Why economics needs economic history
This post was written by Kevin O’Rourke
The beauty of the internet is that sometimes you come across papers like this one that you might otherwise have missed (H/T Greg Mankiw). As you would expect, I agree with Temin that economic history has a fundamental role to play in economic education, and MIT is a great example. To repeat a point I have made on the blog before, several superstars who have emerged from that department have a historical sensibility that has made them much better economists. Obstfeld and Rogoff are best known for their path-breaking work in open economy macro, but both have written important books on economic history (Obstfeld with Taylor, and Rogoff with Reinhart), and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Obstfeld-Rogoff style open economy macro tends to be far more grounded in the real world than some closed economy equivalents. Paul Krugman regularly displays an interest in and knowledge of history, which he uses to good effect; don’t even get me started on Ron Findlay; and so on.
There are many reasons to think that we need more history on the economics curriculum, not less. The current economic and financial crisis has given rise to a vigorous debate about the state of economics, and the training which graduate and undergraduates economics students are receiving. Importantly, among those arguing most strongly for a change in the way that young economists are trained are the ultimate employers of these students, in both the private and the public sector. Employers are increasingly complaining that young economists don’t understand how the financial system actually works, and are ill-prepared to think about appropriate policies at a time of crisis.
Strikingly, many employers and policy makers are also arguing that knowledge of economic history might be particularly useful. For example, Stephen King, Group Chief Economist at HSBC, argues that “Too few economists newly arriving in the financial world have any real knowledge of events that, while sometimes in the distant past, may have tremendous relevance for current affairs…The global financial crisis can be more easily interpreted and understood by someone who has prior knowledge about the 1929 crash, the Great Depression and, for that matter, the 1907 crash” (Coyle 2012, p. 22). Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, has written that “financial history should have caused us to take credit cycles seriously,” and that the disappearance of subfields such as economic and financial history, as well as money, banking and finance, from the core curriculum contributed to the neglect of such factors among policy makers, a mistake that “now needs to be corrected” (Coyle 2012, pp. 135-6). In a recent Humanitas Lecture in Oxford, Stan Fischer (another MIT graduate) said that “I think I’ve learned as much from studying the history of central banking as I have from knowing the theory of central banking and I advise all of you who want to be central bankers to read the history books” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y-ZhFbw2H4, 43.48 minutes in).
Knowledge of economic and financial history is crucial in thinking about the economy in several ways. Most obviously, it forces students to recognize that major discontinuities in economic performance and economic policy regimes have occurred many times in the past, and may therefore occur again in the future. These discontinuities have often coincided with economic and financial crises, which therefore cannot be assumed away as theoretically impossible. A historical training would immunize students from the complacency that characterized the “Great Moderation”. Zoom out, and that swan may not seem so black after all.
A second, related point is that economic history teaches students the importance of context. As Robert Solow (yes, that department again, although a Harvard PhD) points out, “the proper choice of a model depends on the institutional context” (Solow 1985, p. 329), and this is also true of the proper choice of policies. Furthermore, the “right” institution may itself depend on context. History is replete with examples of institutions which developed to solve the problems of one era, but which later became problems in their own right.
Third, economic history is an unapologetically empirical field. Doing economic history forces students to add to the technical rigor of their programs an extra dimension of rigor: asking whether their explanations for historical events actually fit the facts or not. Which emphatically does not mean cherry-picking selected facts that fit your thesis and ignoring all the ones that don’t: the world is a complicated place, and economists should be trained to recognise this. An exposure to economic history leads to an empirical frame of mind, and a willingness to admit that one’s particular theoretical framework may not always work in explaining the real world. These are essential mental habits for young economists wishing to apply their skills in the work environment, and, I would argue, in academia as well.
Fourth, even once the current economic and financial crisis has passed, the major long run challenges facing the world will still remain. Among these is the question of how to rescue billions of our fellow human beings from poverty that would seem intolerable to those of us living in the OECD. And yet such poverty has been the lot of the vast majority of mankind over the vast majority of history: what is surprising is not the fact that “they are so poor”, but the fact that “we are so rich”. In order to understand the latter puzzle, we have to turn to the historical record. What gave rise to modern economic growth is the question that prompted the birth of economic history in the first place, and it remains as relevant today as it was in the late nineteenth century. Apart from issues such as the rise of Asia and the relative decline of the West, other long run issues that would benefit from being framed in a long-term perspective include global warming, the future of globalization, and the question of how rapidly we can expect the technological frontier to advance in the decades ahead.
Fifth, economic theory itself has been emphasizing – for well over twenty years now – that path dependence is ubiquitous.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of an undergraduate economics instructor, economic history is a great way of convincing undergraduates that the theory they are learning in their micro and macro classes is useful in helping them make sense of the real world. Far from being seen as a “soft” alternative to theory, economic history should be seen as an essential pedagogical complement. From experience, I know that there is nothing as satisfying as seeing undergraduates realize that a little bit of simple theory can help them understand complicated real world phenomena. Think of Obstfeld and Taylor’s use of the Mundell-Fleming trilemma to frame students’ understanding of the history of international capital market integration over the last 150 years; or Ronald Rogowski’s use of Heckscher-Ohlin theory to discuss political cleavages the world around in the late nineteenth century. The Domar thesis that Temin refers to in his paper is a great way to talk to students about what drives diminishing returns to labour. Economic history is replete with such opportunities for instructors trying to motivate their students.
Coyle, D., ed. (2012), What’s the Use of Economics?: Teaching the Dismal Science After the Crisis, London Publishing Partnership.
Solow, R. (1985), “Economic History and Economics,” American Economic Review 75, 328-31.