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from the post-autistic economics review : issue no. 17, December 4, 2002


Economic History and the Rebirth of Respectable Characters
Stephen T. Ziliak   (Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, USA)


How long can irony and cynicism sustain the economics profession?  When will we see the rebirth of the Intellectual, the Social Activist, and the Teacher as respectable characters in the world of economics?    (Arjo Klamer, 1990)


I've been asked to name some contributions that economic history can make to the Post-Autistic Economics Movement.  The occasion made me think of the questions Arjo Klamer asked in The Making of an Economist (Westview Press, 1990: 185), his study with David Colander of graduate students at the universities of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Yale.


I thought of Klamer's question - - how long till the rebirth? - - because in America, the study of economic history was killed off with the Intellectual, the Social Activist, and the Teacher.  The timing was ironic.  I am not referring to the literal killings in Paris or Budapest or Mississippi (though the connection is worth exploring).


The irony is that when Harvard cut a full-year of history from the core of its graduate program in the 1960s (a fashion that was completed at most schools, including Chicago, by the mid-1970s), economic history was simultaneously and radically transforming.1  Historians at Harvard and Purdue were its prime movers.  It was a fantastic re-invention of the field, and brought - - as such things go in the human sciences - - a new methodology, a change of guard at the journals, and a large increase in output, prestige, and resources.  In 1993 two inventors of "the new economic history," Robert Fogel and Douglass North, were awarded the Nobel Prize.  Tragically, many economists could not say why.


Economic history, then, is in one story a victim and a failure.  As Deirdre McCloskey put it, the new economic historians had spent most of their energy explaining to departments of history the "wonderful usefulness" of economics.2  But they forgot to sell their wares to their own hiring and curriculum committees--in economics.  (McCloskey's article was published in 1976 in the Journal of Economic Literature.  She tried to stop George Stigler from taking history out of Chicago's curriculum.)  Economic historians continue to speak in the wonderfully useful language of statistics and constrained maximization.  But to the Samuelsonians of the Seventies who crafted the curriculum of micro-macro-and metrics while fetching money to mathematize economics, the numerate historians' talk of politics, religion, institutions, open fields, lacks of freedom, legacies of slavery, narrative voice, contested meanings, census manuscripts, personal diaries, and plantation account books was, to use a technical term from the sociology of science, "humanities crap."  A real economist was a Problem Solver, a calculus wonk.


Economic history, then, like foreign languages and the history of thought,  was killed when the Problem Solvers killed the Intellectual, the Activist, and the Teacher–“the respectable characters.”  It's difficult to imagine a re-valuation and legitimization of these social roles - - so central to a post-autistic economics - - without a simultaneous revival of historical inquiry. 


Now it's true that some people, loyal to the new Chicago School, have called the ahistorical Problem Solver, Robert Lucas, an intellectual.  If you begin with standard Samuelsonian assumptions, then yes, Lucas is.  If an intellectual is someone fastened to the belief that there is one way of doing "operational" economics "consistent with" real "science," if an intellectual (in published work) has read mainly in some corners of engineering mathematics and rational choice, free market economics, if an intellectual is a person who does not value social or cultural history as a mode of economic understanding, if an intellectual is someone unwilling to argue in his own seminar his privileging of a simple utilitarian social welfare function (for example, in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1994), then yes, Lucas is definitely an intellectual.  Similarly, under Samuelsonian assumptions, Robert Barro is a Teacher, George W. Bush is an Orator, and Gary Becker is a Social Activist (in Tantric healing).


In other words, one contribution of history to post-autistic economics is this: valuing economic history for the serious economics it is (while retaining what it is now perceived to be: serious history) will hasten to economics the return of the lost and wandering tribes of respectable characters.  (One example of the potential gain can be found in Nicholas Dawidoff's The Fly Swatter [New York: Random House, 2002].  It's an amazing and sad story of the great economic historian, Alexander Gerschenkron, who was twice forced to wander.)  A group of French students in the post-autistic movement have suggested a new curriculum, setting theirs against present-day Chicago (PAE Review 4, 29 Jan 2000).  They propose to put economic history back in to the core curriculum. 


Why should a post-autistic economist study history?  McCloskey's rubrics from 1976 provide some of the answers:

History has more facts.  When today's economists begin a paper on America's Welfare Reform Act of 1996 they of course introduce the subject historically.  But because they do not collect facts from history they get the facts wrong.  The Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP), which is meaningful to me for many reasons, and partly because my brother is a research affiliate with them, is unfortunately a good example.  The IRP believes that poverty and the collective strategies to eradicate it began with President Johnson's War on Poverty.  (To be fair, some will refer to the Great Depression.  But their data sets still begin in the 1960s.)  America has had poverty and public assistance since the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.3  In the late nineteenth century the largest cities abolished "public outdoor relief"--the tax-financed subsidies in cash and in kind.  Abolition was part of the charity organization movement, a British import that attempted to privatize, moralize, scientize, localize, and personalize poverty and charity.  It's an open secret that the 19th century experiment inspired today’s Republicans to abolish entitlements.  Data on the failed movement are voluminous and contain evidence relevant to the Act of 1996.4

