The Economists

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Leonard Silk, economist and member of the New York Times editorial board, has written an engaging and informative book on the lives and thoughts of five prominent contemporary economists. The Economists thus starts where Robert Heilbroner’s “worldly philosopher” series ends; and the essays on Milton Friedman, Kenneth E. Boulding, and John Kenneth Galbraith are every bit as good as the best chapters in that series. Unfortunately, though, the same cannot be said of the essays on Paul Anthony Samuelson and Wassily Leontief. Unlike the skillful synthesis of lives and works found in the other three essays, the portraits of these two economists quickly lapse into a potpourri of interview quotes-and-paraphrases of personal reminiscences, present attitudes, and hopes for the future. This disparity in the treatment of “the economists” prevents the author from arriving at a useful comparison of them. Admittedly, the relatively poor quality of the essays on Samuelson and Leontief is in part due to the fact that they have concerned themselves with matters more technical than political and hence have established a publishing record filled more with academic articles than popular books. Yet Silk could have improved the two essays had he only recognized that it is less important to know the personal opinions of an economist than to know the political values served by his economics.

“It really seems to be impossible,” says Silk, “to disentangle economists’ social philosophies or politics from their economics.” Several years earlier, however, he was telling beginning economics students in his introductory textbook that the modern development of economics as a science makes it easier for economists to be objectively analytical by keeping their “political and social values separate from their observations and their tracing of cause-effect relations.” What he now views as impossible to disentangle was then seen as “frequently intertwined.” The apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that in the present book most of the economists Silk covers (Friedman, Boulding, Galbraith) do make it seem impossible to separate their economics from their politics, whereas in the earlier text he rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of the seemingly neutral Keynesian science of economics. Thus when the author earlier opined that economists speaking “as professionals” should not tell anyone what economic goals or social values to place highest or lowest, he was simply reflecting the view expressed by Samuelson in the present portrait of Keynes’s preeminent disciple: In response to congressional committee questions on what economic policies he would adopt, Samuelson always tries to say, “Well, the answer I give you is based in part on my scientific knowledge ... and in part is a value judgment.”

Silk identifies Samuelson as the pragmatic, agnostic, vital center of the American economics establishment; Friedman is to the right, Leontief and Galbraith to the left. Twice we are given this tantalizing left-right characterization; not once are we told what it means. We can only assume it refers to positions in respect to more or less government direction of the economy. And presumably Samuelson’s position at the very center of the mainstream precludes his implicit stand in favor of contemporary levels of Keynesian government activity from being considered entanglement in politics. On the other hand, Leontief, because he advocates an increased government role in economic affairs through use of his input-output matricies, is regarded as “fairly close to the radical or new left economists” and dubbed the “apostle of planning.” But he is not as far from Samuelson as the author suggests.

Not only does Leontiefs economics, like Keynes’s, support government intervention designed to enhance the market system, it also parallels Samuelson’s conception of political counseling: “When I do my projections of the world economy, on the request of the United Nations, I don’t make one projection. I make a whole spectrum of projections, so nobody can accuse me of being too conservative or too liberal,” says Leontief. He goes on to say that in some areas the consumer does not care what decision the expert makes, but in matters like occupation and residency the expert should leave the choice to individual preferences. All he wants (in answer to what type of future economy he would prefer) is an expansion of the state’s role such that the current government budget of thirty percent GNP will rise to perhaps fifty percent. No recognition is given, however, to the fact that the mere presence of a greatly expanded bureaucracy will delimit the range of job and living options available to individual choice. Enlargement of the bureaucracy is in Leontief’s view simply a means necessary to the goal of planning, and a desirable means at that; for the American bureaucracy is very good, very skilled, very dedicated, very moral—“the most incorruptible part of our society.” So although the planning projections are presented as if on a menu (Leontief’s analogy), dishes that would reduce the restaurant staff...

(The entire section is 2110 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, December 4, 1976, p. 400.

New York Times Book Review. September 19, 1976, p. 2.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCX, August 16, 1976, p. 110.