If Paul Samuelson, who died this weekend at the ripe age of 94, has been described in many obituaries as the greatest economist of the 20th century and the “founder of modern economics”, even though most professional economists would credit John Maynard Keynes with that title, it is because most students of economics around the world came to the discipline through his textbook. First published in 1948, Samuelson’s Economics: An Introductory Analysis ran into 19 editions over 60 years with 4 million copies sold in 40 languages. No student of economics has graduated without reading Samuelson. No policy-maker around the world would have missed one or the other of the scores of columns he wrote for Newsweek. In choosing to write a newspaper column even as he worked in MIT’s ivory tower, Samuelson underscored the importance of engaging public opinion in a discipline like economics. Apart from being the great populariser of the so-called “dismal science”, Samuelson was also a great synthesiser. He was the bridge between the two contending schools of modern economics — post-Keynesian and neo-classical economics — as well as the two strands of economics, macro and micro. Samuelson’s work touched every field of modern economics — micro, macro, growth theory, trade theory, welfare economics, public finance and so on. It was only natural that he became the first American economist to win the economics Nobel, after Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen, in the second year of the prize in 1970. Samuelson’s lucid presentation of the key ideas of modern macro and micro economics did more than anything else to establish the legitimacy of market economics in the post-War world. While Keynes provided the intellectual foundation for state intervention in a market economy, especially in the context of an economy in crisis, Samuelson created the intellectual environment for free market economics in an era of growth.
Samuelson’s combination of high theory and textbook economics made him a natural source of policy wisdom. He advised two US Presidents, including John Kennedy, and his students became key policy-makers across the world and in the most important economic institutions of the world. A major contribution of Samuelson was his conceptualisation of the theory of “public goods”, which he defined as “goods which (we) all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual’s consumption of that good”. In our increasingly inter-dependent world, public goods have emerged as major areas of policy concern both at the national and international level. In the week after Samuelson’s sad demise, the global community will be meeting in Copenhagen to create a framework for dealing with some important public goods like a clean environment. When policy-makers and students of economics take a view on some economic issue or another, they will be working with the tools created by Samuelson to understand, explain and change our world. That Samuelson dominated economics teaching with his textbook for more than half a century and will continue to do so for years to come will remain the best testimony to his intellectual stature.