Singing for Hitler – Choirs, Clubs and the Third Reich

Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33

Shanker Satyanath (NYU), Nico Voigtlander (UCLA) and Hans-Joachim Voth (Zurich)

URL: econpapers.repec.org/paper/zureconwp/147.htm

Abstract:

Social capital typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes. A growing literature also emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany. We analyse Nazi Party entry in a cross-section of cities. Dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, choirs, and animal breeders facilitated the Nazi Party’s rise. Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster entry. All types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS Party entry. These results suggest that social capital aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy. We also show that the effects of social capital depended on the institutional context – in Prussia, where democratic institutions were stronger, the link between party entry and association density was markedly weaker.

Reviewed by Ronan McGarry (final-year BSc Economics student, Queen’s University Belfast)

This NBER working paper was distributed by NEP-HIS-2013-07-15. The authors seek to clarify and quantify the role that social capital played in the rise of the Nazi Party and the ensuing downfall of the democratic Weimar Republic. In order to do so, econometric analysis of the link between local clubs/societies and Nazi party membership is conducted. The authors also seek to add to the current literature on the ‘dark side’ of social capital (Putnam 1995).

The literature on positive and negative outcomes as a result of high levels of social capital is conflicting. In his 1995 essay ‘Bowling Alone’, Robert Putnam wrote that communities with high levels of social capital ‘promote participatory democracy’. However, Riley (2005) would refute this and point to society-rich Northern Italy – which turned fascist in the 1930s. Furthermore, Chambers & Kopstein (2001) point out that after the collapse of the USSR, Serbs began ethnically cleansing their Balkan neighbours, even though Serbia had fairly intense levels of social capital. This paper turns its attention to Weimar Germany in an effort to shed more light on the topic.

It must be noted that the authors were not the first to tackle Weimar Germany’s fall in terms of social capital. However, they are the first to have done so econometrically. Berman (1997) showed that ‘a robust civil society helped scuttle the twentieth century’s most critical democratic experiment, Weimar Germany’ explaining that the ‘high levels of association served to fragment rather than unite German society.’ This paper builds on Berman’s conclusion by comparing numerically the rates of civic association intensity in German towns and cities against the rate of Nazi Party membership uptake; whilst controlling for various other political and socio-economic variables.

The authors collected data on 111 German towns and cities in modern-day Germany. One problem here is that Weimar Germany’s eastern border was much further to the east than modern-day Germany’s. This means that missing from this dataset are cities like Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) and Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). Both of these cities were very Nazi-friendly – the Nazis received 44% of Breslau’s vote in 1932 (Davies & Moorhouse, 2011) and 54% of Konigsberg’s in 1933 (Jasinski, 1994) and so their exclusion from the dataset is disappointing in terms of accuracy.

Missing from the authors' dataset are cities like Breslau, Koningberg and Danzig.

Missing from the authors’ dataset are cities like Breslau, Koningberg and Danzig.

Following this, the authors begin the presentation of their findings with an interesting comparison of two similar towns – Kleve and Coburg. Both were similar in size, but with large differences in the presence of associations. Coburg was far denser in terms of civic society – with a rate of 2.99 associations per 1000 inhabitants, compared to Kleve’s 0.89 per 1000. Then, as their hypothesis predicts, Coburg saw an ‘80% greater uptake’ (p. 15) in Nazi Party membership than Kleve between 1919 and 1933.

However, whilst this serves to broadly illustrate the authors’ point, I find this comparison disingenuous in that in picking Coburg, they happen to select one of the most Nazi-friendly cities in Germany to make their point. Indeed, Coburg’s city hall was the first in Germany to fly the Nazi flag. My point is that by picking a town in Bavaria (the home province of the Nazis) and comparing it to a town in the far north, they are ignoring potential geographical concerns. Indeed, if the authors had of compared Kleve with Hamburg (another Northern city with a similar Association Density to Coburg’s), then they would have found their results running the wrong way, as Hamburg has a higher Association Density but a lower Nazi Party entry rate!

Nazi Party Entry Rate against Association Density of towns, with Hamburg, Kleve and Coburg highlighted.

Nazi Party Entry Rate against Association Density of towns, with Hamburg, Kleve and Coburg highlighted.

The authors then present their numerical findings. They announce that ‘association density strongly and significantly predicts higher entry rates into the NSDAP’, with ‘the per capita entry rate increasing by 0.4 standard deviations for every standard deviation increase in association density’ (p.16), results which support Chambers & Kopstein (2001) and Riley’s (2005).

Following this, the authors make an effort to quantify the differences between Putnam’s (1995) ‘bonding’ (exclusive groups such as Gentleman’s Clubs) and ‘bridging’ (inclusive groups such as choirs or bowling clubs) social capital in terms of their effects on Nazi membership uptake. Putnam believed bonding social capital to have adverse effects, with bridging social capital fulfilling the opposite role. However, the authors find bridging capital to have ‘positive, significant and quantitatively meaningful coefficients, which are similar in magnitude to those for bonding capital’ (p.21) – suggesting that both types of associations were ‘important pathways’ in terms of Nazi party membership.

German youth choir, and example of bridging capital. The sign translates to 'We sing for Adolf Hitler'.

German youth choir, and example of bridging capital. The sign translates to ‘We sing for Adolf Hitler’.

One final important contribution this paper makes is in terms of investigating the evidence that social capital can develop a ‘dark side’ (Putnam, 1995) and actually undermine a functioning democracy – which the authors claim is ‘missing’ from current literature. To do so, they examine the state of Prussia, which was more ‘pro-democracy’ and was ‘governed more competently’ (p.22). What they find is that before the gradual weakening of Prussian democracy in 1930, the relationship between party entry and association entry in Prussia was ‘systematically weaker’ (p.23) than the rest of Germany. What this shows is that a ‘functional, strong, democratic government’ (p.24) can help prevent social capital showing its ‘dark side.’

