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Mafianomic history

On the Historical and Geographic Origins of the Sicilian Mafia

By Paolo Buonanno, Ruben Durante, Giovanni Prarolo ( and Paolo Vanin



This research attempts to explain the large differences in the early diffusion of the mafia across different areas of Sicily. We advance the hypothesis that, after the demise of Sicilian feudalism, the lack of publicly provided property-right protection from widespread banditry favored the development of a florid market for private protection and the emergence of a cartel of protection providers: the mafia. This would especially be the case in those areas (prevalently concentrated in the Western part of the island) characterized by the production and commercialization of sulphur and citrus fruits, Sicily’s most valuable export goods whose international demand was soaring at the time. We test this hypothesis combining data on the early incidence of mafia across Sicilian municipalities and on the distribution of sulphur reserves, land suitability for the cultivation of citrus fruits, distance from the main commercial ports, and a variety of other geographical controls. Our empirical findings provide support for the proposed hypothesis documenting, in particular, a significant impact of sulphur extraction, terrain ruggedness, and distance from Palermo’s port on mafia’s early diffusion.

Review by Chris Colvin

What are the economic determinants of organised crime? This working paper, written by Paolo Buonanno (University of Bergamo), Ruben Durante (Sciences Po), Giovanni Prarolo and Paolo Vanin (both University of Bologna), attempts to answer this question by looking at the origins of protection rackets on the island of Sicily in the nineteenth century. The authors ask the question: why did the mafia emerge in the west nearly one hundred years before it did elsewhere on the island?

Diego Gambetta, a sociologist at Nuffield College Oxford, has long argued that eastern landlords were better equipped to maintain control as they were present on their lands, whilst western absentee-landlords left their tenants vulnerable to violence by bandits, therefore creating a market for mafiosi. Oriana Bandiera, an economist at the LSE, advances a model that implies that the mafia were more active where landholdings were fragmented. Buonanno et al. add another explanation: there was a high demand for protection in those areas in which citrus crops and sulphur mining were the most important economic activities. These commodities were vulnerable to predatory attacks by bandits when being transported to markets. Property rights on the island were weak, and so areas which specialised in these vulnerable commodities demanded protection services in order to stay in business.

Sketch of a 1901 trial of suspected mafiosi in Palermo (L'Ora, May 1901).

The authors use a sociological survey of Sicily’s mafia conducted in 1900 to code the level of mafia presence at the municipality level. This dataset, which the authors argue has never before been analysed quantitatively, covers more of the island than any other historical source, and does not suffer from the biases inherent in government-collected data. The authors use regression analysis to explain mafia activity with geomorphological (topography), census and road infrastructure data. They find evidence of their hypothesis: the mafia were most present in areas with the right conditions for citric fruits and sulphur extraction. They challenge Bandiera: land fragmentation is not an explanation, but is rather a result of geographic endowment; rugged landscapes lead to small landholdings, which in turn created a demand for mafia services.

Whilst the authors claim to explain the emergence of Sicily’s mafia, I think that they are actually doing something slightly different. Their data on mafia activity refer to 1900, some fifty years after the authors claim that protection racketeers emerged on the island. I think that what they are actually doing is explaining where the mafia was most successful at the end of these 50 years, not where it originated per se. I think that the authors could benefit from using some tools from spatial analysis to strengthen their results. For instance, they could look into spatial autocorrelation, and perhaps need to consider the implications of the fact that western municipalities appear to be much larger than eastern ones. Finally, I think they could be more explicit about how they are addressing the ecological fallacy if they want to prove causality; how do we know that an area’s orange growers and sulphur miners are the ones seeking the mafia protection?

A brief note for those wishing to distribute their working papers using the NEP-HIS email: The working paper reviewed here was added to NEP using the Munich Personal RePEc Archive. This great on-line service allows economic historians with no access to an established institutional working paper series to add their paper directly to the RePEc database.

