Monday, September 08, 2008

40th Anniversary Conference of the History of Economic Thought (HET) Part III

Donald Winch, author, inter alia, of 'Adam Smith’s Politics: an essay in historiographic revision’, 1978, Cambridge University Press, and ‘Riches and Poverty: an intellectual history of political economy in Britain, 1750-1834’, 1996, Cambridge University Press, outlined his thoughts of ‘The Old Generation of Economists and the New’ for his new book of essays, Wealth and Life: essays on the intellectual history of political economy in Britain, 1848-1914.

In his talk Donald Winch explained why there may be differences between the intellectual historian’s perspective and the hisorian of economic theory or doctrine. The intellectual historian gets ‘close’ to the people in his historical account and which may be different from the historian of doctrine, whose references to the people who authored the changes in doctrine may be en passant than found in contextual studies.

I have a lot of sympathy for his approach, knowing how common it is for theorists of doctrine to ignore Adam Smith’s context as if they think he had, for instance, the happy coincidence of living in an open, secular and tolerant society.

Professor Tony Brewer, University of Bristol, took over the chair, for Professor Mark Blaug’s keynote address, which did not stir up the opposition I had expected, but then I did not know the economics of most of the participants, and I was relieved to find out that there were no vocal ‘Sraffians’ among the audience (the obscurity of the Sraffian economics monologue defies summary and any explanation for why it excites, or once excited, the in-group enthusiasm of a small cell in Cambridge).

Mark Blaug’s paper was on ‘The Trade-off Between Rigor and Relevance: Straffian economics as a case in point’, and what a demolition job it was too, summed up neatly in the title.

For Session 4, Professor Sheila Dow, University of Stirling, took the chair and introduced Professor Amos Witzum, London Metropolitan University, for his paper, ‘Positive Ethics and the Science of Economics: Robbins enduring fallacy’. I last heard Amos at HES 2007 at GMU, and he is, in my opinion, one of the best lecturer-presenters, on the circuit. He also is a neat theorist and worth listening to for his enthusiasm around ideas.

He was followed by John Maloney, another forceful presenter, on ‘Straightening the Phillips Curve, 1968-76’. The title was intriguing and is was an account of government policy around the alleged trade-off between unemployment and inflation, both within the debate between Friedman and Keynesian macro-policy, as discussed at the highest level within the relevant government departments.

I was fascinated by the details from departmental minutes and interviews with senior civil servants, conducted by Professor John Maloney, Exeter University. At the time, 1970-2, I was researching productivity bargaining and incomes policies at Shell Oil, attending negotiations between trade union shop stewards and management, and I saw the realities of the micro-application on the ground of the macro-‘certainties’ discussed at the top.

To think that all those endless hours of preparatory discussions by the parties, their bargaining exchanges, long ‘clichéd’ speeches and fraught mutual 'threats' of doom, were driven by a set of macro-equations of which the participants were in ignorance and from which they acted oblivious to their alleged concerns of the trade-offs they never mentioned, was a trifle humbling.

It was clear in retrospect that the people on the ground were in the dark about the thoughts of the people at the top. It is now clear to me that the people at the top, as represented by John Maloney, were also in the dark about how people in the field actually think and behave (of course, they don’t appear in the macro-equations).



Blogger Simon Halliday said...

Prof. Kennedy

Do you know whether there is a website for the conference? I have been trying to find one to see if I can find out information for the next meeting as an interested student. I would also particularly enjoy reading the keynote speech by Prof. Blaug hence I was wondering if you knew if there was such a site. My google searches have proved fruitless.

Thank you for your time and for the diligent reporting on the conference.

6:14 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Simon

The contact HET person is Christine Simmonds (Manchester Metropolitan University)

I am not sure if Mark Blaug gave out a paper on his talk - it was very good and polemical.

11:54 am  
Blogger Simon Halliday said...

Thanks very much for contact details. I will report back if Ms. Simmonds provides me with any additional information.

1:28 pm  

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