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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Paul Samuelson: The Model 20th Century Economist

Paul A. Samuelson, the first American Nobel laureate in economics and the foremost academic economist of the 20th century, died at the end of 2009 at 94.  Samuelson was credited with changing the academic discipline of economics, according to The New York Times,  ”from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”  Essentially, he redefined twentieth century economics. Mathematics had already been employed by social scientists, but Dr. Samuelson brought the discipline into the mainstream of economic thinking. His early work, for example, presented a unified mathematical structure for predicting how businesses and households alike would respond to changes in economic forces, how changes in wage rates would affect employment, and how tax rate changes would affect tax collections.  He developed the rudimentary mathematics of business cycles with a model, called the multiplier-accelerator, that captured the inherent tendency of market economies to fluctuate.  Mathematical formuli that Wall Street analysts use to trade options and other complicated securities (derivatives) have come from his work (FYI: derivatives too complicated for outsiders such as the government to understand/regulate were at the center of the financial crisis in 2008).

While The New York Times article covers his career in a positive light, I believe the picture is more complicated—and telling of twentieth-century American society.  At the surface, the tale seems to center on a dichotomy—the Keynesian liberal against his conservative monetarist friend, Milton Friedman.  Perhaps the principal issue between them was whether market equilibrium could rest at full employment (i.e., without government help).  Samuelson’s own work on the inherent volitility of markets would suggest that the market mechanism does not necessarily reach an equilibrium, even at less than full employment.  As we saw in September of 2008, a market can collapse from within.  I am reminded of Alan Greenspan’s testimony before Congress shortly thereafter, when he admitted a fundamental flaw in his free market paradigm assumptions.  Clearly, more thought is needed into the nature of a market and how its basic contours can be altered; government regulation alone is not sufficient.

Unfortunately, such “big picture” theorizing was on the wan in twentieth-century economic thought, which focused on narrow problems using technical tools such as mathematical formulas.  To be sure, Samuelson’s technical work gives us reassurance that the market contains a fluctuating element.  However, the reform of an economic system at a basic level is not simply the sum of a bunch of smaller solved problems.   I submit that while mathematics is useful for problem-solving, more is needed to understand our economic system and alter the basic contours of the market mechanism.

  Fundamentally, none of the social sciences is really a science.  To presume the certainty of natural science onto any of them is inherently limited and potentially risky.  To be sure, value can be gained from applying quantitative tools to look at limited problems, but the inherent indeterminacy of human macro systems makes the scientific approach ultimately futile from the macro standpoint of the social “sciences.”  Their phenomena, in other words, are not of the sort that can be measured andpredicted like the speed of a comet in space or a chemical reaction in the isolated environment of a lab.  Economic, social and political systems just aren’t like that.   Explanation, rather than prediction, is primary where human indeterminacy is so salient.

Another way of relativising the “mathematical problem-solving” orientation of 20th century economics is to look at different levels of thinking.  In the wake of the problem-solving orientation, business schools regularly tout “critical thinking,” which is really just problem-solving.  You wouldn’t know it, but higher forms of thinking do exist—namely, synthetic and analytical reasoning.   To treat problem-solving as the litmus test for a discipline is to reduce that discipline from what it could be, academically speaking; it is to short-change it by forcing it into the low-ceilinged box of practicality.  It is to put blinders on. Samuelson’s mathematical axis inadvertantly made the discipline of economics more oriented to solve particular problems than it had been in the past.  Consider by contrast the work of Smith, Marx, Hayak, and Veblen—not a plus or minus sign among them, yet their work addresses economic at the level of systems.  Moreover, their thought transcends mathmatic problem-solving.

I am not dismissing the value of solving specific problems, and Dr. Samuelson deserves credit for providing the tools for it; rather, I am suggesting that the legacy of the twentieth century in general and economic “science” in particular might be a reductionism to a technical orientation to solve particular problems.  That is to say, empiricism as hegemonic.  Problem-solving as the principal activity (and reasoning).  Such an orientation is rather narrow, and therefore not apt to survive on top indefinitely.  The “big picture” questions raised by the financial crisis of 2008 include matters like “too big to fail” and the viability of the market-mechanism itself that go beyond solving particular problems.  So I would not be surprised if a return to the theoretical economy (and political economy, for mathematics in the latter has been part of the wedge that has artificially disected the two) were not too far off.   The twentieth-century is leaving us.  I for one have few regrets over its passing; I think it will go down in history as decadent (meaning decaying from within..the 1970’s being its epitome).  What Samuelson did for economics is more a function of his era than anything else.   Such value is limited.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/business/economy/14samuelson.html?