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.

INET-BW: Kindleberger, a new K-hero?

I was not in Bretton Woods this week. I followed the event throught the videos posted on the INET website and the exhilarating and exhausting experience of Benjamin, Floris and Tiago. And I found that something in the BW whisper curiously echoes my current interests.

Tiago reports abundant mentions to Keynes during the sessions. The old pipe gives the sweetest smoke, my google says the Irish say (The French would favor a wine analogy, I guess). But a new K-hero also seems to be emerging. From Larry Summers’s confession that the knowledge he found most useful in the face of the crisis was found in the “writings of Bagehot, Minsky, Kindleberger, and Eichengreen,” to Rogoff’s recollection that he was unengaged by Kindleberger’s teaching, from DeLong‘s ( repeated) mention of Kindleberger’s vision of financial crises, one triggered by one post’s headline by Mark Thoma, Kindleberger seem to be on every mouth at the INET conference. From the other side of the Atlantic, I’m thus left wondering to what extent what looks like a primary attempt to canonize the MIT economist derives from his long, exhaustive, and timely experience of The World in Depression, 1929-1939, Manias, panics and crashes, foreign trade, exchange rates, money matters and international economics at large (see his autobiography for more information, and take memories with caution, as always.) Or maybe his fame is also rooted in his his very idiosyncratic method, one he labelled “historical economics.” Historical economics was however left for dead in the wake of the generalization of the MIT-style economics Kindleberger’s colleagues spread and the rise of new economics history and cliometrics. But, in these times of tensions and challenges, it may look fashionable again.

Or maybe the rise of a new K-hero is a mere artifact of my interest in economics at MIT. After working at the NY Fed and architecting the Marshall Plan, Kindleberger was recruited in 1948 at the department of economics and social sciences at MIT by those few economists (including statistician Harold Freeman, chair Ralph Freeman, industrial economist Rupert McLaurin, and Samuelson) who set to turn the hitherto small service department of an engineering school into an elite department. He remained there until his last lectures in 1981 (?) and became a pillar of the department. How he fitted into in a community initially made up of economists, psychologists, sociologists and political scientists, which by the early sixties, had become the sanctuary of Samuelson and Solow’s “new economics” however remained a mystery to me. Last december, I intended to dig into the subject, but I did not have enough time to even lift the lid of his first archive box. My interest in Kindelberger subsequently wained because of the lack of material. I rather concentrated on the Samuelsons, Solows, Fishers, Diamonds and Foleys, whose then peculiar educational vision had brought MIT to the top of university rankings in the mid-sixties. For education, I soon discovered, was central to the rise of both economics at MIT and MIT economics. A viewpoint which put the visionary Solow and his dizzying list of PhD students at the center of my story (his students in the years 1966 and 1967 only included George Akerlof, Robert Gordon, Robert Hall, William Nordhaus, Eytan Sheshinski, Joseph Stiglitz, and Martin Weitzman).

Accordingly, the recent formal identification of Solow as the leading MIT graduate supervisor in the 50s to 70s (56 students) did not came as a revelation. More surprising was the endurance and importance of the role played by Kindleberger, ranking second. In that period, he supervised 48 graduate students, including Robert Mundell (PhD 56), Peter Temin (PhD 64), and Jagdish Bhagwati (PhD 67). Kindleberger taught international economics for a lifetime, and after the recruitment of Peter Temin in 1967, he opened a course in economic history with his former student. The INET whisper is another reminder that, in the dark basement of an East Coast University Library, dusty boxes await to be be open. And I’m curious to know whether Benjamin, Floris and Tiago also noted a crystallization over Kindleberger, or over any other hero of the past besides Keynes?


Mid December Google gave the nerds of the World an early Xmas gift. It was N-gram viewer, a visualization tool to plot word frequency (and word strings “n-grams” up to 5 words) in its Google Books corpus. There is a Science article to go with it dawning a new field of “culturomics” (apparently a Harvard University object). Looking beyond the Steven Pinker enabled hype, better methods to probe corpora for meaningful subtexts and cultural themes exist, N-gram viewer is just fun.

There are plenty of clever queries out there, but I liked most the ones I found in Datavisualization. Closer to our interests are the queries of Economic History Blog. My contribution is a bit poor in imagination. But here goes.

Occasionally, the label of our community becomes a subject of debate. What best represents us: history of economics (blue) or history of economic thought (green)? From n-gram viewer the latter gets the most uses. At least until 2000 there is not much movement between one and the other, their frequencies move in parallel. I am sorry to report that our subject peaked in the mid-1990s (in books at least). [Update, 8th Feb. 2011: I included two graphs with caps and without, thanks Andrej!]

The triad of Masters programs in economics are: Micro/Macro/Econometrics, but how to these fare in mentions? I was surprised that econometrics was ahead for most of the period, and macro goes over the top only in the 1980s.

How about subjects in the work of economists (and everyone else)? Growth is the word that explodes into consciousness particularly post 1945, as Wealth slowly declines.

The classic: supply or demand? Demand of course!

Finally, a query that is not much history of economics but is important. How have the lay been referred to: as citizens and taxpayers (political), or as investors, consumers and producers (economic).

Mon cher Baumol

In his correspondance with Jimmie Savage and Will Baumol in the early 1950s, Maurice Allais would write in French and the two Americans would reply in English. Also Italian mathematician Bruno de Finetti started his corrspondance with Savage in French in the 1940s, although he switched to English in the mid 1950s. In addition, it appears from remakrs here and there that people such as Samuelson, Baumol and Savage could read German, that Savage’s Latin wasn’t so bad, but that Baumol apologized not being able to read Latin.

Which all begs the question: In general, how well did American economists in the twentieth century read and speak other languages? Could American professors in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s be expected to read French and/or German? Or was this really an exception?  

Dans l’attente de votre réponse, je vous prie d’agréer, mon cher Baumol, mes salutations distinguées.

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.

Rudolf Modley (?)

There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath’s]”. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

“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.