I just listened to (most of) an interview with Harvard Economics professor Stephen Marglin on his new book The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community:
Marglin argues that markets and commercial transactions undermine the connections between us. He wants people to pay more attention to what is lost and not just what is gained by the pursuit of material well-being. Topics discussed include the nature of community, the role that voluntary associations play in our lives, the costs and benefits of mobility, the role of insurance in reducing our dependence on each other, and the nature of knowledge.
Sounds great, right? I am open to the idea that commercial transactions reduce that human something, but the case needs a better advocate than Marglin. Economists talk about social capital all the time, which is what voluntary assocations are. Development economists talk about informal insurance mechanisms (what Marglin calls “community”) all the time.
In the interview, his principal evidence consists of (a) a scene from the Harrison Ford film Witness, (b) a Wall Street Journal column about a family that moved for a job and had to shoot their dog because it couldn’t fit in the van, and (c) something less memorable. He argues that these things are not conducive to statistical measurement: That’s fine, but in its absence, I’d like a tight logical argument.
When the interviewer asked what the policy recommendations were based on the idea that free trade can undermine communities, Marglin had no answer. When the interviewer brought up revealed preference (the fact that few people choose to be Amish even though the Amish have great community), the subject rapidly changed.
I have also read that the book is unconvincing.
HT: Chris Blattman for those 40 minutes of my life…
[End of rant]