On “strawmanning” some people and inequality

For some years now, I have been interested in the topic of inequality. One of the angles that I have pursued is a purely empirical one in which I attempt to improvement measurements. This angle has yielded two papers (one of which is still in progress while the other is still in want of a home) that reconsider the shape of the U-curve of income inequality in the United States since circa 1900.

The other angle that I have pursued is more theoretical and is a spawn of the work of Gordon Tullock on income redistribution. That line of research makes a simple point: there are some inequalities that are, in normative terms, worrisome while others are not. The income inequality stemming from the career choices of a benedictine monk and a hedge fund banker are not worrisome. The income inequality stemming from being a prisoner of one’s birth or from rent-seekers shaping rules in their favor is worrisome.  Moreover, some interventions meant to remedy inequalities might actually make things worse in the long-run (some articles even find that taxing income for the sake of redistribution may increase inequality if certain conditions are present – see here).  I have two articles on this (one forthcoming, the other already published) and a paper still in progress (with Rosolino Candela), but they are merely an extension of the aforementioned Gordon Tullock and some other economists like Randall Holcombe, William Watson and Vito Tanzi. After all, the point that a “first, do no harm” policy to inequality might be more productive is not novel (all that it needs is a deep exploration and a robust exposition).

Notice that there is an implicit assumption in this line of research: inequality is a topic worth studying. This is why I am annoyed by statements like those that Gabriel Zucman made to ProMarket. When asked if he was getting pushback for his research on inequality (which is novel and very important), Zucman answers the following:

Of course, yes. I get pushback, let’s say not as much on the substance oftentimes as on the approach. Some people in economics feel that economics should be only about efficiency, and that talking about distributional issues and inequality is not what economists should be doing, that it’s something that politicians should be doing.

This is “strawmanning“. There is no economist who thinks inequality is not a worthwhile topic. Literally none. True, economists may have waned in their interest towards the topic for some years but it never became a secondary topic. Major articles were published in major journals throughout the 1990s (which is often identified as a low point in the literature) – most of them groundbreaking enough to propel the topic forward a mere decade later. This should not be surprising given the heavy ideological and normative ramifications of studying inequality. The topic is so important to all social sciences that no one disregards it. As such, who are these “some people” that Zucman alludes too?

I assume that “some people” are strawmen substitutes for those who, while agreeing that inequality is an important topic, disagree with the policy prescriptions and the normative implications that Zucman draws from his work. The group most “hostile” to the arguments of Zucman (and others such as Piketty, Saez, Atkinson and Stiglitz) is the one that stems from the public choice tradition. Yet, economists in the public-choice tradition probably give distributional issues a more central role in their research than Zucman does. They care about institutional arrangements and the rules of the game in determining outcomes. The very concept of rent-seeking, so essential to public choice theory, relates to how distributional coalitions can emerge to shape the rules of the game in a way that redistribute wealth from X to Y in ways that are socially counterproductive. As such, rent-seeking is essentially a concept that relates to distributional issues in a way that is intimately related to efficiency.

The argument by Zucman to bolster his own claim is one of the reason why I am cynical towards the times we live in. It denotes a certain tribalism that demonizes the “other side” in order to avoid engaging in them. That tribalism, I believe (but I may be wrong), is more prevalent than in the not-so-distant past. Strawmanning only makes the problem worse.

On Household Size and Economic Convergence

A few days ago, one of my papers was accepted for publication at the Scottish Journal of Political Economy (working paper version here). Co-authored with Vadim Kufenko and Klaus Prettner, this paper makes a simple point which I think should be heeded by economists: household size matter. To be fair, economists are aware of this when they study inequality or poverty. After all, the point is pretty straightforward: larger households command economies of scale so that each dollar goes further than in smaller households. As such, adjustments are necessary to make households comparable.

Yet, economists seem to forget it when times come to consider paths of economic growth and convergence across countries. In the paper, we try to remedy this flaw. We do so because there was a wide heterogeneity of household size throughout history – even within more homogeneous clubs such as the countries composing the OECD.  If we admit, as the economists who study poverty and inequality do, that income per person adjusted for household size is preferable to income per person, then we must recognize that our figures of income per capita will misstate the actual differences between countries. In addition, if households grew homogeneously smaller over a long period of time, figures of income per capita will overstate the actual improvements in living standards. As such, we argue there is value in modifying the figures to reflect changing household sizes.

