Category: History

Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990

That is an older paper by the excellent Michael Kremer, worth keeping in mind, here is the abstract:

The nonrivalry of technology, as modeled in the endogenous growth literature, implies that high population spurs technological change. This paper constructs and empirically tests a model of long-run world population growth combining this implication with the Malthusian assumption that technology limits population. The model predicts that over most of history, the growth rate of population will be proportional to its level. Empirical tests support this prediction and show that historically, among societies with no possibility for technological contact, those with larger initial populations have had faster technological change and population growth.

This bears on my earlier Bloomberg column, today cited by Mike Lee, suggesting that having more children is likely to help out on the climate change issue.

Are all humans South Africans?

Africa was the birth-place of Homo sapiens and has the earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour and complex technologies. The best-attested early flowering of these distinctive features was in a glacial refuge zone on the southern coast 100–70 ka, with fewer indications in eastern Africa until after 70 ka. Yet it was eastern Africa, not the south, that witnessed the first major demographic expansion, ~70–60 ka, which led to the peopling of the rest of the world. One possible explanation is that important cultural traits were transmitted from south to east at this time. Here we identify a mitochondrial signal of such a dispersal soon after ~70 ka – the only time in the last 200,000 years that humid climate conditions encompassed southern and tropical Africa. This dispersal immediately preceded the out-of-Africa expansions, potentially providing the trigger for these expansions by transmitting significant cultural elements from the southern African refuge.

That is from Teresa Rito, et.al., in Nature, vis Charles Klingman.

The economic ecology of Jews as a rural service minority

The five million Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the century were overwhelmingly over-represented in towns and in cities. They specialized in seemingly urban occupations, were relatively literate, and were almost absent in agriculture. This pattern persisted overseas where one third of them would eventually immigrate. Hence, Jews were typically characterized as an urban minority. I argue that the opposite was true. The economic ecology of the Jews, the patterns of choices of occupation and location, are described in a model in which Jews were countryside workers with a comparative advantage in rural commerce, complementing agricultural workers, and without comparative advantage in denser urban settings. Using data from the 1897 census, I show that the cross-sectional patterns across districts and localities were consistent with all the predictions of this model. When the share of Jews in the population grew, Jews spilled across two margins—occupational, as manufacturing workers, and geographic, as rural frontier men. Non-Jews were imperfect substitute for Jews, rendering the latter indispensable to the countryside economy. No evidence of urban advantage is evident in the data. Turn of the century Pale of Settlement Jews ought to be understood as rural workers, in and of the countryside. In this light, the patterns exhibited in the US after immigration appear as a sharp break from, rather than a continuation of, old country economic tradition.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Yannay Spitzer.  For the pointer I thank Ilya Novak.

Ross Douthat on some reasons for the electoral college

Is there a case for a system that sometimes produces undemocratic outcomes? I think so, on two grounds. First, it creates incentives for political parties and candidates to seek supermajorities rather than just playing for 50.1 percent, because the latter play is a losing one more often than in a popular-vote presidential system.

Second, it creates incentives for political parties to try to break regional blocs controlled by the opposition, rather than just maximizing turnout in their own areas, because you win the presidency consistently only as a party of multiple regions and you can crack a rival party’s narrow majority by flipping a few states.

According to this — admittedly contrarian — theory, the fact that the Electoral College produces chaotic or undemocratic outcomes in moments of ideological or regional polarization is actually a helpful thing, insofar as it drives politicians and political hacks (by nature not the most creative types) to think bigger than regional blocs and 51 percent majorities.

That is from the NYT, he also considers some arguments against.

The Hayek auction results are very impressive

You will find them here, for instance Hayek’s copy of Wealth of Nations went for almost 200k, it was estimated in the 4k to 6k range.

“Desktop ephemera and personal effects” were estimated at 200-300 British pounds, went for 87,500 British pounds.  Crazy!  Many of the items went for 10x or 20x their original estimates.

Perhaps Hayek is back in fashion again, if only with the wealthy.

For the pointer I thank Lotta Moberg.

Addendum: Here is BC from the comments section:

So, the central planners couldn’t accurately estimate the values of Hayek’s personal effects because the necessary information was distributed among all the auction participants?

The case for real estate as investment

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

The authors of the aforementioned study — Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick and Alan M. Taylor — have constructed a new database for the U.S. and 15 other advanced economies, ranging from 1870 through the present. Their striking finding is that housing returns are about equal to equity returns, and furthermore housing as an investment is significantly less risky than equities.

In their full sample, equities average a 6.7 percent return per annum, and housing 6.9 percent. For the U.S. alone, equities return 8.5 percent and housing 6.1 percent, the latter figure being lower but still quite respectable. The standard deviation of housing returns, one measure of risk, is less than half of that for equities, whether for the cross-country data or for the U.S. alone. Another measure of risk, the covariance of housing returns with private consumption levels, also shows real estate to be a safer investment than equities, again on average.

