It defies credulity to say that Robert M. Solow most recent book is his best book to date, but, at least for certain practical purposes, this is the case. He will turn ninety-nine next month. His four earlier books were written for other economists, beginning with Linear Programming and Economic Analysis, with Paul Samuelson and Robert Dorfman, in 1958; and Growth Theory: An Exposition (1970, expanded second edition, 2006).
Two Three very short books – The Labor Market as a Social Institution (Blackwell, 1990); Learning from “Learning By Doing” (Stanford, 1997) and Monopolistic Competition and Macroeconomic Theory (Cambridge, 1998) – approachable as they are, were also intended to influence professional audiences. There is no volume of collected papers, though many important papers exist to collect. Similarly, Solow has declined all offers to collect his popular reviews and essays, though many are classics of the sort.
Thus, Economists (Yale, 2019) is Solow’s first book written for a broad audience of intelligent citizens, outsiders and insiders, who are genuinely interested in what economics as a professional discipline exists to say and to do. The only barrier to entry is the price, $43 new, though copies can be obtained on second-hand markets for less and borrowed from many good libraries.
Economists is a book of photographic portraits of contemporary economists, designed for coffee tables display. What makes it worth reading, as opposed to slowly leafing through the ingenious photographs, is the introductory essay by Solow, and the answers to the questions he put to each subject, their replies carefully composed and printed on the page facing each subject’s portrait. The result is “A unique and illuminating portrait of economists and their work,” in the words of its editor, Seth Ditchik.
To recap briefly, Solow is the senior statesman of all academic economics. He dropped out of college after Pearl Harbor, returning after the war to study economics at Harvard. He joined the faculty of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951, where one way or another, he has been ever since. A Nobel laureate himself, in 1987, he taught four others along the way: George Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz, Peter Diamond, and William Nordhaus. He remains intellectually nimble.
The book has its beginnings at a dinner party on Martha’s Vineyard some years ago. Seated next to him was Mariana Cook, a celebrated fine art photographer, who with her husband also has a summer home on the island. She mentioned she had recently published a book of portraits of contemporary mathematicians. Solow rejoined, “Why not do one of economists?” He quickly found himself involved in more ways than one.
Solow explains in his introduction:
Naturally I had to ask myself: Was making a book of portraits of academic economists a useful or reasonable or even a sane thing to do? I came to the conclusion that it was, and I want to explain why. For a long time it has bothered me, as a teacher of economics, that most Americans – even those who, a long time ago, had wandered through an economics course – had no clear idea of what economics is and what economists do. That is not surprising. The only contact most of us have with economics and economists is through sound bites on television, radio, or in a newspaper These snippets are usually about what the stock market has done or might do, or perhaps about next quarter’s gross domestic product. But only a tiny fraction of academic economists spend their professional time thinking about the stock market or forecasting GDP. So I suspect that the general image of what economists do and what economics is about is way off-base.
Economists is designed to redress that. Ninety superb portraits of ninety economists, young and old, each having been recognized by one or more of the profession’s highest honors, and, taken as a group, representative of the increasingly broad spectrum of concerns to have come under economists’ lenses. I have appended their names at the bottom of this newsletter, since I think it is not possible to find them otherwise outside the book. If you are a kdnowledgeable economist, you will see what I mean about the extent of the spectrum; you will also notice there are few economists teaching in Europe on the roster, because it is a long way for photographer Cook to have traveled.
In my favorite exchange, Solow asks Hal Varian, chief economist at Google and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley:
Thirty years ago, you wrote a very successful microeconomics textbook. If you were to start over today, after your experience with Google, would you do it very differently?
[T]hat is now in its ninth edition. A colleague once explained to me that by the time the tenth edition comes around “having a successful textbook is like being married to a wealthy person you don’t like much anymore….”
Lucky for me I had two big breaks. The first was bumping into Eric Schmidt in 2001, shortly after he joined “this cute little company called Google.” He invited me to come spend some time there. I thought I would spend a year there and write a book about yet another Silicon Valley start-up. Well, here I am fifteen years later, and I still haven’t gotten around to writing that book.
But I sure learned a lot. Quite a bit…got folded into my textbook. I wrote a couple of new chapters devoted to network effects, auction design, matching mechanisms, and switching costs. The old chapters got updated to illustrate novel applications of work-horse concepts like marginal cost and marginal value….
Then I got lucky again: the Great Recession hit. My book is about microeconomics, not macroeconomics, but even so there were a lot of issues that suddenly showed up in the economy that somehow weren’t discussed in the text. How could I have missed talking about “counter-party risk” or “financial bubbles?”… So I added some discussion about these topics to the text….
Along with theory, businesses need measurement. Today, with all the sensors and system available, collecting data had become more inexpensive than ever before…. Google does about ten thousand experiments a year.; the knowledge gained from these experiments feeds back into design, allowing continual improvement in product offering.
Great stuff! Read the book if you can. See how many of those found there you know. It made me long for the old days, when Economic Principals was a newspaper column, approaching topics like these from slightly different angles, accompanied by caricatures supplied by Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe cartoonist Paul Szep!
Kenneth J. Arrow
Anthony B. Atkinson
Peter Blair Henry
Lawrence F. Katz
Alan B. Krueger
James G. March
Robert C. Merton
George P. Shultz
Robert M. Solow
Lawrence H. Summers
Heidi L. Williams