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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Radical Economics: How Not to Get Tenure at Harvard

By Jeremy S. Bluhm

Five years ago, Sam Bowles was a conventional economist – not by choice, but because conventional economics was the only kind offered at Harvard when he came here in the early sixties as a graduate student. Bowles helped to change that.

In 1968, in the charged atmosphere of growing opposition to the war and increasing polarization within the universities, he and a number of other young economists at Harvard, Yale, the University of Michigan, American University, and a few other schools, began approaching economics in a new way – at least, in a way that was new to them.

Their approach has developed into a new variant of Marxist economics that places particular emphasis on the operations of modern “monopoly” capitalism and on Marx’s social and political – rather than strictly economic – theories. As a result of their interest, Marxist economics – up to now, largely untaught in the economics departments of American universities – is receiving a degree of attention it has never before received in this country.

Bowles specializes in the economics of education. His early work was based on a view of education as an investment which students make to increase their later earning potential. Now, Bowles began viewing the educational system as a means for fitting students into the class structure of the capitalist system.

He began de-emphasizing the choice the individual student makes in deciding to obtain a given amount of education and, with Herbert I. Gintis, former lecturer at the Ed School, began stressing the role of education in preparing the students to accept the existing economic structure.

For Bowles and other Harvard economists who call themselves radicals, planning and teaching Social Sciences 125, “The Capitalist Economy: Conflict and Power,” played a crucial role in the transformation of their thinking.

Soc Sci 125 grew out of discussions which began in the Spring of 1968 among graduate students and junior faculty in a number of departments. The group was considering the formation of radical courses which would give more attention to problems like racism and poverty than these problems received in the standard curricula.

Eventually, the group split into two parts. One was made up of members of the Economics Department, who began Soc Sci 125. The other was made up of members of several other Departments, who began the controversial and short-lived course Soc Rel 148-149.

Soc Sci 125 was first given in the Spring of 1969. Its teachers held weekly planning seminars, which played a key role in the development of their radical approach. In their critique of the economic system, the group first relied on conventional theory, having no alternative to present in its place. However, many felt already that the conventional theory was inadequate for dealing with social problems that concerned them politically; eventually, all came to feel this.

In general, they realized, their values did not differ markedly from the values of most conventional economists. Both they and the conventional economists agreed that poverty and racism were bad and should be eliminated. The problem with conventional theory, they felt, was that it could not explain the problems they saw facing society.

The radicals saw these problems as inherent in the capitalist system. Influenced particularly by the writing of Marxists Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Andre Gorz, they began to focus their attention on the basic institutions of capitalism, as they perceived them, and on how these institutions operate.

Among these institutions, they included the system of private property – in which some own land or capital and others own only labor, which they must sell to survive; the free market in labor, in which labor is a commodity sold to the highest bidder; capitalist control over the work process and the technologies employed within the firm; and the socialization system of school and family, which prepares the worker to function in the hierarchical capitalist system.

With this view of the economic system, they believed, they could explain the important social problems which concerned them, problems which conventional economics did not attempt to explain. Conventional economists leave it to sociologists and psychologists, for instance, to explain racism. As economists, though not necessarily as people, they are concerned mainly with the impact of racism on the allocation of resources within the economic system.

Radical economists see racism as a re-inforcement of the capitalist system. By dividing white from black workers, racism is seen to keep the two groups from uniting against those who own capital and, to a large extent, therefore control their lives.

Historically, of course, it may not be possible to prove any conspiracy on the part of the ruling class to encourage racism for this purpose. Nevertheless, if racism does support capitalist ownership of the means of production, this might be regarded as strong evidence that it is tied, to some extent, to capitalism.

At Harvard, as elsewhere, the adherents of the radical approach have generally been junior professors and graduate students, not the established, tenured members of the economics profession who make the hiring and promotion decisions within their departments. These older, established economists have not been quick to accept radical economics. And so, radical economists have not done well in their climb up the academic ladder.

