Economics 365 Economic Institutions in Historical Perspective

Fall 2019
Lectures: MW 2:30pm to 3:45pm
Location: CAS 216

Professor James Feigenbaum
Department of Economics
270 Bay State Road, Room 307

Course Description

The course will examine a selection of the major themes in the economic development of the United States (with briefer coverage of the rest of the world for certain topics). There is no textbook; instead, we will read research papers written by economists and other scholars relevant to each topic. We begin with an overview of some of the empirical methods commonly used in modern economics and their application in economic history, as well as a discussion of new sources of historical data, the lifeblood of economic history. Then, we will study themes including institutions and the long run development of the US; slavery and emancipation; immigration and migration; the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the economics of WWII; human capital (including education, health, and crime); technology adoption; and inequality and intergenerational mobility (including race and gender gaps).

This course is intended for economics majors. It is helpful if students have a good understanding of microeconomics at the intermediate level and some exposure to economic statistics. However, all necessary economic tools (theories, econometrics, etc) will be covered in lecture.

Office Hours

My office hours are Friday from 2pm to 3:30pm and by appointment. Please make an appointment at If you cannot make my office hours, send me an email and we will figure out a time to talk.

Our TF is Eric Donald, a PhD candidate in the Economics department. He will be holding office hours Friday from 10am to noon and by appointment. Email him at

Course Web Page

Blackboard Learn, but a copy of the syllabus is here


There is no textbook for this course. All readings will be available on the course website.

Exams and Grades

There is one in-class midterm and a final exam. The final exam is cumulative but will be weighted towards the material after the midterm.

The midterm will be on October 28 in class. The final will be as scheduled by the registrar, December 16 from 3pm to 5pm. Put these dates in your calendar ASAP, as there will be no make-up exams without a note from a dean.

In addition, we will have four short research question assignments. Writing a complete original research paper during a semester-long course is very hard (and in economic history, with a premium on collecting new old data, it is nearly impossible). Instead, I want to help you to start thinking about how to come up with possible questions you could ask (and answer) in a full project. Think of this as the very first step you would take before starting original research. Getting familiar with this step will deepen your understanding of the social science research process. These assignments will be maximum one page each (seriously, I will stop reading after one page). See below for more detail on the question assignments.

Your course grade weights the midterm at 30 percent, the final at 35 percent, 20 percent for the short assignments (5 percent each), and 15 percent for class participation. I will not review any grades before at least 24 hours have passed. Remember that grades can be adjusted down just as easily as they can be adjusted up.

Class participation means two things. First, it means coming to class on time. I use Russian Roulette attendance and call a handful of names at the start of every class. If there are issues with attendance or punctuality, a complete sign-in sheet will be implemented. Second, it means participating by following lecture, taking notes, asking questions when you have them and answering questions when I ask them. This is a large class and I’m not expecting anyone to talk every meeting. But to get the full 15 participation points, I’ll expect you to attend class on time every meeting and speak up multiple times during the semester.

Research Question Assignments

I will hand out detailed prompts and instructions for the questions closer to when they are assigned, but this should give you an idea of what you’ll be working on. Assignments will be graded with letter grades. Late assignments may be penalized one-third of a grade each day (i.e., an A- becomes a B+ on the first day past the due date).

All assignments should be submitted via Blackboard.

  • Maps as Data

    • A lot of great economic history data comes from old maps (we will be reading several papers with map data in this course). Find a historical map (I will give you some resources to get started but google and your imagination are your friends here).
    • First, describe what the map you selected shows, who made it and why.
    • Second, propose a research question you could answer with the map (the map could be a Y or an X).
    • DUE: September 22
  • The Effect of an Invention

