Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back: British economic growth from the industrial revolution to the financial crisis

Nick Crafts can be viewed as the doyen of British economic history. His major publications date back to the 1970s – a favorite of mine is this piece from 1977 on the role played by chance in determining whether the Industrial Revolution would occur in England or France.  He is also the joint author of the Crafts-Harley interpretation of the Industrial Revolution.  But, perhaps because the majority of his research focuses on British economic history, he remains highly underrated outside of the UK.  His new book Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back: British economic growth from the industrial revolution to the financial crisis summarizes much of his research.

I’ve reviewed it for the Economic History Review. But given the whims of academic publishing, it may be a long time until my review appears in print so I’ve decided to post a preview of my draft below.

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Why was Britain the first industrial nation and the workshop of the world? Why was it eventually caught up and overtaken? Why once it had fallen behind the United States, did it fall further behind its European rivals in the Post-War period? And how did it recover its relative position in the 1980s and 1990s? All these questions are addressed in Nicholas Crafts’s slim new book.

In Forging ahead, falling behind and fighting back, Crafts provides a macroeconomic perspective on the British economy from 1750 to today. The word macro is advisory. Crafts surveys the British economy from 1000 feet, through the lens of growth theory and growth accounting. The upside of this approach is that he delivers a lot of insight in a small number of pages. Readers looking for discussions of individual inventors, innovations, politicians, or discussion of specific policy decisions can look elsewhere.

The first part of the book provides an overview of the Crafts-Harley view of the British Industrial Revolution. This view emphasizes the limited scope of economic change in the early 19th century. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, the British economy already had a comparatively modern structure, with many individuals working outside agriculture. Growth between 1770 and 1850 was highly reliant on a few key sectors and TFP growth was modest (0.4% a year). Most workers remained employed in traditional sectors of the economy. It took until the second half of the 19th century for the benefits of steam, the general purpose technology of the age, to fully diffuse through the economy. Nonetheless, from a long-run perspective, the achievements of this period, a small but sustained increases in per capita GDP despite rapid population growth, were indeed revolutionary.

An important theme of the book is institutional path dependency. Characteristics of Britain’s early position as an industrial leader continued to shape its political economy down to the end of the 20th century. Crafts mentions two interesting instances of this. First, Britain’s precocious reliance on food imports from the early 19th century onwards left a legacy that was favorable of free trade. Elsewhere in the world democratization in the late 19th century often led to protectionism, but in Britain, it solidified support for free trade because, after the expansion of the franchise, the median voter was an urban worker dependent on cheap imported bread. Second, industrial relationships were shaped the nature of the economy in the 19th century. Britain thus inherited a strong tradition of craft unions that would have consequences in conflicts between labor and capital in the 20th century.

The second part of the book considers the late Victorian, Edwardian, and inter-war periods. It was in the late 19th century that the United States overtook Britain. A venerable scholarship has identified this period as one of economic failure. Crafts, however, largely follows McCloskey in exonerating Edwardian Britain from the charge of economic failure. The presence of fierce competition limited managerial inefficiencies in most areas of the economy; though there were notable failures in sectors where competition was limited such as the railways. The main policies errors in this area were thus ones of omission rather than commission: more could have been done to invest in R&D and support basic science – an area where the US certainly invested in more than the UK.

The seeds of failure, for Crafts, were sown in the interwar period. Traditionally these years have been viewed relatively favorably by economic historians, as the 1930s saw a shift away from Industrial Revolution patterns of economic activity and investment in new sectors. However, in a comparative light, TFP growth in the interwar period was significantly slower than in the US. The new industries did not establish a strong export position. This period also saw the establishment of a managed economy, in which policymakers acceded to a marked decline in market competition. Protectionism and cartelization kept profits high but at a cost of long-run productivity growth that would only be fully revealed in the post-war period.

Most economic historians view the postwar period through the lens of Les Trente Glorieuses. But in Britain, it has long been recognized that this was an era of missed opportunities. Simple growth accounting suggests that Britain underperformed relative to its European peers. Thus though the British economy grew faster in these years than in any other period; it is in this period that Britain’s relative failure should be located.

Crafts examines this failure using insights from the literature on “varieties of capitalism” which contrasts coordinated market economies like West Germany with liberal market economies like the United States or Britain. In the favorable conditions of postwar recovery and growth, coordinated market economies saw labor cooperate with capital enabling both high investment and wage restraint. Britain, however, lacked the corporatist trade unions of France or West Germany. As a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, it inherited a diverse set of overlapping craft unions which could not internalize the benefits of wage restraint and often opposed new technologies or managerial techniques. Britain functioned as a dysfunctional liberal market economy, one that became increasingly sclerotic as the 1960s passed into the 1970s.

An important insight I got from this book is that government failure and market failure are not independent.  Examples of government failure from the postwar period are plentiful. Industrial policy was meant to “pick winners.” But “it was losers like Ross Royce, British Leyland ad Alfred Herbert who picked Minsters” (p. 91). Market power became increasingly concentrated. Approximately 1/3 of the British economy in the 1950s was cartelized and 3/4 saw some level of price fixing. Britain’s exclusion from the EEC until the 1970s meant that protective barriers were high, enabling inefficient firms and managerial practices to survive. High marginal rates of taxation and weak corporate governance encouraged managers to take their salary in the form of in-kind benefits, and deterred innovation. Labor relations became increasingly hostile as the external economic environment worsened following the end of Bretton Woods.

Britain recovered its relative economic position after 1979 through radical economic reforms and a dramatic shift in policy objectives. Though of course, the Thatcher period saw numerous missteps and policy blunders, what Crafts argues was most important was that there was an increase in product market competition, a reduction in market distortions, and a reduction of trade union power, factors provided the space that enabled the British economy to benefit from the ICT revolution in the 1990s.

