The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

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Overview

See "Stephen Marglin on the Future of Capitalism" at FORA.tv.

Economists celebrate the market as a device for regulating human interaction without acknowledging that their enthusiasm depends on a set of half-truths: that individuals are autonomous, self-interested, and rational calculators with unlimited wants and that the only community that matters is the nation-state. However, as Stephen Marglin argues, market relationships erode community. In the past, for example, when a farm family experienced a setback--say the barn burned down--neighbors pitched in. Now a farmer whose barn burns down turns, not to his neighbors, but to his insurance company. Insurance may be a more efficient way to organize resources than a community barn raising, but the deep social and human ties that are constitutive of community are weakened by the shift from reciprocity to market relations.

Marglin dissects the ways in which the foundational assumptions of economics justify a world in which individuals are isolated from one another and social connections are impoverished as people define themselves in terms of how much they can afford to consume. Over the last four centuries, this economic ideology has become the dominant ideology in much of the world. Marglin presents an account of how this happened and an argument for righting the imbalance in our lives that this ideology has fostered.

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Editorial Reviews

EH.NET

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

Bianca Jagger
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.
Arlie Russell Hochschild
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.
David C. Korten
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.
Stephen Gudeman
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.
Juliet Schor
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.
Irish Times - Danny Lang
Marglin's demonstration of the relationship between mainstream economics and the destruction of communities is seductive, convincing, and well documented.
EH.NET - Eric Jones
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.
Tikkun
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.
Irish Times

Marglin's demonstration of the relationship between mainstream economics and the destruction of communities is seductive, convincing, and well documented.
— Danny Lang

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674047228
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/2010
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen A. Marglin is Walter Barker Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Economics, the Market, and Community 1

2 What Is Community? And Is It Worth the Cost? 20

3 The Cutting Edge of Modernity 36

4 Individualism 58

5 Some History 80

6 From Vice to Virtue in a Century 96

7 How Do We Know When We Do Not Know? 116

8 Sources of the Modern Ideology of Knowledge 136

9 Taking Experience Seriously 153

10 Welfare Economics and the Nation-State 173

11 Why Is Enough Never Enough? 199

12 The Economics of Tragic Choices 223

13 From Imperialism to Globalization, by Way of Development 245

Appendix A The Limits of Dissent 265

Appendix B The Distributional Roots of the Enclosure Movement 299

Notes 309

References 333

Note on Sources and Permissions 351

Index 353

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 27, 2009

    Good criticism, poor alternatives

    This book 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". These are: (a) the idea of individualism being "a collection of autonomous individuals, that groups-with the exception of the nation-have no normative significance as groups, that all behavior... should be reduced to their effects on individuals," (b) "ideology of knowledge ... that privileges the algorithmic over the experiential, ... 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," (c) 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," & (d) unlimited human wants that can never be fulfilled and so economics tries to allocate scarce resources towards it.
    These & other theories are very craftily argued against in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the well-articulated points, particularly in the middle half of the book.
    At times, though, the frequent references to people, events and places from the history of economics get boring and pointless.
    Marglin, also,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.
    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2008

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