Thursday, April 13, 2017

Public Education and the Libertarian Nirvana Fallacy

Art Carden tweeted a link to Arnold Kling’s blogpost What I Believe About Education
This is what Kling believes (in bold)

1. The U.S. leads the world in health care spending per person, but not in health care outcomes. Many people look at that and say that health care costs too much in the U.S., and we should be able to get the same our better outcomes by sending less. Maybe that is correct, maybe not. That is not the point here. But–
2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes. Yet nobody, says that education costs too much and that we should spend less. Except–
3. me. I believe that we spend way too much on K-12 education.
4. We spend as much as we do on education in part because it is a sacred cow. We want to show that we care about children. (Yes, “showing that you care” is also Robin Hanson’s explanation for health care spending.)
5. We also spend as much as we do because of teachers’ unions. They engage in featherbedding, adding all sorts of non-teaching staff to school payrolls (and adding more union members in the process). In Montgomery`County, last time I looked, there was one person on the payroll for every 6 students, but there were more than 25 students per classroom teacher. That is why I do not think that cost disease, as discussed recently by Scott Alexander, is the full story. It’s not just that it’s hard to raise productivity in teaching. It’s that teachers’ unions cut down on productivity by continually getting schools to add non-teaching staff.
6. If I could have my way, the government would get out of the schooling business.
7. If we wish to subsidize education, we should do it through vouchers. Note that this could be done on a progressive basis, with the size of the voucher a declining function of parent’s income.
8. I do not expect educational outcomes to be any better under a voucher system. That is because I believe in the Null Hypothesis, which is that educational interventions do not make a difference.
9. However, a competitive market in education would drive down costs, so that the U.S. would get the same outcomes with much less spending.
A few additional notes:
10. When parents seek out schools with good reputations, they are going after schools where most of the students come from affluent families. The schools themselves do not do much.
11. Even within income-diverse school districts, affluent parents figure out a way to keep their kids from being surrounded by poor children.
12. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the leftist ideology preached in government schools.

At the risk of offending Art, and probably some other people, I do not agree with most of what Kling believes. Actually, there isn’t much in it I can find to agree with. Kling’s statement isn’t an argument. It is a creed, with statements like “I believe we spend way too much on K-12 education.”

Even the premise isn’t consistent with the available evidence. These numbers from the OECD show that U.S. does not lead in spending on K-12. As a percentage of public spending the U.S. is right around the OECD average. The results of that spending are more difficult to compare. The usual rankings based on test score comparisons are really not very informative, because many of the differences in scores do not reflect statistically significant differences. The Brown Center Report shows that relatively few countries have scores that are significantly higher those of the U.S. In other words, the United States spending is near the upper end but not at the very top, and the results are at the upper end but not at the top. The story that American public education is outrageously expensive and appallingly ineffective is simply not supported by the evidence.

Moreover, you would only expect spending the most money to get you the best education, or best health care, if you think that spending is the only determinant of educational or health performance. I don’t know anyone who believes this. In addition, evidence of relative cost and performance is only evidence against public education generally if the countries that perform better are ones that do not rely on public education. I don’t know of any evidence to that effect.

There is, on the other hand, more than a little evidence that education matters for both individual earnings and economic growth.Measured outputs of education are associated with economic growth. To the extent that inputs do not improve outcomes they are not associated with economic growth. People with more knowledge about how to produce things produce more things, if producing things is rewarded.
Easterlin, Richard A. "Why isn't the whole world developed?." The Journal of Economic History 41, no. 01 (1981): 1-17.
David Mitch Education and Growth a EH.Net Encyclopedia
Race based differences in educational quality have also contributed to differences in earnings between blacks and whites in the United States. See

Or you can watch Marianne Wanamaker present the research here

Education matters and public education has, at the very least, been consistent with long run economic growth. If recent elections are any indication, public schools do, however, appear to be failing at preaching leftist ideology.

Kling’s creed about getting government out of education is an example of libertarian Nirvana fallacy. The Nirvana fallacy is generally used in economics to refer to a situation in which people compare an imperfect market with a perfect (Nirvana) government solution that has never actually existed. It, however, makes no more sense to compare an imperfect government action to an idealized market outcome that has never actually existed.

