On Borjas, Data and More Data

I see my craft as an economic historian as a dual mission. The first is to answer historical question by using economic theory (and in the process enliven economic theory through the use of history). The second relates to my obsessive-compulsive nature which can be observed by how much attention and care I give to getting the data right. My co-authors have often observed me “freaking out” over a possible improvement in data quality or be plagued by doubts over whether or not I had gone “one assumption too far” (pun on a bridge too far). Sometimes, I wish more economists would follow my historian-like freakouts over data quality. Why?

Because of this!

In that paper, Michael Clemens (whom I secretly admire – not so secretly now that I have written it on a blog) criticizes the recent paper produced by George Borjas showing the negative effect of immigration on wages for workers without a high school degree. Using the famous Mariel boatlift of 1980, Clemens basically shows that there were pressures on the US Census Bureau at the same time as the boatlift to add more black workers without high school degrees. This previously underrepresented group surged in importance within the survey data. However since that underrepresented group had lower wages than the average of the wider group of workers without high school degrees, there was an composition effect at play that caused wages to fall (in appearance). However, a composition effect is also a bias causing an artificial drop in wages and this drove the results produced by Borjas (and underestimated the conclusion made by David Card in his original paper to which Borjas was replying).

This is cautionary tale about the limits of econometrics. After all, a regression is only as good as the data it uses and suited to the question it seeks to answer. Sometimes, simple Ordinary Least Squares are excellent tools. When the question is broad and/or the data is excellent, an OLS can be a sufficient and necessary condition to a viable answer. However, the narrower the question (i.e. is there an effect of immigration only on unskilled and low-education workers), the better the method has to be. The problem is that the better methods often require better data as well. To obtain the latter, one must know the details of a data source. This is why I am nuts over data accuracy. Even small things matter – like a shift in the representation of blacks in survey data – in these cases. Otherwise, you end up with your results being reversed by very minor changes (see this paper in Journal of Economic Methodology for examples).

This is why I freak out over data. Maybe I can make two suggestions about sharing my freak-outs.

The first is to prefer a skewed ratio of data quality to advanced methods (i.e. simple methods with crazy-data). This reduces the chances of being criticized for relying on weak assumptions. The second is to take a leaf out of the book of the historians. While historians are often averse to advantaged data techniques (I remember a case when I had to explain panel data regressions to historians which ended terribly for me), they are very respectful of data sources. I have seen historians nurture datasets for years before being willing to present them. When published, they generally stand up to scrutiny because of the extensive wealth of details compiled.

That’s it folks.


On doing economic history

I admit to being a happy man. While I am in general a smiling sort of fellow, I was delightfully giggling with joy upon hearing that another economic historian (and a fellow  Canadian from the LSE to boot), Dave Donaldson, won the John Bates Clark medal. I dare say that it was about time. Nonetheless I think it is time to talk to economists about how to do economic history (and why more should do it). Basically, I argue that the necessities of the trade require a longer period of maturation and a considerable amount of hard work. Yet, once the economic historian arrives at maturity, he produces long-lasting research which (in the words of Douglass North) uses history to bring theory to life.

Economic History is the Application of all Fields of Economics

Economics is a deductive science through which axiomatic statements about human behavior are derived. For example, stating that the demand curve is downward-sloping is an axiomatic statement. No economist ever needed to measure quantities and prices to say that if the price increases, all else being equal, the quantity will drop. As such, economic theory needs to be internally consistent (i.e. not argue that higher prices mean both smaller and greater quantities of goods consumed all else being equal).

However, the application of these axiomatic statements depends largely on the question asked. For example, I am currently doing work on the 19th century Canadian institution of seigneurial tenure. In that work, I  question the role that seigneurial tenure played in hindering economic development.  In the existing literature, the general argument is that the seigneurs (i.e. the landlords) hindered development by taxing (as per their legal rights) a large share of net agricultural output. This prevented the accumulation of savings which – in times of imperfect capital markets – were needed to finance investments in capital-intensive agriculture. That literature invoked one corpus of axiomatic statements that relate to capital theory. For my part, I argue that the system – because of a series of monopoly rights – was actually a monopsony system through the landlords restrained their demand for labor on the non-farm labor market and depressed wages. My argument invokes the corpus of axioms related to industrial organization and monopsony theory. Both explanations are internally consistent (there are no self-contradictions). Yet, one must be more relevant to the question of whether or not the institution hindered growth and one must square better with the observed facts.

