There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy

The advocates of the sunk cost fallacy state that, since an agent ponders in his decisions marginal costs against marginal incomes, any consideration upon sunk costs would be irrational. Notwithstanding, as soon as we accept the arguments of the said sunk cost fallacy and try to put its recommendations into practice, we discover that we have just become an easy prey of a more severe kind of irrationality: the one that concerns with intransitive preferences.

Jon Elster exemplifies the sunk cost fallacy with the case of a huge snowfall that pours onto the city the very same day we were planning to attend a theatre play whose tickets we had bought the previous days and are not refundable. Elster points out that, since our attendance to the play will not bring the money we had paid for the tickets back, there is no reason to make the decision on whether or not to attend the play on the basis of the sunk costs of the tickets. The correct reasoning should take into account only the cost of enduring the heavy snowfall in order to reach to the theatre where the play would be performed. Nevertheless, the same Jon Elster makes the disclaimer that a zealous observance of avoiding the sunk cost fallacy could lead to make choices following non transitive preferences.

If we change our mind every day, discarding previous decisions and assuming a new direction just because a new opportunity has arisen, we risk to end up in the ruin. Transitive preferences tend to assure the agent of a certain profit and non transitive ones exposes him to losses. In evolutionary games simulations, agents who act according to transitive preferences outshine agents who do not. It seems, then, that the rational agents walks on the edge of the razor, between sunk cost fallacies and non transitive preferences.

That is why there is not such a thing as a sunk cost fallacy. The rational agent, to be such, must ponder a whole plan against an alternative plan in a whole as well, which in some cases, both of them last several periods of time. It is true that in the “very short term” all past costs are sunk and that it only matters the opportunity costs, but most decisions are made in the short term, which lasts more than just a moment. Otherwise, the very concept of transitive preferences would lack any meaning.

Of course certain costs are sunk: if the flux of earnings that a good of capital produces just covers the variable costs of putting it to work (for example, a truck whose earnings just pay for the gas and the salary of the driver), the more rational choice is to use it until it becomes full obsolete and do not replace it with a brand new unit.

But the sunk cost fallacy does not provide a criterion to distinguish sunk costs from just mere costs of a single plan. What a rational agent with transitive preferences discards in his considerations will be named sunk costs, and what he does not, will not. A pure tautology.

Even the snowfall case does not explain satisfactorily the said fallacy: when the agent bought the tickets, their cost were inferior to the income of watching the play, but a heavy snowfall adds not a marginal cost but increases the marginal cost of the plan composed by the cost of the tickets plus the cost of enduring the snowfall.

Notwithstanding, the sunk cost fallacy derives into a philosophical puzzle: what is the subject? How are relations between time and being and between being and becoming. It seems that our permanence as rational agents depends mostly upon not to put into practice the opportunistic approach of the sunk cost fallacy ad libidum.

Moreover, the matter has a political strand: constitutional constraints demand from the authorities to take into account the weight of certain principles in their decisions and those principles could be disregarded if the decisions are purely made on the basis of expediency. If it is the same authority the one who decides whether certain constitutional principle should be followed or not, then all the citizens would be left exposed to arbitrariness.

The considerations about the length of the period a plan should last, the responsibility upon the consequences of our past choices, and the weight of the constitutional principles on the legitimacy of political decisions, become rational if they are not pondered by an isolated agent but in the framework of the interplay among several agents.

This framework of human interaction upon which the agent’s choices take place had been characterised by Friedrich A.Hayek as a spontaneous, or abstract or extended order. He proposed to leave the term “economics” to the explanation of the choices made by an isolated agent and to establish the science of “catallaxy” as the study of the complex phenomena involved in the said structure of interactions. In the same line, James M.Buchanan labelled the interplay of individual agents as “symbiosis” and proposed to redefine the task of the political economy to its study.  More recently, in 2009, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, coined the term “open access orders” to analyse the same set of events. To this stream of thought, it also belongs Vernon L. Smith’s own account of the concept of ecological rationality.

Catallaxy, Symbiosis, Complex Phenomena, and Open Access Order or Ecological Rationality are some of the aspects of what Karl Popper once called “critical rationalism” and supersedes old problems such as those of the instrumental or subjective reason. An authentic “toolbox,” ready to be used.

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 9); Conclusion: legal-political institutions and systems

Institutions, whether formal or informal, consist of limitations on behaviour that allow structuring an order of human interaction (North, D.C., 1991). Such institutions endow decisions with their agents of transitivity and, consequently, with rationality and predictability. That is to say, an institution allows to conform expectations on a range of events dependent on individual decisions that will happen and, above all, on another range of events that will not happen or, if they do happen, they will generate an obligation to repair (either to a private individual through a pecuniary indemnity or to society through a criminal sanction).

For these reasons it is interesting to compare institutions with algorithms: a set of automatic procedures -and therefore devoid of arbitrariness on the part of any of the agents- that, according to the data provided by the environment, yield a range of possible results. In a modern political legal system (equality before the law, division of powers, political responsibility of high officials, principle of closure, etc.), such results show at the individual level a certain range of prohibited actions (the aforementioned principle of closure, everything that is not prohibited is allowed). At the individual level, an institution as an algorithm will allow us to predict what an individual will not do, but not what he will concretely do outside of that range of prohibited actions. At the governmental level, the opposite occurs: institutions allow us to anticipate what judicial decisions will be, which in turn will have to review laws and decrees that violate the rights and guarantees of individuals.

However, while institutions can function as algorithms, providing predictability to individual decisions and policies, they cannot function in a vacuum, but they need to be integrated into a legal and political system. This is so that it is impossible to enunciate them if it is not within the parameters configured by such systems. If institutions are algorithms, legal and political systems are abstract machines that select and integrate such institutions. It is the institutions integrated into a legal and political system that constitute a framework of incentives for human action.

Such institutions evolve following a natural selection pattern, when the legal-political system allows to act a negative feedback system mainly articulated by judicial decisions and precedents that readjust their meaning and content for the resolution of concrete controversies based on principles emanating from the legal system itself. Of course, each system represents the materialization of a set of values. Those of modernity, for example, are based, among others, on the dignity of the human person, which translates into the right to individual autonomy.

An ethic of political responsibility that defends such values ​​can be carried forward by rescuing an abstract system of dispute resolution between individuals that refrains from designing society from a central command. In many cases, such an ethic of responsibility must face ideological political programs that are presented under the guise of an ethics of principles.

Such antagonism is asymmetric, since the central design of society presents its followers with a concrete model and the promise that everything works. Although, this only leads, in practice, to an increasing number of decisions based on expediency. Thus, the opposite of the predictability and absence of arbitrariness of a system of spontaneous coordination of individual plans.

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 8 here, and the full essay can be read in its entirety here.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 5): Logical models

There is a thin line between the abstract model of “natural selection of institutions,” its instantiation in an imaginary example that interprets it and the application of that theory to interpret historical experience. The latter does not test the model, but is the result of the organization of the record of events around this interpretive model. The instantiation in an imaginary example is a visualization that allows us to identify the inconsistencies in the model -if there are any- and to test general predictions about the behaviour of the variables. Such interpretations of the model assume that the rest of the variables remain unchanged, that is, the ceteris paribus condition.

If the abstract model does not have inconsistencies, i.e.: if in its imaginary interpretation, contradictory events do not arise, and, nevertheless, its explanatory or predictive power is contradicted with the experience, this does not imply a refutation. On the contrary, it is an indicator that another set of events are acting that neutralize the effects of the process described by the theory. In this case, although the theory does not achieve results in terms of explanations and predictions, it does fulfil a heuristic function: that is, it inspires new lines of research and discovery.

