Ned le Flâneur: What do we learn from autobiography? Plenty!

It is not easy to convey what is so interesting about Edmund (Ned) Phelps to the kind of readers for whom Economic Principals is intended. I have tried several times, and never came close.

There was, for instance, “the Phelps volume,” Inflation Policy and Unemployment Theory (1970), a collection of essays which organized the still ongoing debate about expectations and the efficacy of the Phillips Curve as a guide to central bank policy.  Then, too, there was Phelps’ tangential relationship with Nobel laureate Robert Mundell, those Seventies summers hanging out with Paul Volcker at Mundell’s castle in Italy, in the run-up to “supply side economics.”

Or Political Economy: An Introductory Text (1985), originally intended to supplant Paul Samuelson’s blockbuster of forty years earlier. Or “The Golden Rule of Accumulation: A Fable for Growth-men,” a 1961 Phelps paper to which EP came late. Or an elaborate 2003 festschrift for Phelps, and the tightly-focused Nobel Memorial Prize that followed, in 2006, “for his analysis of intertemporal tradeoffs in macroeconomic policy.”

Better, then, to let Phelps tell the story himself.  EP spent the weekend reading My Journeys in Economic Theory (Columbia, 2023).

There are the C.V. basics, b. 1933, Evanston, Ill.; Hasting-on-Hudson, Amherst College, and Yale, followed by the Cowles Foundation, RAND Corp, the London School of Economics, the University of Pennsylvania, and, finally, in 1974, Columbia University. He has been there ever since.

Phelps played the trumpet, drove a Jaguar, studied musicology, watched films, made a grand tour of post-war Europe one college summer, learned to read newspapers, devoured C.P. Snow novels, one after another, and loved New York  City (and still does).

There are relationships: a disappointing one with his thesis advisor at Yale, James Tobin, redeemed only long after an offer of tenure wasn’t extended; a warm and long friendship with philosopher John Rawls, formed during a year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, leading to a 1975 conference volume, Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory. He marries well, an Argentine woman, educated in Paris, who encourages him to spend more time in Europe. They did, growing a large circle of allies and friends in the process.

Phelps is one of those Nobel laureates who has kept working after his recognition.  James Heckman, of the University of Chicago, and George Akerlof, of the Brookings Institution, are others. In 2003, Phelps established a Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia. He then sought to replace “the growth theory of Joseph Schumpeter and Robert Solow with a theory in which innovation and job satisfaction, too, are fueled primarily by the dynamism of a range of people working in the economy.” Indigenous growth, he calls it, giving rise to the title of his next-to-most-recent book, Mass Flourishing: How grass-roots innovation creates jobs, challenges, and change! (Princeton, 2013). “When I first saw Los Angeles I realized that no one had ever painted what it looked like,”: he quotes David Hockney to begin the preface.

Certainly Phelps has flourished himself over the years.  Generations, he volunteers at one point:  Gottfried Haberler, Joan Robinson, and Sir John Hicks; Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, Thomas Schelling, and Robert Solow; Robert Mundell, Amartya Sen, Robert Lucas, and, by extension, Phelps himself.

I am something of a wanderer myself, and I like to think I know someone not in a hurry when I see one.  I relied on Wikipedia for a definition of a flâneur:

[A] literary type from 19th-century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. The word carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. However, the flâneur’s origins are to be found in journalism of the Restoration, and the politics of postrevolutionary public space.[1] It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern (even modernist) experience

Not to be mistaken for a dabbler.  Phelps could scarcely be more serious about the topics that have interested him, but they were diverse. George Stigler, author of another very good autobiography, Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist (Basic, 1988), was different. As the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. Phelps takes stock of whatever puzzles he sees as he travels around. My Journeys in Economic Theory is time well-spent with Ned le flâneur.

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