To conclude, this paper offers an interesting insight into an area of social capital literature which had not been studied econometrically before. Whilst it is indeed disappointing that the authors could not include important eastern European cities that are no longer a part of Germany, they do make a fair point that massive war damage in these cities led to the loss of many public records and as such, makes it impossible to gather data. On a positive note, the presentation of Prussia as a case in which social capital can suddenly change from a democracy-supporting vehicle to one which undermines democracy completely is welcomed, and suggests that the manner in which social capital operates is heavily dependent on the ‘wider institutional context’. In terms of future study into the ‘dark side’ of social capital, it might be interesting to apply these econometric methods to the rise of other fascist parties, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, or further study on fascist – building on Riley’s 2005 work.

Bibliography

Berman, S. (1997). Civil society and the collapse of the Weimar Republic.World politics49, 401-429.

Chambers, S., & Kopstein, J. (2001). Bad civil society. Political Theory, 837-865.

Davies, N., & Moorhouse, R. (2011). Microcosm: a portrait of a central European city. Random House.

Jasiński, J. (1994). A history of Konigsberg: sketches of the thirteenth to twentieth centuries. (Historia Królewca: szkice z XIII-XX stulecia) Książnica, Poland.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy6(1), 65-78.

Riley, D. (2005). Civic associations and authoritarian regimes in interwar Europe: Italy and Spain in comparative perspective. American Sociological Review70(2), 288-310.

Satyanath, S., Voigtländer, N., & Voth, H. J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: Social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33 (No. w19201). National Bureau of Economic Research.

 

(Spoiler Alert) Game of Science: Higher life expectancy does not cause Economic Growth

Disease and Development: A Reply to Bloom, Canning, and Fink

By Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson (both MIT)

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:nbr:nberwo:20064&r=his

Abstract

Bloom, Canning, and Fink (2014) argue that the results in Acemoglu and Johnson (2006, 2007) are not robust because initial level of life expectancy (in 1940) should be included in our regressions of changes in GDP per capita on changes in life expectancy. We assess their claims controlling for potential lagged effects of initial life expectancy using data from 1900, employing a nonlinear estimator suggested by their framework, and using information from microeconomic estimates on the effects of improving health. There is no evidence for a positive effect of life expectancy on GDP per capita in this important historical episode.

Reviewed by Sebastian Fleitas

 “The game of science is, in principle, without end.   He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.” 

The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper, 1934.

Bill Gates' Infographics

Bill Gates’s Infographic.

Not a long time ago, on April 25, Bill Gates posted an infographic on his blog revealing which is the world’s deadliest animal. Sharks, bugs, snakes and many very scary animals are not even close. The mosquito has the first place by far. They carry terrible diseases, including malaria, which kills more than 600,000 people every year. This infographic is just a reminder of how important it is to improve health around the world. Better health conditions could make millions of people live longer and better lives. But will these better health conditions (and a longer life expectancy) actually cause economic growth? Cross-country regression studies show a strong correlation between measures of health and both the level of economic development and recent economic growth. But, as we know, correlation does not imply causation.

What Acemoglu and Johnson (AJ hereafter) do in their 2014 paper (NEP-HIS 2014-05-17) is just to play the Game of Science. AJ (2007) argue that life expectancy does not cause economic growth and that previous studies had not established a causal effect of health and disease environments on economic growth. Since countries suffering from short life expectancy are also disadvantaged in other ways that are correlated with their poor health outcomes, previous macro studies may be capturing the negative effects of these other unobservable disadvantages. To address this identification problem, AJ (2007) used an instrument for the life expectancy: medical advances that occur at the health frontier, interacted with variation in the prevalence of diseases across the world, used together to construct a predicted mortality variable. The adoption of new medical practices is clearly endogenous, but the authors argue that the technology at the frontier is potentially exogenous. Since there was variation across countries in the prevalence of different diseases, the timing of new medicine advances has a different effect on the predicted mortality for different countries. In other words, the predicted mortality variable satisfies the requirements of a good instrument: it is correlated with the life expectancy in the country, but it is arguably not correlated with other unobservables that determine growth that may be changing at the same time in a country.

Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin developed two different polio vaccines that have pretty much  almost eradicated polio from the world.

Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin developed two different polio vaccines that have pretty much almost eradicated polio from the world.

Bloom et al. (2013, hereafter BCF) disagree with AJ’s strategy and conclusions. In their paper, which earlier appeared as an NBER working paper, they argue that the problem with AJ’s instrument is that it assumes the predicted mortality to be exogenous and not affected by contemporaneous income shocks. In other words, it implies that the initial mortality rate in 1940 should be unaffected by income levels in 1940, which is difficult to believe. As BCF explain very clearly, the “natural experiment” constructed by AJ is flawed. The “treatment group” that received large health gains from technological innovations is fundamentally different from the “control group” that received low health gains, since the “treatment group” had lower life expectancy initially. Therefore, if initial conditions are important for subsequent economic growth, the results will be biased if these initial conditions in 1940 are not considered. BCF included the level of life expectancy in their econometric specifications (a “partial adjustment model”) and they concluded that exogenous improvements in health due to technical advances associated with the epidemiological transition appear to have increased income levels.

In their reply to the reply, Acemoglu and Johnson (2014) address by different means the concern raised by BCF about their original work. First, in order to capture the long-run effects of the initial life expectancy, they include the level of life expectancy in 1900 interacted with time dummies in their decadal panel data set (which runs from 1940). Second, they estimate the “partial adjustment model” of BCF via non linear GMM, since the linear estimation of BCF’s specification will lead to a great deal of multicollinearity and the standard errors become very large. Finally, they use microeconomic estimates from another paper to calculate potential macroeconomic effects of current life expectancy on future growth and examine the implications of their baseline results. AJ conclude that all these approaches confirm that their main results are robust. There is no evidence that increases in life expectancy after 1940 had a positive effect on GDP per capita growth.

There are three issues in this Game of Science that I would like to comment on. First, the intent to quantify the contribution of health to economic growth is extremely relevant for both scientific and policy-related motivations. The general conclusion of the debate, at this stage of the game, is that health conditions were not a factor that shaped the differences in GDP per capita during the second half of the 20th century. Even more generally, the evidence casts doubts on the views that health has a first-order impact on economic growth. With this in mind, it is important to recognize the limitations in the study, especially to extract conclusions for today’s effect of health on economic growth. This is recognized by AJ, who warn that international epidemiological transition was a one-time event and that the diseases that take many lives in the poorer parts of the world today are not the same as those 60 years ago. Despite these considerations, it is important to notice that no author in this debate has questioned the crucial role of improving health conditions to save and improve the lives of millions of people.

