Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Some Difficulties with Sunspots and Mr Macleod: Adding to the Bibliography of W.S. Jevons

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Some Difficulties with Sunspots and Mr Macleod: Adding to the Bibliography of W.S. Jevons

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper discusses and reprints two additions to the bibliography of published works by W. Stanley Jevons. The first, concerning Jevons's sunspot theory of commercial fluctuations, is a signed letter, published by the Athenaeum in February 1879. The second item is a review of the first volume of Henry Dunning Macleod's Economical Philosophy, published by the Manchester Guardian in June 1873. Unlike the sunspots letter, the review was unsigned. I suggest, however, that it can be attributed to Jevons with a high degree of probability and that it helps explain some puzzling aspects of Jevons's comments regarding Macleod in his Theory of Political Economy.

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The recent bibliography of published works by W. Stanley Jevons compiled by Takutoshi Inoue and myself adds further information to a number of known entries and identifies six new items (Inoue and White 2002). (1) The purpose of this article is to identify two additional entries. The first, considered in Section 1, concerns Jevons's sunspot theory of commercial fluctuations. It is a signed letter, reprinted here as Appendix 1, published by the Athenaeum in February 1879, where Jevons defended his switch in dating the sunspot period by referring to the work of the meteorologist, J.A. Broun. The second item, considered in Section 2, requires a more detailed discussion. It is a review of the first volume of Henry Dunning Macleod's Economical Philosophy (Macleod 1872), published by the Manchester Guardian in June 1873 and reprinted here as Appendix 2. Unlike the sunspots letter, the review was unsigned. I suggest, however, that it can be attributed to Jevons with a high degree of probability. After some preliminary remarks regarding Jevons's published comments about Macleod, Section 2.1 discusses the review, showing the degree of congruence with Jevons's comments elsewhere in his work. Section 2.2 then considers two possible criticisms of the attribution. The conclusion shows how the review helps explain some puzzling aspects of Jevons's comments regarding Macleod in his Theory of Political Economy (TPE).

1 The Athenaeum Letter

Following the failure of his first attempt in 1875 to explain commercial fluctuations in terms of sunspots, Jevons presented a revised story in a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1878. He followed that with an article, published in November by Nature, amplifying his analysis. (2) The 1878 argument differed from the initial analysis in two ways. First, Jevons argued that the link between sunspots and European commercial fluctuations was via the demand in 'tropical and sub-tropical regions' (especially India and China) for European exports. In 1875, the posited link was via European harvests. Second, in 1875, Jevons used an average sunspot period of 11.1 years, as calculated by the astronomer, J.R. Wolf. In 1878, Jevons argued that the average period was 10.45 years, referring to the calculations of J.A. Broun. The argument was highly questionable, as Jevons acknowledged both that his dating of a number of commercial crises was suspect and that the crises 'recur more regularly on the whole than the maxima and minima of sun-spots' (Jevons 1884, p. 234). (3)

Critical responses were published by the Economist and The Times in January 1879. Both were unsigned, although the astronomer and journalist, R.A. Proctor, subsequently identified himself as the author of The Times critique. (4) Proctor argued that, taking Jevons's dating of commercial fluctuations as given, crises should occur 'within a year or so' of spot minima. There was, however, no such systematic relationship, and some crises were associated with spot maxima. While there was no printed response from Jevons to the Economist article, he quickly replied to Proctor's critique in a letter to The Times. (5) He argued, not unreasonably, that because the link between spots and crises was via the tropical regions, the lag would be 'a good many years' and hence longer than that suggested by Proctor (Black 1973-81, v, p. …

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