Why economics needs economic history

Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke, 24 July 2013

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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 policymakers are also arguing that knowledge of economic history might be particularly useful.

  • 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).
  • 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 policymakers, a mistake that “now needs to be corrected” (Coyle 2012, pp).
  • In a recent Humanitas Lecture in Oxford, Stan Fischer 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” (2013).

The benefits of trying to understand economic history

  • Knowledge of economic and financial history is crucial in thinking about the economy in several ways.

Most obviously, it forces students to recognise 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 immunise students from the complacency that characterised 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 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, exclusively dedicated to understanding the real world.

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, one hopes, in academia as well.

  • Fourth, economic history is a rich source of informal theorising about the real world, which can help motivate more formal theoretical work later on (Wren-Lewis 2013).

Habakkuk (1962) and Abramowitz (1986) are two examples that immediately spring to mind, but there are many others.

  • Fifth, 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 globalisation, and the question of how rapidly we can expect the technological frontier to advance in the decades ahead.

  • Sixth, economic theory itself has been emphasising – for well over 20 years now – that path dependence is ubiquitous (David 1985).
  • 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. There is nothing as satisfying as seeing undergraduates realise 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; or the Domar thesis, referred to in Temin (2013), which 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.

References

Abramovitz, M (1986), “Catching Up, Forging Ahead, and Falling Behind,” Journal of Economic History 46, 385-406.

Coyle, D (2012), What’s the Use of Economics?: Teaching the Dismal Science After the Crisis, London Publishing Partnership.

David, P A (1985), "Clio and the Economics of QWERTY." The American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings) 75, 332-37.

Fischer, S (2013), video, quotation begins at 43.48, available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y-ZhFbw2H4.

Habakkuk, H J (1962), American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Press.

Solow, R (1985), “Economic History and Economics,” The American Economic Review 75, 328-31

Temin, P (2013), “The Rise and Fall of Economic History at MIT,” MIT Department of Economics Working Paper 13-11 (June).

Wren-Lewis, S (2013), “Economic History and Krugman’s Crib Sheet”.

Topics: Economic history
Tags: Eurozone crisis, global crisis

Chichele Professor of Economic History, All Souls College, University of Oxford; and Programme Director, CEPR