Ten best papers/books in economic history of the last decades (part 2)

Yesterday, I published part 1 of what I deemed were the best papers and books in the field of economic history of the last few decades. I posted only the first five and I am now posting the next five.

  • Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. Commerce by a frozen sea: Native Americans and the European fur trade. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

This book is not frequently cited (only 30 cites according to Google Scholar), but it has numerous gems for scholars to include in their future work. The reason for this is that Carlos and Lewis have pushed the frontier of economic history into the history of Natives in the New World. This issue of Natives in North America is one of those topics that irritates me to no end as an economic historian. A large share of the debates on economic growth in the New World have been centered on the idea that there was either some modest growth (less than 0.5% per year in per capita income) or no growth at all (which is still a strong testimonial given that the population exploded). But all that attention centres on comparing “whites” (and slaves) in the New World with everyone in the Old World. In the first decades of the colonies of Canada and the United States, aboriginals clearly outnumbered the new settlers (in Canada, the native population around 1736 was estimated at roughly 20,000 which was slightly less than the population of Quebec – the largest colony). Excluding aboriginals, who comprised such a large share of the population, at the starting point will indubitably affect the path of growth measured thereafter. My “gut feeling” is that anyone who includes natives in GDP accounting will lower the starting point dramatically. That will increase the rate of long-term growth. Additionally, the output that aboriginals provided was non-negligible and probably grew more rapidly than their population (the rising volume of furs exported was much greater than their population growth). This is why Carlos and Lewis’s work is so interesting: because it is essentially the first to assemble economic continuous time series regarding trade between trappers and traders, the beaver population, property rights and living standards of natives. From their work, all that is needed is a few key defensible assumptions in order to include natives inside estimates of living standards. From there, I would not be surprised that most estimates of growth in the North American colonies would be significantly altered and the income levels relative to Europe would also be altered.

  • Floud, Roderick, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong. The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the western world since 1700. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

This book is in the list because it is a broad overview of the anthropometric history that has arisen since the 1980s as a result of the work of Robert Fogel. I put this book in the list because the use of anthropometric data allows us to study the multiple facets of living standards. For long, I have been annoyed at the idea of this unidimensional concept of “living standards” often portrayed in the general public (which I am willing to forgive) and the economics profession (which is unforgivable). In life, everything is a trade-off.  A peasant who left the countryside in the 19th century to get higher wages in a city manufacture estimated that the disamenities of the cities were not sufficient to offset wage gains (see notably Jeffrey Williamson’s Coping with City Growth during the British Industrial Revolution on this). For example, cities tended to have higher food prices than rural areas (the advantage of cities was that there were services no one in the countryside could obtain).  Cities were also more prone to epidemics and pollution implied health costs. Taken together, these factors could show up in the biological standard of living, notably on heights. This is known as the “Antebellum puzzle” where the mean heights of individuals in America (and other countries like Canada) fell while there was real income and wage growth. The “Antebellum puzzle” that was unveiled by the work of Fogel and those who followed in his wake represents the image that living standards are not unidimensional. Human development is about more than incomes. Human development is about agency and the ability to choose a path for a better and more satisfying life. However, with agency comes opportunity costs. A choice implies that another path was renounced. In the measurement of living standards, we should never forget the path that was abandoned. Peasants abandoned lower rates of infant mortality, lower overall rates of mortality, the lower levels of crowding and pollution, the lower food prices and the lower crime rates of the countryside in favor of the greater diversity of goods and services, the higher wages, the thicker job market, the less physically demanding jobs and the more secure source of income (although precarious, this was better than the volatile outcomes in farming). This was their trade-off and this is what the anthropometric literature has allowed us to glean. For this alone, this is probably the greatest contribution in the field of economic history of the last decades.

  • De Vries, Jan. The industrious revolution: consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Was there an industrious revolution before the industrial revolution? More precisely, did people increase their labour supply during the 17th and 18th centuries which lead to output growth? In proposing this question, de Vries provided a theoretical bridge of major significance between the observations of wage behavior and incomes in Europe during the modern era. For example, while wages seemed to be stagnating, incomes seemed to be increasing (in the case of England as Broadberry et al. indicated). The only explanation is that workers increased their labor supply? Why would they do that? What happened that caused them to increase the amount of labor they were willing to supply? The arrival of new goods (sugar, tobacco etc.) caused them to change their willingness to work. This is a strong illustration of how preferences can change more or less rapidly (when new opportunities are unveiled). In fact, Mark Koyama (who blogs here) managed to insert this narrative inside a very simple restatement of Gary Becker’s model of time use. Either you have leisure that is cheap but time-consuming (think of leisure in the late middle ages) or leisure that is more expensive but does not consume too much time (think the consumption of tea, sugar and tobacco). Imagine you only have the time-expensive leisure which you value at level X. Now, imagine that the sugar and tea arrive and, although you pay a higher price, it provides more utility than the level and it takes less time. In such a context, you will likely change your preferences between leisure and work. I am grossly oversimplifying Mark’s point here, but the idea is that the industrious revolution argument advanced by de Vries can easily fit inside a simple neoclassical outlook. On top of solving many puzzles, it also shows that one does not need to engage in some fanciful flight of Marxian theory (I prefer Marxian to Marxist because it is one typo away from being Martian which would adequately summarize my view of Marxism as a social theory). If it fits inside the simpler model, then you don’t need the rest.  De Vries does just that.

