Jumping on the Piketty Bandwagon

22 04 2014

Ok. I’ve gone and done it. I’ve ordered economist Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book on the growth of economic inequality in advanced societies. This book isn’t really relevant to my research, so I had hesitated to order it. However, it’s getting so much attention that I’ve concluded that any self-respecting social scientist needs to read it. 

Economist Tyler Cowen has published a lengthy review of Piketty’s book in Foreign Affairs. Cowen clearly respects that massive empirical research that went into this book but profoundly disagrees with Piketty’s conclusions. 

Every now and then, the field of economics produces an important book; this is one of them. Thomas Piketty’s tome will put capitalist wealth back at the center of public debate, resurrect interest in the subject of wealth distribution, and revolutionize how people view the history of income inequality. On top of that, although the book’s prose (translated from the original French) might not qualify as scintillating, any educated person will be able to understand it — which sets the book apart from the vast majority of works by high-level economic theorists….


In perhaps the most revealing line of the book, the 42-year-old Piketty writes that since the age of 25, he has not left Paris, “except for a few brief trips.” Maybe it is that lack of exposure to conditions and politics elsewhere that allows Piketty to write the following words with a straight face: “Before we can learn to efficiently organize public financing equivalent to two-thirds to three-quarters of national income” — which would be the practical effect of his tax plan — “it would be good to improve the organization and operation of the existing public sector.” It would indeed. But Piketty makes such a massive reform project sound like a mere engineering problem, comparable to setting up a public register of vaccinated children or expanding the dog catcher’s office.


Matt Ygelsias informs us that: 

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, in its hardcover edition, is currently the #1 best-selling book on Amazon. Perhaps a bit tellingly, the Kindle edition is only the #23 book in the Kindle store. That indicates to me that demand for a handsome volume of a widely discussed book to sit on your shelf is perhaps a bit higher than demand for actually reading the book. So if you’ve bought the book to sit on your shelf and want to be able to discuss it intelligently without reading it, I would suggest our short guide.


Call for Papers: 2014 Annual Conference of the Centre for Port and Maritime History, Liverpool

22 04 2014

2014 Annual Conference of the Centre for Port and Maritime History, Liverpool

DATE 11-12th September, 2014

VENUE: TBC (but in Liverpool)

 Vectors: Port Cities as Gateways, Channels and Conduits

Following our highly successful conferences in 2012 and 2013, the Centre for Port and Maritime History is delighted to invite submissions for our 2014 conference on ‘Vectors: Port Cities as Gateways, Channels and Conduits’ Last year’s conference focused on the ‘otherness’, ‘exceptionalism’ or ‘liminality’ of port cities. This year we reflect on their role as gateways, channels, even gatekeepers – directing, regulating, and responding to the vectors traced by a whole series of flows. As points of interaction and exchange, as hubs and as spaces of encounter, port cities play a central role not only in the movement of goods, capital and services, but of ideas, peoples, and cultures. This may be on a local or regional level, as vents to hinterlands, or in their cross-border, trans-national, and trans-cultural role as outlets to and from seas and oceans. The discussion of port cities as vectors has obvious connotations for the study of health in port cities, in the spread and control of disease, but we conceive of vectors operating in a multitude of dimensions. Potential topics might include (but are not restricted to):


Illegal trades: the trafficking of goods and people

Linguistic diffusions and intellectual disseminations

The relationship(s) between port and hinterland

The structuring and function of international and global supply chains

Decline; causes and implications

Cultural and ethnic exchanges

The port in cultural imagination

Ports as points of threat or weakness

The internationalisation of business

Disease transmission

The flow of goods and services

Migrations and their organization


Proposals are invited for both individual presentations and panels (of no more than three papers) focused on the many vectors that pass through ports, without chronological or geographical limitation. This conference is gaining a reputation for a strongly interdisciplinary approach and a very supportive environment in which to explore new work and ideas. We thus especially encourage methodological and theoretical reflections, as well as presentations of current research projects, at whatever stage of development, and from both established and emerging scholars.

Please direct 300-word abstracts (including paper title and your contact details) by 30th June 2014 to: Professor Andrew Popp at andrew.popp@liverpool.ac.uk






Mike Stammers’ New Researcher Awards. The Centre is delighted to announce the launch of this new annual award, which commemorates our colleague Dr Mike Stammers. Two awards will be made each year. The awards are open to presenters who are graduate students at the time of the conference and will entitle the two recipients to a waiver of all registration fees. If you wish to be considered for the award please submit an extended (2,000 word) abstract in place of the regular proposal and indicate that you wish to be considered for the award. The entries will be judged by the conference organizing committee and decisions announced alongside the acceptance/rejection of all proposals. The award will judged on the basis of originality (either empirical or theoretical or both), robustness, expression, and relevance to the conference theme.

