Monday, December 29, 2014

Is Economics Already Open Access?

We just got the December 2014 issue of The American Economics Review. It took me about 10 minutes to find ungated versions of all the papers.

Friday, December 26, 2014

An appreciation of E.P. Thompson

This is The American Conservative's Christmas reading list. Benjamin Schwarz, the national editor of The American Conservative, chose E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

"Steeped in English literature—see the constant, apposite, and often starling allusions to Bunyan and Byron, Defoe and the Bible—Thompson wrote powerfully, concretely, plangently, with an exquisite sense of cadence and rhythm. That style deepens this elegiac book, elevating it to a masterpiece of literature as well as of scholarship. This is a work, Thompson unabashedly makes clear, about history’s losers, and in its embrace of the losers, as well as in other ways, The Making of the English Working Class is a profoundly anti-progressive book. Its protagonists’ values and their 50-year struggle to resist being turned into a proletariat may have seemed merely primitive and retrograde to strident Marxists (and may seem so to progressives of all stripes today), but Thompson’s historical imagination and sympathy allowed him to see the value, and the tragedy, of lost causes."

Does History Need a Manifesto?

Peter Mandler and Deborah Cohen review The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage. The review provides an interesting and optimistic assessment of the current state of the discipline of history.

Here is an earlier review by Pseudoerasmus, focusing on the books false claims about economic historians.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cotton, Slavery and Economic Growth

Recently, several historians (Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert) have attempted to make slavery and cotton the driving force behind American economic growth in the nineteenth century. I believe that they present a misleading view of economic growth and the relationship between slavery and economic growth.

1.       Slavery was predominately associated with one product: cotton. Cotton was a very important crop. It is true, as Beckert points out, that cotton accounted for over half of U.S. exports on the eve of the Civil War. But exports were only about 9 % of GDP. Similarly, cotton accounted for about 23 % of income in the South, but the South accounted for only 26% of U.S. income. See D. A. Irwin, “The Optimal Tax on Antebellum U.S. cotton Exports,” Journal of International Economics 60(2003):287) Ultimately, the value of cotton production was equal to about 6% of GDP. The attempts to make cotton the driving force of the American economy misses one of the most important finding of economic historians: do not get too focused on a single sector of an economy (see Fogel on the railroads and McCloskey on the textile industry in England). There is no Rostovian engine of growth.  

2.       Baptist’s attempts to enlarge the impact of cotton on GDP are nonsensical.

3.       Slavery appears to have had a negative effect on long run trends in per capita GDP. The more a region depended on slave labor in the past the lower its per capita income now.




These figures are from the working paper by Nathan Nunn “Slavery, Inequality and Economic Development in the Americas: An Examination of the Engerman-Sokoloff Argument (October 2007). There is no question that slaveholders benefited from slavery, but that does not mean that the economy as a whole was better off as a result of slavery. Arguments and evidence presented by Gavin Wright, Sokoloff and Engerman, and David Meyer also suggest that slavery had long term negative effects on economic growth.

4.       The abolition of slavery did not have a negative effect on per capita GDP in the United States or its rate of growth.
You can go to and graph the log of per capita GDP from 1800 to 1900. Does it appear to you that the rate of growh declined after 1865?



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If all else fails just make it up

In the Washington Post today Jim Tankersley reports on the negative influence of finance on the economy. He reports that “In perhaps the starkest illustration, economists from Harvard University and the University of Chicago wrote in a recent paper that every dollar a worker earns in a research field spills over to make the economy $5 better off. Every dollar a similar worker earns in finance comes with a drain, making the economy 60 cents worse off.” I clicked on the link to the paper (Lockwood BB, Nathanson CG, Weyl GE. Taxation and the Allocation of Talent). As best I can tell it says no such thing. It seems to me that the authors are quite explicit that they do not have such estimates of the spillover effects of different occupations. They use a variety of guesses about what they might be to examine the implications of their model.

More new "history" of capitalism

Sven Beckert has an essay in the Chronicle Review, markting his new book.
Historians “observe, quite rightly, that the world we live in cannot be understood without coming to terms with the long history of capitalism—a process that has arguably unfolded over more than half a millennium. They are further encouraged by the all-too-frequent failings of economists, who have tended to naturalize particular economic arrangements by defining the "laws" of their development with mathematical precision and preferring short-term over long-term perspectives.”

The need to offer some vague critique of economics in everything they write is one of the most tiresome features of the new historians of capitalism. I suggest that he take a look at some of the work by economists that examines the influence of differences in institutions and endowments on long term economic performance: North, Sokolof and Engerman, and Nunn would be good places to start.

