Rosenbloom on the Colonial American Economy

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

On Economic Growth 

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

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

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

On Monetary History and Monetary Puzzles

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

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

On Mercantilism, the Navigation Acts and American Living Standards

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

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

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

On demography and living standards in the colonial era

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

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

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

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

Crude Death Rates

IMR

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

The Gradual, Eventual Triumph of Liberty

Today I’d like to write a few words of hope and encouragement to those who already understand liberty’s value. I read a speech from 1853 that stood out to me. It’s easy to be caught up in the daily news cycle and feel that liberty is constantly under attack and threatened at every hand, that every gain is clawed back as liberties are eroded one at a time. At times like that, it is good to step back and took a better look at the broader history of the world.

The speech I read was by a gentleman named Parley P. Pratt, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Utah territory. This was just a few years after the Mormons, including Pratt and his family, had been driven from their homes by mobs and by indifferent and sometimes hostile state and federal governments in the United States proper to find freedom and refuge in the Rocky Mountains. There they still held 4th of July celebrations, honoring the sacrifices for liberty their fathers had made. Pratt, by this point in his life, had traveled through England and parts of Europe, much of the US, Canada, and along the Pacific into Mexico, and met with many people from Asia as well – a remarkably well-traveled man.

Despite the very real failures of the government to protect their individual rights or redress their grievances, he spoke in praise of the Constitution. The main thrust of his address was that the cause of liberty would expand and someday fill the world:

The longer I live, and the more acquainted I am with men and things, the more I realize that … the Constitution of American Liberty was certainly dictated by the spirit of wisdom, by a spirit of unparalleled liberality, and by a spirit of political utility. And if that Constitution be carried out by a just and wise administration, it is calculated to benefit not only all the people that are born under its particular jurisdiction, but all the people of the earth … . It seems broad enough, and large enough, to receive and protect all that may be in any way deprived of the common rights of man. …. [The principles of the Constitution] embrace eternal truths, principles of eternal liberty, not the principles of one peculiar country, or the sectional interest of any particular people, but the great, fundamental, eternal principles of liberty to rational beings – liberty of conscience, liberty to do business, liberty to increase in intelligence and in improvement […]

There is a day coming when all mankind upon this earth will be free. When they will no longer be shackled, either by ignorance, by religious or political bondage, by tyranny, [or] by oppression (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1, p. 137-143)

Pratt claimed this would not happen predominantly by revolution and violence, but by America being a beacon light to the world. He spoke of throngs of people who would sit in his day enjoying to hear of our freedoms, our institutions, and our scientific and cultural progress. He spoke of the immigrants coming to this country from all parts of the world specifically to find that freedom, and that once enlightened by being allowed to think and reason and act for themselves without the bondage of kings, state religions, or other powers they would blossom and rise up in greatness. Whether they eventually returned to their native lands or not, this would act as an “indirect influence … on those despotic nations” of Europe and Asia.

Recognizing that our liberty is remarkably multi-faceted, I will focus on the same categories Pratt mentioned. At the time he spoke, there were exactly 3 nations that were in some measure democracies, where at least some large percentage of the populace had the liberty of choosing their leaders. You can see for yourself how this has grown in the intervening 160+ years:

NOL Watson 1
source: Our World in Data

Billias’ 2009 work on how the principles of American constitutionalism were “heard round the world” shows that waves of influence gradually spread the principles of self-determination, liberty, separation of powers, and checks and balances into the freedom movements and constitutions of most of the world. Even while warning that the last ten years have seen declines in liberty overall worldwide, Heritage shows us that the last thirty years still show remarkable improvement:

NOL Watson 2

From a time when the US was one of very few countries to legally protect religious liberty, today nearly three-fourths of all the countries in the world have a constitution that specifically protects freedom of belief, and two-thirds permit some religious proselytism – which preserves freedom of expression (Pew Global Restrictions on Religion). There is still much to do to improve and preserve religious liberty around the world, both in legally acknowledged protections and in fostering an actual peaceful society where religious groups are not subject to violence and persecution.

Despite the distance left to go, the cause of liberty has clearly moved forward in great ways in the last 160 years. Much as Pratt predicted, much of this was accomplished without great revolutions and civil wars, but through the power of example as free nations and free people proved themselves a beacon to the world. There is still good cause to believe in that fundamental converting power from setting the right example and allowing free people to govern themselves.

