Jo Guldi’s Curiouser & Curiouser Footnotes

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.]

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.

Edit 18 March 2015: In light of the revisions made to The History Manifesto, I link to the screenshots of the original citations from the original PDF version of the book, where appropriate. See end of post for more details.

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 :

[G&A pg 57] There are few brighter examples of reductionism and its opposite than the debates over inequality in Victorian Britain… The Victorian period has been researched and written about in both History and Economics departments as a major concentration of the field. Yet the two fields could not disagree more about what happened. Each measures a single index or perhaps compares to indices of well-being: criminality and height; education and wealth at death; migration and wages. Based upon these data, the economists conclude that the nineteenth century led to gains in equality, opportunity, and nutrition.

[pg 59] To take a more concrete example, there is the way that historians and economists both understand nutrition in the British Industrial Revolution. Ten years earlier, American economists performed a study of the nutrition of poor people over the course of the nineteenth century, as documented in the height and weight of individuals when first admitted to prison. The evidence seemed to suggest that poor people were gaining in nutrition over the century – in general, prisoners in 1867 were nutritionally better off than prisoners in 1812. 60

60 Johnson and Nicholas, ‘Male and Female Living Standards in England and Wales, 1812–1867’, [The Economic History Review 48 (1995)], 470–81.

[Screenshot of note 60 from original PDF version]

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 :

johnson

johnson2

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 experience of health deteriorated in the nineteenth century. The downward trend in infant and child mortality in the 1710s–1810s was reversed in the 1820s– 30s, with some improvement in the 1870s and 1880s, before a more decisive decline in the twentieth century (Wrigley et al. 1997 : 215; Mitchell 1988 : 57– 8; Millward and Bell 2001 : 699; Huck 1995 ).

The exact opposite #2 + hallucinated subtext

The much-maligned Johnson & Nicholas had actually been cited a little earlier in the book, along with confederates :

[G&A pg 58] Among economic historians dealing with inequality over the nineteenth century, a surprising number conclude that nineteenth-century industrialisation resulted in more nutrition for the poor, while twentieth-century ‘socialism’ resulted in higher taxes and stagnating social opportunity.54 According to economists, these numbers demonstrate conclusively that capitalism banished inequality during the nineteenth century, and could do so again.

54 Paul Johnson and Stephen Nicholas, ‘Male and Female Living Standards in England and Wales, 1812–1867: Evidence from Criminal Height Records’, The Economic History Review 48 (1995), 470–81; Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, NJ, 2002); Jason Long, ‘Rural–Urban Migration and Socioeconomic Mobility in Victorian Britain’, The Journal of Economic History 65 (2005), 1–35; Jason Long, ‘The Surprising Social Mobility of Victorian Britain’, European Review of Economic History 17 (2013), 1–23.

[Screenshot of note 54 from original PDF version]

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 :

The evidence for a significant nationwide increase in real wages, however, has been called into question (Feinstein, 1998). If real wages failed to rise appreciably, yet working conditions worsened, a decline in overall economic well-being cannot be ruled out. [pg 127]

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 :

…intergenerational mobility of earnings barely changed at all over the decades from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth. While it seems clear that intergenerational social mobility across occupational classes increased from the time of the 1851 –1881 censuses to the 1972  Oxford Mobility Study, it appears that earnings mobility has been roughly constant. (pg 18)

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 !

[G&A pg 59] Yet data are abused when they are examined as a single facet of historical experience. The data from economics tends to take one aspect of economic experience – wages, the price of grain, or height – and interpret them as a proxy for freedom, democracy, or happiness.59

59 Johnson and Nicholas, ‘Male and Female Living Standards in England and Wales, 1812–1867’, 470–81; Robert J. Barro, ‘Democracy and Growth’, Journal of Economic Growth 1 (1996), 1–27; Jakob B. Madsen, James B. Ang, and Rajabrata Banerjee, ‘Four Centuries of British Economic Growth: The Roles of Technology and Population’, Journal of Economic Growth 15 (2010), 263–90; Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Numerare Est Errare: Agricultural Output and Food Supply in England Before and During the Industrial Revolution’, The Journal of Economic History 73 (2013), 1132–63.

