Home > Uncategorized > By the 1990s, economics was a social scientific discipline fast retreating from a public role

By the 1990s, economics was a social scientific discipline fast retreating from a public role

from Michael Bernstein and RWER #84

The transformation of the American political landscape in the wake of Vietnam era had subverted the very foundations of the liberalism that had made sense out of a genuinely public economics. An emphasis on political economic issues that had framed the high tide of activist government since the Great Depression of the 1930s had provided a community of professionals with both the means and the ends to deploy their expertise. As soon as social issues concerning opportunity and equality occupied center stage, most dramatically in the formulation of the 1960s “War on Poverty”, American liberalism ran headlong into the abiding national puzzle of race and ethnicity. A backlash was the inevitable result, one that shifted a dynamic emphasis on productivity and plenty during the 1950s and 1960s to a static refrain concerning the costs and benefits, the winners and losers in market outcomes during the 1980s and 1990s. So dependent had the promise of liberalism been upon sustained growth as a vehicle of redistributive betterment and justice that the first signs of macroeconomic instability robbed it of its voice and its authority. Indeed, by the last years of the century, “New Deal liberalism” was dead, and with it the hopes and achievements of a public economics.[1]

Perhaps it was predictable, given the rightward turn of American politics in the late twentieth century, that professional economics would itself regress and retrench. A kind of naïveté coupled with an unbridled enthusiasm had propelled the discipline’s leading lights to make claims on its behalf it could not redeem. Once events, and the ideological shifts they provoked, overtook the statecraft economists had so painstakingly fashioned, their flanks were wholly exposed to an unrelenting and unparalleled assault. Reversion to classic principles, a rejection of heterodox notions, an insistence on a professional deportment unable and unwilling to join with the ideological issues in dispute, and a contentment with a return to scholarly detachment were understandable if pathetically timid reactions. 

It has been a conviction of those who study the history of the sciences that moribund intellectual traditions may only be overcome by the effective articulation of alternatives. For modern American economics the possibilities for such a restructuring were by the late 1990s, precisely because of the effectiveness of the professionalizing processes that had obtained since the turn of the century, few and far between. A select group at leading colleges and universities continued to wield enormous influence over the distribution of research grants, their own ranks replenished from a hiring process disproportionately focused on the graduates of a small number of highly regarded training programs, including their own. Any examination of publication practices in the field would demonstrate as well that the dissemination of research results remained powerfully concentrated in the hands of an elite few. It is a striking yet hardly surprising finding that, at the height of the economic instability occasioned by the Vietnam War, the OPEC oil price shocks, and the downward trends in productivity enhancement experienced throughout the 1970s, alumni of only seven graduate programs in the discipline authored well over half the scholarly articles published in the nation’s three leading economics journals. Such disciplinary inbreeding was hardly conducive to the elaboration of alternative paradigms.

If, by the 1990s, economics was a social scientific discipline fast retreating from a public role it had sought for decades, it was clearly not the case that the influence of all its practitioners was on the wane.

[1]  The historical discussion that follows is drawn, in large measure, from my earlier work on the history of the American economics profession. See, for example, A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, ch. 6.  read more

  1. Robert Locke
    June 30, 2018 at 9:52 am

    I’m surprised the rwer is now discovering Berstein’s work, which I have been citing in my own since he published in 2001, long before I joined the rwer blog. The academization of economics and the internal referencing within academiia’s economic circles has not only cut economics off from praxis but from fields outside economics in academia. As an historian I tried with help from Fullbrook to break down this barrier, with very doubtful results. The rwer blog is far too wedded still to the “scientific” goals of neoclassical economics.

    • Esward K Ross
      July 1, 2018 at 1:20 am

      I may be an old hayseed and certainly not an academic, but Robert Locke’s comments make sense to me. Because it seems to me that despite the efforts of Fullbrook and a few other dedicated economists to the concept of open pluralism who oppose the neoliberal economic rationalist laissez-faire economic monopoly system. Far to many of the rwer blogs give me the impression that many economists for various reasons lack the moral courage to challenge the ruling elite. Thus they become the proverbial fence sitters trying to take an each way, bet afraid to stand up and be counted. I also totally support Robert Locke’s to broaden economic conversations to fields outside economic academia. Again from my experience this must include observing and conversing with all the players in the economy. This concept is reinforced by Lars Syll with Keynes description of what it takes to be a master economist.ted

      • Esward K Ross
        July 1, 2018 at 1:23 am

        I not the digital system has messed up my name Edward K Ross

  2. Rob Reno
    June 30, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    Bernstein was one of the first books I read when I started my deeper look into the history of economics. I still reread his book when thinking about economics. Two others are Nelson’s Economics as Religion and Leonard’s lliberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Any suggestions for further reading welcomed. Robert, I have received your book finally and reading it now.

  3. Helen Sakho
    July 2, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    Dear colleagues, thank you all for your contributions.

    Let me just add two simple references, both self explanatory, from two of my favourite authors.

    Please read a very short book by Hannah Arendt for a brief history of the Holocaust and, therefore, of the world in very recent human history entitled “Eichmann and the Holocaust” (1906-1975), if you have not already.

    And this simple passage quoted in Edward Said’s book “the World and Text and the Critic” which remains one of my favourites of all time. He quotes Auerbach quoting from Hugo: “It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land….From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil, and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant’s hut, and I know, too, how frankly it afterward disdains marble firesides and panelled halls”.

  4. Helen Sakho
    July 2, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to address Economics! Yes, economists should read more, write more, and attend less self-perpetuating conferences.

  5. July 16, 2018 at 9:18 am

    I like some others here am not an academic. No matter how successful “neoliberal” economics is in academia, it is a total failure in all its attempts to solve everyday and usual problems faced by people and organizations. And in more difficult situations standard economics makes it more difficult to even define properly, let along solve these problems. In my consulting business I often hear such questions as, “where do these ‘solutions’ come from,” and “what out of touch bureaucrat came up with this shit?” Working face-to-face with problems my staff and myself are constantly bombarded with “solutions” that clearly originate in the axioms of neoliberal economics. We end up struggling with two problems. The original problem and the new problems created by trying to avoid the use of the solutions offered to us by “expert economists.” Two examples. One, standard economists lecture us that there are no public goods, only market goods. This is precisely opposite to the assumption from which we begin our work. In some situations, we recommend the creation of a market to provide a public good (e.g., water). In other situations, markets cannot meet this need, or meet it at an unaffordable price for many end-users. Two, again standard economists tell us with not a little disgust toward us that the world in total is made up of individuals seeking to satisfy their own needs. Society is a myth. Again, this is contrary to both our experience and our goals. The primary partners in our work are communities and institutions (public and private). Telling them they don’t exist (don’t matter) is not an effective way to do our jobs. We don’t have an economist on our team, although many of the institutions we work with do. Most of these we find useless. A few surprise us. I remember attempting to explain the relationship between energy pricing and inflation more than once to an institution’s economists. Get the message across with about one in ten.

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