Historian Sven Beckert’s widely acclaimed book, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, is a good agrarian, business, and labour history of a single commodity. But as economic history it’s not so good.
I think many readers are disarmed by the book’s magisterial sweep across time and space, which obscures or subdues its underlying thesis. Yet when you remove the dense narrative detail, there remains an ambitious polemic about the political economy of global development. So I have tried to capture the essence of that polemic in about a thousand words — without ever mentioning that dread white fiber. Continue reading
A follow-up to my previous post, “Did inequality cause WW1? Contra Hobson-Lenin-Milanovic“, elaborating on the inequality=>capital exports link in Branko Milanovic’s overall inequality=>ww1 claim.
In the earlier post, two commenters took issue with my treatment of the inequality=>capital exports linkage. Of course I did acknowledge that high domestic inequality did probably contribute to Europe’s capital exports, in the sense that lower inequality implies higher aggregate consumption and therefore less capital exported. But I also argued that other structural factors (demographics and diminishing returns to capital) should not be underrated.
Yet even IF inequality had been the most important cause of capital exports, then what it helped achieve indirectly was the rapid development of the world’s settler regions and the consolidation of social democracy in Europe.
Posted in Income distribution, Industrial Revolution, Inequality, the First Globalization, The First World War
Tagged Branko Milanovic, capital exports, capital flows, first globalization, Global Inequality, Hobson-Lenin Thesis, migration, underconsumption
The “Hobson-Lenin Thesis”: inequality, ‘underconsumption’, capital exports, imperialism, and the Great War
In a small section in his new book, Branko Milanovic argues that the First World War was ultimately caused by income & wealth inequality within the belligerent countries, resurrecting ideas from John A. Hobson, Rosa Luxemburg, and Lenin. The basic argument: high domestic inequality => ‘underconsumption’ by the masses & ‘surplus’ savings by the elites => capital exports, i.e., search for overseas outlets for investment => the ‘scramble for colonies’ & imperialism => (a major cause of the) WAR.
I examine each element in this chain of logic and reject the “endogenous World War I” view.
Posted in Branko Milanovic, Foreign Investment, Inequality, the First Globalization, The First World War
Tagged Branko Milanovic, capital exports, colonialism, endogenous world war 1, Global Inequality, Hobson, Hobson-Lenin Thesis, imperialism, inequality, international capital flows, Lenin, the First Globalization, The First World War, The Great War, underconsumption
[19 October 2015] Jesús Alfaro of the Autonomous University of Madrid has translated my previous post into Spanish: ¿De dónde vienen las instituciones prosociales?
An elaboration on Ricardo Hausmann’s article “The Education Myth” arguing that education is an overrated tool of economic development. This post also responds to a criticism of Hausmann’s views which appeared at the Spanish group blog Politikon; and also discusses whether developing countries really can raise scores on achievement tests.
[Edit: This blogpost has now been translated into Spanish as “El romanticismo educativo y el desarrollo económico“.]
Whether markets help cause or exacerbate famines is one of the great questions of political economy. Cormac Ó Gráda’s recent book Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, its Past, and its Future, along with his earlier volume, Famine: A Short History, quietly, calmly, and unostentatiously undermines many of the key empirical observations about markets and famines made by Amartya Sen. Yet few seem to have noticed his disagreements with the Nobel laureate who transformed the thinking on the subject. This post includes remarks on the Bengal famine of 1943, the Great Irish Potato Famine, and some of the ‘Victorian’ famines of British India in the late 19th century.
Anachronism and relevance are in tension. Historians (often) rail against the former and (often) pine for the latter. They can easily manage a bit of relevance by intervening in today’s political and economic debates and offering ‘lessons’ from the past — but at high risk of anachronism. That’s certainly how I view Yale historian Steve Pincus’s intervention in The New York Review of Books, “1776: The Revolt against Austerity“. Edit: Steve Pincus has replied in the comments section !
Did an ‘invisible blockade’ by the United States fatally undermine the Chilean economy under the presidency of Salvador Allende (1970-73) ? Did it actually work ? Short answer: No.
I (mostly) copy-and-paste Deirdre McCloskey’s classic argument that cotton was not crucial to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. I also have a very brief rant about historians’ erasure of Robert Fogel from historiographic memory. Continue reading
This is a translation-reblog of the post by historian Javier Rodríguez Weber, “Globalisation and Inequality, for a ‘sophisticated’ version of the neoclassical intepretation” (original: “Globalización y Desigualdad. Por una versión ‘sofisticada’ de la interpretación neoclásica”). It shows how Chile’s income distribution in the period 1880-1903 was affected by the combination of international trade, the opening of frontier lands, and (the relative lack of) immigration. There are also interesting comparisons with Australia and New Zealand.