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 :

[G&A pg 61] But a decade later, some British economists [Horrell et al.] reconsidered the data [used by the much-abused Johnson & Nicholas], having spent some time reading up on British social history. The data confirmed, counter to the original thesis, that the weight of working-class women actually went down over the course of the Industrial Revolution… When first admitted to prison, most of the working-class women in English prisons were so thin and frail that they actually gained weight on the few cups of meagre gruel regulated by national authorities to deter lazy paupers from seeking welfare at houses of correction.61

…Without a sensitivity to gender and age, the kind of sensitivity that the Cambridge economist Sara Horrell calls ‘the wonderful usefulness of history’ and attributes to her reading of historians of the Short Past, the evidence they looked at merely reinforced the prejudices of their field that Victorian industrialisation produced taller, better-fed proletarians.62

61 Sara Horrell, David Meredith, and Deborah Oxley, ‘Measuring Misery: Body Mass, Ageing and Gender Inequality in Victorian London’, Explorations in Economic History 46 (2009), 93–119; Sébastien Rioux, ‘Capitalism and the Production of Uneven Bodies: Women, Motherhood and Food Distribution in Britain c. 1850–1914’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, (2014): doi:10.1111/tran.12063.

62 Sara Horrell, ‘The Wonderful Usefulness of History’, The Economic Journal 113 (2003), F180–F186.

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 :

Remarkably, 150 years after the end of the industrial revolution, there is still debate over who were the beneficiaries of the economic growth of that era. From the nineteenth century onwards, a strong pessimist faction has believed that the gains in living conditions for the working class in this era were meagre, and much less than the gains to landlords, capitalists and the middle classes… The pessimism about working-class living conditions has been recently echoed in the work of Mokyr (1988), Feinstein (1998a) and Allen (2009). Allen, in particular, argues that the rate of growth of real wages in the industrial revolution era was substantially below the growth rate of output, so that the share of profits in national income rose sharply in these years. [ch.7, pg 266]

When Guldi cites an actual wage optimist, she gets the crucial detail all wrong ! 

[G&A pg 58] Even the same events can be characterised in very different ways depending on how deeply layered the data are. For instance, the falling price of grain for workers during the 1870s has been celebrated by economists from the California Institute of Technology in a 2002 paper as a demonstration that capitalism since 1500, despite deepening income inequality, ultimately created ‘real purchasing power’ for everyone, including the working class.57 That same result of cheap food has a contrasting interpretation among historians as the product, to be sure, of decades of labour organising on behalf of Manchester workers concerned about being unable to afford to eat. In fact, the moment of falling inequality around 1870 arguably had less to do with the rise of international trade, and more to do with the rise of organised labour after decades of state suppression, a moment made possible by working-class people insistently gathering in public to share their ideas and experience and organise a programme of political reform.58

57 Philip T. Hoffman et al., ‘Real Inequality in Europe Since 1500’, The Journal of Economic History 62 (2002), 322–55. 58 Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society (Oxford, 1971).

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. :

hoffman

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

[G&A pg 27] The institutions of international development looked to history to supply a roadmap to freedom, independence, economic growth, and reciprocal peacemaking between the nations of the world. [Many examples follow.] By the 1960s, economic historians like David Landes had retooled the study of the history of the Industrial Revolution in direct support of Green Revolution policies, promising a future of abundant riches on the back of a history of constant invention.43

43 David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (London, 1969); William J. Ashworth, ‘The British Industrial Revolution and the Ideological Revolution: Science, Neoliberalism and History’, History of Science (2014): doi: 10.1177/0073275314529860.

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 :

[G&A pg 63] To counter the claims of climate scientists about rising CO2 and a changing climate that merited immediate action, some economists proposed their own version of past and future, one that emphasised continuous technological innovation and economic growth since 1700, and proposed that no matter what dangers had recently been revealed by climate science, the invisible hand of the market would take care of them.9 Neither side really substantiated their claims by taking into account the others. Instead, both sides had mutually irreconcilable models of the past based on limited data of their own.

