Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Herbert Gintis, Amazon Reviewer

Herb Gintis has now posted 231 reviews to Amazon. He has something to anger everybody.

Here he describes Jerry Cohen as a "supporter of virtually unsupportable Marxian doctrines" and having "studied ignorance of standard social and psychological theory."

He gives only two stars to Keen's Debunking Economics because, according to Gintis, it attacks a straw person. Mainstream economics is not as depicted by Keen, only undergraduate teaching is. "Abjectly brainless", "often just plain wrong", and "like teaching ... phlogiston and ether in physics class" are Gintis' phrases. I like how defenders of the mainstream cannot and will not defend economics as taught.

Gintis also gives only two stars to Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and His Critics. Basically, he disagrees that "Lawson's arguments are so powerful that few economists now feel that his case can be ignored." According to Gintis, his case can too be ignored; economists just ignore methodology. Gintis doesn't really engage the give and take in the book. I think he should have noted his agreement with John Davis's take on the openness of mainstream economics to some kinds of heterodox contributions.

I found this review of a recent George Soros book of interest. Some blame the current financial meltdown on failures of either individual or collective rationality. Gintis says that even if everybody were as rational as some (Chicago?) economists posit, market fundamentalism would still be unfounded. He bases this claim on the failure of the Arrow-Debreu model of General Equilibrium to have any attractive dynamical properties. He recommends agent-based modeling to analyze capitalist economies.

Gintis has quite a few positive reviews of rightists. For example, he gives four stars to Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. (Despite most of the reviews I'm highlighting, he also has some extremely positive reviews for liberals and leftists.) I think his reviews of right wing books generate more comments, and Gintis replies. (The worst are full of passionate intensity.) One review of a book that I would think is not worth reading currently has 103 comments.

In addition to politics and economics, he has also reviewed books on language, biology, and logic. I want to recall the existence of Torkel Franzen's Godel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse.


chrismealy said...

Robert, have you read Bowles's "Microeconomics"? The Bowles and Gintis contested exchange/endogenous enforcement deal captures a lot of that capital-as-power stuff you're into. I think you'd like it a lot. Bowles doesn't actually mention the CCC but it seems to me like he's got a good angle on it, chapter 8 specifically. Chapter 9 hits on choice of technology and labor discipline too.

Anonymous said...

I met, briefly, Gintis after he took part in a seminar on group selection (he is for it, I'm not convinced as mutual aid does not need group selection -- oh, btw, I've updated my essay on Kropotkin to fit typos and add some more material).

I did find it interesting that he said that all the major debates in science more or less ended in 1989 with the collapse of Stalinism. Apparently, there is now just science -- from which I inferred that the existence of the Soviet Bloc was somehow politicising scientific discussions...

He also, ironically, said that there was no dispute in the sciences -- and gave as an example economics. I did point out that this was hardly true and he did accept the point. But he does seem to be very much of the opinion that neo-classical economics IS economics (even if he laments the teaching of it).

He also singularly failed to understand my point that the class background and position of academics as well as cultural and system assumptions influenced their "science" -- in terms of what what they look for, what analogies they used, what conclusions they drew and so forth. He thought I was suggesting academics deliberately politicised their work. While that does happen, that was not my point.

Suffice to say, the notion that middle-class white guys in a capitalist environment are just apolitical seekers of the truth just seems to be a bit optimistic. And what was surprising was that he used to consider himself a Marxist yet knew nothing of the basics of materialism.

I raised this question of class bias after one of the academics suggested that we were more like venture capitalists than Mother Teresa. I asked why not trade unionists rather than venture capitalists, as they are far more of them. To which the academic responded that he had no idea how a union operated and was not a member...

Which in itself says a lot. I cannot help thinking that this decision reflects certain biases which he probably is not aware he has.

All in all, I got the impression that Gintis is now an ex-Marxist who has concluded that capitalism won in 1989. Which is a shame, particularly as it suggests he had some illusions in Stalinism and some confusion of what genuine socialism is.

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Ian Wright said...

Gintis explicitly rejects Classical and Marxist economics and believes that any notion of economic value is philosophically confused. Like many 60/70's radical intellectuals he once flirted with Marx (e.g., defending value theory at one time) but soon departed when the cultural winds blew in a different direction. Since for Gintis there is nothing but price (and nothing that price refers to) he grounds his critique of capitalism in principal agent theory, but loses a great deal of critical bite in the process.

Robert Vienneau said...

I have not read Bowles and Gintis' work on contested exchange. I just haven't got around to it, although it does sound useful when thinking about the employer-employee relationship.

Gintis says he became a Marxist because that's what people he was opposed to opposed. It was no accident that there was nobody at Harvard (e.g. Paul Sweezy wasn't there) to teach him about Marxism.

It is amusing how many times in his reviews he says he has no idea where some belief comes from, and he doesn't think it's politics. I don't claim ideas are so directly driven by Republican/Democrat divides or positions on specific issues. But as Iain notes, that's not the interesting claim. I do think even a uite vulgar Marxism might be helpful for the sociology of knowledge.

Alex said...

Interesting. I had read Bowles and Gintis critique of gen eq; which does suggest that they are not willing to criticise the paradigm but just make ad-hoc adjustments to it.

Your post has given me a better understanding of Gintis, the economist.

In one review Gintis has mentioned how he dedicated his dissertation to Marx! As he writes "I have come to appreciate neoclassical economics and defend its being taught as the central paradigm in graduate economics programs."

So much for internal criticisms! Its just to create more puzzles- without really trying to criticise.