Category Archives: History of Economic Thought

“The Otherness of the Past:” (Economic) History and Policy in the Age of Disenchantment

On history and policy: Time in the age of neoliberalism
Francesco Boldizzoni (francesco.boldizzoni@unito.it), University of Turin
URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/zbwmpifgd/136.htm
Abstract: It is often said that history matters, but these words are often little more than a hollow statement. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the view that the economy is a mechanical toy that can be fixed using a few simple tools has continued to be held by economists and policy makers and echoed by the media. The paper addresses the origins of this unfortunate belief, inherent to neoliberalism, and what can be done to bring time back into public discourse.

“How will the 2008/09 crisis influence historical scholarship? [...] The recent crisis reminds us that the policy response is as much a matter of ideology and politics as it is a matter of economics. [...] The widespread use of the Great Depression analogy in the recent crisis having reminded us that historical narratives are contested, we will see more explicit attention to the question of how such narratives are formed.” – Eichengreen (2012: 303-304, my own emphasis added)

This paper, based on a lecture Francesco Boldizzoni gave as a scholar in residence at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, and distributed via NEP-HPE on July the 15th, 2013, explores the difficult relationship between history and policy, focusing on the ways in which scholars and policymakers have used and abused history in recent times.
Francesco Boldizzoni

Francesco Boldizzoni

The unnamed field in the title of Boldizzoni’s paper is no other but economic history, which comes as no surprise for those following the reception of his book The Poverty of Clio. Resurrecting Economic History, a controversial and dismal depiction of the state of economic history published in 2011. In his book, Boldizzoni (research professor of economic history at the University of Turin, and fellow at Clare Hall in Cambridge University) argues that economic history is dead, sickened by the epistemological and methodological faults of cliometrics and the new economic institutionalism (NEI), as well as “a lack of historical sensibility, linguistic skills, and by an amazing level of scholarly illiteracy” amidst her practicants and followers (Boldizzoni 2011b). Boldizzoni claims that if scholars are to “resurrect” economic history, they must draw inspiration from the example set by historians of the Annales school, the historicized socioeconomic modeling of Karl Polanyi, Moses Finley, Alexander Chayanov and Witold Kula, and insights taken from the neighboring disciplines of economic sociology and economic anthropology.
The paper now reviewed problematizes the relationship between history and policy, and more specifically, the interaction of economic history with economic policy, with particular attention to the uses and abuses of history and memory. Standing in the crossing of economic history, the history of economic knowledge and thought, memory studies, and the history of economics and science, Boldizzoni’s paper demonstrates the merits of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, as his approach offers a nuanced, cautious answer to the role of historically-informed policymakers during economic downturns and illuminates what stance should economic historians have in the public sphere. Boldizzoni argues that history “is both a search for meaning and an injection of antibodies:” honest economic historians should necessarily denounce poor scholarship that mobilizes and abuses the past for political purposes in the present, and inform their audiences that the economic system is a “historically determined [...] social construction, a man-made environment.” (Boldizzoni 2013: 10).

The Origins of the Modern Concept of Money

French economists and the purchasing power of money

by Alain Béraud (alain.beraud@u-cergy.fr), THéorie Economique, Modélisation et Applications (THEMA), Université de Cergy-Pontoise (France)

Abstract

When French economists read The Purchasing Power of Money, they were primarily interested in the equation of exchange and the reformulation that Fisher proposed regarding the quantity theory of money. This reading led them to ponder the meaning that should be given to this theory and to study its empirical significance. Some of them, namely Rueff and Divisia, went further still and considered Fisher’s work as a starting point for their own analyses, which were related in particular to the monetary index, the integration of money into general equilibrium theory and the analysis of monetary phenomena in an open economy.

Keywords: quantity theory of money; price index; theory of purchasing power parity; marginal utility of money; integration of money into general equilibrium.

URL http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/emaworpap/2013-10.htm

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-03-30. Alain Béraud, its author, offers a detailed account of how many French economist criticised Irving Fisher’s (1867–1947) quantity theory of money while others supported it. In particular, he explores the extent to which Firsher’s ideas appear within the work of two great French economists, namely François Divisia (1889-1964) and Jacques Rueff (1896-1978).

Alain Béraud – Professeur de Sciences Économiques
(Université de Cergy-Pontoise)

Fisher’s formulation of the equation of exchange (where the total price of commodities sold equals the total value of the money that was given in exchange) is now part and parcel of every undergraduate programme in economics. It is integral and fundamental to the current understanding of macroeconomic management. Given this plus the rise of digital payments, mobile-phone wallets and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, it is important to remember and indeed timely, to have an in depth discussion about how our conception of money – then measured as notes and coins – came to be and how it was shaped by dissenting views. In this regard says Béraud:

From the time of its publication through to the 1930s, The Purchasing Power of Money was the reference work for French economists who interpreted it as the modern, rigorous version of quantity theory. But this theory was hardly popular. It is therefore not surprising that many French economists, while recognising its merits, fiercely criticised it. It was only in the 1920s that Rueff and Divisia, both graduates of the École Polytechnique where they had been students of Clément Colson, used this book to develop their own analyses of monetary phenomena. Here, I have defended the idea that their contributions were certainly original but were nonetheless based on ideas that Fisher had supported.

Front of French frank coin (1996), commemorating the life of Jacques Rueff

As noted above, through his narrative Béraud compares and contrasts how the work of Fisher was incorporated into the ideas of French economists. He also offers a rich discussion of the reasons why there was dissent and why many took exception and actively criticised Fisher’s work.

The picture that emerges from Béraud’s work allows us to see how economist of the early 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic are engaging in a type of debate that now dominates the discipline, namely highly quantitative and empirically based. Something that, I thought, only took place after World War II – and thus, happy to be set straight. Moreover, this sort of debate was something that, according to Walter Friedman’s brief biography of Fisher, characterised Fisher’s early contributions to our understanding of macroeconomic phenomena. However, we are not provided by Béraud with enough detail to ascertain if a debate with such characteristics was widespread in France or whether it is Béraud’s reconfiguration of the debate between monetary factors and prices, that which leads us to emphasise its quantitative, formal, empirical aspects.

It was also interesting to know that the contemporary discussion of Fisher’s ideas was hampered by lack of available data. For instance, Béraud notes that at this point in time: “data on bank deposits [was unavialble]. Only some establishments published monthly statements.” Here, in my view, some more context as to how and when such measures came to be mainstream and a brief reference to the overall construction of macroeconomic statistics in France would have given a bit more sense of perspective to the discussion.

In the same vein, I would have liked, as a manner of introduction, some context as to why, how relevant and how widespread the debate of Fisher’s ideas was in France during the interwar period. It seems French economists are very concerned with determining exchange rates and the future of the Gold Standard at the end of the First World War. But this is only mentioned in passing. For the international reader it would have also been helpful to have an introduction as to the broad configuration of French economists groups or lines of work at this point in time.

But for all my comments and on balance, this paper makes an interesting read.

François Divisia (1889-1964) – a founding member of the “Econometric Society”

Utopian visions of the ‘cashless society’

Pre-1900 utopian visions of the ‘cashless society’

Matthew Hollow (matthew.hollow@durham.ac.uk)

URL http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/40780.htm

Abstract – This article looks in more depth at the different ways in which ideas about cashless societies were articulated and explored in pre-1900 utopian literature. Taking examples from the works of key writers such as Thomas More, Robert Owen, William Morris and Edward Bellamy, it discusses the different ways in which the problems associated with conventional notes-and-coins monetary systems were tackled as well as looking at the proposals for alternative payment systems to take their place. Ultimately, what it shows is that although the desire to dispense with cash and find a more efficient and less-exploitable payment system is certainly nothing new, the practical problems associated with actually implementing such a system remain hugely challenging. This paper was written for the Cashless Society Project, an interdisciplinary and international effort to add some historical and analytical perspectives to discussions about the future of money, banking and payments. For more information, see http://cashlesssociety.wordpress.com

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This short paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-09-03. It is part of a broader effort to discuss the future of money through contemporary and historical perspectives.

In this paper Mathew Hollow identifies the idea of cashlessness within five pre-1900 authors namely, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the socialist utopians Robert Owen (1771–1858), William Morris (1834–1896) and Samuel Butler (1835–1902), and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Bakwards (1888). Although none of these authors actually coins the term ‘cashless’, Hollow tell us that

‘… new ideas about monetary systems have been presented and debated is the utopian treatise…. through which thinkers of all political persuasions could articulate their thoughts and ideas as to how to overcome the various practical and ethical problems associated with money.’

