Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A great scholar and friend has passed away

By: Paul Sharp

I always used to joke that I wanted to be like Gunnar when I grew up. What did I mean by that? Certainly I could never hope to be half the scholar he was. No, what I admired most about Gunnar, and the most important thing which my former supervisor and dear friend taught me, was the importance of enjoying life, and work as an integral part of that. His enthusiasm for the latter is reflected by his achievements throughout his career. He had great importance for the internationalization of the Department of Economics at Copenhagen University; for economic history in Denmark and the rest of Europe; for the teaching of economic history, in particular through his textbook on the Economic History of Europe; and last but by no means least he has of course also contributed much in terms of his research. There will be plenty of time to dwell on this in more formal obituaries. The Gunnar I want to remember here was so much more than that. He was truly someone who enjoyed life way beyond academia: he loved the outdoors, sailing, music, art, food and drink, to name just a few examples. Moreover, he was a truly happy and generous man, and someone I always looked up to.

Gunnar on the train on the way back to Copenhagen from Odense and the 2014 Growth Workshop at the University of Southern Denmark. He managed to sit next to two young Russian ladies on their way to a dancing competition, and seemed to enjoy the attention they gave him! 

Thus, his love of life and work intertwined. A few years ago, I interviewed Gunnar for the newsletterof the Cliometric Society. His sense of humour shines out through many of his replies. For example when asked about whether his political beliefs influenced his work, he began his reply by saying “Well I suppose I am more Rosé than Red these days, but I drink both”! He also described how his convictions as what he called a “card-carrying anti-Malthusian” was in part determined by his love of culture, and how the gothic cathedrals he had seen while travelling in his youth had led him to believe that “…the pre-industrial economies of Europe could not possibly be the sort of bare bones subsistence economies Malthusians say they were”.

Although I had also known him as an undergraduate, I think I first became very close to Gunnar while we were both visiting the European University Institute in Florence back in 2007. I was still his PhD student, but he, among other things, found time to enjoy many wonderful dinners with me. I was particularly impressed by his practice of always choosing the cheapest wine, claiming ex ante that it was actually very good, but then “discovering” ex post that it was not so good, with the implication that we would have to order another bottle, but only after the first one had been emptied, thus meaning that we always drank at least a bottle each! This was also when we planned the first edition of the textbook together, sitting outside his beautiful house in Buriano.

We have many unfinished projects together. Indeed, he was very active until the end, and had recently asked me to read through a new chapter he had written for a possible third edition of the textbook. Sadly, we never finished updating a paper we wrote on Tuscan red wines, which remains in working paper limbo. He asked me to work on this during my PhD, I think mostly as an excuse for him to go to a conference on wine economics (which seemed to involve relatively few sessions, and relatively many river cruises and wine tastings). I have frequently teased him about this in recent years, which resulted recently in the promise of a trip to Tuscany with him for the arduous task of visiting various vineyards in order to collect the data on wine prices we needed to finish the paper.

Gunnar and I proudly present the second edition of the textbook to the world in 2015

This was, however, not to be. I met him last on September 8, less than a week before his untimely death in his beloved Italy. We had attended a seminar at the Department of Economics, Copenhagen University, and, as we often did, we went to one of the many bars in Copenhagen with a wide selection of the craft beers he so loved. We didn’t go to our usual: it was the sort of evening which makes Copenhagen seem like paradise, and we sat outside at a different bar next to one of the lakes with a good APA and some salt and vinegar crisps. We weren’t sure where to go for dinner, but I checked my phone and found we were very close to a little French restaurant which had good reviews. There, we first enjoyed a glass of rosé outside, and then went inside for a very good meal, after which we went somewhere else to meet up with some others from his department and mine and the seminar guest. He didn’t enjoy the beer and the smoke at that bar, and anyway it was too late, so he soon left. That evening we had talked a lot about how I was finding it difficult to return to work after a long period of absence due to my daughter being ill, and I apologized for not having made more progress on our many unfinished projects together. He wrote to me the same evening saying

Paul, It was really nice seeing you back on the turf again.
Do not over-extend your commitments.  Well, except when it comes to a beer now and then, of course!