Rarely does one wish a book to be longer. But this is the case with Forging Ahead, Falling Behind, and Fighting Back. In particular, while a short and sharp overview of the Industrial Revolution is entirely appropriate, given the number of pages written on this topic in recent years, the last part of the book does need extra pages; the argument here is too brief and requires more evidence and substantive argumentation. One wishes, for instance, that the theme of institutional path dependency was developed in more detail. Despite this, Forging Ahead, Falling Behind, and Fighting Back is a notable achievement. It provides a masterly survey of British economy history tied together by insights from economic theory.

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.

Nightcap

  1. What is the cost of “tractable” economic models? Beatrice Cherrier, Undercover Historian
  2. Facts vs. hand-waving in economics Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  3. How factories changed the world Donald Sassoon, New Statesman
  4. Defending the Mughals became a way to defend colonial rule Blake Smith, the Wire

How poor was 18th century France? Steps towards testing the High-Wage Hypothesis (HWE)

A few days ago, one of my articles came online at the Journal of Interdisciplinary HistoryIt is a research note, but as far as notes go this one is (I think) an important step forwards with regards to the High-Wage Hypothesis (henceforth HWE for high-wage economy) of industrialization.

In the past, I explained my outlook on this theory which proposes that high wages relative to energy was a key driver of industrialization. As wages were high while energy was cheap, firms had incentives to innovate and develop labor-saving technologies.  I argued that I was not convinced by the proposition because there were missing elements to properly test its validity. In that post I argued that to answer why the industrial revolution was British we had to ask why it was not French (a likely competitor). For the HWE to be a valid proposition, wages had to be higher in England than in France by a substantial margin. This is why I have been interested in living standards in France.

In his work, Robert Allen showed that Paris was the richest city in France (something confirmed by Phil Hoffman in his own work). It was also poorer than London (and other British cities). The other cities of France were far behind. In fact, by the 18th century, Allen’s work suggests that Strasbourg (the other city for which he had data) was one of the poorest in Europe.

In the process of assembling comparisons between Canada and France during the colonial era (from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries), I went to the original sources that Allen used and found that the level of living standards is understated. First, I found out that the wages were not for Strasbourg per se. They applied to a semi-rural community roughly 70km away from Strasbourg.  Urban wages and rural wages tend to differ massively and so they were bound to show lower living standards. Moreover, the prices Allen used for his basket applied to urban settings. This means that the wages used were not comparable to the other cities used. I also found out that the type of work that was reported in the sources may not have belonged to unskilled workers but rather to semi-skilled or even skilled workers and that the wages probably included substantial in-kind payments.

Unfortunately, I could not find a direct solution to correct the series proposed by Allen. However, there were two ways to circumvent the issue. The most convincing of those two methods relies on using the reported wages for agricultural workers. While this breaks with the convention established by Allen (a justifiable convention in my opinion) of using urban wages and prices, it is not a problem if we compare with similar types of wage work. We do have similar data to compare with in the form of Gregory Clark’s farm wages in England. The wage rates computed by Allen placed Strasbourg at 64% of the level of wages for agricultural workers in England between 1702 and 1775. In comparison, the lowest of the agricultural wage rates for the Alsatian region places the ratio at 74%. The other wage rates are much closer to wages in England.  The less convincing methods relies on semi-skilled construction workers – which is not ideal. However, when these are compared to English wages, they are also substantially higher.

Overall, my research note attempts a modest contribution: properly measure the extent to which wages were lower in France than in Britain. I am not trying to solve the HWE debate with this. However, it does come one step closer to providing the information to do so. Now that we know that the rest of France was not as poor as believed (something which is confirmed by the recent works of Leonardo Ridolfi and Judy Stephenson), we can more readily assess if the gap was “big enough” to matter.  If it was not big enough to matter, then we have to move to one of the other five channels that could confirm the HWE (at least that means I have more papers to write).

Aggregate measures of well-being, England 1781-1850

I went in the field of economic history after I discovered how much it was to properly measure living standards. The issue that always interested me was how to “capture” the multidimensional nature of living standards. After all, what weight should we give to an extra year of life relative to the quality of that extra year (see all my stuff on Cuba)?

However, I never tried to create “a composite” measure of living standards. I thought that it was necessary, first, to get the measurements right. However, I had been aware of the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who has been doing considerable work on this in order to create composite measures (Leandro also influenced me on my Cuba reasoning – see this article).

A year ago, I discovered the work of Daniel Gallardo Albarrán from the University of Groningen at the meeting of the Economic History Society (EHS). Daniel’s work is particularly interesting because he is trying to generate a composite measure of well-being at one of the most important moment in history: the start of the British industrial revolution.

Because of its importance and some pieces of contradicting evidence (inequality, stature, amplitude of real wage increases, amplitude of income increases, urban pollution leading to increased mortality risks etc), the period has been begging for some form of composite measure to come along (at least a serious attempt at generating it). Drawing on some pretty straightforward microeconomic theory (the Beckerian in me likes this), Daniel generates this rich graph (see the paper here).

Daniel

The idea is very neat and I hope it will inspire some economic historians to attempt an expansion upon Daniel’s work. I have already drawn outlines for my own stuff on Canada since I study an era when (from the early 1800s to the mid-1850s) real wages and incomes seem to be going up but stature and mortality are either deteriorating or remaining stable while inequality is clearly increasing.

“Watch” the (industrial) revolution!

