Robert Solow’s sarcastic economics

robert solowRobert Solow, one of the most honored and influential economist of the second half of the 20th century, has been involved throughout his career in a series of polemics with several neoliberal (and other) economists in academia and government. Along with substantial assertions and explanations, Solow often used to spice his arguments with witty and sarcastic stings, as follows. Economic sociologists, by the way, will find a sweet and sour french dessert awaiting them at the end of this post. So — intellectually enjoy:

“Suppose someone sits down where you are sitting right now and announces to me that he is Napoleon Bonaparte. The last thing I want to do with him is to get involved in a technical discussion of cavalry tactics at the battle of Austerlitz. If I do that, I’m getting tacitly drawn into the game that he is Napoleon. Now, Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent like nothing better than to get drawn into technical discussions, because then you have tacitly gone along with their fundamental assumptions; your attention is attracted away from the basic weakness of the whole story. Since I find that fundamental framework ludicrous, I respond by treating it as ludicrous — that is, by laughing at it — so a’s not to fall into the trap of taking it seriously and passing on to matters of technique” (Arjo Klamer’s Conversations with Economists, 1983, p. 146)

“Another difference between Milton [Friedman] and myself is that everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of my papers.” (Solow 1966: 63)

“[John Kenneth] Galbraith is, after all, something special. His books are not only widely read, but actually enjoyed. He is a public figure of some significance; he shares with William McChesney Martin the power to shake stock prices by simply uttering nonsense. He is known and attended to all over the world. He mingles with the Beautiful People; for all I know, he may actually be a Beautiful Person himself. It is no wonder that the pedestrian economist feels for him an uneasy mixture of envy and disdain.” (Solow 1967: 100)

“Galbraith’s attitude toward ordinary consumption reminds one of the Duchess who, upon acquiring a full appreciation of sex, asked the Duke if it were not perhaps too good for the common people.” (Solow 1967: 107)

“The group at this conference is fairly uniform… A nonprofessional would find this whole meeting very mysterious. The discussion is very abstract; it is full of insiders’ language; people break into hysterical laughter for incomprehensible reasons. There are also some people here who are more directly concerned with practical matters. There are even more such people out in the streets of Edgartown, and those are people who could not care less about rational expectations or even about irrational expectations or identifying restrictions, whatever those words mean… I would like to assure the practical people in this room and also the ones out in the streets of Edgartown that although the battles that are fought in conferences like this appear to be fought with antique pop guns, the bullets are real and they may soon be fired at you by the Federal Reserve.” (Solow 1978: 203) 

“In principle, there is no reason why expectations about future inflation cannot be changed dramatically overnight. All that is needed is some gesture, some conviction, some promise, perhaps something slipped into the water supply. I drift into sarcasm, but only because sometimes the Reagan Administration’s representatives seem to adopt that line: it hardly matters what we do – if only you will believe us, your belief will make itself come true.” (Solow 1982: 23)

“The best and brightest in the profession proceed as if economics is the physics of society. There is a single universally valid model. It only needs to be applied. You could drop a modern economist from a time machine… at any time, in any place, along with his or her personal computer; he or she could set up in business without even bothering to ask what time and which place.” (Solow 1985: 330)

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” (Solow 1987: 36)

Galbraith’s mentions above are taken from Solow’s harsh and scoffing review of Galbraith’s The New Industrial State. Galbraith was genuinely angry about it and composed a belligerent and acrimonious reply, that prompted Solow to write a peppery rejoinder ending with these lines: 

“Professor Galbraith suggests that I disbelieve his argument not because it is unconvincing or unhelpful, but because I have a personal interest to protect. His doctrine is so subversive of conventional economics that if it were to be widely accepted my sort of work would fall in the academic pecking order, my students would diminish in number and quality, and economics would take a tack uncongenial to my sort of mind. About my motives, he may of course be right. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, as Lamont Cranston used to say. As for the rest, he may equally be right. I shall try to roll gracefully with the punch, and if I can not, well, then Après moi, la sociologie.” (Sollow 1967b: 119)

— Solow, Robert M. 1966. “Comments.” Pp. 62-66 in Guidelines: Informal Controls and the Market Place, eds. George P. Shultz and Robert Z. Aliber. Chicago: University of Chicago.
— Solow, Robert M. 1967. “The New Industrial State or Son of Affluence.”  Public Interest 9: 100-108.
— Solow, Robert. 1967b. “A Rejoinder.”  Public Interest 9: 118-119.
— Solow, Robert. 1978. “Summery and Evaluation.” Pp. 203-9 in After the Phillips Curve: Persistence of High Inflation and High Unemployment; Proceedings of a Conference Held at Edgartown, Mass. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
— Solow, Robert. 1982. “Does Economics Make Progress?” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 36(3): 13-31.
— Solow, Rober. 1985. “Economic History and Economics.The American Economic Review 75 (2): 328-331.
— Solow, Robert 1987. “We’d Better Watch Out.”  New York Times Book Review, July 12: 36.

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1 Response to Robert Solow’s sarcastic economics

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Most-read Economic Sociology and Political Economy Posts of 2018 | Economic Sociology and Political Economy

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