The Imperative of Understanding the Role of Institutions, Culture, and History in Economics

I recently read an article by Dr. Avner Greif of Stanford University titled, “Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and individualist Societies.” While it is a somewhat dated article being published in 1994 (see citation below), Dr. Greif’s conclusion struck me as being very important and still applicable to understanding economic development and economics in general today. I think his concluding remarks are also important to take into consideration when one is attempting to apply economics in the making of public policy or just trying to understand a certain issue or event.

Here are the highlights I took from Dr. Greif’s conclusion.

…This paper points to factors that make trajectories of societal organization – and hence economic growth – path dependent. Given the technologically determined rules of the game, institutions – the nontechnological constraints on human interactions – are composed of two interrelated elements: cultural beliefs (how individuals expect others to act in various contingencies) and organizations (the endogenous human constructs that alter the rules of the game…). Thus the capacity of societal organizations to change is a function of its history, since institutions are combined of organizations and cultural beliefs, cultural beliefs are uncoordinated expectations, organizations reinforce the cultural beliefs that led to their adoption, and past organizations and cultural beliefs influence historically subsequent games, organizations, and equilibria.

Understanding the sources of institutional path dependence indicates the factors that forestall successful intersociety adoption of institutions for which there are many historical and contemporary examples…The view of institutions developed in this paper indicates why it is misleading to expect that a beneficial organization of one society will yield the same results in another. The effect of organizations is a function of their impact on the rules of the game and the cultural beliefs of the society within which this game is embedded. Analyzing economic and political institutions and the impact of organizational modifications requires the examination of the historical development and implications of the related cultural beliefs.

Past, present, and future economic growth is not a mere function of endowment, technology, and preferences. It is a complex process in which the organization of society plays a significant role. The organization of society itself, however, reflects historical, cultural, social, political, and economic processes. Comparative historical analysis is likely to enhance our comprehension of the evolution of diverse societal organization, since this process is historical in nature. Furthermore, such an analysis provides the historical perspective and diversity required to examine institutional evolution and the interrelations between culture, the organization of society, and economic growth (Greif 1994, 943-944).

What this means to me is that if we are truly going to understand economics, the process of economic development, and the functioning of economies, we have to also understand the related historical, political, social, cultural, and institutional elements. We can’t only rely on mainstream economic theory. The culture and institutions that are embedded within an economic system are vitally important to fully understanding how that economy functions at a macro level, as well as gaining a full understanding of the economic behavior at the micro level.

Furthermore, since history (along with culture) plays a key role in determining the path dependence of the economy’s institutions, it is imperative to understand the historical context of an economy in order to be able to appropriately apply economic theory to the development and implementation of effective policy. Institutions, culture, and history matter, but yet, we ignore them, for the most part, in mainstream economics…much to the detriment of society.

Reference

Greif, A. (1994). Cultural beliefs and the organization of society: A historical and theoretical reflection on collectivist and individualist societies. Journal of Political Economy, 102, 5, 912-950.

 

Steve

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Interesting Changes in Industry Concentration in San Antonio

One common indicator used to get a sense of the structure of a local economy is the location quotient. Specifically, it measures the concentration of an industry in a local economy, such as a metropolitan area economy or a state economy, relative to the concentration of the same industry in some base area, typically the national economy. The most often used data to calculate the location quotient is employment, but income or wages is also used. The location quotient for industry i in region r is calculated using the following formula:

LQir = (Employmentir/Total Employmentir)/(EmploymentUS/Total EmploymentUS)

I did these calculations for the San Antonio metropolitan area economy using this formula. I calculated the location quotients for the NAICS 2-digit level industries. The names of these industries and the location quotients as of January 1990 and April 2017 are shown in the following table. April 2017 was used because it was the most current data available at the time I made the calculations.

Four industries in San Antonio have seen increases in their concentration levels since January 1990 (highlighted in yellow). The construction, mining, and logging industry saw the largest increase in relative concentration followed by financial activities, professional and business services, and manufacturing.