The best economic history papers of 2017

As we are now solidly into 2018, I thought that it would be a good idea to underline the best articles in economic history that I read in 2017. Obviously, the “best” is subjective to my preferences. Nevertheless, it is a worthy exercise in order to expose some important pieces of research to a wider audience.  I limited myself to five articles (I will do my top three books in a few weeks). However, if there is an interest in the present post I will publish a follow-up with another five articles.

O’Grady, Trevor, and Claudio Tagliapietra. “Biological welfare and the commons: A natural experiment in the Alps, 1765–1845.” Economics & Human Biology 27 (2017): 137-153.

This one is by far my favorite article of 2017. I stumbled upon it quite by accident. Had this article been published six or eight months earlier, I would never have been able to fully appreciate its contribution. Basically, the authors use the shocks induced by the wars of the late 18th century and early 19th century to study a shift from “self-governance” to “centralized governance” of common pool resources. When they speak of “commons” problems, they really mean “commons” as the communities they study were largely pastoral communities with area in commons.  Using a difference-in-difference where the treatment is when a region became “centrally governed” (i.e. when organic local institutions were swept aside), they test the impact of these top-down changes to institutions on biological welfare (as proxied by infant mortality rates). They find that these replacements worsened outcomes.

Now, this paper is fascinating for two reasons. First, the authors offer a clear exposition of its methodology and approach. They give just the perfect amount of institutional details to assuage doubts.  Second, this is a strong illustration of the points made by Elinor Ostrom and Vernon Smith. These two economists emphasize different aspects of the same thing. Smith highlights that “rationality” is “ecological” in the sense that it is an iterative process of information discovery to improve outcomes.  This includes the generation of “rules of the game” which are meant to sustain exchanges. These rules need not be formal edifices. They can be norms, customs, mores and habits (generally supported by the discipline of continuous dealings and/or investments in social-distance mechanisms). On her part, Ostrom emphasized that the tragedy of the commons can be resolved through multiple mechanisms (what she calls polycentric governance) in ways that do not necessarily require a centralized approach (or even market-based approaches).

In the logic of these two authors, attempts at “imposing” a more “rational” order (from the perspective of the planner of this order) may backfire. This is why Smith often emphasizes the organic nature of things like property rights. It also shows that behind seemingly “dumb” peasants, there is often the weight of long periods of experimentation in order to adapt rules and norms in order to fit the constraints faced by the community.  In this article, we can see those two things – the backfiring and, by logical implication, the strengths of the organic institutions that were swept away.

Fielding, David, and Shef Rogers. “Monopoly power in the eighteenth-century British book trade.” European Review of Economic History 21, no. 4 (2017): 393-413.

In this article, the authors use a legal change caused by the end of the legal privileges of the Stationers’ Company (which amounted to an easing of copyright laws).  The market for books may appear to be “non-interesting” for mainstream economics. However, this would be a dramatic error. The “abundance” of books is really a recent development. Bear in mind that the most erudite monk of the late middle ages had less than fifty books from which to draw knowledge (this fact is a vague recollection of mine from Kenneth Clark’s art history documentary from the late 1960s which was aired by the BBC). Thus, the emergence of a wide market for books – which is dated within the period studied by the authors of this article – should not be ignored. It should be considered as one of the most important development in western history. This is best put by the authors when they say that “the reform of copyright law has been regarded as one of the driving forces behind the rise in book production during the Enlightenment, and therefore a key factor in the dissemination of the innovations that underpinned Britain’s Industrial Revolution”.

However, while they agree that the rising popularity of books in the 18th century is an important historical event, they contest the idea that liberalization had any effect. They find that the opening up of the market to competition had little effects on prices and book production. They also find that mark-ups fell but that this could not be attributed to liberalization. At first,  I found these results surprising.

However, when I took the time to think about it I realized that there was no reason to be surprised. First, many changes have been heralded as crucial moments in history. More often than not, the importance of these changes has been overstated. A good example of an overstated change has been the abolition of the Corn Laws in England in the 1840s. The reduction in tariffs, it is argued, ushered Britain into an age of free trade and falling food prices.

