History of Economics Playground

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These things take time

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Last week, I spent a few days in the Dalton-Brand Research Room, at Duke University, skimming through the Samuelson papers. They make everybody excited there, and for good reasons. Samuelson was all over the place for about 70 years: in the academia, in the medias, in the arcane secrets of governmental policies. As a result, some of his papers read as mystery novels. There are many different plots intertwined there and you just want to read the end of the story – okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Of course, when one sees this kind of materials, he has many ideas for future papers and want to have them written – and published – as soon as possible. Accordingly, the Samuelson papers seem to generate a very competitive market. There will be a roundtable on “the prospects of writing on Paul Samuelson” at the next HES meeting, (at least) two biographical projects are being undertaken at the moment, and of course, there is also the perspective of the 2013 HOPE conference on MIT, which will hopefully result in a lot of new fascinating contributions, not only on Samuelson but on the many other important economists who interacted in this place where a lot of what constitutes the economists’ workaday toolbox has allegedly originated. There is this sensation that things will come out rather quickly but also an uneasy feeling of misplaced haste and pressure. Of course, I am not blaming anyone: that feeling has gotten all over me as well!

Yet, it is not without an afterthought that, soon after my return to Paris, I grabbed the copy of Robert Leonard’s Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960 that I had ordered from my university’s library and which had finally arrived on shelf during my absence. Leonard’s book has been expected  for over a decade and it fully delivers on its promises. It does not rely on a forced grand narrative or on an overly repeated thesis. Instead, it is constructed  like an impressionistic picture, where individual paths and the larger context are subtly intertwined until they finally make sense to the reader. Robert Leonard is never where you expect him to be. When one anticipates pages on abstract formalism, Leonard depicts Chess games and the politics of Red Vienna, when one sees a critique of neoclassical economics, he describes a theory of social interaction and when one thinks of wartime reorganization of science and its aftermath, he tells the ending of a very personal journey. It is meticulously crafted, with an economy of words that makes every sentence necessary. Obviously, these things take time.

Written by Yann

5 May 2011 at 8:12 pm

In the archives

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Taking a quick break from my work in the Samuelson archives – so fascinating, believe me! – I can’t resist sharing the following, which I found in his correspondence files. Commenting on David Landes’ draft on Abba Lerner (subsequently published), as Landes explains that Lerner did not get a professorship in Britain in the 1930s, in spite of his having published 29 papers so far, Samuelson writes in the margin:

Somewhere, you should hint why Lerner never had the job offer Lange did. jew; socialist; bohemian; libertine; no team player; genius.

And he adds in the related letter to Landes:

History [historians] never get things right.

Source: Samuelson to Landes, February 23 1990, Box 84, Folder “Lerner Abba”, Paul A. Samuelson papers at Duke University.

Written by Yann

27 April 2011 at 3:36 pm

Pop Archives

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I was just amused with two projects by Shaun Usher: to “gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos” in his blog Letters of Note, and to present interesting letterheads in his Letterheady blog.

In the former one can see images and the transcript of a scathing letter from John Lennon to Paul and Linda McCartney in the early 1970s, and letters from other pop figures as Mark Twain, Yoko Ono, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Edgar Allan Poe, CalTech’s chemist Eric Carreira to his post-doc student, among many others. In the latter blog, one finds letterheads of people/companies like Paul Simon, Elizabeth Taylor, Ozzy Osbourne, Marvel, Capitol Records, and many other beautiful ones.

It is interesting that Usher, despite of having “a seemingly endless supply of correspondence to plough through,” invites cyberfellows to contribute with their own images. But he warns them: “If you already know it’s fake, don’t send it.”

Just fun!

Written by Pedro

22 April 2011 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Archives, Links, Media, Web

When my heart skipped a beat

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I am writing a paper about an economist that was at the Treasury in the second half of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965 a new Labour government changed the status of the economist in British policy making by creating the “Government Economic Service”, from two dozen economists working in the Treasury there were soon two hundred in all branches of government. [Alec Cairncross writing to the Lloyds Bank Review in 1970 offers an insider's and compact exposition of this change] The Public Record Office listed in its online finding aid two items by this person. Although the items would not be essential for my argument they could provide some clues and color to a formative part of his life that was less documented than his later academic career. I asked the Public Record Office for estimates of digital scans of the two documents.

