The Vulgarity of Sylvia Nasar’s Beautiful Mind

Sylvia Nasar—author of A Beautiful Mind and, more recently, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius—was interviewed this past weekend by the New York Times Book Review.

This particular exchange made my jaw drop.

What’s the best book about economics you’ve ever read? The worst? 

There are so many great ones, but these are exquisite: “John Maynard Keynes,” by Robert Skidelsky. “Bankers and Pashas,” by David Landes. “The House of Rothschild,” by Niall Ferguson. “Economic Sentiments,” by Emma Rothschild. “Poverty and Compassion,” by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Worst? To be worst it would have to have had a wide following, because otherwise who cares? I suppose “Das Kapital,” by Marx; “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” by Engels; and “Mein Kampf,” by Hitler.

There you have it: Niall Ferguson is “exquisite”; Marx is placed on the shelf next to Hitler.  And since when, by the way, is Mein Kampf a book about economics?


  1. Cyryl August 14, 2012 at 1:10 am | #

    Her opinion of the working class must be low that for her reading about their suffering is like reading that rants of lunatic, while reading about bankers and their lives is exquisite.

    Honestly she just seems like another cog in the malcolm gladwell-industrial complex of pseudo intellectual bs.

    • Philip Wohlstetter August 14, 2012 at 1:49 am | #

      Does anyone believe she’s ever read Das Kapital? Most of the airy dismissers of Marx have usually only read the Manifesto in college and on that basis feel themselves qualified to pronounce. True confession: I belonged to this category myself until two years ago when I spent five months reading through volume one with a group. Here are a few sentences from it I bequeath to Sylvia Nasar. They are worth more than most of the books she cites. “The production process appears as an unavoidable middle term, a necessary evil for the purpose of money-making. (This explains why all nations characterized by the Capitalist mode of production are periodically seized by fits of giddiness in which they try to accomplish the money-making without the mediation of the production process.)” Sound familiar?

  2. Foppe August 14, 2012 at 1:37 am | #

    If only she weren’t irrelevant herself. But oh dear does that book of hers sound ideological:

    In a sweeping narrative, the author of the megabestseller A Beautiful Mind takes us on a journey through modern history with the men and women who changed the lives of every single person on the planet. It’s the epic story of the making of modern economics, and of how economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.

    I would bet that any social-economic historian could make minced meat out of that thesis; there were huge demographic push-factors involved in the move towards factory labor etc., while I doubt the “iron law of wages” had to be “discovered” before owners felt confident that they could gouge their workers, and extract as much labor as possible, for as low a price as possible. I’m sure economic theorizing influenced the specific choices made, but the general trend? Don’t make me cry.
    As for more recent “history”, there’s any number of people who have already explained why her thesis is at best ‘uninformed’.

  3. Foppe August 14, 2012 at 2:01 am | #

    Ah, apparently I gave too broad a reading to the above quote. Having said that, her total rejection of Marx/engels as “bad” seems difficult to reconcile with this point, as described by justin fox

    In the hundred years from 1850 to 1950, economists progressed from fatalistically explaining why most of humanity was condemned to poverty or worse (theirs was the “dismal” science, Thomas Carlyle wrote) to doing something about it. One early hero of Nasar’s tale is Alfred Marshall, the 19th-century English economist who not only gave us the supply-and-­demand charts that still dominate Economics 101 classes but was the first to describe how rising industrial productivity could create higher living standards for all. Another is Beatrice Webb, an English railroad magnate’s daughter who made the case for a welfare state that would even out some (but not all) of the inequalities arising from capitalist growth.

    (Marshall was born in 1842. Who does she think forced him and his discipline to reject ‘fatalistic explanation’ and the like, and talk more about issues of social justice? Oh, well… Also, per fox, “Joan Robinson, whose infatuation with Communism is recounted in perplexing detail”.)
    And here’s a nice quote to rile up Steve Keen with..

