Book Review  

Book Review: The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help us Today

Book Review: The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help us Today

Book review: The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help us Today by Linda Yueh.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, economists have been under the harsh spotlight of public scrutiny.

Even the Queen, who usually does not comment on public policy, spoke for many when she asked: "Why did nobody notice it?" during a visit to the London School of Economics.

This book, by Ms Yueh, can be viewed as an attempt to ask the greatest economists of the past to help us find a solution to the current economic challenges such as weak growth, deindustrialisation, large trade deficits and how to spur innovation, with a focus on UK economy but also the US and China. 

For each of these challenges, Ms Yueh identifies an expert among the leading economists whose theories or ideas have shaped the way we think and are considered essential in our understanding of economics. The experts include everyone from Adam Smith to David Ricardo, Joan Robinson and Milton Friedman.

Each chapter is organised in a similar fashion. First, the great economist is presented with a short biography, then his or her main works and ideas are described in an easy-to-digest fashion.

Second, the selected challenge is described in great detail together with the solution under discussion or already implemented, followed by their – often unsuccessful – outcomes.

Finally, a sort of impossible interview takes place, where the author’s exercise is to show what Adam Smith would have recommended in that particular situation. 

The style is engaging and takes the readers through key elements of the economic challenges we currently face, with the support of data and international comparisons.

Readers will certainly enjoy learning about the economists, as many of them lived quite unconventional lives.

Nonetheless, sometimes the impossible interviews may seem to put the experts in an unfair position. Clearly, they do not provide us with a solution. The world in which they lived shaped their thoughts and ideas, but from those ideas many generations of economists have been able to extract the fundamental mechanisms and convert them into up-to-date policies.

Without taking into account this progression, those ideas may seem less powerful than they are, if not even useless.

This constant conversion is, in itself, one of the main challenges we currently face, as the complexity of modern economies, the speed of the digital revolution and radical changes in cultural and political values make us wonder whether we have lost our compass to navigate through economic challenges or we just need to learn how to navigate unexplored new routes.

Dr Angela Gallo is Marie Curie Research Fellow, Cass Business School. Reviewed by Penguin UK.