“What distinguishes today’s historians of capitalism is that they insist on its contingent nature, tracing how it has changed over time as it has revolutionized societies, technologies, states, and many if not all facets of life.”

Who does this distinguish them from? Business historians have frequently made such distinctions, writing about proprietary capitalism and managerial capitalism, or just varieties of capitalism. Or, consider the work on the evolution of monopoly capitalism by Marxist scholars. Most of the work by new institutional economic historians is about how capitalist economies have differed from place to place and eveolved over time.


“For too long, many historians saw no problem in the opposition between capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history of American capitalism without slavery, and slavery as quintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as the modern institution that it was, they described it as premodern.

Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the 1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for the centrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings were largely ignored. Nearly half a century later, two American economists, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, observed in their controversial book Time on the Cross (Little, Brown, 1974) the modernity and profitability of slavery in the United States. Now a flurry of books and conferences are building on those often unacknowledged foundations.”

Why don’t the people doing the new history of capitalism start acknowledging these foundations?


Special Issue on Piketty's Capital

The British Journal of Sociology has a special issue on Piketty's Capital. All the articles are available free of charge.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Happy Birthday to The Junto

The Junto is celebrating its second birthday. I am not an early Americanist, but The Junto is one of my favorite blogs. The contributors are thoughtful and passionate about what they do. Anyone interested in American history, doing history, or teaching history should read what they have to say.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Depression of 1921?

The “Depression of 1921” has been receiving a lot of attention recently (Krugman, Selgin, Murphy, and Sumner)  mostly in response to James Grant’s The Forgotten Depression:1921: The Crash That Cured Itself. The argument of the book is that the economy recovered more quickly because neither the federal government nor the Federal Reserve attempted to pursue activist policies. I am skeptical that 1921 is a useful case to generalize from.

It was a post war recession, much like the one after World War II. Most business cycle movements have been associated with busts after periods of credit expansion (see the recent work of Alan Taylor et al). In those cases it was households and businesses that borrowed and spent during the boom. Consequently, when the bust comes, businesses and consumers struggle to repay their debts. Businesses fail and consumers default. Even consumers who do not go bankrupt reduce their current spending to avoid default (see Martha Olney). As businesses and households default the value of bank assets fall and banks fail. The bank failures result in decreases in the money supply (Friedman and Schwartz) and disintermediation (Bernanke). In other words, it creates a real mess when people take on excessive amounts of debt, especially when they use that debt to bid up the prices of assets like stocks or real estate.

In terms of increases in output and prices, war time booms look similar to credit fueled booms, but the government is the one borrowing and spending. The end of the boom does not necessarily lead to a financial crisis or reductions in consumption and investment. Granted government borrowing can also create a mess, particulalry if people begin to doubt its willingness or ability to pay, but that hasn't really been an issue for the U.S. 

I also have a problem with calling this a depression. I know that there is no universally accepted definition of the term depression. And I know that Grant is not the first to refer to this episode as a depression. But we completely lose any distinction between a recession and a depression if this was a depression. Neither the length nor the severity of the decline in real GDP warrant the term depression.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Business History Conference

The Business History Conference launched its new website yesterday. In addition to the usual stuff about meetings it has an extensive list of links for research in business history and syllabi and other resources for teaching business history and business history related courses.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Claudia Goldin in Saudi Arabia

The New York Times reports on how the economic historian Claudia Goldin tries to help Saudi women enter the labor force while following the prime directive (see paragraph 5).

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Fall and Rise of Economic History

Jeremy Adelman and Jonathan Levy describe "The Fall and Rise of Economic History" in the Chronicle of Higher Education
I found this essay particularly interesting because both Jeremy Adelman and I studied economic history at the LSE in 1984-85. If I remember correctly, we were the first cohort to do a new M.Sc. program focusing on Third World economic history. He went on to get his PhD. In history (Oxford); I went on to get a Ph. D. in economics (Washington University).   

I remember a seminar where Jeremy presented the work he was doing on Argentina. The first person to speak was one of the older professors in the department, very much a traditional historian. He said, “That is political history. This is a seminar in economic history.” He then leaned back, laced his fingers over his stomach, and looked around the room, smiling as if he had just said all that needed to  be said.  I know he did not speak for all the professors present, but it was still a very discouraging moment. Like Jeremy, I was interested in economic questions but didn’t believe it was possible to leave politics and ideology out of the answer. I had also just started to read Douglass North’s work on institutions and ideology and thought it might provide the way forward. I decided to pursue a degree in economics. Since then, I think economists (for example, North, Wallis, McCloskey, Mokyr) have continued to make progress in reintegrating politics, the law, and culture into the study of economic history.    