A week ago I got a reply, the total: a chest constricting 2,051.20 pounds (but it includes the first DVD, not the second, that’s 5 more). In their defense, each of the documents runs over 355 pages, which I had failed to notice when I made the request. Still that is 2.80 pounds a page, in my currency: two espressos a page. The median wage in UK public sector is £554 per week, does that mean my request is a four week job? Probably it isn’t, even if you take really zealous care in the digitalization and you have a scanner running on coal. Archive and record offices are now taking digital requests but I am sure they look upon them with concern for the future. Even if it pays well it does not pay up. And it is a self-fulfilling prophecy because at these prices, I can’t afford it, no one can afford it, and it doesn’t get done.

It goes to show that doing history is an expensive business. The conventional imagination has the historian in slippers sinking in an armchair under rising piles of books. Sometimes it’s like that, if your library is wealthy enough to carry the books, or has a decent inter library loan service. Google books is great, but has so far not greatly helped the historian of the past 50 years, because of copyright laws and Google’s business model won’t have it for free. Google books most of the time compounds the problem, because it is effective at revealing additional sources that I don’t have access to. And then there are archives. They will promise you scans and copies but often asking prohibitively expensive sums. The outcome is that the historian is a nomadic species, having to bid for travel funds to visit the archives and do her work on physical copies, often with the outcome that the archive holds nothing of real interest, except the stuff for a couple of meaty footnotes. Who could have guessed history was a high-adrenaline, high-risk job?

Written by Tiago

12 April 2011 at 3:02 pm

Bentham’s corpse and corpus preserved at UCL

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At UCL, a project is run to transcribe the lots of J. Bentham’s unedited papers.

The originality is that they will use “crowd sourcing” for this task: a collaborative project to digitize his papers, with the help of volunteers drawn from the web. Gratuitous, hype project? Not quite, since these are 40,000 papers of Bentham that have never been transcribed or studied, and a massive distributed effort seems a clever use of the technology to speed up the completion of the transcription.

Jump at 5’15 for the description of the crowd-sourcing project.

What do the Bentham’s specialists think about this initiative? Do they expect it to change the scholarship on Bentham in any significant manner?

[thx to @your2pence who posted on this on http://your2pence.wordpress.com]

Written by Clement

1 April 2011 at 2:44 pm

Shawmut Follies (1967)-Part I.

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Featuring:

King Arthur: Frank Fisher

Merlin: Robert Bishop

Herald: Robert Eckaus

First peasant: Cary Brown

Second peasant : Tapley

Sir Lancelot: Peter Diamond

Sir Lionel : Paul Samuelson

Sir Sagamore: Pranab Bardhan

Sir Dinadan: Peter Temin

Messenger: John Harris

Excerpts from Scene 1.

A mythical kingdom in the East

(…)

Arthur: I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I know what the world needs!

Merlin: What, Arthur, what?

Arthur: A really great economics department! A new departure in economics department!

Merlin: You’ve got it, Arthur, bless you fine human instincts. Of course that’s what’s been missing.

Arthur: The world will be a better place for a great economic department. I’ll send recruiters to distant lands. We’ll raise every top man in existence.

Merlin: No, no, no, Arthur. That’s what’s been wrong up to now. This constant raiding, the escalation of salary offers, fringe benefits. The isn’t what the world needs.

Arthur: We’ll attract them by an idea and an exemple.

(….)

Arthur: We’ll gather all the young PhDs here and we’ll call it..

Merlin: Yes, Arthur?

Arthur: the M.I.T long Corridor.

Merlin: Splendid.

(….)

Excerpts from Scene 2

A provincial city named after an English philosopher

Herald: hear ye, hear ye. Come on, come all to hearken to the Grand Proclamation of King Arthur

(….)

