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.