Monday, July 17, 2017

The Importance of Honesty in Historical Research

I am not now, nor have I ever been a fellow at the Mercatus Institute or any other institute that receives funding from the Koch brothers. I have never received any funding from the Koch brothers. To be honest, I haven’t received much funding from anyone else either. I know several people at Mercatus (Mark Koyama, Noel Johnson, and John Nye), and I have been there a couple of times when the Washington Area Economic History Seminar was held there. I am not a libertarian, I have, in fact, written several blog posts critical of libertarians generally as well as specific people affiliated with Mercatus: Walter Williams, Arnold Kling, Bryan Caplan and Tyler Cowen. Finally, I never met James Buchanan and if I have ever cited him I can’t think of where it would be. I hope this establishes my bona fides as not just another shill for the Koch brothers.

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I find the arguments that some historians are making in support of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains mindboggling.

MacLean quoting Cowen: “the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome.”

Cowen’s full quote: “While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.”

This is scholarly malpractice. Are there really professors who would accept this from a student? It is indefensible, yet Andy Seal defends it:

Her critics see this as prima facie evidence of a bad faith effort to distort Cowen’s meaning to make him appear to be anti-democratic. I think that’s immediately debatable, however, because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic. And that’s what Cowen is doing here: entertaining the possibility that weakening checks and balances could produce a desirable outcome.
Let’s think about it this way. If I said, “While permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome,” what could we conclude? That I was advocating child labor? No, that would be too much. But that I was open to the idea? Yes, that’s a fair reading of the sentence.

He claims that her version of the quote does not show bad faith “because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic.” But consider Seals’s example: “While permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” Who believes that it would be acceptable to quote him as saying: “permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome”? What if I told you that it is okay because in my lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of child labor is supportive of child labor? Would it be okay then?

This is not a small matter. I can’t just brush this issue aside and look at her broader argument because I can't trust somone who does this. Her claims may very well be correct, but I am not going to be persuaded by her argument because I can’t trust the evidence that she puts forward in favor of them. I don’t care what a historian’s political leanings are, I need to be able to trust that they are honestly representing their sources. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Internet Videos and Economic History

I frequently post videos related to economic history, usually recordings of presentations at seminars or conferences. For the most part I like being a professor at a liberal arts college, but I must admit I do miss the seminars of a research university. There were economic history and political economy seminars every week at Washington University when I was there. Now I even find it difficult to get to the Washington Area Economic History Seminar, which takes place once a month. Consequently, I really appreciate it when people record and post such presentations.  

There is another kind of economic history video: videos that are meant specifically for instruction. Some of these simply record the lectures that are presented in a regular economic history course. Two of these that are pretty good are Greg Clark’s World Economic History and Martha Olney’s American Economic History.

There is yet another category of videos: videos created which present interpretations of economic history created specifically for the internet. I have looked at two such series recently. Unfortunately both have serious problems of content and style.

One series is the videos associated with the EdX course on the history of capitalism created by Edward Baptist and Louis Hyman the other is a series of short videos presented at
Not surprisingly, the history of capitalism one is bar far the worse. Thanks to these videos anyone with an internet connection can be misinformed by Baptist for free. Take for instance his analysis of the Panic of 1837 in this video. There are so many things wrong with his presentation that I plan to do a later post specifically about the Panic of 1837, but for now just listen to the part that starts about 52 seconds in. He suggests that increases in cotton output caused cotton prices to fall (be early 1836 they were creeping down) and that this made cotton textile producers in England nervous. What? That’s right cotton textile producers were nervous because the costs of production were falling. If you are thinking that makes no sense, you are right. Not only does this story not make sense it is factually incorrect. Cotton prices did not start creeping down in early 1836; they were going up. Prices in New Orleans remained over 14 cents a pound into early 1837. See Gray, Lewis Cecil. "History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, 2 vols., New York, 1941, Vol. 2 page 1027 or the price data available here at the Center for International Price Research.) Prices plunged after the Panic, but that doesn’t fit Baptist’s story. Baptist wants overproduction of cotton to have caused the Panic.

Like Foghorn Leghorn, Baptist says “Don’t’ talk to me about facts, son. I’ve already made up my mind.” As I mentioned earlier I’ll deal with the rest of this story of the Panic later. In his book Baptist claimed that slaves accounted for 1/5th of the nation’s wealth; in the video on Northern and Southern Capitalism he ups it to 1/3 and adds the phrase “by law,” as if there were a law declaring the percentage of wealth that would be attributed of the value of slaves. In the video on Incentives and Slavery he again claims that enslaved people used the phrase “pushing system.” But the estimates about wealth are unfounded and the phrase pushing system was invented by Ed Baptist, not enslaved people. (Please search for papers by Olmstead and Rhode on the New History of Capitalism.)

The problem with the Learn Liberty videos is more a problem of emphasis. For instance, in the video on the Civil War it states that slavery was the cause of the War but spends 4 of the 5 minutes talking about tariffs and internal improvements. The video on the Great Depression doesn’t talk about the role of the gold standard. It really has too much some people think this and other people think that without any attempt to evaluate what they think, as if all opinions are equally valid.

