“The Development Effects of the Extractive Colonial Economy,” M. Dell & B. Olken (2017)

A good rule of thumb is that you will want to read any working paper Melissa Dell puts out. Her main interest is the long-run path-dependent effect of historical institutions, with rigorous quantitative investigation of the subtle conditionality of the past. For instance, in her earlier work on Peru (Econometrica, 2010), mine slavery in the colonial era led to fewer hacienda style plantations at the end of the era, which led to less political power without those large landholders in the early democratic era, which led to fewer public goods throughout the 20th century, which led to less education and income today in eras that used to have mine slavery. One way to read this is that local inequality is the past may, through political institutions, be a good thing today! History is not as simple as “inequality is the past causes bad outcomes today” or “extractive institutions in the past cause bad outcomes today” or “colonial economic distortions cause bad outcomes today”. But, contra the branch of historians that don’t like to assign causality to any single factor in any given situation, we don’t need to entirely punt on the effects of specific policies in specific places if we apply careful statistical and theoretical analysis.

Dell’s new paper looks at the cultuurstelsel, a policy the Dutch imposed on Java in the mid-19th century. Essentially, the Netherlands was broke and Java was suitable for sugar, so the Dutch required villages in certain regions to use huge portions of their arable land, and labor effort, to produce sugar for export. They built roads and some rail, as well as sugar factories (now generally long gone), as part of this effort, and the land used for sugar production generally became public village land controlled at the behest of local leaders. This was back in the mid-1800s, so surely it shouldn’t affect anything of substance today?

But it did! Take a look at villages near the old sugar plantations, or that were forced to plant sugar, and you’ll find higher incomes, higher education levels, high school attendance rates even back in the late colonial era, higher population densities, and more workers today in retail and manufacturing. Dell and Olken did some wild data matching using a great database of geographic names collected by the US government to match the historic villages where these sugar plants, and these labor requirements, were located with modern village and town locations. They then constructed “placebo” factories – locations along coastal rivers in sugar growing regions with appropriate topography where a plant could have been located but wasn’t. In particular, as in the famous Salop circle, you won’t locate a factory too close to an existing one, but there are many counterfactual equilibria where we just shift all the factories one way or the other. By comparing the predicted effect of distance from the real factory on outcomes today with the predicted effect of distance from the huge number of hypothetical factories, you can isolate the historic local influence of the real factory from other local features which can’t be controlled for.

Consumption right next to old, long-destroyed factories is 14% higher than even five kilometers away, education is 1.25 years longer on average, electrification, road, and rail density are all substantially higher, and industrial production upstream and downstream from sugar (e.g., farm machinery upstream, and processed foods downstream) are also much more likely to be located in villages with historic factories even if there is no sugar production anymore in that region!

It’s not just the factory and Dutch investments that matter, however. Consider the villages, up to 10 kilometers away, which were forced to grow the raw cane. Their elites took private land for this purpose, and land inequality remains higher in villages that were forced to grow cane compared to villages right next door that were outside the Dutch-imposed boundary. But this public land permitted surplus extraction in an agricultural society which could be used for public goods, like schooling, which would later become important! These villages were much more likely to have schools especially before the 1970s, when public schooling in Indonesia was limited, and today are higher density, richer, more educated, and less agricultural than villages nearby which weren’t forced to grow cane. This all has shades of the long debate on “forward linkages” in agricultural societies, where it is hypothesized that agricultural surplus benefits industrialization by providing the surplus necessary for education and capital to be purchased; see this nice paper by Sam Marden showing linkages of this sort in post-Mao China.

Are you surprised by these results? They fascinate me, honestly. Think through the logic: forced labor (in the surrounding villages) and extractive capital (rail and factories built solely to export a crop in little use domestically) both have positive long-run local effects! They do so by affecting institutions – whether villages have the ability to produce public goods like education – and by affecting incentives – the production of capital used up- and downstream. One can easily imagine cases where forced labor and extractive capital have negative long-run effects, and we have great papers by Daron Acemoglu, Nathan Nunn, Sara Lowes and others on precisely this point. But it is also very easy for societies to get trapped in bad path dependent equilibria, for which outside intervention, even ethically shameful ones, can (perhaps inadvertently) cause useful shifts in incentives and institutions! I recall a visit to Babeldaob, the main island in Palau. During the Japanese colonial period, the island was heavily industrialized as part of Japan’s war machine. These factories were destroyed by the Allies in World War 2. Yet despite their extractive history, a local told me many on the island believe that the industrial development of the region was permanently harmed when those factories were damaged. It seems a bit crazy to mourn the loss of polluting, extractive plants whose whole purpose was to serve a colonial master, but the Palauan may have had some wisdom after all!

2017 Working Paper is here (no RePEc IDEAS version). For more on sugar and institutions, I highly recommend Christian Dippel, Avner Greif and Dan Trefler’s recent paper on Caribbean sugar. The price of sugar fell enormously in the late 19th century, yet wages on islands which lost the ability to productively export sugar rose. Why? Planters in places like Barbados had so much money from their sugar exports that they could manipulate local governance and the police, while planters in places like the Virgin Islands became too poor to do the same. This decreased labor coercion, permitting workers on sugar plantations to work small plots or move to other industries, raising wages in the end. I continue to await Suresh Naidu’s book on labor coercion – it is astounding the extent to which labor markets were distorted historically (see, e.g., Eric Foner on Reconstruction), and in some cases still today, by legal and extralegal restrictions on how workers could move on up.

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