Tag Archives: USA

Society? Economics? Politics? Personality? What causes inequality?

What Drives Inequality?

by Jon D. Wisman (American)

Abstract Over the past 40 years, inequality has exploded in the U.S. and significantly increased in virtually all nations. Why? The current debate typically identifies the causes as economic, due to some combination of technological change, globalization, inadequate education, demographics, and most recently, Piketty’s claim that it is the rate of return on capital exceeding the growth rate. But to the extent true, these are proximate causes. They all take place within a political framework in which they could in principle be neutralized. Indeed, this mistake is itself political. It masks the true cause of inequality and presents it as if natural, due to the forces of progress, just as in pre-modern times it was the will of gods. By examining three broad distributional changes in modern times, this article demonstrates the dynamics by which inequality is a political phenomenon through and through. It places special emphasis on the role played by ideology – politics’ most powerful instrument – in making inequality appear as necessary.

Source: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:amu:wpaper:2015-09

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-10-04

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2015-05-05.  It explores a topical issue in political discourse at present, in which the debate has largely been categorised into two major camps.  First, the Conservative argument, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher in Britain (and simultaneously championed by Ronald Reagan and Charles Murray in the USA) was that inequality was good and accepted by the populace as a way of categorising and organising the nation.  Their argument, it so followed, ensured that those who were at the lower part of society would be inspired to work harder as a means to lessen their inequality.  The second argument that has now experienced resurgence in the UK following the election of the left wing veteran Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the opposition Labour Party is that inequality is an evil in society that punishes the poor for their poverty.  The counter argument is that the richer, which have the broadest shoulders, should bear the heaviest burden in times of hardship, and that austerity should not hit the poorest of society in the hardest way.  Thus a political solution should be sought to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth in favour of the poorest in society.  Similar arguments have been made in the US by proponents of increased state welfare.  It is in this context that the debates highlighted in this paper should be seen.

Thatcher and Reagan were the major architects of a change in economic policy away from state welfare.

Thatcher and Reagan were the major architects of a change in economic policy away from state welfare.

This meticulously researched article demonstrates that inequality as a phenomenon has long roots.  Citing that inequality has virtually been omnipresent in the world since the dawn of civilisation, Wisman couches the argument concerning inequality within the wider organisation and economic hierarchy of society.  Building on the argument of Simon Kuznets that inequality, at the beginning of economic development shows vast differences between rich and poor but subsequently stabilises, he looks at other factors beyond economics that contribute to the growing inequality in society.  The heavy focus on political literature examining the impact of politics on rising inequality is especially interesting, and takes this paper beyond the traditional Marxist arguments that have often been proposed about the failures and flaws of capitalism.  Other arguments, such as the impact of the industrial revolution, are explored in detail and are shown to be significant factors in defining inequality.  This runs as a counter-exploration to the work of Nick Crafts who has explored the extent to which the industrial revolution, especially in Britain, was ‘successful’.

Despite the arguments and debates about why inequality exists, there still appears to be no conclusive answer about its cause.

Despite the arguments and debates about why inequality exists, there still appears to be no conclusive answer about its cause.

Ideology is also a factor that is explored in detail.  The explanations for inequality have often been provided with ideological labels, with some offering proposals for eradicating inequality, while others propose that individuals, and not society, should change in order to reverse the trend.  The latter was forcefully proposed by Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman, whereas the former was commonly the battle-cry of post-war socialist-leaning parties (most notably the largely out-of power Labour Party of Britain in the post-war period, with the exception of 1945-51 and brief periods in the 1970s).

The religious argument about helping people who are less fortunate than yourself has now become more tenuous in favour of using religion as a form of legitimizing inequality.

The religious argument about helping people who are less fortunate than yourself has now become more tenuous in favour of using religion as a form of legitimizing inequality.

The exploration of religion as a factor is also particularly interesting here.  Wisman argues that providing state institutions with religious foundations thus legitimises their status, and hereby ensures that inequality has a stronger place in society.  This point, while contentious, has been alluded to in previous literature, but has not been explored in great depth.  The section in this paper on religion is also small, although such is its significance, I am sure the author would seek to expand on this in a later draft.


