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The Value of Global History for Modern Political Economy

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There is a growing faction in the academy arguing that education for global citizenship requires that students learn some "global history." Certainly our Political Economy major here at Berkeley has placed a lot of its chips on this bet. But is this argument true? What is the value of "global history" for the student and analyst of modern political economy issues, anyway?


  • Chair, J. Bradford DeLong, UCB Economics
  • Speaker, Alan Karras, UCB International and Area Studies
  • Speaker, Mark Healey, UCB History and Latin American Studies

Location: Blum Hall Plaza Level

Time: 2:10-2:40: Panelists. 2:40-3:10: Discussion. 3:10-4:00: Reception.

Brad DeLong:

There is a growing faction in the academy arguing that education for global citizenship requires that students learn some "global history." Certainly our Political Economy major here at Berkeley has placed a lot of its chips on this bet. But is this a good bet? What is the value of "global history" for the student and analyst of modern political economy issues, anyway?

It was Karl Marx who wrote that the "country that is more developed industrially... shows to the less developed the image of its own future..."

Karl Marx was wrong. It's not the "image."

Nevertheless, past examples of globalization, marketization, industrialization, democratization, bureaucratization, et cetera do provide a set of benchmarks, contrasts, and perhaps--for those people making their own history but not as they choose today--models.

One of the principal intellectual bets of the Political Economy major here at Berkeley is that we will all be better at analyzing and understanding the world of the present and of the future if our knowledge of the world of the past is deep and strong.

How is this working out for us?

Alan Karras:

Prof. DeLong indicated that he wanted this panel to discuss the place of global history in political economy. And why the PE major made the bet that it did some years ago. I could certainly go on and on about that, but I think that would be boring and pedantic, at least in this particular forum. (Give me an audience of high school teachers, and it would be a very different story.)

But when I talked to my friend Mark Healey about this, earlier this week—he reminded me that history was on the margin of a lot of social science. It gets invoked when a model fails, or when a model needs more support, or in general when someone wants to explain something unexpected.

And that got me thinking about ideas on the margins. World—or global--History is, in many ways, on the margins of the historical profession. It is something that most historians come to as their empirical research grows, or their interest changes, or their department requires them to teach a course in it.

But I don’t think it should be that way. For two reasons. First, the way in which the academy organizes itself is not the way in which the world is organized—and we do our students a disservice if we fail to remember that the overwhelming majority not only do not plan careers in the academy, but that they can’t wait to leave the academy (the present economic climate notwithstanding.) We therefore need to educate students in a way that will help them get on with their lives and, in terms of our political economy major, generate the critical thinking skills that are required for working their chosen fields.

Second, those who have tried comparative history tend to find it richly rewarding. The intellectual adventure, they remember, is what drove them—us—to the academy in the first place. 

But that needs to be brought back to the idea of the margins. Political Economy exists on the margins of the university’s departmental structure. World History exists on the margins of the history department here, and in many other places. Global History is a subset of world history, which makes it in some ways on the margins of that. (Happily, this is beginning to change.) And yet, it seems to me, margins are where it’s at. I therefore embrace them.

My recent book on smuggling, I happen to think, reveals this pretty clearly. In it, I argue that states tolerated illegal activity in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their publics. (My argument was about imperial states, mostly, since that is where my empirical evidence comes from, but I think it applies more globally. And I said that.) In other words, the state tolerated marginal people doing marginal things, or illegal things, in order to gain what the media would now stupidly call mainstream acceptance. 
 Smuggling was that—and it is that. And it was tolerated, and it is tolerated. My students admit to it every semester. They may not do it on a large scale, or even on a medium scale like the wife of Jeb Bush, who was punished in the Customs Office at the Atlanta airport. (It’s in the book, if you are curious.) But they do it. And they think it is OK.

And by doing it, of course, they are participating in the demise of the state, unwittingly. I am assuming that most of them are not tea partiers, but I could be wrong. The fact is this: avoiding taxation by smuggling deprives the government of money, which causes it to decrease services or raise taxes on something else. It used to be that governments could let this slide, because there was plenty of money, and the importance of establishing a legitimate government was hugely important. But now, government is mostly—depending on who you ask—an acceptable thing, and it needs to be fed with taxes. Import and export duties are one way to do so. (This says nothing of the economic rationale for these things, but I leave it to others to bring that in.)

Indeed, the idea of the informal economy comes right from smuggling, a marginal activity. And looking at the informal economy seems to me to be a necessary part of considering political economy. And because it is so shadowy, these are precisely the kinds of questions that historical work might be useful at getting at. Our students need to understand that the informal economy is actually sizable—how sizable is not really important—and that many people in many places depend on it for their livelihood. 
 Before ceding the floor, also when talking to my friend Mark Healey about some of this, he said something about doing the “pirate stuff.” I happen to have a chapter in my book entitled, “it’s not pirates.” This was named because the group of San Francisco high school teachers for whom I run a reading group kept referring to my book about pirates.

