Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Reductionist Summary

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. Continue reading

Posted in cotton, cotton textiles, Empire of Cotton, global history, historians of capitalism, Sven Beckert | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

Did inequality cause the First World War? Contra Hobson-Lenin-Milanovic

The “Hobson-Lenin Thesis”: Inequality, Imperialism, and the First World 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.

[ Update 6 Dec. 2017: Thomas Hauner, Branko Milanovic, and Suresh Naidu have a new paper out, “Inequality, Foreign Investment, and Imperialism“, which argues in greater detail Milanovic’s argument from the book. See my brief comments at the end. Update 7 Dec. 2017: Suresh has replied to my brief comments! ]

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Posted in Branko Milanovic, Foreign Investment, Inequality, the First Globalization, The First World War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

The Baptist Question Redux: Emancipation & Cotton Productivity

Edward Baptist, the author of The Half Has Never Been Told, has been claiming since the publication of his book that a putative post-Emancipation drop in overall agricultural productivity in the American South is proof that it was torture, not new cotton cultivars and frontier soils, which had been largely responsible for the US cotton boom of 1800-60. But there are severe limitations to what the cliometric literature on slavery can reveal about post-Emancipation productivity specifically in cotton-picking.
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Posted in cotton, Edward Baptist, historians of capitalism, Slavery, The Half has never been told | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Where do pro-social institutions come from?

AKA “Cooperation, cultural evolution & economic development”. Where do ‘good’ or pro-social institutions come from? Why does the capacity for collective action and cooperative behaviour vary so much across the world today? How do some populations transcend tribalism to form a civil society? How have some societies gone beyond personal relations and customary rules to impersonal market exchange and anonymous institutions? In short, how do you “get to Denmark”? I first take a look at what the “cultural evolution” literature has to say about it. I then turn to the intersection of economics and differential psychology.

[Warning: long and kind of abstract, though not technical. Edit 21 Oct 2015: ‘Denmark’ is a metaphor taken from Fukuyama. This post has absolutely nothing what ever to do with Denmark.]

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Posted in Cultural Evolution, Institutions, Political Economy, Social & Civic Capital, Social Evolution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

¿De donde vienen las instituciones prosociales?

[19 October 2015] Jesús Alfaro of the Autonomous University of Madrid has translated my previous post into Spanish: ¿De dónde vienen las instituciones prosociales?

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“Experimenting with Social Norms” in Small-Scale Societies

Social norms, institutions, and economic development. (A companion post to “Where do pro-social institutions come from?”)

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Posted in Cultural Evolution, Economic Anthropology, Institutions, Social Evolution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Educational Romanticism & Economic Development

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“.]

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Markets & Famine: Amartya Sen is not the last word !

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 Historyquietly, 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.

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Anachronism & Relevance in History: a comment on Steve Pincus

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!)

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Did the “Invisible Blockade” against Allende’s Chile work?

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.

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Posted in Chile, Political Economy | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments