"I don't care who writes a nation's laws _ or crafts its
advanced treaties _if I can write its economics textbooks."
_ Paul Samuelson
By Sylvia Nasar
N.Y. Times News Service
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. _ N. Gregory Mankiw, a dweeby 37-year-old
economics professor who named his dog Keynes, was not counting on
getting rich overnight.
Most academics, even at Harvard, don't. But a phone call from
a Texas publisher changed all that.
Mankiw, who doesn't look a lot older than the freshmen and
sophomores he teaches, was offered a $1.4 million advance by
Harcourt Brace in Fort Worth to write a basic economics
That's about three times as big as any other in the college
textbook market and rivals those of all but a few celebrity
So what's going on? It's a race among once-stodgy textbook
publishers to find the next blockbuster economics textbook, a
book that will shape the thinking of the 1.5 million college
students who sign up for Econ 101 each year. This introductory
course is both the first and the last brush that most educated
Americans have with supply and demand, marginal cost, comparative
advantage and other first principles of the dismal science.
Such a book is long overdue. For nearly half a century,
students have learned the essentials of economics from Paul
Samuelson, now almost 80 years old, and a score of his disciples
But Samuelson's "Economics" and its many clones reflect the
mindset of a post-Depression generation of scholars who thought
they understood the economy well enough to tell Washington how to
manage the ups and downs of the business cycle.
Meanwhile, the world has changed. And so has what most
economists believe. A new generation of scholars _ while still
respectful of John Maynard Keynes, the British thinker who
advocated government borrowing to end the Depression _ are far
more skeptical of government fine-tuning.
They worry more than their teachers about the economic long
term and they focus more on how the United States interacts with
For all the shifts in thinking, though, previous attempts to
sell a mold-breaking economics textbook have wound up costing
publishers money. Most college students are learning from books
that many in the field view as outdated.
"We're really not teaching basic economics," said Paul
Krugman, an economist at Stanford University who is also writing
an introductory textbook. "We're not getting it across at all."
That's where the wooing of Mankiw and other economics
superstars of the baby-boom generation comes in.
These scholars _ some now writing or thinking about it _
include Krugman, John Taylor, Michael Boskin and Joseph Stiglitz,
all from Stanford, and Lawrence Summers, formerly at Harvard and
now under secretary of the treasury for international affairs.
(Summers is the latest winner of the John Bates Clark medal as
the best economist under 40 and just happens to be Samuelson's
Textbook publishers, like other marketers in mature and
overcrowded fields, are placing big bets that these people, who
are among the closest in their field to brand names, will sell
lots of books.
In the past, ambitious young economists like Mankiw
(pronounced Man-CUE) left textbook writing to older or less
distinguished colleagues. They concentrated instead on the kind
of esoteric research that might win them a Nobel Prize.
But now some are jumping at the chance to mold the minds of
the next generation of political leaders, executives, image
makers and other members of the American elite.
"Every economics editor in the business has been looking for
the new Samuelson since the 1970s," said Paul Shensa, executive
editor at Worth Publishers in New York.
The new stars are seeking not just fame, but fortune. …