Leaving aside the idea that this expresses—the conflation of two different crimes, smuggling and piracy—the serious idea in here needs to be taken, well, seriously. And that is that we live in a world that is full of piracy. Last week a couple from California was killed by pirates, or by their rescuers; it is still not completely clear to me. They represented only the second latest in a string of pirate captures in the seas between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The area is now known as a hotbed of piracy, and connections are just starting to be made between these pirates, those in Southeast Asia, and more historically those off the Barbary Coast and, of course, those who are now reduced to being characterized exclusively by Johnny Depp. 

How does this very important, yet marginal, part of history or historical phenomenon relate to political economy—well, it seems to me to be quite central, as it is about the relationship between rulers and those whom they rule. In the case of Somali pirates, it is clear that there is an absent state. It is also clear that the global state is unable or unwilling to do much about it. Is there a parallel to European claims in the seventeenth-century Caribbean that piracy was beyond the line, meaning that Spain had to deal with problems that came up in its official zones-of-control? And if so, how do we go from 1600 to 2010 with that kind of argument? 

In fact, it seems to me that this marginal activity leads right into very important questions that political economy ought to be addressing. And those questions are at the core of the discipline, not at their margins. 

Finishing up then, in order to understand contemporary political economy, and in order to understand classical political economy, we need to understand the situations that gave rise to the questions in the first place. And those are historical, and they therefore need to be central, and not marginal to our endeavor. Looking at the history of only one place or one region is a start, but it is insufficient to the larger endeavor, especially in a place that is as interconnected as the modern world.

Mark Healey: Late Arrivals, Productive Failures, and Unsuspected Precedents: The Value of Global History for Modern Political Economy:

Paul Krugman has a lovely little piece about why development economics fell apart in the 1970s. The crux of his argument is that, at the very moment when increasingly sophisticated models were becoming ever-more central to the discipline, previous simpler models were breaking apart into a dizzying sea of particularities and qualifications. Since the central issues could no longer be described in mathematically elegant ways, they moved to the margins of the discipline.

Around the time this part of his very impressive lifework was unraveling, development economist Albert Hirshman wrote a wonderful and wise essay entitled “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding”. In a key passage, he notes “The architect of social change can never have a reliable blueprint. Not only is each house he builds different from any other that was built before, but it necessarily uses new construction materials and even experiments with untested principles of stress and structure. Therefore what can be most usefully conveyed by the builders of one house is an understanding of the experience that made it at all possible to build under these trying circumstances.”

My point here is not to attack economists and exalt historians, to doom model-builders and praise particularists. I would hardly be a very good intellectual historian if I didn’t take the power of ideas seriously – we need models to order the world and act within it, and rich empirical detail may be wonderful but is in itself pointless. Rather, I want to insist on three things: first, the importance of a certain productive tension between theory and empirics, second, the value of thinking seriously about where our theories come from and how they have been deployed, and third, the absolutely crucial contribution that a global and historical perspective can make to both.

At the very least, global history should broaden horizons. It should provide a wider range of examples, an expanded sense of plausible experiences, a new empirical and conceptual territory to light out for when the familiar references and stylized facts are no longer proving fruitful in theoretical terms. In short, it short, it offers raw material that is new, different, and potentially quite challenging.

It also can provide a better sense of where our conceptual tools come from, what their limitations might be, and where we might start if we wanted to forge some new ones.

Thus it’s not only about applying the same tools to new materials, but also about discovering how those tools might be inadequate to the task, and may even suggest how to rethink them.

In political economy, it strikes me that history is too often invited late to the party. Too often history is invited, in fact, only after the party has gone sour. The model didn’t fit, the reforms didn’t work, the policy didn’t succeed. And the history that was previously ignored now provides the supposed answer, deus ex machina. The launch of the model was initially justified on technical grounds, but its failure is now explained through history, and particularly through analogies to other past failures that suddenly become relevant. In fairness, I should note that history does sometimes show up earlier; in economics as in politics shallow historical analogies are often invoked to ground conceptual moves or political choices. The word Munich comes to mind, as does, for a certain generation of economic policy makers in Latin America, the terrifying label of populism. Both can and have been used quite effectively to silence debate.

But what we generally have here is what Tim Burke has called “historical analogy as sleight of hand.” What we need instead is “historical analogy as an investigative tool.” In short, we need to think of history as not just something to check models against, but a generative resource, a starting point for developing models, refining arguments, challenging perspectives.

I say all this well aware that historians are famously wary of what Manfredo Tafuri called “operational history,” of speaking directly to the present in a way that economists and some political economists can and must do more often. My own department recently held a grand seminar on “History as a Resource for Policy Making” which was a mixed success at best. But we failed there for two reasons: we took an excessively narrow view of the globe – surprisingly – and we did not even try to develop a clear analytical framework.

