©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Clio and Me: An Interview with Mary Beth Combs

For the Cliometrics Society Newsletter, 2001

mary beth combs
Mary Beth Combs

How did you come to study economics?

From left field, so to speak. I was a bookish child. My father was in political science at Harvard, a student of the history of the Supreme Court, and in our house we took ideas and history seriously. It was not viewed as a strange thing to be interested in the past or the best that has been thought and written; to the contrary, you were supposed to be. My mother studied ancient Greek with a passion and there were dinner table conversations about Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua. History was the high school social science, so I fell naturally into thinking of myself as a historian. I had started Harvard College in 1960 as a history major. I didn't feel I could go into political science: my father was at the same university. So History it was. But then I took some actual history courses (from Frank Freidel and William Langer, both of them great historians) and found the stuff so hard, because it required a so much reading! There was no quick, analytic payoff such as I was used to having as a Joan-Baez marxoid, a fan of the anarchists Prince Kropotkin and Emma Goldman. Further, that same politics implied Helping the Poor. Then in the summer after my freshman year I read Bob Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, a book which has made so many economists. So I shifted to economics from the left. Suddenly I had to learn math. That I had almost flunked French in my freshman year helped push me away from History, with its demands to learn languages. (A love affair had interfered with learning French irregular verbs; and I remain scandalously, appalling ignorant of foreign languages: listen up, kids!) It helped that my father was mathematically challenged-he was quite impressed that his son was taking calculus and messing about with indifference curves. He himself had gotten an A in Alvin Hansen's graduate course in economics (it must have been a course for non-economists) in 1945 reading between the diagrams and equations. It shows how smart he was!

Your initial training in economics was in transportation economics, yes?

Yes. In my senior year at Harvard I took a graduate course in transportation-I worked every summer on a road-building crew (Deirdre with a jack hammer!) and transportation was easy to see as practical and policy oriented. Fortunately the teacher was John Meyer, already a famous urban and transport economist and applied econometrician, and the course was a real graduate seminar, with lots of controversy and tough, economistic thinking (Yoram Ben Porath, he of blessed memory, a grad student at the time, was in the course). I did well. I remember acing the final exam because I repeated from a textbook that "marginal cost pricing is the best way to decide whether to lower a gate on a railway," though I know that I did not then really grasp the function of market prices-I didn't until I started teaching such arguments at the University of Chicago. I was Meyer's RA for a while, which was an eye-opener. (John showered money on me, giving me summer employment and term-time fellowships and so on for two years until Alex Gerschenkron took up the task). I learned how to do applied economics by watching Meyer and his colleagues such as John Kain (who I just learned did pioneering work on race segregation with my colleague at UIC, Joe Persky) and the civil engineering professors at MIT whom Meyer had collected into his big-money projects. I've always thought of myself as having an engineering approach to economics: How Big? Will It Work? The law professor Bob Mnookin and the economics professor Rick Weisskoff were coworkers in Meyer's hive with me. Meyer you know became the president of the NBER and shaped its modern form.

Would you say that Meyers' work inspired you to do the work that you have done in economic history?

As I said, I had always been interested in history, especially English history. Meyer turned out to be one of the founders of cliometrics-with Alf Conrad (the poet Adrienne Rich's husband, by the way) he did of course pioneering work on the economics of slavery and, what I found more intriguing, John had done as a student in Gerschenkron's course at Harvard a paper on English industrial output that used the technique of input-output analysis. I was fascinated and wanted to be like him-my senior thesis under John's supervision, a soporific work called Road and Rail in India, had used input-output analysis. Remember, in those days we all thought that "activity analysis" was the future of economics, somewhat the way people now think game theory is. In ten years it was dead as a doornail (grad students, again: listen up), but at the time we were filled with matrix madness. Anyway, I was in consequence a child so to speak of the first generation of such scholars, in the way that Richard Sutch and John Wallis were children of North (so was Meyer himself: that makes me Doug's granddaughter, eh?) or Claudia Goldin and Rick Steckel of Fogel.

What were some other academic influences in your early shift to cliometrics?

At Harvard (I stayed at Harvard for graduate school, not a good idea) all first year graduate students had to take a full year of economic history. My first teacher of economic history was Barry Supple, the English economic historian (Alex Gerschenkron was having one of his heart attacks that year), and then in the spring Albert Imlah, who was a professor at Tufts and another well-known student of British history. That suited me fine: I was an anglophile, an admirer of English literature, complements of my father (and remember that near flunk in French!), and had spent my senior year in high school goofing off in England. Fast forward to 1964-65 and the year-long course in history. The students wrote a big paper in the fall and a big paper in the spring, and I enjoyed writing them. Well. . . at least I enjoyed them more than the rubbish I was being taught in my other courses. (My wife-to-be was chained to a big calculating machine for days at my parents' house in Arlington inverted a little input-output matrix for my paper in the fall, I remember, so I don't think she much enjoyed it.) The other first-year courses included an econometrics course (from Meyer, in fact) and the economic theory course, all of which were sterile: the theory text was Henderson and Quandt, the standard for sterility in graduate courses, replaced now, with no reduction of sterility, by Varian. So a first year student's only chance to apply economics to the real world was the course in economic history. I remember that Tom Sargent, who was in my graduate class, a summa cum laude from Berkeley and very earnest, got started on his lifelong interest in the economic past the same way in the same course.

The following year, 1965, I joined Alexander Gerschenkron's graduate seminar in economic history in which Tom, Richard Sutch, Richard Sylla, Knick Harley, Peter McClelland, Barbara Solow, David Loschky, and Stefano Fenoaltea were all students. There we taught each other. Gerschenkron never said anything: he just let the students criticize each other. Our first assignment was to read Fogel's Railroads and American Economic Growth, which had just come out. We smart alecks didn't think much of it. Gerschenkron assigned me to criticize David Landes' long, long "chapter" in the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, which became his book The Unbound Prometheus, in front of David at a dinner over at Lowell House. There was some tension, which I at the time didn't fully grasp, since Alex and David had sparred earlier on the significance of entrepreneurship in economic history (paradoxically, I am now more in agreement with David). I thoroughly demolished the so-called "model" of innovation that David imagined he had. Of course it was child's play, in more ways than one.

I also went over to MIT to take Peter Temin's course in American economic history, the first time he gave it. Peter was a superb teacher. He had been a Junior Fellow at Harvard and sort of a student of Gerschenkron (everyone was "sort of" a student of Gerschenkron, who had a hands-off attitude towards Ph.D. dissertations). I was so pleased when I followed Peter as president of the Economic History Association: I have a photo in my book Crossing: A Memoir of him passing the necklace of office to me. Our class at MIT in 1965 had Sutch, Bob Hall, and other very bright people from whom I learned the MIT style--the blindingly quick draw and the devastating chest shot. Economic history was a very exciting field in Cambridge-certainly the most exciting one at Harvard at the time, because Harvard economics (and English, I later learned) was going through a period of relative intellectual deadness.

When you were in graduate school you spent time collecting data in the British archives. How did your experience complement your graduate training?

I went to England in 1967-68 on a Harvard traveling fellowship. Times were flush in academic life then, and full-ride fellowships were a dime a dozen. I worked at the Iron and Steel Institute archive on my dissertation. Or, rather, I calculated and thought and drank tea upstairs while my wife Joanne collected data downstairs-she couldn't work in England at her trade of nursing and so she helped me. Everyone needs such a wife, ladies! Of course most of what we collected was irrelevant to the thesis and book I finally wrote. I like to show graduate students the half of my notes I keep, a full file drawer, about three feet high (that's a half, mind you) and to set beside it the slender book that resulted. I say ominously, "This is the correct ratio, 6 feet to half an inch!" What was more important in that year was my participation in seminars at the Institute for Historical Research, Arthur John's and Jack Fisher's. Knick Harley, Mike Edelstein, and I were the Brash, Maybe Even Ugly, Americans-especially me. I remember getting into a public quarrel with the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill, who announced that quantitative historians were illiterate; I replied cheekily that qualitative historians were innumerate. Fortunately I learned a more sensible thing from that year: that economic historians not up to the frontier of economics were nonetheless excellent scientists, and in fact knew more about the world-though less about those chest shots--than I did, people like Steve Jones, Dudley Baines, Michael Thompson, Negley Harte. It ruined my sneering rights at non-economists.

You took your first job at Chicago.

Yes, in 1968: Fogel called up Gerschenkron and asked who he had, and they flew me over from London. I remember George Stigler attacking me in the workshop, but I attacked back (all those attack seminars I had had) and he liked it, the old creep. At lunch Milton Friedman was appalled that I had not made money on the recent British devaluation-I thought this confession had cost me the job. Fogel and Arcadius Kahan and Earl Hamilton emeritus were there, so Chicago had a big investment in quantitative, factual science about the past. Remember, Friedman and Schwartz's Monetary History of the United States had just come out, winning at a single blow the monetarist/Keynesian debate. And then I'd go to the Cliometrics conferences annually, at Purdue (where a few years earlier they had been invented) the ones of 1967 and 1969, and later years then more or less annually at Wisconsin. I just loved the conference. I didn't much care for the American Economic History Association at the time because it had older people whom I imagined were not as interesting as my crowd and who spent a lot of time honoring each other. The Clio rule was: present your paper, pre-read by the audience, and have it attacked no-holds-barred by people who loved you. That's how we learned to be scholars.

