Skip to main content

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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A few brief comments on Brexit and the postmortem of the European Union

Another end of the world is possible
There will be a lot of postmortems for the European Union (EU) after Brexit. Many will suggest that this was a victory against the neoliberal policies of the European Union. See, for example, the first three paragraphs of Paul Mason's column here. And it is true, large contingents of working class people, that have suffered with 'free-market' economics, voted for leaving the union. The union, rightly or wrongly, has been seen as undemocratic and responsible for the economics woes of Europe.

The problem is that while it is true that the EU leaders have been part of the problem and have pursued the neoliberal policies within the framework of the union, sometimes with treaties like the Fiscal Compact, it is far from clear that Brexit and the possible demise of the union, if the fever spreads to France, Germany and other countries with their populations demanding their own referenda, will lead to the abandonment of neoliberal policies. Aust…

What is the 'Classical Dichotomy'?

A brief note on Venezuela and the turn to the right in Latin America

So besides the coup in Brazil (which was all but confirmed by the last revelations, if you had any doubts), and the electoral victory of Macri in Argentina, the crisis in Venezuela is reaching a critical level, and it would not be surprising if the Maduro administration is recalled, even though right now the referendum is not scheduled yet.

The economy in Venezuela has collapsed (GDP has fallen by about 14% or so in the last two years), inflation has accelerated (to three digit levels; 450% or so according to the IMF), there are shortages of essential goods, recurrent energy blackouts, and all of these aggravated by persistent violence. Contrary to what the press suggests, these events are not new or specific to left of center governments. Similar events occurred in the late 1980s, in the infamous Caracazo, when the fall in oil prices caused an external crisis, inflation, and food shortages, which eventually, after the announcement of a neoliberal economic package that included the i…