“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.