Here is a link to my post for the Cambridge Labour history cluster blog: ‘Economists’ arguments in the comparable worth controversy, 1974-89.’
Author: Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche
This blogpost is based on 1) a forthcoming paper (“Economists Entered the ‘Numbers Game’. Measuring Discrimination in the U.S. Courtrooms, 1971-1989, working paper available here) 2) a discussion I had with students while using the Harvard trial as a teaching example, and 3) my own uncertainties about what I think about it.
Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action organization, sued Harvard in 2014 for discrimination in admissions against Asian American students. The trial ended last november, and both parties are expected to submit new documents in February 2019 before any decision would be delivered. Well-known economists produced contradicting testimonies for both sides of the adversarial process (defendant expert report can be found here, plaintiff one here). As reported by Eric Hoover in The Chronicle of Higher Education, famous labour economist David Card, representing Harvard, called another recognized labour economist Peter S. Arcidiacono’s analysis in support of the plaintiff’s “nonsensical”. The expert economists used broadly the same empirical methods, but followed different strategies and made different choices in reaching their conclusions. This exchange raises important questions: How can one trust economics as a field if economists call each other “nonsensical” in public? In addition to the individual credibility of economists and of economics as an area of knowledge, what’s at stake is economics’ public image. Such issue is not specific to economists’ expertise in courts and echoed many concerns over the role of expertise in the public sphere.
The debate on the present testimonies (in some specialized press and on econtwitter) parallels numerous elements within the history of economists as expert witnesses: experts are “hired guns” available for a price; judges are not experts in statistics or econometrics and don’t understand the subtleties of the testimonies; which side hires the expert explain the results presented, hence experts are interchangeable; courts decisions are based on many other criteria than just the expert witnesses’ testimony.
Excerpt of these discussion among economists can be found in this tweetstorm by Susan Dynarski (especially the discussion on the “personal ratings” variable) and subsequent answers, as well as, in this (short) thread on EconSpark.
Economists are not new to expert witnessing. Nor are psychologists, sociologists, or social scientists in general, and social scientists using statistics in particular. Since the 1970s however, economists working on discrimination started responding to an increasing demand. The general growth of employment litigation since the 1970s, and especially the spectacular rise in the early 1990s went along with a rise in demand for expertise from the social sciences, and addressed, among others, by labour economists (See the quantitative analysis in Berrey, Nelson & Nielsen 2017, chapter 3, that continues the important contribution by Donohue & Siegelman 1991). Battles over University admissions (but also academic employment) developed along the same line: usually using the same quantification tools and same legal bases and doctrines.
Orley Ashenfelter and Ronald Oaxaca’s reflection on the 1970 and 1980 decades is a fascinating read. They celebrated how “economists entered the courtroom” through the dissemination of Gary Becker’s model of discrimination (p.321). Their paper notified the economics profession that “[i]n practice, the economists’ view has made considerable headway in the courts”, a view first thought as “irrelevant and hopelessly complex for legal minds” (p.323). In retrospect, the conquest of the courtrooms seemed easy. Was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s prediction according to which in law “the man of the future [wa]s the man of statistics and the master of economics” (1897, p.469) a prophecy? Can one agree with Justice Brown, who noted in 1962 that concerning racial discrimination “statistics often tell much, and courts listen” (Alabama v. United States, 304 F. 2d. 583, p.586)? Wendell Holmes is also known for coining the metaphor of the “marketplace for ideas” (Mercuro & Medema 2006, p.1).
By the 1980s, as recorded in the New York Times, “apply[ing] […] microeconomic and computer techniques to a mountain of statistical data” was already an intense area of methodological disputes and a booming market. Several elements explain the rise of economists (among other social scientists) as expert witnesses in discrimination cases: changes in legislation and litigation doctrines, important decisions regarding quantified expertise and the evolution of economics itself: its corpus and object of inquiry, the type of tools in applied microeconomics and as well as the use of these tools outside academia.
Producing evidence of differential treatments has meant measuring (and trying to explain) groups’ differences in various outcomes––rates of promotion, hiring, admission, or wages. Decomposing these differences into legitimate and illegitimate factors is at the heart of what courts are looking for as evidence of discrimination. As a note published in the Harvard Law Journal advocated in 1975 (written by Tom Campbell), the economists’ tool-kit, based on the operationalization of human capital theory and developments in micro-econometrics estimation techniques, became seen as very useful in the production of such evidence by the legal profession. Starting in in the 1970s, this expertise amplified in the 1980s, and eventually became institutionalized through the creation of a subfield, forensic economics, with its own JEL Code (k13) in the late 1980s. Many economists who testified as expert witnesses do not identify as forensic economists, nor do they publish in this area. But the fact that a subfield is institutionalized in this period shows that the profession offers a specific institutional answer. While the techniques of applied micro have changed, the challenges of experts who use them in court still face some similar challenges as the one in the current Harvard case.