This post, a follow-up to my earlier posts “La longue purée” and “Jo Guldi’s Curiouser & Curiouser Footnotes“, examines the recent revisions made to The History Manifesto. Warning: the post may be tedious. For die-hards only.
Addenda to the previous blogpost “Economic growth in ancient Greece“. I argue that certain estimates made by Ian Morris under-compute the implied growth rates in the “per capita income” of the ancient Greeks. With a proper computation Morris’s estimates simply become unbelievable. This post does a kind of reductio ad absurdum using Morris’s own assumptions. Continue reading
Was there “intensive growth” in Classical Greece and was there something special about its causes ? Was it due to “inclusive institutions” ? This post examines some claims of the “New Ancient History”. Continue reading
Posted in ancient economic history, Ancient Greece, Economic History
Tagged "Rise and Fall of Classical Greece", ancient economic history, Ancient Greece, Classical Greece, efflorescence, Ian Morris, Jack Goldstone, Josiah Ober, Walter Scheidel
Rambling about toponyms and ethnonyms in various languages. Continue reading
The roots of the present Greek crisis lie in the political transformation of the country during the 1980s. (Disclaimer: Although this post is about Greek fiscal behaviour, I am not taking Germany’s side. Lenders to the profligate are just as culpable as the borrowers.) Continue reading
A haphazard mass, a chaotic carnival, a Bikini Atoll, of links relating to economic history, political economy, and allied matters. I also have brief comments on some of the links. Continue reading
Why China did not industrialise before Western Europe may be a tantalising and irresistible subject, but frankly it’s a parlour game. What remains underexplored, however, is the more tractable issue of why Japan managed, but China failed, to initiate an early transition to modern growth and convergence with the West. A recent paper argues that the gap in state capacity between Qing China and Tokugawa Japan was responsible for the divergence. [Edit: Please note, this blogpost disputes that argument.] Continue reading
I’ve compiled a list of books on economic history (and closely related subjects) at Goodreads. I welcome any suggestions. I also recommend Anton Howes’s Amazon wish list. Both lists were highlighted by Dietz Vollrath at his Growth Economics blog. By the way, I highly recommend his 4-part “sceptic’s guide to [the empirical literature on] institutions“.
In The History Manifesto, historians Jo Guldi, the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History at Brown, and David Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Harvard, repeatedly misunderstand or misrepresent the research they disparagingly cite in their references — especially the research of economists and economic historians. In fact, the footnotes (technically endnotes) in the book often bear no relation to the authors’ contentions and, in a few cases, state the exact opposite of what G & A claim their sources say. One begins to wonder, have they actually read any of the references they cite ? The critique touches on many issues along the way, including Victorian inequality, the environment & economics, etc.
This post is an adjunct to La longue purée, my general comment on their book. [Edit 13/04/15: I also have a follow-up, Errata dentata, examining the revisions in The History Manifesto.]
Did western industrialisation require American slave cotton ? What coal and sugar might tell us. (Short answer: It’s reasonable and plausible to argue slavery accelerated the industrial revolution, but not enabled it. It’s profoundly unreasonable to say the IR could not have happened without slave cotton.) Continue reading
Just quoting my favourite unintentionally hilarious passage from Said’s Orientalism. Continue reading
My critique of Nick Szabo’s “horse theory” of the Great Divergence between Western Europe and East Asia. This part is about China in the 18th century. See Part 2 for the general issue of industrialisation and transport costs in England. Continue reading
Part 2, England, of my critique of Nick Szabo’s view of industrialisation. This is continued from Part 1, “Chinese workers were cheaper than English horses“. Continue reading
From the plastics industry, a very concrete, real-life example of how conscientiousness matters in the use of a medium-level technology and how high(er)-technology might help. Continue reading
A quick note on Piketty, slave-wealth, and US capitalism. Continue reading
A quick note : Income inequality in pre-industrial societies was, in general, lower than in modern industrial societies, but traditional agrarian economies tended to be closer to their “maximum feasible inequality” than modern ones. Continue reading
In general, people are too cheery when the economy is booming, and too gloomy about the future during recessions. Right now, pessimism about the consequences of “skill-biased technological change” is fashionable. But such pessimism should be regarded with the same scepticism as the never-ending predictions about the depletion of natural resources. The emptiness of human life and the infinity of human wants have always prevented mass unemployment when technological progress displaced workers. I believe that process will continue as long as there are some things machines can not do, albeit with a vast social difference from before. Continue reading
The global distribution of income in 1970-2006 in 20 charts. Not much text. Posting the charts because I thought they were neat… Continue reading
