“The Rents from Sugar and Coercive Institutions: Removing the Sugar Coating,” C. Dippel, A. Greif & D. Trefler (2014)

Today, I’ve got two posts about some new work by Christian Dippel, an economic historian at UCLA Anderson who is doing some very interesting theoretically-informed history; no surprise to see Greif and Trefler as coauthors on this paper, as they are both prominent proponents of this analytical style.

The authors consider the following puzzle: sugar prices absolutely collapse during the mid and late 1800s, largely because of the rise of beet sugar. And yet, wages in the sugar-dominant British colonies do not appear to have fallen. This is odd, since all of our main theories of trade suggest that when an export price falls, the price of factors used to produce that export also fall (this is less obvious than just marginal product falling, but still true).

The economics seem straightforward enough, so what explains the empirical result? Well, the period in question is right after the end of slavery in the British Empire. There were lots of ways in which the politically powerful could use legal or extralegal means to keep wages from rising to marginal product. Suresh Naidu, a favorite of this blog, has a number of papers on labor coercion everywhere from the UK in the era of Master and Servant Law, to the US South post-reconstruction, to the Middle East today; actually, I understand he is writing a book on the subject which, if there is any justice, has a good shot at being the next Pikettyesque mainstream hit. Dippel et al quote a British writer in the 1850s on the Caribbean colonies: “we have had a mass of colonial legislation, all dictated by the most short-sighted but intense and disgraceful selfishness, endeavouring to restrict free labour by interfering with wages, by unjust taxation, by unjust restrictions, by oppressive and unequal laws respecting contracts, by the denial of security of [land] tenure, and by impeding the sale of land.” In particular, wages rose rapidly right after slavery ended in 1838, but those gains were clawed back by the end of 1840s due to “tenancy-at-will laws” (which let employers seize some types of property if workers left), trespass and land use laws to restrict freeholding on abandoned estates and Crown land, and emigration restrictions.

What does labor coercion have to do with wages staying high as sugar prices collapse? The authors write a nice general equilibrium model. Englishmen choose whether to move to the colonies (in which case they get some decent land) or to stay in England at the outside wage. Workers in the Caribbean can either take a wage working sugar which depends on bargaining power, or they can go work marginal freehold land. Labor coercion rules limit the ability of those workers to work some land, so the outside option of leaving the sugar plantation is worse the more coercive institutions are. Governments maximize a weighted combination of Englishmen and local wages, choosing the coerciveness of institutions. The weight on Englishmen wages is higher the more important sugar exports and their enormous rents are to the local economy. In partial equilibrium, then, if the price of sugar falls exogenously, the wages of workers on sugar plantations falls (as their MP goes down), the number of locals willing to work sugar falls, hence the number of Englishman willing to stay falls (as their profit goes down). With few plantations, sugar rents become less important, labor coercion falls, opening up more marginal land for freeholders, which causes even more workers to leave sugar plantations and improves wages for those workers. However, if sugar is very important, the government places a lot of weight on planter income in the social welfare function, hence responds to a fall in sugar prices by increasing labor coercion, lowering the outside option of workers, keeping them on the sugar plantations, where they earn lower wages than before for the usual economic reasons. That is, if sugar is really important, coercive institutions will be retained, the economic structure will be largely unchanged in response to a fall in world sugar prices, and hence wages will fall, but if sugar is only of marginal importance, a fall in sugar prices leads the politically powerful to leave, lowering the political strength of the planter class, thus causing coercive labor institutions to decline, allowing workers to reallocate such that wages approach marginal product; since the MP of options other than sugar may be higher than the wage paid to sugar workers, this reallocation caused by the decline of sugar prices can cause wages in the colony to increase.

The British, being British, kept very detailed records of things like incarceration rates, wages, crop exports, and the like, and the authors find a good deal of empirical evidence for the mechanism just described. To assuage worries about the endogeneity of planter power, they even get a subject expert to construct a measure of geographic suitability for sugar in each of 14 British Caribbean colonies, and proxies for planter power with the suitability of marginal land for sugar production. Interesting work all around.

What should we take from this? That legal and extralegal means can be used to keep factor rents from approaching their perfect competition outcome: well, that is something essentially every classical economist from Smith to Marx has described. The interesting work here is the endogeneity of factor coercion. There is still some debate about much we actually know about whether these endogenous institutions (or, even more so, the persistence of institutions) have first-order economic effects; see a recent series of posts by Dietz Vollrath for a skeptical view. I find this paper by Dippel et al, as well as recent work by Naidu and Hornbeck, are the cleanest examples of how exogenous shocks affect institutions, and how those institutions then affect economic outcomes of great importance.

December 2014 working paper (no RePEc IDEAS version)

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