April 01, 2019

By Bruce Beans

No doubt you are familiar with the history of the colonization of America; the American, French and Bolshevik revolutions; the Civil War; and the Great Depression. But how much do you know about the economics underpinning these historical watersheds?

Just ask the first students to take Assistant Professor of Economics Theresa Finley’s economic history class, a course rarely offered at the undergraduate level. “We look at major historical episodes and talk about the causes and consequences of them from an economics framework,” she says. “My students this spring have really taken what they’ve learned in their economic principles classes and applied those concepts to historical events.”

Finley, a Yorktown, Virginia, native, assumed she would get an economics policy job in nearby Washington, D.C., after earning her bachelor’s degree in economics from James Madison University in 2010. “But the recession’s effects were still terrible,” she recalls. “I joked that ‘I have an economics degree, so I know exactly why I can’t find a job.’”

Instead, she pursued a master’s degree in economics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, then her Ph.D. from George Mason University (GMU), which she earned two years ago.

“I took an economics class at GMU on analytical narratives, which partially involved history, and that made me realize you could study and apply economics to everything that has happened in the past,” says the documentary-watching, self-described history nerd.

Finley’s doctoral dissertation included such topics as the effects of land redistribution as a result of the French Revolution and the economic factors that contributed to thousands of Jews being burned alive during the mid-1300s in the Holy Roman Empire.

Written with Associate Professor Mark Koyama, her doctoral advisor at GMU, Finley’s essay, Plague, Politics and Pogroms: The Black Death, Rule of Law, and the Persecution of Jews in the Holy Roman Empire, was published last May in the Journal of Law and Economics. Her conclusion: Jewish people, who were scapegoated as disseminators of the plague, were less likely to be persecuted where the emperor exerted strong control because taxes on Jewish moneylenders were an important revenue source.

Finley is now researching why agricultural colonies the French government established in 19th-century Algeria failed.

“I know that 99.9% of my students are not going to do work in economic history,” Finley acknowledges. “But if you can look at historical episodes thought to be driven by revolutions, politics and religion and can find the economics involved, you’re more likely to be able to find the constraints, or lack of constraints, that people are facing when you’re making business decisions.”