RIP Michael Perelman

Yves here. I was saddened to read of the death of Michael Perelman. I didn’t know him well, but I read some of his work and very much liked it. As the obituary below makes clear, Perelman was heterodox, of a Marxist slant. He was a professor at the University of California, Chico; like so many heteredox professors, he looks to have gotten a bit of a short shrift appointment-wise for not hewing to the orthodox position.

Perelman gave a short but very generous review of ECONNED shortly after it came out for a university book review service. I have to confess then I was still more a financial economics writer and only turning to political economy due to the failure of post crisis reforms to fix much of anything. Perelman had a blog on which he posted intermittently; I’d sometimes ping him about his posts. Even when he was writing on a well-trodden topic, Perelman would have a novel insight. We met briefly at a conference, likely the ASSA in Denver.

The only book of his considerable output that I have read is Railroading Economics, which upon reflection I should send along to Matt Stoller, since it discusses the tortured efforts during the railroad-building heyday, both in regulation and in economic theory, of dealing with their explosive growth. Like frackers and ride-sharing companies, they were regularly launched more for the financial play than the service. The railroads also had very high fixed and very low marginal costs, so they would regularly engage in “ruinous” price competition and go bankrupt. The result was almost the mirror image of what you see today: economists of a commercial slant essentially calling for regulation of pricing to prevent inevitable price wars.

My impression from Perelman’s posts was that he came from a family that was borderline impoverished, so economic justice was a lived issue. I sensed he viscerally felt the importance of policies to ameliorate poverty and help children from modest backgrounds get the education and training to better themselves.

By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak

I have just learned that old friend Michael Perelman has “passed quietly in his sleep” (not reported of what) on September 21, 2020, having been born on October 1, 1939, so just shy of his 81st birthday.  I knew Michael for a long time and considered him a personal friend, although it has been some time since I have seen him in person.  He long had an active internet list and was officially signed on as one of the people who could post here on Econospeak when it started, and I remember him in fact posting a few times in the early days, but then stopped.  He was always insightful.

Michael received his PhD from the Agricultural Economics and Natural Resources Department at UC-Berkeley in 1971, where his major prof was George Kuznets, younger brother of Nobelist Simon Kuznets. Michael then taught for 47 years at Chico State University in California where he was widely praised as an excellent teacher.  Among his students was Mark Thoma who apparently was strongly influenced by Michael and who would later run the widely respected and busy blog, Economists View, no longer functioning unfortunately.

He was definitely of a heterodox and progressive position and active in URPE, someone who took Marx seriously while not necessarily buying into all things Marx advocated.  He wrote 19 books, which I shall list below, although I am missing the year for one of them.  As can be seen they covered a wide range of topics.

I would note a few of them that I think are the most important.  Probably the one with the biggest splash was his 2000 The Invention of Capitalism: The Secret History of Accumulation, in which among other things he revealed a lot of dirt on Adam Smith.  Another was his1987  Karl Marx’s Crises Theories: Labor Scarcity and Fictitious Capital, of especial interest now with all the wild speculative bubbles we are seeing with “fictitious capital” Marx’s term for asset values above their fundamental due to speculation. Then there is his 2003 The Perverse Economy: The Impacts of Markets on People and Nature, in which he attempted to reconcile Marx with environmentalism, although I think he made the fuller version of this argument in some articles. Along with Paul Burkett, he noted that while Marx did not see see land creating value, he was it as containing wealth and wrote quite a bit about the implications of the work of the German organic chemist, von Liebig, developer of the famous “Libig’s Law of the Minimum,” an important idea in both ecology and agricultural economics.

Below I list his books:

Farming for Profit in a Hungry World (1977)

Classical Political Economy: Primitive Accumulation and the Social Division of Labor (1983)

Karl Marx’s Crises Theories: Labor Scarcity and Fictitious Capital (1987)

Keynes, Investment Theory and the Economic Slowdown: The Role of Investment and q-Rartios (1989)

The Pathology of the U.S. Economy: The Costs of a Low Wage System (1993)

Critical Legal Studies (with James Boyle, 1994)

The End of Economics (1996)

Class Warfare in the Information Age (1998)

The Natural Instability of Markets: Expectations, Increasing Returns and the Collapse of Markets (1999) [also an excellent book and well-timed]

