The best economic history papers of 2017

As we are now solidly into 2018, I thought that it would be a good idea to underline the best articles in economic history that I read in 2017. Obviously, the “best” is subjective to my preferences. Nevertheless, it is a worthy exercise in order to expose some important pieces of research to a wider audience.  I limited myself to five articles (I will do my top three books in a few weeks). However, if there is an interest in the present post I will publish a follow-up with another five articles.

O’Grady, Trevor, and Claudio Tagliapietra. “Biological welfare and the commons: A natural experiment in the Alps, 1765–1845.” Economics & Human Biology 27 (2017): 137-153.

This one is by far my favorite article of 2017. I stumbled upon it quite by accident. Had this article been published six or eight months earlier, I would never have been able to fully appreciate its contribution. Basically, the authors use the shocks induced by the wars of the late 18th century and early 19th century to study a shift from “self-governance” to “centralized governance” of common pool resources. When they speak of “commons” problems, they really mean “commons” as the communities they study were largely pastoral communities with area in commons.  Using a difference-in-difference where the treatment is when a region became “centrally governed” (i.e. when organic local institutions were swept aside), they test the impact of these top-down changes to institutions on biological welfare (as proxied by infant mortality rates). They find that these replacements worsened outcomes.

Now, this paper is fascinating for two reasons. First, the authors offer a clear exposition of its methodology and approach. They give just the perfect amount of institutional details to assuage doubts.  Second, this is a strong illustration of the points made by Elinor Ostrom and Vernon Smith. These two economists emphasize different aspects of the same thing. Smith highlights that “rationality” is “ecological” in the sense that it is an iterative process of information discovery to improve outcomes.  This includes the generation of “rules of the game” which are meant to sustain exchanges. These rules need not be formal edifices. They can be norms, customs, mores and habits (generally supported by the discipline of continuous dealings and/or investments in social-distance mechanisms). On her part, Ostrom emphasized that the tragedy of the commons can be resolved through multiple mechanisms (what she calls polycentric governance) in ways that do not necessarily require a centralized approach (or even market-based approaches).

In the logic of these two authors, attempts at “imposing” a more “rational” order (from the perspective of the planner of this order) may backfire. This is why Smith often emphasizes the organic nature of things like property rights. It also shows that behind seemingly “dumb” peasants, there is often the weight of long periods of experimentation in order to adapt rules and norms in order to fit the constraints faced by the community.  In this article, we can see those two things – the backfiring and, by logical implication, the strengths of the organic institutions that were swept away.

Fielding, David, and Shef Rogers. “Monopoly power in the eighteenth-century British book trade.” European Review of Economic History 21, no. 4 (2017): 393-413.

In this article, the authors use a legal change caused by the end of the legal privileges of the Stationers’ Company (which amounted to an easing of copyright laws).  The market for books may appear to be “non-interesting” for mainstream economics. However, this would be a dramatic error. The “abundance” of books is really a recent development. Bear in mind that the most erudite monk of the late middle ages had less than fifty books from which to draw knowledge (this fact is a vague recollection of mine from Kenneth Clark’s art history documentary from the late 1960s which was aired by the BBC). Thus, the emergence of a wide market for books – which is dated within the period studied by the authors of this article – should not be ignored. It should be considered as one of the most important development in western history. This is best put by the authors when they say that “the reform of copyright law has been regarded as one of the driving forces behind the rise in book production during the Enlightenment, and therefore a key factor in the dissemination of the innovations that underpinned Britain’s Industrial Revolution”.

However, while they agree that the rising popularity of books in the 18th century is an important historical event, they contest the idea that liberalization had any effect. They find that the opening up of the market to competition had little effects on prices and book production. They also find that mark-ups fell but that this could not be attributed to liberalization. At first,  I found these results surprising.

However, when I took the time to think about it I realized that there was no reason to be surprised. First, many changes have been heralded as crucial moments in history. More often than not, the importance of these changes has been overstated. A good example of an overstated change has been the abolition of the Corn Laws in England in the 1840s. The reduction in tariffs, it is argued, ushered Britain into an age of free trade and falling food prices.

In reality, as John Nye discusses, protectionist barriers did not fall as fast as many argued and there were reductions prior to the 1846 reform as Deirdre McCloskey pointed out. It also seems that the Corn Laws did not have substantial effects on consumption or the economy as a whole (see here and here).  While their abolition probably helped increase living standards, it seems that the significance of the moment is overstated. The same thing is probably at play with the book market.