The largest declines in the location quotients were in the government sector followed by other services. The hospitality and education and health industries also saw smaller declines in their relative concentrations, and while the trade, transportation, and utilities and the information industries both saw declines so small one should probably just treat these as being inconsequential.

It is also interesting to note that a location quotient greater than 1.00 indicates that the concentration of the industry in the region is greater than the concentration at the level of the national economy.

As of April 2017, the industries with such location quotients were construction, mining, and logging; information; financial activities; education and health; hospitality; and government. The highest location quotient as of April 2017 was the financial activities industry; it had the second highest location quotient in January 1990. The industry with the highest location quotient in January 1990 was government.

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These changes highlight two interesting characteristics of the San Antonio economy.

First, it is an economy with a broad base of industries with relatively high concentration levels. Second, the relative base of employment has shifted away from government. This is not to say that government activities and funding are not still a vital component of the San Antonio economy because they are. The military has a big impact on the local economy, and it is worth noting that the military does not have to report employment levels, so I do not believe they are captured in these calculations.

Additionally, government funding of healthcare is very important to the San Antonio economy due to the size of the healthcare industry in the region. That said, the government sector still has a location quotient of 1.08. This fact combined with the diversity of the industry base in San Antonio is why the economy also tends to be somewhat stable relative to regional economies with more focused industry bases.

Steve

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Cost-Benefit Analysis of Excel Beyond the Bell San Antonio Partner Agencies

I had the honor to speak yesterday at the Excel Beyond the Bell San Antonio Annual Summit on the results of a study I did with Eddie Molina on the net benefits or return on investment that this network of out-of-school time agencies contribute to the local community. In short, for every dollar invested in these programs, the valuable services they provide to the youth of San Antonio returns $3.66 in benefits to the community.

These agencies serve 55,000 youth, which is a staggering number in and of itself, and they make a profound impact on many of these kids’ lives. Additionally, while this study did not look directly at their potential impact on economic development, these programs are vital to the future development of San Antonio’s economy, since they are playing such a big role in developing the future workforce and enhancing the quality of life of the community.

The slides I used for my speech can be found here, and the full report can be found here.

Steve

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Accounting for the Ocean Economy

The oceans are an important part of any economy, even those economies that are landlocked. The obvious importance comes from the food and entertainment options the oceans provide, but the oceans also provide invaluable environmental and ecosystem services that certainly have profound economic effects. Maintaining healthy oceans that are sustainable for future generations is vital for continued economic success, but accurately accounting for the ocean or “blue” economy is vital to accomplishing this. The immediacy of achieving this accurate measurement of the ocean economy, including the environmental and ecosystem services the oceans provide, must also be recognized as the effects of climate change are upon us. If we don’t create these measures as accurately and completely as possible, I don’t see how we can fully understand the economic importance of the oceans and move forward with policies and initiatives that will improve their health and sustainability.

This is why I think the special edition recently published by the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics is so important. The journal is published by the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. This special edition, titled Oceans and National Income Accounts: An International Perspective, is a publication of the papers presented at a meeting hosted by the Center for the Blue Economy in October 2015 “to explore ways in which the economic values of oceans and marine resources can be incorporated into national income accounts.”¹

If you are reading this blog, you obviously have an interest in economics, and I highly recommend you read this special edition because if you truly want to understand how the economy functions, you have to understand how it is measured, or not measured. This is especially true for the oceans and the important contributions they make to all economies. As you get into the articles, you will get a deeper understanding of these contributions and the complexities involved in measuring them. It may not seem like the most interesting reading, but given your interest in economics, I think you will find it more engaging than you might think after you start reading the article. The Center for the Blue Economy is a leader in conducting research on the blue economy, disseminating that information through this journal, conferences, and other means, educating future researchers, and raising awareness about the importance of the blue economy, so I also encourage you to follow their other activities. Their website is a treasure trove of information.

Enjoy.

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¹Colgan, Charles S. (2016) “Introduction to Special Edition: The Oceans and National Income Accounts: An International Perspective,” Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics: Vol. 2, Article 1.

