I am very pleased to announce some great news for me, for Queen's University Belfast, and for economic history: we have just been awarded a multi-million euro grant jointly with Trinity College Dublin to establish a new All-Ireland Centre of Excellence in Economics, History and Policy. This means we will soon be starting to hire an army of predocs, PhDs, postdocs, lecturers, policy professionals and project administrators based in Belfast and Dublin.
The multidisciplinary field of economic history combines theory and methods from economics to answer historical questions about the long-run development of society. In addition to the importance of studying the past in its own right, economic historians use the past as a laboratory to test economic ideas, explain how institutions work, understand the relevant context for conditions today, and measure the efficacy of competing public policies. In short, insights from economic history can help policymakers make better policy choices in the present.
There is significant demand for training in economic history from university students and graduate employers. But as readers of An Economist's Guide to Economic History know, this demand is not currently being met. Around the world, undergraduate curricula in both economics and history lack economic history content, in part because a generation of academic economists and historians were not themselves exposed to the field in a meaningful way. This is unfortunate as understanding the deep historical roots of major challenges like global inequalities and climate change can help policymakers to address their consequences.
Together with Trinity College Dublin, Queen's University Centre of Economic History has just been awarded a 3.8 million euro grant to address this challenge. The four-year grant will help to establish a new All-Ireland Centre of Excellence in Economics, History and Policy. This new research hub leverages the existing strengths of both institutions by helping us to increase our capacity and enable us to lead the development of Ireland into a global centre of excellence in policy-relevant historical research.
Aside from hiring a team of new colleagues interested in pursuing economic history research and teaching, this grant will allow us to set up new online data resources, organise academic workshops, design and deliver CPD modules, run targeted outreach activities and establish high-quality knowledge exchanges with government policymakers and business leaders. I even hope it will give me some time to update An Economist's Guide with new content! Overall, this is an exciting opportunity for us at Queen's and our colleagues at Trinity.
The All-Ireland Centre will be launched in September 2022. I will keep you posted when we start advertising positions. More details are here.
The Rethinking Economics movement emerged in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis as a student pressure group to advocate for radical change in the university economics curriculum. Their concern: undergraduate economics degrees had become divorced from reality, unable to explain the actual economy.
However, for many years the Rethinking crowd did little more than complain about what was wrong; they failed to offer concrete solutions beyond demanding more pluralism, whatever that meant. New ways of teaching economics emerged, including the open-source CORE curriculum for first year introductory courses that we use here at Queen's University Belfast. But the Rethinking crowd remained largely unimpressed with the efforts of the economics profession.
I think it is not unfair to say they failed to engage with pedagogical reformers inside universities to tell us what they wanted, and instead focused on gaining the attention of people outside of academia. I fear that a lot of the discussions in the media that followed were rather one-sided and misunderstood what actually goes on in many university classrooms.
Things have changed. The Rethinking community has matured. A new book called Economy Studies has just been published which sets out a comprehensive new vision of what an economics degree should contain if it was to take the Rethinking criticism seriously. A project led by the Dutch branch of the Rethinking movement, and edited by Sam de Muijnck and Joris Tieleman, this new book sets out a concrete plan of action aimed at students, lecturers and university administrators.
This book represents an important contribution to economics pedagogy. It sets out various ways of building entire economics curricula that is centered around understanding grand societal challenges. I think the book is very conscious of the performativity literature, the idea that the theories and models we teach in the classroom can become self-fulfilling if they are treated as fact rather than used as they are intended. There are loads of good course ideas in the book, including one by recent Queen's economics graduate Andrew Graham called "the economics of oil".
I am very pleased to see that economic history is being proposed as one of the foundational building blocks of the new Economy Studies curriculum. And as in our own book, the authors argue that economic history can be inserted into programmes in various different ways. Alongside stand-alone economic history modules, the authors argue that historical approaches can be used to enrich other field courses. Everyone deserves to be exposed to economic history in some way, and all economists are capable of engaging with, and teaching, economic history!
An Economist's Guide is very kindly listed by the authors among possible teaching materials that could be used for building economic history into economics degrees, alongside some great other reading suggestions. Your university library may already have a subscription to our book through Springer Link. Why not check now?
These are strange times to work in higher education. (Of course, these are strange times for many other sectors besides!) In addition to more fundamental existential questions which I am not qualified to comment on, there are two I do feel a little more equipped to address here: (1) delivery of teaching material and student assessment during a pandemic; and (2) contents of economics syllabi in light of the murder of George Floyd.
First the obvious. COVID-19 presents a very particular set of challenges to the way we work in universities, especially the way we teach. We are going to have to develop ways of interacting with students that are high quality substitutes for traditional classroom teaching and face-to-face supervision.
This switch will be hard for two reasons. First, because of announced budget cuts, universities are not necessarily going to be putting in the support we need to make distance learning work well. And second, even if we had the right training and resources, academics are not the most technologically savvy people!
One thing that I trialed last year (pre-pandemic) in my Communicating Economics module was to get students to write short policy briefs in the style of VoxEU op-ed blog posts on economic topics that are in the news, and to video short policy communications distilling economic lessons for non-economists.
I will definitely be doing this again. These activities are relatively low-tech assessment solutions from the perspective of the educator (students are much better at making videos than us!). Crucially, they present an opportunity to students to learn how to use their economics to solve real-world problems that are happening today. These activities were also excellent way for me to work with students on their writing and presentation skills.
A number of my students took a long-run perspective on their chosen topic, incorporating economic history in their analysis. I was very impressed with their efforts.
And now I will have a new resource for students to use: the COVID-19 Economic Observatory. This great new website, funded by the ESRC, brings together academic economists from across the UK to distill useful economic knowledge about pressing issues of the day. There are already a series of Lessons from History posts on the website (including one by me on the Spanish flu!). There are more such policy briefs to come.
Another great resource for these students is CoronaNomics, a new series produced by Econ Films. They are putting together an incredible line-up of interviewees from the world of economics. Students will be able to interact directly with leading scholars.
The second change sparked by recent events concerns the contents of curricula. If the police killing of George Floyd tells us anything, then it is that slavery has cast a very long shadow on world history.
Economists and economic historians have already made some valuable contributions to the study of slavery and discrimination (see the reading list put together by the American Economic Association), but there is a lot more work to be done in this area - especially work which incorporates interdisciplinary perspectives. These contributions must feature much more prominently on economic history curricula, also in courses taught outside of the US; racism is not only an American phenomenon!
An Economist's Guide to Economic History has a great chapter for students and their teachers to start out with, by Richard Steckel on Slavery and Discrimination. In it, Richard frames the origins of modern day discrimination in the US as a reaction to the arrival and maturation of a new generation of African Americans following their emancipation, which challenged whites in the economic and social realms.
We hope to commission more work on discrimination, racial disparities and inequality for the second edition of our book.
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.
Chris Colvin is an economic historian based at Queen’s University Belfast, UK.