Is there a lack of economic historians?

Dec 2011
42
I’m curious to hear people’s opinion about the role, and quality, of economic history. To get the ball rolling, my opinion is that there is a serious lack of quality economic knowledge among the vast majority of historian (myself fully included in that group!) When I mean economic knowledge, I mean to a level that one could alternatively by employed as an economist instead of as an historian.

It seems to me that so much of what has occurred in history is founded on economics. Yet the majority of us cannot go to the sources, for example the ratio of bank notes in circulation to the quantity on reserve in the central bank, and draw meaningful conclusions about the effect that this would have on liquidity and production and, through this, society in general.
For example, when we discuss the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany, we make mention to economic factors, hyperinflation, reparations, the Depression..., but few of us can make judgements on these issues with any certainty because we simply haven’t got the relevant economic skills. There are of course notable examples; for the Weimar era, Gerald Feldman, Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich and Knut Borchardt are three that spring to mind. However, when reading these texts, I find myself having to, by and large, take their word for it because I cannot critically analyse the data they supply myself. Where they disagree, I’m totally at sea!

I raise this point because the rise of Nazism is unarguably one of the key events of the 20th century, and no one would disagree that economics played a fundamental role in this rise, but very few of us can work out exactly how!
What are other people’s opinions? Should training in economic theory play a role in historical training?
 
Nov 2011
628
Texas, USA
This is a fascinating topic and, given I studied economics as an undergrad, something that perks my interest in particular.

I can’t speak from a professional historian standpoint but perhaps part of the reason is that economics and the history of economics often have great political overtones. For example, focusing on the political history of the past 100 plus years or so, the entire debate over the theories of John Maynard Keynes. From the Great Depression up until the modern conservative era of fiscal and monetary policy that started in the late 1970’s, Keynes’ theories had a huge influence on policy and the shaping of economic theory. People are still debating how the major economies emerged from the Depression. Perhaps historians don't want to get into the weeds of this argument.
 
Apr 2010
1,296
The science of Economics is based on good statistical data.

In more periods of history, if not all of them, there just isn't any.
 
Dec 2011
42
The science of Economics is based on good statistical data.

In more periods of history, if not all of them, there just isn't any.
Granted, this is true for a large percentage of history. But for the 20th century and most of the 19th century, the statistical data is so plentiful its verging on overwhelming!
 
Dec 2011
42
This is a fascinating topic and, given I studied economics as an undergrad, something that perks my interest in particular.

I can’t speak from a professional historian standpoint but perhaps part of the reason is that economics and the history of economics often have great political overtones. For example, focusing on the political history of the past 100 plus years or so, the entire debate over the theories of John Maynard Keynes. From the Great Depression up until the modern conservative era of fiscal and monetary policy that started in the late 1970’s, Keynes’ theories had a huge influence on policy and the shaping of economic theory. People are still debating how the major economies emerged from the Depression. Perhaps historians don't want to get into the weeds of this argument.
This is interesting, and indeed might play a role in the problem. There are fantastic economic historians however who do tackle the economic issues of the 20th century that you speak of (Eichengreen, Bordo, Kindleberger, Reinhart, Rogoff), its just that they seem to me to be in the minority and venture into territory that leaves most other historians unable to follow their analysis and critique. Until historians can understand these economic issues, it seems difficult to fully ground many other areas of history that occurred in this era.
 
Apr 2011
1,286
Melbourne
I can really only speak best for my field (French/European history, 18th century to the Bourbon Restoration), but this is frankly quite true. Particularly in French Revolutionary studies, there has been a noticeable decline in economic works. I disagree a little, however, in that economic knowledge needn't be adequate to launch an economic career - for one, it's imprudent to link modern economics to economic revisions on the past; for another, focus in works rather than pure technical knowledge has almost always qualified the economic historian. For what it's worth, economic history was popular in Revolutionary studies more or less until Furet. Thus the decline here has been relatively recent.
 
Dec 2011
42
I can really only speak best for my field (French/European history, 18th century to the Bourbon Restoration), but this is frankly quite true. Particularly in French Revolutionary studies, there has been a noticeable decline in economic works.... For what it's worth, economic history was popular in Revolutionary studies more or less until Furet. Thus the decline here has been relatively recent.
Its interesting to see that this is also the case in revolutionary French studies, and confirms my suspicion that this is indeed a broad and, as you say, relatively recent trend.

I assume that this also answers Steve53's point about the lack of economic data, that there is sufficient data in 18th Century Europe/France to work with.

I disagree a little, however, in that economic knowledge needn't be adequate to launch an economic career - for one, it's imprudent to link modern economics to economic revisions on the past; for another, focus in works rather than pure technical knowledge has almost always qualified the economic historian.
Yes, while I agree that it might not be fully necessary to have that level of modern economic theory, you do find many respected economic historians currently providing policy advise for the current financial crisis, showing that it is not out of the question to be able to carry out the two.
 
Nov 2011
628
Texas, USA
I assume that this also answers Steve53's point about the lack of economic data, that there is sufficient data in 18th Century Europe/France to work with.
I'm not so sure on that.

The application of complex mathematics to economic theory is actually more of a recent phenomenon (second half of the 20th Century).

Interestingly, many modern economists are actually trending back to non-mathematical explanations to explain some of the errors in their economic models based exclusively on mathematics.
 
Dec 2011
42
I'm not so sure on that.

The application of complex mathematics to economic theory is actually more of a recent phenomenon (second half of the 20th Century).
Yes, the development of the science of economics is rather recent, but what I mean is that the raw data exists from this period which economic theory can now examine. I remember seeing quite a lot of data on the development of John Law's bank in France in 1716 and the subsequent Mississippi Bubble which it fueled. Much the same way data exists from episodes in 19th century British banking, such as the collapse of Overend Gurney in 1866, which can now be examined with modern economic theory.

When you say that economics is moving away from mathematical models, do you mean the use of ideas such as 'irrational exuberance' instead of capital flows to explain bubbles? Just out of curiosity.
 
Nov 2011
628
Texas, USA
When you say that economics is moving away from mathematical models, do you mean the use of ideas such as 'irrational exuberance' instead of capital flows to explain bubbles? Just out of curiosity.
Yes. Behavioral economics use psychology (among other things), to explain particular aspects of human behavior and how that behavior explains all kinds of economic phenomenon. Back in the 1960's the leading economists generally explained everything assuming the rationality of human actors in the economy and the efficiency of markets and they tended to look down their noses at economists using anything other than mathematics as the basis of theory. Some economists still dismiss behavioral economics as nonsense but there is growing acceptance.

And I would not say that economics is "moving away from mathematical models" entirely. Basically all economists use them as a foundation.