Shilo Brooks: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Taylor Jaworski, associate professor of economics and my successor as associate faculty director at the Benson Center. Taylor has been a faculty fellow at the center and he's written widely on the economic history of the United States. Our conversation today explores the discipline of economic history. We discussed the development of the American economy during the periods of the founding and the Second World War, the history of America's transportation system and the ways in which various notions of progress emerge from the study of economic history.
Taylor Jaworksi, welcome to the Free Mind Podcast.
Taylor Jaworski: Thanks for having me.
Shilo Brooks: Yeah, I've wanted to have you on for a while. You're a faculty member in economics at CU, you study the history of economics, a discipline in which I'm interested but about which I know very little other than having once taught a course in it on a whim and in an emergency. So you get to teach me today about economic history. Let me start out by asking you just broadly about the discipline of economics. Talk to us about, and this may seem like a dumb question but I suspect dumb questions have profound answers, what is economics?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. Again, thanks for having me. Yeah, so I think that the kind of answer that you would get in an introductory to economics course, like you roll into Econ 101 and kind of don't know what you're getting into, the first thing you might come across in Chapter one of some textbook would be economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. So that's kind of the most fundamental or the easiest answer to give to what economics is. I think that another way to think about economics and one that is kind connected to the biggest thinkers in economics or many of the biggest thinkers in economics is to think about instead the patterns of institutions, of culture, of society that sustain specialization and exchange. I mean, that goes all the way back to Adam Smith and runs through David Ricardo and many of the other economic thinkers or theorists of commercial society that have come about since Adam Smith a little bit before and then very much after.
And so I think about that as being the fundamental thing that people should understand about what economics is. It's about how we build institutions and then how society works to sustain specialization and exchange, right? So when I'm good at some stuff and you're good at some stuff, we should figure out how to have one person do one and one person do the other. And then we can both benefit from the fact that we have particular comparative advantages.
Shilo Brooks: Right. So this is helpful. And it gives us a broad definition on the basis of which we can have the rest of the conversation. So now that you have this broader definition of economics, we need to talk about your discipline in particular because you're not what a lot of folks think about when they think about economics. They go to the economics department and people are writing these fancy econometric papers. We're using a lot of mathematics and equations and these sorts of things. You're an historian. And so I want to talk to you about history and its relationship to economics.It's in a way a two part question. We can take part one first, but I want to ask the whole question. I want to talk about what history brings to the study of economics. What does history in particular bring to economics? And why, and this is the second part, although related to the first, why does economics need a history in the first place? Why don't we just have people who are, you know, I don't know, whiling away at their econometric papers based in equation and these sorts of things? Why a history of economics?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. So the first thing, a kind of another definition that I think it's useful or a pair of definitions to sort of clear some things up, one way that you hear about economic history is that it can be confused with the history of economics, which is a specific field that has to do with studying what people have thought about the economy over time. So in a course like that, you might start with Adam Smith, or you might start with the precursors to Adam Smith, and then you would work your way through Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, and then on into the 20th century. And that's the history of what people have thought and how people have thought about the economy over time. A good book, for example, on this topic would be Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, which is a book about philosophy, but it ends up being ultimately a book about what economists or what people would recognize actually economics today, what they have thought about the world over time. So the worldly philosophers.
So that's the history of economics. Economic history is a little bit different. Or economic history as practiced in economics departments, for example, is a little bit different. Economic history is the boring definition, the application of the tools of economics, either theoretical tools or statistical tools to two historical questions. So that's a kind of boring way to understand what economic history is. I mean, it's useful, but it's kind of the easiest and simplest. If that's all we were doing, we might be a little bit bored. The way that I like to think about economic history is that it's the humanities of the social science. Or one way that I like to think about it is that it's the humanities of the social sciences. It's a field. It's not the only one necessarily, but it's a field that brings together social science concerns with the causes of things, and humanitarian or humanities concerns with a kind of story that we tell ourselves about, in this case, our past and our development as a society, as an economy over time.
And so that's why I think fundamentally what economic history is, is how we sort of use the tools of economics and the tools of history to tell ourselves a story about what has happened over time in the world, in the United States at different points in time. So that's I think an answer to your first question about what economics brings to history. And then I think that economics, or what history brings to economics, going the other direction, I think that it's useful. I mean, sort of my version of economic history, sort of cliometrics, sort of this economics department based way of thinking about history really started in the post World War II period in the 1950s and '60s and '70s really got going then. And the concern at the time or one of the interests at the time was trying to sort of bring the discipline that economics can provide. Not that only economics can provide, but the discipline that economics can provide to the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves.
