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A Dictionary of Economics

Author(s):Black, John
Reviewer(s):Whaples, Robert

Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

John Black, A Dictionary of Economics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, second edition. vi + 501 pp. $16.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-19-0860767-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert Whaples, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Economic History in a ‘Mainstream’ Reference Work

Oxford’s Dictionary of Economics would make an excellent gift — perhaps as a prize to the top student in an introductory economics class. It’s a fairly good buy, especially after noting that Amazon.com lists it at over $5 off the publisher’s price. The Dictionary “aims to provide for the needs of students of economics at A-level and in the ‘mainstream’ part of first degree courses, and of lay readers of journals such as The Economist,” and will generally serve these audiences well. It includes about 2500 definitions of concepts that are used in standard economics texts and terms connected with personal finances. The definitions are unusually clear and often include editorial comments about the broader importance of a concept or the controversies surrounding a theory or issue. I learned a lot just thumbing through its pages and will keep the volume close at hand.

I wouldn’t be reviewing the dictionary for EH.NET, however, unless more needed to be said about its treatment of economic history. I first flipped to the appendix, where there is a list of Nobel Prize winners in economics. Tellingly, Douglass North’s first name is misspelled. By chance, within minutes of beginning to browse the dictionary itself I came across the term “cliometrics.” The text offers this definition: “the application of quantitative methods in economic history. The main problem with applying econometrics to any but very recent economic history is the poor quality of the available data.” The first sentence has room for improvement. I would prefer something closer to “the application of economic theory and quantitative techniques to the study history,” and it would be informative to add something about the etymology of the term, but the tragedy of this definition and, perhaps, of the recent fate of the field of economic history, is that the author felt compelled to add his blunt, ill-informed aside. The thickness and richness of historical data sets has always amazed me and I assume this is true of almost anyone with even a passing familiarity with what is available to researchers. Thus, I can only attribute Black’s comment to gross ignorance. Is he representative of the vast body of ahistorical economists who flip right past the economic history articles that still appear in the leading mainstream journals and wouldn’t even consider picking up a journal or book with the word “history” in the title?

What can be done to solve the problem of the deafness of mainstream economists toward economic history? My preferred solution has always been to make the cost of obtaining economic history lower and lower — hence the existence of EH.NET, our database collection, our book reviews, our abstracts service, and especially How Much Is That? and the online Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History. These resources get a lot of traffic, but it is interesting and informative to see what types of economic history sell. The ten most frequently accessed articles in EH.NET’s encyclopedia last year are listed below (note that most of these articles have significant cliometric content):

1. “The Economics of the Civil War” by Roger Ransom
2. “Alcohol Prohibition” by Jeffrey Miron
3. “The Smoot-Hawley Tariff” by Anthony O’Brien
4. “Slavery in the United States” by Jenny Wahl
5. “The Economic History of Tractors in the U.S.” by William White
6. “Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution” by Carolyn Tuttle
7. “The Depression of 1893″ by David Whitten
8. “The Works Progress Administration” by Jim Couch
9. “Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution” by Joyce Burnette
10. “The Gold Standard” by Lawrence Officer

My conclusion is that the buying public (in this case probably mostly students) looks to economic history mainly for a recurrent trio of intriguing topics — human conflict (slavery and the Civil War), economic depression (Smoot-Hawley, 1893, the WPA), and the industrial revolution. Also, near the top of the list is another “sexy” topic — booze.

However, giving the product away for free has only limited success, because the demand curve for most economic history doesn’t seem to be very elastic. Is there some way to force feed this stuff to our colleagues and the public? Can we sugar coat it, so that they don’t know they’re getting it? The Economic History Association has recently shifted to subsidizing new producers — granting funds to budding economic historians in graduate school.

Interestingly, the Dictionary generally exudes a confidence about economic growth. For example, several figures discussing hypothetical economic trends (natural vs. logarithmic scales, trade cycles, and time trends) all depict strong upward trends in GDP — growth triumphant, as Richard Easterlin might say. Perhaps this is one of the discontents of growth — as the future looks brighter and brighter there is less of a compelling reason to look to the past?

Finally, there are a few errors and omissions in the Dictionary worth mentioning. For example, AFDC is identified as the U.S. federal welfare program — despite its replacement by TANF in 1997, and the ICC’s entry states that “its jurisdiction has since been extended to include transport by inland waterways, roads, and pipelines” belying the fact that it was terminated in 1996. “Black Monday” (October 19, 1987) is identified, but not “Black Tuesday,” (October 29, 1929). (Likewise, the entry titled “stock market crash” surprisingly refers only to October 19, 1987!) Perhaps due to its British origin several entities one would regularly see discussed in the business press, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have no entries. A “chartist” is defined as “a person who believes there are recurring patterns in the behaviour of market variables over time, so that study of past variations assists in predicting the future.” There is no mention of William Lovett, the People’s Charter and the political economy of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. The definition of exploitation doesn’t explain the neoclassical version of the term. The discussion of “globalization” gives the impression that “the process by which the whole world becomes a single market” has had a pretty uniform trend — leaving out the retrogression in the era from World War I to World War II. The space given to the Great Depression is woefully small — shorter even than the discussion given to nearby terms such as “gravity model,” “greenfield development,” and “greenhouse gases.” Likewise the slender discussion of “mercantilism” is shorter than discussions of “median,” “merit good,” and “migrants’ remittances.” The definition of public choice — “the choice of the kind, quantity, and quality of public goods to provide, and how to pay for them” — seems unduly restrictive. I would have preferred Dennis Mueller’s definition: “the economic study of nonmarket decision making, or simply the application of economics to political science.” Based on the evidence I’ve seen, the caveats about the quantity theory of money seem overly cautious: “maybe the quantity theory would work in the very long run, but it would be ages before this could be checked.” The paragraph about the “ratchet effect” neglects to mention arguments about the growth of government. The discussion of the “rustbelt” is inappropriately written in the present tense — “the rustbelt suffers from high obsolescence.” The entry on slavery appears to be uninformed by the intense debates triggered by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s findings. It unblinkingly states that while slavery has a long history, it is no longer generally practiced on humanitarian grounds and “because it is believed to be inefficient at providing incentives for work.” Other terms missing include “comparable worth,” “prime rate,” “social savings rate” and perhaps worst of all — “institution.”

Robert Whaples is the editor of EH.NET’s Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History at http://eh.net/encyclopedia.

Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative