What is PPP about
The Past, Present, and Policy series aims to foster the dissemination and discussion of policy relevant research results from the expanding field of economic history. In the past few decades, economic history has evolved from a being purely academic field to becoming an area of active policy research contributing to international debates. Several reasons explain this:
- First and foremost, the spread of globalization has shifted the focus of economic research from the immediate past to longer-term oriented work. Observers realized that the world of the 1990s, with its combination of capital mobility and financial crises, did not have much to do with the 1960s or 1970s, but had a lot to do with, say, the 1890s, and began to systematically investigate past experiences. The more remote past has become more relevant to contemporary debates than the recent one which traditional economists typically consider. This trend is evident in the way international organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank, or the OECD have developed a keen sensitivity to historical evidence. Consistently, they have included economic history perspectives in their annual reports or key publications.
- Second, this situation has led to renewed focus on economic institutions. This occurred at a time when policy makers, confronted with the challenges of institutional reform, not only in transition and developing countries but also in the developed world, have increasingly been looking for guidance. But while theorists made headway in the 1980s and 1990s in developing tools to analyze economic institutions, their theories are of little use if not empirically fleshed out. As a result, policy makers have been asking for historical insights in order to provide relevant recommendations that would combine theoretical insights with historical evidence.
- Third, in so doing, researchers have realized that our knowledge of economic history is still wanting, suggesting that the marginal benefits from investment in this area are tremendous. There is, in particular, a dearth of high quality databases when it comes to the global economy: global finance, global trade, global institutions and their evolution across history are still very imperfectly known. There is also a dearth of knowledge beyond the better known and better-researched countries, so that genuine international comparisons are often impossible to achieve. The result is a risk of mistaking superficial evidence for hard facts.
These factors call for the creation of a policy forum where the findings of economic history can be discussed from the vantage point of their policy relevance. The goal, however, is not to claim that economic history has straightforward messages that can be directly transformed into policy recipes: it has not, and in effect policy makers do not ask for recipes. Moreover, unlike what laypeople ordinarily assume, economic history – just like economics – does not speak with one single voice. Just like any other social science, economic history is a subject about which people disagree before they seek to work out consensus views: the past is much too important to be portrayed as providing simple-minded lessons. Indeed, it is this continued disagreement and debate that has led to the emergence of economic history as a vibrant research area. The PPP series, created in 2005, is run by Marc Flandreau and is since 2007 an official venture of the EHES.