Saturday, December 31, 2011

sovereignty and the american revolution: new research

I was surprised to see that the Legal History Blog didn't link to this symposium in the William and Mary Quarterly on "patriot royalism" during the American Revolution, since one of the cornerstones of the debate is the question of what it meant to be legally and ideologically separate from Britain. It kicks off with an intriguing paper by Eric Nelson, an up-and-coming political historian from the Harvard Kennedy School (he received his PhD from Cambridge University in 2002). Heavyweights such as Gordon Wood weigh in, with a hard criticism of the work. Unfortunately, ungated copies of the papers are not available.

But here's the abstract to Nelson's paper:
'Patriot Royalism' makes the case that American patriots of the early 1770s became the last Atlantic defenders of the early Stuart monarchs. Their constitutional argument—that America was “outside of the realm” of Great Britain and therefore to be governed not by Parliament but by the royal prerogative—had famously been made by James I and Charles I in their acrimonious disputes with Parliament over colonial affairs in the 1620s. Most patriot writers were fully aware of the provenance of this new position and enthusiastically embraced its ideological implications. In the process they developed a radical, revisionist account of seventeenth-century English history. A proper reckoning with the story of patriot Royalism should allow us to appreciate the true drama of the republican turn in 1776, as well as to understand the persistent allure of prerogative powers in the formative period of American constitutionalism.
In his response to Nelson, Wood downplays the idea of patriot royalism because he has argued, for many decades now, that the Revolution is characterized by a more radical ideological break from Britain. Nelson, in establishing a bit more nuance to the story, is drawing some fundamental interpretations in how we understand the nature of the American Revolution -- specifically trying to show that an undercurrent of conservative British principles of government runs through Revolutionary rhetoric. The study may in fact lead to a more radical questioning of the consensus view that the Revolution itself was so thoroughly libertarian, in place of a more nuanced view of the ideology of the elites who came to power in the years immediately following the Revolution (and leading up to 1789).

Of course, this debate must stay faithful the available historical evidence, which is not exactly on the side of Nelson (at least in terms of quantity of rhetoric in his favor) -- but do read through Nelson's paper if you have the opportunity, as he remains convincing throughout the debate. Another important point in the debate between Wood and Nelson worth considering is how to accurately trace the relative impact of certain speeches or treatises which were being circulated in the early 1770s. Very interesting stuff and highly recommended.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

economic historians on the job market, 2011-2012

The start of a continuing series.

A brief look at a few of the top mainstream departments (Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago...) does not reveal much in the way of budding economic historians (... I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Check back soon for more interesting candidates). However, one of Daron Acemoglu's students is working on some interesting projects related to political economic history: his name is Pablo Querubin. His job market paper is an econometric study of rent-seeking by U.S. politicians in the second half of the 19th century. Abstract and other papers (some of which are also on economic history) here.

The story according to mainstream economists is as follows. Politicians are assumed to be self-interested profit maximizers who seek to gain from the system by acting on their own interests -- interests which do not necessarily line up with the interests of their constituents. The amount of this rent-seeking behavior, furthermore, is strongly related to the accountability of the underlying political system (how fair the electoral system is and so on). In short, a democratic government such as what we have in the U.S. would probably have relatively fewer rent-seeking politicians than a despotic one would.

Now, if we consider the second half of the 19th century-United States, "democratic" usually isn't the first word that comes to mind. Nevertheless, the question is, what would we expect given the postbellum United States? Was there significant rent-seeking? How would you test for it? Querubin uses a methodology which allows him to test whether politicians who were elected by a close margin saw their incomes increase more than the losers of that close electiono over the course of the rest of their careers.

