Economics


The persistence of history’s effects on economic growth is significant and remarkably robust to negative shocks.

A paper by Comin, Easterly, and Gong asks the question “Was the wealth of nations determined in 1000 B.C.?” The paper looks at the relationship between the technology available in various regions in 1000 BC, 1500 A.D., and levels of per capita income today. Their findings suggest that history from three thousand years ago can be a strong predictor of economic standards of living today. The results are even stronger for the connection between 1500 AD and contemporary per capita incomes. These two chosen periods of time are picked as a way to tease out the impacts of industrialization and colonization, two massive forces prone to cause noise in the analysis. In a pre-explorer world with very little long-distance trade and very high isolation, the math of compound economic growth suggests, as the paper writes, “those who started out ahead would be even further ahead in both population and income today.” Further evidence from Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) shows that areas of Africa with higher participation in the slave trade centuries ago still suffer from lower levels of trust.

The larger question I think this idea begs is how persistent certain X-factors of economic growth can be throughout time. Economists theorize about factors like institutional quality, levels of trust, culture, access to trade, and natural resource environment, among many others, as the catalyzing “ingredients” for economic growth. However difficult it may be to nail down what these x-factor ingredients are, evidence suggests that the x-factors can survive massive external forces.

All areas started out as poor at one point. What made countries that initially escaped economic misery centuries ago in northwest Europe rich was the subject matter of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Of course many other countries have since followed suit, with the East Asian Tigers rising up to “Western” levels of wealth, and so-called emerging market economies realizing double digit economic growth. The exact recipe for a country to grow is debatable and varies across countries, but as a country finds this special recipe for economic growth, it’s nearly impossible for it to regress. Some countries may stagnate or exhaust their potential for a period of time. But only one country – Argentina – was considered high-income a century ago and middle-income today.

Think of the dramatic events that can happen that would seem to shake the x-factors out of its crucial hold. Political upheaval leading to “failed states,” a currency or financial crisis that breaks the economy, a civil war that breaks social fabric and kills millions of people. Surely, these would reset the conditions needed for economic growth?

While watching the great Babylon Berlin television show, I’m drawn to the powerful example of Weimar Germany – the country’s history between the two world wars. Consider what happened in Germany after 1913: first, the country led the losing side of a world war that killed 60-80 thousand of its soldiers and was fought partially in its backyard; then, experiencing massive sovereign debt and unable to reach any stability, the country entered a debilitating economic depression and accompanying hyperinflation that ravaged any sense of social fabric and functioning economy; then, Hitler took power and… you know this part of the story; then, the country was rebuilt in significant part by Turkish immigrants because so many German men had died; then the country was physically divided by a wall for the almost-45 years after WW2 ended, governed on one side by social democracy and the other by Soviet proxy rule. The tumult, uncertainty, constant mindless death, identity struggles, ripe distrust, and sheer hopelessness seem like overwhelming forces that would keep the country poor for a long time. Yet ten years after the Wall falls, the country is the de facto leader of the European Union, hosts the European Central Bank, and today has a top 5 economy in the world.

hyperinflation

Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany

 

There seems to be an implied “potential” GDP per capital level in Germany that was able to sustain itself throughout that near-century of struggle. Countries with less conflict and instability were poorer than Germany in 1913 and continue to be today. Very few Germans were alive before World War I that saw the transition into the euro currency on January 1, 1999. So what characteristic is it that Germany kept during the 1913-1989 period that allowed its potential standard of living to stay the same? The formal governmental institutions have changed dramatically, the demographic makeup has changed, and the surrounding world is entirely different. The physical geography has remained relatively constant, but this is not the underlying reason Germany is the 5th richest economy in the world today.

“Culture” is a squishy catch-all term that some social scientists like to use as the significant explanatory variable in economic growth. It could be a “Protestant work ethic” or the entrepreneurial spirit of diasporas like the Murid sect of Islam that explain why some groups are rich and others poor. If this is so, is culture really that persistent – and robust to so many outside forces – that it withstands the strongest winds of history?

