Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nebraska, The Good Life

We spent the last week in Kearney, NE visiting family. Kearney is easy to find; it is at the bottom of where the Platte dips south. 

My parents were both from Nebraska. We lived in south central Nebraska until we moved to San Francisco when I was 10. My brother moved back after high school and my parents moved back after my dad retired from the Coast Guard.  I know many people consider Nebraska to be the middle of nowhere, which would make Kearney the middle of the middle of nowhere, but it is actually a great place to visit for anyone interested in American history.

This week Mary and I went to the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. Some things I learned on this trip
1.       The first African American to play football at the University of Nebraska, George Flippin was the son of a former slave who had become a physician. George Flippin also became a physician and founded the first hospital in Stromsburg, NE.

2.       The first “successful” sugar beet processing plant in the U.S. was established in Grand Island in 1889.

3.       Plains Indians used old ledgers to create art. Here is a website with some examples

Here is a video that will give you an idea of how much there is to see at the Stuhr Museum.

If you are in the area you can also go about ten miles south of I 80 to Minden, NE and see Pioneer Village. Here is a video that gives a small sample of the things you can see at Pioneer Village.

If you are traveling through Nebraska either museum is worth the detour. 

If you are interested in the history of the Great Plains they are worth a trip.

P.S. the "Kear" in Kearney is pronounced like "car." 

The Golden Age of Economic History?

At Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen responded to a reader:

C. inquires:
Why do we live in the golden age of economic history? Was there something identifiable that caused the subfield to grow in esteem? Some new technology that changed the costs of research (not that I can see)? Something else?
Mark Koyama should write a Medium essay on this, but in the meantime here are my thoughts:
1. We now know much, much more about the earlier economic histories of China, India, and some other locales.  The rise of more and better graduate students from the emerging economies, or for that matter from Europe, has been essential here.
2. Some of the turn toward economic history came with the financial crisis, and the search for longer-term parallels, which meant looking back in history, most of all to the Great Depression.
3. Although the advance of cliometrics started a long time ago, we are now finally at intergenerational margins where economic historians are as quantitatively well-equipped as most parts of the applied micro spectrum.
4. The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding.  Yes, this one is an uh-oh.
5. Some applied micro fields have become a little more boring, so that has helped a partial shift of status to economic history.  Public data sets have been exhausted, and a lot of economic history data sets are “weird or idiosyncratic” data sets, which now are “in” and I predict will stay “in” for a long while to come because they offer the possibilities of both new discoveries and moats.
6. An academic trend that hasn’t yet been exploited usually ends up exploited, sooner or later, once the right nudge comes along.
5b, 6b. In chess, the top players are opting for the Giuoco Piano once again.
7. Competing economic models are more “allowed” in the subfield — not everything must be neoclassical — which has opened economic historians to more wide-ranging questions.  Economic history remains a good place to pursue the questions about economics that initially interested many people as undergraduates.
8. Academic attention is more media-driven these days, and good economic history papers usually have a story of some kind, and perhaps also a historical personage, event, or institution of broader interest.

The post prompted a lot of discussion on Twitter. My initial response to the question is

1.       While I often argue that economic history is doing very well, I’m not sure that this is the golden age. There is a lot of great work going on in economic history. Economic historians are doing well at publishing in top journals, and many of the top econ programs have strong fields in economic history. On the other hand, there are still not a lot of economic history jobs in JOE. The problem with a golden age is that it seems to imply that this is as good as it gets. I would still like to see more jobs in economic history, more students studying economic history, and a wider audience for good economic history. I would like for economic history to be more widely regarded as central to the study of economics. At the very least, I would like to see Washington University, where I studied with Doug North and John Nye, have economic history as a field again.

2.       I think there has been an important technological change: the ability to take high quality digital photographs of archival documents. This change has benefited history generally, but economic history has probably benefited most. Archives used to be places where people scribbled notes (with pencils). You were limited by how much time you could afford to spend in the archive and how quickly you could scribble. Now, archives are places where people take pictures, which can at relatively low cost (thanks to software and the ability to offshore transcription) be converted into text or data that you can analyze. Creating useable data sets from primary sources is still difficult and time consuming, but less so than it used to be.

3.       I agree that the increase in the relative importance of empirical work in economics has benefited economic history. Donaldson’s Clark medal suggests a willingness to recognize good empirical work regardless of the time or place it examines.

4.       There is a lot of interest in questions that require us to look at history: long run growth, the productivity slow down, inequality, racism, and financial crises. Of course, these things can and should be analyzed with economic theory as well, but combined with the turn to empirical analysis they present an opportunity for economic history.

