Books: A Fun Primer on Economics?
Some call economics “the dismal science.” Others don’t think it even deserves to be called an art, let alone a science, and consider it hocus-pocus veiled in obscure mathematics.
Science, art, or hocus-pocus, economists are everywhere these days – professional, amateur, and would-be/wanna-be economists. Most people don’t know who to listen to or believe, since relatively few non-experts have much background in the subject.
If you are one of those who are curious about economics, but either have no exposure to the topic or suffered from toxic overexposure in school, here’s a suggestion:
Pick up a copy of Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers (7th Edition). It is the most fun you will ever have reading about economics, and you will also learn enough to start cutting through at least some of the economic sense and nonsense we are hearing every day.
Heilbroner published the first edition of The Worldly Philsophers in 1953, when he was still a doctoral student at Harvard. It was so successful that it took him ten more years to finish his degree. The 7th edition was published in 1999, and the book has become the most popular non-textbook in economics history, selling more than four million copies.
This popularity came at a price. As his 1995 obituary in the New York Times notes:
Although popular with students and the general reader, he was regarded by mainstream economists as a popularizer and historian whose insights made no great contribution to the study of the field. He, in turn, saw their reliance on mathematics and computer modeling as narrow in vision and as losing sight of the very purpose of economics – to help improve the well-being of people at work and of the society they work in.
The book brightly covers the lives and theories of economic giants such as Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen and Joseph Schumpeter. But whatever else you read in the book, you will find nothing more relevant or entertaining than the portrait of the amazing John Maynard Keynes.
Keynes’ name is thrown around a lot these days, either as a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you believe that we can – we must – spend our way out of this recession. Just this week, Newsweek carries this cover story: Stop Saving Now! This is pure Keynes. If you are interested in knowing how this is supposed to work, without having a degree in economics, read The Worldly Philosophers today.