Is the Glass Half Full?: Positivist Views on American Consumption

Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages

By Bruce Sacerdote (Darmouth)

Abstract: Despite the large increase in U.S. income inequality, consumption for families at the 25th and 50th percentiles of income has grown steadily over the time period 1960-2015. The number of cars per household with below median income has doubled since 1980 and the number of bedrooms per household has grown 10 percent despite decreases in household size. The finding of zero growth in American real wages since the 1970s is driven in part by the choice of the CPI-U as the price deflator; small biases in any price deflator compound over long periods of time. Using a different deflator such as the Personal Consumption Expenditures index (PCE) yields modest growth in real wages and in median household incomes throughout the time period. Accounting for the Hamilton (1998) and Costa (2001) estimates of CPI bias yields estimated wage growth of 1 percent per year during 1975-2015. Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.

(Click here for a free download version)

Distributed by NEP-HIS on:2017-04-23

Revised by: Stefano Tijerina (Maine)

Contrary to the popular outcry that the gap between rich and poor in the United States has steadily increased since the 1960s and that the quality of life has steadily deteriorated, Bruce Sacerdote argues that the picture is not as grim and that the steady rise of household consumption for households “with below median income” is evidence that the national economy has continued to thrive for all U.S. citizens and not just those on the top.[1] In “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages” Sacerdote reveals that the focus on wage growth favored by economists and policy makers impedes us from focusing on other aspects of growth, such as consumption and the quality of consumed goods.[2] From his perspective focusing on real wage growth and the inflated rates of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) only tells half of the story and that it is therefore necessary to center on consumption data in order to construct a more holistic picture of the economic realities of the below median income household.[3] From his perspective, “low income families have seen important gains in at least some areas of consumption” thanks in part to a steady growth in consumption of 1.7 percent per year since 1960.[4]

Bruce Sacerdote adjusted the CPI to the bias corrections developed by Dora Costa and Bruce Hamilton who previously worked on similar questions, looking at “the true costs of living” and new ways of estimating “real incomes” in the United States.[5] His findings for the period between 1960 to 2015 concluded that there was an increase of 164 percent in consumption for those below the median household income.[6] A previous consumption measure for the same period of time, excluding the bias measures from Costa and Hamilton, showed a 62 percent increase in consumption.[7] A third measurement that calculated real wages using the Federal Reserve’s Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) for the same period of time reversed the claims of wage stagnation furthered by some economists, policy makers, citizens, and labor union advocacy groups. This last measurement showed that when using the PCE to deflate nominal wages, the growth of real wages was 0.54 percent per year.[8] This contradicts the arguments of data sets such as the “2016 Distressed Community Index” that focus specifically on the increasing gap between rich and poor in the United States.[9]

Beside the bias corrections and other measurements, Sacerdote argues that the quality, technology, and durability of current consumption goods is superior to that of previous decades, therefore expanding the relative capacity of consumption of those below the median income. For example he claims that “the number of cars per household has risen from 1 to 1.6 during 1970-2015,” while the median home square footage for this income segment has risen about 8 percent during this same period of time.[10]

His objective of focusing “on growth rates in consumption instead of changes in poverty rates” is achieved by using data and methodologies for analyzing data that shows that “the glass half full” but as it is evident from the working paper, quantitative data can be tailored to fit the researcher’s agenda. Numerous questions surface regarding consumption trends in the United States that lead to further conclusions that indicate that the 164 percent increase of the past fifty-plus years is the result of greater household debt and cheaper consumer goods prices that are tied to the impacts of globalization. Consumer households that fall below the median income continue to steadily consume more, there is not doubt about that, but their wages continue to depreciate while their debt continues to rise. Moreover, globalization has allowed companies to transfer their production overseas, leading to a loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector that potentially offered higher than minimum wage salaries to those households that ranked below the median income. The transfer of production has at the same time guaranteed cheaper products to these consumers that then are able to consume more with their lower wages and their greater access to loans that artificially maintain their consumption capacity while increasing their debt to income ratio.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for the year 2014 was $53,719.[11] This means that half of Americans earned less than that amount. This population, that represents the central focus of Sacerdote’s research, currently has an average household debt of $130,000 (assuming that those earning below the median income are forced to go into debt to maintain their standard of living).[12] The breakdown of this debt shows that mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, and student loans make up most of the American debt.[13] This could indicate that the steady consumption increase demonstrated by Sacerdote could actually be artificially maintained by the financial system that keeps the American consumer afloat.

Sacerdote’s work could also benefit from qualitative research that would provide more in-depth analysis and at the same time counter-balance his claims on consumer choice and the reliability of products being consumed. Qualitative research could provide a different explanation as to why low-income consumers have opted to hold on to their vehicles for longer periods of time, how they are able to purchase expensive technology such as cell phones and access services such as internet and cable television, if indoor plumbing is a sign of a higher quality of life or simply a response to policy and the standardization of construction norms, and if the increase in housing square footage per household really represents a higher quality of life.  

Selectivity of data and research approach in this case clearly benefits the researcher’s argument but this could quickly be turned around with other sets of data and a different research approach. A focus on credit rates and debt rates over the same period of time shifts the argument around and leads to completely different conclusions, and so would a qualitative analysis of the quality of life of Americans. Although controversial, Sacerdote’s work forces the reader to think more critically about the changes that have taken place in American society in the past fifty-plus years and brings up the question of whether or not this consumption approach is more reflective of the nation’s economic dependence on consumer consumption as a percentage of the GDP.


