The regulation of public numbers

On the night of the Brexit referendum the “Economics in the Public Sphere” project at University College London hosted a panel discussion on the regulation of public numbers. We heard about lying with numbers, and how to choose numbers that move people. We heard about independent statisticians and shy regulators. We heard about the politics of numbers and measurement.

The speakers came from government, advocacy groups, and academia and were Mike Hughes (Royal Statistical Society); Ed Humpherson (Director General for Regulation, UK Statistics Authority); Diane Coyle (University of Manchester, author of GDP: A brief but affectionate history); Saamah Abdallah (New Economics Foundation, Programme manager on Wellbeing); Mary Morgan (London School of Economics, author of The World in the Model); Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School of Government, author (with Sang-Hyun Kim) of Dreamscapes of Modernity).

You can watch the whole event on youtube, here. But as a teaser I post Mary’s terrific contribution. 

@HETSA: stay classic!

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.

 

 

 

 

There ain’t no such thing as a free journal (or lunch)?

The History of Economics Review is the journal of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia (HETSA). The journal started in 1981, first as a news bulletin of the society, and within half a decade also publishing original research. As of this Thursday the journal is published by Taylor Francis. The move brings a new editorial team and a desire to make the journal an obligatory read for the global history of economics committee, as the editors pledge in their brief opening statement. (My  humble suggestion to them is to encourage a review of the gender balance of their editorial board.)

To commemorate the occasion, the first T&F issue is open access, and can be accessed here, for ever and ever…free, gratis, no money … for real!

You will find original papers on A.W.H. Phillips by Selwyn Cornish and Alex Millmow, T. R. Malthus by John Pullen, and John Rae by David Reiss. You can read a polemic between James Forder and Thomas E. Hall and William R. Hart, and on the book review section you will find a critique of, Playground writer, Floris Heukelom’s book Behavioral Economics: A History, which nearly deserves its own polemic.

(For back issues contact HETSA, with a membership to the Society you get unlimited access to the trove, which is interesting for original research but also as documents to the history of our community.)

Notes on HES roundtable “Teaching the Next Generation”

At the annual meeting of the History of Economics Society, Sunday 19 June 2016, Fuqua Rand Classroom, Harro Maas organized a roundtable to discuss the “Teaching the Next Generation.” The panelists were: Annie Cot (Université Paris 1), Pedro G. Duarte (University of São Paulo), Edward Nik-Khah (Roanoke College), Sandra Peart (University of Richmond), and Ivan Moscati (University of Insubria). Below are notes taken by Harro. We encourage anyone who attended the event to extend, correct or comment on these notes.

  • Annie gave an account of French teaching, a bit of its history and different ways of doing history. She told us also about job opportunities in France that range from high schools to university positions.

 

  • Pedro pictured the state of history of economics in Brazil as growing but fragile. He emphasized the importance of institutional backing. A very concrete example of such backing was ESHET’s sustained, also financial, support for history of economics in Latin America. Its funds were crucial in bringing together Latin American scholars (now resulting in a new Latin American society). Young scholars in Latin America are less associated with heterodox economics as the older generation. Challenges he saw were: Quantitative history; Blogs; Macro-economists willing to talk; New kinds of materials for doing history of economics that should be taken serious.

 

  • Eddy noted that the contemporary economics profession has given up on history; no Schumpeters, Blaugs or Heilbroners any more. What kind of people might be interested in history of econ, or even are so: STS, economic sociologists, or an unexpected office-mate as in Yann Giraud’s case. He saw it as the task (or part of the task) of historians of economics to give some context to what is currently going on; to contribute to the larger world of contemporary ideas, and economics is part of that. i.e. historians of economics should reach out to a more general public and to other communities. He (with Phil) have tried to do so with their history of information and market design that started as a course taught with INET (note again that funds help such projects).

 

  • Ivan told about the new PhD program (methods and models for economic decisions) at his university that includes the possibility of a thesis in history and methodology of economics. His colleagues are open to Ivan’s work but have no further interest in it.

 

  • Sandy: gives a twist to the question: not what to teach them, but what to do to make the next generation flourish; how to support their scholarship. Young scholar program was intended for that purpose. Instrumental in its establishment: Neil Niman (treasurer), John Davis, Dan Hammond and Mary Morgan. Free banquet tickets for the young scholars so that they don’t feel inhibited to participate and have the opportunity to mix with the older scholars.
    • Help young scholars to present their work (HM – HISRECO was and is important for that).
    • Help to professionalize them (HM – a session/workshop on how to submit to journals, how to present a paper, how to approach institutions/economists for interviews or otherwise)
    • Celebrate what young people are doing.

