Category: History

The Cultural Origins of the Demographic Transition in France

Is it a story of early secularization?:

This research shows that secularization accounts for the early decline in fertility in eighteenth-century France. The demographic transition, a turning point in history and an essential condition for development, took hold in France first, before the French Revolution and more than a century earlier than in any other country. Why it happened so early is, according to Robert Darnton, one of the “big questions of history” because it challenges historical and economic interpretations and because of data limitations at the time. I comprehensively document the decline in fertility and its timing using a novel crowdsourced genealogical dataset. Then, I document an important process of secularization at the time. Using census data available in the nineteenth century, I show a strong association between secularization and the timing of the transition. Finally, I leverage the genealogies to account for unobserved pre-existing, geographic, and institutional differences by studying individuals before and after the onset of the transition and exploiting the choices of second-generation migrants.

Here is the paper by Guillaume Blanc, a job market candidate at Brown University.  Here is his home page.  Via Matt.

Air pollution and the history of economic growth

I have not had the chance to read this through, but here goes:

Documenting environmental pollution damage affects the magnitude of aggregate output, net of pollution damage, and the contribution to national product across economic sectors. For example, air pollution damage from the production side of the economy amounted to over 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002…

I have presented estimates of these effects in the US economy between 1957 and 2016. This period featured the passage of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1970 and its subsequent implementation through the 1970s, as well as several business cycles. This research suggests that pollution damage began to decrease just after the CAA was enacted, and the orientation between GDP growth and that of the adjusted measure, or environmentally adjusted value added (EVA), switched.

That is from Nicholas J. Muller, all a bit awkwardly worded.  Jeremy Horpedahl is more to the point:

If we use the standard measure of GDP, growth indeed slowed down after 1970. If instead we augment GDP for environmental damages, the period after 1970 was actually faster! The adjustment both slows down growth from 1957-1970, and speeds up growth after 1970.

Worth a ponder.

My Conversation with the excellent Ruth Scurr

A fine discourse all around, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Ruth joined Tyler to discuss why she considers Danton the hero of the French Revolution, why the Jacobins were so male-obsessed, the wit behind Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king, the influence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments during and after the Reign of Terror, why 18th-century French thinkers were obsessed with finding forms of government that would fit with emerging market forces, whether Hayek’s critique of French Enlightenment theorists is correct, the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s woke culture, the truth about Napoleon’s diplomatic skills, the poor prospects for pitching biographies to publishers, why Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws would be her desert island read, why Cambridge is a better city than Oxford, why the Times Literary Supplement remains important today, what she loves about Elena Ferrante’s writing, how she stays open as a biographer, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Is there a counterfactual path where the French Revolution simply works out well as a liberal revolution? If so, what would have needed to have been different?

SCURR: In terms of counterfactuals, the one I thought most about was, What would have happened if Robespierre hadn’t fallen at Thermidor and the relationship between him and [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just had continued? But that’s not the triumph of the liberal revolution. That would have merely been a continuation of the point they had gotten to. For a triumph of the liberal revolution, that would have needed to be much, much earlier.

I think that it was almost impossible for them to get a liberal constitution in place in time to make that a possibility. What you have is 1789, the liberal aspirations, the hopes, the Declaration of Rights; and then there is almost a hiatus period in which they are struggling to design the institutions. And that is the period which, if it could have been compressed, if there could have been more quickly a stability introduced . . .

Some of the people I’m most interested in in that period were very interested in what has to be true about the society in order for it to have a stable constitution. Obviously when you’re in the middle of a revolution and you’re struggling to come up with those solutions, then there is the opening to chaos.

Definitely recommended.  And I am again happy to recommend Ruth’s new book Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows.

Why the New Pollution Literature is Credible

My recent post, Air Pollution Reduces Health and Wealth drew some pushback in the comments, some justified, some not, on whether the results of these studies are not subject to p-hacking, forking gardens and the replication crisis. Sure, of course, some of them are. Andrew Gelman, for example, has some justified doubt about the air filters and classroom study. Nevertheless, I don’t think that skepticism about the general thrust of the results is justified. Why not?

