On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

Electricity in Quebec before Nationalization (1919 to 1939)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that  I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many topics. “Accepted wisdom” is a construction of a stylized fact by a party with intense preferences that is gradually able to remove nuances over time to solidify its preferred narrative. The example I gave a few weeks ago concerned antitrust laws. There are many more. One of those concerns a research agenda that I laid claim to in a recent article in Atlantic Economic Journal (co-authored with my dear friend Germain Belzile): the nationalization of electricity in Quebec.

My home province of Quebec is basically one giant network of rivers well-suited for the production of hydro-electricity – a potential that was noticed in the late 19th century and led to a rapid expansion of the network. Historians (and some economists) have depicted the early electrical industry in Quebec as a “trust” (a cartel) that gouged consumers and could only be resolved, as witnessed by the neighboring province of Ontario, by nationalization (which occurred in two waves – one in 1944 and one in 1962).

In the article I published with Belzile, I argue that this narration is largely incorrect. First, before nationalization prices in Quebec were falling and were low by North American standards (see figures below). Second, production was expanding rapidly. This is in spite of the fact that taxes imposed on the electrical industry grew rapidly over time from less than 10% of total expenditures to close to 30%.  Moreover, we point out that looking at residential prices is bound to yield bad comparisons (if we can call those made above as “bad”) if there is price discrimination. The industry price discriminated and offered incredibly low prices for industrial customers (large power) than in Ontario or anywhere else in Canada  (in spite of the taxes it was operating under and the fact that Ontario subsidized its own).

We also point out that there was a dynamics of interventionism problem. The neighboring province of Ontario (more populous and richer than Quebec) nationalized its industry and set prices well below the market level which is an implicit subsidy. However, at the subsidized rate, Ontario could not supply its own demand and had to buy at the market price in Quebec. Its over-equilibrium quantity of energy demanded was transferred on the freer Quebec market, thus increasing prices on that market.

We also argue that there was wide heterogeneity of rates in Quebec that relate to the structure of municipal regulation (the level at which electricity was regulated pre-1935). The price differences depended on the political games involving rent-seeking firms and politicians (best exemplified by the case of Quebec City). Cities with high prices were places where the electrical market was heavily politicized and franchises (i.e. the contracts fixing rate schedules over long periods of time to recoup capital investment) were short and subject to holdups.

This latter point is meant for us (me and Germain) to stake a claim on future research to document the nationalization and regulation process at the municipal level and see what the effects on prices and outputs were. In a certain way, I am trying to establish a research agenda extending the skepticism of “accepted wisdom” that has emerged with the economic history of antitrust in the United States to the case of electricity trusts in Quebec. This first article is, I believe, a promising start for such an inclusion.

 

Figure2Electricity

Figure4Electricity

 

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.

How poor was 18th century France? Steps towards testing the High-Wage Hypothesis (HWE)

A few days ago, one of my articles came online at the Journal of Interdisciplinary HistoryIt is a research note, but as far as notes go this one is (I think) an important step forwards with regards to the High-Wage Hypothesis (henceforth HWE for high-wage economy) of industrialization.

In the past, I explained my outlook on this theory which proposes that high wages relative to energy was a key driver of industrialization. As wages were high while energy was cheap, firms had incentives to innovate and develop labor-saving technologies.  I argued that I was not convinced by the proposition because there were missing elements to properly test its validity. In that post I argued that to answer why the industrial revolution was British we had to ask why it was not French (a likely competitor). For the HWE to be a valid proposition, wages had to be higher in England than in France by a substantial margin. This is why I have been interested in living standards in France.

In his work, Robert Allen showed that Paris was the richest city in France (something confirmed by Phil Hoffman in his own work). It was also poorer than London (and other British cities). The other cities of France were far behind. In fact, by the 18th century, Allen’s work suggests that Strasbourg (the other city for which he had data) was one of the poorest in Europe.

In the process of assembling comparisons between Canada and France during the colonial era (from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries), I went to the original sources that Allen used and found that the level of living standards is understated. First, I found out that the wages were not for Strasbourg per se. They applied to a semi-rural community roughly 70km away from Strasbourg.  Urban wages and rural wages tend to differ massively and so they were bound to show lower living standards. Moreover, the prices Allen used for his basket applied to urban settings. This means that the wages used were not comparable to the other cities used. I also found out that the type of work that was reported in the sources may not have belonged to unskilled workers but rather to semi-skilled or even skilled workers and that the wages probably included substantial in-kind payments.

