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In tribute: Paul Allan David, 1935-2023

Paul Allan David, one of the founders of SIEPR, has died at 87. He established Stanford as a leading center for economic history, writes longtime colleague Gavin Wright.

Paul Allan David died on Jan. 23, 2023, at his home in Palo Alto, at the age of 87.

Paul was an economic historian, a powerful figure in redefining that field, whose research interests and influence ultimately ranged far beyond his original specialties. Influenced by his father Henry David, a distinguished historian of the American labor movement, Paul studied both parent disciplines even as an undergraduate at Harvard (1952-1956). Thus he became an early practitioner of what was then known as the New Economic History, now more often called Cliometrics — understanding historical economies through rigorously specified models and quantitative evidence. But Paul possessed far more historical sensibility than most cliometricians, cultivated during his postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge (1956-1958). Returning to Harvard, Paul worked with Alexander Gerschenkron, pursuing an ambitious thesis project on the economic history of Chicago. Harvard awarded him a PhD in 1973, not because he had completed the dissertation, but because by then he had compiled such an extensive publication record that they felt he had earned the degree!

Paul came to Stanford in 1961, in a cohort featuring Takeshi Amemiya, Mordecai Kurz, and Ronald McKinnon. Even without a PhD, he advanced to Associate and then full Professor of Economics, plus a courtesy appointment in History. Serving as chair of the Department of Economics from 1979 to 1983, Paul was infamous in the dean’s office for his vigorous advocacy of the department’s interests. As chair, he was one of the founders of SIEPR (then named CEPR with the same pronunciation), which recently celebrated 40 years of promoting rigorous nonpartisan economic policy research.

Perhaps Paul’s deepest legacy for the department was establishing Stanford as a leading center for economic history. The patriarch for the field was Moe Abramovitz, who remained active in both research and the workshop long after his retirement in 1979. But it was Paul who recruited or helped to recruit Nate Rosenberg, Gavin Wright (me), Avner Greif, and Ran Abramitzky — to name only those who became full professors of economics. We claim that there are more active economic historians from Stanford than from any other program. A much larger number of graduate students did not become history specialists but were exposed to Paul’s perspective through his teaching or that of his colleagues. We like to think that some of this historical thinking rubbed off and became something of a hallmark for a Stanford economics PhD.

Always an economic historian, Paul soon extended his horizons in diverse and seemingly disparate ways. He became a strong advocate of the view that historical research should be fundamental to the economics discipline; in brief — “history matters.” The essence of the argument was captured by Paul’s incisive account of the persistence of the QWERTY typewriter keyboard despite its technical disadvantages, one of the most cited articles in all of economics (American Economic Review, 1985). “History Matters” is the title of a festschrift presented by a group of Paul’s former students in 2004, in which the editors write: “No scholar has more forcefully and influentially argued the case for making economics a truly historical social science — one that, like evolutionary biology, gives past events a central role in understanding the present.”

A continuing focus throughout Paul’s career was the diffusion of new technologies. An important early paper considered the adoption of the mechanical reaper in the American Midwest. Its invention occurred in the 1830s, yet the first wave of adoption occurred only in the 1850s. The 20-year delay, according to Paul, was explained by the fact that a minimum scale was required to cover the fixed costs of purchasing the reaper. Only when farm size passed this “threshold” did mechanization make economic sense. Specialists have debated the specifics ever since, but the basic form of Paul’s diffusion model has been highly influential. In many respects it formalized the accounts of delayed diffusion presented by our late colleague Nate Rosenberg, and thus became something of a “Stanford school” of thought in this area. Scrolling forward to 1990, the era of the “Solow paradox,” Paul offered an analogy between the delayed productivity effects of computer technology and a similar lag in the impact of electrification between the 1880s and the 1920s. With the IT-driven productivity surge of the late 1990s, this article also attained iconic status (AER, 1990).

This line of inquiry led Paul into an extensive engagement with policy issues related to science and technology, such as the role of interoperability standards in the evolution of network industries. He was particularly active in Europe. Although Paul maintained his Stanford affiliation throughout his lifetime, beginning in 1993 he spent about half his time at All Souls College, moving to the Oxford Internet Institute from 2002 to 2008. From his Oxford base, Paul was a frequent participant in European networks dealing with the promotion and regulation of information technologies. His European colleagues presented Paul with a second festschrift in 2006, entitled: New Frontiers in the Economics of Innovation and New Technology.

These specialties would constitute an ample intellectual legacy for a normal scholar, but for Paul, they are only one component of a much larger total. He also made significant contributions to historical demography, macroeconomics and growth accounting, natural resources, slavery, migration, and climate change, among others.

Paul’s academic honors are too numerous to be listed in full, but they include: Fellow of the Econometric Society; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge; President of the Economic History Association; President of the Western Economic Association International.

Paul married Janet M. Williamson in 1958. They later divorced. He married Sheila Ryan Johansson in 1982. Paul is survived by four children: Rachel, Matthew, Kenneth, and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren. Paul’s family has suggested that contributions in Paul’s memory can be made to the American Civil Liberties Union or to Doctors Without Borders.

Gavin Wright is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History, Emeritus, in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, and a senior fellow, emeritus, at SIEPR. He co-authored multiple studies with David.

To learn more about Paul David and his contributions, read the obituaries published by the Stanford School of Humanities and Science and in the Wall Street Journal.

This tribute was originally published on Jan. 27 by the Stanford Department of Economics.

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