The Future of the Past

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A major North American hub of serious research in economics, as consequential in one way as is the National Bureau of Economic Research is in another, is the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. Attending a conference there last week, “Becoming Applied: the transformation of economics since 1970,” I had a chance to think a little bit about how the history of economics is written.

Duke, founded as Brown’s Schoolhouse, by Methodists and Quakers, in 1838, became Trinity College in 1859 and was relaunched by 1924 thanks to an enormous gift from tobacco baron James Buchanan Duke.  The university renamed itself for the family, and, for one reason or another, Duke gradually surpassed other major privately-funded universities (Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, and Washington universities) to rank as a powerhouse with Berkeley, Michigan, Chicago, Stanford and the Ivies.

The Center, meanwhile, has grown up around History of Political Economy, a journal founded in 1969 by Duke professor Craufurd Goodwin (never mind the unexpected spelling; look in any Edinburgh directory, he says; and you would find dozens more the same).  There are important programs in the history of economics: the London School of Economics, and the University of Rotterdam.

But Duke has a seemingly insuperable advantage in the matter of its Economists’ Papers Project, an archive in the David Rubinstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library that includes the papers of Kenneth Arrow, Leonid Hurwicz, Robert Lucas, Franco Modigliani, Douglass North, Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow, Vernon Smith, and Friedrich Hayek (on microfilm), among others.  Research fellows regularly spend years at the Center; graduate students flock to a summer institute. And four times a year HoPE arrives in mailboxes with several high-end articles and a handful of book reviews.

The jewel in the crown is HoPE’s annual research conference. Plans for each meeting eventuate percolate over three years; papers presented take two more to be published by Duke University Press.  Becoming Applied won’t appear until 2018.  Other recent conference volumes include Market Failure in Context, edited by Alain Marciano and Steven Medema; MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, by E. Roy Weintraub; The Economist as Public Intellectual, by Tiago Mata and Steven Medema; Observing the Economy: Historical Perspectives, by Haaro Maas and Mary Morgan; and Economics and Psychology (forthcoming), by Neil De Marchi and Marina Bianchi. Scheduled for next year’s conference is Development Economics, by Mauro Boianovsky and Michel Alacevich.

When HoPE marked its fortieth anniversary, with the 2009 conference, The Uses of Economics, Past and Future, it celebrated Goodwin’s career as well.  Why make much out of forty years? Editor Kevin Hoover, a Duke professor, replied, “Because forty years is a working life,” long enough to have built an institution. Born in Montreal in 1934, Goodwin grew up as the son of a banker father and a mother who became the first women to be licensed to practice law in the Canadian Maritimes. He took his first degree at McGill University.

Goodwin arrived at Duke as a doctoral student in 1955, there because of Joseph Spengler, one of the leading historians of economics of his generation.  He completed his studies in 1958 and married Nancy Sanders, the daughter of a Duke English professor. Goodwin was the first faculty member appointed in economics at Toronto’s York University, then a start-up, and returned to Duke in 1962 as an assistant professor. His father-in-law, a noted Carlyle scholar, had been perhaps the first American writer to discuss seriously and collect the work of members of Britain’s Bloomsbury group of writers, artists, and intellectuals. As a hobby, the son-in-law immersed himself in the same: after all, John Maynard Keynes was second only to Virginia Woolf as an enduring and luminous member of the group.   Past eighty, Goodwin continues to teach and write: a masters course on the Bloomsbury Group; a substantial biography of Walter Lippmann; an essay on ecologist Aldo Leopold; another, on New Deal trust-buster Thurman Arnold, is in the works.

For that fortieth anniversary volume, Goodwin produced a beguiling survey of the fragmented and diverse market for works in the history of economic thought. There were, he said, at least a dozen motives for becoming involved as a producer or consumer. There was history of economics for the people, he noted, often in various television series; for the undergraduate; for serious scholars in other disciplines; and for graduate students in economics and its various sub-disciplines.  There was the occasional “view from Olympus;” the guide to policy and the world of affairs; the refuge from technique and ideology; the haven for heresy; the caterer to cults of personality; the fount of contingencies and counterfactuals; and, finally, the community of a dwindling corps of kindred scholars and teachers.  Historians of economics in the present day were writing mainly for themselves, he observed. “Any scholarly field requires a critical, inward-looking component of this kind. But of existing alone, it is probably not self-sustaining.”  Historians had better learn to write for others if the field was to grow.

Not surprisingly, the community of historians of economics was greatly riven by the “science wars” of the 1990s – a battle over the grounds of belief that has entered a lengthy period of truce, if not of peace. Partly for that reason – and partly because of the thick-headed self-delight of present-day economics, jobs for historians of thought are scarce, even in business schools.  Matthias Klaes, of the University of Dundee, wrote earlier this year: “Certainly in the UK it is not generally possible anymore to pursue history of economics as a specialist based in an economics department.”

Roy Weintraub, of Duke University, agreed, at least for the United States. But he added that younger European historians of economics “are doing much better in this regard.  Ivan Boldyrev, Löic Charles, Beatrice Cherrier, Till Düppe, Jean-Baptiste Fleury, Yann Giraud, Catherine Herfeld, Floris Heukelon, Tiago Mata, Andrej Svorenčík, et al. have grown up with science studies and the history of economics intertwined.  And economists seem to like what they are doing too.”

Evolution produced only one Craufurd Goodwin.  Here is how Hoover described him on the occasion of that fortieth anniversary.

For more than thirty years, the Goodwins have resided at Montrose near Hillsborough, formerly the estate of William Alexander Graham, the nineteenth century governor of North Carolina. Under Nancy Goodwin’s stewardship Montrose has become a world-famous garden. Professor Goodwin is a dedicated collector of art and antiques and on antique coverlets. In the Bloomsbury tradition of combining art and handcraft, Professor Goodwin is as much at home mowing with a tractor as he is at explaining Adam Smith or analyzing Virginia Woolf.

Goodwin; Hoover, the present editor of HoPE; and Bruce Caldwell, director of the Center, will be difficult to replace. But the task is not impossible.  Here’s hoping that the whole university understands the importance of the calling.

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Meanwhile, few outside of university economics will care, but the surprising news in Durham was that economics editor Scott Parris had retired from Oxford University Press, after a long and distinguished career, most of it spent at Cambridge University Press. Only a month before, Michael Aronson had ended a similarly illustrious run at Harvard University Press, and, a month or two before that, John Covell, at MIT Press.

In combination with the untimely deaths last year of Terry Vaughan, who had built MIT into one of the strongest publishers of economics books before winding up at Oxford, and Jack Repcheck, who played a similar role at Princeton before moving to Norton, the retirements leave scholarly economics publishing in the hands of a much younger generation.

They include Seth Ditchik at Princeton, Joe Jackson at the University of Chicago Press, Jane McDonald and Emily Taber at MIT, and Margot Beth Fleming at Stanford University Press. The tension between money and excellence will continue!