Review: Walter Lippmann by Craufurd D Goodwin

December 11, 2014
Walter Lippmann: Public Economist by Craufurd D Goodwin (Harvard University Press, £25.95)

Read more of our books in brief

Walter Lippmann was one of the greatest American journalists, particularly known for his columns in the New York Herald Tribune. This book is focused on what Lippmann wrote between 1931 and 1946, when about two-thirds of his columns were concerned with economic matters. Craufurd Goodwin describes Lippmann as a “public economist,” willing to take on board the latest academic thinking of his era but ready—and able—to expound it to a general audience.

But the book is strangely unsatisfying. What made Lippmann so effective and influential? High intelligence; a non-ideological pluralism of thought; a fine writing style? Why are there no “public economists” to rival him today? Because those who aspire to these positions in our time lack the panoply of virtues that Lippmann displayed. Such eulogy is appropriate for a funeral, but not for a considered understanding of the life and work of a man who has been dead for 40 years.

Did Lippmann shift his emphasis from economic to foreign policy issues because—as Goodwin plausibly suggests—he was interested in the most pressing problems of the time, and the pressing problems changed? Or because the more technical, mathematical direction of the subject rendered it less appropriate for the “public economist”? Is it possible today to fulfil that role without nailing political colours to the mast—as George Will and Paul Krugman, whom Goodwin identifies as Lippmann’s modern successors, so clearly have. These, and many other questions about the role of the “public economist,” will have to wait for another book.