Another set of evidence comes from Alexander de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. de Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s as a Frenchman describing what made America so different than its European counterparts. There’s a question about how accurate his descriptions were for the time, but he notes cultural differences between the regions of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies in his chapter “Origin of the Anglo-Americans.” His analysis is apt to ascribe contemporary differences as being borne out of differences set centuries before. For example, compared to England settlers, “the men sent to Virginia were seekers of gold, adventures, without resources and without character, whose turbulent and restless spirit endangered the infant colony.” Remarking on the lasting impact of of slavery in the South:

[slavery] was the main circumstance which has exercised so prodigious an influence on the character, laws, and all the future prospects of the South…it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance, and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.

The areas were settled under slightly different circumstances and by slightly different groups that determined the nature of their political institutions and cultures. Remember, the settlement of these places by European pilgrims was centuries before – yet in his eyes, the differences persisted to that day. Even now, many of his descriptions of the regions ring true, at least to our intuitive sides – whether it be the individualism on the frontier or the commitment to localized governance. What’s striking is the strength of this persistence. The quality and type of institutions and culture that were set up at square one had such strong path-dependence that all of the coinciding forces that one would assume would “reset” the environments were in reality unable to change.

Perhaps revolutions can reset these environments. But do political revolutions change what we might believe to be the crucial x-factors conducive to economic growth?De Tocqueville also believed the American Revolution to be borne out of an ethos present at initial settlement, “the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, which had been nurtured in the townships and municipalities, [that] took possession of the State.” Maybe cultural revolutions – that at least claim to change the underlying social fabric of a nation – reset and redefine these conditions. But what are examples of true cultural revolutions? Did Mao’s gruesome one really change thousands of years of history for the Chinese people? Maybe on the surface, but I’m unconvinced it was a “reset” in the way meaningful to economic potential.

220px-Alexis_de_tocqueville

Alexander de Tocqueville

But the vast majority of Americans are not children of Puritans, at least in the biological sense. Today, German is the most common ethnic group in the United States. And, importantly for this analysis, New England is now dominated by non-English people. Over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born. In fact, every region has had its demographic makeup totally shaken up and redefined with each new wave of immigration and cross-mating of ethnicities and religions. If different groups are assumed to have a “culture” or “work ethic,” did the newcomers to these regions adopt the local customs rather than modify the regions to be more like their homelands? Compared to Germany’s 20th century, which has seen a nontrivial amount of inward migration, America’s demographic makeup has changed even more.

Yet the regions of the United States, as far as I can tell, are not defined by the Native American tribes that resided there pre-colonization. It could be that the newcomer migrants, unlike the original colonizers that wiped out the native population, never arrived in a critical enough mass to totally redefine the areas they moved into. Instead, their relatively small numbers meant they had no choice but to assimilate to the pre-existing norms, cultures, and customs of their destination. This usually meant they added their own flavor with a nod to their homeland, but it wasn’t a total reset.

So did the governments that were set up in Plymouth or Jamestown or the Pascua Florida peninsula in the 1500s – seemingly arbitrary and highly fungible at the time – define the destiny of these areas nearly five hundred years later? Does this mean that America’s national fabric – struggling to find itself amidst contemporary politics – will continue on relatively unscathed? The past shows that underlying cultural x-factors can have an incredible amount of resilience.

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I’ve got an essay published in the LA Review of Books about Universal Basic Income. Here’s a snippet:

…before a greater UBI context is considered, the essential task is to convince the public that unconditional cash transfers for every citizen are feasible and beneficial. Redefining society’s view of what “work” is and what it means to contribute to society is no easy feat. Yet we are beginning to be engulfed by the seismic winds of societal and economic change from a globalized digital age. We need a paradigmatic shift in how we view these things in order to ensure a broad-based peaceful prosperity for the future.

I’ve found that most UBI discussions hop right to “how can we afford this?!” and “how much will it be?!” without hashing out the important intermediate steps, namely rethinking how we view work and its place in the social safety net. Rather than focus on the policy details – which are essential, of course – I decided to focus on this bigger picture about getting comfortable with the idea that *everyone* should get *cash* (Universal and Income) rather than government assistance being means-tested and having restrictions for what it can be spent on.

