Sam Bowles and Inequality

by Henry Farrell on February 3, 2010

A “good article”: in the _Santa Fe Reporter._ I’m quoted in it a few times, although I’m not sure that I’m especially qualified to pronounce upon his career and thought which are respectively far more distinguished and far more wide-reaching than my own. When I see myself having said ““I think what he’s doing is very smart. And it actually has some promise for a future, coherent research agenda,” I wince a little – what I meant to say is closer to “very, very _very_ smart” and a “future, coherent research agenda that could help remake the field of economics as a whole.”

The piece is good on the linkage between economics and inequality:

Bowles’ course was set in 1968, when he was an assistant professor at Harvard, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to his department looking for advice on the next stage of his social justice campaign. “We were just elated that we could use economics, which we had so painstakingly learned, to answer questions that Dr. King thought were important,” Bowles tells SFR. “We were also extremely angry that we were totally unable to answer the questions on the basis of having gotten a PhD at Harvard.”

… Most economists in 1968 thought of inequality as “somebody else’s problem,” Bowles tells SFR. “I actually was denied the right to teach a graduate course in inequality because it was said not to be economics.” It wasn’t always thus. “The founders of the discipline of economics, almost to a man—and they were only men—thought that the problem of distribution between classes—they used the word classes—was the key to understanding why nations grew or not,” Bowles says. What Bowles sees as the essence of his profession—problems of wealth distribution—the Friedmanites see as the road to hell.

Mainstream political science was no better, failing nearly entirely to investigate the sources of structural inequality in the US (there is still no coherent field of American political economy) . My sense is that both fields have improved significantly over the last several years – the causes and consequences of inequality is a significant focus of research – but they have a hell of a long way to go.



Substance McGravitas 02.03.10 at 11:17 pm

Thanks for the article, a good read.


Substance McGravitas 02.03.10 at 11:37 pm

Bowles’ suggestions—radical yet oddly conservative—also mesh well with his general approach to economics.

The “oddly conservative” description seems to mean “he likes proof”.


Simple answer 02.04.10 at 1:34 am

There is plenty in the world for everyone. However, the people that run the place are all insanely greedy fucks.

Bill Gates descendants will never have to work for 20,000 years. That is past the point of insane.

I worked for a group of doctors and by simply introducing business procedures, I increased their incomes by almost 80 percent in less than 2 years. Not one said, “thank you.” 5 out of 8 asked “how much will we make next year.” Shove gold down their throats till they choke and they will write their last words of “more more more.”


om 02.04.10 at 5:07 am

I thought “oddly conservative” referred to what you might call the ‘individual responsibility’ aspect of his proposal — you get a one-off payment of $250,000, and then you’re on your own. If you mess up, no more welfare assistance. (I’m not sure whether this is precisely what he proposes, but it sounded that way in the article.)


Substance McGravitas 02.04.10 at 5:12 am

I thought he meant “This $250,000 is the sum.”

Seems to me that he’s worried about inequity after the age of 18 as well.


North 02.04.10 at 5:17 am

It’s true, and strangely true, that there’s no American political economy. On the other hand, there are rumors that my graduate program will offer a course in it next year, and when I applied to political science programs, I found more than one that took inequality seriously as something to investigate in the US. Unfortunately, I didn’t find many more than one.


kevincure 02.04.10 at 5:24 am

The most recent winner of the John Bates Clark, aka the “Nobel for economists younger than 40,” went to a guy, Saez, for his work on inequality. Milton Friedman wrote many papers on the topic (including his design for the Earned Income Tax Credit). Bowles, Gintis, Fehr, etc. regularly publish in good economics journals, principally because though somewhat outside the mainstream, they are still very competent.

It’s a bit ridiculous to believe that economics is a monolith of free market dogma. Just flip through the articles in the top journals! Even the Journal of Political Economy – published by U Chicago – is by no stretch a right-wing review. Indeed, some of the most powerful arguments *for* government action have come from economists; e.g., the “agency theory” problem for firms.

We shouldn’t feed quotes to journalists which totally misrepresent the nature of the field.


otto 02.04.10 at 9:01 am

There may or may not be a school of American Political Economy, but there’s lots of OECD-Political Economy studies of inequality in incomes, labour market outcomes etc over the OECD, which explain the US outcomes compared to others. We could probably do with making more American politics studies into OECD political science. The intensity of current approaches to studying the US all by itself, where Comparative Politics means the-rest-of-the-world, helps to disguise the inequalities of that society.


Henry 02.04.10 at 12:02 pm

Oh noes, kevincure – you caught me out. I’m thoroughly refuted! When I gave all those very extensive quotes about how economists think about inequality to the _Santa Fe Reporter_ (which mysteriously failed to include them in the final article), I made sure at each and every point to stress that there was _no mainstream economist ever_ who had expressed an interest in inequality. How did you know this? Do you have my phone, or the phone of the _Santa Fe Reporter_ tapped? And when I wrote this post, I used the term “improved significantly” in its common-language sense of “has failed to improve at all.” This was all because I had _never heard_ of Piketty and Saez, or indeed of this very dubious sounding ‘John Bates Clark’ (a made-up name if I ever heard one) medal stuff and nonsense.


AlanS 02.04.10 at 1:09 pm

Well, Saez is French after all, so Henry could probably edit his post to work around the problem :-)

I had intended to point out that Sociology in the US has been, and remains, interested in inequality – for example David Grusky at Stanford (Director of the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality) and Paul DiMaggio at Princeton. And pretty much all of Rural Sociology in the US is concerned with poverty and inequality, which says something in itself no doubt.


