Desert Walk


Historically, the expansion of the American frontier symbolized a unity between political liberty and economic growth, at the same time as it justified the violent expropriation that continues to define the country’s racial and distributional politics.

In a 1998 article, environmental historian DONALD J. PISANI analyzes these dynamics through the monopolization of California’s mining industry, arguing that legislation enacted during the California Gold Rush shaped the trajectory of property relations in the American West.

From the piece:

“Those who flocked to California at the end of the 1840s carried with them strong ideas about the nature of property, the right of American citizens beyond the pale of law to govern themselves, and the power of American citizens to make their own rules concerning the acquisition and use of public lands—including those containing mineral deposits. Nevertheless, Congress had authorized the sale of lead and copper lands. Would it now authorize the sale of gold-bearing land to the highest bidders? This was the question that faced the U.S. Army in California when gold was discovered in January 1848.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, free mining provided reasonably equal access to wealth. But during the 1850s, as corporations increasingly dominated mining, the law changed from encouraging economic democracy to protecting capital. Perhaps the best example was the legal permission to “follow the vein.” Initially California’s mining camp codes limited hardrock miners to part of a vein, often one hundred feet. As early as 1852, however, Nevada County modified its laws to encourage miners to follow a vein downward to any depth and in any direction, even if they tunneled under an adjoining claim. The new laws were designed to protect investors from financial loss when only the tail end of an out cropping was located within their claim. For decades after the golden years of the mining industry had passed, these monopolies enjoyed disproportionate power in the legislature.”

Link to the open access article.

  • “War and emancipation brought profound change not only to the lives of enslaved people but also to broader patterns of economic development, forms of governmental activity, and, above all, property relations.” Emma Teitelman examines the “transregional wave of land enclosures” that took place during reconstruction. Link. (Stay tuned for Teitelman’s forthcoming piece in Phenomenal World.)
  • Paul Gates’ History of Public Land Law Development offers a comprehensive account of legislation regulating the use of the public domain. Link.
  • “The claim club or squatters’ association has long occupied a place in western history. No historian, however, has fully explored the social interactions in these frontier groups.” Allan G. Bogue examines the dynamics within the squatters associations which proliferated across the West in the early 19th century. Link. And Alan Derickson’s excellent book tells the history of hardrock miners’ self-organized health and welfare programs, which emerged in the following decades. Link.


Land concentration and long-run development

MIT economics graduate student CORY SMITH’s job market paper looks at patterns of land concentration in the American frontier.

From the paper:

“Although the 1862 Homestead Act made small-scale farming the default settlement pattern in most frontier regions, I exploit a late-1800s policy known as railroad land grants, which opened specific parcels to large-scale ownership by wealthy landlords. The policy was applied in a “checkerboard” pattern, arbitrarily allowing concentration in every other square mile in large parts of the country.

I collect a large database of modern property tax valuations and show that historical land concentration had persistent effects over a span of 150 years: lowering investment by 23%, overall property value by 4.4%, and population by 8%. I argue that landlords’ use of sharecropping raised the costs of investment, a static inefficiency that persisted due to land market frictions.”

Link to the paper.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:

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  • Join JFI for a new Social Wealth Seminar series: a semi-monthly forum exploring funding mechanisms for social policy in the US and across the world. The inagural seminar is on Tuesday, July 7th at 6PM EST, and features Naomi Zwede presenting on inequalities in health and wealth. Please RSVP at, and read more about the series here.
  • “Instead of a preternatural ability to see the clear-cut means, motive, and opportunity of fictional characters in a pulp whodunit, the macroeconomic detective is armed with the knowledge that balance sheets always balance.” Alex Williams reviews Trade Wars Are Class Wars for the Phenomenal World. Link.
  • Also new on the blog, Zach Parolin discusses brand new research on the CARES Act and poverty measurement. Link. (See also Times coverage of the research, which we shared here last week.)
  • “Prepublication peer review should be abolished. We evaluate the effects such a change will have on the social structure of science from the perspective of epistemic consequentialism.” Remco Heesen and Liam Kofi Bright in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Link.
  • Eric Foner in the LRB on US democracy and the electoral college. Link.
  • A working paper by Carlos Avenancio-Leon and Troup Howard uncovers “a nationwide ‘assessment gap’ which leads local governments to place a disproportionate fiscal burden on racial and ethnic minorities.” Link. Coverage in the WaPo. Link. See also: “The Power to Destroy: Discriminatory Property Assessments and the Struggle for Tax Justice in Mississippi.” Link. h/t Jay
  • Drawing on “firm-level census data from the financial liberalization in Hungary,” Felipe Saffie, Liliana Varela, and Kei-Mu Yi analyze the long term effects of increased capital flows. Link.
  • A new issue of the Cambridge ILLWCH focuses on labor relations in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Link.
  • In Catalyst, John Roemer with “Market Socialism Renewed.” Link. (See also: Maya Adereth and Jay Hodges’ interview with Roemer from last year.)
  • With time series data from India from 1990-2015, Tripura Sundari C. U. and Anindita Mitra “find that foreign direct investment has a positive and significant impact on pollution.” Link.
  • A BLS report on industry composition effects in state employment, tracking the industry composition of “nonrecovered states” which experienced the harshest jobless recoveries of the Great Recession. Link.
  • A 2017 thesis by Tobias Arbogast on the US plutonomy—”an economy where growth is largely powered by the wealthy”—and its effect on the capital-labor relation. Link.
  • A November 2019 Fed research paper by Theodore F. Figinski and Erin Troland looks at the relationship between health insurance and healthcare provision, using the 1950s expansion of union insurance and hospitals in Coal Country as a case study. Link.
  • “In 1600 the word ‘consumption’ was a term of medical pathology describing the ‘wasting, petrification of things.’ By 1700 it was also a term of economic discourse: ‘In commodities, the value rises as its quantity is less and vent greater, which depends upon it being preferred in its consumption.’ The article traces the emergence of this key category of economic analysis to debates over the economy in the 1620s and subsequent disputes over the excise tax, showing how ‘consumption’ was an early term in the developing lexicon of political economy. In so doing the article demonstrates the important role of ‘intoxicants’—that is, addictive and intoxicating commodities like alcohols and tobaccos—in shaping these early meanings and uses of ‘consumption.’ While these discussions had an ideological dimension, or dimensions, they were also responses to material increases in the volume and diversity of intoxicants in early seventeenth‐century England.” By Phil Withington in The Economic History Review. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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