Taken to the extreme libertarian Nirvana fallacy produces things like Rothbard’s Power and Market

“Let us, then, examine in a little more detail what a free-market defense system might look like. It is, we must realize, impossible to blueprint the exact institutional conditions of any market in advance, just as it would have been impossible 50 years ago to predict the exact structure of the television industry today. However, we can postulate some of the workings of a freely competitive, marketable system of police and judicial services. Most likely, such services would be sold on an advance subscription basis, with premiums paid regularly and services to be supplied on call. Many competitors would undoubtedly arise, each attempting, by earning a reputation for efficiency and probity, to win a consumer market for its services. Of course, it is possible that in some areas a single agency would outcompete all others, but this does not seem likely when we realize that there is no territorial monopoly and that efficient firms would be able to open branches in other geographical areas. It seems likely, also, that supplies of police and judicial service would be provided by insurance companies, because it would be to their direct advantage to reduce the amount of crime as much as possible.”

This isn’t economics; it is speculative fiction. This is what you are able to do when you free yourself from the onerous constraint of evidence. You can state with certainty that we can get rid of government support for education, law enforcement, or even national defense, which have been associated with long periods of rapid economic growth, becauseyou just know that a better private solution will emerge. By the way, Rothbard does suggest that people underestimate the private provision of law in history but see Edwards and Ogilvie and Ogivlie and Carus argument that people actually underestimate the role of the state in the examples that Rothbard provides.

On a personal note, I have nothing against private schools. My family has used both public and private schools. My wife went to Catholic schools in St. Louis, our youngest son goes to a private school here in Fredericksburg. Our two older children went to public schools in Fredericksburg. I went to a lot of public schools: Longfellow Elementary (Hastings, NE); Holstein Elementary (Holstein, NE); Minden Elementary (Minden, NE); Sherman Elementary, Potrero Hill Junior High, Galileo High School (all in San Francisco); and senior year at Port Angeles High School in Washington. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Some big economic history

Elis, Haber and Horrillo attempt to explain why different patterns of political and economic development since about 1750 appear to be geographically clustered Climate, Geography, and Political and Economic Development 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

two meetings, a list, and review

Business History Conference and the Economic History Society are meeting. Both have programs posted, with links to some abstracts and papers. Naomi Lamoreaux’s paper on Culture and Business History for the opening plenary session at BHC is available.

A List:
Pseudoerasmus has posted a great list of economic history papers and blogposts. The list is a great resource for anyone interested in economic history, which should be everyone. Most of the papers in the U.S. section are ones that I have used in my economic history class. In addition to presenting important arguments, many of the papers are very accessible. You do not need a Ph.D. in economics to read the papers by Wright, Meyer, or Temin.
Pseudoerasmus notes that the list is a work in progress. Some papers I would consider adding

Rousseau, Peter L., and Richard Sylla. "Emerging financial markets and early US growth." Explorations in Economic History 42, no. 1 (2005): 1-26.

Hanes, Christopher, and Paul W. Rhode. "Harvests and financial crises in gold standard America." The Journal of Economic History 73, no. 01 (2013): 201-246

And, even though it is quite old, I still like
Goodrich, Carter. "The revulsion against internal improvements." The Journal of Economic History 10, no. 02 (1950): 145-169.

A Book Review:

EH.Net has a review by Gavin Wright of Slavery’s Capitalism edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. Here is my take on the book. Thanks to Tom Maloney for bringing the EH.Net review to my attention.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fraudulent Publishing

The New York Times reports on one effort to uncover fraudulent journals and conferences. 

Although these journals have been referred to as predatory, I am inclined to agree with Jeffrey Beal’s assessment

Dr. Beall, who until recently published a list of predatory journals, said he believes many researchers know exactly what they are doing when they publish there.
“I believe there are countless researchers and academics, currently employed, who have secured jobs, promotions, and tenure using publications in pay-to-publish journals as part of their credentials and experience for the jobs and promotions they got,” Dr. Beall said.

Although the Times article does not mention it, my colleague Margaret Ray published similar research last year

Ray, Margaret. "An Expanded Approach to Evaluating Open Access Journals." Journal of Scholarly Publishing 47, no. 4 (2016): 307-327.

She found numerous “journals” that were happy to publish (for a price) papers written by her daughters and their friends for 8th to 10th grade classes. “One of the writers described her paper as ‘not some of my best work.’”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Do It Yourself Video Course on Modern Economic Growth

This is just a bunch of videos and a few papers related to the topic of modern economic growth.

For a long time, the Industrial Revolution was the central concern of economic history. Economic historians attempted to explain why the people in England began to develop new sources of power (the steam engine) and ways to replace human effort with mechanical effort, like the spinning jenny. Marxists, and later institutional economic historians, tended to look earlier for the key changes.

A good place to start is the work of Nicholas Crafts and Robert Allen on the Industrial Revolution

Recently, several historians have challenged the evidence of high wages in England, an important element of Allen’s argument
In these videos Jane Humphries presents one of these challenges and, in doing so, provides a great description of an economic historian’s use of primary sources.