I think these problems are less dire in settings like this one. In Political Economy, in Development Studies, in Economics, in all the Area Studies programs, we have no shortage of analytical frameworks. And interestingly, I would argue that we have a more robust sense of the global than a number of departments, including mine, which are divvied up by specialities but turning with increasing force towards the familiar schemes and mantras of the North Atlantic world—leavened by some key Asian contributions. It is worrisome, though, that at the very moment that economists and political economists are rediscovering history, and hopefully discovering a more global history, historians and other social scientists here are partly turning away from this engagement. Partly, but certainly not wholly: at this very moment there is another conference on transnational history taking place across campus, organized by some brilliant graduate students, with a sharper focus and a broader reach than the previous endeavor. I know the organizers benefited from Hirshman’s “understanding of the experience” that made the earlier attempt “at all possible.”

It’s worth emphasizing that the kind of productive engagement I envision with the global and the historical is directly opposed to what often happens under the sign of the global. In far too many cases, the “global” serves to simply diffuse the same stylized facts, undercooked assumptions, and simplistic schema on a planetary scale. As a historian of Argentina, I have a visceral sense of this from a thousand conversations during fieldwork in the 1990s. At the time, if anyone invoked “globalization” as a justification for the neoliberal policies of the age, one knew immediately they were not thinking at all in global terms, or even especially critical ones. And I mean as a practical as much as an ideological critique. No one had any good answer for what, exactly, Argentina’s path to future growth was, with industry shattered, unemployment sky-high, agricultural exports the only hope and—most crucially—its currency permanently and irrevocably overvalued and tied to the dollar. But still the return of growth and what seemed like stability was too powerful to resist, especially after the pain of a historical experience of decline, instability, and inflation. Thus the promise of “the global”, the idea that globalization would bring the country inevitably to the First World, was beyond question. We all know how badly that turned out.

I should also note, however, the final twist, that the administrations of the past decade, while endlessly reviling their 1990s predecessors, have turned the country into an export powerhouse, building a surprisingly resilient and supposedly anti-neo-liberal model on the ruins but also the achievements of earlier neoliberalism. Indeed, after the disastrous flameout of two decades of neoliberal reform, the period with the lowest GDP growth since 1850, the past decade has produced the most impressive and sustained growth in a century.

Fifty years ago, Argentine president Arturo Frondizi, the most fervent local advocate of the developmentalist project, memorably wrote “este país está malhecho, pero el mal está tan bien hecho, que es indestructible.” Or in English, “this country is messed up, but it is so craftily messed up, that it is indestructible.” For a long time, economists and political scientists were happy to insist on its dysfunction and offer a changing array of standard solutions, ways of undoing the mess. Historians and other political scientists dwelt on the craftiness of the mess. But the country served exclusively as a testing ground and a cautionary tale, never a model for understanding anything functional. Certainly many social scientists and more than a few Argentines today still share this view. But there are things to be learned from the indestructibility, and the craftiness, that might well apply elsewhere.

And here I’ll close with an inspiring parable. In all the writing about the catastrophic collapse of the once-wondrous Celtic Tiger, Ireland, there are few who can claim much foresight. One of the most celebrated observers has been Morgan Kelly, of University College Dublin. But another keen observer has been a junior scholar at UCD, Sebastián Dellepiane Avellaneda. He has written a series of brilliant papers about the political economy of growth in Ireland and, more recently, in Britain, the kinds of critical works that contribute powerfully to understanding recent history and to building more robust models – in this case for understanding economic policy making and especially the vexed question of “credible commitments”. And looking closer into his recent works, I note with a certain wry satisfaction that his central concern with “credible commitment” was derived from his own experience in university in Argentina in the 1990s, trying to understand where the hard-currency-peg came from and why it proved so catastrophic. The tools forged there, of course, turn out to be enormously relevant in understanding Britian, Ireland, and Europe today – not to mention of course Argentina.

Jorge Luis Borges has a story in which an obscure writer discovers in his basement an aleph, a kind of portal which allows him to view the entire world. I am not suggesting that Argentina in the 1990s is such a spot – that’s not even what I work on. Certainly the worlds that our students are exposed to in global history courses are far more distant, strange, and intriguing than this episode, which is so recent and perhaps not so hard to explain after all. But if such insight can be gleaned this close to home, then that should give us a sense of the greater wonders in those more surprising worlds that await.


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View Bali

great Article.. In political economy, it strikes me that history is too often invited late to the party. Too often history is invited, in fact, only after the party has gone sour. The model didn’t fit, the reforms didn’t work, the policy didn’t succeed. And the history that was previously ignored now provides the supposed answer, deus ex machina. I really agree with that ..

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