Thursday, June 15, 2017

Treasure Island

The New York Times reports on attempts to redevelop my old home. We moved to Treasure Island (T.I.) in 1973, when I was 10, and lived there until 1980. It was a Navy base, but most of it was occupied by housing for the families of enlisted men, mostly Navy, but also Coast Guard and Marines. Officers families lived on Yerba Buena Island. Yerba Buena Island (YBI), while Treasure  built for the Golden Gate Exposition, a fair to celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in 1939. TI was converted to a Navy base during the War. I don't remeber exactly when the base was decomissioned, but I think it was in the early '90s.

some interesting talks and a couple of articles

I’m surprised I had not come across these videos before. They are from a conference at Williams College on Historical Persistence in Comparative Development. This was the lineup for the conference

How Deep are the Roots of Economic Development?; Fertility and Modernity 
Enrico Spolaore, professor of economics at Tufts University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
Forced Coexistence and Economic Development: Evidence from Native American Reservations
Christian Dippel, assistant professor of economics in the Global Economics and Management Group at the UCLA Anderson School of Management
4:30 p.m. Climate and the Slave Trade
James Fenske, associate professor in the Department of Economics and deputy director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford
8 p.m. Keynote Address: The Global Spatial Distribution of Population and Economic Activity: Effects of Nature, History, and Agglomeration
David Weil, James and Meryl Tisch Professor of Economics at Brown University and research associate of the NBER
Engineers, Entrepreneurs, and Development in the Americas
William Maloney, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Economic Research Group, former professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The Effect of the TseTse Fly on African Development
Marcella Alsan, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, core faculty member at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy/Primary Care and Outcomes Research
Malthusian Dynamics and the Rise of the Poor Megacity
Dietrich Vollrath, associate professor of economics at the University of Houston
 “Unfinished Business”: Historic Complementaries, Political Competition, and Ethnic Violence in Gujarat
Saumitra Jha, associate professor of political economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business
The European Origins of Comparative Development
Ross Levine, Willis H. Booth Chair in Banking and Finance at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley
Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party
Nico Voigtländer, assistant professor of economics in the Global Economics and Management group at UCLA Anderson School of Management
The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa
Stelios Michalopoulous, assistant professor of economics at Brown University, faculty research fellow at the NBER, external research associate of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick
Intergenerational Mobility and Institutional Change in 20th Century China
Noam Yuchtman, assistant professor in the Business and Public Policy Group at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty research fellow at the NBER

The videos of the talks can be found here on youtube.

Here is Slave Consumption in the Old South: A Double Edged Sword by Kathleen Hilliard at the American Historian

Erik Hilt’s Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the “New History of Capitalism” in the June Journal of Economic History can be accessed for free until the end of June

Friday, June 9, 2017

Some Recent Economic History


At the Economics Detective Jari Eloranta talks about war in economic history, Nuno Palma talks about money, trade, and economic growth, and Mark Koyama on State Capacity

At Econtalk Christy Ford Chapin talks to Roberts about the economic history of health care in the United States.


At Tim Hyde describes the research of Hornbeck and Keniston on "Creative Destruction: Barriers to Urban Growth and the Great Boston Fire of 1872." June 2017 American Economic Review, 107(6): 1365-98

The most recent Journal of Economic Literature contains a review by Stanley Engerman of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Clavin Schermerhorn’s the Business of Slavery and the Rise of Capitalism. Pseudoerasmus noted on Twitter that Engerman is largely repeating what some of us have been saying for more two years now. Unfortunately, it appears that we need to keep repeating it. Too many historians continue to not only turn a blind eye to the shoddy work in Baptist’s book but to actually present it as an exemplar of historical research.


At NEP-HIS Blog Kenneth Pomeranz responds in two parts to the work of Deng and O’Brien on measuring economic performance in Chinese history.