[1] See for example Thomas Piketty’s argument on the increasing gap between rich and poor and the possible threat to capitalism and democratic stability in “Capital in the 21st Century.” Cambridge: Harvard University (2014).

[2] Bruce Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages.” National Bureau of Economic Research, working paper series, working paper 23292, March 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017., 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 1-7.

[5] See Dora L. Costa. “Estimating Real Income in the United States from 1888 to 1994: Correcting CPI Bias Using Engel Curves.” Journal of Political Economy 109, no. 6 (2001): 1288-1310, and Bruce W. Hamilton. “The True Cost of Living: 1974-1991.” Working paper in Economics, The John Hopkins University Department of Economics, January 1998.

[6] Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages,” 2.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] “2016 Distressed Community Index: A Analysis of Community Well-Being Across the United State.” Accessed April 25, 2017. See also for example Gillian B. White. “Inequality Between America’s Rich and Poor is at a 30-Year High.” Washington Post, December 18, 2014. Accessed May 1, 2017.

[10] Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages,” 2.

[11] Matthew Frankel. “Here’s the Average American Household Income: How do you Compare?” USA Today November 24, 2016. Accessed May 2, 2017.

[12] Matthew Frankel. “The Average American Household Owes 90,336 – How do you Compare?” The Motley Fool May 8, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017.

[13] Ibid.

No man can serve two masters

Rogue Trading at Lloyds Bank International, 1974: Operational Risk in Volatile Markets

By Catherine Schenk (Glasgow)

Abstract Rogue trading has been a persistent feature of international financial markets over the past thirty years, but there is remarkably little historical treatment of this phenomenon. To begin to fill this gap, evidence from company and official archives is used to expose the anatomy of a rogue trading scandal at Lloyds Bank International in 1974. The rush to internationalize, the conflict between rules and norms, and the failure of internal and external checks all contributed to the largest single loss of any British bank to that time. The analysis highlights the dangers of inconsistent norms and rules even when personal financial gain is not the main motive for fraud, and shows the important links between operational and market risk. This scandal had an important role in alerting the Bank of England and U.K. Treasury to gaps in prudential supervision at the end of the Bretton Woods pegged exchange-rate system.

Business History Review, Volume 91 (1 – April 2017): 105-128.


Review by Adrian E. Tschoegl (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania)

Since the 1974 rogue trading scandal at Lloyds’s Lugano branch we have seen more spectacular sums lost in rogue trading scandals. What Dr Catherine Schenk brings to our understanding of these recurrent events is the insight that only drawing on archives, both at Lloyds and at the Bank of England, can bring. In particular, the archives illuminate the decision processes at both institutions as the crisis unfolded. I have little to add to her thorough exposition of the detail so below I will limit myself to imprecise generalities.

Marc Colombo, the rogue trader at Lloyds Lugano, was a peripheral individual in a peripheral product line, in a peripheral location. As Schenk finds, this peripherality has two consequences, the rogue trader’s quest for respect, and the problem of supervision. Lloyds Lugano is not an anomaly. An examination of several other cases (e.g. Allied Irish, Barings, Daiwa, and Sumitomo Trading), finds the same thing (Tschoegl 2004).

In firms, respect and power come from being a revenue center. Being a cost center is the worst position, but being a profit center with a mandate to do very little is not much better. The rogue traders that have garnered the most attention, in large part because of the scale of their losses were not malevolent. They wanted to be valued. They were able to get away with their trading for long enough to do serious damage because of a lack of supervision, a lack that existed because of the traders’ peripherality.

In several cases, Colombo’s amongst them, the trader was head of essentially a one-person operation that was independent of the rest of the local organization. That meant that the trader’s immediate local supervisor had little or no experience with trading. Heads of branches in a commercial bank come from commercial banking, especially commercial lending. Commercial lending is a slow feedback environment (it may take a long time for a bad decision to manifest itself), and so uses a system of multiple approvals. Trading is a fast feedback environment. The two environments draw different personality types and have quite different procedures, with the trading environment giving traders a great deal of autonomy within set parameters, an issue Schenk addresses and that we will discuss shortly.

Commonly, traders will report to a remote head of trading and to the local branch manager, with the primary line being to the head of trading, and the secondary line being to the local branch manager. This matrix management developed to address the problem of the need to manage and coordinate centrally but also respond locally, but matrix management has its limitations too. As Mathew points out in the New Testament, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matthew (6:24). Even short of this, the issue that can arise, as it did at Lloyds Luggano, is that the trader is remote from both managers, one because of distance (and often time zone), and the other because of unfamiliarity with the product line. A number of software developments have improved the situation since 1974, but as some recent scandals have shown, they are fallible. Furthermore, the issue still remains that at some point the heads of many product lines will report to someone who rose in a different product line, which brings up the spectre of “too complex to manage”.

The issue of precautionary or governance rules, and their non-enforcement, is a clear theme in Schenk’s paper. Like the problem of supervision, this too is an issue where one can only do better or worse, but not solve. All rules have their cost. The largest may be an opportunity cost. Governance rules exist to reduce variance, but that means the price of reducing bad outcomes is the lower occurrence of good outcomes. While it is true, as one of Schenk’s interviewees points out, that one does not hear of successful rogue traders being fired, that does not mean that firms do not respond negatively to success. I happened to be working for SBCI, an investment banking arm of Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC), at the time of SBC’s acquisition in 1992 of O’Connor Partners, a Chicago-based derivatives trading house. I had the opportunity to speak with O’Conner’s head of training when O’Connor stationed a team of traders at SBCI in Tokyo. He said that the firm examined too large wins as intently as they examined too large losses: in either case an unexpectedly large outcome meant that either the firm had mis-modelled the trade, or the trader had gone outside their limits. Furthermore, what they looked for in traders was the ability to walk away from a losing bet.

