Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!

Bryan Caplan is an optimist. He thinks that economists do many errors in estimating GDP (overall well-being). He is right in the sense that we are missing many dimensions of welfare improvements in the last half-century (see here, here and here). These errors in measurements lead us to hold incorrectly pessimistic views (such as those of Robert Gordon). However, Prof. Caplan seems to argue (I may be wrong) that all measurements problems and errors are greater than zero. In other words, they all cut in favor of omitting things. There are no reasons to believe this. Many measurement problems with GDP  data cut the other way – in favor of adding too much (so that the true figures are lower than the reported ones).

Here are two errors of importance (which are in no way exhaustive): household output and adjustments for household size.

Household Output

From the 1910s to the 1940s, married women began to enter moderately the workforce. This trickle became a deluge thereafter. National GDP statistics are really good at capturing the extra output they were hired to produce. However, national GDP statistics cannot net out the production that was foregone: household output.

A married woman in 1940 did produce something: child-rearing, house chores, cooking, allowing the husband to specialize in his work. That output had a value. Once offered the chance to work, married women thought the utility generated from producing “home outputs” was inferior to the utility generated from “market work”. However, the output that is measured is only related to market work. Women entered the labor force and everything they produced was considered a net addition to GDP. In reality, any economist worth his salt is aware that the true improvement in well-being is equal to the increased market output minus the forsaken house output. Thus, in a transition from a “male-labor force” to a “mixed labor force”, you are bound to overestimate output increases.

How big of an issue is this? Well, consider this paper from 1996 in Feminist Economics. In that paper, Barnet Wagman and Nancy Folbre calculate output in both the “household” and “market” sectors. They find that even very small changes in the relative size of these sectors alter growth rates by substantial margins. Another example, which I discussed in this blog post based on articles in the Review of Income and Wealth, is that when you make the adjustment over four decades of available Canadian data, you can find that one quarter of the increase in living standards is eliminated by the proper netting out of the value of non-market output. These are sizable measurement errors that cut in the opposite direction as the one hypothesized by prof. Caplan (and in favor of people like prof. Gordon).

Household Size

Changes in household sizes also create overestimation problems. Larger households have more economies of scale to exploit than smaller households so that an income of $10,000 per capita in a household of six members is superior in purchasing power than an income of $10,000 per capita in a single-person household. If, over time, you move from large households to small households, you will overestimate economic growth. In an article in the Scottish Journal of Political Economy, I showed that making adjustments for household sizes over time yields important changes in growth rates between 1890 and 2000. Notice, in the table below, that GDP per adult equivalent (i.e. GDP per capita adjusted for household size) is massively different than GDP per capita. Indeed, the adjusted growth rates are reduced by close to two-fifths of their original values over the 1945-2000 period and by a third over the 1890 to 2000 period. This is a massive overestimation of actual improvements in well-being.


A large overestimation

If you assemble these two factors together, I hazard a guess that growth rates would be roughly halved (there is some overlap between the two so that we cannot simply sum them up as errors to correct for – hence my “guess”). This is not negligible. True, there are things that we are not counting as Prof. Caplan notes. We ought to find a way to account for them. However, if they simply wash out the overestimation, the sum of errors may equal zero. If so, those who are pessimistic about the future (and recent past) of economic growth have a pretty sound case. Thus, I find myself unable to share Prof. Caplan’s optimism.

Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed

For some years now, Phil Magness and myself have been working on improving the existing income inequality for the United States prior to World War II. One of the most important point we make concerns why we, as economists, ought to take data assumptions seriously. One of the most tenacious stylized facts (that we do not exactly dispute) is that income inequality in the United States has followed a U-curve trajectory over the 20th century. Income inequality was high in the early 1920s and descended gradually until the 1960s and then started to pick up again. That stylized fact comes from the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez with their data work (first image illustrated below). However, from the work of Auten and Splinter and Mechling et al. , we know that the increase post-1960 as measured by Piketty is somewhat overstated (see second image illustrated below).  While the criticism suggest a milder post-1960 increase, me and Phil Magness believe that the real action is on the left side of the U-curve (pre-1960).



Why? Here is our case made simple: the IRS data used to measure inequality up to at least 1943 are deeply flawed. In another paper recently submitted, I made the argument that some of the assumptions made by Piketty and Saez had flaws. This did not question the validity of the data itself. We decided to use state-level income tax data from the IRS to compute the state-level inequality and compare them with state-income tax data (e.g. the IRS in Wisconsin versus Wisconsin’s own personal income tax data). What we found is that the IRS data overstates the level of inequality by appreciable proportions.