I don’t know how I missed such a valuable article, but O’Grada and Kelly have this fascinating piece on the price of watches in England from the early 18th century to the early 19th century in the Quarterly Journal of EconomicsStarting from Adam Smith’s quote that the price of watches had fallen 95% over roughly one hundred years, they collected prices of stolen watches reported in court records.  They find that Smith was wrong. The drop was only 75% (see the sarcasm here).

watch-prices

Why is this interesting? Because it shows something crucial about the industrial revolution. This was a complex good to build which required incredible technical advances – many of which could be considered general purpose technologies which could then be used by other industries for their own advances (on the assumption that other entrepreneurs noticed these technologies). But, more importantly, it provides further evidence against the pessimistic view of living standards in Britain at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. These “new” goods became incredibly cheaper. Along with nails, glass, pottery and shipping , watches did not weigh heavily in the cost of living of the British. However, they did weigh heavily as industrial prices which meant that costs of production were falling progressively which augured well for the beginning of the industrial revolution*.

Literally, you can watch the industrial revolution in that paper! (sorry, bad pun)

* By the way, I use the term because it is conventional but a revolution is a clean break. The British industrial revolution was not saltation as much as it was a steady process of innovation from the early 18th century up to the mid 19th century. The real “revolution” in my eyes is that of the late 19th century. The technological changes from 1870 to 1890 are the most momentous in history and if there was any technological revolution in the past, this was it.

Ten best papers/books in economic history of the last decades (part 2)

Yesterday, I published part 1 of what I deemed were the best papers and books in the field of economic history of the last few decades. I posted only the first five and I am now posting the next five.

  • Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. Commerce by a frozen sea: Native Americans and the European fur trade. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

This book is not frequently cited (only 30 cites according to Google Scholar), but it has numerous gems for scholars to include in their future work. The reason for this is that Carlos and Lewis have pushed the frontier of economic history into the history of Natives in the New World. This issue of Natives in North America is one of those topics that irritates me to no end as an economic historian. A large share of the debates on economic growth in the New World have been centered on the idea that there was either some modest growth (less than 0.5% per year in per capita income) or no growth at all (which is still a strong testimonial given that the population exploded). But all that attention centres on comparing “whites” (and slaves) in the New World with everyone in the Old World. In the first decades of the colonies of Canada and the United States, aboriginals clearly outnumbered the new settlers (in Canada, the native population around 1736 was estimated at roughly 20,000 which was slightly less than the population of Quebec – the largest colony). Excluding aboriginals, who comprised such a large share of the population, at the starting point will indubitably affect the path of growth measured thereafter. My “gut feeling” is that anyone who includes natives in GDP accounting will lower the starting point dramatically. That will increase the rate of long-term growth. Additionally, the output that aboriginals provided was non-negligible and probably grew more rapidly than their population (the rising volume of furs exported was much greater than their population growth). This is why Carlos and Lewis’s work is so interesting: because it is essentially the first to assemble economic continuous time series regarding trade between trappers and traders, the beaver population, property rights and living standards of natives. From their work, all that is needed is a few key defensible assumptions in order to include natives inside estimates of living standards. From there, I would not be surprised that most estimates of growth in the North American colonies would be significantly altered and the income levels relative to Europe would also be altered.

  • Floud, Roderick, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong. The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the western world since 1700. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

This book is in the list because it is a broad overview of the anthropometric history that has arisen since the 1980s as a result of the work of Robert Fogel. I put this book in the list because the use of anthropometric data allows us to study the multiple facets of living standards. For long, I have been annoyed at the idea of this unidimensional concept of “living standards” often portrayed in the general public (which I am willing to forgive) and the economics profession (which is unforgivable). In life, everything is a trade-off.  A peasant who left the countryside in the 19th century to get higher wages in a city manufacture estimated that the disamenities of the cities were not sufficient to offset wage gains (see notably Jeffrey Williamson’s Coping with City Growth during the British Industrial Revolution on this). For example, cities tended to have higher food prices than rural areas (the advantage of cities was that there were services no one in the countryside could obtain).  Cities were also more prone to epidemics and pollution implied health costs. Taken together, these factors could show up in the biological standard of living, notably on heights. This is known as the “Antebellum puzzle” where the mean heights of individuals in America (and other countries like Canada) fell while there was real income and wage growth. The “Antebellum puzzle” that was unveiled by the work of Fogel and those who followed in his wake represents the image that living standards are not unidimensional. Human development is about more than incomes. Human development is about agency and the ability to choose a path for a better and more satisfying life. However, with agency comes opportunity costs. A choice implies that another path was renounced. In the measurement of living standards, we should never forget the path that was abandoned. Peasants abandoned lower rates of infant mortality, lower overall rates of mortality, the lower levels of crowding and pollution, the lower food prices and the lower crime rates of the countryside in favor of the greater diversity of goods and services, the higher wages, the thicker job market, the less physically demanding jobs and the more secure source of income (although precarious, this was better than the volatile outcomes in farming). This was their trade-off and this is what the anthropometric literature has allowed us to glean. For this alone, this is probably the greatest contribution in the field of economic history of the last decades.