First, go back to my post Why Most Published Research Findings are False and note the list of credibility checks. For example, my rule is trust literatures not papers and the new pollution literature is showing consistent and significant negative effects of pollution on health and wealth. Some might respond that the entire literature is biased for reasons of political correctness or some such and sure, maybe. But then what evidence would be convincing? Is skepticism then justified or merely mood affiliation? And when it comes to action should we regard someone’s prior convictions (how were those formed?) as more accurate then a large, well-published scientific literature?

It’s not just that the literature is large, however, it’s that the literature is consistent in a way that many studies in say social psychology were not. In social psychology, for example, there were many tests of entirely different hypotheses–power posing, priming, stereotype threat–and most of these failed to replicate. But in the pollution literature we have many tests of the same hypotheses. We have, for example, studies showing that pollution reduces the quality of chess moves in high-stakes matches, that it reduces worker productivity in Chinese call-centers, and that it reduces test scores in American and in British schools. Note that these studies are from different researchers studying different times and places using different methods but they are all testing the same hypothesis, namely that pollution reduces cognitive ability. Thus, each of these studies is a kind of replication–like showing price controls led to shortages in many different times and places.

Another feature in favor of the air pollution literature is that the hypothesis that pollution can have negative effects on health and cognition wasn’t invented yesterday along with the test (we came up with a new theory and tested it and guess what, it works!). The Romans, for example, noted the negative effect of air pollution on health. There’s a reason why people with lung disease move to the countryside and always have.

I also noted in Why Most Published Research Findings are False that multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable. The pollution literature satisfies this desideratum. Aside from multiple empirical studies, the pollution hypothesis is also consistent with plausible mechanisms and it is consistent with the empirical and experimental literature on pollution and plants and pollution and animals. See also OpenPhilanthropy’s careful summary.

Moreover, there is a clear dose-response effect–so much so that when it comes to “extreme” pollution few people doubt the hypothesis. Does anyone doubt, for example, that an infant born in Delhi, India–one of the most polluted cities in the world–is more likely to die young than if the same infant grew up (all else equal) in Wellington, New Zealand–one of the least polluted cities in the world?  People accept that “extreme” pollution creates debilitating effects but they take extreme to mean ‘more than what I am used to’. That’s not scientific. In the future, people will think that the levels of pollution we experience today are extreme, just as we wonder how people could put up with London Fog.

What is new about the new pollution literature is more credible methods and bigger data and what the literature shows is that the effects of pollution are larger than we thought at lower levels than we thought. But we should expect to find smaller effects with better methods and bigger data.  (Note that this isn’t guaranteed, there could be positive effects of pollution at lower levels, but it isn’t surprising that what we are seeing so far is negative effects at levels previously considered acceptable.)

Thus, while I have no doubt that some of the papers in the new pollution literature are in error, I also think that the large number of high quality papers from different times and places which are broadly consistent with one another and also consistent with what we know about human physiology and particulate matter and also consistent with the literature on the effects of pollution on animals and plants and also consistent with a dose-response relationship suggest that we take this literature and its conclusion that air pollution has significant negative effects on health and wealth very seriously.

Did Milton Friedman support bailouts?

Hugh Rockoff does a 72 pp. deep dive on Milton Friedman on bailouts.  This is an excellent paper, as he also considers Friedman’s columns and spoken words over the years and he also fleshes out Friedman’s thoughts on what we now call “shadow banks” (he worried about them).  Friedman was willing to accept a fair number of bailouts, here is one excerpt:

In the bailout of Continental Illinois, a case that Friedman thought had been handled well, depositors and other creditors were protected, but shareholders were mostly wiped out and management was replaced. The protection of depositors and other creditors created an advantage for large banks: they could raise funds more easily because they, like Continental Illinois, were “too big to fail.” However, Friedman thought that as long as shareholders and managers were forced to pay dearly when a financial institution was bailed out there would still be an adequate incentive for bank managers to exercise prudence.