In reality, as John Nye discusses, protectionist barriers did not fall as fast as many argued and there were reductions prior to the 1846 reform as Deirdre McCloskey pointed out. It also seems that the Corn Laws did not have substantial effects on consumption or the economy as a whole (see here and here).  While their abolition probably helped increase living standards, it seems that the significance of the moment is overstated. The same thing is probably at play with the book market.

The changes discussed by Fielding and Rogers did not address the underlying roots of the level of market power enjoyed by industry players. In other words, it could be that the reform was too modest to have an effect. This is suggested by the work of Petra Moser. The reform studied by Fielding and and Rogers appears to have been short-lived as evidenced by changes to copyright laws in the early 19th century (see here and here). Moser’s results point to effects much larger (and positive for consumers) than those of Fielding and Rogers.  Given the importance of the book market to stories of innovation in the industrial revolution, I really hope that this sparks a debate between Moser and Fielding and Rogers.

Johnson, Noel D., and Mark Koyama. “States and economic growth: Capacity and constraints.” Explorations in Economic History 64 (2017): 1-20.

I am biased as I am fond of most of the work of these two authors. Nevertheless, I think that their contribution to the state capacity debate is a much needed one. I am very skeptical of the theoretical value of the concept of state capacity.  The question always lurking in my mind is the “capacity to do what?”.

A ruler who can develop and use a bureaucracy to provide the services of a “productive state” (as James Buchanan would put it) is also capable of acting like a predator.  I actually emphasize this point in my work (revise and resubmit at Health Policy & Planning) on Cuban healthcare: the Cuban government has the capacity to allocate large quantities of resources to healthcare in amounts well above what is observed for other countries in the same income range. Why? Largely because they use health care for a) international reputation and b) actually supervising the local population. As such, members of the regime are able to sustain their role even if the high level of “capacity” comes at the expense of living standards in dimensions other than health (e.g. low incomes). Capacity is not the issue, its capacity interacting with constraints that is interesting.

And that is exactly what Koyama and Johnson say (not in the same words). They summarize a wide body of literature in a cogent manner that clarifies the concept of state capacity and its limitations. In doing so, they ended up proposing that the “deep roots” question that should interest economic historians is how “constraints” came to be efficient at generating “strong but limited” states.

In that regard, the one thing that surprised me from their article was the absence of Elinor Ostrom’s work. When I read about “polycentric governance” (Ostrom’s core concept), I imagine the overlap of different institutional structures that reinforce each other (note: these structures need not be formal ones). They are governance providers. If these “governance providers” have residual claimants (i.e. people with skin in the game), they have incentives to provide governance in ways that increased the returns to the realms they governed. Attempts to supersede these institutions (e.g. like the erection of a modern nation state) requires dealing with these providers. They are the main demanders of constraints which are necessary to protect their assets (what my friend Alex Salter calls “rights to the realm“). As Europe pre-1500 was a mosaic of such governance providers, there would have been great forces pushing for constraints (i.e. bargaining over constraints).

I think that this is where the literature on state capacity should orient itself. It is in that direction that it is the most likely to bear fruits. In fact, there have been some steps taken in that direction For example, my colleagues Andrew Young and Alex Salter have applied this “polycentric” narrative to explain the emergence of “strong but limited states” by focusing on late medieval institutions (see here and here).  Their approach seems promising. Yet, the work of Koyama and Johnson have actually created the room for such contributions by efficiently summarizing a complex (and sometimes contradictory) literature.

Bodenhorn, Howard, Timothy W. Guinnane, and Thomas A. Mroz. “Sample-selection biases and the industrialization puzzle.” The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 1 (2017): 171-207.

Elsewhere, I have peripherally engaged discussants in the “antebellum puzzle” (see my article here in Economics & Human Biology on the heights of French-Canadians born between 1780 and 1830). The antebellum puzzle refers to the possibility that the biological standard of living (e.g. falling heights, worsening nutrition, increased mortality risks) fell while the material standard of living increased (e.g. higher wages, higher incomes, access to more services, access to a wider array of goods) during the decades leading to the American Civil War.