I have, on the other hand, been very disappointed in the “new history of capitalism” that has arisen in history departments. I first thought that this might be the moment for a much needed reunion of economists and historians, but it quickly became clear that that was not what the new history of capitalism was about. Instead of confronting the work of economists directly it is generally ignored or dismissed. People throw around terms like homo economicus, suggesting that economists all think that people care only about maximizing their material wealth and that they do so with perfect information. They seem to believe that the recent financial crisis has undermined the credibility of economic theory because things did not work out well, while a student in any decent principles of economics class could show you the prisoners’ dilemma and explain to you that economic models do not all conclude that everything will work out for the best.  The quality of the historical research is secondary to the author’s stance against capitalism (which is not defined) and economics.
I still hope that economic history will regain a prominent position in both economics and history and that economists and historians will be able to move forward together.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Who is shocked by this?

The Economist reports that the performance of state owned enterprises has been shockingly bad.

If there is state capitialism, is there private enterprise socialism?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Jeffrey Beall Explains Why People Should Avoid "journals" published by the Clute Institute

"In conclusion, I recommend that honest scholars seek out a better publisher for disseminating their research than the Clute Institute. This publisher, with its dubious claim to be an institute, is little more than a scholarly vanity press — it’s essentially a money press — and publishing papers in this publisher’s journals may hurt authors in the long run. By this I mean that for any researcher who publishes a paper in a Clute Institute journal, that paper will be in the company of other papers with highly questionable citation and authorship practices and may be damaged by association."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Was Funny?

Huffington reports on how the Board of Visitors of UVA deal with the problem of sexual asault on campus:

"Later, however, as the meeting neared its third hour, board member Edward D. Miller interrupted to note the Visitors were laughing too much for a session dedicated to such a serious issue. Miller commented through a conference call, as he was not able to be there in person. His comment was quietly applauded by public audience members."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ice Fountain at Mary Washington

Courtesy of Lauren Castellano

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Kudos to Cabell's

Cabell's is taking a stand against fake journals:

"Unfortunately, academic publishing has been rife with fraudulent procedures over the past several years. Instances of deceptive practices and outright fraud have skyrocketed. Understandably, this has led to a significant erosion of trust in the scholarly publication process. In an effort to offer our users guidance and to support our mission of providing academics with accurate information and reputable outlets for publication, Cabell’s has launched a reevaluation initiative whereby selected journals appearing in our Directories will be examined according to new, more stringent criteria on a rotating basis throughout the year. Journals are selected for reevaluation based on inclusion in Jeffery Beall’s 2014 List of Predatory Publishers, exclusion from DOAJ and/or OASPA, and not meeting requirements of the Cabell’s Selection Policy. As these selected journals undergo this reevaluation process, they will be removed from our database. Essentially, these journals will be reapplying for inclusion. Journals will be evaluated according to the Cabell’s Selection Policy. Each journal’s editor or publisher will be asked to complete a new Application for Inclusion. Our Journal Admissions Department will verify that all journals reapplying for inclusion meet the required criteria. This comprehensive reevaluation process is expected to be completed by the end of 2015."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More on the History of Capitalism

Tom Cutterham has a post at the Junto about both the recent Shenk essay in The Nation and the discussion in the recent issue of Journal of American History.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Apostles of Growth

Timothy Shenk's essay on the the new history of capitalism.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Transcontinental Railroad

The Linda Hall Library in Kansas City has a cool web exhibit about railroads.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Failure of Regulation: Reinterpreting the Panic of 1907

The Autumn 2014 issue of Business History Review is out now. It contains my paper on New York city trust companies during the panic of 1907.

This is the abstract for the paper

                 Financial Regulation and the Panic of 1907


Lax regulation enabled trust companies to take excessive risks, according to previous studies of the Panic of 1907, leading to a loss of confidence and massive runs. These studies have, however, given relatively little attention to the historical development of trust companies. This article argues that a more historical perspective can lead to a better understanding of the institutional framework and the actions of trust companies. Depositors did not lose confidence because of inadequate regulation; depositors lost confidence in specific trust companies because of false rumors, and diversity among trust companies hindered cooperation to halt the Panic.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Back of Ed Baptist's Envelope

I have finally had a chance to read some more of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told.

A central claim of the book is that slavery was not just an important institution in American economic growth but that “the returns from the cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy.” Baptist provides a back of the envelope accounting of the impact of slave produced cotton.


Baptist The Half has Never Been Told (page 321-2)


“But here’s a back- of- the –envelope accounting of cotton’s role in the US economy in the era of slavery expansion. In 1836, the total amount of economic activity―the value of all the goods and services produced―in the United States was about $1.5 billion. Of this, the value of the cotton crop itself, total pounds multiplied by average price per pound―$77 million―was about 5 percent of that entire gross domestic product. This percentage might seem small, but after subsistence agriculture, cotton sales were the largest single source of value in the American economy. Even this number, however, barely begins to measure the goods and services directly generated by cotton production. The freight of cotton to Liverpool by sea, insurance and interest paid on commercial credit―all would bring the total to more than $100 million (see Table 4.1).

                Next come the second- order effects that comprised the goods and services necessary to produce cotton. There was the purchase of slaves―perhaps $40 million in 1836 alone, a year that made many memories of long marches forced on stolen people. Then there was the purchase of land, the cost of credit for such purchases, the pork and the corn bought at the river landings, the axes that the slaves used to clear land and the cloth they wore, even the luxury goods and other spending by the slaveholding families. All of that probably added up to about $100 million more.

                Third order effects, the hardest to calculate, included the money spent by millworkers and Illinois hog farmers, the wages paid to steamboat workers, and the revenues yielded by investments made with the profits of the merchants, manufacturers, and slave traders who derived some or all of their income either directly or indirectly from the southwestern fields. These third order effects would also include the dollars spent and spent again in communities where cotton related trades made a significant impact another category of these effects is the value of foreign goods imported on credit  sustained the opposite flow of cotton. All these goods and services might have added up to $200 million. Given the short term of most commercial credit in 1836, each dollar “imported” for cotton would be turned over about twice a year: $400 million. All told more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million odd slaves― 6 percent of the total US population―who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”


Where do I begin? The approach is fundamentally flawed. Baptist begins with gross domestic product (GDP), the value of all the final goods and services produced in the country during the year. He refers to this as a measure of the total economic activity. He notes that the value of cotton production equaled about 5 % percent of GDP. No problems so far. But he then adds the cost of the inputs to the production of cotton. Anyone who has taken Principles of Macroeconomics knows that you can’t do this; it is referred to as double counting. If I buy $1000 worth of wood and then make it into a table that I sell for $1,500, we do not add $1,000 and $1,500 because the value of the wood is included in the value of the table, the final good. If he is going to engage in double counting for cotton he would need to engage in double counting for all other goods. He then adds the costs of transportation and insurance; these only count toward US GDP to the extent that they are produced by Americans. He also adds the sales of assets: land and slaves. Again, the sales of assets are not counted in GDP. GDP only counts the value of final goods and services produced during the year. Not all purchases are counted as part of GDP. Only purchases of newly produced goods and services are counted in GDP.  Comparing his calculation of economic activity related to cotton to GDP is meaningless.


There is, however, an even deeper problem with this back of the envelope accounting:

perhaps $40 million

probably added up to about $100 million

might have added up to $200 million


Baptist is simply pulling numbers out of thin air, or a hat, or wherever it is that he gets them. Back of the envelope calculations tend to involve simplifying assumptions. Baptist seems to understand the term to mean that he can just make things up. The only reference provided is to Table 4.1. Table 4.1 does not provide, as one might assume, information about shipping and insurance. It does not even have any information at all for the year 1836.

Both historians and authors of fiction tell stories, but the stories that historians tell are distinguished from fiction by their grounding in the sources. Historians are constrained to tell stories that they can support with evidence from their sources. Baptist has thrown off this constraint and set himself free to simply make up numbers (or events). This really is a new history of capitalism.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Economic History's Many Muses

Many of the papers from the the Library Company of Phildelphia Program on Early American Economy and Society's conference on Economic History's Many muses are available here

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

More Slavery and the History of Capitalism

The September 2014 Journal of American History has an Interchange on the History of Capitalism. In the Interchange Scott Marler states that


“The problem arises when historians assert that the slave South was “a flexible, highly developed form of capitalism” (as Robert Fogel does). The evidence for such characterizations is thin and usually hinges on questionable interpretations. For example, some will emphasize the careful attention given to profit among that minority of big planter–slave owners, despite the facts that the majority of slaves were held on small units, using roughly five or fewer slaves, and that three-fourths of white households held no slaves on the eve of the Civil War. This is why definitions of capitalism matter. The relationship between master and slave was, at bottom, a nonmarket relationship, redolent of precapitalist relations between lords and serfs—not an economic one, as with the qualitative changes apparent in fast-growing wage-labor societies elsewhere.”