Since 1969-70, four Harvard radicals have been knocked off the Department ladder. Only one radical, Stephen A. Marglin ’59, professor of Economics, has gained tenure. Marglin received tenure in 1967 for work which he describes as “squarely in the orthodox tradition.”

In December, the Department voted not to recommend Bowles, who had reached the rank of associate professor, for tenure. Shortly after, it decided not to promote another radical, Arthur MacEwan, assistant professor of Economics, to associate professor. The radicals charge that these decisions, and earlier decisions not to promote radicals Herbert Gintis and Thomas Weisskopf, were “inherently political.”

The Department’s decisions not to rehire Bowles and MacEwan received national coverage. Possibly as a result, Gintis was rehired in January as an assistant professor with a guaranteed promotion to the untenured rank of associate professor.

Only about one of 12 assistant professors in Economics receives tenure – most non-radicals are not rehired either. But the radicals contend that their dismissals from the Department have been more than statistical coincidences.

Their political activities, especially in the Department, may have played some role in the decisions. In November 1968, Richard E. Caves, then chairman of the Department, took notice enough of Gintis’s politics as a graduate student to write the chairman of another department in which Gintis was being considered for an appointment: “My impression is that Gintis spends a rather large proportion of his time and energies being New Left.” (A friend of Gintis’s in the other department obtained the letter.)

Caves says he couldn’t “remember all the specifics now” of what activities of Gintis’s he had regarded as New Left. Gintis thinks it could only have been his attempts, with other graduate students, including MacEwan, to have the Marxist Ernest Mandel invited to give a special lecture at Harvard. He says the faculty committee in charge of the lectures had given the Department’s graduate student organization permission to choose some of the lecturers, but that Cave had refused to approve the invitation to Mandel.

Caves denies that he took a position one way or the other on the invitation. He said Mandel was not invited because of an “administrative hassle.”

Since the Mandel issue, graduate students in the Department have demanded a greater voice in hiring and curriculum decisions of the Department. Nearly all the graduate students’ demands, except some concerning the general exams, have been refused. The radical professors have supported all the graduate students’ demands and this, they feel, has made them no friends among the senior members of the Department.

But the radicals see another consideration as much more important in their failures to get promoted. They argue that conventional economists cannot judge radical work fairly, because the conventional economists do not even consider the radicals’ concerns with capitalist institutions to be within the realm of economics.

As the radicals see it, conventional economists study economic behaviour without examining the institutional framework within which that activity takes place, while the radicals’ main concern is precisely to study that framework. The difference between Bowles’s early and later work illustrates the difference: conventional economists study individual decisions to invest in so many years of education while radicals consider the role the educational system plays in maintaining the class structure.

In choosing not to study and question the institutional framework of capitalism, conventional economists are making a political choice, the radicals say. By not questioning this framework, they are maintaining the belief that the structure is basically benign or immutable, or both. And if the conventional economists’ judgments about what economists should study are political, then their judgments about the value of radical work are political, too.

Most senior members of the Department do not see the question in these terms. They see the difference between radical and conventional economics partially as a difference of emphasis, with the radicals emphazising sociological and political questions as well as economic ones. Members of the Department differ as to the place of such questions in economics, but do not see their opinions on this issue as ideologically determined.

They point out that some non-radical sociologists and economists have, like Bowles, studied the influence of class background, I.Q., and education on success. And they feel it is quite possible to judge this empirical work by non-ideological standards.

They classify Bowles’s characteristically radical conclusions about the role of the educational system in the class structure as speculation, not economics. To the radicals, of course, the working out of these conclusions is the most important part of their work. In the eyes of conventional economists, these conclusions may not detract from the radicals’ work, but they add little to its professional quality. This judgment, from their point of view, is not ideological, but scientific.

The radicals make “strong assertions,” and I don’t find warrant for them,” Robert Dorfman, Wells Professor of Economics, commented. “It’s not that I disbelieve them – I have no grounds for either accepting or rejecting them,” he said.