New podcast episode out featuring Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center about his paper on “The Free Market Welfare State.” In it, he makes the argument that social spending is not only compatible with but even strengthens free market policies. Native feed here but of course you can always listen on iTunes and any of your favorite podcast providers. I wrote a short write-up with some points of skepticism of Sam’s paper in a previous post here.

Check out my latest post at Novel Stance about how economists need to incorporate sympathy more into their models. Here’s a bit:

Economic models’ overreliance on rational self-interest as the basis of human nature made their conclusions appear selfish and out of touch with reality. By not embracing a more nuanced view of human nature, economists lack a full understanding of how people behave and risk losing more credibility with the general public.

Read the whole thing here.

What follows is the sixth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Section 1, Chapter 1 of Wealth of Nations.

The reason why certain nations get rich and others don’t is from a country’s ability to utilize the gains from specialization and division of labor. If we are all left to independently grow our own food, tend to our own wounds, or build our own airplanes, we’d all have a material standard of living dramatically less than what we have by participating in a commercial society. The “Robinson Crusoe” scenario is an extreme example showing how much we gain by having people focus on fewer tasks and work together to produce more with this same amount of inputs.

Smith was inspired by this picture in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie that showed the different stages of pin production.

1762_Diderot's_Encyclopedie,_Epinglier_II

Even in such a seemingly trifling trade, the tasks are split up between all the workers in a pin factory to significantly increase input.

One man draws out the wire; another straightens it…it is even a trade by itself to put them into paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operation, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands…

Within a firm, division of labor increases output. Twenty people trying on their own and separately to do all tasks needed in pin production will surely turn out fewer pins in a given day than when they work together.

…But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them, have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the…what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

And within a society, specializing and utilizing division of labor increases output even more. A brain surgeon’s time is too valuable to force him or her to grow their own food and learn to program their computer. Instead, the brain surgeon goes to the supermarket where specialists in food production sell their services and resources. Or buys the iPhone that was programmed by the people who studied computer science.

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.

The complete lyrics to Pin Factory:

From wire drawn until the straightening, pass through eighteen distinct hands
Ten people now could make more in a day than if left to do on their own
Cut then before put into paper, the pin comes out in completion
What seemed at first to be a trifling trade is revealed to greatly improve

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

What follows is the fifth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 3, Chapter 3 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Despite our tendency to engage in sympathetic fellow-feeling, it’s abundantly clear that this is not infinite. We do not feel equally connected to everyone across the world. In Smith’s view, this is limited in part by our ability to put ourselves in the situation of others.

He tells us to consider a scenario where, as a Scottish person in the 1700s that hasn’t travelled much, you hear that an earthquake has happened in China:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake…[a man in Europe] would, I imagine express very strongly his sorrow and misfortune of that unhappy people…he would too, perhaps, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe.

So after saying “aw shucks, that’s so sad,” one would go on to thinking about how this might affect the commerce of Europe – in other words, how would it actually affect me? At the end of the day, this Scot wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over this tragedy. Contrast this to a scenario that is clearly less severe than an earthquake swallowing up tons of Chinese people:

The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.

Philosophers over the ages observed this pattern in human nature and thought of a variety of remedies to correct this tendency. One group Smith mentions – the Stoics – believed that we should bring down our own feeling of pain and happiness to the level at which we naturally consider those of the anonymous humans we hear about across the globe. Another group – unnamed but implied to be Catholics – suggests that we should feel for others the same way we feel about ourselves; in other words, feel lots and lots of suffering. But Smith thinks neither of these methods gets the point, and is able to rationalize our asymmetric emotions towards our pinky finger and the millions of Chinese people. In his scenario, the Scot has likely never met a Chinese person, never been to China, and only knows vague stories about the country thousands of miles away. To the Scot, hearing of suffering in China is such a distant concept because the Scot finds it nearly impossible to put themselves in the shoes of a Chinese person and understand how this tragedy makes them feel.

