Monday, September 30, 2013

Two Books: Dangerous Currents, by Lester Thurow, and The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought, by Robert Heilbroner and William Milberg

One of the clichès of that brief moment of critical reflection that followed the financial crisis of 2008 was criticism of the economics profession--for its adherence to questionable ideas like the "Efficient Markets Hypothesis" (EMH), and the passing off of dubious financial products as safe through superficially rigorous but actually quite meaningless exercises in econometrics.

Another clichè was that "no one" knew better.

The latter was patently false, as I am regularly reminding looking at older works. Certainly this was the case when I read Lester Thurow's 1983 Dangerous Currents: The State of Economics, and Robert Heilbroner and William Milberg's 1995 The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. It was not the case that economists, even well-known, respected economists capable of reaching a broader audience did not cry that the "emperor has no clothes." Rather it was that the mainstream of their profession was determined to ignore those cries, which is ultimately unsurprising--for reasons these authors themselves explain.

Each of these books looks at the demise of the Keynesian consensus (in large part, due to their apparent failure to anticipate, and inability to cope with, '70s-era stagflation). They also look at the assorted schools of economic thought which endeavored to become the base of a new consensus, particularly monetarism and rational expectations theory, and the failings which prevented their doing so.1 Each is also highly critical of the situation that followed, characterizing it as an intellectual crisis which has left policy without effective guidance in a period of economic crisis--these authors not cheerleaders for the course of the American or world economies in the 1980s and later.

As one might expect, there are substantive differences between these works. The most important of these is that Thurow criticizes the prevailing wisdom within the field--its fundamental methodology, its major schools of thought (particularly monetarism, supply-side economics and rational expectations)--principally from his perspective as an economist. Heilbroner and Milberg devote much more of their attention to the broader intellectual context shaping that field, what economists bring to their subject matter from outside it, contending that the "pre-analytical vision" is crucial (e.g. their views about the extent to which the field is scientific or political), and that this has been deeply problematic for the field in key ways. However, in their differing emphases I found their books complementary rather than clashing (indeed, Thurow's endoresement of Heilbroner and Milberg's book as "essential reading" appears on the back cover of my edition), and while each book will strike the general reader as demanding, remains hugely relevant to our situation today.

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon