On Borjas, Data and More Data

I see my craft as an economic historian as a dual mission. The first is to answer historical question by using economic theory (and in the process enliven economic theory through the use of history). The second relates to my obsessive-compulsive nature which can be observed by how much attention and care I give to getting the data right. My co-authors have often observed me “freaking out” over a possible improvement in data quality or be plagued by doubts over whether or not I had gone “one assumption too far” (pun on a bridge too far). Sometimes, I wish more economists would follow my historian-like freakouts over data quality. Why?

Because of this!

In that paper, Michael Clemens (whom I secretly admire – not so secretly now that I have written it on a blog) criticizes the recent paper produced by George Borjas showing the negative effect of immigration on wages for workers without a high school degree. Using the famous Mariel boatlift of 1980, Clemens basically shows that there were pressures on the US Census Bureau at the same time as the boatlift to add more black workers without high school degrees. This previously underrepresented group surged in importance within the survey data. However since that underrepresented group had lower wages than the average of the wider group of workers without high school degrees, there was an composition effect at play that caused wages to fall (in appearance). However, a composition effect is also a bias causing an artificial drop in wages and this drove the results produced by Borjas (and underestimated the conclusion made by David Card in his original paper to which Borjas was replying).

This is cautionary tale about the limits of econometrics. After all, a regression is only as good as the data it uses and suited to the question it seeks to answer. Sometimes, simple Ordinary Least Squares are excellent tools. When the question is broad and/or the data is excellent, an OLS can be a sufficient and necessary condition to a viable answer. However, the narrower the question (i.e. is there an effect of immigration only on unskilled and low-education workers), the better the method has to be. The problem is that the better methods often require better data as well. To obtain the latter, one must know the details of a data source. This is why I am nuts over data accuracy. Even small things matter – like a shift in the representation of blacks in survey data – in these cases. Otherwise, you end up with your results being reversed by very minor changes (see this paper in Journal of Economic Methodology for examples).

This is why I freak out over data. Maybe I can make two suggestions about sharing my freak-outs.

The first is to prefer a skewed ratio of data quality to advanced methods (i.e. simple methods with crazy-data). This reduces the chances of being criticized for relying on weak assumptions. The second is to take a leaf out of the book of the historians. While historians are often averse to advantaged data techniques (I remember a case when I had to explain panel data regressions to historians which ended terribly for me), they are very respectful of data sources. I have seen historians nurture datasets for years before being willing to present them. When published, they generally stand up to scrutiny because of the extensive wealth of details compiled.

That’s it folks.

 

From the Comments: Naval Power and Trade

This is an extremely interesting point, the worth of fighting pirates and guerre de course seems difficult but is completely worth the effort. Strangely, just before reading this post, I finished the book To Rule The Waves by Arthur Herman, which asserts that the rise of large-scale trade went hand in hand with the growth of British naval strength, and points very specifically to the 18th and 19th centuries. On page 402, he asserts that it was only naval protection that enabled British trade to grow considerably during the Napoleonic wars (over 11,000 British merchants were captured by the French from 1793-1815 and far more would have been but for the British blockades and convoy protection). How much can one measure the cost-to-yield of maintaining peaceful trade against such depredation?

Herman also argues that Naval research and technology drove the development of far better seagoing technologies without which large-scale merchant ventures would have had far lower yield (perhaps the most famous example is the Longitude Prize) and the demand for iron and ship production was a major driver of the early Industrial Revolution. While I think that both of these arguments are very vulnerable to crowding out arguments, it seems to me that there were nuanced interconnections between technology, trade, and naval power that each had positive feedback into the others. It seems to me that by examining the very large investment made by the British East India Company in their merchant marine in this very period gives a parallel in which private interests made similar investments in protection of sea trade routes, showing its probable positive return on investment.

I am glad to see that you have recognized that naval production was almost always based on relative strengths of navies. The huge decomissioning trends of the mid-19th century in Britain was exceeded by that of their enemies/rivals (the Dutch had been weak since the late 1600s, the French were exhausted completely, and the Spanish and Portuguese were on a long decline worsened by French occupation). However, there is one major aspect to consider in examining naval strength longitudinally: complete revolution in ship technology. Steam, iron plating, and amazing advances in artillery picked up hugely after 1815, and the British navy in the Crimean War would have been unrecognizable to Nelson. I am not sure how this would affect your analysis, because navies became simultaneously more expensive and more effective, and GDP was exploding fast enough to support such high-tech advances without bankrupting the Brits. I am sure this is not an original problem, but I am interested in seeing how historical economists can control for such changes.

