Hisreco 2017: no decreasing returns, yet.

20170420_180853The 11th History of Recent Economics conference (HISRECO) took place at the University of Lucerne on April 21-22, 2017. As a co-organizer of this conference, with my dear friends Pedro Duarte and Verena Halsmayer, I am not well placed to express an opinion on it. Let’s just say that we haven’t entered the period of decreasing returns yet. We had a very nice roster that included historians of economics, historians and STS scholars, and that my impression last year that the distance between those communities was decreasing has not been proven wrong. This is not to say that all the papers that were presented were perfect: they need not be, anyway. But the free-form discussions we had were as enthralling as ever. A quick summary follows.

Harro Maas (University of Lausanne) wrote on forecasting in the Netherlands, from the early postwar years of the Centraal Planbureau (CPB) to the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. He put in contrast the practices of scientific modeling and the idiosyncratic practices of the quacks. The latter were rehabilitated as the only ones who managed to predict the Great Recession.

Marion Ronca (University of Zurich) talked about Eugen Böhler, the Swiss economist, and his influence on the economic policies of his country. Converted to Keynesianism after fighting against it, Böhler was nonetheless an intellectual who did not fit into the mainstream economics of his time. At the end of his year, he used Carl Jung’s concept of mythos to criticize the discipline.

Laetitia Lenel (Humboldt University of Berlin) studied the first years of the NBER, showing that not only the methodologies used there differed from those adopted at the Cowles Commission but the views of the role of policy as well. While Koopmans and his allies’ endeavors aimed at advising the government, Mitchell and Burns were interested more in collecting facts and educating the public at large.

Sarvnaz Lotfi (Virgina Tech) provided an account of Research and Development (R&D) in the postwar period. Her project is to contrast the views of R&D as the main explanation of macroeconomic growth (following Solow’s residual) with its practical value as shown in accounting, management and law. Ultimately, there is more disparity than consensus in the way scholars and policymakers envisage the value of R&D to a nation.

Roger Backhouse (University of Birmingham) attempted to assess MIT economist Paul Samuelson’s role in influencing the economic policies of John Kennedy. Samuelson did not participate directly in policy advising, choosing instead to reflect on policy through his textbook and interventions in the press. This illustrates his cautious, even ambiguous, stance towards politics.

Cleo Chassonnery-Zaigouche (University of Lausanne) provided an alternative account of the role of economists in the courtroom,  focusing more specifically on James Gwartney’s expertise in racial and gender discrimination on the labor market. The way through which truth is assessed in the court is different from the way it is done in an academic setting, affecting the view of economics as a science in the process.

Francesco Sergi (University of Paris-Sorbonne) studied the standard, internalist, history of recent macroeconomics, that is contained in the manuals used in central banks. He argues that these narratives, which are aimed at standardizing practices, also tend to “decontest the contestation” existing in the field. In his view, new neoclassical macroeconomics – needs to be disaggregated and it is the duty of historians to bring more dissent to the discipline.

Steve Medema (University of Colorado at Denver), finally, wrote on the place of non-welfarism in the debates over the Coase theorem. While economists typically tried to exclude non-welfarist – i.e. social justice related – arguments in the postwar period, those were ubiquitous in the pieces that expressed criticism toward Coases’s idea of a market-based solution to environmental issues. Medema argues that non-welfarist arguments can be considered as proxies to ideology.

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Craufurd D. Goodwin (1935-2017)

On a sadder note, we have learnt during the first day of the conference that the great historian of economics and longtime History of Political Economy Editor Craufurd Goodwin had passed away. Goodwin’s vigorous efforts to promote the history of economics did not consist in faint discourses about the vitality of the field but, rather, in his constant allegiance to the highest possible academic standards. The mere possibility of a conference like Hisreco is a testament to the excellent scholarship his endeavor helped to encourage. He was one of the true giants of our discipline and will be greatly missed. Our condolences go to his wife, Nancy, and his friends and colleagues at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University.

 

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Dr. Phil – or how I stopped worrying about economists and embraced neoliberalism.

mirowski_397x267At the latest History of Economics Society Meeting, I, with a number of friends and colleagues (co-bloggers Béatrice Cherrier, Till Duppe and Floris Heukelom), participated in a roundtable devoted to “the practical challenges of writing recent history”, organized and chaired by E. Roy Weintraub. On this occasion, we all gave speeches – mostly drawn from personal experiences – that addressed how writing the history of recent economics is different from doing the history of older economics and the kind of practical issues it required us to consider. Most of our talks addressed at some point or another the relation to current economics: on the one hand, writing the history of recent economics resonates with current research in the field, but on the other hand, economists can disagree – sometimes in print – with the kind of accounts that historians construct about them. So, in sum, writing on recent economics can help you being noticed by economists, but sometimes there is attention you may just want to avoid. Then, at the end of what was an interesting, if somewhat polite, discussion, Philip Mirowski intervened, saying that our talks were, in his opinion, too focused on our relation with economists, that we have no reason to fear them, that they have no interest in history whatsoever, whereas, at the same time, science studies scholars are mostly concerned with economics as a subject, because they feel that the prevalence of economic imperatives on the academia is a threat to the humanities departments in which they are located.

