“We are not historians of economic thought”

Or so the Economic Journal emphasises to relax its readers’ otherwise shock and horror at their November 2009 issue. The feature issue honours James Meade (1907-1995) by drawing on a recent conference about him. The editors (Vines and Weale 2009: F423) immediately declare that “the contributors were asked to write papers on contemporary topics – this was not a history-of-economic-thought conference” ! Rest assured dear reader of the Economic Journal, we are not historians of economic thought, and this feature is not about the past.

But of course it has to be. The introduction will talk about Meade’s (or as the chummy editors repeat: “James’s”) contribution to economics through his efforts during and after the Second World War.  History is then reduced to talking about the development of “obvious” ideas (ibid: F425), and how it was  “inevitably [that] the British work became better known” than US and Dutch work on national income definitions (ibid: F424).

So the editors take the Whiggish road to Meade’s work and quickly establish how “Keynes set out the policy necessary to avoid excess demand in wartime, in his famous book How to Pay for the War. In response to this, James wrote a note in which he set out the a double entry system for national accounts” (ibid: F424). In the world that Vines and Weale describe, Keynes published a book, Meade read it and he responded in 1940 by producing a framework for defining the national economy and its output. Simple. And consistent with the general story told of national income ideas in the 1940s. Simple and consistent. Albeit disputable.

It is at this point I’d wish the editors were historians or that they and other literature was proud to do historical work Vines and Weale argue it was  “in response to [How to Pay for the War]” that Meade composed the national accounts. The context of the situation tells a different story. And some interest in the history of ideas and context might have avoided this whole notion.

Meade had been hired by Austin Robinson that spring of 1940. He fled Geneva with his family to come to London, and there took up work on the national accounts. Why? Because Robinson had hired him to come to the Treasury, sit down with Keynes’s book, and extrapolate the accounts presented by Keynes. Robinson had convinced the Treasury that such an endeavour could be useful for the war effort. Meade’s note was not an independent “response” to Keynes, it was a job he was hired to do. It would only be successful after he was joined by Richard Stone and then pushed, encouraged and edited by Keynes in the Treasury first, and then in the US. Our definition of economic growth as GNP growth was far from inevitable.

Meade was not the maverick that a context-less reading of the facts may suggest. He was hired to do something, something he himself had shown little inclination to do previously. Meade supervised the League of Nations national income data before fleeing across France, and never proposed anything akin to Keynes’s GNP. The Economic Journal editors actually cite an unpublished 1940 note in Meade’s collected papers (1988: 106-17) as the source of Meade’s authorship. They did some archival-like work here. Moreover it should be recognised that they are the first people to textually substantiate the claim that Meade constructed a national accounting system – despite the lack of why he did so. Others who have written on this, have usually not even bothered with the original texts, never mind the context. So Vines and Weale  may yet be Historians, albeit not very good ones, which might be why they are so keen to avoid the title.

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6 thoughts on ““We are not historians of economic thought”

  1. A Whiggish perspective focusing on the honoured individual is what you expect from an issue “in honour of” somebody. What I find (slightly) curious is that the editors find “more honourable” to present Meade as a maverick brightly developing the ideas he found in an outstanding book, instead of presenting him as a highly qualified professional who produced an excellent output for a job he was hired to do. Maybe the editors simply weren’t aware of this last possibility. After all, they are not historians. By the way, this kind of amateurish writing about history seems to be more profitable than the professional kind. History of economic thought could use a demarcationist turn! (hey, this is tongue-in-cheek)

  2. Ben,
    nice post on something we know happens quite often. What I would like to suggest you very strongly is that you write a short note with this broader context to Meade’s work and submit it to the EJ, as a sort of reply to the articles published there. It is important, though, that you don’t go much in the direction of just criticizing the editors for not being historians and, more importantly, for choosing to avoid historical analysis (at least that’s what they seem to think)—basically, you can show that history of thought can be “useful” without being agressive toward economists…
    Unfortunately, I believe the note has a low probability of being published: they most likely will say that the set of papers are not historical (thus, no need for a historian to reply to them) and that the journal doesn’t publish HET notes. Nonetheless, I believe it is worth trying and it is very important to do so. I’d then send the note to Vines and Weale personally.

  3. I’ve seen this sort of thing elsewhere, and it tends to happen when people needing to refer to history know they will get smacked around by historians for being too simplistic if they don’t make their intentions clear: see this post! My Elementary Particles textbook starts out with a “folk” history, and acknowledges it leaves out essential details and wrong turns. Saul Gass and Arjang Assad’s “informal” timeline history of operations research makes similar caveats in its preface. It seems likely that historians in many fields have, in the past, been too prickly, and too wrapped up in defining the quality of their work by pointing out the naivete that pervades lay histories.

    It is my impression that scientists tend to recognize the value of history, but may not be aware of the history that does exist, or may need their history in a more compact or relevant form than it is usually presented, since they do have to get on with the business of doing original work. Notably, in recent months, Paul Krugman has made repeated stabs at history to understand why different economists hold the convictions that they do, but has also acknowledged the need for more “serious” historical work to be done; see especially here.

  4. what confuses me is not so much this post, which trots out historians’ standard gripes, nor the preceding post – a ‘tribute’ to a now dead economist, but the identity crisis that i encounter when reading one after the other.

  5. Nice post, Benjamin. I find your historical rectification convincing. Still, I find the practice described by Pedro puzzling, at the very least. Imagine for a second that in this discussion, I replace the word “history” by “physics”. An economist would publish in an economic journal a paper which contains assertions on physics that are obviously false according to the standards of the discipline. Would he come through this simply by adding a caveat that he is not a professional physicist? And if a physicist replied to the Editors, would his contribution be trashed? Is some knowledge more serious than some other, so that we can simply publish mistakes and bypass the eventual recriminations? If this is true, then this does not sound like good scholarship to me. So I will join Pedro in advising you to submit something to the EJ, because you have nothing to lose (and come back to the playground to give some update on this!). Oh, and happy XMas (and Hanukkah)!

  6. I take Will’s point – and it’s an important one. I don’t think the job of the historian is to smack around the generalist economist – but I do believe that when the generalist wishes to evoke historical arguments they should be as thorough in checking their facts as possible. Indeed it is probably more the case that Vines and Weale are unaware of the context, although one would think it would be of interest to them – after all 1940 was not exactly an ‘average’ year in British history. Even specialists will miss things out in telling their story, wither intentionally (judging certain people or events as irrelevant to the point of the argument) or unintentionally, but when intentional it should be noted. Here the context is intentionally avoided, and it is in the context that the story actually lies. So that’s where I am coming from.

    That said, I’ll to write a note for the EJ, but I think I’ll even have a go at attaching the article proper which tells the whole story – as I see it – of how GDP came to be the dominant idea of what national income meant in Britain during the war. I shall revert with updates as they come in.

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