  • De Vries, Jan. The industrious revolution: consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Was there an industrious revolution before the industrial revolution? More precisely, did people increase their labour supply during the 17th and 18th centuries which lead to output growth? In proposing this question, de Vries provided a theoretical bridge of major significance between the observations of wage behavior and incomes in Europe during the modern era. For example, while wages seemed to be stagnating, incomes seemed to be increasing (in the case of England as Broadberry et al. indicated). The only explanation is that workers increased their labor supply? Why would they do that? What happened that caused them to increase the amount of labor they were willing to supply? The arrival of new goods (sugar, tobacco etc.) caused them to change their willingness to work. This is a strong illustration of how preferences can change more or less rapidly (when new opportunities are unveiled). In fact, Mark Koyama (who blogs here) managed to insert this narrative inside a very simple restatement of Gary Becker’s model of time use. Either you have leisure that is cheap but time-consuming (think of leisure in the late middle ages) or leisure that is more expensive but does not consume too much time (think the consumption of tea, sugar and tobacco). Imagine you only have the time-expensive leisure which you value at level X. Now, imagine that the sugar and tea arrive and, although you pay a higher price, it provides more utility than the level and it takes less time. In such a context, you will likely change your preferences between leisure and work. I am grossly oversimplifying Mark’s point here, but the idea is that the industrious revolution argument advanced by de Vries can easily fit inside a simple neoclassical outlook. On top of solving many puzzles, it also shows that one does not need to engage in some fanciful flight of Marxian theory (I prefer Marxian to Marxist because it is one typo away from being Martian which would adequately summarize my view of Marxism as a social theory). If it fits inside the simpler model, then you don’t need the rest.  De Vries does just that.

  • Anderson, Terry Lee, and Peter Jensen Hill. The not so wild, wild west: Property rights on the frontier. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Governance is not the same as government (in fact, they can be mutually exclusive). In recent years, I have been heavily influenced by Elinor Ostrom’s work on how communities govern the commons in very subtle (but elaborate) ways without the use of coercion. These institutional arrangements are hard to simplify into one variable for a regression, but they are theoretically simple to explain: people respond to incentives. Ostrom’s entire work shows that people on the front line of problems generally have the best incentives to get the right solution because they have skin in the game. What her work shows is that individuals govern themselves (see also Mike Munger’s Choosing in Groups) by generating micro-institutions that allow exchanges to continue. Terry Anderson and Peter Hill provide the best illustration in economic history in that regard by studying the frontier of the American west. Settlers moved to the American West faster than the reach of government and the frontier was thus an area more or less void of government action. So, how did people police themselves? Was it the wild west? No, it was not. Private security firms provided most of the policing, mining clubs established property rights without the need for government, farmers established constitutions in voluntary associations that they formed and many “public goods” were provided privately. The point of Anderson and Hill is that governance did exist on the frontier in a way that demonstrates the ability of voluntary actions (as opposed to coercive government actions) to generate sustainable and efficient solutions. The book has a rich theoretical framework on top of a substantial body of evidence regarding the emergence of institutions. Any good economic historian should own and read this book.

  • Vedder, Richard K., and Lowell E. Gallaway. Out of work: unemployment and government in twentieth-century America. NYU Press and Independent Institute, 1997.

The last book on the list is an underground classic for me. Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway are very good economic historians. It was produced like many other underappreciated classics (like Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan) by the Independent Institute (see their great book list here). Most of their output was produced from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, as the 1990s came, they moved towards the Austrian school of Economics. With them, they brought a strong econometric knowledge – a rarity among Austrian scholars. They attempted one of the first (well-regarded) econometric studies that relied on Austrian theory of the labor-market (a mixture of New Classical Theory with Austrian Theory). Their goal was to explain variations in unemployment in the United States by variations in “adjusted real wages” (i.e. unit labor costs) all else being equal. At the time of the publication, they used very advanced econometric techniques. The book was well received and even caught the attention of Brad DeLong who disagreed with it and debated Vedder and Gallaway in the pages of Critical Review. Although there are pieces that I disagree with, the book has mostly withstood the test of time. The core insights of Out of Work regarding the Great Depression (and many of its horrible policies like the National Industrial Recovery Act) have been conserved by many like Scott Sumner in his Midas Paradox and they feature prominently in the works of scholars like Lee Ohanian, Harold Cole, Jason Taylor, Price Fishback, Albrecht Ristchl and others. In the foreword to the book, they mention that D.N. McCloskey (then the editor of the Journal of Economic History) had pushed hard for them to publish their work regarding the 1920s and 1930s. McCloskey was right to do so as many of their contentions are now accepted as a legitimate (if still debated) viewpoint. The insights regarding the “Great Depression of 1946” (a pun to ridicule the idea that the postwar reduction in government expenditures led to a massive reduction in incomes) have been generally conserved by Robert Higgs in his Journal of Economic History article I mentioned yesterday (and in this article as well) and even by Alexander Field in his Great Leap Forward However, Out of Work remains an underground classic that is filled with substantial pieces of information and data that remains unused. There are numerous unexploited insights (some of which Vedder and Gallaway have followed on) as well. The book should be mandatory reading for any economic historian.

Sensitive and Crucial: on Measuring Living Standards in the 18th Century

In the course of the twitterminar on the High-Wage Economy argument (HWE) which generated responses from John Styles on his blog (who has convinced me that the key solution to HWE rests in Normandy, not the Alsace) and many other on Twitter. In the course of that discussion, I skirted a point I have been meaning to make for a long time. However, I decided to avoid it because it is tangentially related to the HWE story. Its about how we measure living standards over space in the past.

Basically, the HWE story is a productivity story and all that matters in such a story is wage rates relative to other input prices. Because we’re talking about relatives, the importance of proper deflators is not that crucial. However, when you move beyond HWE and try to ask the question regarding absolute differences over space in living standards, the wage rates are not sufficient and proper deflators are needed.