One such line of such lines is, for example, how politics plays out in the process of natural selection of social habits and practices. As indicated by the School of Public Choice, the regulations on economic activity that affect the distribution of corporate profits, assign monopolies, restrict imports, intervene in the market of credits and capital to favour certain activities over others, among others many cases of economic dirigisme encourage the development of practices known as “lobbying.” Investing in human capital and new technologies means an opportunity cost that will never be assumed if higher yields are obtained as a result of influencing government decisions that protect the producer from competition, or allowing the State to sell at a price higher than the market price. Therefore, if experience is indicating a low capacity for innovation, lack of initiative and stagnation, it is most appropriate to focus the observation on which incentives are acting effectively in that country.

The counterpart of the logical models is the empirical models, the latter consist of abstractions of elements that occur in reality, highlighting their common notes to obtain various classifications of such elements, and they are a simplified scheme of perceived reality. However, any system of abstraction of the common notes of a set of objects requires a prior conceptualization of such notes as defining a set or class. In order to classify diverse populations in countries, it is previously necessary to be in possession of the notion of population, for example.

On the other hand, abstract notions are not necessarily conformed by a deliberate operation of consciousness, but by the perception of series of events that are repeated and differentiated from one another, generating in the cognitive apparatus an association of diverse stimuli. Out of habit arises the expectation that from the appearance of a particular event or series of events a range of determined events will follow and not follow another range of events of various kinds. On these spontaneous classifications, articulated around the repetition of events, their differential in the system of stimuli of the nervous apparatus, and the predisposition generated by the habit of waiting and ruling out the consequent appearance of other events and stimuli is that consciousness is conformed and the cognitive apparatus of the knowledge subject.

But, likewise, those “spontaneous classifications” allow the appearance of an abstract set of functionally related notions whose ordering does not depend on a deliberate decision. These are the cases of norms with empirical observation and of what Douglass North called “informal institutions.” The value of the contribution of Friedrich Hayek in Law, legislation and Liberty consists in both the positive legal norms (deliberately created by the legislator) and the informal institutions that condition our conduct also depend for their enunciation of that abstract order of notions that it arises from pure experience.

These logical models -as they are abstract- that make up the consciousness and the cognitive apparatus of the subjects, are in permanent trial and error testing and, therefore, in continuous reformulation. It is a kind of negative feedback process in which the frustration of an expectation is corrected in the interpretative scheme of reality that the individual has, in a process of continuous readjustment. From the invariant reiteration of a certain series of events, a structure is formed that serves as a parameter to order other events of less frequency or more erratic behaviour.

To the extent that the subject continues its experimentation, the spontaneous classification system that makes up its consciousness becomes more complex, incorporating new ranges of events, adjusting its frequency and incorporating new structures. These are the relative limits of knowledge. They depend on the experimentation and the readjustment of the abstract patterns that allowed the subject to classify the events of reality.

However, knowledge can also grow in another direction: consciousness can focus not on the events that come from its perceptions but in the analysis of the classifications themselves. In this activity, the abstract classification schemes that had been shaped by habit do not apply to reality, but reflect on these classifications and extend and reformulate them, not in terms of their experience, but in virtue of their abstract speculation. This is the task of deliberately shaping the logical models to be applied to the interpretation of reality.

The elaboration of a legal theory -for example, about representation-, the description of a market structure -for example, monopolistic competition-, the outline of a sociological explanation -through the ideal types statement, to cite a case- , are situations in which the subject of knowledge does not experiment on events, but reformulates the classificatory systems that until then had arrived spontaneously. Knowledge in this case does not grow in specificity, but increases in levels of abstraction.

These are the cases in which the historian questions not only the interpretative frameworks he uses, but also the conditions that underlie these interpretative frameworks. The philosophy of science dabbled in the scientific paradigms (Thomas Kuhn), or in the research programs (Imre Lakatos), or in the great stories (Jean Francois Lyotard). The common denominator of these three concepts can be found in that they lack an “author,” they are inferences, true conjectures that we make about the framework in which a given scientific community develops tacitly.

Many interpret these currents of philosophy of science, although diverse, as relativistic, since they lend themselves to postulate that the statements of science are conditioned by the historical circumstances that serve as the frame of legitimation. There would not be a truth in itself, but a truth enunciated in a frame of reference. Another way to see it is to interpret these scientific communities structured around a set of practices, procedures, and validation rules whose origin is mainly spontaneous in a sort of “abstract discovery machines.”

In general, a series of physical devices conformed in a process of transforming inputs into exits is called a machine. But such physical devices are organized according to an abstract plane that assigns them functions for a certain process. This plane can be interpreted through mental operations without resorting to the construction of the physical machine, throwing said mental operations verifiable results; we are faced with an abstract machine. In recent times, the term “algorithm” has also been used to compare an information process that does not depend on the free will of the researchers, but consists in the follow-up of an automatic process.

In this line, Friedrich Hayek characterized competition as a process of discovery, that is, as an abstract machine that processes data and yields results that describe reality. In fact, the discovery would be the only function of a system of free competition that gives a differential over the rest of the systems. A monopoly, whose margins of profitability were controlled either by a maximum price or by a tax on profits, would be more efficient in terms of the production of a given good, than a set of small producers without market power and without scale. The scale of the monopolistic producer allows greater efficiency at a technological level than small producers competing with each other, being able to resolve economic inefficiency through regulatory or tax tools. However, in what a system of free competition is incomparably superior is in terms of the discovery process that drives its own dynamics. These are the benefits that innovation brings, as a consequence of an unanticipated system of free competition or competition, which far exceed all the supposed advantages of a regulated system.

It is this innovation that produces, most of the time involuntarily, an institutional system of free competition, called by Acemoglu & Robinson “inclusive economic institutions” – the one that allowed Hayek to characterize it as a process of discovery, in other words, as an abstract innovation machine.

This characterization of innovation processes through institutions that function as algorithms that produce new knowledge can also be extended to scientific communities and to the evolutionary process of legal norms.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, and the full essay can be read in its entirety here.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 1): Introduction

Countries can change their course, they can turn from stagnation towards growth, as it is the case of South Korea in the last fifty years. They can also decline after a boom period. Together with other examples of successes and failures, these are indications that economic performance does not depend on geography, culture, or the education of ruling elites. Following the line expressed by other authors such as Douglass C. North (Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, 1990), William Easterly (The Elusive Quest for Growth, 2001) and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Why Nations Fail, 2012), it is appropriate to maintain that the economic performance of nations, expressed in their growth, depends on the incentives provided to individuals by institutional frameworks. The incentive systems -that is, the institutions- evolve, and with them the fate of the countries. But to achieve such evolution, there must first be a change in the level of commonly accepted notions about what is right and what is wrong for governments to put into practice. That is, what are the principles that should inform the legislative policy that puts into effect such institutional frameworks to order the expectations of society.

[Editor’s note: This is the first part of a new series. You can find the full essay here.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 8): Conclusion

Far from the custom of assigning to cultural factors, or educational, or geographic or relative to the particular constitution of the ruling elites, the three works reviewed – Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, by Douglass C. North; The Elusive Quest for Growth, by William Easterly and Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, state an explanation of the progress and decline of nations articulated on abstract incentives, which serve as a structure in which frame the rational agent makes his choices. The four authors have a common reference to methodological individualism, but such an individual agent does not make decisions in a vacuum, but inserted within a framework of incentives.

That such incentives, to act as points of reference for individual action, should materialize historically, does not mean that such conditions for action come from a particular circumstance of time and place, but that they depend on an abstract structure that relates to different terms and that is present in every phenomenon of human interaction.

