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Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century Hardcover – 16 Sep 2002


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'Great Transformations is a significant book in at least two ways. First, it extends academic debate about the causes of change in wealthy capitalist countries in important ways … Second, and more important, Great Transformations dissects profound changes in the state that leave many millions of individuals much more vulnerable … Those hostile to granting ideas a role in political explanation will have to engage with Blyth's framework, the mark of an important scholarly work.' West European Politics

Book Description

This book analyses political and economic change in the United States and Sweden from the 1920s to the end of the 1990s. The key claim is that economic ideas are political tools used by domestic groups in order to effect change.

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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars 4 reviews
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sweeping and provocative 23 April 2003
By Daniel Nexon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Mark Blyth's Great Transformations may or may not be the true heir to Polanyi's Great Transformation, but it certainly comes close. Blyth provides a clear, incisive criticism of the way most political economists treat the role of ideas in the formation of economic policy. The two case studies -- the United States and Sweden -- provide plausible evidence that Blyth is correct about the multifaceted role economic ideas play in mobilizing political actors, transforming the way the economy is regulated, and even influencing market behavior. These strengths ensure the book's importance to an academic audience.
But there is much here for the non-academic. Those interested in current debates about the role of the government in the economy will find many of Blyth's arguments deeply provocative. Blyth shows how the "common sense assumptions" that currently dominate arguments about tax and fiscal policy owe their success not to the truth of their propositions but to a series of contingent synergies between external events, such as the OPEC oil embargo, and political struggles in specific countries. Ultimately, Blyth's book is a powerful call to make political values, rather than facile claims about economic inevitability, the centerpiece of debates about the future of welfare and governmental regulation. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Blyth, his history of the development, adoption, and non-adoption of economic principles in the US and Sweden should not be ignored.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Book and a Worthy Successor to Polanyi's Great Transformation 22 July 2012
By Matthew D. Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a brilliant, meticulously researched book, which is a worthy successor to Polanyi's seminal work, The Great Transformation, from which it explicitly draws its inspiration.

Blyth's central thesis is that, in the operation of democratic capitalism, "[i]deas matter because they can actually alter people's conception of their own self-interest" (p. vii). He then goes on to detail how, in Sweden and the United States, "embedded liberalism" ("liberalism" in the American sense of center-left on the political spectrum) grew out of a set of economic ideas about the origins of the Great Depression that led to policies informing a set of institutions (such as collective bargaining) that tempered the effects of markets on labor, and which became so "embedded" in the functioning of democratic capitalism that the ideas and institutions appeared "natural" and irrational to question.

However, starting in the 1960s, and reaching a head with the "stagflation" of the 1970s, economic elites determined that "embedded liberalism" was no longer in their interests. The book then details how these elites systematically deployed their considerable resources to resurrect once discredited neoliberal ("neoliberal" in the other sense of support for laissez faire markets) economic ideas (e.g., Hayek and Friedman) to build credibility for an institutional structure where elite prerogatives (such as free mobility of capital) appeared to be "natural" and in the general interest.

It goes without saying that the success of the neoliberal project, which is ongoing, has been considerable. One need only consider how Richard Nixon's economic policies (which, at various points, involved abandonment of the market in favor of price controls) were to the left of Obama's; yet the right paints Obama as an alien socialist.

The details of how the institutional shifts unfolded and the specific structures that developed in the United States and Sweden differed significantly due to local culture, politics and the dramatically different place that each country occupies within global capitalism. Nevertheless, Blyth convincingly demonstrates that the development and content of ideas mattered in the creation and destruction of "embedded liberalism." The particular virtue of this work is that it examines this process in detail at a "middle" level that is rarely considered. Often, other studies that examine the same topics and history as Great Transformations either operate at a level of abstraction that glosses over the specific, historical development of institutions, or simply give a historical narrative without developing a theory of the processes at work.