Why is that? There are two reasons. The first is that the federal tax system had wide fluctuations in tax rates between 1917 and 1943 which means wide fluctuations in tax compliance. Previous scholars such as Gene Smiley pointed out that when tax rates fell, compliance went up so that measured inequality went up. But measured inequality is not true inequality because “off-the-books” income (which was unmeasured) divorced true inequality from measured inequality.  This is bound to generate false fluctuations in measurement as long as tax compliance was voluntary (which is true until 1943). State income taxes do not face that problem as their tax systems tended to be more stable throughout the period. The same is true with personal exemptions.

The second reason speaks to the manner the federal data is presented. The IRS created wide categories with the numbers of taxpayers according to net taxable income (rather than gross income) in each categories. For example, the categories go from 0$ to 1,000$ per filler and then increase by slice of 1,000$ until 10,000$ and then by slices of 5,000$ etc. This makes it hard to pinpoint where to start each the calculations for each of the fractiles of top earners. This is not true of all state income tax systems. For example, Delaware sliced the data by categories of 100$ and 500$ instead. Thus, we can more easily pinpoint the two. More importantly, most state-income tax systems reported the breakdown both for net taxable and gross income. This is crucial because Piketty and Saez need to adjust the pre-1943 IRS data – which are in net income – to that they can tie properly with the post-1943 IRS data – which are in adjusted gross income. Absent this correction, they would get an artificial increase in inequality in 1943. The problem is that the data for this adjustment is scant and their proposed solution has not been subjected to validation.

What do our data say? We compared them to the work of Mark Frank et al. who used the same methodology and Piketty Saez but at the state-level using the same sources. The image below pretty much sums it up! If the points are above the red line, the IRS data overestimates inequality. If below, the IRS underestimates. Overall, the bias tends towards overestimation. In fact, when we investigated all of the points separately, we found that those below the red line result merely from the way that Delaware’s (DE) was adjusted to convert net income into gross income. When we compared only net income-based measures of inequality, none are below the red line except Delaware from 1929 to 1931 (and by much smaller margins than shown in the figure below).


In our paper, we highlight how the state-level data is conceptually superior to the federal-level data. The problem that we face is that we cannot convert those measures into adjustments for the national level of inequality. All that our data do is suggest which way the bias cuts. While we find this unfortunate, we highlight that this would unavoidably alter the left side of the curve in the first graph of this blog post. The initial level of inequality would be less than it is now. Thus, combining this with the criticisms made for the post-1960 era, we may be in presence of a U-curve that looks more like a shallow tea saucer than the pronounced U-curve generally highlighted.  The U-curve form is not invalidated (i.e. is it a quadratic-looking function of time or not), but the shape of the curve’s tails is dramatically changed.

On Robert Allen’s defense of the High-Wage Economy hypothesis

The high-wage economy thesis is a topic I have blogged about many times before as I think it is an important debate among economists and economic historians (see notably here and here, see also this contribution of mine to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History). For those unfamiliar with this thesis, here is a simple summary of the idea advanced by Robert Allen: high wages relative to capital units was a key force in the industrialization of Britain and thus it explains why the Industrial Revolution was British before if was anything else.

As I have explained in the aforementioned blog posts, I am unsure of where I stand regarding this idea. I tend to be skeptical, but I have stated the evidence needed to convince me of the opposite. In the past year or so, there has been an avalanche of articles on the topic including this article by Humphries and Weisdorf, a follow-up working paper by the same authors, another paper by Judy Stephenson and a working paper by Stephenson (bis). Today, Robert Allen replies to his critics in this working paper.

I find that some of the points are convincing, however I must take issue with a particular point that falls into my ballpark as Allen mentions my work on wages in France (the aforementioned article in Journal of Interdisciplinary History). In my research, I pointed out that Allen’s computations underestimated wages outside Paris. With the correct computations, the rest of France does not appear as poor relative to England as Allen suggests. Allen concedes this point but then goes to state the following:

Geloso (2018) has pointed out that the Strasbourg unskilled wage series for 1702-64 is low in comparison to that of comparable towns, and workers may have received food, which has not been taken into account.  This is a perceptive point, but its implications are limited. The most important use I make of the Strasbourg evidence is in calculating the ratio of the wage to the user cost of capital. If the Strasbourg wage in this calculation is raised to that of neighbouring towns, the wage-capital cost ratio does rise but only by a small degree. The reason for this somewhat surprising result is that the wage is also an argument in the formula for the user cost of capital–building workers have to build the machines and the mills that house them–so the denominator of the ratio increases as well as the numerator, although to a lesser extend.