Correlation and Causation

Correlation versus Causation

Second, it is important to highlight that the main contribution of AJ is that they provide a sound way to address the problem of endogeneity in order to answer this important question. It is not the first time that Acemoglu and Johnson find a way to design a natural experiment to address some fundamental development questions by using exogenous variation in a country-level panel data setting. In another famous paper, Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001, AJR hereafter) address the problem of endogeneity that raises in the study of the linkages between income and institutions with the famous instrument of mortality rates of European settlers in different colonies. In both occasions Acemoglu and co-author(s) show us in practice the nuts and bolts of economists’ empirical work, that is, to address the endogeneity concerns by doing good research designs and by finding exogenous sources of variation.

Finally, I see this debate as a privileged example of Popper´s quote. In this short reply to BCF, AJ (2014) present further tests for their results in AJ (2007), overcoming the important point that BCF raise. This is a fair game; both articles are forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy and the database and programs for AJ papers can be downloaded from Daron Acemoglu’s webpage at MIT. Even more, this is not the first time these authors play the game in the same way. A similar, and also very illustrative debate about AJR (2001) and David Albouy’s critiques can be found in the American Economic Review, or in the NBER working paper. In both debates, Acemoglu and co-author(s) present more evidence on their results that are robust to additional tests, but in both episodes we gain from the debate. We just need to recall that our knowledge is always limited by the evidence we have at the moment, and that this evidence will change over time. After all, in the Game of Science, just like in another famous game, you do not know how it is going to end, even if you read all the books that have been published on the topic.

The institutional co-evolution of proto-multinationals

The Formative Years of the Modern Corporation: The Dutch East India Company VOC, 1602-1623

By Oscar Gelderblom (University of Utrecht), Abe de Jong (Erasmus University Rotterdam) & Joost Jonker (Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht)

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/ems/eureri/32952.html

Abstract

With their legal personhood, permanent capital with transferable shares, separation of ownership and management, and limited liability for both shareholders and managers, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and subsequently the English East India Company (EIC) are generally considered a major institutional breakthrough. Our analysis of the business operations and notably the financial policy of the VOC during the company’s first two decades in existence shows that its corporate form owed less to foresight than to constant piecemeal engineering to remedy original design flaws brought to light by prolonged exposure to the strains of the Asian trade. Moreover, the crucial feature of limited liability for managers was not, as previously thought, part and parcel of that design, but emerged only after a long period of experimenting with various, sometimes very ingenious, solutions to the company’s financial bottlenecks.

Reviewed by Stephanie Decker

The Dutch East India company may be among the best researched businesses of all time, but it is testament to its importance as a proto-multinational and the quality of its archive that research on this firm continues to inform contemporary research debates. The working paper by Gelderblom, De Jong & Jonker (NEP-HIS 2014-01-17), which has since been published in the Journal of Economic History, is interesting as it deals with the early years of the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), and presents both a historical narrative as well as some distinctive challenges to previous assumptions. Their paper has to be seen as both an interesting contribution to other researches on the VOC, as well as some more general debates.

The continued interest in this very old company is due to a variety of reasons. Even a short sweep of recent work that relates to the VOC shows a remarkable breadth of themes. Wim van Lent has compared management policies of the VOC with its competitor, the English East India company, to understand some problems of its organizational evolution (Sgourev & Van Lent, 2011). This comparison is so intriguing not just because of the Dutch-English colonial competition during this time period, but also because the two East India companies were organized very differently, and almost provide a naturally occurring counterfactual for each other in a laboratory that tests organizational effectiveness at long distance.

As both firms date back to the seventeenth century, and were among the first well-documented examples of how organizations dealt with the challenges of managing across vast distances, their corporate histories are of great importance in and of themselves. Both provide organizational solutions to some of the perennial problems of multinationals, which struggled with poor communication and oversight of operations, especially the difficulties of enforcing control and monitoring the trustworthiness of its agents.

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Gelderblom et al. discuss the attitudes and conflicts within the Dutch Republic over the control of the VOC, the world’s first modern corporation

But despite all of these similarities to the multinationals of later stages, the East India companies were also fundamental different, and creations of their own time. The companies, especially the VOC, often took on roles that made them quasi-governmental bodies. As a result, they were involved in some of the day-to-day issues of governance of empire, which made these archives particularly rich. Thus they have been researched beyond the narrow confines of business history, and the particular insights that can be gained from those files have been discussed in great detail by Ann Laura Stoler (2009), a well-known postcolonial historian of gender and empire. The conduct of business often involved the company in political and personal issues well beyond what one would usually expect to see in a business archive, which offers rich contextual insights into the time period and its attitudes.

It is in this regard that the paper by Gelderblom et al. is interesting, as it discusses the attitudes and conflicts within the Netherlands over the control and financing of the VOC, and the exact rights and obligations of its directors. The paper takes core historical values such as contextualization and contingency (O’Sullivan & Graham, 2010) seriously, and paints a rich picture of the time period and some of the characters that influenced the decision-making within and beyond the VOC. The importance of these issues lies in more conceptual debates about the evolution of limited liability in the West (as opposed to other commercially vibrant areas such as the Middle East). Gelderblom et al.’s analytically structured narrative (Rowlinson, Hassard & Decker, 2014) highlights that although the VOC possessed some important legal features that we commonly associate with modern corporations, others developed only during its first years of operations in response to external pressures.
Consequently, having acquired two key features of the modern corporation (the split between ownership and management and transferable shares) from the outset, the VOC obtained three more (a permanent capital, limited liability for directors and by extension legal personhood) step-by-step over a period of some twenty years. Thus the five features did not come as a package, as a coherent logical set.

Their narrative shows how most of these pressures reflected financial constraints, as the large-scale trading activities in conjunction with military expeditions were a far larger undertaking than anything that had hitherto been financed on the Amsterdam money markets. This is an important contribution, and their short discussion in the conclusion quite sensitively highlights that some assumptions about the superiority of the Western institutional frameworks, such as argued for by Kuran (2010), are perhaps too ethnocentric to fully understand not just the different evolution of institutions in other cultures, but can also blind researchers to the historically contingent development of the legal frameworks that we now take for granted.

