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Once "the jewel" of the Economics Department today Marglin is the black sheep--the sole tenured radical professor. Having reversed his ideological stance during the turmoil of the '60s, after he received tenure, Marglin now feels, alone and isolated in a department he views as "right-wing" and "conservative."
Steven Marglin is not one of the boys in the Economics department. As the only tenured radical professor, Marglin is often a minority of one and sees no effort on Harvard's part to find him company. Moreover, Marglin feels the department and the Harvard community unconsciously discriminate against those with liberal political beliefs. From his vocal opposition to the possible appointment of Arnold C. Harberger to the director of Harvard Institure for International Development (HIID) to his support of an affirmative action program for faculty with radical ideologies, Marglin stands apart noticeably from his colleagues.
Marglin's career is case in point. "If his political outlook hadn't changed, he today would be the director of HIID," says James Duesenberry, professor of Economics, who taught Marglin when he was an undergraduate. But Marglin's political outlook has undergone dramatic changes since its mainstream beginnings.
When he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1959, Marglin was a neoclassical economist who believed the economy could be successfully managed by adjusting economic tools. He is now convinced that a "fundamental change" in society's structure is needed to bring about a more meaningful work, commumity and family experience. Workers, he believes, need to have more control over what is produced and which technologies are used. "We need worker participation in all levels of the production process, including real changes on the shop floor," he says.
Marglin, however, says he is a Marxist "only in the sense of not being anti-Marx." He believes the abolition of capitalism is "necessary but not sufficient," adding that a "revolution in people's perceptions" is necessary to combat the individualism that he believes is at the root of most disorders in contemporary America. Attitudes must change so that families no longer put old people into nursing homes and young people no longer need to seek surrogate families by joining cults, Marglin says, to cite two modern examples of the negative effects of individualism. "Compare how our society treats the old in terms of dignity and prestige with how so-called underdeveloped nations like India treats them. This is a problem no increase in GNP can possibly solve."
Whatever his views now, while an undergraduate Marglin had accepted the standard line of the Harvard Economics Department along with what he today sees as its subconscious message--"that the world is a complicated place and that taking a moral position is somehow suspicious in its over-simplification."
Marglin came to Harvard from Los Angeles in 1955. "I wanted to make it in terms of the preppy image. At that time those were the only terms in which making it counted," he explains. And make it he did; he played football, married a Wellesley graduate, and was hailed even while an undergraduate as the jewel of the Economics Department. Arthur Maass, Thompson professor of Government, remembers Marglin as a "remarkable young man who, when he was just a senior, wrote two of the best chapters in a book published by a team of graduate students and professors." Although Marglin was always somewhat to the left politically, his approach to economics was strictly neoclassical. "I thought," he says, "that what I was learning was a value-free set of tools." Maass agrees, remembering, "Marglin did not let his interest in politics divert him from a sincere concern about economic theory."
An early opponent of the Vietnam War, Marglin then saw nothing inconsistent in teaching neoclassical economics Monday through Friday and protesting the war on weekends. Beginning in 1966, when he started to teach graduate economic theory at Harvard, Marglin came to believe neoclassical theory contained an ideological defense of capitalism and not merely an explanation of how the system functions. Marglin's faith in traditional theories deteriorated further when he went to India the following year and "experienced increasing difficulty in relating these theories to the problems of Indian society. Indian students viewed these theories as not even remotely connected to reality." Though disenchanted with his former beliefs, he was waiting for some alternative to present itself--an attitude he now explains as an excuse for his own unwillingness to make the leap to radicalism.
Today Marglin still does not have a blueprint for a new way to reorganize the economy. He compares our situation today to "the position of people in the Middle Ages who were wondering if there was some better way to organize agricultural production." The change could occur in a violent way if society breaks down, Marglin says, but admits that he has hopes it might occur more gradually because, "although some have the notion that a purge or blood-letting is necessary, violence creates a certain terror of its own." Marglin points to current government technical assistance and funding for research on new methods of production as small steps in the right direction, adding that trade unions, such as the United Auto Workers, have also become involved in production-management experimentation.
After publishing several neoclassical tracts and receiving tenure in 1967, Marglin left again for India. While there, he fell in love with and later married a French woman raised in Morocco who sensitized him to the wealth of non-Western cultures. he explains. At the same time the student uprisings that brought Paris to a near-standstill in 1968 helped to dispel Marglin's belief in the immutability of the capitalist order. Marglin returned to Harvard no longer believing that the liberal position made sense.
