How to study history of economic thought

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 10-19, 2019. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhDs will also be considered.

Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free housing and a booklet of readings. We are also able to provide limited travel support. The deadline for applying is March 1.

We are very excited about this year’s program, which will focus on giving participants the tools to set up and teach their own undergraduate course in the history of economic thought. There will also be sessions devoted to showing how concepts and ideas from the history of economics might be introduced into other classes. The sessions will be run by Duke faculty members Bruce Caldwell and Jason Brent, who will be joined by Steve Medema of the University of Colorado–Denver. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website,


Pretty cool activity for them to fund. I'd have to think there's a donor behind this, how else would such a Center be able to pay for it.

Okay some googling shows that the Center for the History of Political Economy was started by a grant from the John W. Pope Foundation. Wikipedia quotes an article describing the foundation as supporting organizations "that are designed to further conservative and free market ideas". The Pope Foundation's list of grantees shows some with a definite free market slant, but others that are pretty neutral.

I don't know much about Duke's Center for History of Political Economy but what little exposure I've had suggests that if they lean in a direction it's more left than right (but they might not lean in either direction). Roy Weintraub is the first name that I think of, and Mirowski was one of the senior scholars in the 2018 summer institute. I don't know much about the other people.

"Economic" and "thought" in the same sentence. Who would have thought?

I would not trust an economist who was not a self made multi-millionaire or billionaire.

And an unrelated but interesting thought: I don't trust a [politician who becomes a muliti-millionaire while in office. I think we need a law that any politician who becomes rich in office must be thrown out of office, restricted from further political activity AND investigated by the FBI.

Of course, history is not the past, it's someone's account of the past. That's not to say that I don't favor more attention to economic history, because I do. For example, the level of inequality in 2008 was about the same as in 1929.

Totally different sphere. This is about history of thought (Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Mill, etc.) vs. economic history (North, Fogel, Mokyr, etc. on the Industrial Revolution or the economics of slavery or the Depression).

Is it worth studying? Economists haven't done a whole lot the past 30 years except more deficit spending and bailouts.

And relentlessly advocating for more socialism, and the election of more Democrats. Don't forget that! Those past-times are very lucrative.

What's wrong with socialism?

Well, that is a remarkable change in economic thought, don't you think?

That change took place over about 50 years, and in my opinion is based on misreading Milton Friedman's work in the 60s and 70s opposing the pragmatic implentation of Keynes. Described by Ike in his departing remarks known for "military-industrial complex".

Friedman was very aware economics is zero sum, so he knew the only way to cut what he considered was excessive living costs, also knowns as consumer spending, was by cutting worker income by cutting investment. He saw the tax code and government regulation as driving excessive, thus wasteful investment. He knew investment was almost entirely paying workers.

For example, the tax cut promoted excessive oil industry investment, too much drill baby drill. That kept US oil production rising to 1970 when Friedman believed job killing oil imports were preferable. Oil production costs were over $2 in the US to costs of under a quarter, maybe a dime in Saudi Arabia, with Texas setting the global price at $3 from 1945 to 1972 when OPEC raised the global price. However, changes in the tax code meant investment in the US fell from 1970 onward even when the global price increased to more than three times the real price in ~1968 when tax law changed, changed Friedman sold to both conservatives and progressives who liked oppoosing expected results: lower taxes paid on higher profits, higher taxes paid and much lower after tax profits

A second example was utility regulation resulting in too much investment producting too much electricity and telephone service with too much reliability and too high utility bills even after rates were lowered.

To increase business profits, which were a capped return on invested, depreciated, capital, utilities had to pay workers to build more capital to keep the base from decreasing from depreciation, which required convincing government to approve better improved hardware. Eg, nuclear power plants, or computer controlled telephone switches, and digital voice transmission. Or, get customers to use more electricity or spend more time on the telephone, especially lonng distance calls.

Bell Labs and WE had plans to replace 100% of Bell company copper with fiber, which would have doubled the regulated value of installed transmission lines because the average age would be much lower. Fiber costs were the same as installing copper by 1990.

Utility deregulation moved the rates setting to a return on market price of capital. Which moved to the price paid to buy the utility, which was more than the depreciated cost of capital. For example, price for Internet is unrelated to cost, set very high as a base, with price discounted when there is competition, and capital costs high only when faced with a deep pocketed new competitor building new capital from scatch. Eg, Comcast competing with regulated FiOS or AT&T and its new fiber investment.

Today, high profits and low investmment is considered better than what existed in the 60s because capital investment is rationed for only high income customers while middle and low income customers probably get poor service or nothing.

1. Economics isn't zero sum.
2. Milton Friedman didn't think it was.

Sounds like a great program. The mruniversity course "Great Economists" is another free and great way to study the history of economics.

Will Nancy MacLean be featured?

She'll be doing the keynote address at the Seminar on Historical Fiction across campus. HEYO!

Really, any program featured here leads to reporting like this - 'The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University has recently received a $5 million grant.

The grant, which was given by the Charles Koch Foundation, will help the center implement various improvements including adding faculty, expanding relationships with students and partnering with the Rubenstein Library to hire a digital librarian.

“We’re excited to support Duke’s faculty as they continue to build on years of innovative work in the field of economic history,” said Ryan Stowers, vice president of the Charles Koch Foundation, in a press release. “The center’s study allows others to learn from and build on the lesson of the past—the way different economic theories have played out in different societies.”'

Just another one of those coincidences, of course.

"expanding relationships with students": I thought #MeToo was meant to put a stop to that?

That is the more up-to-date information about donations and funding that I'd looked for, but didn't find. Given the proclivities of the John Pope Foundation, it's not surprising that the Charles Koch Foundation would be interested in funding some of the same organizations.

But just as the Pope Foundation funds some activities that are politically and ideologically neutral, so do the Kochs. Maybe Duke's History of Econ Thought Center has free-market biases that I'm not aware of, but on the surface it seems neutral or maybe leftish to me.

The Koch Brothers went to MIT as undergrads and one of them (as well as a third brother) played basketball. One or more of them sponsored a Koch Basketball Tournament at MIT, inviting three other universities to send both their men's and women's teams, so eight teams total. This is all at the NCAA Division 3 level.

The other universities were the University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Rochester.

I suppose we could say that the econ departments at those schools have free market leanings, but this basketball stuff seems to be an example of the Koch Brothers funding a non-ideological non-partisan activity.

Those universities are not exactly the NCAA Final 4, but in terms of Div 3 are not your usual set of small liberal arts colleges such as Williams and Middlebury. The three visiting teams are all part of the same NCAA conference, the University Athletic Association, which surely has the distinction of being the Div 3 conference that is most geographically widespread as well as having the wealthiest members (other members are Emory, NYU, CMU, Brandeis, and Case Western Reserve).

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