Economics, Bosses, and Interest

Maya Adereth, Shani Cohen and Jack Gross interview Stephen Marglin in Phenomenal World:

Stephen Marglin: There’s a story that keeps coming back and is never going to go away: most people believe that I only revealed my radical leanings after receiving tenure. The facts of the story are true—I was a neoclassically trained economist, I got tenure, and I changed my orientation. But the implied cause and effect are false.

I was a pink diaper baby. Pink, not red. I vividly remember my cousin coming back from WWII and trying to convince my parents to join the Communist Party, and their heated push-back. As a young adult, I was broadly left wing, but I didn’t view economics as an ideological discipline. For me it was a kind of operations research; I was at the tail end of a generation who entered economics in order to improve the world through appropriate government interventions. I saw no contradiction at all between doing neoclassical economics from nine to five and going to demonstrations against the Vietnam War evenings and weekends.

Things changed dramatically in 1968. I was in India during the academic year 1967–68, working on water-resources planning and teaching graduate students at the Indian Statistical Institute. Their mathematical preparation was so much better than that of Harvard grad students I had taught the previous year that I could indulge my own predilection for mathy economics. But I was surprised to learn that for many of my students, who had grown up in rural villages with largely communal forms of living, classical theory which began with the interests of individuals made little sense to them. The theoretical assumptions of economics bore no clear relation to how they lived. Working with these students formed the personal transformation through which I registered the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. From afar, the May protests in France seemed to herald the breakdown of the existing order.

More here.