He finds that this was not the case for politicians who were elected in the 1870s, but that it was the case during the Civil War. He interprets this finding as suggesting that in periods when a democracy is in some kind of (political or economic or both) crisis, the space is opened for rent-seeking. Otherwise, a democracy like the U.S. operates pretty well at insulating against such behavior. This is further supported by evidence that a team headed by Acemoglu found recently supporting the idea that "financial firms connected to Timothy Geithner experience an abnormal return of 15% after his nomination as Treasury Secretary," which, since it took place during the financial crisis, qualifies in his story. Although it really doesn't, since Geithner is just one person and I'm not sure that the other contenders for the Treasury Secretary position are necessarily doing any better or worse than him (which would be the true test of the hypothesis).

But should we be surprised that in a capitalist democracy we find such results as Querubin's? Politicians already occupy certain class positions before they gain power, suggesting that if there is some disturbance to democracy, it occurs before anyone approaches the ballot box. If you're looking for a malfunctioning democracy, rent-seeking behavior is not necessarily the first place you would look. I suggest you look instead at the politics of the capitalist state itself: why didn't we see a full democratization of the south after the Civil War (indeed, the period under which Querubin finds no rent-seeking!), for example? The story that we usually find is that different groups of elites are fighting over public policy, often ignorant of the mass of workers, poor people, women and blacks below. It's not rent-seeking, but it is politics from a privileged position in the economic system.

In summary, Querubin's paper seems to present solid evidence against the public choice thesis that politicians are rent-seekers. And he seems to have some good things to say about our political system in the end -- we have a fair amount of checks in our electoral system to counterbalance any self-interested behavior by politicians. But it's only 2 cheers for democracy. Capitalist democracy may not produce rent-seeking politicians but it certainly does produce a situation in which not everyone has equal say in designing the "rules of the economic game".

Friday, December 23, 2011

re-imagining history

Since I started up this blog project in May 2009 it has taken several unexpected turns. First I stopped posting so much about videogames, then I brought in Anti-Mankiw stuff, and lately the blog has become more contemporary and political. I'm leaving that all behind in order to focus more on recent exciting research in law and economy/society and economic history. Turns out there isn't a really good "Economic History Blog", the way that you have a "Legal History Blog" or even Marginal Revolution (which, aside from doing everything else, is also able to keep the interest of an academic core). So, in some ways Imagining History will try to fill a niche with this latest idea.

But no need to fear! My angle will be anything but run-of-the-mill. I anticipate most of the coverage, at least on the economic history side, will be based pretty heavily on hard criticism. So I promise it will be fun to read!

And we'll see where that takes me after a while...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

this just in: daron acemoglu down with #ows

In an interview on his top 5 recommended books on inequality:

"I’m definitely in that camp. I do believe in markets. I passionately believe in the importance of property rights and private property. I think they are absolute sine qua nons for prosperity. But I also believe that these things are very political and the politics shouldn’t be one-sided. Gore Vidal said, “The United States has only one party – the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.” If that is true, that’s a real threat to a free market and a fair society. For that reason I think Occupy Wall Street is very important. It’s a grassroots movement that tries to stand up to this tendency of our political system." 
Read the full interview here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

quote of the day: legal consciousness in early america

We don't often get to see how laws developed in and around courts (in legal treatises and reporters) trickle down to affect actual working people in the early 19th century. Much rarer to find such evidence in newspapers. But here is a gem, “From the Witness,” The Sun (Pittsfield, MA), 6 Sept. 1806:
I walked near a snug farm house -- everything around wore the aspect of industry and improvement. I saw the aged inhabitant and his family departing from their dwelling -- I saw them turn and take a farewell view, and march away in silent sorrow. This property had been bequeathed to him by an affectionate wife, now deceased. He had sold his other property and laid out the avails in the improvement of this favorite spot, on which he wished to close his eyes. The common law of a foreign country, the odious remnant of a barbarous feudal system had dispossessed him of this, and turned him and his children, houseless and destitute, upon the world.