Would you say that the style at the Cliometrics conferences is the same today?

I just went to one this year, 2001, in Tucson and it was still in the style of Purdue in 1967. We have been wise in cliometrics about passing the generational torch. Clio has lots of young people each time, newbies. What is crucial is that economists' questions are of course always in order (What's your model? Do your actors have unexploited opportunities for profit left? How about those second order conditions?) but so are historians' questions. It is always considered sensible, relevant, important to ask, "Where did you get those facts, how accurate are they, what are their biases, and how do you know that they are the important ones?" Or, "Was the political and social context of your paper actually as you are assuming it was?" Or, "How does your argument help us in histoire totale" (you see my French course was not a complete bust). Having both sorts of questions in play makes us cliometricians real economic scientists.

What would you say those values are? Is it the mathematical rigor that economists seek, grounded in facts about the world?

I don't much care for sheer rigor. Mathematically expressed rigor in a real scientific argument involving magnitudes is fine. I mean, why not? I'm not anti-intellectual. At Erasmus University, after all, I'm a professor of philosophy. I'm all for it, as long as it has quantitative oomph. You don't find people talking about existence theorems in Cliometrics conferences. If someone said "there rigorously exists an equilibrium provable mathematically in which a king could charge more than such-and-such in taxes" everyone at the Cliometrics conference would laugh, because we aren't interested in existence. That's math-and-philosophy-department stuff, not engineering or history or physics or geology. We historical economists are interested in whether you can make a quantitative case that you have here an actual application to, say, the French monarchy in the 18th century. So it's not rigor for itself-as it is in so much of economics--but rather rigor (or whatever else is valued in mathematics, such as elegance) preparing for what is valued in science, namely, quantitative oomph. It doesn't matter to us whether you do this with simple (or complex) accounting frameworks, or with econometric inquiries, or with mathematical or theoretical arguments, or words, or diagrams, or flow charts, or simulations, or whatever turns you on-so long as the latter always are open to the engineer's (and historian's) question, How Big? I was always a diagram person, too much so, and Bob Fogel was always an algebra person. We would spend whole lunchtimes at the Quad Club translating one language to the other. His was the sounder approach because he saw, as I did not clearly see until he persuaded me of it, slowly over the years, that if you are going to do a calculation you can't confine yourself to qualitative theorems of the sort that Paul Samuelson recommended. You've got to have parameters, you've got to have slopes of lines, you've got to know how big things are. A* = Q* - sLL* - sKK*. In a diagram it's very awkward to focus on such things because of our peculiar custom in economics of drawing diagrams without scales on them. When I look at the diagrammatic work in trade theory in the generation of Harry Johnson and Bob Mundell I am appalled: they give no guidance at all about how to simulate the models empirically. It's philosophy, maybe worldly philosophy. But not science.

Would you say that the method was one of the big contributions of the early Cliometrics Conferences?

Yes, and it continues to this day, against the scientific stream in our poor, silly, unscientific field of economics. Then of course I would go home from the Clio meetings to the University of Chicago and everybody there, from Milton Friedman to Bob Fogel, would be asking, "How Big, How Big, How Big," all the time, in every seminar.

How did your involvement in the early Clio meetings contribute to your work?

I have always been a joiner, a club person, looking for love. I am always trying to find groups to which I can belong-the opposite of Groucho Marx. I form intellectual communities if they are not already in existence-with Sam, the Cliometric Society, for example. At Chicago I did it in the Workshop, and at Iowa I did it in the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry. Clio was for long the intellectual high point of my year-that's why it was so sad when I was temporarily isolated from Clio, 1996-2000. I felt my intellectual children had abandoned me, at a time when my real children actually had.

Your first two papers to the Cliometrics Conferences dealt with the question "Did Victorian Britain Fail?" How were they received?

Approvingly, so far as I could judge. But I was a pretty tough kid by then: I couldn't be crushed by someone saying "Boo!" The very first paper I did at Clio was on the British iron and steel Industry and then my first important published article, "Did Victorian Britain Fail?" (answer: no, it didn't; I was delighted by a paper this year at Clio by Marianne Ward confirming rather powerfully that I was right!) I was showing myself to be in the cliometric style a quantitative economic arguer about the past. That's what they liked. Still do.

