On doing economic history (and its importance!)

Thanks to Clark medal 2017 , it is one of those rare moments when people are excited about economic history. Though the field is in precarious state  but still atleast there is some discussion. The question is whether it will meet the same fate as the 1993 prize when economic history was honored but again was ignored after some initial excitement.

This post by Vincent Geloso on Notesonliberty blog is a nice read on doing economic history:

And there is economic history properly done. It tries to answer which theory is relevant to the question asked. The purpose of economic history is thus to find which theories matter the most.

Take the case, again, of asymetric information. The seminal work of Akerlof on the market for lemons made a consistent theory, but subsequent waves of research (notably my favorite here by Eric Bond) have showed that the stylized predictions of this theory rarely materialize. Why? Because the theory of signaling suggests that individuals will find ways to invest in a “signal” to solve the problem. These are two competing theories (signaling versus asymetric information) and one seems to win over the other.  An economic historian tries to sort out what mattered to a particular event.

Now, take these last few paragraphs and drop the words “economic historians” and replace them by “economists”.  I believe that no economist would disagree with the definition of the tasks of the economist that I offered. So why would an economic historian be different? Everything that has happened is history and everything question with regards to it must be answered through sifting for the theories that is relevant to the event studied (under the constraint that the theory be consistent). Every economist is an economic historian.

As such, the economic historian/economist must use advanced tools related to econometrics: synthetic controls, instrumental variables, proper identification strategies, vector auto-regressions, cointegration, variance analysis and everything you can think of. He needs to do so in order to answer the question he tries to answer. The only difference with the economic historian is that he looks further back in the past.

The problem with this systematic approach is the efforts needed by practitioners.  There is a need to understand – intuitively – a wide body of literature on price theory, statistical theories and tools, accounting (for understanding national accounts) and political economy. This takes many years of training and I can take my case as an example. I force myself to read one scientific article that is outside my main fields of interest every week in order to create a mental repository of theoretical insights I can exploit. Since I entered university in 2006, I have been forcing myself to read theoretical books that were on the margin of my comfort zone. For example, University Economics by Allen and Alchian was one of my favorite discoveries as it introduced me to the UCLA approach to price theory. It changed my way of understanding firms and the decisions they made. Then reading some works on Keynesian theory (I will confess that I have never been able to finish the General Theory) which made me more respectful of some core insights of that body of literature. In the process of reading those, I created lists of theoretical key points like one would accumulate kitchen equipment.

This takes a lot of time, patience and modesty towards one’s accumulated stock of knowledge. But these theories never meant anything to me without any application to deeper questions. After all, debating about the theory of price stickiness without actually asking if it mattered is akin to debating with theologians about the gender of angels (I vote that they are angels and since these are fictitious, I don’t give a flying hoot’nanny). This is because I really buy in the claim made by Douglass North that theory is brought to life by history (and that history is explained by theory).



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