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Article: Recent anthropological thought supports heterodox views

The New Yorker reviews two new books in anthropology that have a bearing on stories economists tell. It is interesting to note that the up-to-date work on prehistoric societies in the article is still in line with work from the 1960s suggesting that early humans (before settled civilizations) lived in egalitarian societies and did not have to work many hours to survive and meet their needs. Many mainstream economics textbooks have made the mistaken claim that the need to work long hours was part of the human condition before technological breakthroughs beginning with the industrial revolution increased productivity. This claim supports the central claims of the neoclassical mainstream that scarcity is always a problem to be solved and that economics is about the allocation of scarce resources.

The macroeconomist J. M. Keynes argued in a famous essay mentioned in one of the new books that further breakthroughs could within a century bring a society where greed and the need to work faded away. Also noted in the article is the key idea that the earliest agricultural economies were centered on grain rather than other crops because with its predictable growing season, grain production was easiest to tax. This is related to the MMT claim that chartal money came into existence in order for the state to be able to tax.

Of course, life for hunter-gatherers lacked much of the complexity that makes life more interesting today for people who are in a position to be able to enjoy them—provided they have good health, sufficient income, etc. Finally, the ability to use fire—extremely important as an innovation for the ancestors of homo sapiens—brought a greater ability to eat a more varied diet including cooked food. But it could not have been the trigger for the development of settled agricultural societies, which occurred thousands of years later.

But see the New Yorker review article for the details on the work elaborated in the recent books. Alfred Eichner was one great early Post-Keynesian who emphasized the implications of economic anthropology in his textbooks. See his Guide to Post Keynesian Economics from the 1970s. An interesting classic work in anthropology focusing on such findings is Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins.



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