly discredited.

Fourth, for a business historian of unmatched credibility, McCraw makes a surprising contextual error with regard to Schumpeter's life. He seems to ignore the inevitability of progress, of the drivers of American growth in the early 20th century and absolute irrelevance of Schumpeter to that growth. Perhaps it is his bias as a biographer, or to make the layman buy the book, but it is fatal to the book. Here again, I point to the prior point that Schumpeter was more an economic historian than an economist in the sense that HAD SCHUMPETER NOT LIVED, NONE OF THE GREAT ECONOMIC ADVANCES OF THE 20TH CENTURY, INCLUDING THE VENTURE CAPITAL BUSINESS, WOULD HAVE BEEN HAMPERED. By contrast, without John Keynes, recovery after Sept. 11th, after WW II (when defense spending collapsed and social spending and reconstruction was increased to avoid a collapse of the economy) or in the midst of the Great Depression would have been hard to imagine. Precisely why comparative economic analysis undertaken by McCraw takes the tinge of conservative talk show simplicity. Harvard's economics department would likely have little of his business history about Schumpeter.

Finally, the book would have been a lot stronger had it left the idolization of Schumpeter to the jacket flaps and in the introduction. But repeated compliments only make the reader notice that the author has it wrong, especially when he summarily dismisses karl Marx or John Keynes the way a conservative talk show host would. All Schumpeter was was an immensely readable subject, and an inspiring prosaists who hungered for fame, and whose economic history was impressive, all reasons why you must buy the book and keep it prominently on your book shelf, but he was a flawed economist driven to the wrong conclusions (from reparations to the sustainability of capitalism). His grandiosity was Churchillian, as was his sense of history and society, but unlike Winston Churchill, fate never gave Schumpeter the chance to correct for a lifetime of grandiose errors.
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on June 22, 2008
Moravian-born, Vienna-educated Professor Joseph Alois Schumpeter, who liked to say of his aspirations to be the world's greatest economist, horseman, and lover that only the second had given him problems, was a study in contrasts. He relished his fame as one of the interwar years' premier economic theorists yet modestly declined to mention his work in his Harvard classes or in his exhaustive book on the history of economic thought. (Citations to his work were inserted into that book by his wife after his death). An obsessively hard working, morose (indeed often depressed) writer in private, he affected a public image of carefree, cheerful ebullience. A notoriously easy grader to his students, he often gave himself low marks in his diary. A one-time banker, he relied upon the women in his life to balance his checkbook. He chronicled the evolution of the auto industry but never learned to drive. He admired mathematics but failed to employ them in his work. A harsh critic of the static, steady-state equilibrium thinking of the neoclassical marginal utility/marginal productivity school, he nevertheless declared one of its founders, the French neoclassical equilibrium theorist Leon Walras, the greatest economist of all time.

All his life Schumpeter championed capitalism yet was an expert on Marx, Marxist economics, and the entire socialist literature. A Marxist economist, Paul Sweezy, was among his closest Harvard friends. Schumpeter was a political conservative and anti-socialist who,notwithstanding, served as Finance Minister for a socialist government in post-World War I Austria. He lauded capitalism's superior performance while predicting the system's death from too much success. He preached creative destruction -- the incessant tearing down of old ways of doing things by the new -- as capitalism's inescapable iron law, yet was unprepared when his own work fell prey to it.

The 1990s saw the publication of at least three biographies of this complex, paradoxical figure. Now comes Thomas McCraw's definitive and elegantly written study to top them all. Drawing upon Schumpeter's diary, correspondence, early drafts, and published works, McCraw, a Pulitzer Prize winning emeritus professor of Business History at Harvard, paints a vivid picture of Schumpeter's life and times, his loves and achievements. Readers will choose their favorite parts of the book. Most enlightening to this reviewer is McCraw's survey of Schumpeter's scholarly contributions. Ironically, McCraw writes that he is "not concerned with Schumpeter's economic thinking, narrowly construed," but with his "life and his compulsive drive to understand capitalism." But that is a false dichotomy because Schumpeter's theories cannot be divorced from his attempts to come to grips with capitalism: each guided and shaped the other. In any case, McCraw provides a perceptive and accurate account of Schumpeter's academic greatest hits and misses.

