Saturday, December 6, 2014

Economic mobility and American Exceptionalism

A recent article by the economic historian Gregory Clark argues that economic mobility in the U.S. is far from ideal. Of course, Clark is not the first to write about economic mobility, but his historical comparisons help convey the ideas to his readers about how mobile American society is relative to other societies in the past and present. I like this style of economic history: in some ways it is similar to Piketty's recent work which makes sweeping but compelling claims about the future of our economic system. Quoting Keynes, it is the type of great economics which studies "the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future."

When reading Clark, I was reminded of Joseph Ferrie's research on the history of economic mobility in the U.S. He used linked census data to study intergenerational occupational mobility in the late-19th and early-20th century. He groups occupations into four categories to make his comparisons with post-WWII studies of mobility using Current Population Survey data.

Ferrie separates out mobility into two ideas: prevalence and association. Prevalence measures the ratio of, say, white collar to farm workers across generations. Association compares the odds that the son of a white collar worker becomes white collar to the odds that the sone of a farmer becomes white collar. Using both measures, Ferrie finds that occupational mobility rates were higher in the late-19th century than in the 20th century. In other words, Clark's argument is blown a little out of proportion: while the American Dream may not be easily realized today, it was relatively more easily realized in the late-19th century.

What about late-19th century mobility relative to Britain? Ferrie is referring here to the "American Exceptionalists", a group of social scientists beginning with Tocqueville and Marx, and later Werner Sombart, who argued that the lack of a socialist politics and class consciousness in the U.S. is due to Americans' obsession with "moving up the ladder" and other materialist concerns, as well as geographic mobility (to the frontier - more on that later). Ferrie does indeed find that mobility was higher in the U.S.; for example, 51.3% of British sons of unskilled fathers were able to move up the ladder, while 81.4% of American sons were able to do so, between 1850 and 1880. So, again, Clark's argument is blown a little more out of proportion: the American dream was real in the late-19th century and likely attracted people from other countries seeking a better life.

The causal story is much less clear: what was it about American society that made workers so mobile? One one level, it's a Kuznets-style story of the transition out of agriculture to industry which is capturing some of the mobility findings. Other explanations include the rise of public education and geographic mobility. The emphasis on geographic mobility and the "frontier" more generally has a long history in American scholarship. The frontier would serve as a safety-valve for urban growth and the growth of a "dependent class". Ferrie finds that Americans who moved were twice as mobile as those who didn't, suggesting that geographical mobility is an important part of the story.

It would be interesting to link this work up with recent discussions of the role of inequality through the so-called "Gatsby curve". To wit: is our modern capitalist system preventing economic mobility through a failure to effectively spread the wealth around? And to what extent did that same mechanism operate in the 19th century? Obviously many things have changed since then, including institutions and the role of the state. Still, it could be an interesting additional factor to consider.

Monday, September 23, 2013

the interregional slave trade in the antebellum south: new research

In a section of Chapter 2 of Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross entitled "The Interregional Redistribution of Slaves", the following claim is advanced:
If the planters of the Old South engaged in deliberate breeding for export, it was a minor 'crop.' The total value of all the slaves sold from east to west in 1860 was about $3,000,000. (pg. 48)
This is an important point in the context of antebellum Southern historiography, because the extent of slave trading (and breeding for export) signifies the extent to which plantation owners had exhausted the soil of the Old South. The story goes that the soil of the Old South was depleted of its nutrients through harsh, aggressive harvesting, leaving the plantation owners to resort to slave breeding via a rising interregional market for slaves. (The significance of their claim comes up again in Chapter 3 on the "Myth of Slave-Breeding".)

The story fits nicely within what Fogel and Engerman call "traditional" accounts of the slave South, in which irrational and inhumane masters stupidly destroy the basis of their livelihood and then resort to raising slaves as they would any other crop as a means of maintaining a high profit margin. This leads to larger issues of broken families and the disintegration of black family structure. The fact that Fogel and Engerman do not find evidence of significant trading suggests that family structure was more cohesive, and plantation owners more scientific in their agricultural methods, than the traditional story suggests.

In the latest (September 2013) Journal of Economic History, Richard Steckel and Nicolas Ziebarth push back on the issue of interregional slave trading. They argue that the interregional slave trade was more significant than what Fogel and Engerman suggest. The main contribution of the research comes from its new dataset. They use the fact that, after the ban on the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, U.S. law required ships with slaves to report each slave's origin and destination - these were recorded in the "slave manifests", which they collect to assemble the largest dataset yet on the slave trade. Using this dataset, they find that over half and possibly up to 60% of slaves travelling West (specifically, to the lower South) were traded.

In contrast, Fogel and Engerman draw only from sales data in Ann Arundel County, Maryland, as well as some related findings for New Orleans - a major trade destination, but not the only one - and conclude that 16% of slaves travelling from Old to New South were traded.

