A Portrait of the Economy

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

20127311151309197-2012-09BrevHayesFAHistories of economics tend to start with Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations, but Sylvia Nasar leads off with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. It’s an unusual choice, but an effective and appropriate introduction to the story she wants to tell in Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. Dickens shows us the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge—his conversion from pinchpenny to beneficent bon vivant. Nasar aims to redeem economics from its intellectual roots as a science of scarcity and avarice and present it as a tool for improving the human condition.

Nasar is the author of A Beautiful Mind, a biography of the brilliant but troubled mathematician John Nash. Biography, rather than economics, is the true genre of this new book as well. Economic theories and principles are sketched when necessary, but economists’ lives are rendered in full color and lavish detail.

The book’s longest chapter is given to Beatrice Webb and, by extension, her husband Sidney Webb, the founders of the London School of Economics. We follow the wealthy young Beatrice from Gloucester to London for her coming out; we learn about her long and futile infatuation with Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville) and her sparring matches with philosopher and evolutionist Herbert Spencer at the family dinner table; there’s a bit of upstairs–downstairs drama when Beatrice becomes close with a servant, Martha Jackson, whom she later learns is actually a poor relation.

More here.