Saturday, 22 October 2016

Why Econ History Matters

Today was one of Glasgow University's several Open Days for prospective students. In other words, our beautiful Hogwarts campus was filled with tiny teenagers  not even Freshers!  often accompanied by varying degrees of excited parents. As the Economic and Social History (ESH) department had asked me to speak to interested students at the Subjects Fair, I spent the entire morning telling everyone I met why economic history matters and why ESH is the best thing you can study at Glasgow.

I still hold that studying Econ is the most important of all; but since Economics departments around the country (and the world) are fairly good at providing you with everything but an economics education, the best option is to go for ESH. At Glasgow, our world-renowned scholars are really good at presenting many different perspectives, and historians arguing those against each other. That is, economic history is everything the pluralist economic movement wants; and in the absense of a perfect economics curriculum, studying ESH is the current-best method of escaping some of the narrow-minded, algebra-fancy craziness in the economics department. In my ESH department, very few things are banished or unaccepted or frowned upon; I have had lecturers discussing Mark Thornton's work (at the Mises Institute) as well as many Post-Keynesian arguments; I received top-marks for what my marker called a "Hayekian destruction of the Welfare State"; I have favourably quoted Mises at length without getting punished for it. The discussions and plurality we're looking for is right here. 

My case, in different formats, boils down to the following: 
  1. Economic & Social History is the best of two worlds; we get all the amazing riches of history, without the boring emphasis on wars and emperors and kings and memorizing years, combined with the ideas (not technicalities) and the reasoning of economics (and sociology, if that's what floats your boat...). In other words, it's seriously exciting!
  2. The emphasis is hardly ever on giving you "The Right Answer", as economics departments' fancy algebra-mania and your average pre-university history courses often do. Instead, ESH focuses on students' learning the disputes between historians – not necessarily the "winner", or the One True Faith.
  3. It's not sacrificing employability. I remember that the Financial Times last year reported that an increasing number of history graduates are hired into traditionally Economicsy job roles – simply because they are less narrow-minded and better at analysing information than the product of Economics departments, whose bright intellects are clogged up by ideas and models nobody outside of academia really uses. I have personally had several experiences in the Real World of jobs, where employers were much more interested in my edge-y Economic History background than my traditional Economics studies.
  4. (or 3b): Even in Academia and Central Banks, there are many signs that the Return of Economic History is imminent, perhaps most famously captured by the U.C. Berkeley Economic Historian Barry Eichengreen in 2011
"This has been a good crisis for economic history [...]. There was also a surge in references to 'economic history,' first in February of 2008, with growing awareness that this could be the worst recession since you know when, and again in October, coincident with fears that the financial system was on the verge of collapse. Journalists, market participants, and policymakers all turned to history for guidance on how to react to this skein of otherwise unfathomable events."
I glad that I could help nudge a few extra students into this great field of ours. And if you're a convinced devotee already, Glasgow would be the ideal place for you. 

See O'Rourke's article at VOXeu back in 2013 for a whole range of reasons to study Econ History. 


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