"But with the slow menace of a glacier, depression came on," Frances Perkins lamented in 1934. "No one had any measure of its progress; no one had any plan for stopping it. Everyone tried to get out of its way." How did this thing happen and when will it end? Common questions back in the Dirty Thirties.
Today, journalists, historians, policymakers, and so many others are grasping for some handle on the current economic slump. What's the historical context of economic trouble? What went wrong? Could it have been avoided? "Some brilliant scholar has to write a comprehensive history of modern economics," says David Brooks in the NYT, "because the evolution of this field is clearly one of the most consequential things happening in the world today." Brooks' speculates: "One gets the sense, at least from the outside, that the intellectual energy is no longer with the economists who construct abstract and elaborate models. Instead, the field seems to be moving in a humanist direction."*
Others disagree. Over a month ago Diane Coyle penned an essay for the Chronicle on how "Economics Is on the Verge of a Golden Age." "An astonishing explosion of creativity and intellectual progress has been under way for years in a number of areas," observes Coyle. "Consider competition economics (should the Department of Justice challenge the Google Books settlement on antitrust grounds?), the application of game theory or the use of market design (what's the best system for matching newly qualified doctors or Ph.D.'s to jobs?), development economics, the economics of technological change and network markets (what prices should mobile-phone companies charge for access to one another's networks?), and the study of long-term growth."*
The latest issue of Historically Speaking (April 2010) features a forum on "The Neglected Field of Economic History?" Senior editor Donald Yerxa organized the forum with a generous grant from the Earhart Foundation. I paste below Yerxa's intro to the forum and short excerpts from each essay. (Read the full forum and other material from the new issue of HS at Project Muse.)
No graduate student in history in the 1970s could escape economic history. One of the major professional debates of that era—about the cliometrics of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross—went well beyond historiographical interpretation to encompass seemingly fundamental differences over the nature of historical methodology. But where does economic history stand now? In this our third in a series of four forums we asked several leading economic historians to assess the state of their field. Robert Whaples gets our conversation started with the forum’s lead essay. Philip Hoffman, Deirdre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, and Werner Troesken respond, followed by a rejoinder from Whaples.
"Is Economic History a Neglected Field of Study?"
In the fall of 2008 and early 2009 it looked to many weary and wary workers, investors, policy makers, and analysts as though the U.S. economy was about to fall off a cliff into an abyss as bottomless as the Great Depression. What on Earth was going on? Everyone wanted to know, and many turned to history—economic history—for answers. The press burgeoned with interviews and insights from economic historians who were called to Washington and New York to offer advice. Indeed, Christina Romer, an economic historian from University of California, Berkeley, whose pioneering early research examined historical trends in economic volatility and who has done influential research on the causes of the Great Depression and the recovery from it, was tapped by President Barack Obama to be chair of the Council of Economic Ad- visors. And Ben Bernanke, a former Princeton University economist and author of Essays on the Great Depression (2000), held—and still holds—the most powerful economic policy making position in the world as chair of the Federal Reserve.
In these turbulent times, it became obvious to almost everyone that understanding economic his- tory is useful, indeed essential, and economic historians are indispensible. And yet many economic historians have the sense that their discipline is a neglected field, a field on the margins, caught in a no man’s land between two disciplines: ignored and underappreciated by economists and misunderstood, feared, and perhaps even despised by historians. Most economic historians sense that the discipline has almost always been on the margins and that this marginalization has increased appreciably since the end of a brief golden age that glimmered during the 1960s and into the 1970s.