To finish, it is worth referring to the conclusions reached by North in his referenced work: the case of the two successive Spanish Americas, the Habsburg and the Bourbons. The first extended from the discovery and colonization of America to the early eighteenth century. The viceroyalties of America enjoyed great political autonomy – Spanish immigration had been little and a “Creole” elite had developed – and they were closed to trade, which was limited to the “export” of gold to Spain. With the arrival of the Bourbons at the beginning of the 18th century and the implementation of their Reforms – which from the economic point of view were a resounding success both in Spain and in America – the relationship was reversed: political power passed into the hands of the “Peninsular Spaniards” and an opening of a more fluid trade between the metropolis and its colonies was launched. North explains that the independence movements could be successful due to a transitory alliance between the sectors that wanted to return to the Habsburg system and those who wanted to deepen the modernizing and free-market impulse of the Bourbons. Once achieved independence, these two currents came into conflict, which, according to the author, would extend until today.

According to North’s thesis on Spanish America, there would be two political patterns in tension: on the one hand, an elitist politician who is open to the economy and on the other a “popular” current that is traditionally protectionist. In the second half of the 19th century, success belonged to the “Bourbon pattern” and, in the 20th Century, the “Habsburg pattern” prevailed. In terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it would be the dispute between a combination of extractive political institutions with inclusive economic institutions and another combination of inclusive political institutions with extractive economic institutions. Of course, in practice, moments of extractive political and economic institutions were also known, as well as short-lived experiences of inclusive institutions, both politically and economically.

The notion of polarized societies used by Easterly can serve as a way to deepen this analysis. It is much clearer to find problems of countries with societies divided into distant and dissimilar regions, in which the policy is expressly articulated as a function of tribes or ethnic groups and which the dispute over public policies expressly favors or harms a another ethnic group. However, as it has been stated, it is not ethnicity or nationality that determines the low economic and institutional performance of a country, but the polarization structure itself, whatever the functions in which such polarization is expressed (language, religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc.). Understanding these latter is fundamental to be able to provide a common thread for a principle of solution.

Just as on the political level an express agreement can be reached on the way to choose who exercises public power and under what conditions, Easterly states a series of conditions related to economic institutions whose agreement would allow for economic growth, regardless of the region, culture, or education of the ruling class of each country. Throughout The Elusive Quest for Growth you can find mentioned to free trade as a main factor of progress, monetary stability and exchange freedom as examples of clear and equitable rules, a state that participates in large infrastructure works but that refrain from arbitrating in the distribution of economic rents among various groups, a low level of public indebtedness, stability in property rights and an independent justice that allows individuals to innovate and save, as well as support programs and incentives to members of society who are immersed in poverty traps.

As mentioned, many times the policy -especially when, in the terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it is inclusive- consists of the composition of interests of various kinds for the purpose of articulating a government program. From the work of the authors commented here, it can be inferred that, just as there is an agreement on the political plane regarding the rules of the democratic game, which include periodic elections, limited re-elections and division of powers, among others, there should also be a consensus in a body of economic institutions that should be left out of political negotiation, so that economic policy is as neutral as possible against the conflicting interests of which a country with a polarized society is composed.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 7, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 6): Breaking the mold

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson acknowledge that the weakest point of their theory consists of recommendations to “break the mold.” How to change the historical matrix that leaves the nations stagnant in extractive political and economic institutions, or that move them back from having inclusive economic institutions with extractive political institutions to being trapped in exclusively extractive institutions with the risk of falling into a failed state. This brings us to Douglass C. North and his theory of institutional change.

Although he published works before and after Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, this book can be taken as the archetypal expression of neo-institutionalism. In the United States, institutionalism, whose main speaker was the Swedish immigrant Thorstein Veblen, was the local expression of what in Europe was known as “historicism”: a romantic current, inspired by Hegelian idealism, which denied the universal validity of institutional rules and claimed the particularism of the historical experience of each nation. American historicism was called institutionalism, because it concentrated the sciences of the spirit in the empirical study of the institutions given in the United States.

On the contrary, North’s school is called “neo-institutionalist” because it does exactly the opposite: it studies the phenomenon of institutions from a behavioral point of view and, therefore, universal. As already noted here, for North institutions are limiting the choice of the rational agent in his context of political, economic and social interaction. These limitations are abstract; that is, they are not physical, like the law of gravity, nor do they depend on a specific and specific order of authority. Examples of these abstract limitations can be found in social customs and uses, in moral rules, in legal norms insofar as they are enunciated in general and abstract terms.

Attentive to such diversity, Douglass C. North groups institutions in formal and informal. Within the formal institutions we find, unquestionably, the positive law, in which its rules of formation and transformation of the statements that articulate them can be identified very clearly. In a modern democracy, laws are sanctioned by the legislative body of the State. Meanwhile, the rules of formation and transformation of statements concerning morality are more diffuse – previously, Carlos Alchourrón and Eugenio Buligyn, in Normative Systems, had used this distinction to support the application of deontic logic to law, since deontic statements of law are much more easily identifiable than those of morality.

On the other hand, North distinguishes two types of institutional change: the disruptive and the incremental. An example of disruptive institutional change can be a revolution, but it can also be a legislative reform. The sanction of a new Civil Code, entirely new, can mean a disruptive change, while partial reforms, which incorporate judicial interpretative criteria or praetorian creations, can be examples of incremental changes.

Institutional changes do not necessarily have to come from their source of creation or validity. Scientific discoveries, advances in transport and telecommunications, information technologies, are some of the innovations that can make certain institutions obsolete or generate a new role or interpretation for it, depending on the open texture of the language.

Therefore, following the tradition of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Ferguson, neo-institutionalism admits that there are unintended consequences in the field of institutional change. Not only the incremental change of institutions, be they formal or informal, depends largely on changes in the cultural and physical environment in which institutions are deployed. Also the disruptive and deliberate change of a formal institution can generate unforeseen consequences, since it is articulated on a background of more abstract informal institutions.

Both Acemoglu & Robinson and North acknowledge that there is no universal law of history that determines institutional change -i.e., they deny historicism, as Karl R. Popper had defined it at the time-; what we have, on the other hand, is an “evolutionary drift,” a blind transformation of institutions. In this transformation, political will and environmental conditions interact. The latter not only limit the range of options for the exercise of “institutional engineering,” but also introduce an element of uncertainty in the outcome of such institutional policies, the aforementioned unintended consequences.

Much more complex is to identify which components are included in that black box that is called “environment” (environment). In principle, there could reappear the creatures that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson had banished from their explanations: the geography, culture and education of the ruling elites; more sophisticated elements such as the one referred to in the previous paragraph could also be incorporated: technological change. However, the discoveries of science would have no impact if the institutional framework pursued “creative destruction”, seeking to protect already installed activities from competition, or a lifestyle threatened by technological innovation.

We arrive here at a seemingly paradoxical situation: the institutions’ environment is the institutions. Using the Douglass North classifications system, one could try as a solution to this paradox the assertion that formal institutions operate on the background of informal institutions, which escape political will, and that disruptive institutional changes occur in a context of other institutions that are transformed in an incremental way. From this solution to reintroduce culture as a factor of ultimate explanation of institutional change, only one step remains.

At the other extreme, following the typologies used by Acemoglu & Robinson, the institutions can be political or economic and these in turn can be extractive or inclusive, jointly or alternatively. Inclusive economic institutions within a framework of extractive political institutions can result in a limitation of creative destruction and, consequently, produce a regression to extractive economic institutions. In the institutional dynamics of Acemoglu & Robinson, history can both progress and regress: from economic institutions and extractive policies it can be involuted even to situations of failed state and civil war. To reach the end of history, with inclusive institutions, seems to depend on the conjugation of a series of favorable variables, among which is the political will; while to fall back into chaos and civil war it is enough to let go. Without looking for it, the conceptual background of Why Nations Fail rehabilitates the thesis of Carl Schmitt insofar as it presupposes that in the background of human interaction there is no cooperation but conflict.