The changes discussed by Fielding and Rogers did not address the underlying roots of the level of market power enjoyed by industry players. In other words, it could be that the reform was too modest to have an effect. This is suggested by the work of Petra Moser. The reform studied by Fielding and and Rogers appears to have been short-lived as evidenced by changes to copyright laws in the early 19th century (see here and here). Moser’s results point to effects much larger (and positive for consumers) than those of Fielding and Rogers.  Given the importance of the book market to stories of innovation in the industrial revolution, I really hope that this sparks a debate between Moser and Fielding and Rogers.

Johnson, Noel D., and Mark Koyama. “States and economic growth: Capacity and constraints.” Explorations in Economic History 64 (2017): 1-20.

I am biased as I am fond of most of the work of these two authors. Nevertheless, I think that their contribution to the state capacity debate is a much needed one. I am very skeptical of the theoretical value of the concept of state capacity.  The question always lurking in my mind is the “capacity to do what?”.

A ruler who can develop and use a bureaucracy to provide the services of a “productive state” (as James Buchanan would put it) is also capable of acting like a predator.  I actually emphasize this point in my work (revise and resubmit at Health Policy & Planning) on Cuban healthcare: the Cuban government has the capacity to allocate large quantities of resources to healthcare in amounts well above what is observed for other countries in the same income range. Why? Largely because they use health care for a) international reputation and b) actually supervising the local population. As such, members of the regime are able to sustain their role even if the high level of “capacity” comes at the expense of living standards in dimensions other than health (e.g. low incomes). Capacity is not the issue, its capacity interacting with constraints that is interesting.

And that is exactly what Koyama and Johnson say (not in the same words). They summarize a wide body of literature in a cogent manner that clarifies the concept of state capacity and its limitations. In doing so, they ended up proposing that the “deep roots” question that should interest economic historians is how “constraints” came to be efficient at generating “strong but limited” states.

In that regard, the one thing that surprised me from their article was the absence of Elinor Ostrom’s work. When I read about “polycentric governance” (Ostrom’s core concept), I imagine the overlap of different institutional structures that reinforce each other (note: these structures need not be formal ones). They are governance providers. If these “governance providers” have residual claimants (i.e. people with skin in the game), they have incentives to provide governance in ways that increased the returns to the realms they governed. Attempts to supersede these institutions (e.g. like the erection of a modern nation state) requires dealing with these providers. They are the main demanders of constraints which are necessary to protect their assets (what my friend Alex Salter calls “rights to the realm“). As Europe pre-1500 was a mosaic of such governance providers, there would have been great forces pushing for constraints (i.e. bargaining over constraints).

I think that this is where the literature on state capacity should orient itself. It is in that direction that it is the most likely to bear fruits. In fact, there have been some steps taken in that direction For example, my colleagues Andrew Young and Alex Salter have applied this “polycentric” narrative to explain the emergence of “strong but limited states” by focusing on late medieval institutions (see here and here).  Their approach seems promising. Yet, the work of Koyama and Johnson have actually created the room for such contributions by efficiently summarizing a complex (and sometimes contradictory) literature.

Bodenhorn, Howard, Timothy W. Guinnane, and Thomas A. Mroz. “Sample-selection biases and the industrialization puzzle.” The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 1 (2017): 171-207.

Elsewhere, I have peripherally engaged discussants in the “antebellum puzzle” (see my article here in Economics & Human Biology on the heights of French-Canadians born between 1780 and 1830). The antebellum puzzle refers to the possibility that the biological standard of living (e.g. falling heights, worsening nutrition, increased mortality risks) fell while the material standard of living increased (e.g. higher wages, higher incomes, access to more services, access to a wider array of goods) during the decades leading to the American Civil War.

I am inclined to accept the idea of short-term paradoxes in living standards. The early 19th century witnessed a reversal in rural-urban concentration in the United States. The country had been “deurbanizing” since the colonial era (i.e. cities represented an increasingly smaller share of the population). As such, the reversal implied a shock in cities whose institutions were geared to deal with slowly increasing populations.

The influx of people in cities created problems of public health while the higher level of population density favored the propagation of infectious diseases at a time where our understanding of germ theory was nill. One good example of the problems posed by this rapid change has been provided by Gergely Baics in his work on the public markets of New York and their regulation (see his book here – a must read).  In that situation, I am not surprised that there was a deterioration in the biological standard of living. What I see is that people chose to trade-off shorter wealthier lives against longer poorer lives. A pretty legitimate (albeit depressing) choice if you ask me.

