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

INET and reforming economic education: can history help?

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One INET project is to “reconnect the teaching of economics with the working of the actual economy,” which is to begin with a reform of the undergraduate curriculum. For this purpose, a two-legged task force was established, with Robert Skidelsky chairing the British committee and Perry Mehrling the American one. Both committees reported on their progress at the Bretton Woods conference (see the videos of the sessions)

The purpose here is not to discuss the task force’s proposals. Nor is it to argue for the reintegration of history of economics to the curriculum. Some historians and economists alike have repeatedly advocated such reform since the current crisis broke out. The only problem being that the “history” economists have in mind doesn’t seem to be the “history” historians are writing. But I shall elaborate on this in future posts.

My concern is that, while I have something to say about reforming economic education as a former student and a teacher, I’m not sure what my contribution could be as a historian – assuming that economists need historical insights to devise their reforms.

Perry Mehrling began his Bretton Woods talk with the idea that “things (e.g. economic education) are the way they are for a historical reason and they stay the way they are for an institutional reason.” He then proceeded to a one-slide account of the development of american economic education as a methodological shift from the “T Ely” way of doing and teaching economics to the “Samuelson” way, before jumping to the present state of affairs and possible reforms. The task force seems to have a documented view of where we are (in the US, as well as in the UK), but very little notion of how we got there, and why. There are a few elements though that historians are – or rather, I’m afraid, should be – able to throw into the discussion.

On the idea of helping undergraduates grasp reality (with both hands, ten tentacles or a prehensile tail). What are the similarities and differences between our present situation (social and economic context, students’ demands, criticisms against the economic profession) and the crises economics have experienced over the past decades? In the seventies, for instance, introductory courses were substantially reformed in response to a demand for greater relevance emanating from students who, as it happened, remained worryingly illiterate at the end of their curriculum. This is what Jean-Baptiste Fleury relates in a recent paper on the origins of the “economics-made-fun” movement. “Relevant” meaning relevant for the then burning real world issues such as racial discrimination, the energy crisis, etc. He details economists’ reactions, from the institutionalization of the emerging field of economic education, through the creation of the Journal for Economic Education in 1969, to the decision to focus introductory courses on the application of a limited set of economic principles to relevant issues. Several textbooks illustrating this “issue-oriented approach” were published. In the eighties and nineties, professionals continued to complain that economics lacked relevance, e.g. lacked connection to observation and empiricism, and for students, lacked reference to situations of the everyday life. As the concentration of the publishing industry entailed a standardization of introductory textbook, pedagogical innovations flourished in the kind of popularization books which had already proved successful in other fields such as physics or biology. This “economics-made-fun” movement, which culminated with the publication of Freakonomics, was an inspiration for those economists who worried about the apparent decrease in the enrollment in economic major and who, by the end of the nineties, attempted to reform the curriculum again (rather unsuccessfully).

Today’s reformers may find some interest in a clear identification of what past challenges to undergraduate education and past responses have been. Though I’m not familiar with the JEE literature, I wonder whether a review of the knowledge produced in its issues would provide a sense of what the forces driving the evolution of economic education have been in the past thirty years. Finally, there’s no explicit mention of these pop-economics books in the current discussion. Is it because this literature is considered already integrated to undergraduate education? Or irrelevant?

→ One way to think about economic education is to identify the questions we want our students to answer at the end of our courses. In other words, what the appropriate exams and assignments should be like. Hence this question to historians: how did the form of econ exams evolve over time (and if you’re in a cynical mood, is economists’ claim that their science is progressive warranted, are today’s students able to answer an exam given by Marschak in the twenties, one given by Samuelson in the forties, or the tricky and much reality-based questions Friedman was used to asking in the fifties ad sixties.) A parallel set of questions deals with the practices of past education leaders, from Friedman to Solow. How did those famous economists teach? What made their success? During the INET session, Axel Leijonhufvud pointed to those economists who could not do or teach theory without history of thought, such as Jacob Viner. If there are any lectures notes in the archives, they might be worth studying.

→ Another important issue is that of textbooks/ teaching material. Some proposals have been made for the development of online material, videos, reading lists and text anthologies. And when Merhling mentions Samuelson as the one who changed the way economics was not only made but also taught, Economics pops up in our mind. Except that, as explained by Samuelson and contextualized by Yann Giraud, Economics was not written for an economic audience. In the late forties at MIT, most engineering and science students had Ec11 and Ec12 (introductory econ) on their curriculum. Made compulsory. They hated it, and Ralph Freeman, then chairman of the department of economics, asked Samuelson to write a textbook to correct this. Yann and Loïc Charles are currently investigating how, during the Great Depression, visuals such as Neurath pictorial statistics were used as a major vehicle to spread information and opinion on economics in textbooks, professional periodicals and by US administrations. Much more narratives of that kind is needed on how and why influential textbooks were written, and how they spread.

→ Finally, econ education everywhere in the Western world seems nowadays modeled on the curricula proposed by leading American econ departments, in particular MIT, Chicago and Harvard (unless you have an alternative narrative). Have historians anything to say about how economic education was developed at these leading institutions?

