Prof. Samuelson: guru extraordinaire

If anyone can be called the father of modern analytical and scientific economics, it is Paul A. Samuelson, who passed away on December 13 at 94. Anyone who has read economics, even in the most fleeting way, cannot but recognise his perceptive undergraduate economics textbook. Think of analytical economics, and you think of Samuelson.

When I saw him last when he was 92, he was driving his car near his home in Belmont, Massachusetts — a small elite town in the vicinity of Cambridge which is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and as alert as ever. He stopped upon seeing me on the sidewalk, pulled over and chatted about how I was. Since 2000 I have been going back each summer to Harvard to teach two courses in economics, and I had been meeting him over a one-to-one lunch at his favourite restaurant at Harvard Square. That year I had not yet called him, and he was disapproving.

Whenever I met him I was just his student, which I had been in 1962-63. At every meeting with him I had to answer his rapid-fire questions about a series of subjects, and even share delightful gossip. On that summer’s day at Belmont it was no different.

Later I had become his co-author on the Theory of Index Numbers, published our research in the American Economic Review (1974) and the Royal Economic Society’s Economic Journal (1984), but I was still treated as his student, to be cared for, and questioned.

Samuelson’s main contribution to modern economics was the use of advanced calculus to show that economics could be structured on clearly stated or observable behavioural assumptions or axioms or objectives, and then by mathematical deduction deriving economic laws that could be tested on real-life statistical data. He thus made economics a subject of scientific inquiry to be truly called a science, in the sense that propositions in economics could be ‘proved’ with proof, just as theorems in mathematics could be. Mathematical logic and rigour was all; little else mattered. Gone, thus, were the days of John Maynard Keynes’ “Shakespearean” economics and John Kenneth Galbraith’s art of expression. Felicity in English no more mattered; mathematical methods took its place. Samuelson globalised economics by enabling scholars who knew little English to join in international discourse and collaboration in research and teaching. Economics thus exploded on to the international scene, and became fashionable.

Worked in two dimensions

Samuelson worked in two dimensions throughout his life. In one, he spoke in homely English about the most complicated economic issues. He thus authored one of the most widely used college textbooks in the history of American education. The book, titled Economics, first published in 1948, was the globe’s best-selling textbook for nearly 30 years. Translated into 20 languages and updated periodically, it is selling over 50,000 copies a year in its 19th edition half a century after it first appeared.

His second dimension was of mathematical rigour that began with his Harvard Ph.D. thesis-turned-book titled TheFoundations of Economic Analysis. This is a gold mine for research even today. When he defended his thesis before a committee of three Harvard Professors, the story goes that the chairman, Professor Joseph A. Schumpeter, asked his two fellow-members after the viva voce: “Gentlemen, have we passed?”

Between the two books, Samuelson redefined modern economics and made it popular, yet a science. For that he became the first American to win the then newly instituted Nobel prize for economics.

Paul Antony Samuelson was born on May 15, 1915 in Gary, Indiana. After receiving his bachelor’s from Chicago in 1935, he went to Harvard. He earned his master’s from Harvard in 1936 and a Ph.D. formally in 1941. He wrote his thesis in 1937.

In 1940, Harvard offered him an instructorship (the Harvard equivalent of Assistant Professor, which in turn equalled the position of an Associate Professor elsewhere), which he accepted. But a month later the MIT invited him to become an Assistant Professor, that is, the same as Harvard’s Instructor. But jealousy and, some suspect, the anti-Semitism of the late-1930s made Harvard deny him a promotion, even though he had by then developed an international following.

Fresh from India with a B.A. Honours in Mathematics and a Master’s in Mathematical Statistics, I first met Samuelson in his office in September 1962 wanting to be his student, cross-registering in the most advanced mathematical economics course of the MIT. I had arrived in Cambridge on a Harvard scholarship for a Ph.D. Samuelson selected each year only 20 students, out of about 200 who applied, expecting to groom them as scholars. I wondered whether I would be chosen. I was.

Once while lecturing on the theory of consumer behaviour in class, Samuelson wrote on the blackboard a series of equations to derive a theorem. As a student I raised my hand from my desk and said: “You have one equation wrong, so you will not be able to prove the theorem.” There was stunned silence. Samuelson walked to my seat and glowered: “What did you say?” I held my ground and offered to rectify what was a small careless mistake which all geniuses commit on the blackboard in class. He made me go to the blackboard and write out the correct equation — which I did. Then, sternly he said: “See me after class.” My classmates thought that was the end of me. One asked: “Have you got your return ticket to India?”

But it was, instead, the beginning of me — and of a relationship. When I saw him after class, he said: “I think you and I should write a joint paper some day.” This we did 10 years later, but he me helped in the interim on a number of papers published in my own name, and thanked me in footnotes of his published papers for having corrected him or given him leads. He, and my thesis adviser Simon Kuznets at Harvard, launched my career. I became a Teaching Fellow as a student, an Instructor soon after, obtaining a Ph.D in the shortest possible time of 18 months, and an Assistant Professor, all at Harvard.

I eventually joined politics because my career was blocked in India. I continued to return to Harvard to teach, and got nothing but warmth and welcome from Samuelson each time. During the Emergency, Henry Rosovsky, the Harvard economist, became the Dean and appointed me Visiting Professor. Indira Gandhi sent an emissary to him to cancel my appointment. But Henry was no pushover. By now Samuelson was convinced that I had responded to a higher call. He encouraged me to fight on. He wrote in Newsweek against the Emergency and even signed a petition along with other Nobel laureates to the U.S. President condemning the jailing without trial of 140,000 persons.

Samuelson remained sympathetic from then on to my choice of a political career over academics. Once I called him my guru and explained the gurukul system of the Indian rishis. He said: “Ah! That’s what the U.S. needs.” Samuelson was already a rishi in the way he treated his chosen students. I shall remember always that I was once his chosen student among the many he nurtured.

(Dr. Subramanian Swamy is a former Union Minister who is the president of the Janata Party.)


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