Thank you again to the fine folks at the Historical Society for continuing to send me their journal, Historically Speaking, for no apparent reason. I was excited to read their economic history forum when I first saw a preview of it on their blog and was not disappointed. [I can't blame them for asking mostly economists to participate as most people in that sub-field are indeed economists.]
Deirdre McCloskey of Illinois – Chicago, summarizing Robert Whaples’ lead essay in the forum, writes:
“It’s very true, as he also says, that our numerical habits have repelled the history-historians, especially since they have in turn drifted further into non-quantitative studies of race, class, and gender (it is amusing that the young economic historian Whaples quotes gets the holy trinity slightly wrong, substituting ‘ethnicity,’ a very old historical interest, for ‘class,’ a reasonable new one; it is less amusing that historians believe they can adequately study race, class, and gender without ever using numbers, beyond pages 1,2,3).”
What’s amusing to me is that economists and economic historians think that numbers of any kind are somehow value neutral. Whaples’ piece is particularly damning in that regard:
” Most economists have also concluded that market competition leads to desirable outcomes, while many historians are deeply suspicious of market outcomes. For example, 71% of economists I surveyed agreed that ‘a Wal-Mart store typically generates more benefits to society than costs.’ When I asked historians the same question, only 13% agreed.”
I can’t say I’m surprised by that outcome. If all you care about numbers, all you’ll see on one side are allegedly low prices. What historians see on the other: environmental damage, sprawl, anti-unionism (something which your average economist would probably see as an asset) can’t be quantified, and if it can’t be quantified it might as well be invisible to the economics profession and to me that’s the height of immorality.
My brother is an economist. He thinks I’m a socialist. So I found this line from Whaples particularly amusing:
” It is impossible to prove whether or not people are rational. But when an economist who assumes that they are meets a historian who doesn’t, they often find it hard to communicate with each other and end up talking past each other.”
That’s precisely why he and I seldom talk shop. When we do, and I’m sick of listening to him talk like he’s more objective than I am, I just say “Assume a can opener…”.
I can’t win the argument this way, but it does make me feel better.