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5.0 out of 5 stars
There's much more to economics than money (though there's that too), 27 July 2011
In this well thought out and executed literature review Coyle provides an insightful and entertaining narrative of the evolution of economic thinking tracing a path from classical figures such as David Hume, David Ricardo, Adam Smith and Karl Marx through to what she sets up as a great schism in economic thinking in the first half of the twentieth century. Much of the book is a search for reconciliation between the 'neo-classical orthodoxy' of figures such as Paul Samuelson and the Solow-Swan model of macroeconomic growth - with their emphasis on mathematical formalization based on the rational behaviour and efficient markets; and the 'heterodox' outsiders such as Schumpeter, Hayek and the behavioral and institutional theorists with their focus on economic 'reality' rather than 'abstract models'. At the heart of her argument is that the world of economics is populated by much more than the reductionist, autistic caricatures of profit-maximizing, utility-seeking straw men which its critics commonly portray it to consist of - and a plea for these two fighting factions to tolerate and learn from each other rather splinter off into separate departments. Her narrative is given a personal touch by anecdotes of some of these seminal characters wandering around the halls of economics departments in leather riding boots (I suppose that is better than tasseled slippers) and the insights gleaned from the study of the grave-side eulogies of their friends and colleagues. My only quibble with the book was regarding Coyle's treatment of advances in game theory and its relationship with evolutionary economics concepts that have been incorporated into economics from the biological sciences. The economist's notion of equilibrium, even a Nash equilibrium, has no biological analogy. Indeed, many evolutionary economists would argue that the notion of equilibrium is the antithesis to a constantly evolving system, and that no equilibrium, in fact, exists. While it's impossible to do justice to all the sub-fields of economics in such a slim volume, perhaps spending a little more time on the emerging field of complex systems in economics would have been fruitful in this regard.
Such minor points aside, this book generally doesn't pull any punches when it comes to pointing out the limitations of mainstream economics, and it would be just as useful to a critic wanting to add some economic maturity to their arguments as it is to the student of economics looking towards the future of his or her discipline. For the policy maker without the time to go over original sources themselves, this book gives access to the theoretical and philosophical basis of the new pragmatic 'what-works' 'evidenced-based' policy agenda that has emerged since the financial crisis of 2008 and as such is a good guide to some of the most profound epistemological debates which continue to shape and define the world around us.