More History, less Maths – FP2P flashback

OK, I’m off on holidays this week, so thought I’d retrieve a few posts from the early months of the blog, back in 2008, when hardly anyone read it – recycling is a virtue after all. First up, some thoughts from July 2008 on the use of history – I’m still looking for suggestions on this….

More history, less maths. That’s a phrase that for me summed up several years of debating the role of trade in development during the Doha round of WTO negotiations. 

While CGE modelling, conducted by the elite number crunchers of the economics profession, churned out ammunition for liberalizers in the shape of inflated figures for putative gains from the indiscriminate opening up of markets (see Lance Taylor and Rudiger von Arnim’s paper  for Oxfam, critiquing the abuse of CGE in trade debates), historians uncovered an entirely different story about the role of trade in development. The classic text on this is ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’ , by my friend Ha-Joon Chang, an economic historian from Cambridge. Ha-Joon, who brilliantly captures the vital role of the state in the industrial take-off of virtually every ‘now developed country’. The concern is that many of the policies they used (infant industry protection, regulating foreign investment) are in danger of becoming illegal under WTO and other trade rules. It was fascinating watching how this message galvanized developing country delegates at the WTO, who felt far more confident in opposing the double standards of the EU and US when they realized that history was on their side.

Since then, I’ve come across similarly useful ‘lessons of history’ exercises in other areas. A great study by Santosh Mehrotra and Richard Jolly on the role of the state in guaranteeing healthcare and education for all; recent work by UNRISD looking at the broader lessons of history for social policy. Ha-Joon is currently coordinating an ambitious study for the FAO on agricultural policy in successful economies in Europe and elsewhere (Oxfam has also published a paper by Michael Stockbridge on the lessons of agricultural trade policies in take-off countries, making a qualified industrial policy argument for agriculture, as does the work of Dorward, Morrison, Kydd and Urey at Imperial College ).

The value of historical analysis is increasingly recognized – for example by Justin Lin, the World Bank’s new chief economist (see last month’s blog on Justin’s refreshing views). This is linked to renewed interest in power, politics and institution-building – all of which often matter more than particular policies in guaranteeing success, but are largely invisible to CGE-style mathematical wizardry. So if history is such a gold mine for policy wonks, why not get serious and start a ‘lessons of history’ programme? There are probably dozens of issues that would benefit from a historical analysis. Off the top of my head:

· Civil service reform: what have been the politics and economics of the shift to (more or less) meritocratic bureaucracies?
· Environmental legislation: Back in the 1940s, my grandmother died in the London smog, what policies and institutions ensured that kind of thing no longer happens (or at least only rarely) in the UK and other rich economies?

Then there’s access to justice, reconstruction after conflicts, equal rights legislation, financial sector regulation, competition policy, universal secondary education, curbing private and public sector corruption and so on.

What other candidates would people suggest for historical excavation? All we need is a few million dollars, so we can sit a bunch of bright people in a room, brainstorm on priority issues, and commission a ‘Lessons of History’ series. Any offers?

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Comments

4 Responses to “More History, less Maths – FP2P flashback”
  1. Ryan Lanham

    I like your analyses, but this one seems off. Why one or the other? It seems to me that the great problem of the social sciences is bifurcation rather than symbiosis. Why do we have to have no math in history and no history in economics? What’s impressive is the person who blends the two effortlessly. Rare…but potent when found. I think of Common Wealth, or Douglass North’s best stuff. Paul Krugman is actually pretty good at this, too. Relatively few historians or public administration scholars can do it well. Budget guys often try. It isn’t easy–being truly mixed method–a term that has has been rather trampled by less than inspired efforts.

    Ryan

  2. Duncan Green

    Wouldn’t disagree with that Ryan, and maybe I was being a bit binary in the prescription. Ha Joon Chang also disagrees with the ‘less maths’ part of the header! But the motive was that the mathematicians currently enjoy alpha status, while historians are too often dismissed as ‘mere sociologists. We need to rebalance, as you say.

  3. Ken Smith

    I’m sure somebody has done it already but I’d be interested to see the lessons from the abolition of slavery. How do you change the beliefs of those in power away from a business as usual mentality ?

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