But even small costs can be a problem for a small operation. When I started to work for Security Pacific National Bank in 1976, my supervisor explained my employment benefits to me. I was authorized two weeks of paid leave per annum. When I asked if I could split up the time he replied that Federal Reserve regulations required that the two weeks be continuous so that someone would have to fill in for the absent employee. Even though most of the major rogue trading scandals arose and collapsed within a calendar year, the shadow of the future might well have discouraged the traders, or led them to reveal the problem earlier. Still, for a one-person operation, management might (and in some rogue trading scandals did), take the position that finding someone to fill in and bring them in on temporary duty was unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive. After all, the trader to be replaced was a dedicated, conscientious employee, witness his willingness to forego any vacation.

Lastly, there is the issue of Chesterton’s Paradox (Chesterton 1929). When a rule has been in place for some time, there may be no one who remembers why it is there. Reformers will point out that the rule or practice is inconvenient or costly, and that it has never in living memory had any visible effect. But as Chesterton puts it, “This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.”

Finally, an issue one needs to keep in mind in deciding how much to expend on prevention is that speculative trading is a zero-sum activity. A well-diversified shareholder who owns both the employer of the rogue trader and the employers of their counterparties suffers little loss. The losses to Lloyds Lugano were gains to, inter alia, Crédit Lyonnais.

There is leakage. Some of the gainers are privately held hedge funds and the like. Traders at the counterparties receive bonuses not for skill but merely for taking the opposite side of the incompetent rogue trader’s orders. Lastly, shareholders of the rogue traders firm suffer deadweight losses of bankruptcy when the firm, such as Barings, goes bankrupt. Still, as Krawiec (2000) points out, for regulators the social benefit of preventing losses to rogue traders may not exceed the cost. To the degree that costs matter to managers, but not shareholders, managers should bear the costs via reduced salaries.


Chesterton, G. K. (1929) ‘’The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic’’, Ch. IV: “The Drift From Domesticity”.

Krawiec, K.D. (2000): “Accounting for Greed: Unraveling the Rogue Trader Mystery”, Oregon Law Review 79 (2):301-339.

Tschoegl, A.E. (2004) “The Key to Risk Management: Management”. In Michael Frenkel, Ulrich Hommel and Markus Rudolf, eds. Risk Management: Challenge and Opportunity (Springer-Verlag), 2nd Edition;

Blame it on the Jews? Economic Incentives and Persecutions during the Black Death

Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death

by Remi Jedwab (George Washington University), Noel D. Johnson (George Mason University) and Mark Koyama (George Mason University)

ABSTRACT- In this paper we study the Black Death persecutions (1347-1352) against Jews in order to shed light on the factors determining when a minority group will face persecution. We develop a theoretical framework which predicts that negative shocks increase the likelihood that minorities are scapegoated and persecuted. By contrast, as the shocks become more severe, persecution probability may actually decrease if there are economic complementarities between the majority and minority groups. We compile city-level data on Black Death mortality and Jewish persecution. At an aggregate level we find that scapegoating led to an increase in the baseline probability of a persecution. However, at the city-level, locations which experienced higher plague mortality rates were less likely to engage in persecutions. Furthermore, persecutions were more likely in cities with a history of antisemitism (consistent with scapegoating) and less likely in cities where Jews played an important economic role (consistent with inter-group complementarities).


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2017‒04‒02

Review by Anna Missiaia  (Lund University)

Both history and the current world provide several examples of ethnic and religious minorities becoming the target of persecutions by the majority. Especially after the Holocaust, a growing number of scholars from different fields have inquired into the causes of these persecutions. In particular, the question is whether the chance of persecution against minorities is directly related to negative shocks such as harvest failures, economic depressions or plague. This paper by Jedwab, Johnson and Koyama addresses this question by looking at the persecutions against Jews during the Black Death (1347-1352) in Europe. The authors adopt a theoretical framework in which the negative shock represented by the Black Death has two possible effects on the probability of persecutions: on the one hand, the scapegoating effect leads to attributing the responsibility of the plague to the Jews, decreasing the preference for diversity in society and therefore leading to persecutions. On the other hand, if the minority represents some value to the majority (for instance because of money lending or because of high-skill jobs in which they cannot be easily replaced), the incentive to persecute decreases, with the complementarity effect prevailing. The two effects compete and the decision to persecute Jewish communities depends on the comparison between the utility that the majority derives from persecution and the economic benefit that the minority provides if left untouched.

The authors compile a dataset for 124 locations containing plague mortality rates from Christakos et al. (2005) and information on Jewish persecutions mainly from Encyclopedia Judaica. The aim is to test the effect of mortality caused by the Black Death on the probability of persecution of the local Jewish community. To assure the reader on the soundness of their identification strategy, the authors collect an impressive number of geographical and institutional controls to capture the effect of several other elements that could trigger persecutions. The paper of course cannot take into account all potential sources of bias but the authors thoughtfully address several potential problems using anecdotal and scientific evidence, proposing some convincing arguments to defend their choices. For instance, they spell out in detail the characteristics of the contagion proving that its pattern was largely determined by chance. The virulence of the plague was also unaffected by human behavior (by both Jews and non-Jews), ruling out the possibility of some causality running from the presence of Jews to the intensity of the plague.  The instruments for mortality are also quite convincing:  the two IV proposed are distance from Messina (a Sicilian port city where the first contagion was recorded) and month of the first infection. If it is true that the geographical origin and pattern of propagation of the Black Death were random, the instruments appear exogenous.

