Category: History

Has the division of labor hindered knowledge integration and productivity growth?

…we suggest that this division of innovative labor has not, perhaps, lived up to its promise.  The translation of scientific knowledge generated in universities to productivity enhancing technical progress has proved to be more difficult to accomplish in practice than expected.  Spinoffs, startups, and university licensing offices have not fully filled the gap left by the decline of the corporate lab.  Corporate research has a number of characteristics that make it very valuable for science-based innovation and growth.  Large corporations have access to significant resources, can more easily integrate multiple knowledge streams, and direct their research toward solving specific practical problems, which makes it more likely for them to produce commercial applications.  University research has tended to be curiosity-driven rather than mission-focused.  It has favored insight rather than solutions to specific problems, and partly as a consequence, university research has required additional integration and transformation to become economically useful.  This is not to deny the important contributions that universities and small firms make to American innovation.  Rather, our point is that large corporate labs may have distinct capabilities which have proved to be difficult to replace.

That is from Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, Andrea Patacconi, and Jungkyu Suh, “The Changing Structure of American Innovation: Some Cautionary Remarks for Economic Growth,” recommended, an excellent paper spanning several disciplines.  I would myself note this is further reason not to split up the major tech companies.

What should I ask Hollis Robbins?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Robbins is a noted expert in the field of nineteenth-century African American literature and recently co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. an anthology of African American women’s writing. Robbins’ work focuses primarily on nineteenth and early twentieth century black print culture; she is affiliated with the Black Press Research Collective and serves as an advisor to the Black Periodical Literature Project at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University

…Previously, Robbins edited several other books with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., including The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) and In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2003). She also co-edited The Works of William Wells Brown (2006) with Paula Garrett and an edition of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy.

In addition to now being Dean at Sonoma State University, she also has written on film music, the history of post offices, the gold rush, higher education, African-American sonnets, and numerous other topics.  So what should I ask her?

The evolution of successful prediction

Therefore, on balance, our results suggest that Danto was substantively correct. As the number of events being evaluated grows, successful predictions will be increasingly outnumbered by events that seem insignificant at the time, but which come to be viewed as important by future historians in part because of events that have not yet taken place. More generally, our results provide further evidence for the observation that the combination of nonlinearity, stochasticity and competition for scarce attention that is inherent to human systems poses serious difficulties for ex ante predictions—a pattern that has previously been noted in outcomes such as political events, success in cultural markets, the scientific impact of publications and the diffusion of information in social networks. Given that historical significance is typically evaluated on longer time scales than these other examples, it is especially vulnerable to unintended consequences, sensitivity to small fluctuations and reinterpretation of previous information in light of new discoveries or societal concerns. A further complication is that historical significance, even when it can be meaningfully assigned, is specific to observers whose evaluation may depend on their own idiosyncratic interests and priorities. Although we speak of history as a single entity, in reality there may be many histories, within each of which the same set of events may be recalled and evaluated differently.

That is from Joseph Risi, Amit Sharma, Rohan Shah, Matthew Connelly, and Duncan J. Watts in Nature, in their new piece “Predicting History.

Via William A. Benzon.

Israel is a triumph of neoliberalism

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

From about 1973 to 1985, Israel had very high rates of inflation at one point reaching over 400%. That was the result of excessively loose monetary policy. Over time, printing money at such a clip took in successively less government revenue, as Israelis adjusted to the inflation and worked around it by holding less cash and denominating their contracts in foreign currencies. The inflation stopped giving macroeconomic benefits, even for government revenue, and Israel moved toward a regime of lower inflation and fiscal strength, to the benefit of the country’s longer-term growth.

This is a classic episode of MMT — “Modern Monetary Theory” — getting it wrong, as argued by Assaf Razin in his recent study of Israeli macroeconomic history. Under MMT, monetary policy can cover government spending, and fiscal policy can regulate price levels. Israel wisely followed more mainstream approaches.


Even many of the microeconomic developments in Israel fit standard models. As you might expect, given the aridity of the region, Israel has had longstanding issues with water supply. Yet today water is not a huge practical problem in Israel, though it requires constant attention. Under the Israeli water regime, which has strong governmental support, high prices and well-defined property rights encourage conservation and careful use. Remarkably, the Israeli population basically quadrupled from 1964 to 2013, but water consumption barely went up. Israel has become a world leader in dealing with water problems, and in turn the country has become an exporter of sophisticated systems for water management.

There is much more at the link, and note Israel is neo-liberal only in some ways, see this earlier link I put up (which I link to in the piece).

Why do right-wing authoritarian regimes allow so much citizen exit?

