@INET-BW: Who’s the iNETiest of them all?

There are a lot of universities represented here, but who are the most likely candidates for participation and who might one expect INET to be interested in? I don’t have anything to do with INET monetas, but know that so far they have partnered with the LSE in London and Oxford University and I presume they are looking for other friends and partners in crime. Using the participant list and some nimble excel sheets, it turns out that the American North East is well represented (to be expected), and there are definetly a top ten (well, nine) coming out for new thinking:

  TOTAL Student Attendee Grantee inet board
Harvard 7 2 5 0 0
Boston 6 2 3 1 0
Columbia 6 1 3 2 0
New School 5 1 2 1 1
Balsilie int’l affairs 5 4 1 0 0
Berkeley 4 1 2 0 1
U. Mass (Amherst) 4 1 2 1 0
Central European U. 3 0 3 0 0
McGill 3 2 1 0 0


So it’s the local schools first, with Harvard and Boston topping, but Columbia, New School and Balsilie have a very strong presence here, with students and faculty showing up. So perhaps some potential partners are to be found in this list, it seems full of good candidates both for new economic thinking and new ideas. As for INET’s current partners, they find themselves in the ‘also rans’ with 2 representatives each. Although, you can’t say they aren’t in good company: Bard, Cambridge, Carleton, Duke, Freie (Berlin), LSE, MIT, New South Wales (Sydney), NYU, Oxford, Roosevelt, Santa Fe Inst, Stanford, UCL & UCLA.

@INET-BW: Interview with Barry Eichengreen, any requests?

We have been talking and video interviewing people at the conference, and we’ve narrowed down a small list of questions which we try to build on and have so far talked to Kenneth Rogoff, Brad DeLong, Ha-Joon Chang, Stephen Ziliak, Philippe Aghion, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Barry Eichengreen and tomorrow we start with James Galbraith. Barry was really good about giving us 10 minutes after four solid hours of interviews, so we skipped the camera and did it old school while stretching our legs in direction of the drinks reception. In that spirit I thought I would share the team questions and an initial draft (hey, it’s late) of Barry’s answers. Any suggestions for whom we need to grab tomorrow or Monday?

How has your teaching changed following the 2008 crisis – have you used history more?
“I don’t so much teach history, as I do history. History has a certain utility for economists and as such it is a long existing discipline! But I teach it differently to undergraduates and postgraduates. For the former I try to give an integrated picture of the ‘world economy in the 20th century’ (which is also the title of the course). For the graduate students it is more methodology and exposing them to empirical controversies.

Which work in economics the most impressed you?”
“I would have to be less sleep deprived than I am to fully answer that question [he came in from the west coast 24 hours ago –Ben], but as I can see O’Rourke there, I would point to his book with Findlay,  Power and Plenty as a fine piece of work. Its overview and synthesis is real progress in Economic History.

How do you define progress in Economics?
“There is no single answer to this, but I worry that while we have been good at exporting our models to other social sciences, we have not been very successful on the imports front. So I think inter-disciplinarity is a key, which is why I have taken a masters degree in History and acquired a Political Science appointment.

How do you change economics?
The key is in training the next generation. There has been a disappointment I think due to the lack of radicalism after what happened in 2008, but I am not that surprised because for these things to change you need a generational change. While institutions and history may be of interest to students, senior staff members are unlikely to change what they have been doing for a very long time. But you need to train people, encourage top departments to take them and then they will be this new generation.

@INET-BW: Revolutionaries at INET, well sort of…


Typical anti-capitalist liberals... What do you mean you're Tea-Partyer's?!?

Security is tight here, I mean passport checks in the bus coming in, a K-9 unit, police presence, big private security guys with ear-buds and lapels roaming the corridors, and big signs on everyone’s chest to show that they belong. And for the first time in my life I’ve been picketed. Well, ten guys with placards, but when I went to take a picture and talk to them, they hadn’t yet showed up today. Disappointing as it was already 11am – and we were on-site at 7.15.  So who are these people. Rumours suggest that they are not your usual anti-capitalists (despite their lone sign that was left behind), but they are tea-partyers.

I will try and run out during lunch (it’s a bit of a walk from here to the entrance) and see if I can’t catch them for a chat about their wants and needs. Hey, we are supposed to be rowing bloggers and this is too good to miss. Also, I am a bit baffled about this.