I am not going to get into the issue of whether slavery in the United States was capitalist or not, but Marler bases his conclusion on “the facts that the majority of slaves were held on small units, using roughly five or fewer slaves, and that three-fourths of white households held no slaves on the eve of the Civil War.” All of the sources I know of do indicate that the vast majority of southern families did not own slaves. On the other hand, Gavin Wright estimated that the majority of slaves (nearly 80 percent in the Cotton South in 1860) lived on plantations with 16 or more slaves.  Marler cites Kolchin’s American Slavery as a reliable source on the demographics of southern slavery. Kolchin (Appendix Table 4) claims that about 70 percent of slaves lived on farms with 10 or more slaves in the South as a whole; the figure was 80 percent for the Deep South. The majority (about 75 percent) lived on plantations with less than 50 slaves. Overall, the estimates in Wright and Kolchin are pretty consistent.


The availalbe evidence does suggest that the majority of slaveholders had five or fewer slaves, but that is not the same as saying that the majority of slaves lived on farms with five or fewer slaves. In other words, the typical southern farm owner would have looked around his farm and seen few if any slaves. The typical slave, on the other hand, would have looked around the farm he worked on and seen more than a dozen other slaves.

Monday, October 13, 2014

2014 Nobel

Jean Tirole

Tyler Cowen has an overview of Tirole's work.

Monday, October 6, 2014

et tu Foner?

There is a myth about historians and the Great Depression that some economists have tried to peddle over the years. The myth is that historians think Hoover was an opponent of government action and that the New Deal brought the country out of the Depression. They then act like they have made a great discovery if they show that Hoover tried to intervene in markets and that the economy continued to operate well under potential throughout the 1930s. The only problem is that this story is a complete misrepresentation of what most historians knew about the Great Depression. Listen to David Kennedy's Econ Talk with Russ Roberts for a discussion of what historians actually tended to think.

Some historians are now trying to peddle their own myth that before the "new history of capitalism" historians all believed that slavery was unprofitable and did not appreciate the economic importance of slavery, especially cotton production, to the development of the American economy.

In his New York Times review of Edward Baptist's book Eric Foner seems to join this crowd. He  writes that

"For residents of the world’s pre-­eminent capitalist nation, American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States. This situation was exacerbated in the 1970s, when economic history began to migrate from history to economics departments, where it too often became an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data to plug into computerized models of the economy." 

He goes on to state that

"For decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction before the Civil War (a conflict that was therefore unnecessary). Recently, historians like Sven Beckert, Robin Blackburn and Walter Johnson have emphasized that cotton, the raw material of the early Industrial Revolution, was by far the most important commodity in 19th-century international trade and that capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of Northern and British bankers, merchants and manufacturers. And far from being economically backward, slave owners pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance."

As with the Great Depression story, the problem is that this story is not true. It is true that "for decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction," but these were decades after 1918 when Ullrich B. Philllips published his American Negro Slavery. By the 1960s, however, evidence was beginning to pile up that slave owners received high rates of return on their investment, managed their plantations with an eye on profits, achieved high levels of productivity, and were increasing productivity over time.  The economic historians who produced this evidence did not keep their work secret. Someone taking an intro to American history class was likely to know about it. In George Brown Tindall's America: A Narative History we find that "More often than not the successful planter was a driving newcomer bent on maximizing profits." and "in recent years economic historians have reached the conclusion that slaves on the average supplied about a 10 percent return." (Tindall 1988:571)This is was written nearly three decades ago. Suggesting to people that before the new history of capitalism everybody thought that slavery was unprofitable is either dishonest or incompetent.

Foner's snarky comment about economists turning economic history into an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data is particulalry ironic since Baptist's argument is based on the work of economic historians who scoured the past for numerical data. His book is based on an increase in productivity in cotton production. It turns out this can only be demonstrated with numerical data that Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode scoured the past to obtain.

What happened to historians like Herbert Gutman and Kenneth Stampp who were willing to challenge economists head on when they disagreed with their work on slavery.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What I'm Listening To

A really interesting Junto Cast on Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

It's A Start

More women are among the top earners

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The cost of college

Susan Dynarski in the New York Times:

"In 1988, state legislatures gave their public colleges an average of $8,600 a student. Students contributed an additional $2,700 in tuition, which gets us to a total of $11,300. By 2013, states were kicking in just $6,100, while students were contributing $5,400"

The half (maybe a bit more) that Baptist does not tell

The new book by Edward Baptist The Half Has Never Been Told has been getting a lot of attention on the internet. More precisely, a review of the book in The Economist has been getting a lot of attention.

