What is Wrong with Income Inequality? Five Reasons to be Concerned

I sometimes part ways with many of my libertarian and classical liberal friends in that I do have some amount of tentative concern for income/wealth inequality (for the purposes of this article, the otherwise important economic distinction between the two is not particularly relevant since the two are strongly correlated with each other). Many libertarians argue that inequality ultimately doesn’t matter. There is good reason to think this drawing from the classic arguments of Nozick and Hayek about how free exchange in a market economy can often interrupt preferred distributions.

The argument goes like this: take whatever your preferred distribution of income is, be it purely egalitarian or some sort of Rawlsian distribution such that the distribution benefits only the worst off in society. Assume there is one individual in the economy who has some product or service everyone wants to buy (in Nozick’s example it was Wilt Chamberlain playing basketball), and let everyone pay a relatively small amount of income to that one individual. For example, assume you have a society with 10,000 people all who start off with an equal endowment of $5 and all of them decide to pay Wilt Chamberlain $1 to watch him play basketball. Very few people would object to those individual exchanges, yet at the end Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $10,005 dollars and everyone else has $4, and our preferred distribution of income has been grossly upset even though the individual actions that led to that distribution are not objectionable. In other words, allowing for free exchange precludes trying to construct an optimal result of that free exchange (a basic consequence of recognizing spontaneous order).

Further, these libertarians argue, it is more important to ensure that the poor are better off in absolute terms than to ensure they are better off relative to their wealthier peers. Therefore, if a given policy will increase the wealth of the wealthiest by 10% and the poorest by 5%, there is no reason to oppose this policy on the grounds that it increases inequality because the poor are still made richer. Therefore, it is claimed, we should focus on policies that improve economic growth and the incomes of the poor and be indifferent as to its impact on relative inequality, since those policies are strongly correlated with bettering the economic conditions of the poor. In fact, as Mises Argued in Liberalism and the Classical Tradition, a certain amount of inequality is necessary for markets to function: they create a market for luxury goods that can be experimented and developed into future mass-consumption goods everyone can consume. Not everyone could afford, for an example, an IPod when it first came out, however today MP3 players are cheap and plentiful because the very wealthy were able to demand it when it was very expensive.

I agree with my libertarians in thinking that this argument is largely correct, however I do not think it proves, as Hayek argued, that social justice (understood in this context as distributive justice) is a “mirage” or that we should be altogether unconcerned with wealth or income distributions. All this argument does is mean that there is no overall deontological theory for an ideal income distribution, but there still might be good consequentialist reasons to think that excessively unequal distributions can impact many of the things that classical liberals tell us to worry about, such as the earnings of the poor, more free political economic outcomes, or overall economic growth. Further, even on Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice, we might oppose income inequality if it arises through unjust means. Here are five reasons why libertarians and classical liberals should be concerned about income inequality (note that they are mostly empirical reasons, not claims about the nature of justice):

1) Income Inequality as a Result of Rent Seeking

Certain government policies result in uneven income distribution. For an example, a paper by Patrick MacLaughlin and Lauren Stanley at the Mercatus Center empirically analyze the regressive effects of regulatory policy. Specifically, Stanley and MacLaughlin find that high barriers to entry create barriers to entry which worsens income mobility. Poorer would-be entrepreneurs cannot enter the market if they must, for an example, pay thousands of dollars for a license, or spend a large amount of time getting costly education and certifications to please some regulatory bureaucracy. This was admitted even by the Obama Administration in a recent report advising reform of occupational licensing laws. As basic public choice theory teaches, regulators are subject to regulatory capture, in which established business interests lobby regulators to erect barriers to entry to harm would-be competitors. Insofar as inequality is a result of such rent-seeking, libertarians have an obvious reason to oppose it.

Many other policies can worsen inequality. When wealthy corporations receive artificial monopolies from policies such as excessive intellectual property laws, insulating them from competition or when they gain wealth at the expense of poorer taxpayers through improper subsidies. When the government uses violent policing tactics to unequally enforce drug laws against poorer communities, or when it uses civil asset forfeiture to take the property of the worst off. When the government uses eminent domain to take the property of disadvantaged individuals and communities in the name of public works projects, or when they implement bad. Or, if the structure of welfare benefits discourages income mobility, which also worsens inequality. There are a myriad of bad government policies which benefit the rich and exploit the poor, some of which are a direct result of rent-seeking on behalf of the wealthy.