Derek Bonett emails me:

I’ve been considering the differences between left-wing authoritarian regimes and right-wing authoritarian regimes throughout history. One particular difference springs to mind that I do not believe has been explored:

Left-wing authoritarian regimes very frequently restrict emigration. Legal emigration from the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc was very difficult, same with Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, the DPRK, “Democratic Kampuchea”, Ethiopia under Mengistu, the list goes on.

But, strikingly, it seems to me that with the partial exception of the Third Reich, fascist/ultranationalist/right-wing authoritarian regimes generally do not restrict emigration. In the Third Reich, it seems that even Jews were allowed to emigrate until 1941. Mussolini’s Italy didn’t impose extensive emigration controls either. And, accordingly to my admittedly casual familiarity with these regimes, neither did Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Pinochet’s Chile, nor the more generic authoritarian regimes of Chiang Kai Shek’s Taiwan or Park Chung He’s South Korea.

Does your much more comprehensive reading of history confirm this difference? Has someone already written about this?

Perhaps the more “right-wing” regimes tolerate different sorts of income inequality.  Cuba and the USSR had plenty of inequality, but the main earners, in terms of living standards, are restricted to people within the state apparatus.  That means a lot of the talent will want to leave.  Many fascist regimes, however, are quite willing to cultivate multi-millionaires and then try to co-opt them into supporting the state.  Since you can still earn a lot in the private sector, exit restrictions are less needed.

What would be other hypotheses?

W.E.B. Du Bois sentences to ponder

Du Bois was born in 1868, the year that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg had its debut: he died in 1963, when “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was on the charts.  His longevity gives us, I think, a sense that he is more modern than he really was.  It can be startling to realize, for example, that when Khruschev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior.

That is from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.

*The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas*

That is the new and very interesting forthcoming book by Janek Wasserman, focusing on the history of the Austrian school of economics and due out in September.  A few comments:

1. It is the best overall history of the Austrian school.

2. It is in some early places too wordy, though perhaps that is necessary for the uninitiated.

3. I don’t think actual “Austrian school members” will learn much economics from it, though it has plenty of useful historical detail, far more than any other comparable book.  And much of it is interesting, not just: “Adolph Wagner and Albert Schaeffler taught in the Austrian capital in the 1860s and early 1870s, but quarrels with fellow incumbent Lorenz von Stein led to their departure.”

4. Even a full decade after its release in 1871, Menger’s Principles was not achieving much attention outside of Vienna.

5. The early Austrians favored progressive taxation and fairly standard Continental approaches to government spending.

6. The Austrian school of those earlier times was in danger of disappearing, as Boehm-Bawerk was working in government and the number of “Austrian students” was drying up, circa 1905.

7. The very first articles of Mises were empirical, and covered factory legislation, labor law, and welfare programs.

8. Wieser and some of the others lost status with the fall of the Dual Monarchy after WWI; Wieser for instance no longer had a House of Lords membership.  Schumpeter and Mises responded to these changes by writing more for a broader public, often through newspapers (not blogs).  Mises’s market-oriented views seemed to stem from this time.

9. Hayek in fact struggled in high school, though his grandfather had gone on Alpine hikes with Boehm-Bawerk.

10. The Lieder of the original Mises circle were patterned after the poems of Karl Kraus, and one of them mentioned spaghetti and risotto.

11. Much of this book is strong evidence for the “small group” theory of social change.

12. The patron institution for Hayek’s business cycle research of 1927 to 1931 was partly sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.

13. By the mid-1930s, Mises, Tinbergen, Koopmans, and Nurkse were all living in Geneva.  There was a Vienna drinking song saying farewell to Mises.

14. I wonder how these guys would have looked as Emergent Ventures applicants.  [“We’re going to run away from the Nazis and recreate anew our whole school of thought in America, with thick Austrian accents…and with a night school class at NYU to boot.”]

15. The Austrian school eventually was reborn in the United States, which accounts for many more chapters in this book, some of them concerned with the ties between the Austrian school and libertarianism.  There are some outright errors of fact in this section of the book, sometimes involving matters I was involved with personally (and which are non-controversial, not a question of “taking sides”).  I think also the latter parts of the book do not quite grasp the extensive influence of the Austrian school on America, extending up through the current day, and covering such diverse areas as regulatory policy and tech and crypto.

Nonetheless, recommended as an important contribution to the history of economic thought.

