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No. 2562:
Paul Samuelson and the Textbook Economics

Today, a book that helped educate the world. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Economists are mathematicians. They didn't used to be. It was sufficient to observe, think, and comment. But no longer. Economists must now have training in calculus and statistics. 

And one of the people most responsible was Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson. Samuelson wasn't the first to use mathematics in the study of economics. But he was instrumental in transforming an unrefined discipline into a respected social science.

Paul Samuelson picture

Samuelson's Nobel Prize speech gives us a sense of the mathematical scientist he was, with references to Galileo, Newton, Hamilton, Fermat, Einstein, and many others. His economic research frequently drew inspiration, and equations, from the science of thermodynamics.

Samuelson was an accomplished researcher. But to most of the world he's best known for his textbook, simply titled Economics. It's an introductory text, suitable for first year college students. So it doesn't have a lot of equations. The most important ideas are explained with simple graphs. But equations are always lurking in the background. Advanced students will later revisit these ideas in the language of mathematics. 

Economics book cover

The book Economics is now legendary. For a thirty year stretch starting in 1948, it seemed as though every college student was learning the principles of economics from Samuelson. That's an exaggeration, of course, but the numbers are impressive: sixty-one years in print, nineteen editions, over four million copies sold — and still going.

The numbers are especially impressive given that economists don't all agree on what an introduction to economics should cover. Samuelson's book has often been criticized for its emphasis on Keynesian economics — the idea that governments can, and should, take an active role in managing their economies. Samuelson frequently sparred with free market economist Milton Friedman in the pages of Newsweek. Samuelson did embrace Keynesianism. But he never worshiped at its alter. As he grew older, Samuelson expressed disapproval of big government. But he maintained that, when necessary, government must intervene to keep economies running smoothly. And as his perspectives evolved, so, too, did his textbook.

Economics has been translated into over twenty languages. It's influenced people world over. "What struck me most," wrote one Israeli economist, "was the realization that [it was possible to] think systematically about complex social phenomena and describe them in precise language. All this was new to me, and my fascination grew with every page."

It was a fascination brought to life for millions, thanks to the ingenuity of economist Paul Samuelson.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Economist Paul Samuelson Remembered. Transcript of a Robert Siegel interview of Paul Krugman. From the National Public Radio Web site: Accessed December 15, 2009.

E. Glaeser. Remembering Samuelson, Who Forever Fused Economics With Math. From the Economix blog site of the New York Times: Accessed December 14, 2009.

A. Gottesman, L. Ramrattan, and M. Szenberg. 2005. Samuelson's Economics: The Continuing Legacy. The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 8(2), pp. 95-104.

P. Samuelson and W. Nordhaus. Economics. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. The 11th edition, published in 1980, was the last edition Samuelson completed without a co-author.

P. Samuelson. Maximum Principles in Analytical Economics. Nobel Memorial Lecture, December 11, 1970.

M. Weinstein. Paul A. Samuelson, Economist, Dies at 94. New York Times, December 14, 2009.

The picture of Paul Samuelson is taken from Wikipedia.