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).