History of Economics Playground

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@INET-BW: What’s history?

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History keeps appearing and reappearing in the different discussions and presentations. But there’s history and history. One reference to history, as Tiago observed in front of the hearth last night, is history as nostaligia: imagine Keynes walking around in this very room!, picture the Americans thrashing the Russians in a agme of softball during BW  ’44!, “as a graduate student, I learned a lor from….” Second, there is the implicit no-history argument, in which ecoomics is one big pile of research from which one may take different sources depending on the issue at hand. Much like philosophy, in which one can as easily apply Aristotle, Hobbes, or Sloterdijk to contemporary issues. History as history is yet to appear.

Written by Floris

9 April 2011 at 10:51 am

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The Age of In-Between Economists

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A weakness of our profession – and perhaps of humans generally –  is that we want to classify. Thus we categorized ourselves and each other as neoclassical, institutional, Keynesian, Marxist and Chicago economists. To some extent, these labels have always been problematic. Where to put John Kenneth Gailbraith, Albert Rees, or Herbert Simon for instance? Moreover, classifications always seem to fall apart when you look too closely.

Over the past years, however, things have become more complicated still with a new generation of economists who, consciously or not, constantly position themselves in between whatever labels and domains are out there. Herbert Gintis is a Marxist, game theorist, behavioral economist, and institutional economist depending on the occasion. Robert Shiller is anything in between traditional finance, behavioral finance, and an applied type of finance research that is more concerned with solving problems in the here and now than advancing a new theory. And then there is someone like Benjamin Friedman. As an economist, I never know where to situate Benjamin Friedman for my students.

Postmodernism may be long gone, but this is the age of the in-between economist. We, the economists, do a paper that may be classified as belonging to this category, but tomorrow we’ll do a paper that may be put into that category. And we don’t really care what these categories are, as long as you classify us and our work in their totalities as in-between.

Interestingly enough, though, we definitely are economists, not sociologists, politicians, writers, or whatever. We’re very much in-between, but we’re also very much economists.

Written by Floris

25 March 2011 at 10:04 am

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Tweeting and digital humanities

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I had a twitter account for long. After faint hearted attempts at tweeting (“Going for lunch”, “Really appreciated my week-end in Paris”), I just gave up. What is this service for?

Developing an interest in digital humanities changed my opinion. It is not quite a field yet: I am not aware of established journals devoted to digital humanities, or of international societies with annual meetings. But it is certainly a community of interest. The trouble for this community is that they come from widely different backgrounds: history, demography, philology, but also machine learning and software developing, to mention just a few. How do they get to know and learn from each other?

Twitter happens to be a very convenient space for this purpose. It is commonly used by computing scientists, who tweet furiously about their ideas, results, and the events they organize. And some social scientists started participating in the discussion. They are very few for now, but the principle of twitter is that each “tweet” can quote links and keywords which can then be followed (and re-tweeted, etc.) So that their voices are amplified, and at the end one gets quite a broad view of social sciences in the digital humanities.


For instance, what triggered the writing of this post was reading a fascinating blog post by a Princeton scholar on the design of databases for historians, which I discovered by following a link on twitter (http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2011/03/what-historians-dont-know-about.html). The point I want to make is that, instead of following the work of this Princeton guy in particular (even if in this case that might be a good idea!), it might be actually a better idea to use twitter and take advantage of its “echo chamber” effect, which will bring you a view on his work when he gets referred in links, and a much vaster view of the digital humanities in general by simply tracking a few keywords and individuals.

If you are tempted, here are a few of my favorites to follow on twitter:

#nltk (for textual analysis)
#sna (for social network analysis)
@jonathantray (a professional journalist and a computer scientist, works now for AP, the news agency)
@wmijnhardt (an exec at my univ, tweets a lot about science management)

He does not tweet, but gets cited a lot in the chatter: Elijah Meeks from Stanford – another fine scholar in the digital humanities.

Happy tweets!