Does Steckel and Ziebarth's research give more weight to the traditional view of the plantation owner of the Old South - irrational agriculturalist and slave-breeding? They don't mention how their work might place in the more general historiography of the South. Unlike the older, more ambitious cliometricians, Steckel and Ziebarth are much more humble about what their conclusions might imply. But their results do suggest that a reexamination of the behavioral foundations of the southern plantation owner might bear more fruit.

A copy of the paper can be found here:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Explanations for the British Industrial Revolution, Revisited

It's been a while since I posted here. I thought I would get back into writing by briefly commenting on the lead article in the August 2013 Economic History Review by Jane Humphries.

Humphries takes aim at R. C. Allen's recent study of the origins of the British Industrial Revolution, which has been lauded as a very important and innovative work on this question. Allen focuses on four features that put the British economy at the technological "frontier" in the mid-to-late 18th century: higher wages than in the past, higher wages than in other countries, higher wages relative to the cost of capital, and higher wages relative to the price of coal. These four conditions in the "high wage economy" put Britain in a unique place for rapid capital-intensive investment, spurring productivity and hence growth.

The "high wage" thesis is part of what is called the "Habbakuk thesis". This argument maintains that labor is scarce (wages are high), then investors will want to find ways of saving money on labor, so they invest in machines and capital. This has the unintended effect of promoting industry and thus capitalism.

Humphries develops a three-pronged critique of Allen's claims.  All three points center around the nature of British labor markets in the time period of interest.

She first contends that wages were not that high relative to living standards. This builds off of a significant amount of research that Humphries has done recently on child labor and the plight of the poor in the Industrial Revolution. She cites a wealth of sources, essentially diaries and other direct accounts, that show that workers were indeed strapped for cash, barely "scraping by" if you will.

She then contends that family structure was considerably more stressed than what Allen assumes for his computations -- particularly regarding the caloric needs of a typical British household. Allen assumes a 2-child household when the reality was far different. This "patriarchal" assumption is a very old one and needs to be dropped in favor of a more inclusive idea of work or labor. Again, this draws on family economics and the need to incorporate unpaid women's labor into household needs and labor supply decisions and the production of value.

Finally, she contends that there was a dual labor market in Britain, which is not new, but she wishes to emphasize the labor market for women and children as having a quite dominant role. It was not just the labor market for the typical male worker that mattered. In fact, she showed how some employers specifically developed new machinery in order to allow women and children to take part in the work. Employing such workers also meant a lower wage bill -- another plus which is ignored in Allen's account.

The critique is all well and good, and like any good critique, it starts to raise more questions: how might we account for the rise of British capitalism? Is there an alternative theory that we can promote? If it's true that the high-wage story seems flawed, then what explains the rapid technological progress that took place? Perhaps something can be found in the story of the "disempowered" that Humphries mentions, who are all but forced into the factories, or at least, they take part in the capitalist labor market more out of necessity than want. Of course, such a story is known to many social and labor historians of early capitalism. But how might we bring new empirics (like Allen does) to test such claims and thus bring that perspective closer to current debates?

Friday, November 2, 2012

39 stripes - revisited

A while back I posted a comment on the usage in Southern law books of "39 lashes" as the specific punishment given to slaves for select crimes, such as publicly speaking out against the slave system. When I asked, "why 39?", after some searching I found that (supposedly) any more than that was considered a death sentence under Jewish law. So for example, Paul was given only 39 lashes, 5 times, by the Jews, according to 2 Corinthians 11.

There are several rationale given for making the maximum at 40, according to different versions of the Bible:
  • Punishing an Isrealite with over 40 lashes would cause the punisher to be publicly humiliated ("your brother [the punisher] will be degraded in your eyes")
  • In some cases, a bit worse than the above: "thy brother will become despicable in thine eyes"

 According, however, to written Jewish law, apparently they capped it at 39 because 40 was considered "full judgment" delivered by God, according to passages from Genesis and Numbers (and other references to 40 in the Old Testament). The 40 in Genesis, for example, refers to the 40 days and 40 nights of flooding. In Numbers, it refers to God punishing those who sinned by making their children serve as Shephards for 40 years. So accordingly, one might think that 40 was actually considered a death sentence, or at the very least, was considered entirely unthinkable as a punishment carried out by anyone other than God.

This seems to be the most plausible reading of the issue. Here is the source used for some of this discussion:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ques. Do you not find yourself mistaken now? Ans. Was not Christ crucified.

Christopher Tomlins on Walter Benjamin, Max Weber, and Nathaniel Turner's Confessions:
Why did Memnon's reverberations haunt Thomas Roderick Dew? What was the sound that the broken, thrown-down statue of an Ethiopian warrior-king made when touched by the rising sun every day, day after day? Pausanias says it was like 'the breaking of the string of a lute or lyre.' Perhaps that was what Turner's voice sounded like in Southampton's courtroom -- the breaking of an 'endless pagan chain of guilt and atonement.' Not guilty.
Read more here:

Monday, October 8, 2012

columbus day

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

From chapter 1 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (pg. 1)