The lenses of the past

Observing Sputnik through telescopes at the astronomic post of the Novosibersk Institute of Geodasy, Aerial Photography and Cartography.
Observing Sputnik through telescopes at the astronomic post of the Novosibersk Institute of Geodasy, Aerial Photography and Cartography.

During my forced quarantine, I have read this blog with a rough and absent-minded eye. Upon return, loose fragments and sensations of what has been going on here are surfacing: the financial crisis and how to make its history, political discourses, brains, expertise, trust, Joe and Barack, TV, teaching, researching and publishing, asset prices, and the debate over the amount of posts dealing with 2008 in a blog devoted to the history of economic thought. Could this characteristic reflect a concern with recognition, intellectual and institutional? Our eagerness to have the new approaches we are striving to develop assessed by historians’ standards, and the necessity to meet economists’ standards in front of colleagues, students, and reviewers? Our willingness to prove that studying the past doesn’t make us has-beens, how our knowledge is relevant for today (despite repeated acknowledgment that ‘it doesn’t/ shouldn’t matter’)?


Or maybe it is only the reflection of my own confusion that I see in these posts. For, each time I wander around the New York Times website or some economists’ blogs and columns, I see double.

I see that Chris Romer has been appointed chair of the CEA and L.H. Summers director of the National Economic Council. The web is crowded with their curiculums, their past successes and failures as academics and advisors, with statements of how persuasive, influential and “intellectually intimidating” they are. I read titles about “Obama seeking credibility with economic appointments,” about “the Econ ‘dream team.’” And I cannot help tying this to the series on Collins and Evans’s Sociology of Expertise and Experience I read on the etherwave blog, and wondering what this news says on how scientific expertise and credibility are built, on how specific the relationships of economists to the political power is. I can’t help but notice how Romer’s work on the Great Depression is used to guarantee her expertise, and speculate on the similarities and differences with Friedman’s case.


I see that Krugman got the Nobel prize, I read the reactions by academics or journalists, the speculations that the Nobel Prize has been awarded for Krugman’s ideological opposition to Bush, that this choice was driven by the crisis context, and I find attempts, by Ed Gleaser for instance, to separate the scientist from the public intellectual :

“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. His Nobel Prize is extremely well deserved and not unexpected.”

Having just defended a dissertation on the links between economists’ private values and their research, I cannot help reflecting on such a sharp distinction between the economist qua scientist and the economist qua public intellectual. Does Krugman live two lives? Does he have two brains? Does his use of his scientific expertise in his columns make his opinion more scientific? Does requiring that laymen be able to separate the scientist from the columnist make sense?

I also wonder whether my historian’s reading of these events is different from that of a sociologist, whose field of inquiry includes the present, or whether studying the present de facto implies that I use sociological rather than historical methods, concepts, etc. I wonder if looking at the present through the lenses of the past (or at least the framework I built to study the forties and fifties) is relevant at all.


Five years ago, the concerns we express on this blog would have resulted in a HES session on the ‘future’ of HET. But we’re now standing right in this muddy ‘future.’ Should we organize a session on the history of current economics?

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One thought on “The lenses of the past

  1. I suppose that I just read the proposal for the next HES session on the history of current economics. May I register in this session with a paper on “Writing the history of neuroeconomics”?
    Decidedly, blogging is discussing and organizing on the fast track.

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