Previews of Coming Attractions

For a little while last week, the most emailed item on The New York Times website was Robert Hershey’s fine obituary for the economic historian Robert Fogel, of the University of Chicago.  Fogel, who shared the Nobel Prize in economics in 1993 with Douglass North, died last week, at 86.  EP has been planning to write about Fogel’s most recent book, Political Arithmetic: Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which appeared earlier this year. But that piece isn’t ready to go yet.

And the one on which EP beavered away last week, about Edward Snowden and the rise of the national security state, turned out to require more reporting, my own and others’. (A good idea turned up halfway through.) Meanwhile, The Economist in its lead editorial nailed the broad point: “A government’s first job is to protect its citizens. But that should be based on informed consent, not blind trust.”

So, reader, I’ll let you go with a tip.  If you happen to be in Vancouver next weekend, and have a little extra time and money to spend (none of which characterizes EP at the moment, much as he wishes it were otherwise), you might stop by the annual conference of the History of Economics Society. Mary Morgan, of the London School of Economics, will be the star of the show.

Her new book, The World in the Model: How Economists Work and Think  (Cambridge University Press, 2012) is not for the amateur. It’s a dense philosophical discussion of a series of demanding case studies: What did David Ricardo know about agriculture and how did he know it?  How did Francis Edgeworth’s diagram of exchange between Robinson Crusoe and Friday become the Edgeworth-Bowley box?  What were William Phillips and Walter Newlyn thinking when they built an elaborate hydraulic machine in 1949 to represent the circular flow of the economy?

Morgan’s project, which took more than a decade, is both erudite and precise.. It will take a while before her conclusions are translated into demotic language.  They will be, though, and when they are, the really interesting reviews will be those by economists themselves, in the Journal of Economic Literature, the Economic Journal and the Annual Review of Economics.

One response to “Previews of Coming Attractions”

  1. Fogel was very controversial in his day. His economic history of slavery (Time on the Cross) has not really stood the test of time. One can appreciate his efforts to put our understanding of slavery on a rational basis but I think he really went well beyond the data. He and his co-author made wild conjectures by extrapolating from scanty evidence. Today his conclusions about slavery are largely discredited or ignored. His most egregious work involved imagining the US economy without railroads! I don’t think contra-factual history is all that useful.

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