My feeling is that, even though Phil expressed his opinion in his own distinctively provocative way, he was right and that, on the other hand, by focusing too much on the relation between history of economics and economics, we may not be fully wrong, buJHETt still, at the very least, mistaken. For at least one part of the argument is true: economists, on the whole, are not interested in the history of their field and are not likely to be interested in it anytime soon. A bibliographic research I have undertaken over the past few years with my friend and fellow Pedro Duarte – forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought -, focusing on the historical pieces published in major economics journal, led us to reach quite clear conclusions:

The trends we observe … seem to illustrate … [the] increasing estrangement between economists, when writing to the profession at large in their general top journals, and HET. Not only have we shown that, in contrast to the 1970s, fewer HET papers have been published recently in most of the top journals we studied, but we also demonstrated that the papers that have been published are so diverse in the methods they use and the issues they address that it is very hard to see them as a coherent whole—not to mention as part of a unified subfield. In particular, the fact that most of these articles rely not on specific tools and methodologies, but, rather, on surveys and quite general statements may have contributed to the conflation of historical investigations and literature surveys. Therefore, practicing economists themselves have become the main narrators of their past, whereas historians are less and less seen as the expert community to be properly consulted when accounts of past economics are needed. … As a result, the issues that are central to the latest developments of the history of economics … and the new tools that historians are using to address them … have yet to make their way into the mainstream literature.

51l-3HtHuvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the other hand, sociologists, historians, political scientists, and even management scholars are increasingly drawn to the history of recent economics. They do so because they feel that economics is an important part of today’s social, political and cultural environment and they want to understand it. Of course, there’s nothing new about this. Another friend and colleague of mine, Loïc Charles, has done work on 18th century economics with practicing historians, showing how economic thinking was intertwined with a lot of things happening at the time: international trade (including, most notoriously, slave trade), the colonization of the Americas, the French revolution, etc. But what is specific to the recent – postwar – period, is that economic thinking is not just mixed with other types of knowledge and practices, but increasingly,  is THE knowledge which is used as a way to ground, to legitimize all knowledge and practices. This recent move toward the economization of every aspect of our society is what researchers have come to designate as “neoliberalism”, and this is the one of the main concepts that makes the study of postwar economics a possibly interdisciplinary venture, one that has a lot of chance to attract readers and create scholarship.

For years, I have resisted this “neoliberal” narrative. I thought that neoliberalism was a complotist construction, that it was hard to pretend that a small group of Austrian economists, even helped by some well-organized think tanks, could influence society at large so as to create a culture so ubiquitous that we are all influenced by it, whether we like it or not. But now the literature on neoliberalism has attained a critical mass, and I must say that, altogether, it provides a good analysis grid of what’s happening in the world, even though we think that there is much to criticize in all of these contributions. There’s of course, Foucault’s 1979 course at the College de France, which falls short of details, but sets up the big picture, but in recent years, many other books have helped developed the neoclassical narrative: Wendy Brown’s philosophical account of how neoliberalism is detrimental to democracy, Bernard Harcourt’s assertion that neoliberalism is transforming all citizens into punishable subjects, Sonia Amadae’s claim that the neoliberal citizen and consumer is the strategic rational actor, described in non-cooperative game theory, Elizabeth Popp Berman depiction of the economization of academic science, etc. And of course there are all of Phil Miroswki’s contributions to the subject: see here, there, and everywhere.*

CSISo, is it convincing? Well, let’s take for instance Béatrice’s latest post. She talks about Paul Romer being appointed as chief economist of the World Bank. First, why should we be concerned about this? Why is it so special that there is a new chief economist whereas we do not seem to have much to say about Dr. Jim Yong Kim, who is an American (Korean-born) physician, and is the actual President of this institution? Well, maybe, it is because we feel that economic knowledge is going to be more important than medical knowledge when it comes to decide how countries need to be helped financially. That is something that the neoliberal narratives tries to explain. And what was Romer doing before he got this new position? I quote Béatrice, here: “Romer left academia to engineer a teaching and grading plateform called Aplia.” Some neoliberalism scholars have argued that this kind of platforms offer instances of the neoliberal transformation of education. And what about Béatrice’s last point on how “the replacement of McNamara and Chenery by Alden
Clausen and Anne Krueger in 1982 shifted the Bank’s philosophy toward a ‘Washington Consensus‘ consistent with Reagan’s program”? That is also the subject of many contributions to the history of neoliberalism. In fact, we now have a neoliberal narrative for everything: even TV series are subjected to it.