This paper is wide-ranging, and shows a large number of factors that have contributed to inequality in the western world, especially the USA.  It highlights the fact that the arguments concerning inequality are more complex than has possibly been previously assumed.  Arguing that politics and economics are intertwined, it effectively argues that a synthesis of these two disciplines are required in order to address the issue of inequality and reduce the gap between rich and poor in society.

I found this article absolutely fascinating.  I can offer very little in terms of suggestions for improvement.  However, one aspect did come to mind, and that was the impact of inequality on individual/collective advancement?  Perhaps this would take the research off into a tangent too far away from the author’s original focus, but the issue that sprung to mind for me was the impact of the inequality mentioned by the author on aspects such as educational attainment and future employment opportunities?  For example, in the UK, the major debate for decades has been the apparent disparity between the numbers of state school and privately-educated students attending the nation’s elite universities, namely Oxbridge.  Arguments have often centred on the assumption that private, fee-paying schools are perceived to be better in terms of educational quality, and thus admissions officers disproportionately favour these students when applying to university.  While official figures show that Oxbridge is made up of a higher proportion of state school student than their privately-educated counterparts, this ignores the fact that over 90% of British students are still educated in the state system.  Furthermore, so the argument goes, those with an elite education then attain the highest-paying jobs and occupy the highest positions in society, thus generating the argument that positions in the judiciary and politics are not representative of the composition of society.  These are complex arguments.  This paper alludes to many of these points concerning the origins of inequality.  Perhaps a future direction of this research would be to apply the models highlighted and apply them to certain examples in society to test their validity?


Dorey, Peter, British Conservatism: the Politics and Philosophy of Inequality (London, I. B. Tauris, 2011)

Thane, Pat (ed.) The Origins of British Social Policy (London: Croom Helm ; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978).

Thane, Pat, The Foundations of the Welfare State, (Harlow: Longman, 1982).

The Neoliberal Model is not Sustainable but State Driven Models have not Proven to be Any Better: How About We Just Redistribute the Wealth?

State Versus Market in Developing Countries in the Twenty First Century

by Kalim Siddiqui (University of Huddersfield)(k.u.siddiqui@hud.ac.uk)

This paper analyses the issue of the state versus the market in developing countries. There was wide ranging debate in the 1950s and 1960s about the role of the state in their economy when these countries attained independence, with developing their economies and eradicating poverty and backwardness being seen as their key priority. In the post-World War II period, the all-pervasive ‘laissez-faire’ model of development was rejected, because during the pre-war period such policies had failed to resolve the economic crisis. Therefore, Keynesian interventionist economic policies were adopted in most of these countries.

The economic crisis in developing countries during the 1980s and 1990s provided an opportunity for international financial institutions to impose ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ in the name of aid, which has proved to be disastrous. More than two decades of pursuing neoliberal policies has reduced the progressive aspects of the state sector. The on-going crisis in terms of high unemployment, poverty and inequality provides an opportunity to critically reflect on past performance and on the desirability of reviving the role of the state sector in a way that will contribute to human development.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/peswpaper/2015_3ano96.htm

Revised by: Stefano Tijerina (University of Maine)

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-04-19. In it Kalim Siddiqui indicates that the global economic crisis that began in 2007 “provides an opportunity” to reconsider Keynesian interventionist models, thus “reviving the role of the state sector” for purposes of protecting the interests of the majority. Siddiqui centers his argument on the modern economic development experiences of the developing world, juxtaposing it with the experiences of advanced industrialized nations. He particularly emphasizes the economic development experiences of the United States and the United Kingdom, in efforts to advance the argument that Keynesian interventionist policies and protectionist agendas are instrumental in securing a transition into advance industrialization. He argues that the developing world needs to experience a similar transition to that of the UK and the US in order to achieve similar levels industrial competitiveness. However the neoliberal discourse promoted by the industrial powers and the multilateral system after World War Two, and the implementation of neoclassical liberal policies after the 1980s, impeded the developing world from moving in the right direction.


Siddiqui begins the construction of his argument by providing a brief history of the modern economic development patterns of both the UK and the US. This lays the foundation for his main argument that developing nations should return to the Keynesian patters of economic development in order to achieve advanced levels of industrialization that will eventually allow them to correct present market failures, reducing unemployment, poverty, and environmental degradation.