Concerning the paper "Did Victorian Britain Fail?" where does this issue stand today and did cliometrics help resolve the issue?

I didn't push the issue hard enough. I did my dissertation on iron and steel and I published it as a book. Then I did a few more papers and got bored with the question and went off to study open fields and enclosures. What I should have done was written ten more papers and a couple more books, and just kept on it eight or ten years longer. I would have succeeded in persuading more people, though I would have died of boredom. I still think I am right that it is very odd to think of Britain failing in the 19th century or even in the early 20th century. Britain is a fantastically successful capitalist experiment. But you need to be more than right to persuade people in science-you have to keep at it, keep blowing your horn. The fanatics and the unimaginative often win in science. It's a rhetorical point. I have often thought it would be interesting someday in my extreme old age to go back and read all the work that has been done since, a lot of which I know I do not agree with, some I do, and write a cool, summarizing book.

If you were to return to the subject now, what areas would you focus on specifically?

If I was back at the age I was then and could do it all over I guess I would take more seriously the qualitativesources-letters of businesspeople, for example--and also try to explain, perhaps in an ideological or a sociology-and-rhetoric-of-science way, why some elements of British life became convinced they had failed. It was largely the immediate post-Victorians who first set out this odd claim that it was a failure, Keynes and others looking back on their parents and grandparents in the Victorian Era. One can give a Freudian interpretation of their scorn for the eminent Victorians. Certainly I think I could make a good case that it was part of the ideology of Fabianism to claim that this most successful of all capitalist countries was actually a failure even at the time of its alleged peak of its success. It's an argument a fortiori, a kind I like myself and understand. It was and is an attractive way of arguing for people on the left (e.g. Bill Lazonick). Yet, oddly, people on the right (e.g. David Landes, Martin Winer) also had their own culturally-based interests in making such an argument. Bill and David and Marty are not dopes: they are superb scholars. But they are I'm afraid mistaken.

Setting aside the ideological motivations of the people who have asked the question, who would you say has contributed the most convincing empirical work?

Bill Lazonick. He has done the most interesting anti-capitalist work, in my opinion. I admire people who take on the big questions and really go to it quantitatively: one of my favorite books is Baran and Sweezy Monopoly Capital. It's wrong, probably, and some day I might do a book showing why. But it would take a book-it's a serious piece of economic science. Lazonick has persuaded a lot of people because he did a lot of serious empirical work. He didn't always do it right but I didn't always do it right either. We all-Bill, Lars Sandberg, Knick Harley, Mike Edelstein, Steve Broadberry, W. D. Rubinstein, Nick Crafts, and myself-this whole gang-we all knew that you couldn't make the argument on a blackboard; you had to have quantitative magnitudes, you had to show that things were quantitatively important. That's a tremendous advance in economic history.

On this matter of advances in economic history, you are well known for changing the historical view of open fields.

I wonder. Again I got bored: I said what I still believe is pretty much the truth, got tenure for it at Chicago, and then didn't have the patience to keep saying it over and over again for the rest of my career! My stuff on English agricultural history, which was my preoccupation in the 1970s, can be broken into two simple (and true) parts: that enclosures were not an influence on 18th century economic growth and that open fields can be explained as portfolio balance. I started people thinking seriously about what we now call an analytic narrative of open fields and enclosures. Likewise with Victorian economic failure. Likewise with free trade and trade and growth in the 19th century. I think my contribution to British economic history in general has been the invention (well, all right: the reasonably skillful practice) of a genre of analytic narrative. That's important and I'm proud of it. But my contribution to the resolution of actual historical questions has been much smaller. I invented the genre but then didn't push it far enough to persuade many people. Silly people! Of course, most historians don't change many minds.

Why didn't you stay with it?

I guess that lack of the patience to be boring. I think a lot of scholars have this problem. They think they see how some "it" goes and so they explain it to people and the people say, "Well, I don't think so." The doubters haven't got any counter argument, but they don't see the point, and the burden of proof is on the maker of the new argument. I have a friend in biochemistry at Iowa who tells me she has been making a particular argument for 15 years; she knows its right; she's got the evidence and logic all lined up. But she's grown discouraged by a great and irrational conservatism of science. Look at how long it took geologists to grasp the hypothesis pretty well proven in 1915 that the continents were once one, fifty years, only in 1965 (just after I took my general-education course in geology!)