Good luck on this paper, it seems like an extremely useful examination with a lot of interesting complications and a fundamentally important commentary on the balance between maintaining law and allowing market determination of resource distribution.

This is from my fellow Notewriter Kevin on another fellow Notewriter’s (Vincentrecent post about shipping and imperial navies.

A short note on Brazil’s present political predicament

This Wednesday, O Globo, one of the newspapers of greater audience in Brazil, leaked information obtained by the Federal Policy implicating president Michel Temer and Senator Aécio Neves in a corruption scandal. Temer was recorded supporting a bribe for former congressman Eduardo Cunha, now under arrest, so that Cunha would not give further information for the police. Aécio, president of PSDB (one of the main political parties in Brazil), was recorded asking for a bribe from a businessman from JBS, a company in the food industry. The recordings were authorized by the judiciary and are part of the Operation Lava Jato.

In the last few years Oparation Lava Jato, commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro and inspired by the Italian Oparation Clean Hands, brought to justice some of the most important politicians in Brazil, including formed president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. However, supporters of president Lula, president Dilma and their political party (PT) complained that Moro and his team were politically biased, going after politicians from the left, especially PT, and never form the right – especially PSDB. PSDB is not actually a right-wing party, if we consider right wing only conservatives and libertarians. PSDB, as it name implies, is a social democratic party, i.e., a left wing one. However, since the late 1980s and especially mid-1990s, PSDB is the main political adversary for PT, creating a complicated scenario that PT usually explores politically in its own benefit. In any way, it is clear now (although hardcore Lula supporters will not see this) that Operation Lava Jato is simply going after corrupt politicians, regardless if their political parties or ideologies.

With president Michel Temer directly implicated in trying to stop Operation Lava Jato, his government, that already lacked general public support, is held by a string. Maybe Temer will resign. Other possibility is that the Congress will start an impeachment process, such as happened with Dilma Rousseff just a year ago. In one way or another, the Congress will have to call for a new presidential election, albeit an indirect one: the Congress itself will elect a new president and virtually anyone with political rights in Brazil can be candidate. This new president would govern only until next year, completing the term started by Dilma Rousseff in 2014. There is also another possibility in the horizon: the presidential ticket that brought both Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer to Brasília is under investigation and it is possible that next June Temer will be declared out of office by the electoral justice.

Politicians from the left, especially REDE and PSOL, want a new presidential election with popular vote. In case Temer simply resigns or is impeached, this would require an amendment to the already tremendously amended Brazilian constitution. This new election might benefit Marina Silva, virtual candidate for REDE and forerunner in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections. Without a solid candidate, it is possible that PSOL will support Marina, or at least try a ticket with her. A new presidential election with popular vote could also benefit Lula, still free, but under investigation by Moro and his team. Few people doubt that Lula will be in jail very soon, unless he escapes to the presidential palace where he would have special forum.

Temer already came to public saying that he will not resign. Although a corrupt, as it is clear now, Temer was supporting somewhat pro-market reforms in Brazil. In his current political predicament it is unlikely that he will be able to conduct any reform. The best for Brazil is that Temer resigns as soon as possible and that the Congress elects equally fast a new president, someone with little political connections but able to run the government smoothly until next year. Unfortunately, any free market reform would have to wait, but it would also give time for libertarian, classical liberal and conservative groups to grow support for free market ideas among the voters until the election. A new presidential election with popular vote would harm everyone: it would be the burial of democratic institutions in Brazil. Brazil needs to show the World that it has institutions that are respected, and to which people can hold in times of trouble, when the politicians behave as politicians do.

Can we trust US interwar inequality figures?

This question is the one that me and Phil Magness have been asking for some time and we have now assembled our thoughts and measures in the first of a series of papers. In this paper, we take issue with the quality of the measurements that will be extracted from tax records during the interwar years (1918 to 1941).

More precisely, we point out that tax rates at the federal level fluctuated wildly and were at relatively high levels. Since most of our inequality measures are drawn from the federal tax data contained in the Statistics of Income, this is problematic. Indeed, high tax rates might deter honest reporting while rapidly changing rates will affect reporting behavior (causing artificial variations in the measure of market income). As such, both the level and the trend of inequality might be off.  That is our concern in very simple words.