To understand this situation, I’ll begin—as economic historians almost always begin—by doing some counting. . . . read on>>>
"Response to Robert Whaples"
Philip T. Hoffman
To make the picture even more depressing, Whaples (being the good economic historian that he is) backs up his assertions with solid evidence. One could easily add to it. To judge by the titles of articles in mainstream history journals (the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Modern History, Past and Present), interest in economic history is vanishing.1 Dissertations in economic history in history departments are rare.2 And citations suggest that major works of economic history can pass unnoticed by the history profession even when they address issues that once fascinated many non-economic historians.3
My personal experience, if it is worth anything, suggests much the same. Older historians I know who were trained in the 1970s may not write economic history, but they do seem willing to pay attention to it. They also seem open to borrowing from the social sciences and to the possibility of generalization—in other words, to the notion that what they have unearthed in the archives is not necessarily a special case. . . . read on>>>
"One More Step: An Agreeable Reply to Whaples"
Deirdre N. McCloskey
I agree with every word of Robert Whaples’s elegant and well-grounded essay.1 Whaples doesn’t say things until he has the goods—and as he says, we people from the economic side tend to think of the goods as numbers. It’s very true, as he also says, that our numerical habits have repelled the history-historians, especially since they have in turn drifted further into non-quantitative studies of race, class, and gender (it is amusing that the young economic historian Whaples quotes gets the holy trinity slightly wrong, substituting “ethnicity,” a very old historical interest, for “class,” a reasonably new one; it is less amusing that historians believe they can adequately study race, class, and gender without ever using numbers, beyond pages 1, 2, 3).
But it’s also true, as is shown by the fierce and ignorant quotations he reports from other economists and economic historians, that quantitative social scientists don’t get the point of the humanities. “Whenever I read historians,” said a young economic historian to Whaples, “my response is: How can you say that without a number? Do you have a number?” Many social scientists, and especially those trained as economists, believe adamantly that, as Lord Kelvin put it in 1883, “when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science.” The young economists nowadays believe this so fervently that rather than deviating ever from their faith they insist on collecting sometimes quite meaningless numbers (such as what is known as “statistical significance,” or what they are pleased to call “calibrations” of a hypothetical model unbelievable on its face). . . . read on>>>
"On the Supposed Decline and Fall of Economic History"
Much like the West, the field of economic history has experienced endless lamentations of its imminent decline and fall. Whaples’s basic argument that economic historians as a group are disrespected by economists and feared and despised by historians is typical of this kind of premature eulogy. The Cliometric Revolution had all been so promising back in the 1970s, and now all we are good for is telling a few stories about past economic crises to entertain our fellow economists or supply them with a telling historical anecdote to decorate the first paragraph of some technical paper. How bad are things, really?
It has never been easy to be an economic historian. Much like Jews in their diaspora, they belong simultaneously in many places and nowhere at all. They are perennial minorities, often persecuted, exiled, accustomed to niche existences, surviving by their wits and by (usually) showing solidarity to one another. They must work harder, and know more. . . . read on>>>
"Toward a Richer, More Diverse Intellectual Marketplace? A Response to Whaples"
Mostly I agree with Robert Whaples. Economic history is a neglected field in both economics and history. I have only two concerns. First, Whaples quotes a historian who characterizes cliometrics as generating “trivial” and “unreliable” results. I spent nearly fifteen years in a history department producing work in cliometrics. While I often felt isolated, which is the reason I left, my experience was nothing at all like that implied by the quotation. With a few unimportant exceptions, I always felt that my colleagues in history respected my work. I realize that my experience might not be representative, but I want to offer that qualification up front. Second, I think Whaples overstates the degree to which economists reject historical evidence and the broader enterprise that cliometricians call economic history. Although economic history could be held in higher esteem by economists than it currently is, there is evidence to suggest that economic history still has its place in economics departments.
But, whatever my quibbles, Whaples raises an important question: What is it about the field of economic history that undermines its position among both economists and historians? What follows is a crude and preliminary attempt to answer this question. . . . read on>>>
"Is Economic History a Neglected Field of Study? Final Thoughts"
There is considerable good sense in the comments of my four colleagues. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that economic history is “ready for hospice care” and “doomed to extinction,” or to deliver a “eulogy.” Rather, my fundamental point, which all seem to agree on, is that, despite manifest evidence that economic historians continue to produce a high-quality product that more historians and economists should go out and read, the current amount of output in the economic history industry is below the social optimum. The demand is too low.
I don’t blame economic historians for this. Collectively, we are not as haughty as some of my quotes may suggest. And although we may not have all the breadth, polish, and ability to marshal evidence suggested by my commentators, economic historians are immensely practical. . . . read on>>>