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Gelderblom et al. hide much of their contribution in their paper’s appendix

In light of the above, it is noticeable that the actual narrative takes up the largest part of the paper, and that it is only at particularly important junctures that the historiographical literature is challenged, while the framing in the introduction and conclusion is more heavily conceptual. These insights that can only be developed from a careful, in-depth historical investigation perhaps deserve better highlighting. This extends to the title, which does not quite do justice to the large themes that inform the historical narrative. Finally, it is only in the appendix that it becomes clear for readers not familiar with the nature of the VOC archive that this early period that the paper deals with is indeed not as well-researched as the later period, especially in terms of its financial performance. All of this adds up to another interesting angle of research on the VOC, which as a company and an organizational archive is clearly a case of great importance for the history of business and its institutional developments.

References:

  • Kuran, T. 2010. The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • O’Sullivan, M., & Graham, M. B. W. 2010. Guest Editors’ introduction: Moving Forward by Looking Backward: Business History and Management Studies. Journal of Management Studies, forthcoming.
  • Rowlinson, M., Hassard, J., & Decker, S. 2014. Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue between Historical Theory and Organization Theory. Academy of Management Review, 39(3).
  • Sgourev, S. V., & van Lent, W. 2011. The Right Amount of Wrong? Private Trade and Public Interest at the VOC European Group of Organization Studies. Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • Stoler, A. L. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

On Macroeconomics After the Financial Crisis

Short-Run Macro After the Crisis: The End of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis?

By Oliver Landmann (Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg)

Abstract: The Financial Crisis of 2008, and the Great Recession in its wake, have shaken up macroeconomics. The paradigm of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis, which seemed to provide a robust framework of analysis for short‐run macro not long ago, fails to capture key elements of the recent crisis. This paper reviews the current reappraisal of the paradigm in the light of the history of macroeconomic thought. Twice in the past 80 years, a major macroeconomic crisis led to the breakthrough of a new paradigm that was to capture the imagination of an entire generation of macroeconomists. This time is different. Whereas the pre‐crisis consensus in the profession is broken, a sweeping transition to a single new paradigm is not in sight. Instead, macroeconomics is in the process of loosening the methodological straightjacket of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis, thereby opening a door for a return to its original purpose: the study of information and coordination in a market economy.

Persistent Link: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:fre:wpaper:27?

Reviewed by Catherine Dorman (final-year BSc Business Economics student, Bangor University, Wales)

Summary

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-02-08, and it addresses the impact that the recent financial crisis has had upon macroeconomic thought. Specifically in terms of how the New Neoclassical Synthesis has held up to scrutiny following the most recent economic debacle. Landmann offers an overview of the history and progression of macroeconomic thought from the “Keynesian revolution” (p.4) to New Neoclassical Synthesis economics, right up to modern day contemporary economics, and its response to current macroeconomic issues.

The purpose of Landmann’s paper is to explain how economics has evolved since the Keynesian school of thought emerged in the aftermath of the 1930s depression, and to show how the macroeconomic community has been left splintered as a result of the recent financial crisis, without a consensus in sight. It asks the questions: Why has this occurred? How did the New Neoclassical Synthesis fail to foresee or explain the worst economic downturn since the 1930s? Finally, it asks the all-important question: Is it necessarily a bad situation to be in? Or has having smashed the previous concept to pieces resulted in an environment in which macroeconomics can really explore and develop itself without the shackles of archaic and contextually inapplicable economic theory?

Prof. Dr. Oliver Landmann -Bild Schneider

Landmann introduces his paper by assessing the state of macroeconomic affairs, operating within a New Neoclassical Synthesis environment, in the run up to the financial crisis of 2008. The ‘Great Moderation’, described a period of economic constancy spanning from the 1980s to 2008, which was characterized by a continually stable business cycle (Davies and Kahn, 2008). Famously, Ben Bernanke, who coined the phrase ‘Great Moderation’, is quoted as having attributed this period of economic success to structural change, improved macroeconomic policies, and good luck (Bernanke, 2004). Ultimately, Landmann describes a period in which the great moderation had lulled the economic community into a false sense of stability, much like that described by Hymen Minsky (Minsky, 1992).

The next section of the paper is dedicated to creating a contextual understanding, and this is achieved through showing the evolution of economics thought from Keynes to the New Neoclassical Synthesis.

Consider Fig 1 for a brief overview of the changes of economic thought from the 1930s to 2008:

Fig. 1
Figure1

As is evident across each of these theories, their explanatory power tends to be relatively finite. In the case of Adam Smith and John Keynes’ theories, they were deconstructed and meshed in order to explain the economy’s operations at a specific point in time, and this came to be known as the Neoclassical Synthesis. This was largely credited to the work of Paul Samuelson during the 1950s (Samuelson, 1955). It took the underlying idea of Keynesian theory of underemployment, with the notion that monetary and fiscal policy can be employed to reduce this. It could therefore use classical equilibrium analysis to explain resource allocation and relative prices (p4). The economic policy was successfully adopted in developed countries as an effective treatment for the economy after the Second World War.

It was from the stability and growth that was created through the adoption of this macroeconomic approach, which helped to develop confidence in the prescriptive capabilities of economic theory. However, as history has taught us, ceteris paribus does not hold in reality. The theory was largely nullified in the 60’s and 70’s, because it had been unable to predict stagflation, and the Philips Curve was completely undermined (Motyovszki, 2013).
Consider Fig 2 for a concise history of the economic theory covered in this paper.

Fig. 2
Figure 2
(Source: Short-Run Macro After the Crisis: The End of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis? By Oliver Landmann.)

The result of this was a new hybrid economic theory: New Classical economics. From this theory came the Real Business Cycle model, which argued that cycles result from the reactions of optimizing agents to real disturbances, for example, changes in technology.
In the 1970s, the New Neoclassical Synthesis emerged, with a combination of New Keynesianism and New Classical theories, and the basis of economic practice during the Great Moderation. It was felt amongst policy makers that the short term interest rate was enough of an instrument in economic management, and that the business cycle was believed to have been overcome (Aubrey, 2013).