However, Bodenhorn et al. (2017) will have none of it. In a convincing article that has shaken my priors, they argue that there is a selection bias in the heights data – the main measurement used in the antebellum puzzle debate.  Most of the data on heights comes either from prisoners or enrolled volunteer soldiers (note: conscripts would not generate the problem they describe). The argument they make is that as incomes grow, the opportunity cost of committing a crime or of joining the army grows.  This creates the selection bias whereby the sample is going to be increasingly composed of those with the lowest opportunity costs. In other words, we are speaking of the poorest in society who also tended to be shorter. Simultaneously, fewer tall individuals (i.e. rich individuals) committed crimes or joined the army because incomes grew. This logic is simple and elegant. In fact, this is the kind of data problem that every economist should care about when they design their tests.

Once they control for this problem (through a meta-analysis), the puzzle disappears. I am not convinced by the latter part of the claim. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the puzzle is much smaller than initially gleaned. In yet to be published work, Ariell Zimran (see here and here) argues that the antebellum puzzle is robust to the problem of selection bias but that it is indeed diminished. This concedes a large share of the argument to Bodenhorn et al. While there is much to resolve, this article should be read as it constitutes one of the most serious contributions to the field of economic history published in 2017.

Ridolfi, Leonardo. “The French economy in the longue durée: a study on real wages, working days and economic performance from Louis IX to the Revolution (1250–1789).” European Review of Economic History 21, no. 4 (2017): 437-438.

I discussed Leonardo’s work elsewhere on this blog before. However, I must do it again. The article mentioned here is the dissertation summary that resulted from Leonardo being a finalist to the best dissertation award granted by the EHES (full dissertation here). As such, it is not exactly the “best article” published in 2017. Nevertheless,  it makes the list because of the possibilities that Leonardo’s work have unlocked.

When we discuss the origins of the British Industrial Revolution, the implicit question lurking not far away is “Why Did It Not Happen in France?”. The problem with that question is that the data available for France (see notably my forthcoming work in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History) is in no way comparable with what exists for Britain (which does not mean that the British data is of great quality as Judy Stephenson and Jane Humphries would point out).  Most estimates of the French economy pre-1790 were either conjectural or required a wide array of theoretical considerations to arrive at a deductive portrait of the situation (see notably the excellent work of Phil Hoffman).  As such, comparisons in order to tease out improvements to our understanding of the industrial revolution are hard to accomplish.

For me, the absence of rich data for France was particularly infuriating. One of my main argument is that the key to explaining divergence within the Americas (from the colonial period onwards) resides not in the British or Spanish Empires but in the variation that the French Empire and its colonies provide. After all, the French colony of Quebec had a lot in common geographically with New England but the institutional differences were nearly as wide as those between New England and the Spanish colonies in Latin America. As such, as I spent years assembling data for Canada to document living standards in order to eventually lay down the grounds to test the role of institutions, I was infuriated that I could do so little to compare with France. Little did I know that while I was doing my own work, Leonardo was plugging this massive hole in our knowledge.

Leonardo shows that while living standards in France increased from 1550 onward, the level was far below the ones found in other European countries. He also showed that real wages stagnated in France which means that the only reason behind increased incomes was a longer work year. This work has also unlocked numerous other possibilities. For example, it will be possible to extend to France the work of Nicolini and Crafts and Mills regarding the existence of Malthusian pressures. This is probably one of the greatest contribution of the decade to the field of economic history because it simply went through the dirty work of assembling data to plug what I think is the biggest hole in the field of economic history.

From the Comments: Sovereignty, the Commons, and International Relations

There have been a number of excellent discussions in the ‘comments’ threads these days. Dr Khawaja adds more depth to the discussion on Iran and foreign policy. Me and Chhay Lin are in the midst of a debate on democracy and libertarianism. Michelangelo’s post on splitting up California generated a good discussion. You can see what’s hot in the threads by looking to your right, of course. I wanted to highlight this ‘comment’ by Rick in the threads of Edwin’s recent post on liberalism and sovereignty:

“[S]overeignty is a constitutional idea of the rights and duties of the governments and citizens or subjects of particular states.”

To me, a constitution is like a contract. It’s close to set in stone and it lays out these rights and duties. But the idea of sovereignty Jackson is pointing toward in that quote would be better understood as laying out a sort of meta-prize; it’s a delineation of the commons that potential groups within that area may compete over or cooperate in. To be fair, a constitution is a similar sort of commons (especially when that constitution includes the right to collect tax and lead armies). The question of how to govern the commons is *the* question on the domestic side.

On the international end of things, anarcho-capitalism calls for muddying the borders of these commons. This has obvious costs and benefits: it makes the emergence of a productive polycentric order easier, but it also opens access to what would have been relatively closed commons. I think the missing piece in the world governance question, whether from a classical liberal, minarchist, or anarchist perspective is the question of how a polycentric order would emerge and function (e.g. standards associations, norms of arbitration/dispute resolution, etc.).

