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Issue No. 12 (March 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Gathering of savvy “socio-economists”
challenges traditional economics

Economic growth would be greater if stock ownership were more widely dispersed!, declared the senior economist of the Institute for Industry Studies.

We need to think of personal insecurity as a cost, not as a given!, said the editor of the Journal of Socio-Economics.

Culture matters -- people’s feelings can reduce their problems or limit their opportunities!, said a professor of agricultural economics from Michigan State University.

I kept having to pinch myself, rub my eyes. These were trained economists speaking (also lawyers, sociologists and business consultants), but they weren’t speaking any language I remembered from Economics 101.

They call themselves “socio-economists,” and they represent the most promising new trend in economic thought in decades.

Every year they get together twice: in the winter as the Section on Socio-Economics (at the Association of American Law Schools conference), and in the summer at their own Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) conference.

This year the SASE conference will be in London, not within range of Radical Middle's budget (sigh). That’s why on January 6 I traipsed down to the gorgeous Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the Section on Socio-Economics was holding forth.


For many years the counter-culture thought of the economics profession as The Enemy. Visionary books sported titles like The End of Economics, and jaundiced comments about the profession still pop up in books like Natural Capitalism (RAM #3).

On the evidence of January’s conference, socio-economists got the message: The world is more interconnected and people’s motivations more complex than most economists allow.

But socio-economists aren’t out to trash the profession. As one of them put it to me over drinks one night, “We really have some powerful tools here. And you don’t get anywhere by flipping off the professional communities that are the gatekeepers of significant discourse in this country.”

Jeffrey Harrison, from the University of Florida, made the same point more elegantly when he said, “Socio-economics shouldn’t . . . understate the contributions and usefulness of conventional economics.”

But socio-economists are trying their best to broaden the profession, make it more eclectic, more ecologically focused, more ethically aware.

The result has been an immense outpouring of humanistic economic scholarship over the last 10 years.

Some say it all started with Amitai Etzioni’s book The Moral Dimension : Toward a New (1988); others trace the surge to Richard Coughlin’s no-nonsense anthology, Morality, Rationality, and Efficiency : New Perspectives on Socio-Economics (1990).

The most recent anthology parades the movement’s stunning scope: William Halal and Kenneth Taylor, eds., Twenty-First Century Economics : (1999).

The SASE now has over 1,000 members, many from Western or Eastern Europe. Just as impressive, the Section on Socio-Economics has just been made an official “Section” of the Association of American Law Schools, whose sections are well known to broadcast the most cutting-edge ideas in academia.

So when I traipsed down to the Section’s annual meeting, it was with some excitement. Even some hope.

With the socio-economists

Again and again, socio-economists on the various panels tried to define their approach to economics -- as much for themselves, I thought, as for the law professors in the audience.

Socio-economics “seeks to understand economic behavior by considering the whole person in complete social and natural context,” said Robert Ashford of Syracuse University, a dead ringer for Jack Webb in the old “Dragnet” television series (and co-author of the book Binary Economics : The New Paradigm, 1999).

“Individual choices aren’t shaped only by rational self-interest,” Ashford continued, “but also by emotions, social bonds, beliefs, expectations, and -- perhaps most important -- a sense of morality.”

Socio-economics is “explicitly concerned with justice and fairness,” said Mark Lutz of the University of Maine (and author of Economics for the Common Good, 1999).

Law, faith, markets, and social norms are all “social devices that induce people to behave in certain ways,” said Tom Ulen of the University of Illinois. Thus the task of socio-economics is to study how those devices interact (a task that would dethrone markets from their preeminent place in economics!).

Social norms are the “hottest idea in economics,” said Amitai Etzioni, looking every bit the Founding Father with his wizened gaze and white hair. They’re the ideas that guide our social preferences -- and they’re largely unconscious. If we want to change society, we can’t just talk about facts and numbers, we have to talk about values and norms.

If we could get through to people’s deepest values, added Richard Hattwick of Western Illinois U., people might stop trying to keep up with each other just to keep from feeling inferior!

Virgil Wood, minister of the Pond Street Baptist Church in Providence, R.I., explained to a suddenly hushed audience that he was the only person in Martin Luther King’s inner circle to urge King not to go to Washington with the Poor People’s March in 1967-68 and demand an extension of the welfare state.

You should go to Wall Street instead, Wood urged King, and “find ways to tie poor people to the wealth generating capacity of this nation” -- for example, by fighting for some sort of universal stock ownership plan (an idea first advanced by Louis Kelso around the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott).


The socio-economists weren’t always on the same wavelength (which is not necessarily a bad thing!). I counted three divisions in their ranks, as follows:

Focus. Some socio-economists couldn’t stop talking about ethics and morality; others couldn’t be dragged away from panels dealing with subjects like monetary policy or deregulation.

History. Some saw socio-economics as the next new thing; others traced it back in time.

