Once, Cubans were (maybe) richer than Americans

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


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

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

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Path-dependence of measuring real GDP?
  2. Technological creativity and the Great Enrichment (h/t Federico)
  3. The deadly serious accusation of being a “so-called judge”
  4. Why Congress isn’t reigning in Trump
  5. How did Germany and Austria’s elite musical institutions navigate the vicissitudes of early 20th-century European history? (review)
  6. Western nationalism and Eastern nationalism

On 7 million deaths from air pollution

ATTN published a video of An-huld (the really cool guy who made my childhood by being in all my favorite action movies like Predator* and who ended up being the governor of California). In that short clip, Schwarznegger starts by saying that 7 million individuals die from pollution-related illnesses.

That number is correct. But it is misleading.

People see pollution as “all and the same”. But some forms of pollution increase with development (sulfur emissions and some would argue that too much CO2 emissions is pollution as it causes climate change). However, others drop dramatically – especially heavy particules (Pm10) which are a great cause of smog. Julian Simon (the late cornucopian economist who is one my greatest intellectual influence) pointed out this issue and noted that the deadliest forms of pollution are those that relate to underdevelopment.

Back in 2003, Jack Hollander published the Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence is the Environment’s Number One Enemy. Hollander pointed out that simply from the combustion of organic matter (read: firewood and animal manure – literally burning fecal matter) indoors for the purposes of heating, cooking and lighting was responsible for close to 2 millions deaths.

Since then, the WHO came out with a study pointing out that around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes with open fires and stoves that rely on biomass or anthracite-coal. They put the number of premature deaths directly resulting from this at over 4 million people. This is close to 60% of the figure cited by the former President of California (yes, I know he was governor – see here). In other words, 60% of the people who die prematurely as a result of strokes, ischaemic heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and lung cancers can be attributed to indoor air pollution. That means pollution resulting from the fact that you are so poor that you have to burn anything at hand at the cost of your health.

True, richer countries pollute and there are policy solutions (I have often argued that governments are better at polluting than at reducing pollution, but that is another debate) that should be adopted. But, these forms of pollution do not harm human life as much as those that come with poverty.

* By the way, when you watch Predator, do you realize that there are two future American governors in that movie? I mean, imagine that when Predator came out, some dude from the future told you that two of the main actors would end governing American states. Pretty freaky!

When (Where and Why) Women Were More Literate than Men

For most of history, men tended to be more literate than women. In essence, illiteracy was widespread but even more so for women. There is one exception: the French-Canadians. For most of the 19th century, literacy rates were greater for French-Canadian women than French-Canadian men.


This is a fascinating piece of economic history and somewhat of a puzzle (given that it is an oddity). It also shows how important institutions are to determining paths of development. In a 1999 article in the Journal of Economic History, Gillian Hamilton indicates that the more “liberal” institution of marriage contracts for the French-Canadians probably induced this result :

Quebec’s unique legal institutions offered the opportunity to draw up a prenuptial contract to couples who could benefit from a different property structure than the law provided. Not surprisingly, a prenuptial contract was unnecessary for most couples. Within this transaction cost-competitive marriage market framework, contracts generally were desirable only in cases of mismatch, either due to an exceptional woman or a relatively productive husband whose job did not entail a significant component of family participation. Their contracting decisions are consistent with terms that would have provided them with more appropriate incentives for work and the production of jointly produced goods, and at least the potential for greater utility and wealth than they otherwise would have accumulated. The use of contracts likely provided Quebec with higher overall wealth and a wider income distribution than it would have experienced without contracts (because the skilled disproportionately signed agreements).


The Asian Age

I love Asia. Ever since my student days I have had a keen interest in South East Asia and China, with my course on the Politics of the Asia Pacific at the London School of Economics in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong as a high point. This was followed almost a decade later with four years of living in Manila, with time spend as a freelance journalist covering Philippine politics and society, as well as teaching for three years at the European Studies Program at the elitist Ateneo de Manila University. I also had the opportunity to travel to almost all countries in the region (with the notable exceptions of Laos, Taiwan and the Koreas, but one should keep something to be desired). I admire the resilience of the Asians, their humour, great work ethics, the beauty of their countries, and of course their sumptuous food.

