We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Unprecedented. Or is it?
Pandemics are rare events, and pandemics on this scale are rarer still. Economic historians are uniquely placed to contribute to understanding the COVID-19 crisis because rare events are our bread and butter. We can combine economics and history to identify useful historical parallels, to draw analogues between pandemics and other human catastrophes from our past with those of today. We can use economic history to reflect on events as they unfold in real time.
Of course events will never play out the same way twice; there are clearly differences today that must be factored into the discussion. But identifying these differences, and thinking about the potential impact of these differences on outcomes, requires us to have a baseline comparison. These baseline comparisons can only come from the past. We therefore need economic history more than ever.
One important historical episode that can teach us about the present is the 1918 influenza pandemic. Together with Eoin McLaughlin, I have written a short piece about it for The Conversation. You can read it here. We focus on the policy lessons from the Spanish flu, including the efficacy of social distancing measures.
A number of economic historians have already completed research which contributes to the global conversation on COVID-19 and its possible social, demographic and economic impacts. The Economic History Society's blog has started to collect a set of articles from across our discipline's journal outlets that shed light on current events: part A is here, and part B is here.
A flurry of interesting new unpublished economic history working papers has also emerged. I list only a few here; I expect many more are being prepared right now:
An Economist's Guide to Economic History contains many relevant chapters that can be used as a lens through which to understand the present crisis. Guido Alfani and Cormac Ó Gráda's chapter is a great place to start. Their chapter provides a historical perspective on famine and disease to help overcome the lack of knowledge on these rare events.
There are a number of other episodes from economic history that will help us to understand our current crisis better, including, perhaps, the Great Depression and the World Wars. Economic history might even help us plan for what is going to happen next. There is great scope for many more economic historians to contribute to the public's understanding of COVID-19. This is a call to arms!
Next week I will be heading to the USA for a few different things economic history-related. I am very excited!
The History of Capitalism
First, I will be taking part in a workshop at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia organised by Francesca Trivellatto.
The workshop's title is "Economic Questions - Multiple Methods" and brings together economists and historians working on the history of capitalism. You can see the full programme here. I am looking forward to reading and discussing the other contributions, which I understand will all have a pedagogy theme.
My paper, which I have co-authored with Queen's University Belfast colleagues Michael Aldous and David Paulson, makes the argument that the history of capitalism should be an essential component of business school teaching, especially in MBA programmes. We have called our paper "Teaching Capitalism to Capitalists", and in it we set out how taking a historical perspective on the idea that the corporation is the principal institution of modern capitalism brings a more nuanced understanding of its efficacy as an organisational form. I hope to post the paper here in the near future, once we have presented it in a few places and incorporated feedback.
Francesca co-edits a new journal called Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics. The inaugural issue is now available online, and has an excellent articles, one of which is by Barry Eichengreen. Read his paper, and the other interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary/postdisciplinary contributions, here.
Then, I will be heading to Washington DC to hang out with Paul Winfree, an economist based at the Heritage Foundation. Paul, who helped us launch An Economist's Guide to Economic History in Belfast back at the start of 2019, has recently published a book of his own, on the history of budgetary policymaking by the US executive branch of government. You can read more about his book over at the publisher's website.
Paul and I recently had a co-authored paper accepted for publication in another new journal, the Journal of Applied History. The paper is all about how the new tribe of scholars who call themselves "applied historians" can learn from past successes and mistakes of researchers and practitioners of other applied fields. In particular, we focus on how economic history can be used to improve modern economic policymaking. You can download the article here from the journal's Early View page, or read an earlier working paper version here.
Paul will be joining Queen's University Belfast to work on PhD research in economic history, with John Turner and myself. We are very excited to have him on board.
Finally, I will be visiting the Federal Reserve Board to hang out with Nathan Foley-Fisher, a macroeconomist who also dabbles in economic history research. I will be presenting my paper on the Dutch interwar gold standard to Nathan and some of his central banking colleagues.
This macroeconomic history paper, which I co-authored with my Queen's University Belfast colleague Philip Fliers, explores monetary policy formation, implementation and impact in the 1920s and 1930s. We are particularly interested in explaining why the Dutch stayed on the gold standard for so much longer than other countries. You can read an earlier version of our paper here.