Think of the saying “this really hits close to home.” It’s a suggestion that we feel stronger about intense events that happen to those we love, those that live near us, and those that we can relate to better. When a terrorist attack happens in Paris, American social media reacts much differently compared to when a terrorist attack happens in Jakarta. Of course these events are equally tragic in a human sense when lives lost are the same, but Americans are much more likely to know French people, have been to Paris, be ethnically French, or have studied in Paris than to have experienced similar things with Indonesia. If you hear of a school shooting in Iran, how does it make you feel compared to a school shooting in your town?

So maybe reacting to the terrorist attack in Paris differently than the attack in Jakarta can be rationalized by Smith’s conception of a finite level of fellow-feeling, but can we really consider it ethical? Well, here the Impartial Spectator comes back in. Given the tradeoff between our pinky finger and millions of Chinese lives, we would never pick our pinky finger.

“…would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them…human nature startles with horror at the thought…It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power…the inhabitant of the breast, the man within…calls to us…It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the nature misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of the impartial spectator…it is a stronger lover, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble…

The Impartial Spectator thus tempers the absurdity of our self-love and makes us recognize that, although our instinctive fellow-feeling may make the loss of a pinky more intense at first, the honorable and noble thing is to care more about these millions of Chinese lives.

The complete lyrics to Chinese Earthquake:

Far away from where I’m sleeping, tragedy shakes the earth
Myriad of its inhabitants, the Chinese empire swallowed whole
Annihilated in a moment, reflect upon misfortune
But what for European trade? Return to pleasure all the same

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

But if you told me that tomorrow, my little finger would be gone
I’d lie awake in real disturbance, do you tremble at the thought?

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

 

What follows is the fourth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 1, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

The book commonly referred to as “Wealth of Nations” is actually an abbreviation of its full-length title “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The question at this time was why, amidst millennia of abject poverty and subsistence-level living, a few countries mostly in the northwest of Europe had started to have a significantly better standard of living. For some, the answer was obvious: the farther from the equator you were, and the whiter your skin was, the more superior you were. For others, it was a country’s ability to hoard gold or other fine metals. Or maybe it was that good-ol’ Protestant work ethic? Smith rejected all of these explanations and instead used Wealth of Nations to argue that a nation’s standard of living is determined by its ability to utilize specialization and the division of labor.

Smith went farther than just rejecting the racial explanation as a determinant of wealth. He saw all humans as essentially equal in worth and dignity. What we perceive to be inequalities is actually the result of, and not the cause of, the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labor. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference.

Smith uses the comparison of a street porter and a philosopher as extremes of social standing. One is near the lowest status of society as far as prestige and perceived skill level, the other considered to be a wise and distinguished profession. But before they enter into schools or the labor force, their skills are basically equivalent. Through different levels of education, parenting, and circumstance, these previously-indistinguishable individuals end up working two jobs with incredibly different reputations in society. Yet deep down the two people are not so different.

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter.

This is a radical contrast to any “nature” arguments in a “nature versus nurture” debate. This specifically departs from Aristotilean thinking that certain people like the Barbarians were meant to be slaves (thus explains our lyric “so Aristotle was wrong about the slaves”). The commercial economy, in addition to giving us the capability to innovate and flourish, also gives us deep material inequality that deceives us into thinking we are less equal in worth or dignity than we actually are.

It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Just as with Smith’s conception of sympathetic fellow-feeling, this propensity to engage in commerce is universal across people. In fact, it is what separates us from other animals. Unlike dogs, for example, humans are able to engage in trade and specialize.

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts…The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog.

So the next time you go down to your corner store to buy a pack of gum or toothpaste, think to yourself, “damn, it feels good to be human.”

The complete lyrics to “The Street Porter & the Philosopher“:

Well at six years old we seem to be
In ability nearly the same soon changed by modernity
And our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

But the fellow dogs separately
Can’t utilize their different skills: strength, swiftness or docility
From no innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

It’s our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

 

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