It was his typical mix of fatherly and professional advice which meant so much to me. I replied a couple of days later, on September 10:

Yes, thanks for a really enjoyable evening. I will always find time for beer with you!

Those were our last words together. How I will miss him. Goodbye Gunnar.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Gunnar Persson: a personal memoir

Karl Gunnar Persson was professor in  Economic
History at University of Copenhagen and one of
the founders of EHES
Written by: Giovanni Federico

Gunnar Persson was tall, big, a little overweight, and a very, very nice man. He loved reading, classical music, cycling, football, eating and drinking good wine, and was a very good cook. He loved his small apartment in Buriano, a village in the hills near Grosseto in southern Tuscany, with a small garden where we have sat many times after good lunches talking and gossiping about economic history and economic historians.  In short, he enjoyed life.

But Gunnar also enjoyed economic history. He was an active and very successful cultural entrepreneur and a great scholar, with a far-sighted intellectual agenda which he pursued throughout his scientific career. His first major work was his book on Pre-industrial Economic Growth (Persson 1989). As the title makes it clear, he did not accept the view of a stagnant and thus an intellectually unexciting pre-industrial world. To be sure, he knew that technical progress before the industrial revolution was slow and erratic, and that income grew very slowly if not at all. Yet, growth could be brought by trade and market integration. Some years later, in his  textbook on economic history of Europe (Persson 2013) he described the struggle between the forces of integration and the forces of disruption (mostly political events such as wars) as the key feature of pre-industrial Europe.   Early modern economic history was not so popular in those times among cliometricians (or ‘new economic historians’ as they were still called) but it has attracted a lot of attention since then. Greg Clark’s Malthusian monography (2007), which Persson criticized in a debate in European Review of Economic History (Persson 2008) was a commercial hit.  Within the last year, the discussion has seen renewed efforts at estimating GDP per capita before 1800 (Fouquet and Broadberry 2015). Although all these estimates cannot be as accurate as modern ones, they do show fluctuations within and across countries which confirm that pre-industrial Europe was not frozen in an immutable Malthusian world.

The interest in pre-modern economic growth related to the second major issue in Gunnar’s research agenda, market integration. His supervisor at Lund University, Lennart Jörberg, had written a pioneering book on the integration of the Swedish domestic market in the 18th and 19th centuries (Jörberg 1972) which, however, had made less impact than it deserved. In the early 1990s, the issue was put on the spotlight again by the joint efforts by Williamson, who focused on transatlantic integration, and Gunnar, who pioneered the research on domestic integration. He organized a seminar in Lerici (a wonderful place, as always with him) in 1994,  a session at the ill-fated Seville/Madrid world conference, and published widely on the issue.

He was the first, in a paper on France (Ejrnæs. and Persson 2000), to apply Threshold Autoregression, which for a while seemed THE method to measure integration (Federico 2012). He published several articles on transatlantic integration, exploring other methods of measurement (Ejrnæs, Persson, Rich 2008, Ejrnæs and Persson 2010) but also cautioning against too hasty inferences from data (Persson 2004). Above all he blended his two major research interest, on pre-modern Europe and market integration in a major book, Grain Markets in Europe 1500-1900 (Persson 1999). There he argued convincingly, with a nice combination of measurement, economic analysis and sifting of contemporary sources, that the ‘modern’ market integration substituted the ‘traditional’ market intervention and regulation as a way to dampen welfare-reducing price fluctuations.

Thus, pursuing a coherent scientific agenda,  he anticipated and shaped scholarly debate on two issues, early modern European economic history and market integration, which are now among the hottest topic in analytical economic history but were by then rather neglected by cliometricians  But he did two other major services to the profession.

First, he spotted a big gap in the literature, the lack of a good textbook on the  economic history of Europe.  He took a bold approach: he wrote a concise book suitable to teach economists who needed the big picture in their jargon without too many details (Persson 2013) .  The book was a hit and it is now in its second edition, which has softened somewhat its original uncompromising stance.

