A Perilous Progress, by Michael Bernstein. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 2001. Paper, ISBN 0691119678, $19.95. 345 pages.
This is a scholarly book that looks at the U.S. experience of economists as policy makers from the 1900s until today. The book is written by an author who is in a unique position to analyze the profession; he is trained as an economist, but he works with the eye to detail and commitment to scholarship of a historian. The book is written not only for economists; it is also written for the broader community. It is the only history that I know that takes as its central focus economists' role in national policy making. As such it is a welcome addition to the history of economic thought literature.
The book has 194 pages of text, almost 100 pages of notes, and a bibliography that extends for 50 pages. The notes are a scholastic tour de force and an excellent guide to the literature, and the bibliography includes archival and oral history citations. The core book is nicely structured into a prologue, which tells us what he plans to do; an introduction and six chapters, which develop his themes; and an epilogue, which ties it all together.
According to Bernstein the history of economists' role in policy making was initially characterized by a period of lack of influence on policy that extends through the early interwar period. That changed, however, as we approached and entered World War II, as the mobilization, and an acceptance by economists that the state may have a role in economic stabilization, led to increasing influence of economists. These developments led, in turn, to the establishment of the Council of Economic Advisors and Rand Corporation, both of which significantly expanded economists' role in policy making. He points out that at the same time that this expansion of economics into policy was occurring, economics was moving from a soft science to a hard science, in which technical training became central, making the profession look more scientific.
The late 1960s, however, were to be the high point of economics' influence. In that period the seeds of change were sown that, in Bernstein's view, will likely decrease economists' influence in the future. The pendulum started swinging the other way in the late 1960s and early 1970s as economists moved away from the views that had increased their influence. Instead of analyzing, and advocating, an economic role for the state, economists began supporting...