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Verena Halsmayer, 2012-13 Research Fellow

As a young scholar whose research brings her into close and frequent contact with archival materials, Verena Halsmayer knows that Duke University, with its substantial collection of economists’ papers, is the right place for her this fall.

Verena, who is a 2012–12 Research Fellow at the Center for the History of Political Economy, is studying the history of economic growth models, particularly those of Sir Roy Harrod, Joan Robinson, and Robert Solow. Solow’s papers are housed here at Duke, in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The papers, Verena says, give her a sense of the communities Solow acted through and in—and in turn shed light on the development of his famous growth model.

“Solow was interacting not just with economists but with people from other disciplines and other institutions,” Verena says. “We see him talking of modeling as engineering, and economics as an engineering science. I want to situate that view in the context of the 1950s, and that is where the archives—his letters, his early drafts of papers—are especially valuable.”

By examining growth models from a historical perspective, Verena puts the traditional story of their evolution to the test. That story goes something like this: Harrod developed in the late 1930s “the first modern model of economic growth.” In the 1950s, Solow identified an unrealistic assumption in the model and corrected it, in the process creating the neoclassical growth model.

A tidy, linear, and cumulative tale of progress—but one that simply does not coincide with the historical evidence, Verena says.

“If you read the papers closely, you see that Harrod did not make the assumption Solow claimed he did. Solow built on an image of Harrod that stemmed from the Harrod-Domar literature, and that image influenced his work. Harrod’s and Solow’s were two separate projects; one was not a correction of the other.”

As Verena hopes to demonstrate, an economist’s professional identity influences the models he or she creates. “Harrod’s work, for example, reflected a specific image of the economist as scientist and adviser to the government in England of the 1930s; Solow’s model came out of his work with linear programming and was connected to the view of economics as an engineering science in the United States of the 1950s.”

Verena, who is a PhD student at the University of Vienna, first visited the HOPE Center in the fall of 2011, when she participated in that year’s HISRECO conference, which was held at Duke. She was a commentator on a paper by Alain Marciano and Steven Medema titled “Interdisciplinarity in the Early Reception of ‘The Problem of Social Cost’ at the University of Chicago.”

Verena values the relaxed, friendly atmosphere she has found at Duke and the Center. “I have room to think, to experiment with ideas, to get feedback on drafts of papers. The HOPE Center is the right place to feel the passion for what I am doing.”

She will return to Vienna in December.