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Posted in Contemporary economics, History of economics Tagged with: , , ,

The phrase “thought leader” is sometimes heard in economists’ conversations, a tag for someone whose work is especially influential, often within and between particular departments. It’s an elusive concept, popularized in a larger sphere by TED talks to the point of brutal parody. Yet I know a thought leader when I see one, at least in the fields that I cover. Among historians of economics, the thought leader of the last generation was Philip Mirowski.  The thought leader of the next is Beatrice Cherrier.

Mirowski burst upon the scene in 1989, with the publication of More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge), a deeply original and learned comparison of various conceptual tools in thermodynamics and neoclassical economics.  Thirteen years later came Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge, 2002), a similarly imaginative study of shared preoccupations of geopolitics and technical economics in the years during and after World War II. He is completing The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: A History of Information and Knowledge in Economics, with Edward Nik-Khah.

A native of Jackson, Michigan (Michican State University, 1973, Michigan, 1979),  Mirowski taught at Tufts University before being hired by the University of Notre Dame, where his penchant for scholarly insults has marooned him ever since. From a vantage point of nearly thirty years, it is clear that Mirowksi already had the program well in mind in his first book, Against Mechanism: Protecting Economics from Science (Rowman and Littlefield, 1988), a high-spirited attack in the spirit of Thorsten Veblen on “laws” of various sorts – of nature, behavior, thought, good manners, regularities of all sorts,.  Like Veblen, he is a brilliant original thinker.

Cherrier, of the University of Caen, has, on the other hand, only just begun her scholarly career. With Roger Backhouse, of the University of Birmingham, she organized a  conference volume on economics since the 1970s, Becoming Applied (Duke, 2017), and wrote the introductory essay for another, MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, (Dune, 2014). A thick file of other work contains many related papers in various stages of preparation, including a history of sunspot literature, a heretofore rearguard action against rational expectations that recently has come to the fore. Like Mirowski, Cherrier is fearless, undaunted by the difficulty of the material she studies.  Unlike Mirowski, she exhibits tough-minded curiosity instead of reflexive mistrust.

The real prize in Cherrier’s current work is the history of the John Bates Clark Medal she is writing, with Andrej Svorencik, of the University of Mannheim, a portion of which she presented at the History of Economics Society meeting at Duke University last spring. The Clark medal, named for the first major American major figure in the discipline, is awarded annually to the economist working in a US university under 40 “judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” The Clark medal was invented to identify and signal the presence of thought leaders.

The Clark medal, established in 1947 by the American Economic Association, WAS given only every other year, along with a second award, the Francis A Walker Medal, named for the AEA’s first president, and given every five years to celebrate lifetime achievement. The Walker program was suspended in 1977 after the new Nobel Prize in economic sciences was successfully established, but the Clark  proved so popular that after 2012 the AEA began to award one every year, in recognition of the rapid growth of the field since 1947.  Recently there has been talk of re-establishing the Walker award.

Already Cherrier, with access to AEA archives, has solved a key mystery of the early years of the Clark mal, the battle behind the scenes in 1953, the fourth year of the prize, when no medal was given. Abram Bergson, of Harvard University, had been the subcommittee’s choice, Cherrier found; the larger committee deadlocked over whether his formalization of the “new” welfare economics, with its faintly normative overtones, was legitimate economics or not. A deeper understanding of the currents and eddies of modern economic thought is in the offing.

The history of economics occupies a precarious position in university curricula: it receives less attention than in the past yet it has never seemed more important to those seeking to understand the place of economics among fields of human knowledge. Organizations have always written their own histories; in recent years universities, their schools, departments and their spin-offs, all have gotten into the act, usually compiling oral histories. Usually these amount to little more than public relations. Journalists may sometimes provide dispatches, but only professional historians can serve as independent auditors of the disciplines and their technologies. Much rests on getting a larger supply of these valuable citizens into universities, both historians of intellectual economics and the students of tastes and technology whom we call economic historians.

Mirowski and Cherrier show that gifted historians can come from anywhere. Cherrier is a native of Corsica; she did her graduate work at the University of Paris, Sorbonne and Nanterre.  Where they are spending their careers is a different matter. Mirowski, no longer prepares graduate students at Notre Dame; the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values he directs was spun out of the economics department. Much will be lost if Charrier remains at Caen, in northwestern France.

To this point much of the responsibility for history of economics since the legendary Harvard University professor Joseph Schumpeter died, in 1950, has rested with Duke University and, since 1970, with its History of Political Economy. Those were the years of what Evelyn Forget, of the University of Manitoba, calls “the blessed generation,”  a cohort too young for World War II, too old for Vietnam, who went to school after Sputnik and hit the academic market at a time “when good graduate departments allowed highly prized recruits to specialize in their own fields of interest and to develop unique and personal courses.”

They’re not making jobs anymore like those of Duke professors Craufurd Goodwin, Neil de Marchi and E. Roy Weintraub, Forget says, so the young should get over it.  She told a session last spring on teaching the next generation that there are plenty of jobs for would-be historians in out-of-the-way corners of professional schools.  Forget is her own best exemplar, having become the sought-after curator of the database of a Canadian field experiment in on the health effects of a guarantee annual income while continuing to do teach and do her own research.

The mood at Duke has been gloomy since its economics department failed to make a place last year for Steven Medema, of the University of Colorado at Denver, in a quarrel over resources.  Both sides became the loser. Medema, an expert on the law and economics movement and a stalwart of the discipline, was expected to join professors Bruce Caldwell and Kevin Hoover in the core faculty of the Center for the History of Political Economy, from which Goodwin, de Marchi and Weintraub had retired. His appointment may not be dead yet, but both CHOPE’s bright future as a finishing school for the best historians of thought, as well as the Duke department’s reputation as a cosmopolitan training center, are hanging by threads.

The history of economics needs a place in the curriculum to hang its collective hat.  Business schools would be a logical home, since they have plenty of money. Hasn’t the Harvard Business School supported economic history since it began? Its most celebrated figure, Alfred Chandler, could have been awarded a Nobel Prize. But most schools of business lack the independence of mind and deep curiosity that characterizes faculties of arts and science.  And history of science departments remain too oriented towards philosophy and hard as opposed to social science to offer more than a few positions.  There is a surfeit of good candidates in the rising generation. If universities and their benefactors don’t establish more careers for historians, both economic historians and historian of economics, then departments of economics themselves will continue to accumulate the general mistrust that increased significantly after 2008.