Archive for the ‘Methodology of the history of economics’ Category
The debate that began in the comment box has now moved to Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles. I confess that I misjudged this affair. I thought I could jest with DeLong and I now get my comeupings, a good post by him but prefaced by a sort of character assassination that extracts the first two items of our discussion but forgets to pick up the other two (where in my humble opinion I look a bit better… and make clear my motivation is not “protecting my turf” it is calling for better scholarship). And now a lot of angry folks coming over to visit this blog ready to trash at our poor academic ethics.
I think DeLong has been very thoughtful and I relish the chance to answer him. This is not the first time that I read him on the topic. In 2008, I had noted his retelling of formative experiences with the history of economics, and the new post echoes the earlier one.
DeLong’s critique is that an historian should never dismiss the possibility that Adam Smith was offering a composite of economics, psychology and philosophy, and take a priori the alternative claim that Smith’s writings are part of that much broader unity Foucault called Episteme. I don’t see in DeLong’s post a fleshed out the argument about why one should opt for the Janus faced reading. There are a few clues, he rejects my reading as “fastpaced” (and we know “fast is bad”) and the double reading is well, twice a “fastpaced” one. On recall of his earlier 2005 post on the Episteme, I imagine that DeLong is suggesting a test on the episteme thesis. Or perhaps he is just setting up a more layered, plural set of readings, “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I think this is all reasonable.
But what if I don’t want to test the episteme? What if the history of economics is not even about “reading” and nailing down an interpretation?
DeLong’s emphasis is on “reading”, but historians of economics can do about other things too, with other records, with other questions. (As Vivienne Brown has long noted, there is an abuse of the canon in projecting upon Smith the problems of today’s social science. To no other author in economics does this happen as much as for Smith, the poor guy is cited for all kinds of conflicting purposes.) I am no Smithisian scholar, I write on the history of economics post-1945, but I have been privileged to teach the topic. In that setting I have come across some of the Smith literature, extensive as it is. Given that the subject of the working paper that started this all was the place of the economist in society (the worldly philosopher) I would have thought that a more fruitful approach would be to escape the tired debate about where Smith fits in the disciplinary grid. Is he a psychologist? A philosopher? An economist? What a tangle that is, particularly if the authors that argue that moral philosophy was then understood as part and parcel of natural philosophy are right (vide Schabas, vide New Voices), in that sense he would be a physicist too…
And does it get one anywhere? I think an historian of economics approaching this topic might do better by asking what work Smith’s text did in his society. What contexts nurtured its production and what debates it fortified and participated in? Why then not recognize that there is a whole school of political thought, the Cambridge School, Quentin Skinner, Emma Rothschild, and others that have approached Smith from the perspective of political history and seen how this work fits the pre-revolutionary debates of the Enlightenment. (This work, to which Tribe is somewhat associated too, runs into the 19th century in the work of Donald Winch, into the 20th century (this time without economists) with Stephan Collini). What made me cringe is that to look at the disciplinary grid is so far away from the issues and from an understanding of what history can contribute to the question posed.
The same is true of my other complaint that is missing from the re-posting. A reference in the Shiller’s text to the Baltimore Sun as record of the professionalization of economics. This seems to trivialize how momentous the academicization or professionalization of economics was… I would suggest the work of Mary Furner, Robert (Bob) Coats, Dorothy Ross, Ted Porter, Tim Leonard among others that have written about the Progressive Era and its formative influence on the American social sciences? And on the general topic of the profession how about reading the work of the Berkeley sociologist Marion Fourcade.
I don’t want to be writing down a reading list here, it seems inappropriate for this medium. The Shillers’ intuition that history matters for the subjects they raise is absolutely correct. Maybe they can write this history, but in the working paper they are far from it.
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.
