05 January 2021

Geographic Causes For American Culture

This paper studies the impact of social learning on the formation of close-knit communities. It provides empirical support to the hypothesis, put forth by the historian Fred Shannon in 1945, that local soil heterogeneity limited the ability of American farmers to learn from the experience of their neighbors, and that this contributed to their “traditional individualism.” Consistent with this hypothesis, I establish that historically, U.S. counties with a higher degree of soil heterogeneity displayed weaker communal ties. 
I provide causal evidence on the formation of this pattern in a Difference-in-Differences framework, documenting a reduction in the strength of farmers’ communal ties following migration to a soil-heterogeneous county, relative to farmers that moved to a soil-homogeneous county. 
Using the same design, I also show that soil heterogeneity did not affect the social ties of non-farmers. The impact of soil heterogeneity is long-lasting, still affecting culture today. These findings suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of culture.

Also, here, by the same author:
The 1862 Homestead Act provided free land conditional on five years of residency and cultivation to settlers of the American West. In total, the Act granted 10% of the land in the United States to 1.6 million individuals. This study examines the impact of the Act on long-run development. Using spatial regression discontinuity and instrumental variable designs, we find that areas with greater historical exposure to homesteading are poorer and more rural today. The impact on development is not only driven through differences in the urban share of the population; cities in homesteading areas are less developed and non-agricultural sectors are less productive. Using newly geo-referenced historical census data, we document the path of divergence starting from the initial settlement. We find that homesteading regions were slower to transition out of agriculture. The historical and empirical evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the transitory distortions caused by the Act’s residency and cultivation requirements induced selection on settlers’ comparative advantage in agriculture. This, in turn, inhibited the development of non-agricultural sectors and the subsequent benefits of agglomeration.

By other authors also via Marginal Revolution:

. . . 

3. “We create a novel reign-level dataset for European monarchs, covering all major European states between the 10th and 18th centuries. We first document a strong positive relationship between rulers’ intellectual capabilities and state-level outcomes…We also show that rulers mattered only where their power was largely unconstrained. In reigns where parliaments checked the power of monarchs, ruler ability no longer affected their state’s performance.” Link here

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