The Lessons of Yesterday, The Policies of Tomorrow: Economic History for Modern Challenges…

Chris Colvin is a Reader at Queen’s Business School and Andrew Dorman is Research and Policy Officer for the Centre for Economics, Policy and History.

American novelist Mark Twain is alleged to have once said, ‘history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme’. While the origins of the statement are lost to time, the sentiment has become increasingly relevant in recent years.

Between the return of wars to Europe and the Middle East, tensions in Asia, a global pandemic, and political instability in South America and Africa, the present seems to be guided by a horrific tarot deck comprised of the calling cards of the twentieth century. One cannot help but feel a pang of sympathy for the history students of the future who opt to study the twenty-first century, as living through it is proving complicated enough.

Against this backdrop of historical call-backs, historians cry out for policymakers to consider the past more closely. Contemporary political speeches are heavy with laboured historical references, with the Conservative Party being particularly fond of sandwiching a Churchillian reference or two in between dramatic economic policies.

But aside from buttressing speeches with inspiring quotations, how can history actually inform policymaking? Is it enough to simply be aware of the past, or is closer study required to prevent the return of the same mistakes? What is the most effective approach for studying the past, in a policymaking context? At the Centre for Economics, Policy and History (CEPH), the discipline of choice is economic history, a unique combination of historical examination and economic theories and methods that allows researchers to answer historical questions about the long-run development of society.

How does this differ from traditional history? By adopting an economic lens that considers social trade-offs and the distribution of limited resources, economic historians develop counterfactual “what if” scenarios that allow them to better understand cause and effect in history. By using techniques such as machine learning and large-form data analysis, economic historians use the past as a laboratory to test economic ideas that are central to policymaking today.

Economic historians explain how institutions work, understand the relevant context for policy decisions made today, and measure the efficacy of competing public policies. Economic history is the perfect discipline to help policymakers make choices that are cognisant of the lessons and mistakes of the past, as it allows researchers to quantify these decisions.

CEPH’s activities provide practical examples of the utility of economic history. CEPH is a centre of research excellence in economic history established between Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin in 2022. It was funded by the Higher Education Authority of Ireland, under their North-South Research Initiative. The Centre amplifies academic research, translates it for a non-academic audience, and hosts historical datasets for use by all interested parties.

These objectives are carried out through a cross-border lens, building relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic that go beyond academic cooperation. As a small fish in an economic pond which is becoming increasingly agitated, these connections are vital to ensuring the mutual survival and thriving of each economy.

On November 2nd at 17:00, CEPH will host ‘I Told You So’: How economics can use past disasters to improve the future in McHughs Bar and Restaurant, 29-31 Queen’s Square, Belfast. This event is open to all and is an opportunity to join several of the island’s finest economic historians for a roundtable discussion as they look back at some of the most disastrous periods of world history, and how we can use these to arm ourselves against an uncertain future.

Pandemics, financial bubbles and infrastructure will all come under fire as we delve into some of the biggest mistakes made in policy history. Hosted by a stand-up comedian and featuring three award-winning authors and economists, this event exemplifies the best qualities of academic outreach, and if you have any interest in economics or the past, we actively encourage you to join us.

This event is part of The ESRC Festival of Social Science in Northern Ireland. All events are free and you can view the full list here…

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