Government and the Economic History of American Income Inequality

I have a new working paper available. This one is for a book chapter in a volume on income inequality edited by Stephen Miller and G.P. Manish of Troy University. In the paper, I argue that the U-Curve Narrative of income inequality is broadly correct in empirical terms. However, there are numerous nuances that need to be made to arrive at a reasonable interpretation. Some of these nuances are either empirical in nature, but most of them relate to the economic history of income inequality. I should warn readers that I have not yet sent the document to a copy-editor and there are probably numerous grammatical errors. As such, please do not cite without permission

The paper can be consulted here on SSRN, the “abstract” (I had to write one as book chapters normally don’t include abstracts) is below:

In the present paper, I intend to question the broad “U-Curve Narrative” of income inequality in the United States. First, I argue that a part of the rise of inequality in recent decades is overestimated but that it did nonetheless increase. Second, I argue that a part of that increase in inequality is not problematic in a normative sense as it results from mundane factors like population aging, immigration, innovation and the rise of increasingly heterogeneous preferences that cause a mild divorce between well-being and income. However, by arguing that a share of the increase stems from non-problematic causes, I must also argue that the remaining share emanates from reprehensible factors. These either come from those inherited at birth and those created by government intervention. This decomposition of inequality brings me to the third argument of this paper : that the high levels of the 19th century and early 20th century were not as problematic as emphasized by many and that the subsequent decline was largely led by mundane forces unrelated to government efforts whose role should be minimized. I also argue that the rise of inequality after 1970 is strongly related to state interventions in markets and societies.

James M. Buchanan, Public Choice, and the Political Economy of Desegregation

A few months ago, the Southern Economic Journal made a “reject and resubmit” decision on a paper written with Phil Magness and Art Carden. We have recently completed this resubmission by rewriting the paper in order to focus on the issue of desegregation. The paper is available here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

Recent historical works, most notably the book ‘Democracy in Chains,’ advance the claim that 1986 Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan developed his formative contributions to political economy amidst the segregationist response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. This argument accordingly holds that the research agenda of public choice economics emerged from an opportunistic alliance with Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to school integration, and should be situated within the racially tinged tradition of southern conservatism. While Buchanan wrote very little on the economics of race, an extensive review of archival evidence as well as his published works conclusively refutes this claimed association. Buchanan’s intellectual associations with Frank Knight, W.H. Hutt, and other economists who worked within anti-racist frameworks suggest that Buchanan did not see anything of value in segregation, even as a political vehicle for advancing his agenda. To the contrary, we show that Buchanan held an antipathetic view of segregation and believed that the competitive processes of an educational voucher system would undermine the “Massive Resistance” status quo. We accordingly reject the primary thesis of Democracy in Chains as the product of unsound and grossly misinformed research, and offer an alternative assessment of the position of race in the origins of public choice theory.

A Revolution Delayed? Dairy Output and Tenure Institutions in Lower Canada, 1831

I have a new working paper available. This time, I consider the role that Canadian seigneurial tenure might have played in deterring early specialization in dairy production by limiting the ability to finance capital investments needed for that industry. The abstract is below and the paper can be consulted here:

A recent burst of research in the field of economic history emphasizes the role of dairy production in stimulating growth for small open economies like Denmark or Ireland in the 19th century. This paper attempts to link the province of Quebec in Canada, a key producer of cheese intended for export, to the literature in question. In Quebec, the emergence of large-scale dairy production was largely concentrated in areas operating under the British freehold tenure system (as opposed to the French seigneurial tenurensystem (Ouellet, 1988)). Using the censuses of 1831 as my primary data source, I question the role of seigneurial tenure in delaying specialization in dairy production. It is my conclusion that seigneurial tenure depressed production in 1831 relative to freehold areas. It should also be noted that the results hold different data specifications.

Trade or Raid: Acadian Settlers and Native Indians Before 1755

I have another working paper available which I will soon start presenting in order to obtain comments.  In the paper, I consider whether or not North America could have been settled more peacefully with fewer infringements of the property rights of First Nations. I argue that the case of Acadia – the French settlements in Atlantic Canada – offer an interesting counterfactual. The colonists were in a borderland which was largely left ungoverned by European powers and were thus more or less in a situation of statelessness. Being forced to shoulder all the costs of violence themselves, the settlers developed exceptionally peaceful relations with the First Nations of the region. In the paper, I survey this exceptional counterfactual and I provide new information about the region’s living standards. The paper is available on SSRN and the abstract is below:

The peopling of North America by European settlers often conflicted with the property rights of aboriginals. Trade could, and often did, represent a peaceful and mutually beneficial interaction between these two groups. However, more often than not, raid was preferred over trade. This was not always the case (as exemplified in this paper) for the French settlers of Atlantic Canada, known as Acadians, who enjoyed exceptionally peaceful relations with First Nations. In this paper, I argue that this colony was peripheral in the designs of European governments and was largely stateless and was left to fend for itself. As such, all the costs of raiding were borne by settlers who favored trade over raid for more than a century.


Book review – The Contradictions of Capital in the Twenty-First Century: The Piketty Opportunity

A few months ago, I was asked by EH.Net (the website for economic historians) to write a review of a recently published book on the legacy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century which was edited by Pat Hudson and Keith Hudson.  The review is available here and the book, which I do recommend for those who are interested in the finer details of the inequality debate, is available here on Amazon.

Forthcoming in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History: Were Wages That Low? Strasbourg Wages and Welfare Ratios before 1775

My paper that corrects the wage series for Strasbourg in order to properly indicate that non-Paris France was not as poor as commonly portrayed has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Those who are interested can consult the working paper version (which differs in minor ways from the accepted version) here on SSRN.

Situating Southern Influences in James M. Buchanan and Modern Public Choice Economics

I rarely venture in the field of the history of economic thought. I much prefer to work on the history of economies per se. However, in the wake of the work of Nancy MacLean on James Buchanan and my own emerging work on institutional roots of inequalities between individuals and groups (I am finishing another working paper on this for Canada), I felt the need to venture in that field. Along with Phil Magness and Art Carden, I revisit the role of southern influences on James Buchanan’s ideas. The abstract of our paper can be found below and the link to the SSRN version can be found here:

Was 1986 Nobel Laureate James Buchanan an intellectual heir of South Carolina slavery apologist and political thinker John C. Calhoun? Further, was Buchanan’s worldview shaped by segregationist Nashville Agrarian poet Donald Davidson? These are claims made by historian Nancy MacLean in her 2017 Democracy in Chains; however, documentary evidence from Buchanan’s Collected Works and other sources suggests that Calhoun and Davidson were not among his influences and that, therefore, MacLean’s attempt to locate Buchanan within the segregationist tradition in Southern political thinking is not supported by the historical record.