Keynes’s 10 Professors… and a Major

[Cross-posted from History of Economics Playground – original here]

I thought I was on to an inside reference when re-reading the General Theory when Keynes calls Marx, Edgeworth other by name, but refers to “Professor Pigou” in several instances.  What devilish bit of British humour was I missing out on, had Pigou slighted Keynes in some talk and therefore the emphasis on his position as professor as Keynes disagree with him?

Well, a conversation with Vicky Chick suggested a more sedate explanation, one of British politeness rather than sardonic wit. In writing it was only proper to refer to ones contemporaries by their full title (mr, mrs, dr, prof etc) while those who had passed away would not have a title – something which also meant you could distinguish between who was being referred to.

Having trawled back through my GT and found a good ten professors with the full reference who were very much alive when the GT was published, and only name references to people who had passed away (Marx, Edgeworth etc) that seems to settle that. Keynes had some 10 full professors and a major from the Royal Airforce Engineering corps. This is of course a pre-cursor (of sorts) to our current referencing system, where we implicitly refer to other authors as dead. Nice.

Oh, the ten professors were: Professor Pigou (1877-1959), Professor Hayek (1899–1992), Professor Robbins (1898-1984), Professor Irving Fisher (1867–1947), Professor [Gustav] Cassel (1866–1945), Professor [Thomas Nixon] Carver, Professor [Frank William] Taussig (1859–1940), Professor von Mises (1881-1973), Professor Alvin Hansen (1887–1975), Professor [Eli] Heckscher (1879–1952) as well as Major [C.H.] Douglas (1879–1952).

Division of labour was common knowledge by the 1770s

[Cross posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

I always think of Adam Smith when I hear the term ‘division of labour’ – but I’m being cured of this by reading a bit more about Britains late 18th century in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. A very good read on industrialists and doctors, it remarks on Matthew Boulton’s (think steam engine / manufacturing) explanation to Lord Warwick (in 1773) that it is ithe seperation of processes which allow British manufacturers to compete with continental Europe. So Adam Smith’s comments were not so much brilliant discovery, but rather explanation of well established fact:

Lord Shelbourne had anticipated him [Boulton] when he reported on the Birmingham hardware trades seven years before [in 1766], putting its success down to three factors: the shaping of malleable metal by stamping machines, which replaced human labour, the division of labour between as many hands as possible, making tasks so simple that even a child could do it (and oftent did), and the ‘infinity of smaller improvements which each workman has and sedulously keeps secret from the rest’. (Uglow p. 212, citing Fitzmaurice)

Indeed it seems that the term and idea were discussed through the decade as the big manufacturers invented and built their factories, although such “specialization had been applied in different British trades for some time; the added efficiency of employing a workman for one particular operation was common knowledge” (ibid, citing Berg).

For me it goes to show that people will be credited for inventing things, when they are often re-stating common knowledge.


Uglow, Jenny, 2002, The Lunar Men, London: Faber & Faber

Fitzmaurice, Lord Edward, 1875-76, Life of William, Earl of Shelbourne, vol. I, London, p. 277

Berg, Maxine, 1985, The Age of Manufactures: Industry, innovation and work in Britain 1700-1820, Blackwell Publishing, p. 293

Life Among the Econ: Talking history with Axel Leijonhufvud

[Cross posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Like many economists, I have enjoyed Axel Leijonhufvud’sLife among the Econ” and nodded appreciatively when he described the social classifications of the Econ as “Grads, Adults and Elders” and chuckled when the young grad tries to impress the elders of the ‘dept’ through adept ‘modl’ building; so when the man himself was holding a glass of champagne and chatting with me at the INET conference, I had to ask how he got that paper started.

“Ah that, you know, of all the papers I have written that is the one they probably translated into the most languages”. [At this point Till jumped in and said of course we all started with ‘Keynes and the Keynesians’ but I digress].