As a classical liberal I always have a keen interest in the economic developments of the region, which to me serve as the prime evidence for the great and positive impacts freeing up economies have. The rise of Asia in essence is the empirical proof that classical liberal ideas work, that capitalism has the capacity to improve the life of millions of people, in a very short term. This despite the imperfect implementation of capitalism throughout the region, so there is much room for further improvement. In this light it is also interesting to see how long economic freedom and political lack of freedom can co-exist. Classical liberal ideas predict, most clearly expressed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, that one follows the other. Economic and political freedom cannot be separated forever (nor forever suppressed together, as the experiences in the former Soviet bloc continue to make clear, even despite Putin’s increasing autocratic rule).

For an international relations observer from Europe, the developments in the Asia Pacific are of particular interest, because the rise of Asia seems to go together with the fall of Europe as a geopolitical player. Or more precisely: the fall of the middle rank European powers, as the European Union itself is a significant player in trade politics only, the only field where it represents all member states and policy is determined at the European level, with a leading role for the European Commission.

The recent book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, deals precisely with this issue.


It is a great book, bringing together Rachman’s extensive experience in the US, Asia, and Brussels. Often, books written by journalists lack sound analysis for the mid to long term, and historical perspective. While Easternisation is not an academic tome either, it does provide sufficient deep analysis, especially by tackling developments in all important countries which play a role in the process. It is not just another volume of simply USA or EU bashing, as we have seen before with the huge literature on the alleged Japanese take-over of the US economy.

Rachman’s main argument is that the influence of the West, Europe in particular, has crumbled. This may lead to a major conflict in the Asia Pacific, most notably between China and the US, which also endangers the global economic order. Yet many other conflicts are also building up, in a region which heavily invests in armaments. In short, in the 21st century, ‘rivalries between the nations in the Asia Pacific will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over 500 years from 1500 onwards’. I think this is an important message, which should be taken seriously by everybody. Certainly by the Europeans, who are in danger of just inhabiting the world’s largest open air museum within a few decades.  One thing is certain: the Asians will not wait for them to come to terms with the current shift of power.

On 19th Century Tariffs & Growth

A few days ago, Pseudoerasmus published a blog piece on Bairoch’s argument that in the 19th century, the countries that had high tariffs also had fast growth.  It is a good piece that summarizes the litterature very well. However, there are some points that Pseudoerasmus eschews that are crucial to assessing the proper role of tariffs on growth. Most of these issues are related to data quality, but one may be the result of poor specification bias. For most of my comments, I will concentrate on Canada. This is because I know Canada best and that it features prominently in the literature for the 19th century as a case where protection did lead to growth. I am unconvinced for many reasons which will be seen below.

Data Quality

Here I will refrain my comments to the Canadian data which I know best. Of all the countries with available income data for the late 19th century, Canada is one of those with the richest data (alongside the UK, US and Australia). This is largely thanks to the work of M.C. Urquhart who recreated the Canadian GNP series fom 1870 to 1926 in collaborative effort with scholars like Marvin McInnis, Frank Lewis, Marion Steele and others.

However, even that data has flaws. For example, me and Michael Hinton have recomputed the GDP deflator to account for the fact that its consumption prices component did not include clothing. Since clothing prices behaved differently than the other prices from 1870 to 1885, this changes the level and trend of Canadian incomes per capita (this paper will be completed this winter, Michael is putting the finishing touch and its his baby).  However, like Morris Altman, our corrections indicate a faster rate of growth for Canada from 1870 to 1913, but in a different manner. For example, there is more growth than believed in the 1870-1879 period (before the introduction of the National Policy which increased protection) and more growth in the 1890-1913 period (the period of the wheat boom and of easing of trade restrictions).

