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 economists in academia and government. Along with substantial assertions and explanations, Solow often used to spice his arguments with witty and sarcastic stings, such as:

“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)

“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 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) 

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. 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. (open access)

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