The first aspect in the Harvard case that resonates with the recent history of applied micro in courts is the discussion of the diverging choices made by the experts. The choice of variables, estimation techniques, underlying theoretical principles, and modelling strategies are usually closely scrutinized by the courts. Cross-examination seems sometimes harsher than most peer-review processes. In the present case, while using the same method and the same data––produced by Harvard University—Arcidiacono and Card followed contrasting path in terms of construction of their sample as well as modelling strategy.
Peter Arcidiacono testified for plaintiff Students for Fair Admissions. He excluded from his sample recruited athletes, the children of alumni, of Harvard faculty and staff members and students from the “Dean’s List” of donors (these individuals belong to the so-called “legacy applicants” category). In total, 7000 students out of the 150,000 students were excluded over the 6 years of admissions studied. The main argument for exclusion was the non-representative aspect of this group, as it displays very high rates of admission. Card specifically attacked Arcidiacono on this, arguing that although this group represents a small fraction of the applicants (5%), they account for a large proportion of accepted students (29%).
“If you’re throwing away a third of the people who are going to be admitted, it just is not going to work, because you would not be able to look at who’s being admitted compared to who’s in that process.”
Besides this disagreement over sample characteristics, the two economists chose different modelling strategy. Card modelled Harvard’s admission as a multiple-factor process, based on the four categories that Admissions officer use: academic achievement, extracurricular activities, personal qualities, and athletic abilities. Harvard officers admit people not just based on grades and test scores, where Asian Americans over-performed all other groups, he argues, but on these four categories. Hence, the model tries to fit to Harvard’s definition of admission.
Arcidiacono did not include the variable Harvard called “personal ratings” as a control variable. He argues that this variable is tainted by potential discrimination: subjective ratings done by Admissions Officers are precisely the loci where SFFA suspects discriminatory practices against Asian Americans. In the past, “personality tests” and such concept as “leadership” and “character” has been used as discriminatory devises, especially against admission of Jews at Harvard.
In the present case, Card argued that the ratings, however subjective, do not equate personality tests, as they include a broad number of factors such as family situation, and socioeconomic status, etc. The “race conscious” principle of Harvard admission seems also to be taken into account in that particular factor. Arcidiacono argues if “objective” measures of performance were used Asian American are discriminated against; Card argues what’s really make the difference in admission is the “multidimensional” aspect of students’ excellence, rather than just measured test performance.
This discussion parallels earlier debates about statistical analyses of employment discrimination. The early trials for racial discrimination were concerned with the discriminatory use of specific tests as devices use to bypass anti-discrimination legislations (see the history of the Griggs decision that established the disparate impact doctrine). Besides the use of tests, numerous legal cases include discussions of whether experts should include ratings of the employees’ work as a control variable for performance, when these ratings were done by the ones accused of discrimination. Context has changed but the question about “controlling for” remains central, as well as the questions of measurable variables available.
Since the late 1970s, this aspect, which sample and variables should be used, has been discussed to point possible reforms in terms of pre-trial agreements on dataset, sample, or even variables. Reforms suggested, for example in the 1989 “Panel on the evolving role of statistical assessments as evidence in the courts”, that agreement on some aspects of the analysis before expert witnesses’ deliver their testimony would produce analyses that are more comparable, and hence, easier for the judge to weight. The panel members also suggest courts should hired their own experts. Then and now, current practices amplified by the adversarial aspect of the US system make the judge the one in charge of valuing the modelling strategies themselves.
The court needs to understand the type of evidence and reasons offered by experts for their choice. The objective for the trier of facts is to be able to judge the accuracy as well as the relevance of the model but also to trace any value judgements embedded within quantitative analysis itself (as an early example, see the very long section on “the theory behind the parties’ mathematical modelling” in Vuyanich v. Republic National Bank, 505 F. Supp. 224, 1980). In the present case, the judge Allisson seemed to have been sceptical of Arcidiacono’s choice to exclude 5% of individuals from his sample. She asked how many Asian American were found in this particular sample, insinuating the exclusion would have the effect of overestimating discrimination.