[EDIT: again following a link on twitter, I found this contribution by Anthony Grafton, worrying about the conspicuous absence of historians in one large Harvard history project in digital humanities ("culturomics"): http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2011/1103/1103pre1.cfm]

Time for historians to make a move!]

Written by Clement

3 March 2011 at 9:42 pm

Interlude: musings in the Duke economists’ graveyard

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Maplewood cemetery, Durham. September-October 2010

Written by Beatrice

26 February 2011 at 9:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The impossible art of oral history

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Throughout my PhD years, I have consistently avoided conducting interviews. The reason I was giving was that my protagonists were either too dead or had already given too many interviews so that nothing new would emerge from an additional one, and anyway, what was the point of asking economists about their “worldview”? The true reason was that I was totally freaked out by the sole prospect of having to seat in front of a figure of the past, ask a few questions carefully crafted and wait for them to jump in.

When I began to work on MIT, it quickly became clear that this time I would have to face the necessities of oral history. While several of my narrative’s protagonists have been interviewed over and over, they had very scarcely been confronted with questions dealing with their home institution, with the daily organization of research, with the design of curricula, with recruitment, etc.

To overcome my apprehension, I set out to read, listen, and watch economists’ interviews. But historically oriented interviews are not so common. And the bulk aims at getting information on such and such contribution of the interviewee, or on his contribution to such and such school of thought. Only the list of questions prepared by Ross Emmett for his Chicago Oral history project echoed my intent to catch the daily humming and diffuse zeitgeist of an institution. And unfortunately, neither the audio/video files nor the transcripts are publicly available to date.

Then, I questioned those of my young fellows who were seasoned veterans of oral history, and who even unbelievably seemed to take pleasure at such ventures. Questions on the first contact, the unfolding of the interviews, the kind of questions to ask, the traps to be avoided, the different techniques for face to face interviews and email requests.

Their responses consistently stressed the importance of having the least possible influence/ imprint on the researcher interviewed, whether in the initial message sent, the attitude adopted, the open and scarce questions asked, the lack of comments made about the economist’ responses during the interview. It seemed important that the interviewee knew the least possible about our projects, our frameworks, the historical narrative we wanted to supplement or challenge. And of course, oral history was much much preferred to written contacts, even if I had to wait months or years for an encounter. These advice did nothing to soothe my fear and left me with a feeling of uneasiness, although I could not pinpoint its underlying cause.


Then, I screwed up my first interview. Because of an unexpected encounter with my “target” that I discovered would not be subsequently available, I had to ask unprepared questions without any record device and “over the counter,” or rather over a plate of cheese and pasta with two hundreds persons and a pianist filling the background with laughters, murmurs and worn out jazz standards. My questions lacked the most basic diplomatic veneer (So black and glossy/ On my word, sir,/
With voice to match/ You were a bird, sir/
Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days….), and anyway I couldn’t even hear half of the responses.

The following week, my brand new -and still unused- recorder got stolen from my suitcase during my hectic trip back to Europe. A sign, for sure.

These trials and tribulations at least brought the reason for my uneasiness to the fore. The underlying thread of all the tips I received was that the economists interviewed should truly be considered as objects of study. But I did not see them as objects, I saw them as witnesses. As partners. I did not want to hide my intentions, my research, at least not in the second part of the interviews. In case I wouldn’t get substantive answers to my questions, I wanted to be able to confront the interviewee with his history, to put the copy of a 1957 letter from Solow to Fisher on the table and tell him : here’s what he (you?) was writing at that time. I wanted to be able to say “Emmett has shown in recent research that the workshop system was essential in building a common intellectual ground for the Chicago School, what about MIT ?”, and I wanted to be able to consider the response (in this case “Workshop only came late to MIT because Samuelson was opposed to them. He thought the worskhop system was the end of economic generalists”) worthy of consideration, even if biased. And they were telling me I shouldn’t.

