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Indian class of Samuelson - Asim Dasgupta recalls lectures of the legend

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  • Published 15.12.09

Calcutta, Dec. 14: A professor in formal attire, driving his own Beetle to the sprawling Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus and turning up in class to “open up visions of his students” — that’s how Bengal finance minister Asim Dasgupta remembers his teacher, Paul A. Samuelson.

Samuelson, who helped form the basis of modern economics, died yesterday at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts, after a brief illness. He was 94.

“He was a legend,” said Dasgupta, remembering Samuelson, the first American to win the economics Nobel.

Dasgupta was a PhD student at MIT between 1970 and 1975. Although his supervisors were Robert Solow and Jagdish Bhagwati, the Bengal finance minister had come in close contact with Samuelson. “In our second year, he taught us Capital Theory. The most interesting thing about his pedagogy was he could deliver his lectures with clarity and could also open up the visions of his students,” said Dasgupta.

According to Dasgupta, Samuelson helped him with his thesis — in which the Bengal finance minister tried to establish that there was not necessarily a contradiction between growth and equity — by encouraging him and also offering suggestions.

But Samuelson’s influence on his students didn’t end with academic inputs alone. He endeared himself to his students with his sense of humour and his interest in debates — the most famous of them was his regular duel with Chicago School’s Milton Friedman in Newsweek columns.

“His rebuttal of Friedman’s views used to be a topic of discussion on the campus. There was always this healthy competition between MIT and the Chicago School,” said Dasgupta.

Contrary to Chicago School’s neoclassical school of thought, Samuelson, who made seminal contributions to various streams of economics, always emphasised the need to strike a balance between market efficiency and intervention by the government.

“I think he was the greatest economist of the 20th century and all of us benefited from him,” said Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, former professor of economics at Delhi School of Economics, recounting his student days almost five decades ago. According to Dasgupta, Samuelson had a special place for his students and colleagues — like Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Amartya Sen — from India.

In the preface to Chakravarty’s book, Capital and Development Planning, Samuelson wrote: “Interested as much in the dualism of Tolstoy as in those of linear programming, Chakravarty is one of the rarest specimens of that nearly empty set, which is a logical intersection of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures.”

Datta Chaudhuri recollected how his professor encouraged his students to learn the tools of mathematics and also sharpen their intuitive skills for better understanding of the subject.

“I was privileged to be his student. I consider myself lucky that he showered affection on me,” said Datta Chaudhuri, who last met his favourite teacher a few years ago on a trip to the US.