Besides the content of testimonies, what is at stake in a trial is also the credibility of the expert. David Card opens his report with two pages of qualifications, organized along standard lines for a trial: education, list of publications, long list of awards and prestigious affiliations. The last paragraph mentioned his compensation rate (750$ per hour), his association with the Consultant firm Cornerstone Research, with the (crucial) precision that he will not receive contingent fees. The list of his last four years of testimony is in an appendix. By contrast with the one paragraph on qualification that Arcidiacono wrote, Card appeared well trained in expert witnessing: he signalled every element of objectivity based on institutional aspects, including transparency and prestige. Crucially, an expert’s credibility does not rely only on the scientific material he brings to the court.
While commentators are usually concerned with determining “who is right” (just as the debate on econtwitter), experts’ credibility is based on institutional aspects of science, not only logical consistency: these conventional “markers of objectivity”, what Jasanoff calls “the naïve sociology of science” of the courts, informed how qualified an expert is, for example, as illustrated by her publication log or prestigious affiliations.
Note that in the Harvard case, two amicus curiae briefs supporting each side were submitted by economists (other briefs include the entire group of Ivy League universities in support of Harvard). The amicus briefs signed by economists in support of Card and in support of Arcidiacono follow the same presentation: first the credentials of economists and then the discussion of the analysis itself. After listing the names of the numerous amici, the brief in favour of Card specified it includes “two Nobel Laureates”, the “former chair of the Fed”, “four former Chief Economists of federal agencies”, etc. The text specifies there is a diversity of opinion among them about the use of race-conscious admissions but that they all agree Card is qualified and “outstanding” as an expert. The amici add and that “the criticisms of his modelling approach in the [other Brief of Economists in Support of Plaintiff] are not based on sound statistical principles or practices” (p.4). By contrast, the brief amicus in support of Arcidiacono is signed by three economists—Fang, Lowry and Shum, the brief was written by Keane—and one paragraph is dedicated to factual credentials, mainly mentioning affiliation to main academic institutions.
The ability to communicate and the rhetoric of the expert were and are equally important in courts. As MIT economist Franklin Fisher puts it: economists need to go beyond the mere display of “econometrics [as] black magic” (Fisher 1986). Fisher, who testified in an important set of cases as an expert witness (and especially in the famous IBM case), produced a short text-book-style article in 1980 on how one should use “multiple regression analysis in legal proceedings”. In a later paper published in 1986, he refers to a long list of practical advice ranging from the need to allocate enough time to explain probability theory to the use of rhetorical examples. Fisher also urged experts to “protect [their] subjective honesty” by hiring research assistants to do the “data management”.
At one point during his testimony, Card “stood up and wrote on a whiteboard, while explaining his statistical methods, the courtroom got a lesson in ‘average marginal effects’ and the importance of multivariate models”. The journalist adds “That passed for legal drama on Tuesday”. By contrast, a week earlier, Arcidiacono “seemed relaxed on the stand, sitting back in his chair and gesturing with his hands” whereas “Card, leaning forward, answered questions precisely, rarely changing his tone of voice”. The way economists answer the questions as well as their body language are also part of their credibility. Judging expertise also mean judging experts themselves.
What followed the cross-examination of Acidiacono’s report was examination of elements such as the fees he received (450$ per hour, not mentioned in the report), the controversial reception of one of his papers on affirmative action, and the funding he received from the Searle Freedom Trust, a libertarian think-tank that also funded the plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions. Arcidiacono did not have access to Card’s report before his testimony: this follows logically from the fact he testified for the plaintiff who is supposed to make the case for discrimination. The settings of a trial, beyond the knowledge produced and the expert’s credibility, is the third important determinant in the issue at stake.
Card read Arcidiacono’s report and his report is an extremely precise and well-done rebuttal of its main thesis: that Asian-American’s highest scores by objective standards and their lower rates of admissions are symptoms of discriminatory behaviours by Harvard Admission Officers. He better modelled Harvard’s admission process, a process he is considering given in his analysis. By contrast, Arcidiacono’s modelling strategy aims to questions the process itself. Card had access to Arcidiacono’s report before he wrote his own.