Figure 1: Pogrom of Strasbourg (1349) by Emile Schweitzer

Unsurprisingly, the authors find that the period 1347-1352 has indeed seen an unpreceded (and unrepeated until WWII) wave of persecutions against Jewish communities in Europe (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Total Number of Jewish Persecutions in 1100-1600.

What is far more surprising is that there is indeed a general increase in the baseline level (basically, on the intercept) but this effect does not grow stronger as mortality rates are higher. In the model, the constant is 0.831 which indicates a high risk of being persecuted on average but the effect of mortality of the persecution probability is negative and quite substantial (minus 0.34 standard deviations for one standard deviation increases in mortality). The shock appears to have a counter-veiling effect, as cities with the highest mortality were less likely to persecute Jews. In essence, in cities where Jews have a strong economic role, the complementarity effect prevailed. The take home message is therefore that persecutions have a general ideological origin but economic incentives can at least reduce violence against minorities.

This paper is nested into a very large literature on the origins and determinants of persecutions. On the Jewish case, a recent paper by Voigtländer and Voth (2012) has shown that the location of the persecutions during the Black Death in Germany is a strong predictor of the location of episodes of violence against Jews in the 1920s. This paper fills a gap by looking at the determinants of the medieval persecutions in first place. This work is also well connected to the body of research looking at the economic aspects of Jewish history, to which Botticini and Eckstein (2012) provided a seminal contribution. On a more general note, this paper represents a call for the inclusion of a microeconomic perspective when studying how persecutions of minorities arise.


Botticini, Maristella and Zvi Eckstein, The Chosen Few. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Christakos, George, Richardo A. Olea, Marc L. Serre, Hwa-Lung Yu, and Lin-Lin Wang, Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: The Case of Black Death, Berlin: Springer, 2005.

Voigtländer, Nico and Hans-Joachim Voth, “Persecution Perpetuated: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2012, 127 (3), 1–54.

Assessing the Determinants of Economic Growth in South East Asia

The Historical State, Local Collective Action, and Economic Development in Vietnam

By Melissa Dell (Harvard University), Nathaniel Lane (Stockholm University), Pablo Querubin (New York University)

Abstract – This study examines how the historical state conditions long-run development, using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a strong centralized state in which the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, which followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. Using a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary, the study shows that areas historically under a strong state have higher living standards today and better economic outcomes over the past 150 years. Rich historical data document that in villages with a strong historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through civil society and local government. This suggests that the strong historical state crowded in village-level collective action and that these norms persisted long after the original state disappeared.


Circulated by nep-his on 2017/03/19

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

What was the impact of the ancient Vietnamese Dai Viet empire in promoting long-term economic development? That is the main question the authors try to assess. Their inquiry is embedded within the now large literature on the importance of culture and institutions, as deep determinants of growth. The contribution the paper makes is, however, not restricted to adding one more piece of evidence in favor of it, but, more importantly, in providing empirical support for a specific transmission channel: how state capacity can be built through time via the fostering of local self-organization capabilities.

The paper’s main story builds on the idea that two distinct meta-societies existed within East Asia, and idea around which, by the way, there is general agreement. One of these societies based on Chinese precepts, prevalent in the Northeastern region; and other spread in the Southeast throughout the Indian Ocean.  Societies of the former category were historically constituted around a sort of Weberian professional bureaucracy that consolidated the working of a central state. The latter depended more on informal networking mechanisms among local elites to survive, and hence, tended to promote hierarchical patriarchal relationships.

Today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam (henceforth Vietnam) is an interesting case study precisely because it arose out of the union of those two distinct cultures. The northern part, the Dai Viet, is an example of a Sino-style state, while the southern part of Vietnam (initially part of the Champa State and later as part of the larger Khmer Empire) resulted from a Indo-style society.  Figure 1 below offers map of present day Vietnam aligned with the size of the historical Dai Viet empire. Figure 1 suggests the Dai Viet expanded southwards through time but ended up establishing its final frontier in 1698 (orange color). It is this border the authors think provides a natural experiment that allows a clean regression discontinuity (RD) strategy that permits the disentanglement of the effect of being part of a bureaucratized state vis a vis a patriarchal state.


Figure 1: Dai Viet Historical Boundaries (Dell et al., 2017)

The use of the RD design is appropriate, the authors argue, because the chosen border resulted from exogenous contingencies that do not reflect any difference in future economic potential. The 1698 demarcation was settled on the ridges of a river, but there was nothing else particular to it that made that boundary preferable to other potential borders. The Dai Viet stopped its expansion because of constrains imposed by a local civil war (something that has nothing to do with the river itself). Moreover, the environmental characteristics of both sides of the river are almost identical (or vary smoothly), so there is no important geographical difference either. The only thing that changes abruptly is that on the east shore of the 1698 border, Dai Viet settlers occupied and controlled the land, while Khmer villagers occupied and controlled the land to the west of the river. Another possible counterargument to the use of the 1698 border as a natural experiment is the relevance of migration: if settlers moved across villages (at any time after the establishment of the original border), then the boundary becomes inconsequential. The authors argue that, even though they do not have historical data to control for it, there is qualitative evidence that refers to negative attitudes towards outsiders within the villages, which constitutes an important constraint to any major migratory flow. Today, both sides are part of Vietnam. It is then possible to assess if Die Viet institutions still exert some type of effect in current economic outcomes.