For the Mike Stammers’ New Researcher Award please direct 2000-word abstracts (including paper title and contact details) by 30th June 2014 to: Professor Andrew Popp at andrew.popp@liverpool.ac.uk


The Flaws in Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit

20 04 2014

Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit

Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber (Princeton University Press, 2014).

I’ve had the chance to read and think about this important yet flawed book on the political origins of banking crises. I’m writing this blog post in the hopes of generating some debate about the book’s strengths and limitations.

Here is a summary of the book:

Why are banking systems unstable in so many countries–but not in others? The United States has had twelve systemic banking crises since 1840, while Canada has had none. The banking systems of Mexico and Brazil have not only been crisis prone but have provided miniscule amounts of credit to business enterprises and households. Analyzing the political and banking history of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil through several centuries, Fragile by Design demonstrates that chronic banking crises and scarce credit are not accidents due to unforeseen circumstances. Rather, these fluctuations result from the complex bargains made between politicians, bankers, bank shareholders, depositors, debtors, and taxpayers. The well-being of banking systems depends on the abilities of political institutions to balance and limit how coalitions of these various groups influence government regulations.


Fragile by Design is a revealing exploration of the ways that politics inevitably intrudes into bank regulation. Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber combine political history and economics to examine how coalitions of politicians, bankers, and other interest groups form, why some endure while others are undermined, and how they generate policies that determine who gets to be a banker, who has access to credit, and who pays for bank bailouts and rescues.



The authors, who are distinguished academics (see biographies below), have produced a book of impressive geographical and temporal scope that covers hundreds of years of financial history and the experiences of a wide range of countries (the UK, the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil).  The general theoretical framework presented in the book, the Game of Bank Bargains, is a very plausible one. It’s consistent with how many political economists think about the politics of bank regulation. Moreover, I can see how it would apply to some of the countries that weren’t the subject of cases studies in this book. (Calomiris and Haber say that their theory is true for the countries surveyed in the book and they invite other scholars to test their theory against the historical experiences of other countries). I know a fair bit about the history of banks in Hong Kong and I can tell you that their theory of the political economy of bank regulation fits well with the history of the Crown Colony. Hong Kong developed a pretty stable banking system because it had a unique political system that was both classical liberal and non-democratic. Property rights in Hong Kong were secure and populists weren’t able to much around with banking regulation since the colony was run by people like Chris Patten, not elected officials. It that sense, the Hong Kong political system was a more extreme version of the semi-democratic constitution the British gave to Canada in 1867. As Calomiris and Haber point out, that constitution was designed to limit the ability of populists to regulate business.


There is one important work on the political economy of bank regulation that appears to be missing from their bibliography. That’s  Admati, Anat R., and Martin F. Hellwig. The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do About It. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

I suspect that had Calomiris and Haber read the Admati and Hellwig book, they would have said more about capital requirements than they actually do.

I also think that the decision of the authors to ignore the issue of transnationality, which is seen throughout the book, is especially problematic with regard to the sections of the book that relate to Canada. First, bank regulation has long had a transnational element. This was particularly the case in the old British Empire, whereby officials in London sought to meddle with the banking regulations developed by colonial assemblies. Moreover, banks from the nineteenth century onwards have opened branches outside of their home jurisdictions.  Transnationality is an even more important theme today, yet it is neglected by the authors.  Calomiris and Haber say shockingly little about the tortured and complex political history of the Basel capital standards since 1988. Their discussion of the various Basel Accords is confined to pages 264, 265, and 266. I was very disappointed that the authors said so little about the diplomatic history of Basel I, II, and III– as full professors with connections to the Hoover Institution, they are in an excellent position to investigate the recent political history of transational bank regulation via interviews with key decision makers. We know from press reports and from things Admati and Hellwig have said that different national governments have worked to water-down the Basel Accords, whenever it suited the interests of their country’s banks. Germany, the USA, the UK, have all done this. I’m a pretty average academic with an average research budget. I would never be able to research this recent political history because I don’t have the connections and the budget to say, fly to Davos. Calomiris and Haber do have these resources but they squandered their opportunity to do the research and integrate it into their narrative.


