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He left his imprint on every field of economics

columns Updated: Dec 14, 2009 22:47 IST

Paul Samuelson’s death on Sunday marks the end of an era for the profession of economics. Born on May 15, 1915 in the small steel town of Gary, Indiana, in the United States, Samuelson straddled the 20th century like no other economist. Unlike John Maynard Keynes or John Nash, his name is not associated with one or two major breakthroughs. His hallmark was the fact that he straddled the length and breadth of the entire discipline,leaving his imprint on virtually every sub-field of economics — from macroeconomics to micro theory, from international trade, through public economics, to welfare economics.

But more important than all this is the fact that he transformed the methodology of economics by providing a rigorous mathematical foundation to the entire discipline. This he achieved in his most famous book, Foundations of Economic Analysis, a 600-page monograph crammed with calculus, which he completed in 1937 when he was 22. He was enamoured by science, describing it as “the most exciting game in the universe,” but recognised that the creative process is, in the end, the same, be it in music or literature. He wrote about the mystery of “how Mozart produced his music, Shakespeare his plays, Frost his short poems…”

I got to know Paul Samuelson well during 2001-02 when I was a visiting professor at MIT. I would pause every now and then at his office to chit-chat about things. He was into his grey years by then and seemed a bit lonely. His interests were voracious — from the intricacies of science to the lives of people and he liked to chat.

My last proper conversation with him was on May 15, 2002. I was photocopying something at MIT, when he stopped and said that it was his birthday that day. The Harvard Club would open a special champagne for him and he asked me if my wife and I would come to the Harvard Club. For an economist, that’s the equivalent of Einstein asking a physicist to dinner. I, of course, said yes, expecting lots of people there. It turned out to be a dinner with Samuelson, his charming wife Richa and the two of us. It was one of the most memorable evenings of my life. We — truth be told, mainly he —talked about art, history and, of course, economics.

The war delayed the publication of Foundations; it came out eventually in 1947. Unlike many other great scientists, whose works were recognised much after they came out or even after their deaths, Samuelson was lucky. His book was recognised immediately as a classic. He became full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 32. In 1966, he was honoured by MIT, being appointed Institute Professor. And in 1970 he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Unlike some other great economists of the last hundred years who wrote very few papers, Samuelson was unbelievably prolific, producing over 300 papers. He was also the author of the most widely sold textbook of economics — Economics. It has been translated into 40 languages and its total sales exceeded 4 million copies.

When I opened the newspaper on Monday, December 14, and read about his death, I was overwhelmed by memories of that evening of his birthday. It is indeed an end of an era for my profession.

(Kaushik Basu is Chief Economic Advisor to Government, Ministry of Finance, and C. Marks Professor of Economics at Cornell University.)