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. 

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.

A few reads on (and for) Paul Romer, next World Bank chief economist

A few years ago, the World Bank sounded Paul Romer to fill its chief economist position, and he was not interested. It seems that, after several lives as academic, entrepreneur and urban thinker, he is now ready to become a “global intellectual leader.”

Capture d’écran 2016-07-24 à 19.10.22As a growth economist, Romer has earned fame by making the production of knowledge endogenous. This story has been masterfully narrated by David Warsh, though commentators disagree on what exactly made Romer’s 1990 paper a tour de force. For Warsh, it was that solving the 200 year-old Adam Smith paradox. The Scottish economist had emphasized both the importance of specialization and associated increasing returns to scale (the Pin Factory) and the importance of competition to produce wealth (the Invisible Hand). Yet, increasing returns to scale act toward concentration and the gradual suppression of competition. Romer’s contribution was not merely solving the puzzle, Warsh argues, but doing so formally. The notion that knowledge was not a standard private good and could yield increasing returns to scale had been around since Arrow, Johnson or Griliches at least. But models with increasing returns were technically difficult to solve, and, Warsh points out, the internal dynamics of the discipline requires that new intuitions be formally incorporated into economic models. Romer’s idea was to model knowledge as non-rival and non-excludable. Yet, according to Joshua Gans, Romer’s pathbreaking advance wasn’t so much how he put knowledge in the production function, but rather how he closed the model with a market for intellectual property derived through demand for new goods, and markets for skilled and unskilled labor.

Romer then left academia to engineer a teaching and grading plateform called Aplia. Around 2008, he thought more deeply about ways to foster development and came up with the idea to set up charter cities : wherever existing institutions and vested interests prevented the development of economic activities, he argued, new cities should be erected on land leased to foreign powers. The governance, institutions and sets of rules of those cities are thus imported.  As Sebastian Mallaby explains, his idea stem from the study of Hong-Kong and was unsuccessfully applied to Madagascar. Charter cities were met with considerable resistance in intellectual circles (see his debate with Chris Blattman or Mallaby’s characterization of the idea as “neo-medieval and neo-colonial”), but this did not deter Romer from setting up an urban institute at NYU. Last year, frustrated that economic scholarship on growth had not converged toward a consensus, he called his former PhD advisor Robert Lucas out for using mathematics to smuggle ideological assumption in his analysis (a sin he called ‘mathiness’).


Lauchlin Currie, Paul Romer


Le Corbusier’s plan for Bogota

In the post explaining his new career move, Romer writes about his attempts to build “a new academic field of inquiry based on ‘the city as a unit of analysis’” at NYU. In an interesting twist, he is joining an institution whose history shows that bringing together development and urban scholarship is nothing new.  Back in the 1940s, neither promoting growth nor managing cities were understood in terms of non-rival goods, scales, spillovers, etc. Yet both lines of thought laid at the heart of economists’ original reflection on the Bank’s strategy, as shown by the extensive research Michele Alacevich has conducted on the early years of the World Bank. In 1949, lacking the data to define a loan policy, the Bank sent Lauchlin Currie, former economic advisor to Roosevelt, to Colombia. Currie wanted a development plan that would stimulate the latent potential of specific sectors while simultaneously achieving social aims. This, he believed, could be achieved by supporting the labor-intensive housing sector in the sprawling city of Bogota. Developing a capital city district and reorganizing basic public services such as water and electricity delivery therefore laid at the heart of the Plan para Bogota he framed with Enrique Penalosa. In an attempt to gather data and expertise, Currie soon found himself working in close association with architects José Luis Sert and Paul Wiener. The latter had produced a distinct urban plan, blending Sert’s ‘organic city’ approach with the functional guidelines previously defined by Le Corbusier. The collaboration was abruptly interrupted by a coup, but at the Bank, the idea that investing in urban planning and in particular housing would foster economic and social development stuck around.




