Beautiful Minds

29d6d034-176f-11e1-8766-000b5dabf613Niranjan Rajadhyaksha reviews Sylvia Nassar's Grand Pursuit—The Story of Economic Genius in Live Mint:

The man who first described economics as a dismal science was a defender of the slave trade. Thomas Carlyle​, an English historian and writer in the 19th century, claimed that slavery was a superior institution to the market, and that the liberation of slaves in the Caribbean islands had led to the moral decline of “the Negroes”. He was attacked by economists such as John Stuart Mill​ for this bizarre argument. Adam Smith​ had written much earlier about the common humanity of the street porter and the philosopher.

The human condition has been one of the central concerns of the best economists. Sylvia Nasar has chosen an opportune moment to remind us about this, at a time when economists have been criticized for being too engrossed in technical trivialities even as the world economy was rolling towards its deepest crisis in more than seven decades. Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius is an ambitious book by a writer who won well-deserved praise for A Beautiful Mind, her dazzling biography of John Nash, the tormented genius who revolutionized game theory but then fell prey to schizophrenia.

Nasar starts her story with Charles Dickens rather than Adam Smith. “Political economy is a mere skeleton unless it has a little human covering and filling out,” Dickens wrote in the first issue of a magazine he edited. “A little human bloom upon it, and a little human warmth in it.” It was a call to humanize economics.

Dickens was writing at a time when economists took a dim view of human progress. The clergyman Thomas Malthus​ believed that extreme poverty was the inevitable situation of “nine parts in ten of the whole human race”. The sexual drive was at fault, said Malthus, as mindless procreation would ensure that the human population would tend to outstrip available food supply, with disease and famine helping to correct the imbalance. It was this dire prognosis that earned economics the moniker of being a dismal science. The economic historian James Henderson has argued that A Christmas Carol, the famous moral tale written by Dickens, with its descriptions of abundant food, is an attack on Malthus.