This is a incorrect characterization of my argument. First, I did not state that wages in Strasbourg did not account for in-kind payment. I stated that in-kind payment was evidence that the wages did not pertain to Strasbourg! The wages from the primary sources were for a city some 70 km away from Strasbourg, they did not concern unskilled workers and they included large in-kind compensation. To correct for this problem, I compared agricultural wages in England with those around Strasbourg that had been collected by Auguste Hanauer. What I found was the the lowest wages in farming were equal to 74% of farm wages in Southern England (as opposed to 64% with Allen’s stated wages). While I did not report this in the article because I had doubts, it is worth pointing out that the high bound of farm wages in Strasbourg is above the level reported for Southern England (which acts a proxy for England – see table 2 in my paper). As Strasbourg is a proxy for living standards outside Paris, my finding suggests a much smaller gap in living standards. It also entails a much more important change in the cost of capital to labor (wages are in the range of 50% above those suggested by Allen and sometimes they are higher by more than 100% which would mean a halving of the relative cost of capital! These are not peanuts to be thrown on the sidewalk!

Second, I ought to point out the nature of my argument. I was not trying to prove/disprove the high-wage hypothesis. My point was much more modest. The mirror of the question as to why the industrial revolution was British is why it was not French. France had a large population offering large returns to scale (in both economic and political organizations) and an array of navigable rivers that facilitated internal trade. It also key pockets of Lancashire-like industrialization such as Normandy (for textile) and Mulhouse (the French Manchester). As such, it is an entirely reasonable endeavor to try to situate living standards in France relative to Britain. If France was massively poorer than England, then Allen has a greater likelihood of being correct. If it was closer to an equal footing (I do not believe that anyone places France above England in circa 1750), then Allen’s critics have a greater likelihood of being correct.* However, regardless of the answer, the data does not infirm/confirm the high-wage hypothesis. It merely situates relative likelihood. As I point out that wages were quite above those postulated by Allen, I am merely stating the extent of the reasonableness of being skeptical of the high-wage hypothesis.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the work of Leonardo Ridolfi is absent from Allen’s reply. The latter’s work is very important as it echoes (in a much richer manner) my point that wages outside Paris were not as low as cited by Allen.**

*As I assume a greater equality of capital returns across both countries, the smaller the wage gap, the smaller the relative differences in capital/labor costs ratios.
** Ridolfi shows France had incomes equal to 64% of English incomes circa 1700. However, I am skeptical of this figure. This is because, while I trust the index produced by Ridolfi, I am unconvinced about the benchmark year to convert the index into international dollars.

The minimum wage induced spur of technological innovation ought not be praised

In a recent article at Reason.comChristian Britschgi argues that “Government-mandated price hikes do a lot of things. Spurring technological innovation is not one of them”. This is in response to the self-serve kiosks in fast-food restaurants that seem to have appeared everywhere following increases in the minimum wage.

In essence, his argument is that minimum wages do not induce technological innovation. That is an empirical question. I am willing to consider that this is not the most significant of adjustment margins to large changes in the minimum wage. The work of Andrew Seltzer on the minimum wage during the Great Depression in the United States suggests that at the very least it ought not be discarded.  Britschgi does not provide such evidence, he merely cites anecdotal pieces of support. Not that anecdotes are bad, but those that are cited come from the kiosk industry – hardly a neutral source.

That being said, this is not what makes me contentious towards the article. It is the implicit presupposition contained within: that technological innovation is good.

No, technological innovation is not necessarily good. Firms can use two inputs (capital and labor) and, given prices and return rates, there is an optimal allocation of both. If you change the relative prices of each, you change the optimal allocation. However, absent the regulated price change, the production decisions are optimal. With the regulated price change, the production decisions are the best available under the constraint of working within a suboptimal framework. Thus, you are inducing a rate of technological innovation which is too fast relative to the optimal rate.

You may think that this is a little luddite of me to say, but it is not. It is a complement to the idea that there are “skill-biased” technological change (See notably this article of Daron Acemoglu and this one by Bekman et al.). If the regulated wage change affects a particular segment of the labor (say the unskilled portions – e.g. those working in fast food restaurants), it changes the optimal quantity of that labor to hire. Sure, it bumps up demand for certain types of workers (e.g. machine designers and repairmen) but it is still suboptimal. One should not presuppose that ipso facto, technological change is good. What matters is the “optimal” rate of change. In this case, one can argue that the minimum wage (if pushed up too high) induces a rate of technological change that is too fast and will act in disfavor of unskilled workers.

As such, yes, the artificial spurring of technological change should not be deemed desirable!

On “strawmanning” some people and inequality

For some years now, I have been interested in the topic of inequality. One of the angles that I have pursued is a purely empirical one in which I attempt to improvement measurements. This angle has yielded two papers (one of which is still in progress while the other is still in want of a home) that reconsider the shape of the U-curve of income inequality in the United States since circa 1900.