Electrification, skills and manufacturing

Taking Technology to Task: The Skill Content of Technological Change in Early Twentieth Century United States

By Rowena Gray (



This paper presents a new picture of the labor market effects of technological change in pre-WWII United States. I show that, similar to the recent computerization episode, the electrification of the manufacturing sector led to a “hollowing out” of the skill distribution whereby workers in the middle of the distribution lost out to those at the extremes. To conduct this analysis, a new dataset detailing the task composition of occupations in the United States for the period 1880-1940 was constructed using information about the task content of over 4,000 occupations from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (1949). This unique data was used to measure the skill content of electrification in U.S. manufacturing. OLS estimates show that electrification increased the demand for clerical, numerical, planning and people skills relative to manual skills while simultaneously reducing relative demand for the dexterity-intensive jobs which comprised the middle of the skill distribution. Thus, early twentieth century technological change was unskill-biased for blue collar tasks but skill-biased on aggregate. These results are in line with the downward trend in wage differentials within U.S. manufacturing up to 1950. To overcome any threat to the exogeneity of the electricity measure, due for example to endogenous technological change, 2 instrumental variable strategies were developed. The first uses cross-state differences in the timing of adoption of state-level utility regulation while the second exploits differences in state-level geography that encouraged the development of hydro-power generation and thus made electricity cheaper. The results from these regressions support the main conclusions of the paper.

Review by: Chris Colvin

What was the effect of electrification on the skill content of manufacturing? Rowena Gray (University of Essex) answers this important question for the case of the US using a new data source and an instrumental variables approach. Gray uses the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, a 1949 publication which describes occupations, to classify the skill content of manufacturing jobs post-electrification. Matching these descriptions with occupational data from decennial censuses and information on plant electrification from the US census of manufacturing, Gray is able to track changes in the skill content of manufacturing due to electrification for the period 1880 to 1940.

Using regression analysis, Gray shows that the most skilled blue-collar workers were displaced by machinery, i.e. electrification resulted in unskilled-biased technical change. She also shows that electrification simultaneously necessitated more clerical and supervisory work, a skill-biased change. This bimodal distributional finding is further strengthened in her robustness exercises, which instrument for electrification using cross-state differences in the timing of the adoption of utility regulation and differences in geography necessary for hydroelectric power generation. This instrumental variable approach is needed to address the concern that electrification is endogenous to the pre-existing skill levels present in state’s labour market; various skillsets may have attracted electrification, rather than the other way around.

Gray’s paper is important because previous studies have been unable to quantify the effects of electrification on the skill content of manufacturing, or at least have been unable to demonstrate that electrification has a distributional effect, that it was simultaneously unskilled- and skilled-biased. An alternative approach to instrumental variables which Gray could have employed to determine the direction of causality would have been to complement her regression analysis with detailed business histories, a method suggested recently by Randall Morck and Bernard Yeung. Where her research potentially suffers is her reliance on post-electrification occupational descriptions; her assumption that the tasks required to carry out particular jobs before and after electrification were identical may be unrealistic. Gray’s future research agenda includes using her individual-level dataset to track cohorts across censuses in order to uncover the winners and losers of electrification. Perhaps another task, which could strengthen the results of the paper discussed here, would be to repeat her analysis using a source that describes the task content of jobs pre-electrification.

Gray’s paper is part of the new working paper series of the European Historical Economics Society. The series, edited by Nikolaus Wolf (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), offers the society’s members the chance to disseminate their work ahead of journal submission. Other recent papers in this series include one by Geraldine David and Kim Oosterlinck (Université Libre de Bruxelles) on the effects of the War on the Belgian art market, and a paper by Giovanni Federico (EUI and University of Pisa) on market integration across oceans. This series will surely prove to be an important outlet for work-in-progress by historical economists in future; a paper disseminated in this way could be an important signal of quality versus dissemination through the working paper series of individual institutions.

Retail Chain Expansion: The Early Years of McDonalds in Great Britain

By: Otto Toivanen and Michael Waterson


[Earlier version – free download : ]

Understanding the development of chainstores is important given the large GDP share of services and the continuing importance of chains in bringing these services to market. Service chains provide a puzzle because they take a long time to develop even when there are obvious expansion opportunities. We study the spread of McDonalds in Britain. We find cannibalization on the demand side and economies of density both within and between markets on the cost side, and evidence of learning by doing at the firm level. Within-period diseconomies of scale at the firm level help explain the lengthy opening pattern.

Keywords: Cost of entry; diffusion; economies of density; economies of scale; entry; expansion

JEL: L10

Business historians have explored retailing in different forms (such as food in supermarkets and financial services by banks). This article, however, opens a potentially interesting side to the story. Toivanen and Waterson’s tell how McDonald’s entered the UK market in 1974 and follow through until 1990, when Burger King arrives.Theirs is primarily a story of industrial organization. The company provided data on new outlets (few of which were franchises) and this was matched to geo-economic information that results in a fascinating analysis of growth (by measuring how market size attracts different size of entry).