If the rich are getting richer, or if the poor are stopped from becoming wealthier, as a result of government coercion, even Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice calls for us to be skeptical of the resulting income distribution. As Matt Zwolinski argues, income distributions are not only a result of, pace Nozick, a result of the free exchanges of individuals, but they are also a result of the institutions in which those individuals exchange. Insofar as inequality is a result of unjust institutions, we have good reason to call that inequality unjust.

Of course, that principle is still very hard to empirically apply. It is hard to tell how much of an unequal distribution is a function of bad institutions and how much is a function of free exchange. However, this means we can provide very limited theories of distributive justice not as constructivist attempts to mold market outcomes to our moral desires, but as rough rules of thumb. If it is true that unequal distributions are a function of bad institutions, then unequal distributions should cause us to re-evaluate those institutions.

2) Income Inequality and Government Exploitation
Of course, many with more Marxist inclinations will argue that any amount of economic inequality will inherently result in class-based exploitation. There are very good, stand-by classical liberal (and neoclassical economic) reasons to reject this as Marxian class analysis as it depends on a highly flawed labor theory of value. However, that does not mean there is not some correlation between some notion of macro-level exploitation of the worst-off and high levels of inequality which libertarians have good reason to be concerned about, for reasons closely related to rent-seeking. Those with high-amount of economic power, particularly in western democracies, are very likely to also have a strong influence over the policies set by the government. There is reason to fear that this will create a class of wealthy people who, through political rent-seeking channels discuss earlier, will control state policies and institutions to protect their interests and wealth at the expense of the worst-off in society. Using state coercion to protect oneself at the expense of others is, under any understanding of the term, coercion. In this way, income inequality can beget rent-seeking and regressive policies which leads to more income inequality which leads to more rent-seeking, leading to a vicious political economic cycle of exploitation and increasing inequality. In fact, even early radical classical liberal economists applied theories of class analysis to this type of problem.

3) Inequality’s Impacts on Economic Growth

There is a robust amount of empirical literature suggesting that excessive income inequality can harm economic growth. How? The Economist explains:

Inequality could impair growth if those with low incomes suffer poor health and low productivity as a result, or if, as evidence suggests, the poor struggle to finance investments in education. Inequality could also threaten public confidence in growth-boosting policies like free trade, says Dani Rodrik of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Of course, this is of special concern to consequentialist classical liberals who claim we should worry mostly about the betterment of the poor in absolute terms, since economic growth is strongly correlated with bettering living standards. There is even some reason for these classical liberals, given their stated normative reasons, to (at least in the short-term given that we have unjust institutions) support some limited redistributive policies, but only those that are implemented well and don’t worsen (such as a Negative Income Tax), insofar as it boosts growth and helps limited the growth of rent-seeking culture described with reasons one and two.

4) Inequality and Political Stability

There is further some evidence that income inequality increases political instability. If the poor perceive that current distributions are unjust (however wrong they may or may not be), they might have social discontent. In moderate scenarios, (as the Alsenia paper I linked to argue) this can lead to reduced investment, which aggravates third problem discussed earlier. In some scenarios, this can lead to support for populist demagogues (such as Trump or Bernie Sanders) who will implement bad policies that not only might harm the poor but also limit individual liberty in other important ways. In the most extreme scenarios (however unlikely, but still plausible), it can lead to all-out violent revolutions and warfare. At any rate, libertarians and classical liberals concerned with ensuring tranquility and freedom should be concerned if inequality increases.

5) Inequality and Social Mobility

More meritocratic-leaning libertarians might say we should be concerned about equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes. There is some evidence that the two are greatly linked. In particular, the so-called “Great Gatsby Curve,” which shows a negative relationship between economic mobility and income inequality. In other words, unequal outcomes can undermine unequal opportunities. This can be because higher inequality means unequal access to certain services, eg. Education, that can enable social mobility, or that the poorer may have fewer connections to better-paying opportunities because of their socio-economic status. Of course, there is likely some reverse causality here; institutions that limit social mobility (such as those discussed in problem one and two) can be said to worsen income mobility intergenerationally, leading to higher inequality in the future. Though teasing out the direction of causality empirically can be challenging, there is reason for concern here if one is concerned about social mobility.

