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Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000

Author(s):Federico, Giovanni
Reviewer(s):Gardner, Bruce

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

Giovanni Federico, Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. xiv + 388 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-691-12051-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bruce Gardner, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland.

Feeding the World depicts the history of world agriculture since 1800 as an outstanding success story. The goal of the book is to explain how this feat was achieved.

After two brief chapters setting the stage and describing the distinctive features of agriculture, the book consists of three chapters (3-5) that lay out the facts as we know them (via statistics) followed by four chapters (6-9) that investigate the technological and institutional context in which agriculture developed as it has. The tenth and final chapter provides a synthesis of the facts and trends, and the pros and cons of some alternative explanations of them in the context of overall economic growth.

The events that call for explanation, and that warrant the label of success story, are that since 1800 the world’s population has grown from roughly 1 billion to 6.5 billion people, while food production has not only kept up but enabled increasing per capita food consumption, and with a trend toward decreasing prices of food relative to other goods at least since 1850. These outcomes can be called a success not only on their own terms but especially in view of the Malthusian pessimism of intelligent observers not only circa 1800 but at many junctures between then and now when the world’s food-supply good fortune was thought to be at risk of ending.

The statistical chapters cover output, prices, and trade (chapter 3), inputs (chapter 4), and productivity (chapter 5). The problems facing numerical estimates of these quantities and their rates of change over time are given a full and sensitive discussion. What is most striking though is the audacious follow-up. Confrontation with these difficulties leads not to a retreat from quantification but a series of tables that gives annual rates of change going far back into the nineteenth century for a great number of individual countries as well as regional and world aggregates. A nice example of the author’s creative ambition is his time series chart (Graph 3.2) of world trade in agricultural and total goods, 1850 to 2000. He splices estimates from four disparate sources to show clearly the huge expansion of agricultural trade over the period (trade volume in 2000 being 75 times the 1850 level), the even faster growth of nonagricultural trade since 1950 (but not before then), and the big departure from the overall trend of strong growth between the outbreak of World War I and the end of World War II.

The culmination of the book’s statistical efforts is a set of estimates of total factor productivity (TFP) growth in agriculture. TFP growth is found to be the principal source of output growth in the industrial countries and an important source in the less-developed world. TFP growth has been substantial in most countries especially in the twentieth century, and since 1950 has grown faster in agriculture than in manufacturing, belying the idea of agriculture as stagnant and backward.

Chapter 6 opens the discussion of what has caused increases in TFP. Two main sources are considered: increases in the efficiency of resource use with given technological capabilities, and improvements in technology. Technological change is the focus of Chapter 6, which in 32 well-informed and closely reasoned pages highlights the findings and controversies of the large literature on both the sources of invention and the adoption of technology by farmers.

Chapters 7 through 9 address the characteristics of an economy that foster, or frustrate, the development and adoption of TFP-raising technology. Chapter 7 focuses on property rights and the economic organization of farming — size of farms, land tenure, cooperative enterprise. Chapter 8 goes into more detail on the institutions that govern property ownership and exchange, but does not assign a clear causal role to any of them as sources of productivity growth. Chapter 9 is devoted to agricultural policies around the world. A fundamental transformation in policies is seen, from “benign neglect” before the 1930s to a growing agenda of governmental regulation after. This agenda of regulation and support, while politically successful, is concluded not only to have failed to contribute to TFP growth, but to have imposed net burdens on the economies that implemented the policies.

Chapter 10 summarizes the results of the book in fifteen “stylized facts.” The ones most centrally related to the goal of the book are that agricultural output grew mainly due to increases in inputs in the nineteenth century and TFP growth in the twentieth, and that publicly-funded research and extension have played a major role in this growth. An implication of the brief (two-page) summary discussion is that technological change is in the driver’s seat, and that other factors have been important only insofar as they fostered or hindered new technology being improved and implemented on farms. And, while there have been notable developments in property rights, land ownership, the role of family farms, product and input markets, and agricultural policies, the author is in the end unwilling to credit developments in any of these areas as important causal factors in long-term agricultural output or TFP growth, apart from the disasters created by attempts to collectivize agriculture in the Soviet Union and China.

The generalization offered about institutions is that they “have successfully adjusted to the needs of technical progress” (p. 222). It is surprising to find such a modest bottom-line role for institutional change as a causal agent. Such a role underlies the continuing efforts of the World Bank and others to use property rights, markets, and related institutions as key long-term policy levers to promote growth. I take the author’s reticence to join the bandwagon as derived from the fact that the long-term trends the book focuses on simply do not permit sorting out causes from effects. Still, it is notable that the discussion ends up treating institutional change as more effect than cause. Could it be that institutional reforms have less independent force as a source of economic growth than current opinion sees them as having? I would like to see the author’s conclusions on this matter in more detail, however tentative that discussion would have to be. In the case with which I am most familiar, the United States, it is wrong to summarize the governmental role as benign neglect before 1930. George Washington, in his 1796 annual address to Congress, noted that institutions for promoting agriculture grow up “supported by the public purse; and to what object can it be dedicated with greater propriety?” (quoted in W.L. Wanlass, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture,” in Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 1920). U.S. land-grant universities were provided substantial federal support starting with the Morrill Act of 1862, and both federal and state-level support for agricultural education and technical assistance and research have been important ever since. For decades before 1930 waterways, irrigation, drainage, and other infrastructure were subsidized, at times to a fault. The evidence that these activities and investment made a difference in U.S. TFP growth is reasonably solid.

Most of Chapter 10 is devoted not to conclusions from the earlier chapters but rather to a discussion of the role of agriculture in general economic growth. The discussion of this difficult issue is knowledgeable and judicious and worth having, but has a somewhat tacked-on feel given the stated purpose of the book.

The author, Giovanni Federico, is Professor of Economic History at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy. He writes in the style and substance of a modern economic historian, that is, making cogent use of the tools of economic theory and empirical practice. His writing is exceptionally clear and jargon-free. His scholarship is wide-ranging and thorough and avoids superficiality. He is an adventurous scholar. While fully cognizant of the limitations of his data, he goes ahead anyway and quantifies his best judgments and pushes as far as possible with their implications. He at times likely pushes further than the data will go, but the sources of his conclusions are transparent so if you want to challenge him you know what you have to do.

Federico takes seriously the arguments of historians who are not imbued with an economist’s outlook, and when he finds fault with positions taken in the literature, he does so in a gentlemanly but firm way. On contentious topics, such as the induced innovation hypothesis, he is sensible and fair to all sides. Though he would not claim to have written the final word on either the measurement of agricultural growth or the explanation of its causes, Federico’s work is an important contribution to our knowledge of the facts and their interpretation.

Bruce Gardner is Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, Harvard University Press (2002).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study

Author(s):Borsch, Stuart J.
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. xii + 195 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-292-70617-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Certainly for my university students no topic in European economic history has proved to be more fascinating and engaging than that of the Black Death, especially with its late-medieval consequences. Its more general popularity is indicated by the recent spate of books on the Black Death, all of which are, of course, Eurocentric (cited below). This book, by Stuart Borsch, an Assistant Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, will likely attract considerable interest by providing a comparative history of the demographic consequences in Mamluk Egypt, whose economic history certainly deserves to be far better known, and England, as the most obvious paradigm for such a comparison. On these grounds alone, his book should be a major contribution to the economic history literature; and despite the criticisms that follow, he has indeed supplied some valuable and most interesting new historical evidence.

Inspired by Robert Brenner’s observation (1976, 1982, 1985) that ‘different [economic and social] outcomes proceeded from similar demographic trends at different times and in different areas of Europe,’ Borsch seeks to demonstrate that the demographic consequences of the Black Death produced almost diametrically opposite results in these two countries (by ca. 1520). In England, the results, according to the author (p. 16), were that: ‘the scarcity of labor in England destroyed the remnants of the manorial system, which was replaced by [non-servile] tenant farming. Wages rose, rents and grain prices dropped, unemployment decreased, per capita incomes rose, and the economy fully recovered by the 1500.’ Except for the final observation, his conclusions are thus fully in accordance with the standard Ricardo model, which, oddly enough, is never mentioned in this book. He goes even further to contend that ‘England’s economy epitomized the most positive economic transformations that took place in Western Europe in the wake of the plagues. The impact of the plague was the antithesis of that in Egypt,’ where the economy suffered drastic and long-term contraction, rising grain prices, stable or rising rents, falling real wages and per capita incomes. Alas, I do not believe that his evidence and analyses justify these stark conclusions.

Organized in seven chapters, this study discusses the following topics: (1) the nature of the plague (bubonic), and methodological problems of demographic analyses; (2) mortality, irrigation, and landholders in Mamluk Egypt; (3) the impact of the plagues on the rural economy of Egypt; (4) the impact of the plagues on the rural economy of England; (5) the Dinar Jayshi money-of-account and agrarian output in Egypt, which is then compared to England’s contemporary agrarian outputs; (6) a re-evaluation of estimates of prices and wages in both countries; and then (7) a summary of his major conclusions (with a supplemental appendix on marginal productivity models).

Comparative history thus offers us the prospects of insights into the nature of basic historical problems that might well be ignored by a focus on one just one country or region. It has, however, the inherent disadvantage that it defies, so to speak, the law of comparative advantage: in that few historians can be masters of more than one field in order to provide the insights from specialization. Borsch, who devoted two years to archival research in Egypt, has acquired a wealth of knowledge whose results, for Mamluk Egypt, I cannot properly judge, while I must disagree with many of his conclusions about the economy of late medieval England, and thus with some of the essential comparisons that he had presented. He has, to be sure, compiled an impressive bibliography on late-medieval England, but with some curious lacuna (he is aware of my earlier but not later publications) — leaving me with a possibly unfair impression that he has cherry-picked his sources and evidence to sustain his often provocative theses.

Yet even with his own statistics, Borsch’s statement that England’s ‘economy [had] fully recovered by 1500’ cannot be taken seriously. First, in citing Mayhew (1995a), he indicates that England’s population had fallen from about 6.0 million ca. 1300 to about 2.25 million in the early 1520s. While the latter estimate is now generally accepted (see Cornwall 1970, Blanchard 1970, Campbell 1981), the former estimate of 6.0 million for 1300, which originated with several studies by Michael Postan (1950, 1959, 1966) — especially in his attack on the more modest estimates of Russell (1966) — is now in much dispute, even if it still does prevail as the majority opinion. Recent studies, devoted to the ‘Feeding the City [of London] Project’ (Campbell, Galloway, Keene and Murphy 1993, Nightingale 1996), have convinced me that the population of England ca. 1300 could not have exceeded 4.75 million, and was probably much closer to 4.0 million. Note that a modest compromise estimate of 4.5 million is still double the size of the English population in the early 1520s. If we were to entertain the higher if still conventional estimate of 6.0 million, can we seriously believe that England lost almost two-thirds of its population in the ensuing two centuries — a vastly greater demographic loss than that experienced by any other region of Europe? Can we believe that England, despite very extensive economic development in the ensuing centuries, was unable to regain that medieval level of population until the very eve of the Industrial Revolution era (with an estimated population of 6.15 million in 1756)? That 6.0 million figure is also used to estimate England’s GDP in 1300 — thus rendering this estimate highly suspect, as is the comparison with Egypt’s population, also supposedly about 6.0 million at the time of the Mamluk land survey of 1315. His admissions that ‘we do not have exact figures for Egypt’s population’ (p. 90), nor indeed any estimates for that population in the early sixteenth century, provide an even more serious problem, to be considered later.

If England’s population in the 1520s was only half (rather than just a third) of that sustained in 1300, how can anyone speak of economic recovery? The retort may be that per capita incomes had risen since the Black Death, a contention discussed below, when we must differentiate the issues of rising real incomes for those fully dependent on wages, a small minority, from the question of per capita income for society as a whole. To be sure, economists and historians continue to debate whether or not we should measure economic growth in aggregate or per capita terms. A more modern example is the debate about the comparative economic performance of France and the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1910, the population of the UK rose almost four-fold, from 10.7 to 40.9 million (+282.2%), while France’s population rose only 45.1%, from 27.3 to 39.6 million. Defenders of the French contend that, from the 1850s, its per capita income rose at a faster rate (overall: 207% vs. 197%) — ignoring the fact that in 1910 the French per capita income was only 67.8% of the British (Crafts 1983). The more important question — for both the modern and medieval periods — is the view, held by many, that genuine economic growth is almost always accompanied by and manifested by population growth. As Ralph Davis (1973, p. 16) once reminded us, ‘the economy of modern Europe would never have come into existence on the basis of population decline.’