There is another and more fundamental problem here. The authors have adopted the comparative politics approach. They analyse each domestic political system as a self-contained entity and then compare the results. That’s a legitimate approach to studying many political economy topics not to mention non-economic topics such as the politics of abortion. It is not a suitable approach for studying bank regulation since banks have long been fairly internationalised. Banking was very internationalized in the pre-1914 golden age of globalization and it’s re-internationalized in recent decades.  To be fair, the authors’ fairly insular approach may work when studying the history of banking regulation in the United States, which had a fairly self-contained banking system until quite recently. (As the authors show, interstate branching was illegal until rather recently). However, the experience of Canada, Australia, Latin America, and other settler economies was quite different– as multinational banks such as the Bank of British North America, which was headquartered in London, opened branches in a variety of jurisdictions there. Calomiris and Haber note that US states prohibited foreign and out-of-state banks from branching. They haven’t thought hard enough about what the absence of such regulations meant in Canada and the other countries that developed relatively stable banking institutions.

The authors assert that Canada became independent in 1867, repeating a common misconception about the nature of Confederation. This mistake does have relevance to their core argument, since the UK continued to exert an important influence on Canadian banking into the 20th century, even if Treasury officials in London were powerless to stop the passage of the 1851 Free Banking Act in the Province of Canada, a piece of legislation they disliked but which ended up not being very important. Moreover, the fact that Canadian banks were so-called imperial banks facilitated their entry in the British West Indian market.

The authors assert on p.264 that the Bank of Canada was created in 1935 as a gesture designed to appease farmers in the Canadian West who wanted an activist and “inflationist” monetary policy designed to help commodity producers. (The authors do not cite the source of this information). The influence of the Bank of England and Sir Charles Addis of HSBC on the design of Canadian banking legislation in the 1930s is totally ignored by Calomiris and Haber, who basically ignore the fact that the Bank of England wanted counterpart central banks throughout the Empire and its encouragement led the anglophile government of R.B. Bennett to pass the law creating the Bank of Canada in 1934.  Peter Cain has argued that the Bank of Canada was created in 1934 in part as a way of reorienting Canadian finance away from Wall Street and back to the City of London, which had been the centre of its universe before 1914.


The role of the British Colonial Office and, later, the JCPC in shaping the banking laws of the self-governing colonies is largely ignored here. That’s because the authors assume that making of banking legislation as something that is done within each jurisdiction’s self-contained political system. As I said earlier, that assumption holds true for the United States for almost all of its history up to at least the collapse of the Herstatt Bank in 1974. It isn’t true for jurisdictions that gained sovereignty very gradually (Canada and Australia before 1931) or which have opted to cede or “pool” a degree of sovereignty in the interests of creating trans-national banking standards (Basel Accords, 1988 to present or the members of the Eurozone in recent months).


The authors cite Geoffrey Jones. (1995). British multinational banking, 1830-1990. Oxford University Press. However, they appear to have ignored Jones’s research on the role of Downing Street in attempting to regulate the banking systems of the colonies. I believe that one of the reasons that Canada and Australia developed stable and highly concentrated banking systems similar to that of the UK was that a) the Colonial Office vetoed colonial bank laws that threatened to create systemic risk for the entire British Empire b) banks headquartered in London had extensive bank networks in the Dominions that largely became indigenized (the Bank of British North American was eventually acquired by the Bank of Montreal) c) people in the Dominions admired and copied British institutions, including banking.


There are, in my view, some important omissions from their bibliography.


Baster, Albert Stephen James. The imperial banks. London: P.S. King, 1929. (This source is cited and used by Jones, but not C and H).

Knaplund, P. (1950). James Stephen on Canadian Banking Laws, 1821–46. Canadian Historical Review, 31(2), 177-187.

Cain, P. J. 1996. “Gentlemanly Imperialism at Work: The Bank of England, Canada, and the Sterling Area, 1932-1936″. The Economic History Review (London). 49, no. 02: 336-357.

I read the sections of the book on British banking history with interest. It will be interesting to compare them with Professor John D. Turner’s forthcoming book Banking in Crisis: The Rise and Fall of British Banking Stability, 1800 to the Present.



Charles W. Calomiris is the Henry Kaufman Professor of Financial Institutions at Columbia Business School and a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. His many books include U.S. Bank Deregulation in Historical Perspective. Stephen H. Haber is the A. A. and Jeanne Welch Milligan Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His many books include The Politics of Property Rights.


