Monday, March 05, 2007

Challenge Yourself

I occasionally browse back issues of Challenge, published by Michael E. Sharpe. Some readers of this blog might enjoy this semi-popular journal.

Its articles are more practical and policy-oriented than my posts. Some of the authors of these articles have been mentioned here. For example, in Challenge one can read Dean Baker on health care (Jan-Feb 2007), James K. Galbraith on a war economy (Nov-Dec 2001), and Thomas Palley on developing the domestic market (Nov-Dev 2006).

Challenge also includes interviews with economists. For example, in one recently, Duncan Foley (Nov-Dev 2006) explored some of the themes of his recent book, Adam's Fallacy. And the journal covers trends among academic economics.

The journal's authors do not have uniform opinions. Here's an example. Gerald Houseman is laudatory on Stigliz's work:
"Progress does occur. The formidable myth of 'free enterprise,' a major crutch for the belief systems of those who see market economics as a be-all and end-all, has been dead since at least 1986, and a rather modest economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, along with two fellow Nobel Prize winners in economic science, George Akerlof and Michael Spence, drove the final stake through its heart in the Stockholm Nobel Prize lecture of December 2001...

...Critical observers associate ['free enterprise'] with price-fixing, the Enron Corporation, environmental threats, consumer fraud, union-busting, anti-trust violations, deregulation, rationalizations for layoffs and for budget cuts in social welfare programs, privatization schemes, speculation, stock manipulation, chicanery, and corruption. Many of us have become weary of what is no more than a slogan that seems useful for the arsenal of those who are just plain greedy or who have divined, sometimes with assistance from On High, that 'free enterprise' legitimizes keeping people in their place as a part of the holy cause of inequality...

...For Stiglitz has destroyed the '[invisible] hand' as well, proving that markets do not really work in this way...

...Economics texts also generally ignore Stiglitz and his cohorts. Their micro-models are unaffected and the macro-talk has proceeded in much the same vein as ever, with only slight adjustments of various kinds over the years. (The Stiglitz economics text is the sole exception.)... Institutions claiming total devotion to market economics, as opposed to those that muddy this view by combining it with calls for government largess for certain corporations or industries (as in the cases of Bush's Medicare, energy, defense, and social security measures), are also still in business, even though they have no earthly reason, by intellectual measures at least, for continuing to exist. A few examples of purposeless ciphers are the Cato Institute propaganda mill, the Ayn Rand Institute, the Objectivist Society and its branches, the Club for Growth, and the law and economics sector of legal writing and academic work, which is headquartered at the University of Chicago and is closely associated with the eccentric Judge Richard Posner. Some of the verbal meanderings of former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, a Randy ideologue, have and should be regarded as part of this genre, and these are equally baseless.

It can be readily appreciated that some of these people and their organizations should be given the message of information economics (for their own self-interest, if for no other reason); but there is also real cause for doubting the motives and sincerity of some of the corporations, media organizations, and various other right-wing clusters who continue to spout market economics ideology..." -- Gerald Houseman (2006). "Joseph Stiglitz and the Critique of Free Market Analysis", Challenge (Mar.-Apr.): 52-62
Houseman also says Stiglitz provides tools needed for policy for economic development. On the other hand, Lance Taylor, an advocate of structuralism, is not nearly so glowing:
"Contemporary mainstream economics resembles Greek theater. The chorus ... incessantly chants that the economic system is basically competitive, populated by 'agents' with good information... [Agent] choices lead to welfare level as high as it possibly can ... in ... a 'Walrasian equilibrium'... [Stiglitz's] main theme is how 'asymmetric information' between actors can force the system away from a Walrasian position... Contrast the mainstream picture ..., whether viewed as a whole by the chorus or in detail with the actors, with an alternative 'structuralist' perspective, rooted in sociology... In the 'classical' variant ... the focus was on neither the price-mediated function of the whole nor the actions of individual actors, but rather on ... organized groups or classes such as capitalists, landlords, and peasants... How does [the structuralist approach] differ from the mainstream focus on individual actors as refined by Stiglitz? ...

Economists playing statistical games that show that their formal models of imperfect information are 'supported by the evidence' in a given institutional context simply ignore how social structure underlies economic responses - an observation that was crystal clear to their classical predecessors. In the absence of social change, their policy suggestions about how to ameliorate the inequity built into sharecropping, and other exploitative systems are beside the point..." Lance Taylor (2007). "A Review of Making Globalization Work, by Joseph E. Stiglitz",Challenge (Jan.-Feb.): 115-123
Taylor does say some of Stiglitz's policy proposals are good ideas.

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