Andrew Batson blogs that "the divergence over the Great divergence is narrowing"; he also provides a link to an April 2017 updated version of Broadberry, Guan and Li “China, Europe and the Great Divergence: A Study in Historical National Accounting, 980-1850

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Private provision of public goods

Maybe I am writing this too early in the morning to see what I am missing here. I really mean that . I feel like I must be missing something. Alex Tabarok argues at Cato Unbound that he has a private solution to the problem of public goods. The setup for his example is that there is a bridge that will cost $800 to build and will provide $100 benefit to each of ten people.

Now consider a dominant assurance contract. An entrepreneur agrees to produce the public good if and only if each of 10 people pay $80. If fewer than 10 people donate, the contract is said to fail and the entrepreneur agrees to give a refund bonus of $5 to each of the donors. Now imagine that potential donor A thinks that potential donor B will not donate. In that case, it makes sense for A to donate, because by doing so he will earn $5 at no cost. Thus any donor who thinks that the contract will fail has an incentive to donate. Doing so earns free money. As a result, it cannot be an equilibrium for more than one person to fail to donate. We have only one more point to consider. What if donor A thinks that every other donor will donate? In this case, A knows that if he donates he won’t get the refund bonus, since the contract will succeed. But he also knows that if he doesn’t donate he won’t get anything, but if does donate he will pay $80 and get a public good which is worth $100 to him, for a net gain of $20. Thus, A always has an incentive to donate. If others do not donate, he earns free money. If others do donate, he gets the value of the public good. Thus donating is a win-win, and the public good problem is solved.

The first part makes sense. If you do not think that others will donate, then it is clear that you should donate and get the refund plus the bonus. My problem is the second part in which he seeks to show that a person always has an incentive to donate by arguing that he also knows that if he doesn’t donate he won’t get anything, but if does donate he will pay $80 and get a public good which is worth $100 to him, for a net gain of $20. Thus, A always has an incentive to donate. Economists generally define a public good as one that is non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival means that your consumption does not diminish the benefit that I gain from the good. The non-excludable part means that once the public good is provided it is very costly to exclude people for consuming it. Fireworks displays provide a relatively obvious example.  The problem with Tabarrok’s argument is that if it is a public good A can use it even if he does not pay. If he believes enough others will contribute, his choice is between contribute $80 and get $100 benefit (net $20) or pay nothing and get $100 benefit (net $100).  If he does not get to use the bridge because he did not contribute that mean the good is excludable. Thus at least in this example the public good problem appears to be solved by assuming it away.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

McCurry on Slavery's Capitalism

Stephanie McCurry reviews Slavery’s Capitalism in the Times Literary Supplement. She raises interesting questions about the implications of the treatment of capitalism and slavery in the New History of Capitalism. I, however, find myself in pretty much complete disagreement with her about two of the essays.

She declares that

“Baptist's argument about enslaved labour in cotton "labor camps" as bodily torture is completely persuasive. Walter Johnson made a very similar case, also powerfully, in River of Dark Dreams (2012). There is nothing to argue with here. Neo-classical economic historians beg to differ and have taken Baptist to task, insisting that efficiencies were the result of the introduction of superior strains of cotton seed. That technical fight goes on, but it is largely beside the point.”

I can’t figure out what she could possibly mean by “beside the point.” Isn’t the point to create interpretations of the past based upon the available evidence? That is what “the Neo-classical economists” have done and Baptist has not. It has long been known that productivity in cotton production was increasing. Why? Olmstead and Rhode collected a large amount of evidence to try to answer the question. They concluded that slaveholders used violence to coerce maximum effort from slaves and then used innovation in seeds to increase the amount of cotton that could be produced from that maximum effort. McCurry seems to simply buy Baptist’s lie that Olmstead and Rhode, as well as other economists deny the role of violence in the system. I am not going to repeat all the elements of the argument here, but you can read my earlier blog post to see why I believe Baptist’s argument is about as far away from persuasive as an essay can get. The bottom line is that Baptistic history should never in anyway be encouraged. History needs a big sign that says “Do Not Feed the Baptist.”