Nathan and I were PhD students together at LSE and UPF, and I very much look forward to finding out more from him about the real world of modern central banking. I wonder how similar central banking today is to the 1930s?
An Economist's Guide to Economic History is all about showing academic and professional economists what they have been missing by not engaging with the field of economic history. But publishing the book was just the start of our project; we now have to get the message out to the wider public that the study of our economic past is not just very cool, but it is also very useful.
I have just had a sabbatical from teaching at Queen's, and was based in the Netherlands for a great part of it, working on monetary policymaking during the interwar period. While there, I discovered the absence of economic history from university economics curricula was particularly noticeable. Although the Netherlands has one of the most prolific groups of economic historians working in academia today, at Utrecht University, the Rethinking Economics NL student action group recently found the field is (almost) entirely absent from undergraduate economics programmes - even in Utrecht!
To help make people aware of the problem, and to discuss possible solutions, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study is putting on an event on 18 September 2019 on the future of economic history in economics pedagogy. This public event will take place at SPUI25, the University of Amsterdam's academic-cultural centre located on Spui, at the heart of the city.
We have a really great line-up of speakers for the panel discussion. Besides myself, we have Sam de Muijnck (from Rethinking Economics NL), Esther-Mirjam Sent (Professor at Radboud University, and member of the Upper Chamber of Dutch Parliament), and Jarig van Sinderen (Professor at Erasmus University, and Chief Economist of the Netherlands' Competition Authority). Oscar Gelderblom (Professor at Utrecht University) will chair the discussion.
You can find more details about the event, which will take place in Dutch (!), on the NIAS website. Capacity constraints limited us to 100 participants; you can register by visiting the SPUI25 website.
I have had just over a week now to recover from the Economic History Society's annual conference, which we hosted in Belfast on 5-7 April. We had 261 registered delegates, presenting 152 papers in 46 sessions and two plenary lectures over three days. I think the conference was outstanding, which is all down to the excellent organisational skills of the EHS's administrative secretary, Maureen Galbraith, supported by our small army of postgraduate students. Thanks to all!
Palgrave Macmillan hosted a reception at the conference to celebrate over 12,000 ebook downloads of An Economist's Guide to Economic History. It was an opportunity for the book's contributors and readers to come together and think about what next in our quest to Make Economic History Great Again. We had some great suggestions for additional chapters for the second edition. And we also got some interesting ideas on how to make this website useful for colleagues using the book in their teaching.
One idea, which Matthias and I very much share, is to generate, and curate, teaching-ready audiovisual economic history material. Something I do in my own teaching is let the authors I am discussing speak about their own work in the form of a short video snippet. For senior academics I am usually able to find something good online, which I can then edit down to size; there are many great podcasts and videos involving economic historians out there to use (for example, the EHS films its plenary lectures). But this is more difficult to do for junior scholars. And so we will now embark on a campaign to encourage colleagues to generate new audiovisual material, starting with the contributors to the book!
While on the subject of videos, we have another book promo video for you. If you recall, we hosted our book launch in Belfast back in January, and Econ Films covered the day for us. They have just completed a video reportage of the events of the day. Enjoy!
Invitation: Celebratory Reception for An Economic's Guide to Economic History
Venue: Publishers' exhibition area, Economic History Society, Belfast
Time: 18:15-19:00, Friday 5 April
Queen's University Belfast is proudly hosting the 2019 conference of the Economic History Society, and delegates will soon be arriving at Belfast's two airports. The full conference programme is available over at the EHS website.
I am particularly excited about two our keynote lectures. Our very own Graham Brownlow will provide delegates with a local flavour in his plenary lecture on Friday, which is entitled 'Back to the Failure(s)? DeLorean and Northern Ireland’s Other Troubles'. Meanwhile, Gavin Wright's Tawney lecture on Sunday is entitled 'Slavery and Anglo-American Capitalism Revisited'.
As always, there are a number of interesting fringe events at the conference, including a poster session, book launches and museum visits. Among them, I am very pleased to announce that Palgrave Macmillan will be hosting a celebratory reception for An Economist's Guide to Economic History. After all, we have a lot to celebrate: the book has been downloaded more than 11,000 times since December! The reception will take place in the publishers' exhibition area of the conference venue, between 18:15 and 19:00 on Friday 5 April. Wine will be served, and all are welcome!
