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.
Below I catalogue as many as I could find, in a reasonable amount of time, of the errors, peculiar interpretations, and outright misrepresentations of research cited in the references of The History Manifesto. Although the book has got two authors, I will refer only to Guldi as I believe she authored most of the book. [Edit: See note at end]
Guldi criticises many non-historian researchers in this 125-page monograph with 300+ notes, but she reserves a special animus against economists and economic historians. In the narrative she constructs, broad-minded historians work with fuller, richer, multi-faceted evidence to come up with a balanced view of the past, whilst doctrinaire, myth-driven economists form Panglossian interpretations of narrow, reductionist data.
By Guldi’s own description, pages 57-60 of the book, which deal with the divergent views of historians and economists on the subject of inequality and living standards in 19th century Britain, is the showcase exhibit in the contrast between the two groups. But in this section errors, distortions, and misrepresentations of research are particularly dense, and Guldi’s narrative is eviscerated by their exposure. So I start the examination of G&A’s references with this section.
The exact opposite of what the source said !
There are several cases in The History Manifesto where Guldi attributes findings or statements to researchers which are the opposite of what they actually said. One amazing example, cited no less than three times in the book, is Johnson & Nicholas :
Guldi claims these British and Australian (not American) economic historians found the height of prisoners increasing when, in fact, they quite clearly said the exact opposite. From Johnson & Nicholas, the conclusion on page 480 and chart on page 477 :
The paper also cites much previous research on the subject, and any casual researcher could easily find similar observations in the middle-of-the-road source, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, which starts the section on health and nutrition on page 134 unambiguously :
The exact opposite #2 + hallucinated subtext
The much-maligned Johnson & Nicholas had actually been cited a little earlier in the book, along with confederates :
Nobody cited in note 54 says or implies anything about socialism, higher taxes, or “stagnating social opportunity” in 20th century Britain. This is simply a case of hallucinated subtext.
J & N have been exonerated, but equally disgraceful is Guldi’s citation of The Gifts of Athena. Economic historians of the industrial revolution are divided into wage “optimists” and “pessimists” (see below), and Joel Mokyr is counted amongst the latter. In Gifts, Mokyr argues (pp 125-130) that even if wages did rise for workers, most of the increase may have been compensating for the reduction in well-being due to the transition from cottage industry to factory work. The new work regime implied commuting, loss of leisure, increased regimentation, more unpleasant and dangerous working conditions, etc. Yet Mokyr does not necessarily accept that real wages rose :
And he is supposed to be a prominent representative of a species who fixates on a narrow metric of well-being and pronounces all is peachy !
As for health and nutrition, it would take too long to summarise Chapter 5 of Gifts, but no fair-minded person reading that complicated portrait of changes in public health, nutritional knowledge, household behaviour, and technology, could come away thinking Mokyr displays simplistic optimism. He does mention that despite the general decline in mortality, the infant and child mortality rates in 1900 were about the same as in 1850.
Long 2013 argues social mobility in Victorian Britain with respect to occupations was higher than previously thought, but :
Long finds the above surprising because over the same period Britain, at first a laggard in supplying public education, converged with other western countries. So you can interpret that to mean, either there was as much opportunity in 19th century Britain as there was in 20th century Britain (at least in income terms), or equally little in both.
I don’t understand what problem Guldi has with Long 2005, a dry yeoman-like study of whether rural migrants to the city in Victorian Britain earned more than if they had stayed in the countryside, and if they were more likely to experience greater intergenerational mobility. There is one sentence in which Long mentions the 19th century did not have welfare programmes like the 20th to inhibit geographical mobility. Maybe this one sentence burgeoned like a Triffid in Guldi’s mind and transformed into “twentieth-century ‘socialism’ resulted in higher taxes and stagnating social opportunity” ???
References have nothing to do with claim in text !
Johnson & Nicholas, the gift that keeps on giving ! The other references are equally cited for no reason. Barro 1996, a very famous paper, explores whether democracy induces economic growth. It certainly does not interpret one as a proxy for the other. Madsen et al. 2010 test various theoretical models of the British industrial revolution and conclude that the number of inventors and the fall in population growth are the biggest explanatory factors. Kelly & Ó Gráda 2013 disputes previous estimates of agricultural output and food availability in 1200-1800 and discuss the implications of their own estimates for the nutritional status of the preindustrial English population. [Edit: Kelly & Ó Gráda’s discussion does cover nutritional status in the 19th century as well.] All of them stay very close to their technical tasks and are not particularly romantic about what their results mean. None of the papers cited has anything to do with using wages, prices, or height as proxies for freedom, democracy, or happiness !