So, should we embrace all of it? Of course, not necessarily. These accounts are often partial and in need of qualification. Also, I am not claiming that every history about modern economics is underwritten by this neoliberal narrative. There are many other narratives to draw. But this is one strong reading of the current situation, and as such it needs to be addressed. This is also a fascinating laboratory for possible discussions between historians and sociologists of all social sciences, as well as with cultural theorists and political scientists. This is why I expect that when Pedro, Joel Isaac, Verena Halsmayer and I do the next HISRECO conference in Lucerne on April, 21-22 2017 (call for papers coming soon!!), the term “neoliberal” is going to pop up once again on several occasions.

*Not to mention the fact that even notorious neoliberal institutions have ended up acknowledging themselves.

@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.

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.

Inside Economics

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job forces us to fundamentally rethink the connections between economics and policy making. This entangled relation runs along a number of dimension. First there is the performativity of economics: in which ways do economic theories shape the ideas of policy makers and hence the policies they enact (i.e. the Donald MacKenzie story)? Are economists and their rational market hypothesis, CAPM models and what have you responsible for the deregulation that led to the recent financial turmoil? If so, how should economics and its relation to policy making be reorganized institutionally? Second, is it at all possible to be politically and ideologically value-free as an economist? If so, how do we distinguish a value-free economist or economic theory from value-laden ones? If not, should economists always state their ideological points of view in the first disclaimer-footnote of their papers? Are there other ways to sufficiently disentangle ideology from science? Third, should economists be allowed to be paid by the private sector for their academic work? Do we need an economic code of ethics or some other kind of formal arrangement to distinguish more clearly between academic credibility and financial gain?


Luckily, we economists need not figure this out all by ourselves. In fact, the last few years have seen a surge of books discussing the role of science in the contemporary for-profit world. Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U (2009) tells the story of the middle ranked university that aspires to become an elite university in an age of auditing and ranking in which universities are run by business men in business suits.  Yet, although the undertone is clearly critical, Wannabe U first of all is a careful and engaging ethnographic reconstruction of the archetypical Western university that had to transform itself in the 1990s from a public institution to a private enterprise. Moreover, it reads like a novel. 

The different contributions to Harold Kincaid, John Dupré and Alison Wylie’s Value-Free Science? (2007) discuss the topic from a philosophical and theoretical point of view. The basic message is that the old fact-value distinction cannot be maintained. To some extent, that is an almost trivial point. The more important argument, therefore, is that although at some level we all know that the fact-value distinction cannot be maintained, we constantly act as if it does. That, the authors argue, is a fault of contemporary society that needs to be cured. Scientists should make clear how facts and values mingle in their work, politicians should not be allowed to rely on “objective facts,” and moral convictions should never be argued to be based on values alone. Yet, convincing as the book is, it is somewhat unfortunate that the authors do not translate their calls for action into concrete measures.     

Theodore Brown’s Imperfect Oracle (2009) is the book of a distinguished chemist, successful university administrator, and well-informed reader of sociology and philosophy who towards the end of a long career reflects on the waning authority of science. The key premise is that with all the problems the world currently faces, there is so much science could offer. Yet public opinion accepts less and less of science and scientists. Thus, the central question Brown addresses is how to restore the authority of science. This book should perhaps be read not so much as a deep or new account of the place of science in contemporary society, but rather as a well-written intellectual autobiography of one of those scientists who ruled the universities in the post war decades.  

In contrast to these three general accounts, the different contributions to Hans Radder’s The Commodification of Academic Research (2010) seek to investigate the topic from the bottom up. The book provides detailed accounts of the politics and economics of patents on academic research, the management of data , and the different sources and consequences of financial interests in academic research. Sometimes, the authors force themselves somewhat unnecessarily to infer more general claims about science, private enterprise, or autonomy. But the chapters offer enough in simply describing the different elements of corporate science.  

To save the economic discipline it would certainly help when all economists would read Kincaid’s Value-Free Science?. But before answering the bigger questions of whether economics should have a code of ethics, and how universities and research should be funded and organized, we would perhaps do good to first understand the system itself. What would most help the discussion now are detailed sociological, economic and historical accounts of how the economic discipline, economic departments, and economists function and have functioned. Both in the bygone days of the public university and authoritative science, and in the contemporary era of auditing, ranking, financial interests and business suits. Much like Tuchman’s Wannabe U or Radder’s Commodification perhaps. By chance, that happens to be what I’m doing and I’m willing to offer my expertise. Who gives me grant? I’m (still) quite cheap.