Herald: Kind Arthur of MIT offers to all young knight of intellectual errantry the opportunity to join the select Long Corridor of economists sworn to uphold true theory, to rescue theorems from rape and pillage at the brutal hands of Midwestern PhDs, to form a fellowship of intellectual excellence and as much good cheer as can coexist with it.

(…)

Bystander 1: Who’s going to go and compete with those fierce eastern minds?

Bystander 2: Not me, man

(…)

Lancelot: I will

Bystander: Who? Who are you?

Lancelot: I am Lancelot du Bay, academic fencer par excellence. I will go.

Bystander 1: To MIT? Think twice, man.

(to be continued…..)

Note: These are excerpts from a play script written by Duncan Foley and Peter Temin in 1967, presumably for the MIT annual Christmas Party. Found in the MIT archives, Hayden Library.

When you do archive work, you always stumble upon this kind of material. You laugh, sometimes you make a copy of it, and then you burry it on a shelf. This time, I’d like to make more of it. I’ve been writing on how economics at MIT was shaped in the postwar period, who were the various protagonists, what were their visions, how did they interact and how did the institutional structures of the Institute (from engineering tradition to recruitment policies and curricula) influenced these interactions and in turn were altered by them. This play script conveys a wealth of information as to how MIT economists viewed themselves, other departments and the state of their science at that time. It also says much about the roles of each protagonist within the community (if only through who’s assigned which character of the Round Table myth). Yet, I’ve just finished a draft of my MIT project, and so far I haven’t mentioned this material in the narrative. The truth is that I don’t quite know how to interpret it, how to handle it. This information is conveyed and filtered by a “tone” that belongs to the realm of humor, derision, possibly caricature, and shouldn’t be taken literally. Any idea or reference on how to handle joke-material in history?

Written by Beatrice

25 March 2011 at 12:57 pm

Posted in Archives

Inspiration from the past

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Wandering the streets of New York I found myself at a street-side book vendor, and in picking up the Letters of the Younger Pliny I found a wonderful sentiment in the introductory quotation:

Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives.
-Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn on 29 June 1784

I add to that, two definitions  from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906), which constitute my second purchase of the day:

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

What would Ysidro do?

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In a 1950 paper, Paul Samuelson wrote:

The most rational man I ever met, whom I shall call Ysidro [when] told that he did not satisfy all of the v. Neumann-Morgenstern axioms, [..] replied that he thought it more rational to satisfy his preferences and let the axioms satisfy themselves.

This introduced in the extensive correspondence between Samuelson, Savage, Marschak, Baumol, and Friedman the idea of the “Ysidro Man” or “Ysidro functions.” In the letters (but not in published print) Samuelson also introduced his mother – as the non-economist acting on her  common sense. Thus, for instance, Marschak would discuss with Baumol how best to axiomatize the behavior of Samuelson’s mother.

These archetypes are more commonly labelled homo economicus and homo sapiens – very dull terms indeed (and why the Latin anyway?). So, from now on, when we talk about the homo economicus let’s instead ask: What would Ysidro do? And when criticizing that economic conception as unrealistic, let’s do that by referring to what Samuelson’s mother would do.

Written by Floris

27 February 2011 at 4:00 pm

Do you have talent for the history of economics?

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Paul Samuelson asked in the title of a commentary to John Chipman’s book on Pareto (Box 6, Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University): “Do you

The young Samuelson (from the Nobel Prize website)

have talent for economic theory?”, and started it as follows:

You should cultivate chiropractory or plumbing if you can’t give the right definite answer to the following question:

“If the minimum cost of achieving at least adequate amounts of calories and vitamins is $39 per year, what must the minimum cost be of achieving exactly the specified amounts of calories and vitamins?”

Does anyone want to try, just for fun, to formulate a question that would serve similarly to the history of economics? Hum… I guess it should start with Smith and end with Keynes…

Written by Pedro

10 February 2011 at 10:58 pm

Which economic education?

