Why historians worry more about Trump than economists…

Whether it is interviews done by Tyler Cowen or his articles, they are usually worth reading.

His recent piece doing rounds on social media:

The dangers of the current political moment in the West — with its polarization, harsh rhetoric and growing hostility toward cosmopolitanism — are evident to historians and economists alike. But which group sees the situation as more grave? I suspect it is historians, and it is worth considering why.

To be sure, some of the disgruntlement of historians stems from their political orientation. Historians are relatively left-wing, so it is no surprise that they are hostile to an “alt-right” shift in the political discourse. During the 2016 campaign, the group Historians Against Trump received widespread publicity.

More fundamentally, however, historians stress the importance of contingency, that things really could have gone another way. The decisions of a solitary assassin or the outcome of a single battle can shift the course of history. Particular leadership decisions might have avoided or limited World War I. Or what if the Germans had not, in 1917, put Lenin on a train back into Russia? The Bolshevik Revolution might have been avoided and probably the entire course of history would have been different. A shrewder President Paul von Hindenburg might have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

If you think about these questions enough, you can end up very nervous indeed. Historians have seen too many modest mistakes spiral out of control and turn into disasters.

Economists, in contrast, work more with general models than with concrete historical situations, and those models emphasize underlying structural forces. Economies have fairly set populations, birth rates, natural resources, capital stocks, savings rates, trading partners, and so on. So to an economist, the final outcomes are closer to necessary than contingent.

Economists also study “catch-up growth,” which holds that systems tend to be self-repairing. So if some resources are destroyed, GDP will fall but the system will produce new replacement resources more rapidly, just as a lobster might regrow a lopped-off arm. Catch-up growth tends to make economists less nervous about natural disasters or wartime losses, although of course we think it is better to avoid the resource destruction in the first place. Many of Japan’s major cities were bombed to oblivion in World War II, but in time they regained their former prominence.

Some economic models do emphasize contingency — for instance, how a small force could induce an economy to make a major shift from one equilibrium to another. To give an example, some amount of defense contracting in Silicon Valley later caused the area to blossom into a major technology center. But perhaps the same could have happened in some other regions of the U.S. And these economic models remain the exception rather than the rule, often criticized for the fact that, under some circumstances, they can predict almost anything.

Hmm..

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: