Posts filed under ‘Business/Economic History’

Is Economic History Dead?

| Peter Klein |

An interesting piece in The Economist: “Economic history is dead; long live economic history?”

Last weekend, Britain’s Economic History Society hosted its annual three-day conference in Telford, attempting to show the subject was still alive and kicking. The economic historians present at the gathering were bullish about the future. Although the subject’s woes at MIT have been echoed across research universities in both America and Europe, since the financial crisis there has been something of a minor revival. One reason for this may be that, as we pointed out in 2013, it is widely believed amongst scholars, policy makers and the public that a better understanding of economic history would have helped to avoid the worst of the recent crisis.

However, renewed vigour can be most clearly seen in the debates economists are now having with each other.

These debates are those about the long-run relationship between debt and growth initiated by Reinhart and Rogoff, about the historic effectiveness of Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy, and about the role of global organizations like the IMF and World Bank in promoting international coordination.

I guess my view is closer to Andrew Smith’s, that while history should play a stronger role in economics (and management) research and teaching, it probably won’t, for a variety of professional and institutional reasons. Of course, there is a difference between, say, research in economic or business history and “papers published in journals specializing in economic or business history.” In the first half of the twentieth century, quantitative economics was treated as a specialized subfield; now virtually all mainstream economics is quantitative. (The same may happen to empirical sociology, to theorizing in strategic management, and in other areas.)

14 April 2015 at 9:13 am 1 comment

Microeconomics of War

| Peter Klein |

The old Keynesian idea that war is good for the economy is not taken seriously by anyone outside the New York Times op-ed page. But much of the discussion still focuses on macroeconomic effects (on aggregate demand, labor-force mobilization, etc.). The more important effects, as we’ve often discussed on these pages, are microeconomic — namely, resources are reallocated from higher-valued, civilian and commercial uses, to lower-valued, military and governmental uses. There are huge distortions to capital, labor, and product markets, and even technological innovation — often seen as a benefit of wars, hot and cold — is hampered.

A new NBER paper by Zorina Khan looks carefully at the microeconomic effects of the US Civil War and finds substantial resource misallocation. Perhaps the most significant finding relates to entrepreneurial opportunity — individuals who would otherwise create significant economic value through establishing and running firms, developing new products and services, and otherwise improving the quality of life are instead motivated to pursue government military contracts (a point emphasized in the materials linked above). Here is the abstract (I don’t see an ungated version, but please share in the comments if you find one):

The Impact of War on Resource Allocation: ‘Creative Destruction’ and the American Civil War
B. Zorina Khan
NBER Working Paper No. 20944, February 2015

What is the effect of wars on industrialization, technology and commercial activity? In economic terms, such events as wars comprise a large exogenous shock to labor and capital markets, aggregate demand, the distribution of expenditures, and the rate and direction of technological innovation. In addition, if private individuals are extremely responsive to changes in incentives, wars can effect substantial changes in the allocation of resources, even within a decentralized structure with little federal control and a low rate of labor participation in the military. This paper examines war-time resource reallocation in terms of occupation, geographical mobility, and the commercialization of inventions during the American Civil War. The empirical evidence shows the war resulted in a significant temporary misallocation of resources, by reducing geographical mobility, and by creating incentives for individuals with high opportunity cost to switch into the market for military technologies, while decreasing financial returns to inventors. However, the end of armed conflict led to a rapid period of catching up, suggesting that the war did not lead to a permanent misallocation of inputs, and did not long inhibit the capacity for future technological progress.

10 February 2015 at 11:16 am 1 comment

Upcoming Workshops, Seminars, and Events

| Peter Klein |

Some upcoming events of interest to O&M readers:

5 February 2015 at 12:41 pm Leave a comment

Team Science and the Creative Genius

| Peter Klein |

Turing1_jpg_600x639_q85We’ve addressed the widely held, but largely mistaken, view of creative artists and entrepreneurs as auteurs, isolated and misunderstood, fighting the establishment and bucking the conventional wisdom. In the more typical case, the creative genius is part of a collaborative team and takes full advantage of the division of labor. After all, is our ability to cooperate through voluntary exchange, in line with comparative advantage, that distinguishes us from the animals.

Christian Caryl’s New Yorker review of The Imitation Game makes a similar point about Alan Turing. The film’s portrayal of Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) “conforms to the familiar stereotype of the otherworldly nerd: he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even understand an invitation to lunch. This places him at odds not only with the other codebreakers in his unit, but also, equally predictably, positions him as a natural rebel.” In fact, Turing was funny and could be quite charming, and got along well with his colleagues and supervisors.

As Caryl points out, these distortions

point to a much broader and deeply regrettable pattern. [Director] Tyldum and [writer] Moore are determined to suggest maximum dramatic tension between their tragic outsider and a blinkered society. (“You will never understand the importance of what I am creating here,” [Turing] wails when Denniston’s minions try to destroy his machine.) But this not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character—it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.

In reality, Turing was an entirely willing participant in a collective enterprise that featured a host of other outstanding intellects who happily coexisted to extraordinary effect. The actual Denniston, for example, was an experienced cryptanalyst and was among those who, in 1939, debriefed the three Polish experts who had already spent years figuring out how to attack the Enigma, the state-of-the-art cipher machine the German military used for virtually all of their communications. It was their work that provided the template for the machines Turing would later create to revolutionize the British signals intelligence effort. So Turing and his colleagues were encouraged in their work by a military leadership that actually had a pretty sound understanding of cryptological principles and operational security. . . .