And so the way I like to think about it or the easiest way for listeners to understand this is, when you tell yourself a story about what happened in history, we should wonder what's going on if that story doesn't obey the law of demand, right? That demand curve slope downward or some other kind of fundamental thing that we think shapes how people interact in the economy. If you want to tell yourself a story about American or European economic development, there's going to be some notions of economics that are relevant that can help discipline and say something like that is not that likely to happen. Even if you can tell a story about it, that story is not going to apply to a broad set of people. It's not going to characterize how that society worked in general.
So applying economics to history is a way of saying, "What is the story that we can pull out of this environment that is somewhat general?", right? Not that it applies to all societies and all time periods, but the story that says, "Here is something that we believe about the economics or the economy of this time period, and the story that we're going to tell obeys approximately those laws."
Shilo Brooks: I see. I just want to go back to something you said at the beginning. There's a difference between what I would call the history of economic thought, that is Smith, Montesquieu Marx. I mean, all the way back to Aristotle. I mean, we could name many other names.
There's a history of economic thought, which is itself a... I mean, it's almost sort of a philosophic discipline, the history of economic thought. In a way, you're reading these philosophers in a certain sense. And that's different from economic history, which is the actual practice, you used just a moment ago the term story storytelling, storytelling about the development of the economy itself. You're interested in both of these things, right? In a way.
Shilo Brooks: You write mostly on the history of economics, not the history of economic thought, is that right?
Taylor Jaworski: Yes. Yeah. I think most of what I spend my time doing, I have a little bit of my past self that has spent time sort of thinking about how to use the famous texts in economics, The Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to teach economics as a way of trying to garner interest among students when math, statistics is not what would bring them to be interested in economics. And so there's a part of my past self and current self that was interested in doing that. But what I spend my days doing for the most part is trying to think about how we can use the tools of economics to understand the American past in my case.
Shilo Brooks: Right. Right. So let's talk about that. I mean, I want to get some examples of the kind of research that you're doing, and thus the ways in which economic history can enrich the study of economics, and not just that, but can enrich the study of history. So give us some examples of ways that we can understand history better using economics, whether you want to start in Europe, you want to start in the United States. Or I know your specific research might involve transportation, the Second World War, et cetera. But just a few examples of how the study of economics can enrich our understanding of American history more broadly.
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. I like to be pluralistic so I'll start with things that are a bit outside of my wheelhouse in terms of my research, but things that might interest listeners. And so, I mean, some of the biggest questions in social science you can reframe or you can think of as economic history questions or as questions related to economic history. I mean, we can go all the way back to the Roman Empire and ask what did the Roman Empire work as a market economy. So there's an economist at MIT who has a book on that. Can we understand the Roman economy as fundamentally or as essentially a market economy? So that's maybe not the biggest question in the whole world, but it's going back a long period of time to understand a point in history that we think is pretty important and trying to ask what kinds of systems govern the way that the Roman economy work.
Something that is a bit closer to us in time and that really are fundamentally big questions is, where did economic growth come from? And then when we kind of zoom in and we noticed that it seems to be places in Northwest Europe around 1717, 1750, 1800, that were the first to experience modern economic growth, we can then ask, why did the industrial revolution, this period of modern economic growth, why did it happen in Britain first or in Britain and the Netherlands first in the different ways that it happened? Why did it spread the way that it did to France and Germany? Why was there this divergence sort of in Europe broadly, or between Europe broadly and parts of east Asia or parts of the Middle East? Places that have been quite prosperous up to the point of the 1600, 1700s. So that's kind of the first, I think, sort of fundamental question of economic history is, why does economic growth happen? And then in history, why did it seem to happen first in the places that it did in and around Northwest Europe?
If we moved to US economic history, sort of a bit closer to my areas of interest, when I teach classes in economic history I would talk about something like, "Why did the American Revolution happen?", right? So one way to understand the American Revolution would be from the perspective of political or cultural history. Economic history doesn't say those things aren't relevant, but it might say, "Let's emphasize particular aspects of mercantilist policy in great Britain at the time." Policies that sort of sought to enrich the core of the British Empire, London and its surroundings, relative to the colonies, right? So not just the American colonies, but other places around the British Empire. And so, one way to understand the American Revolution is as like a fundamental revolt to mercantilist policies that made the American colonies less well off than they would have been otherwise.
