Monday, September 23, 2013

History of Economic Ideas essay #2 options

In case anyone is interested:


Assignment: Write a short essay (approximately 2,000 to 2,500 words) answering one of the following questions:
1.      When economists try to persuade other economists of the validity of their arguments they often employ “counterfactuals”. A counterfactual is a comparison case or example where all factors influencing an outcome remain the same except one factor that is of particular interest to the economist. In this sense, a counterfactual is the analog to a “control group” in an experimental setting which economists rely on because we generally don’t have access to experimental data. The differences in outcomes between the case of interest and the counterfactual can help us to infer the relationship between the factor that is not held constant between the two cases and the outcome. Thomas Malthus uses the United States as a counterfactual at two points in the readings discussed in class. Please explain in detail:

a.       Malthus’s use of the United States as a counterfactual in his essay on population. How was the United States different from Europe? How was it the same? What outcome was Malthus interested in explaining and how did he justify his arguments using the United States as a counterfactual?, and

b.      Malthus’s use of the United States as a counterfactual in his discussion of economic crises in his Principles of Political Economy. How was the United States different from Great Britain? How was it the same? What outcome was Malthus interested in explaining and how did he justify his arguments using the United States as a counterfactual?

Be sure to use quotes from Thomas Malthus in a well-written and properly cited presentation of your arguments.
2.      David Ricardo takes formal modeling of the economy a step farther than either Adam Smith or Thomas Malthus and lays a foundation for formal economic theory that will last at least until the 1870s. A critical component of any economic model is a theory of the determination of factor prices, and therefore the distribution of national income. Please explain in detail:

a.       Ricardo’s theory of the determinants of wage rates. How is this similar to or different from the theories of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus on the subject?

b.      Ricardo’s theory of the determinants of profits.

c.       Ricardo’s theory on the determinants of rent. The rent of landlords is the least important factor income for modern economists. We don’t even consider it in our models! Yet Ricardo’s theory of rent is considered to be one of his most important contributions. Why?

Be sure to use quotes from David Ricardo in a well-written and properly cited presentation of your arguments. Quotes from Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus are not strictly necessary but they would certainly be appropriate to include as well.

3.      We discussed on the second day of class that Thomas Jefferson was personally acquainted with many of the Physiocrats (such as Turgot), and that he shared important social biases with Adam Smith. Jefferson also read Malthus with great interest, and maintained a correspondence with Jean Baptiste Say in France. In 1804, Jefferson wrote to Say about his thoughts on Malthus’s theory of population. Please read the letter (in the Content folder on Blackboard), and write a response to Jefferson, from the perspective of Malthus (as if Say had [with Jefferson’s permission, of course] shared the contents of the letter). Please address:

a.       A basic restatement of Malthus’s theory of population.

b.      Where you think Malthus would agree with Jefferson’s analysis and where he would disagree.

c.       A discussion of the portions of the essay on population (the sixth edition is fine to cite, even though it came out after Jefferson’s letter) that are relevant to Jefferson’s arguments.

Be sure to use quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Malthus in a well-written and properly cited presentation of your arguments.


  1. "in a well-written and properly cited presentation of your arguments."

    I would just put that in once and say "applies to all questions." As it is, I start to feel badgered by the admonition.

    Otherwise, great questions!

  2. Daniel, thanks for the response. Still, I can't say that I agree with you. Sen is not a Malthusian.

    Think of it in the most simplistic and practical terms possible. Suppose you're a head of a government agency which has power to redistribute food/income. And a famine in one of your provinces is imminent. You got two advisers, Amartya and Thomas. So you ask them for advice.

    Amartya will more or less tell you:

    "There has been a disastrous change in the relatives prices which has brought a large number of people to the edge of starvation because they can't afford staple food anymore. We must offset it by making either lump sum income or in kind transfers to the poor so as to prevent wide scale deaths. It's possible that the free market works well in normal conditions but in conditions of a famine it's unethical to dilly dally about theoretical questions. Just get the food where it's needed. If that doesn't happen then that's a failure of the political and social institutions of this economy, not a natural occurrence"

    If you ask Thomas you get something more or less like this;

    "Whatever you do, don't try to redistribute income or food to the poor because you will make it only worse for them. The famine is a natural check on the geometrically growing population of these peasants and it is unavoidable. If you save them from starvation now it will only result in an even greater population and an even more sever famine, the positive check, down the road".

    Now. That's a bit of a caricature. Although really it's more of a caricature of Sen than Malthus, The Essay was a polemical pamphlet after all. Still, there just is no way that you can draw an arrow of continuity between the thought of one and the other. Like I said before, they just both wrote about famines, that's about it (and not many economists except for Sen and his disciples write about famines these days, for somewhat understandable reasons so I understand you flailing about trying to find something that relates to Malthus).

    It's orthogonal. As the kids say these days.

    1. I agree with you, YouNotSneaky.

      According to the following link (at least), Amartya Sen is better categorized as a "structuralist" rather than a "modern Malthusian".