Figure 2 portraits the main outcome of the paper. Using household expenditure data from recent censuses (2002-2012), the authors find that today, villages situated along the historical Die Viet side of the border earn a third more than those communities that are situated on the historical Khmer side (Within the figure, the darker the zone depict lower earnings).


Figure 2a: Household Consumption, RD Graph (Dell et al., 2017)

The authors, however, not content with establishing the effects on current outcomes, look for historical evidence too. They collect data from different periods of Vietnamese history: 1878-1921 for the French Colonization, 1969-1973 for the South Vietnam State, and 1975-1985 for the early Communist Period; and find that the pattern is persistent through time: The Diet Viet zone is, in general, more developed than the Khmer side.

How can these results be interpreted?  The income differences must be due to the Die Viet heritage of greater state capacity that acted through local community self-organization that made them more co-operative and facilitated the resolution of local collective action problems. To test whether this transmission channel matters, the authors looked for data on social capital. Their main sources were the surveys and census of the South Vietnamese period. What they find corroborates their story: villagers on the Diet Viet side were more prone to participate in community activities, to collect more taxes (that at the time were local responsibility, not provincial), to have greater access to public goods (health, school and law enforcement), to be skeptical of central government in favor of local, and to give more to charity.


All in all, the authors do a thorough job in assessing the robustness of their main story. They control for several of potential alternative stories and/or possible variables that could affect the results and mechanisms.  Any critique of it may sound redundant or unreachable.  Yet, I would point to three different aspects that may be important.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I would stress that although the argument makes sense, the narrative is unclear as to how specifically the Dai Viet, which supposedly was a centralized bureaucratized state, fostered local governance. As the authors mention in the introduction, the literature on social capital is ambivalent on its effects on economic outcomes. As it is, the paper’s contribution is the finding of empirical evidence on the presence of a particular transmission channel (from state to local governance), but without a clear model and/or an analytical narrative, we are left in the dark about how explicitly this mechanism worked its way throughout society.

Second, and pushing the level of pickiness even further, one can always speak of a potential omitted variable bias. I must ask then: what about genes? The authors minimize ethnic fragmentation as a problem because they find the studied area is cataloged as being almost entirely composed of homogeneously ethnic Vietnamese. The problem is that censuses and surveys may under-report true ethnicity, and cannot capture genetic differences at all. By the authors’ own account, we are told the Diet Viet State originated as, and remained for a long time, Chinese. Moreover, as Tran (1993) attests, Chinese ethnicity may conflate the results of the paper in other several ways:

  • the largest Chinese migration occurred between the late 17th century and early 19th century, just at the time that the Dai Viet-Khmer border was being established;
  • The Chinese settled mostly in southern Vietnam, the part that the authors use as study case;
  • Chinese early importance resided precisely in that they helped establish new villages and trade outposts. They (not merely the Diet Viet heritage) helped to build local governance structures.

If ethnicity has been underreported and/or Chinese genetics matter in fostering economic development in any way (as suggested by Ashraf-Galor, 20013a, 2013b) then the interpretation of the paper could dramatically change: the importance of the Dai Viet state would be downplayed in favor of just being more ethnic/genetic Chinese. After all, it is known that there is a correlation between having larger ethnic Chinese minority and larger economic growth (Priebe and Rudulf, 2015).

Third, related to the last point: one would expect that given the importance of the result – the long-term reach of Diet Viet institutions–, its impact would feel more broadly across all the territory, not only in the immediate zones of the frontier which were the last to be incorporated into the state.  Figure 3, for example, shows the level of poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann,2004). It is visible that the area under study (along the last border of the historical Diet Viet) has the lowest share of poverty in the whole country. The immediate area to the left (which coincides with the area that historically belonged to the Khmer Empire) is poorer indeed. But the differences are minor if we compare them to the rest of current Vietnam, which belonged almost entirely to the Diet Viet, and has the largest poorer areas.  The RD design may be identifying a non-observable variable that is concentrated in the southern part (like ethnicity or/and genes) and is not broadly distributed across the rest of Vietnam.


Figure 3: Incidence of Poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann, 2004: 155).

Additional References

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013a. Genetic Diversity and the Origins of Cultural Fragmentation. The American Economic Review: Papers on Proceedings 103, 528–533.

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013b. The “Out of Africa” Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review 103, 1–46.

Epprecht, M., Heinemann, A., 2004. Socioeconomic Atlas of Vietnam: A depiction of the 1999 Population and Housing Census. Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Bern.

Priebe, J., Rudolf, R., 2015. Does the Chinese Diaspora Speed Up Growth in Host Countries? World Development 76, 249–262.

Trần, K., 1993. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Historicising Business Strategy

Evolving Ideas about Business Strategy

by Pankaj Ghemawat (NYU Stern, USA and IESE Business School, Spain)


This paper updates an earlier article published in Business History Review that concluded that by the second half of the 1990s, there had been a profusion of new, purportedly practical ideas about strategy, many of which embodied some explicit dynamics. This update provides several indications of a drop-off since then in the rate of development of new ideas about strategy but also a continued focus, in the new ideas that are being developed, on dynamics. And since our stock of dynamic frameworks has, based on one enumeration, more than doubled in the last fifteen to twenty years, updating expands both the need and the empirical basis for some generalizations about the types of dynamic strategy frameworks—and strategy frameworks in general—that managers are likely to find helpful versus those that they are not.