    • Pick any invention (this is an economic history class, so try to pick an invention before 1980). If you need an idea, check out a random chapter of Robert Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War.
    • Identify a price or quantity that the invention changed (or may have changed). Think carefully about why and trace through changes to the supply and demand of various inputs (labor, capital) and outputs.
    • An example: the invention of the automobile.
      • A bad example of a price that probably changed: the price of horse drawn wagons (because cars are substitutes)
      • A good example: the wage of carriage repairers (up or down? depends on if they could retrain to fix cars)
      • An even better example: the cost of land in a city (suburbanization with faster transport? but more supply of city plots with horse stables eliminated?)
    • Ambiguous predictions are fine, just be clear as to why the effects are ambiguous.
    • DUE: October 13
  • Genealogy for Economic History

    • Find an interesting collection of data on (accessible through BU library)
    • Describe it (who, what, where, how big, why, when)
    • Pose a research question you could answer with this (to carry out the research, you will probably need other data but use this collection as a jumping off point)
    • DUE: November 10
  • New Outcome, Same Strategy

    • To paraphrase TS Eliot (maybe), good writers borrow, great writers steal. Let’s do the economic history version of that.
    • Pick a paper on the syllabus. What is a new outcome you could look at with the same X-variables of interest. Why? What is the new question you are asking?
      • If you want to use a paper not on the syllabus, please get permission from me first.
    • DUE: November 24

Technology Policy

While I will allow laptops during lecture, you should be aware that recent research shows that students retain information far more effectively when they take notes by hand. Taking notes about graphs and figures and tables on a computer might also be quite difficult. If you choose to use your laptop during class, please try not to live-tweet or live-stream or live-anything, at least not without the class hashtag (hashtag TBD). It should go without saying that cellphone use is absolutely forbidden during lecture. Please silence and put away your phone before class begins. It is really that easy. I promise not to play on my phone during lecture either.

Academic Integrity

I have a zero-tolerance policy for academic dishonesty. If you submit work that is fully or partially plagiarized—defined as appropriating someone else’s words or ideas without proper attribution—you will receive a failing grade. Please check with me if you are unsure of how to cite material in your written work. You can consult BU’s academic integrity policy here:

Schedule of Lectures and Reading

As you can see from the schedule below, each class has three or four papers listed. I will lecture on all papers (maybe more!), but you should absolutely read the FIRST paper in each class before lecture (they will be the most important for the exams, and you will understand the lectures much better if you have read the paper first). The other papers will be covered in lecture, and an understanding of the research questions and the results (that is, what we cover in class) will suffice for exams.


September 4

Long Run Development: Colonialism and Institutions

September 9

Long Run Development: Culture and Path Dependence

September 11

Slavery: Effects on Africa

September 16

Slavery in the United States

September 18

Civil War and Reconstruction

September 23

Agriculture and Property Rights

September 25


September 30

The Great Depression

October 2

The New Deal and WWII

October 7

October 9

Inequality: Why?

October 15 (this is a Tuesday)

October 16

Intergenerational Mobility: Why?

October 21

Women in the Labor Force

October 23


October 28


October 30


November 4

  • Alsan, Marcella and Marianne Wanamaker. 2017. “Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men.” Quarterly Journal of Economics
  • Cutler, David and Grant Miller. 2005. “The Role of Public Health Improvements in Health Advances: The 20th Century United States.” Demography
  • Almond, Douglas. 2006. “Is the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Over? Long-term Effects of In Utero Influenza in the Post-1940 U.S. Population.” Journal of Political Economy
  • Anderson, Mark, Ryan Brown, Kerwin Kofi Charles, and Daniel Rees. 2017. “The Effect of Occupational Licensing on Consumer Welfare: Early Midwifery Laws and Maternal Mortality.” NBER Working Paper #22456

The Great Migration

November 6

The West and Westward Migration

November 11


November 13

Marriage and Fertility

November 18


November 20


November 25


November 27

The Voting Rights Act

December 2

The Great Society and the War on Poverty

December 4

Urban and Suburban America after WWII

December 9


December 11

Final Exam

December 16 from 3pm to 5pm