Blind Pursuit of the Free Market Does not Lead to Prosperity

While I think the perfectly competitive model as it is presented in economics has some uses in helping us understand economic behavior, I believe the way it is presented in economics classes has lead to a vast misunderstanding of the workings of the economy. The presentation typically gives the impression that government intervention in the economy is only bad, except for instances where market failures exist. The problem, in my opinion, is that very little attention is given to the assumptions necessary to make the model work. Sure, these are most often covered quickly at the beginning of the presentation of the model, but the rest of the course or discussion of this model is spent showing who this leads to equilibrium in the markets and how government intervention pulls the market away from this equilibrium and leads to a loss of welfare. However, if one stops and thinks about it, the assumptions of the model (e.g., economic agents act rationally, perfect information, perfectly mobile resources) mean that the free market really never exists. By its very inherent nature, market failure is always present, and because of this and the fact that markets and the economy are huge complex systems, not the isolated static mechanisms of the perfectly competitive model, they are rarely, if ever, in equilibrium.

I want to stress again that there are still some valuable lessons that can be taken from the perfectly competitive model. It is an elegant model that lead to some intoxicating conclusions, but because of this and the lack of emphasis of the assumptions underlying the model, it has lead to a lot of misguided economic policy. This is especially the case with respect to macroeconomic policy, which has been misguided by the absurd dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model. This has lead to the belief by many that all regulations and government intervention are bad and that if we would only get rid of almost all regulations, cut taxes, and minimize the size of government, markets would be able to operate freely leading to more prosperity and a better society.

To be clear, I am not arguing that government is the answer to everything, nor am I arguing that we should raise taxes to exorbitant levels. But, this blind pursuit of the free market based on the misapplication of economic theory or just bad economic theory does not lead to prosperity either. There has to be a balance between the two. Even Adam Smith (one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political economists, to have ever lived), whose Wealth of Nations is the standard bearer for all those in blind pursuit of the free market, recognized the need for balance, as he thoroughly discussed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This has lead to the belief that the ideas of cutting taxes (mostly for those in the upper income strata and the wealthy) and shrinking the government will lead to prosperity and improved social outcomes. Two articles recently published in the New York Times provide even more evidence that this is not the case. One of the articles was written by two political science professors, Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson at the University of California, Berkeley. The article, “The Path to Prosperity Is Blue,” is a brief summary of their book, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America ProsperI think the following quote from the article summarizes their argument.

Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan are united by the conviction that cutting taxes – especially on corporations and the wealthy – is what drives growth.

A look at the states, however, suggests that they’re wrong. Red states dominated by Republicans embrace cut and extract. Blue states dominated by Democrats do much more to maintain their investments in education, infrastructure, urban quality of life and human services – investments typically financed through more progressive state and local taxes. And despite what you have heard, blue states are generally doing better.

Work by Jon Bakija, Lane Kenworthy, Peter Lindert, and Jeff Madrick in their book, How Big Should Our Government Be?provides some evidence against the argument that small government facilitates economic growth. They show evidence that there is a direct relationship between the growth of government and economic growth. Over the past fifty years, those countries where governments have grown the largest over the  past fifty years have also experienced some of the fastest economic growth (see the chart here).

While governments are certainly not perfect, and as I have already mentioned, government is not the answer to every issue or problem, but it seems clear to me that government has an important role to play in the proper functioning of an economy and society. Blind pursuit of the neoclassical notion of the free market with the wildly unrealistic assumptions at its foundation can be very appealing, but it leads to bad economic policy in many cases.

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The Emergence of a San Antonio/Austin Metroplex

I gave a speech today to the San Antonio chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Women.

The topic was the potential for the San Antonio and Austin metropolitan areas to merge into a metroplex or mega-region.

The presentation can be found here: The Emergence of a San Antonio/Austin Metroplex.

Thank you to CREW for the invitation to speak.

Steve

 

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Insights from The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

I recently finished reading The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor by David S. Landes. It was originally published in 1998, so it is a bit dated, and it is still very much worth the read. The themes that run through the book, as I understand them, are still very relevant today. Plus, it is always good to learn more about our economic history. Some of the main themes/points are:

(1) The ability for one society to take over another society through force has often not only meant the decline of the nation being taken over but also the decline of the imperialist nation. Access to steel and the ability to manipulate it, especially into weapons like quick-loading or more automatic guns, and the introduction of foreign germs was often the key to success in battle. (Jared Diamond wrote an entire book on this premise titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, of course. While I found the book to be somewhat redundant, I do think it is worth a read.)

