These things take time

Last week, I spent a few days in the Dalton-Brand Research Room, at Duke University, skimming through the Samuelson papers. They make everybody excited there, and for good reasons. Samuelson was all over the place for about 70 years: in the academia, in the medias, in the arcane secrets of governmental policies. As a result, some of his papers read as mystery novels. There are many different plots intertwined there and you just want to read the end of the story – okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Of course, when one sees this kind of materials, he has many ideas for future papers and want to have them written – and published – as soon as possible. Accordingly, the Samuelson papers seem to generate a very competitive market. There will be a roundtable on “the prospects of writing on Paul Samuelson” at the next HES meeting, (at least) two biographical projects are being undertaken at the moment, and of course, there is also the perspective of the 2013 HOPE conference on MIT, which will hopefully result in a lot of new fascinating contributions, not only on Samuelson but on the many other important economists who interacted in this place where a lot of what constitutes the economists’ workaday toolbox has allegedly originated. There is this sensation that things will come out rather quickly but also an uneasy feeling of misplaced haste and pressure. Of course, I am not blaming anyone: that feeling has gotten all over me as well!

Yet, it is not without an afterthought that, soon after my return to Paris, I grabbed the copy of Robert Leonard’s Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960 that I had ordered from my university’s library and which had finally arrived on shelf during my absence. Leonard’s book has been expected  for over a decade and it fully delivers on its promises. It does not rely on a forced grand narrative or on an overly repeated thesis. Instead, it is constructed  like an impressionistic picture, where individual paths and the larger context are subtly intertwined until they finally make sense to the reader. Robert Leonard is never where you expect him to be. When one anticipates pages on abstract formalism, Leonard depicts Chess games and the politics of Red Vienna, when one sees a critique of neoclassical economics, he describes a theory of social interaction and when one thinks of wartime reorganization of science and its aftermath, he tells the ending of a very personal journey. It is meticulously crafted, with an economy of words that makes every sentence necessary. Obviously, these things take time.

In the archives

Taking a quick break from my work in the Samuelson archives – so fascinating, believe me! – I can’t resist sharing the following, which I found in his correspondence files. Commenting on David Landes’ draft on Abba Lerner (subsequently published), as Landes explains that Lerner did not get a professorship in Britain in the 1930s, in spite of his having published 29 papers so far, Samuelson writes in the margin:

Somewhere, you should hint why Lerner never had the job offer Lange did. jew; socialist; bohemian; libertine; no team player; genius.

And he adds in the related letter to Landes:

History [historians] never get things right.

Source: Samuelson to Landes, February 23 1990, Box 84, Folder “Lerner Abba”, Paul A. Samuelson papers at Duke University.

Pop Archives

I was just amused with two projects by Shaun Usher: to “gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos” in his blog Letters of Note, and to present interesting letterheads in his Letterheady blog.

In the former one can see images and the transcript of a scathing letter from John Lennon to Paul and Linda McCartney in the early 1970s, and letters from other pop figures as Mark Twain, Yoko Ono, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Edgar Allan Poe, CalTech’s chemist Eric Carreira to his post-doc student, among many others. In the latter blog, one finds letterheads of people/companies like Paul Simon, Elizabeth Taylor, Ozzy Osbourne, Marvel, Capitol Records, and many other beautiful ones.

It is interesting that Usher, despite of having “a seemingly endless supply of correspondence to plough through,” invites cyberfellows to contribute with their own images. But he warns them: “If you already know it’s fake, don’t send it.”

Just fun!

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?

Bentham’s corpse and corpus preserved at UCL

At UCL, a project is run to transcribe the lots of J. Bentham’s unedited papers.

The originality is that they will use “crowd sourcing” for this task: a collaborative project to digitize his papers, with the help of volunteers drawn from the web. Gratuitous, hype project? Not quite, since these are 40,000 papers of Bentham that have never been transcribed or studied, and a massive distributed effort seems a clever use of the technology to speed up the completion of the transcription.

Jump at 5’15 for the description of the crowd-sourcing project.

What do the Bentham’s specialists think about this initiative? Do they expect it to change the scholarship on Bentham in any significant manner?

[thx to @your2pence who posted on this on]

Shawmut Follies (1967)-Part I.


King Arthur: Frank Fisher

Merlin: Robert Bishop

Herald: Robert Eckaus

First peasant: Cary Brown

Second peasant : Tapley

Sir Lancelot: Peter Diamond

Sir Lionel : Paul Samuelson

Sir Sagamore: Pranab Bardhan

Sir Dinadan: Peter Temin

Messenger: John Harris

Excerpts from Scene 1.

A mythical kingdom in the East


Arthur: I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I know what the world needs!

Merlin: What, Arthur, what?

Arthur: A really great economics department! A new departure in economics department!

Merlin: You’ve got it, Arthur, bless you fine human instincts. Of course that’s what’s been missing.

Arthur: The world will be a better place for a great economic department. I’ll send recruiters to distant lands. We’ll raise every top man in existence.

Merlin: No, no, no, Arthur. That’s what’s been wrong up to now. This constant raiding, the escalation of salary offers, fringe benefits. The isn’t what the world needs.

Arthur: We’ll attract them by an idea and an exemple.


Arthur: We’ll gather all the young PhDs here and we’ll call it..

Merlin: Yes, Arthur?

Arthur: the M.I.T long Corridor.

Merlin: Splendid.


Excerpts from Scene 2

A provincial city named after an English philosopher

Herald: hear ye, hear ye. Come on, come all to hearken to the Grand Proclamation of King Arthur


Herald: Kind Arthur of MIT offers to all young knight of intellectual errantry the opportunity to join the select Long Corridor of economists sworn to uphold true theory, to rescue theorems from rape and pillage at the brutal hands of Midwestern PhDs, to form a fellowship of intellectual excellence and as much good cheer as can coexist with it.


Bystander 1: Who’s going to go and compete with those fierce eastern minds?

Bystander 2: Not me, man


Lancelot: I will

Bystander: Who? Who are you?

Lancelot: I am Lancelot du Bay, academic fencer par excellence. I will go.

Bystander 1: To MIT? Think twice, man.

(to be continued…..)

Note: These are excerpts from a play script written by Duncan Foley and Peter Temin in 1967, presumably for the MIT annual Christmas Party. Found in the MIT archives, Hayden Library.

When you do archive work, you always stumble upon this kind of material. You laugh, sometimes you make a copy of it, and then you burry it on a shelf. This time, I’d like to make more of it. I’ve been writing on how economics at MIT was shaped in the postwar period, who were the various protagonists, what were their visions, how did they interact and how did the institutional structures of the Institute (from engineering tradition to recruitment policies and curricula) influenced these interactions and in turn were altered by them. This play script conveys a wealth of information as to how MIT economists viewed themselves, other departments and the state of their science at that time. It also says much about the roles of each protagonist within the community (if only through who’s assigned which character of the Round Table myth). Yet, I’ve just finished a draft of my MIT project, and so far I haven’t mentioned this material in the narrative. The truth is that I don’t quite know how to interpret it, how to handle it. This information is conveyed and filtered by a “tone” that belongs to the realm of humor, derision, possibly caricature, and shouldn’t be taken literally. Any idea or reference on how to handle joke-material in history?

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.