Yes there has been an American male culture collapse

During the last 50 years, the earnings of prime-age men in the United States have stagnated and dispersed across the education distribution. At the same time, the labor-force participation rates of men without a college education have steadily declined. While wage and participation trends are often linked for this population, we have argued that this connection cannot solely be the result of an inward labor demand shift across a stable and elastic labor supply curve. The uncompensated labor supply elasticities implied by the twin declines of wages and participation during the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s appear too large to be plausible. Moreover, labor-force participation continued to decrease in the 1990s while wages were rising. While the increasing availability of disability benefits and the increase in the fraction of the population with prior incarceration exposure may help explain some of the participation decline, we doubt either factor can explain the bulk of the decline.

We have argued that more plausible explanations for the observed patterns involve feedbacks from male labor demand shocks, which often involve substantial job displacement, to worker adjustment frictions and to family structure. Marriage rates, and corresponding male labor supply incentives, have also fallen for reasons other than changing labor demand. Moreover, we have noted interactions between labor demand and disability benefit take-up, and between mass incarceration and family structure. These factors have all converged to reduce the feasibility and desirability of stable employment, leading affected men—who may not often be eligible for disability or other benefits—to participate sporadically in the labor market and depend primarily on family members for income support.

That is from the concluding remarks of Ariel J. Binder and John Bound, in the most recent Journal of Economic Perspectives.  I’ll just highlight one bit again, bolded by me:

At the same time, the labor-force participation rates of men without a college education have steadily declined. While wage and participation trends are often linked for this population, we have argued that this connection cannot solely be the result of an inward labor demand shift across a stable and elastic labor supply curve.

In case you missed it.

America’s Cities Are Unlivable. Blame Wealthy Liberals

Farhad Manjoo writing in the New York Times brings the fire:

Then there is the refusal on the part of wealthy progressives to live by the values they profess to support at the national level. Creating dense, economically and socially diverse urban environments ought to be a paramount goal of progressivism. Cities are the standard geographical unit of the global economy. Dense urban areas are quite literally the “real America” — the cities are where two-thirds of Americans live, and they account for almost all national economic output. Urban areas are the most environmentally friendly way we know of housing lots of people. We can’t solve the climate crisis without vastly improving public transportation and increasing urban density. More than that, metropolises are good for the psyche and the soul; density fosters tolerance, diversity, creativity and progress.

Yet where progressives argue for openness and inclusion as a cudgel against President Trump, they abandon it on Nob Hill and in Beverly Hills. This explains the opposition to SB 50, which aimed to address the housing shortage in a very straightforward way: by building more housing. The bill would have erased single-family zoning in populous areas near transit locations. Areas zoned for homes housing a handful of people could have been redeveloped to include duplexes and apartment buildings that housed hundreds.

…Reading opposition to SB 50 and other efforts at increasing density, I’m struck by an unsettling thought: What Republicans want to do with I.C.E. and border walls, wealthy progressive Democrats are doing with zoning and Nimbyism. Preserving “local character,” maintaining “local control,” keeping housing scarce and inaccessible — the goals of both sides are really the same: to keep people out.

I applaud the fire, although it’s amusing to me that Manjoo treat this as big discovery (“I am struck by an unsettling thought.”). Look, this isn’t new! Progressives created zoning and other housing regulations to exclude people they didn’t like from “their” neighborhoods. Nor, by the way, is the desire to exclude limited to “wealthy” liberals (Manjoo surely knows this but is afraid of punching down). It’s also amusing that Steve Sailer has been making exactly the same point about hypocritical Malibu liberals for years, the only difference being that Manjoo wishes to shame liberals into giving up NIMBYism while Sailer wants to shame them into giving up national diversity. I call a pox on both their houses and support individual property rights at both the local and national levels.

One of the Greatest Environmental Crimes of the 20th Century

It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

That’s from an excellent piece by Charles Homans in the Pacific Standard. The Soviets killed some 180,000 whales illegally, driving several species to the brink of extinction. But why? The obvious answer Is wrong:

…the Soviet Union had little real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal, as often as not, was left in the sea to rot or was thrown into a furnace and reduced to bone meal—a low-value material used for agricultural fertilizer, made from the few animal byproducts that slaughterhouses and fish canneries can’t put to more profitable use….Why did a country with so little use for whales kill so many of them?

The actual answer has a lot to say about the impossibility of rational economic calculation under socialism (and also the lesser but still important problem under capitalism of mispricing in the presence of externalities and the difficulty of aligning private and social incentives.) The answer did not appear until 2008 when, long after his death, the memoir of Alfred Berzin, a Soviet-era fisheries scientist, was translated and published. Homans summarizes:

The Soviet whalers, Berzin wrote, had been sent forth to kill whales for little reason other than to say they had killed them. They were motivated by an obligation to satisfy obscure line items in the five-year plans that drove the Soviet economy, which had been set with little regard for the Soviet Union’s actual demand for whale products. “Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met!” Berzin wrote. The Sovetskaya Rossiya seemed to contain in microcosm everything Berzin believed to be wrong about the Soviet system: its irrationality, its brutality, its inclination toward crime.

