Robert Merton Solow (1924-2023)

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Who has been the most influential economist of the post-World War II era?

Setting aside John Maynard Keynes, who died in 1946, the first candidate who comes to mind is Paul Samuelson, the MIT academic who did more than anyone to transform economic theory into an icy-clear discipline, as well as who wrote the exceptionally accessible textbook that introduced modern economics to millions of college students. And these days a lot of folks would make the case for Milton Friedman, who resurrected conservative economics and convinced a skeptical world that free markets, for all their formidable shortcomings, could deliver the goods where socialism could not. I think, though, a strong case can be made for a dark horse in the race: Robert Solow, another MIT economist who directed policymakers’ eyes to the true prize, the dominant role of technological change in driving economic growth across the modern era.

Bob Solow died in December at the age of 99. And if you want to read a fine obituary that covers all the bases (including his puckish sense of humor), I recommend the one in The New York Times. But I would like to add my two cents to honor a person who was as charming as he was gifted, as generous as he was accomplished. 

You can read elsewhere in detail about his intellectual accomplishments, which nabbed him a John Bates Clark medal (1961), a Nobel Prize (1999) and a Presidential Medal of Freedom (2014). My own guess is that his most enduring achievement in a profession not especially known for collegiality was the nurturing of a generation of superbly productive economists, among them George Akerlof, Alan Blinder, Peter Diamond, Bill Nordhaus and Joe Stiglitz. Indeed, he set the tone that made MIT the preeminent graduate school in economics for decades.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with me, Peter Passell (apologies to Al Franken). Very little, I assure you. But he did favorably review in The New York Times a book I co-authored long ago and far away. Like a lot of authors, we had about a 100 pages of stuff worth saying, but then had to add enough to justify a $6.95 hardback. Too honest to ignore the landfill, Solow wrote:

The rest of the book consists of discussions of inflation and the balance of payments. They are dragged in rather by the scruff of the neck because, after serving the meat and potatoes, [the authors] evince a certain tendency to want to discuss the kitchen sink.

Gosh, I miss Bob Solow.

— Peter Passell 

main topic: In Memoriam