“International Trade and Institutional Change: Medieval Venice’s Response to Globalization,” D. Puga & D. Trefler

(Before discussing the paper today, I should forward a couple great remembrances of Stanley Reiter, who passed away this summer, by Michael Chwe (whose interests at the intersection of theory and history are close to my heart) and Rakesh Vohra. After leaving Stanford – Chwe mentions this was partly due to a nasty letter written by Reiter’s advisor Milton Friedman! – Reiter established an incredible theory group at Purdue which included Afriat, Vernon Smith and PhD students like Sonnenschein and Ledyard. He then moved to Northwestern where he helped build up the great group in MEDS which is too long to list, but which includes one Nobel winner already in Myerson and, by my reckoning, two more which are favorites to win the prize next Monday.

I wonder if we may be at the end of an era for topic-diverse theory departments. Business schools are all a bit worried about “Peak MBA”, and theorists are surely the first ones out the door when enrollment falls. Economic departments, journals and funders seem to have shifted, in the large, toward more empirical work, for better or worse. Our knowledge both of how economic and social interactions operate in their most platonic form, and our ability to interpret empirical results when considering novel or counterfactual policies, have greatly benefited by the theoretical developments following Samuelson and Hicks’ mathematization of primitives in the 1930s and 40s, and the development of modern game theory and mechanism design in the 1970s and 80s. Would that a new Cowles and a 21st century Reiter appear to help create a critical mass of theorists again!)

On to today’s paper, a really interesting theory-driven piece of economic history. Venice was one of the most important centers of Europe’s “commercial revolution” between the 10th and 15th century; anyone who read Marco Polo as a schoolkid knows of Venice’s prowess in long-distance trade. Among historians, Venice is also well-known for the inclusive political institutions that developed in the 12th century, and the rise of oligarchy following the “Serrata” at the end of the 13th century. The Serrata was followed by a gradual decrease in Venice’s power in long-distance trade and a shift toward manufacturing, including the Murano glass it is still famous for today. This is a fairly worrying history from our vantage point today: as the middle class grew wealthier, democratic forms of government and free markets did not follow. Indeed, quite the opposite: the oligarchs seized political power, and within a few decades of the serrata restricted access to the types of trade that previously drove wealth mobility. Explaining what happened here is both a challenge due to limited data, and of great importance given the public prominence of worries about the intersection of growing inequality and corruption of the levers of democracy.

Dan Trefler, an economic historian here at U. Toronto, and Diego Puga, an economist at CEMFI who has done some great work in economic geography, provide a great explanation of this history. Here’s the model. Venice begins with lots of low-wealth individuals, a small middle and upper class, and political power granted to anyone in the upper class. Parents in each dynasty can choose to follow a risky project – becoming a merchant in a long-distance trading mission a la Niccolo and Maffeo Polo – or work locally in a job with lower expected pay. Some of these low and middle class families will succeed on their trade mission and become middle and upper class in the next generation. Those with wealth can sponsor ships via the colleganza, a type of early joint-stock company with limited liability, and potentially join the upper class. Since long-distance trade is high variance, there is a lot of churn across classes. Those with political power also gather rents from their political office. As the number of wealthy rise in the 11th and 12th century, the returns to sponsoring ships falls due to competition across sponsors in the labor and export markets. At any point, the upper class can vote to restrict future entry into the political class by making political power hereditary. They need to include sufficiently many powerful people in this hereditary class or there will be a revolt. As the number of wealthy increase, eventually the wealthy find it worthwhile to restrict political power so they can keep political rents within their dynasty forever. Though political power is restricted, the economy is still free, and the number of wealthy without power continue to grow, lowering the return to wealth for those with political power due to competition in factor and product markets. At some point, the return is so low that it is worth risking revolt from the lower classes by restricting entry of non-nobles into lucrative industries. To prevent revolt, a portion of the middle classes are brought in to the hereditary political regime, such that the regime is powerful enough to halt a revolt. Under these new restrictions, lower classes stop engaging in long-distance trade and instead work in local industry. These outcomes can all be generated with a reasonable looking model of dynastic occupation choice.

What historical data would be consistent with this theoretical mechanism? We should expect lots of turnover in political power and wealth in the 10th through 13th centuries. We should find examples in the literature of families beginning as long-distance traders and rising to voyage sponsors and political agents. We should see a period of political autocracy develop, followed later by the expansion of hereditary political power and restrictions on lucrative industry entry to those with such power. Economic success based on being able to activate large amounts of capital from within the nobility class will make the importance of inter-family connections more important in the 14th and 15th centuries than before. Political power and participation in lucrative economic ventures will be limited to a smaller number of families after this political and economic closure than before. Those left out of the hereditary regime will shift to local agriculture and small-scale manufacturing.

Indeed, we see all of these outcomes in Venetian history. Trefler and Puga use some nice techniques to get around limited data availability. Since we don’t have data on family incomes, they use the correlation in eigenvector centrality within family marriage networks as a measure of the stability of the upper classes. They code colleganza records – a non-trivial task involving searching thousands of scanned documents for particular Latin phrases – to investigate how often new families appear in these records, and how concentration in the funding of long-distance trade changes over time. They show that all of the families with high eigenvector centrality in the noble marriage market after political closure – a measure of economic importance, remember – were families that were in the top quartile of seat-share in the pre-closure Venetian legislature, and that those families which had lots of political power pre-closure but little commercial success thereafter tended to be unsuccessful in marrying into lucrative alliances.

There is a lot more historical detail in the paper, but as a matter of theory useful to the present day, the Venetian experience ought throw cold water on the idea that political inclusiveness and economic development always form a virtuous circle. Institutions are endogenous, and changes in the nature of inequality within a society following economic development alter the potential for political and economic crackdowns to survive popular revolt.

Final published version in QJE 2014 (RePEc IDEAS). A big thumbs up to Diego for having the single best research website I have come across in five years of discussing papers in this blog. Every paper has an abstract, well-organized replication data, and a link to a locally-hosted version of the final published paper. You may know his paper with Nathan Nunn on how rugged terrain in Africa is associated with good economic outcomes today because slave traders like the infamous Tippu Tip couldn’t easily exploit mountainous areas, but it’s also worth checking out his really clever theoretical disambiguation of why firms in cities are more productive, as well as his crazy yet canonical satellite-based investigation of the causes of sprawl. There is a really cool graphic on the growth of U.S. sprawl at that last link!

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