Poring over this old piece, its arguments strike the reader of the common “few against the many” polemics that have found their place the historiography of post-Revolutionary society. Still, there is much more to the writer’s discussion than simply an attack on the “privileged”. The idea of the “few against the many,” alive today in popular media with discussions of who exactly constitutes the "99%", was used in post-Revolutionary America to criticize those who owned property, and therefore held status, without the necessary hard work to earn it. In the above, however, there is hard work: there is “industry and improvement,” and yet something still disturbs this social commentator about the nature of the legal system – one that has feudal remnants but continues to affect those in republican America. And are the claims of this farmer baseless or can we find evidence of them in the common law? The following suggests answers

The law of waste as it applied to inheritance changed over the course of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. The American legal understanding of waste is that it is any action which causes “permanent harm to real property committed by a tenant” (Black’s Law, 2009), though it could simply mean productive investment in the land by the tenant, as was the 18th century English understanding of the term. The common law view of waste as applied to inheritance developed over time to hold that one could not receive unproductive lands in inheritance, because that land had no inherent value. The economic logic behind the "instrumental conception” of the law was that the market for land knew best, especially in the early nineteenth century, so that a dower in unimproved lands would constrain the future productive value of the land. Indeed, this is the only way to explain the court's (contradictory!) claim that women themselves could not, after inheritance, make the land productive, because that would constitute waste! Horwitz goes so far as to suggest that these irrational decisions suggest that the judges’ goal in this thread of case law was to “undermine the right of dower itself.” For a discussion of the issue, see Horwitz, Transformation of American Law, pp. 56-58. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"no matter what happens, isn't it important to try?"

         "Cloud says they are trying to save the planet."
         "Honestly, I don't think it can be done."
         "For even if they stop every reactor on the planet, it's only
going to postpone the inevitable."
         "Even if they stop Sephiroth, everything will perish."

(Bugenhagen stops and looks at Red XIII.)

     "But, Nanaki [i.e. Red XIII]. I've been thinking lately." 
         "I've been thinking if there was anything WE could do."
         "As a part of the planet, something to help a planet already in
         "No matter what happens, isn't it important to try?"
         "Am I just wishing against fate?"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

legal standard of the day -- when could workers recover wages in 1840s pennsylvania

The ruling here established the fact that "faithful service" is an agreement implicit in the employment contract. That is to say, if a worker "misbehaves" on the job, he is not legally entitled to any back pay (e.g., if he misbehaves on the 29th of the month and the employer fires him promptly and wages for the month are due to him on the 30th, he gets nothing). From Libhart v. Wood (PA, 1841) argued before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania:
When a servant, who has engaged for a certain time at certain wages, is turned away by his master before the period for which he has engaged to serve has expired, and his dismissal be in consequence of his own misconduct, he will be entitled to no wages; for his faithful service is a condition precedent to his right to wages, and that condition, in the case supposed, he has not performed. But if his dismissal be unjust, the master can not, by his wrongful discharge, prevent the servant from recovering a compensation for his services. Thus the law carefully protects the rights of both master and servant

Thursday, December 1, 2011

quote of the day: law and labor in early america

Law hung old women in Salem because it was proved, said the courts of law, that they were witches. Law hung the Quakers in Boston, because they wore strait coats and broad brimmed hats. Law whipped the members of the same sect, at the cart tail, from town to town in New Hampshire. Law bared the backs of the Baptists in Boston, and lashed them until the skin was flayed off, because they said 'every man has a right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience;' and law in Connecticut compelled every body to cut their hair in a particular manner and prosecuted men for kissing their wives on the first day of the week. Law laid the stamp tax, and the tea tax, and our fathers resisted those unjust laws even unto blood.... Must we be told to submit in silence to law, merely because it is law, without reference to its constituent principles? No law will ever command the respect of any, not even a slave in every sense, unless that law is just.
From An Address delivered before the Mechanics and Working-Men of the City of Brooklyn, on the Celebration of the Sixtieth Anniversary of American Independence (1836) by Seth Luther, quoted in Tomlins, Law, Labor, and Ideology in Early America.