My own research has to do with the 20th century, so fast forward 150 years, and tries to ask questions about World War II, how the World War II economy worked, how the World War II economy and its kind of predecessor, the 1930s New Deal economy, how this represents an important transition in the modern American economy and how politics interacts with the economy. And then kind of more recently, my work is really focused on the role that transportation plays in facilitating economic and regional development. So when we build highways, how does that shape what happens to the US economy overall? And how are the gains from, say, economic growth that happens because of the cheaper costs of trading within the US, how are those gains distributed across US regions? Does the northeast, does the south, does the west, does the midwest benefit more or less from different kinds of changes in the transportation system?
Shilo Brooks: Well, why don't we drill down into one of these? I mean, the question you raise about the New Deal economy and the World War II economy, that's fascinating to me. The Free Mind Podcast is not about hot takes, but I'm going to ask you for a late person summary. You've done a lot of research on World War II economy and this sort of thing. Give us a viewpoint from which to understand better how the economics of the Second World War and the New Deal have shaped the growth of the American economy into the present. Talk to us about some of that research.
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. So the first order thing that I would want people to take away from a better understanding has come through research and economic history about the New Deal and World War II, is that the New Deal especially represents this kind of fundamental break in how the government, the role that the government plays in the American economy. And we can apply a kind of political or partisan valence to... Or we can interpret this phenomenon through certain kinds of partisan lenses. But I mean, it just is true that fundamentally in the period leading up to the New Deal, what you have is really a dominance of first state governments. State governments are really, say in the 19th century, where you see a lot of the action happening in terms of who is building infrastructure. Who is helping to charter new corporations that help to facilitate the growth of the American economy in the 19th century? It's really state governments.
And then at the end of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century, you get an increased role for local governments having to do with where the sources of revenue, tax revenue are, and what kinds of projects are being built. So in this period, you see the building up of municipal utility services that are financed by local tax revenue. This could be sewer, this could be electricity, this could be gas works. And then the New Deal comes along. The New Deal represents this first period in American history in which the federal government really has the capacity in terms of administration and the source of revenue in terms of taxes to raise and spend a lot of money. This is what is going on a little bit in the run up to the New Deal. Sort of at the end of say the 1920s, you see sort of projects being brought online or projects very much being thought about as big public works or infrastructure projects or big government programs that will eventually come into being.
And then the New Deal just really brings all this stuff, puts it on the table. You get social security, you get programs targeted to specific aspects of the Great Depression, work relief and loan programs for homeowners and farmers. And so that's really the most important thing to understand about the New Deal, is aside from again like a particular kind of partisan angle that you might take on this, I mean, it just empirically is true that the New Deal represents this fundamental break in American political economy. And then World War II is just a continuation of this. I mean, in some ways, World War II kind of puts what happens during the New Deal into hyperdrive and focuses all of that sort of energy in one particular sector or in a set of sectors very much related to mobilization for World War II.
Shilo Brooks: I see. So this would be an example of your research at work. Let me ask you this. I mean, you mentioned the American Revolution and these sorts of things. I know you've done some work with the Benson Center on Hamilton. Can you talk a little bit, I hate to put you on the spot, but can you talk a little bit about political economy at the American founding and how this shapes the founding? You can talk about Hamilton. I know you've studied the report on manufacturers and these sorts of things, but I'm just curious now that you've given us this major moment. I imagine there are several major moments, New Deal, World War II being won, but perhaps we should have done this one first. But can you talk about the economic history of the American founding?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah, I mean, I think, again, sort of if I was to emphasize this change in political economy that happens in the 1930s and the 1940s for the New Deal and World War II, I think you can again go back and sort of think about the American Revolution, I mean, the period after the revolution or after the revolution concludes, through the Articles of Confederation and up to and then after the constitution, as another important period in American political economy in which there's a couple of things going on.