They are many key issues to estimating living standards across space. The largest is that given that very few goods crossed borders in the past, converting American incomes into British sterling units using reported exchange rates would be rife with errors and calculating purchasing power parities would be complicated. The solution, very simple and elegant by its simplicity, is to rely on the logic of the poverty measures. Regardless of where you are, there is a poverty threshold. Then, all that is needed is to express incomes as the ratio of income to the poverty line. If the figure is three, then the average income buys three times the poverty line. Expressed as such, comparisons are easy to do. This is what Robert Allen did and it was basically a deeper and more complete approach than Fernand Braudel’s “Grain-Wages” (wage rates divided by grain prices).

Where should the line be?

While this represents a substantial improvement for economic historians like me who are deeply interested in “getting the data right”, there are flaws. In the course of my dissertation on living standards in Canada (see also my working papers here and here), I saw one such flaw in the form of how long the length of the work year was. In fact, a lot of my comments in this post were learned on the basis of Canada as an extreme outlier in terms of sensitivity. In Canada, winter is basically a huge preindustrial limitation on the ability to work year-round (thus, the expression mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver). But this flaw is only the tip of the iceberg. First of all, the winter means that the daily energy intake must substantially greater than 2,500 calories in order to maintain body mass. The mechanism through which the temperature increases the energy requirements of the human metabolism is in part the greater weight carried by the heavier clothing in addition to the energy needed by the body to maintain body temperature. At higher altitudes, these are compounded by the difference in air pressure.In their attempt to construct estimates of the living standards of Natives in the Canadian north during the fur trade era, Ann Carlos and Frank  Lewis assert that it is necessary to adjust the basket of comparison to include more calories for the natives given the climate – they assert that 3500 calories were needed rather 2500 calories for English workers.In Russia, Boris Mironov estimated that the average calories ingested stood at 2952 per day between 1865 and 1915 while the adult male had to consume 3204 calories per day. In Canada in the 18th century, it was estimated that patients at the Augustines hospital in Quebec City required somewhere 2628 calories and 3504 calories per day while soldiers consumed on average 2958 calories per day and the average population consumed 2845 calories per day (see my papers linked up above).  The range of calorie requirements for soldiers (which I took from a reference inside my little sister’s military stuff) is quite large: from 3,100 in the desert at 33 degrees Celsius to 4,900 in artic conditions (minus 34 degrees Celsius) – a 58% difference. So basically, when we create welfare ratios for someone in, say, Mexico, the calories needed in the basket should be lower than in the Canadian basket.

Another issue, of greater importance, is the role of fuel. In the welfare ratios commonly used, fuel is alloted at 2MBTU for the basic level of sustenance which. This is woefully insufficient even in moderately warm countries, let alone Canada. My estimates of fuel consumption in Canada is that the worst case hovers around 20MBTU (ten times above the assumption) if the most inefficient form of combustion (important losses) and the worst kind of wood possible (red pine). Similar levels are observed for the American colonies.

Combined together, these corrections suggest that the Canadian poverty threshold should be higher than the one observed in France, England, South Carolina or Argentina. These adjustments can more or less be easily made by using military manuals. The army measures the basic calories requirements for all types of military theaters.

How to factor in family size and use equivalence scales. 

Equivalence scales refer to the role of family size. Given the same income, families of different size will have different levels of welfare. Thanks to economies of scale in housing, cooking, lighting and heating, larger households can get more utility out of one dollar of income. That adjustments are required to render different households comparable is well accepted amongst economists. However, given the sensitivity of any analysis to the assumptions underlying any adjustments, there is an important debate to be had.

The convention among economic historians has been to assume that households have three adult equivalents. This assumption has gone largely undiscussed. The problem is “which scale to use”. The conversion into adult equivalents is subject to debates. Broadly speaking, three approaches exist. The first uses the square root of the number of individuals. The second attributes the full weight of the first adult, half the weight of the second adult and 30% for each child. This approach is commonly used by the OECD, Statistics Canada and numerous government agencies in Canada The third approach is the one used by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States which proposed to use an exponent ranging between 0.65 and 0.75 to household size but only after having multiplied the number of children by 0.7. As a result, a family of four (two parents, two infants) can have either 2 adult equivalents (square root), 2.1 adult equivalents (OECD and Statistics Canada approach) or 2.36 adult equivalent (NAS approach). The differences relative to the square roots approach are 5% and 18%. If we move to a family of 6 persons, the differences increase to 10.22% and 34.72%.  If we are comparing regions with identical family structures, this would not be a problem. If not, then it is an issue. The selection of one method over another would have important effect on the cost of the living basket, with the NAS approach showing the costliest basket. Using a method relatively close to that of the OECD (although not exactly that measure), Eric Schneider found that the relatively small size of families in England led Allen to underestimate living standards. In a more recent paper, Allen alongside Schneider and Murphy pointed out that extending Schneider’s analysis to Latin America where “family sizes were likely larger (…) than in England and British North America” would amplify the wage gap between the two regions.

familysize

The table above shows how much family size varied around the late 17th century across region. Clearly, this is a non-negligible issue.

Sensitivity of estimates

Just to see how much these points matter, let’s modify for two easily modifiable factors: household size (given the numbers above) and fuel requirements (calories from food are harder to adjust for and I am still in the process of doing that). Let’s recompute the welfare ratios (those classified as bare bones) of Canada (the outlier) relative to the other according to different changes circa the end of the 17th century. How much does it matter?

