What use economic history?

May 28, 2009

In the blogosphere, 2=trend, and recently two high-profile financial journalists — Alan Beattie of the FT and Justin Fox of Time — have come out with heavyweight new books of economic history. Beattie’s False Economy looks at global development, while Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market looks at the history of the efficient markets hypothesis. What I didn’t know until today was that Beattie and Fox are both distant relatives of misguided liquidationists — something which came out when I asked them both about economic history.

How relevant is economic history at times like this, I asked. Can studying history prevent us from repeating past mistakes, or does it just end up forcing us into committing new ones? And how much of a good thing is it that an economic historian is chairman of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve?

Beattie replied first:

– yes, I think it definitely helps when looking at such once-in-a-century events to have a discipline which focuses on specific similar episodes in the past, not least because the sample size is so small. And that does seem to be having some effect on the policy response now. Despite the best efforts of some, I don’t think the Montagu Norman/Andrew Mellon liquidationist instinct or the 1930s “Treasury view” on deficit spending are getting much serious traction in the US or UK, for example. (Irrelevant trivia: I am very distantly related by marriage to Andrew Mellon – something like a third cousin three times removed. She divorced him in a spectacular case involving all sorts of legal shenanigans and managed to walk off with a sizeable chunk of the Mellon loot, though not a nickel has trickled down to me.)

– but of course you need to learn the *right* lessons and pick the right comparator. the current German reluctance to increase fiscal stimulus, for example, seems to be assuming that this is a 1920s/1970s inflationary situation, not a 1930s deflationary one.

– it is good that an economist *who is also an economic historian* is Fed chairman. Not sure you’d want someone who was reading entirely out of the previous playbooks without also being able to recognise that the monetary transmission mechanism has changed out of all recognition. The General Theory is a bit light on what to do about credit default swaps, for example.

Then Justin weighed in:

My book is basically the story of a bunch of guys who decided to ignore financial market history (the dodgy parts, at least) in order to create more elegant models of financial markets’ future. That didn’t work out so well, so yeah, knowing economic history would seem to be useful. But Alan’s right that there are lots of different lessons that can be drawn from the past, and sometimes people draw the wrong ones. I too am related to a liquidationist, by the way—George Washington Norris, the hard-line president of the Philly Fed in the early 1930s, was my great great uncle.

On Bernanke, I’d certainly rather have somebody with his background in that job than an ahistorical rational expectations type who believes bubbles and panics don’t happen. He’s not really a historian, though. He’s a macroeconomist who’s done some research on the financial system breakdown of the early 1930s. He’s worked really hard to avert such a breakdown over the past two years, and on balance that’s a good thing. But he hasn’t really been a student of what causes financial crises in the first place. Still, he’s an open-minded guy who reads a lot, so maybe he’ll figure it out.

I’d be interested in what Brad DeLong — one of the foremost economic historians of our own time — thinks about whether the “Treasury view” is getting much serious traction — I suspect he might have killed it before it had a chance to spread widely, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have been mentioned much since January 20. And in general I think that economic historians are having something of a day in the sun right now, with lots of people looking back to previous economic crises around the world, and fewer people finding modern theory-based economics particularly helpful from a policymaking perspective. Maybe economic history is a classic countercyclical asset.
Update: Brad DeLong comments:

The “Treasury View” that fiscal policy will be ineffective–well, in the past two months I have seen it advocated by Pete Klenow, Luigi Zingales, Michele Boldrin, Niall Ferguson, and Nobel Prize winners Gary Becker, Edward Prescott, and Robert Lucas. Of these, only Pete Klenow had even a half-coherent argument.


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