Landmann’s paper addresses how the economic crash of 2008 threw macroeconomics into turmoil. The New Neoclassical Synthesis had not fully appreciated the effects of the financial market within its model, and the result was that it was inadequate as a means of remedying problems in the economy (Pike, 2012). Landmann makes a good point of acknowledging that although financial economics took great consideration of the behavioural antics of the banking sector, within the actual practiced model of the New Neoclassical Synthesis, these were fundamentally disconnected.

In light of this, the once unquestioned macroeconomic doctrine was suddenly under scrutiny. One of the greatest criticisms of the New Neoclassical Synthesis is its reliance upon “elegant” (p12) mathematical equations, which are often predictively insufficient due to the sheer number of assumptions that have to be made in order to create a working model. It doesn’t fully estimate factors such as irrationality and uncertainty (BBC NEWS, 2014) and the result of this is that the results can be wildly inaccurate (Caballero, 2010). This can also create coordination problems from assumptive behavioural models, such as the Robinson Crusoe model, which become overly stylized to the detriment of economic viability (Colander, 2009).

Consequentially, macroeconomics has begun to pay more focus to realistic behaviour, given that information is rarely perfect in actuality (Caballero, 2010; Sen, 1977).

Landmann concludes that out of the financial crisis, there has been a flood of new macroeconomic theories develop, and that the New Neoclassical Synthesis still has pedagogic merit. He does, however, primarily blame the era of Great Moderation for a period of complacency amongst economic academics. The simple acceptance of one concept of economics based purely on its merit during a stable business cycle, without inquisitive forethought into how it would respond when faced with an exogenous or endogenous shock, is Landmann’s greatest criticism.

Critique

This paper is incredibly relevant, and its themes and messages are certainly ones that economists need to be considering in the aftermath of such a fresh and colossal economic recession. There is perhaps an over simplification of some of the timeline of economics: broadly defining all economists during the Great Moderation as being one school of thought is unfair and inaccurate, but for the purpose of the paper, it is perhaps forgivable.

Landmann makes little mention of the pattern by which economic thought often evolves. Gul, Chaudhry and Faridi describe economic thought as developing from “quick fixes” (Gul et al. 2014: 11), and this would help to explain why, during the Great Moderation, very little new economic thought was developed: the need wasn’t there. Through their histories of economic development, Gul et al. (2014) and Landmann,suggest that macroeconomics is reactionary as opposed to precautionary, despite its attempts to be prophetic.

This echoes the “Lucas Critique”, the understanding that economic equations developed and implemented during one policy system, are unlikely to remain relevant or explanatorily applicable during another (Lucas, 1976).

Finally, it does little to explore the external factors that led to the period of Great Moderation. Globalisation had really taken a hold during this time, with containerization in full flow (at 90% of all non-bulk cargo worldwide being moved by containers on transport ships (C. E. Ebeling, 2009)), and advances in computation and communication technology (Bernanke, 2004) which helped to stabilize inventory stocks – something that is acknowledged as a contributory factor in cyclical fluctuations (McConnel and Quiros, 2000).

Ultimately, the paper makes the same conclusions that most macroeconomic papers do. There is no definitive explanation for everything that occurs within the economy, and certainly no blanket approach that will procure the most lucrative outcomes on every occasion. This paper goes a step further to explain why it can be damaging to rigidly subscribe to one theory of macroeconomics: it discourages continual change and forethought, which in turn can stunt the evolution of explanatory macroeconomic thought.

References

Aubrey, T., 2013. Profiting from Monetary Policy: Investing Through the Business Cycle. 1 ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

BBC NEWS, 2014. Did Hyman Minsky find the secret behind financial crashes?. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26680993 [Accessed 07 April 2014].

Bernanke, B. S., 2004. Remarks by Governor Ben S. Bernanke At the Meeting of the Eastern Economics Association Available at: http://www.federalreserve.gov/Boarddocs/Speeches/2004/20040220/ [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Ebeling, C. E. 2009. Evolution of a Box. Invention and Technology 23(4): 8-9.

Caballero, R. J., 2010. Macroeconomics After the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome. Journal of Economic Perspectives 24(4): 85-102.

Colander, D. C. et al., 2009. The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic. Kiel: Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Davies, S. J., and Kahn, J.A., 2008. Interpreting the Great Moderation: Changes in the Volatility of Economic Activity at the Macro and Micro Levels. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Available at: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14048 [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Gul, E., Chaudhry, I. S. and Faridi, M. Z., 2014. The Classical-Keynesian Paradigm: Policy Debate in Contemporary Era. Munich: Munich Personal RePEc Archive. Available at: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/53920.htm [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Lucas, R. E., 1976. Econometric Policy Evaluation: A Critique. Carnegie‐Rochester, Carnegie‐Rochester Conference.

McCombie, J. S. L., and Pike, M., 2012. The End of the Consensus in Macroeconomic Theory? A Methodological Inquiry. Unpublished. Cambridge Centre for Economic and Public Policy WP02-12, Department of Land Economy: University of Cambridge. Available at: http://www.landecon.cam.ac.uk/research/real-estate-and-urban-analysis/ccepp/copy_of_ccepp-publications/wp02-12.pdf [Accessed 07 April 2014]

McConnell, M. M., and Perez Quiros, G., 2000. Output Fluctuations in the United States: What Has Changed Since the Early 1980s?. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Available at: http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/events/2000/march/structural-change-monetary-policy/output.pdf [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Minsky, H. P., 1992. The Financial Instability Hypothesis. New York: The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Motyovszki, G., 2013. The Evolution of the Phillips Curve Concepts and Their Implications for Economic Policy. Budapest: Central European University.

Samuelson, P., 1955. Economics. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sen, A. K., 1977. Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 6(4): 317-344.

