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Radical Isolation

Stephen Marglin: Out of the Mainstream In the Economics Department

By Michael S. Terris

The doors along the hall are tightly closed--all shut save one, form which drifts the name Marx, hanging on the air as if it senses it is not wanted here. The voice rambles on in a steady, soothing monotone, indicating this must be the right room. Somewhere nearby, unseen, an F B I. agent or two must lurk Inside, books litter the office, covering the walls and scattered about the floor Stacks of folders stand four feet high on top of the desk, propped up against a bookshelf. Papers seen to crawl out of every available crack This tiny room has become the lonely beachhead of radical economics at Harvard It is the office of Stephen A Marglin '59

Radical economists are rare in the Harvard Economics Department, and, with the noted exception of Marglin, only mainstream economics occupies a permanent place on the top floor of Littauer Marglin's own appointment was in many ways, a fluke Wild speculation has accompanied the story of his tenure. "I have been accused or admired, depending on your point of view, of having been a closet radical all those years, and just waiting until I got tenure to show my true colors." Marglin says. "I wish I could claim such foresight, but the reality is more prosaic."

Describing himself as a child of the '60s who was merely a little older than most who fell under the spell of the times. Marglin says his conversion to radical thought occurred shortly after he received tenure in the spring of 1967. Prior to that, he had perceived no inherent contradiction between his liberal weekend politics and his working week mainstream economics. Only latter, he says, did he recognize that the implicit ideology behind the latter was untenable with the former. He had dedicated himself to developmental economics for its challenge. "We had been taught, and we believed, there were no economic problems in the United States and similar countries. The economic problem here was to persuade the few Republican politicians, who still went to bed with pictures of Calvin Coolidge under them pillows, that Keynes was good for them and his theories would save capitalism, not destroy it." This carried him to India on sabbatical in the year 1967 1968 to espouse a disguised White Man's Burden.

Marglin cites his year teaching economics in India where he found himself hard pressed to explain the relevance of the mainstream line to Indian problems as a major factor in the question Readings--particularly J K Galbraith's The New Industrial State the student movement observations of the world and changes in his personal life also contributed heavily to Marglin's rejection of his new-classical training He had to face students demanding answers to questions about the connection between American capitalism and the war in Vietnam--questions which, he says, the mainstream refused to address, considering them in the realm of sociology or politics, not economics To admit that these questions had relevance to economic meant entering the radical world.

When Marglin studied economics here as an Undergrad, he recalls, the department spent two days on Marx; one to present his theories, and one to explain why they were wrong. Ten years later, after reading Marx thoroughly, Marglin still reached the conclusion that Marx's broad theory was invalid, yet he refused to discard Marx entirely He, lime many radical economics, abandoned Marx's strict gospel in favor of newer theories Yet Margin charges few students of mainstream economics understand or appreciate this shift Otto Eckstein. Warburg Professor of Economics says there is not much non Marxist radical theory Few mainstream economists would dispute Eckstein's assertion, and most in the field have labelled Marglin a "Marxist."

In his early years, Marglin had colleagues on the faculty who also experienced the leftward drift of the late '60s, although he alone had tenure. In the year 1969-1970, five other young professors gave the Economics Department a solid core of radical though. It appeared, very briefly, as if Harvard might become the vanguard in the emerging field of radical economics.

That period vanished with many dreams of the 60s: By 1973, Harvard had slammed the door in the face of the last two.

The rejection of one of them, Samuel S. Bowles, created quite a controversy because the students, and some of the Faculty, liked and respected him immensely. Marglin said at the time that he thought most members of the Department were not "capable of appreciating or judging the quality of work on an alternative model with which they are at best superficially familiar and almost totally unsympathetic. "Eckstein, however, says the department can evaluate a candidate's work in any part of the economics field. About the decision nine years ago, he adds. "Bowles could only have been appointed on the grounds we needed a radical economist. "He cites Bowles insufficient body of research up to that time as the primary grounds for the refusal to grant tenure, adding "We don't refuse to hire people for then political views." Whatever the cause, Marglin soon became an anomaly.

