The New History of Capitalism and the Methodologies of Economic History

I am happy to announce that my paper with Judge Glock of the Cicero Institute has been published online by Essays in Economic and Business History. The paper was an invited contribution regarding the New History of Capitalism (NHC) and its purported contributions to understanding economic history. Judge and I argue that the NHC does not deserve the “N” in its acronym as it simply attempts to put new varnish on the same views as those advanced by Karl Polanyi in the 1940s (namely the view that economic rationality as taught in economics course is not historically continuous — economic rationality is something new and caused by capitalism). However, we do point out that economists must stop making it impossible to dialogue with historians and that interchange between both groups is necessary and possible. In fact, we argue that the rise of NHC is the result of the absence of this interchange between both groups.

forthcoming: State Capacity and the Post Office: Evidence from 19th Century Quebec

Earlier last week, I received news that my joint paper with Michael Makovi on the post office in 19th century Canada and state capacity (more precisely, the link between growth and state capacity) was accepted at the Journal of Economics & Government. Feel free to download the paper now.

NEw Working paper: No Wheat Crisis: Agricultural Trade Liberalization in Quebec during the 1830s and 1840s.

I have a new working paper which is part of a series of six papers I want to publish to close the conversation on the topic of Quebec’s agricultural crisis/economic growth in the 19th century. The agricultural crisis hinges on the claim that there was a rapid decline of wheat which had been a major export staple. I, alongside Alicia Morgan Plemmons and Andrew Thomas, argue that there was indeed a decline of wheat output and exports. However, we argue that this was welfare-enhancing because of the way it happened. A surprising trade shock in the form of unexpected and unilateral trade liberalization led to the decline of wheat output in Quebec in the 1830s and 1840s. Combined with transportation innovations in waterways, areas that were exposed to the trade shock (as proxied by the level of road networks in a district) shifted out of wheat and into other productions that increased per capita income. The paper is here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the wheat oriented agrarian economy of Lower Canada (the French-speaking modern-day province of Quebec) saw a rapid collapse in wheat production dubbed the “wheat crisis.” In a single decade, Quebec went from being an exporter of wheat to an importer. Given that Quebec was an agrarian economy, this collapse of wheat exports has been used to infer falling living standards in the colony during the period. These developments have been blamed on many factors ranging from soil exhaustion to cultural conservatism among French-Canadian farmers. In this paper, we provide evidence suggesting this rapid collapse was largely the result of adjustment to the trade shock that followed the Colonial Trade Act of 1831 (a unilateral liberalization of the entry of agricultural goods from the United States) and a rapid reduction in freight costs between the Canadian colonies. We find that areas that were more exposed to external markets—as proxied by road access—shifted away from wheat production. We provide supportive evidence that this was welfare-enhancing.

New working paper: Unenlightened Peasants? Farming Techniques among French-Canadians, circa 1851

I have a new working paper available which tackles the topic of the adoption of farming practices in Canada (among French-Canadians). For years now, I have argued that the “cultural conservatism” claim made to explain the poverty of French-Canadians was wrong. I already published a paper in Historical Methods showing that there were no difference in total factor productivity between French and English farmers. Now, I go directly at the heart of the claim as it frequently mentioned that the French-Canadians simply refused to adopt better farming techniques that were available. I show in the paper that the French-Canadian did adopt the practices where land constraints, market access and information costs made it feasible. The paper is here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

A long-standing item of interest in Canadian economic history is the “agricultural crisis” that apparently plagued the large colony of Quebec during the first half of the nineteenth century. One particularly resilient explanation of the crisis claims that cultural conservatism made the colony’s French-Canadian population reluctant to embrace modern farming techniques developed in Britain and the United States. This has been supported through comparisons with the English farmers in the colony. Using data from the census of Quebec in 1851, this paper shows that there was no such reluctance. French-Canadian farmers were no less likely to adopt “scientific” farming techniques than English-Canadian farmers in the region.

New Working paper: Can Geography Explain Quebec’s Historical Poverty?

I have a new working paper available, co-authored with my friend Louis Rouanet (Western Kentucky University) on whether geography explains Quebec’s relative poverty since the 19th century. Our answer is that “no”, geography does not explain the differences — institutions do. The abstract is below and the paper is available here on SSRN :

From the 19th century to the 1940’s, Quebec remained poorer and less economically developed than the rest of Canada in general and poorer than Ontario in particular. This placed Quebec at the bottom of North American rankings of living standards. One prominent hypothesis for the initiation of this gap is tied to disparities in agricultural land quality fail to explain this development gap. Using newly available data for the mid-19th century, we formally test this hypothesis and find it holds little explanatory power. We further argue that poor institutions in Quebec (i.e. notably seigneurial tenure) are at the root of the development gap.