He points out that in the 1970s and 1980s the UK and US moved away from interventionist policies and adopted a neo-classical model of economic development in response to “corruption, favoritism, and other forms of self-seeking behavior,” that lead to the economic crisis of the times. This model would then be promoted across the international system by the economists of the World Bank and the IMF who found in the same neo-classical model an explanation for the failed Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policies implemented across the developing world to cope with the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s.

Kalim Siddiqui

Kalim Siddiqui

What Siddiqui does not address is that the failure of the implementation of the ISI policies across the developing world were the direct result of the same corruption and self-centered tendencies of leadership that forced a move away from interventionist policies in countries like the UK and the US. I agree with Siddiqui that the structural changes introduced by the multilateral financial agencies did more damage than good, however I disagree with his idea that the developing world should return once again to Keynesian solutions, since the implementation of these structural adjustment programs were in fact forms of interventionism that catapulted most of these economies into debt.

Siddiqui then lays down a series of reasons why the role of the state should be reconsidered across the developing world, highlighting that greater interventionism would be more beneficial than an increasing role of the market system. He uses the recent success stories of state driven capitalist experiments such as China’s, Brazil’s, India’s, and Malaysia’s, disregarding the fact that these state driven models continue to be tainted with problems of corruption and self-rewarding management styles that are inefficient and wasteful. For example, he points out the success of Petrobras in Brazil, not following up on the fact that the state-run oil company is now under investigation for high levels of corruption that has sent its stock price in a critical downward spiral.


At the end Siddiqui’s argument is debunked by more contemporary realities; including decreasing global unemployment patters, economic recovery, and the downfall of state run economies such as those that moved to the Left in Latin America during recent times. Moreover, the bailout policies implemented by the United States and the European Union during the peak of the latest financial crisis contradicts Siddiqui’s argument that neoliberal economies “do not countenance any economic intervention by the state.” I argue that interventionism is an integral part of the advancement of neoliberal agendas; the question that Siddiqqui should be asking is what degree of interventionism is ideal for the developing world under a global neoliberal reality that is inevitable to avoid?

Siddiqui’s work represents yet another criticism to neoliberal capitalism, centering on the agendas set by the administrations of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. It does not provide a convincing method or strategy for reviving state driven capitalism under an increasingly intertwined global economic system. It is rich in criticism but short of offering any real solutions through state interventionism. Current case studies that have returned to interventionist models, as in the case of Brazil or India, have failed once again to resolve issues of poverty and income inequality. I agree with the author’s conclusion that the implementation of neoliberal models across the developing world has distorted inequality and social justice even further but disagree with the simplistic solution of increasing state interventionism in the management of market driven economies for the sake of it. More so when the historic evidence indicates that the leadership across the developing world has consistently pursued self-interests and not the interests of the masses. From my point of view, the revival of interventionist models across the developing world will just complete the vicious cycle of history one more time, particularly now that the interests of private global actors has permeated the internal political economy decision making processes of the developing world. If in the early stages of the modern economic development of the developing world foreign political and business interests directly and indirectly penetrated local decision making, thanks in part to the intervention of the World Bank and the IMF as it was pointed out by Siddiqui, then it is inevitable to impede such filtrations under a global system, unless the nation state is willing to pay the high costs of isolationism.


Siddiqui indicates that self-marginalization from the market system worked for the UK and the US, allowing them to strengthen their internal market and generate the technological and human capital capabilities necessary for advanced industrialization, but that was more than one hundred years ago when the globalization of the market had not reached the levels of sophistication of today. If these industrial powers were to try this same experiment today, the outcome would have been very different. In the past decade developing nations such as Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador have experimented with Siddiqui’s model and the results have been no different than the old experiments of Import Substitution Industrialization and other interventionist approaches of the post-Second World War Two era. Corruption, political self-interest, lack of internal will to risk investment capital, lack of infrastructure, lack of an internal sophisticated consumer market, the absence of technology and energy resources, and the inability to generate short-term wealth for redistribute purposes in order to guarantee the long-term projection of the interventionist model has resulted in failed revivals of the Keynesian model. It is the reason why Cuba is now willing to redefine its geopolitical strategy and reestablish relations with the United States; clearly the interventionist model is and was not able to sustain a national economy under a market driven international system.


