I normally don’t write a post like this – which has got nothing to do with books, literature or sport, but I thought I will make an exception today. I read in the newspaper today that Paul Samuelson, the revered American economist passed away during the weekend. It was sad news, because Samuelson was one of the academics and economists my friends and I admired the most, when we were students. Economics is not a good profession to be in today because leading economists are ridiculed for not having been able to predict the big economic depression that descended last year. Many people probably question what is the use of a field, which calls itself a science, but which is not able to do what a scientific field should – predict what happens when a particular set of conditions exist. But in those starry-eyed student days, some of the economists were our heroes and Paul Samuelson was the superstar who towered above all of them.
Paul Samuelson was a genius and an allrounder – he was to Economics what Gary Sobers was to Cricket. (Pardon me for the cricket analogy – if you are not a cricket fan, you can replace Gary Sobers with Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Steffi Graf, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Michael Johnson, Daley Thompson or Jackie Joyner Kersee). Or a different way of saying that would be that he was the Newton of Economics. He did important work in multiple areas of economics and sometimes created new branches of economics because of his innovative work and left his stamp in each of them – something which is extremely difficult to do in these days of specialization. He was also the first to use rigorous mathematics in economics to showcase a particular idea. Before Samuelson, most economists wrote verbal descriptions of theories, and mathematical models were frowned upon. Samuelson changed all that.
Samuelson also headed the newly setup Economics department of MIT and built it into an institution which produced a succession of Nobel Laureates. He led the trend by becoming the first American Nobel prize winner of Economics, and many of his students went on to emulate their teacher. Samuelson’s pioneering textbook on economics for college students, which was published more than 60 years back, continues to be the most important economic textbook for students and the textbook most used by teachers. I have a few editions of it – I got the last one a couple of years back In the book, in the last passage of the introduction, Samuelson says : “As you begin your journey into the land of markets, it would be understandable if you are anxious. But take heart. The fact is that we envy you, the beginning student, as you set out to explore the exciting world of economics for the first time. This is a thrill that, alas, you can experience only once in a lifetime. So, as you embark, we wish you bon voyage!” These words have inspired generations of students (including me) to study economics.
I don’t know much about Samuelson’s life and what his political and social views were. But I know one thing – he was, is and will be a legend in his field. For generations of students, he was the one who gave economics its sex-appeal, and inspired novices like me to dream of becoming an economist. He is one of my heroes. How I wish I were still that age, when I was a student – when being a student was fun, and academics and professors and Nobel prize winners were our heroes and heroines.
Hope Samuelson is watching the world from the Elysian fields and smiling at how new students are discovering his favourite subject and how his successors in his chosen profession are pushing the frontiers of knowledge into exciting new terrain.
You can read a tribute to Samuelson on NYT here.