Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marx, Maynard, and Dr. Dick

"Economic reading, by popular hearsay, is a veritable desert of dusty prose. In all honesty, much of it is. The student of economics must be prepared for long journeys without a single refreshing sentence; it takes the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint to finish some of the great texts." Robert L. Heilbroner

Perhaps the coolest teacher I ever had was Dr. Dick at Westminster College.  He didn't look like any teacher I'd known before.  His beard was trimmed but his hair was past his shoulders, and he wore shorts with Birkenstock sandals and a rather loud shirt – untucked, of course.  Honestly, he looked a bit scruffy.  And he had this funny smirk on his face – all the time!  I first thought he must be an aide or something, but then he took roll and started lecturing.  And he made Intro to Macroeconomics one of the most entertaining classes ever!  I still have one of the books from that class over twenty years ago: The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner, and recently decided to read it (I must not have read it in class, or maybe we only had to read a small part because I found my notes in only one chapter).

Heilbroner looks at the great economists from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (whom Dr. Dick preferred to call "Maynard," with emphasis), and some of the not-so-great ones as well.  And he truly tells you about their "lives, times and ideas" and makes the history come alive.  Not only do you learn about Smith's "Invisible Hand" and supply and demand but also how he'd sometimes go into these trances where he'd end up marching for hours before coming out of it!  And you learn about Maynard's – oops! – Keynes' dalliances with men as well as his insights into economic depressions.  But there's also some of the nuts like Robert Owen, Henry George, and Thorstein Veblen.  And, of course, there's Karl Marx.

The section on Marx is probably my favorite because Heilbroner makes you see the world Marx and his theories came from – as well as how often he was right!  He also points out that Marx "was not the architect of actual socialism" – that was Lenin – and it's so insightful that it makes me want to read Capital and maybe even The Communist Manifesto!  In fact, the whole book was utterly fascinating (and ought to be required reading for all those who blindly sing the praises of capitalism and ignore the failings) and I highly recommend it.  My copy is from 1986 and it would be interesting to see what he'd thought of the collapse of communism just a few years later (maybe there's an update in a later edition?).  Heilbroner doesn't just explain economic ideas or even merely put them into context, he does it in a way that entertains – no need for "the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint" with this book.  Many times he even made me laugh!  It was almost as if I were back in Dr. Dick's classroom, and I even thought I could hear him laughing along with me.

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