  • Anderson, Terry Lee, and Peter Jensen Hill. The not so wild, wild west: Property rights on the frontier. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Governance is not the same as government (in fact, they can be mutually exclusive). In recent years, I have been heavily influenced by Elinor Ostrom’s work on how communities govern the commons in very subtle (but elaborate) ways without the use of coercion. These institutional arrangements are hard to simplify into one variable for a regression, but they are theoretically simple to explain: people respond to incentives. Ostrom’s entire work shows that people on the front line of problems generally have the best incentives to get the right solution because they have skin in the game. What her work shows is that individuals govern themselves (see also Mike Munger’s Choosing in Groups) by generating micro-institutions that allow exchanges to continue. Terry Anderson and Peter Hill provide the best illustration in economic history in that regard by studying the frontier of the American west. Settlers moved to the American West faster than the reach of government and the frontier was thus an area more or less void of government action. So, how did people police themselves? Was it the wild west? No, it was not. Private security firms provided most of the policing, mining clubs established property rights without the need for government, farmers established constitutions in voluntary associations that they formed and many “public goods” were provided privately. The point of Anderson and Hill is that governance did exist on the frontier in a way that demonstrates the ability of voluntary actions (as opposed to coercive government actions) to generate sustainable and efficient solutions. The book has a rich theoretical framework on top of a substantial body of evidence regarding the emergence of institutions. Any good economic historian should own and read this book.

  • Vedder, Richard K., and Lowell E. Gallaway. Out of work: unemployment and government in twentieth-century America. NYU Press and Independent Institute, 1997.

The last book on the list is an underground classic for me. Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway are very good economic historians. It was produced like many other underappreciated classics (like Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan) by the Independent Institute (see their great book list here). Most of their output was produced from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, as the 1990s came, they moved towards the Austrian school of Economics. With them, they brought a strong econometric knowledge – a rarity among Austrian scholars. They attempted one of the first (well-regarded) econometric studies that relied on Austrian theory of the labor-market (a mixture of New Classical Theory with Austrian Theory). Their goal was to explain variations in unemployment in the United States by variations in “adjusted real wages” (i.e. unit labor costs) all else being equal. At the time of the publication, they used very advanced econometric techniques. The book was well received and even caught the attention of Brad DeLong who disagreed with it and debated Vedder and Gallaway in the pages of Critical Review. Although there are pieces that I disagree with, the book has mostly withstood the test of time. The core insights of Out of Work regarding the Great Depression (and many of its horrible policies like the National Industrial Recovery Act) have been conserved by many like Scott Sumner in his Midas Paradox and they feature prominently in the works of scholars like Lee Ohanian, Harold Cole, Jason Taylor, Price Fishback, Albrecht Ristchl and others. In the foreword to the book, they mention that D.N. McCloskey (then the editor of the Journal of Economic History) had pushed hard for them to publish their work regarding the 1920s and 1930s. McCloskey was right to do so as many of their contentions are now accepted as a legitimate (if still debated) viewpoint. The insights regarding the “Great Depression of 1946” (a pun to ridicule the idea that the postwar reduction in government expenditures led to a massive reduction in incomes) have been generally conserved by Robert Higgs in his Journal of Economic History article I mentioned yesterday (and in this article as well) and even by Alexander Field in his Great Leap Forward However, Out of Work remains an underground classic that is filled with substantial pieces of information and data that remains unused. There are numerous unexploited insights (some of which Vedder and Gallaway have followed on) as well. The book should be mandatory reading for any economic historian.