As many of the book's contributors will be present, we will try and use the opportunity to talk about next steps in our mission to Make Economic History Great Again (MEHGA). In particular, how can we make it even easier for economists to engage with economic history? How can we use this website to enhance the contents of the book? And what additional material should we commission for the next edition of the book?
I look forward to welcoming you all to Belfast!
This semester, I am lucky enough to be among the 40 fellows in residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Amsterdam. This interdisciplinary institute, moulded after the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, hosts scholars conducting research from across the humanities and social sciences, from art history to epidemiology. We even have a poet!
I am working on the Dutch experience of the interwar gold standard. This is a co-authored project with Philip Fliers. We will be presenting a work-in-progress version of our paper at the Economic History Society Annual Conference in Belfast, in April.
As part of this project, I am about to start reading various biographies of Hendrikus Colijn, the prime minister in charge when the Dutch economy started going south in the 1930s. Colijn was a steadfast believer in gold, despite all the evidence that maintaining the link between the guilder and this precious metal was a really bad idea. How did he justify his policy beliefs?
An Economist's Guide to Economic History is all about learning from the past. Today we don't use gold standards. And most countries have abandoned fixed exchange rates. Yet I believe there remains lots to be learnt from the Netherlands in the 1930s.
As my NIAS colleague Bas Jacobs explains in his current research, Europe's recovery from the 2008 crisis was worse than its recovery in the 1930s. This is also the case for the Netherlands, which did particularly badly in the 1930s. Just as Colijn was enthralled in the dogma of gold, politicians and central bankers today also appear to also captured by long-debunked economic theories.
Video is probably the most important media format on the internet today. We are all constantly watching them. Often we watch them without the sound, relying just on the subtitles. And usually they are very short pieces of communication of less than 2:20 minutes (the maximum allowed by Twitter!).
I think that academics don't engage enough video. This is a missed opportunity, because video allows us to reach new audiences beyond our lecture theatres and seminar rooms.
A video have the potential to act as an "access drug", enticing viewers to download and read our books and articles, the pieces of academic communication we are more used to producing.
The barrier for most academics in producing video communications, however, is expertise. While it is easy enough to make a video, it is not at all easy to make a good video. Academics need help!
We have been very keen to make some video material to introduce the arguments of our book to potential readers. And with the generous financial support of Queen's Management School, we were able to commission Econ Films to do just that! We think it has turned out rather well.
We announced the publication of the book in two important newsletters earlier this month.
The first is the Economics Network's Newsletter. The Economics Network is the UK-based subject network for teaching and learning in economics. Supported, among others, by the Royal Economics Society, it aims to "enhance the quality of learning and teaching throughout the Higher Education economics community". The network curates an excellent website of teaching resources, and organises very useful training events for new university lecturers. I hope we can work with the Economics Network in future when thinking about designing new material that will help lecturers to implement our book's vision of greater engagement between economists and economic historians.
The second is the Max Weber Programme Newsletter. The Max Weber Programme is the interdisciplinary postdoctoral programme of the European University Institute. Every year, the programme hosts about 60 fellows from across the social sciences, and from around the world. All are at the very start of their academic careers. Fellows are usually very eager to learn about new ideas for research and gain valuable advice to improve their teaching. I am an alumni of the programme and look back on my time in Florence very fondly. I think that many of the alumni of the Max Weber Programme will share our book's aim of Making Economics Great Again (MEGA).
You can read the Economics Network's Newsletter here, and the Max Weber Programme Newsletter here.
An Economist’s Guide to Economic History was officially launched at Riddel Hall, Queen's University Belfast, on Friday 18 January 2019.
The launch coincided with a roundtable discussion on the past, present and future of economics as a discipline, with a particular focus on how it is taught at university and understood by the general public.
The roundtable was introduced by Dr Chris Colvin (Queen's University Belfast) and moderated by Dr Matthias Blum (Queen's Univresity Belfast), the book's editors. The second half of the workshop was moderated by Romesh Vaitilingam CBE (Communicating Economics)
The discussion on the day centered around answering five questions:
The workshop, which was attended by academic and professional economists and the general public, was filmed by Econ Films. A video of the event will be posted here soon.
A short press release for the book launch event (in MS Word format) can be downloaded here.