Marxist’s have  longargued that the important transition(from feudalism to capitalism) took place before the Industrial Revolution, but they argued with each other about the nature of that transition. See the Dobb-Sweezy Debate and, later, the Brenner Debate (with worlds systems theorists). Unfortunately, I don’t have any good videos on this topic.

Institutionalist, like Doug North (a former Marxist), have also looked for a transformation before the IR.

And after Kenneth Pomeranz published the Great Divergence, many economic historians began to try to identify more precisely when, where and why modern economic growth began.

Stephen Broadberry has done interesting work in terms of both measurement and explanation
The quality of this video is not particularly good Accounting for Divergence but the paper it is based on is very readable.

See also

 Economic historians now have to explain both The Great Divergence, between East and West, but also little divergences within Europe and Asia.

So what explains these divergences. Two popular answers are institutions and ideas. A lot of these arguments are really matters of emphasis. Most of the people listed below are interested in both. 
Despite what Deirdre McCloskey might tell you, I can assure you that Doug thought that ideas and beliefs matter. The first two books I remember him telling me I had to read were Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality and Alan MacFarlane’s Origins of English Individualism. 
Sometimes it is not too clear what the difference between ideas and institutions are. Nevertheless, some emphasize one while others emphasize the other.

So here are some videos emphasizing the role of institutions
Douglass North The Natural State
There are a lot of videos of Doug, but this one reflects the work he was doing with Barry Weingast and John Wallis. I also like this interview that Timur Kuran did with him.

This is a short video with Sheilagh Ogilvie. You can also check out this paper with A.W. Carus on Institutions and Economic Growth

See also (parts of some of these may be a little difficult for non-economists to follow, but stick with it and you will get the main ideas)

Here are some emphasizing the role of ideas
Joel Mokyr Culture of Growth

See also
Anton Howes on the Ideology of Innovation from about 15:00 to 35:00

If those don’t work for you maybe you want to consider this

Finally, you could just watch this entire course on World Economic History with Greg Clark

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Some Recent Economic History of Slavery

Trevon Logan and Caitlin Rosenthal jointly gave the Chandler Lecture at University of North Carolina, The video of the Lecture is now available.

You might also want to watch Caitlin Rosenthal on Slavery’s Scientific Management: Quantification on Plantations. 

I have only had a chance to read the Introduction. Wright is primarily a financial historian, but he appears to have been drawn into the history of slavery through his concern with the continued existence of unfree labor around the world today. He argues that the overall effect of slavery on economic growth is negative because it creates negative externalities. I tend to agree with his argument in regard to the United States, the case that I am most familiar with. The available evidence is consistent with long term negative impact of slavery. Slavery has been associated with both lower levels of investment in public goods, like infrastructure and education, and lower levels of innovation (see for instance Majewski in the recent Slavery’s Capitalism. It is also possible that the distribution of income was less conducive to the development of industry.

I will mention there were a couple of things that I thought were peculiar in the Introduction. First, although he criticizes Edward Baptist’s views on slavery and economic growth, Wright refers to Baptist’s “otherwise excellent The Half Has Never Been Told.” There is really nothing excellent in the book. Olmstead and Rhode (use google scholar to find their working paper on Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism) and Trevor Burnard showed that Baptist handles narrative evidence as poorly as he does quantitative evidence, economic concepts and basic logic. On a related note, Wright appears to cite the Roundtable on the Half Has Never Been Told in the Journal of Economic History as anonymous even though each of the reviews clearly identifies the author. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading the rest of Wright’s book when I have more time.

Seth Rockman retweeted to me the link to the paper When Wealth Encourages Individuals to Fight: Evidence From the American Civil War by  Hall, Huff and Kuirwaki. They use the Cherokee land lotteries to try to determine whether, other things equal, slave holding made someone more likely to fight in the Civil War. After the Yazoo Land scandal, which led to the famous decision in Fletcher v. Peck, Georgia used a lottery to distribute land, including that was taken from the Cherokee. The Cherokee land lottery in 1832, provided a large wealth shock to a random sample of Georgia citizens. Much of this increase in wealth appears to have ended up as investment in slavery. The authors conclude that men from households with slaves enlisted at higher rates than those in households without slaves (though majority of soldiers came from families that did not own slaves). Their work is generally consistent with the work done by Hoyt Bleakley and Joseph Ferrie on the long term effects of the wealth shock. At the end of the paper they seemed to have made a reasonable case that an individual with more slave wealth would be more likely to choose to enlist, but it was still not clear to me why an individual with more slave wealth would be more likely to choose to enlist. Why not choose to freeride? An individual’s enlistment did nothing to make his property more secure. It would have required an incredible amount of hubris to believe that one’s individual participation in the war was going to affect the outcome of the war. In what way did individuals expect to benefit from enlistment? Was it because they were more likely to support slavery ideologically? Were there other potential benefits in terms of prestige or possibly political advancement? Did they need the cash more than those who had not purchased slaves?

