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Requiem for Samuelson

December 13, 2009

Paul Anthony Samuelson (May 15, 1915 – December 13, 2009), first American Nobel Prize laureate (1970) has died, at the age of 94.

I was lucky to meet him at the M.I.T on the glorious day of November 9, 1989, the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the day that symbolized the end of the world system of the communist slavery.

We are all advised against speaking ill of the dead. I shall not. Paul Samuelson was a witty, humorous and very friendly and pleasant man. He was the only one I knew that rivaled Murray Rothbard in the elegance of wearing bow ties.

When I was learning economics in the USSR in the 1970s Samuelson was the only Western economist whose textbook was translated into Russian. I remember his famous graph depicting dynamics of per capita GNP in the Soviet Union and the United States according to which the USSR would surpass the US in the standard of living by 1990. He frankly admitted to me that that was mistake. “Who could know that it was all fake?”

His “Economics” was the most widely used college textbooks in the history of the world. First published in 1948, it was translated into 22 languages, and was selling over 50,000 copies a year making his author the richest economist after Ricardo.

Mr. Samuelson, an uncle of Lawrence Summers, influenced and advised famous mainstream economists and Nobel laureates Robert Solow, Paul Krugman, George Akerlof, Robert Engle III, Robert C. Merton, Lawrence Klein, Franco Modigliani and Joseph Stiglitz.

Robert M. Solow, a fellow Nobel laureate and colleague of Samuelson’s at M.I.T. pointed out that when economists “sit down with a piece of paper to calculate or analyze something, you would have to say that no one was more important in providing the tools they use and the ideas that they employ than Paul Samuelson”.

Samuelson was fully aware of his world-wide influence. He declared that “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws — or crafts its advanced treatises — if I can write its economics textbooks”.

In his textbook he praised central planning and predicted the future higher standard of living in the communist world. Murray Rothbard reviewed the book in the following words:

“Samuelson’s Economics differs from its rivals largely in being bigger, more indigestible, and filled with the flip and unsupported wisecracks with which Samuelson is wont to dismiss deviant economic views.”

Paul Samuelson’s legacy is overwhelming – he will not write any more textbooks, but he will still command thoughts and deeds of academics and government officials. As Paul Krugman, his best and brightest student and admirer wrote: “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.”

Paul Samuelson translated incomprehensible Keynesian scribble into plain English and made it official ideology of American government, other world leaders, and American Economics Association. He advised the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, the Bureau of the Budget and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Samuelson was asked by Kennedy, Johnson and Carter to become their chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He refused, in principle, to take any government office because, as he admitted, he did not want to put himself in a position in which he could not say and write what he believed. Unfortunately for all of us, almost everything that this truly gifted and talented man said, wrote and believed in resulted in less freedom, bigger government and widespread poverty here and around the world.

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