Summer institute served different function. People presenting there: first jobs, no institutional context, lonely existence, possibility to present unfinished work in friendly and supportive atmosphere. Wisdom transferred to someone who is only starting by speaking on the same level. Funding was never a problem so that young scholars could be paid, without strings attached. Editors invited; discussions about what it is like to write a book.

When my heart skipped a beat

I am writing a paper about an economist that was at the Treasury in the second half of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965 a new Labour government changed the status of the economist in British policy making by creating the “Government Economic Service”, from two dozen economists working in the Treasury there were soon two hundred in all branches of government. [Alec Cairncross writing to the Lloyds Bank Review in 1970 offers an insider’s and compact exposition of this change] The Public Record Office listed in its online finding aid two items by this person. Although the items would not be essential for my argument they could provide some clues and color to a formative part of his life that was less documented than his later academic career. I asked the Public Record Office for estimates of digital scans of the two documents.

A week ago I got a reply, the total: a chest constricting 2,051.20 pounds (but it includes the first DVD, not the second, that’s 5 more). In their defense, each of the documents runs over 355 pages, which I had failed to notice when I made the request. Still that is 2.80 pounds a page, in my currency: two espressos a page. The median wage in UK public sector is £554 per week, does that mean my request is a four week job? Probably it isn’t, even if you take really zealous care in the digitalization and you have a scanner running on coal. Archive and record offices are now taking digital requests but I am sure they look upon them with concern for the future. Even if it pays well it does not pay up. And it is a self-fulfilling prophecy because at these prices, I can’t afford it, no one can afford it, and it doesn’t get done.

It goes to show that doing history is an expensive business. The conventional imagination has the historian in slippers sinking in an armchair under rising piles of books. Sometimes it’s like that, if your library is wealthy enough to carry the books, or has a decent inter library loan service. Google books is great, but has so far not greatly helped the historian of the past 50 years, because of copyright laws and Google’s business model won’t have it for free. Google books most of the time compounds the problem, because it is effective at revealing additional sources that I don’t have access to. And then there are archives. They will promise you scans and copies but often asking prohibitively expensive sums. The outcome is that the historian is a nomadic species, having to bid for travel funds to visit the archives and do her work on physical copies, often with the outcome that the archive holds nothing of real interest, except the stuff for a couple of meaty footnotes. Who could have guessed history was a high-adrenaline, high-risk job?

@INET-BW: Of history repeating…

The Bretton Woods conference has a protean character. Talk in the corridors asks “what is it?” Some in the press (lots of press here) believe that deals are being made, the attendance of heavy hitters leads some to believe that consultations and strategies are being outlined for world government (Summers, Stiglitz, Brown, and yesterday Volcker arrived to close the event). The Tea Party protesters agree on the form if not the substance. The academics take seriously the title of the meeting “Crisis and Renewal: International Political Economy at the Crossroads” and its brief:

The 1944 conference was, famously, largely an Anglo-American affair, whereas today’s reconstruction must engage the larger European Union, as well as the emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. In the years since the 1944 conference, the globalization of production, trade, and especially finance, has transformed our economy, but has not yet transformed our system of regulation or our tools of policy intervention. Indeed, our very habits of thought and speech lag behind the realities that we desperately need to think and speak about.

The program announces a desire to think and talk big, policy and reform for the planet, and the venue, Mount Washington Resort, suggests an even grander vision of what might be achieved. There is abundant mentions to Keynes (we started counting but then gave up). Some of the Keynesian referencing is thoughtful and substantive, but most of the order of the great moral example offered by the great Englishman, as Skidelsky once wrote in “Exemplary Lives” (you can find it in Times Literary Supplement 75 (19):1250)). INET appears sincere in its desire to bring history into the discussion of a crisis of economics, they are funding programs to foster the teaching of the subject, and a grant program to pursue its research, but in these meetings, history was relegated to the dinner party anecdote and to a construction of identity and legitimation. This is a media, visual, video, audio, blogging event (in which I am participating), to project the brand of the Institute and associate it with a glorious past, and the prestige of great past thinkers.