And there is economic history properly done. It tries to answer which theory is relevant to the question asked. The purpose of economic history is thus to find which theories matter the most.

Take the case, again, of asymetric information. The seminal work of Akerlof on the market for lemons made a consistent theory, but subsequent waves of research (notably my favorite here by Eric Bond) have showed that the stylized predictions of this theory rarely materialize. Why? Because the theory of signaling suggests that individuals will find ways to invest in a “signal” to solve the problem. These are two competing theories (signaling versus asymetric information) and one seems to win over the other.  An economic historian tries to sort out what mattered to a particular event.

Now, take these last few paragraphs and drop the words “economic historians” and replace them by “economists”.  I believe that no economist would disagree with the definition of the tasks of the economist that I offered. So why would an economic historian be different? Everything that has happened is history and everything question with regards to it must be answered through sifting for the theories that is relevant to the event studied (under the constraint that the theory be consistent). Every economist is an economic historian.

As such, the economic historian/economist must use advanced tools related to econometrics: synthetic controls, instrumental variables, proper identification strategies, vector auto-regressions, cointegration, variance analysis and everything you can think of. He needs to do so in order to answer the question he tries to answer. The only difference with the economic historian is that he looks further back in the past.

The problem with this systematic approach is the efforts needed by practitioners.  There is a need to understand – intuitively – a wide body of literature on price theory, statistical theories and tools, accounting (for understanding national accounts) and political economy. This takes many years of training and I can take my case as an example. I force myself to read one scientific article that is outside my main fields of interest every week in order to create a mental repository of theoretical insights I can exploit. Since I entered university in 2006, I have been forcing myself to read theoretical books that were on the margin of my comfort zone. For example, University Economics by Allen and Alchian was one of my favorite discoveries as it introduced me to the UCLA approach to price theory. It changed my way of understanding firms and the decisions they made. Then reading some works on Keynesian theory (I will confess that I have never been able to finish the General Theory) which made me more respectful of some core insights of that body of literature. In the process of reading those, I created lists of theoretical key points like one would accumulate kitchen equipment.

This takes a lot of time, patience and modesty towards one’s accumulated stock of knowledge. But these theories never meant anything to me without any application to deeper questions. After all, debating about the theory of price stickiness without actually asking if it mattered is akin to debating with theologians about the gender of angels (I vote that they are angels and since these are fictitious, I don’t give a flying hoot’nanny). This is because I really buy in the claim made by Douglass North that theory is brought to life by history (and that history is explained by theory).

On the Practice of Economic History

So, how do we practice economic history? The first thing is to find questions that matter.  The second is to invest time in collecting inputs for production.

While accumulating theoretical insights, I also made lists of historical questions that were still debated.  Basically, I made lists of research questions since I was an undergraduate student (not kidding here) and I keep everything on the list until I have been satisfied by my answer and/or the subject has been convincingly resolved.

One of my criteria for selecting a question is that it must relate to an issue that is relevant to understanding why certain societies are where there are now. For example, I have been delving into the issue of the agricultural crisis in Canada during the early decades of the 19th century. Why? Because most historians attribute (wrongly in my opinion)  a key role to this crisis in the creation of the Canadian confederation, the migration of the French-Canadians to the United States and the politics of Canada until today. Another debate that I have been involved in relates to the Quiet Revolution in Québec (see my book here) which is argued to be a watershed moment in the history of the province. According to many, it marked a breaking point when Quebec caught up dramatically with the rest of  Canada (I disagreed and proposed that it actually slowed down a rapid convergence in the decade and a half that preceded it). I picked the question because the moment is central to all political narratives presently existing in Quebec and every politician ushers the words “Quiet Revolution” when given the chance.

In both cases, they mattered to understanding what Canada was and what it has become. I used theory to sort out what mattered and what did not matter. As such, I used theory to explain history and in the process I brought theory to life in a way that was relevant to readers (I hope).  The key point is to use theory and history together to bring both to life! That is the craft of the economic historian.