History has better facts.  Economic historians - - for example, Simon Kuznets, Eli Heckscher, John R. Commons, Lance Davis, Stanley Engerman, Jeffrey Williamson, Susan Carter, Richard Sutch, Roger Ransom, William Sundstrom, Gavin Wright, Warren Whatley, Claudia Goldin, Robert Margo, Emily Mechner, Elyce Rotella, Lee Craig, Ann Carlos, Dora Costa, Fernand Braudel, Joel Mokyr, Yasukichi Yasuba, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Pierre Bourdieu, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Nancy Folbre, Kyle Kaufmann, Thomas Weiss, Sam Williamson, Jeremy Atack, Rick Steckel, John Murray, Joerg Baten, William Collins, George Selgin, Robert Higgs, Price Fishback, Shawn Kantor, Hugh Rockhoff, Peter Lindert, Avner Greif, Joan Hannon, Robert Humphreys, George Boyer, Mary MacKinnon, Timothy Hatton, Cormac O'Grada, Richard Easterlin, Gus Giebelhaus, Metin Cosgel, Mary Beth Combs, and Santhi Hejeebu - - collect their own facts.  You can see that it’s the industry standard.  Laboring in the archives yields an intimate knowledge of the scope and limitations of facts collected.  Downloading a *.gif file from does not.  In our second look at significance testing in the American Economic Review (this time we examined the 1990s) McCloskey and I found that among all the subfields of economics, the historians and labor economists pay most attention to the economic significance of their estimates.

History yields better theory.  What caused the Great Depression?  A Problem Solver in the mid-1990s put to paper one answer, and gave it to me: "a technology shock in a real business cycle model."  There is in truth little consensus.  But Milton Friedman, Anna J. Schwartz, John Kenneth Galbraith, Peter Temin, Charles P. Kindleberger, Barry Eichengreen, and many other historians have advanced the theoretical conversation by insisting their theory connect with actual world events.

History makes better policy.  The history of welfare is a case in point: "time limits" do not produce self-sufficient wages.  But then, most economic policy is a case in point.  "The competitive supply of professional services in the nineteenth century, it is said, grievously injured consumers, justifying official cartels of doctors and undertakers."  So midwifery and home birth have been virtually outlawed in the United States.  "If marijuana were legally and competitively supplied there would be a huge increase in demand for it."  Hey, I mean, look at that Robitussin go!  "The United States will not lift the embargo on Cuba," President Bush told a crowd in Miami in Spring 2002, "because that would make Castro rich and therefore more difficult to remove."  I just got here, you can almost hear him dreaming.  C’mon, America, give embargoes a chance.


The rhetoric of Problem Solving needs revising.  What is the point of emphasizing the size of the t-test, or formalizing the set of pooling equilibria, if history shows that you are solving the wrong problem?  A non-experimental science ought to look at real world experiments when nature coughs them up.  For example, economists  have much to learn about policy from East and West Germany by looking at them when they were together, then separate, then together again.  Likewise in South Africa and in Palestine.  The labor economists David Card and Alan Krueger were not the first to see `natural experiments' in the adoption of minimum wage legislation; the method is old and historically sound.  Still, the laboratory of history is strangely under-utilized by the Problem Solver.

History makes better economists.  Arjo Klamer and David Colander asked their sample of graduate students to name the "most respected economists" (p. 42).  At every school except Chicago, at least half the heroes listed (there are no women on the lists) did their significant work in historical economics: they are Smith, Marx, Veblen, Keynes, Hicks (part-time), Schumpeter, Myrdal, Polanyi, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Friedman.  And still others on the list, such as Boulding, Sen, and Stigler, were deeply historical in the way they conceived of economic problems.   Economic history is apparently a major field of inquiry for the world's most respected economists.

Economic history is their major field because history offers more facts, better facts, better theory, and better policy.  But the reasons for bringing history back in  exceed those that McCloskey raised against Stigler.  Since that time a small but growing band of economists and historians have allowed discourse, feminism, postmodernism, and classical rhetoric to affect their work.  Like feminist economics and economic methodology, the conversations of economic history are now more open and pluralistic.  (Easy does it, Clio: it's not like trade theory but we have a long way to go.)  History provides the alternative stories that give meaning to timeless models and “obvious” nulls.  History exposes the contested meanings of utility, labor, freedom, and justice.  History keeps us honest in our assumptions.  History connects teachers of economics to the concerns of the humanities.  History connects teachers to the concerns of minority and international students, and it connects students to the assumptions and the graphs.  For example, when I introduce undergraduate students to externalities with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1905), or to comparative advantage with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), or to labor economics with The Philadelphia Negro (1899), by W.E.B. Du Bois, it is no surprise that women and students of color become differently engaged.

