Monday, July 22, 2013

Peter Temin on the strange death of economic history

Peter Temin recounts in this paper the vanishing (apparently complete by 2010) of economic history from the MIT curriculum. History of thought has probably vanished even before, if it was taught at all. He says that:
"Economic history at MIT reached its peak in the 1970s with three teachers* of the subject to graduates and undergraduates alike. It declined until economic history vanished both from the faculty and the graduate program around 2010."
He notes that the most famous economic historian graduated from MIT was Christina Romer, which, it must be emphasized, in her famous paper on the Great Depression claims that fiscal policy (and to a great extent the New Deal) was not responsible for the recovery. For her it was the non-sterilized inflows of gold that increased the money supply [yep, the most important historian graduated at MIT is more of a Monetarist than a Keynesian; New Keynesians are peculiar that way; for more go here].

Ideologically this is the result of the same forces that led to Fukuyama's hubristic announcement of the death of history after the fall of real communism in Eastern Europe. And the New Economic History, that received two of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics (aka the Nobel, but not really) given to North and Fogel, is part of the problem, as Temin notes. He says:
"In terms of the class struggle ... the coalition of theory and econometrics left economic history out of power in the counsels of economics. Proponents of the New Economic History were using more and more econometrics in their work, but they were no match for theorists."
That is why Temin does not consider the work of Acemoglu, including his recent Why Nations Fail to be good economic history. In his words the book:
"is an example of Whig history in which good policies make for progress and bad policies preclude it. Only transitions from bad to good are considered in this colorful but still monotonic story. The clear implication is that if countries can copy the policies of English-speaking countries, they will prosper."
For my critique of the book go here. At any rate, economic history, as well as history of economic thought, should be at the center of the teaching of economics.

* Temin who was hired to replace W.W. Rostow, Evsey Domar and C. P. Kindleberger.


  1. Will it get better with The Economist ravaging Philip Mirowski's new book "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste" for his style over his content. [See comment here: ]
    I think it is understood that Mirowski likes long sentences with many clauses but not everyone is Ernest Hemmingway nor should everyone aspire to be. Without an appreciation for economic history, the history of economic thought, and if I may add, political philosophy, we will get a lot of re-inventing of the wheel from those who think they know it all but who should know better. If there is any discipline that should embrace cross pollination it is economics; instead we have what other disciplines (e.g. political science, sociology) see as imperialism by abstraction.

    1. Thanks Arijit, I had not seen the review of Mirowski's book.


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