Forthcoming: The Lightship in Economics

My article with Rosolino Candela, The Lightship in Economics, has been accepted today for publication at Public Choice. This is the second of a series of articles that we are working on in order to reconsider the role of the lighthouse in economics (a debate that has been vivid since Ronald Coase’s 1974 article in the Journal of Law & Economics). The abstract is below and the paper can be consulted here:

What role does government play in the provision of public goods? Economists have used the lighthouse as an empirical example to illustrate the extent to which the private provision of public goods is possible. This inquiry, however, has neglected the private provision of lightships. We investigate the private operation of the world’s first modern lightship, established in 1731 on the banks of the Thames estuary going in and out of London. First, we show that the Nore lightship was able to operate profitably and without government enforcement in the collection of payment for lighting services. Second, we show how private efforts to build lightships were crowded out by Trinity House, the public authority responsible for the maintaining and establishing lighthouses in England and Wales. By including lightships into the broader lighthouse market, we argue that the provision of lighting services exemplifies not a market failure, but a government failure


Gordon Tullock Meets Phineas Gage: The Political Economy of Lobotomies in the United States

I have a new working paper available. This one is co-authored with Raymond March of North Dakota State University. This paper is the first leg of a research agenda on the topic of the political economy of psychiatric care in the first half of the 20th century. The topic may appear “odd” at first sight, but there is much that this topic (because it deals with marginalized people in a highly information-asymmetric world) can provide in terms of insights for the economics profession (and vice-versa for history). The paper can be consulted here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a “lobotomy boom” where the use of the lobotomy expanded exponentially. We engage in a comparative institutional analysis, following the framework developed by Tullock (2005), to explain why the lobotomy gained popularity and widespread use despite widespread scientific consensus it was ineffective. We argue that government provision and funding for public mental hospitals and asylums expanded and prolonged the use of the lobotomy. We support this claim by noting the lobotomy had virtually disappeared from private mental hospitals and asylums before the boom and was less used beforehand. This paper provides a more robust explanation for the lobotomy boom in the US and expands on the literature examining the relationship between state funding and scientific inquiry.

The Lighthouse Debate and the Dynamics of Interventionism

One of my papers with Rosolino Candela on the topic of the lighthouse debate (i.e. the debate over public goods and their private provision) has been published in the Review of Austrian Economics. The paper is available here on the journal’s website and the abstract is below:

Coase’s publication of “The Lighthouse in Economics” (1974) sparked a polarizing debate over his claim that government intervention is not necessary for the existence of a private lighthouse market. The purpose of this paper is to reframe this debate by asking the following question: why was nationalization the outcome of lighthouse regulation? We answer this question by utilizing the Austrian theory of interventionism to illustrate how regulation of the lighthouse market distorted the entrepreneurial market process. We argue that the nationalization of the lighthouse market in England and Wales was a result of prior government failure to exclude private lighthouses from the market, not a failure of the entrepreneurial market process to privately provide lighthouses.

If you’re interested, you can also consult our other paper (The Lightship in Economics?) which is under consideration for publication.

The emperor has no clothes: Improving deflators for Canadian GNP 1870-1900

I have a new working paper, co-authored with Michael Hinton, on improving the measurements of Canadian GNP between 1870 and 1900. Some years ago, when he was a doctoral student, Michael found a series of consistent price measurements for cotton in Canada. Back then, Malcolm Urquhart had not yet published his seminal estimates of Canadian GNP from 1870 to 1926. However, in the intervening years, Urquhart had published those estimates but the deflators he used did not include a clothing component between 1870 and 1900. This was, according to Urquhart himself, an important shortcoming of his work. As the price of clothing fell more rapidly than all other goods during the period and especially during the 1870s, the absence of a clothing component to deflators would bias estimates of incomes in real terms. Michael and myself teamed up to solve this shortcoming. The paper can be consulted here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

A new consumer price index for Canada, 1870-1900 is constructed, which includes prices for clothing and household furnishings which were missing in previous Canadian price indexes for this period. This is important because these neglected components accounted for 10 to 15 per cent of consumers’ expenditures; and the retail price of cotton goods, the most important textile product used for clothing and household furnishings at this time, even in Canada, whose winters are harsh, fell by 49.6 percent between 1870 and 1900 (much faster than other components of the price level). This has ramifications for both the level and trend of Canadian GDP which shows the country to be richer and to have grown substantially faster than generally believed.

Podcast: The Lightship in Economics?

A week ago, I was interviewed by Garrett Petersen of Economics Detective Radio (my favorite podcast to discover cutting-edge research outside my general fields of interest) to talk about my joint with Rosolino Candela (Brown University) on the economics of the lighthouse, lightships and public goods. The paper is available here and the podcast can be listened to on the website of Economics Detective Radio.


Forthcoming – Measuring Away the Importance of Institutions: The Case of Seigneurial Tenure and Agricultural Output in Canada East, 1851

I have received news that my paper “Measuring Away the Importance of Institutions: The Case of Seigneurial Tenure and Agricultural Output in Canada East, 1851” has been accepted for publication in Social Science Quarterly.  The abstract is below:

This paper argues that the 1851 census of Canada East (the modern-day province of Quebec) requires a set of important corrections. Using corrections based on ethnic origin composition, I demonstrate how significantly wheat and oat yields were underestimated in Canada East. More importantly, we argue that the measurement errors are not randomly distributed and that they are biased against attempts to test the role of institutions. We show how new methods of correcting the data change our interpretation of agricultural efficiency in Lower Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. While this correction may seem minor, it shows that in the past, the data took a form that was biased against numerous hypotheses concerning land tenure institutions.