A Note: The Paul Samuelson Papers

I’m currently visiting the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. Duke’s library has been collecting the papers of famous economists for a number of years now, and the jewel of the collection, surely, are the Paul Samuelson papers, which I’m told are, by a great margin, the most popular collection in the entire Rare Books and Manuscripts department. I’ve been spending my lunches flipping through Paul’s work – despite 300 published papers, he nonetheless has many more fascinating unpublished papers, including a digression of various labor theories of value that really ought to be published somewhere given the frequent confusion of economists, both mainstream and Marxist, about that concept.

But most interesting are the correspondence, of which Samuelson appears to keep everything. Here are some of the more interesting lines.

On Joan Robinson and Marxists: Joan Robinson once said that the problem with Marxists is that, when you ask them whether constant capital is meant to be a stock or a flow, they respond, “Isn’t Marx a genius?”

On contrition: “You are right; I misspoke; I owe you a drink; I am ashamed.” This lovely triple-semicoloned sentence is not the result of, say, costing a friend a job, but rather a note to Uzawa about a minor technicality in the proof of a turnpike theorem!

On (weakly) efficient markets: “In sum, I am prone to believe in irrationality. But the organized markets do not give me much to bear out this belief. It is harder to play Keynes’ game than to look for fundamentals. Just try to guess which beauty contestant the others will find beautiful; often, the best you can do is look for those you think to be actually prettiest.”

On the role of economic proofs, in a letter to Samuelson from Arrow: “Necessary and sufficient conditions are not always useful.”

We also learn in a letter than Samuelson was told by all of his Chicago professors to go to Columbia, which though dominated by institutionalists, was a better home for a PhD student than Schumpeter’s Harvard. Perhaps we can apply Acemoglu’s Reversals of Fortune to economics departments: in the 1930s, Cambridge was on top, and Columbia was the graduate school of Arrow, Friedman, and almost Samuelson (though Friedman and, especially, Arrow spent much of their time either trying to get the department to offer more theory, or else taking classes in the mathematics department with Harold Hotelling!

If you are down in Carolina, it is well worth checking out Samuelson’s archives. It appears they only need a day’s notice to dig any particular set of documents up for you.

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