Why do more people listen to economists than historians?





David Brooks wondered in his New York Times column last week if economists shouldn't try to become more like historians. That was interesting to read, given that I had just spent time with a bunch of historians (and a few other humanities professors) who were wondering how they could become more like economists.

The occasion was a conference at Oxford University's Saïd Business School on Reputation, Emotion and the Market. I was there to speak about my book on the history of financial theory, but ended up mainly engaged in a long discussion with the 30-or-so historians (and a smattering of scholars from other humanities disciplines) on hand about why economists had gained so much influence over the past half century and historians had lost so much....

The one economist in the audience had [a] suggestion. Most economic work was aimed at prediction, and the world is always hungry for predictions. He added that most macroeconomic predictions are worthless (he was a microeconomist), but that doesn't seem to have damped the demand for them.

After the conference, at dinner, I heard another explanation from the historians themselves. It's that, especially in the U.S., only the tiniest minority of academic historians concern themselves anymore with matters of economic policy (or diplomacy, or war, or politics in the big-picture sense). The discipline has moved mostly to the study of identity (gender, race, etc.) and culture, ceding territory to the economists and political scientists. Yeah, yeah, there's always Niall Ferguson. But he's more the exception that proves the rule — not to mention, in the view of academic historians, a pop-culture figure who is no longer really one of them....


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