Tag Archives: history

In Search of Economic Narratives

A few years ago, I joined an organization of economic historians. Having written several books on economic history, I thought my involvement in the organization might help me broaden my horizons. But the main debates I heard at the group’s annual meeting concerned whether an equation used the correct variables or an author had adequately accounted for heteroskedasticity. Economic history, as practiced in academia, seemed to be mainly an exercise in regression analysis. Only the most senior professors, free from the demands of tenure committees, dared look beyond their spreadsheets and consider the meaning and implications of their historical research. I let my membership lapse.

I recalled that meeting as I read a recent Washington Post article about the need for economists to tell stories. According to the author, Heather Long, central bank governors from countries such as Australia and Sweden used the annual Federal Reserve conference at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this past August to discuss the role of narrative in explaining economic policy to the public. A new book by Yale University economist Robert Shiller, Narrative Economics, emphasizes that economic outcomes often depend on public beliefs, and those beliefs are shaped by the stories people hear and remember. “Economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics,” he writes.

Unfortunately, these ideas haven’t sunk very deeply into the economics profession, and certainly not into the historical branch of it. Economic historians are few and far between in university history departments; by and large, they’ve relegated themselves to economics departments where their advanced quantitative techniques are appreciated.

Traditional history departments, moreover, seem happy for the economic historians to stay away. There even seems to be a line between business historians, who typically are less addicted to econometrics and are usually housed in history departments, and economic historians, who mainly crunch numbers. I recently met an economic historian teaching at an influential business school who told me that he’s never met the business historians teaching at the same school. He didn’t seem to find that unusual.

The artificial separation of economic history from history has left students in history classes studying political or cultural or social or gender history with little attention to the economic background. Similarly, the public’s knowledge of history often comes from books or television shows in which economic factors are an afterthought. If economists were better at telling stories, their views might get more air time, and the public might have a broader understanding of history. Shiller is right about that.

But telling better stories requires having stories to tell. Economic historians, I would assert, tend to shortchange non-quantitative sources of information — including oral histories and news articles as well as work by historians — in favor of data that can be subjected to the quantitative tools that define academic economics. If economic historians want to offer better narratives, they have to understand that stories should be not only an output, but also an input.

My New Book

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was not remotely on my mind when I began writing my latest book. Nor do I claim to be a political scientist. But the perspective I offer in An Extraordinary Time, which was published on election day, may be useful in understanding the deep discontent that has manifested itself in Trump’s election, Brexit, the rise of fringe parties across Europe, and many other ways.


The book examines what I consider to be a turning point in the history of the second half of the twentieth century–the sudden change in the trajectory of economic growth across much of the world at the end of 1973. Until that point, people in all the advanced industrial economies, and in many of the less developed economies, had enjoyed a quarter-century of nearly uninterrupted prosperity. Living standards had improved in remarkable ways. At the start of this period, around 1948, millions of people in Europe, North America, and Japan still plowed farm fields behind horses or mules and lived in houses lacking electricity and indoor plumbing. Most adults never had a chance to finish high school, and employment usually meant unrelenting physical toil. By 1973, most families could afford cars, color televisions, and summer vacations, and an expanding welfare state provided unprecedented security in the event of on-the-job injury, widowhood, and old age. Unemployment rates were low, wage increases frequent. People could feel that their living conditions were getting better year by year, and they heard constantly that wise government stewardship of the economy made this advance possible.

All of this changed dramatically after 1973. Average incomes would grow less than half as fast through the end of the twentieth century as they did during the Golden Age between 1948 and 1973. As full employment vanished and wage gains slowed, the welfare state came to be seen as a burden, not just a boon. The economic experts who had touted their ability to deliver permanent prosperity had no effective way to fix the underlying problem: much slower growth of productivity. Voters turned right, to leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but it turned out that free-market policies such as firm rules for monetary policy, deregulation, and lower tax rates were no more successful at restoring robust economic growth than the statist policies they replaced.

The reality, I suggest, is that the supercharged growth of the Golden Age was an extraordinary event that cannot be repeated by government directive. My subtitle, The End of Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy, highlights the fact that at most times and places economies grow slowly, not explosively. Voters, recalling the post-war experience, expect more. Politicians have no way to deliver it. That is a recipe for discontent, of which Brexit and Trump’s election are only the latest examples.