To assess whether or not we are worrying for nothing, we went around to find different sources to assess the robustness of the inequality estimates based on the federal tax data. We found what we were looking for in Wisconsin whose tax rates were much lower (never above 7%) and less variable than those at the federal levels. As such, we found the perfect dataset to see if there are measurement problems in the data itself (through a varying selection bias).

From the Wisconsin data, we find that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the existing inequality measured based on federal tax data. The comparison of the IRS data for Wisconsin with the data from the state income tax shows a different pattern of evolution and a different level (especially when deductions are accounted for). First of all, the level is always inferior with the WTC data (Wisconsin Tax Commission). Secondly, the trend differs for the 1930s.

Table1 for Blog

I am not sure what it means in terms of the true level of inequality for the period. However, it suggests that we ought to be careful towards the estimations advanced if two data sources of a similar nature (tax data) with arguably minor conceptual differences (low and stable tax rates) tell dramatically different stories.  Maybe its time to try to further improve the pre-1945 series on inequality.

A short note on the Trump-Russia scandal

This whole thing is much ado about nothing.

Intelligence sharing in regards to the global war on Islamic peoples terrorism has been an ongoing affair for numerous states since the collapse of socialism in 1989. Russia, the US, Europe, Israel, states in the Near East, and China have all shared intelligence in this regard.

Here’s what’s happening in the US: the American Left needs a foreign boogeyman to harp on the Right. The Right uses Muslims, immigrants, and China to harp on the Left, but the Left counters with charges of racism and xenophobia. The Left still needs a foreign boogeyman (voters love foreign scapegoats) and Russia’s political class is white, conservative, and Christian. Traditionally (at least in my time) the Left’s foreign boogeyman has been Israel and its political class (white and conservative but not Christian), but populism in Russia has produced a product that the American left just couldn’t resist.

This is a boring scandal.

(Reminder: I’m not a Trump supporter.)

Empire effects : the case of shipping

I have been trying, for some time now, to circle an issue that we can consider to be a cousin of the emerging “state capacity” literature (see Mark Koyama’s amazing summary here). This cousin is the literature on “empire effects” (here and here for examples).

The core of the “empire effect” claim is that empires provide global order which we can consider as a public good. A colorful image would be the British Navy roaming the seas in the 19th century which meant increased protection for trade. This is why it is a parent of the state capacity argument in the sense that the latter concept refers (broadly) to the ability of a state to administer the realm within its boundaries. The empire effect is merely the extension of these boundaries.

I still have reservations about the nuances/limitations of state capacity as an argument to explain economic growth. After all, the true question is not how states consolidate, but how they create constraints on rulers to not abuse the consolidated powers (which in turn generates room for growth). But, it is easy to heavily question its parent: the empire effect.

This is what I am trying to do in a recent paper on the effects of empire on shipping productivity between 1760 and 1860.

Shipping is one of the industry that is most likely to be affected by large empires – positively or negatively. Indeed, the argument for empire effects is that they protect trade. As such, the British navy in the 19th century protected trade and probably helped the shipping industry become more productive. But, achieving empire comes at a cost. For example, the British navy needed to grow very large in size and it had to employ inputs from the private sector thus crowding-it out. In a way, if a security effect from empire emerged as a benefit, there must have been a cost. The cost we wish to highlight is the crowding-out one.

In the paper (written with Jari Eloranta of Appalachian State University and Vadim Kufenko of University of Hohenheim), I argue that, using the productivity of the Canadian shipping industry which was protected by the British Navy, the security effect from a large navy was smaller than the crowding-out from high-levels of expenditures on the navy.

While it is still a working paper which we are trying to expand and improve, our point is that what allowed the productivity of the Canadian shipping industry (which was protected by Britain) to soar was that the British Navy grew smaller in absolute terms. While the growth of the relative strength of the British Navy did bolster productivity in some of our tests, the fact that the navy was much smaller was the “thing in the mix that did the trick”.  In other words, the empire effect is just the effect of a ramping-down in military being presented as something else than it truly is (at least partly).

That’s our core point. We are still trying to improve it and (as such) comments are welcomed.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The demise of ISIS is greatly exaggerated. Good analysis, but Whiteside is still asking the wrong question
  2. 10% of DR Congo’s landmass is dedicated to national parks and other protected environmental areas. Guess how well they’re protected. Privatization might not work here, though. Why not go through traditional “tribal” property rights first, and then, eventually, mix up the customary land rights with private property rights?
  3. Has Stephen Walt been reading reading NOL? This great essay suggests he has…
  4. Russian politics. Authoritarian regimes have factions, too