A native of Vienna and son of a diplomat, Andreas Kramer has followed an intriguing path to the HOPE Center, where he is spending a fellowship year researching the economic thought of Vienna around 1900.
“I first studied philosophy, political science, and law in Vienna. But I wanted to add economics, so I decided to study PPE in Manchester, the city where the industrial revolution began,” Andreas explains. It was there that he became interested in the so-called “German economic miracle” after WWII, and so he ended up writing his bachelor’s thesis on the Freiburg School of economics, whose proponents secretly developed reforms during the war and implemented them after, which in turn led to the swift economic recovery of war-torn Germany.
Andreas started studying economics in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers collapsed. The great recession led Andreas further into the history of economics. “I was receiving a mainstream economics education and at the same time I could observe the economic crisis unfolding before my own eyes. What was going on?”
Ultimately, Andreas turned his attention to the Austrian School of economics, a key influence of the Freiburg School and whose founder was another Viennese resident, Carl Menger. Andreas had heard that in Madrid, the Austrian School was not only studied as a historical episode but was carried on as a living tradition. So he went to Madrid, where he is a PhD student at King Juan Carlos University writing on the political economy of the old Vienna.
After studying the economic development of post-WWII Germany, Andreas became interested in the even starker economic and cultural development of pre-WWI Vienna, along with the Austrian School’s part in it. “Back then, Austrian School economists held some of the highest positions within society. Menger was the most respected economist in the empire and Crown Prince Rudolf’s main tutor. His student Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was also a respected professor and finance minister three times. Their students held many other influential positions.”
While being less known in today’s academy, the Austrians are far from gone, Andreas points out. “Today Austrian economists may only be a small minority within the economics discipline, but they’ve formed groups around the world and are still putting their mark on it, from providing the main inspiration for Jimmy Wales to create Wikipedia, to inspiring the creation of cryptocurrencies, influencing investors, or changing the way many people see the entrepreneur, the economy, and economic crises. Before 2008, almost no one expected a recession, but the Austrians did. They expect one again, since, in their view, hardly anything fundamental has changed, quite the contrary, but the difference is now many more people are also expecting it, arguably in part due to the work of the Austrians.”
It was a short step from the Austrians and Carl Menger to Duke University, where Menger’s papers are housed in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. After spending a week here in 2017 working in the archives, Andreas knew that he had to return for a longer visit.
He says that the seeds of his current interests were planted around the dinner table of his youth. “With my father working in the Middle East, politics was a regular topic of conversation in the family. Living there for ten years, I witnessed firsthand the political and economic tragedy that is the Middle East.”
Asked to explain the Austrian School, Andreas points out its deductive approach and use of verbal logic rather than quantitative methods. “All science should start with epistemology or methodology—this may be considered an antiquated notion, but everything else follows. The Austrians don’t decry empirical work; they just submit it to what they see as indisputable economic logic, which is common to all people, and is inescapable.”
Austrian economics also emphasizes the limits of economics, Andreas is quick to point out. “It warns how little we can know about the actions of human beings, who, after all, have free will. There are so many determining variables. There is a danger in being too confident about one’s empirical knowledge, especially if it is used for far-reaching economic policies.”
Andreas sees the history of economics as playing an important role in his understanding of the world. “Ideas matter, especially economic ideas. And the better you know them, the better you can interpret history. And economic ideas and our knowledge of history form our actions today.”
When asked what has surprised him about Duke and Durham, Andreas mentions the well-stocked library and archives, the collegiality at the Center and its successful effort against all odds to put the history of economics back on the map, and the Lemur Center. As it turns out, his great-great grandfather was an expert on lemurs. And it further turns out that the lemur expert’s father was the geography tutor to none other than Crown Prince Rudolph.
“So, in a way, my great-great-great grandfather was a colleague of Menger’s. I guess that brings us full circle. Lemurs, historians of economics, and Austrian economists, all endangered, all very much worth preserving, and all in a way well preserved here at Duke,” Andreas says with a smile.
Andreas will return to Vienna in September.
For more information on Andreas, see his website at http://andreasmkramer.com/.