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History of Political Economy 33.2 (2001) 385-386
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What Do Economists Know?
New Economics of Knowledge
What Do Economists Know? New Economics of Knowledge. Edited by Robert F. Garnett Jr. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. 259 pp. Cloth $90.00; paper $29.99.
I once organized a conference in the hopes of engendering a focused discussion among the participants. As I should have expected, the conferees were much more interested in presenting their own points of view, whether related to the theme of the conference or not, than engaging in a conversation. My disappointment mounted as I subsequently tried to edit a conference volume, for the contributors were less than willing to oblige me. Hence, I fully understand how Robert Garnett must have felt in editing the volume under review.
Supposedly, the papers in What Do Economists Know? rethink the question of what, how, by whom, and for whom economics is produced. As such, supposedly, they are a contribution to the so-called new economics of knowledge, which includes a wider range of knowledge producers, consumers, and possibly other interested parties than those considered in the “old” economics of knowledge. Garnett divides the papers into four sections, which focus on (1) the differences between academic economic knowledge and everyday economic knowledge, (2) the connections between academic and nonacademic loci of economic knowledge production, (3) pluralist philosophies of academic economic discourse, and (4) concrete matters of teaching and learning.
At first glance, Garnett's move to present the papers as contributions to the economics of knowledge is a shrewd one, for it allows him to organize widely divergent papers into discussions of the production, consumption, and distribution of (economic) knowledge. Yet, as a result, his interpretation of the economics of knowledge becomes so broad that he would have been able to include any contribution. Curiously, though, the volume contains no reflexive discussions of the economics of economic knowledge. For the fact that academic economic knowledge constitutes a monopoly is clearly in conflict with economists' celebration of perfect competition (unless it “supplies” the knowledge at lower “costs”). Moreover, the fact that no orthodox economics contributions are included in Garnett's collection may lead one to speculate that he advocates a monopoly position for heterodoxy.
While a superficial consideration of the economics of knowledge may present that field as a solution to Garnett's conundrum, a deeper evaluation brings out the pitfalls of this strategy. For, his “new” economics of knowledge offers a highly problematic picture of science. In fact, in its focus on knowledge, it is part of the so-called old economics of science. Yet, for the old economics of science, the idea of a marketplace of ideas and the attendant commodification of knowledge raised some thorny issues. On the one hand, efficient market exchange requires free information. On the other hand, optimal individual incentives require the commodification of information. Now, if science is equated with knowledge and if knowledge is equated with information, there may be no trade, or no science, in efficient scientific markets. These problems have led to the development of the “new” economics of science, which consists of a contextual approach to science, an argument that science cannot [End Page 385] be commodified, a disunity-of-science approach, and a questioning of the units of organization in science.
Despite the problems with the organizational framework, What Do Economists Know? does contain many interesting reflections. For instance, Judith Mehta explores the consequences of the fact that her anticipation of the readers' act of reading influences her writing. Michael Bernstein offers an insightful social history of U.S. economic thought during and after World War II. And Ulla Grapard explores the sense in which visual representations have been used, whether consciously or not, to exclude certain readers. Yet, in the end, the contributions to the volume leave the reader more with a sense of what economists do not know.
Esther-Mirjam Sent, University of Notre Dame