Once, Cubans were (maybe) richer than Americans

In light of what we see today, this is hard to believe. However, as a result of Castro’s death, I accidentally became interested in the history of this fascinating island and the more I discover, the more shocked I am at “the path” that Cuba has taken. One of these reasons is provided below by Victor Bulmer Thomas in his Economic History of Latin America since Independence. Now, Thomas uses a different approach than the commonly used Maddison data (he believes the assumptions are too heroic). He uses indicators correlated with GDP per capita to fill in the gaps and he finds that Cuba was generally richer than the United States for most of the 19th century (see below):

cubaus

Now, I am not convinced by the figure Thomas presents. However, I am also skeptical of the levels presented by Maddison (where Cuba is roughly 60% as rich as the US in 1820). In between are some more reasonable estimate (see this great discussion in this book as well as this discussion by Coatsworth).  Moreover, there is the  issue of slavery which distorts the value of using GDP per capita because of high levels of inequality (however, it distorts both ways since the US was also a slave economy up to the Civil War).

Nonetheless, this tells you about the “path not taken” by Cuba.

Household size and growth since 1870 (albeit in Canada)

Two days ago, I posted something on how much we were estimating growth since the 1950s. While organizing another research paper that I am trying to finish, I realized that I could make a follow-up to this based on previous research of mine.

A few months ago, I published (alongside Vadim Kufenko and Klaus Prettner) a short note in Economics Bulletin where we showed that the large differences in household size in Canada that existed up to 1975 led many to overestimate the level of differences between provinces. Moreover, we pointed out that because household size were converging at the same time as incomes, we argued that the rate of convergence from 1945 onwards was slightly overestimated. That paper convinced us to do the same between all the OECD countries (we are assembling the data right now).  But this was an argument about variance, what if we simply plot the “per capita” income of Canada with the “per adult equivalent” income of Canada since 1870.

By using the Maddison dataset combined with the data from my article, it took me a few seconds to get the graph below. What is important to notice in this graph is that, incomes per adult equivalent (measured in 1990 Geary-Kheamis dollars) have increased 40% less than incomes per person. Since adult equivalents are a better measure of living standards (because you capture the economies of scale associated with household size), we can easily say that we have been underestimating the level of improvement in Canada (it is still substantial however).

growthfactors

“Watch” the (industrial) revolution!

I don’t know how I missed such a valuable article, but O’Grada and Kelly have this fascinating piece on the price of watches in England from the early 18th century to the early 19th century in the Quarterly Journal of EconomicsStarting from Adam Smith’s quote that the price of watches had fallen 95% over roughly one hundred years, they collected prices of stolen watches reported in court records.  They find that Smith was wrong. The drop was only 75% (see the sarcasm here).

watch-prices

Why is this interesting? Because it shows something crucial about the industrial revolution. This was a complex good to build which required incredible technical advances – many of which could be considered general purpose technologies which could then be used by other industries for their own advances (on the assumption that other entrepreneurs noticed these technologies). But, more importantly, it provides further evidence against the pessimistic view of living standards in Britain at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. These “new” goods became incredibly cheaper. Along with nails, glass, pottery and shipping , watches did not weigh heavily in the cost of living of the British. However, they did weigh heavily as industrial prices which meant that costs of production were falling progressively which augured well for the beginning of the industrial revolution*.

Literally, you can watch the industrial revolution in that paper! (sorry, bad pun)

* By the way, I use the term because it is conventional but a revolution is a clean break. The British industrial revolution was not saltation as much as it was a steady process of innovation from the early 18th century up to the mid 19th century. The real “revolution” in my eyes is that of the late 19th century. The technological changes from 1870 to 1890 are the most momentous in history and if there was any technological revolution in the past, this was it.

Did the Thirty Glorious Years Actually Exist?

Okay, I am going for a flashy title here. I should have asked whether the Thirty Glorious were as glorious as they are meant to be. This is a question that matters in debates about both inequality and the often-bemoaned growth slowdown.

In the past (say before 1950), labor force participation was quite low (relative to today) by virtue of large family sizes and most married women not working. However, when they were at-home, these married women produced something. That something was simply not included in our national accounts. When they entered the labor force, they produced less of that something. However, since it had never been measured, we never subtracted that something from the actual output generated from their increased participation.

Even before the 1950s, this mattered considerably as growth tended to be heavily underestimated (by 0.3 percentage points from 1870 to 1890, overestimated by 0.38 points from 1890 to 1910 and by 0.06 percentage points from 1910 to 1930).This was at a time when variations between the household economy and the market economy were small. Imagine the importance of overestimates since the 1950s! In a short comment reply to Emily Skarbek last year, I pointed out that adjusting for the size of the household economy meant that 1/7th of Canada’s economic growth from 1960 to 1997 (see image below and this was before one additional surge of labor participation resulting from daycare and unemployment policy reforms).

