Ian Kumekawa is a Prize Fellow in Economics, History and Politics at the Center for History and Economics. I obtained my PhD in History at Harvard University in 2020, my MPhil at the University of Cambridge in 2013 and my A.B. at Harvard College in 2012. My work focuses on the history of economic thinking, imperial statecraft, and global capitalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I am also interested in the history of bureaucracy and the digitial humanities, especially network visualizations.
My book, The First Serious Optimist (Princeton University Press, 2017) examines the intellectual origins of welfare economics, focusing specifically on its founder, Cambridge economist A.C. Pigou (1877-1959). Pigou was one of the twentieth century's most important and original thinkers. Though long overshadowed by his intellectual rival John Maynard Keynes, he was instrumental in focusing economics on the public welfare and his reputation is experiencing a well-deserved renaissance today, in part because his idea of "externalities" or spillover costs is the basis of carbon taxes. The First Serious Optimist tells how Pigou reshaped the way the public thinks about the economic role of government and the way economists think about the public good. It was co-awarded the 2017 Joseph J. Spengler Best Book Prize from the History and Economics Society. You can read the introduction here.
I am currently working on two other book projects. The first project explores the world of offshore capitalism over the last forty years. The book, entitled An Empty Vessel, presents a history of global political economy in the late 20th century, centered on a single barge. Owned by a Norwegian billionaire, a Liverpool shipping firm, and a host of shell companies, the barge has had many lives. It was a service ship for offshore oil rigs in the North Sea, a troopship in the Falklands, a floating jail moored off of Lower Manhattan, a prison in England, and a collateralized asset in Nigeria. Repeatedly reflagged, including in Caribbean tax havens, it was remortgaged and resold, the subject of commercial arbitration and legal disputes around the world. Its story reflects the growth of the offshore postcolonial world. Through a variety of sources, including oral histories, legal documents, and archival records, An Empty Vessel brings intellectual and legal historical methods to the history of capitalism. It tells the story of the neoliberal transformation of the economy through the narrative of a ship and the thousands of people who were berthed and incarcerated on it, foregrounding the hidden material infrastructures that have enabled globalization.
My third book project, which grows out of my PhD dissertation, focuses on the history of the state as an economic actor. Imperial Schemes: Empire and the Rise of the British Business-State, 1914-1939 narrates the cultural capture of the imperial British state by big business in the early 20th century. During and after World War I, British businessmen made major inroads in political, administrative, and policymaking circles. In so doing, they forged a nexus of power that aligned the global commercial interests of British business with the state’s geopolitical aspirations. Supporting British economic health, especially through export industries, was seen as an imperial and global task. Leveraging the empire, businessmen and sympathetic administrators pushed the state to actively promote business interests around the world, purportedly in the interest of the polity. Britain, self-identified as a liberal democracy par excellence, was also an exemplary business-state, in which there was no bright line between public and private. Covering topics from forestry to finance, arms control to advertising, my work explores how imperial dreams of commercial power drove the rapid expansion of the British administrative state. It does so by examining how overlooked mid-level officials conceptualized their own roles in managing the imperial economy. By treating these officials as serious economic thinkers and using network visualizations to map the structure of public-private administration, the project pioneers new techniques in analyzing the state.