“You know, that paper came out of me being department head, and after a long day of administrative duties, I found myself writing a paragraph here and there, and putting them all in a drawer by my desk.”  Over time those paragraphs accumulated, but there was further inspiration from Farlay Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf – a study of arctic wolves in their harsh northern climate – and it might have provided more than just the homeland of the Econ, as Mowat later wrote:

When I began ‘Never Cry Wolf’ thirty years ago, I intended to cast the wolf in a rather minor role. My original plan was to write a satire about quite a different beast – the peculiar mutation of the human species known as the Bureacrat, who has become the dictatorial arbiter of all our affairs. I also thought it would be fun to take the mickey out [i.e. make fun] of the new high priests of our times, the Scientists, who now consider themselves the only legitimate interpreters of truth. (Mowat, 1963 2001 paperback edition, Preface p. V)

Mowat’s intention was never published with the original book, but life among the Econ definitely puts it across very nicely for the economists…

Publication is a different story of editorial (mis)fortune. The new editor of the Western Economic Journal, Bob Clower, was in the process of changing the journal to Economic Inquiry and was purging a lot of previously accepted papers which he felt were not good enough for his new standards. Clower was in the rare position of being short for the next issues, and as a close friend of Axel, and sometime co-author, Bob asked Axel for his sociological piece (which Axel “had no plans to try and get into print”). The many paragraphs and loose sheets from the drawer were put together in a “somewhat consistent manner” and if you haven’t yet read it, or it’s been a while, it starts a little something like this:

“The Econ Tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding… More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed… Read on

From 1000AD to 1970 the History of World Trade is Based on Fact, After 1970, Fiction?

[Cross Posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Having just started Findlay and O’Rourke’s mammoth history of world trade in the second millenia, I have been struck by a strange incongruity. From before year 1000 and onwards the introduction is all about data, politics and the co-mingling of influences. Then you get to the 1970s and the data seems to be replaced with two very generic statements, and fiction on the effect of recent trade reforms (p. xxv).

  1. The period from 1970 onwards “was to a large extent dominated by the attempt of newly independent countries to industrialize through policies of import substitution” …
  2. “however, the period also saw the unpredecented expansion of world output and trade as a result of trade liberalization and growth in the industrial countries, and technological diffusion to newly industrialised countries”.

There’s a lot to unpack, but saying that the growth in developed countries who imposed trade liberalisation through the Washington Consensus aid packages may indeed have helped those nations grow is not exactly great stuff. The statistics seem to show that these countries grew faster from 1950 to 1970 anyways. Developing countries who did active import substitution like Japan in the 1950s and then the two waves of Asian tigers in the 1970s and then 80s grew really fast (cf. Chang’s Kicking away the ladder) while ‘liberalised’ latin american (with Argentina as the posterboy for these reforms) would bankrupt itself in and after their the lost decade. I’m expecting more when i make it to that chapter, and hope that 970 years of what looks to be serious history and good reading, won’t be ruined by 30 years of fiction. I’ll let you know in 500 pages, but if anyone has made it there already, then comments on the back of a postcard!

UK Budget Appeals to Adam Smith’s Approach to Taxes… Sort of

[Cross posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer (or UK ‘finance minister’) gave his annual budget speech where UK fiscal policy is set for the coming years. In announcing his tax changes he name-dropped Adam Smith as the inspiration for his objectives on tax:

Two hundred years ago, Adam Smith set out the four principles of good taxation – and they remain good principles today. Taxes should be simple, predictable, support work, and they should be fair. The rich should pay the most, and the poor least.  George Osbourne, 21 March 2011

There has been a longer debate about whether Smith was in favour of progressive taxation or whether he simply intended a flat tax, where the rich by definition pay more than the poor. But putting that aside, I wanted to see if those four tax principles were Smith’s principles: Simple, predictable, support work and fair. Grabbing my trusty Wealth of Nations there is a whole section on taxes [Book V. ii. b] where Smith opens by saying that “it is necessary to premise the four following maxims with regard to taxes in general” [V.ii.b.2] – so far so good:

1. “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities” [V.ii.b.3]. Well… this sounds like fair, but recall the controversy about what this actually means. Admittedly it does sound a lot like  ‘from each according to his…’ – but let’s not go down that path.

