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The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community Paperback – April 12, 2010
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Stephen Marglin's The Dismal Science is a beautifully written and powerfully argued book that shows how the ideology of economics has justified and supported the trend towards selfishness and hyper-individualism in advanced societies. (Bianca Jagger)
In this timely and eloquent critique of the conventional economist's "ideology of knowledge," Stephen Marglin pinpoints a huge blind spot at the heart of this powerful discipline. They can't see community. It's not that the people of the earth are, for the economist, bereft of community. It's that he imagines them as interest-maximizing tin men who don't need it. So as Wal-Mart mows down local communities in America and NAFTA mows them down in rural Mexico, the conventional economist stands silent on this issue. Economists and non-economists alike should read this book, and pass it around to friends in their community--if it's still there. (Arlie Russell Hochschild, University of California, Berkeley and author of The Time Bind and The Commercialization of Intimate Life)
A brilliantly reasoned and long overdue expose of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of conventional economic thinking. If you are concerned about the decline of community and moral standards in public life, read this book. (David C. Korten, author of The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community and When Corporations Rule the World)
With breathtaking range, Stephen Marglin brilliantly turns the world of economics upside-down as he reveals the roots of economics in the Western myth of modernity and the destruction of community. At once analytical and intuitive, Marglin unites the talents of an economist, a storyteller's humor and a skeptical mind to offer a new way of thinking about economy and economics. (Stephen Gudeman, University of Minnesota)
The Dismal Science is a profound critique of economics by one of its own. It could not be more timely--the breakdown of human connection is arguably the most serious problem facing humanity, as it underlies other ills such as violence, environmental degradation and inequality. Stephen Marglin has produced a beautifully written and penetratingly intelligent argument about the role of the market in that process. (Juliet Schor, Boston College and author of The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need)
Stephen Marglin makes a powerful and convincing argument for how thinking like an economist undermines community. Suddenly, the choices of those who reject global capitalism seem far more reasonable, because the globalization of capital brings with it the economistic thinking that destroys local values, forcing us to choose between material prosperity and spiritual health. Yet this tension is made invisible by a pseudo-universal ideology about human nature. Marglin thus provides a persuasive foundation for the Politics of Meaning. (Tikkun 2008-03-01)
Marglin's demonstration of the relationship between mainstream economics and the destruction of communities is seductive, convincing, and well documented. (Danny Lang Irish Times 2008-03-24)
This is an exceptionally learned, uncompromisingly contrarian critique of markets and economics by a member of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Stephen Marglin emphasizes the costs of market transactions and blames economics for supplying the associated frame of reference. The Dismal Science is patently the result of a lifetime of reading and cogitating about conceptual issues related to market exchanges and economists’ approaches to them. Some historical background is given but what is mainly offered is extended commentary on the history of thought and on everyday practice. (Eric Jones EH.NET)
About the Author
Stephen A. Marglin is Walter Barker Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
Top customer reviews
If you're looking for a criticism of capitalism and economic ideology, I suggest sticking to the original sources of Karl Marx and latter researchers that build on his work: the Frankfurt school, including Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and, more importantly, Jurgen Habermas. Sadly, Marglin does not cite any of these thinkers (except Marx).
In the end, this book reads to me like the author is unhappy that the world has changed and is convinced it was all better once, long ago.
Also, do not buy this book thinking that Stephen Marglin is a practicing economist. While he was trained in economics and teaches at Harvard, he has not worked professionally for decades, and his only research that I am aware of is from the 1970s. That is not to say his opinion is unimportant, but it is not that of one engaged in the field.
This is because his book 'Dismal Science' works on a comprehensive and intense critique of the mainstream consensus, among economists, that a system of unfettered markets is good for the people. This, Marglin does, in order to put forth his theory that community-based economics would serve humanity better.
His training as an economist gives Marglin some credibility when he elaborates on why he rejects many of foundational assumptions of economics calling them "cultural myths" as against what conventional economists would term as "universal truths".
One of them is the idea of individualism that, Marglin writes, is be understood as "a collection of autonomous individuals, that groups--with the exception of the nation--have no normative significance as groups, that all behavior, policy, and even ethical judgment should be reduced to their effects on individuals."
Marglin continues articulating, "A second founding myth is the modern ideology of knowledge, an ideology that privileges the algorithmic over the experiential, an ideology that elevates the knowledge that can be logically deduced from what are regarded as self-evident first principles over what is learned from intuition and authority, from touch and feel."
