The New York Times online obituary section has just posted the death of Paul A. Samuelson at his home in Belmont, MA at the age of 94. The first sentence of the obit labels him "the foremost academic economist of the twentieth century." Whether he was or not, the death of this recipient of the second Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel back in 1970 is of one who was unquestionably an enormously influential, whose real influence has somewhat slipped into the background in recent years as attention to many others has surged forward. Often when he has been thought of or mentioned, it has been in criticism by many from many different sides, as he is seen as the father of the postward neoclassical synthesis, promulgated most influentially in his textbook, whose 19th edition (now done by Nordhaus) has just come out with many changes from what it used to be (many not for the better), although the deeper intellectual influence has been his Ph.D. thesis, published in 1947 as _The Foundations of Economic Analysis_, with his publishing career dating all the way back to 1937, on many topics. His influence is so great in so many areas that the key papers by him that lie behind the standard textbook accounts in many areas do not even bother to cite them.
I have been critical of Samuelson myself, and gave him quite a hard time the first time I met him in person 38 years ago. However, starting with that encounter, I must confess that while he may be the ultimate origin of much that is misguided in deeply entrenched conventional economic thought, he himself was generally personally aware of the flaws and limits of many of his own ideas, even as near the end he insisted on reasserting some of them more strongly than ever. However, I would say that the greater sins have been by simplifying followers of his, the "sons of Samuelson," who have been more responsible for codifying and spreading and enforcing the more simplistic versions of what he posited. The man himself was more complicated and self-aware than many gave him credit for , and he is indeed the last of the giant economic thinkers whose professionally active roots go back clearly into the Great Depression.