The Antebellum Puzzle, Anthropometric History and Quebec

I recently gave an interview on Economics Detective Radio with Garrett Petersen to talk about my forthcoming article in Economics & Human Biology (with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin). In the interview, I explain why anthropometric history is important to our understanding of living standards, their evolution and short-term trade-offs in economic history. The interview is below, but you should subscribe to Garrett’s podcast as he is well on his way to becoming a serious competitor to EconTalk with the bonus that he does lots of economic history.

Podcast link (download).

Star Trek Did More For the Cultural Advancement of Women Than Government Policies

The fondest memories of my childhood center on the time I spent with my father watching Star Trek. At the time, I simply enjoyed science fiction. However, as an adult I have often revisited Star Trek (on multiple occasions) and I realized that I had incorporated subconsciously many elements of the show into my own political reasoning.

Not to give too much away about my age, my passion with Star Trek started largely with the Voyager installments. As a result, I ended up seeing Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway. And that’s what she was: the captain. I never saw the relevance that she was a woman. A few years ago, I saw her speak at the Montreal Comic-Con (yes, I am that kind of Trekkie) and she mentioned how crucial she thought her role to be for the advancement of women. By that time, I had already started to consider Star Trek as one of the most libertarian-friendly shows ever to have existed. While its economics were strange, its emphasis on tolerance, non-intervention and equality of rights make it hard to argue that it is not favorable to broadly-defined liberal mindset. However, I had not realized how much so until I heard Mulgrew speak about her vision of the role. After all, I had somehow forgotten that Mulgrew was a woman and how novel her role was.

One person who understands how important was this point is Shannon Mizzi who wrote a piece for Wilson Quarterly which I ended up reading while I was still a PhD student. Her core point was that in Star Trek, women were simply professionals. They were rarely seen doing other things than their work. While she argues that this meant that Star Trek played an underappreciated role in the history of women’s advancement, I am willing to go a step further. That step is to assert that the cause of the cultural advancement of women has been better served by Star Trek than by governments. (Please note that I am only considering cultural advancement)

The pre-1900 economic and social history of women would be sufficient in itself to make this point of mine. After all, women were given a lesser legal status by governments. This is both a necessary and sufficient element to assert that, overall, governments have been noxious to women’s advancement over many centuries. One century of legal emancipation would still leave Star Trek as a net positive force. But that would be a lazy argument on my part and I should simply focus on the present day. In fact, thanks to a wealth of data on wage gaps, gender norms and measures of legal institutions, I can more easily back up the claim.

My friend Rosemarie Fike of Texas Christian University is the first person that comes to mind in that regard. Her own doctoral dissertation, Economic Freedom and the Lives of Womenintroduced me to a wide literature on the role of economic freedom in the advancement of women. To be sure, Rosemarie was not the first to try to measure the role of economic freedom (which we should understand as how small and non-interventionist a government is). There had already been some research showing that higher levels of economic freedom were associated with smaller hourly wage gaps between genders and how liberalizing reforms were associated with wage convergence between genders. However, some economists have been arguing that there are other “soft sides” to economic freedom – like in the promotion of cultural equality and norms that promote certain types of attitudes. This is where Rosemarie’s work is most crucial. In a section of her dissertation, she essentially builds up on the work of (my favorite Nobel laureate) Gary Becker regarding preferences and discrimination. Basically, the idea is that free markets will penalize people who willingly discriminate. After all, if an employer refuses to hire redheads for some strange reason, I can compete by hiring the shunned redheads at a lower wage rate and out-compete him. In order to stay in business, the ginger-hating fool has to change his behavior and hire redheads which will push wages up. Its hard to be a racist or misogynist when it costs you a lot of money.

