Posts filed under ‘Business/Economic History’
| Peter Klein |
Much as I hate to use this blog for self-promotion, … Hahahahaha. OK, seriously. As many of you know I joined Baylor University this fall and will be heavily involved with Baylor’s new PhD program in Entrepreneurship. Prospective students interested in entrepreneurship, strategy, organizational economics, innovation, creativity, institutions, business history, governance, the theory of science, Austrian economics — i.e., the regular topics of this blog — should consider applying. Detailed information about the program, including application materials and instructions, are on the program website. The formal deadline for Fall 2016 admission is next Friday, January 15, so time is short! I’m happy to answer any questions.
A guest post by Yoram Barzel.
Doug North, Some Reminiscences
| By Yoram Barzel |
By the time I arrived at the University of Washington in 1961, Doug had been there for a decade, and he stayed for two more. Moving from one Washington (the University of Washington in Seattle) to another Washington (Washington University in St. Louis) is confusing. Most people associate Doug’s career with Washington University in St. Louis, but it was in Seattle that he did the bulk of the work for which he won the Nobel Prize. His work is well known, and I focus on other aspects of his career and on personal memories.
Doug got his PhD from Berkeley, and he was the first to admit that he hadn’t learned much there. Throughout his time in Seattle, when he needed advice when it came to economic analysis, he asked for it with great humility. Doug had a keen sense regarding which individuals to listen to, and it seems to me that this ability was a major contributor to his productiveness.
The most prominent colleague to provide that advice was the late Don Gordon. Don is not well known, but he was great economist and the intellectual leader of the department. He cherished Doug’s great wisdom. Don persuaded Doug that the right way to do economic research was by testing hypotheses based on sound economic reasoning, and suggested to Doug to apply these in his economic history research; an almost revolutionary approach at the time. Equally revolutionary was Doug’s requirement of his doctoral students to acquire these tools. Doug and Don became close colleagues and intellectual allies and remained lifetime friends.
The tools that Don recommended weren’t in great supply at the UW economics department at that time, and Doug and Don fought hard in an essentially hostile environment to ensure that new hires would possess these skills. By the late 1950s they won the fight, most likely because Doug was an extremely skilled fighter. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Barry Weingast remembers Doug North at EH.Net (also at the SIOE blog):
His first book, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790-1860 (1960), helped foster the revolution that came to be known as the “new economic history,” the application of frontier economics to the study problems of the past. He and Bob Fogel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (1993) largely for their leadership in this new research program.
But Doug understood that the neoclassical economics on which he was raised was inadequate to address the problems he sought to answer, namely, why are a few countries rich while most remain poor, some in dire poverty? Much of his best work addressed this question.
Read the whole thing here.
A guest post by John V. C. Nye. A related version appears at Reason.
| John Nye |
Douglass Cecil North passed away at the age of 95 on Nov. 23, 2015 at his home in Michigan. Joint recipient of the 1993 Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, he will be remembered for his path breaking contributions to the field of economic history and his central role in creating the New Institutional Economics. He spent most of his academic career at two institutions — the University of Washington in Seattle, and Washington University in St. Louis. For much of the last two decades, he also maintained an association with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Doug will be remembered for many things and others can go through his list of honors, awards, and accomplishments. But for me, two things will always stand out — his devotion to his students and his personal role in my life as mentor, colleague, and friend.
On the first point, one could note the large number of great scholars who emerged under his supervision in both Seattle and St. Louis or those who were simply inspired by his teaching to pursue careers in academia. But perhaps it is sufficient to observe that when the Jonathan Hughes Memorial Prize in teaching was instituted by the Economic History Society, North was the first recipient and an overwhelming favorite — not least of which because Jon Hughes had been one of Douglass’s first graduate students. On the day North received the Nobel prize, he cut off his interviewers to teach his regular courses, and reporters got a first-hand look at North the teacher. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
I’m sorry to report that Doug North passed away yesterday at the age of 95. North was a key figure in the “cliometrics revolution” which sought to apply neoclassical economic theory and quantitative methods to the study of economic history, for which he received a Nobel Prize. He was also a founder, along with Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson, of the “New Institutional Economics.” His work on economic growth, the role of institutions on national and international economic performance, the relationship between economic and political institutions, and many other fields has been extremely influential.
I met North at the inaugural ISNIE conference in St. Louis in 1997, and saw him occasionally after that. He was friendly and approachable and interested in the work of younger scholars. North was an interdisciplinary thinker but always considered himself an economist first and foremost. I remember a small-group dinner at which he revealed an interesting conversation among the founders of International Society for New Institutional Economics (now SIOE). Coase had proposed calling the new organization the “International Society for New Institutional Social Science.” North reported that he replied, “Ronald, if you call it that, I will wish you well, but I won’t ever attend!”
Here is a nice reminiscence from Mike Sykuta.
Update: Here are obits in the NYT and WaPo. The former describes North in a way that makes economic history sound pretty interesting: “a diminutive, effervescent bon vivant [who] indulged his interests in haute cuisine, photography, fast cars, flying his own plane, hunting, fishing, tennis, hiking and swimming, pursuing some of them into advanced age.” (There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Washington University agreeing to pay North’s moving expenses when he took a professorship in St. Louis, then finding out later that transporting his wine collection required a refrigerated truck costing tens of thousands of dollars.)
Update 2: Here is Barry Weingast’s reminiscence, which appeared originally at EH.Net.
| Dick Langlois |
Further to Peter’s post on government science funding: I just received, hot off the (physical) press, a copy of Shane Greenstein’s new book How the Internet Became Commercial (Princeton, 2015). Among the myths that Greenstein — now apparently at Harvard Business School — debunks is the idea that the internet was in any sense a product of government industrial policy. Although government had many varied and uncoordinated influences on the development of the technology, the emergence of the Internet was ultimately an example of what the economic historian Robert Allen called collective invention. It was very much a spontaneous process. And it was not fundamentally different from other episodes of technological change in history.
| Peter Klein |
This piece by Matt Ridley builds on Terence Kealey’s critique of government science funding, and also echoes Nathan Rosenberg’s critique of the linear model of science and technology. We have pointed out similarly that arguments for public science funding are usually not very scientific.
When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.
Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do. As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of 18th-century Scotland, reported in “The Wealth of Nations”: “A great part of the machines made use in manufactures…were originally the inventions of common workmen,” and many improvements had been made “by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines.”
It follows that there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will then pay for research into the principles behind them. Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics.
I have argued repeatedly against the “laundry list” rationale for public funding, the listing of technologies and products that came out of government programs, as if that were justification for these programs. Ridley agrees:
Given that government has funded science munificently from its huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something. This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements.
And we can never know what discoveries were not made because government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding, which might have had different priorities.