The solution lies inside the market system. It is futile to denigrate neoliberalism unless the developing world leadership is willing to construct a parallel market system, as once envisioned by Hugo Chavez, but we are far from that reality. Instead each nation state should reevaluate its wealth distributive and resource allocation policies, moving away from defense spending and refocusing on infrastructure, technology, human capital, health, and the construction of a solid and self-sustainable middle class. Van Parijs’s pivotal work, Real Freedom for All speaks to this idea, indicating that the solution to securing policies that center on what Siddiqui calls the majority, lies in capitalism and not in socialism. If, through a more equal distribution of capital across all sectors of society, capitalism is able to outperform any socialist or interventionist model, then there is no need to attack capitalism and its neoliberal ideas. A replication of this model across the developing world would boost economies into a more sophisticated level of economic development. More competition among states’ private sectors would lead to a more efficient international system, a dynamic that would be enhanced even further by less and not more government intervention. However, the current realities pointed out by Siddiqui indicate that political and corporate elites are not willing to redefine their views on capitalism and therefore we need greater government intervention for redistribute purposes. The redistribution of the pie is the only way to avoid Marx’s inevitable revolution, I agree with Siddiqui. But I do not trust the role of the state as a redistributive agent. I am more in favor of what Michael Howard calls “basic income capitalism” that secures sustainable expendable income in the hands of all consumers through the market system. The dilemma of interventionism continues to be at the forefront, yet it could easily be resolved by the market itself, as long as the actors, workers and owners of capital, are willing to redefine the outreach and potential of capitalism; as long as the social construction of freedom of capital is redefined?


Michael W. Howard, “Exploitation, Labor, and Basic Income.” University of Maine (work in progress).

Kalim Siddiqui, “State Versus Market in Developing Countries in the Twenty First Century,” Institute of Economic Research (working paper), submitted at VIII International Conference on Applied Economics, Poland, June 2015, p.1.

Van Parijs, P. Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Could Justify Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

#Productivity, #Employment and #Structural Change in #Developing Countries

Patterns of Structural Change in Developing Countries

by Marcel Timmer (University of Groningen), Gaaitzen de Vries (University of Groningen), Klaas de Vries (The Conference Board, Brussels)

Abstract This paper introduces the updated and extended Groningen Growth and Development Centre (GGDC) 10-Sector database. The database includes annual time series of value added and persons employed for ten broad sectors of the economy from 1950 onwards. It now includes eleven countries in Asia (China has been added compared to the previous release), nine in Latin America and eleven in Sub-Saharan Africa. We use the GGDC 10- Sector database to document patterns of structural change in developing countries. We find that the expansion of manufacturing activities during the early post World War II period was related to a growth-enhancing reallocation of resources in most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This process of structural change stalled in many African and Latin American countries during the mid-1970s and 1980s. When growth rebounded in the 1990s, workers mainly relocated to market services industries, such as retail trade and distribution. Though such services have higher productivity than much of agriculture, they are not technologically dynamic and have been falling behind the world frontier.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/dgrrugggd/gd-149.htm

Review by Sebastian Fleitas

As economies evolve and develop tremendous changes in the composition of goods and services take place. For instance, by start of World War II, one in three workers in the United States were employed in manufacturing and agriculture. A steady shift towards the service sectors since then, means that today manufacturing and agriculture only employ approximately one in eight workers. These structural changes imply the reallocation of resources and particularly labor across sectors with different productivity levels. The rate and intensity of these process has important impact on economic growth. Structural changes, therefore, have important implications for economies mainly because of three factors:

a) technological changes occur at different paces for different goods,

b) there are different patterns of demand for different goods, and

c) relative prices in the world economy do not fully reflect relative marginal productivities and marginal utilities among goods.

Industrialised nations have, generally speaking, closely followed the United States in increasing the weight of the service sector since the 1980s (if not before). It is also widely known that during the same period, recently industrialised nations such as Brazil, Mexico China, Korea or other Asian Tigers expanded employment in their domestic manufacturing sector at the same time as their GDP was increasing. But what happened with the rest of the world? The short answer is that it is remarkable how little we know about the process in the rest of the world.