However, if you prevent this mechanism from operating (by intervening in markets), you are making it easier to be bigoted-chauvinistic-male-pigs. As a result, laws that prevent market operations (like the Jim Crow laws did for blacks) enshrine discriminatory practices. Individuals growing up in such environment may accept this as normal and acceptable behavior and strange beliefs about gender equality may cement themselves in the popular imagination. When markets are allowed to operate, beliefs will morph to reflect the actions taken by individuals (see Jennifer Roback’s great story of tramways in the US South as an example of how strong markets can be in changing behavior and see her article on how racism is basically rent-seeking). As a result, Rosemarie’s point is that societies with high levels of economic freedom will be associated with beliefs favorable to gender equality.

But the mirror of that argument is that government policies, even if their spirits have no relation to gender issues, may protect illiberal beliefs. Case in point, women are more responsive to tax rates than men – much more. In short, if you reduce taxes, women will adjust their labor supply more importantly at the extensive and intensive margin than men will. This little, commonly accepted, fact in labor economics is pregnant with implications. Basically, it means that women will work less in high tax environments and will acquire less experience than men will. Since it is also known that differences in the unmeasured effects of experience weigh heavily in explaining the remaining portion of the gender pay gap, this means that high tax rates contribute indirectly to maintaining the small gender pay gap that remains. Now, imagine what would be the beliefs of employers towards women if they did not believe that women are more likely to work fewer hours or drop out of the workforce for some time? Would you honestly believe that they would be the same? When Claudia Goldin argues that changes in labor market structures could help close the gap, can you honestly say that the uneven effect of high tax rates on the labor supply decisions of the different genders are not having an effect in delaying experimentation with new structures? This only one example meant to show that governments may, even when it is not their intent, delay changes that would be favorable to gender equality. There are mountains of other examples going the larger effects of the minimum wage on female employment to the effects of occupational licencing falling heavily on professions where women are predominant.

With such a viewpoint in mind, it is hard to say how much governments helped the cultural advancement of women (on net) over the 20th and 21st centuries . However, Star Trek clearly had a positive net effect on that cultural advancement.  That is why I am willing to say it here: Star Trek did more for the cultural advancement of women than governments did.

Famine and Finance: Credit and the Great Famine of Ireland

41YjUSWp3JL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_I have recently finished reading Famine and Finance by Tyler Beck Goodspeed. While short, it should have a prominent place on the shelves of economic historians interested (obviously) in Irish history and (less obviously) in Malthusian theory.

Famine and Finance is a study of the response of Irish farmers to the potato blight. As it is known to many, many individuals simply left Ireland. However, where micro-credit was available, Goodspeed finds that farmers adapted by shifting to different types of activities – notably livestock. These areas experienced a smaller decline in population. Basically, where the institution of micro-credit was present, the demographic shock was much less severe. If only for this nuance, the book makes a sizeable contribution to the historiography of Ireland. The methods used are also elegantly simple and provide an interesting road map for anyone interested in studying the responses of local population to environmental shocks.

However, the deeper point comes from it tells us about institutions. In Goodspeed’s story, the amplitude of the collapse of the Irish population in the 19th century depends on the presence of the institution of micro-credit. Basically, the institution determined the amplitude of the shock. Since Ireland’s potato blight is often presented as the textbook case of Malthusian pressures, Goodspeed’s results are particularly interesting. In his chatper titled”Was Malthus Right?”, he shows that when controls for the institution of micro-credit is present, the typical Malthusian variables fail to explain population changes. In other words (i.e.  my words) , Malthusian pressures (the change in population) are in fact institutional failures.

This is a point I have often made elsewhere (see here, here and here and a blog post here). And because Goodspeed backs this point of mine, he has earned himself a place on my shelf of “go-to” books.

The Latin American tropism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

The Paris in which I grew up (outside of the long summer vacations), was a gray, dank and dark place. It was an easy locale from which to fantasize about the sun-drenched tropics. Palm-trees were our favorite trees because we never saw any except at the movies. Of all the tropics, the Latin American tropics took pride of place. Perhaps that was because France had negligible colonial entanglement there and therefore, no colonial retirees to mug our fantasy with their recollections of reality. Or perhaps, it was because, well after the emergence of rock-and-roll in France, close dancing was still taking place to the sound of Latin music: Rumba, Samba, Tango. One sensuous experience easily becomes grafted onto another; the clinging softness of girls’ flesh became associated in our minds with that particular kind of music and thence, with a whole unknown continent. This cocktail of sensations biased me until now in favor of that continent.