For his part, William Easterly in The Elusive Quest for Growth does not ask these questions, but simply works under a hypothesis that already has it answered: whenever there is human interaction, there will be a framework of incentives and such a framework of incentives will have certain universal characteristics. Douglass C. North’s central concern in Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, as well as that of Acemoglu & Robinson in Why Nations Fail, was to establish patterns of events and conditions that made some nations be prosperous while others could not emerge from stagnation. That is, they are works that must necessarily be about the differences between one country and another and, therefore, emphasize the different conditions. Notwithstanding that both North and Acemoglu & Robinson expressly shun culturalist explanations, but instead postulate abstract models and typologies of institutions and institutional change to be applied universally, when the moment of exemplification arrives, they must necessarily resort to the differences between countries and regions. While it is true that both books resort to the description of the problems of the southern United States when illustrating how certain institutions generate results similar to those of third world countries, the culturalist explanation is always available.

In contrast, William Easterly in his The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics focuses almost exclusively on countries with low economic performance and only tangentially refers to cases of high performance. Therefore, in his work, the empirical analytical tools used to dissect it are well separated. To do this, Easterly will not only use a utility-maximizing rational agent model, but will also enunciate abstract models of universally valid human interaction.

In the first part of the work, Easterly describes the failed panaceas of growth: direct aid, investment, education, population control, loans to make adjustments and subsequent debt forgiveness. Affirms that such policies invariably failed because they did not take into account the basic principle of the economy that indicates that people respond to incentives (people respond to incentives, a statement that is repeated as a mantra throughout the book). While acknowledging that in some cases of extreme poverty and bad luck it is necessary for governments to take direct action to help people escape from poverty traps, the author proposes as the main means for people to take a path of prosperity: work to establish the right incentives. It clarifies, however, that this should not be a new panacea but a principle to be implemented little by little, displacing the layers of vested interests impregnated with the wrong incentives and allowing the entrance of the right incentives.

These incentives, right or wrong, do not depend on the culture, nor on the education of the elites, nor on geography. On the contrary, they consist of abstract models of human interaction, which can materialize at any time or latitude. Since the main interest of The Elusive Quest for Growth is, precisely, growth, such models concern this matter, but nothing prevents future research from identifying other abstract patterns of behavior that allow us to infer incentives to address other issues, such as crime, equity, violence, etc.

Some incentive structures that Easterly describes in relation to the problem of growth are the following: conditions for increasing returns – instead of decreasing ones – that come from technological innovation, which in turn depend on phenomena identified as “leakage of technological knowledge” (leaks of technological knowledge), “combination of skills” (matches of skills) and traps (traps) of poverty -although there are also wealth traps.

Technological knowledge has the capacity to filter into a population because it is mainly abstract. It can be exemplified in an accounting system, the practice of carrying inventories, literacy, techniques and procedures for the production, distribution and sale of products, etc. If the technological knowledge consisted exclusively of physical machinery, then yes it would be to a point where yields would become decreasing. On the contrary, understanding technological knowledge as consisting of “abstract machines”, it acquires the characteristics of a public good: it is not consumed with its use nor can it be exclusive. This is how technological knowledge can be extended in a society, multiplying the productivity of its members without entering into diminishing returns.

Also, following the ideas of the recent Nobel Prize in Economics Paul Romer, Easterly highlights that technological change can generate increasing returns thanks to the work of an endogenous agent of the economy, the entrepreneur. Being the labor force a fixed factor of production with respect to machinery, it is expected that, at a certain point, capital will generate diminishing returns, thus conditioning the growth rate of an economy (the main concern of The Elusive Quest for Growth). For its part, the entrepreneur is not only that agent of the economy who discovers new business, he also discovers new uses for existing capital goods. Easterly does not mention it, but this is also the main conclusion reached by Ludwig Lachmann in his work Capital and Its Structure. This work of the entrepreneurs, to find a new utility for a set of capital goods that had come to generate diminishing returns, making them continue to generate increasing returns is what frees the rate of growth of the economy from the limits of technological change and, in turn, makes it depend on the endogenous factor of the economy: the incentives for entrepreneurs to develop their activity -which some call creative destruction.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 5 and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 4): Institutions and the Rule of Law

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson call the set of regulations that obstruct innovation “extractive institutions.” Of course, here again, extractive institutions are less harmful than the total absence of institutions. Not every change in the status quo can be interpreted as “creative destruction” or “entrepreneurship.” As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in Law, Legislation and Freedom, so that the most mutually compatible plans can be carried out, it is necessary that a well-defined set of expectations be systematically frustrated: the usurpations, the frauds, collusions, the paramilitary bands, etc., etc. The main thing is to have institutions that guarantee a minimum of order. Now, many times the institutions manage to be put into effect as a result of having the consensus of a certain number of interests that see in the law an opportunity to extract benefits. It is the distinction between Acemoglu & Robinson between the already mentioned “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” The latter are constituted by that set of rules that formally are equal for all and that materially protect private property, the value of money, competition understood as freedom of entry to markets, among other values ​​of modern capitalism.

The distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions can find its parallelism in the expressions of “Rule by Law” and “Rule of Law.” The first consists on the accommodation of general and abstract normative statements with a second intention: to benefit a group at the expense of society as a whole. It is common to hear the criticism that the law has a false neutrality and that therefore any defense of the “Rule of Law” must be ideological (in the Marxist sense of the term). However, what distinguishes the concept of “Rule of Law” from “Rule by Law” is that, for the first of the terms, the consequences are unlikely to be predicted in terms of their particular and even more individual, while the second has an intentionality, declared or hidden.

To give an example, the procedural due process has such a degree of abstraction that it can hardly be predicted who will benefit from those proceedings. However, a law that prohibits the importation of a product of domestic manufacture clearly aims to redistribute resources from consumers to the local producers (although this type of regulation usually also generates consequences that are very difficult to foresee and often contrary to its original intentional).

Critics of the Rule of Law state that it is not neutral, because it protects exclusively the interests of the proprietors. However, such criticism loses sight of the fact that in the Modernity, any inhabitant, even those who are not citizens, can have access to the right to property, regardless of whether or not they belong to a certain caste, class, or social class. This, unlike the legal and political systems of the so-called Ancien Régime, which limited access to private property in perpetuity and irrevocably to a certain group of people, or even more, to a certain clan or group of families. It does not matter if, in Modernity, a person does not own any particular good, as long as he can count on the expectation of being able to become one at some time. In this sense, private property understood in the modern sense as that right that any inhabitant can enjoy from having stability in their possessions to the point of only being stripped of it by their own consent or by following the procedural due process.

This unlike laws protecting infant industries, professions or trades, or promotion of certain activities that are deemed as socially necessary or valuable, which establish a regime of transfers of resources from one sector of society to another. As the School of Public Choice indicates, such laws encourage “lobbying” and reduce the efficiency in the allocation of resources. In such institutional arrangements, individuals and businesses do not prosper through the discipline of serving the consumer, but through political agreements. Economic agents continue to maximize, but at the expense of regulations that deliberately establish certain winners (the owners of protected activities) and certain losers (consumers and potential producers who are denied access to protected activities). Under these circumstances, the citizenry begins to perceive an arbitrary sense in the norms and have no moral issues with challenging them (any contraband, without commercial purposes, is a clear example of this). Obviously, when non-compliance with standards becomes so extensive, regulations become ineffective. Moreover, as James M. Buchanan put it in his brief essay “A policy in the interests of producers,” the stagnation generated by protectionism means that the winners of such a system – the protected producers – turn out to be less rich than they would be in an open and competitive institutional framework.

Sometimes protectionism seeks its foundation in a mistaken theory of “original accumulation.” (Joseph Schumpeter ruled out the validity of such proposals by pointing out that, although those could have had some basis until the 19th century, the development of capital markets made this theory completely obsolete.)