I suffer from an embarrassing Pavlovian conditioning, every time I hear the words “history repeats”, I blurt out Marx (Karl not Groucho):

Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”

Here we start at 7 am, and dinner talks go past 10 pm. Lack of sleep and high altitude are pressing me to a brutish mood, a Hunter Thompson fiendishness, fear and loathing state of mind. And I start howling for tragedy.

I don’t much mind the spectacle particularly when it is giving me access to folks that would otherwise never have spoken to us were we not wearing a “Staff” badge. I got a +30 min video interview with Brad DeLong, and I am in the shot. The real test of these meetings for me, and for those that want to see an effort at changing economics, was yesterday’s session by the Teaching Task Force. Two committees reported on INET proposals for reform of the economics curriculum. The UK group under the influence of Skidelsky parroted his calls for economic history. Not much progress in a year, he said the same at the Cambridge meeting and earlier still. I was left wondering what Skidelsky sees as economic history, and what benefits one might extract, all is left floating in self evident confidence. The US group had a better worked out vision, setting out plans to use INET online resources to provide materials to reach classrooms (the impact issue module). However, the US group’s suggestion of anthologies of texts, as alternative to textbooks, seems a weak attack on the textbook market. I was wondering if it was an appeal to the canon, that has crashed and burned in Literature and will never have a chance in Economics. It is likely that the teaching reform committee could not agree, to argue for substantive change you need to agree that economics needs changing, and that consensus is skidding down the slopes.

The weight of the 1920s decorated rooms, and the grey presence of so many headliners of the economics profession (which we are making the most of with the interviewing) is creating great confusion about what is “new” in New Economic Thinking. One line is nostalgia and it began with the opening session when Rogoff recalled with regret and humor how as a young man he was unengaged by C. Kindleberger’s teachings. (Its ok now, he recovered the notes.) Another is memory, that the models of past authors should not be so easily forgotten. But the strongest line is that we need more economic history in curricula and in public debate, and the example to follow is… Rogoff and Reinhardt’s This Time is Different? Not wanting to question their achievement, the book affords only the most weak defenses of historical scholarship, where time is flattened into a tractable dataset and agency and institution are dismissed by the law of great numbers. More worryingly this take on history does not question the place of the economist in the historical scene (that sociology thing again). In a trope that I saw repeated thrice, it was said that economics is at a stage where a Copernican revolution has occurred but one needs still to use Ptolomeic cosmology for a few decades more, for policy advice (the argument without celestial spheres has been made before the crisis, in 2006, in G. Mankiw’s “Economist as Engineer” piece to the JEP).

None of this is new, and worse still, none of it is very critical. New Economic Thinking is hard to win. For nearly a century philanthropic money tried to steer economics into interdisciplinarity and social and historical consciousness, in the 1970s they gave up (Floris will disagree, but despite the cases of behavioral economics I think the argument holds). And because change is so hard, there is a danger that INET gives up, and becomes a left of center think tank to argue the policy wars. The task of producing knowledge against the grain requires imagination. I would have wished to see the big headliners back to back with some new ideas from INET grantee portfolio. I would have wished more collaborative work and less staging speeching. I would have wished more time for debate and critique. I would have wished less farce and more tragedy.

Continue reading “@INET-BW: Of history repeating…”

@INET-BW: Careers

Guess who came for lunch? Gordon Brown. He just strolled in, was in the neighborhood, with the K-9s and the barrel chested security detail. And he is a terrific speaker!

Before I say anything of his message, and because the messenger was a big portion of the message, I was left wondering about careers. It used to be that a politician out of office would travel some (any) desert and return for another fight, another cycle, Churchill and Nixon come to mind. Politicians these days, such as GW Bush, go out of office and into celebrity: they write a book, they go on speaking tours.

Gordon Brown has a book, and he did not forget mentioning it. But he appears to inch towards a different career prospect, other than inspirational speaker: from national statesman he is ready to become a world statesman (Tony Blair is trying that too). The vision offered to the digesting masses was of a world unbalanced by a epoch making transformation, where the West will be dwarfed by the ascending middle class of the South and the East (worryingly not Africa) remaking financial and value flows. His proposal is to continue and conclude what he began but was myopically interrupted by democracy in May 2010: a new set of global agreements that regulate debt and currency adjustments but that also assures continued growth and prosperity for the new world order that is coming on the horizon. …. a new Bretton Woods.

The punchline was pleasant and appropriately sweet: an invitation to the imagination of scholars, with a bit of poetry as fits British eloquence, to envisage the worlds that are coming. We need economic fiction?