This was revealing as I expected cashlessness to emerge as part of the ‘classical political economy’, 19th century French economists like Léon Walras, J. B. Say, within the work of Stanley Jevons, Karl Menger or simply related to ideas dealing with the separation between real and nominal economies. Also of interest is that these early authors initially discuss money (in the form of gold and silver coins) and move to portray a dissatisfaction with financial intermediaries (which in a way echoes today’s critiques).

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), oil on panel, 1527

Matthew Hollow argues that in Utopia, More is concerned with how money is a hindrance to peace and prosperity and therefore the best way to do away with all the problems associated with money is to do away with it. But for for this to work society has to be reorganised from first principles. As a result, the inhabitants of the Island of Utopia are in no need of anything (as far as finance is concerned). A perfect society. An idea that later on reappears in many shape and forms, including 20th science fiction authors (which, by the way, take a superficial attitude towards this and largely side step deeper issues relating to money, financial institutions or economic organisation).

In Hollow’s interpretation of More, money is more than a medium of exchange, unit of account or store of value. It actually acquires a social dimension. An idea that is not really explored systematically until perhaps Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (1907) or even Viviana Zelizer’s The Social Meaning of Money (1994).

Hollow’s then takes us to the 19th century to show how More’s ideas influenced Robert Owen (1771–1858) and William Morris (1834–1896). Like More, Hollow tells us, Owen ‘detested’ the monetary system and proposed one of locations where workers could exchange their surplus, and was critical of  gold and silver ‘.. as a means of exchange and was particularly concerned about the effect that a shortage of either could have upon the welfare of the poor.’ Owen goes as far as proposing a medium of exchange with the quality of ‘… expansion and contraction to a fractional accuracy ..’ but fails to specify how this would work. We all know that Owen’s ideas were highly influential in both the US and Britain and in spite of several efforts, they all failed in practice.

Hollow also reminds us how More’s ideas of a perfect society with no ideas of private property or commercial profit resurge in William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890). Its a future where money holds no value. So why is this relevant? Hollow says that these ideas ..’ reflected a deep seated unease that many contemporaries felt about the pace of economic and industrial development.’

Regarding Samuel Butler’s satirical utopian text Erewhon (1872), Hollow believes the message behind the ‘Musical Bank’ reflected Butler’s view of a fundamental reshaping of the already outworn financial services of his era and a critique of the coins and note system of the Western world.

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898)

Of course, a review of pre-1900 authors would be incomplete without Edward Bellamy’s now classic book. But here Hollow helps us by comparing and contrasting the Ballamy’s ideas with those of his contemporary utopians. This includes tackling head on whether Bellamy indeed introduced the idea of a ‘credit card’ in light of his own views on credit.

Finally, Hollow offers some conclusions as to why there is more in the socialist utopian literature about the cashless society than just removing the ‘conventional’ notes and coin system (which was already there as a posibility in More). But that it was technologically difficult and doing away with cash would require a major transformation of society. Here then a clear link with the idea of cashless and checkless that emerges in the mid-20th century along side business applications of computer technology.

In summary, Matthew Hollow offers a short yet provocative essay as to early notions of cashlessness which help to put the idea of a cashless society in long term perspective.

Matthew Hollow (Durnham)

In Antitrust We (Do Not) Trust

British economists on competition policy (1890-1920)