For OECD countries, we find that the adjusted income figures increased a third less than the unadjusted per capita figures (see table below). This suggests a more modest growth trend. In addition, we also find that up to the structural break in variations between countries (NDLR: divergence between OECD countries increased to around 1950) there was more divergence with the adjusted figures than with the unadjusted figures (see figure below). We also find that since the break point, there has been less convergence than previously estimated.

While the paper is presented as a note, the point is simple and suggests that those who study convergence between regions or countries should consider the role of demography more carefully in their work.



Fogel on economics and ideology

Many, upon reading the conclusions of economists, believe that economics has an ideological bent. I often respond that this is not the case. True, the “window” of political opinions in economics is narrower but that is largely because the adhesion of economists to methodological individualism precludes certain ideological views that rest on holistic approaches or concepts. However, when you consider more complex situations than “party affiliation”, you will find economists all over the place. They will often cross ideological lines or even have a foot in two antagonistic camps.

Recently, I was reading Robert Fogel’s lectures on the “Slavery debates” which retells the intellectual history of American slavery from U.B. Phillips to … well … Fogel himself. One must remember that Fogel was, and remained from what I can tell, a quite strongly left-leaning economist for most of his life (see here). As such, it is hard to consider Fogel as an ideologue preaching for free market economics. Yet, in the lectures, Fogel (p.19) makes a point that supports the contention that I often make regarding economists and ideology that I believe must be shared:

The ability to view Phillips (NDLR: the dominant interpretation of slavery pre-1960) in a new light was facilitated by the sudden intrusion of a large corps of economists into the slavery debates during the 1960s. This intrusion was welcomed by neither the defenders of the Phillips tradition nor the neoabolitionist school led by Stampp (NDLR: Kenneth Stampp, author of The Peculiar Institution). The cliometricians, as they were called, refused to be bound by the established rules of engagement, and they blithely crossed ideological wires in a manner that perplexed and exasperated traditional historians on both sides of the ideological divide.

Given that the source of this quotation is Fogel, I admit that I am particularly fond of this passage. Maybe the distrust towards economists is because economists can be both friend and foes to established interlocutors in a given discussion.

Divergence and Convergence within Italy

Two years, I wrote a post on this blog on the process of regional convergence in Italy. In that post, I made the observation that it seems that, economically, Italy was as fragmented at the time of the unification as it is today which made it an oddity in terms of regional convergence. To make that claim, I used this table of relatively sparsed out observations produced by Emanuele Felice: which was published in the Economic History Reviewitaliangdp










As one can see, there is a pronounced “lack” of integration for the Italy in terms of living standards. This is reinforced by a more “continuous” set of estimates produced, again, by Emanuele Felice (this time, its a working paper of the Bank of Italy) that now include the 1870s and go to 2011 (as opposed to 2001). This is the result, which I find fascinating. The first graph shows GDP per capita – for which there is divergence to 1951 and then a mild convergence thereafter but still well above the levels at the time of unification.  More fascinating is the fact that productivity is at its most integrated since unification (2nd figure) suggesting a divergence in levels of labor activity (3rd figure). In these three graphs, you have a neat summary of Italian labor markets since 1870.

Italian Convergence

The great global trend for the equality of well-being since 1900

Some years ago, I read The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany. It was my first exposition to the claim that, globally, there has been a long-trend in the equality of well-being. The observation made by Goklany which had a dramatic effect on me was that many countries who were, at the time of his writing, as rich (incomes per capita) as Britain in 1850 had life expectancy and infant mortality levels well superior to 1850 Britain. Ever since, I accumulated the statistics on that regard and I often tell my students that when comes the time to “dispell” myths regarding the improvement in living standards since circa 1800 (note: people are generally unable to properly grasp the actual improvement in living standards).

Some years after, I discovered the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who is a cliometrician who (I think I told him that when I met him) influenced me deeply in my work regarding the measurement of living standards and who wrote this paper which I will discuss here.  His paper, and his work in general, shows that globally the inequality in incomes has faltered since the 1970s.  That is largely the result of the economic rise of India and China (the world’s two largest antipoverty programs). Figure1Leandro

However, when extending his measurements to include life expectancy and schooling in order to capture “human development” (the idea that development is not only about incomes but the ability to exercise agency – i.e. the acquisition of positive liberty), the collapse in “human development” inequality (i.e. well-being) precedes by many decades the reduction in global income inequality. Indeed, the collapse started around 1900, not 1970!


In reading Leandro’s paper, I remembered the work of Goklany which had sowed the seeds of this idea in my idea. Nearly a decade after reading Goklany’s work well after I fully accepted this fact as valid, I remain stunned by its implications. You should too.

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.