An important element of the U.S. adversarial system is its inclination towards scepticism. Historically, experts’ testimonies are usually decisive in destroying the other expert’s analysis, rather than at establishing their own relevance. This is what Sheila Jasanoff (1992) has observed about expert witnessing in general (she takes the example of DNA tests): the adversarial process reinforces scepticism over every bit of evidence, rather than consensus-seeking. While many would wish to put the two teams together to work on a final piece, disagreement is organized by the settings of the court itself, and in a strategic manner. Cross-examination is about undermining the credibility of the adversary’s experts who are usually grilled by trained lawyers. These lawyers are completely aware of the methodology used, while not being micro-economists themselves. While contrary to what Daniel Rubinfeld once advocated in “Econometrics in the Courtroom”, there is no publication of alternative modelling strategies and sensitivity tests, it seems clear that the nature of court settings, e.g. cross-examination that happens in a specific order (the schedule and timing of testimonies are crucial), is well established in terms of rebuttal, in the Popperian sense of refutation.
That means it is not sufficient to be right, whatever this means. It does not mean that anything goes either. But it does underscore procedures and settings––in a word: context––matters a lot in the interpretation of the contingency of numbers produced by experts.
Two aspects of this can be underlined. First the absence of individual testimonies. The last question (reported in this article) asked by the defendant lawyer to plaintiff’s expert is to name a single member of Students for Fair Admissions who had been rejected by Harvard. The organization did not plan to call any Asian-American students who were rejected from Harvard to testify. The quantitative analysis thus became the central part of the claim, in the absence of flesh-and-blood plaintiffs. It echoes a famous case where the 8,000 pages of written reports produced by two economists were not enough in the absence of victims’ voices on the side of the plaintiff (EEOC v. Sears Roebuck, 1988).
Second, the centrality of statistical analysis. Examining quantitative analysis can take centre stage, compared to other testimonies, and especially individual testimonies. In some cases, it is the result of the nature of the trial (the structure of the case can be statistical in nature for example); it could also be a strategy to frame a trial as a “battle of experts”. One aspect of this battle is that expert witnesses’ testimonies are not decisive in themselves, but in the way they help to destroy the other party’s narrative, as well as in their ability to constitute “backfire”. Traditional strategies of this organized scepticism are based on what Collins calls the “experimenter’s regress”: There can always be scientific valid alternatives to one expert’s choices. It can also consist in increasing the number of causal factors to undermine the other expert’s causality claims (see e.g. Brandmayr’s analysis of L’Aquila trial).
Important differences between the 1970s and 1980s, and today, is the development of economics (and econometrics) training for the legal profession and the tremendous improvement of information systems on experts witnesses in particular, but also on cases and methods to be used. What is strikingly similar however is the way the social sciences are exposed in court. Legal settings reveal the social construction of sciences and how current practices are shaped by a variety of factors.
“The prevalent assumption was that scientific truth or consensus was always ‘out there’ for the law to find and that any failure to accomplish this goal was due to imperfections in the machinery of the law. Social studies of science pose a fundamental challenge to this relatively comfortable assessment. The difficulty of locating facts, truth, or consensus now seems to be embedded in the way science works.” (Jasanoff 1992, p. 356)
Social scientists then have to face the fact “the role they are asked to play” (Brandmayr 2017, p.348) can also have an important impact on the issue at stake, along with the scientific knowledge they produced.
The Harvard trial is, after all, about admissions policy and transparency about the criteria used and their measurability as well as objectivity. In that regard, what seems at stake is Harvard’s use of race in its admissions, as well as many other factors—e.g. the very existence of legacy applicants has been also under fire, though to a much lesser extent. Proving that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans would constitute a case against race-conscious admissions, while the way Harvard actually uses race in his admissions is not agreed on. The trial is about the public discussion of Harvard’s standards of admission and actual practices. Written guidelines, apparently submitted by Harvard during the trial, are exactly what such trials are about: forcing an institution to uncover its practices. Harvard’s practices can be inferred from decisions as observed using quantitative data, but also by asking admission officers to justify their activities. Echoing an old methodological battle on the way choices are observed, observing the battle of economists in courts acts as a reminder that a trial is essentially an exercise in weighting the pluralism of evidence.
This blogpost is based on an ongoing research started in 2016 with François Allisson. Before meeting at Princeton for the ‘Learning by the Book’ Conference, participants were asked to write short pieces to be publihed on the History of Knowledge blog. This blogpost was originaly published as part of the ‘Learning by the Book’ series. It was first edited and published by Mark Stoneman in june 2018. After the conference, we decided to follow the Indian leads and to transform radically the project with a global perspective. That’s why the work is still very much *in progress*.
