A short history of economics at U. Mass Amherst

From Dylan Matthews.  Here is an excerpt:

The tipping point, Wolff says, was the denial of tenure for Michael Best, a popular, left-leaning junior professor. “He had a lot of student support, and because it was the 1960s students were given to protest,” Wolff recalls. That, and unrelated personality tensions with the administration, inspired the mainstreamers to start leaving.

That created openings, which, in 1973, the administration started to fill in an extremely unorthodox way. They decided to hire a “radical package” of five professors: Wolff (then at the City College of New York), his frequent co-author and City College colleague Stephen Resnick, Harvard professor Samuel Bowles (who’d just been denied tenure at Harvard), Bowles’s Harvard colleague and frequent co-author Herbert Gintis, and Richard Edwards, a collaborator of Bowles and Gintis’s at Harvard and a newly minted PhD. All but Edwards got tenure on the spot.

…Under those five’s guidance, the department came to specialize in both Marxist economics and post-Keynesian economics, the latter of which presents itself as a truer successor to Keynes’s actual writings than mainstream Keynesians like Paul Samuelson. “When I got there, the department basically had three poles,” said Gerald Epstein, who arrived as a professor in 1987. “There was the postmodern Marxian group, which was Steve Resnick and Richard Wolff, and then there was a general radical economics group of Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, and then a Keynesian/Marxian group. Jim Crotty was the leader of that group.” Suffice it to say, most mainstream departments have zero Marxists, period, let alone Keynesian/Marxist hybrids or postmodern Marxists.


For reference, as a soon-to-be graduate (victim?) of the UMass Econ department, no one calls it "Amherst." It's usually "UMass" (even though there are other UMass campuses) and there is talk of officially dropping the "Amherst" from the name of the main campus.

What we call "Amherst" is Amherst College, an elite liberal arts school a couple miles away that I think has a reasonably mainstream econ department. Sowell even taught there at one point.

What's the matter, sub-optimal level of hippy-punching?

That doesn't help ;) Though I guess hippie punching is partly a function of the quantity of hippies. So even ignoring moral concerns, my ideal level of hippie punching would be zero.

Actually I was just there, and there is a concerted effort (not universally embraced) to emphasize the UMass Amherst name, rather than just UMass, to emphasize that it is that campus, not some other UMass campus, that has published.

I also learned that, if you are really in the know, it's pronounced Amerst, not AmHerst.

I feel much more sophisticated now.

I've learned a lot from reading Bowles & Gintis.

What have you learned from reading these "radical economists"?

Applied game theory. ;)

Same here. Marxians that understand neoclassical economics are rare indeed, but those that also understand evolutionary psychology are something else altogether.

Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution is, in a way, all about memes. Great book, not enough math to get picked up the grad level.

Also, if anyone has any questions about being a moderate libertarian in the weirdest econ department in the country, I'm around :)

What is it like to hear daily praise of Obama and his radical leftist Marxist socialist economic policies by your econ profs? Do they consider Obama too far left?


Gintis used to be on an evolutionary psychology listserve run by Ian PItchford and made valuable contributions to the list. He had interesting things to say about culture.

Ah, the 1990s. Brings back good memories.

Marxists, eh? Do they shag the servants too?

Great article. Rather interesting place to make the quote cut, given that the paragraph was immediately followed by:

"With the end of the Cold War, however, the Marxian element started to subside. The radicals started to get less radical, and the newcomers weren’t very radical at all..."

But I guess Cowen was going for an ad hominem attack on the department. Well done. Loved the article's closing, but I guess he didn't, for some reason:

"But the department’s radical openness to alternate perspectives still sets it apart. 'Learn from Marx, learn from Keynes, learn from Hayek,' Pollin says. 'One of the biggest influences on me personally was Milton Friedman. He was very engaged with real world questions, and he made no bones about his ideological predilections.'


Disclosure, Milton Friedman was also one of my biggest influences. It was Friedman who said, "Only government can take perfectly good paper, cover it with perfectly good ink, and make the combination worthless."

Similarly, only the government can take essentially valueless paper, cover it with essentially valueless ink, and make the combination worth $100.

No, there are numerous writers and artists and composers who can also do that.

What a dumb quote. Anyone can do that.

UMass-Amherst is not a mainstream economics department (btw neither is GMU) and the selected quote conveys that idea well. There's nothing about Herndon's analysis that is unique to his UMass training (no radical estimators). What's unique is how the findings were conveyed. His professors helped him publicly publish the results without first showing them to R&R and giving them a chance to respond. Seems fitting that a department with Marxist roots would be cool with smashing established power structures. If this had been handled in the 'professionally respectful and ethical' way, I would not have gotten to watch Colbert's take and more discouragingly as an economist I might never have heard of it. I know of other empirical challenges, albeit none this splashy, that were handled 'properly' and are only niche knowledge, talk about poor incentives.