Le Corbusier, Sert and Weiner in Bogota (1950)


In these early years, though, being a bank lending money to individual profitable projects and being a development institution seemed irreconcilable. In the fight over the accurate way to define creditworthiness – through debt service ratio or through the ability to productively use loans to boost growth in the long term, a perspective favored by economist Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, Wall Street-trained top managers sided with the Loan Department. The project of giving social loans to improve housing conditions and city infrastructures was rejected, and the Economic Department was disbanded in 1952. A few economic advisors to the president remained, but the position had no operational responsibility and was staffed with figures who left little imprint, such as Irving Friedman. For more than a decade, Alacevich relates, the World Bank was thus estranged from development economics, which was developed in a few university bodies such as MIT’s Center for International Studies. Another hothouse for development ideas was the central and regional offices associated with the United Nations, where the likes of Gunnar Myrdal in Europe, or Raul Prebish is South America, forged theories centered on capital, investment, big push and path dependency (with a concern for institutions, learning-by-doing, already).


Robert MacNamara and Hollis Chenery


The Bank’s isolation ended in the mid-1960s. Faced with a stream of criticisms on the Bank’s results, newly-appointed president George Woods stated that “Gene Black [the previous president] is afraid of economists. I am not.” He reopened the Economic Department with the hope of turning the Bank into a “development agency” and of funding wider social projects. Woods’ reorientation was met with resistance, but by 1969 the department was staffed with 120 researchers and had launched projects involving, notably, Albert Hirschman. His vision was fulfilled by his successor, Robert McNamara, who dramatically increased the number and variety of loans. A cornerstone of McNamara’s  overhaul was the recrutment of development economist Hollis Chenery as advisor. Chenery adopted a long-term strategy based on the reduction of poverty, strengthened longstanding ties with the International Labor Organization and borrowed the basic needs approach from Paul Streeten’s group. Essential to McNamara’s reorientation, Alacevich notes, was also the establishment of an Urban Development Department and an Urban Poverty task group, again focused on housing. Within academia, some urban economists were also concerned with the tied between cities and development.

Capture d’écran 2016-07-24 à 19.43.07.png


As documented by Sarah Babb, the strategy of development banks has often been aligned with the US government’s ideology. Therefore, 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. But Chenery’s long and influential term had created some intellectual and institutional space for economists at the Bank. It  stabilized the reliance upon economic and urban approaches to development, though it is not clear to me how much cross-fertilization between the two programs there was in the 70s. It was eventually two World-Bank researchers that Romer recruited in the 2000s to build his Marron Institute of Urban Management, and Alain Bertaud and Schlomo Angel‘s résumés illustrate how differently economics and urban planning insights are waved together by economists and urbanists.  Though Bertaud explicitly intends to bridge “the gap between urban economics and operational urban planning,” both researchers were trained as architects and define themselves as urban planners. The effects of Romer’s leadership on the Bank’s strategy and on the fields of development, urban economics, and urban planning will thus be interesting to see.

@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.

A virtual summer camp for historians with deadlines

The blog History of Economics Playground began in November 2007.  We were brought together as the youth of the history of economics. In a field that honors the discrete and collected elder, we wanted to brave new ground. We wanted to be serious about being playful. For 4 years, we debated, gossiped and expressed our feelings about life in scholarship. In 2011, we left the playground and went blogging @INET.

billwattersonNine years after, we’re hopefully still good-looking and enthusiastic, yet also swamped with deadlines. Some of us are writing habilitation theses, others are finishing a book,  revising some articles, preparing talks and lectures or applying for grants. This summer, we will be reading the same books and papers, and our topics will often intersect. We will research various protagonists embedded in similar contexts, yet we will disagree a good deal about what shaped economics as we know it today. We are therefore reopening our old playground for a couple of months, turning it into a summer bootcamp for historians with deadlines.

Pooling together for 2016 summer camp are Ivan BoldyrevBeatrice CherrierYann Giraud and Tiago Mata. Others will meet us by the beach at some point. If you’re interested in joining, just send an email to any of us.

Time to get a tan.