Review of Stephen Marglin on economics and community

Wow, is this scathing (or try this version).  It’s by E. Roy Weintraub.  I found the pointer on the Oxonomics blog.


That one's under their pay-wall. (one thing especially don't like about sciencemag is that you need to log in before you find out the contents isn't covered by your free subscription.)

Why "now-defunct"? I saw no notice...

Hi Tyler, thanks for the link but we're not defunct! posting is just a bit slower as we all have to write our dissertations!

Based on reviews on the web, Weintraub doesn't provide any new insights. Just the same old socialist complaints that they have recycled for 200 years.

There is now a non-gated link in the post...

This author sounds like a major d-bag. From this point on, he will be refered to as Guy LeDouche.

Let's be real here. What the Maglins of the world need to realize before they commit mass career suicide is that Naomi Klein worked and crossed over into mainstream thought not because her ideas had any merit or even cohesion, but because she was kinda hot and spouting anarchist rhetoric you'd typically only hear from stoners at a punk rock concert but with the sophisticated sentence structure of an English teacher and the stamina of a marathon runner. We read No Logo because we wanted to be punished and gave up arguing against her nonsensical theses after about 10 pages. She was kinda hot, she was punishing us, we could rationalize continuing to pay attention in the irony of the brand she discovered for herself. Stephen Maglin should have known in some innate biological sense that he could not match that. He ought to be pilloried mercilessly for wasting our time.

Steve Marglin is no dummy. He knows neoclassical economics very well (look at his earliest publications which earned him tenure at Harvard) and hasn't forgotten it -- and thus understands a good deal more about production, exchange, and distribution than who spout off their opinions without any backing. His classic 1974 article "What Do Bosses Do?" [available at] is essential to understanding the economics of organization.

That said, he's chosen to develop his ideas down a different path, and is now one of the Grand Old Men of the Radical Political Economy crowd. There will be few who buy his book who don't know who he is. It would be very surprising to hear him praise markets, decentralization, and the cosmic justice of the price system (indeed, if he did, I would suspect a brain tumor.)

This stuff is meant to be read and debated, not taken on faith as true. I'd advise people to read the book carefully before jumping to conclusions that this work is at the supremely atheoretical level of Naomi Klein, rather than a provocative and heterodox look at phenomena we think we fully understand.

Encouraged by the generous comments of Johan and ACMycroft, I am taking the liberty of sharing a response to Roy Weintraub’s review that I sent to Science, a response that the editor declined to print.

The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community, argues that the very assumptions of economics make community invisible, and that a world built in the image of economics marginalizes community. Other than complaining that these are not new ideas, Weintraub has nothing to say on the substance of my argument. He might have said the foundational assumptions of economics do not make community invisible. Or that I confuse the messenger with the message: whatever problems the market may pose for community, economics merely tells it like it is. He might argue that I get the consensus wrong, that economics is much more than what I identify as the mainstream. Instead, he simply asserts that I have “no historical or philosophical expertise,† presumably making it unnecessary to engage on the merits of my case.

Weintraub’s main point of substance is that I am confused about the history of economics, that I wrongly attribute ideas of recent vintage to an earlier era. My criticism is indeed leveled against the mainstream consensus of today, not the variety of economics and economists that have existed in the past. But this consensus didn’t come out of nowhere: it is rooted in the historical experience of the modern west over the last 400 years. The folks who did economics in the 17th century may not have called themselves economists and—unlike Monsieur Jourdain who was delighted to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life—might have resisted the label, but they walked the walk and talked the talk. Weintraub might start with Joyce Appleby’s Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England if he wants to educate himself in this regard. So it is not off the mark to argue, as I do, “For four hundred years, economists have been active in the enterprise of constructing the modern economy and society.†

Perhaps not satisfied that he has properly disposed of my book, Weintraub takes on my teaching: “Is not Marglin’s Harvard College teaching and instruction of the young designed to shape their preferences?† Of course, but the difference is that I don’t present economics or my views on economics as neutral, detached science: I own up to the ideological element that shapes the views of both economists and critics.

Not content with attacks on my book and my teaching, Weintraub goes after my publisher and even after one of the kind souls who wrote a dust-jacket blurb: “I note in closing that the lead dust-jacket blurb for this volume was provided by the noted economist and social theorist Bianca Jagger (sic). Whatever was Harvard University Press thinking?† I don’t know what HUP was thinking (maybe about selling books), but I can tell you what I was thinking: economics is too important to be left to the economists, and an endorsement from a noted human rights activist was intended to signal that my book would be of interest not only to academics concerned with understanding how economics undermines community, but to people struggling to build a better world, of which one part is surely stronger and more vibrant communities. The challenge of the 21st century is precisely how to build those communities without sacrificing the values of diversity and tolerance, values which unfortunately have been minority values both within and outside the modern west.

Pure ad hominem. What the Hell does Bianca Jagger's rent-stabilized apartment have to do with Marglin's argument?

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