 The second contribution was its role in the birth and early years of the European Historical Economics Society. Gunnar himself has written a detailed account of the process (EHES) which however downplays his role.  Without his drive, and his successful fund-raising, the first congress of the EHES would not have been held, and it is likely that the initiative would have withered. Likewise, a few years later he was instrumental in kick-starting the European Review of Economic History. He served with Vera Zamagni and Tim Hatton as its first editors and, in spite of the scarce number of early submissions, they succeeded in setting a high quality standard, which has propelled the Review to the current rank as one of the top world journals in the field.  This success seemed unthinkable at the beginning. Many prominent scholars were doubtful about the chances of cliometrics in continental Europe, where ‘traditional’ economic  history still prevailed in terms of numbers of practitioners and  university legislation worked against new intellectual movements. Yet, they were proved wrong. Analytical economic history is thriving in Europe, within the limit of budget constraints which are hitting universities in many countries, and Gunnar was instrumental  in achieving all this.

Gunnar retired from teaching in 2013 and the event was marked by a small but very interesting conference in Copenhagen, which ended with a presentation by him about the transformation of the Department  of Economics in Copenhagen from a ‘traditional’ teaching department focused on Danish economics in an international theory-oriented one (alas, with little room for economic history).  But he did not retire from the profession.  The last time we met, he told me that he had just completed and submitted two papers; one on the demography of Buriano with Mette Ejrnæs, and another on measuring pre-industrial economic growth from changes in occupational structure with Christian Groth.  It is a pity that he did not have the opportunity to see them published. But it much more of a pity that he is no longer with us, with his booming laughter, his wise advice and his sharp mind.
This blog post was written by Giovanni Federico,
professor of Economic History, University of Pisa

Clark Gregory (2007) A farewell to alms. A brief economic history of the world.Princeton:Princeton University Press
Ejrnæs, Mette and Karl Gunnar Persson (2000), “Market integration and transport costs in France 1825-1903: a threshold error correction approach to the Law of One Price.” Explorations in economic history, 37, pp. 149-173.
Ejrnæs Mette, Karl Gunnar Persson and Søren Rich (2008) ‘Feeding the British: convergence and market efficiency in the nineteenth century grain trade’ Economic History Review 61  S1 pp.140-171
Federico Giovanni (2012) ‘How much do we know about market integration in Europe?’, Economic history review, 65,  pp. 470-497
Fouquet Roger and Stephen Broadberry (2015)  ‘Seven centuries of European economic growth and decline’ Journal of economic perspectives 29, pp.227-244
Jorberg Lennart (1972) A history of prices in Sweden 1732-1914, Lund:CWK Gleerup
Persson Karl Gunnar (1988) Pre-industrial economic growth: social organization and technical progress in Europe Oxford: Blackwell
Persson Karl Gunnar (1999) Grain markets in Europe 1500-1900 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Persson Karl Gunnar (2004) ‘Mind the gap! Transport costs and price convergence in the nineteenth century Atlantic economy’ European Review of Economic History 8  pp.125-147
Persson Karl Gunnar (2008) ‘The Malthus delusion’ European Review of Economic history, 12 pp. 165-17
Persson Karl Gunnar (2013) An economic history of Europe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; second edition (with Paul Sharp) 2015

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Karl Gunnar Persson has passed away

Professor Karl Gunnar Persson
This morning I was reached by the sad news that professor Karl Gunnar Persson has left us. He was one of the founders of the European Historical Economics Society, its first president and the first editor of the European Review of Economic History.

More importantly Karl Gunnar Persson was one of the warmest and kindest professors I have ever met. He combined friendliness with intelligence and humour. He was always helpful to his younger colleagues and inspired us by showing his passion for economic history. His work on economic history included various aspects of market integration, trade and long-run growth. In his latest work he suggested a new approach to analyse income growth in pre-industrial Britain by changes in occupational structure. 

Karl Gunnar recently updated his leading text book on the Economic History of Europe 600 to the present. The analysis was sharp and elegant, as in all of Karl Gunnar's work.

Karl Gunnar Persson (right) at the EHES conference in Pisa 2015.
I was in contact with Karl Gunnar just some week ago when I asked him whether he would like to write something about the 100th working paper being published in the EHES working paper series. As usual, Karl Gunnar was quick to respond and had produced a witty and intelligent text in no time at all. Read his blog post here.

I am certain that Karl Gunnar will be greatly missed by the members of European Historical Economics Society, by his colleagues and by his many friends. Speaking for myself, I know I certainly will. 

This blog post was written by Kerstin Enflo.