Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fathers And Children and Rediscovering Fire

1.0 Turgenev's Novel
I recently stumbled across an English-language copy of the Turgenev novel where the title was translated as in this blog post. This reminds me that I once listed the following pairs of economists:
  • John Bates Clark, John Maurice Clark
  • Milton Friedman, David Friedman
  • John Kenneth Galbraith, James Galbraith
  • John Neville Keynes, John Maynard Keynes
  • James Mill, John Stuart Mill
  • Auguste Walras, Marie Esprit Leon Walras
  • Sidney Weintraub, Eliot Roy Weintraub
I now find I can add another pair of names, Edward J. Nell and Guinevere Liberty Nell.

One way of reading the series of models in Sraffa's Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities is as an historical series. Later models in the series apply to an institutional setup that followed earlier models. Some, including maybe Engels, have read Marx in this way. The labor theory of value is alleged to apply to a pre-capitalist, late medieval artisan economy. The transformation of values into prices of production is then a historical process occurring with the emergence of capitalism. Be that as it may, Edward Nell's work on the theory of Transformational Growth, fits well with this literature.

2.0 Rediscovering Fire
Guinever Liberty Nell has written a book, Rediscovering Fire: Basic Economic Lessons From the Soviet Experiment (Algora Publishing, 2010), in some ways in a very different tradition. She also considers institutions in different historical settings. But consider that Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson, in the George Mason tradition, appear in the acknowledgments. I gather she currently works for the Center for Data Analysis of the Heritage Foundation. She notes her differences with her family:
"I also thank my brother Jacob for introducing me to Alec Nove's work, which was the inspiration for writing this book. I must also thank Thomas W. Moore IV for endless intellectual battles that helped me challenge the beliefs I was raised with, and my sister Miranda for then debating with me endlessly from the other side."
Her book is dedicated as so:
"To my mother for raising me in confidence in my own creativity and ability, and my father for infusing me with the economics 'bug'."

The book is organized in somewhat repetitive themes. Aside from the introduction and conclusions, chapters treat competition, (un)employment, profit (impact on the firm), profit (impact on the economy), middlemen and trade, prices, money, regulation, democracy, corporations. Each of these substantive chapters consists of an introduction, a summary of the socialist argument, a description of the soviet experience, lessons to be drawn, and a conclusion. I'm not finished; I'm in the chapter on prices.

In many cases, I disagree with her account of the socialist argument. For example, she writes:
"Under socialism, workers were to be paid according to work, while under communism they would be paid according to need. According to theory, workers were to receive the full value of their product." -- Guinevere Libery Nell, Rediscovering Fire, p. 61.
As far as I am concerned, this claim is explicitly contradicted in Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program. Lenin knew this work quite well, he writes about it in State and Revolution. As another example, Nell writes:
"Marx did not believe in gains from trade... However, there are several reasons why both parties can gain from an exchange. One is that division of labor enables one person to make a product at lower cost than another person can make it." -- Guinevere Libery Nell, Rediscovering Fire, p. 92.
But Marx, in Capital explicity states that such gains from trade exist. On the other hand, she extensively references Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky's The ABCs of Communism, which I have often seen referenced as a primer to Bolshevikism. I think Nell would agree with me that the book concentrates more on economic history than the history of economic thought.

I'm no expert on Soviet history (I'm best on the 1920s, I think). Nevertheless, I'll record my impression that I find the thematic organization confusing. In some chapters, she writes about either war communism, the New Economic Program, the collectivization of agriculture, or the 1965 reform, for example. But these analyzes are not arranged chronologically. If she ever produces a new edition (paperback?), perhaps she can include a short chronology or timeline.

I'm willing to accept, say, war communism as an attempt to construct a close to pure socialist economy. But I found Nell's attempts to apply lessons directly to current institutions in the United States economy unconvincing. Maybe pure planning of an entire economy cannot be done. I don't see why a large amount of planning and regulation is therefore inappropriate for specific sectors (for example, utilities or health) in certain settings. On the other hand, she is often careful to be tentative in her suggestions. Maybe Obama "may" want to consider some unintended consequence in restructuring health insurance. A somewhat facile objection to her lessons can easily be constructed. Of course, the Soviet experience with planning did not work very well. They did not have powerful networked computers.Maybe this objection would be less likely to arise if she had taken more of a historical and less of a thematic approach.

3.0 An Open Request
But that's not what I want to talk about. I wonder whether Nell would be willing to share any anecdotes about growing up. Is she able to discuss political disagreements with family members without rancor? I guess of more interest to me would be whether she has formed personal impressions of Joan Robinson, Pierangelo Garegnani, or Anwar Shaikh. On the other hand, if her stories would be like those in Jan Myrdal's memoir Childhood, who seems not to have got on with much of his family, I don't know that I want to hear about it.


JDC said...

As long as we're on the topic of re-examinations of the Soviet economy, have you ever heard of Robert C. Allen's Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution?

I was inspired by this Gowans post to pick up a copy, though I haven't started on it, yet, and probably won't for a bit, such is the state of the reading list at the moment.

Charles Stewart said...

@JDC: Allen wrote a summary of the main argument of the book that you may find more digestible:

A Reassessment of the Soviet Industrial Revolution [pdf]

JDC said...

@Charles: Cool, thanks! That does seem pretty concise. Hope it doesn't spoil my appetite for the main course.

haris said...

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liberty said...

"I wonder whether Nell would be willing to share any anecdotes about growing up. Is she able to discuss political disagreements with family members without rancor? I guess of more interest to me would be whether she has formed personal impressions of Joan Robinson, Pierangelo Garegnani, or Anwar Shaikh."

First off - thank you for your interest in my book, and your helpful comments!!

To answer your questions:

Anecdotes: I remember my father having dinner parties for economic colleagues and students when I was quite young; as they drank and chatted after dinner I would sometimes stay in the dining room and listen and go around the table giving shoulder-massages to some of the guests. Also as a child I used to spend a lot of time at the New School, where I would read the covers of his economics books, which always interested me, and would walk on my hands down the long corridors. Much more recently, (as an adult, just a few years ago) I spent a week with my father in Italy and met some of his friends and colleagues, including Bob Mundell, who I quite liked.

Yes, my father and I have strong disagreements - and yes we can chat economics, and have lively debates.

Out of the three, I have only met Anwar Shaikh, who I always liked. He was always at the New School, and was always friendly - I saw him within the last several years as well, at a conference.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comments and the stories.