Greatest Hits
Hits include first and foremost the path breaking and seminal Theory of Economic Development, published in 1911 when Schumpeter, then 28, was in what he called his scholar's "sacred third decade" of peak creativity. Other hits followed including the subtle and provocative Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, and the mighty History of Economic Analysis, which Schumpeter worked on throughout the whole decade of the 1940s, and which was edited and published by his third wife, Elizabeth, four years after his death in 1950.

Schumpeter pushed one idea all his life: that capitalism means growth and growth requires innovation. The book that put him on the map, The Theory of Economic Development, states for the first time his vision of capitalism as the economic system that delivers faster growth and higher living standards (especially of the middle and lower income classes) than any other system, albeit in a disruptive, jerky, anxiety-inducing fashion. Like a perpetual motion machine, capitalism generates its own momentum internally without the need of outside force. Even technological change, seen by some as an exogenous propellant, is treated by Schumpeter as a purely endogenous matter, the product of economically motivated human ingenuity.

Breaking from received wisdom, Schumpeter replaces the static equilibrium analysis of his neoclassical marginalist predecessors and contemporaries with a dynamic disequilibrium theory of cyclical growth. His key building blocks are profits, entrepreneurs, bank credit creation, and innovation. Profits (supplemented perhaps with a desire to create a business dynasty) motivate entrepreneurs, who, financed by bank credit, innovate new goods, new technologies, and new methods of management and organization. These innovations fuel growth and generate cycles.

Why cycles? Cycles arise with a backlog of pent-up potential innovations seeking to override the barriers of habit, custom, tradition, and entrenched positions blocking their realization. When the first successful entrepreneur overcomes the stubborn resistance of incumbent interests and eases the path for other entrepreneurs, the resulting bunching of innovations (not to be confused with mere inventions, which Schumpeter saw as occurring more or less continuously) boosts investment spending, which bids prices above costs and raises profit margins thereby triggering the upswing or prosperity phase of the cycle. The high profit margins then attract swarms of imitators and would-be competitors into the innovating industries. Output overexpands relative to the demand for it, prices fall to or below costs thus eliminating profit margins, and the downswing or recession phase begins. The recession continues, weeding out inefficient firms as it goes, until the economy absorbs the innovations and consolidates the attendant gains thus clearing the ground for a fresh burst of innovation.

If the upswing has been accompanied with speculative excesses nonessential to innovation, the downswing may overshoot the new post-innovation equilibrium. Then the cycle enters its depression phase where the excesses are expunged and the economy returns via a recovery phase to equilibrium. Schumpeter stressed that the latter two phases and the phenomena that generate them are unnecessary for cyclical growth and could be prevented by properly designed policy. It's not speculative bubbles but rather the discontinuous clustering of innovations in time plus their diffusion across and assimilation into the economy that produces real cycles of prosperity and recession.

Profits, entrepreneurs, bank credit, innovation - all are essential to the growth of per capita real income in Schumpeter's model. Remove any one and the growth process stops. Innovation, for instance, is abortive in the absence of bank credit creation necessary to effectuate it. Cash-strapped entrepreneurs cannot build their better mouse traps from thin air. They require real resource inputs and loans of newly created bank money to hire them away from alternative employments. In highlighting this observation, Schumpeter effectively abandoned the classical dichotomy notion that loan-created money is a mere sideshow, a neutral veil that together with metallic money determines the nominal, or absolute, price level while leaving real economic variables unaffected. Not so, said Schumpeter.For him, money and credit are integral to the process of real economic growth and so have real effects.

Schumpeter's most popular hit was his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. In it he coins the term "creative destruction" to denote capitalism's incessant killing off of the old by the new. The book contains his famous end-of-history prediction that capitalism's very successes, not its failures and contradictions as prophesied by Karl Marx, will produce social forces -- the routinization and depersonalization of innovation, the destruction of the image of the entrepreneur as romantic hero, the creation of a class of intellectuals hostile to capitalism -- which undermine the system and lead to its demise.