By the way, the reason I have made an exception to my more usual impatience on this score in my attacks on the silly, silly idea of statistical significance, and have been willing to become very boring about it, is because it matters so much for economic science. I can see so clearly the social and scientific gain if people would just grasp the very simple and decisive point I am making (Jeff, are you listening?). Their whole scientific practice would change-and all sorts of substantive historical conclusions would have to be abandoned (such as Bob Fogel's absurd "findings" on the low elasticity of net demand for grain in the 17th century, country-by-country [when the price was set internationally], just to pick an example from someone I love and admire). On the other hand if people don't agree with me on open fields it's just one substantive disagreement, which presumably will be remedied when people get around to actually looking at the evidence. It doesn't-as the gross misuse of fit and significance does-distort hundreds and thousands of empirical findings, making useless thousands of scientific lives. It would be as though someone had noted something radically wrong in the theory of the telescope. It would be a matter of scientific priority to find out whether she was right or wrong, ne c'est pas?

Another of your articles, "Does the Past Have Useful Economics?" is a classic and is required reading for most students in an economic history course. If you were to update that article today what would you add?

The point of the original article was to uphold the dignity of economic history as a field of study in departments of economics. I was battling George Stigler and other barbarians at Chicago who wanted to eliminate the economic history requirement (when I left Chicago for Iowa in 1980 the barbarians instantly won). In a fuller form ten years later the article became a short book I wrote for the Economic History Society, published by Macmillan in Britain, called Econometric History. It's out of print now (feel free to xerox it). I would need to do a lot more now because the book came out in 1987, and we've continued in the intervening decade and a half to make good progress-I think of all the brilliant work by Anderson and Libecap and company on the history of contracts and property, for example, or the big pile of work on women's economic history, or the cliometrics outside the old national centers.

I believe what I would now emphasize is that economic history has become virtually the only scientific field in economics. For example the labor economists who look so scientific are in fact not, because they depend on statistical significance for deciding whether a variable is important. Take a look at work by Dick Freeman, for example, or Orly Ashenfelter. These are very smart guys (Dick was a colleague at Chicago). But they have made a stupid decision to accept arbitrary levels of "significance" (modulo the particular "sample," often a population, not a sample!) as their lodestar. It has led them astray. My claim in other words would not be as modest as it was in the 1976 article. There I was just saying, "Now look here, you economists, you should pay attention to the past because there's a lot of good factual stuff there that you could use." Instead I'd be saying now, "Look, you dopes, do you want to learn how to do scientific economics or not? We in economic history are the only ones who do it now, so shut up and stop doing those chess problems you dote on, and get back to real scientific work." You can see I've developed!

You would not be taking your own rhetorical advice if you put it that way!

[laughing] I am not good at coaxing! I do tend to preach. In the last few years I've become an Episcopalian and have listened to a lot of good preaching, and am starting, just starting, to learn how to do it more effectively! But that I'm not always smooth and agreeable, and that I say rude things to Jeff, is not an excuse for not grasping what I'm saying, not in the Cliometrics conference, at any rate.

In addition to the intellectual aspects, what would you say are your fondest memories of the early Cliometrics conferences?

Well, the people involved were so amusing. Jonathan Hughes of Purdue and Northwestern was a character and a half, besides being a superb scientist. He was in superficials a great egotist (in his heart and behavior he was a true mensch). I remember when I first met him. I found myself sitting beside this older guy at dinner who launched off without introductions onto an elaborate discussion of his own books. "My book on business cycles, my book on industrialization, my this and that." It dawned on me after five minutes, "Wait a second: I've not read closely any of his books, since they are not on subjects I have worked on, but this must be the notorious egotist Jonathan Hughes." Paul David was there, droning on in his brilliant way. Doug North being craggy and talking about going fishing with his neighbor Perry Como. Gary Walton in his white Cadillac and cowboy hat. Lance Davis with his Navy-issue white socks (he wears them for perfectly good health reasons, incidentally). All guys. Women were rare. Betsy Hoffman, now the president of University of Colorado (she got me to come to UIC when she was provost there).

You are known to use the terms "econometric historian" and "historical economists" for what many would call "cliometrician." Why is that?

I regard them as synonyms. I was forced by my editor of that Macmillan book to use the silly and misleading phrase "econometric historian," which comes from the Meyer and Conrad book I helped assemble as a grad student and from the subtitle of Fogel's book on railroads. I offer "historical economics" as a term that isn't as obscure, or as cute, as cliometrics (invented by the mathematical economist Stan Reiter, also at Purdue and Northwestern: Purdue was briefly an amazing department of economics). Historical economics includes people like Simon Kuznets. Kuznets (who came to Harvard when I was a student there, though I foolishly didn't take any courses from him; Knick Harley had better taste) wouldn't allow himself to be called a "cliometrician." (I think he thought it implied some sort of mastery of higher math.) There are a lot of economists who are interested in historical events who ought to be included in our fraternity. Bob Gordon at Northwestern is one of them; Tom Sargent is another.