(2) Institutions, including culture and values, are very important factors in determining whether or not a country has or will reach an advanced level of development.

(3) A society’s ability to innovate and its willingness to transfer and accept technologies from other countries also plays a big role in its ability to grow and develop.

(4) Orthodox economics lacks much in trying to explain economic development (see following points).

(5) The market is a powerful force that needs to be harnessed for economic development to occur, but even Adam Smith argued that the market has serious flaws, and there is a role for government to play in the proper functioning of a market economy. He also argues that governments can make as big, or bigger, mistakes than the businesses they are trying to regulate.

(6) There is not one approach to economic development that is appropriate across all countries, and yesterdays “virtues” or “factors” that drove some countries out of poverty may not be relevant (or as relevant) today. “Different strategies in different circumstances” (page 391).

(7) “And what of the poor themselves? History tells us that the most successful cures for poverty come from within. Foreign aid can help, but like windfall wealth, can also hurt. It can discourage effort and plant a crippling sense of incapacity. As the African saying has it, ‘The hand that receives is always under the one that gives.’ No, what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity. To people haunted by misery and hunger, that may add up to selfish indifference. But at bottom, no empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment” (page 523). I would add, and I think Landes would agree given his emphasis on the importance of institutions and culture, that this requires having the institutions that support empowerment, such as access to quality education and healthcare, workforce training programs, small business development support, etc.

(8) He has some very interesting insights on the gains from trade, and in my opinion, this is yet another example of how economic theory (or maybe the misunderstanding or mis-application of economic theory) has misguided the making of economic policy. Furthermore, his understanding of how the pursuit of trade and globalization has played out through history leads to some prescient forecasts of our current economic conditions, as shown in the following quote (keep in mind the book was first published in 1998).

“The present tendency to global industrial diffusion will entail, for the richer countries, a leveling down of wages, increased inequality of incomes, and/or high levels of (transitional?) unemployment. No one has abrogated the law of supply and demand. Many, if not most, economists will disagree. They rely here on the sacred certainty of gains from trade for all. International competition, they tell us, is a positive sum game: everyone benefits.

In the long run. This is not the place to attempt, in a few pages, a survey of the differences of opinion on this issue, which continues to generate a library of material. I would simply argue here, from the historical record, that

  • The gains from trade are unequal. As history has shown, some countries will do much better than others. The primary reason is that comparative advantage is not the same for all, and that some activities are more lucrative and productive and than others. (A dollar is not a dollar is not a dollar.) They require and yield greater gains in knowledge and know-how, within and without.
  • The export and import of jobs is not the same as trade in commodities. The two may be fungible in theory, but the human impact is very different.
  • Comparative advantage is not fixed, and it can move for or against.
  • It always helps to attend and respond to the market. But just because markets give signals does not mean that people will respond timely or well. Some people do this better than others, and culture can make all the difference.
  • Some people find it easier and more agreeable to take than to make. This temptation marks all societies, and only moral training and vigilance can hold it in check” (page 522).

If for no other reason, it is worth reading the book to gain these insights on the notion of free trade and the theory of comparative advantage. International trade brings to the forefront many very complex issues that are ignored or given very little attention if we just grab onto the gains from trade derived from comparative advantage as presented in the mainstream economics textbooks, which typically give very little mention, if any at all, to many of these other issues.

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Brexit’s Potential Impact on the San Antonio Economy

With the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, it is worth considering the impact it might have on the San Antonio economy. This basically translates to how it might affect the U.S. and Texas economies because I don’t think it will have any direct effects on the San Antonio economy since there is not a very strong connection between the San Antonio and United Kingdom economies. However, there is a reasonable chance that the uncertainty and chaos caused by Brexit throws the United Kingdom and European Union economies into recession. The best I think we can hope for it that it has no effect. I can’t envision a scenario where Brexit increases economic growth in the U.K or the E.U.