If capitalism cannot survive, can one rely upon its successor, socialism, to deliver the goods and amenities of life efficiently and fairly? Yes, said Schumpeter, who proceeded to provide the supporting argument. Many readers took him at his word, but not McCraw. He sees Schumpeter's "defense" of socialism as a devastating satire that mocks the system instead of bolstering it. Schumpeter, in other words, comes not to praise socialism, but to bury it. In the end, Schumpeter's case for socialism rests on extremely abstract theoretical conditions unlikely to be realized in practice. All of which creates a problem: if Schumpeter sought to show that socialism was a practical impossibility, then why did he predict its ultimate triumph over capitalism? One wishes that the real Schumpeter would please stand up.

As for democracy, Schumpeter viewed it as a political market in which politicians compete for the votes of the electorate just as producers compete for consumers' dollars in markets for goods and services. But Schumpeter, always skeptical of consumer rationality, believed that market power resides more with vote seekers than with the electorate, whose apathy, ignorance, and lack of foresight enable politicians to set the policy agenda and to manipulate voter preferences. Even so, he felt that capitalism, as long as it operates within a proper legal framework, is largely self-regulating and so requires little intervention. It thus constrains politicians' market power more than does socialism. McCraw fails to note that these ideas mark Schumpeter as a forerunner of the modern public choice school.

The last hit in the Schumpeter canon is his History of Economic Analysis, whose title expresses his contention that the rise of analytic techniques in economics is part of the economic growth process and must be studied as such. The History, in terms of its scholarship, breadth of coverage, richness of content, originality of interpretation, and wealth of resurrected valuable ideas, ranks with Jacob Viner's 1937 book Studies in the Theory of International Trade as the finest history of thought ever written. Scholars still mine it for ideas today. Among other things, it provides sparkling accounts of the quantity theory, the gold standard, Say's Law, the development of production and utility functions, and much more.

Greatest Misses
Apart from an unfinished book on money, Schumpeter's misses include his massive, two volume Business Cycles (1939), which he wrote entirely by himself with no research assistance. Seven years in the making, it emerged stillborn from the press. McCraw, however, values the book for its historical narrative of the vicissitudes of firms in five industries and three countries. But Schumpeter's contemporaries saw only the book's prolixity, discursiveness, and lack of focus. Most of all, they rejected its contrived, mechanistic analytical schema composed of three superimposed cycles -- the 50-year Kondratieffs, 9-year Juglars, and 4-year Kitchins, all named for their discoverers -- into which Schumpeter forced his data. As if these flaws weren't enough to sink Business Cycles, it had the bad luck, and bad timing, to appear when J. M. Keynes' celebrated General Theory was sweeping the field. Everybody talked about Keynes' book, few about Schumpeter's.

Schumpeter and Keynes
Schumpeter fumed when Keynes and Keynesian economics upstaged him in the 1930s and 1940s. Economists preferred Keynes's theory to Schumpeter's because it seemed to offer a better explanation of and remedy for the Great Depression, because it possessed greater policy relevance, and because it was more amenable to the mathematical modeling, econometric testing, and national income accounting techniques just beginning to come into vogue in the 30s.

Schumpeter should have foreseen this state of affairs. It was consistent with his doctrine of creative destruction in which new theories, like new goods and new technologies, displace the old in a never ending sequence. Here Keynes was the innovator whose analysis of capitalism rested on such novel concepts as the multiplier, marginal propensity to consume, marginal efficiency of capital, and liquidity preference function. Taken together, these Keynesian innovations were bound, according to the creative destruction doctrine, to have supplanted Schumpeter's old-fashioned theory.

Instead of accepting this outcome, Schumpeter reacted exactly as he had described entrenched interests doing when threatened by an innovation that disrupts their accustomed status quo: he put up stubborn resistance. His resistance, however, was motivated not so much by simple self interest, or desire to protect his own theory, as by his scientific judgment that Keynesian economics was fundamentally unsound.