On a related note, Georgia seems to have done more than its share to create experiments for economic historians. I recently mentioned a paper on the long term negative consequences of slavery in Georgia by Tyler Beck Goodspeed.

And James Feigenbaum, James Lee and Flippo Mezzanotti use the destruction caused by Sherman’s March to examine the long run effects of capital and infrastructure destruction. They find that “both agricultural and manufacturing output fell relatively more from 1860 to 1870 and 1880 in Sherman counties compared to non-Sherman counties in the same state. These relative declines do not appear to be driven by differential out-migration, demographic patterns, or long-lasting infrastructure destruction. Instead, by collecting new historical data on local banks, we show that damage to credit markets was more severe in march counties and that these financial disruptions can help explain the larger declines in economic output.”

Summer Camps for Economic and Business History Students


University of Warwick, 11-15 July 2017
Organisers: Stephen Broadberry and Alexander Klein 
The Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) at the University of Warwick and the European Historical Economics Society (EHES) are joining together to provide a Summer School, to be held at the University of Warwick, 11-15 July 2017. The theme of the Summer School will be geography, institutions and economic growth in history. The aim is to evaluate geography and institutions as competing explanations of growth performance over the long run. The focus in the geography section of the Summer School will be on the new economic geography, exploring the sources of agglomeration economies and the long run effects of market potential on economic outcomes in the world economy. The institutions part will focus on both the theoretical framework of new institutional economics and the role of state capacity and constraints on the exercise of arbitrary power in particular economies covering Asia as well as Europe. The Summer School is intended mainly for PhD students and early postdoctoral researchers in economic history. The morning sessions will consist of keynote lectures by Nick Crafts (Warwick) and Sheilagh Ogilvie (Cambridge), with additional lectures by distinguished speakers including Kerstin Enflo (Lund), James Foreman-Peck (Cardiff), Walker Hanlon (UCLA), Joan Roses (LSE), and Nikolaus Wolf (Berlin). The afternoon sessions will consist of presentations by students and postdocs, with feedback from the lecturers and other participants. Presentations can be on any aspect of economic history. 
Accommodation and meals will be provided free of charge and economy only travel expenses up to £250 will also be covered. Applications to attend the Summer School should be sent to Jane Snape by 23 April 2017.
Please include the following:
(1) A short CV (maximum one-page) indicating your contact details and university level        education
(2) Contact details for your supervisor, who will be asked to provide a supporting statement
(3) A short abstract (maximum 500 words) of the research that you would like to present
Notification of acceptance will be sent out by 11 May 2017.

Call for Papers: University of Tübingen PhD Summer School Business beyond Businesses: Agency, Political Economy & Investors, c.1850-1970