Now I’m sitting at my desk, gloomily looking at the stack in front of me: the oral history reader, a book on the voices of the past, a few articles (list in Mata and Lee 2007). I wonder whether after swallowing these hundred pages with like a bottle of Lagavulin, to give me courage, after buying a new recorder and giving a first set of interviews, I’ll be back into the ranks of wisdom, I’ll agree with them. And from time to time, the possibility that the situation is even worse crosses my mind. Maybe deep down I don’t consider the interviewee as a witness, but as a suspect? In this case, will this literature and a baptism of fire will make me a good cop, will turn the Harry Bosch in me into an Adamsberg?


Written by Beatrice

23 February 2011 at 12:12 am

American economics coming of age

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Coming of age refers to a young person becoming an adult, and is one of those universal and timeless themes in art. It is associated with uncertainty about one’s identity and requires experimentation. But it also involves an increasing sense of the bigger world and an awareness that one may have the ability to steer this world a little bit in a direction of one’s own liking.  Later in life, when the novelties of adulthood have become self-evident and one’s position and family secured, that brief coming of age period is treasured as the experience that gave meaning to everything that came after. For the rest of our lives we (and men in particular) tend to judge the novels, music and even arguments appreciated during this time as the best in their categories.

This is how we should read the recently published Top 20 articles in the AER of the past hundred years, composed by Arrow, Bernheim, Feldstein, McFadden, Poterba, and Solow. It documents how American economics came of age during the post war decades, the struggles it had to go through, its experiments, its crises of identity, and even its cherished childhood memory. At the same it is a testimony to the authors’ coming of age as economists between the 1950s and the 1980s. AER’s Top 20 paints a beautiful, romantic picture of the long and winding road that led to the top.

The flip side of all the uncertainty, experimentation and identity crises in this process of coming of age is narcissism, self-love, and overestimation of one’s own achievements. Given American economics and these economists’ position and (late) middle age point of view one would have hoped for a little more reflection on how their coming of age has influenced their judgment of quality.  One would also have expected a greater appreciation of the influence of others and of the particular historical circumstances in which the coming of age happened to occur. AER’s Top 20 is a great story and romanticism at its best, but it’s not history.

But enough whining. When will we get the Econometrica Top 20?

Written by Floris

14 February 2011 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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

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

Did the economists miss the cognitive revolution?

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I am currently reading a fascinating book, “The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology” by Bernard J. Baars (1986).

With a long introduction, it provides informative material for an outsider like me on how the cognitive turn played out in psychology, and presents a clear historical background getting back to Wundt and the early experimentalists, and the origins of the behaviorist revolution. Then it is followed by a series of interviews of participants in the cognitive revolution: from the opponents (Skinner and others) to the enthusiasts, and the followers.

Baars (1986)

On the substance, I was struck by how much behaviorism, which is the methodological orthodoxy that was overthrown by cognitive psychology, shares features with today’s textbook economics. Both share the status of a well-guarded orthodoxy: in their interviews, psychologists remember that behaviorism in psychology was exclusive, displaying a “nothing but” attitude: variables should be related to nothing but observable behavior, which disqualified the discussion of concepts like “memory” or “representations” ! Those words were taboo in psychology at least until the mid-1950s.  Looking back, psychologists consider that the methodological rigorousness of behaviorism, which insisted that each concept be operationally defined and testable, had the effect to strip psychology from its substance: the study of cognition, consciousness,  emotions and rational behavior were discouraged, virtually banned indeed, because these concepts did not readily translate into tightly defined behavioral variables that could be observed in an experimental setting.

I could not help but be reminded of a similar taboo in today’s economics, where the formation of preferences, or how the process of choice unfolds, is declared “out of bound” right from the introductory chapters in microeconomic textbooks: only an individual’s observable behavior, as it is instantiated in the outcome of the choice it performs, is to be taken into account.

