Nasar Explores "Grand Pursuit" of Economic Ideas

by Bridget O'Brian
vol. 37, no. 2 

What do you do for a follow-up when your first book is a bestseller that wins the National Book Circle Award, is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and gets turned into a movie that wins four Academy Awards?

Sylvia Nasar (Image credit: Piotr Redlinkski)
Sylvia Nasar
Image credit: Piotr Redlinkski

Sylvia Nasar, the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, wanted to do something very different after A Beautiful Mind, her 1998 biography of mathematician John Nash and his triumph over schizophrenia. With her training in economics and affinity for the story hidden in plain sight, she embarked on a history cum biography of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers whose interests and talents helped create what ultimately became modern economics.

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, was published Sept. 15 by Simon and Schuster, to strong reviews. Her timing wasn’t bad, either. “There’s nothing like uncertain times to make people reach for economics,” she said.

The story begins 200 years ago, when poverty was the norm, the rich were poor by modern standards, and imagining that things could be otherwise was sheer fantasy. “What was shocking to me was that until very recently, most human beings on this planet didn’t have a life, couldn’t have a life, because they were without the means to do anything except subsist,” Nasar said. “The ‘grand pursuit’ was the idea that human circumstances could be affected by individuals and by institutions, including government.”

She is quick to acknowledge that Grand Pursuit is not a history of economic thought, but a drama about the origin and evolutions of the idea that humanity could overcome scarcity and take control of its destiny. “It’s picking the people who pushed that idea forward, and I tried to show how their ideas were connected to specific historical moments. What was their motivation? Why were people interested in that problem at that time?”

An undergraduate literature major who read neither non-fiction or newspapers, Nasar took up economics as a graduate student at New York University, but never finished her Ph.D. In her mid thirties, she discovered “a part of economics to which someone without too much mathematics and no particular gift for theory could contribute, namely journalism.” In the early 1980s recession, she became a writer for Fortune magazine and by the 1990s, in another downturn, a reporter for The New York Times. The success of A Beautiful Mind, which grew out of a story she wrote for the Times business section, emboldened her to start a second book and another career as college professor. After she served on President Bollinger’s journalism task force, she and James B. Stewart, the author of The Den of Thieves and other business best-sellers, created the master of arts program in business journalism.

“People ask, ‘How long did it take you to write the book?’ Well, probably two years,” Nasar said. “But how long did it take to figure out a narrative? About 10 years.” Figuring out the story is the basic challenge of all journalism, she said. Her editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew, urged her to focus on people controlling their economic circumstances and therefore their life destinies. “It’s a huge subject, and like all huge subjects, it doesn’t work unless you make it a story.”

Q. What made you decide to tackle such a broadly themed subject?

Seen through the eyes of glamorous individuals living in dangerous times, economics is sexy. The grand pursuit of economic thinkers to overcome scarcity is a gripping story as well as a perfect antidote to panic and pessimism. Lots of my friends are voracious readers but have never read a book about economics. My ambition was to write one that had a gripping story line and read like a novel.

Q. You graduated from a liberal arts college with a literature degree. How did you get from there into economics?

During the Vietnam War, everybody was reading Marx. He wasn’t a very good economist, but he made economics seem eye-opening, life-changing and dramatic. I’d majored in lit but was hungry for a discipline that could explain where we were, how we got there, what our prospects were.

Without giving it much thought, I decided to get a Ph.D. in economics. I dropped out but wound up doing research for Wassily Leontief, an extraordinary Russian émigré and Nobel laureate. Being fired by a major but now defunct computer company led to my becoming a writer for Fortune magazine.

Q. What do you find so fascinating about the subject?

The idea that modern economics began with an act of imagination, a vision that humanity could overcome scarcity and take its fate in its own hands. For 2,000 years before the Victorian economic miracle, nine out of 10 human beings were condemned to backbreaking labor under terrible conditions, chronic hunger if not outright starvation, ignorance, disease and early death with no means of escape. The grand pursuit of economic thinkers started with an act of imagination—envisioning that humanity’s material circumstances weren’t fixed but could change. And that vision grew into a search for instruments of mastery, to borrow a phrase from the poet Muriel Rukeyser.

That idea was born in 19th-century London, when the standard of living of the average working man and woman started to improve incrementally and cumulatively for the first time in history.

Q. Were there economists 150 years ago as we think of them today?

Not many of the people I write about set out to become economists. They wanted to be mathematicians, railroad directors, physicists, political wives, novelists and missionaries, but were drawn to economics for the same reason that John F. Kennedy was attracted to the presidency—“to be where the action is”—and because they were certain that an “engine of analysis” was vital for figuring how the world worked and making it better.