Cold, Calculating Political Economy’: Fixed costs, the Rate of Profit and the Length of the Working Day in the Factory Act Debates, 1832-1847

By Steve Toms (Leeds University Business School)

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/54408.htm

The paper re-analyses the evidence presented by pro and anti-regulation interests during the debates on factory reform. To do so it considers the interrelationship between fixed costs, the rate of profit and the length of the working day. The interrelationship casts new light on the lobbying positions on either side of the debate. It does so by comparing the evidence presented in the debates before parliament and associated pamphlets with actual figures contained in the business records of implicated firms. As a result the paper identifies the compromise position of the working day length compatible with reasonable rates of profit based on actual cost structures. It is thereby able to reinterpret the validity of the claims of contemporary political economy used to support the cases for and against factory regulation.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-03-22 and its a follow up to that reviewed by Masayoshi Noguchi in an earlier post on the NEP-HIS blog (click here)

This second paper by Toms draws on a range of archival materials from both government and businesses to explore in detail the implications of legislative changes on British business during the industrial revolution.  It shows how the debates concerning the implementation of stricter working hours were contentious. Outlining the difficulties faced by the government and businesses to uniformly apply these new measures, particularly since businesses were exposed to different pressures according to their contribution to society, it shows how these factors further influencing the implementation and drafting of these measures.   By citing the debates of the anti-regulation bodies in Parliament, and also Parliamentary debates, it exemplifies how the interpretations of profit influenced the debates tabled by the Ten Hours movement – the pressure group created with a view to enshrine, in legislation, a maximum 10 hour working day.   This perspective in itself is new, particularly since it moves away from the traditional approaches adopted by trade union historians such as Alistair Reid and others who have examined the influence of unions in these disputes, but have examined them from the perspective of strikes (Reid, 2005).

 

Summary

Adopting a theoretical approach, especially in its examination of different interpretations of profit in the nineteenth century, this paper scrutinizes the range of factors that determined wages in nineteenth century factories, concluding that the reasons were much more complex than originally assumed.  In claiming that accounting manipulators were used as a major force in setting these wages, Toms shows how the considerations governing the decisions about wages were based on a range of accounting methods, although these methods at this time were not well-developed.  Furthermore, he claims convincingly that accountancy was poorly practiced in the nineteenth century, primarily owing to the apparent paucity of regulations governing the profession.   In adopting this approach, Toms highlights the two sides of the debate suggested by historians so far concerning the role of accountancy, that being: that it did not have an important role at all; or that it played a role that was sufficient to encourage competition.  By doing so, he has lucidly integrated the laissez faire ideology to elucidate the role of accountants in the policymaking process.

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Pressures on workers and the arduous hours did result in greater pressure on government to develop measures to regulate working hours

Much of the debates concerning workplace rights have adopted either a policy history perspective (examining the efforts of the government to regulate the economy) or a social history perspective (examining the perceived improvement in rights for workers).  Yet a detailed analysis of the implications of company accounting on government policy decisions has not yet been undertaken.  While economic historians such as Nicholas Crafts have used econometrics as a method to try and explain the causes of the industrial revolution, (Crafts, 2012) little attention has been given to the implications of these changes in terms of workplace legislation on not only the workers themselves, but on the calculations affecting industrial output and their response to government intervention.  Through examining the role of prominent socialists such as Robert Owen, this paper highlights the complex nature of the debates concerning profits, loss and its correlation with productivity to show that while the pro-regulation movement sought to protect the rights of individual workers, the anti-regulation movement created an inextricable link between the reduction of profit and the justification for longer working days. Locating this argument within the debate concerning fixed costs, it demonstrates how the definitions and arbiters of profits, loss and value was a moveable feast.

Robert Owen's ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

Robert Owen’s ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

This approach to the data has led to a different account of the costs faced by businesses than has hitherto been suggested by historians, and while Toms is careful to claim that this does not resolve the conceptual disputes surrounding the practice of accounting in the nineteenth century, it does provide a platform for further debate and a re-examination of the figures.  For example, in the analysis of the Ashworth accounts, Toms claims that the adoption of a variable approach to costing of volume-based products shows an annual running cost of £2500 per year, £3800 less than Boyson concluded in his 1970 study.  In his analysis of profit, Toms concludes that there could be a 3 hour variable that would not have detrimentally affected the profitability of companies.  Claiming that profitability would be at last 10 percent with 58 hour or 55 hour working week, this challenges previous assumptions those longer working hours would yield greater profits.  However, he highlights that the only significant difference would be that if these figures were compared to the onerous 69 hour week, where the profit margins could be expected to rise by a further 5 percent, although the pro-regulation body, for the purposes of strengthening their argument, presented this variable as high as 15 percent.

The final part of the paper lucidly examines the impact of foreign competition.  Citing the increased costs of British production when compared with European counterparts, with Manchester reported to be 50 percent higher in terms of spinning production costs than Switzerland, Toms shows how superficially the justification for maintaining the British market was now becoming even more difficult.  However, a deeper analysis of the figures reveals a different story, and to illustrate the point, evidence from Mulhausen is juxtaposed with Lancashire to show how wages were on average 18 d per day higher in Lancashire, although their productivity was almost double that of their German counterpart, and concludes that in effect, the overseas threat to the British market was as substantial as originally assumed.

Critique

This paper is extremely ambitious in its scope and development, and has covered significant ground in its analysis.  Its conclusions are convincing and are based on deep theoretical and conceptual understandings of the accountancy process.  My only suggestion is that the final section of the paper examining the ideological theories of profit could be fleshed out more so as to fully contextualise the political, legislative and business developments at this time.  It may also be possible to connect these issues with the contemporary debates concerning ‘thrift’, and the development of commercial banking.  For example, the idea of thrift was widely debated with the growth of friendly societies, and the decision of the government to open a Post Office Savings Bank to enable workers to deposit their savings.  Therefore, was there any connection between contemporary ideas of profit and thrift, and if so, was there a common ideological strand that linked people together in terms of their perceptions of money and its role in the wider society?

 

References

Crafts, NFR., “British Relative Economic Decline Revisited: the Role of Competition”, Explorations in Economic History (2012), 49, 17-29

Reid, Alastair J., United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London: Penguin, 2005).

 

What Chance Change? Driving Development through Transport Infrastructure

Locomotives of Local Growth: Short- and Long-Term Impact of Railroads in Sweden

By Thor Berger (Lund University) and Kerstin Enflo (Lund University)

Abstract: This paper uses city-level data to examine the impact of a first wave of railroad construction in Sweden, between 1855 and 1870, from the 19th century until today. We estimate that railroads accounted for 50% of urban growth, 1855-1870. In cities with access to the railroad network, property values were higher, manufacturing employment increased, establishments were larger, and more information was distributed through local post offices. Today, cities with early access to the network are 62% larger and to be found 11 steps higher in the urban hierarchy, compared to initially similar cities. We hypothesize that railroads set in motion a path dependent process that shapes the economic geography of Sweden today.

