October 25, 2020

Grand Pursuit — By Sylvia Nasar — Book Review

Keynes and Mises are of course both long dead. But it is the resilience of their ideas that makes studying the history of economics so rewarding for non­economists. As a rule, economists don’t know much about history. So at times like these, anyone with a bit of familiarity with the giants of the past can weigh in on big economic issues with about as much authority and credibility as the credentialed experts.

This is one explanation for the continuing popularity of Robert L. Heilbroner’s book “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.” Another is that once a book makes its way onto undergraduate required-­reading lists, as Heilbroner’s did, it doesn’t easily fall off. Heilbroner wrote his irreverent group portrait of Keynes, Schumpeter, Karl Marx, Adam Smith and others in the early 1950s while studying for a doctorate at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. (Mises was so marginalized at the time he didn’t rate a mention.) He died in 2005, but his book lives on, with more than four million copies sold.

That kind of success makes a tempting target for imitators, and over the past decade, word spread among economics writers that Sylvia Nasar was at work on a new “Worldly Philosophers” — something to update and possibly supplant Heil­broner. Nasar is no knockoff artist; a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a former economics correspondent for The New York Times, she wrote what is perhaps the best economics-­related book of the past quarter-­century, “A Beautiful Mind,” a near-perfect biography of the game theorist John Nash.

Now Nasar’s new book, “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius,” is here. As it turns out, it isn’t really a Heilbroner update. For one, it doesn’t make much chronological headway: the postwar giants Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman get a few pages, as does the philosopher and development economist Amartya Sen, who is still alive and writing books. But the major developments of post-1950 economics are for the most part ignored. So, for that matter, are the major developments of pre-1850 economics. Heilbroner was out to provide an easy-to-digest survey of economic thought through the ages. Nasar has set herself a task at once narrower and more ambitious. She has a story to tell, a story of tragedy, triumph and, as the subtitle says, economic genius.

In the hundred years from 1850 to 1950, economists progressed from fatalistically explaining why most of humanity was condemned to poverty or worse (theirs was the “dismal” science, Thomas Carlyle wrote) to doing something about it. One early hero of Nasar’s tale is Alfred Marshall, the 19th-century English economist who not only gave us the supply-and-­demand charts that still dominate Economics 101 classes but was the first to describe how rising industrial productivity could create higher living standards for all. Another is Beatrice Webb, an English railroad magnate’s daughter who made the case for a welfare state that would even out some (but not all) of the inequalities arising from capitalist growth.

At the core of Nasar’s narrative is an account of the economically troubled decades between the two world wars, as told through the experiences of Keynes, Irving Fisher, and Schumpeter and Hayek. The least well known of this lot is Fisher, a Yale professor best remembered today for his insistence in 1929 that stock prices were perched upon a “permanently high plateau.” He was also the founder of modern monetary economics (his adherents include Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke) and for a time a successful entrepreneur (he invented and commercialized a precursor to the Rolodex).

Fisher believed that free markets were prerequisites for prosperity, but that their functioning could be improved with government action, mainly monetary policy by central banks. Keynes, himself a successful speculator and investor, held similar beliefs but came to espouse more aggressive government action than Fisher. Which leaves Schumpeter and Hayek. In modern political shorthand, they were champions of free enterprise, their ideas wielded in opposition to those of the socialist Keynes. But Keynes was a capitalist, albeit a sometimes conflicted one. And Schumpeter and Hayek, while skeptical of most politicians, were far from anti­government absolutists.

The two men’s views were shaped in Vienna in the terrible years after the end of World War I and the fall of the Austro-­Hungarian Empire. Schumpeter did a stint as finance minister in a socialist government in 1919, an episode in his life that is usually treated as a joke, but Nasar renders it as a densely detailed tragedy. Schumpeter had a sensible plan for addressing Austria’s ills, but no politician would go for it, and he was thrown out of government after seven months. Hayek spent part of the 1920s chronicling his country’s travails at an economic-­forecasting institute (founded by his mentor Mises). By the time the two made their way west in the early 1930s — Schumpeter to Harvard, Hayek to the London School of Economics — they had become understandably critical of the notion that politicians could easily fix what ailed the economy.

But they weren’t so sure that economists couldn’t come up with solutions. Schumpeter was mentor at Harvard to Samuelson, who became a great expositor of Keynes’s ideas, while Hayek befriended Keynes and in Nasar’s telling had come around by the 1940s to embracing at least a few Keynesian prescriptions.

The epic of intellectual progress Nasar wants to tell is not an unmitigated success. It doesn’t entirely square with the facts she so ably digs up. There is frequently tension between her overall theme of progress in economic thought and the individual stories she relates. And her last few chapters offer not a rousing finale, but a muddled letdown. Still, the book as a whole is made up of so many wonderful parts that one is inclined to excuse its shortcomings.

