Saturday, June 09, 2007

First Session of HES Opens

34th Annual Meeting, History of Economics Society (GMU, Fairfax, Virginia)

Today, the 34th meeting opened in the splendid setting of George Mason University, up the gentle slope of a hill, just outside Fairfax, a vast sprawling suburbia of a southern town. I took a taxi for the short journey, having walked yesterday due to a misunderstanding of the distance and walking time, which did allow me to read the fair sprinkling of small plaques identifying places along the way where notable incidents in the ‘war between the states’ (as a senior CIA official once explained it to me in 1980, with a degree of conviction that suggested he still took the war personally), otherwise known elsewhere as the ‘civil war’ in the 1860s.

Coming from Edinburgh, where we call the ‘New Town’ an area of buildings built not long after the United States was formed in the 1770’s, I appreciated reading a plaque on a well preserved colonial house in Main Street, Fairfax, in which a local hero searched for a Union colonel in 1863, who had called him a ‘thief’, or a local mayor who took over command of a unit of the Confederate Army that had just lost its officer, and still other reminders of a Confederate General who sneaked through Union lines at night to snatch Union officers, their weapons and their horses. These suggest the ‘front’ was fluid, and Virginia was where it began.

Today’s opening session was centred on an address by Professor James Buchanan, who needs no introduction to economists the world over. He is a patrician figure, quiet and humble in his demeanour, which seems to go with certain distinguished Nobel Prize winners, completely contrary to the presence some economists impose on those around them. I glimpsed occasionally a touch of defiant ‘cheekiness’ about him too, especially when he mentioned, en passant, incidents associated with unnamed persons of the ‘neoclassical’ vintage.

He read a lucid paper on Adam Smith, which I am glad to say I understood and recognised. It is to be published soon, though he emphasised he was still working on the third part of its three-part themes (productive and unproductive labour). In the question session, he admitted with refreshing candour, where he didn’t know something (no arrogant ‘bluff-ology’ here), and where he did know the answer, it was delivered with polite deference, again an endearing trait in a scholar, who has no need to prove anything about his contribution to the discipline. He does not need that flattering adulation that some insecure ‘celebrity’ academics, who crave it, could do with abating before they lose what respect they might otherwise deserve.

During the reception afterwards, I wandered around introducing myself to a few members of the large crowd in attendance (over 170 are registered to attend this HES annual meeting), and conversed about Adam Smith. I had a couple of cans of diet coke, but left before the ‘cook out’ (a ‘Southern’ version of the BBQ) to which I had a ticket. I returned to my hotel to read some of the papers from the earlier ‘Summer Institute’, not wishing to become a ‘Smithian’ bore too early in the three-day conference, especially with so many young economists in attendance, whose instinct for socialising does not include, I’m sure, extra-mural doses of conference themes at socialising events. Judging by the ‘buzz’ at the ‘cook out’ the attendees at HES are in excellent spirits and interest in the history of economics is in good shape for the next generation.

Tomorrow the conference sessions begin; it is a pick-and-mix’ offering with parallel sessions over three days. I have picked my agenda, principally on Adam Smith themes, of course, from the excellent offering put together by the organisers, including the energetic Sandra Peart, President-Elect of HES (I can see why she is about to assume that role).


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