One obvious implication is that many people should consider investing more in housing. The authors show that the transaction costs of dealing in real estate probably do not erase the gains to be made from investing in real estate, at least for the typical homebuyer.

Furthermore, due to globalization, returns on equities are increasingly correlated across countries, which makes diversification harder to achieve. That is less true with real estate markets, which depend more on local conditions.

Do read the whole piece.

*The People Next Door*

The author is T.C.A. Raghavan and the subtitle is The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan.  Here is one excerpt:

The massive rigging of the March 1977 election led to a Bhutto majority the size of which stunned even his supporters and, by some accounts, even embarrassed him.  He and his party had been expected to win but the near-total decimation of the opposition made the election results lose credibility.  “Why did you do this to me?” he is widely believed to have rhetorically asked a group of senior civil servants as the results came in.  In any event, the loss of popularity and personal legitimacy was swift.

This book is must reading for these days, and it will be making my 2019 “best of the year” list.  Order from abroad here, or in the U.S. it comes out in July.

*Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan*

The demographic legacy of four centuries of Slavic settlement is striking along Kazakhstan’s 6,846-kilometre frontier with Russia, the world’s second longest land border.  In 2014, when the conflict erupted in Ukraine, Russians formed 22 per cent of Kazakhstan’s population nationwide (by 2018, that figure had fallen to just below 20 per cent), but in many places in the borderlands they were in large majorities: in Ust-Kamenogorsk, 67 per cent of people were Russians, while in the town of Ridder, further north towards the frontier, the figure was 85 per cent…

By 2018, the share of Kazakhs in the population had risen from 40 per cent to 67.5 percent and the share of the other largest ethnic group, Russians, had fallen from 37 per cent to 19.8 percent.  Kazakhstan’s two main cities used to be predominantly Russians; now Kazakhs dominate.  Astana’s Kazakh population hit 78 per cent in 2018, up from 17 per cent at independence (when it was still a backwater called Akmola and not yet Kazakhstan’s capital); Almaty’s Kazakh population had risen from 22 per cent to 60 per cent.

The government is also working hard to “Kazakhify” towns along the Russian border.

That is all from the new and excellent book by Joanna Lillis.  You may also have read that Nazerbayev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since 1991, announced yesterday that he is stepping down, hoping to take on more of a Lee Kuan Yew role in the country.

Women’s employment has shaped the course of recent business cycles

This paper studies the impact of changing trends in female labor supply on productivity, TFP growth and aggregate business cycles. We find that the growth in women’s labor supply and relative productivity added substantially to TFP growth from the early 1980s, even if it depressed average labor productivity growth, contributing to the 1970s productivity slowdown. We also show that the lower cyclicality of female hours and their growing share can account for a large fraction of the reduced cyclicality of aggregate hours during the great moderation, as well as the decline in the correlation between average labor productivity and hours. Finally, we show that the discontinued growth in female labor supply starting in the 1990s played a substantial role in the jobless recoveries following the 1990-1991, 2001 and 2007-2009 recessions. Moreover, it depressed aggregate hours, output growth and male wages during the late 1990s and mid 2000s expansions. These results suggest that continued growth in female employment since the early 1990s would have significantly improved economic performance in the United States.

That is the abstract of a new NBER working paper by Stefania Albanesi.

The great retrogression average is over

White, non-college-educated Americans born in the 1960s face shorter life expectancies, higher medical expenses, and lower wages per unit of human capital compared with those born in the 1940s, and men’s wages declined more than women’s. After documenting these changes, we use a life-cycle model of couples and singles to evaluate their effects. The drop in wages depressed the labor supply of men and increased that of women, especially in married couples. Their shorter life expectancy reduced their retirement savings but the increase in out-of-pocket medical expenses increased them by more. Welfare losses, measured a one-time asset compensation are 12.5%, 8%, and 7.2% of the present discounted value of earnings for single men, couples, and single women, respectively. Lower wages explain 47-58% of these losses, shorter life expectancies 25-34%, and higher medical expenses account for the rest.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang.

Density is Destiny: Economists Predict the Far Future

In a paper that just won the JPE’s Robert Lucas Prize, Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg model the evolution of the world economy over the next 400-600 years! Is it laughable or laudatory? I’m not entirely sure. The paper does have an insight that I think is very important, in addition to a number of methodological advances.

If we look around the world today we see that the places with the densest populations, such as China and India, are poor. But in the long-run of history that doesn’t make sense. As Paul Romer, and others, have emphasized, ideas are the ultimate source of wealth and more people means more ideas. As a result, innovation and GDP per capita should be higher in places and times with more people. The fact that China and India are poor today is an out-of-equilibrium anomaly that happened because they were slower than the West to adopt the institutions of free markets and capitalism necessary to leverage ideas into output. China and India weren’t relatively poor in the past, however, and they won’t be relatively poor in the future. With that in mind, a key long-run prediction of Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg becomes clear. If people are not allowed to migrate then the places that are densest today will not only equal the West, they will overtake the West in innovation and productivity.

