Your research paper is due on Friday May 9th. In addition to sending an electronic copy to both instructors, be sure to put a copy in Professor Eichengreen’s mail box in Economics Department reception on the 5th floor of Evans Hall. The office is open 9:00-4:00. The paper should not exceed 25 pages. This deadline will not be changed; plan in advance.
The writing and submission process requires that you meet two benchmarks. You should discuss your paper topic during office hours with one of your instructors during the first half of the semester and then submit a brief paper prospectus before spring break (by 4:00 PM Friday March 14th – electronic copies to both instructors, also to Professor Eichengreen’s mailbox). That prospectus should explain why the topic is important, state your hypothesis, and describe the materials and approach that you will use to analyze it. Your paper grade will depend in part on the quality of your prospectus.
The paper should provide new evidence and analysis of a topic in economic history. It should not simply summarize an existing literature. You should use the tools of economics to pose and answer an historical question. The paper must 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 or by simply applying new statistical techniques to old data.
The paper can cover almost any topic in economic history. The only requirement is that the topic must genuinely involve the past. (What is the economic past? One answer is a period when economic institutions were significantly different from today. You, as author and researcher, have to make the case.) Comparisons of past and current events are fine, but a focus on developments solely in recent decades is likely to be problematic.
Historical evidence comes in many forms. The key evidence could be a list of goods traded or statements by government officials of what they were trying to accomplish. While economic historians sometimes use econometrics, tables and graphs displaying important variables can be enough to make a compelling argument.
Successful Paper Topics from Previous Years
Your entire graduate career (indeed, your entire career) will center on identifying interesting questions. For this reason we will not give you a list of topics (although we will describe some in class discussions). Instead, we describe here, by way of illustration, some topics that have been successful in the past and suggest ways of finding similarly successful topics.
The easiest type of paper to write may be a comment on an existing paper. Such comments can be as important as the original work. Think about flaws in some paper that you read. Is there selection bias? Has the author left out a crucial variable? One student noticed a footnote in a paper that said one observation had been left out of the figure because it was large relative to the others. This same extreme observation was included in the empirical analysis. The student got the data and showed that the published results depended crucially on this one observation.
Few 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, much has been written about the rise of the Internet. How does its development compare to the rise of the telegraph and the telephone? The rise of TV and radio? Did investment and financial markets respond similarly?
While it is not a good idea to let data availability drive your topic, it is reasonable to let serendipity play a role. Have you come across an unusual source in the library or on the web? Is there an interesting question that this source could be used to answer? One 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. (She is now a professor at Stanford.) 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. (He is now a prominent economist at the World Bank.) Both of these papers went on to be published in respected journals.
You might take well known hypothesis in the historical literature and come up with a new way of testing it. 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.
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--a weird tax is imposed, 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 extent of learning by doing.