Structural Change in the US Economy (taken from The Atlantic http://goo.gl/WvRIHu)

Structural Change in the US Economy (taken from The Atlantic http://goo.gl/WvRIHu)

In the paper distributed by NEP-HIS 2014-09-25, Timmer, Vries and Vries describe similarities and differences in the patterns of structural change across developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America since the 1950s. In order to do that, Timmer and colleagues created, updated and (more than once) expanded the Groningen Growth and Development Centre (GGDC) Sector database. This database includes data from 1950 onwards on value added and persons employed for ten broad sectors of the economy for a group of countries. In its current version, the database includes eleven Asian countries (with the good news that China is now included!), nine Latin American countries, and eleven from Sub-Saharan Africa.

There are some important stylized facts that can be learned from the paper. First, since the 1950s workers relocated from agriculture into the manufacturing and to a lesser extent the (formal and informal) services sectors. Second, employment in manufacturing grew in the 1960s and early 1970s in the three continents. These changes responded to policies through which individual countries pursued to promote industry development. Along the same lines, an result from the study by Timmer and colleagues is that there has been a clear decline of the manufacturing employment share in Africa and Latin America since the mid 1970s while production and employment increasingly originate from services activities. In 2010, only 7 percent of the African and 12 percent of the Latin American workforce was employed in manufacturing. These figures contrast with what happened in Asia, where the share of manufacturing in value-added was on average 20 percent of GDP for the same year.

According to the productivity measures by Trimmer et al., the gaps for developing countries are still huge and increasing for most countries. On one hand, the authors find that labor productivity in agriculture is much lower compared to services and even lower in relation to manufacturing. In 2010, for example, the agricultural value added share in Africa was 22 percent, while the employment share was 51 percent. This suggests agricultural labor productivity is about half of that of the average in the economy. In contrast, the services value added share was 50 percent while the employment share was 37 percent, and the shares for manufacturing are 10% and 7% respectively. On the other hand, productivity levels in manufacturing and market services have been falling behind the technology frontier (US in this paper) in Latin America and Africa, and they have been increasing (at a lower rate than I would expect, though) in Asia.

Word Cloud of the introduction of the paper (made using Wordle.com)

Word Cloud of the introduction of the paper (made using Wordle.com)

Finally, Timmer et al. follow Fabricant (1942) in decomposing the change of productivity in three factors namely:

a) the change in productivity of the sector holding the share of employment fixed (within-effect),

b) the change of employment in sectors with different productivity holding the productivity fixed (static-effect), and

c) the effects of the interaction between the changes in sector productivity and employment share per sector (dynamic effect).

Their results suggest that the within-effect as well as the static reallocation effect are both positive. However, the authors find that the dynamic effect is substantially negative in Africa and Latin America suggesting the reallocation of employment to sectors (services) where the productivity increase is lower. In other words, this fact suggests that the marginal productivity of additional workers in these expanding sectors was below the productivity of existing activities.

this_is_file_name_1700The paper has two main contributions. First, it is hard to stress enough how valuable the contribution of these authors is of constructing this new database. This task is not always valued at its worth. Creating a new database from different sources takes a large amount of work in order to achieve the consistency of concepts and definitions used in various primary data sources. Thanks to the authors, these data and documentation are now freely and publicly available online and it encourages us to continue the study of these issues. Second, the authors focus on the comparison of the productivity among these developing countries with the productivity of the technological leaders. This is the main point in this literature given that we still observe dynamic losses of relative productivity in many countries. The main challenge in order to make productivity comparisons is how to convert real value added into common currency units. To do this, the authors use this database and combine it with previous work or their own (mainly Inklaar and Timmer, 2013) to construct sector specific purchase power parity (PPP) prices. In their comparisons, they use United States as the frontier country and measure labor productivity relative to the frontier using the sector-specific PPPs.


1171bwcThe bottom line of the paper is that most of these developing countries have failed to generate dynamic increases in relative productivity since they reallocated workers into the sectors where productivity grows at a lower rate. Thus, the main challenges are to reallocate excess agricultural workers if they exist, and to increase the productivity in the manufacturing and services sectors. With the agricultural and (sometimes) manufacturing sectors shrinking in their employment share, the relative dynamic productivity performance of the sectors where these workers are going to locate is the crucial part of the process of convergence. The decomposition of the economies in ten sectors provides a necessary step to understand the process of structural change and its effects on productivity. However, the change in the composition of what a country produces is a result of changes at the firm level in particular markets. This stresses the need for more studies at the firm level on the determinants of the productivity relative to the frontier by sector. This is even more important in the services sector where the evidence seems to suggest the existence of a duality, where some services have a high productivity level and others are informal activities with very low productivity that just hide unemployment.

