James Forder, 2018-19 HOPE Center Fellow

“I don’t suppose you have any brown sauce,” James Forder skeptically asked the waiter at the New Zealand–inspired Durham restaurant Burger Bach.

The waiter, clearly a bit unsure, offered, “We have something known as HP Sauce.”

“Oh that’s perfect!” James delightedly cut in.

Indeed, that is exactly what James, a British-born fellow of the HOPE Center, wanted. James is of course here not to discover which local restaurants have his beloved HP Sauce but to engage in far more serious (or at least far more scholarly) matters. 

James is well known in the history of economics community for his research on the Phillips curve, that mid-century economic device that is said to identify tradeoffs between unemployment and inflation. After reading quite possibly every English-language book and article on the celebrated curve, James was able to demonstrate that the story of the Phillips curve that became codified in the discipline was simply, as the title of his 2014 book on the subject says, a “myth.”

That book left a loose end in the question of how mainstream thinking was organized, if not around the Phillips curve. James is now hoping to investigate the substance of Keynesian economics of the postwar decades and to determine what economists were really saying and doing, and what the main lines of theoretical and applied thinking really were.

“There are certain stories that are told that are factually incorrect or only partial accounts. Reports of who said this or who did what get streamlined over the years. The result is that we end up with highly sentimentalized views of what happened – and sometimes they are very misleading. The Phillips curve offers what is surely an extreme case. But views about Keynesian thought on such issues as rules and discretion, wage-push inflation, the role of monetary policy are all formed around very partial accounts.”

Part of the problem is that the story of the Phillips curve contaminates other stories. A good example concerns Milton Friedman’s presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1968. “Again and again it is said to be about the Phillips curve, but in fact he hardly mentions it, and really does not suggest that any big mistake had been made about it.”

A key aspect of James’s project is the writing of an account of what economists were doing in the postwar period that is based on a wide view of the work of many economists who may be little-remembered today but whose work was the real substance of the economics of those decades. “People talk grandly about the general view of economists and substantiate those views with only a small number of sources. There are things that don’t quite seem to fit. It’s those things that I’m interested in finding more about.”

James, who is an Andrew Graham Fellow and Tutor in Political Economy at Balliol College, will return to Oxford in May.