What’s New in Economic History?

In my PhD economic history class, I assign a few recent job market papers each week. I do this for a few reasons, pedagogical and otherwise. I want my PhD students to see the cutting edge of research and in a few years, I’d like them to be writing job market papers on that edge. New job market papers also tend to nicely review the scholarship that has come before and the best ones tell us where the literature is going (or where it might be or where it should be). But selfishly, teaching these papers every week is also a great way to force me to keep up with the newest literature (and I find teaching papers a lot more fun than my other lifehack to keep up with new literature… writing referee reports).

But I’m not teaching my PhD class this year, so Broadstreet readers will have to sub in for my students. I’ll give a quick overview of each paper below, as well as my opinion about what is cool about these papers. I’m not in the business of trashing junior scholars hustling for a job so you won’t get “what isn’t cool” about the paper… though my former PhD students know I have a lot to say about the aesthetic quality of figures and tables in papers, including in JMPs.

Four caveats to my list. First, my definition of what is economic history is pretty subjective and maybe overly inclusive (in a claim that scandalized my own PhD advisor, I think pretty much anything that happened before I was born could be economic history). Second, my search is never exhaustive, so if you or a loved one is on the market and don’t see your paper here, blow up my mentions (@jamesfeigenbaum), but it was probably because you didn’t list economic history as one of your fields. Third, I don’t have any economic history students on the market this year, so no favoritism here. And finally, this is just students on the economics job market. With apologies to the interdisciplinary team here at Broadstreet, I just don’t know who is on the job market in other fields with papers that would fit in here.

Without further ado, here are the eight economic history job market papers that I found for this job market season (in arbitrary order): 

Jennifer Withrow, UMass: “The Farm Woman’s Problem”: Farm Crisis in the U.S. South and Migration to the City, 1920-1940

 

 

  • Setting: Rural US, 1920 to 1940
  • I’m cheating a bit here because I’ve seen Withrow present this paper (at least once) and spoken with her about it. As her title suggests, Withrow is interested in the farm woman’s problem of the early 20th century. Essentially, women seemed to be leaving the farm in droves. Withrow links 200k women (Black and white) from 1920 to 1930 and 1930 to 1940 (along with a paired sample of linked men) to study who moved and why. Women were indeed more likely to leave the farm for urban America than men, overall and by race. But women were also more responsive to economic shocks—namely the farm crisis that hit the rural US after a boom during WWI. 
  • What’s cool: Data! Linking women across censuses is really, really hard, as I mentioned last time when I discussed my telephone operators paper. Withrow does it by collecting disparate marriage records in a huge number of states and counties and then linking census to marriage records to census.
  • Bonus what’s cool: Withrow pulls in a lot of great qualitative and narrative evidence. Figure 1 isn’t some balance test or summary statistics graph, it is a pair of autobiographies from the Southern Summer School for Industrial Workers held in the Duke Rare Book Collection.

Yiming He, Stanford: Does Slum Demolition Affect the Economic Outcomes of the Displaced? Evidence from Victorian England

  • Setting: Slum displacement in Victorian England
  • Displacement of people, whether by natural disasters, wars, public policy or other reasons, is a big and important question. While a lot of interesting work in this area focuses on recent natural experiments, He turns to the late 19th century in this job market paper. Slum residents in England were evicted with little notice (and no compensation) and He follows them across censuses. What happened? Nothing good: displaced were less likely to report an occupation to the census-taker, more likely to switch occupations, and less likely to own businesses. 
  • What’s Cool: Economic history allows scholars to view things in the long run. When He looks at the sample of displaced people 15 to 20 years later, it seems like they had mostly recovered. In a contemporary study on displacement, enough time might not have elapsed for such findings.

Jingyi Huang, UCLA: Monopsony, Cartels, and Market Manipulation: Evidence from the U.S. Meatpacking Industry, 1903–1918

  • Setting: Meatpacking in the early 20th century
  • Imagine Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle but with a structural model. Huang studies the US meatpacking cartel (they produced 80% of refrigerated beef). The cartel manipulated prices from 1893 to 1920 but changes in the regulatory structure give Huang variation to estimate the effects of different cartel strategies. Ultimately, cartel manipulation hurt suppliers and consumers.
  • What’s Cool: You don’t see a lot of economic history + industrial organization papers (let alone JMPs). Actually, I’m not sure I’ve read any before Huang’s.
  • Bonus What’s Cool: Don’t see a lot of cow emojis in economics papers but Figure 1 comes close.

