At Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen responded to a reader:
Why do we live in the golden age of economic history? Was there something identifiable that caused the subfield to grow in esteem? Some new technology that changed the costs of research (not that I can see)? Something else?
Mark Koyama should write a Medium essay on this, but in the meantime here are my thoughts:
1. We now know much, much more about the earlier economic histories of China, India, and some other locales. The rise of more and better graduate students from the emerging economies, or for that matter from Europe, has been essential here.
2. Some of the turn toward economic history came with the financial crisis, and the search for longer-term parallels, which meant looking back in history, most of all to the Great Depression.
3. Although the advance of cliometrics started a long time ago, we are now finally at intergenerational margins where economic historians are as quantitatively well-equipped as most parts of the applied micro spectrum.
4. The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding. Yes, this one is an uh-oh.
5. Some applied micro fields have become a little more boring, so that has helped a partial shift of status to economic history. Public data sets have been exhausted, and a lot of economic history data sets are “weird or idiosyncratic” data sets, which now are “in” and I predict will stay “in” for a long while to come because they offer the possibilities of both new discoveries and moats.
6. An academic trend that hasn’t yet been exploited usually ends up exploited, sooner or later, once the right nudge comes along.
5b, 6b. In chess, the top players are opting for the Giuoco Piano once again.
7. Competing economic models are more “allowed” in the subfield — not everything must be neoclassical — which has opened economic historians to more wide-ranging questions. Economic history remains a good place to pursue the questions about economics that initially interested many people as undergraduates.
8. Academic attention is more media-driven these days, and good economic history papers usually have a story of some kind, and perhaps also a historical personage, event, or institution of broader interest.
The post prompted a lot of discussion on Twitter. My initial response to the question is
1. While I often argue that economic history is doing very well, I’m not sure that this is the golden age. There is a lot of great work going on in economic history. Economic historians are doing well at publishing in top journals, and many of the top econ programs have strong fields in economic history. On the other hand, there are still not a lot of economic history jobs in JOE. The problem with a golden age is that it seems to imply that this is as good as it gets. I would still like to see more jobs in economic history, more students studying economic history, and a wider audience for good economic history. I would like for economic history to be more widely regarded as central to the study of economics. At the very least, I would like to see Washington University, where I studied with Doug North and John Nye, have economic history as a field again.
2. I think there has been an important technological change: the ability to take high quality digital photographs of archival documents. This change has benefited history generally, but economic history has probably benefited most. Archives used to be places where people scribbled notes (with pencils). You were limited by how much time you could afford to spend in the archive and how quickly you could scribble. Now, archives are places where people take pictures, which can at relatively low cost (thanks to software and the ability to offshore transcription) be converted into text or data that you can analyze. Creating useable data sets from primary sources is still difficult and time consuming, but less so than it used to be.
3. I agree that the increase in the relative importance of empirical work in economics has benefited economic history. Donaldson’s Clark medal suggests a willingness to recognize good empirical work regardless of the time or place it examines.
4. There is a lot of interest in questions that require us to look at history: long run growth, the productivity slow down, inequality, racism, and financial crises. Of course, these things can and should be analyzed with economic theory as well, but combined with the turn to empirical analysis they present an opportunity for economic history.
5. There has been an increase in popular interest in economic history, but the work that has received the most attention (New History of Capitalism) has often done more to misinform than to educate. I hope an equivalent of Gresham’s law does not apply to economic history, but it remains to be seen.