“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.

Visualization @ ESHET 2010 (March 25-28, 2010)

Hans Hoffman, The Gate, 1959-60

I am interrupting the sleep mode of the playground to publish a selfish and self-centered call for papers. For the 14th conference of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought in Amsterdam, I am submitting a session on the use of visual representation in economics, with the following blurb:

The last two decades have witnessed a growing literature on visualization in the history of science following the publication of Lynch and Woolgar’s Representation in Scientific Practice (1990) – see for instance a recent focus section in Isis (March 2006). Despite previous attempts to draw the attention of historians of economics and insightful published papers on the subject – e.g. a ECHE conference in 2002 and a related mini-symposium in JHET in 2003), the use of visual representation in economics remains largely misunderstood. Graphical methods, for instance, are still regarded as a mere subdivision of mathematical analysis, whereas Klein (1995), Cook (2005) and Giraud (2007) have demonstrated that they have been considered distinct from mathematics since the early days of neoclassical economics. More generally, though anyone would concede that graphs, charts, tables, pictures and illustrations are part of the economist’s workaday tools, few efforts have been engaged to understand precisely how they operate within the larger models and theoretical frameworks in which they are used. Failure to recognize the role of visualization in economics is related to the fact that historians of the field tend to focus on the development of theory rather than on the practices in which theorization is entrenched, favoring a foundational approach which undermines cultural specificities. The most recent contributions to the history of science, indeed, have pointed out that the role of visualization in science is best understood within the framework of visual culture – see for instance Luc Pauwels (ed.), Visual Cultures of Science (2006).In this session, we would like to follow this literature by bringing together a set of papers which explore the use of visual representation in connection with peculiar cultures, whether disciplinary or operating at a larger level – the birth of mass-media in the US, for instance. Contributions will focus on the invention of visual devices in relation with specific practices, on the interaction between economists and artists or on how certain visual methods are affected when audiences are different from those they were originally intended for. They need not be focused on theoretical economics but also on the use of visual representation by economic propagandists, state administrations or practitioners operating on markets

I already have two papers for the session, including one by Loic and myself on the visual display of economic information in the US during the interwar period (we draw on the FSA pictorial project and on Otto Neurath‘s Isotype method). I would be happy to include one or two other papers. These may not be strictly papers on the history of economics but also papers on the history of management or general history articles which cover economic themes (for instance, economic history, history of measurement and the larger history of social sciences). Beyond the ESHET conference, this session may help launch the discussion on this neglected aspect of scientific practice and to help increase multidisciplinary work on the subject in the near future. If you have an abstract to submit, you can do this directly to me (yann.giraud[at]u-cergy.fr, replace [at] with @), I will re-submit the session as a whole before the papers are individually submitted through the ESHET website. You can also contact me if you have already submitted a paper which you think may fit this session in particular.