Friday, May 25, 2012

Is Irving Fisher really "the greatest economist America has produced"?

Tyler Cowen shares an article from Yale's alumni magazine on Irving Fisher's views on eugenics.

Aside from the obvious thing I find objectionable in the article (the eugenics), I was also a little surprised by this line "Fisher is widely regarded as the greatest economist America has produced". The author then goes on to cite a 1947 statement by the Harvard economics department to that effect (right after Fisher's death).

But is that really enough? In 1947 Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, Kenneth Arrow, and Robert Solow were just getting their start. Would the Harvard economics department make that judgement today? Even before the giants of the mid- to late-twentieth century, you have J.B. Clark who made an awfully big impact.

That having been said, Irving Fisher obviously looms large in the history of American economic thought. I think Clark, Samuelson, and Friedman could challenge him because of their role in a revolution in thought (in the Kuhnian or near-Kuhnian sense). Samuelson and Arrow could challenge him simply because of the sheer breadth of their contribution.

What do you all think? Who is the greatest economist America has produced?


  1. Whilst I'm not an American, I do think that Irving Fisher is definitely a very worthy candidate for the title of "greatest economist America has produced" because of a few reasons.

    First of all, it would be his academic contributions, my personal favourite contribution by him would be his "debt deflation theory of great depressions", followed next by his contributions to monetary economics and financial economics.

    Second of all, he was arguably America's first celebrity economist. Regardless of what one thinks of his support for Prohibition and his support for eugenics, he was definitely a leader who passionately advocated for what he believed in. For good or ill, his views had an influence on the general public.

    Last of all, like John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Alois Schumpeter, there's something about his personality that really sticks out in a memorable way. (Not to mention the fact that there is a certain parallel with Fisher's life and that of Schumpeter's life and Hayek's life - namely, that you get the sense that this was an economist who could have been as great as Keynes and Smith are, but was alas denied such greatness in their lifetime.)

    As such, I would argue strongly that Irving Fisher was the greatest economist that America has produced

  2. Obviously, my favorite isn't going to get such accolades (Rothbard), so I'll be more realistic and say Friedman. I say this because of the influence he had on me early on (when I was a neoclassical) and the fact that he's still probably one of the most influential economists of the 20th century. Even though Friedman was highly influenced by Fisher, I still don't think that Fisher's name will come up nearly as much as Friedman's.

    1. re: "(Rothbard)"

      If you were my cat I'd spray you with the spray bottle.

      Bad Joseph! BAD!

    2. Hey, just being honest (that he's my favorite American economist). I am realistic, though. So, I listed Friedman, who I would say with confidence has a name that is far more well-known than Fisher. Fisher may have influenced Friedman, but it was Friedman who brought those ideas to the lay audience.

    3. I know - I'm just messing with ya :)

  3. Replies
    1. I was thinking of him too just a couple hours ago - another good candidate.

  4. I think Knight is up there. I'm not sure M. Friedman's contribution to economics is on the same level of Fisher or Knight. Friedman borrowed heavily and his contributions seem to be 'marginal' -- in the sense that they were relatively smaller steps forward (sometimes backwards -- was his approach to money better than Keynes?) -- when compared to Knight and Fisher. Friedman's contributions to libertarianism and economic popularization were immense, but not sure if relevant here. I don't mean to belittle Friedman. If anything it puts Knight's contributions in perspective -- a titan, where Friedman was a giant.

  5. Interesting question. Judging by the frequency of Smith and Keynes being cited as "greatest," it would seem that there are several criteria:

    -Perceived originality
    -Popular appeal
    -Influence/Foundation of a school

    Fisher clearly does well by these standards. I'd say that Henry George and Thorstein Veblen would also be candidates, except that their "schools" proved short-lived. Friedman and Samuelson stand out in the postwar period, though I don't think either was far enough removed from his forebears to be mistaken for original.

  6. I don't know, but I do know the greatest African economist ever!

  7. @Blue Aurora: "Whilst I'm not an American..."

    You could have just written the first word as shorthand for the whole clause.


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