Summarising the debate between the two most important economists of the second half of the 20th century might seem like a monumental task, best consigned to specialist textbooks. But this brave history of the intellectual duel between Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman proves that assumption wrong, with its focus as much on their lives as their ideas.
Both were born in the United States into Jewish immigrant families from central Europe, Samuelson’s rather more affluent than Friedman’s, and married fellow economists. They were contemporaries at the University of Chicago in the 1930s and their student friendship survived sharply differing views for more than seventy years. Both rose to the top of their profession, notwithstanding anti-Semitism in Ivy League universities, became Nobel Prize-winners and advised leaders ranging from John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher.
The story of their intellectual rivalry began in around 1960, when the popular magazine Newsweek was transformed into a more liberal alternative to the predictably conservative Time magazine. The two economists were given alternating columns in the magazine, allowing them to set out their contrasting visions.