Academic journal article American Economist

Memorializing Paul A. Samuelson: A Review of His Major Works, 1915-2009

Academic journal article American Economist

Memorializing Paul A. Samuelson: A Review of His Major Works, 1915-2009

Article excerpt


We have lost the dean of American economists, the unrivalled leader of neoclassical economics on December 13, 2009. Paul Anthony Samuelson was born on May 15, 1915 in Gary, Indiana to his parents Frank Samuelson and Ella Lipton. The family moved to Chicago, where Paul attended the Hyde Park High School. He entered the University of Chicago at age 16 and took up economics after having heard a lecture on the Reverend T. R. Malthus. After graduating with a BA from there in 1935, he attended Harvard, where he earned an MA in 1936, and a PhD in 1941. He married a fellow student, Marion Crawford, in 1938, and after her death in 1978, he was married to Risha Clay Samuelson.

Samuelson's Ph.D. thesis became the celebrated Foundations of Economic Analysis published in 1947. A year later, he published his famous text, Economics. Those two works bracketed his contribution from the simple to the complex aspects of economics that were imitated by many and had educated over a generation of economists.

Samuelson started teaching as an instructor at Harvard in 1940, but after a month he moved to MIT as an assistant professor. While at MIT, he became an Associate Professor (1944), Professor (1947), and finally Institute Professor (1966). He also received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago (1961), Oberlin College (1961), Indiana University (1966), and East Anglia University (1966), and was a Ford foundation Research Fellow during 1958-1959. His numerous awards include the David A. Wells Prize in 1941 by Harvard University, the John Bates Clark Medal by the American Economic Association in 1947, and the Nobel Laureate Prize in economics by the Bank of Sweden in 1970 for his scientific contributions to economics.

Because he did not wish to compromise his thinking in economics, Samuelson turned down President Kennedy's requests to serve as the chair of the economic council. Samuelson, however, has been credited with educating the president on Keynesian economics, and he also was the one to encourage the tax cut that was implemented during Johnson's administration.

Goals of Economics

Samuelson's goal was to understand the "... behavior of mixed-economies of the American and Western European type" (Samuelson, CW, 1986, V. 3,728). His means to this goal was to be scientifically honest. He held that "... science consists of descriptions of empirical regularities" (Ibid., 772). Therefore, "... a good economist has good judgment about economic reality" (Ibid., 775). One should not wonder why he often refers to Thomas Kuhn, for Kuhn holds that "economic analysis advances discontinuously. After a great forward step, time must be taken to consolidate the gains achieved" (Samuelson, 1966, V. 2, 1140). Within this research mentality, Samuelson goes after reality with economic models, being well aware that "the science of economics does not provide simple answers to complex social problems" (Ibid., V. 2, 1325). Economics for him was different in degree but not in kind from the physical sciences: "All sciences have the common task of describing and summarizing empirical reality. Economics is no exception" (Ibid., V. 2, 1756). But unlike the falsificationist, he does not look at facts to terminate a theory. Rather, "in economics it takes a theory to kill a theory; facts can only dent the theorist's hide" (Ibid., V. 2, 1568).

Samuelson's representative definition of economics is: "the study of how people and society end up choosing, with or without the use of money, to employ scarce productive resources that could have alternative uses, to produce various commodities and distribute them for consumption, now or in the future, among various persons and groups in society. It analyzes the costs and benefits of improving patterns of resource allocation" (Samuelson, 1980, 2). We also see elements of production, distribution, consumption, and cost benefit analysis in his definition. …

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