The cognitive revolution in psychology crystallized around the mid-1950s, early 1960s. Forty years later, nothing of that sort happened in economics, it seems to me. With behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, maybe that economics will jump directly to the next train: the neurocognitive turn. Or will it miss that one also?

Post-script: on an approaching topic, Wade Hands has a paper forthcoming in the CJE, which is a nice read.

Written by Clement

20 January 2010 at 9:39 am

the audience, once more: “don’t be such a scientist”

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Spotted on the excellent WUNC (North Carolina public radio) this afternoon in the “Talk of the Nations” show: an interview  of Randy Olson on his book “don’t be such a scientist. ” The talk is titled “explaining science with substance…and style.”

olsonRandy Olson is a former marine biologist from the university of New Hampshire turned into a film maker. In the bits of the interview I got in my car, I understood that he’s been sitting in hollywood acting, performing and/or directing classes for several years and that he subsequently realized how this kind of formation would be useful for scholars.

Among the subjects tackled  during the fifteen minutes I was listening

-his fellow scientists’ reaction: “Olson is saying that we should abandon part of our scientific accuracy for the sake of communicability, that’s a shame.” The author retorts that he of course doesn’t say so, and that it is possible to reach 100% “accuracy” (that’s word used in the talk) while presenting result is a more “sexy”/appealing/”funny” ways

-as a former member of a community where scientific expertise deals with hot current issues (namely climate change), he constrast two documentary on this subject, one made by scientist whose title I couldn’t catch and Al Gore’s “An Unconvenient Truth,” of which he says no scientist was involved in. The inattention for the former and the success of the later calls for a reexamination of how scientists communicate, and  also  part of scientific inner culture. All the problem is which film would you prefer to have done: the accurate unknown or the unscientific successful one.  I guess similar questions may have been raised after Sylvia Nasar issued “A beautiful Mind” and have it turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, although I was not yet interested in
HET and therefore have no idea of the discussion raised by the book in our community.

-a comparison of the situation some scientists currently found themselves and the communication issues faced by the military a few years ago in Irak. The comparison appeals to me (with all its limitations), not only because economists may face a crisis situation today in which they prove unable to react to the attacks of those, insiders or oustiders, willing to change the contents and methods of their science, but because I know from private experience how the military in some countries are concerned with communication and are having at least some basic seminars on how to talk to journalists in the ground in periods of crisis (whatever the results).

-a reference to the new media scientists can afford on the web (twitter, blogs). He doesn”t see scientists as understanding the benefits they can draw from such opportunity. I’m not sure this would apply to the economists community.

All in all, I have no idea about the quality of the book, and this is merely a sketchy account of a sketch of an interview. And I haven’t checked on the reactions of the scientific community before writing the post. But since I don’t how long the podcast of the interview will stay online, better give the information the sooner.

Here is the page of the interview, where you can listen to it, and here is the podcast homepage (it is not on yet). Have a good ride.

Written by Beatrice

15 October 2009 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

More Friedman? Yes, even more?

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Suppose you are going through a encyclopedia or a handbook trying to document yourself on the Chicago School of Economics.

You browse through the ‘monetarism’, ‘monetary history’, ‘Chicago macroeconomics’, ‘Chicago price theory’, ‘neoliberalism’, ‘Chicago methodology’, and ‘Chicago boys and Chile’ entries, all of which of course contain lengthy sections on Friedman’s works and beliefs.

In fact, you can reconstruct an exhaustive biography and bibliography from these various pieces.

Hence the two following question:

1) is there any need in such book for a specific ‘Friedman’ entry?

2) if so, what do you expect/want to find in it (although you may read my own tentative response in the formulation of the problem)?

Written by Beatrice

11 September 2009 at 8:11 pm

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What came next: Doctor Paul and Mister Krugman

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In a previous post, Pedro told us about the two first rounds of the lynching of macroeconomics in these times of crisis: the Economist debate in which Lucas engaged, and a “letter to the Queen” bringing to light the dissent with the british economic community. What comes next, Pedro asked.