Schumpeter accused Keynes of assessing capitalism on the basis of a short-run, depression-oriented model when only a long-run growth-oriented one would do. He scorned Keynes's claim that capitalistic economies tend to be perpetually underemployed and in need of massive government deficit spending to shore them up. He attacked the "secular stagnation" notion that capitalists face vanishing investment opportunities and slowing rates of technological progress when the opposite is true. He rejected the contention that income must be redistributed from the rich (who save too much) to the poor (who cannot afford to save) in order to boost consumption spending and aggregate demand. Nonsense, said Schumpeter. The insatiability of human wants ensures that income, regardless of who receives it, will be spent in one way or another.

McCraw does a fine job discussing Schumpeter's criticisms, all of which were valid, penetrating, and correct. He fails, however, to note that Schumpeter essentially attacked the wrong target. For it was not so much Keynes as his British and American disciples -- people like Joan Robinson; R. F. Kahn; Abba Lerner; Schumpeter's Harvard colleague Alvin Hansen; and others -- who were largely responsible for the doctrines, especially their extreme versions, that Schumpeter countered. But McCraw rightly points out that Schumpeter slipped when he opined that the Keynesian-style permanently mixed economy, or public sector-private sector partnership, was unsustainable and could not last. The private sector, Schumpeter reasoned, would become addicted to government expenditure stimulus and demand ever-increasing amounts. In this way, the public sector would expand relative to the private one and the economy would gravitate to socialism. Time has proved Schumpeter wrong. Private and public sectors have coexisted in a fairly stable ratio in most developed countries for the past sixty years.

Controversial Issues
Schumpeter held politically unpopular opinions in the 1930s when New Deal activism and populist anti-business sentiments were on the rise. He opposed President Roosevelt's New Deal reforms on the grounds that they hampered entrepreneurship and growth. For the same reason, he opposed Keynesian macro demand-management policies designed to tame the trade cycle. In his view, because growth is inherently cyclical, one flattens the cycle at the cost of eliminating growth. Other controversial opinions, all corollaries of his work on innovation and creative destruction, flowed from his pen.

Of income inequality he wrote that the gap between rich and poor is a prerequisite to and a relatively harmless byproduct of growth in a capitalistic system. The rich are necessary since it is they and not the poor who save and invest in the innovation-embodied capital formation that lifts the living standards of all. Moreover, high incomes provide both incentive and reward for the entrepreneurs who propel growth. No one need fear that an unequal distribution will condemn them to poverty. The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto's notion of the "circulation of the elites" assures that. The ceaseless rise and fall of entrepreneurs into and out of the top income bracket means that it will be occupied over time by different people, many of them drawn from the ranks of the poor. The poor replace the rich and the rich the poor in never ending sequence.

In assuming a high degree of mobility across income groups, Schumpeter may have overlooked an education barrier. He failed to acknowledge that a superior education, increasingly a prerequisite to entrepreneurship and wealth in today's high tech world, is more affordable by the rich, enabling them and their offspring to stay on top.

Monopolistic firms and monopolistic profits hardly worried Schumpeter. He thought that monopolies, unless protected by government, are short lived, inherently self-destroying, and require no anti-trust legislation. Their high profits attract the very rivals and producers of substitute products that undercut them. For the same reason, he regarded anti-trust laws aimed at breaking up large, non-monopolistic firms as ill-advised. Not only are big firms often more efficient than small ones, but their research and development departments house teams of specialists functioning collectively -- and routinely -- as an entrepreneur who creates innovations that drive growth. Indeed, the very existence of R&D departments indicates that big firms realize they must continually innovate to stay alive.