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A small sample of exam subjects given by “great economists” between 1928 and 1960. To be compared with the subjects we worked on as students or we’re currently grading as teachers.

Exam given by Jacob Marschak to his students in 1928, presumably at the Kiel Institut für Weltwirtschaft. I don’t know whether the students were undegraduate or graduate, if the distinction ever made sense at that time


 

The participant of the exercise should put himself into the position of a delegate of the parliament, a member of a Union, or a higher ministerial official. He must get a picture of the existing relations in the industry under investigation….. The main ressource for answering individual questions is the statistics Yearbook….The participant’s work will not limited to the computation of figures, they will add to the figures obtained a short commentary…. The statistics give numerical proofs that are not readily comparable with each other, and most figures furthermore derive from different various methods sometimes contradictory….”

8 series of questions regarding

1. General determination of natural resources; 2. Quantities and value of Coal production and refinement; 3. Transport; 4. Price and evaluation of trade; 5. Labor issues; 6. Raw coal in competition with other kinds of energy; 7. Capital ratio and business organisation, importance of the public sector 8. policy statements: impact of trade policies, fiscal policies, transport policies, social policies

Examples of questions:

How have the profits of the German mining industry developed since the war?

How would you conquer new territories so as to strenghten the situation of Coal in its competition with oil / water energy / wood before and after the war?

What would be the effect of a 5pft per hour increase of the miners’ wages on the retail price of coal?

What would be the effect of the introduction of a 1mk per ton of Coal custom duty for the fiscal authorities / the contractors wihin the industry / the workers / the steel industry

(Box 155, Jacob Marschak papers, Young Research Library, UCLA. My painful translation from German)

 

Final exam given by Paul Samuelson to his Ec26 (Business Cycles) students on May 20, 1943.

Answer two or three questions not all from the same section:

  1. « the older economists regarded the trade cycle as a fluctuation around an undefined base. Modern economists have for the first time a theory of effective demand to determine that base. » Develop the last sentence, and weigh the accuracy of the whole quotation

  2. Must savings equal investment? Dsicuss this problem, giving as little weight as possible to terminological and definitional answers. Go to the hearth of the matter, and show how hoarding enters the picture if at all

  3. What is the optimum amount of money in a system; the optimum marginal efficiency of capital; the optimum marginal propensity to consume? Explain.

  4. How can those who have lost faith in monetary control have so much confidence in the efficacy of fiscal policy?


  1. What is the effect on prices and wages of greatly increased effective demand? Illustrate with the policy problems raised during the war.

  2. Weight the chances of booms and depression in the half decade after the war

  3. resolve: secular stagnation is likely if not inevitable. Prepare a brief for th affirmative and the negative.

  4. Discuss the problems raised by the public debt

(Box 33, Samuelson papers, Research Library, Duke University)

 

Term paper assigned by Jacob Marschak to his Econ 303 (Economics of Uncertainty) students in 1952, presumably at Chicago.

Write Essays on any two of the following five question …

(1)-(3) The following behavior rule has been proposed: maximize expected utility. Discuss either

  1. the logical foundation of the rule; or

  2. the empirical evidence on whether the rule is actually applied by people; or

  3. some applications of the rule in the economics of the firm

    4. Discuss the following proposition: if probabilities (including “probabilities of single events”) are interpreted as subjective “degrees of belief” the rule of maximizing expected utility implies the rule that the probability of a repeated event be estimated by its relative frequency

    5. Discuss the concept of strategy and decision function, and its application in economics. What rules have been recommended for decision under incomplete information?

(Box 88, Jacob Marschak papers, Young Research Library, UCLA)

 

Final Exam given my Milton Friedman to his Econ 302 (Price theory)  students in 1960 at Chicago (Thanks to Dan Hammond for sending me a copy of this)

  1. Consider an individual firm which (1) has a production function that is homogeneous of degree unity in the factors of production it uses; (2) can acquire all these factors on competitive markets; and (3) sells its products on a competitive market.

    a) state precisely what (1), (2) and (3) mean

    b) do the conditions describe a “long run” or a “short run” situation? Do they need to be modified to differentiate between the two? If so, how?

    c) What do these conditions imply about the firm’s equilibrium output?