    But they weren’t so sure that economists couldn’t come up with solutions. Schumpeter was mentor at Harvard to Samuelson, who became a great expositor of Keynes’s ideas, while Hayek befriended Keynes and in Nasar’s telling had come around by the 1940s to embracing at least a few Keynesian prescriptions.

    As Keen puts it,

    Paul Samuelson is the major economist responsible for aborting Keynes’s Revolutionary general theory argument that the cause of unemployment is nested in the operation of financial markets and the demand for liquidity on the part of savers. …
    Thus Samuelson, who proclaimed himself as the chief Keynesian after the war, promolgated a false basis for Keynes’s theory– and in ascribing rigidity of prices and wages as the cause of unemployment made his brand of ‘Keynesianism’ an easy target for peole like Milton Friedman. The result was Keynes’s policies were killed by Friedman et al and politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher were able to paraded out Nobel Prize winning monetarists, etc as strong advocates for their free market philosophy.

  4. Themistocles August 14, 2012 at 2:26 am | #

    Funnily enough, Marx skewered Ferguson, Rothschild, Himmelfarb and the rest of their ilk 165 years ago in ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’:

    “Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions.

    In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations – the relations of bourgeois production – are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature.

    These relations therefore are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any. There has been history, since there were the institutions of feudalism, and in these institutions of feudalism we find quite different relations of production from those of bourgeois society, which the economists try to pass off as natural, and as such, eternal.”

    • wohlstet August 14, 2012 at 11:11 am | #

      Great quote. “There has been history.” And there will be more of it. Precisely what the discourse of pure economics denies (not to mention Fukuyama circa 1990’s). Rothschild’s book is an attempt to put Smith in a historical context. Other books (Ferguson) try to use history to naturalize the market.

  5. Frank Moraes August 14, 2012 at 4:15 am | #

    It does seem the list of a reactionary mind. However, Skidelsky’s book is excellent.

    Good point made in the comment above that she probably hasn’t read Capital. Of course Mein Kampf isn’t an economics book; it was thrown in to link it to Marx and Engels.

    • wohlstet August 15, 2012 at 2:37 am | #

      Strictly speaking, Das Kapital isn’t an economics book either. It’s not even Political Economy (which would be a great advance on our current market fundamentalism which writes off politics as an externality while using state power to create that artificial monster called ‘the free market’. It’s a “Critique of Political Economy”: a critique in the Kantian sense laying out the conditions of possibility for a certain form of thought. What a philosophically naive economics profession takes for granted, he interrogates.

  6. Cavoyo August 14, 2012 at 5:25 am | #

    Second paragraph of the first chapter of Mein Kampf: “German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place.” Sounds like a work of economics to me!

  7. brahmsky August 14, 2012 at 8:29 am | #

    This middle-brow market fundamentalism is really out of control since 2008. Don’t you miss the real neocons, now? At least they respect Marx!

  8. Paul H. Rosenberg August 14, 2012 at 9:19 am | #

    Just sounds like a dunderhead to me. I’m sure she doesn’t understand Economic Sentiments, for example, which argues that Condorcet and Smith were radicals in their time–just as Marx took Smith in particular to be. They were selectively appropriated as liberal icons by the British merchant class only after Napoleon was defeated. This helps explain the considerable gap between Smith’s writings and his reputation. This is all of a piece with the various other comments above–Nasar knows nothing about what she writes. Not Smith, not Marx, not Keynes, nor anyone influenced by them.

    • wohlstet August 14, 2012 at 11:15 am | #

      Yes. Actually reading Smith (rather than citing him) is not something that the right bothers with. They read Friedman or Hayek, no? I don’t think they read Schumpeter either though they love to talk about entrepreneurs and creative destruction.

      • Carl August 23, 2012 at 4:05 pm | #

        yeah “the right” never bother reading Smith. By “the right” you mean Bill O’Reilly, right? Sometimes I wonder if “the right” is just a fiction cooked up the left. The enemy must continue to somehow mobilise long after the political war has ended. A zombie is useful for this purpose, so why not call Bill O’Reilly “right-wing”?