2. “The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary” [V.ii.b.4] – this has partly to do with knowing how much you are expected to pay so you are not “in the power of the tax-gatherer” and partly to do with avoiding corruption and tax avoidance. So this is probably wherepredictable or at a stretch simple comes from.

3. “Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it” [V.ii.b.4]. A practical approach to taxation, but it doesn’t really fit into any of the above neatly, although there is a case for simple and perhaps  the UK system of charging income tax automatically on wages, supports work. But I think both are tangential. This is really a matter of making taxes convenient to pay.

4. “Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the publick treasury of the state” [V.ii.b.6]. Not sure where this fits in to the Chancellor’s overall scheme, as this is a long paragraph arguing that taxes should not be levied where it is too hard to collect or the incentive to smuggle is too high – so it should be administratively simple.

Given that, Adam Smith’s four principles could be summarised as fair, predictable, convenient to pay and administratively simple – not quite what Osbourne had, but perhaps closer to what he did?

How God, Adam Smith, and the invisible hand changes over time

[Cross-posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

So with a suitably provocative title I think we can declare 2012 open. And in starting the year I was struck by how words and sentences can change in meaning over time, particularly prompted by this quote:

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.”

It looks like an elegant statement of policy intent from a finely crafted presidential speech and we all know what it means. And it was exactly that, but the meaning may not be entirely clear when I tell you that the president was George Washington and the words were uttered in 1789. There is a lot of discussion of what the invisible hand means, or doesn’t mean (e.g. Kennedy 2009), but lets stick with Washington and his first inaugural speech to Congress.

“In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency”

Out of context it could have been any current president. With a little bit of context – here the surrounding sentences – it starts to become a very 18th century statement. That ‘Great Author’ or ‘Providential Agency’ is quite definetly a deity of some form, and then it is left to the rest of us to work out how Washington – who had a copy of Smith’s work on the shelves – had read Adam Smith’s expression of an invisible hand (or some previous reference to it). I’m partial to the religious side, but may have been swayed by Andy Denis (2005) – what do you think?

Backhouse and Bateman wants Worldly Philosophers not dentists; not everyone agrees

[Cross-posted from the History of Economics Playground – original here]

Professors Roger Backhouse and Brad Bateman wrote an op-ed for the New York Times a few days ago, arguing that “thanks to decades of academic training in the “dentistry” approach to economics, today’s Keynes or Friedman is nowhere to be found” – we have stopped thinking big they say.

I was trying to channel something similar a few months back when I asked who does original research?. In a reply, erw rightly reprimanded me for taking such a naive view of how to do history, and Yann amplified the point that originality or greatness was not the historical question. Indeed ‘greatness’ should be studied as something relative.

As historians our role is to historicize such work asking for instance “what was it about the time, place, and community that led this particular work to be judged to be “fundamental” at that time? At another time? How did this claim function in a particular scientific or disciplinary community at a time and place?  -erw 26 July 2011

Backhouse and Bateman are saying that “economists, to whom we might expect to turn for such vision, have long since given up thinking in terms of economic systems — and we are all the worse for it.” And what do we as historians and economists reply? The Societies for the History of Economics mailing list (SHOE) has been hot with debate. Ironically they are debating how Backhouse and Bateman may or may not have under-represented the views of Hayek or Friedman, suggesting various books on history to understand ‘great’ economists, and generally performing dentistry. The debate is not about finding new worldly philosophers, and we are all the worse for it.

So what else can we do? If history tells you that we will not be able to see who is doing original or great research I would suggest that interesting work is at least within grasp. If we economists then think that systemic issues or capitalism as a subject is interesting, I guess there could be a shift. And from there on, I guess we have to rely on the concept from literature: You won’t know a classic until 50 years after it has been published. Maybe that’s a hint to write fewer articles and more books? Much like Niall ferguson said at Bretton Woods, and Backhouse and Bateman mention…