9 Ilan Noy, ‘The Macroeconomic Consequences of Disasters’, Journal of Development Economics 88 (2009), 221–31; Servaas Storm, ‘Capitalism and Climate Change: Can the Invisible Hand Adjust the Natural Thermostat?’, Development and Change 40 (2009), 1011–38; Noy and Aekkanush Nualsri, ‘Fiscal Storms: Public Spending and Revenues in the Aftermath of Natural Disasters’, Environment and Development Economics 16 (2011), 113–28; Indur M. Goklany, Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity, SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY, 2012): http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2225298

[Screenshot of note 9 from original PDF version]

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 :

[G&A pg 66] Economists like Anil Markandya have used historical thinking to cut the Gordian knot of growth vs ecology. Markandya revisited questions of environmental regulation with new data gathered over a century and a half from the experience of regulation in Britain. His conclusion was that Britain had started regulating sulphur dioxide and other contaminants as early as 1821, all without any serious impact on GDP per capita.17 Historical data like Markandyas have proved capable of refuting early economic doctrine about the trade-offs between innovation and ecology.18

17 Anil Markandya, ‘Can Climate Change Be Reversed under Capitalism?’, Development and Change 40 (2009), 1141.

18 Kenneth Arrow et al., ‘Economic Growth, Carrying Capacity, and the Environment’, Ecological Economics15 (1995), 91–5; David I.Stern and Michael S. Common, ‘Is There an Environmental Kuznets Curve for Sulfur?’, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 41 (2001), 162–78.

[Screenshot of note 18 from original PDF version]

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” :

[G&A pp 66-67] Some of that work confirms that the West has been on a long path to environmental exhaustion, moving from one energy source to another, generation by generation, a process that helped to give rise to the modern nation-state, at the time a form of ‘international government’ of unprecedented size and strength. That was the answer that historian Paul Warde has now provided to a starting question of striking relevance – how was it that early-modern Europe had survived an ecological crisis of unprecedented scale? – required him to invent a new way of doing history, essentially one that required modelling big data over three centuries of information in obscure archives. Over the course of years, travelling from small town to small town, Warde began adding up all of the illegal infractions that happen over centuries, relating them to climate events, and judging how our ancestors found a way out. In this account, new forms of governance become important in reaction to environmental exhaustion, at times when fighting over a collapsing ecosystem results in anarchy that only a new form of government can resolve. 19

19 Historians of Germany have documented a crisis in wood that spread through early-modern Europe and propelled the search for new colonies with unfelled timber to exploit, and later coal and oil to burn. Their work has involved examining the court records of dozens of local vicinities across Germany, documenting when and under what conditions peasants received the maximum punishment possible for chopping down trees that were not their own. Paul Warde, ‘Fear of Wood Shortage and the Reality of the Woodland in Europe, c. 1450–1850’, History Workshop Journal 62 (2006), 28–57; Warde, Ecology, Economy and State Formation in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2006). More generally, see Astrid Kander, Paolo Manamina and Paul Warde, Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries (Princeton, NJ, 2014).

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 :

warde278

Contrary to Guldi’s assertion Warde even minimises the impact of climate (pg. 96) :

warde96

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 ???

[G&A pg 70] Histories of how ruling powers in the West employed expert civil engineers, foresters, and agronomists to unilaterally discount the wisdom of local peoples managing their land have stressed the way that capitalism, the nation-state, and rule by landlords are directly related to the environmental destruction that characterises the last two hundred years of the Anthropocene. Evidence of the rise of the doctrine of ‘improvement’ in Enlightenment Europe give us a hint of way new ideas about class and racial superiority, not merely economic strategising, tipped the sudden accumulation of power into the hands of a few landlords at the dawn of the industrial age, leading to a new ideology that wedded power to the exploitation of the environment.30

30 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ, 2000); Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (New Haven, 2013).

[Screenshot of note 30 from original PDF version]

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.

