Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Are You For Real

I just received an email asking me to sign a statement by "Economists Concerned About Hilary Clinton's Economic Policies." I'm thinking it must be a joke. At the bottom it states that its mailing address is 725 Fifth Avenue, which is the location of Rump Tower. Surely, it must be a joke.

If someone wanted me to sign a statement by "Human Beings Concerned by Pretty Much Every Word That Comes Out of Trumps Mouth" I would happily sign that.

I can't imagine how someone could listen to Trump and be concerned about Clinton's economic policies. Trump talks about defaulting on the national debt, like he has defaulted on so much of his own debt. Of course he can't do this for a while because he will need to borrow a lot to pay for his ridiculous tax and spending "plan."

I have to admit even if I thought his economic plans made sense, and even if I believed that a man who can't open his mouth without a lie coming out would follow through on them, I would not vote for him.

A man who says he will use torture should not be president.

A man who says he will kill the wives and children of suspected terrorists should not be president.

A man who says that he will discriminate against people based on their religion should not be president.

A man who says he will torture people should not be president.

A man who disrespects POWs and the families of people who gave their lives in service of their country should not be president.

A man who could only take the oath of office by lying should not be president.

These are the actions of an evil man. You con't elect an evil man and still be a good country.

How can you worry about Obamacare, or Clinton's tax policies when there is so much more at stake. Obamacare and higher taxes on the wealthy will not ruin the country. Trump will.

By the way, I did not sign the statement.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Did Historians A Generation Ago Think About Slavery?

This post is an expanded version of a comment that I submitted over at The Junto in response to Benjamin Park’s review of Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire. The Introductory paragraph states that “A generation ago it was common for historians to talk about the “regressing” southern states in the decades preceding Civil War,” but that “scholarship from the past couple decades have put that myth to rest. Michael O’Brien demonstrated that southerners were intellectuals who contemplated the most sophisticated issues of modernity. Edward Baptist showed how the slave institution increased in strength as the financial staple in America’s capitalistic order. Walter Johnson and Sven Beckert displayed how slaveholders were at the forefront of an increasingly global economy.”
            My only concern in regard to this very informative and well written review is the introductory paragraph. I think the introduction buys into a false historiography of slavery that some authors, most notably Edward Baptist, have been trying to sell. I don’t believe that it accurately characterizes the state of history a generation ago.
            I suppose we could argue about what constitutes a generation ago, but I happened to have a copy of an undergraduate American History textbook from almost 30 years ago: George Brown Tindall’s America: A Narrative History Volume, 2nd edition (1988). Tindall wrote on page 371 that “More often than not the successful planter was a driving newcomer, bent on maximizing profits. While the profitability of slavery has been a long standing subject of controversy, in recent years, economic historians have reached the conclusion that the slaves on average supplied about a 10 percent return on their cost.” He went on to note that slaves were the most profitable investment available in the South, and that incomes in the South were not only comparable to the wealthiest countries in the World, but that in the newer cotton lands incomes were among the highest in the United States. The view that he presented to undergraduates almost 30 years ago was of a thriving and successful southern economy based on slave labor. There is no indication that he thought this was a controversial interpretation.
            Unlike Tindall, some more recent authors have tried to present a version of the historiography of slavery that has been stripped of a half century of research by economic historians, as well as the fact that much of that research had been incorporated into history texts.

            My comment ended at this point, but I will add some detail about the aspects of research in economic history that have been neglected in some recent work on the history of slavery.
            There are three areas of research that have been largely ignored in a number of recent works on the history of slavery:

1. Research on the economic nature of slavery. Beginning with the work of Conrad and Mayer in the 1950s and extending through the work of Fogel and Engerman in the 1970s and Fogel in the 1990s, economic historians had accumulated a mountain of evidence that slaveholders were profit maximizing capitalists, that they were able to generate increases in productivity over a long period of time, and that they were optimistic about the future of their economic system.  To the extent that recent historians have claimed credit for demonstrating that slavery in the American South was a dynamic capitalist system they are taking credit for something that had already been done.

