Friday, July 3, 2015

Fourth of July: Economics and Ruminations

For those who actually check blogs during Fourth of July weekend--a group in which readers of this blog are almost certainly overrepresented--here's a sampling of three past posts with close ties to America's Independence Day.

1) What did Adam Smith, as published in The Wealth of Nations in 1776, have to say about the England-United States relationship? 

For economists around the world, 1776 means the publication date of Adam Smith's classic The Wealth of Nations. Book IV, Chapter 7, is entitled "Of Colonies." Smith expresses the view that Europe contributed very little to the economic success of its American colonies--except for some talented people. He also believed that while England benefited from trade with its colonies, England also had to bear the costs of defense and the costs of the monopolies on trade that it created. He painted a picture of how the American colonies might be allowed democratic representation, but viewed it as a politically unlikely outcome. He also predicted that even when a nation didn't benefit from having colonies, it would still be reluctant to let the colonies go peacefully. In reading Smith's discussion, one can almost imagine an alternative world history, in which the US colonies get full political representation in the Parliament of a greatly expanded United Kingdom. For a more detailed discussion of what Adam Smith had to say, see "Adam Smith on the Economics of US Independence" (originally posted July 4, 2013). 

2) What economic factors among the main causes underpinning the US Revolutionary War? 

Modern commentators often discuss the US Revolutionary War as a battle for constitutional rights, but that focus is at best incomplete. After all, the Boston Tea Party and "no taxation without representation" have economic as well as political motivations. Commercial disputes over whether or how the British Parliament could restrict navigation by US-based ships were one of the biggest issues in the mid-1770s.  Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher offer a refreshing take on the role of economic forces in the U.S. Revolution in "Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward and Economic Interpretation of American Independence," which appeared in the October 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. They review various explanations that historians have offered for the US Revolution and write: "[T]he American Revolution was basically a colonial independence movement and the reasons for it were fundamentally economic." For an elaboration and discussion of their thesis, see "Economic Underpinnings of the US Revolutionary War" (originally posted January 31, 2012). 

3) Melting Pot, Salad Bowl, or Chocolate Fondue? 

The Great Seal of the United States famously includes the motto, E pluribus unum, or "Out of many, one." For much of the 20th century, the predominant metaphor for that process was the US as a "melting pot," an image tracing back to sentimental and very popular play of that name by an immigrant named Israel Zangwill that opened in Washington in 1908. In recent decades, a more common metaphor has been the "salad bowl," an image popularized back in the 1950s by historian Carl Degler, and his popular text His book “Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America,” which was in widespread use from the 1950s up through the 1980s. I point out some shortcomings of these metaphors for the distinctively American process of "out of many, one," and suggest my own metaphor: chocolate fondue. For a short essay on this subject, see my essay on "Melting Pot, Salad Bowl, or Chocolate Fondue?" (posted on this blog on July 5, 2014).