    2. I agree with most of what you write, except for this: "Like I said before, they just both wrote about famines, that's about it"

      That's NOT about it. Their understanding of the causes of famines was very similar. This isn't a history of policy thought class - we mostly cover economic theories and explanations. And the economic theory explaining famines is quite comparable.

  3. Daniel, can you point me to a specific article or work by Sen (and if it's one of the books, page numbers would be helpful as they tend to be unwieldy massive beasties) that would get at the connection you're making?

    AFAIK, and IMVWBW, Sen talks the most about Malthus in this essay:

    It's not really a scholarly article but it should do the job of representing the man's views. And he writes stuff like:

    "Malthus's fear that economic and social development could only encourage people to have more children has certainly proved to be radically wrong, and so have all the painful policy implications drawn from it."

    "In fact, with one substantial exception, exactly the opposite (of Malthusian worries about overpopulation - YNS) is true. The largest increases in the production of food—not just in the aggregate but also per person—are actually taking place in the third world, particularly in the region that is having the largest absolute increases in the world population, that is, in Asia. "

    "But is food production really getting more and more expensive? There is, in fact, no evidence for that conclusion either. In fact, quite the contrary. Not only is food generally much cheaper to buy today, in constant dollars, than it was in Malthus's time, but it also has become cheaper during recent decades."

    Ok, it's actually a long essay and these quotes are picked not be representative but to address the issue under discussion. But still...

    Again, to simplify things; Malthus' view of famines was more or less that they were caused by population "overshooting" the available resources because of the "passion of the sexes" and stuff like that and naive paternalistic politicians redistributing income to the poor. Sen's view of famines (and again again, this is where I very much simplify him) is that they are caused by nasty shocks to relative prices and a LACK of proper re-distributional policies.

    I'm not trying to be argumentative here. If there is a closer link between Malthus and Sen I really want to see it because that would be quite interesting as far as HET goes. So I'm actually sort of cheering for you here. Convince me!

    1. I disagree with your portrayal of Malthus on famines and am fine with your simplified version of Sen. I am getting my view of Malthus from the discussion of famines in Book II Ch. 13 of the sixth edition. I'm glad you link to the NYRB article. It's another common denominator between us. This, as far as I know, is the most directly Sen has treated and I read through it again about a week and a half ago. Clearly there is a whole lot that Malthus and Sen disagree on. On famines they make many of the same points. Malthus says that famine is not the primary positive check. Economies don't just suddenly not produce enough food nor does population suddenly shoot above carrying capacity. But population pressures are such that the lower classes are always around the subsistence level, so that when shocks occur famine occurs as a result of this distribution of income that leaves a large portion of the population extremely vulnerable. The higher classes have more than enough funds to buy food. The problem is not a lack of food - the problem is a lack of means of purchasing food among the lower classes.

      This is Sen's position too, more or less.

      If you read Book II Ch. 13 differently please feel free to share.

    2. What does "IMVWBW" stand for, YouNotSneaky?

  4. Daniel, I'm assuming you're referring to this passage:

    "Of the other great scourge of mankind, famine, it may be observed that it is not in the nature of things, that the increase of population should absolutely produce one. This increase, though rapid, is necessarily gradual; and as the human frame cannot be supported, even for a very short time, without food, it is evident, that no more human beings can grow up than there is provision to maintain. But though the principle of population cannot absolutely produce a famine, it prepares the way for one; and by frequently obliging the lower classes of people to subsist nearly on the smallest quantity of food that will support life, turns even a slight deficiency from the failure of the seasons into a severe dearth; and may be fairly said, therefore, to be one of the principal causes of famine. Among the signs of an approaching dearth, Dr. Short mentions one or more years of luxuriant crops together; and this observation is probably just, as we know that the general effect of years of cheapness and abundance is to dispose a great number of persons to marry; and under such circumstances the return to a year merely of an average crop might produce a scarcity."

    I've bolded the parts which I think support my interpretation of Malthus' views. Other than that there isn't all that much about famines in there. Malthus notes earlier on that populations tend to bounce back fairly rapidly from famines. He says famines are unlikely to occur in North America, but very likely in Asia and North Africa. And also says:

    If there were no other depopulating causes, and if the preventive check did not operate very strongly, every country would without doubt be subject to periodical plagues and famines."

    Mostly he spends a lot more time on epidemics than on famines.

    In the above, in particular, the reference to Dr. Short's opinion is where the population overshooting is presented. A few "luxuriant" years of good crop, people marry earlier and more of them marry, more babies, and then you have only a regular (rather than a good) crop but now with more people so boom, a famine. That's pretty much Malthus' theory of famines right there.

    It's true though that Malthus also states that for these to occur it needs to be the case that a good portion of the population is living close to biological subsistence to begin with. But I think that's sort of a necessary condition in any reasonable theory of famines (except maybe those which stress importance of war and outright violence) and by itself I don't think it's enough to link him to Sen. We might have to agree to disagree here.

  5. Dang it, should've figured that bolding wouldn't show up (it does in the preview!). In addition to the stuff from Dr. Short I wanted to emphasize this part:

    "But though the principle of population cannot absolutely produce a famine, it prepares the way for one (...) (it) may be fairly said, therefore, to be one of the principal causes of famine. "


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.