The other angle that I have pursued is more theoretical and is a spawn of the work of Gordon Tullock on income redistribution. That line of research makes a simple point: there are some inequalities that are, in normative terms, worrisome while others are not. The income inequality stemming from the career choices of a benedictine monk and a hedge fund banker are not worrisome. The income inequality stemming from being a prisoner of one’s birth or from rent-seekers shaping rules in their favor is worrisome.  Moreover, some interventions meant to remedy inequalities might actually make things worse in the long-run (some articles even find that taxing income for the sake of redistribution may increase inequality if certain conditions are present – see here).  I have two articles on this (one forthcoming, the other already published) and a paper still in progress (with Rosolino Candela), but they are merely an extension of the aforementioned Gordon Tullock and some other economists like Randall Holcombe, William Watson and Vito Tanzi. After all, the point that a “first, do no harm” policy to inequality might be more productive is not novel (all that it needs is a deep exploration and a robust exposition).

Notice that there is an implicit assumption in this line of research: inequality is a topic worth studying. This is why I am annoyed by statements like those that Gabriel Zucman made to ProMarket. When asked if he was getting pushback for his research on inequality (which is novel and very important), Zucman answers the following:

Of course, yes. I get pushback, let’s say not as much on the substance oftentimes as on the approach. Some people in economics feel that economics should be only about efficiency, and that talking about distributional issues and inequality is not what economists should be doing, that it’s something that politicians should be doing.

This is “strawmanning“. There is no economist who thinks inequality is not a worthwhile topic. Literally none. True, economists may have waned in their interest towards the topic for some years but it never became a secondary topic. Major articles were published in major journals throughout the 1990s (which is often identified as a low point in the literature) – most of them groundbreaking enough to propel the topic forward a mere decade later. This should not be surprising given the heavy ideological and normative ramifications of studying inequality. The topic is so important to all social sciences that no one disregards it. As such, who are these “some people” that Zucman alludes too?

I assume that “some people” are strawmen substitutes for those who, while agreeing that inequality is an important topic, disagree with the policy prescriptions and the normative implications that Zucman draws from his work. The group most “hostile” to the arguments of Zucman (and others such as Piketty, Saez, Atkinson and Stiglitz) is the one that stems from the public choice tradition. Yet, economists in the public-choice tradition probably give distributional issues a more central role in their research than Zucman does. They care about institutional arrangements and the rules of the game in determining outcomes. The very concept of rent-seeking, so essential to public choice theory, relates to how distributional coalitions can emerge to shape the rules of the game in a way that redistribute wealth from X to Y in ways that are socially counterproductive. As such, rent-seeking is essentially a concept that relates to distributional issues in a way that is intimately related to efficiency.

The argument by Zucman to bolster his own claim is one of the reason why I am cynical towards the times we live in. It denotes a certain tribalism that demonizes the “other side” in order to avoid engaging in them. That tribalism, I believe (but I may be wrong), is more prevalent than in the not-so-distant past. Strawmanning only makes the problem worse.

On Household Size and Economic Convergence

A few days ago, one of my papers was accepted for publication at the Scottish Journal of Political Economy (working paper version here). Co-authored with Vadim Kufenko and Klaus Prettner, this paper makes a simple point which I think should be heeded by economists: household size matter. To be fair, economists are aware of this when they study inequality or poverty. After all, the point is pretty straightforward: larger households command economies of scale so that each dollar goes further than in smaller households. As such, adjustments are necessary to make households comparable.

Yet, economists seem to forget it when times come to consider paths of economic growth and convergence across countries. In the paper, we try to remedy this flaw. We do so because there was a wide heterogeneity of household size throughout history – even within more homogeneous clubs such as the countries composing the OECD.  If we admit, as the economists who study poverty and inequality do, that income per person adjusted for household size is preferable to income per person, then we must recognize that our figures of income per capita will misstate the actual differences between countries. In addition, if households grew homogeneously smaller over a long period of time, figures of income per capita will overstate the actual improvements in living standards. As such, we argue there is value in modifying the figures to reflect changing household sizes.

For OECD countries, we find that the adjusted income figures increased a third less than the unadjusted per capita figures (see table below). This suggests a more modest growth trend. In addition, we also find that up to the structural break in variations between countries (NDLR: divergence between OECD countries increased to around 1950) there was more divergence with the adjusted figures than with the unadjusted figures (see figure below). We also find that since the break point, there has been less convergence than previously estimated.

While the paper is presented as a note, the point is simple and suggests that those who study convergence between regions or countries should consider the role of demography more carefully in their work.



Fogel on economics and ideology

Many, upon reading the conclusions of economists, believe that economics has an ideological bent. I often respond that this is not the case. True, the “window” of political opinions in economics is narrower but that is largely because the adhesion of economists to methodological individualism precludes certain ideological views that rest on holistic approaches or concepts. However, when you consider more complex situations than “party affiliation”, you will find economists all over the place. They will often cross ideological lines or even have a foot in two antagonistic camps.

