By WSJ Staff
Paul A. Samuelson, whose analytical work laid the foundation for modern economics,died Sunday. He was 94. Actively publishing into the 2000s, Mr. Samuelson’s career in economics spanned eight decades. In 1970, he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics, the second year the prize was offered.The following are some remembrances of Mr. Samuelson:
Lawrence Summers, nephew of Mr. Samuelson, director of the White House National Economic Council, former Treasury Secretary:
“Above all else, Paul Samuelson was a scholar. He used to proudly remark that he had never spent a full week in Washington. But through his research, teaching, and writing he had more impact on the economic life of this country and the world than any government economic official and many presidents. We will not see his likes again.”
Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman, MIT PhD:
“Paul Samuelson was both a path-breaking and prolific economic theorist and one of the greatest teachers that economics has ever known. I join with many other former students and colleagues of Paul’s in mourning the passing of a titan of economics.”
Robert Lucas, Nobel Prize winner, University of Chicago Professor. (Excerpted from his memoir):
“Samuelson was the Julia Child of economics, somehow teaching you the basics and giving you the feeling of becoming an insider in a complex culture all at the same time. I loved the Foundations. Like so many others in my cohort, I internalized its view that if I couldn’t formulate a problem in economic theory mathematically, I didn’t know what I was doing. I came to the position that mathematical analysis is not one of many ways of doing economic theory: It is the only way. Economic theory is mathematical analysis. Everything else is just pictures and talk.”
George Akerlof, Nobel Prize winner, MIT PhD, Berkeley professor:
When I was at MIT in the 1960’s Paul Samuelson was far and away the leading economist in the country. He was the leading adviser to the Kennedy administration, the leading economic theorist and also the author of the leading elementary textbook. Yet he also found time to be tremendously involved in the MIT economics PhD program. He always kept his door open and attended such events as the department picnic.
Samuelson was also incredibly efficient, and, as students, we used to receive pink slips, which were pink memos, with some thought of his in our mailboxes. When I wrote about his participation in the program and his interaction with all the students in a commemorative volume for him some years later, I received one of his pink slips, which said, “Thank you for the comments. I had never thought of myself as Mr. Chips.” He may not have thought of himself that way, but of course he was.
I also remember taking a course from him where he discussed, in the spring of 1964, a long time before (Milton) Friedman and (Edmund) Phelps became famous for it, the natural rate (of employment) hypothesis. Samuelson thought that there might be some truth to it, but thought that if it were not true that believing it would do great harm. Governments would then keep employment low because of unfounded fears of accelerating inflation. Samuelson was way ahead of his time, not just in considering the natural rate (of employment) hypothesis, but also in appreciating that it might not be true.
Robert Hall, Stanford professor, head of the recession dating committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, MIT PHd:
“Paul Samuelson created modern economics, in that he brought rigorous thinking to a field that had relied on mostly verbal and graphical analysis up to his time. His book, Foundations of Economic Analysis, was a bible to my generation of economists, trained entirely in the then-new Samuelson mode. He was my economic theory instructor in 1964 and he and I taught the course together when I returned to MIT as a junior faculty member in 1970.
“Paul emanated good humor and affection and induced the same in his friends and colleagues. I particularly remember his interest in my children. Offspring were totally out of fashion among the young faculty in the early 1970s, but Paul always wanted to know about mine. Some of this rubbed off on the kids, apparently, as my daughter chose MIT for her PhD in, of course, economics. She did not have Paul as a teacher, but the great majority of her teachers were pupils of his.
“Paul did not indulge some of my more heterodox economic thinking. Once, appointed as discussant of a paper of mine on monetary policy, he opened by saying, “I have this to say about Hall’s idea: It is not the worst way to run monetary policy.” I later came to realize that he was right.
Avinash Dixit, Princeton Professor, MIT PhD:
“It is indeed sad, and it is difficult to imagine the profession without him. In every decade since the 1930s he made pathbreaking contributions, any one of which would have been the pride of someone else’s whole career.
“For me it is a special bereavement. My whole style of research, and the techniques that support almost all of my own papers, derive from his foundational articles. The whole idea of modeling full equilibrium of a specific applied context lies behind my work with Joe Stiglitz on monopolistic competition and with Victor Norman on international trade. As to the techniques I learned from him and used: comparative statics of constrained optimization, the correspondence principle and the envelope theorem, factor price equalization in international trade, valuation of real options, the list could go on.”
MIT economist and National Bureau of Economic Research president James Poterba
There’s just an enormous amount of what every undergraduate learns that we take for granted that Paul played an absolutely critical role in codifying and uncovering. It’s like trying to envision how did people do mechanics before Newton. The rigor that he introduced has defined the discipline.
He had an unbelievably deep love for economics that just pervaded everything he did. He was really concerned about getting it right. Economics is not just a (mental) game, it’s something you do because it really matters.
He was immensely interested in knowing what the young researchers were doing because he was always trying to stay at the forefront. In my first days at MIT, Paul came overr and found me and said, “So you’re the new guy here, what are you working on.” I was incredibly scared and flattered to find that Paul was interested in what the new assistant economics professor on the block was doing.