I men, one thing is we are figuring out as a country how to structure political relationships in a way that hopefully ends up being a departure from the way that political relationships are structured in Europe. And then in particular, that eventually provides foundations, maybe not always intentionally, maybe somewhat accidentally, provides foundations for a break from Europe in the sense that what... I mean, the one way that you might characterize kind of the political economy of pre-modern or kind of pre American Revolution times is a political economy that uses economic rents, that uses sort of access to different parts of the economy as a way to build political coalitions, right?
And so the reason you get royally chartered like joint stock companies say, is those joint stock companies provide, and through their royal charter, provide a monopoly to go engage in some activity around the world, the East India Company, Dutch or English. And that monopoly, it's a monopoly, right? It only goes to one set of people, one group of people who get to do that. The American Revolution is an attempt in some ways of the institutions that end up coming out of the American Revolution, again not always intentionally, are a set of institutions that say, "Let's open up space for people to enter the economy who are not necessarily politically connected," right?
So that's not really the history of the very early Republic. The very early Republic is banks being created that are Federalist banks, banks created that are Republican banks, right? And then kind of the use of those economic activities to try to structure economic or political relationships. But then after, kind of with the period, say of the Jeffersonian Revolution and afterward, what you get is a break again in which it's not about national politics and it's not about empowering sort of people at the national level to set up political coalitions. It's about what's going on in the states, right? So this is the period in which you get the building of the Erie Canal, you get the building of other canals, you get other kinds of infrastructure that come into being. And really you can't look at the constitution and see this is exactly the clause that has exactly this causal effect on the flourishing that happens later. There's a lot of change that goes on between, say 1789 and the period of kind of states, being brought into the union and then reforming their constitutions.
But I think of the American Revolutionary period as a period of, one, of kind of trying to break down sort of how things are done in Europe and trying to do those things differently on the American continent. Some for better, some for worse. And then the period after that is really kind of throwing that mission to the states. I mean, again, not always so intentionally, but throwing that mission to the states to see what can happen at the state level to facilitate political and economic development.
Shilo Brooks: Yeah. So this is great. This is a snapshot, I mean with New Deal, World War II, the founding, some of these pivotal moments in American history and the ways in which economic history can enrich our understanding of them. I know that you also study... And I want to get this in there because I know nothing about it and it's a fascinating topic. You mentioned earlier transportation and how you can look at the way transportation has developed and bring that development into dialogue with the development of the American economy. Can you talk just a little bit about transportation and its effect on the American economy?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. So this is a great example, I think, of economic history and sort of what sets economic history maybe apart from history specifically, or only economics, right? So I've done work where part of that work is just kind of the boring job of putting together new data that we can use, that I can use, that others can use to explore a set of questions. And so for me, one thing that I have done or one thing that I've contributed to over the last couple years is going back in time to try to understand exactly where American highways were. We can always look it up in an Atlas, but you gotta go find the Atlas and then you got to say, "Okay, so that's a line. Is that line at scale?" and kind of have to pay attention to all these details.
And then what I've done with a co-author is put together maps, digitized maps of the US highway system every 10 years, going back to 1920, so that in principle if you give me two locations in 1920, I can use GIS software together with these data that I've created to tell you how long it would take to travel between any two points in the US going back to 1920, right? So that's kind of like a boring thing. It's like a Google Maps Lite for 1920, right? I can do that. But then we can sort of step outside of sort of idiosyncratic or esoteric task and say, "Now let's use this data to understand how improvements in the highway system have affected economic development."
And so in some of my work, I've kind of taken this and said, "Let's look at a place where we know that highways were built in a relatively short period of time. And then what impact that had on a particular region?" And so I have a paper with a coauthor where we look at the region of Appalachia, so in and around West Virginia, so the state of West Virginia and around that state, where we just ask a question, "How important is sort of better market integration? So how important is lowered costs of trading with the rest of the country for a region's economic development?", right?
The Appalachian region of the United States is one of the poorest regions in the United States. That's been true today. It's been true in the country's history. Economists might come up with a bunch of different explanations for why that's the case. It could have to do with the interaction between investments in human capital and migration, right? A kind of brain drain effect. It could have to do with resource dependence and the way in which dependence on one particular resource. So in the case of Appalachia, it might be coal or something related to energy resources. That means that you don't sort of develop a broad diversified economy.