    2. Analyze each of the following quotations:

    a) In a recent editorial on the recent steel wage settlement, the Wall Street Journal commented ‘no matter how you slice it, the new contracts add upwards of a billion dollars to the wage cost of this basic industry… and gives an upward bias to all new wages negotiations in other industries.’

    b) ‘For years, the chemical industry has been able to operate profitably in the face of declining prices, largely as a result of its steadily increasing sales.’

    c) ‘Even though the soil bank plan and the other measures to restrict acreage cultivated have not succeeded in raising the market price of most crops above parity levels, they have raised the wages of farm labor by requiring heavier reliance on labor.’

    3. “Net accumulation of capital by a society has sometimes been regarded as a trasitory stage in the movement from one stationary state equilibrium position to another, each characterized by zero accumulation of capital; sometimes as itself an equilibrium position that conceivably could continue indefinitely even without any changes in ‘given’ conditions.”

    State and discuss the conditions for which each of these views is valid or possible. Which view seems to you to be stressed by the writers on capital theory whose work you have read (in particular, Keynes and Knight)?

    4. The rent of land is determined in part by the demand for products produced with the aid of land; the demand for these products depends in part on the income of the population at large; the income of the population depends in part on what the landowners receive for the use of their land. So it is quite clear that the rent of land depends on the rent of land.

    To what extent does this statement involve circular reasoning? Simultaneous determination? Prove your answers by writing down the relevant system of equations.

Quoted from Hammond, Dan. 1999. The Legacy of Milton Friedman as a Teacher. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Written by Beatrice

9 February 2011 at 12:16 am

Mon cher Baumol

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In his correspondance with Jimmie Savage and Will Baumol in the early 1950s, Maurice Allais would write in French and the two Americans would reply in English. Also Italian mathematician Bruno de Finetti started his corrspondance with Savage in French in the 1940s, although he switched to English in the mid 1950s. In addition, it appears from remakrs here and there that people such as Samuelson, Baumol and Savage could read German, that Savage’s Latin wasn’t so bad, but that Baumol apologized not being able to read Latin.

Which all begs the question: In general, how well did American economists in the twentieth century read and speak other languages? Could American professors in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s be expected to read French and/or German? Or was this really an exception?  

Dans l’attente de votre réponse, je vous prie d’agréer, mon cher Baumol, mes salutations distinguées.

Written by Floris

31 January 2011 at 9:05 am

Is it time?

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More random thoughts about the wikileaks cablegate

Of course, there are all these discussions about the consequences of such disclosure for international relations, its influence on American and worldwide public opinions.

But what about the consequences on scholarly historical work?

Two random links to begin with:

“Why Wikileaks is bad for scholars “, by international politics Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner

US embassy cables: a banquet of secrets in The Guardian , by essayist/ public intellectual/ journalist (?) Timothy Garton Ash

Any other reactions by scholars/ public intellectuals you’re aware of?

Is the forced “declassification” of such recent historical material, at such a huge scale, a blessing or a curse for international relations scientists and for historians?

Are they/we “equipped” intellectually to deal with such material, to analyze its context, its subtext, its “truthfulness” ? To make sense of it? To tell a story out of it? What does the material reflect: the course of history, actions, opinion, prejudices, decisions, other? How distinct/close   is/should be  the work of a scholar as compared with the work of these journalists at the NYT, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, who are trying to sort out these millions words, cut through it, report it, make sense of it to the reader? Is it their very short horizon? Does it mean it will necessary take the historian a 1/5/10 years immersion into the material to tell the story behind such and such cable? Is it at all possible? What will the exploitation of these cables say about the possibility to write contemporary history? Or if that material is unimportant/ unexploitable/ secondary/ flawed/ biased, why and how is it so?