You can find Bezin’s memoir here. It’s bitter, sardonic, sad and funny.

Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met! Looking for whales they would go farther and farther from the islands and bring rotten baleen whales to the stations, those which could not be used for food. This was not regarded as a problem by anybody. The plan—at any price! And whalers were killing everything.

Why bring in rotten whales? Without prices the Soviets had to calculate in very crude terms, most notably gross output. In the famous cartoon, the nail factory is supposed to produce X tons of nails and finds the easiest way to do this is to produce a single large nail. The cartoon illustrated a real problem in the Soviet economy which many have documented including Bezin.

Another concept—no less frightening, ugly, and absurd—was that of “gross output.” This was a typical creation of socialism and would be impossible in any other system. Gross output: this is when nobody is interested in a living object itself, and the only thing they care about is the size of the catch. It is reports giving figures in tsentner [100 kilos, AT] and metric tons, even if it is fish that were thrown out, or rotten whales.

The whalers were paid well but it wasn’t just positive incentives. The history of the industry was never far from mind. Quoting Homans again:

Whaling fleets that met or exceeded targets were rewarded handsomely, their triumphs celebrated in the Soviet press and the crews given large bonuses. But failure to meet targets came with harsh consequences. Captains would be demoted and crew members fired; reports to the fisheries ministry would sometimes identify responsible parties by name.

Soviet ships’ officers would have been familiar with the story of Aleksandr Dudnik, the captain of the Aleut, the only factory ship the Soviets owned before World War II. Dudnik was a celebrated pioneer in the Soviet whaling industry, and had received the Order of Lenin—the Communist Party’s highest honor—in 1936. The following year, however, his fleet failed to meet its production targets. When the Aleut fleet docked in Vladivostok in 1938, Dudnik was arrested by the secret police and thrown in jail, where he was interrogated on charges of being a Japanese agent. If his downfall was of a piece with the unique paranoia of the Stalin years, it was also an indelible reminder to captains in the decades that followed.

Bezin, a scientist, writes about who got to the top in the Soviet system:

..As a rule, the people who became commissars were the ones who couldn’t find another job. They were not very smart but were very conceited, self important individuals, especially after they had been given a taste of power, and especially over other people. Those who were thinking about a career in the party system, who could speak loudly and authoritatively from a podium, and who curried favor with the boss, these people could climb the party ladder quickly, and high up.

…Russian people have a good sense of humor, and even when they should be crying they laugh…Here is [a Russian joke]: On the counter of a store there are different types of brains. Among them are commissar brains, which are being sold for a price many times higher than those of farm animals. “Why are the commissar brains so expensive?” asks a customer. The assistant replies, “Do you know how many commissars we have to slaughter to get one kilo of brains?”

The whole system was built on lies and had to be built on lies:

For seventy Soviet years the industry of lies was created, shaped, and perfected in the country. Lies were encouraged and cultivated, and people were forced to lie. Lies in art, lies in movies, on TV, on the radio, and in newspapers. One of my colleagues was saying: “Why do I need Crocodile? When I go to work I buy the newspaper Pravda and all the way to the institute I am dying from laughter.” Lies in the numbers of the Central Statistics Department. And facts about Chernobyl were lies, dreadful and inhumane, deserving of damnation. Lies about the history of our country, which the leaders of the country changed to suit their needs. To the latter, people reacted with a wicked grin: “An institute of experimental history has been created!”

…People were lying whether they needed to or not, and I would say that the lying was pathological and at all levels. From the most blatant lie at the international level…to naïve but proud lies like: “Soviet means the best.” Sometimes they were self-assured but silly, as for example in this poetic sentence: “As it’s known, the earth begins with the Kremlin”; or they were absolutely idiotic: “The whole Soviet country is song and dance all day long.” Just think of the meaning of these words! You could hear on radio and at concerts singing like: “Like an owner, a person walks through the boundless native land,” or “How wonderful it is to live in the Soviet country. . .” And all of these were promulgated in the 1930’s when the country was surrounded by the barbed wire of fearful GULAG’s . . .

Hat tip: The Browser.

Addendum: See the HBO series Chernobyl, brilliant cinematography and compelling storytelling, for a closely related story.