In the meantime, Tiago and Floris interviewed Akerlof (v. cool I am told), Richard Koo (Nomura Research Institute) just gave a talk about what we can learn from Japan. Yes learn from Japan. His slides are really worth looking at as they tell a story of how government can step in, and how money supply changes can occur without affecting the underlying economy. Duncan Foley (paper) preceded him to point out that if you net out the sectors where the national accounts impute Value Added, then the picture of the 2000 and 2008 recessions look a lot worse (and similar) than we may have thought. Oh, and on Q4 2010 figures, the US is looking very double dippish…

@INET-BW: Name Dropping and communists before INET starts

The INET conference is not intimidating at all. It’s 8.20am, the conference has not started, we are getting on a bus to Bretton Woods from Boston, and next to me are Ha-Joon Chang and Robert Skidelsky discussing structural deficits, while Fitoussi is in front of me after we finished a quick chat about welfare measurement. Bad morning to miss coffee. Two and a half hour later we’ve not only reached Bretton Woods but I’ve reached some new ideas and debates.

Lunch got even better, at the table with Skidelsky, Christian Wigstrom (on the INET curriculum board), Richard Brock, John Kay and Duncan Foley… And the name dropping has become silly by the time we’d made it to dinner. Haven’t made an ass of myself, which is always nice. At this point the conference is yet to start. From that I have a host of things, but for now, the best quote of the day about the 1944 US Treasury chief negotiator at Bretton Woods in 1944: “This is an overstatement, but, Harry Dexter White was a communist.”  –Larry Summers, 8 April 2011. That followed a very warm recollection of Mr. White by the IMF Historian… Lovely

Inspiration from the past

Wandering the streets of New York I found myself at a street-side book vendor, and in picking up the Letters of the Younger Pliny I found a wonderful sentiment in the introductory quotation:

Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives.
-Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn on 29 June 1784

I add to that, two definitions  from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906), which constitute my second purchase of the day:

History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

Are there ‘Grand Challenges’ in history (of economics)

big questions in history
Do we have any?

The great and good of economics have responded to an NSF call for ‘grand challenges‘ in economic research over the coming 20 years, and I can’t help wondering if the history of economics has any?  No out-and-out historian appears to have replied, and none of the other authors seem to include historical topics. So are there no grand challenges in history?

Off the cuff I can’t think of a BIG question which lies unanswered, and I wonder what everyone here thinks? My immediate response would be that historians of economics should engage in a project to gather and make publicly available historical data – as recorded in past records, not translated into 21st century definitions – so that better empirical work can be done on the past. I guess a second point is a fuller exploration of the recent crisis and comparisons with past crises, although I am not sure how far such an endeavor could go. If one had to respond to the NSF call – in retrospect – what do you think the grand challenges would be?

For inspiration about the scope, In the NSF response Esther Duflo outlines a research agenda for all of development economics, Dale Jorgenson talks of reforming the national accounts, Nordhaus discusses global public goods and Rogoff talks of three challenges to Macro… So it’s BIG thoughts as we enter the new year – do we historians (of economics) still think those?

[Clement makes a set of suggestions below, and I have tweaked this posts to put it on top. Hope that is ok]

Crisis as History: Reinhart & Rogoff vs. Galbraith & Mackay

Exciting results; but not reading

My bedside table is a victim of the debt crisis – how else can I explain it being overburdened by Reinhart & Rogoff’s This time is different (2010), Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929 (1954) and Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841) ? Reinhart & Rogoff”s book nearly topped the Amazon best-seller list (only beaten by Stieg Larsson), but will it become a classic like Galbraith or Mackay? I don’t think so, even though Reinhart & Rogoff make an incredible important historical argument about national debt crisis, and crises more generally. It turns out that crises happen often – every country it seems has had one or more in recent times – they play out in various ways and there is a lot of novel data and research in the book (!) to prove it. But it’s a pain to read…

I don’t understand why it is so difficult to make an argument simply and clearly. The writing – or possibly the editing – is just poor. Never mind that they make a lot of technical points first, that’s fine; it’s the general structure of the writing which is frustrating. Whenever an argument begins to be developed (and you have to get to chapter 4 before arguments appear) they interrupt the story with two-page text-boxes, unrelated tables or other random elements. All of them valuable in their own right, but none of them in an order that makes much sense. Consider the opening of chapter five on page 68:

We open our tour of the panorama of financial crisis by discussing sovereign default on external debt… (Some background on the historical emergence of sovereign debt markets is provided in box 5.1). Figure 5.1 plots the percentage of all independent countries… [and between 1820-1840s] nearly half the countries in the world were in default (including all

That’s where the page ends… ! The next two and half pages are one long text box, and thereafter the sentence “(including all…” is completed. By the next page we get to see figure 5.1 (promised at the start), but they throw in figure 5.2 for good measure, not that it’s clear what it means yet (Reinhart & Rogoff, 2010: 68-72).

