Tag Archives: history

The Longue Durée (The Long Time Span)

The former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan has had a long and distinguished career in public service, providing economic guidance to both Republican and Democratic Administrations alike.

Nevertheless, this explanation makes me question Greenspan’s–as well as his cohorts’–naiveté. 

And surely, his shock at the economic situation as well as his explanation as to why he failed to anticipate the problems with the market resonated with many other key decision makers: the economy had continued to perform well for forty years. Nevertheless, this explanation makes me question Greenspan’s–as well as his cohorts’– naivete.

Unfortunately, Greenspan’s lack of foresight reveals a major lack of hindsight. Forty years is but a blink of the eye in the course of time. Had Greenspan and others looked at the performance of the economy from the perspective of the longue durée— an approach advocated by the great French historian Fernand Braudel in his book On History (University of Chicago Press, 1980)– he certainly could have fathomed the market crash, even if he were unable to predict it.

One need only consider the insights of Eric Beinhocker, in his recent book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. (Harvard Business School Press, 2006) Beinhocker’s evolutionary approach is consistent with Braudel’s notion of the longue durée insofar as he emphasizes the on-going cumulative processes that converge in the course of history to yield discernible patterns over time. Pointing to the collapse of the English economy in 1315, Beinhocker notes, for example:

Depressions, recessions, and inflation are not exclusively modern phenomena: they are patterns that have recurred since the beginning of recorded history. There are other patterns in economics that are equally old, including the long-run growth in wealth per person. . . and the distribution of wealth. . . For these patterns to be so old, they must be the result of causes that are deep in the workings of economics, cases that are independent of the technologies, government policies or business practices of a particular age. (p. 161)

As the market crash makes clear: the time for interdisciplinarity is here!

Today’s understanding of the present market crisis should not, therefore, be attributed solely to the failure of politicians to regulate the market so as to promote not just profits but also the public interest. Academia is also partially at fault. As Geoffry Hodgson has argued, in How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Specification in Social Science (Routledge 2002), understanding the economy as it has evolved over the longue durée requires not just a dialogue among disciplines but also new theoretical approaches that build on a long view of history and, thereby, provides a more realistic, while at the same time more complex, level of analysis. As the market crash makes clear: the time for interdisciplinarity is here!

Reading, Writing… and Scientific Inquiry

When I was a young girl living in New Jersey, my father would try to console me, whenever my world seemed upside down, by talking about Toynbee’s optimum challenge. He noted that the historian Toynbee had concluded — based on his comparative history — that societies prosper when they have a challenge that stimulates them into action, but one that does not overwhelm them at the same time. Accordingly, my father would interpret my situation — however unfortunate it might have been — as “an opportunity for growth as well as for the development of my character.” As one might imagine, more often than not, I would protest, sotto voce, saying that I was satisfied with the amount of character that I already had. However, with the wisdom of years, as well as the opportunities and challenges of raising a child of my own, I have come to appreciate Toynbee’s perspective and incorporate it into my own way of thinking. Just ask my son!

Perhaps it is time to give Toynbee another look. In today’s increasingly complex world, narrowly focused analyses that are based on rigid, disciplinary methodological standards sometimes miss the point.

In the academic world, Toynbee was generally appreciated for the extent of his knowledge. However, he was typically criticized — and sometime scathingly so — for what others perceived to be his scientific pretensions. His writings were ambitious, to say the least. For example, Toynbee’s A Study in History employs a number of case studies to examine the process of history. It aims to identify plausible generalizations, if not Laws, about the way in which the world works. It was in this regard that Toynbee’s work was not always well received by the scholarly community: His critics felt that he went much too far in making generalizations based on, what they claimed to be, faulty methodology, subjective interpretations, and an inadequate and incomplete empirical body of knowledge.

Perhaps it is time to give Toynbee another look. In today’s increasingly complex world, narrowly focused analyses that are based on rigid, disciplinary methodological standards sometimes miss the point. Looking comparatively, at an ever-unfolding, evolutionary process of history, Toynbee — without the benefit of today’s electronic technologies — brought into relief, even while trying to simplify, the extraordinarily complex nature of the interconnections and interactions that drive human existence forward. A similar case can be made for Fernand Braudel’s historical work, which focuses on the longue durée. One need only consider his three volume masterpiece in which he analyzes the evolution of world capitalism through the lens of all of its varied aspects — social, political, cultural, demographic, as well as economic (1992). It seems to me that Joshua Epstein’s most recent book Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling (2007), is in this tradition. Looking for a way to bring all of the social sciences to bear in accounting for societal evolution (and in particular the disappearance of the Anasazi), he takes advantage of new, computational technologies to model their behavior. Optimally challenging, this book is a major contribution to the furtherance and interaction of all academic disciplines.

Arnold J. Toynbee (1961)

Arnold J. Toynbee (1961)

While Toynbee’s work may not be scientific in the strictest sense of the word, to be sure it is very insightful and, as importantly, meaningful in providing guidance about the difficult choices that we, as intelligent humans, must make. I imagine what my life might have been like had I been risk-adverse, and not taken Toynbee’s revealing insight about optimal challenges to heart. I might never have taken courses in economics; selected in the early Sixties to have been one of only five women in my graduate class at Columbia; backpacked in the area of Glacier Peak, in the North Cascades; lived on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s southern desert; or survived, and even been a good caretaker, as my husband successfully battled the dread disease, multiple myeloma. As well, I might never have accepted my husband’s challenge to undertake this exciting and new blogging adventure. And, who knows, in today’s environment, Toynbee, too, might very well have been a blogger!