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.