Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Michael Szenberg and Lall Ramrattan, editors, Reflections of Eminent Economists. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004. xv + 459 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-84376-628-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr., Department of Economics, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Most of the essays in this collection were previously published between 1988 and 2001, as opening articles in issues of The American Economist, which Szenberg has long edited. The book contains a breathless introduction by Szenberg and Ramrattan, and a brief, more-restrained, but thoughtful foreword by Kenneth Arrow. I particularly enjoyed Arrow’s comments on the variety of motivations that productive economists have for doing economics.

Two related collections, edited or co-edited by Szenberg, pre-date this one. The 1991 Eminent Economists: Their Life Philosophies contained the autobiographies of twenty-two eminent economists, nine of whom have received the Nobel Prize. Passion and Craft: Economists at Work contained the autobiographies of twenty economists who were somewhere in the “middle” of their careers when they penned their essays before the book appeared in 1999.

The current book consists of twenty-six autobiographical alphabetically-arranged essays, by the following economists: I. Adelman, B. Balassa, C.S. Bell, B.R. Bergmann, M. Blaug, M. Bronfenbrenner, G. Chichilnisky, R.A. Easterlin, R.G. Ehrenberg, V.R. Fuchs, R.W. Garrison, E. Ginzberg, E.M. Gramlich, E.E. Hagen, G.C. Harcourt, E. Malinvaud, H.M. Markowitz, A.H. Meltzer, G.H. Moore, W.Y. Oi, M. Perlman, K.W. Rothschild, F.M. Scherer, J.L. Simon, H. Uzawa, and A. Walters. How much value you find in this book will depend partly on how many of these economists are important to you.

I found the most interesting essays to be those by Blaug, Bronfenbrenner, Perlman, Scherer and Simon. One reason may be that I had greater prior appreciation of the research of these scholars. But there are others on the list from whose work I have also benefited, including Easterlin, Ehrenberg, Fuchs, and Oi.

I think maybe the main reason the most interesting essays are most interesting is that their authors seem to be somewhat more reflective and revealing about their intellectual careers and personal experiences, and what lessons those experiences have for the profession as a whole, and novice scholars in particular. (Many of the less interesting essays are basic chronologies of where the economist went, who the economist encountered, and what the economist wrote.)

There is a restrained suggestion in the foreword, preface and introduction that the essays in the book might serve as evidence from which to inductively glean generalizations about what biographical and historical events encourage, discourage, or provide direction to intellectual activities. The essays do indeed sometimes suggest hypotheses about these sorts of issues.

But the essays would not be quite as useful for any sort of rigorous, Stiglerian statistical test of such hypotheses, in part because we are provided no information about the criteria for inclusion in the volume. I would like to have known how the editors decided who to invite to contribute to these essays? Did they consult citation rankings? What percent of the economists invited actually submitted essays? Were those eminent economists who were invited, and who submitted essays, a representative sample of the broader population of eminent economists in their religion, gender, and subfield of specialization?

About twenty percent of the essays (e.g., Blaug, Bronfenbrenner, Ginzberg, Scherer, and Simon) offer wise criticism of the over-mathematization of the economics profession. I personally would take heart if I thought that twenty percent of the broader population of eminent economists shared this concern. But alas, I suspect that those economists inclined to spend time in the kind of philosophical reflection requested for these essays may be a biased sample, where those not happy with current trends are over-represented. (On the mathematization issue, Blaug claims (p. 90) and Scherer presents evidence (pp. 396-97) that economics has become significantly more mathematical, and less empirical, than even physics, traditionally the hardest of the “hard” sciences.)

The editors hope the book will help novice economists make their way in the profession, and will provide useful source material to historians of economic thought. While some of the essays might, in fact, be useful to novices, it is doubtful if many novices will read the book. Some novices might be discouraged by the $125 price, though the $50 price of the paperback edition planned for publication in October 2005 may be slightly less imposing. However, most novices will probably focus most of their time on producing the research on which their careers depend, not on reflecting on the wisdom of their forebears.

If I am wrong and some young economists do pick up this book, I would most strongly recommend that they read the essays by Bronfenbrenner and Simon. The Bronfenbrenner essay is well-written, and, with superficial cynicism, but underlying idealism, offers sage, useful advice to novices. One example (p. 105): “Teaching, at or below the undergraduate level, is a common fate, often involuntary, for economists at some stage of their careers. Economists should therefore rid themselves, if they can, of the notion that such teaching is below their dignity, even if their ‘average students’ belong in universities only to the limited extent that deaf-mutes belong in the Metropolitan Opera.”

The essay by the late Julian Simon is another I would recommend to novices. Simon was an outlier in the problems he examined, the method he applied, and the conclusions he reached. His ability to continue to be productive in spite of a low level of professional recognition, may provide an example of what can be accomplished, if one has sufficient determination, and a sufficiently thick skin.

More likely to make use of the essays than novices are historians of economic thought interested in recent history. The essays also might prove useful for other purposes than those mentioned by the editors. For example, many of the authors focus a large part of their attention on their intellectual biography. Part of what they tell us is which of their publications were most important and what the central messages are of those publications. Thus, some of these essays offer a fairly palatable basic introduction to some of the literatures to which these significant economists contributed.

Arthur M. Diamond Jr.’s publications are mainly in the areas of labor economics, economics of science and the history of economic thought. He is currently working on several projects related to Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction. His most recent articles have focused on the contributions to the economics of science and technology of Edwin Mansfield, Zvi Griliches and George Stigler.