SEcularStagnation2

Recently, I found an old book in my library. It is Kenneth Boulding’s Structure of a Modern EconomyIn it, he makes this exact same argument. Basically, actual output today is overestimated relative to output in the past. And there are many, many, many other articles on this. In all cases, the rate of growth is heavily reduced. In a way, that means that the Thirty Glorious are less glorious (which makes the growth stagnation argument seem more defensible).

And you know what? This is consistent with attempts to correct inequality measures. Most of the attempts made to correct inequality for age, number of workers per household, the size of household and prices, they generally increase very modestly the income growth of the bottom centiles and decrease appreciably the actual level of growth of incomes at the top. While these corrections reduce the level of inequality (and the growth thereof), they also reduce the growth rate of incomes.

Is it possible that the correction to make inequality measures more comparable over time are allow us to see the point about overestimating growth since the 1950s? It means that the Thirty Glorious aren’t that glorious (at the very least, they’re overestimated). It also means that someone who could follow some of the proposed corrections to national income accounts (generally, the best source for this is the Review of Income and Wealth) for every year since 1929 (starting date of the US national accounts which could be extended by using Kuznets’s national income measures from 1913 to 1929) could propose the “actual output” of the country and see how glorious the 1945-1975 period was. That is the work of economic historians to do!

On immigration, trade, and inequality: why nobody should care (that much)

Recently, I read snippets from George Borjas’s book, We Wanted Workers (I got distracted and reverted to reading Leah Platt Boustan’s Competition in the Promised Land).On its heels came this article by Dani Rodrik in Foreign Policy. Both work make the same case, that free movement of goods and people may imply some negative effects on inequality. Borjas argues that immigration increases inequality while Rodrik argues that low-skilled workers are displaced.

Both arguments are not convincing.

First of all, immigration will always increase inequality in one area. This is by definition. Unless the migrants follow the same distributional pattern as the host population, inequality will increase. If somebody from Cuba enters the United States at the tenth percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of low earners. If somebody from China enters the United States at the 90th percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of the high earners. However, from a global perspective (world population), inequality has actually dropped since the migrant has a greater income than in the past. After all, bringing a Haitian to the US may increase US inequality measures but the ten-fold increase in his income (this number comes from my colleague Ben Powell) means that worldwide inequality drops.

To be honest, I know that Borjas is probably aware of this point, but many of those who spin his work don’t get it. Borjas’s argument is little more sophisticated. His claim is that low-skilled workers (high school dropouts) see their wages go down while everybody else (high school graduates and university graduates) gains from immigration. This increases inequality because they are left behind economically. But this is where his argument is alike that of Rodrik and where it misses the target dramatically.

While I could be lazy and simply say that many other scholars place Borjas at the extreme of the spectrum of academics with regards to the effects of immigration on labor markets. Indeed, there are more scholars who find that low-skilled workers also gain from immigration all things being equal. But, I won’t be lazy. Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the empirical result is valid. If unskilled workers are displaced, why can’t they find new employment elsewhere. If the effects of immigration are so positive for everybody else, it means that everybody else is substantially richer and they can demand more goods. Are there barriers preventing the unskilled from acquiring jobs? The answer is emphatically yes.

The ability to find a new form of employment following changes in the labor market depends on the frictions that exist on the labor market. Some of them are natural. We have to assume search costs (time, energy, some money) to look for a job and get the training for that job. But there are also barriers that create unnecessary frictions. The rise of occupational licencing is one of those (growing) frictions (see here, here and here). We could also point out that product regulations tend to affect the prices of goods that weigh more heavily in the consumption baskets of lower-income workers (here and here) thus pulling the poorest down. We could also point to the fact that states with right to work laws seem to have enjoyed more limited increases in inequality than the states without such laws (here). We could also underline the fact that housing regulations are making it harder for unskilled workers to move to dynamic areas, thus locking them in low-productivity areas (here). And the list could go on for a few more pages, but I think the point is made: there are tons of factors that make displacement a problem. However, those who worry about it when it comes from changes resulting from trade or immigration are concerned with a minor (and positive in the long-run) variable. In a way, Borjas and Rodrik are (rightfully) concerned about the poorest but they fail to identify the problem like if a doctor was concerned with his patient’s loss of sight rather than concentrating on the brain tumor that caused the loss.

Free trade and open borders generate massive benefits. But there are short-term costs as production methods and resources are being reallocated. Many government policies amplify exponentially these costs and delay reallocation. This creates the inequality they bemoan.