20-22 September 2017, Tübingen, Germany.
The University of Tübingen as part of its Institutional Strategy (ZUK 63) has made available funding for an intensive three-day event aimed at PhD students in business or economic history or affiliated fields working on any topic which overlaps with the theme of the school (for more details, see below). Students will be hosted in the historic town of Tübingen, and will present, debate and discuss their work-in-progress with leading international scholars within a world-class university. The school aims to provide doctoral students with an overview of relevant research and innovative tools and methodologies in the field in order to sharpen their own research skills. It is organised jointly by the Seminar für Neuere Geschichte (Tübingen) and the Centre for Business History in Scotland (University of Glasgow).
The school will take the form of presentations from students (c.25 minutes) and workshops hosted by established experts in the field. The aims of the school are: 1) To deepen students’ understanding of current themes in historical research (and how this can inform their own work). 2) To enhance research skills through masterclasses on methods for researching and writing history. 3) To explore the main theoretical underpinnings particular to business and economic history. 4) To provide a welcoming and convivial environment in which to discuss their research with leading scholars and peers.
Students will benefit from the experience of academics from Tübingen and beyond. Our keynote speaker will be Professor Phil Scranton, of Rutgers University (USA), a world-renowned scholar who has produced numerous books and articles on many different aspects of modern business and technology. Other confirmed participants include Professor Patrick Fridenson (EHESS, France), Professor Ewald Frie (Tübingen), Dr Daniel Menning (Tübingen), and Dr Christopher Miller (Glasgow).
Funding will cover flights and/or trains (up to an agreed limit), accommodation, lunches, and the conference meal for up to ten students. A further ten will be eligible to receive part-funding. There may also be limited space left-over for those wishing to fully self-fund (or have received funding from their own institution). Those interested in attending the summer school should send the documents listed below by e-mail to the organisers Dr Daniel Menning ( and Dr Christopher Miller ( The deadline for applications is 8 May 2017. A maximum of 20 funded applicants will be selected and notified shortly afterwards. 1) a brief CV (max two pages) 2) a summary of their PhD (max two pages); 3) a title/abstract for their desired presentation topic (max one page). This should incorporate one or more major themes of the student’s PhD. 4) (desirable) an example of work in progress, e.g. a draft chapter, article, working paper (preferably in English, German or French – though all presentations and discussions will be in English).
Further Notes for Applicants:
Overview of scope and aims of school:
(This overview is a guide only. Students working on similar topics to those listed below are encouraged to speak to Daniel Menning and/or Christopher Miller in the first instance)
Business history and economic history have been distinct disciplines, separate from both economics and organizational studies, for over three-quarters of a century. They have developed a rich and varied historiography that has helped to answer and contextualize some of the largest questions of the last two centuries. These include explaining rapid technological changes of the industrial and information ages, the globalization of financial and production markets, and, not least, the rise of Capitalism itself. However, recent trends have in some cases deepened the divide with ‘traditional’ history and historiography. For instance, business history has often found its natural home in business schools rather than history departments, while economic history is increasingly undertaken in a highly quantitative manner in economics, rather than history, faculties. However, while much work remains to be done to redress the balance, new approaches from historians are starting to re-bridge the divide. We believe historians engaged in archival research have much to offer business and economic topics, and it is work in this area that this summer school intends to foster.
More particularly, the school will examine one of the major ‘problems’ prevalent in the existing literature. Simply put, the firm – that is the company or organization itself – has been the unit of assessment most prevalent in business and economic historiography, matched only by overviews of national economies or government policies. Many historians, economists and business scholars have made their careers explaining the rise (and fall) of major corporations, or the successes and failures of a nation’s economy or core industries. However, while these studies have been immensely valuable, such narratives of success and/or failure have missed, or not yet fully developed, important nuances as a result.
We have identified two major issues such nation or firm-specific studies fail to capture, and have broken them down as follows:
1. Business people regularly move between firms, but they also move into, influence, or create, organizations outside the world of private profit-seeking business. These can be linked to politics, government, the military, education, health care and the environment, philanthropy, promotion of trade, and/or other pursuits. Their work can transcend state, national, and continental boundaries, and can influence entire economic systems. For example, businessmen have advised military production ministries in Britain during (and between) both World Wars; business leaders collaborated with municipal authorities on measures to reduce smoke pollution in 19th century Chicago; and in more recent times have changed the face of private higher education with multi-million dollar donations to their Alma Mater, and indirectly have aided the rise of the modern ‘Business School’ itself. Thus, businessmen seek to influence – though not always for private profit – the world that their businesses operate in, and this has not often been captured in existing studies of firms or economies.
2. Similarly, businesses are not only influenced by the acumen of their managers, by the general state of the economy or by governmental regulation. With the creation of joint-stock companies, external private investors entered the field of business, for various reasons and with myriad motives. Some desired to achieve a permanent stream of income. These investors’ sentiments became a force that was hard to ignore, as witnessed during stock market bubbles in England, France and the Netherlands as early as the 18th century. Technological (and legal) changes after 1860 accelerated these processes. Some new investors entered the market simply for the thrill and/or for the financial gains possible by means of speculation, perhaps with little or no interest in the businesses at all. Nevertheless, this group, often already wealthy and influential, helped create more volatile markets, and caused unease among politicians and business people in the process. Moreover, when such individuals were left as losers following the bursting of the bubbles they helped create, their complaints were loud and public. In short, the role of speculation and the attempts to define or limit what kind of investors should be allowed to enter this world (and, thus,
the world of business) are also important in understanding the environment beyond the boundary of the firm or nation that businesses operated in.
Furthermore, while these problems are not completely unique to the modern world, they acquired greater significance from the second-half of the 19th century. The second-wave of industrialization after 1850 (primarily in Britain, Germany, Japan and America) gave birth to larger corporations and professional management structures, which gradually diminished the role of wholly family-owned and/or operated firms. In their place, joint stock firms further proliferated with some (such as General Motors) growing and transitioning to multi-divisional and multi-national conglomerates by the 1930s. In turn, this allowed for the rise in the wealth and influence of professional business magnates such as Charles Schwab (Bethlehem Steel), Alfred Sloan (GM), and others. Simultaneously, technological advances in communication and technology – from the telegraph to the ticker tape – allowed real-time transactions and completely transformed stock market speculation, increasing the number of willing participants and tradable shares dramatically. As such, the cases of business going beyond the firm or the national boundary multiplied dramatically from this point, and offer up myriad exciting avenues for historical research.
Similarly, though in recent times we understand well the nature of a ‘globalized’ world in which firms and agents transcend company or national boundaries, the term itself has its roots in the 1970s. The vast increase in computing power and the equally dramatic decrease in the cost of aviation in the last forty or so years means we could reasonably understand this later period as an era unto itself, in much the way the transformation of firms and speculation was a century earlier. For these reasons, the summer school plans to concentrate on this particularly volatile century or so of change, and would invite papers from PhD students working on business and economic topics broadly defined from roughly 1850 to 1970.
To aid interested students, some of the specific questions to be addressed in global, national, regional, and comparative contexts might include the following:
• What constitutes entrepreneurship, innovation or efficiency outside the context of the private profit-seeking firm?
• How did business people moving into other organizations change their ways of doing things, and vice versa? How did they attain (and retain) influence, and have these movements changed over time?
• How have business people and their behavior and attitudes affected the structures and practices of other organizations or politics?
• How have the interrelationships between business and other organizations affected the structures, strategies, and practices of the firm?
• How do business leaders use nonprofit-making activities outside the firm to advance their own entrepreneurial activity through measures to create good will? What impact have charitable donations from business had on technologic or scientific development?
• Are some national or regional governance structures, business networks, more conducive than others to fostering movement and mutual learning between business and organizations than others, and, if so, why?
• How did politicians and businessmen deal with the influence of investors on businesses?
• What were the attitudes in business, government and society towards speculation for pure gain and how did these change over time?
• How were investors with limited or no knowledge in the world of business supposed to survive or, better even, win money in the world of the stock exchange?
• How did technology affect the ability of people to get involved in the world of business?

