Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Greatest Americans

At Half Sigma (always an interesting place to visit), there is a debate going on about who should make a list of the 100 greatest Americans. Apparently the Discovery Channel is profiling a list of their 100 greatest Americans and Prof. Bainbridge has critiqued it. First of all, you cannot produce a list like this without including many people of dubious credentials and without excluding many people who most would regard as tremendous American achievers. It is virtually impossible to compare the accomplishments of America’s greatest baseball player and America greatest doctor.

Norman Borlaug

Here is a nice wikipedia article about possibly the greatest American you never heard off. Here is Norman Borlaug's foundation website. He was responsible for the great green revolution that allowed India to become self-sufficient in food production and allowed millions of Indians -and other third world counties-to leave the villages to find more production work in the cities. India’s economy is very definitely a work in progress, but the change is happening and Norman Borlaug has had a big impact in that part of the world. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1970.

Warren Buffet

If you can beat the S&P 500 by 10% in one year, you are pretty lucky. If you do it year after year for 40 years, your name is Warren Buffet. He is America’s economic planner: he does the hard work of deciding how the market should price our goods. Economic theory suggests there should not be a Warren Buffet, but there he is. A free market allows a remarkable person like Warren Buffet to make our economy run more smoothly by accurately pricing our assets. And he’s kept all of that wealth in the market so that the good work he does just expands over time. He has made a lot of money for a lot of people. I should have bought Berkshire Hathaway (his company) stock 20 years ago. I can’t afford it now.

Paul Samuelson

America has been blessed with many great Nobel Prize winning economists but I single out Paul Samuelson. As an economist, his accomplishments in all areas of economics are enormous. But maybe his single greatest accomplishment was writing the standard economics textbook for the last 57 years. His textbooks taught the world market economics. When the world was drifting into the abyss of socialism, he was a major force keeping the flame of classic market economics going. I think the best tribute to Paul Samuelson came from a Soviet planner who decided to read Samuelson’s Economics to learn about market economics. Unfortunately, I don’t have the exact quote but it went like: “When I read his book I realized that market economics was not just a different form of economics, it was economics.” That’s the power of ideas and clear thinking.

Incredibly, both Samuelson and Borlaug won their Nobel Prizes in 1970. That was a great year for the Nobel Prize. Downhill since then!


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