NPR logo Paul Samuelson, Seminal Economist, Dead At 94

Paul Samuelson, Seminal Economist, Dead At 94

Economist Paul Samuelson in July 1996 tries with difficulty to get the National Medal of Science around his neck, causing Clinton to quip that Samuelson's brain was too big. ) STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Over the weekend came word of the death at age 94 of Paul Samuelson, the first American to win a Nobel Prize for his work in economics and author of one of the most enduring college textbooks on the subject.

Along with his many achievements in advancing an understanding of how markets work, Samuelson was responsible for making the economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a powerhouse in economic research.

As excerpt from an MIT economics department press release:

Samuelson's contributions to the field were so numerous and fundamental that they lend themselves to description in more general terms. "If you did a time and motion study of what any modern economist does at work, you would find that an enormous proportion of standard mental devices trace back to Paul Samuelson's long lifetime of research," said MIT Institute Professor Emeritus Robert Solow. "What I can add about my beloved friend of 60 years is that he had a marvelous intuition about how a market economy had to be. 'It must work like this,' he would say. 'Now all we have to do is prove it.' There was no one like him."

Samuelson was instrumental in bringing the MIT Department of Economics, which did not train graduate students when he joined it in 1940, to its current stature as a world-renowned research and teaching institution. Reflecting on this at a dinner in 1991 celebrating the establishment of the department's Samuelson Chair in Economics, Samuelson referred to the department's development as a "scientific miracle." Admonishing the audience not to believe "that this was my handiwork alone," he said that the department, from 1941 to 1960, "went from being a mediocre service department to becoming No. 1 on all foundations' ranking of departments." In fact, he quipped, by the mid-1960s the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division was starting to fret about MIT's garnering of most of the National Science Foundation fellowships awarded in economics.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist, who was an MIT colleague of Samuelson's, wrote over the weekend of his high regard for the man who was one of the giants in his field.

It's hard to convey the full extent of Samuelson's greatness. Most economists would love to have written even one seminal paper — a paper that fundamentally changes the way people think about some issue. Samuelson wrote dozens: from international trade to finance to growth theory to speculation to well, just about everything, underlying much of what we know is a key Samuelson paper that set the agenda for generations of scholars.

And he was a wonderfully down-to-earth human being besides. For a number of years I shared an office suite with him and Bob Solow; he always had time to talk, and was completely without airs.

Samuelson, Solow and Krugman sharing space? Seldom has the brainpower in an office suite rivaled what existed there.

The New York TImes obituary captures a lot of what Krugman conveys. Not only was Samuelson brilliant but he was accessible and apparently had a great sense of humor.

Add this to how smart he was: he refused the Faustian bargain of exchanging his scholar's freedom to speak his mind for proximity to a president, in his case, President John F. Kennedy, who had wanted Samuelson as his chief economist.

An excerpt:

His most influential student was John F. Kennedy, whose first 40-minute class with Mr. Samuelson, after the 1960 election, was conducted on a rock by the beach at the family compound at Hyannis Port, Mass. Before class, there was lunch with politicians and Cambridge intellectuals aboard a yacht offshore. "I had expected a scrumptious meal," Mr. Samuelson said. "We had franks and beans."

As a member of the Kennedy campaign brain trust, Mr. Samuelson headed an economic task force for the candidate and held several private sessions on economics with him. Many would have a bearing on decisions made during the Kennedy administration.

Though Mr. Samuelson was President Kennedy's first choice to become chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, he refused, on principle, to take any government office because, he said, he did not want to put himself in a position in which he could not say and write what he believed.

After the 1960 election, he told the young president-elect that the nation was heading into a recession and that Kennedy should push through a tax cut to head it off. Kennedy was shocked.

"I've just campaigned on a platform of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets and here you are telling me that the first thing I should do in office is to cut taxes?" Mr. Samuelson recalled, quoting the president.

Kennedy eventually accepted the professor's advice and signaled his willingness to cut taxes, but he was assassinated before he could take action. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, carried out the plan, however, and the economy bounced back.

Adding Bite to Academia

In the classroom, Mr. Samuelson was a lively, funny, articulate teacher. On theories that he and others had developed to show links between the performance of the stock market and the general economy, he famously said: "It is indeed true that the stock market can forecast the business cycle. The stock market has called nine of the last five recessions."

His speeches and his voluminous writing had a lucidity and bite not usually found in academic technicians. He tried to give his economic pronouncements a "snap at the end," he said, "like Mark Twain." When women began complaining about career and salary inequities, for example, he said in their defense, "Women are men without money."

Samuelson was like the Johann Sebastian Bach of economics. Just like the famous composer, he was not only prodigiously productive professionally but had a big family to boot. He and his wife had six children, including triplets.

Samuelson made economics a lot less of a "dismal science" for millions of people the world over. For that alone, he should be remembered.