Overall, according to a standard account, the areas of western Europe that practiced the new husbandry in 1800 were not much more numerous than they were in 1600—the technological “agricultural revolution” was largely a nineteenth-century phenomenon.235 There is no remotely comparable example in China of custom or law delaying the spread of the best known agricultural practices on such a massive scale.236

Other improvements were also foregone because of European land laws. Both the draining of marshes and the irrigation of existing farm land in eighteenth-century France were greatly retarded by customary rules and legal procedures that made it almost impossible to buy off those threatened by such improvements—even where it would have been very profitable to do so. It took the Revolution to abolish the privileges and simplify the procedures involved.

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 ?

Outright hallucination

Guldi attributes to Alesina et al. a genetic interpretation of their findings, even though no such thing exists in the paper :

[G&A pg 109] : We live in an age where big data seem to suggest that we are locked into our history, our path dependent on larger structures that arrived before we did. For example, ‘Women and the Plough’, an economics article in a prestigious journal, tells us that modern gender roles have structured our genes and our preferences since the institution of agriculture.56

[Screenshot of above passage from original PDF version.]

56 Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn, ‘On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 128 (2013), 469–530.

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.

Edit 14 Nov 2014 : Several people have complained that I single out Guldi even though the book is co-authored. My rationale is simply that, based on the references, the interests, and the emphases displayed in the book, as well as previous works of both authors, she must have written most of The History Manifesto and Armitage is mostly attaching his prestige name as secondary author. PS: A precursor to The History Manifesto was this article [Edit 15-04-2015: this is the earlier draft version I had read] which appeared [sic] in Annales. In that piece Armitage’s name appears first, and the text itself seems more weighted toward intellectual history. It’s also relatively light on the notes. The book, however, has got a much greater orientation toward economics, economic/social history, especially as pertaining to Britain in the 19th century, the environment, “utopian” activism, land movements, etc., all areas of specialisation for Guldi. So I believe she was largely responsible for the dilation of the article into the book, including the fulsome footnote-packing. As it turns out, all the references whose use in The History Manifesto that I criticise above, were absent in the Annales article, except for the reference to David Landes

Edit #2 : Recently, at Columbia, Jo Guldi stated quite explicitly that The History Manifesto is “an attack on the discipline of economics”:

Edit 18 March 2015: I have just learnt that at least seven of the notes in both the HTML and PDF versions of The History Manifesto have been altered in order to eliminate or modify references highlighted above. Where appropriate I have linked to screenshots of the original references from the originally published PDF version. Edit 23 March 2015: Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler have issued a statement to the same effect. Also, I’ve compiled a list of the changes I know about in a PDF document. Edit 30 March 2015: Cambridge University Press has posted a revision notice for The History Manifesto.

This entry was posted in Economic History, History Manifesto, Industrial Revolution, Inequality and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Jo Guldi’s Curiouser & Curiouser Footnotes

  1. Pingback: La longue purée | Pseudoerasmus

  2. Anonymous says:

    To point out the problems with referencing in the Manifesto is only right. However, to turn this post into an attack on Guldi, not both authors, is completely unwarranted given that it is based on an assumption. Without categorical confirmation of who wrote which poet ions of the book, this post is implicitly sexist in inscribing so many errors to Guldi alone and placing the Harvard male academic as above arrow.

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  3. deleted says:

    ‘which portions’ and ‘above error’. My apologies for the typos created by autocorrect.

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  4. AKarlin says:

    The above comment reminds me of a similar episode of SJW-oring, but ironically inverted in the sense that the critique mostly mentioned the male author. The real reason for that there as I suspect is the case here is that is more efficient to write one name as opposed to two, and it just so happens that Guldi’s name appears first in the title of the work. But hey, if there’s one thing modern academia is missing, it’s more “wah-wah sexism” whining.

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  5. Here’s the article that was the precursor to the book :

    http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/armitage/files/rld_annales_revised_0.pdf

    Armitage, the intellectual historian, is primary author, and it shows in the article.

    Except for the Landes reference, all the refs in the book I criticised were absent in the article and had to do with evonomic/social history and environmental history. What does Guldi specialise in ? Modern British social history and the international land movement.

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  6. Pingback: Economic History Link Dump 15-01-2015 | Pseudoerasmus

  7. Pingback: Errata dentata: Examining the revised History Manifesto | Pseudoerasmus

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