You played a crucial role in introducing cliometrics to Britain. How has the influence of cliometrics held on there?

Not as strongly as here, but it has held on and is prospering reasonably well. I organized the first British Cliometrics Conference-it was supposed to be the same thing that was happening at Purdue at the time. It took place in 1970 at Harvard, and then again at Cambridge, England, three years later, and then a third time in Cambridge. Out of that came the Floud and McCloskey edited book, The Economic History of Britain, two editions. The book and conferences were my idea, along the lines of such collective volumes in American economic history. Unhappily this year Floud has gone his own way with the project. Academic life is subject to these petty usurpations and palace revolutions, I'm afraid. As Henry Kissinger said, academic politics is nasty because nothing important is at stake!

How was British economic history done differently then? What is the biggest change?

Basically c. 1970 it was done without benefit of economics. A lot of quite good scholars in the field no longer grasped economics even on the level (actually quite sophisticated for the earlier time) of Thomas Ashton or John Clapham or M. M. Postan c. 1940. There had been a deterioration in the level of understanding of simple things like "relative not absolute prices govern allocation" or "MV = PT has to be true" or "trade does not `create' income" or "comparative advantage is not the same thing as absolute advantage" or "profit opportunities do not lie around unexploited for no good reason" or "national income equals national expenditure equals national production." Ec 101 stuff. Because the British had set up departments of economic history independent of both economics and history they had allowed their standard of sophistication in economics (less so in history) to slip, especially as I say after the War. I'm not an admirer, as I think must be clear by now, of the chess-problem "sophistication" that reigns in most departments of economics in the year of our Lord 2001. But the core ideas of economics are necessary, I think, to do very good work in understanding an economy. A business can be understood without requiring the scholar to know a thing about economics (witness Alf Chandler); but an industry and especially a whole economy cannot. That's changed in Britain since 1970. A lot of the younger scholars actually understand economics (for example the amazing Niall Ferguson does)-altho some of them, I note and lament, have fallen for the chess problems.

Economic history seems to have a higher standing in many European universities than their American counterparts. Do you think that necessitates having a formally organized cliometrics community here?

I guess "they" are more favorably disposed towards economic history in Europe, though in fact I think a better characterization of what's going on is that certain powerful professors there have, well, a lot of power. Fernand Braudel ran economic history in France and Spain from his office in Paris for decades (not because his work, pointlessly descriptive of nothing contributing to total history, will last as science). Things are more fluid in America, less centralized (see France) or institutionalized, (see Germany). So, as Tocqueville remarked long ago, we Americans are better at voluntary, non-state institutions, like Clio (tho I note that Clio has always and gloriously been supported by the National Science Foundation).

You have had long had appointments in both history and economics departments at Chicago, Iowa, and now UIC. Does economic history fit better in one than the other?

By training of course historical economists fit better into economics departments; but by avocation they fit better into history departments. The joke is the bumper sticker, "History is a thing of the past." Economists' eyes glaze over when someone mentions facts before last year. I think historical economists trained in economics departments (those trained in history are few: Jan de Vries of Berkeley comes to mind), as soon as they get over being amazed that there are people in the world who don't really know what a demand curve is (it took me about ten years after grad school), find that the values of historians are more like their values as economic scientists than the values of the other economists down the hall. If economists were scurrying around observing the world, if they were like historians in being deeply interested in finding out what happened--instead of doing still another article in some chess-problem Literature-there would be less of a gap. I remember the Good Old Chicago School people like Ted Schultz and Margaret Reid (both of whom came to the Economic History Workshop every single week) and Milton Friedman and Gregg Lewis who would ask empirically, always, "How do you know?" Qui scis? It's the best and only scientific question.

Which of your works meets the criteria of being wholly motivated by the world, "scientific" in a way that makes you the most proud?

