Robert Frank's effort to explain the lessons of evolution without offending libertarian sensibilities
Equally baffling are Frank’s insouciant remarks on corporate executive pay. He writes, “[A]buses occur. But they’re no worse now than they’ve always been.” This claim is followed by digressions about classical music, sports teams, and an admired university president (Frank’s own), before concluding on no further evidence that “the argument that skyrocketing executive pay is evidence of a breakdown of competitive forces does not withstand scrutiny.” And then … oops, he does concede: “a conspicuous exception is the financial services industry.”
Well, yes—and let’s not forget that the financial services industry earned 40 percent of all profits in the run-up to the great crisis, and possibly more afterward.
In recent years, numerous economists have found fame by advancing a “new idea” that is in fact a reductive imitation of a rich earlier tradition that the author ignores. The Darwin Economy, though gracefully written and often entertaining, is a fairly flagrant case. Notably, the great American economist Thorstein Veblen is not mentioned, even though Veblen practically drilled scientific Darwinism into economics with an 1898 essay in the Quarterly Journal of Economics entitled “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” Veblen followed that still-important work with his classic treatment of predator-prey economics in The Theory of the Leisure Class, an incisive book with a deep impact on the culture and politics that gave us the progressive movement, the income tax, the estate tax, and, ultimately, the New Deal.
These are matters that those who favor social regulation and restraint on the depredations of the rich and powerful should discuss, not merely with libertarians and not merely on their terms. Some economists do so: Veblen’s heirs have a vibrant professional society, which meets every year, right alongside the American Economic Association. It is called, of all things, the Association for Evolutionary Economics.
Professor Frank is not a member, but he’d be welcome to join.
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