'btw neither is GMU'

They paid good money to import a potential (and then actual) winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel - I was paid good money to write about how GMU was becoming a beacon in the dismal miasma of a stale discipline. This goes twice for the entire scam that is law and economics (ah, the good old days of Dean Manne, who arrived just a year after Prof. Cowen).

Yeah, OK, no one pays me to write crap like that anymore, but truly, the groupthink in certain parts of GMU is astounding. Assuming you can separate out the people who believe it from those who are milking it for all it is worth. Though after decades, its reasonable to assume that the distinction has become too blurred for many within it to recognize.

Wow, we must have read entirely different posts, because I didn't get any attack vibe at all from this one. I believe that all the faculty members mentioned describe themselves as Marxists (or neo-Marxists, Keynesian-Marxists, etc.-Marxists) and in any case the quote containing those descriptions is from a fellow faculty member. Read to me like an honest description of an interestingly unusual department.


It's pretty subtle. The article is an honest description, but had Tyler excerpted the conclusion I quoted mentioning Hayek and Friedman instead of the above, somehow I doubt you'd be seeing all those disparaging Marx comments below.

I'm glad for the link, though. I think a big problem with macro is too much ideology biasing research (e.g. R-R), and this is likely exacerbated by a lack of diversity within most econ departments leading to groupthink (e.g. GMU, but also the saltwater/freshwater divide). UMass doesn't sound too much more diverse than GMU, but at least they are aiming for that.

I think you had it right the first time, perfectlyGoodInk, and I don't think it was all that subtle. For the General Director of the Mercatus Center to excerpt only the Marxism references in Dylan Matthews' piece really is an example of the pot calling the kettle black. I'm not sure what Matthews' article's point was - except curiosity over UMass calling out Harvard - but really, this post's editing of that piece has all the subtlety of Tail Gunner Joe.

The R-R affair reveals a lot about the dismal state of the dismal science, and an ad collegium attack piece like this just reinforces the perception of rot. (Really, a-non, is it so "unique" that HAP conveyed the findings to the public "without first showing them to R&R and giving them a chance to respond"? Someone get the fainting couch.)

Is there a single economists in the whole history of the Harvard and MIT economics departments who has understood the scientific consequences of the science findings of F. A. Hayek as well as Herbert Gintis? Well, is there?

Herbert Gintis, "Hayek's Contribution to a Reconstruction of Economic Theory" www.umass.edu/preferen/gintis/BehavioralHayek.pdf

And don't tell me that Herbert Gintis only grasps an important insight here and there in Hayek.

That's enough to confirm the upshot of my suggestion.

Your shtick has significantly lowered my opinion of Hayek and i'm otherwise inclined to agree with his views on virtually everything

If we're going to talk the interesting contributions Gintis has made, 'appreciating Hayek' is definitely the last of them. Try taking your lips off of Hayek's deceased, desiccated cock for a little while, Greg.

Hmmnn. Compare the content of the Gintis paper linked above to the content of the last MR post : http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/04/are-wealth-motivated-people-less-likely-to-help.html

The joke when I was at UMass in the mid 80s was that the Econ department was very diverse. They had a white communist, a black communist, a female communist, an Asian communist.....

A Marxist in an Econ dept. is a lot like a Creationist in a Biology dept. They are teaching/researching in an area where they have made fundamental errors.

Nobody in the profession would compare Gintis to a creationist.

Marx obviously made fundamental errors. So did Ricardo. That does not mean his work is not worthy of study.

Lots of classical economists made fundamental errors as well. Take the labor theory of value: Marx used it but so did Smith.

But let me also appeal to the authority of libertarian economist Deirdre McCloskey on the value of Marx, "[A]nyone who does not think [Marx] was the greatest social scientist of the nineteenth century has not read enough Marx, or is blinded by ideology or by the appalling effects of Marxian writings on the politics of the twentieth century..."

What did Marx do that could be classified as "science"?

Just because Marx was wrong doesn't make his endeavour less scientific. Science isn't knowledge.

Is philosophy science?

Some of us just went blind trying to read Marx.

You REALLY love economics!

"A Marxist in an Econ dept. is a lot like a Creationist in a Biology dept. "

This raises my view of Marxists in Econ Departments. Because there is nothing about creationism that disables one from reading, running experiments, and publishing results.

Making errors is one thing. Marx didn't even try to correct them---he might have read more of the marginalists, plenty of whose work he lived to see, if he had. That wasn't the point. Marx was a political cult leader with delusions of grandeur. His economics was never much more than a pseudo-scientific rationale for his political agenda, viz. "Make Karl Marx dictator." Generations of Marxian economists have wasted their lives trying to force it to make some semblance of sense, to no avail.

Of course, none of them ever found a convincing solution to the socialist calculation problem either. Marx never tried. Tearing down came much easier to him than building up. That's one reason Capital was never finished---he'd hit the wall long since, and had better things to do, like pick fights with anarchists.