Comparing New World places like Canada and Boston does not change much – they are more or less similar (family size and relative price-wise). However, just adjusting for family size eliminates a quarter of the gap between Canada and Paris (from 61% to somewhere 43.9% and 49.5%). Then, the adjustment for the fact that it is freezing cold in Canada eliminates a little more than half the advantage Canada enjoyed. So roughly two third of the Canadian advantage over Paris (the richest place in France) is eliminated by adjusting for family size and fuel consumption without adjusting for food requirements. However, family size does not affect dramatically the comparison between Paris and London (regardless of whether we use the Allen figures or the Stephenson-Adjusted figures).  Thus, most of the sensitivity issues are related to comparing the New World with the Old World. effectofcorrections

Still, there are some appreciable differences from family structures within Europe (i.e. the Old World) that may alter the relative positions.  For example, Ireland had much larger families than England in the 18th century (see here – the authors shared their dataset with me and a co-author): in 1700, England & Wales had an average household size of 4.7 compared with 5.32 in Ireland. That would moderately disrupt the comparison. Not as much as comparison between the New World and Old World, but enough to make cautious about European differences.

Conclusion

I have seen many discussions regarding the sensitivity of welfare ratios in numerous papers. I am not attempting to make my present point into some form of revolutionary issue. However, all the sensitivity estimates were concentrated on a case or another and they all concern a specific problem. No one has gathered all the problems in one place and provided a “range of estimates”. Maybe its time to go in that direction so that we know which place was poor and which was not (relative to one another, since anything preindustrial was basically dirt-poor by our modern standards).

Testing the High-Wage Economy (HWE) Hypothesis

Over the last week or so, I have been heavily involved in a twitterminar (yes, I am coining that portemanteau term to designate academic discussions on twitter – proof that some good can come out of social media) between myself, Judy Stephenson , Ben Schneider , Benjamin Guilbert, Mark Koyama, Pseudoerasmus,  Anton Howes (whose main flaw is that he is from King’s College London while I am from the LSE – nothing rational here), Alan Fernihough and  Lyman Stone. The topic? How suitable is the “high-wage economy” (HWE) explanation of the British industrial revolution (BIR).

Twitter debates are hard to follow and there is a need for summaries given the format of twitter. As a result, I am attempting such a summary here which is laced with my own comments regarding my skepticism and possible resolution venues.

An honest account of HWE

First of all, it is necessary to offer a proper enunciation of HWE’s role in explaining the industrial revolution as advanced by its main proponent, Robert Allen.  This is a necessary step because there is a literature attempting to use high-wages as an efficiency wage argument. A good example is Morris Altman’s Economic Growth and the High-Wage Economy  (see here too) Altman summarizes his “key message” as the idea that “improving the material well-being of workers, even prior to immediate increases in productivity can be expected to have positive effects on productivity through its impact on economic efficiency and technological change”. He also made the same argument with my native home province of Quebec relative to Ontario during the late 19th century. This is basically a multiple equilibria story. And its not exactly what Allen advances. Allen’s argument is that wages were high in England relative to energy. This factors price ratio stimulated the development of technologies and industries that spearheaded the BIR. This is basically a context-specific argument and not a “conventional” efficiency wage approach as that of Allen. There are similarities, but they are also considerable differences. Secondly, the HWE hypothesis is basically a meta-argument about the Industrial Revolution. It would be unfair to caricature it as an “overarching” explanation. Rather, the version of HWE advanced by Robert Allen (see his book here) is one where there are many factors at play but there is one – HWE – which had the strongest effects. Moreover, while it does not explain all, it was dependent on other factors that contributed independently.  The most common view is that this is mixed with Joel Mokyr’s supply of inventions story (which is what Nick Crafts has done). In the graph below, the “realistically multi-causal” explanation is how I see HWE. In Allen’s explanation, it holds the place that cause #1 does. According to other economists, HWE holds spot #2 or spot #3 and Mokyr’s explanations holds spot #1.

hwe

In pure theoretical terms (as an axiomatic statement), the Allen model is defensible. It is a logically consistent construct. It has some questionnable assumptions, but it has no self-contradictions. Basically, any criticism of HWE must question the validity of the theory based on empirical evidence (see my argument with Graham Brownlow here) regarding the necessary conditions. This is the hallmark of Allen’s work: logical consistency. His work cannot be simply brushed aside – it is well argued and there is supportive evidence. The logical construction of his argument requires a deep discussion and any criticism that will convince must encompass many factors.

Why not France? Or How to Test HWE

As a doubter of Allen’s theory (I am willing to be convinced, hence my categorization as doubter), the best way to phrase my criticism is to ask the mirror of his question. Rather than asking “Why was the Industrial Revolution British”, I ask “Why Wasn’t it French”. This is what Allen does in his work when he asks explicitly “Why not France?” (p.203 of his book). The answer proposed is that English wages were high enough to justify the adoption of labor-saving technologies. In France, they were not. This led to differing rates of technological adoptions, an example of which is the spinning jenny.

This argument hinges on some key conditions :

  1. Wages were higher in England than in France
  2. Unit labor costs were higher in England than in France (productivity-adjusted wages) (a point made by Kelly, Mokyr and Ó Gráda)
  3. Market size factors are not sufficiently important to overshadow the effects of lower wages in France (R&D costs over market size mean a low fixed cost relative to potential market size)
  4. The work year is equal in France as in England
  5. The cost of energy in France relative to labor is higher than in England
  6. Output remained constant while hours fell – a contention at odds with the Industrious Revolution which the same as saying that marginal productivity moves inversely with working hours

If most of these empirical statements hold, then the argument of Allen holds. I am pretty convinced by the evidence advanced by Allen (and E.A. Wrigley also) regarding the low relative of energy in England. Thus, I am pretty convinced that condition #5 holds. Moreover, given the increases in transport productivity within England (here and here), the limited barriers to internal trade (here), I would not be surprised that it was relatively easy to supply energy on the British market prior to 1800 (at least relative to France).