How can we bring history back in?  First: realize that Chicago and Columbia do not set world prices for economic education.  But when others think they do, distortion–autistic economics--emerges.  In fact, in another story, economic history is not dead; it’s already back in.  Today’s core curriculum at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and Northwestern University requires from Ph.D. students a satisfactory grade in a course on economic history during the first or second year of study.  It’s not like Gerschenkron’s Harvard–a full-year of history--and it’s a lot of micro, macro, and metrics; but clearly, in many of America’s elite programs, economic history is still inside the core.  What can we do?  History stays out of the curriculum when the Problem Solvers say “that’s not what MIT does.”  Show the problem solvers that they are wrong.  Let it be known, moreover, that economic historians are the department chairs at Harvard (Jeffrey Williamson, 1997-2000), Stanford (Gavin Wright, currently, and for a second time), MIT (Peter Temin, 1994-1997), Northwestern (Joel Mokyr, 1999-2002), Arizona (Price Fishback, currently), and elsewhere. These Department Chairs are on your side.


Second.  I say we call out the Chicago-Columbia-Harvard-MIT-Stanford-and Yale Ph.D.s who as students had spoken honestly with Klamer and Colander and are now writing and teaching as junior or tenured professors.  It's time they speak up and say who they are. 


Of the 212 respondents to Klamer's and Colander's survey in the late 1980s, 98% said that a study of history was at least "moderately important" and 68% said that history was of highest importance (Klamer and Colander 1990, Table 2.1, p. 16).  Let me make a plausible out-of-sample observation.  Not long ago a knowledge of history was ranked by today's professors of economics as being of highest importance to the skills of a good economist, second in importance only to mathematics.  (Seventy-three percent [73%] said that mathematics was of highest importance [p. 16].)  If the respondents have changed their minds, if a knowledge of what Gerschenkron called "economic backwardness in historical perspective” is not useful, if a knowledge of the railroads, or the Poor Laws, or the Beveridge Plan, or the gold standard, or slavery, or Jim Crow, or the East India Company, or women's suffrage, or public education, or world war, or free immigration, or markets before central banking is, they believe, no longer important, they will of course agree to defend their change of mind at next year's ASSA meetings.  These are nameable professors who could help to rescue the young from the autism of the middle and to repopulate the world of economics with respectable characters.  These professors are acquiring the power to change the demand curve.  They can refuse to vote for the pseudo-mathematician, famous for formalizing nothing of consequence.  They can hire economists who care about the world and its many ways of knowing, and who show it in their teaching and their scholarship.  They can fill the pages of economics with the image they had of themselves when they were happy. 


But I am sorry to say with Nike that an important way to bring history back in lies solely within you--the obligation to just do it.  There is a simple proposition that clarifies my point.  If you are going to change the conversation, you have to change the conversation.  Inspired by the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, the African American writer and English professor, bell hooks, has made a similar point in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994).  On the second day of classes I discuss with my students her Chapter 10, "Building a Teaching Community," which is a dialogue with a white male philosopher on the history and style of power and knowledge in the classroom and how to change them.  Students find the dialogue to be inspiring (though sometimes unnerving) for claiming their own power, finding their own voice, in my classroom.  Students for a post-autistic economics could take "education as the practice of freedom" as a second motto, a kind of just-do-it.


Education as the practice of freedom means taking graduate courses in history and other historical sciences, such as philosophy, biology, anthropology, or communication studies, and then putting your questions to your teacher, your dissertation, and your seminar speaker.  It is simply not true what department chairs say, and repeat, with liturgical command, "that there is no time for those courses." Insisting to the young "that there is no time" is at best an example of blackboard economics (but the costs are of course higher than that).  Ask, What did Alex do? Your courage to forge your own path will inspire others to do the same.  Conventional teachers will be angered and embarrassed by their ignorance and by the fragility of their top-down and consumerist metaphors of power and knowledge.  Who cares.  Science is criticism.  They should learn to take it.  Your teacher of labor economics may bark you off the podium when you reveal to your classmates the private fantasies and the racist histories of black people and public assistance that you found in The Bell Curve.  Big deal.  How long should irony and cynicism rule the economics profession?

1.  I thank Deirdre McCloskey and Jeffrey G. Williamson for helping me to put the economic history requirement in historical perspective.  Errors are my own.
2.  Deirdre N. McCloskey, "Does the Past Have a Useful Economics?" Journal of Economic Literature (June 1976), 434-61.  Reprinted in R. Whaples and D.C. Betts, eds., Historical Perspectives on the American Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Chapter 1, p. 31.
3.  S.T. Ziliak and Joan Underhill Hannon, "Public Assistance: Colonial Times to the 1920s."  Forthcoming in S. Carter, et. al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to the Present (Cambridge University Press and U.S. Bureau of the Census).
4.  S.T. Ziliak: "The End of Welfare and the Contradiction of Compassion," The Independent Review (Spring 1996); "Some Tendencies of Social Welfare and the Problem of Interpretation," Cato Journal (Winter 2002); "Pauper Fiction in Economic Science: 'Paupers in Almshouses' and the Odd Fit of Oliver Twist," Review of Social Economy (June 2002).
Steve Ziliak teaches economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.  He is the editor of Measurement and Meaning in Economics: The Essential Deirdre McCloskey (Edward Elgar, 2001).  In 2002 he was voted "Faculty Member of the Year" by the Georgia Tech Student Government Association.

Stephen T. Ziliak, “Economic History and the Rebirth of Respectable Characters”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 17, December 4, 2002, article 1.