More generally:

For Friedman this meant that in the case of financial institutions the benefits of a bailout might outweigh the costs.

And more speculatively:

No one can channel an economist as brilliant and creative as Milton Friedman. Nevertheless, having come this far I will make an attempt. I believe that it would have been consistent with his earlier views for Friedman to have been reluctant to condemnthe program of bailouts undertaken in 2008, to use the phrase that he used when questioned about the rescue of LongTerm Capital Management. I think he would have recognized that the repos issued by Lehman Brothers and other investment banks were similar to uninsured deposits in commercial banks, thus making possible a destructive panic. In other words, he would have recognized the logic of the contention that 2008 was a run on repos and similar to earlier financial panics (Gorton, Laarits, and Metrick 2018). He might have reminded us of the consequences of the failure to provide help for the BoUS in 1930. However, he might well have been critical of the structure of the bailouts, especially with respect to how various classes of stakeholders were treated.

I recall being excoriated in 2009 for suggesting that Friedman would have endorsed some version of the bailouts of that time.

Via the excellent Douglas Irwin.  And here is my older CWT with Doug.

The Scientific Cost of Immigrant Quotas

In the 1920s immigration to the United States was restricted with quotas which were designed to reduce the number of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, then considered to be low-quality immigrants. One unintended consequence was that the number of immigrant scientists from these areas also declined. The awesome Petra Moser and Schmuel San have an excellent new paper documenting the cost on US innovation and patenting.

Naturalization data indicate a dramatic decline in the arrival of new ESE-born scientists after the quotas. Until 1924, arrivals of new ESE-born immigrant scientists were comparable to arrivals from Northern and Western Europe (WNE), who were subject to comparable pull and push factors of migration.1 After the quotas, arrivals of ESE-born scientists decline significantly while arrivals from Northern and Western Europe continue to increase. Combining data on naturalizations with information on scientists’ university education and career histories, we estimate that 1,165 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science under the quota system. At an annual level, this implies a loss of 38 scientists per year, equivalent to eliminating the entire physics department of a major university each year between 1925 and 1955. For the physical sciences alone, an estimated 553 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science.

To estimate the effects of changes in immigration on US inventions, we compare changes in patenting per year after 1924 in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born US scientists with changes in patenting in other research fields in which US scientists were active inventors before the quotas. This identification strategy allows us to control for changes in invention by US scientists across fields, for example, as a result of changes in research funding. Year fixed effects further control for changes in patenting over time that are shared across fields. Field fixed effects control for variation in the intensity of patenting across fields, e.g., between basic and applied research.

Baseline estimates reveal a large and persistent decline in invention by US scientists in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists. After the quotas, US scientists produced 68 percent fewer additional patents in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists compared with the prequota fields of other US scientists. Time-varying effects show a large decline in invention by US scientists in the 1930s, which persisted into the 1960s. Importantly, these estimates show no preexisting differences in patenting for ESE and other fields before the quotas.

Canada which did not implement quotas did not see a similar decline. One interesting case study which is quite astounding in its way:

A case study of co-authorships for the prolific Hungarian-born mathematician Paul Erdős illustrates how restrictions on immigration reduced collaborations between ESE-born scientists and US scientists. Erdős moved to the United States as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton, and became a professor at Notre Dame, travelling and collaborating with many US scientists. As a Hungarian citizen, however, Erdős was denied a re-entry visa by the US immigration services in1954, and not granted re-entry until 1963. To examine how these denials affected Erdős’ collaborations with US scientists, we collect the location of Erdős top 100 coauthors at the time  of their first collaboration. These data show that Erdős’ collaborations shifted away from the United States when he was denied re-entry. Between 1954 and 1963, 24 percent of Erdős’ new co-authors were US scientists, compared with 60 percent until 1954. These patterns are confirmed in a broader analysis of patents by co-authors and co-authors of co-authors of ESEborn scientists, which indicates a 26 percent decline in invention by scientists who were directly or indirectly influenced by ESE-born scholars. 

