The Wheel of Misfortune (in the archives)

If you definitely want to prevent an undergrad from doing research in HET, you just have to show him Box 1 of Patinkin’s papers at the Duke Library. This is where are stored the raw materials Patinkin has collected to write his 1973 AER piece on Frank Knight’s “Wheel of Wealth”.  The archives show that Patinkin has looked at many books, textbooks and documents to find the origin of the diagram Knight used in the classroom and in his Economic Organization to represent the allocative functions of the price system in a capitalist economy.

The list of books Patinkin has scanned for this research is pretty impressive: it goes from Cantillon to Taussig and includes the works of Bastiat, Cannan, Marshall, Ely among many others. Most often, it ended up with a “no relevant diagram or text” scribbled under the reference. Then he went on with the books and textbooks that contain diagrams and pointed them out, noting the relevant pages and adding some stark comments: “some diagrams are pictures, not analytical diagrams” (on Fisher’s introductory text), “a lot of diagrams” (on Marshall’s Principles, which he didn’t bother to enumerate). He wrote to the University of Chicago’s archivist, obtained some copies of Knight’s unpublished manuscripts, wrote to Samuelson (the letter is mentioned in Knight’s article on “Frank Knight as Teacher”, which is also included in the same issue of the AER, but is not in the archives at Duke), wrote to McGraw-Hill, scanned the first eight editions of Economics, observed that Knight is not mentioned (except in the 2nd edition).

As you can expect, the result of all that is rather meager. The 1973 article does not locate the origin of Knight’s Wheel of Wealth, noting that it is possible that “it seems to have been original to him” (p. 1044). For the contemporary historian of economics – especially for the author of these lines -, it is also very frustrating. Like the 1973 piece, the archives show that Patinkin was fascinated (if not obsessed) by Knight’s diagrams but never unveil the reasons for this fascination.

Quite depressing, uh?

Well, yes …and no … because in fact, Patinkin’s unfruitful research produced two articles published in the AER (!) … and if we, the kids, could expect such a prestigious output every time we embark on a bibliographical research of that sort, I guess we would have already been considered for a tenure somewhere …

4 thoughts on “The Wheel of Misfortune (in the archives)

  1. I have been distracted from the content of Yann’s post by that remarkable diagram he has included. Obviously, the movement is an optical illusion, but does anyone know how it works?

    1. Robert: To be honest, I had not thought about it before reading your comment ! So after some googling, I have found some elements on this website:

      Loic: There’s nothing I could reply except “Amen”. On the other hand, finding the right wording to express something rather impalpable you guessed by looking at the archives can bring some satisfaction, too !

  2. Patinkin’s unproductive yet productive quest is an illustration of what I believe is the day-to-day experience of the researcher. While we are often writing research projects that look like a five years soviet plan, it is the interaction with the material and the individuals one crosses during one’s research that really makes it worthwhile (or not). A plan is necessary to get a starting point and a general direction, but it is the exception rather than the rule that one gets exactly where he wanted to go in the first place – in general one does not even know as much where one begins a project.
    In fact, for me the moment when I delve into archives and sources is the happiest one in the research: things are beginning to take concrete shapes, interpretations that seems self-evident are modified, unexpected materials are being unveiled, materials I have imagined that was there “somewhere” are unveiled, my spirit is high.
    And then comes the hardest part: the writing. You sit at your desk, and you are looking for ways to convey the sparkles of these magical moments you went through during research time, to share them with others, to convince them that it was not solely the imagination of yours that saw what you saw, but that it is there to be seen by everyone who would look into it just as you did.

  3. I am just adding a comment to say that I finally found in Patinkin’s papers at Duke the Samuelson’s letter I mentioned in my post and thought was missing. Yet I have to admit it does not add much to the puzzle !

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