A few weeks ago, one contributor to the SHOE (Societies for the History of Economics) list asked a seemingly simple question: “Why did Marshall reverse the axes?”. In economics, indeed, supply and demand curves for a given commodity are usually drawn with prices on the vertical axis and quantities on the horizontal one. It may seem quite puzzling to undergraduate students who cannot understand why they do so, whereas prices are generally considered the independent variable and thus, according to standard practices in graphical representation at least, should be drawn on the abscissa. As another contributor quickly pointed out, the more common answer to this question is given in Mark Blaug and Peter John Lloyd’s Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics: Marshall used to draw his demand and supply schedules this way because he considered price to be the dependent variable. As most early 20th century English-speaking economists got their economics from Marshall’s Principles, they followed this tradition, even though they rather took prices as the independent variable.
The answer, as Roger Backhouse cleverly notes, is not completely satisfying from a historical point of view, even though it may hold as a methodological explanation. A historical understanding of why Marshall reversed the axes should explore the way he and his contemporary fellow economists considered the place of geometry in mathematics, the way markets operated and more generally how they regarded the status of economics as a field. Though there might not be simple and direct answers to all these questions, one can find useful elements in the existing literature on Marshall, such as Peter Groenewegen‘s or Simon Cook‘s books.
Other contributors to the SHOE list do not seem more satisfied with Blaug and Lloyd’s answer than Roger but their reasons are diametrically opposed. One scholar, for instance, complains that common explanations refer to “tradition” or “precedent” and think there should be a more “penetrating” answer. But what is history about if it is not about the construction and persistence of “traditions”? What is a historical explanation if it does not deal with “precedent”? Instead, most SHOE list members who contributed to the topic pursued, message after message, a non-historical line of inquiry. For them, there should be an ontological explanation to Marshall’s reversing of the axes: in other words, the answer should lie in the ‘very nature’ of supply and demand itself and of the mathematical equations that underlie their graphical representation. This is of course wrong from a historical point of view but it is also misleading because it offers a poor view of how visual representations operate. Sociologist of science Bruno Latour has argued, for instance, that two-dimensional representations are useful because they are both immutable and recombinable. We can manipulate them, superimpose them, even though they have different origins and scales. We can even merge them with geometry and use tools upon them – though we cannot measure the sun, we can measure a picture of the sun. The consequence of this is that we cannot reduce graphs to mathematical equations. Supply and demand graphs are not only visual representations of preexisting mathematical equations, they are artifacts that can be used subsequently to produce or spread economic knowledge. This is what economists do when they construct Edgeworth boxes or multiple quadrant diagrams – who complains about “axes reversing” in that case?
Furthermore, in the particular case of Marshall and his contemporaries, the idea that graphical analysis is separate from mathematics is obvious. As Judy Klein correctly pointed out:
According to Marshall, the method of diagrams should be seen as separate from the method of mathematical analysis. By the 1870s, graphs were not substitutes of equations or tables pegged, with apology at the end of a work for the mathematically illiterate; they were tools for exploring and describing phenomena that could not easily be captured by algebra, calculus or words.*
Therefore, it is an anachronism to want to explain Marshall’s use of supply and demand graphs by referring to the equations of supply and demand functions which we are used to think of as premises of these visual representations but which in fact were not viewed as such by Marshall and the likes at that time.
It is quite puzzling – and even saddening – to observe that people who deem themselves ‘historians’ of economics and as such contribute to a ‘history’ of economics list systematically choose to bypass the historian’s toolbox in their discussions.
* Klein, Judy L. (1995) The method of diagrams and the black arts of inductive economics. In Rima Ingrid (ed.) Measurement, Quantification and Economic Analysis. London, UK : Routledge, p. 113.
Throughout my PhD years, I have consistently avoided conducting interviews. The reason I was giving was that my protagonists were either too dead or had already given too many interviews so that nothing new would emerge from an additional one, and anyway, what was the point of asking economists about their “worldview”? The true reason was that I was totally freaked out by the sole prospect of having to seat in front of a figure of the past, ask a few questions carefully crafted and wait for them to jump in.