There are other data to refute the notion of England’s supposedly ‘complete’ economic recovery by ca. 1500, specifically concerning the woolen textile industry, whose rapid post-Plague rise Borsch cites as major evidence for English economic growth in the later Middle Ages. But he never bothers to explain why England underwent this transformation from being principally a raw material exporter (wool) to a manufacturing exporter (cloth). The answer, in fact, lies in the totally unintended, inadvertent consequences of English fiscal policies, in financing the Hundred Years War from its very outset (1337-1453): the exorbitant taxation of England’s most lucrative export and most important agricultural commodity, wool, with a ‘specific’ tax (customs and subsidy) that reached 50% of the value of wool exports by the 1390s; and the crown’s re-organization of the wool trade through a mercantile cartel (Merchants of the Calais Staple) that was designed to pass the tax incidence from domestic growers to foreign buyers — principally the woolen cloth industries of the Low Countries and Italy (for whom that tax-burdened wool accounted for over 70% of production costs). Cloth exports, on the other hand, could not be organized in such a cartelized fashion; and thus export taxes, commencing only in 1347 (and thereafter fixed until 1558), amounted to no more than 3% of cloth export values. Consequently it became economically far more advantageous to export wool in the form of manufactured cloth. Using the ratio of 4.333 broadcloths (24 yards by 1.75 yards) to one woolsack (364 lb = 165.23 kg), I have calculated that the total volume of wool exports (wool and cloth combined) fell from a mean of 154,614 sacks in 1301-10 to a mean of 142,894 sacks in 1351-60, and finally to a mean of just 93,764 sacks in 1491-1500 — a fall of 40% by volume.

One may retort that domestic wools converted into cloth exports were that much more valuable (even though wool accounted for more than 50% of the value of the cloth, even in England). Over this same period, the value of wool exports fell from a mean of ?222,051 sterling in 1301-10 to one of ?152,608 in 1351-60 to just ?43,284 in 1491-1500 — a fall of 72%, while the value of cloth exports (unrecorded before 1347) rose from a mean of ?11,160.7 in 1351-60 to ?152,179.7 in 1491-1500. That means that the combined value of exports fell from a mean of ?222,052 in 1301-10 to one of ?134,641 in 1401-10, but, while rising thereafter, had reached only a mean of ?195,464 in 1491-00 (a net decline, in nominal terms, of 12%). Since, however, Borsch prefers to measure values in terms of kilograms of pure silver, we must note that the combined value of these exports, over these two centuries, fell from 70,984.34 kg to 33,741.80 kg — a fall of 53%. In other words, to explain the difference between nominal and ‘real’ values, we must note that the pound sterling had experienced a devaluation (debasement) of 46.0% over these two centuries. Finally, in view of the obvious importance of this taxation for aggregate government revenues — the most important single source — we must note that the total value of the combined export customs on wool and cloth fell from a mean of ?65,820 in 1351-60 to one of just ?20,958 in 1491-1500 — a dramatic fall of 68%; and that is just in nominal money-of-account terms. So much for the evidence on economic growth in late-medieval England.

The author is, however, cognizant of the ongoing debate about the late-medieval economic contraction, which is often if misleadingly called the ‘great depression.’ He asks (p. 65) how anyone ‘could characterize the 1350-1500 period as a true economic depression,’ when such a phenomenon ‘entails more than a drop in total agrarian (or commercial) output because of a drop in population.’ In his rebuttal of this notion, he is evidently unaware of recent critical studies by Hatcher (1996), Nightingale (1997), and Bois (2000), all of which provide substantial evidence and analyses of regional ‘slumps’ or ‘depressions’ for the fifteenth century (if not the entire period, for all of Europe). He might have defended that proposition by citing Bannock’s Penguin Dictionary of Economics (1984, pp. 118, 373), which notes that ‘there is no official quantitative definition of a depression, as is the case with recession’ [‘a downturn in the business cycle characterised by two successive quarters of negative rates of growth in the real gross national product’]. Unfortunately Borsch then states that ‘a real economic depression includes across-the-board, not merely sectoral (i.e. grain price) deflation,’ revealing his ignorance of two prolonged periods of deflation in both England and the Low Countries: ca. 1375 – ca. 1425 (in England, a fall of 31% in the Consumer Price Index), and ca. 1440-1480 (in England, again a fall of 32% in the CPI). That ignorance is evidently explained by the complete absence of any reference to the well known and so widely used Phelps Brown and Hopkins [PBH] ‘Basket of Consumables’ Index and of their corresponding Real Wage Index (1956, 1957). Their subsequent publication (1981) of the price series for six commodity groups clearly reveals that the decline in prices during these two periods, if not exactly in tandem, was general, and certainly not confined to grains (analyzed with revised data in Munro 2005).

This leads me to my most serious criticism of the book: Borsch’s comparative analyses of real outputs (GDP) and real wages in the late-medieval English and Egyptian economies. As indicated earlier, his comparisons involve the use of prices, values, and outputs expressed in grams of pure silver. To be sure, there may be cases in comparative economic history when there is no alternative to their use — certainly we cannot compare levels in the nominal values of two entirely different moneys-of-account, all the more so when their changes within Egypt itself have not been fully explored and explained. The author is also aware of controversies concerning the use of silver values, but he does not take full account of two other major objections: (1) that in seeking to compensate for the effects of coinage debasements, the use of silver-gram values distort the changes by two false assumptions: (a) that the expansion of the money supply is directly proportional (though inversely so) to the percentage change in the silver contents of the coinage; and that (b) any ensuing rise in prices (inflation) is directly proportional to the increase in the money supply — i.e., implicitly adopting the fallacy of the crude quantity theory of money; and (2) that the purchasing power of silver remains constant over long periods of time, when in fact it often changed radically (in terms of gold:silver ratios, from: 12:1 in the 1270s to 16:1 in the 1320s, falling to 9:1 in the 1380s, then rising to 12:1 by the 1450s, and to 15 or 16:1 by the 1660s).

The author’s most interesting and certainly most original statistical calculations are for Egypt’s gross domestic product in two years, virtually two centuries apart: those for 1315 (from a cadastral survey undertaken by the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad) and for 1517 (estimates made by Ibn Iyas, just following the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt). These intricate calculations based on a wide variety of evidence, involving extrapolations from later documents (1597 and nineteenth century), occupy a central portion of the book, and rightly so. Borsch states that, in making these comparisons, his major contribution was in ascertaining the true value of the dinar jayshi unit of account, which he reckons to be equal to 13.333 dirhams nuqra (evidently containing 26.4 grams of fine silver); but I have to note that the connection between his source, a document dated 1169, and the 1317 cadastral survey seems tenuous. For this 1317 survey, he estimates that the total value of aggregate agrarian output was 1,009,568.5 kg of silver (or 108,350.1 kg of gold); and that of the entire GDP (if agrarian output accounted for 75%) was 1,346, 091.5 kg of silver (144,467.1 kg of gold). For the second economic survey, in 1517, he does not dare to provide estimates of the Egyptian GDP but only the values of total agrarian output: whose valued is calculated to be 489,514.1 kg of silver or 42,120.6 kg of gold. At least implicitly concerned about the problem of changes in the relative values (bimetallic ratios) and purchasing power of the two metals, he offers an alternative comparison in terms of a grain unit called the ardabb (= 165 liters): an output of 38,337,056 ardabbs (= 63,256,142 hectoliters) in 1315; and one of 15,993,603 ardabbs in 1517 — or so he tells us. Unfortunately, however, that latter calculation involves a very major blunder. For he first calculates the value of the aggregate agrarian output in the gold-based money of account, the dinar ashrafi (3.45g of fine gold), providing an estimate of 12,208,857.1 dinars. Then, estimating that the mean value of the three principal grains (wheat, barley, broad beans) was 1.31 dinars, he calculates the total output in ardabbs of these grains by multiplying the two figures. Of course, he should have divided 12,208,857.1 dinars ashrafi by 1.31 to get the proper estimate: 9,326,858.0 ardabbs (= 15,389,315.7 hectoliters of grain). Next, in this exercise, but using values only in terms of gold and ardabbs, he informs us that the overall decline in total agrarian output, from 1315 to 1517, was the following: 61% in terms of gold and 58% in terms of grain ardabbs (Tables 5.14-15, p. 83). The comforting closeness of these two percentages naturally convinces Borsch that his complicated methodology has been fully vindicated. Unhappily, the opposite is true when we realize how different the percentage changes in these three variables are: in terms of silver kilograms (which he ignores), a decline of 51.1%; in terms of gold, 61.1%; and in terms of actual ardabbs 76.7%.

To make matters even worse, he then compares these estimates of agrarian output in 1517 with those of the later Ottoman survey of 1596-97. The data from the latter are as follows: 17,299,090 ardabbs of grain (28,543, 498.5 hectoliters) — for an increase of 85.5% (not the 8% increase stated in his text, on p. 87); 294,085.0 kg of fine silver — for a decline of 39.9%; and 16,388.0 kg of fine gold — for a decline of 61.2%. Even accounting for the price changes and changes in bimetallic ratios that accompanied the massive increases in precious metals (from South Germany, the Americas, and Africa) during the inflationary Price Revolution era, we would have great difficulties in explaining why these statistics — for grain units and the two precious metals — differ so radically.

His major comparison is, of course, with GDP estimates for England, in two years: 1300 and 1526, specifically chosen because relevant data had been supplied in Mayhew’s aforementioned article (1995a). Mayhew had speculated — with no real evidence supplied — that England’s GDP in 1300 could be valued at ?4.66 million sterling; and as Mayhew himself admitted, his estimate is based ‘on the assumption that population stood at about 6 million in 1300, [and] perhaps 2.3 million in 1526,’ for which year he estimates a GDP value of ?5.0 million, when the Price Revolution was underway, to ‘allow for that price rise and permit a modest improvement in per capita living standards’ (Mayhew 1995a, pp. 248, 250). Thus if, in the light of the previous discussion on the demographic controversy, we were to reduce the GDP for 1300 by one third, i.e., for a revised population estimate of 4.0 million, would we also have to change the GDP estimate for 1526? Mayhew (followed by Borsch), however, provides a somewhat less speculative estimate of the GDP for 1470 – at ?3.437 million sterling (based on Mayhew 1995b and Dyer 1989) — with the further assumption that England’s population was then also 2.3 million. One may comment that these data provide too weak a foundation to make comparisons with the Egyptian data on GDP; but neither Borsch nor anyone else has alternative data to work with. Beggars cannot be choosers in medieval economic history, as my mentor (Robert Lopez) once told me.

In view of Borsch’s persistent insistence on using silver values, we might assume that he would compare the changes in the English GDP, between 1300 and 1526, in terms of precious metals. Instead, he accepts Mayhew’s estimate of the ‘deflated’ value of the GDP for 1526 — and, in terms of Mayhew’s use of the Fisher Identity (M x V = P x y, for which ‘y’ is real GDP), the price index (P) used is, of course, the Phelps Brown and Hopkins index (for which the mean of prices in the basket for 1451-75 = 100, as the base). Mayhew has not, however, used the price index for the specific years concerned but rather an arithmetic mean of the ten years ending in the specified year (i.e., 1291-1300, and 1517-26). In view of the often significant fluctuations in the annual price index — especially around 1300 — the value for the P-deflator can vary widely according to the years chosen for the mean. Indeed why not choose the five years before and after the years concerned to calculate the mean value for P? If that method had been chosen, the P value for 1300, for example, would have been 97.64 (or, 96.16 by my revised, corrected version of the PBH index), instead of Mayhew’s (and Borsch’s) value of 104.8. By the Mayhew method, the deflated value of the GDP for 1526 (when the P value is given as 135.1) is ?3.88 million — and that indicates a decline of 16.9% from the value of ?4.66 million in 1300.

Thus, according to Borsch, the English experience compares very favorably with the Egyptian economy, which had suffered such severe decline, over about the same period: a view based Borsch’s miscalculated estimate of 58% for grain outputs — or the alternative ones of 51.5%, for silver values; or 61.3%, for gold; or the true one of 75.7%, for grain volumes. Suppose that we now calculate the changes in the GDP values in terms of precious metals. This time we must do so in silver, because England had been monometallic in 1300, striking its first gold coins only in 1344 (if we ignore Henry III’s abortive gold penny of 1257). Borsch provides estimates of the 1300 GDP in those terms (Table 5.11, p. 80): 1,487,472 kg of silver (1,489,685.1 is the true figure) and 114,421 kg of gold based on an estimated contemporary bimetallic ratio of 13:1 (Spufford, 1986). He does not, however, do so for 1526, when we may calculate that the estimated ?5.0 million GDP was then equivalent to just 767,219.8 kg of silver (or 68,758.9 kg of gold). In terms of silver kg, that means an overall decline, from 1300 to 1526, of 48.5%; and that is in accordance with the estimated decline of 51.5% for the Egyptian GDP over this same period, when also measured in silver kg (a comparison not involving changes in purchasing power, except for regional differences in the bimetallic ratio). In other words, the much vaunted contrast in the two countries’ overall economic fortunes, i.e., in the declines of their aggregate outputs (agrarian only for Egypt), now disappears.