The main point I’m getting at is nothing new: one need not be a radical leftist social egalitarian who thinks equal economic outcomes are necessarily the only moral outcomes to be concerned on some level with inequality. How one responds to inequality is empirically dependent on the causes of the problems, and we have some good reasons to think that more limited government is a good solution to unequal outcomes.

This is not to say inequality poses no problem for libertarian’s ideal political order, if it is the case that markets inherently begets problematic levels of inequality, as for example Thomas Piketty claims, then we might need to re-evaluate how we integrate markets. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of such claims (Thomas Piketty’s in particular are suspect). Even if we grant that markets by themselves do lead to levels of inequality that cause problems 3-5, we must not commit the Nirvana fallacy. We need to compare government’s aptitude at managing income distribution, which for well-worn public choice reasons outlined in problems one and two as well as a mammoth epistemic problem inherent in figuring out how much inequality is likely to lead to those problems, and compare it to the extent to which markets do generate those problems. It is possible (very likely, even) that even if markets are not perfect in the sense of ensuring distribution that does not have problematic political economic outcomes, the state attempting to correct these outcomes would only make things worse.

But that is a complex empirical research project which obviously can’t be solved in this short blog post, suffice it to say now that though libertarians are right to be skeptical of overarching moralistic outrage about rising levels of inequality, there are other very good empirical reasons to be concerned.

A Common Conservative Fallacy

I believe folly serves liberals better than it serves conservatives. Our way is the rational way while liberals tend to rely on their gut-feelings and on their sensitive hearts which make them comparatively indifferent to hard facts. That’s why they voted for  Pres. Obama. That’s why they voted for Mrs Bill Clinton against all strong evidence (known evidence, verifiable, not just suppositions) of her moral and intellectual unsuitability. That’s why many of them still can’t face emotionally the possibility of buyer’s remorse with respect to Mr Obama. That’s why they can’t collectively face the results of the 2016 election. So, conservatives have a special duty to wash out their brains of fallacy often.

It’s the task of every conservative to correct important errors that have found their way into fellow conservatives’ mind. Here is one I hear several times a week, especially from Rush Limbaugh (whom I otherwise like and admire). What’s below is a paraphrase, a distillation of many different but similar statements, from Limbaugh and from others I listen to and read, and from Internet comments, including many on my own Facebook:

“Government does not create jobs,”


“Government does not create wealth (it just seizes the wealth created by business and transfers it to others).”

Both statements are important and both statements are just false. It’s not difficult to show why.

First, some government actions make jobs possible that would not exist, absent those actions. Bear with me.

Suppose I have a large field of good bottom land. From this land I can easily grow a crop of corn sufficient to feed my family, and our poultry, and our pig, Gaspard. I grow a little more to make pretty good whiskey. I have no reason to grow more corn than this. I forgot to tell you: This is 1820 in eastern Ohio. Now, the government uses taxes (money taken from me and from others under threat of violence, to be sure) to dig and build  a canal that links me and others to the growing urban centers of New York and Pennsylvania. I decide to plant more corn, for sale back East. This growth in my total production works so well that I expand again. Soon, I have to hire a field hand to help me out. After a while, I have two employees.

In the  historically realistic situation I describe, would it not be absurd to declare that the government gets no credit, zero credit for the two new jobs? Sure, absent government tax-supported initiative, canals may have been built as private endeavors and with private funds. In the meantime, denying that the government contributed to the creation of two new jobs in the story above is not true to fact.

Second, it should be obvious that government provides many services, beginning with mail delivery. Also, some of the services private companies supply in this country are provided elsewhere by a branch of government. They are comparable. This fact allows for an estimation of the economic value of the relevant government services. Emergency services, ambulance service, is a case in point. Most ambulances are privately owned and operated in the US while most ambulances are government-owned and operated in France. If you have a serious car accident in the US, you or someone calls a certain number and an ambulance arrives to administer first aid and to carry you to a hospital if needed. Exactly the same thing happens in France under similar circumstances. (The only difference is that, in France, the EM guy immediately hands you a shot of good cognac. OK, it’s not true; I am kidding.)

