Interview with Karl Gunnar Persson
by Paul R. Sharp, University of Southern Denmark
This interview was published in the Cliometrics Society Newsletter in January 2013.
(Download full text in pdf)
Paul: Let's start from the beginning. How did you get involved in economic history?
Gunnar: When I began my university studies at Lund University, I wanted to go into the social sciences, economics and political science, but then I drifted more into economic history rather early on. At that time it was a very dynamic field, with lots of students. As an undergraduate I got a job as a teaching assistant. The Lund Economic History Department was a good place to be at. Already as undergraduates we were exposed to cliometrics and 'new economic history' through Lennart Jörberg, the price historian, who had come under the influence of Douglass North and Robert Fogel as a Fulbright scholar. Lund was rather isolated from the rest of the Scandinavian economic history which remained in a more traditional mould. So we were early on influenced by the new economic history and cliometrics, and that became part of the regular curriculum, unlike the rest of Sweden and Denmark at that point.
I had no immediate plans to do research at that time in economic history. I was thinking along the lines of getting a job in the civil service or in journalism. But when I had finished my degree and was looking for jobs I was offered a PhD scholarship. However, it was linked to immigration studies so I did more sociometrics than cliometrics. At that time in the 1970s, I was also quite active in left wing politics. I was on the editorial board and finally the the editor of a sort of Scandinavian version of the New Left Review and it took a lot of my time. We had two small kids and my wife was still at the Medical School. I also did a lot of journalism in the 1970's for newspapers and the Swedish Radio introducing social science themes in programs. So I suppose all in all I was a quarte time economic historian and a quarter time social historian and a full time activist/editor/free lance writer so I neglected my research to some extent. But it was great fun. I eventually gave non-academic pursuits and became a narrow minded academic. My only relation to journalism these days is that I am mad about reading them. I read three to five every day.
Paul: You say economic history was very dynamic when you started - what was the reason for that?
Gunnar: I think it was part of the left wing students' movement looking in the Marxist way for the economic basis of practically everything. So all sorts of people went into economic history because learning about the economy aka the 'economic base, would perhaps help them to understand the rest of the world. That was why it was so attractive at that time. I remember I had one of the leading Swedish rock stars in my class for a semester and when I met him on the street a year ago he said it was the best year in his life and I could quote him on that.
Paul: So Marxism brought you to economic history?
Gunnar: Well, not really. I had been interested in social issues, that's true, from my student or from my high school days. We discussed society in terms of base and superstructure, that sort of idea. It was quite popular.
Paul: How important are your political beliefs now? Do your political beliefs continue to influence your work?
Gunnar: Well I suppose I am more Rosé than Red these days. But politics matter. I think being on the Left makes you skeptical to people who neglect market failures and market imperfections. I used to say that the radical right is naïve about markets, while the radical left is naïve about politics. Being Swedish I take the middle way, I suppose. Even though my work is not directly political I have always been interested in charting market efficiency and the impact of regulation. Very much of the '70s developed rather dogmatic views of Marx and Marxism. The economics of Marx never attracted and I never managed to pass the introductory chapters of Das Kapital. But his theory of history, aka Historical materialism, did and still does attract me as an outline of social evolution. I should say one of the very few books written in these years, that still has value and which influenced me very much when I wrote Pre-industrial Economic Growth, (Oxford 1988) was the book by the Oxford philosopher G.A.(Jerry) Cohen Karl Marx's Theory of History (Oxford 1978) who was also a referee for my book. Jerry's book was one of the rare examples of the 1970s Marxist debates which developed and clarified thinking about institutional change. Much of the 'many words' French ' structuralist' debate, for example, was of little value. We used to call it 'Bullshit Marxism'.
Paul: So then you moved to Denmark. Why did you do that?
Gunnar: Basically it was because the economic history department in Lund was quite crowded and it was very difficult to get tenure. I also came to see the Swedish university system as inward-looking and un-attractive intellectually. The Swedish university system is composed of local closed shops. Lund does not recruit from Stockholm or the other way around. It still works that way and I am absolutely chocked that nothing has happened since I was a Ph D student in that respect. The advantage with Denmark was tenure, I came into an Economics department. I started to teach labour economics and only later began teaching economic history. The move to the Danish university world was something I never regretted.
Paul: The department in Copenhagen must have changed a lot over time?
Gunnar: Well, yes it did. When I came to Copenhagen it was a rather typical Scandinavian slightly parochial type of department. Oslo and Stockholm were the leading Scandinavian departments at that time. What changed the department was the fact that we had a group of very gifted theoretical economists, who sort of set the standards, we had to become internationally competitive, we had to publish in the international journals.
Paul: When did that process start?