Schumpeter's politically unpopular opinions continued into the wartime years of the 1940s. He distrusted Roosevelt, suspecting him of trying to establish a dictatorship. And he had mixed emotions about the Axis nations, Germany and Japan. He despised their military establishments, leaders, and advisors. But he admired the people and cultures of the two countries and feared that the United States would impose punitive reprisals at war's end. Most of all, he saw the United States' wartime ally, the Soviet Union, as its chief long-term foe, and thought that it would need Germany and Japan to serve as buffers against the communist nation. These views found little sympathy among Schumpeter's friends and associates in the ultra-patriotic environment of the early 1940s, a circumstance that caused him much unhappiness.

Schumpeter Today
The new improves upon and kills off the old. True enough. But what's new and what's old may lie in the eye of the beholder. Today's cutting-edge theorist and mathematical modeler may regard Schumpeter's analysis as older than old, a pre-Keynesian, pre-monetarist, pre-new classical/rational expectations relic. Accordingly, Schumpeter's name is stricken from required reading lists in many top graduate economic programs where theory is king. To businessmen, journalists, and historians seeking not abstract theory but rather practical understanding of global capitalism, however, his work is as fresh and insightful as the day he penned it. Journalists speak of a renaissance of Schumpeterian economics and of a reversal of his relative ranking with Keynes. Although McCraw does not say so, Schumpeter undoubtedly would be pleased, but hardly surprised, by the revival of his work. It fits his description of the zigzag path of doctrinal history in which sound economic ideas get lost or forgotten only to be rediscovered and restored to their proper place.

A Complaint
A great book deserves a great index, or at the very least an adequate one. McCraw's book has neither. Lacking comprehensiveness and precision, the index creates problems for readers searching for particular items in the text. It is inexcusable that the index fails to cover the 188 pages of endnotes containing valuable scholarly information and constituting a fourth of the book. One can fault the publisher, not the author, for this oversight. Luckily, it does little to mar McCraw's outstanding text. Elizabeth Schumpeter wrote that her husband "loved to read biographies." It's a sure bet that he would have enjoyed this one.

---Thomas M. Humphrey, reviewed for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's Region Focus magazine, Fall 2007.
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on June 22, 2007
Free markets are hard to explain. It is even harder to explain why companies must fail and be replaced by new ones. In the U.S. we mostly let that happen but in Europe they try and prevent it. It seems that this issue will become even more important as the world becomes 100% "flat" and competition becomes more intense. Developments in Asia will make the levels of creative destruction we have seen in the past look mild by comparison.

This book gives a great introduction to one of the great economic minds. His insights, although proven over and over, are still not accepted my many.
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on March 22, 2008
During my Graduate School days, I took a course on Economic history. It was there that I was introduced to Joseph Schumpeter and his History of Economic Analysis: With a New Introduction. My reaction to it remains the same today as it was then - a masterful piece of scholarship.

Thomas McCraw delivers a biography worthy of his subject. Beautifully-paced and throughly-researched, Prophet of Innovation conveys the originality and excitement of Schumpeter's life.

Schumpeter's thinking underwent three subtle shifts. His Pulitizer Prize winning biographer splits his treatment into three parts to correspond to those intellectual shifts. First, Schumpeter focused on capitalism's economics. Despite his subject's love for precision, McCraw spares the reader the math.

Secondly, he discusses capitalism's social structures. Finally, in a tribute to the subject's most satisfying thoughts, McCraw details its historical record.

Schumpeter's life was no less fascinating than his message. McCraw weaves the two into a story that captures Schumpeter's energy and creativity. Prophet of Innovation is a biography worthy of the 20th century's finest economic thinker.
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on March 31, 2012
This is a (very long) summary of "Prophet of Innovation. Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction" by Thomas McCraw. Harvard University Press, 2007. In fact, these are extracts from the book and I mentioned the pages as much as I could. If you are courageous enough to read until the end, you might be interested in buying the full book. Schumpeter is the Prophet of Innovation and Thomas McCraw's book is a great piece of historical and economic analysis. It is about Schumpeter life, which is by itself interesting. His life was not simple, a devastating first wedding, a personal bankruptcy, a short experience as a minister of finance, the rise of Nazism; stability [nearly?] came at Harvard with a new wedding. But it is first and foremost an amazing synthesis of what innovation and entrepreneurship are about. I could nearly feel a Schumpeterian when I read these clear explanations, despite the fact that Schumpeter was clearly a conservative. So let me try to summarize what I kept from this 700-page book (including 200 pages of notes).