Meredith Paker, Oxford: Industrial, regional, and gender divides in British unemployment between the wars

  • Setting: Interwar Britain
  • It turns out that the Great Depression wasn’t so great in Britain. But, that’s probably because the immediate post-WWI period was also pretty terrible: unemployment hit 23.4% in May 1921 and was above 10% throughout the 1920s, climbing back up to 23% in January 1933. Why was the labor market so sclerotic during this period? Paker suggests labor market rigidities play a role but with large variation across industries and genders. Workers in declining industries had a really hard time moving to other industries and women, more than men, faced a more rigid labor market with fewer transitions to new employment.
  • What’s Cool: This isn’t even the main thrust of the paper, but Paker has digitized (digitised, sorry) new Ministry of Labor data that enables the first-ever plot of unemployment during the interwar period by gender. Every economic history paper should have a new descriptive fact (along with all the well-identified stuff).
  • Bonus what’s cool: I’m not recommending this for every paper, but Paker has Appendices from A to T. Bold.

Matthew Curtis, UC Davis: The her in inheritance: marriage and mobility in Quebec 1800–1970

  • Setting: Quebec from 1800 to 1970 
  • Assortative mating has a longer history than we knew. As Curtis shows, even during a period when women’s employment options and rates were low, spouses still matched on human capital (as well as parental or family status). Curtis also uses remarriages to estimate which parent(s) matter to their childrens’ outcomes and find that both mother and father have roughly equal effects.
  • Figure 3 gives us the punchline
  • What’s Cool: Apparently, historically Quebecoise women retained names at marriage. For record linking, that’s a really useful fact.

Tamoghna Halder, UC Davis: Caste, Reservation and Social Mobility in India: 1856 – 2017 

  • Setting: College grads in India, 1856-2017
  • Full disclosure, my economic history research (and knowledge) is pretty provincial and limited to the US. But I also am interested in questions about intergenerational mobility and education. Halder’s job market paper produces a really nice long series of educational mobility estimates for India, running from 1856 to 2017. Using surnames, Halder finds that India is and was an extremely immobile society. However, it appears endogamy (marriage within castes, in the Indian context) is not the mechanism. 
  • As in Curtis (also from UC Davis), Figure 3 gives us a lot of the punchline

  • What’s Cool: Comparing estimates across periods and countries is usually really hard. Halder follows the method of calculating mobility Clark laid out in the Son Also Rises and can compare results from India to the US, England, Chile, China, Japan, and (eventually) every other country and setting where people have access to surname-based mobility.

Paul Schmelzing, Yale SOM: Eight centuries of global real interest rates, R-G, and the ‘suprasecular’ decline, 1311-2018

  • Setting: The globe, from 1311-2018 (seriously)
  • Schmelzing is after a consistent series of interest rates (real and nominal) for as far back historically as possible. Turns out that is 1311. Schmelzing’s data is annual and enables (and will enable) a ton of future work about economic growth and financial markets in the very very long run. In this paper, Schmelzing revises a few things we thought we knew about interest rates in the very long run (I’m using “we” very broadly; I haven’t broken 1840 in my own research). The Black Death seems not to have had big and persistent effects on interest rates but something else happened 1320-1480 and then 1520-1650 (Schmelzing has some candidates).
  • What’s Cool: 707 years of data. Again, annually!

Tianyi Wang, Pittsburgh: Media, Pulpit, and Populist Persuasion: Evidence from Father Coughlin

  • Setting: Radio Waves across the US in the 1930s
  • Both Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, are terrifying portraits of a fascist America in the 1930s. But neither Charles Lindbergh (real) or Berzelius Windrip (fictional) ever rose to power. During the 1930s, virulent antisemite Father Coughlin did command a very loyal audience of listeners. Wang asks whether the hate on the radio moved voters. The answer is yes: counties that could hear Coughlin moved against FDR in 1936, especially in counties with more Catholics. These places were also more likely to form American Bund branches.
  • What’s Cool: This paper joins a set of really cool radios in economic history papers, probably starting with Stromberg’s QJE on FDR’s fireside chats and public spending and including one from my own student, Gianluca Russo on how radios changed culture in this period.

Author(s)

  • I am an Assistant Professor in the Boston University Department of Economics. I am also a Faculty Research Fellow at the NBER in the Development of the American Economy program. My primary research interests are in labor economics and economic history.

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