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/hes/wpaper/0042.html

Review by Alexander Horkan (final-year PPE student, Queen’s University Belfast)

What impact did the introduction of railroads to Sweden have on town-level growth? This is the question being explored by Thor Berger and Kerstin Enflo, both of Lund University, in their EHES working paper circulated as part of NEP-HIS-2013-08-05. The paper focusses on the early development of the Swedish railroad network, between 1855 and 1870, and examines whether towns with early access to the network[1] experienced higher levels of expansion of economic activity, using population growth as a proxy measure for this. They expand the possibility of their have been effects beyond merely the initial shock and scrutinise whether there was a long-run impact on economic development over the 20th Century.

Berger and Enflo contribute to the discourse on the value of transport infrastructure to lowering trade costs, which frequently hypothesises that large infrastructure projects foster economic development ‘ahead of demand’. Although an intuitive suggestion serving as a core belief of policymakers regarding the localisation of growth and planning possibilities, it is historically troublesome to provide evidentiary credence that such growth is independent from endogenous, observable and unobservable preconditions. Modern transport infrastructure is rarely assigned randomly to locations, instead being focussed around connecting ‘hubs’ that inevitably possess advantageous biases towards growth. This builds on various works detailing how such biases plague neutral analysis of development, as infrastructure projects are seemingly inextricably linked with political interference at either end of the spectrum, whether promoting growth in areas of economic sterility, or those already growing through endogenous factors.

Berger and Enflo show how railroads affect the location, not the level, of growth

Does railroad access increase the overall level of growth, or just the location of growth?

This paper seems to be of extreme relevance to current debates surrounding the future of a high-speed rail network connecting Birmingham to London in the UK. Contemporary debates have been hazy, lacking clear focus on precise and demonstrable economic incentives, leading to many questioning the value brought to northern cities. This research can increase the scope of such debates, providing clear evidential support that early adoption of technological advancements in transport infrastructure ignites and fosters long-term economic growth, yet simultaneously causes large negative ‘spillover’ effects on nearby, unconnected towns. Such research seems valuable and relevant to both sides of the question and must only serve to enrich any subsequent discussion.[2]

Proof of their hypothesis is offered through the calculation of comparative populations of cities both connected and unconnected to the railroad network between 1855 and 1870. Through using a difference-in-difference framework, they show that those who gained early exposure to the rail network grew larger, with additional population growth of 26% on average. Such increases imply that levels of urbanisation in 1870, and the aggregate rate of growth by the same point, would have ‘decrease[d] by 15% and 50% respectively’ (p. 3) independent from rail infrastructure. These calculations prove correlation between the exposure to railways and subsequent growth, echoing work by Fishlow (1965).

imgres

Where Bergen and Enflo really contribute to expanding existing literature, however, is by providing robust justification to draw direct causal relationships between railroad placement and subsequent ‘ignition’ of economic development. This is achieved through a tripartite construct, initially matching observationally similar towns and their growth patterns before the railway introduction. These measures ensure that observable differences are not key to explaining growth of specific towns, i.e. they were not already growing faster than surrounding cities.

Secondly, they calculate a strong instrumental variable; this relies on proposed routes drawn up by Adolf van Rosen in 1845 and subsequently by Nils Ericson in 1856. As such routes were constructed in relative isolation of political and economic pressures; favouring conditions of topographical simplicity and military strategic importance (avoiding coastal areas traditionally predisposed to growth) such an instrument is robust in corroborating the evidence of the first measure. By estimating the pre-rail differences in population growth for towns included in these original plans, and calculating their relative differences as close to zero, further corroboration is given to assertions that there were no pre-existing conditions conducive to growth in these towns.

The final measure is the imagined construction of these proposed lines, and further ‘low cost routes’. By creating this strong counterfactual, the authors presuppose that these lines that were not built, due to political obstinacy and lassitude, and those proposed later, to link profitable hubs of commerce would show large increases in populations if the driving factor behind growth was some unobservable, predetermining factor. Conversely however, if growth failed to materialise, it would be clear that the most significant force at work was early exposure to railways.

test

What can policymakers today learn from the Swedish case?

In his 1964 paper Robert Fogel identified the aggregate contribution of railroads to the US economy through social savings, deeming it of very little significance to social savings against a comparable counterfactual canal system. The measures used by Berger and Enflo are inversely interested in the relative impact of the railroad on cities. The negative ‘spillovers’ to nearby, unconnected towns examined in this paper further confirm Fogel’s argument that, whilst railroads had little impact on aggregate economic activity, they had large effects on relative growth patterns.

The final key significance Berger and Enflo draw out is the persistency of the impact of early exposure to rail networks. There are a myriad of reasons for this: high value sunk investments provide large barriers to both entry to and exit from the market, prompting concentration of economic activity in specific places. Additionally emerging towns become identifiable with growth and development, thus almost gaining critical mass and organically attracting further growth by this virtue. This emergent path dependency mirrors that cited by Bleakley and Lin (2012) regarding US cities being focussed around portage sights, despite the increasing irrelevance of such a factor. The implications of this paper however shadow those of Redding, Sturm and Wolf (2011) and Jebwad and Moadi (2011), examining man-made advantages over natural ones, contributing more greatly to discourse on policy implications and growth strategy.

imgres-2

Throughout the paper, however, despite great lengths to isolate geographical preconditions for local growth, there was an absence of discussion regarding elasticity of demand for rail services across the country. It seems remiss to address reduction of trade costs, whilst ignoring the possibility for elasticity of demand for such services, for example during winter months where winter roads open new avenues of trade, significantly reducing goods transportation costs via substitutions. Such questions could raise insightful analysis of unexplored geographical factors in northerly cities not experiencing the same degree of negative ‘spillovers’ suffered by more central ones.

The scope of this rigorous analysis could be expanded beyond current high-speed rail debates explored above to varying fields. Pertinent could be investigation of whether such findings have significance surpassing large-scale travel infrastructure and technological advancements, to the increasingly relevant information and communication sector for example; examining whether early adoption of communications advancements and infrastructure lead growth in specific locations.