  9. FM August 14, 2012 at 10:56 am | #

    this will probably clarify things a bit for those interested in economic thought:

  10. Glenn August 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm | #

    Only a right wing extremist could find the mind of a right wing psychotic, such as was Nash, to be beautiful. Or the Rand Corporation funded game theory studies that mathematically justify mutual assured destruction, but leave the question of the individual’s humanitarian inclinations with respect to the rest of humanity untouched, primarily because it is not mathematically reducible to an algorithm. How can terror be quantified? Does the quantity zero out with the death of the terrified?

    Lord Kelvin, from Stephen A. Marglin’s, The Dismal Science: We know only what can be measured. Economics moves from epistemology to ontology.

  11. Benedict@Large August 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm | #

    Nasar was on Cspan’s BookTV when Grand Pursuit first came out. It was the worst author interview I’ve ever watched. Tried to watch, that is. It was too painful to see it through to the end.

  12. Jim Fisher August 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm | #

    Marx was a drunktards idiot who needed the constant help of Engels because He was too busy jerking off in the British Museum too help his starving family

    • Jim Fisher August 14, 2012 at 10:00 pm | #

      Oh and Marx belived in the Labor theory of labor

      Newsflash for you leftists: the LTV is WRONG,every fucking economist is a marginalist now

      no LTV—-> “exploitation” doesn’t exist

      • Broletarian August 15, 2012 at 12:25 am | #

        Even if we grant your givens, the conclusion is invalid.

      • Bill Murray August 16, 2012 at 10:11 pm | #

        I think you mean every wrong fucking economist is a marginalist now. Which is not to say the LTV is correct, but it’s no worse than neo-classical economics

    • Broletarian August 15, 2012 at 12:19 am | #

      “too help”. Oh lawd.

      • jonnybutter August 15, 2012 at 9:28 am | #

        What’s the ‘labor theory of labor’? What is a ‘drunktards’? What is a ‘Jim Fisher’?

      • Jim Fisher August 15, 2012 at 12:55 pm | #

        classic leftist idiocy…focus on a spelling mistake because you can’t bear i’m right and you left…ehm…wrong

      • jonnybutter August 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm | #

        focus on a spelling mistake

        ‘Labor theory of labor’ isn’t a spelling mistake. Look buddy, you are the one calling one of the most influential Western thinkers ‘a drunktards’. Get a clue morans!

  13. Paul S August 15, 2012 at 10:10 am | #

    Notice that her list of best economics books are books about personalities (one economist and some bankers). She doesn’t even list the General Theory! She is a gossip columnist. She idolizes the power of personality; she can’t help herself but to be a right-winger. Sydney Hook suffered the same mental disorder – blaming all historical evil, including Hitler, on the dangerous power of Lenin’s personality, and careened far rightward after starting on the left. A handful of leftists at the time (like George Novak) pointed out that a leftist framework does not permit this kind of excessive overvaluation of personality, even in a negative way.

  14. Jim Fisher August 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm | #

    Ayn Rand>>>Will Wilkinson>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Corey Robin>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>KArl Marx


  15. Carl August 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm | #

    I wish both left and right would stop pathologising their opponents. It may seem that your opinion is invincibly true and pure and righteous but you have to remember THAT’S WHAT THEY THINK ABOUT THEIR OPINION. The medicalisation of dissent – that was a favourite tactic of Stalin, remember? And no, that’s not a dig at “the left” merely because I referenced Stalin. God, when did it all become so frothing at the mouth hysterical?

  16. Lara November 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm | #

    If I remember rightly her chapter on Marx is HILARIOUS. She can’t quite come out & say what she thinks. She makes a real point of him being fat.

    One day when I’m feeling languid I’m going to review that book. Maybe some day when the world has totally moved on 🙂

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