In both countries, the value of the service so rendered is entered into the national accounting and it does in fact appear in the American Gross Domestic Product for the year (GDP) and in the French GDP, respectively. The GDP of each country thus increases by something like $500 each time an ambulance is used. Incidentally, the much decried GDP is important because it’s the most common measure of the value of our collective production. One version of GDP (“PPP”) is roughly comparable between countries. When the GDP is up by 3,5 % for a year, it makes every American who knows it, happy; also some who don’t know it. When the GDP shrinks by 1%, we all worry and we all feel poorer. If the GDP change shrinks below zero for two consecutive quarters, you have the conventional definition of a recession and all hell breaks lose, including usually a rise in unemployment.

Exactly the same is true in France. The government-provided French ambulance service has exactly the same effect on the French GDP.

Now think of this: Is there anyone who believes that the equivalent service supplied in France by a government agency does not have more or less the same value as the American service provided by a private company? Would anyone argue that the ambulance service supplied in France, in most ways identical to the service in America, should not be counted in the French GDP? Clearly, both propositions are absurd.

Same thing for job creation. When the French government agency in charge of ambulances hires an additional ambulance driver, it creates a new job, same as when an American company hires an ambulance driver.

By the way, don’t think my story trivial. “Services” is a poorly defined category. It’s even sometimes too heterogeneous to be useful (not “erogenous,” please pay attention). It includes such disparate things as waitressing, fortune-telling, university teaching, and doing whatever Social Security employees do. Yet it’s good enough for gross purposes. Depending on what you include, last year “services” accounted for something between 45% and 70% of US GDP. So, if you think services, such as ambulance service, should not be counted, you should know that it means that we are earning collectively about half to three quarters less than we think we do. If memory serves, that means that our standard of living today is about the same as it was in 1950 or even in 1930.

Does this all imply that we should rejoice every time the government expands? The answer is “No,” for three reasons. These three reasons however should only show up after we have resolved the issue described above, after we have convinced ourselves that government does provide service and that it and does create real jobs, directly and indirectly. Below are the three questions that correspond to the three reasons why conservatives should still not rejoice when government enlarges its scope. Conservatives should ask these three questions over and over again:

1 Is this service a real service to regular people or is it created only, or largely, to serve the needs of those who provide it, or for frivolous reasons? Some government services fall into this area, not many, I think. Look in the direction of government control, inspection, verification functions. Don’t forget your local government.

Often, the answer to this question is not clear or it is changing. Public primary and secondary education looks more and more like a service provided largely or even primarily to give careers to teachers and administrators protected by powerful unions. It does not mean that the real, or the expected service, “education,” is not delivered, just that it’s often done badly by people who are not the best they could be to provide that particular service; also people who are difficult or impossible to replace.

2   Is this particular service better provided by government or by the private sector? Is it better provided by government although the provision of the service requires collecting taxes and then paying out the proceeds to the actual civil servants through a government bureaucracy? That’s a very indirect way to go about anything, it would seem. That’s enough reason to be skeptical. The indirectness of the route between collecting the necessary funds and their being paid out to providers should often be enough to make government service more expensive than private, market-driven equivalent services. Note that the statement is credible even if every government employee involved is a model of efficiency.

The US Post Office remains the best example of a  situation where one would say  the private sector can do it better.

Only conservatives dare pose this question with respect to services one level of government or other has been supplying for a long time or forever. The Post Office is inefficient; if it were abolished, the paper mail would be delivered, faster or cheaper, or both. Some paper mail would not be delivered anymore. Many more of us would count it a blessing than the reverse. While there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that children should be educated at collective expense, there is growing certitude that governments should not be in the business of education. In many parts of the country, the public schools are both expensive and bad. Last time I looked, Washington DC was spending over $20,000 per pupil per year. Give me half that amount and half the students or better will come out knowing how to read, I say. (It’s not the case now.)

