How and why did economic history blossom?

C. inquires:

Why do we live in the golden age of economic history? Was there something identifiable that caused the subfield to grow in esteem? Some new technology that changed the costs of research (not that I can see)? Something else?

Mark Koyama should write a Medium essay on this, but in the meantime here are my thoughts:

1. We now know much, much more about the earlier economic histories of China, India, and some other locales.  The rise of more and better graduate students from the emerging economies, or for that matter from Europe, has been essential here.

2. Some of the turn toward economic history came with the financial crisis, and the search for longer-term parallels, which meant looking back in history, most of all to the Great Depression.

3. Although the advance of cliometrics started a long time ago, we are now finally at intergenerational margins where economic historians are as quantitatively well-equipped as most parts of the applied micro spectrum.

4. The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding.  Yes, this one is an uh-oh.

5. Some applied micro fields have become a little more boring, so that has helped a partial shift of status to economic history.  Public data sets have been exhausted, and a lot of economic history data sets are “weird or idiosyncratic” data sets, which now are “in” and I predict will stay “in” for a long while to come because they offer the possibilities of both new discoveries and moats.

6. An academic trend that hasn’t yet been exploited usually ends up exploited, sooner or later, once the right nudge comes along.

5b, 6b. In chess, the top players are opting for the Giuoco Piano once again.

7. Competing economic models are more “allowed” in the subfield — not everything must be neoclassical — which has opened economic historians to more wide-ranging questions.  Economic history remains a good place to pursue the questions about economics that initially interested many people as undergraduates.

8. Academic attention is more media-driven these days, and good economic history papers usually have a story of some kind, and perhaps also a historical personage, event, or institution of broader interest.


I think economic history's rise is a response to the Great Recession and the failure of traditional macro models.

TC: "In chess, the top players are opting for the Giuoco Piano once again" - this is analogous to my point above: it's an attempt to avoid "opening book theory", which has been found to stifle creativity and not favor the creative mind, i.e., "opening book theory", akin to 'traditional macro models', doesn't reflect the reality of chess, which is to favor the side with the more creative calculating mind, but favors route memorization. In the same way "traditional macro" favors a group of modelers taking to each other rather than trying to imitate what happens in the real world; it does not reflect 'reality'.

One should read the reviews of Yuja Wang to gain perspective on this question. There are thousands of pianists with the technique to respond when someone says play that Beethoven piece in this different way. Surprise ensues, and if the advice was good, that is what we call art. To compare, sadly, happy piano players with happy chess players, the genius of chess is restricted by the enforced closeness to other chess players. Even the fish of the sea prefer to choose their co-competitors from a wider pool! There are thousands of pianists with technique. Tell one of them to play the Hammerklavier like Gottschalk in the best mood of his life on a train painted by Terry Redlin. Surprise does not ensue if Beethoven, who worked so hard, did not know what he was doing, and surprise does not ensue if he did know what he was doing and it had no connection to Terry Redlin style trains, and surprise does not ensue if he did know what he was doing and it had a connection to Terry Redlin style trains but, for subtle reasons that musicians immediately understand (and we are all musicians if we understand this) the musician who was told to follow the Terry Redlin style did not care in the right way. (Please read Spengler's essay on Yuja Wang's version of the Hammerklavier if you found this comment relevant and interesting. Short version - he thought it was nearly infinitely good! I hope he is right but I hope even more that she lives her life with common sense. While sacrifice is required from some artists, people who play the piano are not in that group! Do not sacrifice your human happiness for even transcendent performances of music other people wrote, Yuja!!!!) Guioco Piano indeed.

previous comment transalted into English - Chess has fashions. Boringly, those fashions are propagated by other chess players, not, to tell the truth, that interesting a group of people, except at the margins. Ok, there is this piano player named Yuja Wang. A genius music critic named Spengler wrote a column - in which he (accurately) humble bragged about his closeness to students of the great musicians and music critics of the long ago 19th century - that her performance of the Hammerklavier was better than the best performances of the great European pianists of the 20th century. He pointed out that she is Chinese, and yet she understands Beethoven better than, say, Brendel or Schnabel (which is immensely laudatory, you can look it up). OK, so in my comment I point out that maybe she has really good technique but that she does not really understand Beethoven the way Spengler thought, but merely followed suggestions from someone who (like an economic historian - see the relevance) explained things in a different new way but in a way that related to that which has come and gone (as "what Beethoven thought he was doing" has come and gone). That being said, I have never heard the pianist in question live, but her Youtube videos (Mozart being the one I remembered) made me almost cry, they were so good. I also think Terry Redlin is a genius, but I recognize that is a controversial thing to say. Finally, the pianist in question is 30 and beautiful and wants to start a family with a man she loves but thinks she is called to be an artist, and has sadly hinted she will never bond with someone who loves her. My point in the last few sentences would be - Horowitz would have been a better man if he raised a large family with love in his heart and never played a note of Rachmaninoff. Sure I want to hear great piano players but above all I want people to be happy!

the last sentence of 1:21 and the second to last sentence of 1:11 are fairly recognizable echoes of lines by Li Po and Tu Fu, respectively. Reliqua vero ....

These are two of the best comments I've read on this site. Bravo.

"Horowitz" says "Giuco Piano observations". Is this Horowitz the chess player, of "Horowitz raking bishops" fame, or some music dude called "Horowitz"? And oh, the horror, you confused a chess opening named "The Italian Quiet Game" (I think that's what Giuoco Piano means) with an actual piano! ("pianissimo (pp) very gently (i.e. perform very softly, even softer than piano). This convention can be extended; the more ps that are written, the softer the composer wants the musician to play or sing, thus ppp (pianississimo) would be softer than pp.")

This comment section... Ppppfffft!

Thank you Tristan and thank you Ruy - (ISWYDT, Ruy)

Well the Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven first refused to play by George Bridgewater, a mestizo, is an alright piece. That he recognized eelgrass is necessary but not sufficient. Tolstoy's short story is another in a long line of train stories about the failed use of metaphor in contemporary dialectic. Prinet's painting based off the story speaks to the passion of the musicians and their ability to communicate sufficiently without metaphor. The fact that it was used to sell Wal-Mart perfume speaks to Tolstoy's dilemma. The omnimore's dilemma. That without metaphor there can't be truth and without using metaphor a lie cannot be told aptly. Such an apt pupil Janacek was, his version of the Kreutzer Sonata springs from the firebird and is a salute to music as a metaphor for the "noise" of modernity. And the effort to flip it into something quite moving speaks to music's ability to transform into another world. The fact that Nabokov describes the painting in Lolita or the Pale Fire speaks to the writer's ability to listen to the painter, a lesson well taught by Flaubert.

I'm going to guess the best story is told by La sonate à Kreutzer (1956, France), directed by Éric Rohmer and produced by Jean-Luc Godard

Kreutzer Sonata (the story by Tolstoy) reflects his sad inability to love someone of the opposite sex. His early predatory use of impoverished serf women is an experience few writers of similar genius have been through. Had Tolstoy read the Book of Proverbs he would not have been in that atrocious state of mind that produced the story in question. Flaubert was a phony when it came to discussion of other people's art, he worked hard at his own but knew no more about painting than a dog knows about quantum mechanics. Ditto for Nabokov, smart guy but way too intellectually ambitious. Flaubert and he would have been so nice if they stuck to lyric poetry! Well nobody cares about the portrait of Dora Maar, as Houllebecq recently tweeted (although I would pay a couple hundred dollars for it - 100 year old canvas, well preserved, with nice old paint on it - what's not to like, at that price). Never heard of Walmart, actually I have, I meant never heard of Prinet, and can't feel bad for Tolstoy's dilemma. Not that I don't feel bad for Tolstoy - cor ad for loquitur, and his money and his beautiful wife did not make him happy, sadly. But so many people told him how much he was loved! That was his dilemma - how to love to the degree that he had been shown. Well he said a few things that make one think he almost figured it out. Not many but a few. Janacek was a musician and a good one, never heard of Prinet. Rohmer liked people a lot, "Tales of Springtime" - "An Autumn Tale" - he made movies about people. Who would call a movie "A tale of springtime" or "an autumn tale" if he didn't like people. Good for him! I guess he liked people a lot. Thanks for reading. Next time you read Tolstoy don't think "here I am reading Tolstoy" think "what would this book sound like if Tolstoy had taken the book of Proverbs to heart"? Having read the letters of Tolstoy and his wife, I am sure that is what he would want you to do.

not cor ad for loquitur cor ad cor loquitur: cor ad for loquitur makes no sense. Just a typo.

write a little brighter if you want to pastiche that. As always, thanks for reading.

"le bonheur écrit blanc sur des pages blanches" - don't you believe it! In a dream I dreamt the novel the way the novel should be and the last page described how the author's favorite character could have gone back in time and fixed anything in the past he wanted to fix - did he go back and say the right thing to keep his girlfriend from leaving him way back when in 2008, did he go back and say the right thing to keep his wife from suing for divorce in 2012? No, there was an old dog who never had a friend in the world except for him, and he went back in time and was nicer to the dog. Surprisingly, there are dozens of indirect but clear references in the Bible to the goodness of dogs. And dozens is a big word in the Bible world. It has been years since I have lived far enough north to live in a place where the lilies of the valley bloom but I remember the scent as if it were right here at the moment. That is not much, maybe, but it is something. Cor ad cor loquitur.

The quote on happiness writing white was from Montherlant, not a good day for him when he said it, but don't feel bad for him for that reason, we all have bad days. In Chinese, there is no way to reproduce the fact that few Latin phrases are as close to English as the Latin Cor ad Cor Loquitur, 99 out of 100 latin phrases include at least one noun that is inflected, most English phrases do not, Cor is not, ad never is, cor is not. I suggest just explaining what you want to explain,

happiness written white on white pages, colorless morning swan lawn ornaments.

Whoever brings ruin on their family will inherit only wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise.

Is the fool the one who brings ruin on their family? Is inheriting wind a bad thing?

I will read with such and so-and-so a gaithastening tête-à-tête

TC: "4. The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding.  Yes, this one is an uh-oh." - oh no, this is well known, it's just in-sample and out-of-sample bias. I was looking at a finance paper the other day that showed in order to do a Markowitz portfolio theory statistical analysis that's good to two or three sigma for a basket of stocks, you need about 500 years of stock market data, which nobody has. (from my HD: "Based on parameters calibrated to US stock-market data, we find that the critical length of the estimation window is 3000 months for a portfolio with only 25 assets, and more than 6000 months [500 years] for a portfolio with 50 assets" (Optimal Versus Naive Diversification: How Inefficient is the 1/N Portfolio Strategy? (2007) by Victor DeMiguel et al )

Bonus trivia: the 1/N Portfolio strategy, where you simply just divide up your assets in N buckets of different stocks, and not even rebalance, is a surprisingly good way to diversity. Simplicity wins.

"The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding."

One can't know that the time period is "strange" without the context of the broader stretches of history.

Yep; macro-economics has turned out to be bunkum so people of an economics bent naturally turn to history, which might be less bunkum.

With every passing year, the failure of the third world to converge with the first becomes more and more mysterious from the HBD-denialist perspective.

No, except for parts of Africa, the 3rd World --> 1st World. Look at China.

Yeah, we all know it just takes a year.

Economic growth in African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana is an underreported story. Ethiopia, for instance, nearly quadrupled its GDP per capita over the past 25 years and several others have doubled or tripled over the same period. Several middle income countries have also done an impressive job of catching up as well. Turkey, for instance, in PPP terms is now about as wealthy as the U.S. was in the 1980s.

"Turkey, for instance, in PPP terms is now about as wealthy as the U.S. was in the 1980s."

In terms of GDP per capita (PPP) Turkey is at $23,000, which is where the U.S. was in 1970.

I guess you ignore data a lot.

Check global shares and per capita indicators of income, productivity, education, health, etc. etc.

Previously, the "third world" (I thought it'd been determined a decade ago already that this is not a very useful term, and many people now prefer to say "developing countries") was about 0.01% of human history behind. Now they are perhaps 0.007% of human history behind.

If you can cite a measure for which there has not been convergence since 1960 among imaginable grouping of developing countries (other than the grouping of Zimbabwe and North Korea, which suffer greatly under their respective dictatorships) ... then please feel free to let us know.

You're working on the basis of 20-year old beliefs based on 30-year old data, mostly related to the fact that newly independent countries in the 1960s did not immediately figure out everything about running stuff that had been worked out over the course of previous centuries in wealthier countries.

is North Korea a developing country? is Zimbabwe a developing country? is Venezuela a developing country? is Syria a developing country? is Libya a developing country?

Do political conditions matter?

Does living in peace matter?

What is your point?

I suspect his point was that "third world" is a better phrase than "developing world", because not all third world countries are developing and in any case all 1st world countries are developing. Essentially, the phrase "developing world" is completely inaccurate and misleading. Whereas, just giving a numerical class designation such as 1st, 2nd (no longer used) and 3rd world is a far more objective and rational approach.

Another common approach is income level classifications.

We in the U.S. have hardly have any robots or virtual reality, stem cell therapies or gene therapies. No wide spread cancer therapies, no nano tech yet either and Alzheimer's disease still exists. We won't be a developed country until the late 2020s so that must mean we are a developing country.

Todd, there are still places where a significant portion of the population does not access proper nutrition on a daily basis.

I get your point, and it's worth keeping in mind, especially for more appropriate use in 20 or 50 years time.

the history is a tale of many threads.

internet allowed much better communication about those threads ( uncovering hints for potential synthesis, say better information on climate dynamic leads to findings that 'stable climate' past 10 000 years or so caused agriculture, before good graphical trends were all over internet - it was more costly to make conjectures of such kind )

people are inclined to narratives - and better (more rich) narratives have their listeners.

as for 'neoclassical' mention - instead, it was neoclassical find, that technologies (more generally TFP) play much bigger role in development, than capital ( since Solow work ), older histories ( and even some recent, marxist oriented ) have too much emphasis on capital and so historical narratives had some bias,
but currently we can see, that we can try to fit technologies ( coal, energy in general, climate, geography etc ) into Solow residual and see something more, than we seen before. So new histories are more neoclassical in fact, it is just stories by pure economists are really dry and sometimes, due to their interpretations of what constitutes TFP are nearing absurd (say Alex of this blog claimed that russian climate is great for agriculture due to winters - disregarding more variable climate in general - with more droughts and heavy rains, than in other temperate zones - l Alex story with one only parameter was just too rigid and in fact absurd ) and it is economic historians who really make neoclassical thinking to start to have rich content with many threads of explanations in the very same neoclassical framework which pure economists think are better guardians.

Plus, history is so much easier to use when advocating for a particular set of policy goals - 'Harvard University economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have acknowledged making a spreadsheet calculation mistake in a 2010 research paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt” (PDF), which has been widely cited to justify budget-cutting. But the authors stand by their conclusion that higher government debt is associated with slower economic growth.


Reinhart and Rogoff wrote in their 2010 paper that average annual growth was negative 0.1 percent in countries with episodes of gross government debt equal to 90 percent or more of GDP between 1945 and 2009. Liberal economists have been critical of their work for years (just economists being their usual cranky selves), but now three economists at UMass say Reinhart and Rogoff made several mistakes and omissions. According to the UMass scholars, the “corrected” number is positive 2.2 percent—which means GDP still grows, even when debt levels are very high.


They admit they accidentally excluded five rows from an average in their Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, but not the other charges. Fixing the spreadsheet error would lift growth in those high-debt countries to about 0.2 percent annually (still not that good). Adding country data that wasn’t available when they did the 2010 paper would boost growth further, to perhaps 0.5 percent (ditto). The UMass economists get all the way up to 2.2 percent by using a counting method that gives more weight to a few countries that experienced long periods of high debt. Reinhart and Rogoff insist that their method is better.


In politics, academic studies are used as weapons. The Reinhart-Rogoff work has been widely cited by deficit hawks, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who said, “Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 percent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis.”'

I'm sure that a current Bloomberg columnist such as Prof. Cowen would fully agree with the observation that 'In politics, academic studies are used as weapons.'

Great question. Given that I have published in the Journal of Economic History, have co-authored an economic history book (see Princeton Press 2008 Heroes and Cowards) and I'm married to an economic historian, I feel like I can deliver a partial answer. Great historical data is"out there" if you know where to dig. This creation of longitudinal micro data sets by using people's names and geographical data in repeat cross-sections of data has opened many new opportunities for writing "natural experiment" papers. The field of economic history faces at least two challenges. First, at the publication stage, we are now in the "field experiment era" and economic historians have trouble running randomized field experiments! Without such a randomized research design, clever reviewers can always think of some story for why OLS's assumption of E(U|X) does not equal zero or why IV's assumption of E(U|Z) does not equal zero. Second, if an economy is "non-stationary" and evolving over time, then past historical relationships between say climate conditions and mortality provide an upper bound on future relationships because they under-estimate adaptation. The Lucas Critique lurks throughout when interpreting lessons for today from past events.

Economics is driven by technique at the upper ends. Despite the rise in economic history, the Journal of Economic History has unfortunately not risen much in status because what matters to the top guys are historical papers that have elite technical methods. Moreoever -- without naming names -- there are plenty of articles in top 5 journals that are suspect in their historical interpretation (even by econ standards) that are well-specified technically but which would likely have been rejected by JEH.

So in the end, it's about all the things Tyler mentioned, but it's also how econ only adopts those fields that focus on the technique of the moment. And the lack of RCTs in history as Kahn mentions, restricts how far historians can go unless they engage in the sorts of heroic efforts the current Clark medal winner has undertaken. So these are high risk, low article count career choices.

Understanding economics requires much more than knowledge of economics. Such as sociology, psychology, and, most of all, history, history being an account of what actually happened rather than a model for predicting what might happen. Of course, what actually happened can be an obstacle to what some policy makers wish to happen, especially when it comes to questions about the past economic consequences of high levels of inequality, bubbles, austerity, and regressive taxes. On the other hand, looking to the past for clues to the future can be both a trap for the unwary and an invitation for deception by the dishonest: history is not the past, history is an account of the past by someone in the future, someone with her own prejudices and preferences. In an age of alternative facts, accounts of the past can be an unreliable gauge for what's likely to happen in the future. We know that to be the case because we keep repeating the mistakes of the past while expecting a different future.

"Why do we live in the golden age of gender-studies? Was there something identifiable that caused the subfield to grow in esteem? Some new technology that changed the costs of research (not that I can see)? Something else?"

"Tyler: The rise of more-dedicated and better-motivated social-justice-warriors from the emerging culture wars, or for that matter from ivy-league schools, has been essential here."


It isn't only data sets that are more comeatable ("come-at-able," a term Adam Smith uses in the LJ). We now avail ourselves of vital materials previously not so comeatable, and make much more proficient use of them, searching texts, doing n-grams, reproducing images, stylometrics, and so on.

Diaries, letters, business records, newsprint, and other primary-source social-history materials enable to see better what it meant to the participants, and that gives us insight.

Also we draw more widely from previous interpreters. Interpretations that had been only a narrow arcane province of scholarship, or even forgotten altogether, are being more readily recovered and incorporated into related streams or wider historical narratives.

Some very interesting comments. Any views on current favorite books? Mine are Power and Plenty by Findlay and O'Rourke and Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

Maybe mathematical models have become too abstruse to shed much light on things. You know - more work there produces tiny marginal product - so some possibly more productive areas of research are being explored.

Economic history is one of the few parts of the social sciences not ruined by P.C. These historians can say anything if they have some evidence. This openness attracts scholarship.

Can you imagine Gregory Clark writing something like "Farewell To Alms" in other disciplines?

Also, I think the end of the Cold War opened up the field. Suddenly, eastern Europe, Russia, and China are open for investigation and research.

I've often wondered about the strong methodological division between the history of economic thought and economic history. That division is much weaker, often, in other branches of history--the history of political thought is frequently developed in a way that can teach us a great deal about the history of politics and constitutionalism, and vice-versa.

There are of course plenty particular philosophies of history that insist on the history of ideas being irrelevant or purely epiphenomenal with respect to "real" history. It would be interesting to see an account of how those philosophies might interact with economic history as a field. I wonder, in other words, if it might be fruitful to study the history of economic historical thought.

Interesting. I did not get this impression, looking at econ history papers now people are still disputing the relative per capita income levels between UK and US in 1910.

In 2004, Tirthakar Roy described economic history, in India, as an endangered discipline: Apparently at least in part from confusion about how to reconcile actually working economic history with the official Indian Populist-Nationalist economic history.

If (and only if) we've actually seen a rise to prominence of economic history in the period 2008-2017, I would attribute this to the prominent themes of economic history being relevant to the questions of a globalizing period.

Why the divergence between the West and the Rest? Can the Rest catch up without fundamentally remodeling the cultural values and core institutions of their civilizations towards the West? Are the values of Western civilization "safe" because any competitor will inevitably have to adopt the same institutions to develop? How much economic divergence actually existed in the pre-modern period? Did colonial exploitation in the classical mode really happen at frequency and economic scale and does it explain economic divergence? Why do successes and failures of modernization and development exist among the Rest?

A lot of these questions have become of intensely particular interest as academics from the Rest stream into the West and interact in the same academic communities, and as Populist claims about Western exploitation flourish through out the Rest and its diaspora.

It is very good to know history of these countries, as we all know very little about it and mostly we are guessing. As a trader, I always try to understand how any country works and all that, as it helps me understand their economy situation. I do trading through OctaFX who provide me with day to day market reports plus there is also 24/5 support available, it’s all pretty nice and helps up in working for me in great way.

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