The notion that the ages-old imbalance between rich and poor could be altered by learning how wealth is created and apportioned flowered in Victorian England and has been a staple of governance ever since, particularly in the West. In this richly documented study, Sylvia Nasar chronicles the personal lives and the intellectual and political impact of major economists from England’s industrial age through World Wars I and II, the Cold War and the rise of China and India as world powers.

An economics graduate of New York University and author of the best-selling biography A Beautiful Mind, Nasar examines the principal theories of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Alfred Marshall, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Irving Fisher, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, Joan Robinson, Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson and Amartya Sen and explains how these celebrated thinkers interacted with governments to anticipate and cushion the economic downturns that resulted from wars, overproduction, market failures and kindred ills.

It is fitting that Nasar titles her book Grand Pursuit, because it is obvious that even the stellar minds she writes about here were forever pursuing and falling short of capturing those ultimate answers that would enable them to forecast and find surefire ways of averting economic disasters. That economics is still an infant science (or else economists are the most ignored seers in the universe) is evident from the unprepared-for calamities now facing the U.S., Britain, Greece and the European Union.

While Nasar is a graceful writer, she assumes a greater knowledge of economic concepts and terminology than most readers are likely to have. However, she is thoroughly engaging when describing the academic, social and political worlds in which these economists functioned and contended with each other for supremacy. She seems to hold Marx in particular contempt, scorning not only his ideas but his personal appearance and habits as well. For the most part, though, she is content, as she should be, to let these figures rise or fall in public esteem by the consequences of their counsel.

 

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