3   This is the most serious question and the most difficult to answer concretely: Does the fact that this service is provided by government (any level) have any negative effect on our liberties? This is a separate question altogether. It may be that the government’s supply of a particular service is both inefficient and dangerous to freedom. It may be however that government supply is the most efficient solution possible and yet, I don’t want it because it threatens my freedom. As a conservative, I believe that my money is my money. I am free to use it to buy inefficiently, in order to preserve liberty, for example. I am not intellectually obligated to be “pragmatic” and short sighted.

To take an example at random, if someone showed me, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, that Obamacare would reduce the cost of health care without impairing its quality, if that happened, I would still be against it because of the answer I would give to the third and last question above.

I don’t want a any government bureaucracy to make decisions that are ultimately decisions of life and death on my behalf. The possibility of blackmail is too real. Even thinking about it is likely to make some citizens more docile than they otherwise would be. So much power about such real issues must have a chilling effect on the many.

The rule of thumb is this: Every expansion of government reduces individual freedom. That’s true even if this expansion creates and efficient and effective government agency, say, a real good Post Office we don’t even know how to dream of. And this is not an abstract view. The well-intentioned and in other ways laudable recognition of homosexual marriage was followed in short order by threats and fines against a hapless baker who declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding. We must keep in mind at all times that, of course, the power to fine, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy.

An efficient but ethically objectionable government service is not something I worry much about, in the case of Obamacare specifically, by the way. It is inefficient, ineffective and dangerous to individual liberty all at once.

Conservatives don’t do enough to proclaim that their opposition to big government has an ethical basis, that it’s a moral position independent of the quality of big government. This silence makes if easy for liberals to caricature conservatives as just selfish grouches who don’t want to pay taxes.

Most of the time, I don’t want to pay taxes because I don’t want to be forced. I would gladly give away twice the amount of my taxes if there were a way to do it voluntarily instead of paying taxes.

I am so opposed to this kind of force that I think even the undeserving and obscenely rich should not be despoiled by the government. It’s an ethical position, not a pragmatic one. And, it sure cannot be called “selfish.” (WTF!)

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.

Spanish GDP since 1850

Among the great economic historians is Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Why? Because, before venturing in massively complex explanations to explain academic puzzles, he tries to make sure the data is actually geared towards actually testing the theory. That attracts my respect (probably because it’s what I do as well which implies a confirmation bias on my part). Its also why I feel that I must share his most recent work which is basically a recalculation of the GDP of Spain.

The most important I see from his work is that the recomputation portrays Spain as a less poor place than we have been led to believe – throughout the era. To show how much, I recomputed the Maddison data for Spain and compared it with incomes for the United Kingdom and compared it Leandro’s estimates for Spain relative to those for Britain (the two methods are very similar thus they seem like mirrors at different levels). The figure below emerges (on a log scale for the ratio in percentage points). As one can see, Spain is much closer to Britain than we are led to believe throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century. Moreover, with Leandro’s corrections, Spain convergence towards Britain from the end of the Civil War to today is very impressive.


The only depressing thing I see from Leandro’s work is that Spain’s productivity (GDP / hours worked) seems to have stagnated since the mid-1980s.


On getting the data right : price disparities before 1914

I am a weird bird. I get excited at weird things. I get excited at reading economics and history papers (and books). I get particularly excited when I read papers and books that “get the data right”. This is because I believe that most theoretical debates in economics stem from poor data forcing us to develop grandiose theories or very advanced models to explain simple things. One example of that is the work of Joshua Hendrickson who argued that monetary aggregates (M1, M2 etc.) are not necessarily perfect indicators of money. However, these aggregates were used in statistical tests and generated strange results inconsistent with theory. This issue has been the cause of many debates. Josh stepped in and said that we just had a variable that was not created to measure what the theory said. Using broader measures of money, he found the results consistent with theory. The debates were driven by poor data (as I think is the case in issues over fiscal multipliers, crowding-out and business cycles).

Thus, I am always excited to see data work that “get things right”. One recent example that adds to cases like that of Hendrickson is Peter Lindert’s working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Researcher. Now, before I proceed, I must state that I am very partial to Lindert as he has been a big supporter of my own research and has volunteered important quantities of his time to helping me move forward. Thus, I have a favorable bias towards Lindert (and his partner in crime, Jeffrey Williamson).  Nonetheless, his working paper requires a discussion because it “gets prices right”.

