Land Concentration and Long-Run Development in the Frontier United States
(Job Market Paper)
Abstract: Despite their popularization as bastions of pioneer equality, America's frontier regions often exhibited highly concentrated patterns of land ownership. A patchwork of policies opened some areas to large-scale farming by absentee landlords but reserved others for settlement by small farmers. This paper studies the impacts of land concentration on the long-run development of the frontier United States using quasi-random variation in these allocation procedures. I collect a large database of modern property tax valuations and show that historical land concentration had persistent effects over a span of 150 years: lowering investment by 23%, overall property value by 4.4%, and population by 8%. I argue that landlords’ use of sharecropping raised the costs of investment, a static inefficiency that persisted due to land market frictions. I find little evidence for other explanations, including elite capture of political systems. I use my empirical estimates to evaluate counterfactual policies, applying recent advances in combinatorial optimization to show that an optimal property rights allocation would have increased my sample’s agricultural land values by $28 billion (4.8%) in 2017.
When Coercive Economies Fail: The Political Economy of the US South After the Boll Weevil
(with James Feigenbaum and Soumyajit Mazumder)
Abstract: How do coercive societies respond to negative economic shocks? We explore this question in the early 20th century United States South. Since before the nation's founding, cotton cultivation formed the politics and institutions in the South, including the development of slavery, the lack of democratic institutions, and intergroup relations between whites and blacks. We leverage the natural experiment generated by the boll weevil infestation from 1892-1922, which disrupted cotton production in the region. Panel difference-in-differences results provide evidence that Southern society became less violent and repressive in response to this shock with fewer lynchings and less Confederate monument construction. Cross-sectional results exploiting spatial variation in the infestation and historical cotton specialization show that affected counties had less KKK activity, higher non-white voter registration, and were less likely to experience contentious politics in the form of protests during the 1960s. To assess mechanisms, we show that the reductions in coercion were responses to African American out-migration. Even in a context of coercive and antidemocratic institutions, ordinary people can retain political power through the ability to “vote with their feet.”
Research in Progress
Tiebout and the Long-run Effects of Local State Capacity
Abstract: At least since Tiebout (1956), economists have been interested in how public goods shape people’s location decisions and vice versa. A number of empirical studies have provided evidence that people move in response to public goods, but we know less about how such dynamics shape development in the long run. This paper studies the impact of historical public goods on migration and development on the American frontier. I develop an estimation technique which leverages (a) the formula-based reservation of lands for funding local government (b) the randomness of land quality within very small geographic areas. Areas whose reserved lands happen to be of higher quality than their immediate neighbors receive more public goods in historical times. Surprisingly, higher levels of these public goods lead to lower population today with a standard deviation increase in reserve land quality lowering it by about 28%. I show that most of this decrease is linked to lower levels of town formation and argue that increased levels of rural schools lowered settlers' desire to move to cities.