For decades, Democratic politicians have frustrated progressives by tinkering around the margins of policy while shying away from truly ambitious change. What happened to bold political vision on the left, and what shrunk the very horizons of possibility? In Thinking like an Economist, Elizabeth Popp Berman tells the story of how a distinctive way of thinking—an “economic style of reasoning”—became dominant in Washington between the 1960s and the 1980s and how it continues to dramatically narrow debates over public policy today.
Introduced by liberal technocrats who hoped to improve government, this way of thinking was grounded in economics but also transformed law and policy. At its core was an economic understanding of efficiency, and its advocates often found themselves allied with Republicans and in conflict with liberal Democrats who argued for rights, equality, and limits on corporate power. By the Carter administration, economic reasoning had spread throughout government policy and laws affecting poverty, healthcare, antitrust, transportation, and the environment. Fearing waste and overspending, liberals reined in their ambitions for decades to come, even as Reagan and his Republican successors argued for economic efficiency only when it helped their own goals.
A compelling account that illuminates what brought American politics to its current state, Thinking like an Economist also offers critical lessons for the future. With the political left resurgent today, Democrats seem poised to break with the past—but doing so will require abandoning the shibboleth of economic efficiency and successfully advocating new ways of thinking about policy.
About our speakers
Elizabeth Popp Berman is Director and Richard H. Price Professor of Organizational Studies and Sociology (by courtesy) at the University of Michigan. She received her PhD in Sociology from Berkeley and was previously on the faculty of the University at Albany, SUNY. Her new book, Thinking like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy (Princeton University Press), has been reviewed and discussed in the New York Times, New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, and Boston Review, among other outlets. Her first book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine, won multiple awards from the American Sociological Association and the Social Science History Association. She has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and served on editorial boards of the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review.
Karen Chapple, Ph.D., is Director of the School of Cities and Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Chapple studies inequalities in the planning, development, and governance of cities and regions throughout the Americas. Chapple is a Professor Emerita of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, where she served as department chair and held the Carmel P. Friesen Chair in Urban Studies. She holds a B.A. in Urban Studies from Columbia University, an M.S.C.R.P from the Pratt Institute, and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.
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