Recently, I was reading Robert Fogel’s lectures on the “Slavery debates” which retells the intellectual history of American slavery from U.B. Phillips to … well … Fogel himself. One must remember that Fogel was, and remained from what I can tell, a quite strongly left-leaning economist for most of his life (see here). As such, it is hard to consider Fogel as an ideologue preaching for free market economics. Yet, in the lectures, Fogel (p.19) makes a point that supports the contention that I often make regarding economists and ideology that I believe must be shared:

The ability to view Phillips (NDLR: the dominant interpretation of slavery pre-1960) in a new light was facilitated by the sudden intrusion of a large corps of economists into the slavery debates during the 1960s. This intrusion was welcomed by neither the defenders of the Phillips tradition nor the neoabolitionist school led by Stampp (NDLR: Kenneth Stampp, author of The Peculiar Institution). The cliometricians, as they were called, refused to be bound by the established rules of engagement, and they blithely crossed ideological wires in a manner that perplexed and exasperated traditional historians on both sides of the ideological divide.

Given that the source of this quotation is Fogel, I admit that I am particularly fond of this passage. Maybe the distrust towards economists is because economists can be both friend and foes to established interlocutors in a given discussion.

Divergence and Convergence within Italy

Two years, I wrote a post on this blog on the process of regional convergence in Italy. In that post, I made the observation that it seems that, economically, Italy was as fragmented at the time of the unification as it is today which made it an oddity in terms of regional convergence. To make that claim, I used this table of relatively sparsed out observations produced by Emanuele Felice: which was published in the Economic History Reviewitaliangdp










As one can see, there is a pronounced “lack” of integration for the Italy in terms of living standards. This is reinforced by a more “continuous” set of estimates produced, again, by Emanuele Felice (this time, its a working paper of the Bank of Italy) that now include the 1870s and go to 2011 (as opposed to 2001). This is the result, which I find fascinating. The first graph shows GDP per capita – for which there is divergence to 1951 and then a mild convergence thereafter but still well above the levels at the time of unification.  More fascinating is the fact that productivity is at its most integrated since unification (2nd figure) suggesting a divergence in levels of labor activity (3rd figure). In these three graphs, you have a neat summary of Italian labor markets since 1870.

Italian Convergence

The great global trend for the equality of well-being since 1900

Some years ago, I read The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany. It was my first exposition to the claim that, globally, there has been a long-trend in the equality of well-being. The observation made by Goklany which had a dramatic effect on me was that many countries who were, at the time of his writing, as rich (incomes per capita) as Britain in 1850 had life expectancy and infant mortality levels well superior to 1850 Britain. Ever since, I accumulated the statistics on that regard and I often tell my students that when comes the time to “dispell” myths regarding the improvement in living standards since circa 1800 (note: people are generally unable to properly grasp the actual improvement in living standards).

Some years after, I discovered the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who is a cliometrician who (I think I told him that when I met him) influenced me deeply in my work regarding the measurement of living standards and who wrote this paper which I will discuss here.  His paper, and his work in general, shows that globally the inequality in incomes has faltered since the 1970s.  That is largely the result of the economic rise of India and China (the world’s two largest antipoverty programs). Figure1Leandro

However, when extending his measurements to include life expectancy and schooling in order to capture “human development” (the idea that development is not only about incomes but the ability to exercise agency – i.e. the acquisition of positive liberty), the collapse in “human development” inequality (i.e. well-being) precedes by many decades the reduction in global income inequality. Indeed, the collapse started around 1900, not 1970!


In reading Leandro’s paper, I remembered the work of Goklany which had sowed the seeds of this idea in my idea. Nearly a decade after reading Goklany’s work well after I fully accepted this fact as valid, I remain stunned by its implications. You should too.

Low-Quality Publications and Academic Competition

In the last few days, the economics blogosphere (and twitterverse) has been discussing this paper in the Journal of Economic PsychologySimply put, the article argues that economists discount “bad journals” so that a researcher with ten articles in low-ranked and mid-ranked journals will be valued less than a researcher with two or three articles in highly-ranked journals.

Some economists, see notably Jared Rubin here, made insightful comments about this article. However, there is one comment by Trevon Logan that gives me a chance to make a point that I have been mulling over for some time. As I do not want to paraphrase Trevon, here is the part of his comment that interests me:

many of us (note: I assume he refers to economists) simply do not read and therefore outsource our scholarly opinions of others to editors and referees who are an extraordinarily homogeneous and biased bunch

There are two interrelated components to this comment. The first is that economists tend to avoid reading about minute details. The second is that economists tend to delegate this task to gatekeepers of knowledge. In this case, this would be the editors of top journals. Why do economists act as such? More precisely, what are the incentives to act as such? After, as Adam Smith once remarked, the professors at Edinburgh and Oxford were of equal skill but the former produced the best seminars in Europe because their incomes depended on registrations and tuition while the latter relied on long-established endowments. Same skills, different incentives, different outcomes.