One of the key determinants of these patterns is the correlation between GDP per capita and population density. As we mentioned above, the correlation is negative and weak today, and our theory predicts that, consistent with the evidence across regions in the world to-day, this correlation will become positive and grow substantially over the next six centuries, as the world becomes richer. Two forces drive this result. First, people move to more productive areas, and second, more dense locations become more productive over time since investing in local technologies in dense areas is, in general, more profitable. Migration restrictions shift the balance between these two mechanisms. If migration restrictions are strict, people tend to stay where they are, and today’s dense areas, which often coincide with developing countries, become the most developed parts of the world in the future…. In comparison, most of today’s high-productivity, high-density locations in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia fall behind in terms of both productivity and population.

Thus, if migration restrictions are strict, density is destiny and the dense parts of the world will rule. But what if migration restrictions are loosened?

… if migration restrictions are lifted, then people today move to the high-productivity regions such as Europe and the United States and these regions become denser and so remain the high-productivity regions in the future. World welfare in this scenario goes up by a factor of three.

It’s much better to remove migration restrictions today because we get to a much richer world, faster. In addition, population is better distributed in accordance with natural amenities. All is not perfectly rosy, however, in the free migration scenario. So let’s conclude with a few sentences that would make Hari Seldon proud.

[in the free migration scenario]…growth in utility drops substantially in the short run as many people move to areas with high real GDP; hence these areas be-come more congested and become worse places to live (lower amenities). This initial loss in growth is, however, compensated in the long run by a large surge in productivity growth after year 2200.

Has the Tervuren Central African museum been decolonized?

In a word, no.  They shut the place down for five years and spent $84 million, to redesign the displays, and what they reopened still looks and feels incredibly colonial.  That’s not an architectural complaint, only that the museum cannot escape what it has been for well over a century.  Most of the 180,000 art objects there were either stolen or bought under terms of implicit coercion.  There is an Africa Gallery covering the crimes of King Leopold in the Congo, but it is easy enough to be transfixed by the art and not really take it in.  How about a full room near the entrance devoted to the anti-imperialist E.D. Morel?  And while there are now more art works from the post-colonial period, there is no room devoted to the often very impressive art worlds of Central Africa today.  Having more African people talk on screens was nice, but it doesn’t do the trick.  The colonial still seems glorious, and the post-colonial mediocre.

Despite DRC demands, I do understand that the repatriation of the objects themselves would not be wise, given the current state of the DRC.  In 1976-1982, 114 objects were in fact restituted, but most of them ended up stolen (NYT).  For me preserving the art comes first, and furthermore the current DRC government is hardly a legitimate spokesperson for the historic civilizations of the region.  But might the museum at least have presented the issue in some morally conscious manner?

Before you walk into the museum proper, there is a room devoted to all the sculptures and displays now considered too colonial or too racist for the current museum.  Of course this draws more attention to them, and furthermore the dividing lines are by no means always clear.  That said, there is a double irony, namely that some of the items in this room are sufficiently obnoxious that their display represents a better apology than any part of what is intended as apology.

This is still all much better than the past, when at one time a human zoo of 267 enslaved Congolese was put on display here, in fact that was the inaugural exhibit in 1897.  At least there is now a memorial to those of the enslaved who died of influenza.  And the plaque “Belgium Brings Civilization to the Congo” has been taken down.  Yet this:

The rapacious monarch’s monogram dots the walls of the palatial museum on the former royal estate, which he used to drum up investment for his colonial ventures at the 1897 World Exhibition.

Oh, and there are colonial statues built into the walls:

One was of black children clinging to a white missionary. Another was of a topless African woman dancing.

They cannot be removed because of cultural heritage laws in Belgium.

The animal displays also no longer seem of our time, more about size and stuffing and the conquest of nature rather than with much of a notion of environmental or biodiversity or animal welfare awareness.

It is nonetheless a spectacular museum, the best chronicle anywhere for the Central African artistic achievement by an order of magnitude, and one of the best and most interesting places in Europe right now.  It is worth the rather convoluted one hour trip you must take from Brussels, or if you are visiting Waterloo it isn’t far away at all.  For all its flaws (or in part because of them?), go if you can.

The art aside, the other lesson is imperialism and colonialism cast a longer shadow than you might at first think.  The realities of cultural constipation remain underrated.

Was concentrated big business behind the Nazi rise?

No, there isn’t much evidence for that now-common claim:

As I show below, the claim that big business contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party is simply inconsistent with the consensus among German historians. While there is some evidence industrial concentration contributed in Hitler’s ability to consolidate power after he was appointed chancellor in 1933, there is no evidence monopolists financed Hitler’s rise to power, and ample evidence showing industry leaders opposed his ascent.

Here is the longer essay, with much more additional detail, from the soon-to-be-better-known Alec Stapp.