In his column in yesterday’s NYT, Professor Paul Krugman rose to the defense of Paul Samuelson. He argued that Michael Hudson’s piece, originally published in 1970, not only misunderstood Samuelson’s theories but also wrongly asserted that he was not deserving of a Nobel. Krugman’s main argument was that Samuelson’s version of “Keynesian” economics offered a solution to depressions that pre-existing “institutionalist” theory did not have:
Faced with the Depression, institutional economics turned out to have very little to offer, except to say that it was a complex phenomenon with deep historical roots, and surely there was no easy answer. Meanwhile, model-oriented economists turned quickly to Keynes — who was very much a builder of little models. And what they said was, “This is a failure of effective demand. You can cure it by pushing this button.” The fiscal expansion of World War II, although not intended as a Keynesian policy, proved them right. So Samuelson-type economics didn’t win because of its power to cloud men’s minds. It won because in the greatest economic crisis in history, it had something useful to say.
This claim is bizarre, to say the least. First, Roosevelt’s New Deal was in place before Keynes published his General Theory, and it was mostly formulated by the American institutional economists that Krugman claims to have been clueless. (There certainly were clueless economists—those following the neoclassical approach, traced to English “political economy”.)
Second, it was Alvin Hansen, not Paul Samuelson, who brought Keynesian ideas to America. And Hansen retained the more radical ideas (such as the tendency to stagnation) that Samuelson dropped. Further, Hansen was—surprise, surprise—working within the institutionalist tradition (as documented by in a book by Perry Mehrling).
Third, many other institutionalists also adopted Keynesian ideas in their work—before Samuelson’s simplistic mathematization swamped the discipline. For example, Dudley Dillard—a well-known institutionalist—wrote the first accessible interpretation of Keynes in 1948; Kenneth Boulding’s 1950 Reconstruction of Economics served as the basis for four editions of his Principles book—on which a generation of American economists was trained (again, before Samuelson’s text took over). It is in almost every respect superior to Samuelson’s text. I encourage Professor Krugman to take a look.
Fourth, Hyman Minsky (who first trained with institutionalists at the University of Chicago—before it became a bastion of monetarist thought) took Samuelson’s overly simplistic multiplier-accelerator approach and extended it with institutional ceilings and floors. He quickly grew tired of the constraints placed on theory by Samuelsonian mathematics and moved on to develop his Financial Instability Hypothesis (which Krugman has admitted he finds interesting, even if he does not fully comprehend it). I ask you, how many analysts have turned to Samuelson’s work to try to understand the current crisis—versus the number of times Minsky’s work has been invoked?
And fifth, Samuelson’s “button” approach to dealing with the business cycle has been thoroughly discredited since the late 1960s—when he announced that we would never have another recession. In truth, as Minsky argued, it is not possible to “fine-tune” the economy because “stability is destabilizing”. The simplistic “Keynesian” approach propagated by the likes of Samuelson leaves out the behavioral and institutional analysis that is necessary to deal with instability and crisis.
Sixth, as has been long recognized, Samuelson purposely threw Keynes out of his analysis as he developed the “Neoclassical Synthesis”. The name dropping was intentional—Keynes was too radical for the cold warrior Samuelson. At best, what Samuelson presented was a highly bastardized version of Keynes—as Joan Robinson termed it, a Bastard Keynesian approach (we know the mother was neoclassical economics but we do not know who the father was).
Finally, and most telling of all, whose work is universally acknowledged as the most insightful analysis of the Great Depression? Might it be John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash? I have never heard anyone refer to any work of Samuelson in that context.
So Professor Krugman has got it wrong.
Disclaimer: This page contains affiliate links. If you choose to make a purchase after clicking a link, we may receive a commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!