The Making of a Cambridge Handbook
In 1928, the Cambridge academic Marxist Maurice Dobb published a short textbook on wages that underwent five revised editions by 1959, many reprints, and diverse translations, including into Japanese (1931), Arabic (1957), Italian (1974), and Spanish (1986). As historians of economics, our naive idea was that it would be possible to observe the transformation of economic knowledge about wages by observing changes both in the book’s contents and in the textbook genre. On the whole, however, our study of the making of Wages and its diffusion let us do less and more than that.
Wages was part of the successful Cambridge Economic Handbooks (CEH) series, short monographs published jointly by Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Nisbet and Co. Usually nontechnical expositions of “economic problems” of the time, books in the series were crafted both for undergraduate students at Cambridge and the interested public. John Maynard Keynes, editor of the series from 1922 to 1936, commissioned the CEH volume on wages to Dobb, opposing Nisbet and Co’s suggestion to task Lionel Robbins from the London School of Economics. The book was to be kept within the Cambridge tradition. 
At the time, Dobb was a young lecturer in economics at the University of Cambridge, where he had earned his B.A. and had now returned after completing his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. By commissioning Dobb, Keynes was clearly pursuing the Cambridge tradition under which both had been taught—influenced by Alfred Marshall’s legacy and textbook Principles of Economics.
Concerned with “labor problems” in a practical manner, Wages initially seems estranged from economic theory. Over the course of the book’s versions, the first three chapters and the final two (quantitatively the most important part of the book) barely changed in structure, while Dobb only made cosmetic updates. These are the chapters devoted to the history of the wage system, measuring the standard of living, the techniques of wage payment, and the history of trade unionism and state intervention. In the middle of the handbook, three chapters on theory discuss at length the usefulness of a general theory of wages, which Dobb deemed very low, emphasizing the role of bargaining power in the diverse practices of setting unequal wages. “Drastic changes” in the structure and content of these three chapters occurred in the 1938 and 1948 editions. 
One Diagram to Rule Them All?
In the discussion on the possibility of producing general laws of wages determination, Dobb included one of the first occurrences of a diagram of supply and demand applied to the labor market.  This single figure, the only one in the whole book, was a simple Marshallian cross diagram transposed to the labor market—not a standard practice in the 1930s.  Even more interesting, Dobb dropped the diagram by 1946.
Textbooks are sometimes used as shortcuts to access the state of a discipline at a particular point in time.  Against such a reductionist approach, we wish to emphasize the singularity of Wages’ trajectory.  While textbooks can fulfill several roles, Dobb wrote a skeptical handbook against the generalized trend that was to become standard, namely the integration of knowledge on labor issues (characterized in the 1930s by great attention to empirical and institutional factors in the setting of wages) with neoclassical wage theory. This approach was deductive and to be tested by statistical data.
Although he wrote from a central institution in the field, Cambridge, Dobb had a singular career. He was initially influenced by Marshall (via his studies and supervisors), one of the “founding fathers” of neoclassical partial equilibrium analysis. At the same time a convinced socialist, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1922. Writing academic articles as well as political pamphlets, he was somehow an isolated scholar at Cambridge, except for his relation with the Italian Cambridge-based economist Piero Sraffa. Dobb was very interested in communist experiences in the USSR and beyond, and he became a specialist of economic planning, building an international network of Marxist scholars.
In the immediate wartime and postwar editions, Dobb replaced the diagram with an almost verbatim copy-paste paragraph from his first academic paper, “A Skeptical Theory of Wages” (1929, The Economic Journal ). Based on earlier work done by Sraffa in the 1920s and opposing that of John Hicks, Dobb now denied the existence of a stable equilibrium. In a nutshell, to reach an equilibrium in a single market, it was necessary to assume that the curve of supply was independent from the curve of demand; otherwise both curves would move in an indefinite way without reaching equilibrium. Higher wages meant higher demand for bread and vegetables, which in turn impacted the labor market for producing these goods. Dobb agreed that these secondary effects were not “negligible.” Indeed, they impeded all efforts to construct a theoretical explanation of wages. What was specific to an otherwise traditional textbook of the 1930s was that Dobb talked about theory, and he did so very skeptically, a tendency completely reinforced after the war in the successive editions of Wages.