As you might suspect from the Erdos example, scientists in the US became less not more productive without the benefits of cooperation with Eastern European scientists.

Some of the scientists denied entry to the US in the 1920s went to Israel instead and innovated there so their genius was not entirely lost to the world.

Photo: Paul Erdos with Terrence Tao. Attribution, either Billy or Grace Tao, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Milton Friedman has become underrated, but is being vindicated

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt of some super-simple (but neglected) arguments:

Education is another area where Friedman’s ideas seem newly relevant. Friedman was a strong supporter of school choice, but over time the movement stalled, as a variety of studies showed scholastic gains from school-voucher programs that were either modest, zero or negative. Advocates for school choice then moved on to the argument that vouchers allow parents to choose the kind of education they want for their children, whether or not test scores go up. That argument, too, went nowhere.

Then came the pandemic, when millions of American parents encountered a public school system that didn’t seem to care too much about educating their children. Schools stayed closed or offered inferior remote instruction, and generally followed their own bureaucratic imperatives. All of a sudden, home schooling, charter schools, private schools, micro-schools — in short, an entire host of “school choice” alternatives — rose in popularity. It remains to be seen how much those trends will stick, but Friedman may yet win this intellectual battle, at least partially.

And it’s not just the bureaucracy, it’s what’s taught in the classroom. Consider critical race theory and other instructional practices affiliated with wokeism. Whatever your views on this movement, it seems clear that it provokes strong and perhaps irresolvable differences among parents, teachers and administrators. Within a single public school district, those matters will probably never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Rather than pursuing a polarizing “fight to the death,” perhaps all sides can see that the case for school choice is stronger and more compelling than they had thought.

There are periodic attempts to knock Milton Friedman off his pedestal. For the most part, however, his legacy remains strong.

And who was the guy who predicted the recent problems with the FDA?

Why did southern Italy lag behind?

I’ve long been suspicious of the “deep deep” roots theory of southern Italian stagnation, given the Neapolitan Enlightenment in the 18th century.  This explanation, however, at least in principle makes more sense to me:

The provincial gap in human capital at the time of Italy’s unification is a plausible explanation for the North–South divide of the following decades. We show that the roots of the literacy gap that existed in 1861 can be traced back to Napoleonic educational reforms enacted between 1801 and 1814. We use exogenous variation in provincial distance to Paris to quantify effects, linking the duration of Napoleonic control to human capital. If the south had experienced the same Napoleonic impact as the north, southern literacy rates would have been up to 70 percent higher than they were in 1861.

That is from M. Postigliola and M. Rota in European Review of Economic History.  Might Napoleon be underrated?

What price the Blue Plaque?

In many places commemorative plaques are erected on buildings to serve as historical markers of notable men and women who lived in them – London has a Blue Plaque scheme for this purpose. We investigated the influence of commemorative Blue Plaques on the selling prices of London real estate. We identified properties which sold both before and after a Blue Plaque was installed indexing prices relative to the median prevailing sales prices of properties sold in the same neighborhood. Relative prices increased by 27% (US$165,000 as of July 2020) after a Blue Plaque was installed but not in a control set of properties without Blue Plaques, sold both before and after a Blue Plaque was installed in close proximity. We discuss these findings in relation to the theory of magical contagion and claims from previous research suggesting that people are less likely to acknowledge magical effects when decisions involve money.