What comes next, of course, is Krugman’s article on “how did economists get it so wrong” in the NYT and the additional comments he made last week and today on his blog on “mathematics and economists.”

Essentially, economists got it so wrong, he says, 1) « because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth » and 2) because Keynes-like realistic vision of markets and especially financial markets was replaced by the « elegant, convenient, and lucrative » efficient market and rationality hypotheses, two hypotheses that even the skeptical pragmatic new keynesiens were unable to relinquish decisively. « Economics, as a field, got in trouble because economists were seduced by the vision of a perfect, frictionless market system ,» he concludes, arguing that economists should rediscover Keynes, and pay more attention to behavioral finance/economics.

He subsequently clarified/ qualified his position on his blog. He is not against mathematics, « they served an essential function — that of clarifying though », but against equating mathematical elegance with truth (like in these « silly », but « seductive » RBC models)

On unrealistic hypothese,« neoclassical economics radically oversimplifies both the individuals and the system — and gets a lot of mileage by doing that; I, for one, am not going to banish maximization-and-equilibrium from my toolbox. But the temptation is always to keep on applying these extreme simplifications, even where the evidence clearly shows that they’re wrong. What economists have to do is learn to resist that temptation. But doing so will, inevitably, lead to a much messier, less pretty view. »

dr-jekyll-and-mr-hydeAn interesting exercise is to compare these statements with two biographical essays Krugman wrote for the American Economist in 1993 (“how I work and rules for research”) and for a book in 1995.

His rules for research were

1)“listen to the gentiles” (pay attention to empirical evidence). Nevertheless,

“ I have no sympathy for those people who criticize the unrealistic simplifications of model-builders, and imagine that they achieve greater sophistication by avoiding stating their assumptions clearly. The point is to realize that economic models are metaphors, not truth. By all means express your thoughts in models, as pretty as possible. But always remember that you may have gotten the metaphor wrong, and that someone else with a different metaphor may be seeing something that you are missing. “

2) question the question (try to get back to simple question so as to write not too “messy” models)

3) Dare to be silly (in your assumptions)

What seems terribly hard for many economists to accept is that all our models involve silly assumptions. Given what we know about cognitive psychology, utility maximization is a ludicrous concept; equilibrium pretty foolish outside of financial markets; perfect competition a howler for most industries. The reason for making these assumptions is not that they are reasonable but that they seem to help us produce models that are helpful metaphors for things that we think happen in the real world.”

4) Simplify, simplify

In the NYT piece, it now seems that there are two silliness. The good one (using small-scale, but real examples), and the bad one (the RBC type ). And that economists should accept more “messy” models.

But OK, the rules for research were written 15 years ago. The problem is that Krugman did it again. Last year, in the middle of the crisis, during his Nobel prize speech. Published in the AER in June. There, as befits a Nobel prize, he attemps to “samuelsonize” his work, that is, to establish the historical canon for his own discoveries. And he tells a fairy-tale history. At the beginning there were empiricalkrugman-thumb-320x248 puzzles (the growth of similar-similar trade) which could not be explained by the “old” theory of trade rooted in perfect competition. When the first models of monopolistic competition offered the possibility to integrate increasing return to scale into models in the late 70, Krugman proved able, with simple models, to account for intrasectorial trade, drawing on comparative advantages and increasing returns. This “new” theory of trade was made possible by a whole generation of economists’ “new willingness to explore the implications of illuminating special cases rather than trying to prove general results”, e.g., focusing on “silly-seeming cases” (quoting the rule again). On the unrealisticness of his assumptions, he interestingly notes that “The use of deliberately unrealistic assumptions is, of course, common in much of economics. Nonetheless, I can report from early experience that the new style of modeling was met with considerable hostility at first. Some discussants dismissed the whole enterprise as obviously pointless, given the unrealism of the setup.” The same historical pattern is seen in his research in “new” geographical economics. At the end of the story, “the impossible complexity that had previously daunted economists contemplating a major revision of trade theory had vanished, replaced by a surprisingly simple and elegant structure.

chapelierEconomists’ claim that their positive science is in principle independent from values have made them seemingly schizophrenic, and proudly so. So far, contemporary economists have coped with the pretty and elegant silliness of doctor Paul and the messy realisticness of Mister Krugman. Here is for instance how Ed Gleaser is coping:

In his public role, Paul Krugman is often a polarizing figure, loved by millions but also intensely disliked by his political opponents. I still chuckle over an old New Yorker cartoon with one plutocrat saying to another that he gets some satisfaction from the fact that his vote will cancel out the vote of Paul Krugman. Within the less divided world of the academy, Mr. Krugman’s economic research has generated plenty of light, but far less heat. His papers are universally acknowledged to be immense contributions that helped to create two distinct fields.”

But how long will it last?

Edit: Sumner, Cochrane, and Altig responses to Krugman.

Edit 2: also of interest is Krugman’s 1998 piece in the Economic Journal, “two cheers for formalism.”

Written by Beatrice

11 September 2009 at 5:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tim Leonard on social Darwinism and mythology

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The following is a comment sent by Tim Leonard in reaction to a post by Clement published in early June.


Broadly speaking, social Darwinism refers to the use of Darwinian and other ideas about evolution, notably “survival of the fittest,” to explain or to justify aspects of human society. Were the term neutral, the “social” qualifier would be superfluous, since Darwin himself believed that his theory of evolution by natural selection encompassed the human animal too. But “social Darwinism” has, in fact, rarely been a neutral term. Since its first English-language appearance circa 1877, “social Darwinism” has been a term of abuse used by critics to discredit views they opposed.
Darwinism’s reputation has ebbed and flowed in the 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species, but social Darwinism remains a slur, used only by critics. I know of no one who has ever described his or her own views as social Darwinist. As historians, this tells us something important. We might wish that “social Darwinism” could be made neutral and refer to ideas that Darwin actually endorsed; but concepts are path-dependent, and, if the past is any guide, “social Darwinism” will survive, and will continue to function an epithet.


While “social Darwinism” has always been used to discredit ideas critics dislike, critics have disliked different things (as Bellomy rightly observed). Thus “social Darwinism” has been applied to phenomena as diverse as plutocracy, racism, eugenics, militarism (especially in the name of national superiority), imperialism, and laissez-faire capitalism. That’s a lot of semantic freight, and the set of intellectuals who endorsed all these things is essentially empty.
Today, “social Darwinism” is most commonly associated with an evolutionary defense of free markets, premised on the critic’s view that economic competition is brutish and amoral, just as competition in nature is “red in tooth and claw.”
The identification of social Darwinism with free markets we owe to Richard Hofstadter’s (1944) Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. It is Hofstadter who gave “social Darwinism” its currency and who made Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner into the arch-social Darwinists. Both Spencer and Sumner defended free markets, and both were, as a result, targets for reform-minded progressives (such as Hofstadter) hostile to individualism and free markets.
(Try this parlor game: ask a scholarly friend to name three social Darwinists. I wager that most (specialists excluded) will not be able to come up with three, but that most will be able to come up with two, and, moreover, that those two will be Spencer and Sumner – a measure of Hofstadter’s success, or, rather the success of a narrow reading of Hofstadter).
Hofstadter’s (or, rather, the narrow reading of Hofstadter’s) mistake was two-fold. First, neither Spencer nor Sumner were especially Darwinian. Spencer was a Lamarckian who preached “bootstraps” self-improvement over natural selection, and who ardently believed in human progress. Sumner’s pro-market arguments were only patchily upholstered with Darwinian sentiments. What is more, Spencer and Sumner were both opponents of imperialism, militarism, plutocracy and other ideas that have been associated with social Darwinism.

