On Topic: Book suggests we could use a few more geniuses

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March 28, 2014 | 11:52 am

An artist friend of mine, occasionally dubbed a genius for his large, ahead-of-his-time performance pieces, once landed a contract to design a fountain for a new hospital lobby.

Knowing plumbing was not his area of expertise, he partnered with a guy he’d met who claimed to be handy with a wrench. They set to work, and by the appointed deadline their functional art was in place.

So I was surprised one afternoon a few weeks later to discover the very same fountain, dry as dust, resting smack in the middle of his living room.

He confessed that they’d figured out how to get water to the fountain and have it burble prettily into the pool. What they’d overlooked was what was supposed to happen after that.

Upon installation, the fountain’s pool had filled with water but, without any sort of outlet, continued to pour up over its lip and out onto the expensive, newly laid hospital lobby floor. And apparently for quite some time until someone thought to shut off the water.

Lawsuits ensued.

When I asked my friend what why he hadn’t foreseen this possibility — I mean, where did he imagine the water would go? Outer space? — he angrily replied, “Well, he was supposed to be the plumber!”

Don’t kid yourself, these are complicated times and we need all the geniuses we can get.

In “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius,” former New York Times correspondent Sylvia Nasar takes a look at a score of smart folk through history who contemplated turning “the tables on economic necessity — mastering rather than being enslaved by material circumstances.”

What’s particularly intriguing about her approach is she includes “geniuses” from several fields (a notion my friend appreciated but, oh, if only he’d chosen more wisely).

Nasar starts with men of conscience such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus before taking up with the economic oracles of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Walter Bagehot and Beatrice Potter (Potter came up with the concept of the think tank), then moving onward to Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Joan Robinson, Friedrich von Hayek, Irving Fisher and Milton Friedman, among many other shining lights.

Nasar also touches on other souls from somewhat further afield, including aviation engineer-philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, statesman Winston Churchill, evil madman Adolf Hitler, philosopher Bertrand Russell, ballerina Lydia Lopokova — who married Keynes and became “the love of his life” — and Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey.

It’s a crowded book. Think of the cocktail party these people would have made.

But the key take-away from Nasar’s deftly written book, I think, is that we need all these myriad perspectives to tackle the increasing complexities of today’s world:

Reality has mostly outstripped imagination. Even Schumpeter (1883-1950) could not have imagined that the world’s population would be 6 times greater but 10 times more affluent ….

Still, Nasar adds, “There is no going back. Nobody debates any longer whether we should or shouldn’t control our economic circumstances, only how.”

It’s a big, global challenge, and the numbers keep shifting. Goodness, a few more geniuses wouldn’t go amiss.

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