Peek-a-boo

Paul Krugman had some thoughts on the life of Paul Samuelson. Michael Perelman’s 2007 book The Confiscation of American Prosperity had an interesting detail on Samuelson, in the context of how the American right-wing, via powerful foundations, sought to wrest full control over the discipline of economics:

Samuelson’s Keynesian-oriented book had become the most popular introductory book in the United States after the right wing succeeded in pressuing schools to withdraw support for Lorie Tarshis’s earlier textbook. The Veritas Foundation was a leader in this effort . A commentator in the right-wing Educational Reviewer asked: “Now if (1) Marx is communistic, (2) Keynes is partly Marxian, and (3) Samuelson is Keynesian, what does that make Samuelson and others like him? The answer is clear: Samuelson and the others are mostly part Marxian socialist or communist in their theories”.

Later, long after becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for economics, Samuelson recalled, “having tasted blood in trying to root the Tarshis text out of colleges everywhere, some of the same people turned toward my effort”. Samuelson succeeded at defending his work, but at a serious cost. In a 1977 lecture, Samuelson described how he felt compelled to go to great lengths to make his book less controversial:

if you were a teacher at many a school and the Board of Regents of your university was on your neck for using subversive textbooks, it was no laughing matter. Many months were involved in preparing mimeographed documentation of misquotations on the part of critics and so forth. Make no mistake about it, intimidation often did work in the short run…My last wish was to have an intransigent formulation that would be read by no one…As a result I followed an Aesopian policy of paying careful attention to every criticism of every line and word of my text…In a sense this careful wording achieved its purpose: at least some of my critics were reduced to complaining that I played peek-a-boo with the reader and didn’t come out and declare my true meaning. (Samuelson 1977, 870-22)

Ironically, Samuelson has a long history of antagonism to Marxian ideas, but tarring him with such labels was effective. Many of the leading Keynesian economists in the United States soon learned to shield themselves from the taint of socialism. Either because they succumbed to the anticommunist climate of the day or because they feared they had no chance of stimulating the economy through productive government spending.

I would shy away from any parallel between the situation in the United States of the 60s and 70s and present-day Ireland, not least because the situation of economics in Ireland at the moment, and how economic questions are in turn represented in political circles and in Irish media, with particular ideas maintaining dominance, is in part a product of the victories won by the American right during that period and beyond. There is no well-funded horde of economic flak merchants out to intimidate Irish economists so that their writing falls into line with the interests of big business, because there is simply no need for such a thing, any more than Ireland needs cloud seeding to ensure more rain. And the media usually just jumps into line with the same interests, in the quiet moments when it does not serve these interests relentlessly.

At the same time, there’s no direct line to be drawn between the red scaremongering of the past driven by big business interests in the US and, for instance, the declared fears of an Irish tax fugitive billionaire, who as early as 2000 saw Ireland on the path to a communist state, and whose radio station, North Korea-style, issued hourly exhortations for across the board reductions in living standards in the run up to the recent budget. Ireland already had a rich tradition of anti-communist paranoia, established and maintained by the Church, in collaboration with its partners in government.

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