Schumpeter especially emphasizes the role of new companies in making innovations that interrupt the circular flow. New firms "do not arise out of the old ones but start producing beside them". In transportation for example, "it is not the owner of stage coaches who builds railways". Schumpeter also argues that "the entrepreneur is never the risk bearer. The one who gives credit [that is, provides the necessary capital] comes to grief if the undertaking fails. ... Even though the entrepreneur may risk his reputation, the direct responsibility of failure never falls on him. [Page 74]

Part II begins with an analysis of why entrepreneurship was never widespread even if there were "early forerunners such as Venice, Florence and the Netherlands." It was even widely resisted for reasons which are "as much cultural and social as they are economic". (We are talking about an analysis over centuries from the middle ages until the industrial revolution.)

Schumpeter claims that "no company can ever retain a position at the top of its industry without doing very much more than this - without blazing new trails, without being devoted, heart and soul to the business alone". Any company [falling into routines] "will soon be overtaken by aggressive, risk-taking competitive entrepreneurs". "Entrepreneurs need extraordinary physical and nervous energy. The best of them can sustain their efforts on a high level only if they have that special kind of vision - ... concentration on business to the exclusion of other interests". [Page 162] That is why Schumpeter believes in "the Instability of Capitalism": the whole idea of a capitalist equilibrium is misleading. [...] The origins of broad expansions always come from innovations in specific industries, which then ramify into other parts of the economy ... such as in textiles, then in steam engines and iron, then in electricity and chemicals. Overall industry-specific innovation does not follow but creates expansion. [Page 163]

Part III - Business cycles - 1939, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy - 1942, History of Economic Analysis - 1954. "Using theory, statistics and history" is a Schumpeter motto, you cannot just do one approach, you need to combine the three to make good analyses.

Business Cycles. Innovation propels the economy. New firms, entrepreneurs drive innovation. All companies must react, adapt. Meanwhile, powerful elements resist major innovations. Nobody ever is an entrepreneur all the time and nobody can ever be only an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur not only innovates but also carries day to day management. The entrepreneur may but need not be the person who furnishes capital. It is leadership rather than ownership. [Again] Risk bearing is no part of the entrepreneurial function. It is the capitalist who bears the risk. [Pages 254-255] A major theme: "the extreme difficulty of changing traditional ways of doing things". [Page 257]

Schumpeter also draws sharp distinctions between inventors and entrepreneurs and between inventions and innovations: "The making of an invention and the carrying out of the corresponding
Innovation are, economically and sociologically, two entirely different things." Often the two interact, but they are never the same, and innovations are usually more important than inventions. [page 259] "Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it does not automatically produce innovation" [page 260]. In conclusion of his book, "without innovations, no entrepreneurs; without entrepreneurial achievement, no capitalist returns and no capitalist propulsion. [...] Stabilized capitalism is a contradiction in terms."

His first question was "Can capitalism survive? No I do not think that it can." Even if capitalism has produced the greatest per capita output of goods ever recorded, [...] in favor of the lower income groups, [...] by virtue of its mechanisms [...] thanks to businesses of grand size. Then Schumpeter introduces his famous term, "creative destruction". It is an essential fact of capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. He then criticizes the idea of perfect competition, which does not take business strategy into consideration. There is no perfect information. And there is a continued emergence of new products and new ways of doing things, which is the fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion. Perfect competition and static assumptions are wrong. The economy is about oligopolies, which engage in mass production with very large capital investments. All this does not ease equilibrium analysis or mathematical modeling. [Pages 348-354]

