Category Archives: Academic Papers

MIT and the Transformation of American Economics

MIT and the Transformation of American Economics

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My copies of MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, the special issue of that ‘niche journal’* called History of Political Economy, have just arrived at my office. As I previously explained, this volume has been edited by E. Roy Weintraub and it contains (among other contributions) my “Negotiating the ‘Middle-of-the-Road’ Position: Paul Samuelson, MIT and the Politics of Textbook Writing, 1945-55” paper.

So far, the reactions have been really positive, as exemplified by the following blog entries:

Will Thomas:

David Warsh:

Tyler Cowen:

Arnold Kling:

And, last but not least, Paul Krugman:

So, do as Krugman told you, and get your copy at Duke University Press!



* according to a recently received grant submission report!

Negotiating the ‘Middle-of-the-Road’ Position: Paul Samuelson, MIT and the Politics of Textbook Writing, 1945-55

Paul-Samuelson-Book21It is a great pleasure for me to have this paper published in a special issue of History of Political Economy devoted to MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Not only will this volume please all those who are interested in the history of one of the most important institutions in the development of modern economics but I also believe that these contributions, taken as a whole, will help draw attention to a number of new narrative trends in the history of economics, using archival sources as well as quantitative data. It contains a number of contributions written by younger scholars – all good friends – whose work has accompanied me over the past decade or so and who are, I believe, beginning to get the recognition they deserve. It is an honor to be there with them, as well as with some of the finest researchers in the history of economics. I could not thank Roy Weintraub enough for putting such a great team of contributors together. Here is the abstract of my paper:

Previous contributions to the history of economics have tried to assess Paul Samuelson’s political positioning by tracing it in the subsequent editions of his famous textbook Economics. By contrast, this article depicts the making of Economics itself as a political process. It argues that the “middle-of-the-road” position that Samuelson adopted in the book was consciously constructed by the MIT economist, with the help of his home institution and his publishing company McGraw-Hill, in response to conservative criticisms of the textbook and pressures from members of the Corporation—MIT’s Board of Trustees. Though Samuelson first intended to write a policy-oriented textbook with a strong Keynesian inclination, the changes he introduced, while keeping most of the substance, made it a more theoretically inclined text, in which policy recommendations were presented in a softened fashion. These events, far from being anecdotal, should rather be seen as foundational in the identity of what historians are trying to identify as “MIT economics.”

For those who would like to know what to expect from the volume, they can download Roy Weintraub’s introduction at:

Economics for the Masses: The Visual Representation of Economic Knowledge in the United States (1910-45)


Map drawn by Otto Neurath for the March 1932 issue of Survey Graphic

This is a paper I wrote with my friend and colleague Loïc Charles (Université of Saint-Denis and INED). Here is the abstract:

The rise of visual representation in textbooks is an important feature of the development of the economics discipline after World War II. We argue that it was preceded by a no less significant rise of visual representation in the larger literature devoted to social and scientific issues. During the interwar period, editors, propagandists, and social scientists encouraged the use of visual language as an important means of spreading information and opinions about the economy to a larger audience. We explore different yet related aspects of this development by studying the use of visual language in economics textbooks intended for nonspecialists, in periodicals such as the Survey (a monthly magazine intended for an audience of social workers), and by various state departments and agencies during the Roosevelt administration. We focus on two types of visuals that developed rapidly and had a strong relationship with the social sciences in this period: photographs and pictorial statistics. In the last part, we discuss how visualizations that were created as part of a critical program of more abstract forms of social theorizing (e.g., classical and marginal political economy) were transformed into an engine for New Deal political propaganda in the 1930s.

It is now published in the December 2013 issue of History of Political Economy.

Legitimizing Napkin Drawing: The Curious Dispersion of Laffer Curves (1978-2008)


The Neo-Laffer curve, drawn by Martin Gardner in Scientific American (1981)

The Laffer curve is a graphical representation of how government revenues vary with the level of taxation. Allegedly, it was first drawn on a cocktail napkin by one of US President Ronald Reagan’s advisors in the 1970s.  Since then, it has been routinely reproduced in economics textbooks. This article provides an historical account that shows a sharp contrast between the formal triviality of the curve and the complexity of its circulation through various communities of economists, policy advisors, propagandists, and journalists. In this paper, I show that the dispersion of the Laffer curve presents two peculiarities: first, unlike many other diagrams used in economics, popular instantiations of the Laffer curve preceded its “academization” in professional economics; second, in spite of numerous transformations in the process of circulation, the curve’s canonical presentation as a symmetrical, bullet-like diagram was reinforced over time. I attribute these peculiarities to the community dynamics that sustained and circulated the curve.

This article is now published as a book chapter in Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited, edited by Catelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar and published by MIT Press.

Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics

Roger Backhouse and myself have written an entry on the Circular Flow Diagram in this recently published book on diagrams and figures in economics, which reads like a dictionary. Some of the other entries study economic diagrams from a historical point of view while some others offer a more analytical approach and attempt to appraise the usefulness of these figures for current practitioners. The introduction by the Editors, Mark Blaug and Peter Lloyd, is a good starting point for economists who want to understand how visual representation has been useful in constructing and diffusing economic knowledge (In addition, they kindly cite my Samuelson paper!). Here is what the Edward Elgar website says about the book:

Edited by Mark Blaug, Professor Emeritus, University of London and Professor Emeritus, University of Buckingham, UK and Peter Lloyd, Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne, Australia

This is a unique account of the role played by 58 figures and diagrams commonly used in economic theory. These cover a large part of mainstream economic analysis, both microeconomics and macroeconomics and also general equilibrium theory.

The authoritative contributors have produced a well-considered and definitive selection including some from empirical research such as the Phillips curve, the Kuznets curve and the Lorenz curve. Almost all of them are still found in contemporary textbooks and research. Each entry presents an accurate and concise record of the history of the figure or diagram, including later developments and any controversy that arose in its development. As a whole, the book highlights how the use of geometric methods has played a central part in the development of economic theory and analysis; as a method of discovery, more commonly as a method of exposition and occasionally as a method of proof of propositions in economic theory and analysis.
This highly anticipated book will appeal to theorists in microeconomics or macroeconomics, scholars of economic theory and analysis, as well as students in microeconomics, general equilibrium theory or macroeconomics at the advanced undergraduate or graduate level who want a definitive account of some figure or diagram. Historians of economic thought and methodologists will also find this book an invaluable resource.

‘A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. A picture can easily be worth two or three equations, and it is certainly more memorable. I can draw and use an Edgeworth box more quickly than I can write down its formulas. There is a vast amount of economics packed into the 58 diagrams and expert commentaries in this unique book. Take it with you to your favourite desert island. All you need is a sandy beach and a pointed stick.’ – Robert Solow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US
‘This book is a goldmine of information and interpretation for historians of economics, and thoughtful economists of all kinds. The origin and evolution of important figures and diagrams in economics will now be instantly at their fingertips. The authors of the entries are a galaxy of distinguished economists and historians whose accounts can be trusted. One must ask why no one has put together such a collection before.’– Craufurd Goodwin, Duke University, US

Tilting at Imaginary Windmills: A Comment on Tyfield

moreSince the beginning of the Science Wars, a few articles have been published criticizing science studies (or SSK for Social Studies of Knowledge or Sociology of Scientific Knowledge) on the basis that they provide relativistic accounts of science which deny the very existence of truth and the possibility of judging the world out there. Generally, those criticisms are written by “traditional” philosophers of science who are searching for an ontology of scientific practice, one which would help demarcate science and non-science, or by normative – Mertonian – sociologists of science, who would like to distinguish between good and bad scientific practices or criticize the growing interaction between science and the market. SSK, on the other hand, providse a non-judgmental account of science, which explains scientific practice as entrenched in specific communities and cultures. In other words, it does not seek to distinguish between what is true and what is false, but to explain the emergence of truth as a social/cultural process. SSK does not deny the existence of truth, as critiques assert, only  it contextualizes it. It is perfectly correct to say that SSK does not provide a relevant framework to judge the world “out there”, because it is just not its purpose. If we want to explain how science is made, how can we simultaneously provide a theoretical framework to demarcate good from bad practices? Obviously, the ideas and goals of those who write science studies are divergent – and hardly reconciliable – with those of normative sociologists and philosophers of science. It is not surprising, indeed, that such critical pieces are frequently published. The best discussion that has been published on these controversies is Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Belief and Resistance (on another blog, I have reviewed her last book, Scandalous Knowledge, which deals with related issues).

E. Roy Weintraub has been the first historian of economics to fully grasp the extent to which the framework offered by science studies would help provide a more insightful history of economic thought. For this reason, it has been an honor for me to co-write with him a short piece commenting on a critical paper by David Tyfield. This comment has been published by the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics and can be downloaded here.

The Changing Place of Visual Representation in Economics: Paul Samuelson between Principle and Strategy, 1941-1955

Paul Samuelson

In this paper, I show that Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), renowned as one of the main advocates of the mathematization of economics, has also contributed to the change of the place of visual representation in the discipline. In his early works (e.g. Foundations of Economic Analysis published in 1947), he rejected diagrammatic analysis as a relevant tool of theorizing but used diagrams extensively, both as a pedagogic tool in his introductory textbook Economics (1948) and as a way of clarifying his theory of public expenditure (1954-5). I show that Samuelson’s reluctance to use diagrams in his early works can be explained by his training at Chicago and Harvard and his rejecting Marshall’s economics, whereas his adoption of visual language in Economics was a product of the peculiar context affecting American mass-education after WWII. A methodological debate which opposed him to Kenneth Boulding in 1948 led him to reconsider the place of visual representation in order to clarify conceptual controversies during subsequent debates on mathematical economics. Therefore, it can be said that the prominent place of visual language in the diffusion of economic ideas was stabilized in the mid-1950s, as mathematical language became the prevailing tool of economic theorizing. From this, I conclude that the idea that algebra simply upstaged geometry in the making of economic analysis must be qualified.

This paper is published by the Journal of the History of Economic Thought.