On Minimum Wages, Health Code Violations and Proper Assessment

A few days ago, Tyler Curtis at the Freeman (the Foundation for Economic Education’s flagship publication) posted a short piece on the minimum wage and health code violations in restaurants. Curtis based on a paper (unavailable in full) by Srikant Devaraj who asserted that increases in minimum wages in Seattle had led to increases in health code violations by restaurants (heavily affected by the increases).

Devaraj used a standard difference-in-difference econometric approach. The problem underlined by some was the choice of benchmark for the method : New York City. New York City and Seattle are two very different cities with different health codes. It is hard to make this claim stick even if the uncontrolled results (before statistical tests) show an increase in health code violations. Nonetheless, I have been able to find one other study that shows – based on Californian data – that there was a very small deterioration in health code violations (especially by the top restaurants) following increases.

Now, I am not convinced by the econometric design of both, but I am axiomatically convinced. This is where I think economists have made the error of relying too much on empirical methods. While, as an economic historian, I always favor more data, I also am trained to be skeptical about data does not say.

In the case of the minimum wage, the debate has raged between economists over the employment effects (i.e. the demand for labor). But this is a fraction of everything involved with the production of goods in industries affected by minimum wages. For an employer, a cost is a cost regardless of the form it takes. If an employer is forced to pay somebody above what they produce in value, then something has to give. For a 5% increase in the minimum wage, it is doubtful that an employer with three employees will be willing to sack one third of his workforce (and roughly one third of his output). So, he can cut costs differently. He may ask employees to buy their uniforms, he may refuse to provide them with free lunches, he may also even decide to cut on quality of his service – as is the case with the two studies outlined above.

The problem is that no study of the minimum wage has attempted to measure all these effects at once!  There is no study that looks simultaneously at hours worked, people employed, type of people employed (substitution effects), prices for consumers, quality and marginal benefits (uniforms, free lunch, insurance, etc.) on both the short and long-terms levels and trends (they also rarely adjust the minimum wages for regional purchasing power parities and the under-reporting of tips)

The health code violations papers show how many channels employers can use to adapt – channels which some fail to account for when they proclaim that we can raise the minimum wage without adverse consequences. Maybe its time that we, as economists, try to be more cautious when we make claims about the minimum wage’s minimal effects.

Angry? Learn economics!

The election didn’t go your way (and if it did, just think about past elections… at least some of those didn’t go your way) and now you’re itching to do something about it. You’re angry and motivated, and at risk of making things worse

Economics isn’t just about money. In fact, it’s barely about money. It’s mostly about cooperation between strangers. But economists also study competition. Most importantly, we study decision making which is essential to understand if you want people to make different decisions!

More importantly, economics helps us understand how to navigate costs and benefits wisely. It turns out wise decision making isn’t as straight forward as we’d hope. So if you care enough to work hard to make the world better, economics is worth your time.

Still here? You really want to make the world a better place! Let me suggest that you study social science. Something I’ve learned during my first decade of studying economics (Jan. 2018 will by my 10 year mark) is that thinking clearly about something as complex as society requires mental tools that we aren’t born with. Our intuitions will lead us astray. The good news: economics mostly boils down to common sense rigorously applied.

Economics doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth (if we did, this post would be shorter but you’d have to pay to read it). But I think econ is the best place to start in an intellectual exploration of society. It will help you build a robust and modular framework for understanding the world. Economics is the ultimate modular social science; you can plug-and-play with insights from anywhere.

So why econ? Because at the end of the day, economics deals with the most important aspect of life: how to live life well. It boils down to this: every choice comes at the cost of a foregone alternative. Opportunity cost. All (good) economics comes down to this profound truth. Whether your goal is to reduce poverty, pollution, or parenting woes, learning to think of cost in these terms will serve you well.

Let’s take that concept for a test drive… would banning plastic bags reduce environmental harm? The benefit is that you’ll eliminate the problems associated with these bags (litter, use of oil, etc.). But we need to understand the costs before we know if we’re helping or hurting the environment. Notice that link starts with the question “paper or plastic” and goes on to say nothing about paper bags; it’s looking at the silver lining without acknowledging any possibility of a storm cloud. That lack of economic thinking opens us up to new problems: making heavy paper bags also creates pollution and could very well create more.

In other words, this simple concept showed us that it’s possible to do harm by doing something that sounds good (the road to hell is paved with good intentions!).

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees: economists specialize in researching very specific areas–foreign exchange markets, agricultural futures, political change, pirates–and it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Studying economics in school means studying under specialists. But once you’ve got the basics of the economic way of thinking down, you’ll see that those specializations are really just applications of the same general concepts and the same basic way of thinking. It’s easier to understand once you speak our language, but there are lots of great resources. Two places I would start:

Now get to it! Start making things better!