A classic; and great read

It’s annoying. And particularly so, as Reinhart & Rogoff has such an important point to make, with such interesting data. Apparently it took 10 years to write this book. I wish they’d spent some more time editing. There is a reason why Galbraith’s and Mackay’s work not only became standard references in the literature (as Reinhart & Rogoff’s will), but also became classics (which Reinhart & Rogoff’s won’t). The classics are well researched and well written. At times wonderfully so; as with Galbraith’s commentary on how banks are shy to advertise their very efficient operations which actually facilitate speculators liquidity positions and led to instability:

Banks supply funds to brokers, brokers to customers and the collateral [which customers use to leverage stock transactions] goes back to the banks… Wall Street, in these matters, is like a lovely and accomplished woman who must wear black cotton stockings, heavy woollen underwear, and parade her knowledge as a cook because, unhappily, her supreme accomplishment is as a harlot. (1954 [2009: 47-8])

Reinhart & Rogoff has much to contribute with their book. A good read is tragically not one of them, and that may stop its transition from good research into great piece of work. What a shame.

economic history of economic thought

Labels to categorize research are useful, but I have long had serious doubts about the separation of ‘economic history’ and ‘history of economic thought’ with its separate journals, focus and job postings. Is the implication that theorists of the past didn’t care about empirics (admittedly implicit in quite a bit of literature) or is it that empirical study of the past should be empty of its theoretical context?

Personally I think this categorization is more distracting than it is helpful. It allows us to separate the two things economists have always cared about, and it is what divides the discipline. There is a difference between economics and applied economics, but the theoretical side is the more prestigious – in history it’s empirics which is more prestigious… I wish we could collapse the two. Economics should be theories tested with empirics, and its history should be the “history of economics” – a term I use, and
was excited to see John Kenneth Galbraith use in A history of Economics: The past as present (1991: 10). We can’t change either discipline over night, but this could be a fair start – at least I like studying the history of economics…

Adam Smith on education

I just read this and had to share it. It seems that universities haven’t changed radically for a good couple of centuries. That is, if Adam Smith’s writings in the Wealth of Nations are anything to go by:

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. (Smith, 1776: V.i.f.15)

If nothing else, any suggestion of university curriculum change can now be prefaced by an Adam Smith quote.

Angus Maddison, 1926-2010

By now, I guess everyone has heard that Angus Maddison passed away last week. The Economist did not dedicate its obituary to him, but instead spent the whole economic focus section remembering Maddison’s work and contribution. One paragraph in particular struck me:

“There is room for two or three economic theorists in each generation, not more,” wrote Colin Clark, one of Maddison’s heroes. Every other economist, he added, should be content to build knowledge by steadily laying “stone on stone”. Maddison laid the foundations for many big thoughts.
(The Economist, 29 Apr 2010)

A lot of economists and historians have disagreed and criticised Maddison’s intent to estimate economic growth figures from before 1940, and all the way to year 1. I admit that I am one of them. I don’t think it makes much sense, and doubt it tells us very much about living standards or economic thinking from before the 1940s. But that’s not the point. It was the way Maddison did his work which was so brilliant. He was very open about his sources, putting forward suggestions and ideas for how one might gauge the economic circumstance of the past. His work has probably been used as a reference point as often as any national statistical office, but for me it is the openness of his work that make it so excellent. So yes, I am one of those people who have used the foundations laid down by Maddison, I am sorry that he won’t be publishing more of his exciting work.

Distance learning since 1858

So in a fit of successful marketing I was sent this visualisation of the history of distance university education and thought I would share it with you. It came from a website offering help to find on-line courses, so fair enough – I’m not advertising, simply citing sources. And it’s interesting, not just because I was talking about visualisations becoming the new ‘thing’ in economics elsewhere, but it’s something we are slowly seeing in a few sessions at the HES conference, and now here’s one on history – even if it is a very specific bit of history. Turns out the University of London was first to offer distance learning back in 1858, and by 2005 over 2 million students took at least one course entirely on-line. The world is moving fast it seems. Click the image for a bigger size, and have a look at the time-line at the bottom which is particularly nice.

On-line education

Anyone fancy a go at visualising some other aspects of the history of thought?

