Bookcase: Economics: A grand tale

• Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius
• By Sylvia Nasar
• Harper Collins
• RRP $64.99

For all the stick it gets, economics profoundly impact our world. Even those present at its birth back in the mid 19th century, like the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, called it “the dismal science”. Ironically, it was conceived as means of explaining process that might release all but tiny slither of the world’s population that was locked into life sentence of grinding poverty, deprivation and brutality.
Sylvia Nasar, storyteller of consummate skill, explains why and how economic thinking came to life. The woman has penchant for turning the most complex of topics into the most compelling stories. Her previous book, Beautiful Mind, is the biography of brilliant but schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr and was both best seller and successful movie.
Grand Pursuit: the story of economic genius is essentially an exposé of the way in which business productivity drives economic and social progress. But when Nasar introduces her tale through the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, you know this 550 pager (including notes) will enthral.
The birth of economics was, in large measure, induced by the investigative writings of British chroniclers like Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens. The most important ideas of modern times were hatched in the slums of London, created by Britain’s industrial revolution and an era of unprecedented growth. Dickens in particular believed money should become source of social good, rather than booty for the already enriched.
In telling her compelling tale of the works, thoughts, theories and consequences of the world’s most influential economic thinkers, Nasar explains how economics can, if properly deployed, avoid the economic disasters that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Her hero, if there is one, is the largely unsung British economist Alfred Marshall who lived from 1842 to 1924. But all the leading characters the economic mindset feature, from Karl Marx (for whom she has little time because he was lazy, never in his life even visited factory and was frequently stranger to factual reporting) and Friedrich Engels, to Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Joseph Schumpeter and others, developed the tools required to respond intelligently to world wars, revolutions, totalitarianism and other grand social upheavals.
Nasar is an economist turned writer. She has written for Fortune magazine and the New York Times. Her editorial skills, she is now the John S and James L Knight Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, bring this both important and highly topical historical account to life.
Some history books have such an impact on your understanding of things that you wonder why you hadn’t previously paid the topic more mind. Grand Pursuit enhanced my appreciation of the whys, hows and importance of economic thinking.

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