More discussion is needed on this point…

Government Wisdom and Collectivism Revisited

This is a political science essay about public toilets.

Family obligations as well as my inclination cause me to spend four hours each weekday afternoon on a well known Santa Cruz beach. It’s Cowell Beach about which I wrote about a year ago on the occasion of another (fake) pollution scare. Four hours is a long time, even if I read there and swim quite a bit while I wait. (I would show you a picture of me in my Speedo but I don’t want you distracted from the serious point of my story.) I am practically forced to eavesdrop on young mothers and I can’t help seeing them. (Of which more another day, probably.) They spend a lot of time planning the logistics of taking one of two kids to the toilet for 20 minutes. (Who will take care of the one who does not need to go?)

There are two toilets on the edge of that beach, two. On a nice afternoon, there are hundreds of people on that small beach. (There are two other public toilets nearby but they belong to another, even more crowded beach.) In the middle of a nice afternoon when school is out like now, the lines to the two toilets are ten-deep. Once, it was fully sixteen deep. It’s enraging; it makes people furious; it ruins their day at the beach; it’s inhumane toward older people.

Here is a detour. The dearth of toilets does not pose much of a problem for local children though, to those who are used to the beach. You can spot them in the water to their waist, with the satisfied and relieved look of anyone doing Number One well at ease. Of course, for the many skittish, ill-informed, Apocalypse-minded citizens of Santa Cruz, it’s one more reason to worry about pollution. They already believe that torrents of human feces come down the hills on a small river unto that beach. That’s completely false, completely wrong. They worry about duck shit and seabird shit in the water. That’s not so wrong. And then, of course, the hundred-plus resident sea lions must contribute something once in a while. They are not all so fastidious as to go do it away from the beach, especially the teenagers. (One to three in sea lion years.)

The unpleasant toilet situation at Cowell Beach has lasted as long as I remember, fifteen years, at least. Now, I tell myself that if that beach were administered as a private, profit-making concession, within a year or two, there would be a ten or twelve toilets block near the edge of the beach. But then, I realize that the relevant city administration is probably neither deliberately malfeasant nor stupid. The most likely explanation for the lack of sufficient toilets near Cowell Beach is that the relevant city department is itself caught in a web of rules and regulations, most of which are of its own making. The accumulation of permits to build something as potentially polluting in such sensitive an area as a beach must discourage even the best disposed bureaucrats. “This can wait; let’s move on to another problem,” they must think. I am only betting here on the universal human propensity to classify problem by order of ease of resolution. Note that I am not denouncing some sort of bureaucratic perverseness or an especially iniquitous feature of tyranny. It’s just the nature of things: Weave a net; get caught in it.

I can’t think of another solution that having the beach be made completely private. Then, the owner will build sufficient numbers of toilets by spending as much as necessary to circumvent or beat in court the regulations that are the obstacle. But the remedy seems worse than the problem. Nearby Silicon Valley has several, or many billionaires who could buy the beach outright and close it to the public forever. One did just this at popular Martin’s Beach, south of Half-Moon Bay. I think the case been in court for several years, long enough for a generation of California to grow up without even seeing this wonderful, very special beach where I used to catch smelts by net from the sand.

I don’t know the solution to this real libertarian conundrum. I hope a better informed or purer libertarian than I am will develop a likely solution here.

Baby’s a Tuna, and It’s Feeling Blue

Bluefin tuna are being hunted to extinction. They have already been reduced to a small fraction of the global numbers of a hundred ago. They may disappear from the Atlantic Ocean by 2012. The average weight of those caught has already been dropping. Other kinds of tuna and related fish are also being slaughtered, but the bluefish will be the first to go under.

Bluefin tuna are the genus Thunnus in the family Scombridae, with several species, among them Thunnus atlanticus (blackfin tuna), Thunnus orientalis (Pacific bluefin), and Thunnus thynnus (Northern bluefin).

The bluefin have a big problem: they taste very good. Tuna have been eaten for centuries. Indeed, the word “tuna” comes from ancient Greek. Canned tuna greatly increased the consumption, but what is finally terminating the bluefin is sushi. Four fifths of the bluefin tuna consumption is for sushi and sashimi. Sushi is seaweed-coated vinegar rice wrapped around a morsel of food such as raw fish, and sashimi is the raw fish by itself.

Bluefin tunas taste good because unlike most fish, they are homeothermic (warm blooded); they metabolize their temperature, like mammals and birds. With a higher body temperature than the surrounding cold water, tuna have a large ocean range. The warmth also enables tuna to swim fast (“tuna” in Greek means “to rush”), which enables them to catch more prey. So bluefin tuna grow up to a size of up to four meters. Continue reading