Making Archives Customer-Friendly

If you want to get historians upset, just mention NARA. NARA is short for the National Archives and Records Administration, and its main job is running the National Archives. The Archives is a treasure trove of papers, films, photographs, and digital materials documenting the work of the U.S. government. It is also a difficult place to do research. Although NARA has made strides putting certain types of records online, particularly military records–a very large proportion of Archives users want information related to their own or a relative’s military service–the vast bulk of NARA’s holdings is stored in acid-free boxes on the shelves of the main Archives at College Park, Maryland, or at other facilities around the country. Locating a needle in the vast haystack that is College Park requires access to hundreds of looseleaf binders, known as finding aids, which for some reason NARA has never been willing to post online.

Using the Archives as a researcher, it is fair to say, is not a customer-friendly experience. Say a researcher thinks the records of the U.S. Maritime Administration might be helpful. NARA’s website reveals only that College Park houses 357.2 Headquarters Records of the Maritime Administration 1947-69. The researcher must now buy a plane ticket, reserve a hotel room, and come to College Park. There, the finding aids in the textual records room might include a binder or two for the Maritime Administration, with listings such as “Office files of Joe Smith, deputy assistant administrator for shipbuilding, 1951-53.” By the time the researcher has received a few boxes of Joe Smith’s records, he or she has lost several hours of precious research time in College Park. The boxes may not even have records that relate to the topic, meaning that the researcher will have to order more boxes and wait again. And it’s highly possible that someone has determined that the material is security-sensitive, meaning that the researcher must file a Freedom of Information Act request and wait for months to see whether the records will be opened. (The obsession with “security” can go to ridiculous extremes; when I was researching my book The Great A&P, I found that boxes of records relating to a 1940s court case were under seal in College Park, even though everything in the boxes had originally been introduced in open court–and even though many of the same records were available, unsealed, at the National Archives branch in Chicago.)

I recently encountered a very different approach to customer service at the Bundesarchiv, the German Federal Archives in Koblenz. A few weeks ahead, I’d sent an email outlining the research I was doing and the types of records I wanted to see. An archivist wrote me back, attaching a list of records he thought might be relevant. I selected a few, which were waiting for me when I arrived. Fifteen minutes after I walked in the door, I was taking notes.

Instead of finding aids in looseleaf notebooks, the Bundesarchiv has a computerized catalog for use on-site. On the left side of the screen is a schematic of the archive’s holdings that opens into greater and greater detail, so the researcher can specify a search across the entire government’s records or those of a particular subagency. The right side is a search engine that enables the researcher to look by author or keyword, within a desired time period, within whatever records group has been specified on the left. A few seconds later, the system, known as Invenio, spits out a list of relevant records. The researcher can then immediately order the records through Invenio. There are none of the paper call slips required by NARA, which occasionally have errors that lead to the wrong materials being delivered.

I don’t know whether a system such as Invenio is practical at the National Archives. I do know that the system makes it easy to do historical research. Perhaps NARA has something to learn.

History and the economists

This weekend I attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Most of the historians at the meeting were academics, and people like myself, unaffiliated with a university, got the opportunity to hear interesting papers and catch up on the latest trends sweeping academia. This year, the most noteworthy fashion was lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history, which filled no fewer than eleven sessions during the three-day meeting. There also seemed to be a lot of attention given to Latin American, Asian, and African history, as many of the openings in history departments involve teaching those subjects.

Much as I enjoy the diversity of approaches to studying history, it saddens me to see how business and economic history have been marginalized within the history profession. The AHA doesn’t have much use for them, and historians who work in those fields have long since gone off to form separate organizations. As a result, many academic historians — even those who consider themselves scholars of political economy — have little or no economic training, and their presentations at forums such as the AHA meeting are entirely devoid of economic perspectives. For example, at the meeting I heard papers on the Nixon Administration’s support of black capitalism that made no mention of the economic forces buffeting the new black capitalists in the early 1970s, and I heard papers on flood control that assumed that water was the main thing on the minds of members of Congress, rather than, say, employment in their districts. I’m not arguing that every paper should contain econometric analysis, but I think the history profession as a whole has lost out by pushing business and economics aside.