McCurry also writes that

“Slaves were not compelled by the power of the dollar - that is to say of capital - but by the whip.”

The problem with this statement is that the first part is contradicted by a considerable amount of evidence. There is, of course, plenty of evidence that the second part it true: slaves were motivated by the whip. But there is also a lot of evidence rewards were used as well. I am sure that my saying this will be taken out of context by some people and used to show that economists don’t believe that slaves were tortured, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whipping and other forms of physical assault were obviously widely used. There is, however, plenty of evidence that rewards, including money, were used as well. See, for instance, Kathleen Hilliard’s Master, Slaves and Exchange. If I remember correctly A Slave No More also has an interesting description of an arrangement in which John Washington was hired out to a tobacco factory. His owner got a fixed payment, and Washington got a piece rate for everything that he produced above a specified amount. The point I am trying to make here is that, while we should never downplay the brutality of slavery, it is also a disservice to the history of African American people to deny the diversity of their experiences. Slave states occupied a very large territory with diverse environments. If you include the rest of the Americas the diversity is even greater. Slaves produced a wide array of crops, manufactured a variety of goods, and performed many different services. The one thing they all had in common is that they were not free. Even if they were well treated, continuing in that condition depended on the continuing goodwill of their master (not to mention his continuing good health and economic success).

McCurry finds Baptist persuasive, but when John Majewski asks

“why Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery if the South was as capitalist, modern, diversified, thriving and innovative as the North”

she finds that

The answer he offers is not only unpersuasive; it provides a good basis for the contrary view. The North, Majewski concludes, differed from even the most modern part of the South in one important respect: "the democratization of education and innovation". "Slavery created a political economy antithetical to long-term development", which explained why Northern Republicans fought the expansion of slavery into the territories. Far from securing the kind of material and ideological convergence that is crucial to slavery's capitalism, Majewski's argument, like Shankman's, seems to confirm that slavery could generate enormous profit for Northerners while retaining a distinct political economy that served as a brake on national capitalist development.

Majewski provides considerable evidence that even in areas along the border with very similar geography, slave states invested less in education and produced less innovation. He shows that Republicans were aware of these differences and regarded them negatively.
McCurry does not provide any evidence to contradict this argument. She declares that

the critical issue in 1860 was not that Republicans saw slavery as a problem, but that slaveholding Southerners saw free labour and industrial capitalism as an existential threat. The slaveholders had once called the shots in US politics. But by 1860 the slave South was not the leading edge of anything except pro-slavery nationalism. It seceded and provoked a civil war over the future of the nation and of slavery in it.

But wasn’t it both? If Republicans had not opposed the spread of slavery into new territories, would Southerners have viewed them as a threat to the existence of slavery?

Gavin Wright’s review for remains the most insightful review of Slavery’s Capitalism

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Quick Take on Bankers and Empire

I just finished reading Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean  

Here is John Clegg interviewing Hudson for the Brooklyn Rail.

Here is a New Dawn podcast of Hudson talking to Michael Dawson about the book.

Hudson describes the activities of America’s most important financial firms in the Caribbean during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have been looking forward to reading the book because he studies many of the same firms that I have studied in my work on trust companies. (Institutions, Entrepreneurs and American Economic History: How the Farmers Loan and Trust company Shaped the Laws  of Business: 1822-1929; “A Failure of Regulation?: Reinterpreting the Panic of 1907,” Business History Review October 2014; and “Trust Company Failures and Institutional Change in New York, 1875-1925,” Enterprise and Society forthcoming). He is also looking at roughly the same period that I do, but he asks very different questions.