And then another explanation could just be that you can do things there that you can't do in other places, but the cost of trading with other places is so high that you end up being autarchic or isolated from the rest of the country. And so some policy makers in the 1960s, a little bit before but in the 1960s, had this idea that could be one of the reasons why Appalachia was relatively poor in the context of the US of the time. And so highways could be a way to sort of try to bring Appalachia up to the income level of the rest of the country.
And so with my co-author, we went about sort of documenting where highways were in Appalachia, when they came into being over time, and then trying to do a set of statistical and economic exercises to ask, "Well, what would've happened in the absence of the highway?" So if we hadn't built the highways, how much lower would population growth, or how much lower would income per capita have been? And how would this have affected both the region narrowly and the country as a whole? And what we found is that really in this case, this is kind of an instance in which you kind of have to pay attention to the historical context because it might not be true in all cases, but in this case it doesn't seem to be that cost of trading are really the reason that Appalachia is poor. It seems to be or is likely more related to questions having to do with human capital or resource dependence and not cost of trading.
But sort of moving on to some other work, I mean, you can take a zoom out and ask, "Well, if not for one region, but for the whole country or for different regions within the country, what is the overall effect of highways?" So we built the interstate highway system starting in the 1950s. We might want to know like, "How valuable is this system?", right? This is a pretty big piece of infrastructure. It's kind of world historical in its scope. How valuable is it, right? And so then I have some other work where what we try to do is exactly answer that question about the system as a whole. So if we were to remove the system today, what would be the impact of removing that system on income for Americans? And then sort of not for the country as a whole, but for individual regions, what would be the effect?
And here, I mean, the story is kind of the flip of what we find for Appalachia. I mean the interstate highway system is hugely valuable. Lower end estimates that are available in the literature suggest something on the order of $200 billion in GDP. Our estimates are somewhere between two and three times higher than that, depending on exactly the details of what you decide to include or not include. This is just really gigantic in scale. And sort of our take on this is that this is really important, that we really want to think carefully about maybe not like improving this particular piece of infrastructure, but like, this infrastructure and infrastructure like it is really fundamental to the way the US economy works. I mean, the US economy works in part because it's gigantic geographically and in the number of people. And those people are basically not isolated from each other because of the kinds of infrastructure that we build. And it's fundamental to American prosperity.
The last thing I would say is that those linkages kind of extend beyond our domestic borders. I mean this highway infrastructure, for example, obviously facilitates connections to the rest of the world, whether that's Canada or Mexico in the simplest cases, or a farmer in Iowa wanting to trade with China or Latin America or Europe, right? Part of what they're going to do in moving their goods to market is going to take place on the American highway system or some other aspect of American transportation. And so these kinds of investments are just fundamental. A combination of economics and economic history can sort of help to highlight where and how they are fundamental to what this country does.
Shilo Brooks: Yeah, this is fascinating. And it shows precisely how what you're doing can illuminate aspects of American history that I think traditional American historians don't illuminate. I'm interested though, we've been talking a lot about your research and I'm curious about the following. I am not an economic historian, but I did once, as I mentioned, teach a history of economic thought course. I was struck by the way the students, you know, we would read passages from the New Testament in which the love of gain is discouraged or platonic dialogues on which the love of gain is discouraged and found to be vulgar and these sorts of things. And then we'd sort of progress forward into authors like Locke and Montesquieu who have put it mildly a more tolerant opinion of commerce and a sort of more optimistic view of what it can do, and look at Tocqueville and Marx as a critic of those views. Not Tocqueville as a critic, but Marx as a critic.
I was struck by the students being turned inside out in their viewpoints. In other words, these authors, they would come in with... The students always come in with a very broad, "Capitalism's good," or "It's bad." And that's what they do. And they have this very black and white basic position. And then we'd use these authors to challenge those viewpoints and get students to think in a more complex and nuance way about the philosophy that sort of underpins economic theory. I'm curious with respect to your courses, in economic history in particular, what are some of the ways in which... Like when you're talking about transportation, you're talking about the New Deal, or World War II, the American founding, do these facts that you present and these narratives that you present the students with challenge? And how do they challenge their ways of seeing economics? Whether they have a moral view of the way in, say, American economics works or technical ways, but how does economic history get students kind of out of their comfort zone and turn them inside out?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah, I mean, this is great. I mean, I think, like the way that I teach economic history... And to some extent although the kind of controversy is not front and center in research always, but certainly in how I teach US economic or European economic history, it's not to present sort of topics as definitive as exactly canonical of some moral dilemma, right? But economic history does contain lots of instances in which we want to balance kind of an economist concern for some maybe broad but often pretty narrow kind of efficiency with other considerations. It might be easier to understand considerations like inequality, right? So periods of growth might be related to or might correspond with periods of growing inequality, right? We might want to present to students a way of thinking about that. Not like that there is one way to think about that trade off, but that when thinking about aspects of economic history, it's important to think about kind of a trade off, this is the simplest between growth and inequality.
