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« Paul Samuelson | Main | Bernanke is Time's Person of the Year »


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Building upon the work of Hicks, Samuelson, Debreu and others also amounts to working with the history of ideas, too. The history of formal, mathematical ideas. Problem is, Samuelson believed (I think this quote is his) that economics progresses "tombstone by tombstone." Boulding's principle of the extended present suggests that the history of thought is -- dare I say -- an issue of hermeneutics. But, unlike Boulding and the rest of us here, the profession considers reading the classics as a leisure time activity, a consumption good rather than a productive input into current theory.

There is still great value added to reading and working within the Smithean tradition. Formal economics is hitting negative returns, and the profession is beginning to act rationally in response.

On a side note. Let's not forget, Boulding's own Economic Analysis (which I dipped into as an undergraduate) was a leading textbook in its first edition. He told me that sales collapsed once he published his revised edition in 1948. Samuelson's textbook came out the same year.

Literature (including works of economics) is a cultural product - and therefore comes out of a particular context - a particular place and time. Great literature is able to transcend its cultural context. Shakespeare still speaks to us after 400 years because his words help us see "In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed."

Secondary sources, like Mirowski and Caldwell, help us see how particular thinkers and their works are both a product of their context and have transcended their context, and perhaps have shaped our current context.

But Cowan was talking about "distillers" - I don't think Mirowski and Caldwell are distillers in the sense that they are putting forth their works as alternatives to reading the original work. Mirowski's book might best fit Cowan's 8th point that "The best distillers often are original sources in their own right."


Umm, because you are impure?

Actually, there is nothing wrong with using some secondary sources, especially when those sources make arguments that go beyond and do not appear per se in the original sources, which I think can be said about both of the books that you make students read. Oh, and I see that Mark Bonica just made this point, so, what he said.


Actually, the quote is "funeral by funeral," and it is not original with Samuelson. He got it from Max Planck.


I thought Boehm-Bawerk said something similar or was it Schumpeter? In any event, yes, funerals are very important.

In economics, researchers are prone to rediscovering old ideas without the benefit of knowing the qualifications and caveats. We have seen this with "Ricardian Equivalence," a proposition that Ricardo clearly ennunciated and then proceeded to cast doubt on as a practical matter.

Why was RE lost and why did it need to be rediscovered? Why didn't Barro and others know of Buchanan's work that qualified it? Why didn't Buchanan know that Ricardo had qualified it?

Closer to home, Bruce Caldwell was correct that one needs to go back to Menger and the methodenstreit to understand modern Austrian economics. Menger's critics knew the debate was over the existence of natural law. Mises both denied and affirmed natural law in HA. Hayek wanted to avoid the issue. And Rothbard re-affirmed the importance of it.

Nothing, I have found, is as useful as reading the original works of those older economists.

Too often an historian of thought tries to read the present into the past. For example, Mark Blaug's "Economic Theory in Retrospect," is a form of "Whig" history of economics. You look at the older economists on various issues, and then evaluate them by the extent to which they captured some aspect of the current body of economic wisdom. If the older author seems out-of-step with the current orthodoxy he is discounted or ignored as irrelevant.

The better histories of economic thought, I believe, are those that attempt to understand and explain to the modern reader the context and circumstances of the time in which the particular economist lived and thought.

When well done, you can have a feel for how and why he considered certain issues important, why he approached them the way he did, and how his own ideas took form and become presented in his own work a certain way. And how they may have influenced later currents in economic ideas. Here you are understanding and appreciating that older economist on his own terms, so to speak.

All of this is no substitute, of course, for also reading the "originals." In other words, when you open that older economist's own works, he is alive again, his mind and thoughts are brought back to life for you, and you proceed to have a conversation with him across time and epoch.

I have had many rewarding conversations with Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Senior, Say, Mill (father and son), as well as more recent but also deceased great minds -- including Menger and Bohm-Bawerk, Wicksell, etc.

To be honest, I have often found those conversations far more rewarding than those I've had with living people across a table (all those on the "Austrian Economist" list excluded from this, of course!).

Richard Ebeling

You get a better understanding of the central problem to be explained from Smith and Hayek than from any contemporary economist -- and note well, explanations and "theory" don't come independently of problems to be explained, there is a complex nexus between problem raising patterns in our experience and our causal explanations to for those patterns. "Pure theory" is only has meaning and is only motivated within that pattern problem / causal explanation nexus.

Studying great economists like Hayek is of value because the patterned problem / causal explanation / conceptual construct nexus in economics is so complex, no one works on any one aspect all at the same time -- their efforts are stretch and divided over life times and hundreds of publications.

Working to provide a charitable best understanding of a thinkers understanding of this nexus help everyone to better understand the many complex aspects and considerations at play in economics -- and EVERYONE needs these reminders and inspirations for re-thinking things.


On the quote, I do not know. I do know that Samuelson himself was the one who attributed it to Planck, whose writing mostly predated that of Schumpeter and overlapped with B-B. Given that Schumpeter was a professor and mentor of Samuelson's, it may be that Samuelson got it along with the attribution from Schumpie, but maybe B-B was ahead or had a different version of it.

The Planck quote is also in Kuhn.

I assume that you made us read the introductory works because you believe that history of thought is a pair of eyeglasses. The first step in realizing what model you are using to read history of thought is to recognized what exactly you are assuming and then to recognize it as one of the set of alternative readings. Rather than simply free-associate history of thought based on unarticulated and arbitrary models of the world, we start our criticism and interpretation of the history with an explicit model.

Now, equipped with this first reading, and the depth of understand that comes with it, we can change the assumptions and create a much more robust understanding, ever mindful of the relationship between framing and interpretation.

I?d like to know what are the histories of the interest rates of the
major currencies such USD, GBP, EUR, AUD, NZD, JPY for at least two
years. For example, the USD was 4.25 then 4.00 then 4.25, then 4.50 ?

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