Although it appears not to draw upon it, Great Transformations nicely complements Immanuel Wallerstein's work on world systems theory, which is similar in spirit in paying attention to both historical detail and theory, but which focuses more on the development and operation of capitalism as a global system than the development of institutions in specific countries. It also complements the work of the Marxian economists Gerard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, which, among other things, details how economic elites coopted many of the financial institutions developed in the wake of the Depression to accomplish the turn to neoliberalism and the upward distribution of wealth.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very Dense Text (Even for Comparative Political Scientists) 13 Mar. 2016
By sarah - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
How much do ideas matter in the creation of economic institutions? How can political scientists show that ideas are tied to, yet distinct from, the material interests of elite actors? And how do elite actors use ideas to make sense of their material interests during a period of economic crisis? These complicated questions form the research puzzle that Mark Blyth attempts to solve in his book Great Transformations. In his attempt to explain his dependent variable, institutional change, Blyth focuses upon three elite actors: government, organized business, and organized labor. Emphasizing the complexity of causal relations in the social world, Blyth argues that crises are “the act of intervention where sources of uncertainty are diagnosed and constructed.” Contrary to prevailing ideology, they are not the agents that spark institutional transformation. Institutional transformation, rather, occurs in a sequential process, one in which ideas are central to every stage. Ideas aid elite actors in reducing uncertainty, facilitating collective action and building coalitions, contesting the legitimacy of existing institutions, creating the blueprints for construction of new institutions, and coordinating agents’ expectations thereby reproducing institutional stability. Using the United States and Sweden as case studies, Blyth provides empirical evidence to support his claims. This book has more than a few issues with research methods and design... Blyth’s case selection strategies present issues insofar as he aims to both build and test a theory. With such an ambitious goal in mind, Blyth would need to alter his research design. Empirics from which theories are derived cannot be the only data used to test those same theories, especially if the goal is generalization. Additionally, Blyth’s book would have benefited from more transparent discussions of how of strong CPOs (causal process observations) support or disconfirm his hypotheses. Blyth builds his theoretical argument and empirical evidence around three main concepts: ideas, interests, and institutions. Throughout the text, however, there is a tension between these three categories, in large part because their respective operationalizations are not made clear. He never provides a comprehensive definition of institutions. Furthermore, although Blyth’s goal is to intervene in historical and rational institutionalist literature by switching the focus from interests to ideas, readers can sense Blyth’s own ambivalence about the disentanglement of these two concepts throughout the text; oftentimes, he conflates them. As a graduate student in a comparative politics program, I found this to be a very dense and confusing read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How to avoid Successful Failures! 11 Oct. 2014
By Brian P Woods - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a scholarly text. Useful for undergrads or postgrads who are taking a course in Politics or Behavioural Economics or History of Economic Ideas. Its not an easy book to read. The descriptions are technical and the arguments are somewhat difficult to follow. You really do need a reasonable knowledge of the Political Economy of western developed economies in order to understand what the author is attempting to describe and make sense of. The main thrust of his arguments seem to be the manner in which 'ideas' - I assume he also means beliefs, opinions, views, may or may not be implemented in the political and economic spheres. There has to be some 'institutional' (formalized organizational setting of some sort) based process available. This 'organization' may be an existing one, or a new one may have to be created. If its an existing organization, then it will have to be 'transformed' in some manner. And transformations are devilish hard to achieve. Ideas, especially the mad, bad and dangerous economic ones tend to abide - as do the organizations that contain them. The gamechanger, if that is the proper term her, is a massive or prolonged political / economic crisis. Now, pre-existing policy ideas will be tried out again and again, but to little effect. Eventually, new ideas may be 'permitted' to surface, a more realistic diagnosis of the underlying cause of the crisis is made, and a transformed 'organization' then allows a different set of policies are put into effect. Basically, the underlying message is that political attempts to transform an existing hegemonic economic paradigm (aka: Permagrowth), which is by all accounts is no longer performing as it is expected to, will fail. The politicians will not recognize that its their existing mindsets (ideas) that are the problem, hence they will invoke ineffective policy responses, and when these do not 'cure' the patient, they will persist and persist with failing policies until they provoke a massive crisis - and the they have to try something different. Sound familiar?
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