First ISHET, São Paulo, Brazil

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The First International Symposium on the History of Economic Thought (ISHET) took place in the Department of Economics at the University of São Paulo from August 3rd to the 5th. The theme of this event was “The Integration of Micro and Macroeconomics from a Historical Perspective” and it brought together a group of renowned historians of economics from abroad as well as local members of this community. In the audience, besides the local discussants and the presenters, there were many students and professors from other Brazilian universities who all basically stayed throughout the symposium.

The symposium was opened by Robert Gordon (Northwestern University), a macroeconomist who has contributed to important discussions in this field since the 1970s–he obtained his BA from Harvard in 1962 and his Ph.D. from the MIT in 1967. The title of Gordon’s lecture was “American Debates on the Sources of Business Cycle” and in it he made an overview of developments in macroeconomics and the problems brought up by the current crisis–he criticized the current macro models for failing to incorporate many elements that are central to understanding the current crisis (echoing criticisms of other economists that the current synthesis in macroeconomics is simply useless).

The first historians to present, in the first day, were Kevin Hoover (Duke University) and Robert Leonard (Université du Québec à Montréal). Kevin discussed that there are different programs of microfoundations, instead of just the one associated with Robert Lucas and his critique of macroeconometric models used for policy analysis. He argues that the distinction between micro and macroeconomics—and the questions of how one relates to the other—dates from the 1930s and that besides the microfoundations of Lucas (within a representative-agent framework), there are two other programs: one Marshallian, rooted in Keynes’s General Theory, and a fixed-price general disequilibrium theory associated with economists like Patinkin, Clower, and Barro and Grossman. He paid special attention to the relationship of such programs to those of general equilibrium and econometrics that date both from the 1930s. Leonard discussed the questions of foundational critique in economics through Oskar Morgenstern’s life and transformations (questions about the role of mathematics in economics, how to model time, among others): from his Austrian breeding to his Princeton years and work with John von Neumann in the 1940s.

In the second day, the presenters were Wade Hands (University of Puget Sound) and Philip Mirowski (University of Notre Dame) in the morning, and Michel De Vroey (Université Catholique de Louvain) and myself in the afternoon. Wade made a very interesting parallel between the rise and fall of Keynesian macroeconomics and the kind of (Walrasian) general equilibrium in microeconomics that emerged during and after World War II. He used the idea of co-evolution to explore the mutual stabilization of Keynesian macro and Walrasian micro. Phil, in his usual enchanting way of a showman, showed the anti-Keynesianism that characterized the three main schools in economics, in the period 1943-1954: Chicago, the MIT and the Cowles Commission, with a focus on the latter two. By doing so, he pondered the recurrent need several economists have of calling themselves Keynesians (he talked about a “zombie Keynes” and compared the neoclassical economists to the Wile E. Coyote, trying to catch Road Runner always with a new technology, but ending up just with the “Beep beep” sound… Wait to watch the video online!).

In the afternoon, Michel discussed to what extent the new classical and real business cycle (RBC) “revolution” in macroeconomics was a matter of microfoundations: he first appraised the “strictness” of Lucas’s microfoundations, then characterized the new classical/RBC movement as a Kuhnian revolution in two stages, and even discussed the possible political agenda of their members. Finally, I closed the day with a discussion on how macroeconomists now perceive the new synthesis in their field (what are its main elements) and how such perception is linked to their understanding of how macroeconomics evolves over time (with a widespread notion of knowledge accumulation). I then discussed how a particular set of elements, mainly the assumption of a representative agent and a particular call for microfoundations (à la Lucas), delimited an area in which the new classicals, RBC theorists and new Keynesians could trade and construct the current consensus.

In the last day, in the morning, there was a round table with the participation of all presenters: each had 10 minutes to ponder the general theme of the symposium, before we opened the floor to questions. The discussion was lively and interesting. In the end, several participants saw that many questions and future points of research emerged during the event, which is indeed a very positive thing.

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8 thoughts on “First ISHET, São Paulo, Brazil

  1. Pedro, Thanks for testifying! It sounds like it was very interesting, indeed. I’d like to know whether Gordon stayed for the entire conference. If so, how did he react to the accounts that were offered by the historians?
    Also I’ve tried to see the videos but it did not work when I tried. Yet if it actually works that’s a very nice feature and other conference organizers might propose the same thing more often.
    Oh and about the name of the symposium, ISHET sounds a bit too much like … well, no, forget about this one !

  2. Yann,
    it is sad that you couldn’t watch the symposium: it may have been a problem of time difference (since it was a live streaming, there was nothing available before or after the sessions) or any of those computer glitches–many people watched it, as they have told me. In any case, the videos should be available online by the end of the month, I hope.
    Robert J. Gordon was present in most of the sessions during the symposium and he usually asked questions to the presenters. During his stay in Brazil he once mentioned to me that he usually doesn’t go to the sessions, so I do take his presence as a positive sign. He wasn’t opposed to the historical analysis done in the papers presented. Here I think there are elements that are particular to his case: his family was of economists–his father, Robert Aaron Gordon, was president of the AEA in 1975; his mother, Margaret S. Gordon, was known for her contributions to the economics of employment and social welfare policy; and his brother, David Gordon (Ph.D. Harvard 1971), was a famous heterodox economist; Sam Bowles and Thomas Weisskopf referred to the family as the “Flying Wallendas of Economics” in the obituary of David Gordon. Besides, Robert J. Gordon is, to some extent, someone like Solow: critical of the current status of macroeconomics and willing to go back in time to resurrect important ideas, as those of the disequilibrium school. Therefore he was open to “historical fresh air”… Plus, some of the papers in the symposium were more internalist than otherwise, so that they did not “create problems.” In the end, I felt that the interaction among all participants and the discussion that took place was very productive and stimulating–conditional on the organizer’s biases!

  3. Pedro, that was a great write-up; it helps gives me a sense of issues that are considered pressing in your field. More like it, please!

  4. A great mix of people and topics, Gordon was a particular fortunate pick. Although it might be tricky to state it in public, I wonder how do these events fit into Brazilian academic life? I find that in some countries (to remain unnamed) they don’t have the impact they should, i.e. prompting people to initiate news conversations.

    1. Tiago: more than being tricky to state in public, your question asks for a very deep and detailed account, that I’m not going to tackle here (space, time, interest of others, all these constraints…). I’m not sure how this event will make local historians initiate new conversations—and I do see some of them being skeptical about venturing in other fields than those they are comfortable with. My hope is that the local community will be somewhat “energized” by such initiative and will see that there is room for an interesting forum of discussion besides the few HET sessions at the Brazilian economics association annual meetings. Another very positive element of the symposium was the big number of students (mostly graduate, but several undergraduate as well) that attended it (we had students from many universities coming, even from other states); and I hope the local community will see that there is again room for action and for changing a bit the current situation of the area. Let’s see…

    2. I am guessing that the prejudices you need to battle against include historicizing recent economics, dealing with mathematized content, staying away from value judgments. Follow ups as you say may be the best way forward. Reading groups remain remarkably effective and “retreats” although uncommon in our field could also be very useful (when people from the same lab/unit go to a house, interact socially, give short presentations, program future activities).

    3. Tiago,
      you named exactly the main issues that are at stake here as well as many other countries.
      I liked very much the idea of having a “retreat”—more effective if it happens in a nice place: let’s retake the idea proposed in the last HISRECO and have something like this at the Bahamas!

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