The underlying claim in Edward Baptist’s “oral economic history” of slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is that slave owners, through the scientific “calibration” of torture, intensified the work of slaves in order to increase labour productivity by 400% on southern cotton plantations between 1800 and 1860. I argue the intensification claim is poorly supported, exaggerated, and misleading. This is a follow-up to my previous blogpost, “Plant breeding, not working slaves harder, drove cotton efficiency gains in the antebellum US South“. Warning : I’ve tried to make this post as readable as possible, but it goes into considerable detail, so it is dense and dreadfully dull ! Continue reading
Posted in cotton, Economic History, Slavery, Slavery
Tagged antebellum south, cotton picking, cotton productivity, critique of edward baptist book, economics of slavery, Edward Baptist, Robert Fogel, slave productivity, Slavery, The Half has never been told
Summary : New cultivars of cotton led to an unprecedented rise in the productivity of US southern cotton in the 60 years before the American Civil War. The Economist magazine may have said some stupid things about the subject in its review of Edward Baptist’s book on slavery, but it was fundamentally right to question the claim that antebellum efficiency gains were due to slaves being worked ever harder by their masters. (Note : I have a follow-up post, “Baptism by Blood Cotton“, which critiques in detail the central claims of Baptist’s book. There is also a brief note on slaves-as-wealth in Piketty & Slave-Wealth.) Continue reading
Posted in cotton, Economic History, Edward Baptist, Slavery, Slavery
Tagged antebellum south, Blood Cotton, cotton picking, cotton productivity, economics of slavery, Edward Baptist, slave productivity, Slavery, The Economist, The Half has never been told
Part 1. The French anthropologist-demographer Emmanuel Todd, who is becoming increasingly fashionable in the Anglosphere, is also a scathing critic of the euro. I examine his “anthropological” views of Germany and the euro, which I also contrast with those of Michael Pettis. Continue reading
A very brief history of Greek diglossia. Continue reading
I saw Razib Khan‘s review of Azar Gat’s Nations : The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. Without intending to make it that long I posted a 1000-word comment there. Then I realised I could have posted it here. Continue reading
I’m not intending to do “weekly links” or anything, but I wanted to highlight a blogpost by Victor Mair : what the Dungan language sounds like from snippets of the movie “Jesus” dubbed in Dungan. This is the language of Chinese Muslims who fled to Russian Central Asia and is considered a divergent dialect of Mandarin. You can hear what it sounds from Mair’s links. The comments section, as usual, is excellent. Plus, the movie “Jesus” dubbed in over 1000 languages ! Continue reading
Stream-of-consciousness thoughts about why we say “Semitic” even though the root is “Shem”. And, yes, I know the Hebrew letters in the title say “semitic sibboleth” and not “shemitic shibboleth”. Continue reading
I just noticed Tyler Cowen had blogged a Boston Globe article about the number of loanwords in various languages (is there something from the press Cowen will not blog ?), and his own take was to ask, which major language has the lowest percentage of foreign loanwords ? He seems to think Chinese could be one, but many people in the comments section (correctly) reject the suggestion. Here I talk about “Japanese-made Chinese words”. Continue reading
Posted in East Asia, Food, Languages
Tagged calques, Chinese, Chinese borrowings from Japanese, Hanzi, Japanese, Japanese-made Chinese words, Kanji, loanwords, wasei kango, 和製漢語
Summary : (Part 1 of 4) I critique commenter Matt’s argument that, at the deepest level, American foreign policy has sought a “favourable investment climate” for itself in the Third World. Continue reading
Summary : (Part 2 of 4) As the prelude to a critique of commenter Matt’s view of American foreign policy presented in Part 1, I sketch a brief history of foreign investment as context. Fear not the drear of evil, for the post is mostly pictures (charts) ! ( Cf. parts 1, 3, 4 ) Continue reading
Summary : (Part 3 of 4) I argue that commenter Matt’s view of US foreign policy, as presented in Part 1, makes no sense because the “returns” from that investment climate are laughably low. I present a balance sheet of American internationalism since 1940. ( Cf. parts 1, 2, 4 ) Continue reading
(Part 4 of 4) I argue that American behaviour on the world stage defies any rational explanation. I also question whether the United States has derived much economic benefit from its activist and interventionist approach in the world. Continue reading
In the comments section of an unrelated blogpost, the commenter Matt doggedly argues that the Truman administration deliberately prohibited the European beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan from using American funds to purchase Argentinian wheat in 1948-50. This discrimination, Matt contends, was an attempt to punish Argentina for its nationalist economic policies under Juan Perón. I disputed that a deliberate discrimination occurred at all. But Matt has now cited what I think is conclusive evidence that at least the Economic Cooperation Administration (the administrator of the Marshall Plan funds) did deliberately exclude Argentina, probably under Congressional pressure. The issue is small, a mere footnote on the marginalia of US-Latin American relations very early in the Cold War, but there is a lot of information and argument in there and it’s worth reading the exchange.