In sum, this paper adds to other excellent previous work from the same authors and gives us the big picture of structural change over the last 60 years for a larger set of developing countries. In addition, the authors have made available a new database that, combined with other data sources, can help to answer important development questions. As usual, we have made progress but still more work is needed to understand the key topic of structural change. This knowledge is necessary to implement policies that boost the productivity of firms in developing countries and, therefore, to improve the standard of living of their populations.

Technology and Financial Inclusion in North America

Did Railroads Make Antebellum U.S. Banks More Sound?

By Jeremy Atack (Vanderbilt), Matthew Steven Jaremski (Colgate), and Peter Rousseau (Vanderbilt).

Abstract: We investigate the relationships of bank failures and balance sheet conditions with measures of proximity to different forms of transportation in the United States over the period from 1830-1860. A series of hazard models and bank-level regressions indicate a systematic relationship between proximity to railroads (but not to other means of transportation) and “good” banking outcomes. Although railroads improved economic conditions along their routes, we offer evidence of another channel. Specifically, railroads facilitated better information flows about banks that led to modifications in bank asset composition consistent with reductions in the incidence of moral hazard.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/20032.htm

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

Executive briefing

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-04-18. Atack, Jaremski and Rousseau (henceforward AJR) deal with the otherwise thorny issue of causation in the relationship between financial intermediation and economic growth. They focus on bank issued notes rather deposits; and argue for and provide empirical evidence of bi-directional causation based on empirical estimates that combine geography (ie GIS) and financial data. The nature of their reported causation emerges from their approach to railroads as a transport technology that shapes markets while also shaped by its users.


In this paper AJR study the effect of improved means of communication on market integration and particularly whether banks in previously remote areas of pre-Civil War USA had an incentive to over extend their liabilities. AJR’s paper is an important contribution: first, because they focus on bank issued notes and bills rather than deposits to understand how banks financed themselves. Second, because of the dearth of systematic empirical testing whether the improvements in the means of communication affected the operation of banks.


In 19th century north America and in the absence of a central bank, notes from local banks were substitutes among themselves and between them and payment in species. Those in the most remote communities (ie with little or no oversight) had an opportunity to misbehave “in ways that compromised the positions of their liability holders” (behaviour which AJR label “quasi-wildcatting”). Railroads, canals and boats connected communities and enabled better trading opportunities. But ease of communication also meant greater potential for oversight.


ACJ test bank failure rates (banks that didn’t redeem notes at full value), closed banks (ceased operation but redeem at full value), new banks and balance sheet management for 1,818 banks in existence in the US in 5 year increments between 1830 and 1862. Measures of distance between forms of communication (i.e. railroads, canals, steam navegable river, navegable lake and maritime trade) and bank location emerged from overlapping contemporary maps with GIS data. Financial data was collected from annual editions of the “Merchants and Bankers’ Almanac”. They distinguish between states that passed “free banking laws” (from 1837 to the early 1850s) and those that did not. They also considered changes in failure rates and balance sheet variance (applying the so called CAMEL model – to the best of data availability) for locations that had issuing banks before new transport infrastructure and those where banks appear only after new means of communication were deployed:

Improvements in finance over the period also provided a means of payment that promoted increasingly impersonal trade. To the extent that the railroads drew new banks closer to the centers of economic activity and allowed existing banks to participate in the growth opportunities afforded by efficient connections.(p. 2)


Railroads were the only transport technology that returned statistically significant effects. It suggested that the advent of railroads did indeed pushed bankers to reduce the risk in their portfolios. But regardless of transport variables, “[l]arger banks with more reserves, loans, and deposits and fewer bank notes were less likely to fail.” (p.20). It is thus likely that railroads impact banks’ operation as they brought about greater economic diversity, urbanisation and other measures of economic development which translated in larger volume of deposits but also greater scrutiny and oversight. In this sense railroads (as exogenous variable) made banks less likely to fail.

But ACJ note that means of transportation were not necessarily exogenous to banks. Reasons for the endogeneity of transport infrastructure included bankers promoting and investing in railroads to bring them to their communities. Also railways could find advantages to expand into vigorously active locations (where new banks could establish to capture a growing volume of deposits and serve a growing demand for loans).