Borsch is, however, on a much stronger ground in comparing prices, wages, and living standards — at least the real incomes for those totally dependent on money wages (a very small minority in both countries) — over these two centuries. Indeed, his major and much valued contribution lies in providing Egyptian wheat prices for the periods 1300-1346 and 1440-1487 (Tables 6.1-2, pp. 93-95), and of wages (for custodians, doorkeepers, water-carriers, and readers, though for very few years: Tables 6.10-12, pp. 106-07). They are provided in terms of both moneys-of-account (dirhams and dinars) and in grams of silver and gold. If much of the data come from already published sources — Ashtor’s publications (1949, 1969) being particularly important — a considerable amount comes from primary Arabic sources, and indeed from his own archival research. Certainly most readers will be quite unfamiliar with these data. The English prices — grain prices only — and wages of building craftsmen come primarily from Farmer (1991; but Farmer’s publications of 1957, 1983, and 1988 are surprisingly not cited), a problematic source. For unfortunately Farmer provides annual means based on manorial data from a variety of regions; and his wage data also suffer from a ‘compositional fallacy’ (as do the data in Beveridge 1936, 1955) in that wages for craftsmen of different skills are averaged, producing spurious fluctuations — readily observable in Farmer’s tables — that are based on changes in the composition and location of the workforce. He should have adopted the wage data for building craftsmen that Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955) had produced: principally for one region — small towns in southeastern England — using the prevailing standard wage for senior master craftsmen and their laborers (at Oxford, an unchanging daily wage of 6d, for masters, and 4d for journeymen, from 1363 to 1536). But, as noted earlier, he seems to be unaware of their publications and thus of their price, wage, and real-wage indexes, for the period 1264-1954.

While the PBH data therefore are urban, Farmer’s data are not just rural, but manorial (providing other inherent problems); and undoubtedly we now need a proper survey of both sets of wages, with comparisons for London from the 1360s. There is, it must be noted, a very compelling reason why our analysis of real-wage changes is based on the experiences of European building craftsmen. For they are one of the very few groups that have left us with fairly continuous evidence of money wages paid for time-work — by the day or week; for most wage earners in medieval and early modern Europe were paid by piece-work, a far more difficult measure, even when some continuous evidence exists.

Borsch’s long term view, and comparisons of prices and wages in the two countries, when based on ‘snapshots’ of the early fourteenth and the late fifteenth centuries, is basically correct: grain prices in England had fallen, while those in Egypt had risen; and conversely, real wages in England had risen, while those for Egypt had fallen. He may also be correct in his assumption that agricultural land rents had also finally fallen in England (though many individual landlords were clearly better off), while remaining stable in Egypt.

His methods of calculation, however, leave much to be desired, especially for England, for which better alternative methods are available. Thus, in comparing the mean wages for English carpenters for the two periods 1300-1347 and 1440-90, he shows an 80% rise in nominal terms — from 3.068d to 5.516d; but, when those wages are measured in grams of silver, they show a decline of 3% (from 1021.64 g to 994.95g). Surely that should reveal the folly of measuring price and wages changes in silver grams; for indisputably their real wages had indeed risen.

To be fair, Borsch does, of course, fully realize that the proper measure of real wages is the purchasing power of the money wage in terms of the artisan’s standard consumer goods. But he makes his calculations only in terms of liters of wheat, for both Egypt and England, for the two periods 1300-50 and 1440-90. For English building craftsmen, his Table 6.15 (p.108) shows an overall rise of 102%, but a fall of 80% for the above-named Egyptian wage-earners. As one may well observe, ‘man lives not by bread alone.’ The great advantage of the Phelps Brown and Hopkins ‘basket of consumables’ composite price index is its weighting, based on consumption patterns in late-medieval household accounts: in which grains (wheat, rye, barley, peas) account for 20%; meat and fish, for 25%; dairy products, for 12.5%; drink, for 22.5%; textiles, for 12.5%; and fuel, for 7.5%. Van der Wee (1966, 1975) has found that these weights correspond to his evidence for household consumption in early-modern Brabant and has thus modeled his price index on this model, as have I for Flanders (Munro 2003, 2005). These price indexes for the Low Countries also permit us to compute the money-of-account value of the total basket of goods, year by year, and thus the number of baskets that master building craftsmen and their laborers could purchase with a year’s money wage income (based on 210 days of employment, for reasons given in our publications — while Borsch chooses a work-year of 250 days).

Phelps Brown and Hopkins, however, presented their data only in disembodied index numbers (1451-75 = 100); and they calculated the real wage index by the standard, almost universal formula: Real Wage Index = Nominal Wage Index/ Composite Price Index (RWI = NWI/CPI). Having acquired access to the complete set of working papers (Archives, British Library of Political and Economic Science), and the detailed calculations used in the construction of the Phelps Brown and Hopkins price index, I computed the value of each component in their basket (22 commodities) and thus the total value of the basket, in silver pence sterling, for every year from 1264 to 1700. Those calculations thus allowed me to compute the real wage in the same fashion: i.e., the number of such baskets that masters and journeymen could purchase each year (with 210 days of money-wage income).

When examined on an annual and on a quinquennial (five-year) basis, these real-wage data reveal a number of surprises — which do not support the standard Ricardo-based view, nor, therefore, Borsch’s view, on what happened to prices and wages in England following the Black Death. First, comparing mean prices for the 25-year periods before the Black Death (1323-1347) and after (1348-1372), we find that they rose, not fell. The mean value of the bread-grain component of the PBH basket rose by 26.25% (from a mean of 22.298d sterling to one of 28.152d); but most of this rise was inflation, for the value of the total PBH basket rose by 25.59%: from a mean of 114.386d (CPI: 101.41) to one of 143.657d (CPI: 127.35). Thus some portion of the grain-price rise was ‘real’: and its share of the PBH basket rose slightly from 19.49% to 19.60%. The even more striking behavior of prices took place in the next quarter century, from 1373 to 1397: when grain prices, in nominal terms, plummeted by 29.70%, from a mean of 28.152d to one of 21.706d. Again, some of change was due to monetary factors; for there was general deflation: a 29.4% fall from the peak CPI of 134.95 in 1376 to the trough of 95.25 in 1395. But since, in our two 25-year comparison periods (1348-1372 and 1373-1397), the mean value of the PBH basket fell only 17.23% — from a mean value of 143.657d (CPI: 127.35) to one of 122.540d (CPI: 108.63), the much steeper fall in grain prices had a considerable ‘real’ component. Thus the grain component of the total consumer basket fell from 19.60% to 17.71%, over this same 50-year period. Similar declines in real prices can be shown for other agrarian commodities, especially for wool.

The behavior of these prices, both nominal and ‘real’ (or deflated), may help us to understand better the seemingly perplexing behavior of real wages. Certainly nominal wages did rise after the Black Death, but the rise of those for building craftsmen was relatively greater in urban than in rural (manorial) areas; and for both, the nominal wage increases failed to keep pace with inflation, until the mid-1370s. For such master building craftsmen, in Oxford, Cambridge, and other small towns of southeastern England, mean annual real wage incomes, when measured in PBH ‘baskets of consumables’ fell from a peak of 7.482 baskets in 1336-40 (RWI = 66.9, when 1451-75 = 100) to a low of 5.200 baskets in 1351-55 (RWI = 46.55) : i.e., real wages for such building craftsmen were falling both before and after the Black Death; and despite some subsequent recovery, real wages were still below the earlier peak as late as 1371-75: with a mean of just 7.310 baskets (RWI = 65.44). Thereafter real wages, in these terms, did rise sharply to reach a late-medieval peak of 12.066 baskets in 1441-45 (RWI = 108.02) — a 132.0% rise over the post-Plague nadir; in 1496-1500, the annual mean was still quite high, at 11.336 baskets).

The rise, over this same period, in the real wages of their journeymen laborers was even more striking: a rise of 209.38%: from the nadir of 2.600 baskets in 1351-55 to the peak of 8.044 baskets in 1441?-45. For indeed, in these small English towns, the average journeymen’s daily wage rose from just one half to two-thirds of the master’s wage over this period (4d vs. 6d daily for most of the fifteenth century) — a change not observed in Flanders where the journeymen’s money wage remained at one half of the master’s (Munro 2005). Borsch, in noting the peculiar rise of an English thatcher’s helper (journeymen) is evidently unaware of this more general, if peculiarly English, phenomenon.

Not all laborers, however, enjoyed such a change into prosperity. Thus on the Bishop of Winchester’s Taunton manor, senior hired day laborers, while enjoying a tripling in their nominal wage, from 1.0d in 1348 to 3.0d in 1354, subsequently saw that rate fall back to 1.0d per day in 1364, where it generally remained until this wage series ends in 1415. Their real wage thus fell sharply with the continuing inflation, until the mid 1370s, and while experiencing some recovery with the ensuing deflation, their real wage in the early fifteenth century (to 1415) was only about 35-40% of that then enjoyed by the small-town journeymen laborers in the construction trades (see Munro 2003).

Borsch’s explanation for the rise in real wages for English building craftsmen, though based on just a comparison of two ‘snapshots’ for the early fourteenth and the later fifteenth centuries, is a standard one that will command almost universal support: namely, a steep rise in labor productivity, as the obvious and seemingly inevitable consequence of radical depopulation and the consequent alteration of the land: labor ratio — if we assume that England was still overpopulated on the eve of the Black Death. As Keynes (1936, p. 5) has reminded us, a basic postulate of Classical Economics is that ‘the wage is equal to the marginal product of labor’ — though it is more accurate to define that equality as the marginal revenue product of labor. One problem thus arises: if the marginal productivity of agricultural labor rose but the marginal revenue product declined, with falling grain prices, would the result for wage determination be a wash?

There is yet another problem: for several recent studies — by Farmer (1996), Raftis (1996), and Stone (1997, 2001, 2003) — indicate that the marginal productivity of labor in the arable economy fell, while the marginal of labor in pastoral farming (especially for sheep) rose significantly. In recent publications (Munro 1983, 2003, 2005), in seeking to explain the behavior of prices and wages described above, I have called into question the marginal-productivity of labor theory to explain changes in real-wages. For, to argue, in micro-economics, that a rational profit-seeking employer will hire labor to the point that its marginal revenue product equals the prevailing wage is different from a more macro-economic explanation for wages that prevail across an entire economic sector.

My observation, in those two recent studies, was that the rise in real wages for building craftsmen in both late-medieval England and the southern Low Countries was a phenomenon that is generally — if not fully — explained by a combination of institutional wage-stickiness and a deflation induced chiefly by monetary factors: i.e., that nominal wages (in silver coin), having risen, though not in tandem the post-Plague inflation, then remained rigid while the cost of living fell. Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956) also observed that, calling it the ‘ratchet effect,’ while correctly noting that in England nominal money wages, having fallen by 25% during the later 1330s and early 1340s (but less so than did prices), never again fell, over the ensuing six centuries, until the post-WWI depression, in 1921. There is no space to discuss this complex issue further in this review, other than to note that often rapid oscillations in real wage measures and indices — almost always accompanying oscillations in the price level — cannot logically be explained by any such sudden shifts in the marginal productivity of labor. Yet, in making regional comparisons of changes in real wages over long periods of time we may have to call upon a broader concept of productivity: namely, changes in total factor productivity (land, labor, capital), particularly in so far as those changes may explain changes in real commodity prices, especially those involved in a wage-earner’s cost of living index.

Finally, I must also make another major observation in comparing the behavior of real wages for building craftsmen in late medieval England and the very much more limited group of Egyptian tradesmen: namely the fact that, at least from the later fourteenth century (but not after the Plague), agricultural prices and thus the cost of living fell in England while such prices and costs rose in Egypt. Of course, we would like to know why; but Borsch does not provide such a full explanation (other than one based on falling productivity in agriculture, with perhaps limited foreign trade) — and probably no one else can adequately explain why the real cost of foodstuffs did experience such a significant rise in fifteenth-century Mamluk Egypt.

The relative behavior of agricultural prices and wages (and interest rates, if we had the evidence) has one more point of relevance for this review. Borsch attributes the decay of English manorialism and serfdom, from the later fourteenth century, in much the same way as does Brenner (1976, 1982): as a victory of communal open-field peasants who, when feudal landlords became economically and politically weaker, especially in losing support from the monarchy, were finally able to exercise a greater degree of market power in bidding down rents and bidding up wages. But a more complete explanation should involve economic rationality on the part of such landlords, who in now experiencing adverse changes in both falling agricultural prices (both grains and wool) and in rising costs gave up their former reliance on Gutsherrschaft: i.e., a manorial regime with a significant income component from market-oriented domain production of these commodities. Some historians (Holmes 1957, pp. 85-120; Britnell 1990) contend that during the post-Plague era of high agricultural prices, gentry and feudal landlords may have increased their share of the national income (though evidence on rents and profits is very thin). Thus, from the later 1370s to the 1440s, we find an increasing manorial shift to Grundsherrschaft: i.e., a manorial regime far more based on peasant rental incomes. In carving up their already shrunken domains into peasant leaseholds, thereby also dispensing with whatever labor services and other servile obligations that had remained, English landlords probably did improve the position of some peasants — especially those with enough capital to work their extra lands. At the same time, of course, many such landlords benefited in the sense that these leasehold provided a more stable rental incomes, when agricultural prices and profits were falling; and thus with deflation, their real values rose. At the same time, however, as Campbell (2005) has recently demonstrated, Borsch, along with many other historians, has exaggerated the extent and burden of servile obligations imposed on the English peasantry before the Black Death.

