Days of Future Passed

Sometimes, laziness produces great exchanges of ideas. During one of those lazy afternoons, the kind of days when you realize that your PhD dissertation will not benefit from another turn of the screw, I had a fascinating conversation with Beatrice Cherrier in which we tried to identify all the subjects of interest that have barely been investigated by fellow historians of economics. We soon agreed on the fact that it is puzzling that so many of our friends who are graduate students or young scholars conduct works in empirical and applied economics, not in economic theory, whereas few historical accounts have been written on the subject. We went on enumerating all the novelties a history of recent applied economics would bring to the big picture. For example, it might unveil the role of women in the history of economics, because we know it is a fact that the vast majority of theoricians are men, whereas so many women work in the various institutions providing the information and the tools that crucially contributed to the latest developments of the field. Moreover, such a study would offer a good opportunity to mix sociological, biographical and institutional elements, paving the way for a defense of the contextual history of economics we want to construct. After that invigorating conversation, Beatrice and I both returned to our respective works, which deal with the history of economic theory and of those theoricians who see curves, functions and equilibria everywhere but do not waste their time in conducting the empirical works that might help estimate it.

Because we have had this conversation before, I was not suprised to read E. Roy Weintraub’s post on the HES List and all the reactions that followed, involving some of the most respectable members of our profession, including those who usually avoid posting on the list, by fear of being lost in the midst of a thousand messages on “Mises and the rational economic agent”. Yet I understand Roy’s initial message as a plea for the history of recent economics, more than a simple argument in favor of more studies on the NBER and the other institutions that contributed to the advancement of empirical economics. In his mind, I suppose, “recent” should be understood as the economics of the last three decades and not only as the history of economics during the three decades following WWII that himself and others contributed to construct.

I am amazed by how many people want to resist to Weintraub’s discourse and by how many arguments they invoke to justify that we should be interested only in famous dead economists … scientific distance, objectivity and all that (the most fallacious argument being: “it has already been done before by …”). In fact, it really looks like “the revolt of the idle”, because actually, studying recent economics requires a lot of work. Not only you have to find the proper archival materials, but moreover you have to deal with people who are alive and who do not want to be considered as history. Plus, you have to show clearly that your work belongs to the field of history, that you are constructing the present “as if” it was the historical past, and not as a contribution to modern economics. In other terms, if you study recent economics as a historian, you have to adopt the externalistic point of view, otherwise you’re not a historian anymore but an economist.

This proves that studying recent economics can be a very good vehicle for the promotion of the contextual method in our field. Yet there’s something that worries me a little bit in this discourse : it tends to be taken the other way around, that any good contextual history of economics should be about recent economics. If we read it that way, I think that we run two risks. First, we would tend to forget that a lot of contributions that have been written on earlier economic theory have benefitted from the confusion existing between analytical and historical reconstructions of the past, so that a lot of this history would need to be revisited (Loïc Charles’s works on Quesnay constitute a perfect example). Second, we take the risk of giving too much credit to people whose plea for a history of recent economics has nothing to do with the defense of the externalistic method. For example, if one reads Nuno Palma’s answer to Weintraub’s post on the HES list rather quickly, he will think that Palma is in complete agreement with what Roy suggested. In fact, Palma’s argument is really different. Palma thinks that we should study recent economics if we want to be read and taken into consideration by fellow economists. He doesn’t pretend that we should study recent economics because the latter is of particular historical interest, but because it is good for getting us a good position as historians of economics (and in his mind, a good position is a position in an economics department, of course). If Palma’s posts on the HES list look rather ambiguous on that matter, I would suggest the reading of his recent contribution on the future of HET, published in the JHET.

In our initial conversation, Beatrice and I considered the study of recent empirical economics as interesting per se, and not because it would get us a good job or particular attention from the (economics’) profession. It might sound too naive (or romantic), but that’s what we want to do, rather than transforming ourselves into marketing counsellors.