Women’s liberation as a financial innovation

In one of the greatest extensions of property rights in human history, common law countries began giving rights to married women in the 1850s. Before this “women’s liberation,” the doctrine of coverture strongly incentivized parents of daughters to hold real estate, rather than financial assets such as money, stocks, or bonds. We exploit the staggered nature of coverture’s demise across US states to show that women’s rights led to shifts in household portfolios; a positive shock to the supply of credit; and a reallocation of labor towards non-agriculture and capital intensive industries. Investor protection deepened financial markets aiding industrialization.

That is from a recent paper by Moshe Hazan, David Weiss, and Hosny Zoabi, via Jennifer Doleac, who again has a new podcast series on law and economics.

Dominick Armentano emails me about Standard Oil


Just watched your recent interesting  exchange with Professor Wu on whether the Standard Oil divestiture made public policy sense.

Wu asserted that the decision was good public policy. You said you were not so sure since  the evidence (on competition and consumer welfare) prior to divestiture may have been ambiguous. Wu had a near heart attack at that suggestion which showed me, of course, that he has never read the case, has never read the trial record (it’s 11,000 pages long and the State of Connecticut library in Hartford actually had a copy when I was researching this case back in 1970) and has never read any economist (such as myself) that has done  some of that work so that professors such as Wu can be marginally smarter in policy debates.

This is one of the most misunderstood cases in antitrust history. (Even Bork, who gets much of the revisionist case history correct, totally flinches on this case; he does nearly nothing with it.)

The first misunderstanding in almost all of the law texts is that this is the first “rule of reason”  antitrust case. That implies that the SC must have sifted through all of the conflicting facts and arguments presented at court and determined that Standard had acted “unreasonably.”  Totally False.  A modified rule of reason approach was articulated in the case by Justice White in 1911 but, of course, was never applied to the specifics in Standard.

As any antitrust lawyer can tell you this is a job for a lower court anyway, not for the SC; but this case was never remanded. The SC simply decided that the many mergers by Standard prior to 1890 constituted an attempt to monopolize in violation of the Sherman Act and, notice, divestiture follows logically from that reasoning. But whether Standard ever “restrained trade” (as we now understand the meaning of that phrase, i.e. able to reduce industry output  and raise industry price) was NEVER determined. Thus whether Standard missallocated resources, charged monopoly prices, repressed innovation, etc…was never decided by the SC or any other court.

Which leaves totally open the question of what was actually going on in the oil industry between say 1880 and 1907 (aside from the many mergers). I determined that this industry (crude oil, transportation, refining, marketing was all very small ( this is pre-gasoline after all); that there were few if any legal barriers to entry and that business organizations entered and left with some frequency, typical of a young and innovative industry; that Standard, despite mergers, always had many rivals in refining (Texaco, Pure Oil,  Associated Oil and Gas, Sun Oil, Gulf and many many others) and, of course, there were hundreds of firms in crude oil production and marketing which were never “monopolized”; that  costs and prices decreased throughout the period of alleged monopolization (even Ida Tarbell admits this. Indeed I got much of my cost and price information from her “History of the Standard Oil Company”; that Standard’s market share decreased in the 10 year period prior to the antitrust suit (1907); and that, as John McGee argued long ago, that Standard probably did not engage in predatory pricing.  There is much much more to this story and I tell a good share of that in “Antitrust & Monopoly.”

Perhaps Wu can make the case that the divestiture in 1911 produced a better result (in terms of all of the things that economists measure) than what would have happened if nothing dramatic had been done. That’s counter-factual so good luck with that!! All I know is that his knowledge of the actual history of the oil industry is quite stunning and I fear for the life of his more curious students.


As I said in the Wu debate itself, I do not know enough about this case and I am agnostic on the question.  Still, there is a perspective you don’t usually hear, and so I am passing it along.

It is the slacker writers who need agglomeration most of all

Do note the latter part of the last sentence, but the entire thesis is interesting:

This paper utilises a unique, purpose-built panel dataset on prominent authors in the UK and Ireland born 1700–1925 to estimate the productivity gains associated with agglomeration of an industry with few capital requirements and no apparent need to cluster geographically. I find the average author experiences productivity gains of 11.94% per annum when residing in London, the only major literary cluster – a gain not associated with living in any of the minor literary clusters. I find evidence of negative selection with respect to productivity, indicating the results are not driven by the self-selection of highly productive authors to London. I find heterogeneity of returns to living in London by birth cohort and Impact Index quartile (a measure of author quality) and that the cohorts who receive the greatest gains from locating in London are those for which there is the strongest evidence of negative selection with respect to productivity.

That is by Sara Mitchell in the Journal of Urban Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.