Working Papers

One Giant Leap: Emancipation and Aggregate Economic Gains
(with Richard Hornbeck)

Abstract: We re-characterize American slavery as inefficient, whereby emancipation generated substantial aggregate economic gains. Coercive labor markets were severely distorted, with the social marginal cost of labor substantially above its marginal benefit. Production during enslavement came at immense costs imposed upon enslaved people that reduced aggregate economic surplus, or the total value of output minus total costs incurred. The costs of enslavement are inherently difficult to quantify, which leads to a wide range of quantitative estimates, but we calculate that emancipation generated aggregate economic gains worth the equivalent of a 4% – 35% increase in US aggregate productivity (7 – 60 years of technological innovation). Emancipation decreased output but sparked dramatic aggregate economic gains by decreasing costs substantially more, illustrating the substantial potential for aggregate economic gains in the presence of severe misallocation.

The Green Books and the Geography of Segregation in Public Accommodations
(with Lisa D. Cook, Maggie E.C. Jones, David Rosé)

Abstract: Jim Crow segregated African Americans and whites by law and practice. The causes and implications of the associated de jure and de facto residential segregation have received substantial attention from scholars, but there has been little empirical research on racial discrimination in public accommodations during this time period. We digitize the Negro Motorist Green Books, important historical travel guides aimed at helping African Americans navigate segregation in the pre-Civil Rights Act United States. We create a novel panel dataset that contains precise geocoded locations of over 4,000 unique businesses that provided non-discriminatory service to African American patrons between 1938 and 1966. Our analysis reveals several new facts about discrimination in public accommodations that contribute to the broader literature on racial segregation. First, the largest number of Green Book establishments were found in the Northeast, while the lowest number were found in the West. The Midwest had the highest number of Green Book establishments per black resident and the South had the lowest. Second, we combine our Green Book estimates with newly digitized county-level estimates of hotels to generate the share of non-discriminatory formal accommodations. Again, the Northeast had the highest share of non-discriminatory accommodations, with the South following closely behind. Third, for Green Book establishments located in cities for which the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) drew residential security maps, the vast majority (nearly 70 percent) are located in the lowest-grade, redlined neighborhoods. Finally, Green Book presence tends to correlate positively with measures of material well-being and economic activity.

Her Property Transactions: White Women and the Frequency of Female Ownership in the Antebellum Era
(with Benton Wishart)

Abstract: The traditional historical narrative suggests that White women were only rarely involved in market transactions for enslaved people. Using transaction records, notary statements, and runaway advertisements, we estimate the extent of White women’s involvement in antebellum slave transactions as owners of record. Contrary to the narrative, we find that White women were quite frequently noted as owners of record in transactions. White women participated in more than 30% of the transactions in the largest market for enslaved people in the antebellum era. We also find that White women were especially likely to be owners involved in transactions with enslaved women, where they were listed as owners in nearly 40% of transactions involving enslaved women. We do not find that White women owners were more likely to be widows or older than women in the general population, which is inconsistent with the historical argument that White women were reluctant owners of enslaved people. Overall, our results are consistent with the new historical narrative that enslavement was a critical part of White women’s economic independence in the antebellum era.

Homefront: Black Servicemembers and Black Voters in the Civil Rights Era
(with Thomas Koch and John M. Parman)

Abstract: The role of World War II veterans in the Civil Rights Movement has been well documented, but the effect of Black military service on Black political participation remains unclear. Combining detailed information on World War II enlistments and Civil Rights Commission data on voter registration by race, we estimate the role of Black veterans in high-risk political participation in the US South. Each Black enlistee increased Black voter registration by more than two additional Black registrants after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We further show that Black veterans in higher-status military positions increased Black voter registration more than veterans overall. We also find that Black military service had a similar effect on the presence of Black civil rights groups and reactionary White nationalist organizations.

Do Gender Neutral Custody Laws Increase Divorce Rates?
(with Yang Chen)

Abstract: Between the 1970s and the 1990s, state custody laws moved from maternal preference to the “best interest of the child” doctrine, giving fathers and mothers equal treatment in child custody decisions in the case of marital dissolution. We exploit exogenous variation across states in the timing of the legal changes to identify the effect of custody law reform on divorce. We find that changes in custody laws raised divorce rates in the long term. The divorce rate began to increase approximately seven years after a state’s adoption of the new custody law and persisted thereafter. The magnitude of the increase was between 0.1 and 0.2 divorces per 1,000 people per year, increasing the divorce rate by more than 5%. Changes in custody laws also increased the likelihood of being separated by roughly 0.5 percentage points for women and 0.3 percentage points for men. We also show that states’ movement from maternal preference to gender-neutral custody laws was independent of the adoption of unilateral divorce laws. The results suggest that child custody law reform plays an important and overlooked role in marital dissolution in the United States.

Moveable Feasts: A New Approach to Endogenizing Tastes
(with Paul Rhode)

Abstract: We provide a new empirical approach to endogenizing tastes in consumer demand. We argue that tastes can be understood as the result of utility maximizing behavior in the past, whose properties can be used to partially endogenize tastes. As the old maximization problem depends critically on relative prices, we use old relative prices to endogenize tastes, overcoming many of the empirical criticisms of the taste formation literature while at the same time being consistent with a broad class of existing theoretical approaches to taste and preference formation. To test the empirical implications of our approach, we estimate the demand for food using unique household consumption and price data from the nineteenth century. We use contemporaneous relative prices and old relative prices from the home countries of immigrants measured fifteen years prior to our consumption survey. We first establish that the old relative prices are uncorrelated with the contemporaneous relative prices. We then find that older relative prices have a large and significant effect on the demand for food. On average, a one standard deviation in the old relative price changes the current food budgetshare by .2 standard deviations. We also provide suggestive evidence of persistence—the effect of old relative prices on demand persists more than 40 years later. We conclude by noting how our empirical strategy can be used to parameterize changes in tastes in both microeconomic and macroeconomic contexts.