Dobb’s correspondence with his publisher entailed extensive discussions about paper shortages during and right after the war. More importantly, he still held ambitions for his textbook in the postwar period, especially for teaching purposes. Yet Wages did not become a classic. In the 1950s, it ceased to be a required reading for the Tripos, the local examination system at Cambridge (The Cambridge Reporter mentions the book’s use until 1949). With his skeptical approach, Dobb resisted the integration of labor issues with the neoclassical theory of marginal productivity. As time went on, however, his handbook saw less and less use in the United Kingdom, and his position became increasingly marginal.
Displaced from the Center, Emerging at the Periphery?
The CEH series was a joint-venture publishing project between Nisbet and Co. and Cambridge University Press. The cost of publishing was divided between them, with a profit sharing scheme of 60 percent for Nisbet and 40 percent for Cambridge. The selection of topics and authors was the result of a negotiation dominated by the academic editors of the series.  Two main issues appeared in the correspondence between the successive editors responsible for the CEH series in the two publishing houses: the production costs of new editions (which implied CUP’s right to exercise control over revisions) and the rights for publishing abroad.
The Nisbet and Co. company held many agreements with other publishers worldwide. In the United States, MacMillan published some CEH titles, but only chose the best-selling of the series (Robertson’s Money and Henderson’s Supply and Demand, for example). In the mid–1950s, Milton Friedman reluctantly assumed co-editorship of the collection for the United States, a joint project that Wages had never been part of. Meanwhile, the perceived center of the economics discipline moved from the United Kingdom to the United States during the interwar period. The globalization of economics did not follow simple paths, however.  Wages came to see increasing use on the “periphery” of this changing landscape.
Since the 1920s, Macmillan also held publishing houses in India, Ceylon, Burma, and possibly China. The case of India is interesting from the perspective of building “more global narratives.”  During the 1950s, Dobb spent time as a visiting scholar at the Delhi School of Economics and the Reserve Bank of India. While there, he published two articles on wages in The Indian Journal of Labour Economics and Industrial Labour in India. In these he presented an alternative theoretical framework to the then dominant paradigm. The publication of Wages_ in India while it disappeared from Dobb’s home country points to the need to study the increasing reception of this handbook in India and other nonaligned countries during the Cold War.
In the early 1970s, CUP thought to launch a renew series of handbooks and asked Joan Robinson to lead the project.  Despite several reissues and translations, Wages did not stand up well in the face of recent developments in the 1960s, especially the human capital theory. Yet precisely its woes make studying Wages a productive way to provide new narratives on the transformation of the political economy of labor from the neoclassical theory of distribution to the constitution of the field of labor economics. A view from the margins.
- On the coherence and transformation of what “Cambridge political economy” means, see Maria Cristina Marcuzzo and Annalisa Rosselli, “”Cambridge School of Economics,” in Handbook on the History of Economic Analysis, Volume II: Schools of Thought in Economics, ed. Gilbert Facarello and Heinz D. Kurz (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016), 343–57. back
- Maurice H. Dobb, Wages, 3rd ed. (London: Nisbet and Co and Cambridge University Press, 1948), xi. back
- Dobb, Wages, 1928, 89; 1933, 89. Bruce Kaufman claims “no labor textbooks of the 1920s and 1930s … featured a demand-supply diagram of wage determination; indeed, not even John Hicks’ Theory of Wages (1932) did so.” See Bruce E. Kaufman, “Chicago and the Development of the Twentieth-Century Labor Economics,” in The Elgar Companion to the Chicago School of Economics, ed. Ross B. Emmet (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2010), 129. See also G. R. Boyer and R. S. Smith, “The Development of the Neoclassical Tradition in Labor Economics,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 52, no. 2 (2011): 131–35. The narrative is in fact more complex. back
- On the specific use of diagrams by Marshall, see Hsiang-Ke Chao and Harro Maas, “Engines of Discovery: Jevons and Marshall on the Methods of Graphs and Diagrams,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 35A (2017): 35–61. back
- On the use and abuses of textbooks in the history of economics, see Yann Giraud, “Textbooks in the Historiography of Recent Economics,” in The Contemporary Historiography of Economics, ed. Till Düppe and Roy Weintraub (2018, London: Routledge). back
- On textbooks as “outliers” rather than good proxies to check the evolution of a field of knowledge, see David Kaiser, “A Tale of Two Textbooks: Experiments in Genre,” Isis 103, no. 1 (March 2012): 126–38. back
- “I should want to make some fairly extensive revisions to make the book serve as a textbook in the post-war period.” Letter from Dobb to Roberts (editor at Cambridge University Press), February 26, 1946, Cambridge University Library, CUP Archives, Pr.A D 422/5. The debate on cost and paper was not trivial so we could not rule out that the dropping of the diagram was linked to the costs of producing it. back
- All developments on the edition history are from the CUP archives as Nisbet and Co. did not keep a record of its contracts. back
- On the internationalization (and debates on the “Americanization”) of economics after World War II, see A. W. Coats, ed., The Post–1945 Internationalization of Economics, special issue of History of Political Economy 28, Issue Supplement (1996). back
- See Josep Simon, “Textbooks,” in A Companion to the History of Science, ed. Bernard Lightman (Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Son, 2016), 400–13. back
- At the same time, she was losing the battle to establish a “revolutionary textbook” explicitly targeting the U.S. market and Samuelson’s bestselling Economics. See John E. King and Alex Millmow, “Death of Revolutionary Textbook,” History of Political Economy 35, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 105–34. back
This post is partly based on a chapter I wrote for the Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought (edited by Kirsten Madden and Robert Dimand, 2019). Here is a link to the working paper version. It was first edited and published on scatterplot by Dan Hirschman in septembre 2017.
Millicent Garrett Fawcett will be honored with the first-ever statue of a woman in Parliament Square, Westminster, London. And the first created by a woman artist. Following recent additions—Lloyd George and Mandela in 2007, Gandhi in 2014—the statue will stand among eleven great men in a square that symbolizes British democracy. The announcement follows a heated debate over which women’s rights activist should be honored: suffragist Fawcett, or suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst? The debate over which individual to distinguish echoes the debates over the efficacy of political strategies, opposing the moderate constitutionalist suffragist movement led by Fawcett to Pankhurst’s “militant” strategies of the suffragettes—setting fire to public and private property, chaining themselves to railways, disrupting political events, and destroying paintings at the National Gallery.
Many agree that having a statue of a woman in Parliament Square is a good thing, backed by a long list of studies on the effect of the low representation of women in public space and in history. But the history of women’s fights for their rights, back in the 1880s as now, is crowded with women with different styles, intellectual journeys and political commitments. We definitely need more heroines, but what does the choice of just one tell us?
This question echoes the history of the suffrage movement’s diversity at the intersection of practices informed by power, class, race, and gender divisions. Exploring Fawcett’s life, and especially her contribution to political economy, also shows how this diversity is even revealed within individual life course changes.
Pankhurst already has her statue, located only 0.3 miles south of Parliament Square. Erected in 1930, it represents the suffragette, along with a medallion of her daughter Christabel. Opposing Fawcett’s moderation and gradualism, the “Militants” led by Pankhurst chose political violence as a means to win the vote. Three years ago, a campaign to move the Pankhurst’s memorial to a more prominent place received support from then PM David Cameron, former Tory leader Andrea Leadsom, and the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd. In 2016, the Pankhurst campaign confronted with the Fawcett statue campaign launched by writer and activist Caroline Criado-Perez, and supported by the Fawcett society. A proposal to reunite two statues, one of Fawcett and one of Pankhurst, failed last December. Meanwhile; another campaign is still running to erect a statue for Sylvia Pankhurst, the other daughter of Emmeline. A socialist and a pacifist, she was excluded from the Pankhurst memorial, except for the “prison brooch” her mother is wearing, and which she designed. A campaign asked for a statue to be built in Clerkenwell Green, North London—“the headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra non–conformity”.
The debate over statues materializes diverging notions of feminism. For it is not Fawcett’s leadership ability, organizational skills, and impact on 20th century politics that are challenged. The question, rather, is who the feminist on the square should be, if one only is allowed. The question echoes the history of the suffrage movement itself.
Westminster City council hopes the monument will be ready for the centenary of the 1918 People Representation Act that gave women the franchise. The granting of the vote became seen as a reward to women’s effort during the war. The exceptionality of women’s contribution to the war is a recurrent element in the historiography of women’s suffrage. The sacrifice of the soldiers during WWI was also part of the rationale: the Act notably abolished property requirements for almost 6 millions men, among them many “deserving” soldiers. Gender added to the class dimension of the debate: the vote was opened only to those women over 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property or graduates from British Universities.