Placing a similar study in its context and cultural implications could be an interesting business history, as well as the dynamics of the competition with the incumbent, Whimpy. Of course, why Whimphy failed to respond appropriately is another part of the story. However, I think the greatest potential Toivanen and Waterson offer to business historians is the linking of retailing studies with “big issues” such as the roots of obesity.

Obesity is an increasing concern for policy makers. For instant, the recent article in The Economist. It a problem of global impact as it seems to be growing faster in less developed countries (says BBC News). Actions of government seem ineffective and some even open to ridicule (such as a direct path to a fast foor resaurant as discribed by Piquant Salty Humour).But academic input from historians seems marginal and perhaps limited to the work of Sander L. Gilman.

Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009

By: Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth


Free to download URL:

Does fiscal consolidation lead to social unrest? From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble cross-country evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. We also analyse interactions with various economic and political variables. While autocracies and democracies show a broadly similar responses to budget cuts, countries with more constraints on the executive are less likely to see unrest as a result of austerity measures. Growing media penetration does not lead to a stronger effect of cut-backs on the level of unrest.

Keywords: demonstrations; Europe; government deficits; instability; public expediture; riots; unrest

JEL: H40

There are a number of competing arguments in use to explain the August 2011 riots in London (e.g. BBC News or Tony Blair in The Observer). In a timely piece, Ponticelli and Voth provide empirical support to the debate.

That one should expect some form of that causality between cut-backs in government expenditure and social unrest is probably part of the curriculum of “Politics 101″. The question is by who much. Here Olaf Storbeck’s Ecomics Intelligence noted that, according to Ponticelli and Voth, the relationship has lost strength in the last 20 years needs more attention and that the authors could have expanded in the reasons for this. Perhaps more interestingly, is testing for when and how. For instance, riots in Greece take place when cuts are announced and in London in anticipation of a reduction of police numbers. In this regard Ponticelli and Voth explore “the spread of (uni-directional) mass media” (such as newspapers, television and radio) as opposed to the use of social networks (bi-directional media) in the so called Arab Spring and London riots.

Overall, they offer a robust dataset, a sound estimation and a convincing explanation that budget cuts have a stronger correlation with unrest than changes in GDP:

These findings cast doubts on established wisdom. Until the sovereign debt crisis of 2010, the consensus among economists was unambiguous – expenditure cuts can be growth-enhancing. Also, there was a widely accepted view that there is no penalty at the ballot box for cuts. Governments that implement huge austerity programmes are just as likely to win as the ones doing nothing. While recent research by the IMF casts some doubt on the economic benefits, our results question the political economy side of the story – cuts may not imperil re-election, but they create the risk of major social and political instability.(The Guardian)

There are some methodological issues that need clarification. For instance, what exactly do authors mean by “countries institutions improve”. There is no allowance for the timing of announcements as their data uses actual reductions in government spending. It is also debatable to construct a single index of unrest (whether a simple or weighted index as noted in footnote 6) as opposed to a panel. How different are results when comparing Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia? But more important, as the authors point out, there might be space for more micro analysis when testing unrest in particular cities (see their summary at Vox) rather than national economies. These and many other questions remain open. It seems that Ponticelli and Voth make an important contribution to researching the economics of unrest.

Mobile banking and financial inclusion: The regulatory lessons

By: Michael Klein and Colin Mayer


Mobile banking is growing at a remarkable speed around the world. In the process it is creating considerable uncertainty about the appropriate regulatory response to this newly emerging service. This paper sets out a framework for considering the design of regulation of mobile banking. Since it lies at the interface between financial services and telecoms, mobile banking also raises competition policy and interoperability issues that are discussed in the paper. Finally, by unbundling payments services into its component parts, mobile banking provides important lessons for the design of financial regulation more generally in developed as well as developing economies. —

Keywords: Banking,Regulation,Microfinance,Payments System,Mobile Money

JEL: G21

Through the case study of M-PESA in Kenya, Klein and Mayer argue that a “revolution” in payment systems is taking place. It is emerging amongst poor people in less industrialized nations rather than the well-off and technologically savvy in the US-Europe-Japan triangle. And, they conclude, it illustrates how banks need not be the sole administrators of payment systems, that there is yet another process of bank disintermediation in the make.

The M-PESA case resembles that of the Octopus card in Hong Kong, where the transport authority has been the main driver and today about 40% of its use relates to micro-payments other than transport. Banks were not interested in helping develop it and today they have been either marginalized or had to respond offering hybrids (that is, cards with dual VISA/Mastercard chips and Octopus). While Turkey offers an example where only a combination of banks and telecoms results in the right mix of capabilities to bring about change. There telecom operators (Turkcell), banks, authorities and a private e-identity service-providing company (E-Güven) have agreed upon a common SIM-based identification solution. As a result, Turkish customers can use their mobile phone for secure connections to online banking, government services etc.

