26 April 2023

Power and Influence of Economists

Contributions to the Social Studies of Economics

Edited by Jens Maesse, Stephan Pühringer, Thierry Rossier and Pierre Benz
2022, Taylor & Francis, 286 pages,
ISBN 9780367565954

Reviewer: Anjalika Bardalai

This collection of 14 essays seeks to advance the “evolving” discipline of social studies of economics (SSE), defined as ”a field for the analysis on the role of economists in society”.  Viewing this role through the lenses of power and influence, the book is structured according to four approaches to SSE: analytical approaches to expertise; governmentality studies; analysis of networks; and economics as a ‘field’, in the specific sense used by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

As may already be apparent from this brief introductory description, this is a book which assumes a high degree of prior knowledge—not only of various schools of economic thinking, but also of academic philosophy and sociology. References to the work of Michel Foucault as well as Bourdieu abound (indeed, the essay “Competitive power: elements of Foucauldian economics” expounds the idea that “marketing is an exercise of power”, but in an highly theoretical manner, giving the essay the feel of a MA or MSc-level text intended solely for an academic audience. Indeed, the book is best approached as having been written for an academic audience; in this regard, perhaps its best feature is its highly interdisciplinary approach.

“Power and Influence of Economists” also assumes as a starting premise that “Economic knowledge, ideas and concepts have a huge influence on society”. The book is strongest, however, when it attempts to justify this assertion, or alternatively to offer a challenge to the assertion and then address that challenge. For example, the essay on “Performative, imaginary and symbolic power” never demonstrates in concrete terms the supposed impact of economics. In a world where financial and economic literacy among the general public has been shown, on average, to be low, the assumption is certainly debatable, and the omission of supporting evidence therefore undermines the essay’s argumentation.

Meanwhile, the highly readable essay “Macroeconomics and monetary policy as autonomous domains of knowledge and power” describes how Mark Willes, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from 1977-1980, was ultimately unsuccessful in promoting rational expectations macroeconomics within the Fed, whereas Paul Volcker, Federal Reserve Chairman from 1979-1987, successfully advanced monetarism. But the analysis does not necessarily support the idea that economics has impact. The essay describes how Volcker adopted certain policies motivated by pure pragmatism—because he believed they would address the economic crisis of the day and therefore improve public legitimacy of the Federal Reserve. Whether or how these policies arose from academic macroeconomics was moot or, as essay authors Jan Sparsam and Hanno Pahl put it, “…macroeconomists do not have to care about the practical implementation of monetary policy”. But surely a discipline that fails to consider practicalities is one that will face more obstacles in being influential?

In this context, the book’s strongest essay asks “Who are the economists Germany listens to? The social structure of influential German economists”. Authors Stephan Pühringer and Karl M. Beyer challenge the assumption that economics and economists have significant influence on society at large, recounting that “…within the German economic debate, around the year 2000 several economists bemoaned a decline of political and societal influence of academic economics, partly due to ignorant politicians and public authorities, partly also due to alleged problematic development of the economics discipline, that is, a sole focus on methodological rigor to the disadvantage of political relevance.” However, they then go on to provide evidence that in recent years economists have wielded influence through the media, public debates and political engagement, and deploy social network analysis to construct a profile of the typical influential economist in Germany. Having demonstrated the influence of the profession, this analysis goes some way to showing the attributes of the individuals who wield that influence (the split between research economists on the one hand and media and policy advice economists on the other hand is salutary).

Despite the relatively focused structure of the book overall, the essay topics are pleasingly wide-ranging, and the diversity of geographical perspectives is a notable strength; essays describe research variously focused on Greece, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland and Brazil in addition to the US and Germany and also include references to the Chicago Boys of Chile. The stylistic range is also broad; the essays exhibit a high degree of variability in terms of readability and accessibility, and non-academic readers in particular are likely to struggle with the fairly turgid prose in some sections. Readers interested in contemporary research techniques may appreciate learning about the application in some cases of relatively new methodologies (for example, the use of text mining in “Global production and circulation of dominant ideologies: Mexico from the default debt crisis to the Brady Plan (1982-1989)”. But overall, this essay collection is likely to appeal to academic readers interested in the intersection of economics and sociology, and those who are prepared to take at face value the assertion that economists wield significant influence in society rather than those who seek to be convinced of that argument.