In sum, this school will on one level explore the interrelationships between business practice/entrepreneurs and the actors, organizations, and institutions of the broader social and political environment. On another, it will study the influence of ‘outsiders’ upon the wider economy and society, both by means of speculation on the business world and by the reactions of governments and business community to their actions. These are very large and important questions which are only

slowly beginning to be tackled by historians, and our hope is that the summer school will help to map out and better understand spheres of business beyond the national economies or particular firms, to the benefit not only of history students, but to show why and how history can benefit the kinds of studies that have hitherto taken place mainly in economics faculties or business schools.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Economists and Historians on Economic History

On March 10 Mokyr and Beckert will discuss the path of economic history at Brown. I have heard this referred to as a debate but the website describes it as a discussion.

Tyler Beck Goodspeed has a paper on Capitalism and the Historians Revisited. Since discusions of capitalism and hsitory often turn to slavery I will mention that Goodspeed also has a paper on the long term negative consequences of slavery in Georgia.

Caitlin Rosenthal seeks a quantitative middle ground in a recent paper in the Journal of the Early Republic. I am sympathetic to Rosenthal’s argument and I think she does some interesting work, but if an economist had seen the paper before it was published she might have referred to econometricians instead of econometrists. Econometrist is a word, but it is not the one economists generally use.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Stephen Mihm and the State of Financial History

The winter 2016 issue of The Journal of the Early Republic includes several papers from a conference on Economic History’s Many Muses, held at the Library Company of Philadelphia.
The papers consider a wide array of topics and approaches within history. Two were of particular interest to me as an economist/economic historian: Caitlin Rosenthal and Stephen Mihm. Both authors have been associated with the “new history of capitalism,” and both wrote essays that explicitly address the relationship between economists who work on historical issues and historians who work on economic issues. Rosenthal argues that both sides need to work to break down the barriers between the two. I agree.

I’m not sure that Mihm shares that goal. His essay on financial history was the one most closely related to my work in economic and business history, yet it presented a picture of the state of economic history generally and financial history specifically that I found largely unrecognizable.

The essence of Mihm’s argument was that financial history has largely disappeared:

“Financial history, as well as economic history more generally, was once a vital part of both the historical and economics disciplines. And then it effectively vanished, save for a few isolated individuals in the academy. Understanding how and why that happened may help frame the challenges facing practitioners of the “history of capitalism.” He argues that historians largely abandoned the field to economists and that “the move to economics departments ended less happily than it began. Increasingly, economic historians in economics departments served to substantiate existing models and formulas, where historical inquiry was not really the point. Economic historians found themselves marginalized.”

