History vs Economics

“History is the subject of my heart, economics is the subject of my head” – so goes a saying I have often repeated. It’s one of Mother Nature’s little games that, for all the frustrations I had with economics (and all of the enjoyment I have with history), the practical skills I learnt in the study of economics – in particular some of the maths and statistics – ended up being the most useful in the workplace. Most of the time it involved showing people at work how to play with spreadsheets rather than the niceties of theories espoused by US economists.

My take on economics as a subject of academia is that it is “…the study of how limited resources are distributed within a society of unlimited wants.” ‘The Market’ just happens to be one of those mechanisms through which resources can be distributed – but few other mechanisms outside the failures of command economies are mentioned in undergraduate courses.

My contention for quite sometime is that economics is primarily about people and the environment, rather than about markets. Yes, markets are part of it, but by focussing exclusively (or near as dammit) on the behaviour of markets, I can’t help but feel that there is a wealth of knowledge and research that economists and policy-makers are missing out on. It was this article by Professor Herman Daly that took me down a different path to the rest of my university cohort some ten years ago – and the concept of studying economics as if the economy was placed in an ecosystem and was constrained by the definition of “sustainable development” as understood by the UN’s World Commission for Environment and Development (The Bruntland Commission)

I chose not to go into post-graduate study for economics – basically because my heart was saying “You’ve got your 2:1 degree from a redbrick university in a subject newspapers consider respectable, now do something for me!” Hence history.

History: it’s a story – and if it’s boring then whoever is telling the story or whoever has written it is telling/writing it all wrong. The history books that manage to hold my normally keep my attention are those that bring the historical figures ‘to life’ – in particular the interactions between them. History is far more than just ‘On this date, stuff happened’ (or, as some might put: ‘On this date, we won.”) Those of you interested in history might be interested in Sir Humprhey Appleby’s take on UK foreign policy over the past 500 years at http://youtu.be/GJyg6728ozg as to why England then Great Britain then the United Kingdom got involved in all those European wars.

My particular area of historical interest is Europe 1871-1914. The thing that strikes me comparing that era of history to the times we currently live in is the presence that individual political personalities had back then compared to the ones we have now. Gladstone, Disraeli, Asquith, Haldane, Fisher, Kitchner, Bismarck, Tirpitz, Rhodes, Bethman-Hollweg, Witte,  Delcassé, Cambon, Roosevelt T, – massive political personalities whose actions had seismic impacts on the politics of the time – and on world history. (Or as Ben Elton might say: “They may have been b’stards but at least you’d heard of them!” (Or would have done if you were an educated type living at the time!)) Do individual politicians carry that same gravitas today, or has the rise of the multinational corporation somehow neutered the influence that holders of high public office have?

That’s not to say that period was some golden utopian age to look back on. These were times of huge social upheaval – just as we are seeing today across the world as it tries to get to grips with the impact of societies around the world armed with access to the internet and social media – the anti-thesis of censorship.

In a future blog post I’ll feature my favourite historical figure from this period – a German as it happens: The Greatest Emperor Germany never had.


6 thoughts on “History vs Economics

  1. I’m convinced no one should be allowed to graduate without taking a year of biology and for biology to be a thread running through many different courses such as economics, engineering and even MBAs! Apart from biology being a collection the most amazing, enthralling scientific subjects, (imho) it really is important for us all to understand the planet and how it is our life-support system, not to mention how other species adapt to their environments sustainably. .

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