I am in Australia. I traveled here as invited speaker to the 29th annual conference of the History of Economic Society of Australia. HETSA (pronounced like you can wear it on your head) was founded in 1991. Today it has about 250 paying members, half of these based in Australia. The society publishes the journal History of Economics Review and has been indispensable in leading campaigns to protect the teaching of the history of economics in this country – for a revealing account of these efforts, pick up the recently published book Reclaiming Pluralism in Economics and have a look at part II.
The society’s conference is a two/three day event and this year was in Melbourne. The attendance was varied in disciplinary background, with economists in the majority but also philosophers and historians of politics and ideas. As in every conference, anywhere in the world, Japanese scholars were represented. Japan is certainly the most international of the history of economics communities, even if not always so acknowledged.
The highlight of the first day was a paper Rogerio Arthmar from Brazil with Michael McClure from Western Australia on the Soderstrom Gold Medal of 1961, awarded to Piero Sraffa. As Fourcade, Ollion and Algan recently reminded us, economics is an elitist discipline self-aware of its own packing order of departments and individuals. The role that prizes and other honors play in the regulation of that symbolic economy could be far better understood. Avner Offer and Phil Mirowski are writing on the Nobel prizes. Before the Nobels there was the Soderstrom Medal.
One of my most cherished prejudices was shattered on the second day. One of the not-so-quiet assumptions of this blog is that the most interesting work in the history of economics takes one to the 20th century, perhaps even post-1945. The opening session of the second day of HETSA was on “the classicals” and the speakers were not only young and bright but shamed my narrow mindedness. We heard of the make up of Nassau Senior’s social policy (by Satoshi Fujiumura), compared Smith and Mill’s principles of good taxation (Sean Kimpton), delved into the philological structure of Smith’s thought (Ryan Walter) and discovered how Malthus was claimed for the sake of scandal and legitimation by birth control advocates (Maxine Montaigne). The tour over the long 19th century was aided by the deeply knowledgeable and unfailingly humble Greg Moore.
The conference had the theme of “economic journalism,” which is why I was invited, and a panel discussion between two of Australia’s most distinguished economic journalists, Ross Gittins and Gerard Noonan, was fascinating, but besides, no other papers spoke to that topic. It reminded me that the history of economics and their publics, and of economic journalism, remains a hard sell. The energy, as shown by the two days, rests on more familiar territory traveled in renewed ways.