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The End of Checklist Liberalism

FIRST DRAFT: Economics 210a Fall-Winter 2006-2007


SYLLABUS: Economics 210a: Introduction to Economic History: Fall-Winter 2006-2007

University of California at Berkeley

Barry Eichengreen (Evans 603, W 2-4, 2-0926,
Brad DeLong (Evans 601, W 11-12, 2-3, 3-4027,

Course Purpose

Economics 210a is required of Ph.D. students in Economics, and is taken in the first year of the graduate program. Graduate students in other degree programs may enroll subject to the availability of space and with the instructors' approval. The course is designed to introduce a selection of themes from the contemporary economic history literature. While themes are presented chronologically, the purpose of the course is not to present a narrative account of world economic history. Instead, emphasis is placed on the uses of economic theory and quantitative methods in history and on the insights that a knowledge of history can give to the practicing economist.

Course Requirements

Class meetings will consist of a mixture of lecture and discussion. When the course goes well, it is primarily discussion; when the course goes badly, it is primarily lecture. Because discussion will focus on the issues raised, resolved, and left unanswered by the assigned readings, readings should be completed before class. To encourage doing the reading in advance, a 200 word (or more) typewritten "reaction" to one or more of that week's assigned articles is due at the beginning of each class. An informed contribution to the class counts significantly toward students' grades.

The course requires a final research paper of 20 pages or so--in order to keep your prose-writing muscles from atrophying in the first year of grduate school. This paper should go beyond summarizing or synthesizing some subliterature of economic history: students should use the tools of economic theory and empirical analysis to pose and answer an historical question. The paper should have historical substance; this is not a requirement in applied economics or econometrics that can be satisfied by relabeling the variables in theoretical models taught elsewhere in the program or by mechanically applying modern statistical techniques to old data. More on the paper guidelines can be found below.

The course also requires a--cumulative, open book--final exam at the end of the course. Think of the exam, the paper, and the reading-reactions and classroom discussion as carrying equal weight.

Course Readings (fall 2006)

October 18: The Curse of Malthus: Was the Agricultural Revolution a Big Mistake?

October 25: Escape from the Malthusian Trap: The Demographic Transition

November 1: "Surplus" and "Embedded" Economies

November 8: Economic Institutions

November 15: Commercial and Industrial Revolutions

November 29: The Creation of Industrial Societies

December 6: The New World

December 13: The First Global Economy

Paper Assignment Guidelines

The final paper required for Economics 210a is a research paper due on the last Friday before spring vacation. We take the word research seriously: the paper should provide new information or evidence on a topic in economic history. It should not merely summarize an existing literature in the field. The writing and submission process requires that you meet two benchmarks: submit approximately ten pages' worth of a literature review and a statement of your hypotheses by the last day of hte fall semester. Aim for roughly 20 pages.


The paper may cover almost any topic in economic history. You are certainly not limited to the material covered in 210a. You may, for example, work on time periods or countries of particular interest to you. The only requirement is that the topic must genuinely involve the past. Comparisons of past and current events are certainly fine, but studies of developments solely after 1973 are not.


As the readings on the syllabus make clear, historical evidence comes in a wide range of form and styles. It is often empirical, but not always. Sometimes the key evidence is just a list of goods traded or what policymakers said they were trying to accomplish. With empirical evidence, tables and graphs of important variables are often enough to make a compelling argument.

The key requirement is that you present some historical evidence. That is, you must have some data or narrative evidence from the past. A theoretical model can certainly be a part of a good history paper, but it needs to be grounded in historical fact. You would need to justify the assumptions and format of the model with detailed analysis of the institutions and economic variables of the time. (This is what would make the paper suitable for an economic history course as opposed to a course in economic theory.) Similarly, statistical and econometric analysis can be part of a good history paper, but the analysis again needs to be grounded in historical fact. It would have to explain how the methods are suited to the nature of the data — that is, to the time from which they come and to the way they were generated. (This is what would make the paper suitable for an economic history course, as opposed to a course in applied econometrics.)


Good papers do come in a wide variety of sizes. However, for this assignment aim at a length of ten pages or so for the literature review, and more for the final paper. A final paper less than 15 pages tends to make your instructors suspicious, while a final paper more than 25 pages tends to make your instructors cranky.

Successful Paper Topics from Previous Years

Coming up with a promising paper topic is arguably the most useful part of this whole exercise. Your entire graduate career (indeed, for most of you, your entire career) will center around identifying interesting questions to be answered. For this reason, we will not give you a list of topics (though we often toss them out in the course of class discussion). Instead, we will describe the type of topics that have been successful in the past and suggest ways of finding similarly successful topics.

  1. A comment on an interesting paper: Perhaps the easiest type of paper to write is a comment on an existing paper. Such comments often turn out to be more important than the original work. Think about flaws in some paper that you read. Is there selection bias? Has the author left out a potentially crucial variable? One year a student noticed a footnote in a paper by on the reading list that said one observation had been left out of the figure because it was so large relative to the others. This same extreme observation was included in the empirical analysis. The student got the data and showed that his results depended crucially on this one observation.
  2. A comparison of past events with present events: Few economic events have no historical antecedents. If there is a modern development you are interested in, you could look for its historical roots or counterparts. For example, so much has been written about the rise of the Internet and the revolution in communication in the 1990s. How do these developments compare to the rise of the telegraph and the telephone? The rise of TV and radio? Were there similar changes in investment in the 1890s as in the 1990s? One year a student looked at how the U.S. experience with free banking in the mid-19th century compared to some of the developments in European currency relationships in the 1990s.
  3. Analysis of an interesting source: While it is not a good idea to let data availability drive your topic, it is perfectly reasonable to let serendipity play a role. Have you come across an unusual source in the library or during your undergraduate years? Is there an interesting question that this source could be used to answer? One year a student came across the catalogs for the 1851 World’s Fair. She had the idea that these descriptions of what each country exhibited could be used as a measure of innovation. She wrote a paper looking at the industrial composition of innovation across countries. Another student was looking through newspapers from San Francisco in the 1870s. He found many classified ads that read something like: "Wanted — man to work in store and loan store $1000." This student wondered why companies would tie employment and loans. He wrote a paper investigating whether ads such as these were a sign of credit market imperfections or a way of ensuring worker loyalty and honesty.
  4. A new test of an old debate: A very successful way to write papers follows the example of Peter Temin’s article on British trade during the Industrial Revolution found on this course's reading list. Take some interesting debate in economic history and come up with a clever, alternative way of testing it. Usually, such a test involves using a new type of data. For example, if everyone has been using quantities, think about a way to use prices. An example of this type of paper involves the debate over how business cycles have changed over time. One researcher suggested that instead of fighting over very imperfect estimates of real GDP, one could look at stock prices as an indicator of the volatility of the macroeconomy.
  5. A natural experiment: Just as one should be on the lookout for interesting sources, one should also be thinking about interesting events. History is full of natural experiments--some weird tax is passed, a war is fought, a new regulation is imposed. Often such experiments can be used to answer crucial questions in economics--for example, what the changing speed with which liberty ships were built during World War II tells us about the size of learning-by-doing effects.

There are few economic historians. There is lots of economic history. Paper topics lie thick on the ground.