"Gentlemen, did we pass?"
That's what Joseph Schumpeter is reported to have asked the other members of Paul Samuelson's dissertation committee at the end of his doctoral defense. Many a true word is spoken in jest.
Over the next few days there will be a lot of testimonials to Samuelson's brilliance and professional accomplishments, but the two passages I found most poignant in the New York Times obituary concern his character. First, his unwillingness to accept a political appointment:
Though Professor Samuelson was President Kennedy’s first choice to become chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, he refused, on principle, to take any government office because, he said, he did not want to put himself in a position in which he could not say and write what he believed.
And second, his opinion of himself and his profession:
Despite his celebrated accomplishments, Mr. Samuelson preached and practiced humility. The M.I.T. economics department became famous for collegiality, in no small part because no one else could play prima donna if Mr. Samuelson refused the role, and, of course, he did. Economists, he told his students, as Churchill said of political colleagues, “have much to be humble about.”Indeed.
Update (12/14): William Barnett's version of the Schumpeter anecdote differs slightly from that of Wolfgang Stolper (as reported by Arnold Heertje), and neither is confirmed. Apocryphal or not, the plausibility of the story itself says a lot about Samuelson.