Even when the gist is right, a multitude of important errors
Even when Guldi has actually read/understood a paper she cites and has described the gist of it accurately, she still gets important elements quite wrong :
According to Horrell et al. 2009, in their very large sample of prisoners, women gained weight in prison, but men generally lost, suggesting that life outside prison was harder for lower-class women than for men. But other representations by Guldi’s are simply incorrect. (a) Horrell et al. were not countering poor Johnson & Nicholas, for the latter also reported (thankless) evidence of greater “nutritional insult” for women than for men !!! (b) Horrell et al. were not “reconsidering” the data from the punching bags J & N, because the two studies used completely different prison populations and different time periods ! (c) The first page of Horrell et al. summarises the previous theoretical and empirical findings on the different experiences of men and women during the Industrial Revolution — completely contrary to Guldi’s claim that disciplinary prejudices had prevented economic historians from noticing ! (d) Sara Horrell does not attribute her “sensitivity” to reading the “historians of the Short Past”. That’s just made up by Guldi. In her review (Horrell 2003) of The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Horrell appropriates the phrase “the wonderful usefulness of history” from Deirdre McCloskey which is a very general praise of historical information.
By the way, I should add, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume 1, obliterates Guldi’s claim that economic historians are uniformly cheerful about Victorian income inequality :
When Guldi cites an actual wage optimist, she gets the crucial detail all wrong !
Guldi has completely garbled the findings of Hoffman et al. (three of whom are from University of California-Davis, only one from Caltech). They argue inequality declined after 1800, not after 1870. In fact by 1870, most of the decline was complete. That point alone completely obviates Guldi’s “contrasting interpretation” involving Manchester trades unions. Contra Guldi, Hoffman et al. also do not attribute the fall in inequality after 1800 entirely or perhaps even primarily to globalisation (i.e., falling prices of grain imported from North America and the Russian Empire). They also cite industrialisation. That’s obvious from comparing the difference in nominal and real inequality over time. From page 342 of Hoffman et al. :
The changes in inequality over time obviously can’t be explained exclusively by the difference in real and nominal values of inequality (i.e., by purchasing power), and Hoffman et al. do not claim otherwise. The paper is primarily about the period 1500-1800, when, the authors argue, the rising prices of staple goods for the poor worsened income inequality for the lower classes in real terms.
I’ve shown that Guldi’s pp 57-60 are a mine-field of errors and distortions. Now I examine other parts of the book.
Just made up
The idea that Landes conceived his classic book on the Industrial Revolution in “direct support of Green Revolution policies” is substantiated neither in the book itself, nor in the Ashworth reference. Landes is a neo-Weberian who extols the primacy of culture in economic development and, in the particular case of Europe, the primacy of Protestant culture. Ashworth criticises him as part of a neoliberal tradition, including Hayek, which minimises the role of the state and maximises that of the innovative individual in the history of the industrial revolution.
It’s very ironic. Guldi routinely portrays economists as neoliberal freaks, but then when she stumbles on the one historian who happens to be a neoliberal, it goes unnoticed. Maybe she mistook Landes for Norman Borlaug ?
References have nothing to do with claim in text #2
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Guldi doubles up on the egregiousness :
The papers by Noy 2009 and Noy & Nuaslri 2011 are about the economic impact of natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, or the fiscal behaviours of governments in the aftermath. They have absolutely nothing to do with technology and growth magically taking care of climate change !!! They don’t even mention climate change ! Storm (2009) summarises a panel discussion all of whose participants agreed that “capitalism’s institutions have to be drastically reformed and made fundamentally more equitable“. Even Goklany, a publication from the libertarian Cato Institute, argues, not that the free market will take care of climate change, but that climate change is not a problem which needs solving, because the net benefits of fossil fuels are far greater.
References have nothing to do with claim in text #3
Guldi cites an economist whom she presents as a revisionist on the environment :
The above can be interpreted, either as a contrast between Markandya’s revisionism and the others’ doctrinaire views ; or all of them have contributed to refuting the “early economic doctrine…”. Either way, the references in note 18 have little to do with Guldi’s text. Arrow et al. does not discuss the “trade-offs between innovation and ecology”. Rather, it argues three things : (a) “Economic growth is not a panacea for environmental quality” ; (b) The claim that as income grows people desire more environmental quality [the Environmental Kuznets Curve or EKC] has been true only for some high-impact pollutants that people notice keenly, not for other environmental problems with more diffuse social costs, especially long-term issues like climate change or the planet’s resource stock ; and (c) there is not one measure of the earth’s carrying capacity, which depends on measures of “ecological resilience”. Stern & Common is even more remote from the uses Guldi conscripts it for. It questions whether measuring the EKC for developed countries (as opposed to the world as a whole) is meaningful, since there is evidence developed countries have reduced its sulphur emissions by shifting dirtier industries to developing countries. [Edit: It asks whether the turning point in the inverted-U shaped relationship between income and sulphur emissions has not been underestimated in the literature by data samples restricted to developed countries. When a larger sample including developing countries is analysed, the income at which sulphur emissions per capita begins to fall is very high, i.e., effectively, there is no inverted U relationship.]
