Economics + History = … Science? A Brief Introduction to Cliometrics

I’m not sure if it says more about my lack of education or about cliometrics’ obscurity, but I first heard about the field of cliometrics from Eifelheim — a science fiction novel set in mid-14th century Germany, and based in part upon the unexpectedly entertaining synthesis of quantum physics and quantitative economic history. Or, rather, “cliogy,” as it’s called in Eifelheim. While I was reading the book, I took cliology to be a fictional branch of academia, something more or less a present-day version of Asimov’s psychohistory. After some snooping on wiki, however, I learned that the branch of history called cliometrics really does exist.

Cliometrics is “is the application of economic theory and quantitative techniques to describe and explain historical events.” The name is derived not from some scientificky sounding Latin terminology, but rather from Clio, the Greek muse of history. As a non-historian and non-economist, probably the most fascinating parts of it for me is largely the random historical-economic factoids — such as that in 1700 in Maryland, for a female indentured servant, one lash was worth about 38 cents, or about two days of labor.

Sadly, despite having snagged a Nobel in 1993, cliometrics is something of a has-been among academic disciplines. Too many articles on cliometrics are of the “What Has Cliometrics Achieved?” and “Reflections on the Cliometric Revolution” variety — it’s never a good sign for an academic field when the meta-commentary plays more prominent role than the regular kind does. The idea of making some sort of falsifiable, scientific study of history does seem appealing, but as cliometrics’ critics are quick to point out, the whole point about it being “history” means there’s too often not a complete set of data to work from, leaving researchers no choice to theorize in the gaps. The mere presence of numbers does not actually turn subjective analysis into an objective one.

Still — how can you not love a discipline that results in articles like “The Suitability of Domesday Book for Cliometric Analysis” and “An Economic History of Bastardy”?


17th and Eye, Then and Now

Shorpy is one of my favorite sites on all of the intertubes, probably in part because a large number of the photos are from the Washington, D.C. area. And also because the commenters on Shorpy may possibly be the most polite and informative commenters of any website ever, so along with the cool pictures you get random smatterings of history, personalized by the photos. (Like the photo here, accompanied by an explanatory newspaper article: “‘Do parties in individual marriages believe in birth control?’ asked the interviewer as a final question. ‘I do,’ said Miss Taylor, frankly, as she bent over her desk to resume her work.”)

Anyway, I’ve walked by 17th and I probably hundreds of times since moving to D.C., because the Farragut metro is located there, so seeing this picture of it from 1922, beside a picture of how it currently looks, was pretty jarring.


seventeenth and I


seventeenth and I today

(The full size photo of the 1922 picture is worth looking at, it’s incredibly detailed.)

Maybe one day they’ll have a Google Street View Time Traveler. Same as the current street view, only wherever there’s a photo of the location from a given time period, it crops up alongside the modern street view. I would waste so much time on a site like that.

As a bonus cool thing for the day, while writing this post, I happened to come across a page on Shorpy, the mining boy, whom the website was named for: What we know about Shorpy Higginbotham, 99 years after his photo was taken.