Of course, the videos of seminar presentations that I like also do not provide all of the documentation of a book or paper, but they are directed at an audience of people that have expertise on the subject. Such an audience will be much more likely to detect obvious bullshit like Baptist’s.

I said that there were problems with both content and style. The problem with the style is that they do not make good use of the visual medium. They are primarily one person talking to a camera. Baptist and Hyman do, however, have a lot of books behind them: I guess they must know what they are talking about. The Learn Liberty videos make some use of visuals, but it is more eye candy to keep your attention than actual information. How some graphs, maps, and tables. If you are going to go the trouble to produce a video about economic history show us a how a spinning wheel and a spinning jenny worked. Show us reaping by hand and a  mechanical reaper. Show us what it is like to pick cotton, and how a cotton gin worked. I’ve never understood how someone can have a real sense of the industrial revolution without seeing some of these things. As they exist now these talking to the camera videos are far inferior to books which provide more illustrations and documentation or good podcasts, which provide interaction between author and interviewer.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nebraska, The Good Life

We spent the last week in Kearney, NE visiting family. Kearney is easy to find; it is at the bottom of where the Platte dips south. 

My parents were both from Nebraska. We lived in south central Nebraska until we moved to San Francisco when I was 10. My brother moved back after high school and my parents moved back after my dad retired from the Coast Guard.  I know many people consider Nebraska to be the middle of nowhere, which would make Kearney the middle of the middle of nowhere, but it is actually a great place to visit for anyone interested in American history.

This week Mary and I went to the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. Some things I learned on this trip
1.       The first African American to play football at the University of Nebraska, George Flippin was the son of a former slave who had become a physician. George Flippin also became a physician and founded the first hospital in Stromsburg, NE.

2.       The first “successful” sugar beet processing plant in the U.S. was established in Grand Island in 1889.

3.       Plains Indians used old ledgers to create art. Here is a website with some examples

Here is a video that will give you an idea of how much there is to see at the Stuhr Museum.

If you are in the area you can also go about ten miles south of I 80 to Minden, NE and see Pioneer Village. Here is a video that gives a small sample of the things you can see at Pioneer Village.

If you are traveling through Nebraska either museum is worth the detour. 

If you are interested in the history of the Great Plains they are worth a trip.

P.S. the "Kear" in Kearney is pronounced like "car." 

The Golden Age of Economic History?

At Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen responded to a reader:

C. inquires:
Why do we live in the golden age of economic history? Was there something identifiable that caused the subfield to grow in esteem? Some new technology that changed the costs of research (not that I can see)? Something else?
Mark Koyama should write a Medium essay on this, but in the meantime here are my thoughts:
1. We now know much, much more about the earlier economic histories of China, India, and some other locales.  The rise of more and better graduate students from the emerging economies, or for that matter from Europe, has been essential here.
2. Some of the turn toward economic history came with the financial crisis, and the search for longer-term parallels, which meant looking back in history, most of all to the Great Depression.
3. Although the advance of cliometrics started a long time ago, we are now finally at intergenerational margins where economic historians are as quantitatively well-equipped as most parts of the applied micro spectrum.
4. The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding.  Yes, this one is an uh-oh.
5. Some applied micro fields have become a little more boring, so that has helped a partial shift of status to economic history.  Public data sets have been exhausted, and a lot of economic history data sets are “weird or idiosyncratic” data sets, which now are “in” and I predict will stay “in” for a long while to come because they offer the possibilities of both new discoveries and moats.
6. An academic trend that hasn’t yet been exploited usually ends up exploited, sooner or later, once the right nudge comes along.
5b, 6b. In chess, the top players are opting for the Giuoco Piano once again.
7. Competing economic models are more “allowed” in the subfield — not everything must be neoclassical — which has opened economic historians to more wide-ranging questions.  Economic history remains a good place to pursue the questions about economics that initially interested many people as undergraduates.
8. Academic attention is more media-driven these days, and good economic history papers usually have a story of some kind, and perhaps also a historical personage, event, or institution of broader interest.

The post prompted a lot of discussion on Twitter. My initial response to the question is

1.       While I often argue that economic history is doing very well, I’m not sure that this is the golden age. There is a lot of great work going on in economic history. Economic historians are doing well at publishing in top journals, and many of the top econ programs have strong fields in economic history. On the other hand, there are still not a lot of economic history jobs in JOE. The problem with a golden age is that it seems to imply that this is as good as it gets. I would still like to see more jobs in economic history, more students studying economic history, and a wider audience for good economic history. I would like for economic history to be more widely regarded as central to the study of economics. At the very least, I would like to see Washington University, where I studied with Doug North and John Nye, have economic history as a field again.

2.       I think there has been an important technological change: the ability to take high quality digital photographs of archival documents. This change has benefited history generally, but economic history has probably benefited most. Archives used to be places where people scribbled notes (with pencils). You were limited by how much time you could afford to spend in the archive and how quickly you could scribble. Now, archives are places where people take pictures, which can at relatively low cost (thanks to software and the ability to offshore transcription) be converted into text or data that you can analyze. Creating useable data sets from primary sources is still difficult and time consuming, but less so than it used to be.

3.       I agree that the increase in the relative importance of empirical work in economics has benefited economic history. Donaldson’s Clark medal suggests a willingness to recognize good empirical work regardless of the time or place it examines.

4.       There is a lot of interest in questions that require us to look at history: long run growth, the productivity slow down, inequality, racism, and financial crises. Of course, these things can and should be analyzed with economic theory as well, but combined with the turn to empirical analysis they present an opportunity for economic history.

5.       There has been an increase in popular interest in economic history, but the work that has received the most attention (New History of Capitalism) has often done more to misinform than to educate. I hope an equivalent of Gresham’s law does not apply to economic history, but it remains to be seen.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Treasure Island

The New York Times reports on attempts to redevelop my old home. We moved to Treasure Island (T.I.) in 1973, when I was 10, and lived there until 1980. It was a Navy base, but most of it was occupied by housing for the families of enlisted men, mostly Navy, but also Coast Guard and Marines. Officers families lived on Yerba Buena Island. Yerba Buena Island (YBI), while Treasure  built for the Golden Gate Exposition, a fair to celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in 1939. TI was converted to a Navy base during the War. I don't remeber exactly when the base was decomissioned, but I think it was in the early '90s.

some interesting talks and a couple of articles

I’m surprised I had not come across these videos before. They are from a conference at Williams College on Historical Persistence in Comparative Development. This was the lineup for the conference

How Deep are the Roots of Economic Development?; Fertility and Modernity 
Enrico Spolaore, professor of economics at Tufts University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
Forced Coexistence and Economic Development: Evidence from Native American Reservations
Christian Dippel, assistant professor of economics in the Global Economics and Management Group at the UCLA Anderson School of Management
4:30 p.m. Climate and the Slave Trade
James Fenske, associate professor in the Department of Economics and deputy director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford
8 p.m. Keynote Address: The Global Spatial Distribution of Population and Economic Activity: Effects of Nature, History, and Agglomeration
David Weil, James and Meryl Tisch Professor of Economics at Brown University and research associate of the NBER
Engineers, Entrepreneurs, and Development in the Americas
William Maloney, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Economic Research Group, former professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The Effect of the TseTse Fly on African Development
Marcella Alsan, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, core faculty member at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy/Primary Care and Outcomes Research
Malthusian Dynamics and the Rise of the Poor Megacity
Dietrich Vollrath, associate professor of economics at the University of Houston
 “Unfinished Business”: Historic Complementaries, Political Competition, and Ethnic Violence in Gujarat
Saumitra Jha, associate professor of political economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business
The European Origins of Comparative Development
Ross Levine, Willis H. Booth Chair in Banking and Finance at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley
Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party
Nico Voigtländer, assistant professor of economics in the Global Economics and Management group at UCLA Anderson School of Management
The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa
Stelios Michalopoulous, assistant professor of economics at Brown University, faculty research fellow at the NBER, external research associate of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick
Intergenerational Mobility and Institutional Change in 20th Century China
Noam Yuchtman, assistant professor in the Business and Public Policy Group at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty research fellow at the NBER

The videos of the talks can be found here on youtube.

Here is Slave Consumption in the Old South: A Double Edged Sword by Kathleen Hilliard at the American Historian

Erik Hilt’s Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the “New History of Capitalism” in the June Journal of Economic History can be accessed for free until the end of June

Friday, June 9, 2017

Some Recent Economic History


At the Economics Detective Jari Eloranta talks about war in economic history, Nuno Palma talks about money, trade, and economic growth, and Mark Koyama on State Capacity

At Econtalk Christy Ford Chapin talks to Roberts about the economic history of health care in the United States.


At Tim Hyde describes the research of Hornbeck and Keniston on "Creative Destruction: Barriers to Urban Growth and the Great Boston Fire of 1872." June 2017 American Economic Review, 107(6): 1365-98

The most recent Journal of Economic Literature contains a review by Stanley Engerman of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Clavin Schermerhorn’s the Business of Slavery and the Rise of Capitalism. Pseudoerasmus noted on Twitter that Engerman is largely repeating what some of us have been saying for more two years now. Unfortunately, it appears that we need to keep repeating it. Too many historians continue to not only turn a blind eye to the shoddy work in Baptist’s book but to actually present it as an exemplar of historical research.


At NEP-HIS Blog Kenneth Pomeranz responds in two parts to the work of Deng and O’Brien on measuring economic performance in Chinese history.

Andrew Batson blogs that "the divergence over the Great divergence is narrowing"; he also provides a link to an April 2017 updated version of Broadberry, Guan and Li “China, Europe and the Great Divergence: A Study in Historical National Accounting, 980-1850