Role of Sir John A. Macdonald in the Creation of the Canadian Banking System

18 04 2014
John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

A reader of this blog has asked for information about the role of Sir John A. Macdonald in the development of Canada’s banking system. I suggest that they start with:

Smith, Andrew. “Continental Divide: The Canadian Banking and Currency Laws of 1871 in the Mirror of the United States.” Enterprise and Society 13, no. 3 (2012): 455-503. They should also look at this new working paper by Joe Martin and Donald Brean.

A reader of this blog has noticed that this link no longer works.  Here is an abstract of the paper:


Joe Martin, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Donald S. Brean, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Recent tensions in the Eurozone have elicited relatively little public discussions of how large  federal systems grappled over time with forging a common financial and monetary system.  This paper draws on the disparate experiences of two North American countries from similar  traditions – Canada and the United States, with a view to putting that process in historical  context. Despite advantages which Europe does not enjoy, these countries’ efforts to build  their national banking systems and common currency as well as unify their national debt  followed a long and varied path. The paper argues that Europeans would profit from the  lesson that the process required many difficult political steps in order to build the necessary  consensus for these systems to function, with all their flaws, as a binding rather than divisive force. We contend that those who supported and implemented the introduction of the Euro  ignored much of the institutional and organizational infrastructure required to successfully run  an “optimal currency area.”

Impact of CEO Knighthoods on Firm Profitability

18 04 2014

That’s the subject of a new paper that looks at data from New Zealand.


This paper studies theoretically and empirically whether and how governments can affect the behaviour of CEOs through the use of awards and honours. Our model predicts that government awards have a negative effect on firm performance. This effect is stronger in non-competitive industries. The empirical analysis uses two legal reforms in New Zealand: knighthoods and damehoods were abolished in April 2000 but reinstated in August 2009. The findings are consistent with the predictions of the model. Overall, our results indicate that governments can redirect firms towards a “stakeholder view”; through the use of government awards to the detriment of shareholders.


It would be interesting if someone did some similar analysis for Canadian corporations before the Second World War.

The Enhanced Supplementary Leverage Ratio and the Stereotype of US Laissez-Faire

17 04 2014

Matt Yglesias has published a great summary of the debate over the debate over the proposed regulations for bank capital adequacy in the United States. Yglesias’s piece is interesting because it deals with an intrinsically important issue (how to regulate banks so as to reduce the chances of future financial crises) and because it undermines that widespread view that the net burden of regulation is always greater in social-democratic Europe than in the United States. Ygelsias shows that the plans to impose a 5 percent equity ratio on the biggest banks are being fought tooth and nail by the said banks and their spokesman, Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who now runs the Financial Services Roundtable.  Pawlenty has argued that the proposed 5% rule would disadvantage US banks relative to their competitors in Europe, where a requirement of just 3% is currently under discussion. 

Yglesias makes this apt comparison with environmental regulation:

Since both American and European banks are supported by their respective governments when they get into trouble, if European regulators let European banks take bigger risks than American regulators allow the European banks will be at an advantage.

The question citizens have to ask is whether this is a good reason for lax regulation. A country with stricter air pollution rules puts its manufacturers at a disadvantage. On the upside, it gets cleaner air. By the same token, a country with a stricter leverage ratio will have a smaller and less lucrative banking system than a country with a laxer one. On the upside, it gets fewer financial crises. To the extent that you think a big problem in America is that our banking sector isn’t sufficiently large or profitable, Pawlenty’s concerns should weigh heavily on your mind. To the extent that you’re more worried that our banking sector is excessively crisis-prone and bailout-dependent, Pawlenty’s concerns seem less compelling.


Historic Turns in Organization and Management Theory: Critical, Cultural, and Qualitative

11 04 2014

AS: I’ve very interested in this panel, which will take place at the Academy of Management Conference in Philadelphia, 2 August 2014. 

Coordinator: Michael Rowlinson; Queen Mary U. of London; 
Coordinator: Gabrielle Durepos; St. Francis Xavier U.; 
Coordinator: Kyle Bruce; Macquarie U.; 
Panelist: Shawn M. Carraher; Oxford Journal Distinguished Research Professor; 
Panelist: Diego Maganhotto Coraiola; U. of Alberta; 
Panelist: Stephanie Decker; Aston Business School; 
Panelist: William M Foster; U. of Alberta; 
Panelist: John Hassard; The U. of Manchester; 
Panelist: Albert J. Mills; Saint Mary’s U.; 
Panelist: R. Daniel Wadhwani; U. of the Pacific; 