His political analysis of capitalism, socialism and democracy may look dated even if it has interesting points. But I see bias as we all have when we talk about convictions or faith... [indeed see below!] Still, let me go on quoting. "Capitalism has developed the seeds of its own destruction. Persons of supernormal ability and ambition can reach a much higher standard of living, provided they would pursue business careers. Capitalism substituted impersonal efficiency to the feudal features. So that people have "the individualistic rope" to hang themselves. The bourgeoisie is politically helpless and unable not only to lead its nation, but even to take care of its particular class interest. Furthermore capitalism and in particular big business undercut not only the aristocracy, but also many small producers and merchants. A share of stock for tangible assets takes the life out of the property. And if this trend goes on long enough, there will be nobody left to defend the bourgeois values" [Page 357].

The part on World War II shows that the combination of high public investment (military spending) and individual entrepreneurship & large scale business may be the winning recipe, a combination of Keynes and Schumpeter, even if they were academic adversaries... [Pages 383-389]. What makes the book really interesting is indeed noticed by the author himself: "by comparison with other major theorists stretching from Adam Smith to Keynes, he insisted on giving opposing arguments not only their due, but far more." And this will be confirmed by his History of Economic Analysis published posthumously in 1952.

Schumpeter represents advances in economy reasoning as nonlinear. History of Economic Analysis succeeds where much economic writing of our own time fails, having sacrificed the messy humanity of its subject on the altar of mathematical rigor. Above all else, Schumpeter's History is an epic analytical narrative. It is about real human beings, moored in their own time, struggling like characters in a novel to resolve difficult problems. [Page 461]. Compared to Keynes, Schumpeter had no reason to think that life was something a person could be expected to enjoy automatically. It was one thing to grow up in Britain - stable, prosperous and ever-victorious - and quite another to be a child of vanquished and vanished Austria. No wonder his vision differed so thoroughly from that of sedentary Keynes as well as those of Smith, Ricardo or Mill. Unlike any of them, Schumpeter had to reinvent himself multiple times. For every episode of destruction, he tried to convert his experience intro a recreation or reinvention of some aspect of economics. [Page 468]

As an intermediate conclusion, again his famous quote in Business Cycles: "Without innovations, no entrepreneurs; without entrepreneurial achievement, no capitalist returns and no capital propulsion. The atmosphere of industrial revolutions - of "progress" - is the only one in which capitalism can survive"

In the last years of his life, he analyzed again what economics is about. The combination of narrative, numbers and theory could exercise a power that none of the three could do alone. Theories are stylized stories; but without real stories and statistics to back them up, they lose much of their force. He also emphasized a "principle of indeterminateness", contrasting it with Marx economic determinism and one-size-fits-all fiscal Keynesian prescriptions. Time and chance made most economic predictions risky and all determinism futile. Wars and natural disasters disrupted even the most sophisticated forecasts. Equally important for this principle, is the human element of leadership. "Without committing ourselves either to hero worship or to its hardly less absurd opposite, we have got to realize that, since the emergence of exceptional individuals does not lend itself to scientific generalization, there is here an element that, together with the element of random occurrences with which it may be amalgamated, seriously limits our ability to forecast the future." Schumpeter quest for exact economics had finally ended. [Pages 475-476].

Finally McCraw summarizes Schumpeter contributions: "Innovation in the form of creative destruction is the driving force not only of capitalism but of material progress in general. Almost all businesses ultimately fail and almost always because they fail to innovate. Only through innovation and entrepreneurship can any business except a government-sponsored monopoly survive over the long term." Schumpeter finally thought that entrepreneurship could occur within large and medium-sized firms as well as in small ones, despite bureaucratic obstacles. Thus "new men" founding "new firms" were still vital but they were no longer they only agents of innovation. "The history of the information technology industry confirms his thinking especially well - both the scrappy young firms in Silicon Valley that either perished or remained small-to-medium-sized and others that grew to be giants (Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Amazon [sic], Google, Yahoo). Outside of Silicon Valley, the same pattern obviously holds for Microsoft and Dell Computer, founded by the teenagers Bill Gates in 1975 and Michael Dell in 1984".

