Floris Heukelom

Assistant Professor of Economics, Radboud University Nijmegen

I'm a historian of economics. Check out my pulications at my university's website.

 

 

My Content

With the approval of the reform proposals by the Greek government, the Euozone has returned to calmer waters. But it is only a brief interlude. With renegotiations due in a few months, it is a matter of time before tensions resurface. The future of the Euro will hence continue to depend on one small country and its charismatic Minister of Finance. Who is this Yanis Varoufakis, and what does he want? Based on his academic publications, interviews and blogposts an interesting picture emerges.

The International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) recently published the Inclusive Wealth Report 2012, in which the authors propose a measure of wealth based on the stock of capital present in a country, as opposed to the flow measure of GDP. It is an important step towards a more explicit recognition of the sustainability of the economy’s use of resources, and is so obviously analogous to the standard assets-based way of accounting and estimating wealth in the corporate sector that one wonders why on earth it took so long to appear on the scene.

Last Friday, philosophers from the University of Leiden hosted the symposium ‘Between Science and History,’ in an attempt to figure out what the differences are between practicing scientists’ use of history and historians use of history. The organizers had conjured up the nice experiment of letting a scientist and a historian in one session give a talk on a famous historical figure – Einstein, Darwin, Christiaan Huygens. (Plus there were a few idiosyncratic talks, interesting in other respects, but let me leave those out here.)

Our usual problem in history (of economics) is a lack of information. Archival sources, if available at all, always present gaps of correspondence between people you just know should be there, and never contain that vital review report, or the minutes of that one crucial meeting. Moreover, if the people you write about are alive and willing to talk, it turns out they’re only human: they’ve forgotten the vast majority of their past, mix up events and people, mistake a recollection they once read for their own memory, or even willfully rewrite history. All too bad, although it gives us the possibility, perhaps even obligation, to speculate, interpret, and fill in. And then of course spend hours and hours discussing with one another whether we have done so correctly.

I don’t seem to be able to fully grasp Mark Blaug’s distinction between a relativist and an absolutist approach to the history of economics – first introduced in Economic Theory in Retrospect (1962) – and that is a source of much frustration. At first sight, the distinction seems obvious enough. Relativist historians emphasize the social, political, personal etc context in which economic ideas were developed; absolutist historians view history as a sequence of Great Economists building on and/or refuting each other’s theories. Obviously, most histories of economics use a bit of both.