At one of the stops where several foreign student buses met, I became smitten with a Bolivian girl and she with me. We were to each other the most exotic thing ever touched. She had luscious brown skin, thick, black, lustrous Indian hair, swinging hips, and a lovely round chest. Our buses met again several times and the passion was renewed each time. Although those encounters involved little more than many sloppy deep kisses and some furious mutual groping, indirectly, they were to shape an important part of my mental life, a favorable disposition toward the otherness of others, “xenophilia,” if you will.

The Heights of French-Canadian Convicts, 1780 to 1830

A few days ago, it was confirmed that my article with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin on the heights of French-Canadians between 1780 and 1830 was accepted for publication in Economics and Human Biology. In that paper, we try to introduce French-Canadians before 1850 to the anthropometric history literature by using the records of the prison of Quebec City. Stature is an important measure of living standards. As it is heavily related to other aspects of health outcomes, it is a strong measure of biological living standards. More importantly, there are moments in history when material living standards and biological living standards move in opposite directions (in the long-run, this is not the case).

We find three key results. The first is that the French-Canadians grew shorter throughout the era when living standards did not increase importantly (and were very volatile). This puts them at odds from other places in North America where increases in stature were experienced up until the 1820s. Furthermore, stature stops falling around 1820 when economic growth picked up. This places the French-Canadians in a unique category in North America since it seems unlikely that they experienced a strong version of the antebellum puzzle (decline in stature with increases in material living standards which is what the US experienced). The second key result is that the French-Canadians are the shortest in North America, shorter even than Black Americans in slavery. However, they are considerably taller than most (save Argentinians) Latin Americans. More importantly, they are considerably taller than their counterparts in France. The third key result is related to the second key result. Today, French-Canadians are noticeably shorter than other Canadians. However, the gap was more important in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Pegged as a “striking exception” within Canada, we do not know when it actually started. Thanks to our work, we know that this was true as far back at the early 19th century.

The working paper (dramatically different than the accepted version) is here and I am posting key results in tables and figures below.  Moreover, I will be talking about anthropometric history and economic history with Garrett Petersen of Economics Detective Radio this Tuesday (I do not know when the podcast will be made available, but you should subscribe to that show anyways).



On power-display bias and the historians

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book at Palgrave McMillan which discusses Canadian economic history. This excerpt relates to a point that I have made numerous times on this blog regarding the bias for power held by historians and how it often leads them to inaccurate conclusions (here and here):

When the great historian Lord Acton warned that, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was not only referring to imbuing certain fallible humans with excessive powers, but also as a caution to historians for their assessment of politicians. Too often, politicians become known for “greatness” because of their actions, regardless of how much they impoverished society or put in place measures that would ultimately erode their citizens’ quality of life. By the same token, some eminent figures remain unknown, relegated to a footnote in the history books, even though they have contributed in a more significant way to economic enrichment, cultural development, and social cohesion. Grand gestures and large-scale social projects inspired by good intentions do not always yield great results – or desirable ones.

If we truly want to assess the Quiet Revolution and the “Great Darkness” with any clarity, we must consider politicians’ actions in a more realistic scope, and sift through the quantitative and qualitative data that show how people thought and acted in the everyday. Through the use of rigorous tools, statistical methods and economic theories, we ought to consider how things might reasonably have developed otherwise without the Quiet Revolution. This is what I have tried to do in this book. (…)

The discourse on Quebec modernity that emerged along with the Quiet Revolution coincided with the emergence of a strong interventionist State. When we compare Quebec to other Western countries, however, our analysis reveals that the State did not play a major role in modernization here. After all, it was in a period when Quebec’s State apparatus was less active compared to the rest of Canada that it was able to progress in leaps and bounds. Of course, the State must have had some effect in certain areas, but the Quiet Revolution was not responsible for the bulk of positive outcomes that came to term during this period. Analyzing trends, causes, explanations and secondary forces at play in Quebec society’s metamorphosis definitely requires a degree of patience and effort. It would be much less onerous to take the easier path of only looking at the State’s activities as worthy of attention in this regard. If we fail to make these efforts, we risk succumbing to the “Nirvana Fallacy.” In order words, we tend to put the State on a pedestal: it becomes a kind of disembodied entity in a virtual reality where it plays the VIP or starring role. Comparing reality with a utopia necessary leads us to conclude that utopia is better, but this approach is utterly fruitless.