Other empirical results include banks decreased the amount of excess reserves, notes in circulation and bond holdings while also increased the volume of loans after the arrival of a railroad. In short, considering railroads an endogenous variable also results in transport technologies lowering bank failure rates by encouraging banks to operate more safely.


The work of AJR is part of a growing and increasingly fruitful trend which combines GPS data with other more “traditional” sources. But for me the paper could also inform contemporary debates on payments. Specifically their focus is on banks of issue, in itself a novelty in the history of payment systems. For AJR technological change improves means of payment when it reduces transaction costs by increasing trust on the issuer. But as noted above, there are a number of alternative technologies which have, in principle, equal opportunity to succeed. In this regard AJR state:

Here, we describe a mechanism by which railroads not only affected finance on the extensive margin, but also led to efficiency changes that enhanced the intensity of financial intermediation. And, of course, it is the interaction of the intensity of intermediation along with its quantity that seems most important for long-run growth (Rousseau and Wachtel 1998, 2011). This relationship proves to be one that does not generalize to all types of transportation; rather, railroads seem to have been the only transportation methods that affected banks in this way.(p4)

In other words, financial inclusion and improvements in the payment system interact and enhance economic growth when the former take place through specific forms of technological change. It is the interaction with users that which helps railroads to dominate and effectively change the payments system. Moreover, this process involves changes in the portfolio (and overall level of risk) of individual banks.

The idea that users shape technology is not new to those well versed in the social studies of technology. However, AJR’s argument is novel not only for the study of the economic history of Antibellum America but also when considering that in today’s complex payments ecosystem there are a number or alternatives for digital payments, many of which are based on mobile phones. Yet it would seem that there is greater competition between mobile phone apps than between mobile and other payment solutions (cash and coins, Visa/Mastercard issued credit cards, PayPal, Bitcoin and digital currencies, etc.). AJR results would then suggest that, ceteris paribus, the technology with greater chance to succeed is that which has great bi-directional causality (i.e. significant exogenous and endogenous features). So people’s love for smart phones would suggest mobile payments might have greater chance to change the payment ecosystem than digital currencies (such as Bitcoin), but is early days to decide which of the different mobile apps has greater chance to actually do so.

Wall Street (1867)

Wall Street (1867)

Another aspect in which AJR’s has a contemporary slant refers to security and trust. These are key issues in today’s digital payments debate, yet the possibility of fraud is absence from AJR’s narrative. For this I mean not “wildcatting” but ascertaining whether notes of a trust worthy bank could have been forged. I am not clear how to capture this phenomenon empirically. It is also unlikely that the volume of forged notes of any one trusted issuer was significant. But the point is, as Patrice Baubeau (IDHES-Nanterre) has noted, that in the 19th century the technological effort for fraud was rather simple: a small furnace or a printing press. Yet today that effort is n-times more complex.

AJR also make the point that changes in the payments ecosystem are linked to bank stability and the fragility of the financial system. This is an argument that often escapes those discussing the digital payments debate.

Overall it is a short but well put together paper. It does what it says on the can, and thus highly recommended reading.

Fiscal Policy during high unemployment periods: still a bad idea?

Are Government Spending Multipliers Greater During Periods of Slack? Evidence from 20th Century Historical Data

Michael T. Owyang, Valerie A. Ramey, Sarah Zubairy


A key question that has arisen during recent debates is whether government spending multipliers are larger during times when resources are idle. This paper seeks to shed light on this question by analyzing new quarterly historical data covering multiple large wars and depressions in the U.S. and Canada. Using an extension of Ramey’s (2011) military news series and Jordà’s (2005) method for estimating impulse responses, we find no evidence that multipliers are greater during periods of high unemployment in the U.S. In every case, the estimated multipliers are below unity. We do find some evidence of higher multipliers during periods of slack in Canada, with some multipliers above unity.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/fipfedlwp/2013-004.htm

Review by Sebastian Fleitas

For a very long time the size of the expenditure multipliers has been one of the most vivid economic debates. For instance as recently as 2009, when the Obama administration proposed a fiscal stimulus package, there was a heated discussion regarding the relative size of the expenditure and tax multipliers. The reason fuelling this narrative is perhaps clear: ascertaining the potential impact of a particular proposed measure is key when designing the fiscal policy.