Yet when you actually look at some evidence you are more likely to come to the conclusion that Ran Abramitzky did, that “economic history is far from being marginalized and overlooked by economists.” Abramitzky finds that “economic history today is more respected and appreciated by the average economist is also reflected by an increase in economic history publications in the top-5 economic journals. The decline in economic history in the top-3 journals that McCloskey documented has been reversed, and the percentage of economic history publications in the top-3 journals has gone back up to its heydays of the 1920s and 1930s, although QJE has replaced the JPE as the most historical journal (Table 1). 4 Similarly, the number and percentage of economic history papers published in the top 5 economic journals (AER, QJE, JPE, Econometrica, Restud) has doubled over the last twenty years (Figure 1), in part, reflecting a broader trend in economics away from theory and into empirical work.”

In short, the rumors of economic history’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. There have been some setbacks. My own alma mater, Washington University in St Louis, is one of the worst examples. On the other hand, many highly regarded economics departments in the United States still have multiple economic historians: Harvard (Eric Chaney, Melsissa Dell, Claudia Goldin, and Nathan Nunn); Stanford (Avner Grief and Ran Abramitzky); Yale (Naomi Lamoreaux, Tim Guinane, Jose Antonio Espin Sanchez); Northwestern, (Joel Mokyr, Robert Gordon, Joe Ferrie); Berkeley (Barry Eichengreen, Brad De Long, Martha Olney, Christina Romer); Michigan (Paul Rhode, Martha Bailey); Vanderbilt (Peter Rousseau, William Collins, Claudia Rei, Andrew Goodman-Bacon); U.C. Davis (Alan Taylor, Katherine Eriksson, Greg Clark, Chris Meissner); UCLA (Leah Boustan, Michela Giorcella, Dora Costa, Walker Hanlon). Other departments, like George Mason (John Nye, Noel Johnson, Mark Koyama, and Carlos Ramirez) have built up very strong programs in economic history in recent years. And this is just the United States. As best I can tell economic history seems to be thriving in Europe as well. Moreover, several of the economic historians that I just listed focus on financial issues, and Rutgers (Hugh Rockoff, Eugene White, and Michael Bordo) practically has a financial history department.

Ironically, Mihm’s argument that financial history all but vanished is most forcefully refuted by his own footnotes. He cites numerous recent papers by Rockoff, Grubb, Wallis, Sylla, Bodenhorn, Rousseau, Knodell, Calomiris, Schweikart, Lamoreaux, and Wright. Moreover, the list could have been even longer. Mihm does not include references to important recent work by economic historians like Eric Hilt and Matt Jaremski. And this is only counting people who have written on early America. The list is much longer if one turns to Europe or America after the Civil War.

Mihm’s footnotes also seem at odds with his text on specific issues. For example, when he acknowledges that economists have given considerable attention to some topics, like “free banking,” he suggests that “a significant portion of past scholarship by economists has been motivated in order to produce a historical brief to support the abolition of central banks or the deregulation of banking.” The term “free banking” seems to conjure notions of some sort of financial equivalent of “free love.” Free banking, however, did not mean that anything goes. Free banking de-politicized bank chartering. It moved finance in the United States toward what North, Wallis and Weingast describe as an open access order. It was not a world without rules. It was a world in which everyone had to follow the same rules. Everyone had to follow the same rules about capital requirements, specie redemption, and security backed note issues. Ironically, although Mihm cites numerous authors who have written on free banking (e.g., Rockoff, Rolnick and Weber, and Economoupolous), he does not cite some more libertarian leaning economists (Lawrence White and George Selgin) who have written on financial history. His fellow NYU grad and University of Georgia colleague George Selgin, who has written extensively on the money and banking, doesn’t get a single mention.

Similarly, he claims that “Also understudied are the ways that “bringing the state back in,” to use the famous words of Theda Skocpol, requires a recognition of the central role public finance played and its corresponding entanglements with private finance.” Yet he cites a number of the papers by Sylla, Wallis, Lamoreaux, and others that do exactly this.

Reading Mihm’s paper it is easy to see why Cathy Matson, who organized the conference and introduces the papers, would suggest that a “A new kind of financial history would retrieve the themes of tariffs, taxation, and especially banking from the special preserve of economists. Its historians would ask such questions as who underwrote banks, how was bank money used, how was its value created, what was the extent of banking power at different times in North American history, what are the links between banks and slavery or the rise of wage labor?” In other words, this new financial history would do what financial historians, both economists and historians, are already doing.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Need a Break From Reading Economic History?

If you need a break from reading economic hsitory you can watch these videos or listen to these podcasts about economic history.


Greg Clark at Lewis and Clark on “Unequal chances or unequal abilities: What determines social mobility?" (ht @antonhowes)

Tim Leunig’s Ted Talk is about education and creativity, but part way through he explains the benefits of studying economic history.

Professors and students make a pitch for economic history at the LSE.


