Peter Temin is the embodiment of economics at MIT. Since graduating from Swarthmore College in 1959 with his BA in economics, Temin has been affiliated with MIT in one capacity or another. He began his doctoral studies there and became a teaching assistant in 1961. After finishing his PhD he joined the faculty of the Sloan School of Management as an assistant professor in 1965. In 1967 he was promoted to Associate Professor and moved to the Department of Economics, where he has been ever since. He was named Elisha Gray II Professor of Economics in 1993. Since 1982 he has also been a Research Associate at the NBER, and since 2009 he has been Elisha Gray II Professor Emeritus of Economics. He has kept busy since his retirement, authoring five books and more than 20 articles.
During his long tenure at MIT he has held visiting positions as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge, and as a Visiting Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard. He is a Fellow of the Cliometric Society, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. He has served as President of the Economic History Association and the Eastern Economic Association.
Temin’s interest in history was sparked by a seminar he took at Harvard with Alexander Gerschenkron, and further fueled by his association with Paul David and Al Fishlow, fellow classmates in the Economic History Workshop established by Gerschenkron. They were among the cadre of new economic historians who emerged in the 1960s and brought the cliometric movement to prominence. There was a spirit at the time that there was no problem they could not solve with the new tools and no area of received wisdom that was safe from their reexamination.
This era of cliometrics was driven by the intoxicating power of data, sophisticated models, and the availability of computing power to combine the two to devastating effect. It led to a schism between economic historians, brandishing their new tools, and traditional historiansm more focused on narrative analysis.
That attitude has since softened, as some of the earliest practitioners, including Temin, acknowledge that pure economic modeling is not able to explain everything. In his article “Modes of Behavior,” (1980), he argued that economic, or “instrumental,” behavior is only one of several different kinds of behavior that should be considered. He notes that by the 21st century, economic history had lost much of its following outside of the tribe of economic historians. This creates not only the obvious problem of self perpetuation, but in the longer run, the danger that the tools of the economic historian will be lost. One such tool that is important to all economists, is the ability to apply models to long run changes. Too often we focus on current problems without sufficient understanding of the long road that got us to where we are. The exploration of that long run evolution is a particular task that ought to be of great value to all social scientists.