Source: Business History Review 90, 1-23 (DOI:

Review by Kyle Bruce (Macquarie University, Australia)

Editor’s note

Ghemawat’s 2017 paper below should not be read in isolation but as part of a round table organized at Harvard Business School that brought together historians and management scholars to discuss the origins of ideas in business and management. The results of the round table were published as a special edition of the Business History Review. In this sense, Ghemawat’s contribution to the special issue and its discussion by Chris McKenna (in the same special issue) came to an independent yet similar conclusion to that expressed by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, who suggested “that in the age of social information networks, economists need to rethink how and why information really spreads.” (See a summary of Shiller’s ideas in The Role of Narratives in Economics).

It is laudable that the executive editors of the Business History Review created a space to disseminate the results of the round table through the journal. However, as you will read below, Kyle Bruce questions whether this is the right way to engage other management scholars in business history as, strictly speaking, the contribution by Ghemawat would be found wanting as scholarly work of international standing.

A final note is that in its comments to Ghemawat, even McKenna gets it wrong by pointing to Lotus 1-2-3 as the first spreadsheet. It actually was VisiCalc.

Having said that, the aim in this space is to generate academic debate through a blog format. So by all means do chip in.

Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo
General Editor NEP-HIS & Editorial Board member, Business History Review.

As a historian and teacher of strategy and, moreover, as a close follower of Ghemawat’s work, I was very much looking forward to his recent update of his 2002 BHR paper on the history of the sub-discipline. I habitually invoke the decade-and-a-half old piece as background reading for my Executive MBA strategy students and hitherto have experienced little, if any, pushback from students typically cagey about the words “theory” or “history”. Regrettably, I am not so sure the updated paper under review here will escape unscathed for the simple reason that it is pretty tough to follow. Let me explain.

After briefly overviewing the 2002 paper that in essence discerned a profusion of new ideas about strategy – particularly those embodying a more dynamic approach – dating from the early to mid-80s, Ghemawat introduces his new findings. After a big peak in the mid-90s, there has been a marked drop-off in new ideas, but dynamics “is a sustained interest focus of strategic innovation rather than one of passing interest” (p. 5; emphasis added). So far, so good you might think, but I started to worry about the phraseology (“strategic innovation”?) attendant on the use of analytical tools from strategy and adjacent sub-disciplines to make sense of his findings; namely, “what should one make of the drop-off overall and the shift toward more attention to dynamics? And what, if anything, should be done?” (p. 8).

Pankaj Ghemawat

Pankaj Ghemawat

Unless the strictures concerning the dreaded “so what?” question have been lifted in history journals such as BHR, I could not discern after several reads a compelling argument as to why readers should be at all bothered by the findings presented? For students of the strategy-as-practice literature, for instance, the suggestion there’s fewer models and frameworks out there for practising managers to employ is not a concern given they probably don’t use them anyway. For my MBA students who routinely complain of framework fatigue, again, the theory drop-off is not a problem. And so, for me, the remainder of the paper was rather superfluous and unnecessarily complex. Curiously, I think Ghemawat makes it so when he concludes that while it’s certain there’s been a drop-off in the “rate of development of big new strategy ideas/frameworks, it is much harder to be definite about the welfare implications” (p. 10; emphasis added). For me, this conclusion renders redundant both the ensuing “what is to be done” question he poses, as well as the next eight-and-half pages of the article devoted to “a critical assessment of frameworks new and old” (p. 2).

After several reads of these aforementioned pages, I could not really follow or appreciate the “irreversibility” and “uncertainty” dimensions utilised to assess how dynamic current frameworks really are. However, I felt comforted when Ghemawat concludes that “quite a few” of said frameworks “seem subject to some practical limitations” (p. 19). This comfort was short-lived, though, when he finishes the paper with the frustrating and seemingly throwaway line that the way forward, as it were, “is to shift some attention away from the chronologies of frameworks to historiography that attempts to assess them in some fashion” (p. 21). I immediately asked myself: “well, why didn’t he just do this, then??”


For me, and I trust also BHR readers, a historiographical piece embodying intellectual history, actor-network theory, or sociology of scientific knowledge to account for the “trials of strength” in strategy theory, the tension between contributions from the academy and those from business practice, and the current fascination with dynamics, would have been an easier and more interesting read. Like much being published in business and management history journals of late, Ghemawat’s paper is short on actual history and, notwithstanding the final sentence, even short on how to DO history. I was left wondering why this paper was published in this journal and asking myself what this paper’s place tells me about BHR? I have no answers for these questions but look forward to some in due course.


Ghemawat, P. (2002) “Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective”, Business History Review 76(1): 37-74. (DOI:

Little Britain? Empire and the rise of protectionism in interwar Britain.

When Britain turned inward: Protection and the shift towards Empire in interwar Britain

By Alan de Bromhead (Queen’s University Belfast), Alan Fernihough (Queen’s University Belfast), Markus Lampe (Vienna University of Economics and Business) and Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke (University of Oxford)

International trade became much less multilateral during the 1930s. Previous studies, looking at aggregate trade flows, have argued that discriminatory trade policies had comparatively little to do with this. Using highly disaggregated information on the UK’s imports and trade policies, we find that policy can explain the majority of Britain’s shift towards Imperial imports in the 1930s. Trade policy mattered, a lot.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-03-20

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper provides an interesting insight into tariffs, and their role in interwar Britain from a perspective that has not been previously examined.  An examination of this issue is timely, especially with the debates surrounding the implication of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, and the threats issued by the American Trump administration concerning future trade policy.  It demonstrates that the impact of tariffs during the economic crises of the 1930s had a variable impact, and did not always achieve their intended outcome.  In this respect, the impact of punitive trade policies from a historical perspective can provide a very important context to future negotiations as the world becomes acclimatised to a very different political landscape.

Tariff reform was a huge issue for the British government in the early twentieth century, and the subject of significant political propaganda.

The paper is deeply researched, and draws on a wide collection of data.  One of the main conclusions is that trade blocs made very little difference, nor did the imperial preference scheme, to the balance and nature of the British economy in the crisis years.  However, it does show that the change in the nature of trade, away from free trade to focusing specifically on empire did have specific outcomes that shaped the direction of the British economy, but that these changes were caused specifically by trade policy rather than anything else.  Indeed, the authors show that as a result of the changing nature of the British government’s trade policy, a 70% increase in empire trade was reported in the period 1930-33.  In this respect, the paper poses a very interesting question that is addressed, but will need further historical enquiry:  Did trade policy contribute to return of intra-Imperial trade?

The paper looks at a range of policies pursued by the British government in the period after the First World War, some of which were discriminatory, in order to evaluate the nature of its economic and trade development.  In compiling their conclusions, a huge amount of data was analysed, including data sets from 42 countries examining 200 products categories between 1924-1938.   The data showed that dramatic changes were seen in the nature of Britain’s trade and economic policy in the period 1931-33.  Nevertheless, these changes had long roots.  The abolition of free trade after the First World War saw the introduction of the McKenna Duty, which imposed a 33.5% tariff on cars, clocks, watches, films and musical instruments ad valorem (based on the value of the goods).  This was later intensified with the implementation of the 1921 Safeguarding of Industries Act, where a 33.5% tariff was placed on the imports of key goods.  However, despite the apparent punitive nature of these policies, the British economy was largely Liberal up to 1930, when the Abnormal Importations Act allowed 100% tax on all manufactured goods from outside the empire.


Utilising goods from the empire was seen as an excellent opportunity for the British government to stablilise its economy during the challenges of the Great Depression.

Realising the potential difficulties that such a punitive law could unleash, a more compassionate deal was reached in the 1932 Import Duties Act, where it was agreed that a 10% tax be imposed on imported goods, although this exempted products from the empire.  This concession was achieved with the aim of ensuring improved access to dominion markets, and resulted in several bilateral agreements with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, India and Southern Rhodesia.  Nevertheless, with the introduction of quotas for agricultural products through the Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933, there were now restrictions on the type of farming products that could be imported.  Moreover, in a tone that is reminiscent of the pro-Brexit camp both during and after the referendum, the British explored deals that went beyond the traditional confines of Europe in order to strengthen its economy, and this included Scandinavian countries and Argentina.  This not only improved British trade prospects, but provided the mutually-beneficial element to these countries in order to maintain access to the British market for the purpose of trade.


The 1932 Import Duties Act was seen by many as symbolic of punitive protectionist policies pursued by the British government.


There are so many fantastic elements to this paper that not only shed new light on the issue of tariffs, but also provide the foundation for future debate.  Nevertheless, the authors have highlighted what they believed were the difficulties in their research, especially concerning the masses of data that they collected.  They believed that there were inconsistencies in the data, but have done a wonderful job in using spreadsheets to predict the results in the absence of concrete data.  In some cases, the use of complicated mathematical formulas has been used to come to these conclusions.  The fact that the paper engages in counterfactual debate provides an important foundation for future discussion, but also lends itself to its own difficulties.  Counterfactuals, although interesting, cannot be definitively proven.   In this respect, the paper poses several “what if” questions relating to tariffs, especially what would have happened if tariffs had not been increased.  In their conclusions, they argue that it appears that the empire did better with tariffs than without, and if there was free trade, there would only have been a modest increase in the empire share of trade.  Thus, the impact of British protectionist policies proved substantial, and, they argue, account for a shift of around 50% of trade towards the empire by 1930.   The conclusions are interesting and useful, but as the authors explain, a lot of work needed to be done to fill the gaps in the data.  It is the interpretation of these gaps in the data, especially the ways in which some conclusions have been reached through the use of counterfactual debate that will undoubtedly provide the platform for future historical enquiry on this topic.


Eichengreen, Barry, and Douglas A. Irwin. The slide to protectionism in the Great Depression: Who succumbed and why?. No. w15142. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009.

Capie, Forrest. Depression & Protectionism: Britain Between the Wars. Vol. 2. Routledge, 2013.

Temin, Peter. Lessons from the great depression. MIT Press, 1991.

How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility?

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism

By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford (

Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses financial markets to transfer financial entitlement over time. Social democracy came up against the limits of public expenditure in the 1970s. The ‘market turn’ from social democracy to market liberalism was enabled by easy credit in the 1980s. Much of this was absorbed into homeownership, which attracted majorities of households (and voters) in the developed world. Early movers did well, but easy credit eventually drove house prices beyond the reach of younger cohorts. Debt service diminished effective demand, which instigated financial instability. Both social democracy and market liberalism are in crisis.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-01-29

Review by: Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa, Bangor University


This paper emerged from Avner Offer’s Tawney Lecture at the Economic History Society’s annual conference, Cambridge, 3 April 2016 (the video of which can be found here).