Amid all the attention to the Economist’s ridiculous review, the book itself has been somewhat neglected.

I have not read the entire book. I have read the parts related to the areas that I am most familiar with. What I have read I do not like. On page 129 he writes that “during the late antebellum years, northern travelers insisted that slave labor was less efficient than free labor, a point of dogma that most historians and economists have accepted.” The footnote for this statement does not actually provide any evidence to support, which is not surprising since you would be hard pressed to find an economic historian who does accept it. Actually, there have been surveys of economic historians that show that more than two-thirds would agree that slave agriculture was efficient relative to non-slave agriculture. It has been more than a half century since Conrad and Meyer showed that investment in slaves had a return comparable to other potential investments. As best I can tell Baptist does not even cite Conrad and Meyer. Fogel and Engerman long ago argued that slave agriculture was as dynamic a version of capitalism as existed anywhere in the United States. In awarding the Nobel Prize to Fogel in 1993, the Nobel committee stated that “Fogel showed that the established opinion that slavery was an ineffective, unprofitable and pre-capitalist organization was incorrect. The institution did not fall to pieces due to its economic weakness but collapsed because of political decisions. He showed that the system, in spite of its inhumanity, had been economically efficient.” How can any of this be reconciled with the claim that most economists and historians and economists accept the dogma that slave labor was less efficient?

To say that Baptist is knocking down a straw man would be an injustice to straw men.

He suggests that pretty much everyone has failed to notice that productivity increased on cotton plantations, but his primary evidence for this is from Olmstead and Rhode, and, for some reason, he cites their NBER working paper, even though the paper was published in the Journal of Economic History six years ago. He also rejects Olmstead and Rhode’s explanation for the productivity increase, which emphasizes improvement in cotton plants, but he does not address the evidence that they provided to support of this conclusion (productivity increased much more in areas that grew varieties of cotton for which new seeds were being developed than it did in areas where new varieties were not grown). Contrary to what he seems to suggest Olmstead and Rhode did not simply assume that it must have been technological change that caused productivity to increase. They went to considerable effort to rule out other explanations.

This is not nitpicking. These arguments are at the center of the book. Baptist consistently misrepresents or ignores the contributions of others, even when it is clear that he is familiar with their work. The false claims about the book’s contributions make it difficult to discern if there are any legitimate contributions.

By the way, if you are looking to read a good recent book about slavery in the United States, I would suggest Kathleen Hilliard’s Masters,Slaves and Exchange.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Dismal Science

In the Los Angeles Times Hector Tobar writes that "In "The Half Has Never Been Told," Baptist adds many new, stark and essential elements to that story. His most important achievement is to show us how the "dismal science" of economics served to make the lot of slaves even grimmer."

If Baptist were to do this it would be a nice trick. Thomas Carlyle was the one who named economics the dismal science. What did he find dismal about it? He thought it was dismal that economic theory did not provide support for slavery and that economists like John Stuart Mill supported emancipation.

I think there are a number of problems with Baptist's book, but I suspect this quote just reflects Tobar's ignorance.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The truth about student debt

The Reality of Student Debt in the New York Times

"the share of income that young adults are devoting to loan repayment has remained fairly steady over the last two decades, according to data the Brookings Institutions is releasing on Tuesday. Only 7 percent of young-adult households with education debt have $50,000 or more of it. By contrast, 58 percent of such households have less than $10,000 in debt, and an additional 18 percent have between $10,000 and $20,000."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

For what shall it profit a university if it shall gain AACSB accreditation and lose its own soul?

Mark Perry argues that the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is fueling the growth of fraudulent journals by demanding that faculty publish but giving no consideration to where they publish. I am starting believe that he is right.

Friday, February 28, 2014


This sounds like a good idea, but I think the article might be exaggerating how large a change this is. I graduated from Evergreen in 1984. For each interdisciplinary program you had to write a self-evaluation and an evaluation of the program and faculty, and the faculty member that you worked with wrote an evaluation of you. Each of these evaluations was 2-4 pages. Written evaluations and serious reflection have always been the norm at Evergreen. I do, however, think this is a nice addition. It sounds like it asks students to keep the big picture in mind. It also reminds me a bit of the plans that my daughter had to do while she was at Bennington.
P.S. I looked at the Evergreen webpage, and it is great to see that Greeners still have the opportunity to work with Tom Rainey and Jeanne Hahn.