Judy Stephenson at the Economics Detective discusses her work on wage rates and the implications of recent work on English wages for our understanding of the Industrial Revolution.

Gavin Wright talks about the economic history of slavery at The Exchange (from August 2015).

Christy Clark –Pujara discusses the business of slavery in Rhode Island with Liz Covart at Ben Franklin’s World

Friday, January 13, 2017

Economic History in 2016: American Economic History

I posted recently about economic history in 2016 and said that I would have another post that focused on American Economic History. Here it is. Again, 2016 is loosely defined for the purposes of this blogpost, though I think most of the stuff here was published or presented in some way during the year. Also, please do not think that this is intended as an objective list of the best or most important work. This is more like a list of things that came to my attention and will influence what I teach my students in American Economic History.

Measuring Income and Inequality
Lindert, Peter H., and Jeffrey G. Williamson Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700

This book did not get nearly as much attention as Robert Gordons’ book, but it is far more important for American economic history. There are a lot of reasons why this is an important book. It provides the most up to date picture of long term economic development in America, and it provides a model for economic historians of careful use of primary sources, making the most of the limited sources available.  

Some of the findings:
1.       The U.S. was among the most developed nations very early on.
2.       The Revolution had a large negative effect on incomes.
3.       The relative decline of the South began long before the Civil War.
4.       There is no fundamental law driving inequality. Instead, inequality has risen and fallen over time in response to a changes in demographics, finance, technological change, politics, education policy, and trade.

See also Lindert, Peter H., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. "American colonial incomes, 1650–1774." The Economic History Review 69.1 (2016): 54-77, which shows that “The common view that American per capita income did not overtake that of Britain until the start of the twentieth century appears to be off the mark by two centuries or more.”

Race, Racism, and the Effects of Slavery

Marcella Alsan and Marrianne Wanamaker. "Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men." (2016) used survey data on mistrust of doctors, data on health care utilization, and mortality to show that the Tuskegee experiments had a significant negative effect on the health of older African American men.

See also Celeste K. Carruthers, and Marianne H. Wanamaker. Separate and unequal in the labor market: human capital and the Jim crow wage gap. No. w21947. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016 on the effect of unequal eduction on skills and wages.

John Parman, Trevon Logan, and Lisa D. Cook used census records in innovative ways to answer questions about segregation and the consequences of distinctively black names. Many of their working papers are available at their websites.

Logan, Trevon, and John Parman. The national rise in residential segregation. No. w20934. National Bureau of Economic Research, found that “The likelihood that an African American household had a non-African American neighbor declined by more than 15 percentage points (more than a 25% decrease) through the mid-twentieth century.” Using this measure of segregation, they also find that higher levels of segregation were associated with an increase in lynching (go to Parman’s website for a link to this paper.)

Lisa Cook, Trevon D. Logan, and John M. Parman. "The mortality consequences of distinctively black names." Explorations in Economic History 59 (2016): 114-125 see Vox for a summary of this work. They found that distinctively black names raised male life expectancy by about 4 years. “One possible explanation lies in the nature of those historical black names. They often draw on biblical names or denote empowerment. Coupled with evidence that names were often passed from father to son, these name characteristics suggest that those with a distinctively black name may have stronger family, church, or community ties. These stronger social networks could help an individual weather negative shocks throughout life, ultimately leading to far better long-term outcomes, as demonstrated in Cook (2011, 2012).”

Evolution of Institutions, Organizations and Markets

Several economic historians are using the North, Wallis and Weingast (transition to open access order) framework to explain the evolution of institutions, especially those governing business organization and finance, in early America.

Hilt, Eric. "Corporation Law and the Shift toward Open Access in the Antebellum United States." In Organizations, Civil Society, and the Roots of Development. University of Chicago Press.

Economic History and the History of Capitalism

On two occasions, at Dartmouth and the AHA meetings economic historians and historians of capitalism got together in the same room. Caitlin Rosenthal was involved both times, and in a recent paper in Journal of the Early Republic she continues to argue for more interaction. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Economics of Mixed Martial Arts Training

This is from

Firas Zahabi is the head coach at Tristar Gym in Montreal. he has worked with Georges St. Pierre and number of other UFC champions.

Here he is explaining why Ronda Rousey's problems as a standup fighter might not be entirely the fault of her coach. I actually think her coach is a big part of the problem, but I liked Zahabi's analysis of the problem, especially the last two sentences.

“The reason why a Ben Askren or a Ronda Rousey’s striking usually — not always — doesn’t hit that high level, is because they’ve spent so much time wiring their brain and their body and their nervous system to fight in one particular way. It’s opportunity cost. Every time you do one thing, you’re costing yourself in another.”