On Chicago, a quick search brought a much more meager harvest than I expected. A few reminiscences (for instance Deidre McCloskey’s remark that the undergraduate and graduate curricula were strictly separated), vague statements on the large number of students accepted in both programs, and on the thus large number of students failing exams. The importance of the graduate price theory course taught by Friedman, then Becker, then Friedman again, to socialize the Chicago graduate into the proper way of doing economics. Friedman as a teacher. And thanks to Ross Emmett, the role of the workshop system in ensuring that the right tools were used the right way in thesis writing and research. Fragments.

On MIT, I know a few stories. Some of which make sense to understand the current state of affairs.

At MIT, before 1965, there was no economic major. No undergraduate students in economics. Undergraduate students took 80% scientific or engineering courses, and 20% humanities courses, with a core humanities sequence during the first two years, and a major sequence in economics (or psychology, or political science, or literature or else) in the subsequent two years. A few dozens students enrolled in a course XIV, a sort of double major which allowed students to pursue a standard science or engineering curriculum AND an economic undergraduate major. 50%-50%. Three options were offered: general economics, labor relations, and quantitative economics (from statistics to Operation Research). According to the faculty reports, none of these students subsequently chose to specialize in economics. They either became engineers, OR specialists or worked for a trade union. Therefore, the curriculum economics undergraduates were presented with in the next decades, the lectures Lawrence Summers attended as an MIT student in 1973 or 1974 were designed to introduce physicists and engineers to social issues. The tools, the methods and the approach were designed for them.

The best way to get greater exposure to economics at MIT in the fifties an sixties may have been to go to the business school, where economists and business scientists were working hand in hand (they were located in the same building at the far end of the campus, away from other hard and social sciences): people at the Sloan business school were applying new methods for quality control and transportation optimization. They were obsessed with trading and they developed models to account for stock behavior. They also recruited Franco Modigliani.

At MIT in the sixties, elementary macro was taught before elementary micro. The order was reversed in 1974 when, in the context described above by Jean-Baptiste and in response to repeated students’ protests and petitions, introductory economics courses were reformed under the leadership of Peter Temin. It was decided that “micro will precede macro..so as to introduce economics through problems that are most apparent to the non economist and to the engineer in particular.”

At MIT, in the late sixties, the use of problem sets was developed. In 1968, the “Committee on the undergraduate economics program” chaired by Duncan Foley reported that :

“Students at the Institute seem to prefer subjects in which homework assignments are required to be turned in at frequent intervals. There is also some evidence that they work more consistently under such arrangement. Therefore, it seems desirable that “problem sets” be required frequently – probably every other week. Student reaction to the workbook has been negative for the most part.

It is important that these problem sets do not degenerate into routine mechanical algrebraic exercises. Some of the problem sets may well be manipulation of models, but others should be short essays on the sort of questions which are used for examination.”

Six years later, in his revision of introductory courses, Temin suggested that:

“The use of problem sets will be increased. While problems are used currently in 14.01 and 14.02, there are only a few problems sets given during each term. In the revised courses, there will be problem sets every week or two weeks. These problems will provide practice in the use of economics to analyze particular questions and an opportunity for the student to think about some of the problems raised in the readings outside of class time. They are the beginning of independent thought on economic problems.

….In general, 14.01 and 14.02 aim to introduce to the student a new way of looking at some aspects of his environment. The traditional way of accomplishing this end is through the examination of historical ideas. Considering the needs of MIT students, a different approach is suggested here. Through a sophisticated look at current economic concepts and problems, the student’s appreciation of his surroundings should be enhanced.”

I have been unable to decide how this evolution relates to Jean-Baptiste’s account of the implementation of the “issue-oriented approach.” Possibly because I don’t have the cultural background. Or because we don’t have enough material to understand exactly what these two pedagogical practices covered in the seventies.

 I don’t know any articulated account of the development of curricula at Harvard and other relevant places.

Thoughtful reforms of undergraduate education requires a knowledge of how economic education was shaped at least in the XXth century. It’s thus a pity (and a shame) that we, historians of economics, are unable to provide at least fragments of such history. Oh, but wait…. We’re busy debating -again- on “Adam Smith, the ‘Founding Father’ of Modern Economics?

Cartoon borrowed from techno converging zone blog.

Written by Beatrice

15 April 2011 at 10:39 am

Reflexivity?

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From the New York Times Opinionator: The Power of the Playground. I agree. Play, play, play…

Written by Tiago

9 April 2011 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Narcisism

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.