Second, Darwin did not see nature as red in tooth and claw. To the contrary, Darwin insisted that the natural competition sometimes called the Struggle for Existence need not involve conflict, much less violence: cooperation could well be the fittest strategy. Darwinian fitness meant far more than mere physical strength, as evidenced by the evolutionary success of a relatively weak species, homo sapiens.
Hofstadter judged the American Gilded-Age economic order a jungle, and therefore judged any defense of it as “Darwinist,” whatever its particulars – “social Darwinism” was simply Hofstadter’s synecdoche for the charge that, as Bannister had it, Spencer and Sumner “wrongly apologized for power and privilege (1979: xvii), where, in the Gilded Age, power and privilege were assumed to reside with the plutocratic captains of industry, and not (yet) with the captains of the ship of state” (Leonard 2009).


None of this is to argue that evolutionary ideas were unimportant to Progressive Era social science. The opposite is true. Ideas drawn from evolutionary science profoundly influenced Progressive Era social science – one could hardly make sense of the eugenic influences upon economics otherwise.
But Darwin was not the only scientific source of evolutionary thought, and laissez-faire economics was not the only corner of social science influenced. This, then, is the [double-sided] myth: that Darwin was the sole source and that Spencer and Sumner (qua paragons of free-market economics) were the sole exegetes.
Progressive Era evolutionary thought was not very Darwinian – indeed, historians of biology refer to the period as the eclipse of Darwinism – natural selection in particular was a minority view until the “Darwinian synthesis” of the 1940s. Progressive Era evolutionary science was protean, fragmented and plural, enabling scholars to enlist evolutionary ideas in support of diverse, even opposed positions in political economy. Many social scientists, including those who cast Spencer and Sumner as bête noirs, were influenced by Darwinian and other evolutionary ideas.
Hofstadter (1944), incidentally, was alert to the latter point – he even had a term for the use of evolutionary ideas by reformers, Darwinist collectivism. (It didn’t catch on). Hofstadter preferred planning to laissez-faire and he preferred cultural to biological explanations in social science. This made for ambivalence with respect to the progressives, who also championed reform, but trafficked heavily in biological explanations.
The burden of Leonard (2009) is two-fold: first, that “there are, in effect, two Hofstadters present in SDAT. The first (call him Hofstadter1) could safely disparage biological justification of laissez-faire, for this was, in his view, doubly wrong . . . .The second Hofstadter (call him Hofstadter2) documented, however incompletely, the [biological] underside of progressive reform: racism, eugenics and imperialism.” Second, in 1944 Hofstadter1’s contempt for free markets was far more developed than Hofstadter2’s still incipient skepticism regarding progressivism, an asymmetry that had consequences for the subsequent fate of ‘social Darwinism’ in social science.
Hofstadter did not make the myth alone – stories are altered in their retelling. But I think it’s fair to say that Hofstadter (as Hoftstadter1) played a leading role in discrediting free-market economics as social Darwinism, and, thereby, wrongly implicating Spencer and Sumner (and sundry plutocrats) as Darwinists and as the social Darwinists. (Geoff Hodgson, incidentally, gives prior credit to Talcott Parsons’ 1930s efforts to purge biology from sociology).
At the same time, however, Hofstadter2 debunked the notion that Darwin influenced only laissez-faire economics. (This is SDAT’s ambiguous legacy). Hofstadter2 showed that some of what looked reactionary to mid-20th century liberal eyes (“collective Darwinism”) had been called progressive forty years earlier. But, perhaps because Hofstadter2’s ideas were undeveloped relative to those of Hofstadter1, it was decades before historians took up the tentative connections Hofstadter2 made between progressivism and eugenics, racism and imperialism.
Debunking the myth of “social Darwinism,” then, does not mean ignoring evolutionary influences on Progressive Era social science. To the contrary, debunking requires documenting evolutionary influences on Progressive Era social science, which were, contrary to myth, plural in origin and diverse in effect.