But then issues of slavery. I mean, for example, you can kind of apply that sort of dynamic or that sort of contrast of growth versus inequality to that. But I think an issue like slavery, inequality is putting it way too mildly to kind of frame sort of what the issue of slavery is as an issue about inequality. It's not on the right scale, right? It's not of the right magnitude. And so then you really have to get students to think about. This is where I would do something like talk about the way that the slave system worked, right? So how did the slave system work? How did the slave system contribute to, or not contribute to productivity on different kinds of farms? But then you also, and I do, bring in people like Frederick Douglas who are not writing about exactly the economics of slavery, but Douglas's writings or the writings of people like him are giving you a window into the operation of an economic system that is at least in part what slavery was. It wasn't only that it's a political system, it was a social system.
And I don't know what the answer is to a particular question, or you'd have to pose the question before I could think about what the answer is, but I think that economic history is an opportunity for students to be confronted with those kinds of sort of a set of facts about the way that the world is. And then a set of issues, a set of social issues, whether it's kind of the most important one in American history, the issue of slavery. Or kind of lesser issues of sort of moral significance where we have to think about immigration, right? So that's a hot button issue today. We can think about immigration today versus immigration in the past. We can compare and contrast those systems, how they worked, what the economics of them were, what the political economy of those systems were. And that's I think really important for students to understand, right?
The world as seeing through a kind of standard economics class is not just a policy maker gets to decide how to divide up the gains from trade, the gains from globalization, right? A policy maker doesn't get to make that choice, right? In some kind of messy collective way, we make that choice together as a society. And choice is really even wrong, right? It sort of is the outcome of a bunch of different interactions that don't exactly intend the outcome that we get. And it's important for students to understand that not only in the kind of narrow context of an economic model, but in the messy application of a set of imperfect economic models to the world, right?
And that's really what economic history is for undergraduates and possibly for graduate students, but definitely for undergraduates. These models work as far as they work. And then they stop working and you got to build a space with something else, right? You gotta fill it with what you think is constrained by reason and morality and facts. And you gotta fill it with what other people think and how you sort of come to some view about a question like, "Why is the United States rich?", right? "Is it because of a confluence of a set of institutions and natural resources? Or is it, maybe at least for the 19th century, fundamentally tied up with something like slavery?", right? Those are real questions that undergraduate should know the answers to by the end of my course, or at least have thought 20% more about it at the end of my course.
Shilo Brooks: Yeah, this is good. So, so for people who don't have access to you, which is not all of us, us older people, I want to transition to a new topic but to wind down this discussion of economic history and its examples and its definition, can you recommend a couple books, two or three, books that are accessible, that are, in your view, examples of economic history well done for average folks who just kind of want to see this discipline in action and see the innovative ways that it approaches history? I don't know if there's a great book on the classical world or maybe one on America, but whatever you want to talk about. But I'm just curious where one would start with this stuff?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. So I'll give you a couple of recommendations here, for Shilo and for the listeners. So I think that one of the books that really just changed, and I don't know if it's absolutely the best book on economic history, but it's pretty short and it's pretty accessible, and that really got me interested in economic history was Douglas North who is one of the Nobel Prize winners in economics for his work in economic history is his book Understanding the Process of Economic Change, which is a really great sort of high level view of how economic change. So not necessarily progress in the sense of moving forward in some GDP sense, but just how change happens, how individuals and what they want interact with the larger society around them to facilitate big changes in the economic structure of society over time, whether that's Europe. He has examples about that. Or the United States or other parts of the globe. So that's, I think, a really great and a pretty accessible, short, high level introduction to an aspect of economic history.
