Academic journal article American Economist

Ten Ways to Know Paul A. Samuelson

Academic journal article American Economist

Ten Ways to Know Paul A. Samuelson

Article excerpt

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a prettier shell or a smoother pebble than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered about me.


I am honored to have been invited to give this talk. The invitation delights me for both personal and professional reasons. My mission as one of the first speakers is to bring all-embracing harmony to this festive assembly. Let me explain. Any one of you deserves more to be in my place. However, had any one of you been invited to deliver the opening talk, this might have caused some dissension. The question: "Why not me?" might have reverberated through this hall. So, the organizers, in their deep Cambridge wisdom, came up with an ideal solution. "Michael Szenberg. Here is an economist from a smaller pond, whose appearance will not generate ill feelings." What will permeate this hall is admiration for Paul. In the words of Kierkegaard "admiration is a happy self surrender."

In his lectures, Paul often opens with anecdotes that serve as a light introduction for the substantive analysis that follows. In the spirit of his lectures, my talk will be a warm-up for the main event. I will present selected vignettes that portray Paul's personality and character with, I hope, insight and humor. To quote Nigel Rees: "An anecdote can often say more about a person than pages of biography" (1999, ix). An historian once noted that in time the legacy of any individual can be distilled into succinct sound bytes. Think of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

10. Paul Samuelson is a Great Maestro.

While Paul describes himself as having "an important role in the symphony orchestra," we see him as the conductor for the economists of the second half of the 20th century. A first-rate university is neither made by brilliant students nor by brilliant teachers alone, but by the cheerful and fruitful interaction between the two. Paul's visible hands, gifted mind, and heart succeeded in not only attracting exceptional teachers and students to MIT, but in orchestrating a superbly-tuned ensemble which takes true interest in one another.

A conductor's wife once asked Alexander Kipnis, the Russian basso, "What is it about Toscanini? What is it he does that my husband cannot do? Does he do something with his hands? Or with his eyes? Does he conduct faster? Or slower?" And Kipnis answered by quoting Gurnemanz's reply to Parsifal's query: "Who is the Grail?" The answer was: "That may not be told, but if you are chosen for it, you will not fail to know" (Sachs, 1991, 159).

In the world of music, it is a rarity to find a person who is both a gifted composer and a top conductor. So it is in economics as well. Paul is that rarity. When Paul is writing, the sun is always out. His writing--ever eloquent, ever stirring--is done with the kind of verve that one seldom finds today.

9. Paul Samuelson Lives a Balanced Life.

There is a widely exaggerated and stereotyped notion shared by many that superior scientists can neither live a balanced life nor be paragons of virtue. Consider the words of William Butler Yeats, the poet: "The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work," or those of David Hull: "The behavior that appears to be the most improper actually facilitates the manifest goals of science.... As it turns out, the least productive scientists tend to behave the most admirably, while those who make the greatest contributions just as frequently behave the most deplorably" (1988, 32). In other words, aggressiveness and selfishness are associated with superior performance by scientists. But my experiences and observations of eminent economists do not support these assertions. In Paul's case, not only does he know how to maintain a balance between scholarship, family, and play, but he exhibits a high degree of humanity and kindness. …

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