Historians can tackle math

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “Why Write the History of Capitalism?

Prof. Louis Hyman, guest blogger

I’m writing this post today just coming off of the first session of the Economic Methods for Historians Workshop, a.k.a. History of Capitalism Boot Camp, at Cornell. We kicked it off with a rousing discussion of accounting. Spending three hours on the fine points of hiding revenue on a balance sheet is not the normal way historians spend their time in seminars. We are more comfortable debating the internal logics of books than talking about methods, much less methods with alphabet soups like LIFO, FIFO, GAAP, and IASB. Yet in those three hours, the 30 historians taking part learned how to tell a story based on numbers rather than words.

The numbers in question — in this case, a forestry company that bought a ski resort just before the Great Recession — look innocuous on the surface. But now that we are learning to read them, we understand that they were not just numbers. Rather, they were another way that people played out their games of power. This is the story of how CEOs transformed a venerable paper company into a new-fangled REIT (real estate investment trust), just on the cusp of the largest real estate meltdown since the 1930s.

These decisions stemmed from a naïve belief that conditions would continue to be roughly the same, and that change would not occur. But in the history of capitalism, little is as certain as change. And for these “campers” (both graduate students and faculty), the familiar story of arrogance is now spelled out in numerals as well as letters.


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