Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Illiberal Reviewers

| September 13, 2017

The Journal of Economic Literature (JEL), a well-regarded academic journal that covers research trends and practices in the profession, published an extremely unusual and in many ways problematic review article in its September 2017 issue. It’s behind a paywall, but if you have access to the AEA website you can view it here. The article […]

Houston flooding in historical perspective: no, zoning would not have stopped Harvey

| August 31, 2017

I grew up in Houston, and weathered numerous hurricanes and lesser storms. It’s a relatively rare but predictably recurring part of life along the gulf coast, just as earthquakes are part of life in California and blizzards are part of life in New England. As I write this, the Houston area is just beginning to […]

Buchanan and Agrarianism – a revealing passage

| July 19, 2017

In James M. Buchanan’s autobiography Better than Plowing, he offers a fascinating late-life reflection on a subject that he refers to as the country aesthetic. The discussion occurs in the 8th chapter of the book, which is about his reflections on life in old age. It’s a fascinating read and tells how Buchanan – at the […]

On Intellectual History and MacLean’s Missing Leviathan

| July 17, 2017

Today I’ll offer a quick observation on the ongoing controversy about Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. In several recent interviews MacLean has presented her work as an “intellectual history” of James Buchanan. A few historians have come to her defense as well, taking a similar line and also suggesting that MacLean’s critics either don’t understand […]

Nancy MacLean’s segregationist sins of omission…and commission

| July 15, 2017

One of the most inflammatory charges of Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains holds that James M. Buchanan, and by extension his department and research center at the University of Virginia, served as something of an intellectual buttress to the segregationist forces of 1950s and 1960s Virginia politics after Brown v. Board. MacLean has very little […]

Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination

| June 29, 2017

In my last post I documented how Nancy MacLean, the author of the new book Democracy in Chains, misused evidence to depict a non-existent intellectual debt between the economist James M. Buchanan and a group of pro-segregation Agrarian poets from Vanderbilt University. MacLean’s primary purpose in doing so was to prop up her own narrative, which […]

How Nancy MacLean went whistlin’ Dixie

| June 27, 2017

If you read Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains, you will probably come away thinking that the late economist James M. Buchanan believed himself to be something of an intellectual heir to the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930s. According to MacLean, these now-obscure southern literary figures were a main reason Buchanan wanted to go […]

On Tariffs and the American Civil War

| May 26, 2017

A new piece that I wrote on the role of tariffs in the American Civil War era is now available at the Essential Civil War Curriculum, hosted by Virginia Tech. This article is an encyclopedia-style overview of my research on the subject as well as what other scholars have written, but it provides a short […]

Philanthropy and the Great Depression: what historical tax records tell us about charity

| May 19, 2017

As part of my ongoing investigation into early 20th century tax policy, I recently compiled a data series to track patterns in charitable giving during the 1920s and 1930s. As a result of tax code changes in 1917, the IRS began allowing federal income tax payers to deduct up to 15% of their taxable income […]

Different Measurements of Income Inequality – the interwar Wisconsin Example

| May 16, 2017

I have a new paper, co-written with Vincent Geloso, on the measurement of inequality in Wisconsin between 1919 and 1941. The discussion’s geography may initially seem obscure, but there’s a method to this investigation. In the early part of the 20th century Wisconsin had a stable state income tax system and, more importantly, generated high quality […]