My work in the 1970s and early 1980s on open fields. Again, someday I should go back to it and write the book: I've got dozens of articles out there but a book would make people clear on how simple (and persuasive!) my argument is. Now of course the work exhibits The World intersecting with my Chicago school, free-market ideology. I am not claiming that I was dispassionate, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to be. I was trying to prove that capitalistic behavior was characteristic of these people, even in 1300. As you know I often engage in such "even" arguments: "even though iron and steel around 1880 is supposed to be the worst case of entrepreneurial failure it performed well"; "even though the English peasants around 1300 are supposed to be Monty-Python-style idiots, they were in fact handling a terrifying world prudently." I like a fortiori arguments---which doesn't make me popular, because a fortiori rubs it in people's faces. "Even if you make all the classical statistical assumptions and wish to do gloriously high-brow econometrics, you are a scientific fool to use statistical significance." It gets on people's nerves. Anyway what made that good work is that it was not at all driven by the literature, because the literature about open fields (and only slightly less so about enclosures) was merely aimlessly confused. It's not that there was an existing explanation or an existing interpretation that I knocked down, as there was in the case of Victorian failure or to a lesser extent enclosures. There was just intellectual chaos about why peasants held scattered plots in southern England in 1300 (and around the world in many other times), and I said, "What is going on here?" And I found out. I find that satisfying. It's what I recommend economics students do in their dissertations. Find a Fact and explain it. (History students already do: their problem is know how to "explain.") You'll do superb work if you find the answer, and very good work if you push the answer along a bit.

You have been an explorer of the boundaries of economics. What were the boundaries of economics in the early years of Clio? How have they changed?

The boundaries in say 1970 were narrower because Gary Becker and company hadn't spoken out yet. At the very beginning we just assumed there were things called law, politics, sociology, and economics, and we thought they didn't have much to do with each other. It's one of the great achievements of the Chicago School in the 1970s to say "Hold it: law and politics and society are part of economics." We historical economists actually anticipated this by a decade or so, claiming that history was part of economics. This from the beginnings in people like Walt Rostow or Alex Gerschenkron or Simon Kuznets or Anna Schwartz or Brinley Thomas in the 1940s and 1950s. These were the real grandparents of cliometrics, and every one of them was deeply involved in extending economics beyond the conventional boundaries. I am amused at Doug North going around nowadays saying that he invented institutional economics after speaking to Steve Cheung and others from Chicago in the 1970s. An economically inspired economic history has always been about extending economics to "non-economic" institutions-to political institutions of banking, for example; or the power of the state to make or break economic growth; or slavery, like Doug's early work with Bob Thomas on serfdom; or Brinley Thomas' on the Welsh language in relation to industrialization; or numerous people on culture in its relation to entrepreneurial behavior.

Anyway I think that was a good thing to try to do, what we did at Chicago in the 1970s. What I have gotten clearer since then is that the project, both in Becker-type work and in our earlier work in economic history, was applying the model of Prudence Only. The way for example Judge/Professor Richard Posner approaches law is completely different from the way someone approaches it who takes the idea of rights and justice seriously. My opinion now is that life in an economy depends also on virtues other than Prudence Only. Justice, for example, or Love. But as soon as we allow the other virtues in, then drawing the boundaries of economics by the applicability of the Prudence-Only model doesn't look sensible.

So would you say that our expertise in Max U, Prudence-Only models--our unwillingness to consider the other virtues--limits our field?

Yes. If you say that marriage is a matter of the husband's maximization, which is how Gary views it, the only full character in the story (if Max U is claimed falsely to be a "full" character) is the husband, and the wife is merely reacting. You are going to make mistakes in understanding families: some insight, but a lot of mistakes, when she is not satisfied to be merely a constraint on his maximization. If you say that politics is a matter of a politician's maximization, which is also how Gary views it, the only character, again, is the politician. You are going to make mistakes in understanding politics-why people bother to show up at the polls at all, why words matter, why politics can lead to war. We must deal with a full set of virtues and vices, full human beings. Even in Chicago-School, strictly positivist terms (which I grew weary of in the late 1970s, by the way) the catholic approach works better.

Are there challenges young historical economists face nowadays that your cohort missed?

When I was a Ph.D. student most dissertations in economics were still empirical, nationwide. Empirical work--finding a fact of the world and explaining it--was highly valued. Now most dissertations in the top departments are theoretical. Finding a fact of the world and explaining it is the last thing that is on many economists' minds. This is a catastrophe for the science, and bad for our little band of surviving scientists in historical economics. Actually, though, most grownup economists are interested in the world. Real science is interesting and sells. In the long run the chess problems will not last as science.

What important economic questions do you suggest young economic historians study?

The biggest and most important one is "Why modern economic growth, why in England, why in the 19th century instead of the 13th Century, and why Europe and not China or India?" It was the most important event in recorded history, and ranks with the domestication of plants and animals. Hundreds of smaller questions can be festooned on it like lights on a Christmas tree: Why did the classical world not invent steam power? Was the ability of women in Western Europe to work outside the home an important source of labor in the industrial revolution? And so forth. But there are plenty of other "smaller" ones. Were Greece and Rome capitalist economies? Why did the bargaining power of middle class women decline in the 19th century and rise in the late 19th and 20th centuries? Why, really, did the Great Depression happen? Has competition increased or decreased since the rise of national and then international corporations? And smaller small ones, such as why bread and beer declined in quality in the United States? Was it the immigration restriction? Prohibition? It's endlessly interesting work.

