On this day in 1946, the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr was born in Leiden, Netherlands. Over an academic career spanning about four and a half decades, Mokyr has supervised the dissertations of several dozen economists and historians (including the dissertation of my advisor, John V.C. Nye).
His output has been as important as it has been prodigious. If youre stuck for what to read next, might I suggest his 2016 book A Culture of Growth? or his 2009 economic history of Great Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Enlightened Economy? Or his 2002 The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy? Or his 1990 classic The Lever of Riches? Or his 1983 study of Why Ireland Starved? Or...
You get the idea. Mokyrs career has been a succession of path-breaking books garnished with equally-important journal articles. Trained at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yale University, where he studied with economic history pioneer William Parker, Mokyrs path-breaking work has (re?)opened the eyes of economists, historians, and economic historians to the important role of ideas in long-run historical-economic change.
He has won numerous awards and has served as editor of the Journal of Economic History and President of the Economic History Association. In this latter capacity, he read his Presidential Address in the style of a referee report at a memorable meeting of the Association in San Jose in 2004. The address was titled The Intellectual Origins of Modern Economic Growth and was published in the Journal of Economic History in 2005 (you can find it here). In it, and in his 2009 and 2016 books, Mokyr makes the case that an Industrial Enlightenmentin his words, a belief in the possibility and desirability of economic progress and growth through knowledgelaid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.
In recent years Mokyr has been something of a foil to the techno-pessimism of his Northwestern University colleague Robert Gordon. Gordon, in his influential 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, argues that important headwinds mean rapid American productivity growth is finished (it says something about the kind of scholar Mokyr is that he is having this debate with Gordon while, at the same time, Gordons book was published in the series Mokyr edits for Princeton University Press). Mokyr disagrees and argues in various placeslike in this exchange that appeared last year in Explorations in Economic History in which Gordon and Mokyr each laid out their argumentsthat modern reincarnations of techno-pessimism are unlikely to be accurate.
In other words, this time isnt different. If youre patient, Mokyr will explain why in a series of books and articles spanning four and a half decades of work and many hundreds of pages. I think it will be worth your time, though.