My answer is as such: the competition that existed in the field of economics in the 1960s-1980s has disappeared.  In “those” days, the top universities such as Princeton, Harvard, MIT and Yale were a more or less homogeneous group in terms of their core economics. Lets call those the “incumbents”. They faced strong contests from the UCLA, Chicago, Virginia and Minnesota.  These challengers attacked the core principles of what was seen as the orthodoxy in antitrust (see the works of Harold Demsetz, Armen Alchian, Henry Manne), macroeconomics (Lucas Paradox, Islands model, New Classical Economics), political economy (see the works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Elinor Ostrom, Albert Breton, Charles Plott) and microeconomics (Ronald Coase). These challenges forced the discipline to incorporate many of the insights into the literature. The best example would be the New Keynesian synthesis formulated by Mankiw in response to the works of people like Ed Prescott and Robert Lucas. In those days, “top” economists had to respond to articles published in “lower-ranked” journals such as Economic Inquiry, Journal of Law and Economics and Public Choice (all of which have risen because they were bringing competition – consider that Ronald Coase published most of his great pieces in the JL&E).

In that game, economists were checking one another and imposing discipline upon each other. More importantly, to paraphrase Gordon Tullock in his Organization of Inquiry, their curiosity was subjected to social guidance generated from within the community:

He (the economist) is normally interested in the approval of his peers and and hence will usually consciously shape his research into a project which will pique other scientists’ curiosity as well as his own.

Is there such a game today? If in 1980 one could easily answer “Chicago” to the question of “which economics department challenges that Harvard in terms of research questions and answers”, things are not so clear today. As research needs to happen within a network where the marginal benefits may increase with size (up to a point), where are the competing networks in economics?

And there is my point, absent this competition (well, I should not say absent – it is more precise to speak of weaker competition) there is no incentive to read, to invest other fields for insights or to accept challenges. It is far more reasonable, in such a case, to divest oneself from the burden of academia and delegate the task to editors. This only reinforces the problem as the gatekeepers get to limit the chance of a viable network to emerge.

So, when Trevon bemoans (rightfully) the situation, I answer that maybe it is time that we consider how we are acting as such because the incentives have numbed our critical minds.

On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

Life expectancy at birth is not a predictor of health care efficiency…

This is going to be a short post to argue that pundits (and some economists) need to stop quoting life expectancy figures to argue for/against a particular health care system. This belief is best exemplified in a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association where Papanicolas et al. (2018)  point out that the United States “spent nearly twice as much as 10 high-income countries (…) and performed less well on many population health outcomes”. While the authors make good points about administrative costs, they point out that the US has a low level of life expectancy.

Sure, that is actually true – but Americans tend to die in greater proportions from homicides, drug overdoses and car accidents (Americans drive more than Europeans) than in other rich countries. While these factors of mortality are tragic (except car accidents since Americans seem to prefer the benefits of mobility to the safety of not driving), they are in no way related to the efficiency of health care provision. How much of a deal are these in explaining differences with other industrialized countries? A pretty big deal.  For example, these three factors alone account for 64% of the male life expectancy gap between Austria and the United States (see table reproduced below). For women, 26% of the gap between Austria and the United States is explained by these three factors.

The study I cite here only includes three factors. If you add in other factors like drownings among youths (Americans tend to have more drownings than several industrialized countries) which is a result of the fact that Americans are richer and can afford pools (while Europeans tend not to), then you keep explaining away the difference.  This is not to say that American health care is great. However, this says that American health care is not as bad as life expectancy outcomes suggest.



Electricity in Quebec before Nationalization (1919 to 1939)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that  I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many topics. “Accepted wisdom” is a construction of a stylized fact by a party with intense preferences that is gradually able to remove nuances over time to solidify its preferred narrative. The example I gave a few weeks ago concerned antitrust laws. There are many more. One of those concerns a research agenda that I laid claim to in a recent article in Atlantic Economic Journal (co-authored with my dear friend Germain Belzile): the nationalization of electricity in Quebec.

My home province of Quebec is basically one giant network of rivers well-suited for the production of hydro-electricity – a potential that was noticed in the late 19th century and led to a rapid expansion of the network. Historians (and some economists) have depicted the early electrical industry in Quebec as a “trust” (a cartel) that gouged consumers and could only be resolved, as witnessed by the neighboring province of Ontario, by nationalization (which occurred in two waves – one in 1944 and one in 1962).

In the article I published with Belzile, I argue that this narration is largely incorrect. First, before nationalization prices in Quebec were falling and were low by North American standards (see figures below). Second, production was expanding rapidly. This is in spite of the fact that taxes imposed on the electrical industry grew rapidly over time from less than 10% of total expenditures to close to 30%.  Moreover, we point out that looking at residential prices is bound to yield bad comparisons (if we can call those made above as “bad”) if there is price discrimination. The industry price discriminated and offered incredibly low prices for industrial customers (large power) than in Ontario or anywhere else in Canada  (in spite of the taxes it was operating under and the fact that Ontario subsidized its own).