However, neither Douglass North, nor William Easterly, nor Acemoglu & Robinson, deal with the problem of original accumulation. They prefer to encompass such phenomena within the set of erroneous theories that serve to justify policies arising from political agreements in polarized societies. This means that a certain institutional arrangement, an economic growth policy, a stabilization program, a constitutional reform, foreign policy and so on, in a polarized society is not inspired by abstract and formal principles but in concrete goals that benefit certain sectors of society above others.

The examples of polarized societies, to which Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson turn, come mostly from African countries since these are mostly created in the process of decolonization and comprise different ethnic groups and languages ​​within themselves, so polarization is much more evident: certain policies benefit a certain ethnic group over another. Easterly specifically cites the case of an African nation in which an ethnic group that represents 10% of the population lives in the region where a certain commodity is produced and whose export generates large revenues and, in the meantime, the government is elected, with some exceptions, by 90% of the remaining population, which imposes export rights on the said commodity, whose collection is destined to industrialization plans that systematically fail.

It is often tempting to explain the failure of such industrialization plans for the corruption evidenced in their execution. In fact, corruption cases are verified, but public policy would also fail even if those involved were incorruptible. Many times bad policies destroy much more wealth than political corruption. Corruption implies a transfer of resources and, therefore, an inefficient allocation of resources, while bad public policies result in the destruction of wealth.

However, examples of polarized societies in African countries can generate confusion around the main message of The Elusive Quest for Growth and Why Nations Fail. The economic performance of nations has nothing to do with geography, culture, or lack of preparation of the ruling elites to draw the plans of government. Easterly holds the main responsibility for the rise and fall of nations in incentives, while Acemoglu & Robinson point to the institutions that establish such incentive schemes. Regarding the opinion of Douglass C. North, although his line of research can lend itself to a “culturalist” interpretation, he himself recognizes the disruptive change of formal institutions as a determining factor of economic performance.

In summary, the three works discussed here have as a common denominator the role of incentives as a determinant of the economic performance of countries, above culture (which North would call “informal institutions”), geography, or the level of education of its elites. However, the case of polarized societies is presented as a critical point of such approaches.

José Luis de Imaz in Los que mandan (The ones who command) had defined politics as the activity consisting of articulating diverse interests according to a coherent plan of government. The definition of Imaz deserves to be put back into use, since it addresses the problem of polarization and also because its double edge allows to tie the loose ends left by the visions that we can group, with greater or lesser precision, under the “neo- institutionalist” (clearly the case of North, although it would be pending to discuss the label for Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson).

Notwithstanding, that polarization is manifest in tribal or caste societies does not mean that it is not present in other societal forms. In the United States, the north and south; in Europe, the separatist movements; in Argentina, the interior and Buenos Aires. With greater or lesser intensity, manifestly or latently, politics is always structured on a space of tension of interests in competition for resources. Those who frequent the work of Carl Schmitt often claim that trade and law are “civilized” means for the exchange and dispute of such resources, politics and war are on the other side of the same question in terms of intensity of the conflict.

However, the term institutions – which define incentives – does not refer only to deliberate political agreements in pursuit of a specific purpose, such as a given public policy. The concept of institution also concerns a series of abstract and general principles whose final result at a particular level no one can foresee, because their level of abstraction imposes an insurmountable limit for the knowledge of its concrete consequences.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 3; Here is the entire, Longform Essay]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 2); Institutions: definition and subtypes

Implicitly, Douglass C. North, William Easterly, and Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson share the same notion of “institution.” In this respect, what must be taken into account is not a real definition of the former but its operative concept, that is, what characteristic features relate it to the rest of the concepts of each theoretical body. In this sense, we can affirm that for these authors an institution is a limiting factor for human interaction. More precisely, in terms of D.C. North, institutions can be defined as abstract constraints imposed on human social decisions that structure political, economic, and social interaction. The rational agent finds limited its action and its spectrum of choices by institutions, which can be derived as much from the law as from custom, his habits, or his moral constraints.

However, the particular limitations that a particular person experiences are not relevant, but those that are incorporated into the behavior of a large number of human beings that interact with each other, which allows them to recognize a structural pattern of human social action. In this way, although an institution limits human action, because it is widespread throughout the social fabric, building it, it allows each individual inserted in such a set of interactions to represent expectations about the behavior of their fellow human beings that have a high probability of being true (something similar to what Friedrich A. Hayek had previously enunciated in his concept of “spontaneous order”). These expectations allow each individual to make plans with a high degree of probability of accomplishment, or at least to identify those actions that could be ruinous. In this sense, an institution is not only a limitation of human action, but, correlatively, a motivator for it, i. e. an incentive. The structure of human interactions that institutions project in the political, economic, and social fields helps the rational agent to make more efficient decisions, since they have a lower margin of risk. Of course, not all the incentives generate the same economic performance.

It is true that any pattern of human interactions that constrains the scope of choices of the agent (i.e., institutions), however inefficient they might be, represent an advantage over the total absence of it, since it works as a hedge against the arbitrary power and violence from third parties. Thus, the main distinction to be drawn is between anomie and institutionalization.

This latter opinion is expressly stated in Why Nations Fail: the extractive institutions -the ones that establish rules that favor a group at the expense of the whole-, both politically and economically, although they are harmful, are less so than civil war, polarization, factions, or anarchy. Acemoglu & Robinson argue that a country that does not have “inclusive” institutions, but at least have extractive institutions, might experience a rapid development obtained from the importation of discoveries from better organized countries – the phenomenon of “catch up.” However, after reaching a certain maturity, if the country in question does not advance towards political and economic opening, stagnation and subsequent implosion will be difficult to avoid.

Here is where the book of Acemoglu & Robinson finds its point of greatest affinity with the work of William Easterly: to continue on a path of growth and development, countries and their ruling classes must be willing to admit that progress only comes through innovation and that all innovation is accompanied by a process of “creative destruction.”

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 1 here. You can find the entire Longform Essay here.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 1): Introduction

There are books that are aimed at a spectrum of readers that are counted within the “well-informed public.” They are not books confined to academic circles, they are not for mass consumption, but they do concern problems that involve entire countries and are written in a register that involves certain intellectual training. In this genre, there are three works that have much to say about the relationship between institutions and incentives. The first of them dates from 1990 and was published by a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Douglass C. North: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, which elaborates the distinction between formal and informal institutions and incremental and disruptive institutional change, ending with a historical analysis that seeks to explain the differences in economic performance between the United States and Latin America. It is an academic book that can be approached by the said well-informed public.

Eleven years later, in 2001, William Easterly published The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. It is proposed as a political essay in which an economist interprets his own professional experience as a member of international teams for the development of Third World countries. To do this, drawing on the theoretical notions of other leading economists, such as Paul Romer (who later, in 2018, received the Nobel Prize in Economics), he makes an assessment on the development plans for the Third World that were implemented since the end of World War II. The central thesis of Easterly stresses that, in order to have an empirical relevance, every theory of development -or of the absence of it- must carry the following behavioral postulate: “people respond to incentives.” If this reality is not taken into account, there is no public policy that can be successful. The main lessons that can be drawn come from the theoretical instruments deployed to explain the political dynamics of most of these countries, particularly in regard to the phenomenon of polarized societies.

The third book to consider is also the more recent publication. Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, was published in 2012 and reached the global debate on the realm of the well-informed public. The proportions achieved by the population of academics and professionals, in addition to the extension of the internet, allowed the aforementioned book to generate varied opinions along both traditional and digital media throughout the world. Acemoglu & Robinson dedicate their pages to those countries that were successful, as well as those that were not, but also here, in the case of this book, the most juicy lessons truly comes from the conceptual structure that articulates the whole book. Among such notions, we find those of inclusive and extractive institutions, which in turn are divided into political and economic institutions. The worst of the institutions are preferable to the total lack of institutions. Thus, a country organized around a closed political and economic system will be preferable to a failed state. However, once a certain degree of centralization and institutionality has been achieved, it is preferable to move towards a pluralist democracy and a competitive economy. The challenge is how to accomplish such transitions.