I take it that there is a case of path dependence in industrialized nations for banks to be the most successful creators of means of payment. Early forms of fiat money and London coffee houses are two examples that readily come to mind. Therefore, an non-industrialized nation is closer to the “natural state” and alternative forms are easier to flourish, particularly if, as in the case above, deploying say a large network of cash machines involved a substantial investment (with the price tag of each individual device requiring some three to ten thousand dollars). Mobile phones offer a cost effective alternative, among other things because they are a platform that already has a large number of users.

But however much retail payments and consumer credit are “hot topics” (see call below), we know very little about financial transitions. I can be wrong in this comparison but I think of co-existing payment systems just like there are co-existing alternative energy supplies. According to Roger Fouquet’s studies in energy transitions (see, it takes at least 50 years to move form one source of energy to the other. So I am not totally clear how cases in Kenya, Hong Kong or Turkey are the dawn of a new era. The same reasons that have made them successful could bring about their failure in other geographies. Klein and Mayer admit that it is too early to tell whether most experiments in mobile payments will be financially successful. But to the best of my knowledge, we know little on transitions in financial payment systems. An area where it seems we banking historians could make an important contribution.

PS A conference on the economics of retail payments and consumer credit has been organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia in September 2011 (see

Male organ and economic growth: does size matter?

By: Tatu Westling


This paper explores the link between economic development and penile length between 1960 and 1985. It estimates an augmented Solow model utilizing the Mankiw-Romer-Weil 121 country dataset. The size of male organ is found to have an inverse U-shaped relationship with the level of GDP in 1985. It can alone explain over 15% of the variation in GDP. The GDP maximizing size is around 13.5 centimetres, and a collapse in economic development is identified as the size of male organ exceeds 16 centimetres. Economic growth between 1960 and 1985 is negatively associated with the size of male organ, and it alone explains 20% of the variation in GDP growth. With due reservations it is also found to be more important determinant of GDP growth than country’s political regime type. Controlling for male organ slows convergence and mitigates the negative effect of population growth on economic development slightly. Although all evidence is suggestive at this stage, the `male organ hypothesis’ put forward here is robust to exhaustive set of controls and rests on surprisingly strong correlations.
Keywords: Economic growth; development; male organ; penile length; Solow model
JEL: O47

Although it compares economic development in 1960 vs 1985, this is not strictly a historical piece. Hence why it was placed at the bottom of the report. However, it is included in the report and blog as it follows from the previous discussion on the blog relating to internal vs external consistency. The article has also attracted attention in the popular press:

Westling argues, I think correctly, that physical features can be an interesting measure of development of non-oil producing countries. His choice of the male organ is justified as: “it represents a well defined and concrete object. Second, it is relatively easy to measure (erect length is used). Third, it is largely free from cultural connotations that might hound complex institutional variables..’. I can see that economic development can associate, enhance or even feedback with changes in physical features. For instance, height. But I find the inverse causation hard to follow. I think this is a case of good correlation but very doubtful causality. Westling readily acknowledges that much: “the exact channel through which these penile-effects take place remains unclear.”

Economics, History, and Causation.

By Randall Morck Randall & Bernard Yeung

Economics and history both strive to understand causation: economics using instrumental variables econometrics and history by weighing the plausibility of alternative narratives. Instrumental variables can lose value with repeated use because of an econometric tragedy of the commons bias: each successful use of an instrument potentially creates an additional latent variable bias problem for all other uses of that instrument – past and future. Economists should therefore consider historians’ approach to inferring causality from detailed context, the plausibility of alternative narratives, external consistency, and recognition that free will makes human decisions intrinsically exogenous.

This paper has yet to appear in NEP-HIS but should be forthcoming as the NBER takes a bit to update its series. The paper has already been published (Business History Review, 85(1), Spring 2011).

Morck and Yeung offer a long and detailed critique of mainstream economics through its excessive use of econometrics and disregard for  work by other economists. This article touches on an interesting idea, namely the need for greater external consistency in quantitative studies.

I was hoping that along side this critique the authors would have offered something similar for historians, perhaps along the lines of what Friedman and Jones state in the introduction to that same issue of BHR. I also felt their overall argument would have been more powerful if the paper had been published in a high ranking, mainstream outlet,  the Journal of Economic History  or any other of the highly quantitative outlets in the area.