Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius
How much should the government intervene in the economy of a free society? Sylvia Nasar traces a century of debate.
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Keynes, however, is “Grand Pursuit’s” superman. A closeted homosexual “recognized as a genius in adolescence,” Keynes was reviled for speaking out against burdensome reparation payments in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. “Keynes blasted the treaty as a rank betrayal by the older generation of political leaders,” Nasar writes. “Not only had the Big Four done nothing to restore the prewar European economy, but they had not seriously considered the need to do so.”Skip to next paragraph
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After a great depression and another world war, the Marshall Plan would show the power of Keynes’s once-heretical belief that victors shouldn’t charge vanquished, but help them rebuild. “By 1941, Keynesians were scattered around the wartime bureaucracy in Washington like raisins in a cake,” Nasar writes.
But Nasar’s focus on big names means she overlooks smaller ones. At 77, Sen is the youngest economist she profiles. Prominent Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith wrote almost 50 books; Nasar gives him three pages. Post-Marxist Jean Baudrillard, whose “Symbolic Exchange and Death” offers a damning theoretical indictment of capitalism, doesn’t merit a mention. Quibbles over who’s left out of this who’s who aside, “Grand Pursuit’s” grander problem is that it’s a good book that comes at a bad time.
“Keynes and Hayek never fully resolved their long-running debate over how much and what kind of government intervention in the economy is compatible with a free society,” Nasar writes. Yet, this unresolved debate, dismissed in an aside, is the root of President Obama and Republicans’ inability to compromise on the national deficit, the trade deficit, entitlement reform, tax reform, health care and climate change. (Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann take note: Nasar offers a more nuanced view of Hayek, who claimed “We cannot seriously argue that the government ought to do nothing.” ) A history of an almost century-old ideological feud is interesting, but doesn’t pick a winner. In 2011, as European markets tumble and China challenges the West for economic dominance, a winner is what we need.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.