14 Dec 2009

Paul Samuelson, RIP

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[UPDATE below.]

I should probably say something in light of the death of Paul Samuelson. Here’s a link to some Samuelson quotes (by and about), and here’s Mario Rizzo kicking a dead guy.

Others can list the numerous contributions Samuelson made to just about every field in mathematical economics; his output was really incredible. In just about every major topic, one of the early “seminal” papers was a Samuelson article.

Not only was Samuelson a workhorse, he was also a clever writer and could be a real wise*ss. For example, when arguing with people who kept insisting that a certain strategy was optimal in the face of uncertainty (it’s not), Samuelson grew so exasperated that he published a paper [.pdf] that ended like this:

No doubt some will say: ‘I’m not sure of my taste for risk. I lack a rule to act on. So I grasp at one that at least ends doubt: better to act to make the odds big that I win than to be left in doubt?’ Not so. There is more than one rule to end doubt. Why pick on one odd one? Why not try to come a bit more close to that which is not clear but which you ought to try to make more clear?

No need to say more. I’ve made my point. And, save for the last word, have done so in prose of but one syllable.

Two of my prized possessions are the referee reports for my publications (here and here) in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought. (If you’re curious to see the type of paper I’m talking about, the appendix of my dissertation [.pdf] gives you a flavor of the analysis in both JHET papers.) On both papers Samuelson disclosed his identity, and he wrote tons of comments all over the them, in pen.

The first paper he basically signed off on, though he had some reservations. The second paper though–which the title announced was a critique of Samuelson–his report said something like (paraphrasing), “The author has selected just four of my many papers on these topics; he has somehow managed to neglect my paper with Solow [1956] which gives the general framework and can handle each of these special cases which so fascinates the author. Yet let a dueler choose his weapon, and die by it: I recommend publication to be followed by a comment from me, explaining the errors even within the narrow scope he had burrowed for himself.”

I should emphasize the above is probably only 50% related to what Samuelson wrote; I haven’t read the report in years. But it was something like that, and it was simply hilarious. It was the cockiest referee report you could imagine; the idea that Paul Samuelson needed to make sure the editor of JHET realized this punk kid from Hillsdale College was an idiot.

I know how narcissistic this sounds, but when I saw that report I really really hoped Samuelson would write his response before he died. Well too late. The editor of the paper told me Samuelson hadn’t written a reply after a few months, and then when my paper actually came out, I mailed a hard copy to Samuelson’s secretary, hoping to goad him into firing off a reply. Ah well. Note that I’m not saying he chickened out, but I’d like to think he decided, “Argh, this kid’s mistakes are so subtle that it would take too long to straighten them out. Let me rip Hayek’s legacy instead.”

Now the reason Samuelson was called on to referee my first paper (dealing with Bohm-Bawerk’s critique of the “naive productivity theory of interest” and the Solow growth model) is that he was probably one of the three people on the planet who really could have refereed it. There are a lot of people who know Bohm-Bawerk’s work, and there are a lot of people who understand neoclassical models where the real interest rate equals the partial derivative of the production function with respect to K, but there aren’t too many people who are expert enough in both to be able to tell if I’m a genius or an idiot. (The verdict is still out, btw.) Samuelson was one of those people.

In fact, Samuelson’s reswitching paper has a beautiful numerical illustration of the Austrian approach to capital. Obviously Samuelson thinks he’s blowing up Menger and Bohm-Bawerk with the paper, but if you really take the time to understand his model, it’s really cool. I don’t know how the heck he came up with such nice round numbers for the example; it’s beautiful.

Last point: Samuelson bluffed a lot, or at the very least, he was really sloppy. He would “casually” drop allusions to mathematical theorems or things from physics that weren’t quite right. My two favorite examples:

(1) In one paper he was lauding some earlier thinker, and said something like, “His contributions were countably finite.” I don’t know what the heck that is supposed to mean. If a set is infinite then it can be either countable or uncountable; e.g. the real numbers in the interval (0, 1) are uncountable, whereas the positive integers 0, 1, 2, … are infinite but countable. So I think Samuelson was trying to make a geek math joke and just botched it.

(2) In another paper (I think it was a different paper) Samuelson started off with a completely unnecessary tangent recapitulating the proof that there are an infinite number of primes. Problem was, his proof was wrong! I was in grad school reading the paper, and showed it to the Turkish guy next to me. “That’s not a proof, right?” He laughed and agreed with me. I wonder if the journal editor realized it and didn’t want to challenge the prima donna, or if he didn’t even notice.

UPDATE: In the comments Taylor confirmed my claim that Samuelson bluffed in mathematics: He can’t even count! Look more closely at the excerpt from above, regarding the allegedly monosyllabic journal article.

That makes me wonder how many polysyllabic words are actually in that thing. But I’m not checking, as the editor(s) didn’t either.

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