Where does the Black Death itself enter this book and the review? Borsch has really very little new to say about the Plague itself, whose actual and direct consequences in Egypt still remain unknown. Furthermore, the timing of his publication is unfortunate in that three major and very important books on the Black Death have just recently appeared: those by Cohn (2003), Benedictow (2004), and Kelly (2005). Cohn has contended, with a massive amount of evidence, that the Black Death, the so-called Second Pandemic (1347-1720), was vastly different from the bubonic plague that was experienced in Asia during the so-called Third Pandemic (1894-c.1947): that the medieval Black Death spread with far, far greater rapidity, and was so much more virulent and lethal, killing a far higher proportion of the afflicted populations in Asia and Europe. If the mortality from the Black Death (initial onslaught) was perhaps 40% or more, the twentieth century mortality was no more than 5% in afflicted regions. Therefore, Cohn concludes that it could not have been bubonic plague, i.e., Yersinia pestis, the bacillus now spread by rodent fleas, according to the now standard view, and one uncritically repeated by Benedictow (2004). But Cohn does not compare it with the First Pandemic, the so-called Justinian Plague (sixth to ninth centuries), so well described as ‘bubonic’ (????”?????????) plague by Procopius, historian of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65) and his Constantinople Prefect (see the Dewing edition 1961); nor can Cohn even suggest what this disease really was.

Borsch, if evidently unaware of Cohn’s book, nevertheless is cognizant of the problems posed by comparisons of the Second and Third Pandemics. He credibly suggests that the Second Pandemic was a manifestation of a possibly mutant, certainly peculiar and extremely virulent form of Yersinia pestis, as does, most recently, Kelly (2005). Yet neither can adequately explain how the Black Death literally ‘spread like wildfire,’ especially given Cohn’s cogent arguments as to why such a medieval transmission by rat fleas (if they could not survive without their rat hosts) was virtually impossible; but Borsch, citing Biraben (1975-76), does suggest that the human flea (Pulex irritans) may have been the prime medieval (if not modern) vector.

For Mamluk Egypt itself, apart from some fascinating anecdotal commentaries, Borsch is unable — given the paucity of evidence — to analyze the actual economic and social consequences of the Black Death. He does, however, offer a cogent and interesting thesis. Emphasizing that agricultural prosperity in Egypt had depended on a costly and complex irrigation system, based on networks of dikes, sluice-gates, and canals fed by the Blue and White Nile river systems — with very large amounts of fixed capital and land stocks, Borsch contends that depopulation from the Black Death ultimately led to severe and destructive shortages of labor — and to severe reductions in the marginal productivity of labor (i.e., proceeding in a backward direction on the ascending slope of the marginal product curve). Consequently, over ensuing decades, the required dredging, repairs, and general maintenance of this irrigation system could not be maintained, with disastrous results for Mamluk Egypt’s agricultural production.

That plight has to be understood in the context of Mamluk social structures and landholding; for the Mamluks, a military aristocracy who were, by origin, imported Asian slaves, were totally unlike that of medieval England: a non-hereditary fluid social caste, with very insecure ties to their landed estates, with rapid property turnovers, dependent on rendering service and maintaining military-political alliances; a military aristocracy that chiefly lived in towns, apart from their estates, rarely speaking the Arabic language of their peasant tenants, and caring little about their welfare. Furthermore, as indicated earlier, Borsch believes that so many of these peasants were victims of steadily declining productivity and outputs, and thus of falling real incomes, while forced by the state-supported Mamluk military aristocracy to pay even higher rents; and thus they were unable to contribute to the maintenance of the irrigation system (which also had some classic ‘free rider’ problems). To cite Borsch’s summary (p. 52): ‘By the mid fifteenth century, Egypt’s agrarian system had been badly damaged. The irrigation system was functioning poorly in many areas and lay in ruins in others. Badly damaged systems were overrun by Bedouin tribes: large sections of Upper Egypt [by far the more fertile region] and the eastern and western sections of the delta lay in Bedouin hands.’ The documentation of the drastic fall in outputs, from 1315 to 1517, has been discussed above. As also noted earlier, however, the greatest difficulty that Borsch and other historians of Mamluk Egypt have faced is the lack of any reliable demographic statistics. While one may assume, from the experience of the Black Death elsewhere, a possibly drastic fall in population, are we to believe that the combination of labor scarcity and the structure of Mamluk landholding provide the only explanation? What roles, for examples, may Mamluk fiscal policies, the nature and changes in taxation, public and private investment in agriculture, etc., have played during the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? Perhaps those questions cannot be answered, though they should be posed to suggest a possible framework of alternative models.

As one of my colleagues, an economic historian of Mamluk Egypt, and one who has read this book as well, has commented to me: Borsch ‘tries to break out of the mold and offer a new insight. The Mamluk period is the only one which offers any hope of computation, but as you can see, it is difficult to carve out any solid evidence.’ The author does deserve, despite the criticisms in this review, to be commended for the very considerable and arduous research devoted to this study, handicapped of course, in comparison to historians of medieval England, with such paucity of reliable evidence. If this form of comparative economic history did not prove to be the author’s strong suit, nevertheless his dedicated scholarship and contributions in particular to Mamluk economic history (which others may judge better than I) are to be commended.

List of References:

Eliyahu Ashtor, ‘Prix et salaires ? l’?poque mamlouke: une ?tude sur l’?tat ?conomique de l’Egypte et de la Syrie ? la fin du Moyen Age,’ Revue des ?tudes islamiques, 17 (1949), 49-94.

Eliyahu Ashtor, Histoire des prix et des salaires dans l’Orient m?dievale (Paris: SEVPEN, 1969).

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William Beveridge, ‘Wages in the Winchester Manors,’ Economic History Review, 1st ser., 7 (1936-37), 22-43.

William Beveridge, ‘Westminster Wages in the Manorial Era,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 8 (1955-56), 18-35.

J.N. Biraben, Les hommes et la peste en France et dans les pays europ?ens et m?diterran?es, 2 volumes (Paris and The Hague, 1975-76).

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Robert Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,’ Past and Present, no. 70 (February 1976), pp. 30-74,

Robert Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe: The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism,’ Past and Present, no. 97 (Nov. l982), 16-113, which is a very lengthy reply to all of his critics. Both are reprinted in T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 10-63 and 213-27.

Richard H. Britnell, ‘Feudal Reaction after the Black Death in the Palatinate of Durham,’ Past and Present, no. 128 (August 1990), pp. 28-47.

Bruce M. S. Campbell, ‘The Population of Early Tudor England: A Re-evaluation of the 1522 Muster Returns and the 1524 and 1525 Lay Subsidies,’ Journal of Historical Geography, 7 (1981), 145-54.

Bruce M.S. Campbell, ‘Matching Supply to Demand: Crop Production and Disposal by English Demesnes in the Century of the Black Death,’ Journal of Economic History, 57: 4 (December 1997), 827-58.

Bruce M.S. Campbell, ‘The Agrarian Problem in the Early Fourteenth Century,’ Past and Present, no. 188 (August 2005), pp. 3-70.

Bruce M.S. Campbell, James A. Galloway, Derek Keene, and Margaret Murphy, A Medieval Capital and Its Grain Supply: Agrarian Production and Distribution in the London Region c. 1300, Institute of British Geographers, Historical Geography Research Series no. 30 (London, 1993).

Samuel Cohn, Jr., The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (London: Arnold, 2002; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Julian Cornwall, ‘English Population in the Early Sixteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 23:1 (April 1970), 32-44.

Nicholas Crafts, ‘Gross National Product in Europe, 1870-1910: Some New Estimates,’ Explorations in Economic History, 20 (October 1983), 387-401.

Ralph Davis, The Rise of the Atlantic Economies (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973).

H.B. Dewing, ed., Procopius: History of the Wars, Books I and II, in Greek and English translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 450-73.

Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1989).

David L. Farmer, ‘Some Grain Price Movements in Thirteenth-Century England,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 10 (1957), 207-20.

David L. Farmer, ‘Crop Yields, Prices and Wages in Medieval England,’ Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, new series, 6 (1983), 115-55.

David L. Farmer, ‘Prices and Wages,’ in H. E. Hallam, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. II: 1042-1350 (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 715-817.

David L. Farmer, ‘Prices and Wages, 1350-1500,’ in Edward Miller, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. III: 1348-1500 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 431-525.

David L. Farmer, ‘The Famuli in the Later Middle Ages,’ in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Edward Miller (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 207-36

H. E. Hallam, ‘Population Movements in England, 1086-1350,’ and ‘Rural England and Wales, 1042 ?1350,’ in H. E. Hallam, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, II: 1042-1350 (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 508-93, and 966-1008.

John Hatcher, “The Great Slump of the Mid-Fifteenth Century,” in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in Medieval England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 237-72.

G.A. Holmes, The Estates of the Higher Nobility in Fourteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1957).

John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (New York: Harper Collins, 2005).

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London, 1936)

Nicholas J. Mayhew, ‘Modelling Medieval Monetisation,’ in Bruce M.S. Campbell and Richard Britnell, eds., A Commercialising Economy: England, 1086-1300 (Manchester, 1995), pp. 55-77.

Nicholas J. Mayhew, ‘Population, Money Supply, and the Velocity of Circulation in England, 1300-1700,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 48:2 (May 1995), 238-57.

John Munro, ‘Bullion Flows and Monetary Contraction in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries,’ in John F. Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1983), pp. 97-158. Reprinted in the following:

John Munro, Bullion Flows and Monetary Policies in England and the Low Countries, 1350 – 1500, Variorum Collected Studies series CS 355 (Aldershot, Hampshire; and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 1992)

John Munro, ‘Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?’ Research in Economic History, 21 (2003), 185-297.

John Munro, ‘Builders’ Wages in Southern England and the Southern Low Countries, 1346 -1500: A Comparative Study of Trends in and Levels of Real Incomes,’ in Simonetta Caviococchi, ed., L’Edilizia prima della rivoluzione industriale, secc. XIII-XVIII, Atti delle “Settimana di Studi” e altri convegni, no. 36, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “Francesco Datini” (Florence, 2005), pp. 1013-76.

Pamela Nightingale, ‘The Growth of London in the Medieval English Economy,’ in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in Medieval England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 89-106.

Pamela Nightingale, ‘England and the European Depression of the Mid-Fifteenth Century,’ Journal of European Economic History, 26: 3 (Winter 1997), 631-56.

Pamela Nightingale, ‘Some New Evidence of Crises and Trends of Mortality in Late Medieval England,’ Past and Present, no. 187 (May 2005), pp. 33-68.

E. H. Phelps Brown, and Sheila V. Hopkins, ‘Seven Centuries of Building Wages,’ Economica, 22:87 (August 1955), 195-206: reprinted in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, 3 vols. (London, 1954-62), II, 168-78, 179-96, and in E.H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and Prices (London, 1981), pp. 1-12.

E. H. Phelps Brown, and Sheila V. Hopkins, ‘Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders’ Wage Rates,’ Economica, 23:92 (November 1956), 296-314: reprinted in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, 3 vols. (London, 1954-62), II, 168-78, 179-96, and in E.H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and Prices (London, 1981), pp. 13-59 (with commodity price indexes not in the original publication).

Michael Postan, ‘Some Economic Evidence of Declining Population in the Later Middle Ages,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 2 (1950), 130-67; reprinted in his Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy (Cambridge, 1973), pp.186-213 (the latter, with the revised title of ‘Some Agrarian Evidence of Declining Population in the Later Middle Ages.’)

Michael Postan and J.Z. Titow, ‘Heriots and Prices on Winchester Manors,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 11 (1959); reprinted in Michael Postan, Essays on Medieval Agriculture (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 150-85.

Michael Postan, ‘Medieval Agrarian Society: England,’ in Cambridge Economic History, Vol. I: The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages, ed. M. M. Postan (2nd rev. edn. 1966), 560-70.

Ambrose Raftis, ‘Peasants and the Collapse of the Manorial Economy on Some Ramsey Abbey Estates,’ in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Edward Miller (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 191-206.

J.C. Russell, ‘The Pre-Plague Population of England,’ Journal of British Studies, 5 (1966), 1-21.

Peter Spufford, Handbook of Medieval Exchange (London: Royal Historical Society, 1986).

David Stone, ‘The Productivity of Hired and Customary Labour: Evidence from Wisbech Barton in the Fourteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 50:4 (November 1997), 640-56.

David Stone, ‘Medieval Farm Management and Technological Mentalities: Hinderclay Before the Black Death,’ Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 54:4 (November 2001), 612-38.

David Stone, ‘The Productivity and Management of Sheep in Late Medieval England,’ Agricultural History Review, 51: I (2003), 1-22.

Herman Van der Wee, ‘Voeding en dieet in het Ancien R?gime,’ Spiegel Historiael, 1 (1966), 94-101, republished in translation as ‘Nutrition and Diet in the Ancien R?gime’ in Herman Van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World , trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press and Variorum, 1993), pp. 279-87.

Herman Van der Wee, ‘Prijzen en lonen als ontwikkelingsvariabelen: Een vergelijkend onderzoek tussen Engeland en de Zuidelijke Nederlanden, 1400-1700,’ in Album aangeboden aan Charles Verlinden ter gelegenheid van zijn dertig jaar professoraat (Wetteren: Universum, 1975), pp. 413-47; reissued in English translation (without the tables) as ‘Prices and Wages as Development Variables: A Comparison between England and the Southern Netherlands, 1400-1700,’ Acta Historiae Neerlandicae, 10 (1978), 58-78; republished in Herman Van der Wee, The Low Countries in the Early Modern World, trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press and Variorum, 1993), pp. 223-41. Only the original Dutch-language version contains the statistical tables.

