The Dangers of Samuelson's Economic Method

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We are advised against speaking ill of the dead. In this regard, I am safe, I suppose, because Paul A. Samuelson, whom I intend to criticize, remains alive, although he will soon be 93 years old and therefore cannot be long for this world. When I was first learning economics, in the 1960s, Samuelson was held up by my teachers as the greatest living economist — a genius, they used to say. In the course of my undergraduate and graduate training, I was given no reason to doubt that assessment.

Indeed, a memorably painful part of my graduate education consisted of my attempts to read and understand Samuelson’s landmark book Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947), a treatise in mathematical economic theory, patterned after classical thermodynamics, that set the tone for much of what the cleverest mainstream economists would do for decades to come. The protocol became: build a mathematical model of abstract actors engaged in constrained maximization or minimization of an objective function; prove that the model has a stable equilibrium; show how the model’s equilibrium conditions change when its parameters are changed (the so-called method of comparative statics).

I also had the pleasure — if that is the right word — of meeting Samuelson in person once, early in 1968, when I visited the economics department at MIT as a candidate for a job there. At a luncheon seminar with Samuelson and several other members of the department, I enjoyed — if that is the right word — the famous Samuelsonian wit and arrogance. Although the members of the group bantered and joked at one another’s expense during the luncheon, as academics commonly do, it was clear to me that Samuelson’s jokes at a colleague’s expense dominated a colleague’s jokes at his expense. This pecking order came as no surprise to me. I was taken aback, however, that the great man also made jokes at my expense. Of course, as an apprehensive and insecure 24 year old looking for a job, I made no jokes at anybody’s expense, and certainly not at Samuelson’s. Forty years later, and somewhat wiser in the often ill-mannered ways of academia, I remain disappointed that the acclaimed "greatest living economist," a man who only two years later would become the first American to receive the Nobel prize in economics, would choose to bully a mere graduate student.

Anyone who has read Samuelson’s articles and books, however, knows that his arrogance often stands in prominent display. Whether or not he was the greatest living economist, he often expressed himself with the kind of Olympian condescension that strongly suggests he believed himself to be Numero Uno. I was struck by this quality most recently in reading, strange to say, his article "Economic Theory and Mathematics — An Appraisal" (American Economic Review 42 [May 1952]: 56—66). At the end of the first paragraph, Samuelson writes, "I firmly believe in the virtues of understatement and lack of pretension." Upon encountering this affirmation of authorial modesty, I nearly burst out laughing.

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Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.

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