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Marglin started out as a neoclassical economist, and was regarded, even while still an undergraduate, as the star of Harvard's economics department. Arthur Maass, the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Emeritus, at Harvard, once remembered how Marglin, "when he was just a senior, wrote two of the best chapters in a book published by a team of graduate students and professors." His exceptional early contributions to neoclassical theory led to his becoming a tenured professor at Harvard in 1968, one of the youngest in the history of the university.
Since the late 1960s, Marglin, following the lead of people such as Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, and Arthur MacEwan, rejected orthodox economics and began expressing dissenting views in his academic work. According to his former teacher, James Duesenberry, Marglin's career subsequently "suffered" because of his department and the university authorities in general taking a negative view of this change. Economist Brad DeLong noted in a similar vein that the wider community of "Ivy League economists" took a rather dim view of Marglin's post-tenure "deviancy", something that has "not been pretty" to observe.
He wrote the widely discussed 1971-1974 paper "What do bosses do?", first published in France by his friend André Gorz, followed by a series of others, in which he argued that
the most important innovation of the Industrial Revolution was not technological, but organizational: the linear hierarchy (master-journeyman-apprentice) typical of crafts in the premodern era was replaced by the pyramidal hierarchy (boss-foreman-worker) of the modern, capitalist enterprise. How did this happen? What hold did the capitalist have on the worker that permitted this new form of organization to thrive and eventually to dominate?
The conventional answer is superior efficiency, a better mousetrap. If the capitalist enterprise comes into existence because of its superior efficiency, then the boss can entice the worker by offering him more money than the worker could earn on his own. [...] By contrast, the answer in "Bosses" is that the capitalist organization of work came into existence not because of superior efficiency but in consequence of the rent-seeking activities of the capitalist.
Elsewhere, Marglin argued: "The obstacles to liberating the workplace lie not only in the dominance of classes in whose interest it is to perpetuate the authoritarian workplace, but also in the dominance of the knowledge system that legitimizes the authority of the boss. In this perspective, to liberate the workplace it is hardly sufficient to overthrow capitalism. The commissar turned out to be an even more formidable obstacle to workers' control than the capitalist."
His highly cited and influential work "What do bosses do?" came as part of Marglin's disagreement with fellow Harvard professor David Landes over aspects of the Industrial Revolution; years later, Landes wrote "What do bosses really do?" in reply.
Marglin is critical of those who explicitly set out to deny the normative aspect of economics--something that he believes "really started with the British economist Lionel Robbins"--arguing that opposing ideology is "a methodological error":
What is ideology, after all, but the unproved assumptions, beliefs, and values that must underlie any intellectual inquiry, or for that matter, any form of contemplation or action? [...] As long as we deny the ideological component of our theories, we shall never transcend it.
Marglin's 21st-century research has included analysis of the foundational assumptions of economics, concentrating on whether they represent universal human values or merely "reflect western culture and history." The Dismal Science (2008) looks at, amongst other things, the manner in which community is steadily gutted as human relations are replaced with market transactions.
Marglin's latest book, Raising Keynes: A Twenty-First-Century General Theory, is scheduled for publication by Harvard University Press in June, 2021. Raising Keynes rescues the central insight of John Maynard Keynes's great work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, that capitalism left to its own devices has no mechanism for guaranteeing full employment, and that consequently the government must provide a visible hand to work in tandem with the invisible hand of the market. "Rescues" because the mainstream view today is just what it was in the 1930s when Keynes wrote the General Theory: namely, that the problem is imperfections that impede the working of markets, warts on the body of capitalism rather than the body itself. Over the years the radical, heterodox Keynes was transformed by the mainstream into a super-sophisticated theorist of warts, specifically, a theorist of how capitalism can get stuck if wages are insufficiently flexible. The wart theory allowed economists to accept some of Keynes's policy insights, in particular the limitations of monetary policy and the necessity for countercyclical fiscal policy in extremis, while rejecting the idea that there is any more serious flaw than the warts themselves. And, supremely important, restricting the role of government to alleviating the warts is a strictly short-term, limited, endeavor.
Raising Keynes shows how and why the orthodox reading of Keynes is wrong and substantiates Keynes's insight that, even if you strip capitalism of its warts, you still have a system which has no mechanism for reliably producing enough jobs. We need the government, not on an occasional, intermittent basis, but all the time, in the long run as well as in emergencies.
In line with his view of economics teaching as "extremely narrow and restrictive," for some years Marglin offered an alternative to Greg Mankiw's course in introductory economics.
Partial publications list
Raising Keynes: A Twenty-First-Century General Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2021.
The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2008.
Pattanaik, Prasanta K.; Cullenberg, Stephen, eds. (2004), "Individualism and Scarcity", Globalization, culture, and the limits of the market: essays in economics and philosophy, Themes in Economics, New Delhi New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN978-0-195-66446-1
Marglin, Stephen A. (1963). "The Social Rate of Discount and The Optimal Rate of Investment". Quarterly Journal of Economics. 77 (1): 95-111. doi:10.2307/1879374. JSTOR1879374.
Political and other views
A liberal in his earlier years, since the mid-1960s Marglin has been a Leftist, and has even been labelled a Marxist, though he describes himself as Marxist "only in the sense of not being anti-Marx." He identifies as a cultural Jew and a secular humanist, and maintains his practice of Judaism for the sense of community it provides.
Marglin is married to Christine Marglin (neé Benvenuto). She is the author of Shiksa: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World and Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On. Marglin's previous two marriages, to Carol Kurson (died 2020) and Frederique Apffel-Marglin, ended in divorce. From youngest to oldest, his children (including stepchildren) are Nasia Benvenuto-Ladin, 2021 high-school grad; Yael Benvenuto-Ladin, rising college senior; Gabriel Benvenuto-Ladin, working in theater production; Jessica Marglin, associate professor of Jewish Studies and religion, law, and history; Elizabeth Marglin, freelance writer; David Marglin, attorney; and Marc Weisskopf, professor of environmental epidemiology and physiology.
^Tunzelmann 2001, p. 10. "[The] debate, in regard to the First Industrial Revolution, [...] between Stephen Marglin and David Landes [was] over which was the more potent symbol of that revolution--the factory, interpreted as a governance mechanism, or the machinery? Landes' original survey (Landes 1969), drawn on his background in entrepreneurial history, had suggested a combination of technological and cultural factors explaining why Britain came first and why it later dropped behind. Marglin (1974), from a background in radical economics, instead took a strong labour-process view, in a paper entitled "What Do Bosses Do?" For him it was the control entrusted to the 'bosses' through the factory system that crucially defined that Industrial Revolution. Landes (1986) replied with a restatement more strongly favouring the technology as the sine qua non of early industrialisation. Both sides could accept some interdependence between governance changes and technological changes, but remained committed to their respective views about priority".