Q. Who are some of the people you focus on in The Grand Pursuit?

I start with Jane Austen, who came of age during the Napoleonic Wars and who, despite being remarkably astute, informed and broad-minded, never entertained the notion that mankind could escape economic necessity.

In her day, poverty was not only universal, but resignation to one’s lot in life was the prevailing wisdom. The grand pursuit of economic thinkers to overcome scarcity started in London and spread outward like ripples in a pond.

We owe that idea to this grand pursuit of people who tried to understand the basis of our material life and how it could be different. Because of them, economics became a modern science, an intellectual tool and a field where cumulative knowledge was possible. They were drawn to economics for some of the same reasons that people were drawn to physics, because they saw it as a way to “understand the ordinary business of life” and to change it.

Q. Which thinkers surprised you most?

One was certainly Charles Dickens. When he returned from his 1842 book tour in the U.S., he wrote a brilliant satire about the old pessimistic economics. People don’t think of A Christmas Carol in that vein, but in telling the story of Scrooge’s conversion, Dickens was urging economists to humanize their field. You didn’t have to be an economist to see that a world of abundance was in the making, a technological revolution was taking place or that production was roaring ahead. The question was whether the bottom 90 percent would benefit. John Stuart Mill and other founders of political economics didn’t see how they could. If wages went up, they reasoned, people would marry earlier and have more children. Then Dickens came along and, witnessing the new abundance, especially of foodstuffs, didn’t see how they could not.

Q. As for the usual suspects …

There’s Karl Marx, of course, whose ambition it was to become the Darwin of social and economic evolution but who never bothered to visit a factory and whose ideas were fixed before he sat down to write Das Kapital. But unlike Mill, the dean of British economics, Marx did realize that competition was revolutionizing technology, globalizing the world economy and creating new occupations and institutions. Marx was convinced that moving from his provincial birthplace in Germany to Berlin, Paris, Brussels and, finally, London, “the capitol of the world,” let him see the future of society. He acknowledged that the British business class had achieved marvels that dwarfed the Egyptian pyramids and Roman aqueducts. Because he wasn’t looking, however, he failed to register that average wages and living standards were rising not just incrementally but cumulatively.

Q. Who would you say was the first economist to really get it?

That would be Alfred Marshall, the son of a Bank of England clerk, who grew up in genteel poverty but managed to get a scholarship to Cambridge and, over his father’s vigorous objections, studied mathematics. He took up economics after the Panic of 1866, when he became obsessed with the problem of poverty amid plenty and increasingly skeptical of the notion that a hereditary proletariat was “a necessity of nature.”

Most people then believed the poor were poor because they were morally deficient, genetically of poor stock or because the rich were gouging them. Marshall agreed with earlier economists that society simply didn’t produce enough for everyone to have enough. But he showed that competition was the ingenious mechanism that compelled managers to constantly improve their operations, then to share efficiency gains with workers. If wage growth depended on productivity improvements, workers themselves—and their elected representatives—could influence their prospects by pursuing or promoting mobility, education, public health.

Q. You’ve been quoted saying economists are sexy. Examples, please!

Beatrice Webb shopped, flirted and quipped her way through London society. A rich, beautiful, very smart daughter of a railroad tycoon who loved ideas, she was brought up among leading scientists and thinkers. Destined to marry an important man, as her eight sisters did, she fell in love with the most powerful and handsome politician in England. Joseph Chamberlain was 20 years her senior and in search of a political wife, who would stand by her man, not argue with him over policy. When Chamberlain broke her heart, Beatrice took up social work, went undercover in a sweatshop and married Sidney Webb, one of the brainy young men who constituted the Fabian Society. She went on to start her own think tank, invent the idea of the welfare or “housekeeping” state, become a founder of the London School of Economics and inspire a rising political star, Winston Churchill.

Q. Where does John Maynard Keynes fit in? His economic theories, such as the need to stimulate a declining economy, are very much on point today and still controversial more than 80 years after he first broached them.

Keynes is the pivot. He straddled the old world, where the best a member of the working classes could do was to accept his station in life, and the new world, in which nations and people could make their own destinies. He invented a new “economics of the whole” to prevent and repair temporary breakdowns of the powerful economic engine. The new, cheerful social science that Marshall pioneered and Keynes and others innovated was a genuine revolution in human thinking that changed the lives of everyone on the globe.

Look at the Arab countries now. The notion that people should just resign themselves to the station in life to which they were born is no longer plausible even in the most oppressive societies. So my claim is that we owe that understanding to this grand pursuit of people who tried to understand what the basis of our material life was and how it could be changed.

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