Sunday, 21 October 2012

A review of “Affluence & Influence”

This one, blog four in the weekend series, is a book review I did for the Journal of the Society of Business Economists.  I'm being a little naughty, in that I'm posting it here shortly before it appears in the Journal, but I figure the overlap in readership is small, and I'm sure Diane Coyle, who edits the reviews section, won't mind.

A review of "Affluence & Influence", Martin Gilens (2012)

Concluding her 1962 classic “Economic Philosophy”, Joan Robinson - having, in the preceding pages, said much that could throw useful light on many of the contortions currently convulsing economics - writes:

“The first essential for economists, arguing among themselves, is to ‘try very seriously’, as Professor Popper says that natural scientists do, ‘to avoid talking at cross purposes’ and, addressing the world, reading their own doctrines aright, to combat, not foster, the ideology which pretends that values which can be measured in terms of money are the only ones that ought to count.”

Given the manifest political, social and environmental difficulties with which the world is now grappling, in large part as a result of the failure of a very particular economic ideology, Robinson’s entreaty is surely now more important than ever. In one key respect, however, she is in error: it is not solely among economists that there should be argument. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that unless economists – both orthodox and heterodox - very deliberately engage others in the argument, then there is every chance we shall merely replace one unsustainable ideology with another.

It is thus hugely important that figures such as Daniel Kahneman (psychologist), Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (epidemiologists) and Michael Sandel (political and legal philosopher) are making contributions. These heavyweight academics are not merely bridging the divide between academia and the general public; they are intruding into the arguments of economics using its very own tools of hard-arsed data, precision analysis and confident assertion.

It is surely into this argument that Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, hopes to venture with his book “Affluence and Influence”. With its cleverly assonant title and its commercially populist cover graphics, there seems little doubt that the book is being positioned in a very particular way.

The book’s content is straightforwardly signalled by its sub-title “Economic Inequality and Political Power in America” and Gilens asserts from the beginning that his work has not merely reached but has proven a profound and important conclusion: that wealthy people in the United States of America are dramatically and consistently more likely than anyone else to see their preferences reflected in actual policy decisions by government.

Such a conclusion is hardly a surprise and, to his credit, Galens acknowledges this at an early stage. However, in developing his ‘proof’, he subjects the reader to what is, in effect, a very long academic paper disguised as a generalist book. Hoping for an action-packed opening chapter of key findings and insight? No no. Try, instead, pages and pages of detailed and defensive caveats for the analysis that follows. Hoping for relief in chapter two? No no – have a thick dose of “Data and methods”.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps SBE members would like nothing more than pages of “policy responsiveness” statistics. Perhaps there are readers only too keen to know the minutiae of Congressional voting patterns and the precise implications of ‘gridlock’ for the extent to which different types of American see their wishes, on different types of issue, reflected in policy outcomes, under different Presidents. Perhaps there are economists who wish to argue that power and money are not, in fact, correlated and need to see the ‘evidence’ before they are persuaded.

It is the case, regrettably, that economics has reached a condition where it does indeed seem to require evidence that carefully and comprehensively explains exactly what it is that bears do in the woods. That being so, we probably need material from the likes of Martin Gilens. It would be best, however, if that material was presented in a more digestible format; and that books are used strictly for bigger parts of the argument.

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