On Robert Allen’s defense of the High-Wage Economy hypothesis

The high-wage economy thesis is a topic I have blogged about many times before as I think it is an important debate among economists and economic historians (see notably here and here, see also this contribution of mine to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History). For those unfamiliar with this thesis, here is a simple summary of the idea advanced by Robert Allen: high wages relative to capital units was a key force in the industrialization of Britain and thus it explains why the Industrial Revolution was British before if was anything else.

As I have explained in the aforementioned blog posts, I am unsure of where I stand regarding this idea. I tend to be skeptical, but I have stated the evidence needed to convince me of the opposite. In the past year or so, there has been an avalanche of articles on the topic including this article by Humphries and Weisdorf, a follow-up working paper by the same authors, another paper by Judy Stephenson and a working paper by Stephenson (bis). Today, Robert Allen replies to his critics in this working paper.

I find that some of the points are convincing, however I must take issue with a particular point that falls into my ballpark as Allen mentions my work on wages in France (the aforementioned article in Journal of Interdisciplinary History). In my research, I pointed out that Allen’s computations underestimated wages outside Paris. With the correct computations, the rest of France does not appear as poor relative to England as Allen suggests. Allen concedes this point but then goes to state the following:

Geloso (2018) has pointed out that the Strasbourg unskilled wage series for 1702-64 is low in comparison to that of comparable towns, and workers may have received food, which has not been taken into account.  This is a perceptive point, but its implications are limited. The most important use I make of the Strasbourg evidence is in calculating the ratio of the wage to the user cost of capital. If the Strasbourg wage in this calculation is raised to that of neighbouring towns, the wage-capital cost ratio does rise but only by a small degree. The reason for this somewhat surprising result is that the wage is also an argument in the formula for the user cost of capital–building workers have to build the machines and the mills that house them–so the denominator of the ratio increases as well as the numerator, although to a lesser extend.

This is a incorrect characterization of my argument. First, I did not state that wages in Strasbourg did not account for in-kind payment. I stated that in-kind payment was evidence that the wages did not pertain to Strasbourg! The wages from the primary sources were for a city some 70 km away from Strasbourg, they did not concern unskilled workers and they included large in-kind compensation. To correct for this problem, I compared agricultural wages in England with those around Strasbourg that had been collected by Auguste Hanauer. What I found was the the lowest wages in farming were equal to 74% of farm wages in Southern England (as opposed to 64% with Allen’s stated wages). While I did not report this in the article because I had doubts, it is worth pointing out that the high bound of farm wages in Strasbourg is above the level reported for Southern England (which acts a proxy for England – see table 2 in my paper). As Strasbourg is a proxy for living standards outside Paris, my finding suggests a much smaller gap in living standards. It also entails a much more important change in the cost of capital to labor (wages are in the range of 50% above those suggested by Allen and sometimes they are higher by more than 100% which would mean a halving of the relative cost of capital! These are not peanuts to be thrown on the sidewalk!

Second, I ought to point out the nature of my argument. I was not trying to prove/disprove the high-wage hypothesis. My point was much more modest. The mirror of the question as to why the industrial revolution was British is why it was not French. France had a large population offering large returns to scale (in both economic and political organizations) and an array of navigable rivers that facilitated internal trade. It also key pockets of Lancashire-like industrialization such as Normandy (for textile) and Mulhouse (the French Manchester). As such, it is an entirely reasonable endeavor to try to situate living standards in France relative to Britain. If France was massively poorer than England, then Allen has a greater likelihood of being correct. If it was closer to an equal footing (I do not believe that anyone places France above England in circa 1750), then Allen’s critics have a greater likelihood of being correct.* However, regardless of the answer, the data does not infirm/confirm the high-wage hypothesis. It merely situates relative likelihood. As I point out that wages were quite above those postulated by Allen, I am merely stating the extent of the reasonableness of being skeptical of the high-wage hypothesis.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the work of Leonardo Ridolfi is absent from Allen’s reply. The latter’s work is very important as it echoes (in a much richer manner) my point that wages outside Paris were not as low as cited by Allen.**

*As I assume a greater equality of capital returns across both countries, the smaller the wage gap, the smaller the relative differences in capital/labor costs ratios.
** Ridolfi shows France had incomes equal to 64% of English incomes circa 1700. However, I am skeptical of this figure. This is because, while I trust the index produced by Ridolfi, I am unconvinced about the benchmark year to convert the index into international dollars.

