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History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 594-596
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Economics Broadly Considered: Essays in Honor of Warren J. Samuels. Edited by Jeff E. Biddle, John B. Davis, and Steven G. Medema. London: Routledge, 2001. x; 374 pp. Cloth $130.00.
A festschrift for Warren Samuels, this book nevertheless possesses a central theme that unites all the essays. It is a book about the past, present, and future of American institutionalism as a tendency in economic thought.
The past is the focus of four essays (part 1, chapters 3–6) on the interwar period, a golden age of methodological pluralism when the institutionalist John Commons could make common cause with Irving Fisher around practical proposals for monetary reform (William Barber), when the empiricist Simon Kuznets could frame the reception of theorist Joseph Schumpeter's Business Cycles (Mark Perlman), when Frank Knight and Edward Chamberlin (both students of Allyn Young) could build [End Page 594] their theories of uncertainty and oligopoly, respectively, at the interstices between the institutionalist and neoclassical traditions (Geoffrey Hodgson and Andrew Skinner).
The present is the focus of most of part 2 (chapters 8–17), where American institutionalism is pictured as an embattled (if not ignored) minority tendency, shunted aside by the tendency of postwar economics toward mathematical formalism and narrowly neoclassical methodological commitments. Much has been lost to the profession, these essays argue, that nonetheless still survives and could be revived. The most effective of these essays are those that show rather than tell, as Philip Mirowski's clever juxtaposition of two ways of approaching a data set of nineteenth-century price forecasts (chapter 10), and Harry Trebing's use of the public utility concept to understand current and prospective regulatory issues (chapter 13).
What is largely missing is a reasoned account of how we got from there to here, but there are hints that might profitably be followed up. Notwithstanding Todd Lowry's account of the ancient "administrative tradition" in economics (chapter 1), which he says died with Adam Smith, in America first depression and then war placed a premium on the provision of practical advice to the state. And it was in precisely that context that institutionalism flourished.
What happened? Allan Schmid's collection of quotations sympathetic to institutionalism taken from the writings of postwar Nobel Prize winners (chapter 14) suggests a profession building on its institutionalist past, not rejecting it. Paul Samuelson's rational reconstruction of the classical paradigm (chapter 2) provides up-to-date testimony in support of Schmid: "The variety of the presented tableaux confirms that the determinateness of equilibrium and its quantitative properties, cannot be inferred solely from the anatomy of the technology, of the tastes, and of the factor-endowments data" (60).
Perhaps what happened was no more complicated than a shift in the nature of the advice that the state required? Perhaps the interwar and war period was about institution building, while the postwar period was about economic management? Bob Coats's account of how, responding to the turmoil of the late 1960s, the American Economic Association found room for minorities and women, but not for radical critiques (chapter 7), reminds us of the costs as well as benefits of reconfiguring economics as an expert policy science.
What of the future? Probably it depends on the nature of advice that those running the state think they need. Robert Solo, whose memoir closes the book (chapter 17), admits to surprise at finding himself "at the very edge of the millennium . . . amidst revolutionary change, with an unprecedented social and economic system unlike anything ever experienced before, with the computer in cyber space overturning our lives, with a global economy for the moment centered, it would seem, in the Wall Street Bull Market" (359). Perhaps once again we find ourselves in a time of institution building? Supposing so, the question arises, What intellectual resources, other than nostalgia for the interwar intellectual golden age, are available to permit us to rise to the new challenge? [End Page 595]
Nicholas Mercuro (chapter 12) reminds us that interwar institutionalism emerged from the...