This workshop is located at the intersection between critical management studies (CMS), management history (MH), and organization and management theory (OMT), and will consider the prospects for more critical, cultural, and qualitative historical research in organization theory. There can be no doubt now that an historic turn is underway in OMT. However, for many advocates of an historic turn there was an expectation that it would be more closely aligned with the rise of CMS. From this perspective, there is a perception that CMS is less historical than expected and also less reflexive in the treatment of history; that Management History (MH) is not noticeably much more critical in its orientation; and for the most part, history in OMT is equated with quantitative longitudinal studies. Accordingly, the workshop will provide a forum for discussing these perceptions, with a specific focus on the role of generalist journals in OMT and CMS and the specialist historical journals in MH and the neighboring field of business history. The aim is to consider how historical research should be crafted and how historical papers should be developed for submission to the most appropriate journals. The workshop will also consider whether a case needs to be made for generalist journals in OMT to reconsider their standard article format in order to facilitate a wider range of historical research, for example, by relaxing the requirement for a generalizable contribution to theory to allow for a theorization of singular of historical events within a historical context.

Search Terms:


Ignorance is Strength

8 04 2014

As long-term readers of this blog know, one of my interests is the use of knowledge in society and the theories of knowledge that underpin competing normative views of public policy. I was therefore fascinated to read of some research on the MonkeyCage blog that showed that support among Americans for US military intervention in the affairs of Ukraine is negatively correlated with the ability to successfully locate Ukraine on a map of the world.  In other words, Americans who have a rough idea of where Ukraine is located are more likely to oppose military involvement that those who have absurd ideas about Ukraine’s actual location.


On March 28-31, 2014, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded via Survey Sampling International Inc. (SSI), what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: In addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, we also asked our survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. We wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S.  to intervene with military force.





Some of the guesses about where Ukraine is located are hilarious (see map).


This research is connected to Ezra Klein’s recent blog post about how politics makes people stupid (i.e., how strong political views reduce their ability to perform basic math).



Empire, Trees, and Climate: Re-Assembling Climatic Pasts in the North Atlantic

7 04 2014

My research collaborator Kirsten Greer will be presenting a paper at the Association of American Geographers Conference in Tampa on 9 April.  Her paper is called Empire, Trees, and Climate: Re-Assembling Climatic Pasts in the North Atlantic


Kirsten Greer, Dr.* – Nipissing University
Adam Csank, Dr. – Nipissing University
Kirby Calvert, Dr. – Pennsylvania State University
Margot Maddison-MacFadyen – Memorial University

How can historical geographies of British imperial expansion, trade networks, and commodity frontiers inform climate histories?  This paper contributes to mixed methods in climate change research by combining theoretical and methodological approaches in historical geography, dendrochronology, and GIS to understand how the Atlantic triangle trade in timber can inform studies on climate.  In the early to mid-nineteenth century, British North America was an integral site in Britain’s triangular trade of timber, fish, sugar, rum, and molasses with the West Indies.  Known today as eastern Canada, the region’s forests and watersheds were transformed into the “modern” world system as the Crown secured lands and timber rights during the Napoleonic Wars.  Considering that British North American timber was integral to ship-building, imperial infrastructure (dockyards, fortifications, government buildings), and maritime supremacy in the age of sail, we provide a speculative piece on how archival and museum research, dendro-provenancing (e.g. analysis of tree ring widths of historic buildings and shipwrecks), and visualizing techniques using GIS can provide important insights into climatic conditions of the past.  We also discuss the theoretical challenges of using mixed methods in climate change research, especially when bringing together different approaches from the humanities and environmental sciences, and in thinking about the role of non-human agency in climate change.


Alex Tabarrok on the Ukrainian Crisis

1 04 2014

Alex Tabarrok makes some important observations about the nature of knowledge in society and prediction in a blog post about the West’s policies towards Ukraine.  His key insight is that Western politicians and pundits have strong views about what is to be done about Ukraine despite knowing little about the country or even being able to speak its language. 

Foreign policy experts love making bold predictions.  The clearer their conclusions, the wiser they sound.  Unfortunately, as Philip Tetlock documents, their predictions about controversial topics are scarcely better than chance.  They’re all style, no substance.  

I’m reminded of F.A. Hayek’s words: 

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account. The Fatal Conceit : The Errors of Socialism (1988), p. 76

Hayek was talking about the impossibility of successful central planning: the economy is so complex that central planners wouldn’t be able to manage it even with supercomputers. However, his basic point can be applied to the making of foreign policy as well. 


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