Camels, mathematics and the history of economics

“By 1935 economics entered into a mathematical epoch. It became easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a non-mathematical genius to enter into the pantheon of original theorists.”  Paul Samuelson (1976: 25)

This sharp and meaningful quote taken from Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences  Paul Samuelson’s eulogy for an influential and notable Harvard economist, government adviser and public intellectual Alvin Hansen. Hansen is best known (but not enough nowadays) for successfully introducing and spreading Keynesian economics in the United States from the 1930s onwards, and for spelling out the implications of the Keynes macroeconomic model for fiscal policy. Read more about his life and scientific contribution, in light of the 20th century’s history of economic thought, in this short instructive article (open access), which ends with these words: “To [Hansen economics] was the fascinating study of how to improve the lot of humanity”:
Samuelson, Paul. 1976
. “Alvin Hansen as a Creative Economic Theorist.”  The Quarterly Journal of Economics 90 (1): 24-31.

Yuval Yonay’s interesting book The Struggle over the Soul of Economics (1998) presents an illuminating story about two schools of economics that dominated between the two world wars: the “neoclassical” and the “institutionalist”, which both started at the end of the 19th century. Samuelson’s quote actually reflects the result of the conflicts between neoclassicists and institutionalists that Yonay skillfully brought to life in his important book on history and sociology of economic thought.

Paul Samuelson

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  1. “He had seen with his own eyes ordinary men on the frontier carried into prosperity just by virtue of being in the right place at the right time; and their brothers, no less worthy, by the luck of the draw plunged into bankruptcy and ruin.”

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