Economics 764 Topics in Economic History

Boston University
Fall 2019
W 5:30-8:15pm
Professor James Feigenbaum


Economics 764 is the first course of the two-semester PhD sequence in economic history. The primary goal of the economic history sequence is to train graduate students to do serious research in economic history. We will read recent and classic papers in the field, talk about new ideas and questions, hunt for new old data, and learn empirical methods used in economic history research.

New old data has made a huge impact on economic history and many of the papers we will read this semester make use of new data. The cost of data collection has fallen and the availability of big data for historical research has grown. At the individual data, the complete count federal censuses, 1850 to 1940, allow us to observe the entire population, zooming in on people or locations of interest. The names revealed in the complete count and other sources enable us to (if we are careful) record link people from one historical source to another, creating new historical longitudinal data. Other researchers are turning maps and text into data. As you start thinking about your own future research in economic history, I hope you’ll be inspired or provoked by the work we read this semester.

Christophe Chamley takes over for the second half of the course.

We will meet on Wednesdays from 5:30 to 8:15pm in SSW 315.


  • In class
    • During the half-semester, everyone will present papers from the syllabus (you make the slides) two times. We’ll assign weeks and papers during the first meeting of the class.
    • In addition, regular attendance and class participation will be expected.
    • 3 or 4 papers will be required reading each class (which 3 to 4, TBD), the others are encouraged and listed for reference.
  • Biweekly Meetings
    • Every other week, we’ll have a 15 minute one-on-one meeting.
    • Schedule them here:
    • Come ready to pitch one new research idea. Some meetings are free weeks (come up with any idea, obviously my comments will be wiser on economic history or at least applied micro). Other weeks will have more structure.
    • At the very least, you should have a question (or two), an idea on the empirical strategy, and a sense of why we should care about the answer. If you have a guess as to what data would work or might exist, that’s great, but please don’t spend a lot of time on these ideas before the meeting and definitely don’t review the literature! If we workshop the idea a bit and you still like it, then go out and invest more time in the methods, the literature, the data, etc.
    • Don’t worry if these ideas are good or bad or clever or not. One key skill you can learn in grad school is how to generate and kill ideas with maximum velocity. These meetings are meant to help hone that skill.
    • You will only be graded on attendance for these meetings.
    • I’ll give you the parameters of the ideas for the meeting in advance. A few examples of idea starting points:
      • 100% Take an old paper (on the reading list or not, probably not) that used an IPUMS 1% or 5% sample and figure out how you could improve it with the 100% complete count census data. Think about heterogeneity, power, linking because you have names, etc.
      • Old identification, new outcome Pick a paper, probably a good idea to pick something recent for best identification, and come up with a new question (outcome). Make sure you know why we care.


  1. When your schedule allows it, attend the Economic History Lunch and Workshop at Harvard. Both are on Friday, the lunch is at 1pm (and includes lunch) and the seminar is at 2pm. The lunch will feature your peers, grad students from Harvard, MIT, BC, BU, and elsewhere presenting work in progress. The seminar invites economic history faculty from all over to present new work. Both are great opportunities to see early stage economic history research in action and you only have to cross the river once a week not twice to see them both. I’ll try to remember to pitch the week’s speakers during class as a reminder.

    • I know that this conflicts with the micro lunch at BU on Fridays (which I’m coordinating this fall)…
  2. Subscribe to the NBER DAE working paper series (or the whole NBER WP weekly series). This is a great way to keep up with recent research:

  3. Sign up for the mailing list:

  4. Buy and read The Little Book of Research Writing: Research writing is hard but it isn’t impossible and the advice in this book is excellent. Let me put it this way: if I read your second year paper and you haven’t read this book, I will know.


Human Capital, Wages, Inequality, and Education

September 4

  • Wage Structure and Inequality

    • Goldin, Claudia and Lawrence Katz. 2007. “Long-Run Changes in the Wage Structure: Narrowing, Widening, Polarizing.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.
    • Goldin, Claudia and Robert Margo. 1992. “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United State at Mid-Century.” QJE.
  • Unions and Inequality

    • Collins, William and Greg Niemesh. 2018. “Unions and the Great Compression of American Inequality, 1940-1960.” Economic History Review.
    • Farber, Henry, Daniel Herbst, Ilyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu. 2018. “Unions and Inequality Over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data.” NBER #24587.
    • Feigenbaum, James, Alex Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson. 2018. “From the Bargaining Table to the Ballot Box: Political Effects of Right to Work Laws.” NBER #24259.
  • Education

    • Goldin, Claudia and Lawrence Katz. 2008. “The Race Between Education and Technology.” Introduction, Chapter 1 (to page 30), Chapter 6.
      • You should all read the whole book at some point in your lives.
    • Feigenbaum, James and Huiren Tan. 2019. “The Return To Education at Midcentury: Evidence from Twins.” No paper yet.
  • Recent Job Market Papers of the Week:

Intergenerational Mobility and Census Linking

September 18

Health and Crime

September 25

Marriage and Fertility

October 2

Immigration and Migration

October 9

Women and Children in the Labor Force

October 16

Economic History and Political Economy