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Another Fine Mess

- July 6, 2010

As a kind of follow-up to my post calling for the opening up of _Perspectives_, I’ll be trying to blog my way in no very systematic fashion through the current issue. It’s interesting to see how _Perspectives_ has gradually changed over the years – and for the better. There is ever less emphasis on straight book reviews (which – given general disciplinary incentives not to rock the boat – are usually quite informative about the content of a book but not very informative about its quality), and more on articles, seminars around particular books or topics and other forms of communicating about the discipline. This is all to the good – it makes for much greater liveliness. But, before getting onto the stuff in this issue I liked, I want to briefly talk about a piece that I didn’t like at all – Ben Fine’s “hack job”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7804074&fulltextType=MR&fileId=S1537592710000381 on Elinor Ostrom. This is part of a larger seminar on Ostrom’s _Governing the Commons_. The other pieces are all helpful – a couple of them are maybe a bit too laudatory, and fail to take up the editor’s suggestion that directed criticism is the best compliment one can give to an academic – but they still tell you a good deal about the strengths and limitations of Ostrom’s work. In contrast, what you learn from Fine’s piece is … an awful lot about Ben Fine. 60% of the citations in the bibliography are to Fine’s own work. 70% of the footnotes refer to same, ranging from “See Fine 2009a and n.d.,” “See Fine 2008 and 2010a, for the absence …” to “for a critique of which see Fine 2002a, a piece that was rejected without being refereed by the _Quarterly Journal of Economics._” I am sure that somewhere in Fine’s head there is an obvious connection between the vicissitudes of his personal publishing history, and the work of Elinor Ostrom. This connection is not, however, apparent to the casual reader. The substance of the piece, if substance is the right word, is a rant about mainstream economics, and how Ostrom’s work got the Nobel because her skepticism about global governance fits well with the interests of dominant actors. One suspects that Fine would have come up with an equally lazy structural explanation had the Nobel been awarded to a combination of Noam Chomsky, Evo Morales and Naomi Wolf.

As a rule, I’m quite interested in Marxist and heterodox accounts of political economy. Unfortunately, because they are systematically marginalized, they often prove attractive to embittered cranks and professional axe-grinders who have their own problems quite independent of unjustified neglect from the mainstream. I’m not saying that Fine is such. I haven’t read any of his work, and although I don’t intend to anytime soon, I cannot entirely discount the possibility that it is insightful and profound. Everyone has their off days – perhaps this is Fine’s. What I can and will say is that this is a genuinely wretched piece which does no favors whatsoever to its author.