By Nicola Giocoli (giocoli@mail.jus.unipi.it), University of Pisa

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/39245.htm

Abstract

Most late 19th-century US economists gave a rather cool welcome to the Sherman Act (1890) and, though less harshly, to the Clayton and FTC Acts (1914). A large literature has identified several explanations for this surprising attitude, calling into play the relation between big business and competition, a non-neoclassical notion of competition and a weak understanding of anti-competitive practices. Much less investigated is the reaction of British economists to the passing of antitrust statutes in the U.S. What we know is simply that none of them (including the top dog, Alfred Marshall) championed the adoption of a law-based competition policy during the three decades (1890-1920) of most intense antitrust debates in the U.S. The position of three prominent British economists will be examined in this paper: H.S. Foxwell, D.H. MacGregor, and, of course, Alfred Marshall – the latter in two moments at the extremes of our period, 1890 and 1919. It will turn out that they all shared with their American colleagues a theoretical and operational skepticism about the government and judiciary interference with the free working of markets. They also believed that British industrial structure and business habits were so different from those in the U.S. that the urge of interfering with markets in order to preserve competition was much weaker. Among the paper’s insights is that Marshall’s key concept of “defending a competitor’s right to compete” foreran the modern characterization of the goal of competition policy as “the protection of the competitive process”. Yet Marshall developed his concept without making recourse to the post-1930s neoclassical notion of competition as a static market structure which lies at the foundation of most contemporary antitrust policy: a useful lesson from the history of economic thought for those IO economists who still claim that the classical dynamic view of competition is unsuited as a foundation for an effective competition policy.

Review by Chris Colvin

I will be teaching industrial organisation (IO) to undergraduates next year. It is a brand new course, and so I have been trawling though the websites of IO teachers around the world for inspiration. Overall, I have been quite perplexed with what I have found: undergraduates seem to be fed material that is very theoretical and computational, with little or no context or application. Perhaps this prepares students well for graduate programmes in economics, but the vast majority of economics undergraduates aren’t going to be doing a PhD. And even those that do will require exposure to some empirical research.

I want my students to use their microeconomics, to get them to appreciate that real life is dirtier than in the models. And I want them to understand that economic ideas aren’t fixed in time and space, that a log-run perspective can yield interesting insights about human behaviour. I plan to do so by limiting the use of textbooks and instead delving into academic papers and antitrust cases. I feel economic history should play centre stage in an economics degree, not relegated to an obscure field study. So, when teaching sunk costs and market structure, I will look at the decline of Europe’s film industry in the early twentieth century; when covering collusion, I will set them the US sugar cartel of the 1930s; when teaching natural monopolies, I will examine Victorian railways; and when looking at the efficacy of patents, I will do nineteenth century alternatives.

I am also keen to find something accessible that students can use to appreciate the origins and evolution of competition policy – including why it differs by place, and how legal decisions based on economic arguments made long ago still have resonance today. I want to teach them some history of economic thought. One paper that I hope to discuss in this context is Nicola Giocoli‘s working paper distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-06-13. Giocoli looks at the reaction in the UK to the advent of antitrust in the US. He finds that influential British economists like Foxwell, McGregor and Marshall were dead against US-style anti-monopoly legislation. They believed it would be difficult to implement, run counter to the ideals of a free market, and be inappropriate in the UK industrial context. The UK had to wait until the 1970s for a pukka competition policy to be introduced.

Alfred Marshall, whose ideas about antitrust policy are explored by Nicola Giocoli

What is particularly interesting about Giocoli’s paper is his description of a transformation in what economists thought competition entailed. For classical economist, competition was about firm conduct; they adopted a dynamic process-based view of competition. For the neoclassical economists that followed, competition was more about market structure, the market condition; this static view was more concerned with business size and the number of competitors. For someone teaching modern IO theory, this is fascinating. Over the last two (or three) decades, IO has seen a paradigm shift from the old structure-conduct-performance view of competition – which primarily concerned itself with measuring market structure – to the so-called New Industrial Organisation view – which, apparently much like the economists described by Giocoli, is far more concerned with figuring out firm conduct and doesn’t necessarily draw a causal link between structure and performance. In short, it appears we have come full circle.

I like Giocoli’s paper because he tries to marry his history of economic thought with up-to-date research in economic history. Instead of seeing the US as a success and Britain as a failure – a view that business historian Alfred Chandler made a living out of – Giocoli argues instead that competition law was unnecessary because Britain was largely still a success, still ahead of everyone else terms of total factor productivity – it didn’t require government intervention. I would encourage Giocoli to further develop this argument by looking at some of the work of Leslie Hannah, whose career has been devoted to debunking Chandler. His work (including in the JEH) shows that the Chandlerian corporation was actually far more a thing of Europe than America. A monopolist like Standard Oil – the company whose breakup is central to any history of antitrust – was the exception rather than the rule. US capitalism is a story of small family-run enterprise, not big business. How does this revision of the business history affect Giocoli’s argument?