The extreme change in Marglin's beliefs led some to believe that he had been a "closet Marxist" at the time he was a candidate for tenure. Malcolm Gillis, professor of Economics, attributes this charge to the fact that Marglin was making radical statements during the late '60s, "a time of academic acrimony." Marglin today acknowledges that if his present radicalism had then been evident in his work, the University would have probably refused to grant him tenure. Still he denies being a "closet anything. I believed in the separation of my work from my politics then. I don't anymore," he says. Having tenure however, made it easier for him to become a radical since he possessed a secure income as well as the "inner security that came from knowing I had made it in their world," he adds.
Marglin's transition isolated him from the rest of the department. "It's all right to be in the minority a lot of the time if the two groups are shifting and everybody tastes a little bit of both sides, but I'm in the minority almost all the time." He notes a general tendency to regard his more recent works less seriously. "People feel it's not economics, it's irrelevant, it's speculation." Maass asserts that Marglin's later career has not been as extraordinary as his early work, adding, "I don't hold that against him, his early work was exceptional."
Marglin argues that while most professors here view him as a partisan, they deny that they themselves possess an ideology. "Many Harvard professors think of ideology as something the other fellow has," Marglin comments, adding that the prevailing attitude at Harvard is that the study of the social sciences can be objective, and this results in a limited spectrum of political ideologies here. He points to the preponderance of he main outlook in the Economics Department: a right-wing, conservative, free-market one. "If you compare my department's political-cultural spectrum to the world's, it by no means reflects the diversity of traditions and ideologies," he says, adding that he sees no effort in Economics to encourage diversified viewpoints by hiring faculty with perspectives that differ from the status quo. Although he beleives instances of conscious discrimination are rare, "People will evaluate the tenure candidates' work thinking in good conscience that they're doing it on an objective basis, and if they find the candidate's questions, methods, and answers very different from their own, they conclude that there's nothing in this work, this is inferior work, or any variation of these themes."
Marglin says he has no proof of this tendency, but he points out that the Economic Department has become more narrow in its views since his undergraduate years. Then people seriously debated the issue of whether a large military budget was needed to maintain a prosperous economy. "Today it's no longer even discussed."
For this reason, Marglin advocates an affirmative action program for viewpoints that are not adequately represented throughout the University. He envisions a directive from the president which "enjoins departments to present a balance of views."
Maass disagrees that such a proceedure is necessary. "We certainly haven't gone out and made a special search for Marxists," Maass comments, "If we did, you wouldn't get scholars who would be recognized all over the world. That is what we are looking for." Duesenberry says that he thinks the Economics Department "tries to see pure talent when we find it," adding that he has voted to tenure with whose views he strongly disagrees. "Nobody is perfectly objective," he explains, "All I think you can do is try to rise above it."
Yet while Marglin believes that in an ideal academic situation, no individual should be denied appointment because of his ideology, nevertheless, he protests the appointment of more free-market conservatives because they are already over-represented in the department. Failing to accept President Bok's claim of academic freedom as a justification for the Harberger appointment, Marglin states that the directorship of the HIID is a policy-making, not an academic, postion. Moreover, Marglin's critique of the Harberger appointment extends beyond the specifics of Harberger's career. "I don't think," says Marglin, "the real issue is Al Harberger or at what point Al Harberger officially became a representative of the Chilean electric company." Harberger's Chilean connections are significant only because Chile, the only country committed to a parliamentary route to socialism, "is not just another repressive regime but a symbol" of U.S. opposition to different forms of government.
And although Marglin says he would find most mainstream economists unsuitable for the position, Harberger "represents an extreme case who, even more than most, would narrow the political range of countries and programs the HIID can be involved in." Harberger's policy requires an ideological commitment to the free market, which many Third World governments are unwilling to make, Marglin explains, saying not only does the implementation of these policies require the repression of civil liberties, but also the crushing of any free or independent labor movement there. Marglin lists one more reason for the unsuitabiltiy of Harberger: HIID recently attempted to broaden its conception of development by hiring an anthropologist and a sociologist. Harberger, he believes, would endanger an attempt to broaden the types of analysis at HIID which is "just beginning and, at the moment, is very fragile."
Despite the fact that Marglin is often isolated within the Economics Department because of his outspoken and liberal beliefs like this one, he maintains that Harvard is the best place for him because he hopes, by teaching, to give students an alternative framework to turn to if they ever undergo the same crisis of faith he did as a newly tenured professor.
While Marglin's philosophy focuses largely on how to develop a society where status affiliations between menial and mental work disappear, the professor, however, who acknowledges that he himself lives a bourgeois lifestyle--and admits that Harvard is the best place for his research--says, "One can't live totally out of joint with society. One must make compromises."
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