Since there are still four years left until the year 2023 – following the periodicity of the selected works – we are still in time to make a brief synthesis of the ideas that can be applied to the analysis of the impact of the institutions on economic and political incentives.

[Editor’s note: this is the first part of a rich series on institutions and incentives. You can find the full, Longform Essay here.]

Revisiting Epstein’s Freedom and Growth

I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. At the time I was devoted to a story of economic growth shaped by Douglass North, particularly Structure and Change in Economic History (1981).

The focus of Structure and Change was on transaction costs. High transaction costs limited market exchange and kept societies poor for most of history. Sustained economic growth could only occur once transaction costs fell to a level that allowed markets to expand and the division of labor to develop. On this view, market expansion or Smithian growth was itself a stimulus to technological innovation. But what kept transaction costs high?

One answer North gave was the state. To paraphrase: the state had the ability to both keep a society mired in poverty through predatory behavior and to provide the preconditions for growth by securing property rights. The origins of sustained economic growth for North lay in institutional changes that occurred secured property rights and lowered transaction costs. The most important such institutional change was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

North’s account received many challenges, but the issue that Epstein honed in on was the assumption that there was such a state, able to either revoke or secure property rights. It was assumed that “rulers rule”. Epstein contested this arguing that New Institutional Economists

“project backwards in time a form of centralised sovereignty and jurisdictional integration that was first achieved in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century; they therefore fundamentally misrepresent the character of pre-modern states.”

North, Wallis, and Weingast would address this in their 2009 Violence and Social Orders. But Epstein’s criticism was spot on in 2000. Epstein argued that alongside the problem of predatory states, a central problem was the lack of integrated markets. He attributed market disintegration to coordination and prisoners’ dilemma problems between political authorities. In so doing, Epstein set the agenda for the subsequent “state capacity” research agenda.

Epstein made several points which continued to be expanded upon by current research (see here). First, he documented that the lower interest rates that the British state paid after 1688 were characteristic of city republics from the middle ages onwards. He argued that the English monarchy in the 17th century was characterized by an anomalously backwards financial system. Lower interest rates after 1688 partly represent a convergence to the Republican norm achieved by Italian city-states centuries earlier.

Second, he challenged the argument that monarchies “overtaxed” cities. There was “no evidence that townspeople paid higher taxes under monarchies than republics”. Per capita taxes were likely higher in Republican city-states.

Third, he disputed that Republican city-states like Florence brought economic freedom noting that “republican subjects faced several limitations to their economic and political freedoms that monarchical subjects did not”. All of this challenged generalizations made by historical sociologists like Charles Tilly and economic historians like North.

Epstein’s historical evidence came from medieval Italy. Late medieval Italy was highly urbanized and prosperous by pre-industrial standards. According to Broadberry’s estimates, per capita GDP in Italy in 1450 was not matched by England until 1750. Like growth elsewhere in the premodern world, it was Smithian growth, driven by trade, market integration, and the division of labor. But unlike in England, this Smithian growth did not continue and blossom into modern growth. Epstein’s explanation for why this did not take place was that late medieval Italy suffered an “integration crisis”.

He saw the late medieval period as characterized by new opportunities for growth and innovation. Urbanization increased. Capital markets expanded and deepened. Interregional trade developed. Proto-industrialization took place. But Epstein contended these opportunities were only seized in areas where political authority was centralization.

In reference to proto-industrialization, he observed that

“Crucially, the success of regional crafts was inversely proportional to the concentration of economic and institutional power in the hands of a dominant city.”

With respect to the establishment of permanent fairs, he noted that

In fifteenth-century Lombardy, new fairs proliferated only after the balance of power shifted decisively from the former city-states to the territorial prince with Francesco Sforza’s victory in 1447.

Market integration was complemented and perhaps driven by political integration. Integrated urban hierarchies were themselves the product of political centralization.

“Centralisation underlies all the major institutional changes to market structures previously described. It lowered domestic transport costs, made it easier to enforce contracts and to match demand and supply, intensified economic competition between towns and strengthened urban hierarchies, weakened urban monopolies over the countryside, and stimulated labour mobility and technological diffusion.”

The more centralized parts of Italy — notably Lombardy — were better able to benefit from these trends than was Tuscany. But in general, political fragmentation and regional diversity were “distinctive features of pre-modern Italy” in general and an impediment to its long-run growth prospects.

Unlike in his analysis of interest rates, Epstein brought little data to bear on these claims and I am unaware of subsequent research on late medieval Italy. As such, the thesis of a late medieval integration crisis laid out in Freedom and Growth remains speculative. Epstein would no doubt have fill in the details had he lived longer. Subsequent research has mostly focused on early modern rather than medieval Europe (see here).  But the larger message: the importance of the state for premodern economic development has been central to subsequent research, including my own work (e.g. here).

On the popularity of economic history

I recently engaged in a discussion (a twittercussion) with Leah Boustan of Princeton over the “popularity” of economic history within economics (depicted below).  As one can see from the purple section, it is as popular as those hard candies that grandparents give out on Halloween (to be fair, I like those candies just like I do economic history). More importantly, the share seems to be smaller than at the peak of 1980s. It also seems like the Nobel prize going to Fogel and North had literally no effects on the subfield’s popularity. Yet, I keep hearing that “economic history is back”. After all, the Bates Clark medal went to Donaldson of Stanford this year which should confirm that economic history is a big deal.  How can this be reconciled with the figure depicted below?


As I explained in my twittercussion with Leah, I think that there is a popularity for using historical data. Economists have realized that if some time is spent in archives to collect historical data, great datasets can be assembled. However, they do not necessarily consider themselves “economic historians” and as such they do not use the JEL code associated with history.  This is an improvement over a field where Arthur Burns (former Fed Chair) supposedly said during the 1970s that we needed to look at history to better shape monetary policy. And by history, he meant the 1950s. However, while there are advantages, there is an important danger which is left aside.

The creation of a good dataset has several advantages. The main one is that it increases time coverage. By increasing the time coverage, you can “tackle” the big questions and go for the “big answers” through the generation of stylized facts. Another advantage (and this is the one that summarizes my whole approach) is that historical episodes can provide neat testing grounds that give us a window to important economic issues. My favorite example of that is the work of Petra Moser at NYU-Stern. Without going into too much details (because her work was my big discovery of 2017), she used a few historical examples which she painstakingly detailed in order to analyze the effect of copyright laws. Her results have important ramifications to debates regarding “science as a public good” and “science as a contribution good” (see the debates between Paul David and Terence Kealey on this in Research Policy for this point).

But these two advantages must be weighted against an important disadvantage which Robert Margo has warned against in a recent piece in Cliometrica.  When one studies economic history, one must keep in mind that two things must be accomplished simultaneously: to explain history through theory and bring theory to life through history (this is not my phrase, but rather that of Douglass North). To do so, one must study a painstaking amount of details to ascertain the quality of the sources used and their reliability.  In considering so many details, one can easily get lost or even fall prey to his own prior (i.e. I expect to see one thing and upon seeing it I ask no question). To avoid this trap, there must be a “northern star” to act as a guide. That star, as I explained in an earlier piece, is a strong and general understanding of theory (or a strong intuition for economics). To create that star and give attention to details is an incredibly hard task and which is why I argued in the past that “great” economic historians (Douglass North, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Fogel, Nathan Rosenberg, Joel Mokyr, Ronald Coase (because of the lighthouse piece), Stephen Broadberry, Gregory Clark etc.) take a longer time to mature. In other words, good economic historians are projects that have have a long “time to build problem” (sorry, bad economics joke).  However, the downside is that when this is not the case, there are risks of ending up with invalid results that are costly and hard to contest.

