Bretton Woods, Past and Present: 2. Progress in Economics

Ok, time to deal with the elephant in the room: when is one theory better than the other? What is progress in economics?

Is it not repeating the mistakes of the 1930s? Is it a more refined equilibrium concept? Lower p-values and higher t-statistics? More predictive power? Or is progress in economics simply an intuitive hunch that the present theory is better than the previous one?

If economics were a game of a few high-minded professors, the matter would have little meaning for the rest of us. But economics does profoundly influence every corner of our lives. Thus, if there’s anything students should learn in their proverbial Economics 101, it is what defines progress in economics. Read more

@Academia and Public, Berlin: Students as model publics

The transatlantic conference has been moving targets: sociology went first, then economics, then history, today it was political science and international relations. While sociologists and economists had a muscular dialogue on the first day, quickly resolved over lunch with familiar scholarly ethic. The historians closed the day, soft spoken and monorcordic reading their speeches but dropping a bomb: the global public sphere is gone, and there is no longer a past, just an extended present with everyone obsessed with personal, ethnic, identitary history but no real curiosity beyond. So it was appropriate that political scientists try something else, and abandoning the public sphere altogether the discussion today has been about the crises of the University. Read more

@Academia and Public, Berlin: And then it was all about the history...

It's not everyday that one finds economists using history as not just the right way but the only way to answer a question. History is informative, at times entertaining, but not a device for knowledge. And then it all depends on the question. In Berlin, the conversation is how to make social sciences more relevant and active in the public sphere?

Read more

Bretton Woods, Past and Present: 1. Ethics in Economics

Our interviews in the halls of the Mount Washington Hotel, covered the range of opinion about the severity of conflicts of interest in economics: we are alright; economics is no more corrupted than other sciences; corruption is substantial; it is rotten to the core. Scholars who have working relationships, who read the same journals and newspapers, debate in seminars, chat in cocktail parties and testify to Congressional hearings, cannot agree on the status of their science. One explanation is that economists have never thought hard about conflicts of interest and the role that patrons play in knowledge production. There have been plenty of invitations to do so, but all have been rejected. Even economists writing on the economics of science, framing knowledge as an output of a production function, elide the question: if scientists are inputs, who is designing the product? Read more

A call to arms for Historians and Economists...

The Marshall Lectures often provide thought provoking talks and one talk in particular spoke to me looking at the relationship between history and economics: The speaker is a well known historian and he said exactly the right thing: Read more

Disaggregate, disaggregate!

Last June at a History of Social Science workshop , David Engerman presented a paper on the Harvard's Refugee Interview Project (1950-1954). He told the subtle story of a project which was set up by some sociologist and anthropologists with no specific soviet studies background, which was funded by Air Force officials whose academic background entrusted them with intellectual agenda different from the broader -and changing- concerns of their army. He did not only document the tensions between academic freedom and war needs for intelligence, but he also touched upon the consequences of very concrete hurdles (difficulty to interview Russian refugees in Germany because of clearance issues) and details the unintended offsprings of this failed project (the training of a set of graduate students who later became true sovietologists). Read more

Warren J. Samuels (1933-2011)

On this blog, we like to overstate quite a bit our irreverence towards the establishment and in particular our senior colleagues. Several posts have been written in which we have challenged the prevaling views and methodologies in HET and criticized the way young scholars are sometimes treated with some condescension by more established peers. Yet there is no denying that we are also the products of this establishment that we sometimes take to task. One instance of this relation is that most of the contributors of this blog - if not all of them - have received the Warren J. and Sylvia J. Samuels Young Scholars Award, which allowed us to participate in the HES meeting without having to pay for it - at a time where most of us were graduate or post-graduate students with only meagre stipends. Therefore, it is with great sadness that we have learnt of the death of Warren J. Samuels on August 17. Read more

The long - and tedious - road to rankings

To celebrate its 100 years of publishing, the AER published a special issues, whose retrospective part consisted of a list of the 20 most important articles, assembled by a committee which included Kenneth J. Arrow, B. Douglas Bernheim, Martin S. Feldstein, Daniel L. McFadden, James M. Poterba, and Robert M. Solow, and an essay on the history of the AER by Robert A. Margo. Read more

Of the difference between the historian and the filmmaker

Months ago, I got a message from a friend that was a swift and excited line: Errol Morris was writing a series of posts about science, even more remarkable about Thomas Kuhn. Morris is the director of two of the best documentaries I have seen: The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. The second is a masterpiece (textbook?) of documentary through oral history. Morris interviews Robert Strange McNamara, and in the latter's voice and memories alone, tells us the story of foreign policy from the Second World War to the 1970s. Morris is the most empathic and subtle of all documentarists. Read more

Economics and Politics

Economics and politics go hand in hand, we all know that. Just look at the recent fight over the debt ceiling in the U.S. At the same time, we teach our students economics as if it is a set of ideas that exists and may be rejected and improved without recourse to political ideas. Even Paul Krugman’s block buster textbook International Economics is completely devoid of any political references. Why is that?

The easy, right-wing answer may be some version of the story that left-wing economics is constructed as a-political to enhance its authority in the political arena. Such a story contains a grain of truth but is also both too simple and too narrow. Read more