Unfortunately, I could not find a direct solution to correct the series proposed by Allen. However, there were two ways to circumvent the issue. The most convincing of those two methods relies on using the reported wages for agricultural workers. While this breaks with the convention established by Allen (a justifiable convention in my opinion) of using urban wages and prices, it is not a problem if we compare with similar types of wage work. We do have similar data to compare with in the form of Gregory Clark’s farm wages in England. The wage rates computed by Allen placed Strasbourg at 64% of the level of wages for agricultural workers in England between 1702 and 1775. In comparison, the lowest of the agricultural wage rates for the Alsatian region places the ratio at 74%. The other wage rates are much closer to wages in England.  The less convincing methods relies on semi-skilled construction workers – which is not ideal. However, when these are compared to English wages, they are also substantially higher.

Overall, my research note attempts a modest contribution: properly measure the extent to which wages were lower in France than in Britain. I am not trying to solve the HWE debate with this. However, it does come one step closer to providing the information to do so. Now that we know that the rest of France was not as poor as believed (something which is confirmed by the recent works of Leonardo Ridolfi and Judy Stephenson), we can more readily assess if the gap was “big enough” to matter.  If it was not big enough to matter, then we have to move to one of the other five channels that could confirm the HWE (at least that means I have more papers to write).

On Antitrust, the Sherman Act and Accepted Wisdom

I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many policy debates. People involved in policy-making are generally politicians who carefully craft justifications (i.e. cover stories) where self-interest and common good cannot be disentangled easily.  These justifications can easily become “accepted wisdom” even if incorrect. I am not saying that “accepted wisdom” is without value or that it is always wrong, but more often than not it is accepted at face value without question.

My favorite example is “antitrust”.  In the United States, the Sherman Act (the antitrust bill) was first introduced in 1889 (passed in 1890). The justification often given is that it was meant to promote competition as proposed by economists. However, as often pointed out, the bill was passed well before the topic of competition in economics had been unified into a theoretical body.  It was also rooted in protectionist motives. Moreover, the bill was passed after the industries most affected saw prices fall faster than the overall price level and output increase faster than the overall output level (see here here here here and here). Combined, these elements should give pause to anyone willing to cite the “accepted wisdom”.

More recently, economist Patrick Newman provided further reason for caution in an article in Public Choice. Interweaving political history and the biographical details about senator John Sherman (he of the Sherman Act), Newman tells a fascinating story about the self-interested reasons behind the introduction of the act.

In 1888, John Sherman failed to obtain the Republican presidential nomination – a failure which he blamed on the governor of Michigan, Russell Alger. Out of malice and a desire of vengeance, Sherman defended his proposal by citing Alger as the ringmaster of one of the “trusts”. Alger, himself a presidential hopeful for the 1892 cycle, was politically crippled by the attack (even if it appears that it was untrue). Obviously, this was not the sole reason for the Act (Newman highlights the nature of the Republican coalition which would have demanded such an act). However, once Alger was fatally wounded, Sherman appears to have lost interest in the Act and left others to push it through.

As such, the passage of the bill was partly motivated by political self-interest (thus illustrating the key point of behavioral symmetry that underlies public choice theory). Entangled in the “accepted wisdom” is a wicked tale of revenge between politicians. At such sight, it is hard not to be cautions with regards to “accepted wisdom”.

Prices in Canada since 1688

A few days ago, I received goods news that the Canadian Journal of Economics had accepted my paper that constructed a consumer price index for Canada between 1688 and 1850 from homogeneous sources (the account books of religious congregations). I have to format the article to the guidelines of the journal and attach all my data and it will be good to go (I am planning on doing this over the weekend). In the meanwhile, I thought I would share the finalized price index so that others can see it.

First, we have the price index that focuses on the period from 1688 to 1850.  Most indexes that exist for pre-1850 Canada (or Quebec since I assume that Quebec is representative of pre-1850 Canadian price trends) are short-term, include mostly agricultural goods and have no expenditures weights to create a basket. Now, my index is the first that uses the same type of sources continuously over such a long period and it is also the first to use a large array of non-agricultural goods. It also has a weights scheme to create a basket.

PriceIndexCanada

The issue of adding non-agricultural goods was especially important because there were important differences in the evolution of different types of goods. Agricultural goods, see next image, saw their nominal prices continually increase between the 17th and 19th centuries. However, most other prices – imported goods, domestically produced manufactured goods etc. – either fall or remain stable. These are very pronounced changes in relative prices. It shows that reliance on agricultural goods price index will overstate the amount of “deflating” needed to arrive at real wages or incomes.  The image below shows the nominal price evolution of groupings of goods as described above.

PriceIndexCanada2

And finally, the pièce de résistance! I link my own index to other existing post-1850 index so as to generate the evolution of prices in Canada since 1688. The figure below shows the evolution of the price index over … 328 years (I ended the series at 2015, but extra years forward can be added). In the years to come, I will probably try to extend this backwards as much as possible at least to 1665 (the first census in Canada) and will probably try to approach Statistics Canada to see if they would like to incorporate this contribution into their wide database of macroeconomic history of Canada.

PriceIndexCanada3