The other difficulty (on top of selecting questions and understanding theories that may be relevant) for the economic historian is the time-consuming nature of data collection. Economic historians are basically monks (and in my case, I have both the shape and the haircut of friar Tuck) who patiently collect and assemble new data for research. This is a high fixed cost of entering in the trade. In my case, I spent two years in a religious congregation (literally with religious officials) collecting prices, wages, piece rates, farm data to create a wide empirical portrait of the Canadian economy.  This was a long and arduous process.

However, thanks to the lists of questions I had assembled by reading theory and history, I saw the many steps of research I could generate by assembling data. Armed with some knowledge of what I could do, the data I collected told me of other questions that I could assemble. Once I had finish my data collection (18 months), I had assembled a roadmap of twenty-something papers in order to answer a wide array of questions on Canadian economic history: was there an agricultural crisis; were French-Canadians the inefficient farmers they were portrayed to be; why did the British tolerate catholic and French institutions when they conquered French Canada; did seigneurial tenure explain the poverty of French Canada; did the conquest of Canada matter to future growth; what was the role of free banking in stimulating growth in Canada etc.

It is necessary for the economic historian to collect a ton of data and assemble a large base of theoretical knowledge to guide the data towards relevant questions. For those reasons, the economic historian takes a longer time to mature. It simply takes more time. Yet, once the maturation is over (I feel that mine is far from being over to be honest), you get scholars like Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Fogel, Douglass North, Barry Weingast, Sheilagh Ogilvie and Ronald Coase (yes, I consider Coase to be an economic historian but that is for another post) who are able to produce on a wide-ranging set of topics with great depth and understanding.


The craft of the economic historian is one that requires a long period of apprenticeship (there is an inside joke here, sorry about that). It requires heavy investment in theoretical understanding beyond the main field of interest that must be complemented with a diligent accumulation of potential research questions to guide the efforts at data collection. Yet, in the end, it generates research that is likely to resonate with the wider public and impact our understanding of theory. History brings theory to life indeed!

On Evonomics, Spelling and Basic Economic Concepts

I am a big fan of exploring economic ideas into greater depth rather than remaining on the surface of knowledge that I accumulated through my studies. As such, I am always happy when I see people trying to promote “alternatives” within the field of economics (e.g. neuroeconomics, behavioral economics, economic history, evolutionary economics, feminist economics etc.). I do not always agree, but it is enjoyable to think about some of the core tenets of the field through the work of places like the Institute for New Economic Thinking. However, things like Evonomics do not qualify for this.

And this is in spite of the fact that the core motivation of the webzine is correct: there are problems with the way we do economics today (on average). However, discomfort towards the existing state of affairs is no excuse for shoddy work and holding up strawmen that can be burned at the stake followed by a vindictive celebratory dance. The most common feature of those who write for Evonomics is to hold such a strawman with regards to rationality. It presents a caricature where humans calculate everything with precision and argue that if, post-facto, all turns out well then it was a rational process. No one, I mean no one, believes that. The most succinct summary  of rationality according to economists is presented by Vernon Smith in his Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms. 

Such practices have led me to discount much of what is said on Evonomics and it is close to the threshold where the time costs of sorting the wheat from the chaff outweighs the intellectual benefits.

This recent article on “Dierdre” McCloskey may have pushed it over that threshold. I say “Dierdre” because the author of the article could not even be bothered to write correctly the name of the person he is criticizing. Indeed, it is “Deirdre” McCloskey and not “Dierdre”. While, ethymologically, Dierdre is a variant of Deirdre from the Celtic legend that shares similarities to Tristan and Isolde, the latter form is more frequent. More importantly, Dierdre is name more familiar to players of Guild Wars. 

A minor irritant which, unfortunately, compounds my poor view of the webzine. But then, the author of the article in question goes into full strawman mode. He singles out a passage from McCloskey regarding the effects of redistributing income from the top to the bottom. In that passage, McCloskey merely points out that the effects of equalizing incomes would be minimal.  The author’s reply? Focus on wealth and accuse McCloskey of shoddy mathematics.

Now, this is just poor understanding of basic economic concepts and it matters to the author’s whole point. Income is a flux variable and wealth is a stock variable. The two things are thus dramatically different. True, the flux can help build up the stock, but the people with the top incomes (flux) are not necessarily those with the top wealths (stock). For example, most students have negative net worth (negative stock) when they graduate. However, thanks to their human capital (Bryan Caplan would say signal here), they have higher earnings. Thus, they’re closer to the top of the income distribution and closer to the very bottom of the wealth distribution.  My grandpa is the actual reverse. Before he passed away, my grandpa was probably at the top of the wealth distribution, but since he passed most of his time doing  no paid work whatsoever, he was at the bottom of the income distribution.

Nevermind that the author of the Evonomics article misses the basic point of McCloskey (which is that we should care more about the actual welfare of people rather than the egalitarian distribution), this basic flaw in understanding why the difference between a stock and flux leads him astray.

To be fair, I can see why some people disagree with McCloskey. However, if you can’t pass the basic ideological Turing test, you should not write in rebuttal.

Welfare Costs are not a Good Argument Against Immigration

Note: A version of this was initially posted on my old, now defunct blog. However, has become increasingly relevant in the age of Trump, and is worthy of reconsideration now.

It’s one of the most common arguments against looser immigration going back to Milton Friedman to Donald Trump. It is commonly claimed that even though loosening immigration restrictions may be economically beneficial and just, it should be opposed due to the existence of the welfare state. Proponents of this claim argue that immigrants can simply come to this country to obtain welfare benefits, doing no good for the economy and adding to budget deficits.

Though this claim is on its face plausible, welfare is not nearly as much of a compelling reason to oppose immigration as so many argue. It is ultimately an empirical question as to whether or not the fiscal costs of immigration significantly outweigh the fiscal benefits of having more immigrants pay taxes and more tax revenue economic growth caused by immigration.

Before delving into the empirical studies on the matter, there is one very important fact that is too often neglected in these discussions: there are already heavy laws restricting all illegal immigrants and even the vast majority of legal ones from receiving Welfare. As the federal government itself–specifically the HHS–notes:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” [ie., legal immigrants] entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

If we were to allow more immigrants, there are legal mechanisms stopping them from getting welfare. There are some exceptions and even unlawful immigrants occasionally slip through the cracks, but this is already a major hole in the case that welfare means we should hold off on immigration reform. The vast majority of immigrants cannot receive welfare until years after they are legalized.

However, for the sake of argument, let us ignore that initial hole in the case against increased immigration. Let’s generously assume the majority of immigrants–legal and illegal–can somehow get their hands on welfare. There is still little reason to expect that additional immigrants would be any more of a fiscal drag on welfare programs for the vast majority of our population simply because they are not the type of people who typically wind up on welfare. Our welfare programs are primarily designed to protect a select few types of people: the sick and elderly (Social Security and Medicare), and women and children (SCHIP, SNAP, TAMPF, etc.) If one looks at the demographics of immigrants coming into the country, however, one finds that they do not fit in the demographics of those who typically qualify for welfare programs. According to the Census Bureau, the vast majority (75.6%) of the total foreign-born population (both legal and illegal immigrants) are of working age (between 25 and 65).  Most immigrants, even if they were legal citizens, would not qualify for most welfare programs to begin with.

On the other hand, poverty rates are higher among immigrants and that means more would qualify for poverty-based programs. However, most immigrants are simply not the type to stay in those programs. Contrary to common belief, immigrants are mostly hard-working innovators rather than loafing welfare queens. According to Pew Research, 91% of all unauthorized immigrants are involved in the US labor force. Legal immigrants also start businesses at a higher rate than natural born citizens and file patents at almost double the rate of natives. As a result, immigrants have fairly high social mobility, especially intergenerationally, and so will not stay poor and on welfare all that long.

Put it together, and you find that immigrants generally use many major welfare programs at a lower rate than natives. Immigrants are 25% less likely to be enrolled in Medicare, for example, than citizens and actually contribute more to Medicare than they receive while citizens make Medicare run at a deficit. From the New York Times:

[A] study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, measured immigrants’ contributions to the part of Medicare that pays for hospital care, a trust fund that accounts for nearly half of the federal program’s revenue. It found that immigrants generated surpluses totaling $115 billion from 2002 to 2009. In comparison, the American-born population incurred a deficit of $28 billion over the same period

Of course, nobody would advocate restrictions on how many children are allowed to be born based on fiscal considerations. However, for some reason the concern becomes a big factor for immigration skeptics.