For years the Economics Department sequestered Marglin denying him a major role in the department. Marglin taught his few graduate and undergraduate courses but presented nothing to the masses in Economics 10 Prior to the arrival of Jeff Wolcowitz, the course head section leader. Ec 10 organizers had approached Marglin out of sheer courtesy to give a token radical lecture Marglin says of their offers. "I think the preferred time was January 17th, midnight"

When Wolcowitz took over the course three years ago, he and Marglin agreed to a schedule that permitted a week to present the radical view point Although this offer still gave radical thought less time than any other unit Marglin considered it a worthwhile start, three lectures and a set of readings. Previously, the optional radical sections had been the only outlet for radical thought. Then, as now, these classes had to devote most of their time to mainstream economics since the students had to take the coursewide final exam. Thus, the teachers were forced to squeeze in the radical theories as best they could, often by holding extra meetings. Currently sixty-four students are enrolled in radical sections, but Wolcowitz says, "I don't have very strong feelings in favor of them." He argues that they are unnecessary now that the body of the course covers radical economics.

Next year Social Analysis 10, as the class in now called, will undergo a transition Wolcowitz will hand over the reins to a new professor, who will have the power to retain Radical Week as is, expand it, or remove it from the curriculum entirely. Wolcowitz says he hopes his initiative has gathered enough momentum that the unit will remain part of the course.

Harvard's willingness to seek diversity among its students is one of its greatest assets, but Marglin and others charge that the University does not take the same attitude with regard to its faculty. Without a variety of viewpoints they say, a student lacks the tools to truly evaluate the material presented, synthesize it with his/her own experience, and formulate an educated opinion of where where the truth lies. In Marglin's words, "We do a poor job of teaching when we fail to expose people to more than one theory, even if all we want to do is eventually teach that one theory."

Eckstein defends the department, arguing that it offers as much or more radical economics than most leading universities. In explaining why Harvard has only one tenured radical, he says, "We should not appoint people for ideological reasons. "Explaining that "We have not accepted economics as a separate field, he adds have one tenured professor in good standing in the field," even though he acknowledges this not the result of design.

Eckstein says that the whole debate about the role of radical economics "is an echo of the past Fourteen years ago, it was not so clear the Soviet economy does not work "He points to the Soviet and Chinese economic systems as examples of radical economics failures in the real world. (Radical economics however, contend that Mars did not intend his theories to be applied to under developed nations). Although most radical economists. Marglin included dissociate themselves and then their theories from the repression to today's communism. Eckstein insists that the lessons from the real world are indicative of the fallibility of radical theories

When asked it Harvard's disdain for radical economics expresses supreme confidence in the American capitalist system, despite such major warnings of instability as the Great Depression and out current crisis, Eckstein replies. "It might I think it we had another big depression, we would add a fourth radical lecture [to Social Analysis 10]" This seems to voice the general feeling in the Economics Department that radical thought a peripheral to the real work of the field

In advocating that the department give more consideration to radical thought. Marglin focuses much of his argument on intellectual honesty. A range of viewpoints is beneficial to the student's learning and he says, "You don't know the important assumptions from the trivial assumptions the way it's done [now]. You don't know why this assumption is made: whether it's just to keep things near and simple whether it really is a fundamentally distinctive point of view that has to do with a particular way of looking at the world"

Marglin makes it clear he expects the status quo will continue unless students become vocal in demanding change, as they were in the late '60s, Meanwhile, he maintains his lonely outpost at the top of Littauer, surrounded by his mainstream colleagues There he waits for the political ride to shift, once again bringing his views into the center of debate. Maybe then, it students provide the impetus, he will no longer face isolation in the department Of the current situation, he says, "I think the real lonely are the students.

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