– Tim Leonard

Written by guest2playground

8 July 2009 at 11:28 am

American History for Gamerzzz

with 2 comments

At the next HISRECO meeting at Antwerp, Belgium in June, I predict that this game would largely outsell the books and journals usually displayed on their tables outside the conference rooms.

It features the perfect cocktail of enthusiasm for a past historical event and an extremely poor level of playability that scholars would rightly expect from a boardgame. It is called “1960: The Making of the President” and reenacts the campaign that opposed Nixon to Kennedy.

1960: The making of the President

1960: The making of the President

The following teaser shouldn’t let your soul of historian at rest until you spent nights playing the game:

“As with any election campaign, the challenge is to adapt your game plan as the ground shifts out from under you. There are never enough resources or time to do everything, but you need to make the tough calls to propel yourself into the White House. This fast-playing strategy game for two players challenges you to run for the most powerful elective office in the world, at one of its most unique crossroads. Will you recreate history, or rewrite it? 1960: The Making of the President provides you the opportunity to do both.”

Recreating and rewriting history comes to an effort, as we know well. With “The Making of a President”, you will have to swallow a 16-pages booklet of game rules, and from personal experience I can guarantee that your first game will surely last more than 5 hours. A long time, considering that the coin toss attributed me the depressing task of bringing Nixon to the White House.

Me playing, yesterday night

Me playing, yesterday night

Each card features historical events, from the incidental (Nixon knee injury which prevented him from actively campaigning for two weeks) to the more consequential (the media consequences of the the U2 pilot trial in USSR) which each made a contribution to the final outcome. One of the three stakes of the campaign is “the economy” (along civil rights and defense), so I  had a distinct competitive advantage here, which did not prevent me from loosing the TV debate on this topic, in the 6th round of the game.

With a remarkable rating of 7.89 / 10 on boardgamegeek.com, this is a must-buy for each member of our profession specializing in 1950 history and after. I can’t be 100% affirmative though: we stopped as we got so bored after 4 hours playing.

Written by Clement

16 May 2009 at 11:07 am

This IS knowledge !!!

with 8 comments

Reviewing (i.e. bashing) David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations for the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Philip Mirowski (2007: 492), concluded:

I pity the poor student of modern economics, trying to make some sense of what can only appear to the outsider as cryptic oracular pronouncements emitted from people who claim to be experts in the nature and validity of knowledge.* But when you get your news from Jon Stewart, your history from Paul Krugman, and your research facts from Wikipedia, maybe the nature of knowledge has itself changed.

The end of the sentence is tinged with what I believe is Mirowski’s utter disdain for popular culture. It takes, however, just a few days for a non-American person to realize that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is certainly a better source of information than any other cable news (CNN included …), though I personally prefer the Colbert Report.

But my question is: what about Wikipedia? I have to confess I use it quite frequently,  for some basic research at work as well as for some more silly inquiry about music, cinema or celebrities at home.  Of course, I never take the information that is given there as granted and I think it is rather crucial to double check it with a more formal source of information, but I have largely benefited from the bibliography that is often provided at the end of articles. I am fairly impressed by the fact that some anonymous people have spent some time writing on E. Roy Weintraub or Waldemar Kaempffert, sometimes advertising the works of others without any reward. All in all, there is an underlying model of disinterestedness scientists should be proud (or envious?) of … Why, on the contrary, they spend so much time bashing it is therefore a mistery to me. Where does this idea that an increasing dissemination of knowledge corresponds to a degeneration of its substance come from? Jealousy? Elitism?  Declinism? Conservatism? Repugnance for the “neoliberal” ideology they think such modes of dissemination sustain?

PS: Thanks to Wikipedia, for example, I learned that philosopher of science Susan Oyama has been married to the late great contemporary composer Luciano Berio from 1966 to 1972. Pretty interesting …

* I should point out that Mirowski is not referring to David Warsh here but to Paul Krugman, though his using the plural of “experts” is quite intriguing.

Written by Yann

13 April 2009 at 3:58 pm


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