Economics and the Historian.
Jon Cohen, a Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto, stresses the importance of institutions (e.g., households, farms, and firms) in economic analysis and historical development. "To the economist, institutions represent efficient ways of organizing human activity where markets alone will not suffice" [p. 60]. People turn to institutions because they find that they perform the tasks of allocating and/or distributing better than markets. Cohen contends that a knowledge of economic institutions can help explain such historical questions as why sharecropping and not wage labor-contracts characterized the economy of the U.S. South after the Civil War and why nineteenth-century French peasants preferred small family farms to larger, agribusinesses. Agrarian institutions "which many dismiss as economically inefficient or irrational, may represent perfectly rational attempts by farm folk to resolve problems that markets cannot" [p. 71]. In other words, there are often very good economic reasons to explain historical patterns of behavior.
Using the form of a dialogue between Clio, the muse of history, and Hades, the Greek god of the underworld and dispenser of "earthly riches" [p. 85n], Susan B. Carter, Professor of Economics, and Stephen Cullenberg, Associate Professor of Economics, both at the University of California, Riverside, discuss the relative merits of historical and economic approaches to the labor market. Although their dialogue is rather strained (it is hard to imagine this conversation taking place over coffee as envisioned), it enables them to cover a myriad of economic terms and models dealing with the labor market. Hades asserts that an understanding of the laws of supply and demand, the labor demand and supply curves, price elasticity, and rational economic behavior will help Clio analyze historical developments such as the gender wage gap, regional differences in the spread of slavery, and the westward migration of labor.
Hugh Rockoff, a Professor of Economics at Rutgers University, similarly employs the story of a mythical kingdom to familiarize historians with basic monetary terminology and theory. Seigniorage, debasement, the quantity theory of money, the Fisher effect, hyperinflation, the Phillips curve, etc., are all discussed in the context of their impact on this fictitious polity. Mercifully, Rockoff does not expect his neophytes to employ monetary theory in their historical analyses; rather, he encourages historians to begin a dialogue with economists about the "why and when" of monetary policies.
In an essay extolling the value of a macroeconomic rather than a microeconomic approach, Richard Sutch, Professor of Economics and History at the University of California, Berkeley, examines historical explanations for the slow growth of the Southern U.S. economy in the century after 1870. Whereas a micro-economic analysis based on diaries and personal accounts might concentrate on the devastation caused by Sherman's army, a macroeconomic one would consider wider developments such as "flawed institutions, racism, and factor immobilities" [p. 175] as more important.
Neoclassical economics can also provide useful explanatory models according to Donald N. McCloskey, Professor of History and Economics at the University of Iowa. McCloskey contends that the consideration of "choice under constraint" [p. 123] would not only expand the historical narrative but would also change the language of the account. The historian "would tell stories of failure by recourse to unprofitability more than to cultural flaws; she would replace metaphors of 'growth' with metaphors of 'profitability' and 'entry' . . . she would make use of the fruitful if deterministic myth of efficiency to explain how institutions arose" [p. 138].
The final essay by Peter H. Lindert, Professor of Economics and Director of the Agricultural History Center at the University of California, Davis, focuses on the mutual benefit historians and economists can derive from combining the perspectives and methods of their disciplines. In his own work on international economics, Lindert finds that "economists do a poorer job of charting the cause of policies (and institutions) than in charting their economic consequences" [p. 237], and historical approaches may provide economists with a better understanding of the former while economic approaches may provide historians with a clearer explanation of the latter.
The volume's use of illustrations from various eras and regions is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it is difficult to use generalist works as this in a history curriculum characterized by geographical and chronological divisions. On the other hand, the diversity of regions and time periods examined make the book attractive for use in a historiography and/or methodology course. The fact that several authors have joint appointments in history and economics means they are aware of disciplinary prejudices and suspicions, and, as a consequence, they confront these directly in their narratives. There are a few minor factual errors such as the statement that the "chief tenets of economics are . . . rooted in the writings of practical Englishmen [my emphasis]" such as "Adam Smith" [p. 245]. Historians with their sensitivity to national boundaries and ethnic differences know that Scots are British but never English!
In order to encourage historians at all levels to employ economic theory and methodology, the authors include eight pages of "Some Advice to the Reader," five pages of "Suggestions for Readings and How to Approach Them," and twenty-five pages of "References." Despite these efforts, Economics and the Historian remains a "hard read." Most undergraduates, and perhaps even some professional historians, will be turned off by the disciplinary lexicon: as one student told me, "If I wanted jargon, I would have gone into political science." Contributors' efforts to incorporate a wide variety of economic concepts and approaches have resulted in essays which come perilously close to textbook chapters. Ironically, in their attempt to appeal to historians, the authors have failed to do what historians do best - tell a good story. Economics and the Historian is a good source book for the newly converted; on its own, the work will inspire few conversions.
Amy Thompson McCandless College of Charleston
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|Author:||McCandless, Amy Thompson|
|Publication:||Southern Economic Journal|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1997|
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