The essence of his new working paper is that our GDP per capita estimates prior to 1914 may overestimate divergence between countries over time.

Generally, when we measure GDP, we try to derive “volume indexes” that measure quantities produced at a fixed vector of prices. For example, when I measured Canadian economic growth from 1688 to 1790 (I am submitting it in a few weeks), I took the quantities of grain reported in censuses and weighed them by prices for a fixed year. This is a good approach for measuring productivity (changes in quantities). Nonetheless, there are issues when you try to move this method over a very long period in time. The prices may become unrepresentative.  So you get time-related distortions. Add to this that all the time-related distortions may be different over space. After all, should we believe the relative price of wheat to oats in 1910 was the same in Canada as it was in Russia?  Variations in relative prices over space will affect this issue. Basically, you juxtapose these two types of distortions when trying to measure GDP per capita over centuries and you may end up so far in the left field that you’re in fact in the right field.

In his working paper, Lindert tried to adjust for those problems by moving to prices that were more representative. The approach he used is basically the one used by Robert Allen in his work on the Great Divergence. You create a bundle of goods that capture the cost of living in different regions – a basic bundle of goods. This generates purchasing power parities. From there, he recomputed incomes per capita with these measures prior to 1914. The results are striking: there is much more divergence between Europe and Asia that commonly proposed and the United States are much richer than otherwise believed (and were more richer very early on – as far back as the colonial era).

Now, why does this matter?

Well, consider the debate on convergence. Many scholars have been unimpressed by the level of income convergence across countries (at least until the 1980s). However, Lindert’s estimates suggest that the starting point was well below what we think it was. In a way, what this is telling us is that many puzzles regarding the “catching-up” of poor countries may be simply related to poor data. Imagine, for a second, that we could redo what Lindert did with many more countries at a higher time frequency. What would this tell us? Imagine also that this new data would confirm Lindert’s point, what would that entail for those entangled in debates over development?

Basically, what I am saying is this: most of our debates often stem from poor data. If a simple (and theoretically sound) correction can eliminate the puzzles, maybe our task as economists should be to stop bickering over advanced theory and make sure the data is actually geared towards testing our theories!

Has Canada been Poorer than the US for so long?

A standard stylized fact in Canada is that we are poorer, on average, than the average American. This has been presented as a fact that is as steady as the northern star. But our evidence on Canadian incomes is pretty shoddy prior to 1870 (here I praise M.C. Urquhart for having designed a GNP series that covers from 1870 to 1926 and links up with the official national accounts even if I think there are some improvements that can be brought to measuring output from some key industries and get the deflator right). But what about anything before 1870? There are some estimates for Ontario from 1826 to 1851 by Lewis and Urquhart (great stuff), but Ontario was pretty much the high-income of Canada.

So, can we go further back? This is what my work is about (partially), and I just made available my results on Canadian living standards (proxied by Quebec where the vast majority of the population was) from 1688 to 1775 as captured by welfare ratios. So that’s pretty much the closest we can get to the “founding”. Below are my results derived from this paper. They show that the colonists in Canada were not very much richer than their counterparts in France with the basket meant to capture the meanest of subsistence and roughly equal to their counterparts in France with a basket that includes more manufactured goods like clothing and more alcohol. This explains why most migrants from France to Canada were “volunteered” (in the sense that they were pretty much reluctant migrants) for migration. But the key interesting result is that relative to New England – the poorest of the American colonies – it is poorer regardless of the basket used. Thus, there seems to be truth to the common logic about Canadians being always poorer than the Americans.


However, I am not fully convinced of my own results. This may surprise some. The reason is not that I do not trust my data (in fact, I think it is superior to most of what exists for the time given that I will be able to proceed to tons of other data). The reason is simple (and rarely discussed): natives.

