1855. Reform economics from within or from without?

Provocation #87.

Inside out

Is economics reformable from within, or do we need to go outside the normal parameters (like preference theory which treats preferences as being determined outside of economics, and hence not discussable).

My own view is that economics is settled on by the political process, not by economic concepts. If we try to reform economics from within all we talk about is economics, but if we try from without the range includes anthropology (community vs individual), history (why there was no barter and what there was instead), psychology (what people want is sex, food, status), sociology (for minorities freeways trap in their class. Bettering self means leaving family and friends which feels like abandoning them). From outside one might even lower the importance of economics in social thought and public policy. From within, that is not possible.


There are so many good books being published. I think it is fair to say there is no argument that should be made that has not been made. This means that we need to think through which of the many books (articles, symposia) are the most helpful. I am sure that in this little staff group the reading is wide and wise, but not integrated into our practice. If you take your personal sense of what is happening in the world and then take any INET paper or research project, and ask, is this relevant to my own sense of current events, (There may be other legitimate criteria, this is just one, but important), what do you discover?

Here are just a few of the many books currently on my mind.

  • Goetzman Money Changes Everything. Quite historically sophisticated, and a man with lots of interests in aesthetics, who happens to be professor in the Yale School of management. The book is especially strong on early (Mesopotamian, Greek) finance.
    Dimitris Milonakis and Ben Fine From Political Economy to Economics solid history/
    Shelden Wolin Politics and Vision. We need to know more political theory and this is a very full accounting of things we should know.
    David Levine At the Dawn of Money
    Geoff Mann In the Long Run we are all Dead. Why Keynes is always with us. From early times to contemporary.
    David Orr, Dangerous Years. Strong on climate at central
    Ha-Joon Chang Economics: the users guide. Good intro to current critiques. Very smart fellow.
    Josh Ryan-Collins Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing. A critical issue at the core of economics: where and how do we live and make the social decisions..
    Charles Taylor A Secular Age. Widely read in philosophy and culture studies.We need to know what secular is, and what it is not.
    Michael Mann The sources of Social Power. More core political theory.
    Steve Keen. Many but best know for Debunking Economics.
    Francis Fukuyama Political Order and Political Decay. A very solid somewhat wooden presentation of essential history. He is recovering very well from his earlier End of History.
    John Earle The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts.
    John Markoff Machines of loving Grace. Long time tech columnist for the NYT now just writing. Unusually sensitive to both technical and human issues. Good intro.

I would be grateful for emailing me back others of the many I am sure I have missed. Ones you think are important and unusually insightful.

2 thoughts on “1855. Reform economics from within or from without?

  1. lizaloop says:

    Doug, do you have the Goetzman book? I’d like to read it. IMHO, part of today’s problem is that few people have an inkling of what life outside their own culture is like. We are generally ignorant of the daily pressures felt by those who are richer or poorer than we are even in our own neighborhoods and cities. When we refer to conditions distant in historical time or geographical space we tend to infuse the picture with features from our own lives so that the meanings and implications of the distant story are unfathomable. To have an impact in our media-dominated, populist democracy we progressive intellectuals are going to have to reframe the stories that inform us in here-and-now terms. This is a huge task so I’m advocating getting on it right away.

  2. Brad says:

    I have found that Piketty is well worth the read. Clearly he’s in some sense “within” but much of what he writes are historical trends that are seen–even by him–as a political process. Anyway, many insights I find every few pages when reading Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty. Highly recommended.

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