If you are still not convinced, let us go over the empirical literature on how much immigrants cost fiscally. Some fairly partisan studies, such as this one from the Heritage Foundation (written by an analyst who was forced to resign due to fairly racist claims), conclude that fiscal costs are very negative. The problem, however, is that most of these studies fail to take into account the dynamic macroeconomic impact of immigration. Opponents of immigration, especially those at the Heritage Foundation, generally understand the importance of taking dynamic economic impacts of policy changes into account on other issues, e.g. taxation; however, for some (partisan) reason fail to apply that logic to immigration policies. Like taxes, immigration laws change people’s behavior in ways that can increase revenue. First of all, more immigrants entering the economy immediately means more revenue as there are more people to tax. Additionally, economic growth from further division of labor provided by immigration increases tax revenue.  Any study that does not succeed in taking into account revenue gains from immigration is not worth taking seriously.

Among studies that are worth taking seriously, there is general consensus that immigrants are either a slight net gain fiscally speaking, a very slight net loss or have little to no impact. According to a study by the OECD of its 20 member countries, despite the fact that some of its countries have massive levels of immigration, the fiscal impact of immigration is “generally not exceeding 0.5 percent of G.D.P. in either positive or negative terms.” The study concluded, “The current impact of the cumulative waves of migration that arrived over the past 50 years is just not that large, whether on the positive or negative side.”

Specifically for the United States, another authoritative study in 1997 found the following as summarized by David Griswold of the Cato Institute:

The 1997 National Research Council study determined that the typical immigrant and descendants represent an $80,000 fiscal gain to the government in terms of net present value. But that gain divides into a positive $105,000 fiscal impact for the federal government and a negative $25,000 impact on the state and local level (NRC 1997: 337).

Despite the slight negative impact for states, as Griswold notes, there is no correlation between immigration and more welfare for immigrants:

Undocumented immigrants are even more likely to self-select states with below-average social spending. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the low-spending states grew by a net 855,000, or 35 percent. In the high-spending states, the population grew by 385,000, or 11 percent (U.S. Census 2011; NASBO 2010: 33; Passel and Cohn 2011). One possible reason why unauthorized immigrants are even less drawn to high-welfare-spending states is that, unlike immigrants who have been naturalized, they are not eligible for any of the standard welfare programs.

The potential fiscal impact of immigration from the Welfare state is not a good reason to oppose it at all. There are major legal barriers to immigrants receiving welfare, immigrants are statistically less likely to receive welfare than natives for demographic reasons, and all the authoritative empirical evidence shows that immigrants are on net not a very significant fiscal drag and can, in fact, be a net fiscal gain.

Angry? Learn economics!

The election didn’t go your way (and if it did, just think about past elections… at least some of those didn’t go your way) and now you’re itching to do something about it. You’re angry and motivated, and at risk of making things worse

Economics isn’t just about money. In fact, it’s barely about money. It’s mostly about cooperation between strangers. But economists also study competition. Most importantly, we study decision making which is essential to understand if you want people to make different decisions!

More importantly, economics helps us understand how to navigate costs and benefits wisely. It turns out wise decision making isn’t as straight forward as we’d hope. So if you care enough to work hard to make the world better, economics is worth your time.

Still here? You really want to make the world a better place! Let me suggest that you study social science. Something I’ve learned during my first decade of studying economics (Jan. 2018 will by my 10 year mark) is that thinking clearly about something as complex as society requires mental tools that we aren’t born with. Our intuitions will lead us astray. The good news: economics mostly boils down to common sense rigorously applied.

Economics doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth (if we did, this post would be shorter but you’d have to pay to read it). But I think econ is the best place to start in an intellectual exploration of society. It will help you build a robust and modular framework for understanding the world. Economics is the ultimate modular social science; you can plug-and-play with insights from anywhere.

So why econ? Because at the end of the day, economics deals with the most important aspect of life: how to live life well. It boils down to this: every choice comes at the cost of a foregone alternative. Opportunity cost. All (good) economics comes down to this profound truth. Whether your goal is to reduce poverty, pollution, or parenting woes, learning to think of cost in these terms will serve you well.

