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Here’s *Something* You Can’t (Quite) Blame on America

M. Scott Taylor, an economist at the University of Calgary, argues in a new working paper that the epic 19th-century slaughter of American bison — with 10 to 15 million buffalo killed on the Great Plains in barely a decade — was driven by a technological advance and a profit motive that both came from Europe. (Incidentally, this makes me wonder if a similar analysis has ever been performed on whale hunting.) From the introduction of Taylor’s paper:

This paper examines the slaughter using theory, empirics, and first person accounts from diaries and other historical documents. It argues that the story of the buffalo slaughter is surprisingly not, at bottom, an American one. Instead I argue that the slaughter on the plains was initiated by a tanning innovation created in Europe, and maintained by a robust European demand for buffalo hides. These market forces overwhelmed the ability of a young and still expanding nation, just out of a bloody civil war, to carefully steward its natural resources.

Specifically, I argue that three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient to explain the time pattern of buffalo destruction witnessed in the nineteenth century. These are: (1) a price for buffalo products that was largely invariant to changes in supply; (2) open access conditions with no regulation of the buffalo kill; and (3), a newly invented tanning process that made buffalo hides into valuable commercial leather.