(Published in the Business Standard, December 2009)
Paul Samuelson had a Nobel Prize in economics to his credit, a large and faithful following who venerated him for his resurrection of Keynesian economic theory, the ear of several US Presidents and a tradition of fruitful, running battles with the likes of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. But when he died this Sunday, at the age of 94, the legacy he left behind him was to be found in college classrooms across the world.
The fascinating thing about Economics, his bestselling textbook, is not that it was so comprehensive and influential when it first came out in 1948. Samuelson was very much a product of the Great Depression in the US, and credited his development to being in the right place at the right time—ie, Harvard of the early 1930s, where he learned his trade under the tutelage of Joseph Schumpeter, Alvin Hansen and others.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Samuelson spoke of that era: “Just when I had completed my advanced training, World War II came, followed by fifty years of exploding college economics enrollments. My generation had a strong wind at its back. My famous teachers had become full professors only after 40. Wunderkinds in my generation could become anointed before age 30. Outside the Ivory Tower, economists were sought out by governments, corporations, Wall Street traders, and textbook publishers.”
The other great truth of his life was the importance of getting paid for work that he would happily have done for free. When McGraw Hill approached Samuelson to write a basic textbook on economics, he took on the task with trademark seriousness. When the classic 1948 textbook celebrated its 50th anniversary—Samuelson’s Economics, in its updated edition, is now just over 60 years old—he set down his intention as a young, upcoming academic in the 1940s:
“My great predecessors—John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Frank Taussig and Irving Fisher—were writing for their times. I was writing for the last half of the 20th century—an epoch that surpassed even my youthful optimism.”
Over the decades, Samuelson’s brand of economics has been revised, attacked and reassessed. But his textbook, augmented by William Nordhaus’ corrections and updates, has endured, in a field where shifts in theory can be violent, merciless and leave innumerable “books of the decade” on the remainder pile.
Stanley Fisher, who read the textbook as a student in Zimbabwe, got its enduring appeal better than most: “To read Economics is to have a glimpse of the extraordinary mind that created it: undogmatic, generous to predecessors and contemporaries, encyclopaedic, of course brilliant, and, most remarkably, sceptical, not inclined to take itself too seriously.” Literary classics often survive a century, but if Samuelson’s Economics does, it will be among the few textbooks aside from Gray’s Anatomy to achieve that distinction.
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In memoriam: This week also marked the passing of the poet, translator and critic Dilip Chitre, who died at the age of 71 in Pune, of cancer. For many of us, Dilip Chitre often represented three poets in one. There was his own, iconoclastic work—a massive corpus where the Ekun Kavita (collected poems) runs to three thick volumes.
Chitre’s comfortable bilingualism and his famous intolerance for shibboleths guaranteed that he would not be lionised by the Marathi critics of his day, though it was a different story when it came to his work in English.
For readers outside Marathi, Chitre opened up and made new the work of two distinctly different voices—Sant Tukaram, the 17th century Marathi poet-saint known for his sinewy, uncompromising mysticism, and Namdeo Dhasal, once seen as the firebrand of contemporary Dalit literature. Chitre was drawn to the power and strength in both these writers. He was influenced by another great poet, Arun Kolatkar, when it came to translating Tukaram: he approached the poems “like a dance”, paying attention to the rhythm and the back-and-forth of the structure, where each poem begins with the words “Says Tuka”.
His Dhasal translations are towering, and are deliberately unlyrical: Gaandu Bagicha, for instance, is translated with no euphemisms for Dhasal’s out-to-shock language of the streets and the slums, and the Golpitha poems retain Dhasal’s searing images. (Dhasal grew up in Golpitha, and his memories of his father’s butcher’s shop form some of the most powerful images in that early series of work.)
Chitre was unimpressed by the rabid demands of those who wanted cultural censorship on the grounds that specific books or works of art offend religious sentiments. In a classic email to India Uncut, he laid down the true meaning of the word secular: “In India, it is often misinterpreted as ‘equally sensitive to all religions’ and not ‘equally neutral to all religions’… Whether God or democracy is our priority as citizens of this nation cannot be left to God to decide. He is not a registered voter in India.” Many of us hope that even after his death, Chitre will have the final word on this subject.