Just think about the debate between Daron Acemoglu and David Albouy on the colonial origins of development. It took more than five years to Albouy to get his results that threw doubts on Acemoglu’s 1999 paper. Albouy clearly expended valuable resources to get the “details” behind the variables. There was miscoding of Niger and Nigeria, and misunderstandings of what type of mortalities were used.  This was hard work and it was probably only deemed a valuable undertaking because Acemoglu’s paper was such a big deal (i.e. the net gains were pretty big if they paid off). Yet, to this day, many people are entirely unaware of the Albouy rebuttal.  This can be very well seen in the image below regarding the number of cites of the Acemoglu-Johnson-Robinson paper on an annual basis. There seems to be no effect from the massive rebuttal (disclaimer: Albouy convinced me that he was right) from the Albouy piece.


And it really does come down to small details like those underlined by Albouy. Let me give you another example taken from my work. Within Canada, the French minority is significantly poorer than the rest of Canada. From my cliometric work, we now know that there were poorer than the rest of Canada and North America as far as the colonial era. This is a stylized fact underlying a crucial question today (i.e. Why are French-Canadians relatively poor).  That stylized fact requires an explanation. Obviously, institutions are a great place to look. One of the institution that is most interesting is seigneurial tenure which was basically a “lite” version of feudalism in North America that was present only in the French settled colonies. Some historians and economic historians argued that there were no effects of the institutions on variables like farm efficiency.  However, some historians noticed that in censuses the French reported different units that the English settlers within the colony of Quebec. To correct for this metrological problem, historians made county-level corrections. With those corrections, the aforementioned has no statistically significant effect on yields or output per farm. However, as I note in this piece that got a revise and resubmit from Social Science Quarterly (revised version not yet online), county-level corrections mask the fact that the French were more willing to move to predominantly English areas than the English were willing to predominantly French areas. In short, there was a skewed distribution. However, once you correct the data on an ethnic composition basis rather than on the county-level (i.e. the same correction for the whole county), you end with a statistically significant negative effect on both output per farm and yields per acre. In short, we were “measuring away” the effect of institutions. All from a very small detail about distributions. Yet, that small detail has supported a stylized fact that the institution did not matter.

This is the risk that Margo speaks about illustrated in two examples. Economists who use history merely as a tool may end up making dramatic mistakes that will lead to incorrect conclusions. I take this “juicy” quote from Margo (which Pseudoerasmus) highlighted for me:

[EH] could become subsumed entirely into other fields… the demand for specialists in economic history might dry up, to the point where obscure but critical knowledge becomes difficult to access or is even lost. In this case, it becomes harder to ‘get the history right’

Indeed, unfortunately.

On doing economic history

I admit to being a happy man. While I am in general a smiling sort of fellow, I was delightfully giggling with joy upon hearing that another economic historian (and a fellow  Canadian from the LSE to boot), Dave Donaldson, won the John Bates Clark medal. I dare say that it was about time. Nonetheless I think it is time to talk to economists about how to do economic history (and why more should do it). Basically, I argue that the necessities of the trade require a longer period of maturation and a considerable amount of hard work. Yet, once the economic historian arrives at maturity, he produces long-lasting research which (in the words of Douglass North) uses history to bring theory to life.

Economic History is the Application of all Fields of Economics

Economics is a deductive science through which axiomatic statements about human behavior are derived. For example, stating that the demand curve is downward-sloping is an axiomatic statement. No economist ever needed to measure quantities and prices to say that if the price increases, all else being equal, the quantity will drop. As such, economic theory needs to be internally consistent (i.e. not argue that higher prices mean both smaller and greater quantities of goods consumed all else being equal).

However, the application of these axiomatic statements depends largely on the question asked. For example, I am currently doing work on the 19th century Canadian institution of seigneurial tenure. In that work, I  question the role that seigneurial tenure played in hindering economic development.  In the existing literature, the general argument is that the seigneurs (i.e. the landlords) hindered development by taxing (as per their legal rights) a large share of net agricultural output. This prevented the accumulation of savings which – in times of imperfect capital markets – were needed to finance investments in capital-intensive agriculture. That literature invoked one corpus of axiomatic statements that relate to capital theory. For my part, I argue that the system – because of a series of monopoly rights – was actually a monopsony system through the landlords restrained their demand for labor on the non-farm labor market and depressed wages. My argument invokes the corpus of axioms related to industrial organization and monopsony theory. Both explanations are internally consistent (there are no self-contradictions). Yet, one must be more relevant to the question of whether or not the institution hindered growth and one must square better with the observed facts.

And there is economic history properly done. It tries to answer which theory is relevant to the question asked. The purpose of economic history is thus to find which theories matter the most.

Take the case, again, of asymetric information. The seminal work of Akerlof on the market for lemons made a consistent theory, but subsequent waves of research (notably my favorite here by Eric Bond) have showed that the stylized predictions of this theory rarely materialize. Why? Because the theory of signaling suggests that individuals will find ways to invest in a “signal” to solve the problem. These are two competing theories (signaling versus asymetric information) and one seems to win over the other.  An economic historian tries to sort out what mattered to a particular event.

Now, take these last few paragraphs and drop the words “economic historians” and replace them by “economists”.  I believe that no economist would disagree with the definition of the tasks of the economist that I offered. So why would an economic historian be different? Everything that has happened is history and everything question with regards to it must be answered through sifting for the theories that is relevant to the event studied (under the constraint that the theory be consistent). Every economist is an economic historian.

As such, the economic historian/economist must use advanced tools related to econometrics: synthetic controls, instrumental variables, proper identification strategies, vector auto-regressions, cointegration, variance analysis and everything you can think of. He needs to do so in order to answer the question he tries to answer. The only difference with the economic historian is that he looks further back in the past.

The problem with this systematic approach is the efforts needed by practitioners.  There is a need to understand – intuitively – a wide body of literature on price theory, statistical theories and tools, accounting (for understanding national accounts) and political economy. This takes many years of training and I can take my case as an example. I force myself to read one scientific article that is outside my main fields of interest every week in order to create a mental repository of theoretical insights I can exploit. Since I entered university in 2006, I have been forcing myself to read theoretical books that were on the margin of my comfort zone. For example, University Economics by Allen and Alchian was one of my favorite discoveries as it introduced me to the UCLA approach to price theory. It changed my way of understanding firms and the decisions they made. Then reading some works on Keynesian theory (I will confess that I have never been able to finish the General Theory) which made me more respectful of some core insights of that body of literature. In the process of reading those, I created lists of theoretical key points like one would accumulate kitchen equipment.

This takes a lot of time, patience and modesty towards one’s accumulated stock of knowledge. But these theories never meant anything to me without any application to deeper questions. After all, debating about the theory of price stickiness without actually asking if it mattered is akin to debating with theologians about the gender of angels (I vote that they are angels and since these are fictitious, I don’t give a flying hoot’nanny). This is because I really buy in the claim made by Douglass North that theory is brought to life by history (and that history is explained by theory).

On the Practice of Economic History

So, how do we practice economic history? The first thing is to find questions that matter.  The second is to invest time in collecting inputs for production.

While accumulating theoretical insights, I also made lists of historical questions that were still debated.  Basically, I made lists of research questions since I was an undergraduate student (not kidding here) and I keep everything on the list until I have been satisfied by my answer and/or the subject has been convincingly resolved.