John Munro is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto (where he still teaches). He is currently an elected member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts; and of the Comitato Scientifico, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica ‘Francesco Datini da Prato,’ for which he has helped organize the May 2006 conference on ‘Europe’s Economic Relations with the Islamic World, 13th and 18th Centuries.’ He was the medieval area editor for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, edited by Joel Mokyr (New York: Oxford University Press), 2003. Among his recent publications are: ‘Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?’ Research in Economic History (2003); ‘The Medieval Origins of the Financial Revolution: Usury, Rentes, and Negotiability,’ International History Review (2003); and ‘Spanish Merino Wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: an Industrial Transformation in the Late-Medieval Low Countries,’ Economic History Review (2005).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Texas Railroad Commission: Understanding Regulation in America to the Mid-Twentieth Century

Author(s):Childs, William R.
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

William R. Childs, The Texas Railroad Commission: Understanding Regulation in America to the Mid-Twentieth Century. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. x + 323 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 1-58544-452-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Libecap, Department of Economics, University of Arizona.

In a time of deregulation and globalization, it is easy to forget that local bureaucratic agencies have often had enormous power in affecting how resources were used, in determining which companies could participate, in authorizing when production could take place and how much could occur, and in fixing the prices that could be charged. The early-to-mid twentieth century United States was a time when state and local regulatory bodies had unparalleled influence in the market. Foreign trade was a small portion of the overall economy and the reach of federal institutions was relatively limited. In many cases, state regulations held supreme, and in no case is this more apparent than in the history of the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC).

The TRC is the ultimate regulatory agency. In its heyday, from the 1940s through the 1960s, the TRC controlled Texas oil production, the largest in the nation, and coordinated its production with that of the other major producing states in order to fix U.S. prices, in conjunction with restrictions on the import of cheaper foreign oil. Under the regulatory regime of the TRC, monthly individual firm output was restricted to limit the losses of common-pool extraction; production quotas were allocated across producing firms in ways that benefited influential, small, high-cost producers; and Texas output was constrained in cooperation with other states through the Interstate Oil Compact Commission (IOCC) to maintain high oil prices. Until superseded by OPEC in 1972, the TRC and the structure of state regulation under the IOCC was a domestic oil cartel. The Commissioners of the Texas Railroad Commission were the most important local government officials in the world.

How did an obscure state agency set up to regulate railroad rates get to be this way? In this well-written, carefully-researched, and very useful book, William R. Childs outlines the development of the TRC. He emphasizes personalities, politics, regional culture, and wariness of federal intrusion, along with an understanding of basic economic forces to provide a nuanced description of the rise of the agency and its important regulatory role.

Childs begins with a description of the rise of the TRC in the 1880s as a commission to regulate railroad rates (as its names suggests). The first four chapters of the book place the TRC into the broader context of a national movement both at the state and local level to regulate the power of one of the country’s first big industries, railroads. Because of their ability to link remote, local markets to national ones, railroads were tremendously important. At the same time, because of their huge size and capitalization, (often) near-monopoly position in the supply of transportation services, and vulnerability in holding fixed, non-deployable assets in railroad tracks, yards, and support facilities, railroads were the center of the development of commission regulation of prices. States and the federal government competed for preeminence within the U.S. federal structure, and Childs describes this early tension. He also outlines the growth of the Texas economy in the post-Civil War period and the interest groups that lobbied for regulation of railroad rates. Personalities played key roles in determining the details of how regulation was written, its exact timing of adoption, and how Texas institutions were linked to those of the federal and other state governments. James Stephen Hogg, Attorney General and Governor of Texas molded the structure of the TRC which was established in 1891. Childs discusses the genesis of the agency in its early years. The National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners coordinated state agencies in their sometimes contentious relationships with the federal government in general and the Interstate Commerce Commission in particular over regulations and rates. One area of conflict was whether intrastate shippers could receive preferential regulation as compared to interstate shippers in order to protect local producers. This led to the well-known 1914 U.S. Supreme Court Shreveport case that strengthened the federal role, but also provided for clearer state regulatory mandates.

Part II of the book moves from the early years of the TRC to expansion of its activities in the post-World War I period, especially into the new area of oil production regulation. The next four chapters describe the TRC and its regulation of oil. Beginning at the turn of the century and accelerating after 1920, new oil discoveries in Texas changed the history of the state and the country forever. With low capital and labor requirements for entry and the prospect for fabulous new riches, individuals rushed to the Texas oil fields during the “gusher” period. Excessive output and capitalization followed. The tragedy of the commons was everywhere and the TRC was called to step in not only to limit these losses, but also to bolster oil prices which cycled from boom to bust. This regulatory intervention made the TRC famous. Childs describes the colorful local characters who became Commissioners, such as Ernest O. Thompson (who served from 1932 to 1965), and who in many ways determined the profits of the country’s most spectacular new industry, petroleum. He outlines the nature of the agency’s price and conservation regulations; its interaction with the New Deal in the 1930s to control “hot oil;” and its maturity as a regulatory agency in the 1950s and 1960s when it was at the height of its power. He also discusses the addition of other regulatory mandates, including control over motor carriers within the state of Texas in 1927 and the molding of the agency’s rulings by powerful constituent groups and federal agencies, as well as by state politicians. Even so, oil regulation and Texas’s huge contribution to it were what made the TRC distinctive. Childs points to the challenges presented by the huge East Texas oil field where small producers ignored commission regulations and produced wildly. Only martial law in 1931-32 brought some stability.

The latter part of the book describes the role of the TRC as part of the IOCC in cartelizing U.S. oil production. As Childs notes, these actions stabilized prices, but they did not effectively conserve U.S. oil stocks. Indeed, by limiting the import of cheap foreign oil, the structure of U.S. regulation, with the TRC at its head, helped to “drain America first,” and insure the dependence of the country on foreign sources of supply today. The conclusion to the volume summarizes key aspects of the development of state regulation as illustrated by the TRC and its impact on the structure of rates, industry development, and the wary collaboration and competition between state and federal regulatory agencies. This is a superb history of the details of regulation and how they fit into the broader macro development of the American economy.

Gary D. Libecap is Anheuser Busch Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Arizona. He currently is completing a book on the Owens Valley water transfer to Los Angeles, 1905-35 and its implications for western water re-allocation today.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800

Author(s):Lebergott, Stanley
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Stanley Lebergott, Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. xii + 561 pp.

Review Essay by Robert A. Margo, Department of Economics, Boston University.

Manpower after Forty Years

During the first half of the twentieth century classical musicians routinely incorporated their personalities into their performances. One recognizes immediately Schnabel in Beethoven, Fisher in Bach, Cortot in Chopin, or Segovia in just about anything written for guitar. As the century progressed performance practice evolved to where the “text” — the music — became paramount. The ideal was to reveal the composer’s intent rather than putting one’s own stamp on the notes — the performer as conduit per se rather than co-composer.

Personal style played a major role in the early years of the cliometrics revolution. Hand a cliometrician an unpublished essay by Robert Fogel or Stanley Engerman, and I am quite sure she could identify the author after reading the first couple of paragraphs (if not the first couple of sentences). No one can possibly mistake a book by Doug North for a book by Peter Temin or an essay by Paul David for one by Lance Davis or Jeffrey Williamson. To some extent this is because personal style mattered at the time in economics generally — think Milton Friedman or Robert Solow. But mostly it mattered, I think, because these cliometricians were on a mission. Men and women on a mission put their personalities up front, because they are trying to shake up the status quo.

So it is with Stanley Lebergott. Indeed, of all the personalities who figured in the transformation of economic history from a sub-field of economics (I am tempted to write “intellectual backwater”) that eschewed advances in economic theory and econometrics to one that embraced them (I am tempted to write “for better and for worse”), Lebergott’s style was perhaps the most personal. In re-reading Lebergott’s most famous book — his Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800 (1964) — one sees that style front and center on nearly every page, as well as the conflicting emotions as its author tried, not always successfully, to marry the anecdotal and archival snippets beloved by historians with the methods of economics. Manpower was (and is) substantively important for two reasons. First, prior to Manpower, the “economic history of labor” meant unions and labor legislation. By contrast, Lebergott made the labor market — the demand and supply of labor — his central focus and in doing so elevated markets and market forces to a central tendency in the writing of economic history. Second, Lebergott produced absolutely fundamental data — estimates of the labor force, industrial composition, unemployment, real wages, self-employment, and the like — that economic historians have relied on (or embellished) ever since.

These two accomplishments aside, I emphasize style not because, in Manpower‘s case, it is light years from the average article that I accept for publication in Explorations in Economic History. Economic history, like all economics, is vastly more technical than it was in the early 1960s. Burrowing into the style of Manpower reveals an author transfixed with what he perceived to be the grandness of the American experiment, the transformation of a second-rate colony into the greatest economy the world had yet seen. The core of Manpower would always be its 33 appendix tables and 252 (!) pages of accompanying explanatory text lovingly produced and so relentlessly documented as to drive any reader to distraction (or tears). So much the line in the sand, daring — indeed, taunting — the reader to do better. Lebergott knew that, in principle, one could do better, because he did not have ready access to all the relevant archival materials. I would conjecture, however, that he would always be surprised if anyone did, in fact, do better. Tom Weiss, himself one of the great compilers of American economic statistics, spent several years redoing Lebergott’s labor force estimates using census micro data rather than the published volumes that Lebergott relied on (Weiss 1986). In commenting on Weiss’s work, Lebergott (1986) characterized the differences between his original figures and the revisions as “very small beer” and then took Weiss to task for failing (in Lebergott’s) view to fully justify the revisions. “One awaits with interest,” he concluded, “further work by the National Bureau of Economic Research project of which this is a part.” When Georgia Villaflor and I (Margo and Villaflor 1987) produced a series of real wage estimates for the antebellum period drawing on archival sources that Lebergott did not use, I received a polite letter congratulating me but requesting more details and admonishing me to think harder about certain estimates that Lebergott felt did not mesh fully with his priors. There are thousands of numbers in those 33 appendix tables and one’s sense is that each number received the undivided attention of its creator for many, many, many hours.

But numbers do not a narrative make. Chapter One, “The Matrix,” has little in common with the archetypal introduction that gives the reader a roadmap and a flavor of the findings. It begins rather with an 1802 quote from “The Reverend Stanley Griswold” about the frontier that lay before the good minister. “This good land, which stretches around us to such a vast extent … large like the munificence of heaven … [s]uch a noble present never before was given to any people.” (Reviewer’s note: any people? Which people?) The first sentence goes on to describe an incongruous scene from Kentucky in 1832, “a petit bon homme” and his wife and their “little pile of trunks” sitting in a restaurant in the middle of (literally) nowhere. We then learn of a “great theme” of American history, that which motivated those who wrested the land from the “wilderness” — a belief in an open society, of which there were three elements. First, “hope” — an unabashed belief that things will always get better, and were better in America than in Europe. Second, “ignorance” — Americans were always willing to try something new, no matter how crazy. Third, America had a huge amount of space for people to spread out in. OK, the reader says, but where’s the economics? Ca. page 13 Lebergott emphasizes that the three elements made Americans unusually restless people, willing to move all the time. Ordinarily, Lebergott opines, it is the smaller (geographically-speaking) countries that have higher labor productivity because, ordinarily, people do not like to move. But Americans liked to move, he claims, and they did so on the slightest provocation. Excessive optimism, misinformation, and folly are core attributes of the American spirit and key factors in the American success story. In the end, the errors didn’t matter anyway (“small beer” indeed) because the land was so rich. More people moved to California in 1850 than could be rationally justified by the expected returns to gold mining but, as a result, California entered the aggregate production function sooner than otherwise. Labor mobility per se was a Good Thing, and American had it in abundance.

Chapter Two asks where all the workers would come from. Lebergott notes that certain labor supplies were highly predictable — slaves, for example. But once the slave trade was abolished the supply of slave labor grew at whatever the natural rate of increase. If the riches of America were to be tapped, free labor would have to be found — all the more difficult if the required number of workers to be assembled in any given spot was very large.

Another element of the Lebergott style is a dry wit, as evidenced in his exchange with Weiss. In a section on “[t]he Labor Force: Definition” we are told that ‘[t]he baby has contributed more to the gaiety of nations than have all the nightclub comics in history. We include the comic in the labor force … as we include [his] wages in the national income but set no value on the endearing talents provided by the baby.” In discussing the then-fashionable notion that the aggregate labor force participation rate (like other Great Ratios) was “invariant to economic conditions” Lebergott notes that small changes can nevertheless have great import. “The United States Calvary,” he observes, “was sent to the State of Utah because of the difference between 1.0 wives per husband and a slightly greater number.” The remainder of the chapter considers segments of the labor force whose labor was, indeed, “responsive to economic conditions” — European immigrants, internal migrants, (some) women and children as well as the impact of social and political factors on labor supply; it demonstrates the extraordinary flexibility of the American labor force and its responsiveness to incentives. While this conclusion would not surprise anyone today it was, I think, quite revolutionary at the time. It is as good an example of any I know of the power of historical thinking to debunk conventional wisdom derived from today’s numbers.

