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At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times

Author(s):Katzner, Donald W.
Reviewer(s):Ruccio, David F.

Published by EH.Net (January 2012)

Donald W. Katzner, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. xiv + 199 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-976535-5.

Reviewed by David F. Ruccio, Professor of Economics, University of Notre Dame

Donald W. Katzner, in invoking the Arthurian legend, may have run the risk of overselling the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. However, both the department he and his colleagues built and his book documenting the history of that department are, in fact, quite honorable.*

The department was remarkable because, with very few exceptions (then or now) among the 125 or so Ph.D.-granting economics programs in the United States, it challenged the prevailing orthodoxy by hiring a significant number of ?radical? economists and by training a much larger number of graduate students. It literally defined and then extended the frontiers of radical political economy. And it did so with a neoclassical economist (Katzner himself) as the chair during its early, formative years.

The book itself is noteworthy because it is the only history of an economics department of which I am aware (Frederic Lee?s [2011] effort, which can be usefully read as a companion volume, is a much wider history of heterodox economics in the twentieth century), and it was written by a key participant. The most valuable sections of the book consist of Katzner?s recollections from the 1976-1981 period when he served as chair (with the appropriate caveats about fallible memory), supplemented by interviews he conducted with other participants (both faculty and graduate students) and documents he collected (from before and during his time as chair).

What Katzner has produced is, in my view (as a reader of the book but also as a participant in the events he describes), an honest, candid account of the golden age of the UMass (as it colloquially referred to) economics department. That is no mean feat, considering the fact that he names names and discusses difficult episodes and decisions, and many of the people he mentions are still alive.

Katzner supplements his own participant-observation (including details about his intellectual and administrative interactions with various faculty members, graduate students, and university officials) with a discussion of the context of the formation of the department: the history of the University of Massachusetts, first as a land-grant institution and then as a poor stepchild to the wealthy private universities in that state; the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements (which radicalized university students long before the radical department was created, and not a few of the professors who were later hired in the department); and the history of the American economics profession (which, in his view, ?sits today, with the irrelevance of large portions of its research to the fundamental issues facing the American economy exposed and glaring?).

Katzner?s account of why and how the department emerged is a complex one of structure, randomness, and agency ? combining the tendencies within the general context mentioned above with unpredictable events and decisions taken by key individuals. The arbitrariness stems from the crisis during the late-1960s and early-1970s of the department as a mostly mainstream program (when it counted among its members Hugo Sonnenschein and Vernon Smith, with Michael Best the sole radical exception), after which it was placed in receivership, and from the fact that at the same time a number of well-known radical economists (such as Stephen Resnick, Richard Wolff, Samuel Bowles, Leonard Rapping, and James Crotty) and Katzner himself happened to be able and willing to move to UMass. The crucial decisions included the agreement on the part of the members of the ?radical package? to overcome their theoretical differences (which Katzner characterizes on page 127 as ?neoclassical, Marxism combined with political and social liberalism, Marxism combined with Keynesian macroeconomics, and mutual interaction of all analytical elements?) with the aim of building a unique department of economics in which radical political economy could flourish, as well as the choices made by a new generation of graduate students (whose quality, Katzner remarks on page 132, ?was comparable to those admitted to schools like Harvard, Princeton, and such?) not only to join the program but to have a hand in running it (through the Economics Graduate Student Organization).

Given the richness of its detail and insightfulness of its author, Katzner?s book will serve for years to come as a principal source of how the UMass economics department was fundamentally transformed ? in many ways, against all odds ? into the premier program of radical political economy in the United States. It is also, in Katzner?s view, a reminder of how the ?ideal university is a place where free and open discourse on any intellectual topic, no matter how mundane or outlandish, frequently occurs.? Finally, it is a reminder to all of us ? who are debating economics in new turbulent times ? that a fundamental alternative to mainstream economic theory and to departments devoted exclusively to mainstream economics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels can be imagined and created.

*In the interests of full disclosure, after the debacle documented in Inside Job and the American Economic Association?s belated approval of a minimal set of ethical principles, I can state that the only financial support I received for composing this review was my regular salary. However, I do have multiple connections to the book itself: I was in residence as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1977 until 1981; Katzner served on my doctoral dissertation committee; I was consulted by Katzner, especially in regard to the history of the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame (which appears in Appendix B); and I appear by name at least three times in the text.

Lee, F. 2011. A History of Heterodox Economics: Challenging the Mainstream in the Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge.

David Ruccio?s scholarly interests are in the areas of Marxian theory, economic methodology, development economics (especially in Latin America), and international political economy. His most recent books are Development and Globalization: A Marxian Class Analysis (Routledge), Economic Representations: Both Academic and Everyday (Routledge), Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics (Princeton University Press), Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge (Routledge), and Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory (Wesleyan University Press).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII