Jason Brent, 2012-13 HOPE Center Fellow


It was the severe and, for most economists, unexpected recession that began in December of 2007 that brought Jason Brent to the history of economics and, in turn, to the Center for the History of Political Economy. A PhD student in economics at the University of North Carolina, Jason noticed that nothing about the recession had worked its way into the graduate courses he was taking.

“It was startling that the recent economic catastrophes and transformations were never mentioned in any of our classes and had essentially no effect on any of the models we studied,” Jason says.

Wanting to know more about the standard models and how they originated, Jason started looking for an intellectual community that dealt with how things in economics had changed over time.

“That’s what brought me to some of the HOPE Center Friday workshops and lunches,” Jason says. “I was really engaged by the conversations at the Center, conversations that dealt with the context in which economic models and ideas emerged.”

Those conversations led Jason to seek some formal training in the history of economics. With that goal in mind, he attended the 2011 Summer Institute in Denver and the 2012 Summer Institute at Duke. He has used what he learned at the two Institutes to devise a new undergraduate course in the history of economics at UNC. With Bruce Caldwell’s assistance and the resources of the HOPE Center, Jason taught the course in the fall of 2012. With a focus on primary texts, the course encourages students to critically and historically engage with the models they encounter in advanced economics classes.

The class was so successful that Jason is teaching it again this spring, and it will be offered again next year.

In addition to his work in history, Jason studies college dropouts and how their experiences in the labor market have changed over time.

For Jason, the great economic treatises, like all great intellectual works, can profoundly shape one’s worldview. “My engagement with history,” he says, “has changed fundamentally how I think about the things I encounter in everyday life.” The first three chapters of The Wealth of Nations, for example, introduced him to the idea that “our access to goods and prosperity depends on people who do not know or care about us.” Reading Marx changed how he thinks about labor and work life, and he’ll never look at speculation the same way again after reading chapter 12 of the General Theory. “It really is, as Keynes said, a beauty contest.” 

Jason is married to Lisa Levenstein, a history professor at UNC-Greensboro. They have two children, Anna (9) and Owen (7).

--Paul Dudenhefer