Condition #3 is harder to assess in terms of important. Market size, in a Smithian world, is not only about population (see scale effects literature). Market size is a function of transaction costs between individuals, a large share of which are determined by institutional arrangements. France has a much larger population than England so there could have been scale effects, but France also had more barriers to internal trade that could have limited market size. I will return to this below.

Condition #1,2,4 are basically empirical statements. They are also the main points of tactical assault on Allen’s theory.  I think condition #1 is the easiest to tackle. I am currently writing a piece derived from my dissertation showing that – at least with regards to Strasbourg – wages in France presented in Allen (his 2001 article) are heavily underestimated (by somewhere between 12% and 40% using winter workers in agriculture and as much as 70% using the average for laborers in agriculture). The work of Judy Stephenson, Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf has also thrown the level and trend of British wages into doubts. Bringing French wages upwards and British wages downwards could damage the Allen story. However, this would not be a sufficient theory. Industrialization was generally concentrated geographically. If labor markets in one country are not sufficiently integrated and the industrializing area (lets say the “textile” area of Lancashire or the French Manchester of Mulhouse or the Caën region in Normandy) has uniquely different wages, then Allen’s theory can hold since what matters is the local wage rate relative to energy. Pseudoerasmus has made this point but I can’t find any mention of that very plausible defense in Allen’s work.

Condition #2 is the weakest point and given Robert Fogel’s work on net nutrition in France and England, I have no problem in assuming that French workers were less productive. However, the best evidence would be to extract piece rates in textile-producing regions of France and England. This would eliminate any issue with wages and measuring national productivity differences. Piece rates would perfectly capture productivity and thus the argument could be measured in a very straightforward manner.

Condition #4 is harder to assess and more research would be needed. However, it is the most crucial piece of evidence required to settle the issue once and for all. Pre-industrial labor markets are not exactly like those of modern days. Search costs were high which works in a manner described (with reservations) by Alan Manning in his work on monopsony but with much more frictions. In such a market, workers may be willing to trade in lower wage rates for longer work years. In fact, its like a job security argument. Would you prefer 313 days of work guaranteed at 1 shilling per day or a 10% chance of working 313 days for 1.5 shillings a day (I’ve skewed the hypothetical numbers to make my point)? Now, if there are differences in the structure of labor markets in France and England during the 18th and 19th centuries, there might be differences in the extent of that trade-off in both countries. Different average discount on wages would affect production methods. If French workers were prone to sacrifice more on wages for steady employment, it may render one production method more profitable than in England. Assessing the extent of the discount of annual to daily wages on both markets would identify this issue.

The remaining condition (condition #6) is, in my opinion, dead on arrival. Allen’s model, in the case of the spinning jenny, assumed that labor hours moved in an opposite direction as marginal productivity. This is in direct opposition to the well-established industrious revolution. This point has been made convincingly by Gragnolati, Moschella and Pugliese in the Journal of Economic History. 

In terms of research strategy, getting piece rates, proper wage estimates and proper labor supplied estimates for England and France would resolve most of the issue. Condition #3 could then be assessed as a plausibility residual.  Once we know about working hours, actual productivity and real wages differences, we can test how big the difference in market size has to be to deter adoption in France. If the difference seems implausible (given the empirical limitations of measuring effective market size in the 18th century in both markets), then we can assess the presence of this condition.

My counter-argument : social networks and diffusion

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that all of the evidence favors the skeptics, then what? It is all well and good to tear down the edifice but we are left with a gaping hole and everything starts again. It would be great to propose a new edifice as the old one is being questioned. This is where I am very much enclined towards the rarely discussed work of Leonard Dudley (Mothers of Innovation). Simply put, Dudley’s argument is that social networks allowed the diffusion of technologies within England that fostered economic growth. He has an analogy from physics which gets the point across nicely. Matter has three states : solid, gas, liquid. Solids are stable but resist to change. Gas, matter are much more random and change frequently by interacting with other gas, but any relation is ephemeral. Liquids permit change through interaction, but they are stable enough to allow interactions to persist for some time. Technological innovation is like a liquid. It can “mix” things together in a somewhat stable form.

This is where one of my argument takes life. In a small article for Economic Affairs, I argued (expanding on Dudley) that social networks allowed this mixing (I am also expanding that argument in a working paper with Adam Martin of Texas Tech University). However, I added a twist to that argument which I imported from the work of Israel Kirzner (one of the most cited books in economics, but not by cliometricians – more than 7000 citations on google scholar). Economic growth, in Kirzner’s mind,  is the result of entrepreneurs discovering errors and arbitrage possibilities. In a way, growth is a process of discovering correcting errors. An analogy to make this point is that entrepreneurs look for profits where the light is while also trying to move the light to see where it is dark. What Kirzner dubs as “alertness” is in fact nothing else than repeated and frequent interactions. The more your interact with others, the easier it becomes for ideas to have sex. Thus, what matters is how easy it is for social networks to appear and generate cheap information and interactions for members without the problem of free riders. This is where the work of Anton Howes becomes very valuable. Howes, in his PhD thesis supervised by Adam Martin who is my co-author on the aforementioned project (summary here), showed that most innovators went in frequent with one another and they inspired themselves from each other. This is alertness ignited!

If properly harnessed, the combination of the works of Howes and Dudley (and also James Dowey who was a PhD student at the LSE with me and whose work is *Trump voice* Amazing) can stand as a substitute to Allen’s HWE if invalidated.