Here is the full article by Peter Ayton, Leonardo Weiss-Cohen, and Matthew Barson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Legal Systems and Economic Performance in Colonial Shanghai, 1903-1934

Abstract: How important are legal systems to economic performance? To address this question, I focus on a historical period from colonial Shanghai, where quite different legal systems operated in the International Settlement andFrench Concession. In particular, employing novel historical data, I examine 1903–1934 land value discontinuities at the border between these Settlements. Substantial discontinuities were found in the 1900s, with higher land values associated with the International Settlement. However, by the 1930s, this land value advantage of the International Settlement had disappeared. A closer look at the institutions reveals that the French Concession adapted its operation to be more business friendly, under competition from the neighboring International Settlement. This suggests that the French legal system per se was not a barrier to economic growth, but rather it could function well if interpreted and implemented properly. This paper thus adds to evidence that formal legal system is not a key determinant of economic performance.

That is from Mingxi Li, who is on the job market this year from UC Davis.

My Conversation with David Salle

I was honored to visit his home and painting studio, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

David joined Tyler to discuss the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.

And excerpt:

COWEN: Yes, but just to be very concrete, let’s say someone asks you, “I want to take one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” And they are a smart, highly educated person, but have not spent much time in the art world. What should they actually do other than look at art, on the reading level?

SALLE: On the reading level? Oh God, Tyler, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to come back with an answer in a few minutes. I’m not sure there’s anything concretely to do on the reading level. There probably is — just not coming to mind.

There’s Henry Geldzahler, who wrote a book very late in his life, at the end of his life. I can’t remember the title, but he addresses the problem of something which is almost a taboo — how do you acquire taste? — which is, in a sense, what we’re talking about. It’s something one can’t even speak about in polite society among art historians or art critics.

Taste is considered to be something not worth discussing. It’s simply, we’re all above that. Taste is, in a sense, something that has to do with Hallmark greeting cards — but it’s not true. Taste is what we have to work with. It’s a way of describing human experience.

Henry, who was the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was a wonderful guy and a wonderful raconteur. Henry basically answers your question: find ways, start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.


COWEN: As you know, the 17th century in European painting is a quite special time. You have Velásquez, you have Rubens, you have Bruegel, much, much more. And there are so many talented painters today. Why can they not paint in that style anymore? Or can they? What stops them?

SALLE: Artists are trained in such a vastly different way than in the 17th, 18th, or even the 19th century. We didn’t have the training. We’re not trained in an apprentice guild situation where the apprenticeship starts very early in life, and people who exhibit talent in drawing or painting are moved on to the next level.

Today painters are trained in professional art schools. People reach school at the normal age — 18, 20, 22, something in grad school, and then they’re in a big hurry. If it’s something you can’t master or show proficiency in quickly, let’s just drop it and move on.

There are other reasons as well, cultural reasons. For many years or decades, painting in, let’s say, the style of Velásquez or even the style of Manet — what would have been the reason for it? What would have been the motivation for it, even assuming that one could do it? Modernism, from whenever we date it, from 1900 to 1990, was such a persuasive argument. It was such an inclusive and exciting and dynamic argument that what possibly could have been the reason to want to take a step back 200 years in history and paint like an earlier painter?

It is a bit slow at the very beginning, otherwise excellent throughout.

*Apprentice to Genius*

An excellent book, the author is Robert Kanigel and the subtitle is The Making of a Scientific Dynasty.  It is strongest on the role of mentors and lineages in scientific excellence, the radically inegalitarian and “unfair” nature of scientific achievement and also credit, and it offers an interesting look at the early days of the NIH.  Here is one excerpt:

But Brodie simply saw no reason to become an expert in an area to launch a study of it.  Rather, as Sid Udenfriend says, “he would just wander into a new field and make advances that people fifteen years in the field couldn’t.”  Poring through scientific journals didn’t appeal to him; picking the brains of colleagues did.  “He’d go up to you,” Jack Orloff remembers, “and say, ‘Tell me what you know about X and Y.’  Sometimes he’d already know a lot, but he could come across as almost stupid.”  Indeed, he could seem downright ignorant, asking disarmingly simple, even hopelessly naive questions, like a child.  But as one admirer notes, “He’d end up asking just the questions you should have asked ten years ago.”