Gunnar: As you know, Copenhagen is now one of the top departments in Europe, usually ranging in say the top ten to fifteen in Europe. The change I would say came in the early 1990s. Recruitment policy changed, and basically the culture changed in the department. At that time I was deputy head of department, so I participated actively in that process. It is a case of intellectual catching up.
Paul: And how do you feel about the situation of economic history in the department at the moment?
Gunnar: Economic history always had a an important place in the courses offered to students, I think more so than in most Economics Departments in Europe and North America.
Well obviously we are in a transition period. I will stop teaching in a couple of years' time, so with me the last of the original economic historians will be gone. On the other hand we have never had so many PhD students with an interest in economic history, in the MEHR [Macroeconomics and the Historical Record] group, for example. So actually, I'm optimistic both because of what is happening internally in the department and you know, internationally I think we are quite respected. But there is much focus on linking macroeconomics and history, and that implies that economic historians here will publish not only in economic history journals, but also try to publish in general economics journals, which I think is all right or reasonable.
Paul: Turning now to your research, please tell more about your early work.
Gunnar: As I said, my early work, I mean my PhD, was more sociometric than cliometric, it was about social mobility, working with different social mobility indices. The first articles I published in the 1970s were in Sociology journals.
So it was not really until the early 1980's that I turned more directly to economic history in my research. And that was when I prepared my first monograph on pre-industrial economic growth and I think I worked quite a lot on that book. It was published in 1988 but writing books is very time consuming. I did part of the work as a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. The major contribution of that book, I think, it is that the conventional Malthusian model is often misunderstood, in the sense that, usually we think of the equilibrium in the Malthusian model as one with constant per capita income and zero population growth and that doesn't fit the empirical evidence for the pre-industrial period. So what I did with my collaborator at that time, Peter Skott, who is now in Amherst but was then in London, was that we showed that a Malthusian model with technological progress actually has a number of equilibria, where the rate of technological progress works against diminishing returns to labor, and therefore we get a picture which is more in line with what pre-industrial Europe looked like. That is, we have countries with an equilibrium income far above subsistence and sustained population growth, and we can actually have economies which are moving from one equilibrium to a higher one with technological progress. I think that contribution has yet to be fully appreciated even by present day Malthusians. Enough about that. What I did here in terms of cliometrics was trying to formalize a method of measuring changes in labor productivity from changes in occupational structure or, in another way, changes in consumption patterns, and that's a topic I have returned to in recent years. In fact what I did was to generalize and formalize a method suggested earlier by Tony Wrigley. That Sir Tony had did that was not clear to me until one day before I was presenting the paper at LSE with Tony Wrigley in the audience. This was before the copy and paste days so I did not have time to include a reference to him, but of course he did not care.
Paul: And then you turned to working on globalization. What inspired that?
Gunnar: Well, I have always, I think, been of the opinion that you shouldn't be a one issue type of man, so ... I have a low - what do you say? - boredom threshold. I think sometimes you don't learn much more or you don't get much further, so I go from one subject to another. I decided a year or so ago that I must stop doing market integration. So what I am doing right now is I am thinking about demography, specifically the relationship between fertility and mortality. That is entirely new and that has forced me to do a lot of reading of the new literature, but you know that keeps your mind fresh.
Paul: But it seems to be a big step moving from pre-industrial growth into market integration?
Gunnar: The market integration book (Grain Markets in Europe, Cambridge 1999) actually asked a question which again was sort of linked to Jerry Cohen's work mentioned earlier that is institutional chang. One of the questions addresse was what caused the transition from tightly regulated markets to free, unregulated markets. And the hypothesis I had was that what market integration was doing what regulation was supposed to do that is stabilizing prices of food, which were very volatile in the past. It's an idea which was developed by the French Enlightenment economists in the end of the 18th century. I think again there is a lesson for economists here. The basic message I have is that markets are far from perfect: they are getting better, but economists and in fact quite a few economic historians tend to think of free markets as being uniformly efficient over time, but it is actually a historical process from imperfection. Markets were far from efficient as late as in the early nineteenth century, but through the invention of better modes of information transmission they became so. This has implications for the interpretation of, for example, price gaps between markets, which are often routinely discussed in terms of equilibrium or, as an indicator of transport costs or something, which they are not. They are explained by transport costs and a residual, which is diminishing over time but which includes for example different sorts of market imperfections. So that is a very important lesson. Economic models are of course based on outcomes which are efficient but economies don't have to work like that.
Paul: So now I would like to turn to your important contribution in terms of establishing European economic history. How do you feel about the situation in Europe today?
Gunnar: Just coming back from the Dublin conference [the European Historical Economics Society conference], makes you very optimistic, I think. I was very impressed by the standard of the presentations and by the fact that so many of the participants were under the age of 35 or 40 - about half of them I would guess. So I would say I'm very optimistic.
Paul: And you played a very important role in bringing this about, right?
Gunnar: As I said before, I came from a department which was quite modern by European standards. But in general economic history in Europe was very traditional and old fashioned, and there were lots of people in Europe dissatisfied with that. In England in the 1980's, there was a group of quantitative economic historians who met regularly, and I participated in some of these meetings at the end of the 1980's. On the European level, there was nothing like that. This changed with the World Clio in Spain 1989, which the Cliometrics society organized with the help of Leandro Prados. It was a really good conference, well organized, but the Europeans were sort of outsmarted or crowded out by the Americans: you know in the Cliometrics Society they have known each other since the dawn of civilization, and we Europeans were not used to the debating culture typical of American universities. So we came to the conclusion that we had to set the agenda ourselves rather than opening a franchise of Cliometrics society.
We met, a small group, very informally, at the International Economic History Association Meeting in Leuven, the year after, and that's how the formal group was formed. This group included Gianni Toniolo, Jaime Reis, James, Foreman-Peck just to mention a few. The aim was to get an organization started and perhaps some sort of conference. We were all supposed to investigate when we could have the first conference. It turned out I was the first who got the funding for a first meeting in order which took place in Copenhagen in 1991. It mainly attracted Europeans mainly Europeans. We decided on a name for the society, which was the European Historical Economics Society. There was a long debate about that, and it's sort of a funny story, but I won't enter into any details. The idea was that after Copenhagen we should have a biannual conference. That didn't happen for different reasons, so it took a long time before we had the next, which was in Venice in 1996, organized by Gianni Toniolo. But in the meantime, James Foreman-Peck and myself, and others, managed to get money from the European Union for a number of workshops, the purpose of which was to attract younger researchers. And many of those who are now top European economic historians were actually trained at these conferences, workshops, and summer schools in the 1990's. And so, even though the organization was a bit shaky for the first years, after the Venice conference we got the sort of regularity which we wanted from the start.
Paul: What was the reaction of the Cliometrics society to your organizing your own conferences?
Gunnar: To start with I think there was a fear that the Europeans should go into isolation but that did not happen. Co-operation developed on friendly terms although not without frictions. The one diplomatic controversy I can remember was under the preparation for the Venice meeting, our second and long waited conference. Now Clio planned an International Meeting the same year in Munich. I told Sam Williamson, the then President, that we would not co-operate on a Clio International meeting in Europe the same year as our meeting. In the end Clio moved its meeting one year forward. I think Sam and the Clio people were not entirely happy with my veto. When I came down to the Munich meeting the next year - one day after the opening - Sam complemented my sun-tan and adding it was strange that I could not do it on time given that I had postponed the meeting one full year. The reason I was late was out of my control, however. I had been out sailing north of Gothenburg when the wind died and I missed the flight.
Paul: You were also involved in the creation of the European Review of Economic History.
Gunnar: Yes I have the habit of getting involved in projects which take my time away from research. We had started to discuss the launching of a yearbook or journal in the mid 1990s.
The next important inoitiative, which came in the mid-1990s, was to start a journal. Interestingly, given the success of the European Review of Economic History today, there was some disagreement whether or not to do this, and we had an important meeting at the International Economic History Association meeting in Milan where we discussed it. And it is interesting to mention here that some of those who were actually pushing for this were Jeffery Williamson and Tim Hatton, as well as myself. So the result of the Milan meeting was that a small group of people, me, Leandro Prados, Tim Hatton and Vera Zamagni were supposed to investigate whether it was a good idea to start a journal. And we did. Tim Hatton, I remember very well, said we should not if none of the big publishers were interested, but in the end Cambridge University Press came to me with the best offer. I remember we went from his house in Essex to Cambridge in his little Beetle and finalized the contract. And Tim Hatton was actually a skilled typographer before he went into academia, so he decided everything about typesetting, the cover and so on. By that time I was no longer president of the Society, but I took the editorship of the Review, the editorial office was in Copenhagen and I got generous support from the department, which provided secretarial assistance etc. The first couple of years were actually extremely time-consuming. We didn't have the sort of editorial help that you have these days with online submission systems. But I was very happy that even with the first couple of years of publications we got to a rather high level. The editorship marked the end of my career as an organizer. You know, I had done a lot of organizing, both for the workshops, for the Society and in general. So then I decided I had to stop because it took a lot of time from my research.
Paul: Speaking of monographs, another major contribution you have made recently to European economic history is the publication of your textbook on the Economic History of Europe. How do you feel about the response to that?
Gunnar: It has been a commercial success it is already in its third printing and the reviews have been pleasant. I was surprised Greg Clark did not use the heavy artillery he usually employs when reviewing books.
Paul: One other thing I would like to ask you is, if you would have to give advice to a young ambitious economic historian, what would that be? Where do you feel the future of economic history going?
Gunnar: I think that given the fact that economic history is a very small field with limiting teaching in most economic faculties, I think economic historians should diversify into some other more related general field: trade for example, or labor economics, or econometrics.
Paul: You don't see much chance for pure economic historians going forwards?
Gunnar: As an economic historian you can publish in general economics journals as well as in economic history journals. So that is good because it is good for economists to learn about economic history and the other way around. So it is important not to sort of erect barriers, and that is why I think there is a problem with pure economic history departments, because there is the risk of being isolated.
Paul: What about the relationship between economic history and history? Is there any future in it?
Gunnar: The problem with, at least with economic history in an economic department - and that is a real problem - is that you neglect the hard work on the historical materials, you know, the archives. That is a real problem. It is time consuming but it is necessary. And everybody can't rely on someone else collecting data. It is a very respectable job, so these types of contributions need to be upgraded, I think. I remember one time I talked to the Head of Department about what we can do with PhD students who will spend one year in the archives. That of course would take their time away from other things that they have to do for their PhD program. And there is really no good solution to that, unfortunately. So, I suppose economic historians just have to work much harder.
Paul: Do you see a changing relationship between economics and economic history? Maybe economic history is becoming more prominent again?
Gunnar: I think that what we see in the form of repetitive events, for example banking crises, makes even hard-boiled theoreticians open to the idea of studying history, so I think that is part of the reason. I think we are met with more respect and more interest than we were, say 10-15 years ago. But it is also because economic history itself is becoming more sophisticated. Economic theory has also changed in the sense that you can't just mindlessly present models. Editors even in theory journals ask for some sort of historical or empirical backing. So in that sense you can say that the distinction between economic history and economics has blurred. But if you look at the Journal of Political Economy or a macro journal fifty years ago you would see they were much more interested in historical issues and empirical problems as well, so it's just been sort of a correction. Pure theory is perhaps not as prestigious anymore.
Paul: So maybe, you could also, in relation to this, talk about unified growth theory because this is one of the things which is making economic history more interesting for lots of macroeconomists, I guess.
Gunnar: I am not so impressed by the empirical standard of unified growth theory, I must say. They seem to stick to very crude assumptions and stylized facts which are more stylized than facts, and they would benefit from a little more deep research into for example demography, I think. I think economic historians should be allowed to be referees on some of these papers, more than they are, I think.
Paul: So then, something about your personal relationships within economic history. Have you any special friendships or rivalries?
Gunnar: Hmmm...I have lots of friends but not enemies, I hope. Confrontational type of person, am I? I don't think so. I don't think I have made lots of enemies. I have arguments with, you know, Malthusians, but I think it has been in the way an academic debate should be. You know in the humanities they can kill each other for minor disagreements, but that does not happen to me.
Paul: But nevertheless, you are well-known as an anti-Malthusian.
Gunnar: Apparently! I think my anti-Malthusian views have probably been triggered off by my early years. Before entering university I traveled a lot in Europe, throughout Europe. And I was so impressed by what I saw. I was looking at these well crafted cathedrals, which of course bear witness to great sophistication, and to both technology and income. I have always also been interested in art and the perfection you see in art from Medieval times to the Early modern era, its increasing secular approach, in my view is difficult to reconcile with the traditional Malthusian's gloomy view. That is sort of, I think, a mental picture which I have had throughout my life. And I think the interesting thing is to go back to pre-industrial growth and assume that we actually had slow economic growth and slow growth in income. The interesting thing is that more recent estimates being done for all over Europe, is basically corroborating these early speculations in my work. I actually thought a lot about these gothic temples, you know…
Paul: On that note, I wish to thank you for giving your time for this interview.
Gunnar: Thank you.
(Download full text in pdf)
His books include:
Pre-industrial Economic Growth (Oxford, Blackwells 1988)
Grain Markets in Europe 1500-1900, Integration and Deregulation (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press 1999).
Recent articles include:
The Gains from Improved Market Efficiency: Trade Before and After the Transatlantic Telegraph,
(with M. Ejrnæs), in European Review of Economic History vol. 14, 2010, pp. 361-81.
Feeding the British: Convergence and Market Integration in 19th
Century Grain Trade, (with M. Ejrnæs and S. Rich), in Economic History Review 61(1), 2008.
Current research projects cover a study on fertility strategies during the demographic transition,
a study on the distributional consequences of the ‘Grain Invasion’ and the measurement of pre-industrial growth.
Obsessions: (Sorry to disappoint you but only obsessions with a professional
relevance mentioned here)