Thursday, July 31, 2008

The 'Big Push' and Economic Development in the American South

One of the great stories from 20th century U.S. economic history is the great economic rebound of the American South. From the close of the Civil War up through World War II, this region’s economy had been relatively undeveloped and isolated from the rest of the country. This eighty-year period of economic backwardness in the South stood in stark contrast to the economic gains elsewhere in the country that made the United States the leading industrial power of the world by the early 20th century. Something radically changed, though, in the 1930s and 1940s that broke the South free from its poverty trap. From this period on, the South began modernizing and by 1980 it had converged with the rest of the U.S. economy. But why the sudden break in the 1930-1940 period? A new paper by Fred Bateman, Jaime Ros, and Jason E. Taylor provides a fascinating answer: the economic rebound of American South was the result of a 'Big Push' from large public capital investments during the Great Depression and World War II.

A novel contribution of this paper is that it appears to provide a real-world example of the 'Big Push' theory. Never heard of the 'Big Push' theory? Well, here is how the authors describe it:
According to the “big push” theory of economic development, publicly coordinated investment can break the underdevelopment trap by helping economies overcome deficiencies in private incentives that prevent firms from adopting modern production techniques and achieving scale economies. These scale economies, in turn, create demand spillovers, increase market size, and theoretically generate a self-sustaining growth path that allows the economy to move to a Pareto preferred Nash equilibrium where it is a mutual best response for economic actors to choose large-scale industrialization over agriculture and small-scale production. The big push literature, originated by Rosenstein-Rodan [1943, 1961], was initially motivated by the postwar reconstruction of Eastern Europe. The theory subsequently appeared to have had limited empirical application... [S]cholars have found few real-world examples of such an infusion of investment helping to “push” an economy to high-level industrialization equilibrium.
Until this paper, that is. The authors continue:
We argue here that the “Great Rebound” of the American South, which followed large public capital investments during the Great Depression and World War II, is one such application. Although 1930s New Deal programs are typically presented in the context of their attempt to bring relief and recovery to the U.S. economy through demand-stimulating public expenditures, the long-term economic effects of these and subsequent wartime expenditures were profound for the South. Specifically, and consistent with big push theoretical literature, the infusion of public capital—roads, schools, waterworks, power plants, dams, airfields, and hospitals, among other infrastructural improvements—fundamentally reshaped the Southern economy, expanded markets, generated significant external economies, increased rates of return to large scale manufacturing, and encouraged a subsequent investment stream. These improvements helped create the conditions that allowed the region to break free from its low-income, low-productivity trap and embark on its rapid postwar industrialization.
This paper deals with the break from the South's poverty trap. The sustained nature of the South's postwar economic recovery has been covered by other studies: Connolly (2004) looks to improved human capital formation, Cobb (1982) points to industrial policy, Beasley, Persson, and Sturm (2005) finger increased political competition, and Glaeser and Tobio (2008) discuss the merits of the climate or Sunbelt effect. (I will also note I have seen somewhere the advent of air conditioning did wonders for development in the South).

In short, this paper tells an interesting and under reported story of 20th century U.S. economic history. In so doing, it also provides what appears to be a good example of the 'Big Push'. Read the rest of the paper here.

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