I think my favorite book on US economic history, and in some ways you can think about it as about something a little bit boring because it's about agriculture, sort of about the development of American agriculture, but it's really just absolutely a tour de force of how you should do economic history and what economic history can teach us is this book Creating Abundance by Paul Rhode and Alan Olmstead, which is about overturning one of the most kind of important ideas in American agriculture about where the sources of gains in American agriculture came from. A kind of simple story that people might tell is a story of, "Well, we just applied more capital investment to the problem. We just said, 'Let's do more of that stuff, but using better machines'." This book really shows that at every stage of the development of American agriculture, biological innovation, and often institutional innovations to facilitate that biological innovation, were absolutely essential to the development of American agriculture.
So those are the kind of two books that maybe are a little bit older. I mean, somewhere between 10 and 15 years old at this point. Then the one other book that I would point people to is it's a great book on kind of an issue of the day, which is the role of education and inequality. So this is a book, The Race between Education and Technology by Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz. It's just a great overview of, again, institutions and how the institutions of American from primary to higher education have worked over time and then what kinds of labor market outcomes and overall economic growth outcomes they have generated for the United States since the late 19th century. And so those are three great introductions to economic history in general as a field. And then my space in economic history, US economic history, one for the 19th century agriculture and then another for the 20th century education.
Shilo Brooks: I see. Okay, that's very helpful. Let's transition. I know we only have... Our time is growing short. But I wanted to ask you about this. We have an episode that will come out at some point with Deirdre McCloskey. She gave a talk at the Benson Center. We talked a lot with her about progress and the notion of progress in history and the ways in which the study of economic history can illuminate our understanding of human progress. So I'm wondering, it seems to me a lot of economic historians are talking about this. You've recommended some reading to me by folks who have done some work on this. Can you talk about ideas of progress, the relationship of these ideas to progress to economic history and how these ideas of progress and this sort of scholarship that's arisen around notions of progress is yoked to the discipline of economic history?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah, I mean, I think it always depends on exactly what people mean by progress. I mean, I think people bring their own. I mean, certainly if you were to ask an effective altruist or something like that, they would have a particular set of meanings they bring to what progress is. But a kind of generalized notion non a nonspecific notion of progress is definitely integral to economic history. I mean, economic history at the end of the day and maybe economics in general at the end of the day is just fundamentally a discipline about what makes countries rich and what makes countries poor, right? It's the question that Adam Smith asked in his book. And then economists, sometimes in very narrow ways but often in very broad ways, have then taken up that question and just tried to understand whether it's related to healthcare markets. Or sort of something more fundamental about institutions and geography and culture and religion have just said, like, "What are the things that contribute to economic growth?", right?
And so then economic growth is often used as a synonym for progress, right? And so I think it's useful to try to be a little bit more detailed or provide a little bit more meat on the bones of what we mean by growth and progress, right? And so a kind of simplistic way to understand this is through a kind of measure like GDP, where we just say, "Let's try to throw together the value of all the goods and services that an economy produces and equate that with progress," right? So just how much value, in some pretty narrow sense I would say, does an economy produce? And economists do that. Maybe we divide by the number of people. Maybe we divide by the number of hours worked. But sort of fundamentally we're saying we're trying to value the goods and services that an economy produces. And then economists can get caricatured as only caring about GDP or something like that. And certainly, I have talked to philosophers or any number of other people who caricature economists that way.
But I think actually that when you go and look at the economics literature, economists are interested in all kinds of weird things, right? They're interested in health outcomes, they're interested in mental health outcomes, they're interested in measuring happiness if we thought it was possible to do that, right? And there really is a kind of pluralism of outcomes, right? Again maybe being a little bit narrow in that, but in which economists really tried to sort of bring on board a lot of different dimensions to understanding how do people sort of make progress as an economy, as a region, as an individual in their own lives, right? And that can be in any number of ways. I think, I mean, it's absolutely fundamental to economic history. I mean, economic history is just about how a society goes from being relatively poor to being relatively well off as many countries have done and seem to continue to do across the globe since 1800.
Shilo Brooks: Yeah. And this is an interesting topic to me. I mean, let me ask you this question, something I want to ask you for a while. Does economic history, as a discipline you're talking about how it's sort of intimately bound up with notions of progress, because its purpose is to show in broad terms how poor countries became rich countries, and then if you want to talk about it in the globe, how global growth has occurred in the proceeding centuries and thus there's a kind of notion broadly speaking of human progress, do those things imply that progress as such as a kind of dogma is bound up in economic history and that economic historians have to be dogmatic, that there has been progress in the deepest senses on a wide variety of axes? You see what I'm saying? Is that a settled question for economic history on the basis of which the entire discipline can take flight? If so, that strikes me as dangerous.