While the United Kingdom’s economy is not big enough to throw the U.S.into recession, according to The Economist, “…Britain is big enough for a recession there to have a meaningful effect on Europe’s economy. As a rule of thumb, whatever the reduction in Britain’s GDP growth, Europe’s economy will suffer a drop of about half as much.”

If a recession in Britain does drag Europe into a recession, the ripples across the pond could drag the U.S. economy into a period of slower growth possibly leading to a recession because the European Union taken together is the largest economy in the world. GDP in the European Union was $18.51 trillion in 2014 compared to GDP in the United States of $17.42 trillion in 2014.

In 2015, U.S. exports to the European Union amounted to $272 billion which equated to 13.36% of all exports (See Trade data). This makes the European Union the second largest export market for the U.S. behind Canada at $281 billion. Mexico is the third largest export market receiving $236 billion in exports from U.S. companies. Exports to the United Kingdom were $56 billion in 2015 (2.76% of all exports). While Texas has the largest volume of exports among all states (See Exports by state 2015), the United Kingdom accounted for 1.8% of total exports from Texas in 2015. This relatively low volume of trade does not mean Texas and the San Antonio economies will be immune from the effects of Brexit. If growth in the U.S. economy slows, it is likely that growth in the Texas and San Antonio economies will follow suit.

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The Importance of Arts Education to Economic Development

Many people, including myself, have argued that it is important to include an enhanced focus (or even a focus at all) on the arts within a curriculum that is focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In other words, the focus on STEM should be expanded to be STEAM. Even with these arguments being made, there has been a relatively recent movement to minimize the importance of a liberal arts education across some states. For example, the governors of both Kentucky and North Carolina have made such proposals.

I think this is a grave mistake. To be upfront, I received my bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college, and I am currently an associate professor of economics at a liberal arts university. Thus, I admittedly may be biased. But based on my experience, I know that my liberal arts education allowed me to achieve a deeper understanding and view problems from different perspectives. And in my work with artists on various projects and through my teaching of arts students, I know that they see the world from a different perspective that allows them to approach problems from varied angles.

I think J. Bradford Hipps discusses this very eloquently in his New York Times article, “To Write Software, Read Novels,” published in the May 22 paper edition (published May 21 online under the title “To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf“). In the article, he provides examples where liberal arts graduates working within technology companies applied their abilities to “see” things differently to solve problems that the “techies” were finding to be intractable.

This is not arts for arts sake. This is arts for the economy’s sake.

I am confident that if we continue down this path of gutting liberal arts education from Pre-kindergarten through university, our economy is going to suffer because we will severely diminish the productive abilities of our labor force.

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Economic Impact of LiftFund

Along with many other economists, I have long argued that entrepreneurial activity is a key driver of economic development, and recently, I completed an economic impact study of LiftFund that provides a bit more evidence in support of this idea. “For more than 21 years, LiftFund, a 502(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has helped individuals achieve the American Dream by providing small business loans to those who do not have access to capital from typical lending sources, such as traditional banks” (Source: http://www.liftfund.com/about/). The study analyzed the impacts across their markets in Texas and Louisiana from 2010 through 2015.  Along with the direct effects of the LiftFund lending, the analysis also took into account the multiplier effects, but the impacts for a specific business are only counted in the year in which the new jobs were created (i.e., the impacts were cumulative into the future years).

Here is a summary of the results showing the rather substantial impacts that LiftFund and the small businesses they fund are having on their local economies.

In Texas, LiftFund issued $104 million in loans during this time period, and the loans to these businesses supported 10,758 jobs and earned incomes of $500 million. These businesses produced output valued at $1.4 billion. This means that for each dollar loaned by LiftFund, $13.21 in output was created in the local economy.

In Louisiana, loan volume during this period amounted to $10.6 million. This supported employment of 1,495 earning incomes of $70 million. The businesses impacted by this LiftFund support generated $181 million in output resulting in a return of $17.03 in output per dollar loaned in Louisiana.

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