The “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” Conference and Maturation in the the Historiography of Economic Thought December 29, 2014Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
Tags: Beatrice Cherrier, Deidre McCloskey, E. Roy Weintraub, James Poterba, Mary Morgan, Pedro Duarte, Peter Temin, Philip Mirowski, Roger Backhouse, S. M. Amadae, Wade Hands, Yann Giraud
I have a new article out, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics,” in the 2014 annual supplement to History of Political Economy on MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Following tradition, I’ll talk a little bit about the thinking behind the article in a separate post. However, I would like to start with a few words about the 2013 conference that the supplement was based on.
In short, it was almost certainly the best conference I have attended. To understand why, it will be useful to understand the peculiarities of the development of the field of the history of economic thought (HET), and how it seems to be reaching a new state of maturity.
For some time now HET has been having something of an identity crisis. Traditionally strongly affiliated with economics departments, HET, even more so than economic history, has had problems maintaining its status within the economics profession. Concurrently, HET has moved away methodologically from exegesis on the economic canon (“What did Smith/Keynes mean when they wrote X?”), and more toward something people working in the history of science would be familiar and comfortable with.
Early on, this movement was led primarily by fairly radical voices. In the 1980s Deidre McCloskey (a Chicago Schooler interestingly enough, now at University of Illinois at Chicago) began analyzing the “rhetoric” of economics. Around the same time, Philip Mirowski, at Notre Dame, began to investigate the links between economics and other fields, beginning with 19th-century physics in More Heat Than Light (1989), and culminating with information science and operations research (OR) in Machine Dreams (2002). Both McCloskey and Mirowski use historical, methodological, sociological, and literary analysis to level what they regard as a fundamental critique on the modern economics profession. (Mirowski has even styled himself an “enfant terrible.”)
Meanwhile, a number of figures—Roger Backhouse, Wade Hands, Mary Morgan, and Roy Weintraub being prominent examples, all trained in economics—also developed a “thick” history of economics and the analysis of economic methodology, while, to varying degrees, holding comparatively orthodox views on modern economics and accepting the need to study the intellectual development of the field more or less on its own terms (i.e., not as a debunking exercise). Weintraub has also been instrumental in building up the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, which has become the mecca for HET research, and is where the conference on MIT economics was held.
For many years this shift has been piecemeal, producing no focused research program, per se. Those of us outsiders working to make use of the resulting historiography have had to sift through it, and to take what it has to offer. Early in this blog’s history I wrote a post extolling Mirowski’s work because of his ability to see an exceptionally wide range of historical connections worthy of examination. This was true even if his overarching picture seemed geared toward presenting all historical events as either leading toward or resisting “the monster at the end of this book,” i.e. contemporary economics.
Now, however, there are signs that the historiography is approaching a critical mass, so that different historians’ works are starting to interleave into an integrated, critical historiography. This development has been much supported by the diverse work of younger generations of scholars, including many of the good folks associated with the History of Economics Playground blog, represented in this volume by Beatrice Cherrier, Yann Giraud, and Pedro Duarte.
I believe what made the “MIT” conference so good was that it was dedicated to a well-defined topic, so that the interleaving process already underway was substantially focused and enhanced. Some of the papers dealt with the culture and demographics of the department, others with the building up of its faculty, and still others on the evolution of economic ideas within the department. The result was coherent, detailed, concrete discussion, and the production of a shockingly broad and well-integrated picture of economics at MIT, which nevertheless left plenty of room for additional elaboration. HET may well have successfully made an important historiographical turn without losing “its economics.”
Encouragingly, the conference was also attended by representatives of the MIT economics department itself, including the eminent economic historian Peter Temin (who delivered a paper on the ride and fall of economic history at MIT), and James Poterba, who is also president of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In conversation with some of the historians of economics who have had regular interactions with economists, I was told that the interaction with the economists at the conference was of unusually high quality, in that the economists actively participated and seemed to take the historians to be serious contributors.
My own paper, as delivered, engaged critically with Mirowski’s discussion of the links between OR and economics in the postwar period, and how that was and was not reflected at MIT. However, it turned out that the picture of economics at MIT was sufficiently robust that no one at the conference really felt the need to engage with Mirowski’s rather sketchy treatment of the MIT milieu in Machine Dreams. (Mirowski was scheduled to attend, but did not.)
So, for the published version of the paper, I reconfigured my presentation to concentrate instead on the intellectual affinities and dissimilarities between economics, OR, cybernetics, and industrial dynamics at MIT as part of an examination of the “MIT style” of economics, a subject in which there was significant interest at the conference. I’m not sure that Roy Weintraub, as volume editor, really picked up on this change, as his introduction to the volume has me slaying the radical Mirowski/Amadae beast in the historiography of economic thought, insofar as it disengages economics somewhat from “Cold War” intellectual projects. I don’t think my published piece quite does that.
But one thing (among many) that the conference taught me is that, when a historiography begins to run on all cylinders, empirically and intellectually and sociologically, there is not as much need to overturn ideas as there is to develop them, taking what is valuable from what has been done, and simply leaving behind what cannot be supported by historical research.
Institutionally, HET remains in a very fragile state, largely dependent on economists’ willingness to allow positions to occupy valuable budget in their departments. At the same time, the state of the field is unusually strong, and economists’ interest in understanding the divergences in economists’ varying interpretations of economic phenomena is… extant, although there seems to be a sense that the economists can do this themselves, impressionistically, and on the fly. For my part, I hope historians of science and technology prove willing to engage with historians of economics, to learn from them, and to strengthen their hand to the degree that we can.