One of my criteria for selecting a question is that it must relate to an issue that is relevant to understanding why certain societies are where there are now. For example, I have been delving into the issue of the agricultural crisis in Canada during the early decades of the 19th century. Why? Because most historians attribute (wrongly in my opinion)  a key role to this crisis in the creation of the Canadian confederation, the migration of the French-Canadians to the United States and the politics of Canada until today. Another debate that I have been involved in relates to the Quiet Revolution in Québec (see my book here) which is argued to be a watershed moment in the history of the province. According to many, it marked a breaking point when Quebec caught up dramatically with the rest of  Canada (I disagreed and proposed that it actually slowed down a rapid convergence in the decade and a half that preceded it). I picked the question because the moment is central to all political narratives presently existing in Quebec and every politician ushers the words “Quiet Revolution” when given the chance.

In both cases, they mattered to understanding what Canada was and what it has become. I used theory to sort out what mattered and what did not matter. As such, I used theory to explain history and in the process I brought theory to life in a way that was relevant to readers (I hope).  The key point is to use theory and history together to bring both to life! That is the craft of the economic historian.

The other difficulty (on top of selecting questions and understanding theories that may be relevant) for the economic historian is the time-consuming nature of data collection. Economic historians are basically monks (and in my case, I have both the shape and the haircut of friar Tuck) who patiently collect and assemble new data for research. This is a high fixed cost of entering in the trade. In my case, I spent two years in a religious congregation (literally with religious officials) collecting prices, wages, piece rates, farm data to create a wide empirical portrait of the Canadian economy.  This was a long and arduous process.

However, thanks to the lists of questions I had assembled by reading theory and history, I saw the many steps of research I could generate by assembling data. Armed with some knowledge of what I could do, the data I collected told me of other questions that I could assemble. Once I had finish my data collection (18 months), I had assembled a roadmap of twenty-something papers in order to answer a wide array of questions on Canadian economic history: was there an agricultural crisis; were French-Canadians the inefficient farmers they were portrayed to be; why did the British tolerate catholic and French institutions when they conquered French Canada; did seigneurial tenure explain the poverty of French Canada; did the conquest of Canada matter to future growth; what was the role of free banking in stimulating growth in Canada etc.

It is necessary for the economic historian to collect a ton of data and assemble a large base of theoretical knowledge to guide the data towards relevant questions. For those reasons, the economic historian takes a longer time to mature. It simply takes more time. Yet, once the maturation is over (I feel that mine is far from being over to be honest), you get scholars like Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Fogel, Douglass North, Barry Weingast, Sheilagh Ogilvie and Ronald Coase (yes, I consider Coase to be an economic historian but that is for another post) who are able to produce on a wide-ranging set of topics with great depth and understanding.


The craft of the economic historian is one that requires a long period of apprenticeship (there is an inside joke here, sorry about that). It requires heavy investment in theoretical understanding beyond the main field of interest that must be complemented with a diligent accumulation of potential research questions to guide the efforts at data collection. Yet, in the end, it generates research that is likely to resonate with the wider public and impact our understanding of theory. History brings theory to life indeed!

O Desconforto da Pobreza

A pobreza é um desconforto. Quem é pobre, obviamente, sabe disto. Mas a pobreza é um desconforto para políticos também. Ainda bem que assim o seja, pois, caso contrário, perderíamos um incentivo para que os mesmos buscassem minimizar a pobreza afim de ganhar votos.

Entretanto, também é verdade que minimizar a pobreza significa que a mesma deixará de existir em algum momento, obrigando os políticos a inovarem na busca de novos problemas que possam, potencialmente, resolver, afim de ganharem votos. 

Nada disto é novidade ou contra-intuitivo. Qualquer estudante de Escolha Pública já pensou sobre isto por mais de cinco minutos. Mas, o desconforto da pobreza tem uma dimensão adicional quando se pensa no seu impacto no mercado de trabalho. Recentemente, o Brasil passou por um processo de crescimento desigual, no qual os pobres foram favorecidos. 

A classe média brasileira cresceu incluindo os mais pobres – agora um pouco menos pobres – e as consequências disto são várias. Por exemplo, o governo e seus políticos forçaram um aumento das regulações em diversos setores da economia com mais facilidade. Dado que os pobres enfrentam um sério problema de analfabetismo, populistas conseguiram obrigar o setor privado a se tornar mais desleixado com o ensino do português (melhor que uma lei, um sinal claro disto é um ministro dizer, por meio da imprensa, que ortografia é um detalhe “burguês”, quase com estas palavras…).

O setor privado também se curvou, na terra do rent-seeking tropical, e aceitou uma política que nem a ditadura militar nacionalista teve coragem de impor: a bizarra exigência de conteúdo nacional na TV paga e, mais ainda, em horários fixados pelo regulador. É quase como ouvir um político dizer: “se o pobre aprende inglês, vai ter acesso a mais cultura e poderá até emigrar, levando consigo nossos votos….não, precisamos dele em seu curral, para que possa garantir a continuidade de minha dinastia política”. 

Os anos 90 se foram e, com eles, o otimismo do consumidor. Outrora um orgulhoso brasileiro que exigia educação, cortesia e cumprimento de regras por parte dos prestadores de serviços (públicos ou privados), sob a mudança promovida pelos governos de esquerda – notadamente no campo da ética, com a “relativização” da corrupção – hoje o mesmo brasileiro pode ser quase visto como um ser quadrúpede, que ignora a falta de educação do prestador, os maus-tratos que recebe e, como um bom cidadão cubano (ou norte-coreano), acostumou-se com a ineficiência: é capaz de ficar horas na fila de um caixa de supermercado ou de uma repartição pública sem reclamar.

O país mudou. Os burocratas passaram a se achar como os verdadeiros donos da verdade. Sua arrogância média parece ter aumentado nos últimos anos. Falam do poder de mudar o mundo como se vivessem em um outro mundo. Os cidadãos passaram a aceitar a ineficiência como regra. Criam filhos sem educá-los. Não impõem limites – coisa de “neoliberal” ou de “conservadores” – e deixam a educação em último plano. O número de pais reclamando que o menino tem “muita prova para fazer” numa reunião de pais e mestres aumentou. Pais querem filhos que se divertem, mesmo que não saibam a tabuada. 

Estes mesmos pais aplaudem qualquer movimento de jovens (maoístas?) que saem às ruas pedindo por “almoço grátis”. Protestos contra a corrupção? Não, isto não os incomoda. É até perigoso porque, gostoso mesmo, é participar da suruba da corrupção com seu vizinho, seu amigo e com o burocrata cafetão da esquina. O “sexo nos trópicos” ganhou um novo significado: vivemos na orgia constante em que todos são de todos e ninguém é de ninguém. Uma perfeita negação dos princípios básicos de como se pode crescer e distribuir renda de forma eficiente. 

O desconforto da pobreza desaparece para o pobre que, graças ao mercado, pode sair do desconforto material com um emprego um pouco melhor. Ainda bem. Mas se não estudar mais, não conseguirá melhorar mais e apenas terá um alívio no curto prazo. É claro que o ex-pobre percebe isto melhor do que ninguém. Mas ele apenas despertou para o problema insolúvel – no curto prazo – que é o de demandar mais atuação do governo e, ao mesmo tempo, ter que pagar mais impostos. Ainda cheio de doutrinação socialista vinda dos bancos escolares, ele pensa que o governo pode gastar sem arrecadar. Ou pensa que apenas ricos devem pagar impostos. Não pensa com ciência, mas com ideologia. Nada que não possa mudar ao longo do tempo com educação (a verdadeira, não a doutrinação), leituras e, claro, com a própria experiência de vida.

A discussão é difícil e não tenho a solução para este problemas. Mas só há um jeito de começar isto: discutir os problemas institucionais do país. Instituições no sentido de Douglass North. Caso nada dê errado, é o que tentarei fazer por aqui nos próximos posts

Bom final de semana!