The Women’s Library (formerly the Fawcett Library) collection and the Women’s Work collection at the Imperial War Museum, among other collections, testify to the complexity of the fight for the vote, in relation (and sometimes opposition) to other social movements. As is well documented, the Labor movement was split between those who opposed the “vote for women” and those who aimed at building a feminist socialism. The history of women’s contribution to Trade Unionism is part of this story. Also documented but less known, British feminism—as the entire society—was then also infused with debates about eugenics and imperial culture. Feminists such as Annie Besant and Eleanor Rathbone, for example, fought for the rights of women in the colonies. Other names can be added. In the end, the statue controversy shows how difficult it is to provide a (long awaited) official recognition to such a multifaceted movement with a single statue. But, in the end, it is Fawcett who was chosen.
Do We Need Another Hero?
Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) is remembered for her early commitment to “the Cause” and as the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) between 1897 and 1914. But she was also an early contributor to political economy. Few economists know about her work—the notable exception is Kenneth Arrow—as it is the case for many contributions by women in the history of economics.
Her political economy and philosophy were shaped through her interactions with John Stuart Mill. Mill introduced her to Henry Fawcett, a blind Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University and a Liberal MP. After tying the knot, Millicent Fawcett worked with her husband on the revision of his own Manual of Political Economy. But at the same time, she also published two best-selling books: Political Economy for Beginners, published 1870, which underwent more than 10 editions and Tales in Political Economy, published 1874. Fawcett was a public figure that fits in the tradition of female knowledge brokers in economic thought, other examples include Harriet Martineau, Jane Marcet, and Clémence Royer. Sometimes characterized as the “most eminent female political economist”, Fawcett was suggested as a possible member of the Political Economy Club, and but was eventually turned down by Mill.
A critical shift in Fawcett’s intellectual development was her change of mind on the “equal pay for equal work” issue. The formula “equal pay for equal work” refers to fair conditions of work, meaning equal (hour or piece) rates or equal scales of payment for men and women. She is one of the first to theorize the economic effects of what we know called occupational segregation and wage discrimination. Because of discrimination women are crowded in the least productive occupations. Hence, widening women’s opportunity in terms of training, rather than claiming equal pay or “organizing women’s labor”, would increase women’s wages. Fawcett initially opposed the principle of “equal pay for equal work” on the grounds that women would lose the competition game because of their lack of training and education; therefore, she campaigned instead for women’s education (along with her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first women to qualify as a physician in the UK), and the opening of professions to women. Millicent Fawcett changed her mind in favor of equal pay in the wake of what she perceived as a dramatic increase of women’s productivity, which WWI helped to “discover”.
Fawcett’s approach to Trade Unions and State regulation likewise evolved throughout her life. In the 1890s, she denounced the Trade Unions’ exclusion of women. Two decades later, she recognized the role of the Labor movement in the improvement of women’s labor conditions and even endorse the demand for minimum wages legislation—in contradiction with her younger appeal to the Classical Liberal doctrine of Laissez-Faire. Closed to the Liberal party, she made an alliance with the Labour Party for the 1910 election. This strategic move alienated many fellow feminists such as Eleanor Rathbone.
Other subjects of dissension within the feminist movement include the family. Fawcett opposed any law regulating the private sphere, and especially the “family allowance scheme” (child benefit), a central demand of the “new feminists” such as Rathbone. Fawcett never change her mind on this subject, her attachment to Victorian values of individual responsibility remained. Rathbone, however, succeeded Fawcett as leader of the NUWSS in 1919 and she is remembered as the inspiration behind many of Beveridge’s welfare state policies. Fawcett’s final years were devoted to campaigning for the extension of suffrage beyond property requirements. She died a year after unconditional equal franchise was granted to women in 1928.
The current debate on whether the wrong feminist or the wrong sculptor were chosen highlights how the history of the suffrage movement was as much about civil rights at the intersection of gender, class and race as it was about women’s vote. Further, Fawcett’s life, actions and writings exemplify the conceptual and strategic difficulties of “finding in liberalism a complete approach to feminism” (Caine 1993). If Fawcett represents one conception of feminism, the kind of ideas she stood for also changed over her lifetime.
Outlining this diversity while explaining (or writing history) is already difficult (for a recent try see Gender and the Great War). But, as recent debates over confederate statues in the US have revealed, statues do not merely aim at explaining history, but at representing it. Choosing who to honor with a statue, who will “represent” a large piece of political history—who will be the exceptional woman standing among great men on a famous square—is not just an intellectual choice, it is also a political statement. The difficulty of representing a diverse movement and the criticism of the choice of Fawcett at least forces us to have crucial debates on how to embody the pluralism of our society.