The movie version, in short, represents a bizarre departure from the historical record. In fact, Bletchley Park—and not only Turing’s legendary Hut 8—was doing productive work from the very beginning of the war. Within a few years its motley assortment of codebreakers, linguists, stenographers, and communications experts were operating on a near-industrial scale. By the end of the war there were some 9,000 people working on the project, processing thousands of intercepts per day.

The rebel outsider makes for good storytelling, but in most human endeavors, including science, art, and entrepreneurship, it is well-organized groups, not auteurs, who make the biggest breakthroughs.

10 January 2015 at 1:26 pm 1 comment

The Medieval Enlightenment in Economic Thought

| Dick Langlois |

Attending academic presentations as a spectator – a pure consumer – can be great fun. On November 20, I drove up to Boston for one day of a wonderful conference, put together by the Business History program at Harvard Business School, on the History of Law and Business Enterprise (which probably merited its own separate blog post). This is an area that I am starting to get interested in. The conference was in many ways a showcase for the GHLR perspective on the history of corporate organization – the acronym referring to the work of Timothy Guinnane, Naomi Lamoreaux, Ron Harris, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, all of whom were there. The conference took place across the street from Harvard Stadium on the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game. Harvard won the football game (alas), but the conference was a Yale rout.

And last week I attended a presentation here at UConn that was even more vicarious fun. Our Humanities Institute invited Joel Kaye from Barnard to talk about his new book, A History of Balance, 1250-1375: The Emergence of a New Model of Equilibrium and Its Impact on Thought, which has just appeared from Cambridge. I was the token economist in the audience, even though two of his chapters are about economics. His argument is that medieval scholastic thought changed radically over this period, and produced by its end a different and arguably more sophisticated model of how the economic world works. This “new” model is not the standard Aristotelian version we are normally told about but was in fact something far closer to the views of the Scottish Enlightenment. (Needless to say, his telling of this was far more nuanced.) In addition to Nicole Oresme, whom I had heard of, he relies heavily on the work of Peter John Olivi, an earlier Franciscan theologian, whom I had never heard of. In Kaye’s telling, Olivi came close to something like the idea of the invisible hand. I took a quick look at standard history-of-thought texts, and nobody mentions Olivi at all – except Murray Rothbard, who credits him with discovering the subjective theory of value.

This is really a story about the Enlightenment of the High Middle Ages, which took place among academic clerics in an age of population growth, (extensive) economic growth, and urbanization. As Kaye apparently argues in an earlier book, these academics were constantly confronted with the market – especially in the thriving city of Paris – and were well versed in market practice; indeed, this knowledge of the market and money contributed to advances in physical and biological as well as social sciences. The medieval academic Enlightenment went into decline after the Black Death in the early fourteenth century. The resulting dislocations and the swing in relative prices – in favor of peasants and against landholders, including importantly the Church – reduced the centrality and authority of academic thought, even as they spurred institutional changes that would set the stage for growth in the early modern period. Population in Europe did not return to its pre-plague levels until the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and economic thought took just as long to recover. (I know this is whiggish, but I can’t help it.)

There was perhaps one connection between the two events. At HBS, Ron Harris talked about his ongoing research on the earliest history of the corporate form in the East and the West. Here the commenda contract is the centerpiece. That is presumably what schoolmen like Olivi called by the Latin term societas, which was not, however, the same institution as the societas publicanus of ancient Rome.

10 December 2014 at 5:39 pm 1 comment

An Information Flow Diagram from 1922

| Peter Klein |

We’ve featured some cool vintage diagrams before, such as the New York and Erie Railroad organizational chart and the diagrams of the Mundaneum. Here’s an information flow diagram from 1922, represented as a cutaway view of the Washington Star newspaper offices. As Jason Kottke notes, it provides “a fascinating view of how information flowed through a newspaper company in the 1920s. Raw materials in the form of electricity, water, telegraph messages, paper, and employees enter the building and finished newspapers leave out the back.”

evening-star-building

1 December 2014 at 11:15 am Leave a comment

Bottom-up Approaches to Economic Development

| Peter Klein |

Via Michael Strong, a thoughtful review and critique of Western-style economic development programs and their focus on one-size-fits-all, “big idea” approaches. Writing in the New Republic, Michael Hobbs takes on not only Bono and Jeff Sachs and USAID and the usual suspects, but even the randomized-controlled-trials crowd, or “randomistas,” like Duflo and Banerjee.  Instead of searching for the big idea, thinking that “once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket,” we should support local, incremental, experimental, attempts to improve social and economic well being — a Hayekian bottom-up approach.

We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict. . . .

[I]nternational development is just such an invasive species. Why Dertu doesn’t have a vaccination clinic, why Kenyan schoolkids can’t read, it’s a combination of culture, politics, history, laws, infrastructure, individuals—all of a society’s component parts, their harmony and their discord, working as one organism. Introducing something foreign into that system—millions in donor cash, dozens of trained personnel and equipment, U.N. Land Rovers—causes it to adapt in ways you can’t predict.

19 November 2014 at 11:25 am 2 comments

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