The third assumption, and myth, according to Marglin, is that "the nation... is the only legitimate social grouping," where "it is legitimate to ask whether the nation will be better off by free trade, but it is parochial to ask whether workers, old folks, or farmers will fare better or worse."
The fourth myth is of unlimited human wants that can never be fulfilled and so economics tries to allocate scarce resources towards it. Marglin states that the western economy allows free play to unlimited desires and allows "rivalry--keeping up with the Joneses and the like--to be expressed in the acquisition of display and wealth."
These four foundational assumptions of economics, and other theories associated with any of these, are very craftily argued against in 'The Dismal Science'. One thoroughly enjoys reading the well-articulated and sharp points and elaborations made by Marglin, particularly in the middle half of the book in chapters titled 'From Vice to Virtue in a Century', 'How Do We Know When We Do Not Know?', 'Taking Experience Seriously', 'Why is Enough Never Enough?' and 'The Economics of Tragic Choices'.
The book provides very well-presented thoughts of the author although at times the frequent references to people, events and places from the history of economics get boring and pointless. There have been other critiques of economic theory in the past but Marglin's book is nevertheless a fresh and interesting addition to the list of critiques.
Marglin, however, fails to give justice to the second part of the book title 'How Thinking Like An Economist Undermines Community'. Even though he has one full chapter on 'What is Community? And Is It Worth the Cost?' it does not present a convincing case as to why community-based economics is necessarily free of the myriad problems that bog down market-oriented economics.
It is also to Marglin's credit that he stays fair to the mainstream economists in the sense that when he is stating their positions on economic theories and free markets there is no distortion of any kind. This, then, gives him enough credibility to launch his criticisms.
The second big failing in the book is that Marglin could have hit harder on the problems with foundational assumptions of economics. He could have, if he had put in just a bit more effort, to expose, through real-life examples, of the continuous failure of the fulfilment of the assumptions of economics. The fact that, more often that not, cronyism, unfair tax favours and corruption of government, and not free and fair markets, is how capitalists operate is ignored by Marglin.
The fact that some markets work, and work wonderfully, is despite the capitalists' cronyism and partly, also because, of human nature to adapt as best they can to circumstances forced upon by the policy-makers and industrialists who resort to conventional economics' flawed theories.
Are there alternatives to conventional economic wisdom then? Marglin thinks going back to communities would help. But, in my view, any system that is run by humans will not be free of the negatives of human nature such as manipulativeness, greed, deception and violent, or subtle, exploitation of other living beings and the ecology.
At any rate, 'Dismal Science' is a book worth reading, and I can safely recommend you to go buy a copy.
The kernel of Dismal Science is that modern economic models are approximations of reality (as anyone in science knows); that these models consider human aspects of society as perturbations or ignored altogether; that these inaccurate models are then made real through social engineering that force humans to fit as parts in the machine. Community becomes a foreign entity lost to shallows of modernity through the draining assumption that humans are "autonomous, rational, self-interested individuals seeking to maximize utility through efficient markets" and nothing more. To such an extreme that barriers to development like preservation of communities or the natural world are seen as backward hindrance to growth and globalization. Marglin's barn raising provides an example. Property insurance did not exist until the 17th century, but who today would want to be without it? If you pay an annual premium for your barn and your barn burns down, the insurance company pays strangers to rebuild it. While perhaps more efficient (or not) than gathering neighbors for a barn raising, in earlier times this was done. Responding to need, gathering those neighbors and building the barn strengthened interdependence and community. It is only when we focus on barns, says Marglin, rather than the people raising them that insurance appears a more effective means of coping with disaster.
Marglin owes some credit to Karl Polanyi for breaking the ice on this question, but Marglin provides a more complete argument with 70 years of added experience since Karl wrote his socialist manifesto, "The Great Transformation." In that book Karl argued that societies are now subservient to economies, not the other way round as they had been. In "Dismal," Marglin argues similarly that markets are now superior to communities. Again, in one of those great historical ironies, we hear the echo of Karl's brother - and Frederick Hayek's mentor, Michael Polanyi in Marglin's defense of community and tradition as not "anything goes." Occasionally dense with economist lingo (after all, he's also writing to economists), hang in there, the reward is very worth the effort, offering a fresh, experienced perspective to this latest creation of the Anthropocene (and but for human population, probably its most powerful force).