The hour is late for consigning Karl Marx to the dustbin of the history of economic thought with Silvio Gesell and Major Douglas, two other pseudo-economists and political cult leaders now remembered by economists, if at all, for their cameos in Keynes' General Theory. Marxist "post-Keynesians" tend not to emphasize Keynes' preference for Silvio Gesell over Karl Marx, which (surely) speaks for itself. Economics (never mind humanity) would have been better off if Karl Marx had never written a word---if he wasn't a ZMP or NMP worker, the term has no meaning.

Well said, sir.

"Making errors is one thing. Marx didn’t even try to correct them... His economics was never much more than a pseudo-scientific rationale for his political agenda"

Strangely, Reinhart-Rogoff do a decent job upholding this tradition.

What a load of anachronistic bullshit.

Damn that Marx, d. 1883, for not engaging with a change in economics that was only first being published, let alone popularized and spread, in the early 1870s.

Damn that Marx for not having answered the calculation problem, a debate dating to the 1920s and 1930s.

Better throw him aside for being a 'political cult leader,' like Mises, Rothbard, Rand, Hayek...

I'm kind of confused by this sort of statement. My understanding goes that Marx gave us a few useful tools for understanding power. You can be a marxist without believing that humanity is on an inexorable march to socialism; it's not like Ayn Rand's simplistic moralism is the only valid lens with which we can appreciate how people interact with one another.

Sounds like their might be one economics department that has not received Koch money.

There has to be one.

Koch money pales in comparison to limousine liberal and leftist controlled government committees.

The Koch brothers give less in political donations than Walt Disney Corp.

Yes, it was this out of the mainstream department that was indoctrinating its students in Marxist economics by requiring them to do stupid Marxist things like try to replicate the findings of Rogoff/Reinhart.... Oh wait, that makes no sense. What other ad hominem argument can we come up with to avoid having to face the reality that the field of economics is so disciplinarily bankrupt that the most influential article in the last four years never goes through peer review before publication, no one in the entire field finds it necessary to confirm the findings, and the authors can get away with not sharing their data for years?

It's not an ad hominem argument, or any argument. It's a description. Those people were real, self-described Marxists.

It could be Mr Rothfield's argument, and it's certainly mine, that this blog isn't adding value when the best response they can muster to this situation is "Well, they're Marxists, you know!"

When those of us who are into science hear an argument from an unlikely corner of the discipline that scientifically debunks the findings of other (much more highly regarded) scientists, and does so convincingly, we say "Well those iconoclasts seem to be up to something interesting. Maybe I've misjudged them." When those of you who are primarily into 'freedom' hear the same argument, you are relieved that you can disregard it because it came from /those/ people.

It's not about having "misjudging them," it's about re-examining the framework for professional criticism. There's nothing unique to UMass about the analysis...it's the delivery that was a shock. I thought it was good move, now I am less sure (rather destructive, personal debate ensued) but it doesn't really matter what anyone thinks this is likely to be a new model. However, I suspect the implicit penalties for this gotcha delivery will remain high, in expectation, for grad students (especially at mainstream schools).

And I think that R&R should have published their article in a peer reviewed journal, the minimum threshold to be taken seriously.

Well, there was no debunking, and there are many other posts that addressed the R&R situation. This is not one of them.

It's interesting to know that U. Mass Amherst is a heterodox department (like GMU). Cowen has a long history of posting on the anthropology of economists and the origins of their customs and ideas. You are prejudiced in interpreting this as a criticism.

Economics departments should teach Marxism to the same extent that medical schools teach torture.

Do modern Marxists still believe in the labor theory of value? That seems like a fundamental tenet of Marxism.

Again, this is a strange way of evaluating of thinkers in the 18th or 19th century. Adam Smith makes a big deal about the labor theory of value in Book 1, Chapter 5 of the Wealth of Nations (e.g. "Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it").

I don't think the idea is "fundamental" to either Marx or Smith, though.

Bowles and Gintis have made some valuable contributions to game theory and social behavior, but have either one of them ever publicly recanted their Marxist beliefs (i.e. admit they were wrong)?

I do not have a link, but it is my understanding that they did so in 1986.

As for Besserer and some others, badly botched and biased history of economic thought. Take libertarian Auntie Deirdre seriiously and stop trying to come on like Glenn Beck or some equivalent.

By the time I studied there in the early 1990s, neither Bowles nor Gintis was doing particularly Marxian work.

Yeah, what most of the commenters above don't understand is that for purposes of social science, Marxism is an intellectual tradition, not a religion. There are no "tenets." There are plenty of folks publishing in Marxian econ who have no use for the labor theory of value. You read Marx for the same reason you should read Hayek, Keynes, Marshall, Friedman, Robinson, Smith: to stretch your thinking.

Oh, excuse me, CD ... I forgot that Marxists (and Marxians) get a free pass, since they are masters of bullshit ....

Gintis and Bowles are fantastic economists. I learned game theory reading Gintis's "Game Theory Evolving", and Bowles's "Microeconomics: Behaviour, Institutions, and Evolution".

Asking questions are really fastidious thing if you
are not understanding anything completely, except this post gives good understanding yet.

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