Hudson wants to understand how the actions of these firms in the Caribbean were shaped by the combination of racism and the profit motive.  He writes about racial capitalism, but do not confuse this book book with Baptist and Beckert style New History of Capitalism. They make grand claims and portray their work as the result of intense archival research, but their overblown claims are constructed from a secondary literature that is either misrepresented or concealed, and the archival references are ornamental. Hudson, in contrast, tells a story that is built from the ground up using primary sources. It is a messy story, because that is the story that emerges from the wide array of primary sources that he uses. I thought this quote from the interview with Clegg provided a nice description of my impression of the book:

I think it has helped me to understand that the project of “U.S. imperialism” was contingent, marked by an incomplete hegemony, often notable for its confusion, experimentation, and failure, defined through competing interests, and rarely triumphalist. This is not to say that it didn’t exist—or that its effects in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, were not palpable, bloody, or real. But there was always pushback and, while the U.S. state often served as the intermediary for U.S. capital in the Caribbean, oftentimes government officials tried to be a brake on the activities of banks if they felt they were not in the strategic and economic interests of the state. Before I began this project I don’t think I was aware of the role of law and regulation in mediating the relation between banking and imperialism. More often than not, banking expansion was an attempt to evade, erode, or re-write the federal regulations governing banking activity. 

The bankers in the book both compete and cooperate. They see the potential for profit, but ignorance and prejudice often leave them stumbling around trying to get hold of it. There are profits, but there are also failures. They try to use both U.S. and foreign governments to their advantage, but not always successfully. They see themselves as constrained by the law, while also trying to change the law and take advantage of operating under multiple legal regimes. The book reminded me of the end of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters, where he describes sitting in his office, surrounded by piles of papers, trying to figure out what it all meant, because the story he had found did not fit into existing narratives about the role of law.

I’ll admit that the economist in me sometimes wanted a little more about the quantitative significance of the firms’ actions. In addition, although the references to the secondary literature, including business history, are extensive, Hudson does not address more social science oriented history. There has been a lot of recent work on institutions and financial development in history, including Latin America and the Caribbean (especially work by Haber and his students), and I’ll have to give more thought to how Hudson’s story relates to this work.

Those issues aside, however, the book tells an interesting story, and I love Hudson’s commitment to building a stories from the primary sources. Moreover, as someone who has written about the same characters, the stories rang true to me. I have tried to tell very different stories about these firms, but his descriptions of them and the people who ran them sounded like the firms and the people that I found in the sources. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Loan Sharks

The Exchange, the blog of the Business History Conference, posted a list of new books of interest, and I noticed Loan Sharks: The Birth of Predatory Lending by Charles Geisst, published by the Brookings Institution. I hadn’t heard about the book before, but I was curious since there has been a lot of interesting work on loan sharks in the last decade or so. I was particularly interested to see if he cited my work with Mary Eschelbach Hansen ("The evolution of garnishment and wage assignment law in Illinois." Essays in Economic & Business History 32 (2014): 19-46). I looked Geisst’s book up on Google books and did a quick search. Our paper did not show up in the search.

I assumed he must cite Anne Fleming ("The borrower's tale: a history of poor debtors in Lochner Era New York City." Law and History Review 30, no. 04 (2012): 1053-1098 or "City of Debtors: Law, Loan Sharks, and the Shadow Economy of Urban Poverty, 1900–1970." Enterprise & Society 17, no. 4 (2016): 734-740.)  But she did not show up in the search either.

Michael Easterly ("Your Job is Your Credit: Creating a Market for Loans to Salaried Employees in New York City, 1885-1920." The Journal of Economic History 70, no. 2 (2010): 463-468).

Bruce Carruthers, Timothy Guinnane and Yoonseuk Lee ("Bringing “honest capital” to poor borrowers: The passage of the US Uniform Small Loan Law, 1907–1930." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 42, no. 3 (2012): 393-418).

I couldn’t find any mention of any of them.

I was beginning to think that the search function must not be working, then I searched for Geisst and there were numerous hits.

Perhaps the search in Google books is flawed. I hope that is the case. Maybe it only finds the name of the author. If the search is not flawed, I am puzzled how someone can write a book that does not cite any of the recent research on the topic. I assume from the low price that the book is aimed at something wider than a purely academic audience, but I’m not asking for a detailed historiography, just some references to relevant work.