When I began to work on MIT, it quickly became clear that this time I would have to face the necessities of oral history. While several of my narrative’s protagonists have been interviewed over and over, they had very scarcely been confronted with questions dealing with their home institution, with the daily organization of research, with the design of curricula, with recruitment, etc.
To overcome my apprehension, I set out to read, listen, and watch economists’ interviews. But historically oriented interviews are not so common. And the bulk aims at getting information on such and such contribution of the interviewee, or on his contribution to such and such school of thought. Only the list of questions prepared by Ross Emmett for his Chicago Oral history project echoed my intent to catch the daily humming and diffuse zeitgeist of an institution. And unfortunately, neither the audio/video files nor the transcripts are publicly available to date.
Then, I questioned those of my young fellows who were seasoned veterans of oral history, and who even unbelievably seemed to take pleasure at such ventures. Questions on the first contact, the unfolding of the interviews, the kind of questions to ask, the traps to be avoided, the different techniques for face to face interviews and email requests.
Their responses consistently stressed the importance of having the least possible influence/ imprint on the researcher interviewed, whether in the initial message sent, the attitude adopted, the open and scarce questions asked, the lack of comments made about the economist’ responses during the interview. It seemed important that the interviewee knew the least possible about our projects, our frameworks, the historical narrative we wanted to supplement or challenge. And of course, oral history was much much preferred to written contacts, even if I had to wait months or years for an encounter. These advice did nothing to soothe my fear and left me with a feeling of uneasiness, although I could not pinpoint its underlying cause.
Then, I screwed up my first interview. Because of an unexpected encounter with my “target” that I discovered would not be subsequently available, I had to ask unprepared questions without any record device and “over the counter,” or rather over a plate of cheese and pasta with two hundreds persons and a pianist filling the background with laughters, murmurs and worn out jazz standards. My questions lacked the most basic diplomatic veneer (So black and glossy/ On my word, sir,/ With voice to match/ You were a bird, sir/ Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days….), and anyway I couldn’t even hear half of the responses.
The following week, my brand new -and still unused- recorder got stolen from my suitcase during my hectic trip back to Europe. A sign, for sure.
These trials and tribulations at least brought the reason for my uneasiness to the fore. The underlying thread of all the tips I received was that the economists interviewed should truly be considered as objects of study. But I did not see them as objects, I saw them as witnesses. As partners. I did not want to hide my intentions, my research, at least not in the second part of the interviews. In case I wouldn’t get substantive answers to my questions, I wanted to be able to confront the interviewee with his history, to put the copy of a 1957 letter from Solow to Fisher on the table and tell him : here’s what he (you?) was writing at that time. I wanted to be able to say “Emmett has shown in recent research that the workshop system was essential in building a common intellectual ground for the Chicago School, what about MIT ?”, and I wanted to be able to consider the response (in this case “Workshop only came late to MIT because Samuelson was opposed to them. He thought the worskhop system was the end of economic generalists”) worthy of consideration, even if biased. And they were telling me I shouldn’t.
Now I’m sitting at my desk, gloomily looking at the stack in front of me: the oral history reader, a book on the voices of the past, a few articles (list in Mata and Lee 2007). I wonder whether after swallowing these hundred pages with like a bottle of Lagavulin, to give me courage, after buying a new recorder and giving a first set of interviews, I’ll be back into the ranks of wisdom, I’ll agree with them. And from time to time, the possibility that the situation is even worse crosses my mind. Maybe deep down I don’t consider the interviewee as a witness, but as a suspect? In this case, will this literature and a baptism of fire will make me a good cop, will turn the Harry Bosch in me into an Adamsberg?
Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.
But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.
Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….
