Melissa Dell, economic historian, wins John Bates Clark award

Very well-deserved, here is the full account, including a summary of her research.  Excerpt:

Historians (e.g., Engerman and Sokolov) have long argued for the persistence of institutions and the “long shadow” of historical events on developing countries. For example, cross-national studies have noted that Latin America and North America organized labor differently during colonial periods and used cross-country historical data to support the idea that these differences have had long-run impacts. More generally, Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson compare the experience of countries with different institutions set in place during colonial time for largely accidental reasons, showing that these early differences continue to matter today.

In her work, Dell goes beyond the cross-country evidence, using historical accidents or peculiarities to shed light on persistent effects of institutional differences, including different in the organization of the state. She exploits historical settings in which she is able to very convincingly establish the persistent impacts of specific institutions as well as explore specific channels through which these impacts occur.

Do read the whole thing.  Here are some previous MR posts on Melissa Dell.


It's amazing that AJR paper still gets cited.

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Of course, economic historian is an oxymoron. It wasn't always, as early "economists" spent most of their time studying the past, rather than predicting the future. A cynic might observe that economists today spend their time not studying the past but re-writing it to fit their ideological prejudices. Dell accepts the past as it was and is not as she wishes it to be, and tries to explain the present according to the experience of the past. My observation is that historians and economists should be natural collaborators, not competitors. We'd be the better for it.

Don't all historians project their own prejudices? I doubt Dell is a candidate for sainthood, though she could well be better than most.
"Historians (e.g., Engerman and Sokolov) have long argued for the persistence of institutions and the “long shadow” of historical events on developing countries." - but (Wikipedia): "Fernand Braudel was a French historian and a leader of the Annales School" wrote about the 'heavy hand of history' about, what, seventy years ago? He just didn't juice it up with statistics. So reinvent the wheel, juice it with statistics, and win a prize, nice. That said, I think economic historians are more honest than macro historians and their bogus math models.

One benefit of Braudel's work is that it provides more color and perspective, not in a manipulative or ideological way, but to reduce the antiseptic or arid nature of so much economic history. That provides a little more context to readers of all stripes so that they might actually consider and reflect upon what those factors of production were doing with their lives. Reclaiming some notion of life beyond two dimensions would seem worthwhile even when standing at a chalkboard.

Good work. The fact that so many of the differences in people’s life outcomes today is explained by what other people did hundreds of years ago ought to really make people reconsider any political philosophy based on the idea that the world is basically just.

Yep. Faulkner was right: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."

In economics terms, does Dell's work fall under the category of new institutional econ, or are there different mechanisms by which she sees history mattering?

Well, maybe she's right, maybe she isn't. There are counterexamples to her claims.

What political philosophy doesn't assume actions have consequences? What political philosophies are you implying are faulty, and which ones not, by your sudden discovery that bad things have happened in the past? Are you using John Rawls' theory of justice or Ayn Rand's?

Explains Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.. Also explains our state system.

I remember when she ripped into the Rhodes Scholarship, saying it sucked in a Harvard Crimson editorial. Harvard gave her a ton of sh$t for that.

I just looked at the alma maters of past winners of this "award", and it doesn't pass the Circle-Jerk test or even come close to it. It's like the Supreme Court. You narrow the candidates down to a few universities and pick from this list. One of my favorite economic historians is Ronnie J. Philips, alma mater University Of Texas. He wouldn't have had a chance getting this "Medal" even if he was Godel. Please stop giving each other awards. You embarrass yourselves.

Roland Fryer - Penn State. But your point is taken.

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