Sociobiology and vegetarianism

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Claude Lalanne - L'Homme à Tête de Chou

My Dear Clément,

As you may know, I am a vegetarian. I have never thought much about the reasons of my rather recent conversion to vegetarianism, though as a historian and as a postmodern constructivist, I would tend to rely on socio-cultural explanations and as an economist, on more rational justifications – whether the two are mutually compatible, I ignore. To be a vegetarian in France is not an easy task. You have to struggle with the weight of culture: foie gras, confit de canard and so on. At least, I can still enjoy the incredible range of French cheeses we have, though I have to override the fact that most contain animal rennet – but I am not against inconsistency, which is what  every non-vegetarian tries to pinpoint about you as soon as they learn about your diet, as if they did not commit inconsistencies themselves all the time. One of the reasons I turned to vegetarianism is justly because I was a bit fed up with this French cultural exception. We believe we cook better food than most of the other world citizens – and the latter often believe it to be true as well. Yet, most of our ‘wonderful’ French cuisine is about putting a piece of factory farmed meat in a frying pan with chopped shallots and pretending it is a work of art – by comparison, I would invite you to taste my wife’s bread-and-mushrooms vegetarian terrine or my own eggplant and chick-peas tajine, which are far better. When I try to make my dietary choice more ‘rational’ – because my interlocutors seem to favor rational explanations - , I tend to rely on economic arguments. The fact that we eat only 0.25% of the edible livestock, that most of the resources that could serve to feed people in developing countries are instead used for feeding factory farmed animals, that 8 to 11 % of the weight of the meat that is sold to consumers actually consists of wasted waters that the profession calls “fecal soup” and that we actually eat only a minor portion of the livestock we kill – as Jonathan Safran Foer notes in Eating Animals (p.50): ‎”Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across” - are all arguments that make me quite comfortable as a vegetarian.

At this point of my message, my dear Clément, you must wonder what this has to do with you, right? Don’t worry. I am now coming to my central question. I have never been much convinced by naturalistic/positivistic justifications for vegetarianism and anything that relies on animal suffering to claim animal rights, though striking a chord, does not seem convincing to me as a rationale – you would have, to be convinced, to compare the suffering of factory farmed pigs to that of starved children in Ethiopia or slaughtered Libyans, which is not something I want to do. But other people find these arguments perfectly suitable for grounding their claims, such as most people at PETA. I was then wondering whether sociobiology has been used by animal rights advocates. After all, sociobiology use the exact same tools to study social behaviors in human and animal populations, and by doing so, it tends to instill the idea that animals, like humans, may have rights too. [Of course, as some eminent (sic) researchers in our field have tried to show you during your first conference presentation a few years ago, it can also argue the exact contrary, that because we behave just like animals do, we can be treated the same way, hence the campaigns of sterilization of some populations, and so on.] For instance, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, I was surprised to see some PETA member mentioning Richard Dawkins‘s research as one that helps ground animal rights. Culturally, I think it is quite interesting because people tend to think of sociobiology as kind of right-wing entrenched because of its hard scientism, positivism and probably because E.O. Wilson himself seems to fit the image of the Republican type of public intellectual. But it might not be necessarily so. I think that you would agree that sociobiology as it is currently practiced is an Anglo-Saxon invention and it is precisely where vegetarians are the most numerous and the most vocal – I would put aside religious vegetarianism, as practiced in some other areas in the world. Have you ever located in the sociobiological literature a fraction of authors that more or less explicitly advocate animal rights? Admittedly, it does not have a lot to do with the history of economics, yet I am quite interested in the question.

Kind regards,

Your friend Yann

Written by Yann

24 February 2011 at 9:19 am

Alternative Summers

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Before academics wiggle their toes in baked sand, and pull out the novels set aside during the working year, they always find some time for one last bout of schooling. It seems school is NOT out for Summer.

Contrary to some historiographical accounts and my own personal ordeal, I think we are living a golden age of the history of economics. For more than a decade there have been two summer schools on the history of economics, growing in followers and wealth. Initially at George Mason University and now at the University of Richmond, the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the (Study of) the History of Economic Thought counts 11 years (link to photos and videos of 2010). The Europeans were first off the blocks, and their Summer School on History of Economic Thought, Economic Philosophy and Economic History is in its fourteenth edition. The names suggest they are different venues. The former more focused than the latter, only history, but also more defensive, with its stated role of preserving. The Europeans don’t much need preservation of history of economics, since there are across Southern and Central Europe plenty of graduate students and programs. The European event even grants you ECT credits for equivalences with your home institution. They have similar formats, a blend of senior scholars giving papers (see the 2011 here), and students presenting their work. Then academic cultures matter. In the Virginia version the distinction between students/young scholars vs faculty is less marked, the informality makes it like a relaxed but intense conference experience.

Since last year there is a third summer event, hosted from Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy. In its first edition it was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and was directed at teachers in liberal arts colleges that wanted to teach history of economics subjects. The 2011 version is a slight more adventurous: three modules of two weeks each; thought primarily to attract graduate students in economics who have no background in history; generously funded. While other summer events cater to the student writing a thesis on the history of economics, this summer event is dedicated to everyone else (even if the HET student may apply and will likely get in). For full disclosure, I am more than a bit committed to this one. I am listed as co-director of it and have spent the best of the past couple of months advertising and working through the details of the program.

Supply creates its own demand. Or in a more cinematic version, as in Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.” If you give economists the chance to learn the history of their discipline, from some of the best historians around, and you pay them to boot, will they come?

Written by Tiago

21 February 2011 at 12:06 am

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

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