Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Follow the Money

The best economists are formidable intellects, but do they really know what they are talking about?

James Grant Reviews Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius in the WSJ:

Mankind missed a bet 2,000 years ago when no one thought to invest $100 or its equivalent in Roman coin in a certificate of deposit compounding at 2% a year forever. The principal balance today of this ungifted benefaction would come to the astounding sum of $15,861,473,276,036,900,000. That would be $2.3 billion, before tax, for every man, woman and child on earth. But the ancients bungled, perpetuating the problem of scarcity and leaving the way open for Sylvia Nasar to write her "Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius," a survey of economic thought from Charles Dickens to Paul Samuelson and beyond.

Economic genius would seem to be in short supply these days. On the say-so of economists, Congress has spent upwards of $1 trillion to "stimulate" an economy that remains unstimulated. The best economists are formidable intellects, as it goes without saying—Ben Bernanke was the spelling champion of South Carolina—but you begin to wonder if they know what they're talking about.

Ms. Nasar divides her book into three "acts," like a play. They are "hope," "fear" and "confidence." "Hope" is what the Victorian thinkers, including Dickens, in his role of social reformer, and Karl Marx (of all people), gave the world concerning the possibility of solving the economic problem through conscious effort. "Fear" is what the interwar economists—confronting first hyperinflation and then the Great Depression—had to wrestle with and surmount. "Confidence" is what returned after World War II, as governments implemented the allegedly constructive notions of the Keynesians and monetarists.

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