Transcending the Economy: On the Potential of Passionate Labor and the Waste of the Market (2000)

The Invention of Capitalism: The Secret History of Accumulation (2000)

The Pathology of the U.S. Economy Revisited: The Intractable Contradictions of Economic Policy (2001)

Steal this Idea: Intellectual Property and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity (2002)

The Perverse Economy: The Impacts of Markets on People and Nature (2003)

Manufacturing Discontent: The Trap of Individualism in a Corporate Society (2005)

Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology (2006)

The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From Right-Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology the Next Great Depression (2007) [another well-timed one]

The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (2011)

Information, Social Relations and the Economy of High Technology (date unknown)

I shall miss him.

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  1. LowellHighlander

    Thank you for posting this, Ms. Smith. As an economist trained at a lowly ranked graduate program with several heterodox professors in the department, I can now see that I owe it to Mr. Perelman (as well to my old academic mentors, and to other students from my old program) to put his writings near the top of my reading list.

  2. Ludus57

    Everybody should read something by this remarkable author.
    My introduction was the excellent Railroading Economics, because railways are an abiding interest of mine, so that was my personal starting point.
    Meticulous research, allied with a clear writing style are the hallmarks of this great economist’s work, and I have learned much.
    The body of his work will be an enduring legacy.

  3. Harry

    Thank you for bringing Prof Perelman to our attention. Dying in one’s sleep at 81 is, I think, the best anyone can hope for. I’m pretty sure Solon would agree. Divine providence’s reward for a life well lived?

  4. Amateur Econ

    I’m sorry to hear of Michael Perelman’s passing. RIP. I’ve read a few of his books. “The Invention of Capitalism” is especially excellent. I met him at a Naked Capitalism gathering in NYC some years ago! (I believe it was at the Old Town Bar.)

  5. Michael Hudson

    I’m very sorry to hear of Michael’s death. We had given two presentations together at the annual Left Forum in New York City few years ago.
    I’m mostly concerned right now about the fate of a fascinating history of the origins of classical economics the he wrote but which is not published — William Petty, Cantillon and others, with a truly unique approach. I have a copy he sent me. He was trying to negotiate with an English publisher (I think, Oxford), but was getting dementia and I fear that the book’s fate is in limbo.

    1. deplorado

      Dear Prof. Hudson – please do everything you can to help publish this work. The world needs it.

      Dear Yves, thank you for bringing him and his work to our attention. Will make sure to read him. Peace to his dust.

      1. LowellHighlander

        Yes, I second deplorado’s plea, Dr. Hudson. The classical economists always made so much sense to me. Another classical economist, whom I know (Dean Baker) might also be interested in helping to bring Dr. Perelman’s book here to realization. (Obviously, I cannot speak for Dr. Baker, but having read his Ph.D. dissertation, I believe that he knows classical economics pretty well.)

  6. Dick Swenson

    I want to thank Naked Capitalism for obits such as this. There are many economists who are not “main stream” and who deserve being much better known. When they die, they deserve receiving the recognition that they might not have gotten during their life. Perhaps, there will be a biography someday.

  7. Rick Wolff

    Thank you for your appreciation of Michael Perelman. I had occasion to work with Michael more than once and came to appreciate his wisdom and willingness to share it with others. He and I shared, among other things, a respect for the Marxian tradition and what it has to teach us.

    Richard Wolff

    1. deplorado

      This is even better – more raw and primary and foundational – than Kalecki (who explained why unemployment is desired by the ruling classes and would never be eliminated). Wow! Big impression (I’d say jaw dropping!) indeed – thank you for posting the review.

  8. Trogg

    Railroading Economics is one of the best books I have read about economics. This is what stuck with me. Railroad economists were acknowledging in their scholarly work that the standard economics model taught taught in textbooks was bogus, and then they would write textbooks rehashing the same bogus economics.

  9. juno mas

    RE: Perelman’s academic posting

    Yves, there seems to be an error in the academic posting of Mr. Perelman. There is no Univ. Calif. campus in Chico, CA. There is a Cal State University campus, though. The nearest UC campus to Chico is UC Davis (near Sacramento, CA). While the UC system is a reknown research university system (~250k students), the Cal State system is no slouch (500K students), and is more focused on the education of Master level and undergrad students; a good place for an educator like Michael Perelman.

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