In the end, the economists whose lives Nasar describes are depicted as one more or less happy family (with the exception of Keynes’s disciple Joan Robinson, whose infatuation with Communism is recounted in perplexing detail), advocates of an economy with free enterprise and free markets at its core, but a significant amount of government meddling to make things work better. In fact there was such a synthesis, its details hammered together by Samuelson, who gets a chapter late in the book but still feels underdescribed, and by a host of other young economists who go unmentioned. Within a few decades that synthesis began to disintegrate, leaving us with the debates we witness today.

That, however, is another story. Nasar writes that since 1950 we have enjoyed an age of global prosperity that even the Great Recession has been unable to derail. A permanently high plateau of prosperity, you might say. There’s something unnerving about such confidence. But you don’t have to share it in order to appreciate this rich, in places dazzling, history.

Justin Fox, the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market,” is editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=5a9f72ca030d05bf3d4bdc551ff0a7c8

Price of Tomatoes Has a Lot to Do With These Thefts

Late last month, a gang of thieves stole six tractor-trailer loads of tomatoes and a truck full of cucumbers from Florida growers. They also stole a truckload of frozen meat. The total value of the illegal haul: about $300,000.

The thieves disappeared with the shipments just after the price of Florida tomatoes skyrocketed after freezes that badly damaged crops in Mexico. That suddenly made Florida tomatoes a tempting target, on a par with flat-screen TVs or designer jeans, but with a big difference: tomatoes are perishable.

“I’ve never experienced people targeting produce loads before,” said Shaun Leiker, an assistant manager at Allen Lund, a trucking broker in Oviedo, Fla., that was hit three times by the thieves. “It’s a little different than selling TVs off the back of your truck.”

Industry and insurance company officials said it appeared to add a new wrinkle to a nationwide surge in cargo theft.

In the case of the stolen tomatoes, the thieves seemed deeply versed in the ways of trucking companies and the produce industry. Transportation company executives and a law enforcement official said the criminals appeared to have set up a bogus trucking company with the intention of stealing loads of produce and other goods.

The company, based in Miami, was called EA Transport Express, according to Master Cpl. David M. Vincent of the Florida Highway Patrol’s cargo theft task force. The company registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in late February, according to the agency’s online database. That was right around the time produce prices were soaring.

“They were just sitting and waiting, watching the produce because they knew it was climbing,” said Clifford Holland, the owner of the transportation brokerage firm Old North State, which was a victim of the gang. “It was like a snake in the grass and they struck.”

In the produce industry, buyers and sellers typically use freight brokers as middlemen to hire the trucking companies that carry goods from place to place.

The thieves apparently began watching Web sites where brokers posted notices trying to connect trucking companies with loads they need carried.

In late March, they contacted Allen Lund. The broker carried out a standard series of checks, including verifying the company’s federal registration and its insurance coverage. Then it assigned the company to pick up a load of tomatoes from a shipper in Miami on Monday, March 28.

Over the next four days, working through Lund and three other freight brokers, EA Transport picked up four more loads of tomatoes, a load of cucumbers and a load of frozen meat from shippers across Florida, including in the Miami area, Palmetto and Punta Gorda.

At each pick-up, a driver working for EA showed up at the wheel of a tractor with a refrigerated trailer. The shippers loaded the pallets of tomatoes or the other goods into the trucks and the driver drove off. None of the loads got to their destinations.

The load of frozen meat, worth about $48,000, was picked up from a meatpacker north of Miami. It was bound for Salem, Ore. It is missing, too.

“This was definitely a smart organization,” said Mr. Holland, who was the broker on the load of meat. “They were smooth as silk.”

The thieves sought out loads headed for Detroit, Hartford, the Hunts Point market in New York, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Mr. Holland said that gave them time to carry out multiple thefts before the alarm was sounded, since in each case it would be from two to four days before the loads were due at their destinations. Brokers and shippers suspect the thieves had a buyer for the produce.

Tomato growers said that there had been occasional thefts in the past when prices were high, but the sophistication of this trucking ring was something new.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bob Spencer, an owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, Fla., which lost a load of about 40,000 pounds of tomatoes that he said was worth about $42,000.

Interviews with several police departments in Florida revealed an investigation that might be lacking coordination.

The thieves appear to have benefited by stealing loads in several jurisdictions, with the result that some police departments were slow to share information about the crimes.

The Florida Highway Patrol said the cargo theft unit of the Miami Dade Police Department was leading the investigation. But Detective Roy Rutland, a spokesman for the Miami Dade police, initially denied that the department was aware of the thefts. He later said the department had been asked to assist in the investigation, but that it was not taking a lead role.

“We’re trying to figure out who’s handling this,” Mr. Rutland said on Wednesday. “We just learned that most of this occurred outside of our jurisdiction.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6fcaa529c2ca3e2314fab7020717d43a