Harry Trebling saw it as a continuation or rebirth of the old “institutionalist” movement made up of socially conscious economists from the first half of the 20th century -- folks like Thorstein Veblen, Gardner Means, Rexford Tugwell, and (a bit later) John Kenneth Galbraith.

Why didn’t the institutionalist movement succeed?, asked Trebling, a weathered-looking emeritus professor from Michigan State who’d known most of the key institutionalists in his youth. “All it did was [identify] market failure! You also need to bring in social values.”

 “Institutional economics didn’t have the guts to present an alternative [to neoclassical economics],” added his contemporary, Bob Solo, author of The Philosophy of Science, and Economics (1991).

Mark Lutz also traced socio-economics back -- all the way back to the Swiss economist Sismondi from the early 19th century.

But most socio-economists emphasized the newness of their approach. Robert Ashford asserted that socio-economics was either a “new paradigm” or a “meta-paradigm -- a way of dealing with paradigms.”

Richard Hattwick noted that Lutz, Virgil Wood, and “others -- between the lines -- have been introducing spirituality [into economics]. And that’s great!”

David Anderson, from George Washington U., pointed to nearly everyone’s desire to take a more up-front approach to social change.

And Nicholas Ashford, from M.I.T., suggested that what was really new -- forging alliances among the professions on the “common ground” of socio-economics -- still largely lay ahead.

Birthright. A third difference among the socio-economists was more divisive. It had to do with a very basic question: Are we all entitled -- as a matter of right -- to share in the vast wealth being generated by our corporations?

Probably most of the socio-economists at the conference would have answered yes -- or rather, YES!

Ed Wolff, author of Top Heavy : The Increasing Inequality of Wealth (1996 pbk), delivered a passionate oration on the growing disparities of wealth in this country. In the 30s the government acknowledged a responsibility to provide people with social security, he said, and it’s high time we insisted that “citizenship alone” provides people with an “entitlement” to even more of our national wealth.

John Jones, from the Macken Financial Group near San Francisco, took a more market-oriented approach to the same end. He described the intricacies of Louis Kelso’s universal stock ownership plan in loving detail (the early, radical, truly universal version -- not the later version that led to Employee Stock Ownership Plans).

Even Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska, spoke out in favor of Kelso’s scheme.

But Amitai Etzioni, among others, raised some powerful objections.

It’s important for self-respecting human beings to be economically productive, he said. In America, at any rate, it’s considered “morally indecent” to receive money without working. Even Marx thought work was an “inexorable” part of the human condition.

The scarcity and reallocation problems will be easier to solve once we make “simplicity” more of a virtue, he said. Pursuit of knowledge, pursuit of spiritual well-being, pursuit of community -- that’s what social activists should be encouraging these days.

In the audience, a good number of people were shaking their heads in disbelief.

Night thoughts

Although socio-economics is on the rise, doubts and uncertainties lay just below the surface at the meeting, doubts and uncertainties that an intrepid reporter couldn’t help picking up.

One series of doubts burst into view at some of the panels. Some socio-economists didn’t think they had a real home in university economics departments.

“There’s no space for [young socio-economists] in the field of economics!,” declared Charles Whalen, one of the younger panelists -- a Ph.D. in economics who’d somehow managed to land a job at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Neil Buchanan, another younger panelist (and a Ph.D. in microeconomics from Harvard), announced that he’d just started law school at the University of Michigan.

“The Bad Guys have taken over the economics departments and are trying to imperialize other fields now as well,” he explained. “Law is still up for grabs though, which is why we need to [bring our perspectives to the legal profession].”

Tom Ulen opined that law schools are “developing a far more complex theory of human behavior” than economics departments.

Even Etzioni engaged in the ritual economics-department-bashing, declaring that “neo-classicism has become an orthodoxy” there but that socio-economics could flourish in business schools.

“CEOs don’t want MBAs full of statistics,” he said. “They need people who understand human relations.”

Another series of doubts had to do with socio-economists’ sense of their own stature in the profession. These were literally night thoughts.

One participant railed to me about the “glass ceiling” holding back wider discussion of his work. The glass ceiling was apparently the fact that he didn’t teach at an Ivy League university.

Another participant spoke dismissively of socio-economists who taught at what he described as “third tier” schools. (His own school was barely second-tier.)

Two other participants fantasized about attracting public attention to socio-economics by inducing “powerful people” to attend the conferences. One of them used the phrase “major guns.” I suddenly felt very sad.

It’s hard pioneering a new intellectual movement. It’s not only intellectually hard; it’s psychologically and emotionally hard. But I have no doubt that, if the socio-economists read their own writings on morals and values, and take them to heart, they will find whatever ballast they need to persevere.

Section on Socio-Economics (AALS): c/o Prof. Robert Ashford, Syracuse Univ. College of Law, Syracuse, NY 13244. Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics: P.O. Box 39008, Baltimore, MD 21212, www.sase.org.


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