Friday, January 1, 2021

2020 Some Thoughts on the Year in American Economic History


1.       Was Fogel wrong?



Hornbeck, Richard, and Martin Rotemberg. Railroads, reallocation, and the rise of American manufacturing. No. w26594. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2019.


Here is an attempt to explain the argument to a wide audience.


The NBER working paper came out last year but the paper started getting more attention this year and was presented at the meeting of the Economic History Association. Fogel estimated the impact of railroads in the late nineteenth century was less than 4% of GDP (which is actually quite large) but Hornbeck and Rotemberg used a new approach that examined the impact of increases in market access on manufacturing productivity and estimate an impact closer to 25% of GDP.



2.       Was Turner right?


Bazzi, Samuel, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse. "Frontier culture: The roots and persistence of “rugged individualism” in the United States." Econometrica 88, no. 6 (2020): 2329-2368.


This paper gave rise to furor on Twitter when several historians insisted upon embarrassing themselves by insisting that they knew everything there was to know about the paper from its title and the fact that it was published in an economics journal. Many of them held firm to their beliefs even when confronted by directed evidence from the paper contradicting their claims.


Despite the silliness on Twitter, the paper is important as a continuing effort to try to integrate culture into economic history.



3.       Race in American economic history


Logan and Temin provided an outline of what a more inclusive American economic history might look like


Logan, Trevon, and Peter Temin. "Inclusive American Economic History: Containing Slaves, Freedmen, Jim Crow Laws, and the Great Migration." Institute for New Economic Thinking Working Paper Series 110 (2020).


And there is now an NBER Working Group on Race and Stratification in the Economy



4.       Pandemics in American economic history.


The Covid 19 Pandemic prompted a lot of papers in economics and economic history


See, for instance, Beach, Brian, Karen Clay, and Martin Hugo Saavedra. "The 1918 influenza pandemic and its lessons for COVID-19." NBER Working Paper w27673 (2020).



I will also take this opportunity to note that this is one of the areas in which Werner Troesken was ahead of the curve. See, for instance, his The pox of liberty: how the constitution left Americans rich, free, and prone to infection. University of Chicago Press, 2015.




5.       Management in American economic history.


Rosenthal, Caitlin. "Balancing the Books: Convergence and Diversity of Accounting in Massachusetts, 1875–1895." The Journal of Economic History 80, no. 3 (2020): 782-812.


Personally, this is my favorite paper of the year. Claims for the importance of management in economic and business history are not new. In recent years Bloom and Van Reenen have used large numbers of detailed surveys to show that differences in the implementation of basic management techniques contribute to significant differences in productivity between firms within nations and also between nations. But obviously we can’t distribute surveys to managers from 100 years ago.  Caitlin Rosenthal came up with a really clever idea. She used errors in corporate reports to infer knowledge of accounting practices, and then related these inferences to firm performance.


6.       More historians doing economic history.


For instance,


Pawley, Emily. The Nature of the Future: Agriculture, Science, and Capitalism in the Antebellum North. University of Chicago Press, 2020.


Glotzer, Paige. How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890–1960. Columbia University Press, 2020.


Ron, Ariel. Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.


Link, Stefan, and Noam Maggor. "The United States as a developing nation: Revisiting the peculiarities of American history." Past & Present 246, no. 1 (2020): 269-306.


Also, a new interdisciplinary journal Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics


7.       Economic history got its own podcast.

The Economic History Podcast


8.       My favorite book


Mary Eschelbach Hansen and her coauthor published a great book on the evolution of bankruptcy and bankruptcy law  Bankrupt in America: A History of Debtors, Creditors and the Law and the Law in the Twentieth Century. I think that one of its chief virtues is that it shows how difficult it is to measure the effects of institutions and explain institutional change.


On a related but sadder note. The scholarly niche that I have inhabited for most of my career (the intersection of law, economics, and history) suffered a major loss with the sudden death of Anne Fleming. Anne was the author of City of Debtors as well as numerous articles. Here is a project she was working on bankruptcy in Birmingham during the Great Depression.


9.       My hope for the new year.


I hope that everyone doing work related to economic history can avoid silly interdisciplinary squabbles.