5.       There has been an increase in popular interest in economic history, but the work that has received the most attention (New History of Capitalism) has often done more to misinform than to educate. I hope an equivalent of Gresham’s law does not apply to economic history, but it remains to be seen.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Treasure Island

The New York Times reports on attempts to redevelop my old home. We moved to Treasure Island (T.I.) in 1973, when I was 10, and lived there until 1980. It was a Navy base, but most of it was occupied by housing for the families of enlisted men, mostly Navy, but also Coast Guard and Marines. Officers families lived on Yerba Buena Island. Yerba Buena Island (YBI), while Treasure  built for the Golden Gate Exposition, a fair to celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in 1939. TI was converted to a Navy base during the War. I don't remeber exactly when the base was decomissioned, but I think it was in the early '90s.

some interesting talks and a couple of articles

I’m surprised I had not come across these videos before. They are from a conference at Williams College on Historical Persistence in Comparative Development. This was the lineup for the conference

How Deep are the Roots of Economic Development?; Fertility and Modernity 
Enrico Spolaore, professor of economics at Tufts University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
Forced Coexistence and Economic Development: Evidence from Native American Reservations
Christian Dippel, assistant professor of economics in the Global Economics and Management Group at the UCLA Anderson School of Management
4:30 p.m. Climate and the Slave Trade
James Fenske, associate professor in the Department of Economics and deputy director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford
8 p.m. Keynote Address: The Global Spatial Distribution of Population and Economic Activity: Effects of Nature, History, and Agglomeration
David Weil, James and Meryl Tisch Professor of Economics at Brown University and research associate of the NBER
Engineers, Entrepreneurs, and Development in the Americas
William Maloney, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Economic Research Group, former professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The Effect of the TseTse Fly on African Development
Marcella Alsan, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, core faculty member at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy/Primary Care and Outcomes Research
Malthusian Dynamics and the Rise of the Poor Megacity
Dietrich Vollrath, associate professor of economics at the University of Houston
 “Unfinished Business”: Historic Complementaries, Political Competition, and Ethnic Violence in Gujarat
Saumitra Jha, associate professor of political economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business
The European Origins of Comparative Development
Ross Levine, Willis H. Booth Chair in Banking and Finance at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley
Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party
Nico Voigtländer, assistant professor of economics in the Global Economics and Management group at UCLA Anderson School of Management
The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa
Stelios Michalopoulous, assistant professor of economics at Brown University, faculty research fellow at the NBER, external research associate of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick
Intergenerational Mobility and Institutional Change in 20th Century China
Noam Yuchtman, assistant professor in the Business and Public Policy Group at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty research fellow at the NBER

The videos of the talks can be found here on youtube.

Here is Slave Consumption in the Old South: A Double Edged Sword by Kathleen Hilliard at the American Historian

Erik Hilt’s Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the “New History of Capitalism” in the June Journal of Economic History can be accessed for free until the end of June

Friday, June 9, 2017

Some Recent Economic History


At the Economics Detective Jari Eloranta talks about war in economic history, Nuno Palma talks about money, trade, and economic growth, and Mark Koyama on State Capacity

At Econtalk Christy Ford Chapin talks to Roberts about the economic history of health care in the United States.


At Tim Hyde describes the research of Hornbeck and Keniston on "Creative Destruction: Barriers to Urban Growth and the Great Boston Fire of 1872." June 2017 American Economic Review, 107(6): 1365-98

The most recent Journal of Economic Literature contains a review by Stanley Engerman of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Clavin Schermerhorn’s the Business of Slavery and the Rise of Capitalism. Pseudoerasmus noted on Twitter that Engerman is largely repeating what some of us have been saying for more two years now. Unfortunately, it appears that we need to keep repeating it. Too many historians continue to not only turn a blind eye to the shoddy work in Baptist’s book but to actually present it as an exemplar of historical research.


At NEP-HIS Blog Kenneth Pomeranz responds in two parts to the work of Deng and O’Brien on measuring economic performance in Chinese history.

Andrew Batson blogs that "the divergence over the Great divergence is narrowing"; he also provides a link to an April 2017 updated version of Broadberry, Guan and Li “China, Europe and the Great Divergence: A Study in Historical National Accounting, 980-1850

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Private provision of public goods

Maybe I am writing this too early in the morning to see what I am missing here. I really mean that . I feel like I must be missing something. Alex Tabarok argues at Cato Unbound that he has a private solution to the problem of public goods. The setup for his example is that there is a bridge that will cost $800 to build and will provide $100 benefit to each of ten people.

Now consider a dominant assurance contract. An entrepreneur agrees to produce the public good if and only if each of 10 people pay $80. If fewer than 10 people donate, the contract is said to fail and the entrepreneur agrees to give a refund bonus of $5 to each of the donors. Now imagine that potential donor A thinks that potential donor B will not donate. In that case, it makes sense for A to donate, because by doing so he will earn $5 at no cost. Thus any donor who thinks that the contract will fail has an incentive to donate. Doing so earns free money. As a result, it cannot be an equilibrium for more than one person to fail to donate. We have only one more point to consider. What if donor A thinks that every other donor will donate? In this case, A knows that if he donates he won’t get the refund bonus, since the contract will succeed. But he also knows that if he doesn’t donate he won’t get anything, but if does donate he will pay $80 and get a public good which is worth $100 to him, for a net gain of $20. Thus, A always has an incentive to donate. If others do not donate, he earns free money. If others do donate, he gets the value of the public good. Thus donating is a win-win, and the public good problem is solved.