Taylor Jaworski: I mean, I think that economists, maybe a particular economist, a kind of randomly chosen person, you can sort of look at a randomly chosen person and come to kind of pretty narrow conclusions about what it is that that person is doing, right? Like, I look at transportation, right? There's a kind of material that goes into transportation and then transportation produces a kind of material in the world, right? You can apply that kind of a narrow critique to me or probably really any economist. But I would say as a group of people, I think there is a growing sense of trying to sort of be more pluralistic in sort of how we understand what it means to make progress, right? What it means to empower individuals to do the kinds of things that they want to do in life.
And I think economists are not particularly good or we shouldn't expect that they would be particularly good and certainly telling people what it is that they should be trying to do, or even guiding or nudging them in those directions. But I think economists certainly bring to the table or certainly bring a set of biases to the table about what the inputs into a kind of life of flourishing, of individual flourishing might look like. It's not only material stuff. Again, there's a lot about the environment. There's a lot about health outcomes. There's a lot about sort of other aspects that are not exactly easy to monetize of people's lives that economists are very much interested in. But maybe economists can always use some input from other people. But I think as a group, there is a kind of openness. There's not always openness with every person, maybe even with a subset of people. But I think for economists as a group, there's a pretty broad openness to what it means to empower people or to live a flourishing life in a sense basically that they define.
Shilo Brooks: Right. No, that's helpful. Well, look, I want to wind things down, but one of the things I want to do is, folks who are listening, if they listen to the intro to this current season, they know that I'm departing the Benson Center as the associate faculty director and you are going to be my successor as the associate faculty director. So I wanted to give you just a brief moment to say a word about your hopes for the Benson Center. People who don't know, Taylor's been affiliated with us for some years now as a faculty fellow. We're really excited to have him on board. He's got some exciting ideas for programming. As you can tell from his podcast, he's very energetic. And so Taylor, what is it, I'm just curious about the Benson Center, that excites you in the future and why have you been part of it and eager participant in its initiatives in the past?
Taylor Jaworski: Yeah. I think, first I should thank Shilo for both having me on the podcast and for the great job that he's done over the course of his involvement in the center. And yeah, I'm going to be taking over. My goal for the Benson Center is to bring... In addition to sort of fulfilling what the Benson Center already sees as its mission, to sort of bring a kind of ideological and viewpoint diversity to campus in the context of themes around and related to Western civilization, the thing that I most want to do is provide a forum or a place where, in particular, undergraduates at CU can get more involved with the kinds of issues of the day that they find interesting that are related to, or not always but often related to the biggest themes in Western civilization or in how Western civilization has interacted with other places and across time in the world.
And so that's really kind of the fundamental, like my interest in the center is to try to find a way to bring undergraduates on board, to say, "You want to talk about climate change? You want to talk about health in the developing world? You want to talk about the importance of the future and how we think about the morality of decisions that we make today? You want to talk about slavery and the role that it's played both in the American economy and around the world?" These are fundamental questions.
It's not always the case that a class that you would take would cover these in great detail. Some classes will cover them a little bit. Some classes will cover them not at all. But I think they're fundamental. And I see in the classroom that students are often engaged and often want to learn the material even if they didn't start out being interested in it. But they also want to talk about the things that they're interested in. And I want to provide a forum on campus or a place on campus where people can come and let it rip with what they're interested in and have some faculty, not guidance in the sense of telling anyone what to think, but some faculty help in coming up with topics, coming up with readings, structuring discussions, providing pizza. Whatever the right set of inputs are, right?
Shilo Brooks: Yeah. I can't support that more strongly than I already do. That sounds terrific to rededicate the center, expand its undergraduate programming, dedicated much of its programming to undergraduates. That's the purpose in a university from top to bottom in my opinion, that research is just a fortunate tangent and consequence of the wonderful things that are being done with undergraduates at universities.
So let me say to you, Taylor, thank you so much for this podcast on economic history. It's been illuminating. And we look forward very much to your tenure as the associate faculty director of the Benson Center.
Taylor Jaworski: Thanks, Shilo.
Shilo Brooks: The Free Mind Podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at free firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.