I am inclined to accept the idea of short-term paradoxes in living standards. The early 19th century witnessed a reversal in rural-urban concentration in the United States. The country had been “deurbanizing” since the colonial era (i.e. cities represented an increasingly smaller share of the population). As such, the reversal implied a shock in cities whose institutions were geared to deal with slowly increasing populations.

The influx of people in cities created problems of public health while the higher level of population density favored the propagation of infectious diseases at a time where our understanding of germ theory was nill. One good example of the problems posed by this rapid change has been provided by Gergely Baics in his work on the public markets of New York and their regulation (see his book here – a must read).  In that situation, I am not surprised that there was a deterioration in the biological standard of living. What I see is that people chose to trade-off shorter wealthier lives against longer poorer lives. A pretty legitimate (albeit depressing) choice if you ask me.

However, Bodenhorn et al. (2017) will have none of it. In a convincing article that has shaken my priors, they argue that there is a selection bias in the heights data – the main measurement used in the antebellum puzzle debate.  Most of the data on heights comes either from prisoners or enrolled volunteer soldiers (note: conscripts would not generate the problem they describe). The argument they make is that as incomes grow, the opportunity cost of committing a crime or of joining the army grows.  This creates the selection bias whereby the sample is going to be increasingly composed of those with the lowest opportunity costs. In other words, we are speaking of the poorest in society who also tended to be shorter. Simultaneously, fewer tall individuals (i.e. rich individuals) committed crimes or joined the army because incomes grew. This logic is simple and elegant. In fact, this is the kind of data problem that every economist should care about when they design their tests.

Once they control for this problem (through a meta-analysis), the puzzle disappears. I am not convinced by the latter part of the claim. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the puzzle is much smaller than initially gleaned. In yet to be published work, Ariell Zimran (see here and here) argues that the antebellum puzzle is robust to the problem of selection bias but that it is indeed diminished. This concedes a large share of the argument to Bodenhorn et al. While there is much to resolve, this article should be read as it constitutes one of the most serious contributions to the field of economic history published in 2017.

Ridolfi, Leonardo. “The French economy in the longue durée: a study on real wages, working days and economic performance from Louis IX to the Revolution (1250–1789).” European Review of Economic History 21, no. 4 (2017): 437-438.

I discussed Leonardo’s work elsewhere on this blog before. However, I must do it again. The article mentioned here is the dissertation summary that resulted from Leonardo being a finalist to the best dissertation award granted by the EHES (full dissertation here). As such, it is not exactly the “best article” published in 2017. Nevertheless,  it makes the list because of the possibilities that Leonardo’s work have unlocked.

When we discuss the origins of the British Industrial Revolution, the implicit question lurking not far away is “Why Did It Not Happen in France?”. The problem with that question is that the data available for France (see notably my forthcoming work in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History) is in no way comparable with what exists for Britain (which does not mean that the British data is of great quality as Judy Stephenson and Jane Humphries would point out).  Most estimates of the French economy pre-1790 were either conjectural or required a wide array of theoretical considerations to arrive at a deductive portrait of the situation (see notably the excellent work of Phil Hoffman).  As such, comparisons in order to tease out improvements to our understanding of the industrial revolution are hard to accomplish.

For me, the absence of rich data for France was particularly infuriating. One of my main argument is that the key to explaining divergence within the Americas (from the colonial period onwards) resides not in the British or Spanish Empires but in the variation that the French Empire and its colonies provide. After all, the French colony of Quebec had a lot in common geographically with New England but the institutional differences were nearly as wide as those between New England and the Spanish colonies in Latin America. As such, as I spent years assembling data for Canada to document living standards in order to eventually lay down the grounds to test the role of institutions, I was infuriated that I could do so little to compare with France. Little did I know that while I was doing my own work, Leonardo was plugging this massive hole in our knowledge.

Leonardo shows that while living standards in France increased from 1550 onward, the level was far below the ones found in other European countries. He also showed that real wages stagnated in France which means that the only reason behind increased incomes was a longer work year. This work has also unlocked numerous other possibilities. For example, it will be possible to extend to France the work of Nicolini and Crafts and Mills regarding the existence of Malthusian pressures. This is probably one of the greatest contribution of the decade to the field of economic history because it simply went through the dirty work of assembling data to plug what I think is the biggest hole in the field of economic history.

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?

EconomicHIstoryData

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.

AcemogluPaperCites

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.