Economics in the Age of Fracture

Dan Allosso

I’ve started re-reading Daniel T. Rodgers’ Age of Fracture.  I glanced at it in the final run-up to my PhD comps, but it didn’t make much of an impression.  Then Jane Kamensky mentioned it during her closing talk at the Historical Society’s recent conference, and I thought I ought to pick it up again.

This closer reading led me to a couple of thoughts.  First, that there’s probably a whole lot more in many of those books we powered through in grad school; it’s probably worth revisiting some of them and digesting them slowly.  Second, what doesn’t seem relevant when you’re under the gun and trying to absorb the historiography of a field may be really useful when you’re thinking about teaching or writing – especially for the public.

I’ve only scratched the surface of Age of Fracture so far, but it strikes me as a very interesting attempt to argue a complicated point for a more-or-less general audience.  This fascinates me, since I think historians really need to help us all understand how we got to where we are today.  I hope to pick up some ideas about how to do this, especially about where the boundary is between assertion and explication: how much of an argument you can carry with an authoritative voice and how much you need to demonstrate with evidence and analysis.  At one point, for example, Rodgers says, “What precipitates breaks and interruptions in social argument are not raw changes in social experience, which never translate automatically into mind. What matters are the processes by which the flux and tensions of experience are shaped into mental frames and pictures that, in the end, come to seem themselves natural and inevitable: ingrained in the very logic of things” (Kindle Locations 125-127).  This is an interesting claim; very close to the idea I just found in Giambattista Vico’s New Science (another book I picked up as a result of the conference), “Every epoch,” Vico wrote, “is dominated by a ‘spirit’, a genius, of its own. Novelty, like beauty, recommends certain faults which, after fashion changes, become glaringly apparent. Writers, wishing to reap a profit from their studies, follow the trend of their time” (quoted in Anthony Grafton’s Introduction).  It’s a provocative idea, and it obviously has a lineage – but is it true?  And can it be used to explain social change over time?
GDP Growth, 1923-2008, (Source: wikimedia).
Another thing Rodgers does, in the early pages of Age of Fracture, is to provide a schematic for a “historiography” of the field of Economics.  Beginning with Alfred Marshall (Principles of Economics, 1890), Rodgers traces the development of economic thinking (and college economic teaching) through Paul Samuelson (Economics, 1948), and then into the variety of competing interpretations resulting from the failure of macro-economic prediction in the 1970s and 80s.  Along the way, Rodgers mentions many of the relevant texts in this development: popular texts such as Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as well as academic titles like Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” and Richard Posner’s Economic Analysis of Law.  It would be interesting to organize a syllabus around these titles, and read them one after another.  In addition to tracing the development of economic theory, the themes of such a class might be to examine whether theory or contingency really moved society, and more importantly to test the point made above by Rodgers and Vico: to see if the explanations offered by economists in their historical moments contain “faults which, after fashion changes, become glaringly apparent.”