Does any precedent exist in history/ history of science/ history of culture/ history of economic something? I mean, is there any instance you know in which the unanticipated early disclosure of some historical material have forced historians/ analysts/ journalists/ story tellers  to reconsider/ rewrite their stories?

Do historians/ scholarly archivists in relation to historians have any duty in the face of such flow of material (setting aside questions regarding the legality of the disclosure) : do they have to sort the material, provide finding aid, reference it?

And if these are not the right/ meaningful questions to filter what is currently happening, what else?

Written by Beatrice

10 December 2010 at 8:34 pm

Wallpaper

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I was so close to have found my laptop’s new wallpaper here. It makes the glamour of our profession shine. Remember, historians are would-be Indiana Jones (or is it now Julian Assange?).

It’s just that the picture is of a too small size for a full screen display. After verification, no it is not. There are more uses than just a wallpaper though. If I were at Duke, I’d print it in A3 and display it on the RBMSC Library‘s front door. Not sure it would encourage economists to donate their personal archives, but it would certainly excite patrons’s interest!

Written by Clement

3 December 2010 at 10:25 am

Posted in Archives, pictures

Tagged with ,

Rudolf Modley (?)

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There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath's]“. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

“We are not historians of economic thought”

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Or so the Economic Journal emphasises to relax its readers’ otherwise shock and horror at their November 2009 issue. The feature issue honours James Meade (1907-1995) by drawing on a recent conference about him. The editors (Vines and Weale 2009: F423) immediately declare that “the contributors were asked to write papers on contemporary topics – this was not a history-of-economic-thought conference” ! Rest assured dear reader of the Economic Journal, we are not historians of economic thought, and this feature is not about the past.

But of course it has to be. The introduction will talk about Meade’s (or as the chummy editors repeat: “James’s”) contribution to economics through his efforts during and after the Second World War.  History is then reduced to talking about the development of “obvious” ideas (ibid: F425), and how it was  “inevitably [that] the British work became better known” than US and Dutch work on national income definitions (ibid: F424).

So the editors take the Whiggish road to Meade’s work and quickly establish how “Keynes set out the policy necessary to avoid excess demand in wartime, in his famous book How to Pay for the War. In response to this, James wrote a note in which he set out the a double entry system for national accounts” (ibid: F424). In the world that Vines and Weale describe, Keynes published a book, Meade read it and he responded in 1940 by producing a framework for defining the national economy and its output. Simple. And consistent with the general story told of national income ideas in the 1940s. Simple and consistent. Albeit disputable.

It is at this point I’d wish the editors were historians or that they and other literature was proud to do historical work Vines and Weale argue it was  “in response to [How to Pay for the War]” that Meade composed the national accounts. The context of the situation tells a different story. And some interest in the history of ideas and context might have avoided this whole notion.

Meade had been hired by Austin Robinson that spring of 1940. He fled Geneva with his family to come to London, and there took up work on the national accounts. Why? Because Robinson had hired him to come to the Treasury, sit down with Keynes’s book, and extrapolate the accounts presented by Keynes. Robinson had convinced the Treasury that such an endeavour could be useful for the war effort. Meade’s note was not an independent “response” to Keynes, it was a job he was hired to do. It would only be successful after he was joined by Richard Stone and then pushed, encouraged and edited by Keynes in the Treasury first, and then in the US. Our definition of economic growth as GNP growth was far from inevitable.

Meade was not the maverick that a context-less reading of the facts may suggest. He was hired to do something, something he himself had shown little inclination to do previously. Meade supervised the League of Nations national income data before fleeing across France, and never proposed anything akin to Keynes’s GNP. The Economic Journal editors actually cite an unpublished 1940 note in Meade’s collected papers (1988: 106-17) as the source of Meade’s authorship. They did some archival-like work here. Moreover it should be recognised that they are the first people to textually substantiate the claim that Meade constructed a national accounting system – despite the lack of why he did so. Others who have written on this, have usually not even bothered with the original texts, never mind the context. So Vines and Weale  may yet be Historians, albeit not very good ones, which might be why they are so keen to avoid the title.

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