In this paper Offer discussed two macroeconomic innovations of the 20th century, which he calls “the market turn”. These are the changes in fiscal policy and financialisation that encompassed the shift  from social democracy to market liberalism from the 1970s onwards. Social democracy is understood as a fiscal innovation which resulted in the doubling of public expenditure (from aprox. 25 to 50 per cent of GDP between 1920 and 1980). Its aim was reducing wealth inequality. Market liberalism encompassed a monetary innovation, namely the deregulation of credit which allowed households to increase their indebtedness from around 50 to 150 per cent of personal disposable income, mainly for the purpose of home ownership. According to Offer the end result of market liberalism was increasing wealth inequality. See Offer’s depiction of this process in the graph below.

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration. (Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration.
(Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Offer considers that both social democracy and market liberalism are norms captured by the single concept of a “Just World Theory” (Offer & Söderberg, 2016).The ideals behind social democracy are said to be supported by ideas found in classical economics, while the ideals behind market liberalism are said to have emerged from a redefinition of the origins and nature of economic value found in neoclassical economics. Contrasting the ideas behind social democracy and market liberalism brings about  questions such as:

  • Where does value come from?,
  • Is it from production or is it from personal preferences and demand for the good/service?,
  • What is just and fair?,
  • What do we as individuals deserve as reward?, and
  • Is there really a trade-off between equality and efficiency?

Answering any of these question is not simple and heated debates abound around them. Offer, however, rescues the idea of life-cycle dependency, where the situation of the most vulnerable individuals is alleviated through collective risk pooling rather than financial markets. According to Offer,  life-cycle dependency was the dominant approach to reducing poverty in most developed countries until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Then collapse of the Bretton Woods accord that followed, led to the liberalization of credit by removing previous constraints. This in turn resulted in the “market turn”.

Avner Offer

Professor Avner Offer (1944). MA, DPhil, FBA. Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford since 2011.

Offer then turns to analyse the events after the collapse of Bretton Woods that led to the increase of household indebtedness while focusing on the UK. The 1970s was a very volatile decade for Britain.  For instance, oil price increases and the secondary banking crises of 1973 resulted in the highest annual increase of the inflation rate on record. Offer argues, while citing John Fforde (Executive Director of the Bank of England at that time), that the Competition and Credit Control Act 1971 was as a leap of faith in the pursuit of greater efficiency in financial markets. This Act was accompanied by a new monetary policy where changes in interest rates (the price of money) by the central bank was to bring about the control of the quantity of money. Perhaps unexpectedly and probably due to a lack of a better understanding of the origins of money, that was not the case. Previously lifted credit restrictions had to be reinstated.

Credit controls were again lifted in the 1980s. This time policy innovations went further by allowing clearing (ie commercial) banks to re-enter the personal mortgage market. The Building Societies Act 1986  allowed building societies to offer personal loans and current accounts as well as opened a pathway for them to become commercial banks (which many did after 1989 and all those societies that converted  either collapsed or were taken over by clearing banks or both). Initially and up to the crash of house prices in September, 1992, personal mortgage credit grew continuously and to levels never seen before in the UK. According to Offer, during this period both political parties supported the idea of homeownership and incentivised it through programs like “Help to Buy”. However, the rise in the demand for housing combined with the stagnation in the supply of dwellings pushed up house prices, making it more difficult for first-time buyers to become homeowners. Additionally, according to Offer, the wave of easy credit of the 1980s brought with it an increase in wealth inequality and an increase in the fragility of the financial system. As debt repayments grew as proportion of income, consumption was driven down, with subsequent effects on production and services. On this Offer opined:

“In the quest for economic security, the best personal strategy is to be rich.” (p. 17)

The paper ends with possible and desirable futures for public policy initiatives to deal with today’s challenges around wealth inequality and mounting personal credit. He argues that personal debt should be reduced through rising inflation,  a policy driven write-off or a combination of both. He also argues to reinstate a regime where credit is rationed. He states that financial institutions should not have the ability to create money and therefore the housing market funding should return to the old model of building societies. He has a clear preference for social democracy over market liberalism and as such argues that austerity should end, since it is having the exact opposite effects to what was intended.

Brief Comment

Offer’s thought provoking ideas comes at a time when several political and economic events are taking place (e.g. Brexit, Trump’s attack on Dodd-Frank, etc.) which, together, could be of the magnitude as “the market turn”. Once again economic historians could help better inform the debate. Citing R. H. Tawney, Offer opened the lecture (rather than the paper) by stating that:

“to be an effective advocate in the present, you need a correct and impartial understanding of the past.”

Offer clearly fulfils the latter, even though some orthodox economists might disagree with his inflationary and credit control proposals. As per usual his idea are a great contribution to the debate around market efficiency in a time when the world seems to be in constant distress. Perhaps we ought to generate more and better research to understand the mechanisms through which market liberalism generated the current levels of wealth inequality and financial instability that Offer describes. More importantly though, is analysing if social democracy can bring inequality down as it did in the past. In my view, however, in a world where productivity seems to be stagnated, real wages are decreasing, and debt keeps growing, it is highly unlikely that the public sector can produce the recipe that will set us in the path of economic prosperity for all.

Additional References

Offer, A., & Söderberg, G. (2016). The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn. Princeton University Press.
(Read an excellent review of this book here)