There is much reflexion today on how to enhance the teaching of economics and foster the teaching of the history of economics (cf Avi Cohen’s SHOE post and the CHOPE’s initiative to put online resources for the teaching of HE). In such a context, it makes sense to re-affirm that bringing back HE in economics curricula would make students better economists. At least, this morning, I suddenly felt pressed to test my arguments, and, lacking an economist audience at that moment, addressed my toothbrush, moisturising lotion and lens solution with grandiloquence.
I read the development of HE in the 1990s and 2000s as one of emancipation, whatever historians’ declared (and conflicting) attitudes toward economists were. They have refined criteria for peer evaluation, standards of truth, plausibility and/or relevance (since the post, post-post and post-post-post modern wings of our subdiscipline doubtless refuse to take “truth” as their goal) that are strictly independent from economists’ ones. Historians today (at least some) don’t expect their articles to be assessed by economists’ standards of quality (it happens, tough, when an historical paper is submitted to a generalist economics journal, and the referee reports are often problematic).
Historians handle peculiar kinds of data and are constantly developing new ways of building narratives from them: those using texts, articles, books, as a basis for investigation are acutely aware of the changing meaning of tools and data, of authorship, translations, patrons and funding, publication issues (whether related to the publishing industry in the previous centuries or to the postwar peer review process), audiences, scholarship cultures, and the influence of biographical features, including emigration, religion, political views, love interests, power struggles, perception of contemporary economics/ social events, etc. Others are relying on archives, trading some archival sources against others, wondering what kind of consistent material can be derived from such fragmentary material, or even whether it is a consistent story that should be seek in these dusty folders, reflecting on the meaning of correspondence, course lectures, etc. in the context of the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s. They would also compare such sources with autobiographical accounts and oral histories, and attempt to offset the bias inherent to such exercise by devising new ways to conduct interviews, to gather memories, such as witness seminars. Some deal with the effects of computer science and of the internet on our disciplines: the emergence of new type of material (such as blogs, online lay reviews of economic books) and new techniques (such as network analysis).
At the same time, the scope of HET has been considerably expanded. Gradually moving from a cluster of key individuals (Smith-Ricardo-Marshall-Keynes-Friedman), academic bodies or “places” (Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, Vienna) and theories or tools, or coming from different disciplinary perspectives, historians have investigated a greater variety of theoretical developments and subfields (econometrics, business cycle theories, general equilibrium, OR, game theory, the Arrow-Debreu mess, Slutsky integrability conditions, law and economics, etc. More recently, development economics, experimental economics, the laffer curve, Ramsey’s growth theory, Woodford’s monetary economics, behavioral economics, neuro-economics…..); other figures; economists’ activities other than research: economists as teachers (awareness to the definition of curricula and to the writing of textbooks; economists as fund raisers (relationships with foundations, the NSF, etc.), policy advisers (participation to the CEA, congressional hearings) and public intellectuals (Newsweek columnists, political activists, radio speakers, TV show broadcasters, bloggers). Historians’ interest has also spread to neighbouring sciences, from psychology to biology, to hitherto understudied academic bodies (such as MIT, Michigan), to non academic bodies (such as the Brookings, the NBER, the Office of Economic Opportunities, German unions, the CED, South American central banks, Quesnay’s workshop, the poverty action lab, the Bloomsbury group). And lately, HE has come to include the study of political figures, journalists, traders, bloggers, anonymous reader and reviewers from amazon, all kind of economic actors and audiences.
And this is just a tiny sample of HE subjects, one that reflects my narrow interests as a postwar historian, my recent readings, my communities, the interests of my close colleagues and of the people encountered along workshops and conferences in the past two years.
As a consequence, historians of economic thing now have a lot to say about past economic theories/ debates/ objects, both on their content and context. Ans this might be of interest for economic students. Yet, my perception is that, focused as they were on the construction of true/ plausible/ relevant narrative, historians have lost their pretension to show economists what they were doing wrong, to show them how their elders were so much better at reasoning. For the best.
