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Originally published Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Book review

Sylvia Nasar's 'Grand Pursuit' devalued by errors

"Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius," is a vividly narrated tour through the intellectual discipline of economics by "A Beautiful Mind" author Sylvia Nasar, but it doesn't break new ground on the subject.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius'

by Sylvia Nasar

Simon & Schuster, 558 pp., $35

Nearly 60 years ago, Robert Heilbroner wrote "The Worldly Philosophers," a breezy yet intellectually serious tour through nearly two centuries of economic thought. Heilbroner's approach, showing how great economic thinkers' ideas grew out of their lives and times, has proved exceedingly popular: His book went through seven editions (and is still in print), sold nearly 4 million copies, and has saved several generations of hapless undergraduates from flunking Econ 101.

Now Sylvia Nasar, author of "A Beautiful Mind," the biography of mathematician John Nash that was made into the film of the same name, has come out with "Grand Pursuit," covering much of the same ground Heilbroner did in half again as many pages. Despite much fascinating detail and patches of vivid writing, Nasar's book won't replace Heilbroner's as the go-to introduction to economic history.

Classical economists, starting with Adam Smith, had assumed that nine of every 10 people on the planet would continue to, as Edmund Burke wrote, "drudge through life." "Two thousand years of history," Nasar writes, "convinced them that the bulk of humanity had as much chance of escaping its fate as prisoners of a penal colony surrounded by a vast ocean had of escaping theirs."

She begins her story in the 1840s, when this fatalistic — indeed, literally, Malthusian — mindset began, at least in Great Britain, to give way to the notion that the Industrial Revolution might enable people to unchain themselves from scarcity and want. Starting with Victorians such as Marx, Mill and Marshall, Nasar attempts to link them to successive generations of economists who grappled with the promises and challenges of industrial-era capitalism.

We meet the big names — Keynes, Hayek, Schumpeter — as well as some less well-remembered figures (Irving Fisher, Beatrice Webb, Joan Robinson). We learn that Milton Friedman, of all people, created the system of paycheck withholding that turned the income tax into "an enormously powerful revenue-raising machine," and that when Fisher wasn't busy writing or lecturing he invented a precursor of the Rolodex.

However, Nasar's narrative really doesn't kick in until a third of the way into the book, when in the aftermath of World War I her main characters start interacting directly with one another. Indeed, she might have been better off starting there, as some of the earlier chapters seem almost like digressions.

More crucially, Nasar's book doesn't contain any new revelations or provocative reinterpretations of her chosen thinkers. And her efforts to link their personal and intellectual lives occasionally produce clunkers like this: "In the midst of the (Panic of 1907), Joseph Alois Schumpeter, gentleman, and Gladys Ricarde-Seaver, spinster, quietly tied the knot in a registry office near Paddington Station. By the time the discount rate reached 7 percent for the first time in forty years, the newlyweds had left for Cairo, Egypt."

Worse, the book has an irritating number of typos and factual errors. While Felix Frankfurter was an assistant to two secretaries of war, he never held the post himself. Alfred North Whitehead, not Albert, co-wrote "Principia Mathematica." The British Labour politician was Michael Foot, not Foote. And she mistakes Harold Macmillan (a Conservative prime minister) for Harold Wilson (a Labour PM).

Such errors might be forgiven if the rest of the book were stronger or had more to say that hasn't been said before. Alas, it isn't and doesn't.

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

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