Wednesday, 12 January 2005

Robert Heilbroner Dies

An excellent write-up in the NYT on the passing of Robert Heilbroner:

Dr. Heilbroner’s first book, “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers,” written before he received his doctorate, is one of the most widely read economics books of all time. He was also a prominent lecturer as well as the author of 19 other books, which sold more than 10 million copies and, in many cases, became standard college textbooks.

A witty writer, he called himself a “radical conservative,” an oxymoron suggesting that, like Don Quixote, he wanted to rush rapidly forward, break the mold – and end up right where he was. But in that he was only half joking. He did indeed want to conserve the basic separation of the national economy from the national government, as suggested by Adam Smith in the 18th century. But he believed, too, that when the economy was hit with severe recessions or high unemployment or yawning income gaps, for example, government had to intervene with public spending that stimulated economic activity and generated jobs and the construction of public works that contributed to higher living standards.

Although popular with students and the general reader, he was regarded by mainstream economists as a popularizer and historian whose insights made no great contribution to the study of the field. He, in turn, saw their reliance on mathematics and computer modeling as narrow in vision and as losing sight of the very purpose of economics – to help improve the well-being of people at work and of the society they work in.

“The worldly philosophers,” Dr. Heilbroner said in a 1999 interview, “thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system – the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical. And modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much and leave modern economists without a true understanding of how the system works.”

The article goes on to mention, quite prominently, that Heilbroner criticized capitalism, and the neoclassical model, for its failure to address negative externalities (mainly pollution). I don’t know the full extent of his comments on this issue, but I believe the issue has actually been addressed. Few economists disagree with notion of forcing the full cost of externalities on producers, thus embedding them in prices. That argument was settled at least as far back as 1990, with the amendments to the Clean Air Act. Economists just favor market mechanisms that allow the producers to determine the best way to eliminate pollution, rather than, say, requiring them to install scrubbers—a solution that was favored by coal interests in West Virginia, IIRC.

Heilbroner's other criticisms of economics these days are a matter of ongoing debate, particularly by New Institutionalists. Great piece. RTWT.