By now the reader is accustomed to Lebergott’s modus operandi — the opening paragraph that sometimes seems to be beside the point but really isn’t; quotations in the text from travelogues, diaries, plays, literature and what-not; obscure (to say the least) references in the footnotes; all interspersed with economic reasoning that has more than a tinge of what would be called today “behavioral” economics. In Chapter Three Lebergott talks about the “process” of labor mobility, which is really one extended probing into the relationship between mobility of various sorts and wage differentials. We get to see some univariate regression lines, superimposed in scatter-plots of decade-by-decade changes in the labor force at, say, the state level, against initial wage rates. Generally, labor flows were directed at states with higher initial wage rates, although Lebergott is quick to assert that “[m]igrants suboptimized” because the cross-state pattern was far less apparent at the level of regions. Next, Lebergott takes on the notion that economic development is an inexorable process of labor shifting out of agriculture. The American case, Lebergott claimed, challenges this notion. American workers shifted out of agriculture when the economic incentives were right; that is, when the value of the marginal product of labor was higher outside of agriculture.

The remainder of Chapter 3 is divided into two brief sections, both of which contain some of the most interesting writing in the book. In “Social Mobility and the Division of Labor,” Lebergott examines the relationship between occupational specialization and growth. In the nineteenth century most workers possessed a myriad of skills, farmers especially. They were jacks of all trades, masters of none. Lebergott speculates that this was a good thing because the master of none was more inclined to try something new, rather than assume he was, well, the master and therefore knew everything. If some fraction of novel techniques were successful, this could (under strong assumptions) lead to a higher rate of technical progress. “Origins of the Factory System” considers the problem posed earlier in the book of assembling large numbers of workers at a given location. Rather than pay higher wages, manufacturers turned to an under-utilized source of labor, women and children. Some years later, the ideas presented in this section would develop in full bloom in a celebrated article by Claudia Goldin and Kenneth Sokoloff (Goldin and Sokoloff 1982) on the role of female and child labor in early industrialization.

At 89 pages, Chapter Four, “Some Consequences,” is the longest chapter in the book. The first few pages, highly influential, are given to the formation of a national labor market, revealed by changes over time in the coefficient of variation of wages across locations. We are then given an extended tour of the history of American real wages, back and forth between the relevant tables in the appendix, quotations from contemporaries and other anecdotal evidence. The “Determinants of Real Wage Trends” comes next. The first, productivity, is no surprise. The second, “Slavery,” isn’t really either, but here Lebergott’s contrarian instincts, I think, get the better of him. Lebergott would have the reader believe that, first, free and slave labor were close to perfect substitutes; and, second, slave rental rates contained a premium above what the slave would have commanded in a free labor market. Consequently, when slavery ended, wages fell and there was downward pressure on real wage growth for a time. No question that wages fell in the South after the Civil War but Lebergott’s analysis is incomplete at best. Slave labor was highly productive before the Civil War because of the gang system, and when the gang system ended, the demand for labor fell in the South. Because labor supplies were not perfectly elastic, wages fell too. “Immigration,” the third purported influence, had negative short run effects on wages but positive long run effects via productivity growth.

What follows next is a 25-page section that years later produced two high-profile controversies in macroeconomics. This is the (celebrated) section where Lebergott presents his long-term estimates of unemployment. In thinking today about his work, we would do well to remember that, at the time he prepared his estimates, the United States had only a relatively brief experience with the direct and regular measurement of unemployment, courtesy of the 1940 Census and the subsequent Current Population Survey (CPS). (By “direct” I mean answers to questions about a worker’s time allocation during a specific period of time — if you did not have a job during the survey week, were you looking for one?)

Like all the estimates in the book, Lebergott’s unemployment figures were the product of detailed, painstaking work that, inevitably, required strong assumptions. The fundamental problem was that, if one wanted annual estimates of unemployment, there was no way to obtain these directly from survey evidence prior to the CPS. For some benchmark dates one could produce tolerable direct estimates from the federal census, but the federal census was useless if one wanted to generate an estimate, say, for 1893 or, for that matter, 1933.

Lebergott’s solution was to rely on an identity. By definition, the labor force was the sum of employed and unemployed workers. One might not know the number of unemployed workers but perhaps one could extrapolate between benchmark dates the number of workers in the labor force and employment, one could estimate unemployment levels via subtraction.

The first high profile controversy involved Lebergott’s estimates for the 1930s, which included in the count of unemployed workers persons on work relief. After 1933 there were many such workers, and so, by historical standards, unemployment looks, of course, rather high. This generated a lot of theoretical work for macroeconomists who thought they had to explain how unemployment rates could remain above 10 percent while real wages were rising (after 1933).

Michael Darby (1976) suggested that this effort was misplaced because Lebergott “should” have included the persons on work relief in the count of employed workers. Darby showed that doing so made the recovery after 1933 look much more normal. I’ve written a few papers on this issue, and my view is somewhere in-between Darby and Lebergott (Margo 1991; Finegan and Margo 1994; see also Kesselman and Savin 1978). Ideally, in constructing labor force statistics we should be consistent over time, so if persons on work relief were “employed” in the 1930s we should consider adding, say, “workfare” recipients to the labor force (or, possibly, prisoners making license plates) today, but this ideal may not be achievable in practice. The real issue with New Deal work relief is not the resolution of a crusty debate between competing macroeconomic theories but whether the program affected individual behavior. Here I think the answer is a resounding yes — unemployed individuals in the 1930s did respond to incentives built into New Deal policies. Wives were far more likely to be “added workers” if their unemployed spouses had no work whatsoever, than if the spouse held a work relief job, so much so that, in the aggregate, the added work effect disappeared entirely in the late 1930s, because so many unemployed men were on work relief.

The second high-profile debate involved Christina Romer’s important work on the long-term properties of the American business cycle. Prior to her work it was (and in some quarters still is) a “stylized fact” that the business cycle today is less volatile than it was in the past. Lebergott’s original unemployment series combined with standard post-war series were often used to buttress claims that the macroeconomy become much more stable over time. Statistical measures of volatility estimated from the combined series clearly suggest this, whether volatility is measured by the average “distance” (in percentage points) between peaks and troughs or standard deviations.

Romer (1986) argued that, to a large degree, this apparent decline in volatility was a figment of the way the original data were constructed. In particular, in constructing his annual series, Lebergott assumed (among other things) that deviations in employment followed one-for-one deviations in output. Romer invoked Okun’s law, arguing that the true relationship was more like 1:3. Constructing post-war series by replicating (as close as possible) Lebergott’s procedures produced a new series that was not less volatile than the pre-war series, thereby contradicting the stylized fact that the macroeconomy became more stable over time. This was, needless to say, a controversial conclusion, with many subsequently weighing in. Now that the dust is settled, my own view — a view I think that many share, although I could be wrong — is that there is definitely something to Romer’s argument; at the very least, she demonstrated (as she claimed in her original article) that before one draws conclusions from historical time series, one should be very familiar with how the series are constructed. Chapter Four ends with another of Lebergott’s meditations on the alleged constancy of aggregate parameters — in this case, factor shares.

Chapter Five (“Some Inferences”) concludes the narrative portion of the book. It repeats the book’s earlier mantra that “Yankee ingenuity” and initiative, especially that embodied in immigrants, were central to American success as opposed, say, to “factor endowments.” It ruminates on how highly mobile labor influenced the choice of technique, in ways familiar to the first generation of cliometricians, especially those who found H.J. Habakkuk a source of (repeated) inspiration. It notes how “thickening markets” made finding continuous work easier over time, reducing the wage premium associated with unemployment risk. Today’s economic historians, infatuated with “institutions” v. “geography” would probably disagree with the emphases in the chapter but I think there is much to admire in Lebergott’s “inferences.”

Some economic historians make their mark as much through their graduate students as their writings. Lebergott spent his academic career in a liberal arts college and did not, therefore, directly produce graduate students like a William Parker, Robert Fogel or (more recently) Joel Mokyr. In certain ways he was an outsider to economic history, an economist with a vast and deep appreciation for history in all of its flavors, who saw the past for what it can say about the present, not as an end in itself like a more “traditional” historian would. Compared with other classic works of cliometrics such as Fogel’s Railroads and American Economic Growth or North and Thomas’s The Rise of the Western World, Manpower‘s quirkiness can be a frustrating, more suitable for dabbling than a sustained read. By today’s standards the book falls short in its treatment of racial and ethnic differences (gender is more balanced) although this would hardly distinguish it from most other work in economics and economic history at the time. Yet Lebergott’s influence on economic history has been profound. There are few activities that economic historians can engage in of greater consequence than reconstructing the hard numbers. In this line of work Lebergott had few peers. Manpower put the labor force — people — at the center of economic history, not the bloodless “agents” of economic models but real people. As if to underscore this, the style asserts, like a triple fff in music: a real person not a (bloodless) “social scientist” wrote this book, one in deep and abiding awe of the economic accomplishment of his forbearers.


Darby, Michael. 1976. “Three and a Half Million US Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, An Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84 (February): 1-16.

Finegan, T. Aldrich and Robert A. Margo. 1994. “Work Relief and the Labor Force Participation of Married Women in 1940,” Journal of Economic History 54 (March): 64-84.

Goldin, Claudia and Kenneth Sokoloff. 1982. “Women, Children, and Industrialization in the Early Republic: Evidence from the Manufacturing Censuses,” Journal of Economic History 42 (December): 741-774.

Kesselman, Jonathan R. and N. E. Savin. 1978. “Three and a Half Million Workers Were Never Lost,” Economic Inquiry 16 (April): 186-191.

Lebergott, Stanley. 1964. Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lebergott, Stanley. 1986. “Comment,” in Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, eds., Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pp. 671-673. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Margo, Robert A. 1991 “The Microeconomics of Depression Unemployment,” Journal of Economic History 51 (June): 333-341.

Margo, Robert A. and Georgia Villaflor. 1987. “The Growth of Wages in Antebellum America: New Evidence,” Journal of Economic History 47 (December): 873-895.

Romer, Christina. 1986. “Spurious Volatility in Historical Unemployment Data,” Journal of Political Economy 94 (February): 1-37.

Weiss, Thomas. 1986. “Revised Estimates of the United States Workforce, 1880-1860,” in Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, eds., Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pp.641-671. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robert A. Margo is Professor of Economics and African-American Studies, Boston University, and Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research. He is also the editor of Explorations in Economic History.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Irony of State Intervention: American Industrial Relations Policy in Comparative Perspective, 1914-1939

Author(s):Gerber, Larry G.
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Larry G. Gerber, The Irony of State Intervention: American Industrial Relations Policy in Comparative Perspective, 1914-1939. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. viii + 212 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87580-347-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst,

“How Many Exceptions?” There was a time when social scientists explored American Exceptionalism and debated why the United States lacked a strong socialist movement. But then American labor historians challenged the premise of American Exceptionalism by showing the strength of labor radicalism in the United States; and experience has challenged the assumption that capitalism generally leads to socialism because labor movements throughout the world have become more conservative over time and have lost power and membership. Now, instead of one there are many “exceptionalisms” and the task for social scientists has become to explore the divergent responses by workers in different countries to capitalist economic development.

From this perspective Larry Gerber, Professor of History at Auburn, has written a book that addresses questions of exceptionalism in a way that also provides insight into current policy debates. Comparing state policy towards labor relations in the United States and the United Kingdom, he asks why countries with similar political cultures adopted such different policies in the 1930s. “No nation,” Gerber contends, “is more identified with the philosophy and practice of limited government than the United States.” However, in the field of industrial relations, “the American state has long played an active and critically important role” culminating in 1935 with the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). By contrast, Gerber argues, such intrusive “state intervention would have been inconceivable during the same period in Britain, the one other major industrial democracy generally viewed as having a ‘weak state'” (p. 3).

Gerber attributes the paradox of an activist American liberal state to a pattern of industrialization that weakened American labor unions. The rapid development of large-scale enterprises in the United States concentrated economic power, allowing powerful capitalists to crush labor unions in major industries, such as steel, automobiles, chemicals, and electric equipment manufacture. By contrast, the slower pace of British industrialization allowed British craft unions to survive and even flourish in older industries left intact with large numbers of independent firms using older technologies dependent on traditional craft labor. Because British collective bargaining was established firmly when industry was still overwhelmingly competitive and conducted in small firms, many British employers came to rely on industry-wide collective bargaining to contain competition. Without strong or hostile employers, British labor did not need to go to the state for help, leaving antistatist ideology, or “collective laissez-faire,” unchallenged among workers. By contrast, weak American unions needed state power to force employers to accept collective bargaining.

Note that Gerber here reverses the popular social-democratic model where stronger labor unions and working-class political organizations win state support. Instead, his argument relies on some outside motive for state officials to help relatively weak labor organizations. Gerber argues that this happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s when national politicians, notably New York’s powerful Senator Robert F. Wagner, sought to build up labor unions to restore purchasing power by raising wages. Politicians with similar concerns in Britain found little support among workers and unions; but they were welcomed by American labor in desperate need of support against overwhelmingly powerful employers. One might anticipate an extension of Gerber’s thesis to the last twenty years or so where British unions have turned to the state for support against powerful, anti-union employers who are behaving more like their earlier American counterparts, and American unions have found little response to appeals for labor law reform from state officials who no longer believe in Keynesian ideas about restoring purchasing power by redistributing income.