Natives are always omitted from the stories of living standards. But they existed nonetheless. In terms of national accounts, if the British and French settlers dispossessed and killed natives, their welfare losses are just not computed. But the welfare losses of a musket shot to the head are real. I have always been convinced that if we could correct estimates of living standards to account for the living standards of natives, the picture would change terribly. The reason is two-fold. The first reason is that the historiography is pretty clear that while they were obviously not nice, the French were nicer than the British towards the Natives (at least until 1763 when the British shifted strategy). In fact, trade between French and Natives was very frequent and so it might be that for the whole population (natives + settlers), the French-area peoples enjoyed more growth and higher average levels. In the British colony, if the settlers killed and dispossessed natives, this is basically the British turning native capital stocks into their own capital stock or into consumption (which would enter settlers GDP but not change total GDP). In essence, this is basically a variation on the arguments of Robert Higgs with regards to measuring the American GDP in World War Two and Albrecht Ritschl on the German interwar growth. I am pretty sure that adjusting for the lives of natives would show a greater level for Canada leading to rough equality between the two colonies. However, I am not sure if the argument would cut that way (my guts say yes) since in their conjectural growth estimates, Mancall and Weiss show that with the natives included, their zero rate of income per capita growth turns into a positive rate.

Nonetheless, I still think that knowing that the settlers were better off in the US as an improvement over the current state of knowledge. Until ways to impute the value of native output and production are found, my current estimates are only a step forward, not the whole nine yards.

Minimum wage, measurements and incarceration rates

A few weeks ago, I published a blog post about how incarceration rates affect our measurement of the relative economic conditions of Blacks in America. My claim was that the statistics are hiding a reversal of the painfully achieved advances secured between 1870 and 1960. Basically, my claim was that those who (in greater numbers) found their ways to a prison cell tended to be at the bottom of the income distribution, were more susceptible to be unemployed and had lower wages. This creates a composition effect whereby the official surveys cream-skim the top of black wage, income and employment distributions.

But, could this problem also affect our measurement of the effects of minimum wage? Let me be clear before you continue ahead, I am just asking this question because I could find no satisfactory answer to (or even mention of) this issue.

In recent times, minimum wage surveys have tended to find some gains in earnings for some workers following increases in minimum wage rates. Regardless of how you look at the prison population, it increases  – albeit at a decelerating rate since the early 2000s – since the 1980s. Coincidentally, that starting point is also the point at which the famous Minimum Wage Study Commission was published (1981). That report basically cemented the point made by George Stigler (i.e. minimum wages are not desirable). That report surveyed the entire literature to summarize the amplitude of the effects. That literature encompassed articles written between the end of the Second World War and … well… 1981. If you look below at the graph, incarceration rates were more or less constant during that regime. Thus, if there were composition effects associated with surveys of wages, incomes and employment, they were more moderate than after 1981 when incarceration rates surged.


But, its also after 1981 that some papers began to find some positive effects of minimum wage increases. These studies took place under a growing composition problem in surveys of wages, incomes and employment. Take the famous Dube, Lester and Reich paper in the Review of Economics and Statistics  who used data from 1990 to 2006. During that period, the male incarceration rate surged from 297 per 100,000 to 501 per 100,000. I understand that DLR used a time fixed effect method, but would that be sufficient to at least deal with the issue of shifting labour supplied (it won’t for the data bias issues described notably by Bruce Western)

If we assume that those who are plausibly affected by minimum wages (i.e. lower income individuals) are also those more likely to end up in jail in the United States, then there is clearly a bias. As they are dropped from the labor market (or as they join the prison population), they leave only the workers least affected by the minimum wage inside the samples. That is one possibility.

The other possibility – which is that surveys do not suffer from a large composition, but which is not mutually exclusive to that composition problem – is that the growing prison population represents a year-over-year reduction in the labor supply which offsets the effects of hikes in the minimum wage (or maybe even eliminates them entirely if the shift is big enough).


I have tried many variations of this google scholar research and went back to my copy of the Handbook of Labor Economics and my Economics of Inequality, Poverty and Discrimination  (a book worth reading by the way) and I found very little on this point. Very few scholars have considered the possibility of this problem (which implies a shift of the labor supply curve concurrent with minimum wage hikes and a composition problem where those affected are simply not measured anymore). Yet, I feel like this is a defensible claim. In England, where some studies also show minimal effects or positive effects of the minimum wage, there has also been an increase in the prison population. In contrast, Canada – whose prison population is declining moderately (meaning that the labor supply is increasing as the minimum wage is being increased – the studies do tend to find the “conventional” result.

Am I crazy or is this a case of poor measurement? Personally, I feel that there must an answer, but please tell me I did not just stumble on this!