World economic crises spur student interest
Jari Eloranta lives in one of the most interesting times for someone who is a business and economics historian.
Eloranta, who is an associate professor in Appalachian State University's Department of History, just turns to the daily papers or national newscasts for current topics to discuss in class.
"With the recent financial crises, we have become very popular," he said of academicians in his field. "People want to know where financial crises come from. When things go haywire, they want to know about the economic history of it. When things are OK, they forget that there is a history behind these kinds of phenomena."
In addition to asking about the Great Depression, Eloranta's students are interested in China's role in the world economy, the rising U.S. national debt and past boom and bust cycles in the U.S. economy.
"The patterns from the past often are applicable to current problems," he said. "While historians are typically reluctant to predict anything, they can say, here are some broad patterns where you can see what happened in the past."
For example, Eloranta points to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program, which was implemented to reduce the nation's economic depression.
"As a program, it didn't end the depression," Eloranta said. "However, the New Deal did provide relief to unemployment in some areas and created infrastructure, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and Blue Ridge Parkway, but historians would argue that World War II brought the United States out of the Depression."
Eloranta thinks the economic stimulus package implemented by the Obama administration was oversold and not as far reaching as it needed to be.
"But it would be have been hard to end the economic crises that we were going through," he said. "It is possible to cushion or alleviate some of the effects, but would have been hard to end it."
Another topic that concerns Eloranta's students is the growing U.S. deficit.
"We have seen deficits before. My message to students is to be careful what you hear reported on the various news outlets," he said. "The current U.S. level of debt isn't particularly alarming even compared to some of the European countries that have experienced economic challenges. The U.S. has a massive, very stable economy. Obviously, it's not good for a country to go deeply in debt. But if you look at the past, this is nothing particularly striking."
For example, Eloranta said the British Empire in the early 19th century amassed a massive debt estimated at more than 300 percent of the country's gross domestic product during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War. France had more modest debt levels toward the end to the 18th century, yet a revolution followed.
"It matters what kind of political system you have in place," he said. "If a country's political system is stable, it can sustain much more debt."
And China's rise as a super power is nothing new. "We look at past patterns of China's rise and fall as a superpower at the end of the 15th century," Eloranta said.
In addition to teaching, Eloranta is active in professional organizations dealing with economic and business history. He will chair the board of trustees of the Economic and Business Historical Society ( http://www.ebhsoc.org) for the next several years, offering guidance as to the society's conferences and overseeing other activities of the organization. He recently received the Editor's Award for his publications in the society's journal Essays in Economic and Business History. He is also the meetings coordinator for the Economic History Association.
At Appalachian, he coordinates the annual Spring Conference in World History and Economics.
"I'm a glutton for punishment, I guess," he said of his work outside the classroom. "I don't consider it time away from teaching and scholarship. It actually serves both areas because you are able to network with others in the field, promote your research and publications, and it gives students an opportunity to present their work at a professional conference."