We also point out that there was a dynamics of interventionism problem. The neighboring province of Ontario (more populous and richer than Quebec) nationalized its industry and set prices well below the market level which is an implicit subsidy. However, at the subsidized rate, Ontario could not supply its own demand and had to buy at the market price in Quebec. Its over-equilibrium quantity of energy demanded was transferred on the freer Quebec market, thus increasing prices on that market.

We also argue that there was wide heterogeneity of rates in Quebec that relate to the structure of municipal regulation (the level at which electricity was regulated pre-1935). The price differences depended on the political games involving rent-seeking firms and politicians (best exemplified by the case of Quebec City). Cities with high prices were places where the electrical market was heavily politicized and franchises (i.e. the contracts fixing rate schedules over long periods of time to recoup capital investment) were short and subject to holdups.

This latter point is meant for us (me and Germain) to stake a claim on future research to document the nationalization and regulation process at the municipal level and see what the effects on prices and outputs were. In a certain way, I am trying to establish a research agenda extending the skepticism of “accepted wisdom” that has emerged with the economic history of antitrust in the United States to the case of electricity trusts in Quebec. This first article is, I believe, a promising start for such an inclusion.





Rosenbloom on the Colonial American Economy

Joshua Rosenbloom is an economic historian worth following if you are interested in American economic history during the colonial era. He has recently published what appears to be an overview article of the topic (probably for a book or an invited symposium) which perfectly summarizes the current state of the research. I believe that this should be widely read by interested parties.  Here are key excerpts for some of the topics he discusses. I provide some comments to enrich his contribution, but these should be understood as complements rather than substitutes to this excellent overview of the American economy during the colonial era.

On Economic Growth 

Mancall and Weiss (…) concluded that likely rates of per capita GDP growth could not have been higher than 0.1 percent per year and were likely closer to zero. In subsequent work, Mancall, Rosenbloom and Weiss (2004) and Rosenbloom and Weiss (2014) have constructed similar estimates for the colonies and states of the Lower South and the Mid-Atlantic regions, respectively. Applying the method of controlled conjectures at a regional level allowed them to incorporate additional, region-specific, evidence about agricultural  productivity and exports, and reinforced the finding that there was little if any growth in GDP per capita during the eighteenth century. Lindert and Williamson (2016b) have also attempted to backcast their estimates of colonial incomes. Their estimates rely in part on the regional estimates of Mancall, Rosenbloom and Weiss, but the independent evidence they present is consistent with the view that economic growth was quite slow during the eighteenth century.

This is still a contentious point (see notably this article by McCusker), but I believe that they are correct. In my own work, using both wages and incomes, I have found similar results for Canada and Leticia Arroyo Abad and Jan Luiten Van Zanden have found something roughly similar for the Latin American economies (Mexico and Peru).

It is also consistent with even simplistic accounts of the neoclassical growth model. The New World was an economy of abundant land input whose outputs (agricultural produce) were mostly meant for local consumption. If one wanted to increase his income, all he had to do was use more inputs at really low costs. There is very little in this situation to invest in increasing total factor productivity and incomes would only increase at the dis-aggregated level (following the same region over time) as we are capturing the extent of inputs included over time (e.g. the long-settled farmer has a high income because he has had the time to build his farm, but the short-settled farmer brings the average down because he is just starting that process).

On Monetary History and Monetary Puzzles

In lieu of specie, the colonists relied heavily on barter for local exchange. In the Chesapeake transactions were often denominated in weights of tobacco. However, tobacco was not used as a medium of exchange. Rather merchants might advance credit to planters for the purchase of imported items, to be repaid at harvest with the specified quantity of tobacco. Elsewhere book credit accounts helped to facilitate transactions and reduce the need for currency. The colonists regularly complained about the shortage of specie, but as Perkins (1988, p. 165) observed, the long run history of prices does not suggest any tendency of prices to fall, as would be expected if the money supply was too small. (…) With only a few exceptions the colonies issuance of these notes did not give rise to inflationary pressures. There is by now a large literature that has analyzed the relationship between note issuance and prices, and finds little evidence of any correlation between the series (Weiss 1970, 1974; Wicker 1985; Smith 1985; Grubb 2016. As Grubb (2016) has argued, this suggests that while the circulation of bills of credit may have facilitated exchange by substituting for book credit or other forms of barter, they did not assume the role of currency.