Not until the late twentieth century, long after Schumpeter's death, did the significance of his emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurship, business strategy, creative destruction, and ample credit as the wellsprings for economic growth become fully clear.

Post-Scriptum: McCraw's provides also many and interesting comments about Schumpeter views on the academic world.

About universities [page 416]: "the layman thinks he knows what a professor is. However, this term denotes a group of people who differ widely in type, function, and mentality. There is the academic administrator; the university politician; the teacher in the sense of a man who imparts current knowledge; the teacher in the sense of a man who imparts distinctive doctrines or methods; the scholar in the sense implied by "learnedness"; the organizer of research; the research worker whose strong point I ideas; the research worker whose strong point is skillful technique, experimentation and its counterparts in the social sciences. And all these - and others - are very different chaps and hardly ever fully understand and appreciate one another. Yet it takes all of them to make a modern university and it takes recognition of all these types and the way they cooperate or fail to cooperate in order to understand what a university is and how it works. And he who insists on merging them into a unitary professorial type and leaves it at that will obliterate not only secondary details, but essentials."

About scientific bias: During a famous conference in 1948, he accused his fellow professionals in blindness to their own subjective prejudices. In economic analysis, the outcome of "science" depended in large part on the social situation of the individual thinker. "Logic, mathematics, physics and so on deal with experience that is largely invariant to the observer's social location and practically invariant to historical change: for capitalist and proletarian, a falling stone looks alike. The social sciences do not share this advantage. It is possible, or so it seems, to challenge their findings not only on all the grounds on which the propositions of all sciences may be challenged but also on the additional one that they cannot convey more than a writer's class affiliations and that, without reference to such class affiliations, there is no room for the categories of true or false. He adds "Model building consists in picking out certain facts rather than others". [Page 477]
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VINE VOICEon April 11, 2007
A brilliant biography of a man whose career in economics started in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, detoured through Germany, and ended in Harvard Yard.

Joseph Schumpeter was a scholar at the very highest level of his chosen discipline. (He is properly mentioned in the same breath as Adam Smith and John Maynard Keyes.) In addition, Professor Schumpeter happened to live an interesting and difficult personal life in the turbulent times of the first half of the last century. Politicians, business people, bankers, college students, historians --- and ordinary citizens simply seeking to be better informed on our capitalistic economic system ---should all take the opportunity to read this clearly written and thoroughly researched book by the very learned Professor McCraw.

This book is destined to win prizes.
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on January 12, 2008
Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative DestructionSchumpeter, for whatever reason, is not as well known as he once was yet he should be. His important theory building about the dynamism of the the economy (creative destruction) is as important as Smith's "bull headed brewer" or Hayek's theory of knowledge.

This is a long book but not at all tedious. I read Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy in graduate school and heard some of the stories about Schumpeter's curious life. But Professor McGraw filled in those memories in wonderful detail both the theories of this economist and his life. Both are fascinating. This was an unexpected joy.
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on October 7, 2007
Schumpeter was an unusual man: both professionally and personally. This excellent biography captures both. Schumpeter sought fame, and the agonies he went through to achieve this obsession- mainly through the enormous amount of writing and research he undertook, which probably undermined his health and shortened his life- are well captured in this book.

Schumpeter sought to develop a 'system' of economics, yet his prolific reading and research lead him to discover that there is no such thing as a watertight system of economic theory. In fact, Schumpeter found, like most notable economists, that an understanding of economics comes from an understanding of history, psychology, sociology and many other areas of learning. And what a contrast to the emphasis of graduate economics courses taught in our schools today!

Having just read Greenspan's book, it comes as no surprise that Greenspan achnowleged Schumpeter as one of the greatest influences upon his outlook. Both men believe in the superiority of the capitalist system as a creator of wealth, yet not for any doctriare reasons, but because they are/were convinced that capitalism is part and parcel of the make up of humankind, and the way in which we organize themselves and cooperate to ensure our survival and progress.

Buy this book, and enjoy the read; you will find yourself coming back to it to reread sections over again.
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