2. Research on the role of slave produced goods, particularly cotton, in American economic development.  Recently, I noted that several authors in Slavery’s Capitalism rely upon Doug North’s theory of economic growth through interregional trade driven by the South’s specialization in cotton export production. Yet numerous economic historians had compiled evidence that North’s interpretation overestimated the role of interregional trade and underestimated the role of intraregional trade for economic development. The evidence did not support the conclusion that cotton was the driving force behind economic growth. Second, much of the work done on early industrialization has emphasized the role of intraregional trade. Much of early industrialization appears to have been directed at local demand not demand from the South or Europe. See Robert Gallman,"Self-sufficiency in the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South." Agricultural History 44, no. 1 (1970): 5-23; Lawrence A. Herbst, "Interregional commodity trade from the North to the South and American economic development in the antebellum period." The Journal of Economic History 35, no. 01 (1975): 264-270; Colleen M. Callahan, and William K. Hutchinson. "Antebellum interregional trade in agricultural goods: preliminary results." The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 01 (1980): 25-31; Diane Lindstrom Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region  and, more recently, David Meyer Roots of American Industrialization or see his essay on Industrialization in EH.Net’s Encyclopedia.
            Ignoring the vast scholarship on the subject leads to things like Baptist’s attempt to quantify the relative importance of slave produced cotton, which should be regarded as one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of American history, as he spends two pages making up numbers and then summing them. See here.

3. Research on the negative consequences of slavery for long term economic development. Gavin Wright. "Old south, new south." NY: Basic Books (1986); Stanley Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. Economic development in the Americas since 1500: endowments and institutions. Cambridge University Press, 2012; Nathan Nunn. "Slavery, inequality, and economic development in the Americas." Institutions and economic performance (2008): 148-80. As Robert Wright has recently argued, the fact that enslavers grew rich does not necessarily imply that slavery enriched the economy as a whole.

While there is a lot of good work being done on the history of slavery, progress will be limited to the extent that new scholars buy this false historiography and fail to address the work done by economic historians over the last half century.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Don't People Read Solow Anymore?

Unlearning Economics had long blog post this morning, reviewing Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules at Pieria. As one might guess from his name, Unlearning Economics thinks Rodrik is too attached to neoclassical economics and insufficiently supportive of pluralism. I generally, disagree with him. I am an economic historian and an institutional economist, but I am fundamentally a traditional economist. My favorite class to teach is Principles of Microeconomics. I like using very simple models to demonstrate things like the influence of barriers to entry and product differentiation on the performance of firms, or the influence of elasticity on who bears the burden of a tax. I often struggle to see the added value of, for instance, behavioral economics. But what struck me about the post was this passage.

“Though he doesn’t claim so himself, Rodrik’s methodological approach could be considered a more sophisticated restatement of Milton Friedman’s famous paper The Methodology of Positive Economics, which similarly sought to defend economic models from charges of unrealism and irrelevance. While Friedman argued that the unrealism of a theory’s assumptions does not matter as long as the theory makes correct predictions, Rodrik adds nuance to this by stating that while unrealistic assumptions are in general necessary and useful, some assumptions are so important that they must be amended to be more in line with reality. Rodrik calls these ‘critical assumptions’, stating that “an assumption is critical if its modification in an arguably more realistic direction would produce a substantive difference in the conclusion produced by the model.” By doing so he distinguishes his argument from the seeming ‘anything goes’ implications of Friedman’s essay.”

What struck me about the passage was that the author seemed unaware of Robert Solow’s work. I have not read Rodrik’s book yet, but I searched the book on line and was a little surprised that it did not appear to mention Solow either.
This is the introduction of Solow’s 1956 “A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth.”

In other words, you have to make simplifying assumptions, but that does not mean that you can assume anything you want. The first footnote is important as well.


What is or is not a crucial (or critical) assumption depends on what question you are trying to answer.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

More Economic History

The program for the annual Meeting of the Economic History Association is available and has links to many of the papers that will be presented. This morning I read an interesting paper by Geoffrey Fain Williams on the role of the British Joint Stock Banking Acts in the Panic of 1837. 

David Beckworth continues to provide historical perspective on macroeconomic issues at his Macro Musings Podcast. This week he talks to Hugh Rockoff about U.S. monetary history. Previously he has talked to Doug Irwin about trade, Jason Taylor about the Great depression and World War II, and Brad DeLong about Hamiltonian political economy.