Some of the questions you suggest are those that the general economist would be less likely to study on methodological grounds. Do you see a difference in the willingness of cliometricians compared with other economists to take on such questions?

Yes. General economists believe, because they know nothing at all about the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, not to speak of how actual science operates in other fields, such as physics or history, that economics must work by the "hypothetico-deductive method from general laws." So we are supposed to be "testing" rational expectations or some crazy growth model, in the 3" x 5"-card philosophy of science that Milton gave us in 1953 (Milton has long since repudiated this nonsensical paper). But the method that our leaders impose on us is 1940 philosophy of science. It's childish.

By contrast when economists are asked to advise on policy they get sensible, like we historical economists always are. Here's a little policy question in academic life itself that illustrates the point: "How should we teach undergraduates economics? Should we prepare them for graduate school in economics?" If the person asking the question is a non-quantitative person he is at a loss. But anyone with quantitative common sense knows to ask in turn, "Well, how many of our graduates go to graduate school in economics?" The percentage of course is about 1 percent. The answer then (ignored by most departments of economics) is clear: Prepare them to be law students, business students, economic actors in the world, lifetime worldly philosophers; but don't prepare them to do Hal Varian's textbook next year. Teach them economic history!

In your definition of what it is to do economic science, stories play an important role. How has our understanding of stories changed in the field?

I think historical economists have become more sophisticated about the role of quantification. In the early days at Purdue, and at Harvard for that matter, we felt ourselves in a bright dawn of Number: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young [and numerate] was very heaven!" We thought that stories would tell themselves if we produced the numbers. I think we've gotten more sophisticated. I have I think.

It sounds like you are saying cliometricians need to take more lessons from their colleagues in the history department.

Yes. Every historical economist should try to get a joint appointment in the history department. It is a terrible embarrassment for a mere economist to go into a history department, with all those people who know languages and read long books with no equations in them. But it's good for the soul to be so humbled! The community of historical economics has more intellectual richness than economics by itself. But you can go further. I've cultivated friendships and read books in anthropology, history, and political science at Chicago, in English, classics, philosophy, and communications at Iowa, and in all of them, with an occasional mathematician or theologian thrown in, at UIC. Last term I took Stanley Fish's great graduate seminar in Milton (John, not Friedman). Believe me, it makes you feel ignorant, which is an experience more economists ought to have. The best scholars know this. For example if you are going to do sociological economics you should take it as seriously as Gary Becker did. You can depend on it that Gary has read with care all the classics of sociology, Durkheim and Weber and C. Wright Mills, for example. Gary has long been a full member of the sociology department at Chicago, one of the best in the world.

[site admin note for the following paragraph: for the several books written since this interview, please see the books section.]
Your latest book, edited by Stephen Ziliak, from Edward Elgar, is called Measurement and Meaning in Economics: The Essential Deirdre McCloskey (2001). It's in their Economists of the Twentieth Century series, a collection of "greatest hits," so to speak. It contains a 50-50 split of economic history articles and rhetoric of economics articles. Your work on the rhetoric of economics makes up a substantial part of your career--two decades, about. How did your early involvement with Clio influence your work on rhetorical argument in economics?

I should point out that the club of the book series Economists of the Twentieth Century is not very selective. Still, I like the book (tho it's a trifle expensive). To answer your question, there's a very close connection between my experience in economic history and my interest in rhetoric. If I had been a conventional student of mathematical economics, say, I would never have figured out that there is more than one way of making arguments, whereas among the Cliometrics crowd I was immersed in an argumentatively rich part of economics. I was arguing with people where all kinds of other things were obviously involved: ideology, storytelling, various kinds of anecdotes, personal histories, arguments from symmetry, math, econometrics, accounting. The things that would come up in Gerschenkron's seminar or the Cliometrics conference were seldom the routine of argument in economics, because we'd be asking questions beyond it, asking the "historians' questions" as I just called them about the sources and the politics as well. Historical economics is more obviously rhetorical than, say, industrial organization. If you think that's an attack on historical economics, though, or that IO is not rhetorical, you need to spend the money and buy the book. All my other books, too!

Do you have any concluding remarks?

Yes: thanks to the wonderful field of historical economics! I still love it, I still do it (though I know you all find it strange that I also do weird things like Rhetoric and Lit Crit and Classical Philology, too; I apologize). Our historical economics has provided many a person with a social framework for doing real economic science. That's increasingly rare, and we should be very proud of it.