James S. Duesenberry, charman of the Department, feels essentially the same about the radicals’ conclusions. He divides the radicals’ work into two parts – the empirical work, such as Bowles has done on the effects of class background, I.Q., and education on income, and the “commentary and interpretation of the social and political forces at work – how these results came about. Usually it has something to do with why it is advantageous to some groups to have these results come about.”

In considering Bowles for tenure, Duesenberry said, “there was no minus for that political commentary, as far as I was concerned.” But, as someone who does think economists should devote more attention to what he calls the “interface” between economics, sociology and political science, Duesenberry thought the more important question was whether Bowles was “the best we can get” of the people doing empirical work in this area.

To most of the Department’s mathematical theoreticians, there is no point to economists even asking these socio-political questions, no matter how important they might be. In their view, economists have to limit themselves to dealing with the kinds of questions which their methodology fits them for. This is not an ideological choice, in their view, but a practical one.

The possible shortcomings that can result from limiting economics in this way are, perhaps, best illustrated in the area of welfare economics, in which Gintis has done some of the most important radical work. Conventional economists measure welfare by the system’s ability to meet people’s preferences for goods and services. But, if people’s preferences are shaped by the system – particularly, if the system trains them to measure their own welfare in terms of individual consumption rather than such “goods” as community and meaningful work – the conventional way of measuring the system’s efficacy becomes somewhat questionable.

“The conventional practitioners of welfare economics are aware that wants are of affected by the system, by the whole culture,” Abram Bergson, Baker Professor of Economics and a conventional welfare economist, said of this problem. (Bergson also specializes in the economics of socialism.)

“Pigou, one of the founders of modern welfare economics…recognizing that, in raising the real income of the ordinary guy, it may be that there will be contrary changes in personality,” Bergson said. His “presumption”, however, was that raising real income would generally increase, not decrease, overall welfare, Bergson said.

That presumption might not be correct, Bergson commented, but, he said, Gintis does not answer the question: what should the economist do about it? “That economic systems produce not only goods and services but people – that would generally be agreed. Merely stating that fact is not very novel. The question is, how do you take that into account?” he said. So far, Gintis and the other radical economists have not answered that question, he said.

To the radicals, the criticism that they have not yet answered the questions that they have raised is unfair, considering the relative amounts of time which have gone into the development of the radical and conventional approaches. Because of the historical unwillingness of American universities to appoint Marxists, it is only natural that the conventional approach to economics is much more highly developed, they feel.

During the discussion of Bowles’s tenure in the Department, Marglin asked that Harvard give radical economics a chance to develop further – by promoting Bowles, who, with Gintis, has done some of the most important work in refining the radical approach.

At least a few tenured members of the Department are willing to give radical economics a chance – among them, three past or present presidents of the American Economic Association, Wassily Leontief, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Kenneth J. Arrow, 1972 Nobel laureate in economics

These three are in the small group of senior professors who supported Bowles’s bid for tenure. (Arrow stressed that he supported Bowles for a combination of reasons: he though Bowles’s appointment would broaden the Department and he felt Bowles’s work was “good enough” judged by standards that “hardly had anything to do with radicalism.”) .

Whether the Department’s re-appointment of Gintis represented a real or token commitment to radical economics is uncertain. This is especially true in view of Duesenberry’s explanation of how Gintis, who was overwhelmingly defeated for re-appointment three years ago, was re-hired: because Gintis’s appointment was to be an untenured one, members of the Department felt they had little to lose by appointing him and letting the radicals’ senior faculty supporters who had been repeated “losers”, win this time. At any rate, there was much less at stake than in the making of a tenured appointment.

It remains to be seen whether Harvard’s conventional economists will continue to pass over radical economists on the grounds that they ask important but unanswerable questions or whether they will make a long term commitment to this alternative world view and approach.

Gintis is not remaining at Harvard to find out. This Spring, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst lured him away. In a dramatic step, UMass offered tenure to four radical economists at once. Gintis and Bowles were two of them.

The two will remain at Harvard one more year. When they leave, only one radical, Marglin, will remain among Harvard’s 60-odd economists. The concentration of strength in radical economics has clearly shifted westward in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Harvard preserves economic Veritas, narrowly defined.

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