Meet Our Alumni: “I Was Attracted to the Idea of Being a Scholar, the Idea of Shifting the Frontier of Our Knowledge,” says Alexander Klein

In the latest alumni interview, our PhD alumnus Alexander Klein, Professor in Economic History at the University of Sussex, reflects on more than a decade in academia, on the evolution of his research interests, and the importance of mentors in the shaping of his academic trajectory.

For more than 13 years you have been affiliated with the University of Kent, now you are a Professor in Economic History at the University of Sussex. Why have you decided on a career in academia and what do you like about working in academia?

I was attracted to the idea of being a scholar, the idea of shifting the frontier of our knowledge, and to the environment where perennial learning is not seen as a luxury, but a necessity. For me, it is a job and a hobby at the same time, and the flexibility of the academic environment allows me to freely swap between the two.

Your research interests span economic history, economic geography, and long-run economic growth. Could you describe how these interests have evolved over your career?

It all started at CERGE-EI, during my upgrade in the third year (2003). I had motivated my research proposal with so many economic history examples that Gérard Roland suggested that, actually, I should do economic history. It was a very risky move because there was no economic historian and no economic history research at CERGE-EI back then. But I found support among the faculty members, with Jan Hanousek, Štěpán Jurajda, Evžen Kočenda and Randy Filler offering help all the way through.

It was the EU Marie Currie economic history network, Steve Broadberry and Nick Crafts who were then crucial in turning my PhD degree into an academic career. Our research interests aligned: Steve wanted to expand his research on long-run economic growth into Central and Eastern Europe, and Nick was bringing economic models of the ‘new economic geography‘ into economic history − the models I studied and liked in my second year at CERGE-EI. They found the resources to keep me in Warwick as their post-doc, and I spent four amazing years there, researching both: long-run economic growth, and economic geography from an economic history perspective. And I stayed with it ever since.

What elements of your CERGE-EI studies have influenced you the most in your career?

The second year was influential. This is where we were shown the frontier of economic research and started asking serious research questions. But the three years of writing the dissertation were essential. As I mentioned earlier, there was no economic history research in 1999−2005 when I studied at CERGE-EI, so we had to figure it out ourselves. It was challenging. But it prepared me for the uncertainties and serendipities of scholarly work brilliantly.

Your recent publication, ‘Populism and the First Wave of Globalization: Evidence from the 1892 US Presidential Election,’ explores a historical perspective on populism. What inspired this research, what are the main findings, and what do you believe are the implications of historical events on contemporary economic and political landscapes?

This publication has a long and also sad history. The original idea was developed by Karl Gunnar Persson, and the first draft was written in collaboration with Paul Sharp. Sadly, Gunnar passed away unexpectedly before he could see the paper being published. My involvement was the result of my research on U.S. economic geography and friendship with Paul: I approached him to ask if I could join the project and bring in my expertise. The fact that our collaboration started around the time when the U.S political landscape changed with Donald Trump becoming the U.S. president is not a coincidence. But the idea to explore a link between populism and globalization goes back long before that and it needs to be credited to Gunnar’s deeply perceptive mind, profound knowledge of economic history, and unique ability to see economic history lessons in the current economic climate.

The main findings show that the globalization of the agricultural market before World War I led to political backlash among farmers in the United States. Declining transportation costs and bigger exposure to global markets can be beneficial, but the historical reality was nuanced. Many farmers felt – rightly or wrongly – that the benefits of globalization were unevenly distributed, and they blamed the middleman: railways. There were many ways how to express their opinion about it and one of them was the U.S. presidential election.

I think that we should always try to draw careful and nuanced implications of historical events on contemporary political and economic landscape. It can’t be heavy-handed: we have too many examples of brutal abuses of history not to recognize that history painted with a broad brush can be used to justify the worst human atrocities. There are moments when we learnt from historical events, and economic history events in particular. My favourite one is the 2008 financial crisis: there the lessons from the Great Depression were learnt and economic policy mistakes were not repeated. The aftermath is a different story, but the 2008 recession was handled well-enough to avoid another Great Depression.

What other research projects are you currently working on?

Currently I am writing a research monograph about the rise and fall of the Manufacturing Belt in the United States (nowadays often referred to as the Rust Belt) in which I use the economic reasoning put forward by the ‘new economic geography’ models to understand the life-cycle of the Belt. I look at other aspects of the U.S. economic history as well. I collaborate with Chris Meissner from UC Davis on the perennial question of U.S. trade policy and industrialization: what was the effect of import tariffs on manufacturing productivity in the late 19th century? I am revising the old debate about the effect of canals on agricultural productivity in the antebellum U.S., the debate about the sources of U.S. aggregate economic growth from 1870 until present, and I am also looking at the distributional effects of railway expansion between 1860 and 1900. All this is done with new data, and new methods ranging from spatial general equilibrium models to recent advances in production function estimation.

There is one more research agenda which I paused during ‘Covid’ because it requires archival work: serfdom in Bohemia. This is something I will be resuming soon and where I study the effects of the institution of serfdom on the allocation of economic resources in early modern Bohemia. And I am planning to write a history of Czechoslovakia in English which would be a synthesis of the vast recent scholarship produced in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Being an editor of Economic History of Developing Regions and a member of the editorial board of the European Review of Economic History, how do you approach the selection of articles for publication, and what trends do you observe in the submissions to these journals?

There is always a tension between academic articles advancing the economic history field without a link to current events and articles which speak to them. In the end, it is the quality of scholarship that decides what is published and what is not. My personal preference played no role, and I accepted articles with which I, philosophically, deeply disagreed. The submission trends clearly show a preference for technically consistent publications, with history assuming the position of a wingman. For sound economic history research, technical proficiency is certainly a necessary condition, but not sufficient. Both need to be on equal footing, and if there were any serious reservations from me as an editor about the submitted articles, it was about this.


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