In this, Rosenbloom summarizes a puzzle which has been the subject of debates since the 1970s (starting with West in 1978 in this Economic Inquiry article). In many instances (like South Carolina and Pennsylvania), the large issues of paper money had no measurable effect on prices.  This is a puzzle given the quantity theory of the price level. The proposition to solve the puzzle is that as the paper money printed by colonies tended to be backed by future assets, they were securities that could circulate as a medium of exchange. If properly backed and redeemed, people would form expectations that these injections were temporary injections and there would be no effect on the price level all else being equal. Inflation would only occur if redemption promises were not held or were believed to be humbug. This proposition has been heavily contested given the limited information we hold for the stock of other media of exchange and trade balances. I have my own take on this debate on which I weigh using a similar Canadian monetary experiment (see here), but this is a serious debate. Basically, it is a historical battleground between the proponents of the fiscal theory of the price level (see notably the classical Sargent and Wallace article) and the proponents of the quantity theory of the price level.  Anyone interested in the wider macroeconomic debate should really focus on these colonial experiments because they really are the perfect testing grounds (which Rosenbloom summarizes efficiently).

On Mercantilism, the Navigation Acts and American Living Standards

The requirement that major colonial exports pass through England on their way to continental markets and that manufactures be imported from England was the equivalent of imposing a tax on this trade. The resulting price wedge reduced the volume of trade and shifted some of the producer and consumer surplus to the providers of shipping and merchant services. A number of cliometric studies have attempted to estimate the magnitude of these effects to determine whether they played a role in encouraging the movement for independence (Harper 1939; Thomas 1968; Ransom 1968; McClelland 1969). The major difference in these studies arises from different approaches to formulating a counterfactual estimate of how large trade would have been in the absence of the Navigation Acts. In general, the estimates suggest that the cost to the colonists was relatively modest, in the range of 1-3 percent of annual income. Moreover, this figure needs to be set against the benefits of membership in the empire, which included the protection the British Navy afforded colonial merchants and military protection from hostile natives and other European powers.

The Navigation Acts were often cited as a burden that the colonists despised, but many economic historians have gone over their impact and they appear to have been minimal. It does not mean that they were insignificant to political events (rent-seeking coalitions tend to include small parties with intense preferences). However, it does imply that the action lies elsewhere if someone wants to explain the root causes of the revolution or that one must consider distributional effects (see notably this article here).

These are the sections that I found the most interesting (as they relate to some of my research agendas), but the entire article provides an effective summary for anyone interested in initiating research on the topic of American economic history during the colonial era. I really recommend reading it even if all that you seek is an overview for general culture.

On demography and living standards in the colonial era

This is a topic that has been bugging me. Very often, historians will (accurately) point out mortality statistics in the United States, Canada (Quebec) and the Latin America during the colonial era were better than in the comparable Old World (comparing French with French, British with British, Spanish with Spanish). However, they will argue that this is evidence that living standards were higher. This is where I wish to make an important nuance.

Settlement colonies (so, here there is a bigger focus on North America, but it applies to smaller extent to Latin America which I am more tempt to label as extractive – see here) are generally frontier economies. This means that they are small economies because of small populations.  This means that labor and capital are scarce relative to land. All outputs that come from the relatively abundant factor will thus tend to be cheaper if there is little international trade for the goods that they are best at producing. The colonial period pretty much fits that bill. The American and Canadian colonies were basically agricultural colonies, but very few of those agricultural outputs actually crossed the Atlantic. As such, agricultural produces were cheap. This is akin to saying that nutrition was cheap.

This, by definition, will give settlement colonies an advantage in terms of biological living standards. As they are not international price takers, wheat is cheaper than in the old world. This is why James Lemon spoke of the New World as the “Best poor man’s country” (I love that expression) : it was easy to earn subsistence. However, beyond that it is very hard to go beyond. For example, in my dissertation (articles still in consideration at Cliometrica and Canadian Journal of Economics) I found that when wages were deflated by a subsistence basket containing very few services and manufactured goods and which relied heavily on untransformed foods, Canada was richer than the richest city of France. Once you shifted to a basket that marginally increased transformed goods and manufactured goods, the advantage was wiped away.

Yet, everything indicates that mortality rates were greater in Paris and France and than in Quebec City and Quebec as a whole (but not by a lot) (see images below).  Similar gaps seem to exist for the United States relative to Britain, but the data is not as rich as for Quebec. However, the data that exists for New England suggests that death rates were lower than in England but the “bare bones” real incomes measured by Lindert and Williamson show that New England may have been poorer than Great Britain (not by much though).

Crude Death Rates


I am not saying that demographic and biological data is worthless. Quite the contrary (even I wanted to, I could not since I have a paper on the heights of French-Canadians from 1780 to 1830)! The point is that data matters in context.  The world is full of small non-linearities between variables. While “good” demographic outcomes are generally tracking “good” economic outcomes, there are contexts where this may be a weaker relation (curvilinear relations between variables). I think that this is a good example of that point.