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.

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.