Let’s take that concept for a test drive… would banning plastic bags reduce environmental harm? The benefit is that you’ll eliminate the problems associated with these bags (litter, use of oil, etc.). But we need to understand the costs before we know if we’re helping or hurting the environment. Notice that link starts with the question “paper or plastic” and goes on to say nothing about paper bags; it’s looking at the silver lining without acknowledging any possibility of a storm cloud. That lack of economic thinking opens us up to new problems: making heavy paper bags also creates pollution and could very well create more.

In other words, this simple concept showed us that it’s possible to do harm by doing something that sounds good (the road to hell is paved with good intentions!).

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees: economists specialize in researching very specific areas–foreign exchange markets, agricultural futures, political change, pirates–and it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Studying economics in school means studying under specialists. But once you’ve got the basics of the economic way of thinking down, you’ll see that those specializations are really just applications of the same general concepts and the same basic way of thinking. It’s easier to understand once you speak our language, but there are lots of great resources. Two places I would start:

Now get to it! Start making things better!

When Black Unemployment Rates Were Equal to White Unemployment Rates…

In a twitter-debate with Tariq Nasheed, I pointed out that the wages rates did converge between the 1940s and 1990s. Recently, Robert Margo of the University of Chicago extended this to per capita incomes since 1870. It is fascinating to see that there was convergence between 1870 and 1940 in spite of Jim Crow laws (it tells you how much more blacks could have achieved had the laws not existed – see notably the work of Bob Higgs on this).


Each time I see this evidence, I am bemused. You see, I often debate colleagues on particular features of social policy in order to assess policy reforms or the effects of past reforms. But, its always good to take a step back and look at the long-view of history. It puts things in perspective. The Margo graph does just that. It tells me the story of what could have been. And just for the sake of remembering properly (infer whatever conclusions you like), it is worth showing racial differences in unemployment rates since 1890. What strikes me is how similar the rates are until the 1950s. What happened at that point? When you ask yourself this question, you’re forced to put everything in perspective. And it becomes harder to have “generic” answers in the lazy-form of “its racism”. Why would racism explain the difference after 1950, but not before?

Maybe, just maybe, people like Tariq Nasheed should stop proving that H.L. Mencken was right in saying that “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is simple, clear and plainly wrong”.


What if fake news was merely an attempt at political entrepreneurship?

Fake news! The new plague that besets mankind! That is largely the new name given to what 19th century folks would have called “yellow journalism“.

Yellow journalism was sensationalist to the point of distorting the news in order to carry a very emotional message. Generally embedded in that message was a political narrative supporting progressive reforms (not all yellow journalists were progressive but it seems that most were).

The aim of many progressives was to design a new society, to reform the old society by getting rid of old institutions. In many cases, economic historians have documented that these reforms (like with prohibition, workers compensation, antitrust) ended up serving very narrow interest groups who either allied themselves with reforming zealots (as in bootleggers helping baptists pass Sunday sales bans), gained through the restriction of competition or gained at the expense of future workers and minorities. But it is not as if the “previous” order was paradise. The postbellum era prior to the progressive era was highly protectionist, used public funds to bailout poorly performing railways and solicited the federal army to deal with natives rather than peacefully deal with them.  Basically, both eras had their political entrepreneurs who found their way in the political process to obtain favors.

Progressives who indulged in yellow journalism merely wanted to replace one set of political entrepreneurs with another. Just like the Alt-Right, from which emanates most of the fake news. In a way, both are exactly the same. Many members of the Alt-Right are not interested in restraining government abuses, they’re in favor of redirecting government indulgences towards them (Trump did promise less immigration with paid maternity leaves and no reduction in social transfers). Some are well-meaning like the baptists of lore. But there are still bootleggers (example: Steven Mnuchin from Goldman Sachs) who co-opt the process in order to continue indulging in rent-seeking just as they did before.

Are we about to swap one bad set of institutions for another? Given that all I see is the same type of political entrepreneurs (after all, Bannon from the flagship of the fake news alt-right outlet Breitbart is now a member of the government) as those we saw during the progressive era, I am inclined to respond “yes”.