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The Political Economy of Textbook Writing: Paul Samuelson and the making of the first ten Editions of Economics (1945-1976)

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  • Yann Giraud

    ()
    (THEMA, Universite de Cergy-Pontoise)

Abstract

Over the past two decades, numerous contributions to the history of economics have tried to assess Paul Samuelson’s political positioning by tracing it in the subsequent editions of his famous textbook Economics. This literature, however, has provided no consensus about the location of Samuelson’s political ideas. While some authors believe that Samuelson has always had inclinations toward interventionism, others conclude that he more often acted as a pro-business advocate. The purpose of this paper is not to argue for one of these two interpretations but to depict the making of Economics itself as a political process. By ‘political’ it is not meant the conduct of party politics but the many political elements that a textbook author has to take into account if he wants to be published and favorably received. I argue that the “middle of the road” stance that Samuelson adopted in the book was consciously constructed by the MIT economist, with the help of his home institution and his publishing company, McGraw-Hill, to ensure both academic freedom and the success of the book. The reason for which the stance developed is related to pre-McCarthyist right-wing criticisms of the textbook and how Samuelson and the MIT department had to endure the pressures from members of the Corporation (MIT’s Board of Trustees), who tried to prevent the publication of the textbook and threatened Samuelson’s tenure at MIT as soon as 1947 – when early manuscripts were circulated. As a result, it was decided in accordance with both the Corporation and McGraw-Hill that the Readings volume would be published to balance conflicting ideas about state intervention. Following these early criticisms, the making of the subsequent editions relied on a network of instructors and referees all over the US in order to make it as successful and consensual as possible. This seemed to work quite well in the 1950s and for a good portion of the 1960s, until Economics became victim of its own success and was seen, in an ironical twist of fate, as a right wing text by younger, radical economists. From now on, Samuelson will try to have his book sent as often as possible to the radicals for referring process, with mixed results. Eventually, the book became criticized from both its left and its right.

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Paper provided by THEMA (THéorie Economique, Modélisation et Applications), Université de Cergy-Pontoise in its series THEMA Working Papers with number 2011-18.

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Date of creation: 2011
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Handle: RePEc:ema:worpap:2011-18

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Keywords: Paul Samuelson; Economics; Textbook; Politics; Economic Education;

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  1. Mark Skousen, 1997. "The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson's Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 11(2), pages 137-152, Spring.
  2. Jean-Baptiste Fleury, 2012. "The evolving notion of relevance: an historical perspective to the ‘economics made fun’ movement," Journal of Economic Methodology, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 19(3), pages 303-316, September.
  3. William A. Barnett & Paul A. Samuelson, 2004. "An Interview with Paul A. Samuelson," Method and Hist of Econ Thought 0405006, EconWPA.
  4. Samuels, Warren J., 2002. "Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science. By Philip Mirowski. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 655. $35.00, paper," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 62(03), pages 913-915, September.
  5. Samuelson, Paul A., 1987. "Out of the Closet: A Program For the Whig History of Economic Science: Keynote Address at History of Economics Society Boston Meeting, June 20, 1987," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press, vol. 9(01), pages 51-60, September.
  6. Barnett, William A. & Solow, Robert, 2000. "An Interview With Franco Modigliani," Macroeconomic Dynamics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 4(02), pages 222-256, June.
  7. Giraud, Yann B., 2010. "The Changing Place Of Visual Representation In Economics: Paul Samuelson Between Principle And Strategy, 1941–1955," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(02), pages 175-197, June.
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  1. These dangerous postmodern relativists, Part I: Merchants of doubt
    by yanngiraud in History of Economics Playground on 2011-11-15 13:37:06
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Cited by:
  1. Michel De Vroey & Pedro Garcia Duarte, 2012. "In Search of Lost Time: The Neoclassical Synthesis," Working Papers, Department of Economics 2012_07, University of São Paulo (FEA-USP).

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