Conclusion

If I came across as bashing on Allen in this post, then you have misread me. I admire Allen for the clarity of his reasoning and his expositions (given that I am working on a funded project to recalculate tax-based measures in the US used by Piketty to account for tax avoidance, I can appreciate the clarity in which Allen expresses himself). I also admire him for wanting to “Go big or go home” (which you can see in all his other work, especially on enclosures). My point is that I am willing to be convinced of HWE, but I find that the evidence leans towards rejecting it. But that is very limited and flawed evidence and asserting this clearly is hard (as some of the flaws can go his way). Nitpicking Allen’s HWE is a necessary step for clearly determining the cause of BIR. It is not sufficient as a logically consistent substitute must be presented to the research community. In any case, there is my long summary of the twitteminar (officially trademarked now!)

P.S. Inspired by Peter Bent’s INET research webinar on institutional responses to financial crises, I am trying to organize a similar (low-cost) venue for presenting research papers on HWE assessment. More news on this later.

England circa 1700: low-wage or high-wage

A few months ago, I discussed the work of my friend (and fellow LSE graduate) Judy Stephenson on the “high-wage economy” of England during the 18th century. The high-wage argument basically states that high wages relative to capital incite management to find new techniques of production and that, as a result, the industrial revolution could be initiated. Its a crude summary (I am not doing it justice here), but its roughly accurate.

In her work, Judy basically indicated that the “high-wage economy” observed in the data was a statistical artifact. The wage rates historians have been using are not wage rates, they’re contract rates that include an overhead for contractors who hired the works. The wage rates were below the contract rates in an amplitude sufficient to damage the high-wage narrative.

A few days ago, Jane Humphries (who has been a great inspiration for Judy and whose work I have been discretely following for years) and Jacob Weisdorf came out with a new working paper on the issue that have reinforced my skepticism of the wages regarding England. A crude summary of Humphries and Weisdorf’s paper goes as such: preindustrial labor markets had search costs, workers were willing to sacrifice on the daily wage rate (lower w) in order to obtain steady employment (greater L) and thus the proper variable of interest is the wage paid on annual contracts.

While their results do not affect England’s relative position (it only affects the trend of living standards in England), it shows that there are flaws in the data. These flaws should give us pause before proposing a strong theory like the “high-wage economy” argument. Taken together, the work of Stephenson (whom I am told is officially forthcoming), Humphries and Weisdorf show the importance of doing data work as the new data may overturn some key pieces of research (maybe, I am not sure, there is some stuff worth testing).

The High Wage Economy: the Stephenson critic

A recent trend has emerged in economics. The claim is that high wages can have a dynamic positive effect on market economies.  The intuition is that high wages increase productivity because they incite management to find new techniques of production. In essence, its an argument about efficiency wages: efficiency wages increase incentives to innovate on the part of managers, they can also incite workers to acquire more human capital and work harder and more diligently.

In economic history, this claim has been taken up by scholars like Robert Allen (see his work here for the general public) who argues that the Industrial Revolution took place in England because of high wages. The high-wages of England in the 17th and 18th centuries (relative to all other areas in Europe), together with cheap energy, created an incentive for capital-intensive methods of production (i.e. the industrial revolution). In fact, a great share of the literature on the desirability of high wages for economic development has emanated from the field of economic history.

I have always been skeptical of this argument for two reasons. The first is that efficiency wages is a strange theory that relies on debatable assumptions about labor (strangely, I have been convinced of this point by Austrian scholars like Don Bellante and Pavel Ryksa). The second is that numerous scholars have advanced large criticisms of the underlying data. Robert Allen – the figurehead proponent of the high wage argument – has been constantly criticized by historians like Jane Humphries (see here) for the quality of the data and assumptions used. Allen defends himself on numerous occasions and many of his replies (mainly those on the role of family size in living standards) show that his initial case might have been too conservative (i.e. he is more “correct” than he claims).

Until a year or two ago, I was agnostic on the issue even though I was skeptical. That was until I met Judy Stephenson – a colleague at the London School of Economics. Judy did what I really like to do – dig for data (yes, I am weird like that). She went to the original sources of data used by Allen and others and she looked at what any Law-and-Economics buffs like me like to look at – transaction costs and contracting models.

She recently published her work as a working paper at the LSE and what she found is crucial! Labor was not hired directly, it was hired through contractors who charged costs on the basis of days worked. But this did not translate into wages actually paid to workers. The costs included risks and overheads for contractors. Somewhere between 20% and 30% of the daily costs were not given to workers as wages. Thus, the wage series used to claim that England (Stephenson concentrates on London though) had high wages are actually 20% to 30% below the level often reported. They are also substantially close to those in western Europe.

Thus, the high wage story for England seems weaker. This little piece of historical evidence brought about by Judy is something to think about carefully when one makes the argument that high wages are conducive to growth. Since most of the argument brought to the public was informed largely by this argument in economic history, it makes sense to be cautious when thinking about it in the future.

Ham-Fisted Coercion and Incompetence versus the Invisible Hand of Self-Interest

A Tale of Two Hands

I came across Gary Galles’ recent article in The Freeman about Leonard Read’s analogy of government coercion as a clenched fist, “The Clenched Fist and the General Welfare.” I see a symmetry between this analogy and Adam Smith’s about self-interest unintentionally channeled into market organization, one that is so familiar to free market proponents and detractors alike that it is a common metaphor: the invisible hand.

Government coercion and market organization. Two very important concepts for any libertarian to master. Which one better provides for the general welfare? Smith and Read would contend the latter. The reasons for this are contained in the analogies. As Read and Galles point out, not much good can come from a clenched fist. Only violence and incompetence. It can punch. It can pound. That’s about it. What better description of government? Likewise, as Smith notes, the usefulness of markets is that they do better than government many of the noble things government tries to do, thereby rendering it redundant, if not unnecessary, in those areas. The all-too obvious fist of government regulations and mandates is no match for a more efficient, less obvious hand: self-interest. Continue reading