Bill Gardner 02.04.10 at 2:30 pm

This is wonderful. I took courses from Sam & Herb Gintis as an undergraduate and I have very warm memories of how generous they were with their time. I don’t recall them being terribly Marxist, and my sense is that that is long gone, replaced by evolutionary game theory. Reading later Bowles is part of my “someday” list.


Bill Gardner 02.04.10 at 2:35 pm

The abstract to (one of, I think) Sam’s recent SCIENCE article(s), “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?”


Sebastian 02.04.10 at 7:47 pm

gee Henry, a little thin skinned today? If kevin’s is the type of comment that upsets you, I think comment quality at CT is in good shape.

More constructively, on the polisci side of things I thought the recent Page&Winters article in Perspectives on Politics on Oligarchy in the US was interesting (though problematic in a whole number of ways): (unfortunately gated)


Henry 02.04.10 at 8:12 pm

I do get annoyed at commenters who clearly haven’t read the article or the post in question and then suggest, on the basis of said laziness that I have been misrepresenting stuff to journalists. Could just be me.


kevincure 02.05.10 at 1:51 am

I’m sure you know Saez and the rest, and of course I read the article. The only reason I commented is because the SFR article reads exactly like the “economics is a mess of dogmatic men with autism, and finally we have a heterodox savior who studies things like inequality” followed by quotes along the lines of “his research will remake economics”. I was only pointing out that Bowles and similar researchers are very prominent in mainstream economics (to the extent that no one would be surprised if his coauthor Fehr won the Nobel) and a number of hotshot young economists work on very similar topics (Saez, Card, Duflo, etc.).

The fact that journalists routine attribute strange strawmen to the economics profession baffles me – I see it as analogous to an article about sociologists being nothing but Marxists who don’t know how to do math, and some economists being quoted about the “revolutionary” mathematical theory being done by some sociologist. When journalists stereotype in areas they don’t understand, they should be corrected.


Henry 02.05.10 at 3:46 am

But Kevincure – (1) you seemed to be blaming me for this (suggesting that I had misinformed the journalist) and (2) while there was a lot that I would have phrased differently, the journalist got more right than wrong. Which is to say that there are very few mathematically inclined economists indeed who would self-identify as radical – I don’t have Collander’s book to hand, but I seem to remember a figure of roughly 2% from the second set of surveys he did in the early 2000’s. This does shape the kinds of arguments that are admissible and non-admissible in the field of economics. There is much better work on inequality being done – and Piketty and Saez are invaluable – but the data on inequality is clearly uncomfortable for many economists, even those who see themselves as data rather than theory focused. I did think that the article could have acknowledged that, say, Paul Krugman is genuinely interested in exploring the possible political roots of inequality, rather than dismissing him with an aside. But Paul too is a bit of an outlier I think – most economists seem more comfortable with technological change explanations which may or may not be right, but are certainly more theoretically congenial.

More generally, the evidence on ideology and economics is pretty clear-cut – again see Collander’s _Making of an Economist._ And you may be unhappy that the journalist asked me to comment because I am a political scientist (not a sociologist as your analogy implied, although I am quite pleased to be mistaken for one), and hence uninformed. However, I imagine that quite few mainstream economists have actually read Bowles, and fewer still have read his politically oriented work. Hence, there aren’t many of them qualified to assess him (not that I am particularly qualified either, as my post stressed, but at least I have read him). I would happily eat crow if, say, you could even point to one top thirty program with an intro to micro Ph.D. course that has his work on it. I did recommend that the journalist contact Lin Ostrom for an opinion, and he clearly did. You might of course object that she is merely another political scientist and hence not qualified to talk about economics; of course, the Nobel committee provided a quite different assessment of her ability to speak to economics last year. Really, in retrospect, I should have sent him to Cosma Shalizi, another “totally unqualified person”: who knows Sam’s work well, and has strong opinions about economics, approaches thereto etc.


Martin Bento 02.05.10 at 4:50 am

Can’t say I think much of this lump sum of $250,000 at 18 or so. Too many people I know would have made it a race to see if they could have killed themselves partying before the money ran out. I also think of all the lottery winners whose lives remain strangely unchanged. I rather go the old-fashioned way – a generous welfare state and a heavy and progressive estate tax.


will u. 02.05.10 at 4:56 am

“Can you hear the Friedmanites groaning?”

Er, except that Milton Friedman argued for guaranteed income via negative income tax..


Martin Bento 02.05.10 at 9:08 am

Will U. In 1962 he did (call for a negative income tax) as an alternative to a strong welfare state. As time went on, did he stick to that? My impression is he did not. It seemed a concession to social welfare politically necessary in the early 60’s, but not later on.


Ted 02.06.10 at 7:01 am


Thanks for that link. Very interesting guy. This article further confirms a hunch of mine about where any radical reorientation that might take place within academic economics; why the United States itself. If we combine the SFI Research program and Caltech’s Social Sciences PhD, we already have a revolutionary new approach to Economics, that has the double kick of making graduate level Economics incredibly fascinating and stimulating, unlike the current teeth-pulling apprenticeship model.


SNight 02.08.10 at 3:24 am

If we combine the SFI Research program and Caltech’s Social Sciences PhD, we already have a revolutionary new approach to Economics, that has the double kick of making graduate level Economics incredibly fascinating and stimulating, unlike the current teeth-pulling apprenticeship model.

Caltech Social Science PhD? The only thing revolutionary about that PhD program is that it combines all the social sciences into one department. The economics department is mainstream, except it focuses on 3 main fields. Same goes for the other sub-fields.

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