Notes

[1] Less than a third of towns were connected by the end of this period, and only around a tenth of the peak network size had been realised.

[2] For a wider discussion of the minutia of this debate please refer to:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/63ff3bfe-8dbd-11e3-bbe7-00144feab7de.html#axzz2xvZqcMe0

and

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21588862-britains-plans-high-speed-railway-are-deeply-flawed-spend-money-boring-stuff

 

References

Bleakley, H. and Lin, J. (2012). Portage and Path Dependence. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, 2, 587{644.

Fishlow, A. (1965). American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-bellum Economy. Vol. 127. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fogel, R. (1964). Railroads and American Economic Growth. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Jedwab, R. and Moradi, A. (2011). Transportation Infrastructure and Development in Ghana. Mimeo.

Redding, S. J., Sturm, D. M., and Wolf, N. (2011). History and Industry Location: Evidence from German Airports. Review of Economics and Statistics 93, 3, 814{831.

 

Does Bank Competition Lead to Higher Growth?

Bank Deregulation, Competition and Economic Growth: The US Free Banking Experience

By Philipp Ager (University of Southern Denmark) and Fabrizio Spargoli (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Abstract

We exploit the introduction of free banking laws in US states during the 1837-1863 period to examine the impact of removing barriers to bank entry on bank competition and economic
growth. As governments were not concerned about systemic stability in this period, we are
able to isolate the effects of bank competition from those of state implicit guarantees. We find
that the introduction of free banking laws stimulated the creation of new banks and led to
more bank failures. Our empirical evidence indicates that states adopting free banking laws
experienced an increase in output per capita compared to the states that retained state bank
chartering policies. We argue that the fiercer bank competition following the introduction of
free banking laws might have spurred economic growth by (1) increasing the money stock
and the availability of credit; (2) leading to efficiency gains in the banking market. Our
findings suggest that the more frequent bank failures occurring in a competitive banking
market do not harm long-run economic growth in a system without public safety nets.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:hes:wpaper:0050&r=his

Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2013-12-29

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay

In this paper, Philipp Ager (University of Southern Denmark) and Fabrizio Spargoli (Erasmus University Rotterdam) ask two very topical questions. Does increased bank competition lead to higher economic growth? And, if so, how? Following the recent crisis, many have wondered whether the alternative to “too-big-to-fail” — having many smaller banks competing with each other — would necessarily be a better one. Clouding the debate has been the difficulty of finding appropriate historical settings in which to test the hypothesis that more competition leads to greater growth. In their paper, Ager and Spargoli focus on what they consider the best instance of intense bank competition without any implicit government bail-out guarantee: the American free banking era.

Between 1837 and 1863 new laws were passed in a number of states allowing just about anyone to set up a bank, with very few requirements to fulfill. Until then, banks wanting to open needed a charter from their state, for which they had to meet relatively stringent criteria. As the authors show using a new quantitative analytical framework, the new laws greatly increased the creation of new banks in the states which passed them. As competition increased, however, a higher proportion of banks ended up failing. Could it still be the case that the introduction of free banking laws led to greater growth in those states?

A satire on Andrew Jackson's campaign to destroy the Bank of the United States and its support among state banks, 1836. It was partly to fill this gap that states allowed free banking.

A satire on Andrew Jackson’s campaign to destroy the Bank of the United States and its support among state banks, 1836. It was partly to fill this gap that some states allowed free banking.

The paper’s most important finding is that increasing competition among banks did lead to higher economic growth. Jaremski and Rousseau’s 2012 paper (previously reviewed in NEP-HIS here) found that a new “free” bank, as opposed to a charter bank, did not have a positive effect on the local economy. While this is an important finding in itself, it is also important to look at the effect of the introduction of free banking laws on aggregate bank behaviour, if only because the new entry of free banks may alter the willingness of charter banks to enter the market and their behaviour once in the market. Charter banks’ behaviour may in turn alter free banks’ behaviour, and so on. Interestingly, Ager and Spargoli’s study finds that in the aggregate, the acceleration in bank entry and resulting greater competition among all types of banks had a positive effect on economic growth.

To arrive at this conclusion, the authors are careful to include a number of controls. First, there is the possibility that growth opportunities led some states to adopt free banking laws, in which case the authors would face a reverse-causality problem. Hence they conduct a county-level analysis in which they include time-invariant county characteristics and state-specific linear output trends (although perhaps it would be nice to see these output trends going further back in time than 1830). Second, they also control for other laws that states might have introduced at the same time as the free banking ones, which could potentially bias the results. Finally, they control for unobserved heterogeneity between states by examining contiguous counties lying on the border of states that introduced free banking. Their results are robust to these different specifications.

Private Bank Note, Drover’s Bank, Salt Lake City, Utah, $3, 1856

Private Bank Note, Drover’s Bank, Salt Lake City, Utah, $3, 1856

Ager and Spargoli are of course also interested in where this growth came from. They find a positive relationship between the introduction of free banking laws and lending, and conclude that one of the main channels through which this increase in growth occurred was the increase in the availability of credit that greater competition fostered. This story is consistent with the finance-growth nexus literature, which argues that greater (and safer) access to credit is conducive to economic development.

Although this seems perfectly reasonable, it would perhaps have been interesting to see when most of the failures occurred. If, for instance, they mainly occurred towards the end of the period under study, say around the 1857 panic, then it is possible that the negative effects of such failures on subsequent growth would not have been picked up by this study, since it ends in 1860. This leaves open the possibility that the positive relationship between free banking and increased access to credit was not a beneficial one for the economy in the long run. Loan growth (and asset growth more generally) is not always a good thing, as the recent crisis has tended to show.

Private Bank Note, Mechanics Bank, Tennessee, $10, 1854

Private Bank Note, Mechanics Bank, Tennessee, $10, 1854

Overall however, Ager and Spargoli’s paper asks a very important question and offers a solid analysis. A natural next step would be to include output data on the periods preceding and following the free banking era, although the occurrence of the Civil War is an obvious obstacle to this study.

 

References

Jaremski, M., and P. L. Rousseau (2012): “Banks, Free Banks, and U.S. Economic Growth,” Economic Inquiry, 51(2), 1603–21.