Wars and Presidents: Avoiding the Power-Display Bias

This week on EconTalk, Russ Roberts interviewed Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on how presidents who took the United States to war find themselves higher in the rankings of “Great Presidents” (see this paper by Henderson and Gochenour on the issue)  For some time now, I have found myself in agreement with that contention as wars are generally momentous events that stand out in history. In contrast, the man who sits by and does nothing except preventing a war or making it easier for people to trade, that is harder to observe.  But why would evaluating Presidents be associated with such a premium? Individuals are aware that wars are bad, so why are they praising this? On other metrics, how do Presidents fare?

On the power-display bias 

In my forthcoming book on Canadian economic history (published by Palgrave McMillan as part of their Studies in Economic History), I reviewed some pantheons and counter-pantheons of Presidents (which I will present below) and I felt I had to offer my argument regarding these pantheons:

The established pantheon and the counter-pantheon differ mostly due to people’s bias towards positively assessing outward signs of power. When he wrote to one of his correspondents that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” British historian Lord Acton was not only speaking of politicians, but also of those would retroactively judge them: Acton was referring to a general human tendency – accentuated amongst historians – to be more forgiving of those who hold power, because the powerful are judged by their actions. Indeed, it is easier to size up a politician who undertook significant reforms – regardless of the results obtained thereby – than to evaluate the achievements of one who passively held the line. If the reformer fails, it can be said that at least he tried. Moreover, a given president’s place in the pantheon is closely linked to how many Americans he killed during the military conflicts that defined his reign. The more Americans killed per capita overall, the higher a given president’s ranking in the list of “greats.”

Economic history teaches us, however, that the most proactive presidents may not be the most beneficial to their country, on the contrary. For several years now, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) has been the subject of increased criticism in the economic literature for his interventionist economic policies between 1932 and 1939. Economists Albrecht Ritschl, Monique Ebell, Lee Ohanian and Harold Cole have determined that FDR’s interventionist policies in fact served to prolong the Great Depression.

In other words, the bias we have when evaluating men with power is that we evaluate based on the exercise of displaying the use of power. Those who refrain from using it are, properly, not recorded as historical events are conflicts/tensions/oppositions. This I think is generally a bias that is easily to fall prey to. I am not immune to that even if I happen to have libertarian leanings. I often see in one politician or another in history a man/woman that I wish would be here today to “save the day” (one of my childish belief). But each time I dig around that person, I am less enthused. For example, I used to be an admirer of William Pitt the Younger – a fierce one. After all, he had assisted Wilberforce in ending the slave trade, he had instituted a sinking fund to repay the British public debt (he had willfully tied his hands) and he he had been moderately sympathetic to the American revolution. I saw his role in the wars against France as a contest of circumstances. But, that was the point, I was ready to discount the war. In addition, as I read the work of Jane Humphries on child labor in industrializing Britain (here and here), I discovered more unsettling things.  During the French Wars, the build-up of the British state did lead to some crowding-out on factors markets, notably the labor market. Upon complaints of manufacturers, Pitt proposed to “Yoke Up the Children”. More precisely, he proposed the use of orphan in the public care to work as pauper apprentices to firms at pences on the shilling (bad pun of pennies on the dollar). He “lent” orphans to private firms and its hard to assume that they consented to work (as Humphries’s use of oral histories makes clear). If a person with libertarian leanings like me was willing to excuse such a man before, it is quite telling of how limited knowledge shores up the reputations of powerful men. This is because their use of power overshadows all the rest. Their use of power is like the joke about economists looking where the lamppost is: we evaluate them on what their use of power has illuminated.

Other Metrics

So, are there any other metrics that are less subjected to our inherent power-display bias? Obviously, anything that has a subjective element will be biased. However, evaluating the evolution of living standards under their rule is one way to go at it. Mark Zachary Taylor, in an article published in PS: Political Science and Politicsproposed an economic ranking of US Presidents since 1789. Whichever way you cut it, there is a weak rank correlation between the rankings of presidential greatness and the ranking of economic grades.

Ranking.png

There is another type of ranking, which is more subtle. It measures how much Presidents refrained from expanding federal power. This exercise was made by Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway (two great economic historians) who measured presidents based on their changes to the size of government and inflation. This measure alone (see table below) is not sufficient to be convincing, but taken as part of a constellation of rankings, it provides a key piece of evidence. This is really a counter-pantheon to the rankings of presidential greatness. In fact, one could see it as the cost for societies of presidential greatness.

presidentialgreatness

When comes the time to evaluate great rulers, being aware of our biases is crucial (as Lord Acton, I think they should rarely be excused based on flimsy excused like circumstances – the virtue of being an historian/economic historian is that we have enough hindsight to say how terrible certain choices were).  And that awareness should lead us to develop a “dashboard” of rankings to properly weigh the impact of such rulers.

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).

income-convergece

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?
whites

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”.