HT to Steve Greenlaw

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Problems with Bitcoin

The New York Times reports that "On Monday night, a number of leading Bitcoin companies jointly announced that Mt. Gox, the largest exchange for most of Bitcoin’s existence, was planning to file for bankruptcy after months of technological problems and what appeared to have been a major theft. A document circulating widely in the Bitcoin world said the company had lost 744,000 Bitcoins in a theft that had gone unnoticed for years. That would be about 6 percent of the 12.4 million Bitcoins in circulation."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Economic History in the News

Gregory Clark of UC Davis describes the results of his recent research in the Sunday New York Times. He uses a large amount of evidence on family names and economic status o show that reversion to the mean takes place, but it takes a long time. I thought his story seemed pretty persuasive. On the other hand, at the end he concludes that adoption studies, "along with studies of correlations across various types of siblings (identical twins, fraternal twins, half siblings) suggest that genetics is the main carrier of social status." I don't find this conclusion nearly as persuasive. The problem with adoption studies is that adoptable children are not selected at random from the population, making it difficult to say how for results can be generalized. I would like to see more direct evidence that people do not treat people with high status names differently.

Business Women

The Washington Post ran a story this morning about a company called FlexProfessionals. The business helps professionals who have been out of the labor force return to the labor force. The founder has an MBA from Harvard. the business generated over $1 million in revenue last year. This is the photograph that went with the story. I did not find the photo online; consequently, this is a picture of the photograph I took with the camera attached to my computer. It struck me as odd that they would be portrayed sitting on the floor. I do not believe that I have ever seen articles about business men that show them sitting next to each on the floor.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


One of my students asked what I thought about bitcoin the other day in class. I told him that I thought Tyler Cowen had made an interesting case for an eventual decrease in the value of bitcoin. Consequently, I am reposting a link to Marginal Revolution here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Minimum Wages

This is from the Economist, suggesting, in response to Noah Smith, that micro is not the good economics. the author offers up the minimum wage as his example.

There are three things that both me about the article.

First, the author states that if you "ask any two economists – macro, micro, whatever – whether raising the minimum wage will reduce employment for the low skilled, and odds are you will get two answers." The link is to a survey of well known economists. Click on the link. The survey asked the economists to respond to this
"Question A: Raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour would make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment." I have seen this survey cited several times. The actual question is almost never stated. To an economist the questions are actually quite different. The economists question is about the direction of change will it reduce employment or not? The actuial question was about the size of the change will it be "noticeably harder?" To an economist that is a question about the elasticity of demand not the sloe of the demand curve. Microeconomic theory alone does not make a prediction about the size of the change, whether it will be noticeably harder. That is an empirical question. with that in mind, look at the results of the survey.  The most significant ting to note about the results is that none of the economists said that they strongly agree or strongly disagree, and about one quarter simply said they were uncertain. the rest were split between agree and disagree. In other words, when asked an empricial question which most of them had probably not conducted first hand research on, economists either replied "I don't know" or "my best guess is ...."

Second, it is not clear that this is a micro question. The survey and the Economist article seem to be talking about the aggregate amount of employment of low skilled workers. Not the employment in a particular market. I tell students the difference between micro and macro is that micro deals with particular markets and macro deals with aggregates.

Third, the time series data on the effects of the minimum wage on the employment of low skill workers (the direction of change) seems to be pretty consistent. The size of the change, whther it is noticeable, is not, however, very consistent.

Consider this graph from via Marginal Revolution

Monday, January 6, 2014

ASSA in Philadelphia

I got back from the ASSA meetings in Philadelphia last night. I had some excellent food. We'll have to go back to Alma de Cuba when its warmer and try their ceviche sampler. We took Mary's students Leanne Roncolato and Megan Fasules out to Serpico, which had a really nice tasting menu. And Pumpkin cemented its position as my favorite place to eat in Phildelphia. Also went to Saint John the Evangelist Friday night.
I also attended some great sessions. The economic history sesions (organized by the Cliometric Society and the Economic History Association) were all excellent and very well attended. The one in which my wife, Mary Eschelbach Hansen and her student, Megan Fasules, presented was packed and both Paul Solman and Matt Yglesias were there. Yglesias even tweeted one of the slides from Mary and Megan's presentation.
Cliometric Society Sessions

Spatial Allocation of Conflict, Individuals, and Economic Activity

January 3, 2014, 12:30 – 2:15 pm, Philadelphia Marriott, Meeting Room 406

Organizer: John Murray (Rhodes College)

Chair: Mary Hansen (American University)

Discussants: John Brown (Clark University), Allison Shertzer (University of Pittsburgh), Hugh Rockoff (Rutgers), Chris Vickers (Northwestern)

“Railroads and the Regional Concentration of Industry in Germany 1846 to 1882,” Theresa Gutberlet (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

“Segregation (Forever?): Measuring the Short- and Long-Term Consequences of Segregation,” John Parman (College of William and Mary) and Trevon Logan (Ohio State University and NBER)

“Military Conflict and the Economic Rise of Urban Europe,” Mark Dincecco (University of Michigan) and Massimiliano Onorato (IMT Institute for Advanced Studies)

“Murder and the Black Market: Prohibition’s Impact on Homicide Rates in American Cities,” Brendan Livingston (???)

Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective

January 3, 2014, 2:30 – 4:30 pm, Philadelphia Marriott, Meeting Room 406

Organizer: John Murray (Rhodes College)

Chair: William Collins (Vanderbilt and NBER)

Discussants: Carola Frydman (Boston University and NBER), William Collins (Vanderbilt and NBER), Matt Jaremski (Colgate University and NBER)

“Corporate Governance and the Establishment of Manufacturing Enterprises in New England,” Eric Hilt, (Wellesley College and NBER)

“Economies of Scale in Nineteenth Century American Manufacturing Revisited: A Resolution of the Entrepreneurial Labor Input Problem,” Robert A. Margo (Boston University and NBER)

“How Does Governance Matter? An Examination of the Long-Term Evolution of Bank Boards in the United States, 1800-1933,” Howard Bodenhorn (Clemson University and NBER) and Eugene White (Rutgers University and NBER)

Technology and Property Rights

January 4, 2014, 2:30 – 4:30 pm, Philadelphia Marriott, Meeting Room 406

Organizer: John Murray (Rhodes College)

Chair: David Mitch (University of Maryland-Baltimore County)

Discussants: Lisa Cook (Michigan State), Carol Shiue (University of Colorado), Ahmed Rahman (U.S. Naval Academy), Susan Wolcott (Binghamton University)

“Copyright and the Diffusion of Classical Music,” Petra Moser (Stanford University) and Jerry Lao (Stanford University)

“The Great Divergence and the Economics of Printing,” Luis Angeles (University of Glasgow)

“Turning Points in Leadership: Shipping Technology in the Portuguese and Dutch Merchant Empires,” Claudia Rei (Vanderbilt University)

“Industrial development and technology adoption in late nineteenth century Japan,” John Tang (Australia National University)

Economic History Association Sessions

Poverty from a Historical Viewpoint

January 4, 2014, 12:30 – 2:15 pm, Philadelphia Marriott, Meeting Room 307

Organizer: Martha Bailey (University of Michigan)

Chair: Robert Margo (Boston University)

Discussants: Tom Vogl (Princeton), Robert Margo (Boston University), Melissa Thomasson (Miami University – Ohio), Rob Gillezeau (New Democratic Party, Ontario Canada)

“Up from Poverty? The 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery and the Long-run Distribution of Wealth,” Joseph Ferrie (Northwestern University) and Hoyt Bleakley (University of Chicago)

“The Effects of Childhood Means-tested Cash Transfers on Mortality: Evidence from the Mother’s Pension Programs,” Shari Eli (University of Toronto), Anna Aizer (Brown University), Adriana Lleras-Muney (UCLA), and Joseph Ferrie (Northwestern University)

“Interactions between Social Insurance Programs: The Impact of Medicare on the Characteristics of Petitioners for Bankruptcy,” Megan Lynn Fasules (American University) and Mary Eschelbach Hansen (American University)

“Poverty and Progress among Canadian Immigrants, 1911-1931,” Chris Minns (London School of Economics), Kris Inwood (University of Guelph) and Fraser Summerfield (University of Guelph)

Reception hosted by the Cliometric Society

Saturday, January 4th, 6:00-8:00 pm

Philadelphia Marriott Downtown - Meeting Room 403


January 5, 2014, 10:15 am – 12:15 pm, Philadelphia Marriott, Meeting Room 307

Organizer: Martha Bailey (University of Michigan)

Chair: Hugh Rockoff (Rutgers)

Discussants: Dominick Bartelme (UC Berkeley), Joshua Hausman (University of Michigan), Jonathan Rose (Federal Reserve Board)

“American Banking and the Transportation Revolution Before the Civil War,” Matthew Jaremski (Colgate University), Jeremy Atack (Vanderbilt University), and Peter Rousseau (Vanderbilt University)

“Central Bank Credibility and Reputation: An Historical Exploration,” Pierre Siklos (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Michael Bordo (Rutgers University)

“Financial Liberalization and Bank Failures: The United States Free Banking Experience," Philipp Ager (University of Southern Denmark) and Fabrizio Spargoli (Erasmus University)