By integrating employers into a study of class conflict, Gerber’s work is a major advance. He adds a dimension to labor history, often written as if only workers were active participants, and to political history, which too often neglects the economy and social conflicts completely. Nonetheless, his analysis remains too narrow. His argument is essentially technological: rapid technological change in American industry led to a larger scale of production using semi-skilled workers where employers had the bargaining power to resist unions but slower technological change denied British employers this power. Immediately, one may question the direction of causality: was slow technological change the cause, or was it the consequence, of union strength? Were British unions strong because technological change was slow in Britain? Or was technological change slow because it was inhibited by strong trade unions? Recent work by Chris Howell, Trade Unions and the State (Princeton, 2005), suggests the latter. Dismissing the concept of collective laissez-faire as a myth, Howell rewrites the history of British industrial relations by showing the crucial role of state officials in establishing industry-level collective bargaining before World War I.

Gerber may also underestimate the importance of worker action in his analysis of the development of American labor law. Rather than the result of beneficent political action by liberal politicians with proto-Keynesian economic notions, the NRA and the Wagner Act can be seen as a response to labor and political unrest. An attempt to contain strikes by establishing strong union institutions, these laws were also part of a strategy by Democratic politicians to solidify the emerging Roosevelt coalition. Concessions to organized labor were meant to win working-class votes; and politicians hoped that established union institutions would hold these votes for the Democrats.

To be sure, these criticisms are a little unfair: the text of Gerber’s book is only 152 pages and we should not expect him to do much more than to present and support an intriguing new thesis in that space. As it is, Larry Gerber has written an important book that adds to our understanding of class conflict and the state. It should be read by anyone interested in comparative twentieth-century history or the history of industrial relations systems.

Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Gerald Friedman has written numerous works in labor economics and in the history of France and the United States in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries including a study of the origins of the modern labor movement, State Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914 (Cornell, 1999). He is currently writing a book on union decline in advanced capitalist economies, titled, Reigniting the Labor Movement (Routledge, forthcoming).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur: The Transformation of Midwestern Agriculture

Author(s):Nordin, Dennis S.
Scott, Roy V.
Reviewer(s):Danbom, David

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott, From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur: The Transformation of Midwestern Agriculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. xvi + 376 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-253-34571-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Danbom, Department of History, North Dakota State University.

The changing nature of Midwestern agriculture is not a fresh topic. It has been addressed frequently over the past quarter century or more, both specifically [1], and as part of larger treatments of change in American agriculture generally.[2] Usually chronicles of agriculture’s evolution — or devolution — express regret that the world of small family farms, close neighborhoods, and one-room schools has passed from the scene.

In From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur, however, Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott take a path less traveled, generally avoiding expressions of nostalgia for traditional farming and regret for agriculture’s relative demographic and economic decline, and praising agriculture’s survivors as sophisticated entrepreneurs.

The origins of this book are noteworthy. Over the course of his long and distinguished career in the Department of History at Mississippi State University, Roy Scott “accumulated an extensive collection … on twentieth-century Midwestern agriculture” (p. xiii), which he hoped to make the basis for a book. Unable to carry out this task alone, he called on Dennis Nordin to serve as co-author. Nordin ended up doing most of the writing.

The authors define the elusive “Midwest” as “states that grow corn” — specifically, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota, along with eastern portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and the western part of Ohio (p. 1). They present the story of change in agriculture and, to a lesser extent, rural life in this region, guided by their thesis that “the 1900s can be considered a century of struggle on North Central farms, a period when a grower either invested wisely and succeeded or squandered opportunities and left the profession” (p. xv).

Most of the book details that struggle and how successful farmers overcame the myriad problems confronting them. Among the topics the authors emphasize are the challenges presented by the environment and the economy, technological change (toward which they take a decidedly whiggish view), shifting government programs (usually discussed in an administration-by-administration manner), and the increasing sophistication of farmers as producers and “entrepreneurs.” By the end of the century, “entrepreneurial agriculture” had triumphed, bringing forth the “Midwestern agricultural miracle, a blessing that continues to provide an ever-growing population of consumers with abundant food at low prices” (pp. 204-05).

The combination of techno-capitalist triumphalism and Social Darwinism within this book will be deeply offensive to many, particularly those with a romantic view of agriculture and rural life. But the main problem with From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur is not the destination so much as the journey. Indeed, readers will find this a deeply flawed book which lacks sophistication and nuance and which does not, in the end, defend its point of view effectively.

Let’s begin with the thesis. Can farmers really be divided into “those who invested wisely and succeeded or squandered opportunities and left the profession?” I would argue that most of those who left agriculture after 1945 were not failures who “squandered opportunities.” Most were commercial producers who saw better ways to deploy their capital or who grew too old to farm and lacked children interested in succeeding them. In my state of North Dakota half of the farm land is owned by out-of-staters, mostly heirs of commercial farmers who “left the profession,” but not because they “squandered opportunities.” In addition to ignoring the complex reasons why some farmers stay while others leave, Nordin and Scott embrace the false notion held in the least-sophisticated precincts of the discipline of agricultural economics that good managers succeed and poor managers fail. Well, poor managers succeed sometimes and good ones don’t. Real life is complicated.

Then there’s the problem of the focus on the Midwest. Even if we accept the definition of the Midwest as “states that grow corn,” we must recognize — as the authors too frequently fail to do — that other states and nations also grow corn, soybeans, beef, and pork. We have to recognize that their production decisions, and the production decisions of those who raise competitive meat animals and/or feed grains, have an impact on the farming economy of the Midwest. And we have to recognize that their experiences with technology, trade, and government agricultural policies are similar to those of the Midwest. The Midwest is unique only if similar places under similar conditions are ignored. Not always, but often, that is the course the authors take.

What is even more disturbing, however, in a book that celebrates farmers’ business sense, is the weak understanding the authors demonstrate of many of the fundamental economic realities of twentieth-century agriculture. Among other errors of commission and omission, the authors show little understanding of the significance of export markets to the well-being of Midwestern agriculture; they confuse increases in production with increases in productivity; they suggest that farm operators were actually harmed by rising farm prices; they fail to recognize how the United States’ new status as the world’s leading creditor after World War I diminished export markets; they seem not to understand that overproduction occurs when consumers are unable or unwilling to consume whatever is produced, regardless of what they consumed previously; they fail to note that the inelasticity of agricultural commodity prices contributes to disproportionate price swings; and they do not recognize the centrality of dollar devaluation in 1971 to the agricultural boom of the ensuing decade. The agricultural economy is complex, and is shaped by numerous forces beyond the ability of “entrepreneurs” to control, regardless of how advanced their management skills may be. Too often that complexity is lost or ignored in this book.

A series of misunderstandings, confusions, and contradictions further mars the book. The authors assume, incorrectly, that tenancy necessarily connotes economic disadvantage or hardship (p. 9). They fall into the farmer’s habit of blaming others (e.g., the government, the banks, and even vegetarians) for agriculture’s troubles. They misunderstand the nature of rural-urban population shifts during the 1930s. They contradict themselves, as when they argue that the Golden Age of Agriculture was and wasn’t. They impart “self-sufficiency’ to Midwestern farms in 1900, when they weren’t, and in 1945, when farmers couldn’t even remember being self-sufficient. And they overstate, as on page 172 when they contend that, after 1945, “farmers placed blind faith in science and technology.” The authors put sixty charts in the book to help make their points. Usually these help, but sometimes they are senseless, pointless, or simply curious. For example, what is a chart on stress in rural life in 1974 doing in a chapter on the 1900-1920 period? And why does a chart on the number of radios on Midwestern farms count the devices only in 1925 and 1927?

Adding to the confusion are infelicitous prose choices. The authors sometimes jump into the future tense, or mix it with the past tense, for no apparent reason. They believe that “distances from farms to … consumers increased as roads … improved” (p. 66). And they argue that hog producers “increasingly stopped” selling animals on open markets (pp. 184-85). Enough said.

Nordin and Scott have a lot of good material here and a valid point to make. Unfortunately, the numerous flaws in From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur prevent them from making a significant contribution to our understanding of agricultural change in the Midwest.

Notes: 1. See, for example, Jane Adams, The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois, 1890-1990 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), and Mary Neth, Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

2. See, for example, David B. Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Hiram M. Drache, History of U.S. Agriculture and Its Relevance to Today (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1996), Gilbert C. Fite, American Farmers: The New Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), R. Douglas Hurt, Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), John T. Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Agriculture, 1609-1972 (Ames: Iowa State University, 1975), and John L. Shover, First Majority, Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976).

David Danbom is professor of history at North Dakota State University. His most recent book is Going It Alone: Fargo Grapples with the Great Depression (2005).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

1896: The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons and Commentary

Author(s):Edwards, Rebecca
DeFeo, Sarah
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)


Rebecca Edwards and Sarah DeFeo, “1896: The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons and Commentary.” Vassar College, 2000.

Worth Robert Miller, “Populism.” Missouri State University, 2001.

Website Review for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Oswego.

Populism and the 1896 Election

To economic historians, the Populist era is endlessly fascinating, raising as it does such issues as the Brandeisian conflict between democracy and concentrated wealth, the relative merits of the gold standard versus a bimetallic standard or fiat money, and, of course, the “puzzle of farm discontent” at a time when the average farm standard of living seems to have been rising (at least according to aggregate statistics cited by North 1966 and several other economic historians). Adding to the era’s wondrous quality are timeless documents, like the People’s Party platform of 1892 and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention of 1896, and larger-than-life characters such as Bryan; Populists Tom Watson, Mary Elizabeth Lease, and Jacob S. Coxey; and Mark Hanna, Republican campaign mastermind.

But possibly nowhere in the American economic history curriculum is the gap between instructor interest and student interest greater than it is for the Populist era. Apathy on this topic is perhaps unsurprising among students in urbanized America who have known only the relatively tranquil Age of Greenspan. For them to relate to the concerns of frontier farmers, or to appreciate how the choice of monetary regime could once have been the paramount issue in American politics, requires a great leap of imagination. Two websites, one devoted to Populism and the other to the famous “battle of the standards” that was the 1896 presidential election, go a long way toward aiding that leap, largely through the use of a device that itself came of age in the 1896 campaign: the political cartoon.

The 1896 website is the creation of Rebecca Edwards, an associate professor of history at Vassar College, and one of her students, Sarah DeFeo, with contributions from students in a Vassar history class. Edwards is the author of two books about American social and political history in the post-Civil War decades, and she is readying a biography of Populist orator Mary (“Raise less corn and more hell”) Lease. The site is attractive and user-friendly, with a distinctive logo and icons that link to its main sections: “The Cartoons,” a chronology of the 1896 election featuring over a hundred political cartoons; a list of newspapers and magazines whence those cartoons came; and pages on the Republican, Democratic, and People’s parties. The main page includes links to additional pages on political, economic, and social leaders, campaign themes, and popular amusements in the 1890s. Pages contain numerous links to other pages but are sufficiently self-contained that one need not spend much time clicking links.

The heart of the 1896 site is its cartoon chronology of that year’s presidential contest between Bryan and William McKinley. Even a century later, the dazzling full-color cartoons, such as those from the anti-Bryan Puck and Judge, convey much of the vividness of the campaign. Most of the other cartoons are cruder but accomplish the same purpose, by presenting an authentic and entertaining version of the campaign as Americans read about it at the time. Humorous put-downs of the opposition are a staple of every presidential campaign, and in 1896 those put-downs found their fullest expression in cartoon caricatures, such as those of McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna in a dollar-sign suit, devilish-looking Populists holding pitchforks, and Bryan as a hot-air balloon. An accompanying “Journals” page provides the necessary perspective on the myriad periodicals that originally ran the cartoons, including circulation and political affiliation.

The pages on the three major political parties are workmanlike and easily digested. The main thing that distinguishes them from online encyclopedia entries is the extensive use of quotations from contemporary sources, from The Atlanta Constitution to The Rocky Mountain News to The Vineland (NJ) Independent. The quotations offer helpful context, but the pages do not match the vitality of the cartoon chronology. More cartoons or campaign illustrations would have helped. More expansive are the pages on individual leaders, campaign themes, and 1890s pop culture, which are a mix of short essays (some by Vassar students), political cartoons and illustrations, and quotations. The special-features section includes a bibliography, arranged by subject and including several websites, including the Library of Congress’s extensive “American Memory” collection of images ( Also included is an inspired list of classroom ideas for discussion, writing, and research. Additional assignments might be for students to respond to some of the student essays, which are generally good but not always airtight in their arguments. Undergraduates may feel more comfortable challenging assertions made by their peers than by credentialed economists and historians.

Worth Robert Miller’s “Populism” site also provides an impressive cartoon-based presentation but otherwise overlaps only a little with the 1896 site. Miller, a professor of history at Missouri State University, has written extensively and sympathetically on Populist politics, including a book on Oklahoma Populism. He is currently at work on a book on Populist cartoons, of which he has assembled over one thousand. The website presentation contains 40 cartoons (an alternate “short presentation” has 32), all from Populist newspapers. The presentations amount to cartoon histories of Populism, as depicted by the Populists themselves and annotated by Miller, who has provided simple explanatory captions. The presentations, though web-based, are as easy to use as slide shows, as one can advance from one cartoon to the next with just one click. One could easily and entertainingly devote a class period to either of these online presentations (or a selection thereof), perhaps following it up the next class with a discussion of Populism’s and free silver’s critics, illustrated with cartoons from the 1896 site.

