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The Art of Economic History

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I read Nicholas Crafts’ ‘Economic History Matters‘ last night again. (This essay will appear in the special conference issue of Economic History of Developing Regions prepared for the World Economic History Congress 2012 to be held in Stellenbosch from 9-13 July.)

What struck me was his emphasis on the unique contribution economic historians can make to understanding economic growth (or the lack there-of), and which policies ignite or contract growth. He notes the example of Japan:

If continual reform is needed to achieve full catch-up, it is very possible that countries find catch-up easy to start but difficult to complete. Japan, where catch-up of the United States stalled 20 years ago, epitomizes this problem (Chen, 2008). Idiosyncratic features of the Japanese economy such as lifetime employment, the main bank system, business groups, industrial policy, and the absence of competition in non-tradables were no longer advantageous in the 1990s but were hard to reform (Ito, 1996). This suggests that predictions of catch-up and convergence of China with the United States – which is taken to be a done deal by the general public – might be viewed sceptically by economic historians. Similarly, the projections of future catch-up by the so-called BRICs economies, popularized by Goldman Sachs (Wilson and Purushothaman, 2003), have a mechanistic flavour which abstracts from the political economy of development. Exploring the sustainability of catch-up growth processes in the light of historical experience is an area where economic historians have important insights to offer.

In short: be less optimistic about the long run growth prospects of BRICS or, at the very least, about theirs being a homogenous experience. Catch-up is not simply following a widely known blueprint, as the disgruntlement with the Washington Consensus has shown. Incidentally, Crafts in another 2011 paper argues that the original Washington Consensus has much in common with the Marshall Plan which famously helped Europe recover rapidly after the Second World War. Proof, again, that what might be very successful economic policy in one period, may be totally ineffectual at another time.

Theory and evidence often don’t overlap. Endogenous growth theory allows us to investigate the fundamental causes of growth (improving human capital, for example), but country-level economic histories shows that good-intentioned policies may sometimes have less than great outcomes, their success ruined by (the interaction of) idiosyncratic domestic factors (Japans culture of life-time employment, for example) or exogenous external shocks (the international economic environment or climate change). Perhaps another truism we should reflect on is that, apart from institutions and history, timing matters. This makes economic history such an ambivalent science, and transforms economic policy-making from formulae to art.

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Written by Johan Fourie

March 10, 2012 at 07:45

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