The paper by Owyang, Ramey and Zubairy, which was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-02-08 tries to answer this question: Are government spending multipliers greater during periods of slack for the US and Canada when we look at the historical data? The argument behind it is to consider that the expenditure multipliers will be greater in times of crisis, that is, during periods without full employment of labor and capital in the economy. This argument follows the idea that to wake up animal instincts, you need to have something in the forest when guys go out to hunt.

Image in Barro's comment on expenditure multipliers debate on 2009 in Stanford blog.

Image in Barro’s comment on expenditure multipliers debate in 2009 in Hoover Institution Stanford University’s blog (http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/5401)

The answer that the authors offer is counterintuitive, which makes the paper very interesting. They find that the expenditure multipliers were higher in periods with high unemployment in Canada but they were the same for both periods in the US. To arrive to this conclusion the authors first construct high frequency (quarterly) historical data for the US and Canada. The procedure they follow to build the database is documented in an online available annex of the paper (here). After this process they have data on GPD, GDP deflator, government spending and the unemployment rate for the period 1890q1 to 2010q4 for the US and from 1921q1 to 2011q4 for Canada. The other key variable is the “news” variable, which reflects the changes in expected present value of government spending in response to military events as in Ramey (2011), which in turns directs to Ramey (2009).


Regarding the econometric approach, the authors use Jorda’s (2005) local projection technique to calculate impulse responses. The idea in Jorda (2005) is that, in contrast to VAR approaches which  linearly approximate the data generating process to produce optimal one period forecasts, when we are looking at impulse response analysis we should care about the estimation of longer horizons. In this context, it is a better approach to estimate the impulse responses consistently by a sequence of projections of the endogenous variables shifted forward in time onto their lags using ordinary least squares (OLS) with standard errors addressing heterogeneity and serial correlation. The authors estimate a set of OLS regressions of different number of leads of the log of per capita government expenditure and GDP, over their lags and the variable news for periods with high and low unemployment and a quadratic trend. The coefficient for the variable “news” is the impulse response at that certain number of lags.

Finally, the paper made me think of three comments. First of all, the paper shows a very interesting and creative way to proceed when the data needed for the study is actually not available for that historical period. Besides combining sources of information, the authors constructed quarterly series of the variables. Since the paper was prepared for the American Economic Review Paper and Proceedings, it is a very short paper and the procedure to construct the variables is explained not in the paper but in the Annex. Given the lack of data, assumptions about the data generating process must be made. However, and besides the obvious limitation of space, the reader could miss an explanation about the assumptions that are made in the methods used and, also, what implications these assumptions have for the results, in particular about what is the source of variation that allows the identification of the coefficients. Maybe a section in the paper or in the appendix discussing these issues can shed light about what are the potential problems of different assumptions.

The last two comments are related to what is exactly the interpretation of the results. The first one directly follows from the last sentence of the paper. The authors state that they do not adjust for the fact that taxes often rise at the same time as government spending, which turns these multipliers not equal to pure deficit financed multipliers. However, it seems plausible that the effect of the multiplier on the GPD depends on whether this increase in the government was financed by taxes or by debt. If that is the case, and if the episodes when the former and the latter happen are mixed in a non-random way between the periods of high and low unemployment, then it is possible that the value of the coefficients can reflect not only the effect of the exogenous shock but also the effect of different ways to finance it.

A joke?

A joke?

The last comment relates to the consistent estimation of the parameters of the model. In the paper the “news” about military expenditure is taken as the only source of exogenous shock in this economy during the period of two years, four years and the time of the peak of each response. This “news” variable reflects exogenous innovations to the expenditure from a military source. However, it would be relevant for the paper to discuss the existence of other (non-military) sources of exogenous shocks to the expenditure. The relevance of this issue is because, given that the estimation of the parameters of interest is done by OLS, the consistency of the estimates requires zero covariance between the ¨news” and the error term of the equation, and this assumption can be violated if there exist this kind of non-military shocks and they are correlated to military “news”.

Overall I think this is a very interesting paper because of the results they find and also because of the construction of historical data. I found the results very puzzling and therefore a big motivation to continue trying to understand the relationship between GDP and public expenditure.