4 thoughts on “Days of Future Passed

  1. I agree with you completely: the History of recent economics (HRE) thing is important, but I am afraid that some people are just betting too much on its sexy looks. I agree completely with the idea that HRE had been unduly neglected (though I am not sure it is still the case today), but I am unsure why. Most of the explanations I am hearing or reading are more or less related to intellectual history arguments (people used to do History of economics as heterodoxy), yes maybe. But I also believe that there is a SSK argument worth looking at: as long as doing a Phd on Ricardo or Marx was considered as doing economics, there were incentives to do that instead of grinding at econometrics. Now that new generations of economists has come to power, who considered that for best or worse everything pre-1945 for the more enlightened and pre-1989 for the others is antiquaries, the average Phd student has adapted to its audience and now is doing Samuelson or/and Friedman or/and Becker. It does not necessarily mean that he is doing better history than its predecessors. Which leads to my second point:
    From my point of view of an historian of “old” economics (HOE), HRE (as I have occasions to explain before) is simply no different in nature or in content from history of other period in economics. It needs different tools (like interviews and the use of audiovisuals materials for HRE), it runs a different kind of risks of going astray (like getting involved in recent economics or the methodology of recent economics instead of history of economics), but it does not change the nature of the job we have to do as historians. That is why I am getting annoyed by those who says that HRE is more (or less) difficult than HOE: have you ever heard an historian of XXth century arguing with a medieval historian on the differences of the nature and difficulty of their work? I don’t.
    I perfectly understand the strategic reason why it may be useful at least in the short run to sell HRE as a new kind of History of economics, and I also understand that it might be a better starting point to rejuvenate the discipline since you do not have to argue with generations of ricardians and marxians to do your own thing with your own method/tools. But I also see a lot of people who present themselves as HRE, and who are offering methodological and theoretical comments/critics on recent economics in their “historical works”.

  2. I agree with Loïc that, when we reflect on what one historian at the individual level does, HRE is not more or less difficult or more or less important than HOE. I nevertheless think it is different on the collective level. This “collective” level I see when some historian try to put together the research we as a profession as done for the past 5,10,15 years, for instance when writing an HET textbook or the HEt articles in the new Palgrave edition (post war economics, American economics since XXXX, continental economics in such and such period, or such and such school). I don’t do HOE, and I’ve therefore never been shocked by a piece of HOE from the Palgrave. But what I can say is that the lack of interest for HRE make the results of our collective research really biased. Those biases we don’t see when adjusted to our HET intellectual environment are really puzzling to the first year PhD student or for the economist. For instance, why is there generally a section dedicated to economics at RAND or economics at Cowles in texts on “postwar” economics (or even worse “economics at Chicago,” without mention of other Universities), while often not a single sentence on the NBER, and also the IMF, the Central banks, the world bank, or some influential private institutes (the Brooking decades ago, other now). This undue attention to some places or schools or subfields and omission of at least half the places and subjects matters economists have been working in/on since the second war make the history we are doing as a profession biased, not to say mistaken.

    The surprise is certainly driven by the “economist” part of the student that is not yet transformed into an historian, the student who’s just spent a year in a central bank and whose everyday readings consisted of NBER working papers rather than AER articles. It is a puzzle from a today economist, possibly reflecting ignorance of importance places and influences in the past. But still, if the economist or the student has (or should have) nothing to say on our narratives, our methods, ect., he should nevertheless be paid attention to when he grumbles: “if economists have spent the 2000s working alternatives to the Washington consensus, it’s because it has become the dominant line of thinking in the 80s, which also means it has been fashioned in the 60s and 70s: the seeds of what is going on now are thus to be found at least 40 years backward. Enough historical distance so that there is no excuse for historians, no?

  3. The notion of bias only has bite if you believe your assignment is to write THE history of recent economics. Beatrice, I think in an earlier post you have subscribed to that goal. Before as now I dissent from such a program. The need for single narratives is meaningful for identity construction. Say a nation can only have one narrative, and economists will likely want THE narrative of their profession. When you read economists write their personal and perspective histories of their profession, say Solow in DAEDALUS 1997, they will write as if it is THE history weighting the different trends and achievements into a textbook/encyclopaedia/palgrave summary.

    For me the past is a wealth of materials that let me examine social science in action, social science as a fundamental resource in the shaping of our societies, democracies, culture. I will pick interesting threads our of if, and will not worry if it offers me THE thread or the right weight of threads to encompass the history of recent economics. (That would be like trying to establish the canon, but I don’t want the history of economics to become canonical.)

  4. Just a footnote to Loïc’s SSK argument on doing recent economics, that came to my mind after reading Yann’s post and Loïc’s comments: for an econometrics course in my Ph.D., we had to do a term paper. Our professor, who obtained his Ph.D. during the late 1970s, explained that we should select an empirical paper, redo and extend it. He was very clear in emphasizing that he would consider papers published only in the LAST DECADE, as papers published earlier than that are “history”!
    The other comment I would like to make is that I think there is one important difference between HRE and HOE on the “collective” level, as Beatrice suggested: the historians’ use of the past in general tend to clash with the use of the past engendered by (eminent) economists tidying up the “recent” developments in their field and relating these developments to canonical figures. Having living economists to talk about the “past” may cause some problems to historians, as many believe that they know what this “past” is (in the sense of Samuelson being a “widow” in economics, as I posted before). But I am not saying that this makes HRE more difficult doing than HOE: such clash does make it very hard to find any room outside HET journals to publish HRE (and I’m thinking here on economics journals), but HOE has no chance of even looking for such room to start with.

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