Most economists ply two trades: they tell us what we already know and they tell us too late. E.F. Schumacher angled it another way. In "Small Is Beautiful" and "A Guide for the Perplexed," he tried to tell us what we needed to know -- "economics as if people mattered" -- and he pushed out the message early. He kept at it until his death in September 1979. He was 66. He died during a train ride in Switzerland while on the way to deliver a lecture in Zurich.
One of Schumacher's last acts was to send an autographed copy of his new book, "A Guide for the Perplexed," to his daughter Barbara. In this readable biography that presents both the generic facts and the enduring ideals of her father's life, she recalls that "I spent September 4th reading my new copy of 'A Guide for the Perplexed.' I had never so much as glanced through 'Small Is Beautiful' having, I thought, heard its contents over and over again throughout my teens. But the new book, although also containing material about which he had talked a great deal, absorbed me from the minute I opened it at the first page. I forgot about children, unpacking and meals and some hours later my husband Don found me amongst the suitcases utterly oblivious of the chaos around me. That evening, unaware of what had happened in Switzerland that morning, I wrote an enthusiastic letter of congratulation to my father."
Schumacher, who was German born and Oxford educated and who worked for the British Coal Board, assailed the quick-profit western economics that relied too much on modern technology and not enough on local people. He didn't think that multinational corporations coming into areas of poverty like India or Latin America were the bearers of economic salvation. Wood accurately interprets her father's thinking: "The effect of a modern factory was not to create for the mass of people but to put out of work small local craftsmen who could not compete with cheap mass produced goods. Ultimately the effect was greater poverty because by destroying the modest income of local craftsmen, the factory's output thereby destroyed its own markets."
Schumacher's message of "small is beautiful" secured him a place in the hearts of conservationist, populist and back-to-the-land whole earth cataloguers. The acclaim made him suspect among those who think economists should be free-market appendages of banks and corporations. Schumacher, a sociable open-hearted man of easy pixilations, was dismissed by the pin-stripe set as a cult figure who meant well but thought muddily. For Schumacher's critics, economics is for the First World, and, if anything is left over, the crumbs of charity are good enough for the Third World. Those who knew better, and respected Schumacher for believing that western politics could meld with eastern economics, included John Maynard Keynes. "If my mantle is to fall on anyone," Keynes wrote near the end of his life, "it could only be Otto Clarke or Fritz Schumacher. Otto Clarke can do anything with figures, but Schumacher can make them sing."
In the United States, Schumacher did the mandatory lecture tours, including a stop at the White House for a consultation with Jimmy Carter, an admirer. Another supporter was former California governor Jerry Brown. To corporate executives, Schumacher explained that "the only safe recipe for survival is deliberate experimentation. We have to develop a technology as well as an ownership structure to fit the new material and social conditions."
Wood writes lovingly of her father but not without an awareness of his failings. Schumacher tended to be an applause junkie. His first wife adored him, as did his second, a woman who had worked in the home as an au pair. With reluctance and private pain, each was forced to share him with the public. Schumacher's shortsightedness was the common one of adulated males: paying more attention to the fawning fans than to the lovable and loving woman at home. "The cost to her was high," writes Wood of the deprived Vreni Schumacher. Wood concludes that women "were one of my father's weaknesses. His good looks and charm had captivated quite a few hearts. He needed women around him, to care for him and listen to him."
Although she is a first-time biographer, Wood is skilled as a reporter. She returns again and again to the main intellectual theme in her father's life: nonviolent economics. "Man's urgent task, he wrote, is to discover a nonviolent way in his economic as well as his political life . . . Present day economics, while claiming to be ethically neutral, in fact propagates a philosophy of unlimited expansionism without regard to the true and genuine needs of man which are limited."
At the end of his life, Schumacher had absorbed a bit of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and pacifism, and churned them together into an economic philosophy that is likely to last longer than any capitalist promotions of a forgotten Milton Friedman. As Barbara Wood acknowledges, she didn't realize growing up that her father's conversation around the house was beautiful and would one day be big.