HET vs. SSK etc. etc… It’s (very) old hat

Maybe I am slow or we have just collectively ignored the fact that the debates we keep having about internalist vs. externalist history, SSK vs Traditional History of Economics, Context vs theory-focus, was resolved many many years ago. Maybe no-one bothered telling us? At least that’s what I get from the third edition (!) of a rather excellent book on The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2008: 7):

The discipline of the history of science used to be riven by warfare between internalists and externalists (c. 1930-59). The internalists were supposed to have believed that science, or possibly an individual sub-discipline within science, was a system of thought which was self-contained, self-regulating, and developed in accordance with its own internal logic. The externalist, on the other hand, was supposed to believe that the development of science was determined by the sociopolitical or socioeconomic context from which it emerged. In fact, neither position seems to have been properly established as valid or viable (Shapin 1992: 345-51), and it wasn’t long before a professed eclectic approach became all the rage (c. 1960). Effectively, this eclectic approach is still dominant.

I am happy to plead ignorance on this one, but having heard this sort of debate at many a conference, across several blogs (ours is no exception, even if this memorable debate was not explicitly about externalists vs. internalists), I get the feeling it isn’t just me. At some level I wish I had had John Henry’s book a few years ago, but better late than never. Also, I’d recommend it as a good introductory read – it’s 179 pages is not strictly correct, as only 114 are content (the glossary – especially his definition of ‘whiggism’ – and references are excellent too), and it is a ‘small’ book, A5 size. Worth getting, now if only I was still going to teach that course this semester. Dammit.

“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.

Referencing dilemma – what to do?

I find it frustrating when in-text references read (Keynes 1973) or (Quesnay 1963). This leaves me to go and find the bibliographical notes to try and discover which works are being referred to and when they were written.  Often the when is significant to understand what is being said by Quesnay, or ‘which’ Keynes is writing – the 1943 Treasury Civil Servant or the young man frustrated with the Versailles Treaty in 1919. If an article then refers to Keynes several times from a ‘collected works’ edition, the time context is almost impossible to decipher as every reference is to 1973 and the reader needs to check page-numbers and chapters to find the original dates. Some authors add extra text before every quote and citation which reads “In year xxx, Dr. yyy wrote”.  I feel this makes the reading slow, tedious and I still have to double-check the years after reading a quote or citation. Such referencing, to me, does not work. But what might be the best practice for referencing translated and re-printed works in the text?

Having checked the brief Harvard guide (that’s the system I’m stuck with) there does not seem to be a rule… There is a rule for translated work in the reference section – using the original year first. Similarly for articles in edited volumes the original date is noted first, with the edited volume’s year of publication later in the reference. From this I infer that the reference in the text would be to the original year and not the edited work. So what do you feel is the best practice?

Let’s take an example: There is a poem by Voltaire written in 1736 entitled Mondrain, translated first by Tobias Smollet [as Man of the World] in 1901 and this translation is re-produced (ad verbatim) in a collected volume by Henry Clark in 2003, which I am using. All this detail is in the full reference at the back. The year of the poem matters to the exposition – as Voltaire will write for another 40+ years, so what do you feel is the best reference in-text? Is it (Voltaire 1738), (Voltaire 1901), (Voltaire 2003) or something fourth, or fifth with square brackets perhaps?

Notre Dame tries to kill the last Historians

After removing all the historians of economics (and pluralist economists) from the economics department in 2003, Notre Dame University are now planning to shut down the department which they were all placed in. This at a time when the mainstream is ‘officially’ re-thinking its stance to pluralism seems like further indication that there is no such re-think going on. This has sparked comment from a previous faculty member, Teresa Ghilarducci and others like Fred Lee, the open economics blog and The Observer.

The original argument (if we ignore the in-fighting, politics, and bad feelings towards the pluralists-slash-historians) was that the Mainstream people were publishing in ‘better’ journals. Despite the fact that the pluralists and historians were more productive (in terms of research), their work did not go into certain star ranked journals. So the classification and ranking systems comes back to haunt us. We have already discussed the attempts to re-classify HET in Australia, and there has been some changes to classifications in Europe and Australia despite this (I seem to recall). But this is where the battle lines have been drawn. Not by us, but by economics departments who wish to appear to be doing ‘serious’ work, and appear to be doing so to outsiders. The public debate on the value of mainstream economics will (eventually) die down again. Just as it did after the 1998 Financial Crash (which supposedly discredited the Scholes-Merton work), and after the 2001 bubble. When it does, we will be left with mainstream economists who are patting each other’s back for getting us ‘out of the crisis’, a public which evaluates the discipline on ranking metrics and a repeat of history once more. Or maybe there is something which can be done?