Moreover, the work of Marrilyn Gerriets, Alex Chernoff, Kris Inwood and Jim Irwin (here, here, here, here) that we have a poor image of output in the Atlantic region – the region that would have been adversely affected by protectionism. Basically, the belief is a proper accounting of incomes in the Atlantic provinces would show lower levels and trends that would – at the national aggregated level – alter the pattern of growth.

I also believe that, for Quebec, there are metrological issues in the reporting of agricultural output. The French-Canadians tended to report volume units in manners poorly understood by enumerators but that these units were larger than the Non-French units. However, as time passed, census enumerators caught on and got the measures and corrections right. However, that means that agricultural output from French-Canadians was higher than reported in the earlier census but that it was more accurate in the later censuses. This error will lead to estimating more growth than what actually took place. (I have a paper on this issue that was given a revise and resubmit from Agricultural History). 

Take all of these measurements issue and you have enough doubt in the data underlying the methods that one should feel the need to be careful. In fact, if the sum of these (overall) minor flaws is sufficient to warrant caution, what does it say about Italian, Spanish, Portugese, French, Belgian, Irish or German GDP ( I am not saying they are bad, I am saying that I find Canada’s series to be better in relative terms).

How to measure protection?

The second issue is how to measure protection. Clemens and Williamson offered a measure of import duties revenue over imports volume. That is a shortcut that can be used when it is hard to measure effective protection. But, it may be a dangerous shortcut depending on the structure of protection.

Imagine that I set an import duty so high as to eliminate all entry of the good taxed (like Canada’s 300% import tax on butter today). At that level, there is zero revenue from butter import and zero imports of butter. Thus, the ratio of protection is … zero. But in reality, its a very restrictive regime that is not being measured.

More recent estimates for Canada produced by Ian Keay and Eugene Beaulieu (in separate papers, but Keay’s paper was a conference paper) attempted to measure more accurate indicators of protection and the burden imposed on Canadians. Beaulieu and his co-author found that using a better measure, Canada’s trade policy was 11% more restrictive than believed. Moreover, they found that the welfare loss kept increasing from 1870 to 1890 – reaching a figure equal to roughly 1.5% of GDP (a non-negligible social cost).

It ought to be noted though that alongside Lewis and Harris, Keay has found that the infant industry argument seems to apply to Canada (I am not convinced, notably for the reasons above regarding GDP measurements). However, that was in the case of Canada only and it could have been a simple outlier. Would the argument hold if better trade restriction measures were gathered for all other countries, thus making Canada into a weird exception?

James Buchanan to the rescue

My last argument is about political economy. Was the institutional arrangement of protection a way to curtail government growth? Protection is both a method for helping national industries and for raising revenues. However, the government cannot overprotect at the risk of loosing revenues. It must protect just enough to allow goods to continue entering to earn revenues from imports.  This tension is crucial especially since most 19th century countries did not have uniform general tariffs (like a flat 5% import duty) which would have very wide bases. The duties tended to concern a few goods very heavily relative to other goods. This means very narrow tax bases.

Standard public finance theory mandates wide tax bases with a focus on inelastic sources. However, someone with a public choice perspective (like James Buchanan) will argue that this offers the possibility for the government to grow. Basically, a public choice theorist will argue that the standard public finance viewpoint is that the sheep is tame. Self-interested politicians will exploit this tameness to be elected and this might imply growing government. However, with a narrow and elastic tax base, politicians are heavily constrained. In such a case, governments cannot grow as much.

The protection of the 19th century – identified by many as a source of growth – may thus simply be the symptom of an institutionnal arrangement that was meant to keep governments small. This may have stimulated growth by keeping other sectors of the economy more or less free of government meddling. So, maybe protection was the offspring of the least flawed institutional arrangement that could be adopted given the political economy of the time.

This last argument is the one that I find the most convincing in rebuttal to the Bairoch argument. It means that we are suffering from a poor specification bias: we have identified a symptom of something else as the cause of growth.