Monday, October 3, 2011

Grand Pursuit by Sylvia Nasar

In Sylvia Nasar's Grand Pursuit, she outlines the theories of economics that have controlled the world.  The book covers the period from the time of Dickens, one of the first men to lament the lives of the poor, to the present day.  Along with the various theories that have held sway at different times, she introduces the reader to the surrounding historical events and the lives of the economists whose thoughts impact everyone around them.

The book is separated into three parts.  The first part covers the rise of the Socialist theories that sought to understand the plight of the poor and determine methods to improve the life of the everyday man.  Individuals covered include Charles Dickens, Engels and Marx, Beatrice Webb and Sidney Fisher.

The second part covers the period leading up to WW I and continues through the end of WW II.  This period also covers The Great Depression.   The reader is introduced to economists such as Schumpeter, Hayek and the early days of Keynes.  Fisher and Webb were still working at this time but new theories were advanced by men such as Robinson and Milton Friedman.  The economists struggled to understand the causes of the Depression, the best method to assuage the cracks in the economy, and the best way for the world to recover from a world war.

The final part covers the period from the end of WW II to the present.  This was the heyday of Keynes, and his disciples were at the forefront of the recovery and the decision not to impoverish the European nations who went into such debt for the war.  Economists from this time period who were just emerging include Samuelson, another woman, Joan Robinson, and an Indian economist, Sen.  This was the time of the rise of Communism in Russia and China, and Nasar is unsparing in her depiction of the millions killed or starved, and the failure of many economists such as Robinson to see the truth, blinded by their own beliefs and unwillingness to face the truth.

This book is recommended for all readers who wish they understood economics better so that they can make better decisions.  Nasar has a real talent for taking complex ideas and writing about them in such a way that the reader is not intimidated by the subject matter.  There is exactly the right mix of theory and biography and the book never lags.  Grand Pursuit is a major accomplishment in its depiction of this difficult topic and its narrative of a century and a half of history told from an economic standpoint.

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