Why Britain, in the Great Depression, is the best example in favor of NGDP targeting

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Scott Sumner’s The Midas Paradox. As an economic historian, I must say that this is by far the best book on the Great Depression since the Monetary History of the United States. Moreover, it is the first book that I’ve read that argues simply that the Great Depression was the result of a sea of poor (and sometimes good) policy decisions. However, coming out of the book, there was one thing that came to mind: Sumner is underselling his (very strong) case.

In essence, the argument of Sumner looks considerably like that of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz: The Federal Reserve allowed the money supply to contract dramatically up to 1932, turning what would have been a mild recession into a depression.  However, Sumner adds a twist to this. He mentions that after the depth of the monetary contraction had been reached, there was a reflation allowing an important recovery during 1933. This is standard AS-AD macro of a (very late) expansionary policy to allow demand to return to equilibrium. Normally, that would have been sufficient to allow the rebound. Basically, this is the best case for NGDP targeting: never let nominal expenditures fall below a certain path because of a fall in demand.  The problem, according to Sumner, is that the recovery was thwarted by poor supply-side policies (like the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act etc.). The positive effects of the policy were overshadowed by poor policy. And thus, the depression continued.

To be fair, Sumner is not the first to emphasize the “real” variables side of the Great Depression. I am especially fond of the work of Richard Vedder and Lowell Galloway, Out of Work, which is a very strong candidate for being the first econometric assessment of the effects of poor supply-side policies during the Great Depression. I was also disappointed (but not too much since Sumner did not need to make this case) to see that no mention was made of the Smoot-Hawley tariff as a channel for monetary transmission (as Allan Meltzer argued back in 1976) of the contraction. Nonetheless, Sumner is the first to bring this case so cogently as a story of the Great Depression. Thus, these small issues do not affect the overall potency of his argument.

The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is that Sumner is underselling his case! I base this belief on the experience of England at the same time. Unlike the United States, the British decided to apply their piss-poor supply-side policies during the 1920s – well before the depression.  The seminal paper (see this one too) on this is by Stephen Broadberry (note: I am very biased in favor of Broadberry given that he is my doctoral supervisor) who argued that the supply shocks of the 1920s caused substantial drops in hours worked and although the rise of unemployment benefits played a minor role, the vast majority of the causes were due to the legal encouragement of cartel formation. As a result, there were no supply-side shocks during the depression to create noise. However, England did have a demand-side expansionary policy in 1931. Even if it was by accident more than by design, England left the gold standard in September 1931. This led to the equivalent of an easy monetary policy and the British economy stopped digging and expanded afterwards. The Great Depression was not a pleasant experience for the British, but it was not even close to the dreadful situation in the United States. As a result, we can see whether or not it was possible to exit the Great Depression by virtue of a monetary policy. I’ve combined the FRED dataset on monthly industrial production and the monthly GDP estimates for inter-war Britain produced by Mitchell, Solomou and Weale (see here) to see what happened in England after it left the gold standard. As one can see, the economy of Britain rebounded much more magnificently than that of the United States in spite of supply-side constraints.

GBUSA

Sumner should expand on this point! To be fair, he does talk about it briefly. Not enough! A longer discussion of the British case provides him with the “extra mile” to cover the distance against competing theories. The absence of supply shocks in Britain during the Depression confirm his story that the woes of the United States during the 1930s are due to initially poor monetary policy and then poor supply-side policies. In my eyes, this is a strong confirmation of the importance of the NGDP level target argument!

With such a point made, it is easy to imagine a reasonable counterfactual scenario of what economic growth would have been after monetary easing in 1933 in the absence of supply-side shocks. Had the United States kept very unregulated labor and product markets, it is quite reasonable to believe (given the surge seen in 1933 in the Industrial Production data) that the United States would have returned to 1929 levels. In the absence of such a prolonged economic crisis, it is hard to imagine how different the 1930s and 1940s would have been but it is hard to argue that things would have been worse.

UPDATE: From the blog Historinhas, Marcus Nunes sent me the graph below confirming the importance of the NIRA shock on eliminating all the benefit from easy money after 1933.

J Goodman (1)