Thursday, March 4, 2010

Marglin's The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

The premise of The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community sounds very intriguing. Stephen Marglin is a guy who got tenure in the economics department at Harvard in the 1960s and promptly outed himself as a radical leftist who has devoted the majority of his career to criticizing mainstream economics. The central thesis of the book is that under the guise of scientific objectivity, the discipline of economics priveleges a peculiar view of human nature. Marglin contends that economics promotes the primacy of the needs of the individual over those of the community, and that this perspective is not rooted in science as economists claim but is in fact the artifact of a particular strain of philosophical thought that has emerged to legitimize the inequalities inherent in capitalism.

This was a book I had been really looking forward to- I enjoyed Marglin's appearance on the excellent EconTalk podcast, and of course the central idea has a lot of relevance for development. Like Marglin, I too am skeptical about a lot of things that economists are up to (though my criticism of the discipline would have less to do with some fundamental flaw in the tools of mainstream economcis and more to do with how those tools tend to be applied). Unfortunately, though, I found The Dismal Science disappointing- ultimately, there was very little here that I had any difficulty disagreeing with. The book spends far too little time trying to convice the reader of its central thesis, and far too much time on an unfocused, scattershot attack against a straw man version of "economics" that I don't recognize much at all. For example, Marglin keeps arguing that economics denies the community and allows only the individual or the state as the relevant unit of analysis. Yet, some of my own work focuses on the effects of HIV/AIDS mortality on community cooperation, and though other economists may take issue with various aspects of it one criticism I have never heard is that the community isn't a relevant focus. I would have enjoyed a thorough and balanced exploration of the idea that economics undermines community, but this book felt a lot more like a broadside.

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