The complete opposite, or extremely free interpretation
In her discussion of environmental history, Guldi cites historian Paul Warde, but the citation straddles the line between the “opposite of what the source said” and “extremely free and tendentious interpretation” :
Maybe Paul Warde has argued somewhere that the West has long been on a path to “environmental exhaustion” or that early modern Europe had survived an “ecological crisis of unprecedented scale”. And maybe he has elaborated at length somewhere on the “anarchy” in early modern Europe resulting from a “collapsing ecosystem”. But it’s not apparent in any of those sources cited by Guldi. Warde’s “Fear of Wood Shortage“ even ends by concluding “Europe, for all its late eighteenth-century problems, remained distant from any ecological frontier”.
The point in “Fear of Wood Shortage” is that because of high transport costs and political divisions, the market for wood was highly fragmented in Germany and Europe in general before the 19th century, and there could be local scarcities even when there was no general scarcity at all. And there’s the question of whether the rhetoric of “scarcity” was used to justify the political allocation of wood to industrial uses like mining or ironworks. It’s strange that Guldi didn’t pick up on this because, after all, she complains all the time about the enclosures of the commons. And what does Warde describe other than an enclosure of woodland commons ?
Nor does the historiography described by Warde indicate “historians of Germany had documented a crisis in wood”. Rather, he describes a tradition of debate between social-science types (including Marx), who argued that the “wood crisis” was manufactured for political reasons, and the forestry specialists and environmental historians who argued for the reality of such a crisis. In Ecology Warde tells us on pg 228, “historians have tended to rely upon anecdote and second-guessing regulations for at least the first half of the early modern period”, rather than direct documentation of any actual wood shortage. What chapter 4 of Ecology actually documents is that there were many different types of wood for different uses (fuel, building, etc.), and local shortages of some kinds were real enough, especially during the Thirty Years’ War, whilst other kinds were abundant. By any reasonable reckoning, what Warde describes seems less an ecological problem than a problem of political and economic fragmentation in early modern Germany.
Nor, as far as I can make out, does Warde discover “how our ancestors found a way out” through new forms of governance. He seems to have found no evidence (pp 278-79) that woodlands were better managed :
Contrary to Guldi’s assertion Warde even minimises the impact of climate (pg. 96) :
Guldi’s claim that her sources document “energy exhaustion” in Europe by the end of the early modern period is supported only by Malanima’s chapter 4 in Kander, Malamina & Warde. The primary evidence for this is the secular rise in fuel prices in the period 1500-1800, but Malanima acknowledges Robert Allen‘s argument that the real price of fuels did not rise in the period. Only by treating food as energy (which the book does as part of its overall approach) is the argument for “energy exhaustion” tenable. [Edit: Also, since the consumption basket used to deflate fuels prices was composed primarily of food, and food prices were also increasing, the book argues the real price of fuels was actually stable. But it was only stable, because coal was available.]
¿¿¿ Huh ???
I don’t know Jonsson, but I do know the Pomeranz book quite well, and my reaction is total mystification. Class, race, wisdom of local peoples being overridden, rule by landlords the cause of environmental destruction ? None of that is in Pomeranz.
Pomeranz has got a substantial comparison of Chinese versus European land markets and use practises in the 18th century (pp 70-80). And his overall point is that Chinese land markets, on balance, were more efficient than Europe’s. In the latter, ancient entails, hereditary tenancies, and the slow progress of enclosures (e.g., in France, Germany, Spain) compromised the operation of the market and the free alienability of land.
Got that ? If the western elites were complicit in something, it was in retarding the intensive exploitation of land. At least according to Pomeranz. Western Europe on the eve of the industrial revolution theoretically had a lot of slack in land, but customary and institutional barriers kept it underutilised. England was the great exception.
In chapter 5, Pomeranz does advert, on the land that was open to intensive exploitation, to the severity of deforestation (particularly in Britain, France, the Low Countries, and the Mediterranean), plus soil depletion and erosion in most of Western Europe. But again, in his depiction, this seems a result of institutional restrictions on land use. Pomeranz’s bias in The Great Divergence is to argue as much as possible that China was as “Smithian” or “neoliberal” as any place in Europe. So obviously you’re not going to get the perspective of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra. I thought Guldi knew how to “interrogate” sources ?
Guldi attributes to Alesina et al. a genetic interpretation of their findings, even though no such thing exists in the paper :
Alesina et al. most assuredly do not argue that “modern gender roles have structured our genes”. (What does that even mean anyway ? The sentence would only make sense if the genes were doing the structuring.) The words “gene” or “genetic” never appear in the paper, and the authors define “cultural norms” as “slowly changing beliefs about appropriate actions in different situations”. So I’m sure the authors would be surprised to hear their paper has been described as supporting a form of genetic determinism. They simply argue that societies which traditionally practised hoe agriculture, as opposed to plough agriculture, do better on metrics of gender equality. The paper also examines the persistence of gender attitudes amongst second-generation immigrants from plough and hoe cultures, and find that the attitudes persist only partially. So the paper, as the authors present it, does not even support the characterisation that anyone is “locked into [their] history” even culturally once they move.
Obviously I could not look at all the notes. But I’m sure there would be more “peculiar” references if one were to look further.
By the way, given all of the above, I find it a minor miracle that Guldi did not think Elinor Ostrom was a strong partisan of the tragedy of the commons, as a opposed to a critic.