OK, this may be the moment to stop hasty generalizations. So, some historians, among which the silly me addressing my toothbrush, do not seek economists’ agreement, maybe not even their attention, anymore (which doesn’t mean they don’t care about it). As I previously said, we have developed our own scientific standards. Yet, a problematic consequence of such posture, is that, while I claim that history of economics should be a crucial part of economics curricula, I refuse to take side on how students should use the stories we could tell them. While some point to the possible quiver of the beginning of a resurgence of an interest in HE, there’s not much I can say to advertise all the work we’ve done. Whether economists may be looking for inspiration, mistakes, reflexivity in their practices, social knowledge, greater breadth of vision, lineage, entertainment or else in their past, all I can say is “listen to us, we’ve fascinating stories to tell you, and these are your past.”
I’ve never taught HE to economic students. I’ve been sitting in such courses as an economic student in France, totally missing the point, and a HE postdoc in the USA, focusing on students’ reactions. I’ve been teaching a variety of economic courses at the undergraduate level (from applied econometrics to international economics to advanced macroeconomics), sometimes trying to instil a bit of historical sense and flesh in the succession of theories and equations I was unwinding. And i’ve ben teaching HE to humanities students. From these experiences, I retained a few directions for my -so far- dreamed future course in HE, but I still have difficulty justifying some of them, even to my unconvinced toothbrush. I need help, substance. Or objections.
a distinct course in history of postwar economics is needed. I am not arguing that there is no point reading and studying Smith and Marshall and Marx and Keynes. Or course not. I’m simply relying on a common intuition derived from many works since the 1997 HOPE book directed by Morgan and Rutherford, to argue that it is in the period around the Second World War that economics took a shape that is still visible today in undergraduate curricula.One that may surprise, disturb or repel freshmen. In other words, it may make sense to the student trying to identify the saddle point of a Hamiltonian trajectory to learn all these things about the military, the RAND, the ties between engineers and economists, the emigration of Jewish physicists, and the possible consequences of McCarthyism. And the one wondering whether such estimator is BLUE may find interest, if not comfort, in hearing the social project Marschak and other Cowles economists had in mind in the forties. Ok, I’m aware that this is a bit short. If only because I’ll agree with the idea that economics underwent dramatic changes at the turn of the eighties, some that gave economics its current shape. And that a distinct course in history of economics since the eighties is needed. But I have very little idea what such a course would look like.
- A least two sessions, and up to half the class should be devoted to a broad narrative on the development of postwar economics worldwide and its economic, social and historical context. Yes, it’s a bit like making the history of everything. No, it doesn’t mind if it’s only fragmentary. Yes, students are supposed to know some basics about poswar general history. But let’s face it, they’re unable to remember that the publication of Debreu’s proof and Arrow’s impossibility theorem coincide with the heydays of Mccarthy’s witch hunt, the beginning of the Korea war, and I can’t remember which rate of unemployment. Nor will they know that Becker’s work on discrimination was written against the background of the Brown vs Board case. What is needed, in my mind, is a kind of extended Backhouse Palgrave entry on “United States, economics in (1945 to present)” from the Palgrave, which I used so often during my doctoral studies. One that could be used to point out key dates in HE and general history, before entering more specific topics, one that student could return to at the end of the semester. And resources on such broad narrative are difficult to find. Any suggestions?
- Students could be presented with a menu of topics/ speakers so that the syllabus could be fitted to their home institution and disciplinary interests: “you can get Duarte on growth theory, Heukelom on the origins of behavioral economics, Giraud on how great textbooks were written, Levallois on the history of neuro-economics, Mitra Kahn on public accounting and the generalization of keys statistics such as GNP, Mata on the perceptions of the current crisis, you can have a conference on the history of your MIT/Chicago/ else department”, to mention only some of this blog’s members fields of expertise. I said: “dreamed course in HE”
- Kids, isn’t it time to write a textbook on postwar HE?