The first part makes sense. If you do not think that others will donate, then it is clear that you should donate and get the refund plus the bonus. My problem is the second part in which he seeks to show that a person always has an incentive to donate by arguing that he also knows that if he doesn’t donate he won’t get anything, but if does donate he will pay $80 and get a public good which is worth $100 to him, for a net gain of $20. Thus, A always has an incentive to donate. Economists generally define a public good as one that is non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival means that your consumption does not diminish the benefit that I gain from the good. The non-excludable part means that once the public good is provided it is very costly to exclude people for consuming it. Fireworks displays provide a relatively obvious example.  The problem with Tabarrok’s argument is that if it is a public good A can use it even if he does not pay. If he believes enough others will contribute, his choice is between contribute $80 and get $100 benefit (net $20) or pay nothing and get $100 benefit (net $100).  If he does not get to use the bridge because he did not contribute that mean the good is excludable. Thus at least in this example the public good problem appears to be solved by assuming it away.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

McCurry on Slavery's Capitalism

Stephanie McCurry reviews Slavery’s Capitalism in the Times Literary Supplement. She raises interesting questions about the implications of the treatment of capitalism and slavery in the New History of Capitalism. I, however, find myself in pretty much complete disagreement with her about two of the essays.

She declares that

“Baptist's argument about enslaved labour in cotton "labor camps" as bodily torture is completely persuasive. Walter Johnson made a very similar case, also powerfully, in River of Dark Dreams (2012). There is nothing to argue with here. Neo-classical economic historians beg to differ and have taken Baptist to task, insisting that efficiencies were the result of the introduction of superior strains of cotton seed. That technical fight goes on, but it is largely beside the point.”

I can’t figure out what she could possibly mean by “beside the point.” Isn’t the point to create interpretations of the past based upon the available evidence? That is what “the Neo-classical economists” have done and Baptist has not. It has long been known that productivity in cotton production was increasing. Why? Olmstead and Rhode collected a large amount of evidence to try to answer the question. They concluded that slaveholders used violence to coerce maximum effort from slaves and then used innovation in seeds to increase the amount of cotton that could be produced from that maximum effort. McCurry seems to simply buy Baptist’s lie that Olmstead and Rhode, as well as other economists deny the role of violence in the system. I am not going to repeat all the elements of the argument here, but you can read my earlier blog post to see why I believe Baptist’s argument is about as far away from persuasive as an essay can get. The bottom line is that Baptistic history should never in anyway be encouraged. History needs a big sign that says “Do Not Feed the Baptist.”

McCurry also writes that

“Slaves were not compelled by the power of the dollar - that is to say of capital - but by the whip.”

The problem with this statement is that the first part is contradicted by a considerable amount of evidence. There is, of course, plenty of evidence that the second part it true: slaves were motivated by the whip. But there is also a lot of evidence rewards were used as well. I am sure that my saying this will be taken out of context by some people and used to show that economists don’t believe that slaves were tortured, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whipping and other forms of physical assault were obviously widely used. There is, however, plenty of evidence that rewards, including money, were used as well. See, for instance, Kathleen Hilliard’s Master, Slaves and Exchange. If I remember correctly A Slave No More also has an interesting description of an arrangement in which John Washington was hired out to a tobacco factory. His owner got a fixed payment, and Washington got a piece rate for everything that he produced above a specified amount. The point I am trying to make here is that, while we should never downplay the brutality of slavery, it is also a disservice to the history of African American people to deny the diversity of their experiences. Slave states occupied a very large territory with diverse environments. If you include the rest of the Americas the diversity is even greater. Slaves produced a wide array of crops, manufactured a variety of goods, and performed many different services. The one thing they all had in common is that they were not free. Even if they were well treated, continuing in that condition depended on the continuing goodwill of their master (not to mention his continuing good health and economic success).

McCurry finds Baptist persuasive, but when John Majewski asks

“why Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery if the South was as capitalist, modern, diversified, thriving and innovative as the North”

she finds that

The answer he offers is not only unpersuasive; it provides a good basis for the contrary view. The North, Majewski concludes, differed from even the most modern part of the South in one important respect: "the democratization of education and innovation". "Slavery created a political economy antithetical to long-term development", which explained why Northern Republicans fought the expansion of slavery into the territories. Far from securing the kind of material and ideological convergence that is crucial to slavery's capitalism, Majewski's argument, like Shankman's, seems to confirm that slavery could generate enormous profit for Northerners while retaining a distinct political economy that served as a brake on national capitalist development.

Majewski provides considerable evidence that even in areas along the border with very similar geography, slave states invested less in education and produced less innovation. He shows that Republicans were aware of these differences and regarded them negatively.
McCurry does not provide any evidence to contradict this argument. She declares that

the critical issue in 1860 was not that Republicans saw slavery as a problem, but that slaveholding Southerners saw free labour and industrial capitalism as an existential threat. The slaveholders had once called the shots in US politics. But by 1860 the slave South was not the leading edge of anything except pro-slavery nationalism. It seceded and provoked a civil war over the future of the nation and of slavery in it.

But wasn’t it both? If Republicans had not opposed the spread of slavery into new territories, would Southerners have viewed them as a threat to the existence of slavery?

Gavin Wright’s review for remains the most insightful review of Slavery’s Capitalism