Beginning around 1955, the big stir at LCP was over serotonin.  (“When the experiments were good, we called it serotonin,” Brodie would later recall…”When I heard it pronounced serotonin, I knew the experiments were bad and I stayed home.”)


Martin Zatz, a veteran of Julius Axelrod’s lab and a scientist with an uncommonly broad cast of mind, was talking about mentoring and its role in science.  “Are you going to talk about the disadvantage of the mentor chain?” he asked me, smiling broadly.

What’s that?  “That you don’t get anywhere,” he replied, now quite serious, “unless you’re in one.”

Recommended.  Why are there not more excellent conceptual books on the history of science?

The economic consequences of the Opium War

That is a new NBER working paper by Wolfgang Keller and Caroline H. Shiue, here is the abstract:

This paper studies the economic consequences of the West’s foray into China after the Opium War (1839-42), when Western colonial influence was introduced in dozens of so-called treaty ports. We document a turnaround during the 19th century in the nature of China’s capital markets. Whereas before the Opium War, coastal cities were of relatively minor importance, the treaty port system of the West transformed China into an economy focused on coastal areas and on international trade that aligned with the trading interests of the West. We show, first, that the West had a positive impact on China’s economy during the 19th century. It brought down local interest rates, and regions under Western influence exhibited both higher rates of industry growth and technology adoption. Second, the geographic scope of influence went far beyond the ports, impacting most of China. Interest rates fell by more than a quarter in the immediate vicinity of the ports and still by almost ten percent at distances of 450 kilometers from treaty ports. The development of China was not simply propelled by its own pre-1800 history, or by post-1978 reforms. The nearly 100 years of semi-colonization have shaped China’s economy today as one focused on the coastal areas.

As both Alex and I have said before, economics is still a discipline where you can put forward non-PC results without being destroyed for it.

Ports and Tolerance

An elegant essay by Saumitra Jha on why tolerance between Hindus and Muslims evolved in India’s port cities.

Port Sea Monument Gateway Of India Mumbai Historic

[W]here do institutions of tolerance emerge? Combining the historical accounts, the fieldwork, and the data, it became clear that such institutions develop in very specific places, where two conditions were satisfied. First, Hindus and Muslims needed to have incentives to work together: for example, engaging in business relationships that complemented each other, rather than competed against one another. Second, this complementarity had to be robust: it had to be difficult for one group to replicate or simply steal the source of the others’ complementarity.

One important set of examples of these were ports—like Mahatma Gandhi’s own hometown, Porbandar—that had traded to the distant Middle East during the medieval period. For one month a year, for close to a thousand years, Mecca had been one of the largest markets in the world during the Hajj—and one had to be Muslim to go to Mecca. This gave Muslims in ports—in India, but also on the African coasts, the Malay peninsula, and beyond—a strong advantage in overseas trade and shipping. And, yet, this advantage nonetheless benefited the communities they connected by sail.

Further this complementarity in overseas trade came from a trading network that was intangible, and so impossible to seize, and the scale of the Hajj was so large it was impossible for a Hindu to replicate. Not surprisingly, then—before being disrupted by European colonial interventions beginning in the 16th century—Muslims had dominated overseas trade across the Indian Ocean, from the coasts of Zanzibar to India, Malaysia and beyond, as far as China.

Ports emerged at natural harbors along India’s medieval coasts to accommodate these trading relationships. These ports also witnessed not just the emergence of rules but also beliefs and organizations that supported trade, inter-group trust, and religious tolerance. So much so, that even three centuries later—after Muslim trade advantages had ended due to European colonial interventions, and many of the ports themselves had silted up and become inaccessible to trade—this legacy of beliefs, norms, and organizations continued to shape the way people interacted with one another. The institutions of peace and tolerance outlived the economic incentives that had once sustained them.

Photo Credit: MaxPixel.