Brazil six months after Dilma Rousseff

Six months after President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil remains plunged into one of the biggest crises in its history. Economically the outlook is worrisome, with little chance that the country will grow again anytime soon. Politically the government of President Michel Temer has little credibility. Although brought to power by a process whose legitimacy cannot be questioned (even if groups linked to the former president still insist on the narrative of the coup – although without the same energy as before), Temer has no expressive popular support and is attached to oligarchic interests difficult to circumvent. In other areas, the crisis is also present: urban violence is increasing, unemployment, especially among the young, remains high, and education is among the worst in the world, among other examples. It is surprising that Brazil, considering its GDP, is one of the largest economies on the planet.

As I predicted in a previous article, Dilma Rousseff’s departure from power, however just and necessary, would not be the solution to all Brazil’s problems. Rousseff, although president of the country, was far from having a leading role in the Brazilian reality. As local press often put it, she was just a pole put in place by former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva hoping to one day return to power (which he never completely left). Today, however, Lula is the target of several corruption investigations and is expected to go to jail before he can contest new elections. Meanwhile, the government of Michel Temer offers little news compared to the previous.

Michel Temer is a lifelong member of PMDB. PMDB was formed during the Military Government that lasted from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. It was the consented opposition to the military, and eventually added a wide variety of political leadership. Leaving the military leadership period, some tried to keep the PMDB united as a great democratic front, but this was neither doable nor desirable. Keeping the PMDB together was not feasible because what united its main leaders was only opposition to the military government. In addition, the party added an irreconcilable variety of political ideas and projects, and it was not desirable to keep them together because it would be important for Brazilian political leaders to show their true colors at a moment when internationally the decline of socialism was being discussed. After a stampede of many of its most active leadership to other parties (mainly to the PSDB), the PMDB became a pragmatic, often oligarchic, legend and without clear ideological orientation, very similar to the Mexican PRI.

Being a party of national expression, the PMDB had oscillating relations with all Brazilian governments since the 1980s, but with one certainty: the PMDB is a party that does not play to lose. Eventually a part of the party leadership understood that the arrival of the PT to the presidency of the country was inevitable and proposed an alliance. This explains the presence of Temer as Rousseff’s vice president. But it would be wrong to say that the PMDB simply joined the winning team: the PT was immeasurably benefited by the alliance, and probably would not have reached or remained in power without the new ally. The alliance with the PT also showed that, despite the ideological discourse, the PT had little novelty to offer to Brazilian politics.

Although he has waved with reforms in favor of economic freedom, Temer has done little that can considered new so far. The freezing of government spending, well received by many right-wing groups, does not really touch the foundations of Brazilian statism: the government remains almost omnipresent, only without the same money to play its part. The proposed pension reform, similarly, does not alter the fundamentals of the state’s relationship with society. Finally, Temer put the economic policy in the hands of Henrique Meirelles, who had already been President of the Central Bank of Lula. Meirelles is one of the main responsible for the crisis that the country faces today, and its revenue to get around the problems remains the same: stimulus spending. In other words, do more of what brought us to the current situation in the first place.

A positive aspect of the current Brazilian crisis is the emergence or strengthening of right-wing political groups. Although the Brazilian right still is quite authoritarian, there are inclinations in favor of the free market being strengthened. Of course, strengthening a pro-market right annoys the left, and this is perhaps the best sign that this is a political trend gaining real space. While it is still difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the 2018 presidential election may be the most relevant to the country since 1989.