Miller’s cartoons mostly predate the 1896 election. This is no accident, as Miller, like many historians of Populism, rejects the conventional view of Bryan’s 1896 campaign as the climax of Populism; instead he sees it as a debacle, and not just because Bryan lost. By endorsing Bryan, the People’s Party subordinated its original vision to the narrower concerns of the free-silver Democrats, “becoming an annex to Bryan Democracy” (Miller, “A Centennial Historiography of American Populism,” on the website. See Clanton 1991, 2004 for similar accounts).

The Populism site also contains some of Miller’s own writings, namely an annotated bibliography of Populism, an interpretive overview of the Populists (originally a book chapter), and three journal articles, two on Populist politics in Texas and the other a solid historiography of Populism. The annotated biography, which Miller revised in 1989 and again in 2001 from a 1973 book of Populist history sources by Henry Clay Dethloff contains entries on Populist activities in over thirty states and with about twenty categories. Finally, the site links to standard primary documents like the People’s Party platforms of 1892 and 1896 and Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

Neither Edwards nor Miller appears to be a card-carrying economic historian, and, not surprisingly, neither of these sites contains much discussion of the cliometric literature on monetary populism and agrarian discontent. This is regrettable, all the more so because it seems symptomatic of a more general communication breakdown between traditional historians and economic historians (as described in Coclanis and Carlton 2001). The New Economic History spawned a generation of skeptics about the true economic plight of the farmers and a plethora of research on the “puzzle of farm discontent,” but that research is generally absent from both of these sites. Both sites, and Miller’s otherwise comprehensive bibliography in particular, would do well to acknowledge the modern economic history literature, from early revisionist pieces like North’s (1966) book chapter, subsequent responses (e.g., Mayhew 1972, McGuire 1981), and more recent pieces that suggest the Populist preoccupation with price deflation and reflation was rational (e.g., Rockoff 1990, Frieden 1997). Miller does reference two cliometric works on railroads and Populism (Higgs 1970, Aldrich 1980), but that’s about all.

On the other hand, economic history instructors are probably already assigning works like those, or textbook chapters that incorporate their insights. And neither site claims to be a self-contained lesson on the economics of Populism. Despite their omissions, these sites can be highly valuable to economic historians, especially those seeking to spice up their classroom coverage of the Populist movement and the “battle of the standards.”


Aldrich, Mark. 1980. “A Note on Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 54 (3): 424-432.

Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Clanton, O. Gene. A Common Humanity: Kansas Populism and the Battle for Justice and Equality, 1854-1903. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 2004.

Coclanis, Peter, and David Carlton. 2001. “The Crisis in Economic History.” Challenge 44 (November-December): 93-103.

Frieden, Jeffry A. 1997. “Monetary Populism in Nineteenth-Century America: An Open-Economy Interpretation.” Journal of Economic History 57 (June): 367-395.

Higgs, Robert. 1970. “Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 44 (3): 291-297.

Mayhew, Anne. 1972. “A Reappraisal of the Causes of Farm Protest in the U.S., 1870-1900.” Journal of Economic History 32 (June): 464-475.

McGuire, Robert A. 1981. “Economic Causes of Late-Nineteenth Century Agrarian Unrest: New Evidence.” Journal of Economic History 41 (December): 835-852.

North, Douglass C. 1966. Growth and Welfare in the American Past, chapter 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rockoff, Hugh. 1990. “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” Journal of Political Economy 98 (August): 739-760.

Ranjit S. Dighe is Associate Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002). His recent research concerns business support for Prohibition and its repeal.


Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Retrospective

Author(s):Fogel, Robert William
Reviewer(s):Carlson, Leonard

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Robert William Fogel, The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Retrospective. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. ix + 106 pp. $23 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-2881-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Leonard Carlson, Department of Economics, Emory University.

This short book by Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel gives a survey of the historical literature published before 1990 about the economics of slavery, the economy of the South before 1860, and the origins of the emancipation movement. This book is a tour de force that gives Fogel’s judgments about which issues are settled and his view of a new consensus about southern economic history.[1] I can only mention a few highlights in what follows. The book has a bibliography but no footnotes and a reader seeking citations for some of the points made in the book will need to search the bibliography or look at the earlier Without Consent or Contract. There are three main chapters: “Breaking Away from the Phillips Tradition,” “Coming to Terms with the Economic Viability of Slavery” and “Toward a New Synthesis on the Shaping of American Civilization.”

Fogel sees the debate about the nature of slavery in the South as part of a larger intellectual debate between the “old” anthropology (which saw races as being innately superior or inferior) and the “new” anthropology of Franz Boas (which saw human beings as innately equal but shaped by different cultural circumstances). To Fogel World War II was in part a struggle between the “old” anthropology (championed by the Nazis) and the “new” anthropology (championed by the allies, including the United States). This gives a new twist to Keynes’ observation that madmen in authority distill their ideas from “academic” scribblers. The paradox for the U.S. was that it fought the Nazis at the same time that it practiced segregation in its own army and at home, a contradiction that had be resolved after World War II.

Chapter one begins with a discussion of U.B. Phillips, whose work published in the early twentieth century dominated the scholarly work on slavery for many years. Fogel condemns the racism in Phillips’ research (the old anthropology), but praises him for setting forth a number of interesting hypotheses, many of which have held up to recent research. Phillips concluded that masters in the South treated slave relatively well and that slavery itself was an unprofitable relic that lead masters to pursue status rather than profit. The view that slavery was unprofitable and a burden on the economic development of the both South and the U.S. became embedded in the work of progressive historians such as Charles and Mary Beard. This view was also embraced by historians with a Marxist emphasis. Kenneth Stamp in a 1952 article (hence the date in the title) and his 1956 book, the Peculiar Institution, launched a major challenge to the dominant interpretation. Unlike Phillips, Stamp argued that slaves were treated in a harsh and more dehumanizing manner. In 1957 Conrad and Meyer added a new dimension to the historical debate by using theory and data to address the old question of whether slavery was profitable. Scholars also pursued other lines of inquiry that have helped shape a revised view of slavery and the anti-slavery movement. For example, John Blassingame, John Hope Franklin, and Eugene Genovese explored the development of a separate black culture under slavery. Other scholars began to explore the impact of evangelical religion on American life.

The second lecture deals with debates about the economics of the slave system and the treatment received by slaves in the South. Much of the discussion was generated by challenges to conclusions reached either by Conrad and Meyer or Fogel and Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross. Conrad and Meyer concluded that an investment in a slave could have earned a master a normal rate of return — that is, slavery was profitable. This result was very controversial to many scholars in the 1950s and 1960s and their results were challenged in a variety of ways. The conclusion that in static terms slavery was profitable is now generally accepted by economists, however, as is the conclusion that per capita incomes were growing in the South up to the Civil War. In Time on the Cross, Fogel and Engerman went further and concluded that slavery in the South was a viable, flexible form of capitalism. They also found that slaves had a standard of living and level of treatment by masters that were not as harsh as Stamp had claimed. This set loose a torrent of criticism, much of it very hostile. Fogel concludes that in the end there were no losers from all the controversy. Fogel does, however, cite a letter to him from John Meyer that asks rhetorically “… how would you react to listening to one hour of fairly substantive implications that you lacked sensitivity to the race issue?” I don’t think that it is too big a leap to conclude that Fogel himself relates very well to Meyer’s rhetorical question in light of some critiques of Time on the Cross.

Fogel and Engerman were the first to argue that farms in the South in general, and slave plantations in particular, were an average more efficient than northern free farms, based on a sample of farms drawn from the census. Their conclusion was hotly debated in scholarly journals. Over time the argument was refined into a claim that there were economies of scale in gang labor on plantations. Some recent empirical studies support that conclusion and Fogel sees the issue as settled. I expect that we have not seen the end of research on this topic, however.

One particularly controversial set of issues raised in Time on the Cross concerned the argument that slaves had won for themselves a better standard of living than Stamp had claimed. In discussing these issues, Fogel gives special attention to the work of Stephen Crawford and Richard Steckel, two of his former graduate students. Using evidence from interviews with former slaves recorded in the 1930s, Crawford found that there was more stability in the typical slave family than earlier research had concluded. Slaves on large plantations fared better than those on small plantations, which might explain some differences with earlier research. Data on slave heights analyzed by Steckel show that slaves were well fed and lived long lives, once they were old enough to work in the fields. Slaves were not well-fed as children, however, (there was apparently little protein in the diet) and slave mothers were often required to work hard during the first and third trimesters of pregnancy, which had adverse effects on both mother and child.

In Fogel’s opinion from the Civil War to present the traditional condemnation of slavery, the “Republican indictment of slavery,” rested on the assumption that slavery was inefficient. However, the fact that slavery was profitable does not make it a just or moral system. In place of the older view, Fogel argues that slavery was immoral because it: 1) gave one group of people legal rights to exercise personal domination over another; 2) denied slaves economic opportunity; 3) denied slaves citizenship; and 4) denied slaves cultural identification.

The third section, “Toward a New Synthesis on the Shaping of American Civilization,” addresses the abolition movement and the end of slavery. Progressive historians had downplayed morality as a cause of the Civil War. In this view, the South blocked needed changes and a northern victory was essential for America’s rise as an industrial power in the later part of the nineteenth century. But if slavery wasn’t dying out and the North was not held down by the South, why did the anti-slavery movement ultimately succeed and why did the North fight to keep the South in the union? In contrast to the economic origins emphasized by the progressive historians, Fogel argues that the slavery issue became an important issue because many people saw slavery as against the wishes of God. This view grew out of the moral sensibility that arose out of the evangelicalism that resulted from the “second great awakening” in the 1830’s. This religiously-based condemnation of slavery led to heated political debate about whether slavery should be allowed in new territories in the West. The Whig party split into northern and southern branches over the issue and faded from national importance.

The 1850s also saw increased hostility toward immigrants, especially Catholic immigrants, by native workers who feared that they would lose their jobs to new workers willing to take lower wages. This tension was further fueled by economic recession in the mid 1850’s. One result was the growth of the nativist Know Nothing Party which was opposed to immigrants and Catholics. Fogel argues that enterprising politicians in the 1850’s blended the anti-slavery movement, anti-immigrant fears and remnants of the Whig Party to form the ultimately successful Republican Party. The Republicans rallied around the cause of keeping slavery out of western territories. Southerners responded to these attacks on slavery in the territories by trying ever harder to allow slavery to spread. Fogel’s nuanced view is sure to stimulate interesting new research — as will his emphasis on the impact of religious movements on political reform.

Undoubtedly this short book will be widely cited and should be read by anyone interested in the economic history of slavery or, indeed, the economic history of the United States.

Note: 1. This is the fourth major review of the literature on slavery and the South by Fogel. A reader new to this literature would benefit by looking at all of them, since each covers somewhat different topics and a reader can see the evolution of Fogel’s thinking. These are found in Reinterpretation of American Economic History (1971), Time on the Cross (1974), and Without Consent or Contract (1989).

Leonard Carlson teaches a course on the political economy of the U.S. South. His research interests are in the economic history of the United States, the economics of federal Indian policy, applied microeconomics, and labor economics.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850

Author(s):Pearson, Robin
Reviewer(s):Tebeau, Mark

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Robin Pearson, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004. xiii + 434 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-3363-2.

Reviewed by Mark Tebeau, Department of History, Cleveland State University.

Despite its rather obvious importance to modern economic development, the history of fire and property insurance has been largely neglected. Until now that is. Robin Pearson’s exhaustively researched and meticulously argued study, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850, offers the definitive history of the British fire insurance industry through the middle of the nineteenth century. Even more critically, Pearson establishes just how integral property insurance was to the industrial revolution. Although Pearson is careful to note that fire insurance did not determine the economic development (and, in fact, was often shaped by it), he shows how fire insurance developed in support of the broader economy, was often at the cutting edge of industrial business expansion, and fostered further economic growth.

At its broadest level, Pearson’s argument demonstrates how fire insurance was integral to an industrializing society. Widely available in London by the 1850s and easily acquired in the provinces, fire insurance reduced the uncertainty associated with the hazard of fire — at least in economic terms for businesses and the middle-class for whom insurance policies would have been most affordable. On mechanistic grounds, the availability of relatively cheap and stable forms of insurance offered security to property owners — residential, mercantile, or manufacturing. By indemnifying policy holders from significant property losses associated with fires, insurance provided an institutional incentive for accumulating wealth in the form of material items and investment. In short, it minimized the risks associated with aggressive economic development. At the same time, fire insurance was critical to the financing of the infrastructure, thus critical to industrial development. Firms provided capital for a variety of public improvement projects as well as for private economic ventures. Fire insurance firms also depended on and strengthened the institutional networks on which economic development depended. Thus, fire insurance became integral to industrial activity, “forming part of the feedback mechanism by which trust and confidence multiplied within business communities” (368).

Pearson’s research is exhaustive and his arguments are qualified with exceptional care — so much so, that it is difficult to offer a full accounting in a brief review. Insuring the Industrial Revolution begins with an initial chapter that outlines the overall development of the industry in a series of detailed and well-constructed tables. After that, the story is organized into two parts. The first section offers a chronological portrait of the industry. Pearson essentially divides his narrative into three periods of analysis, bounded by major political and economic developments, as well as shifting trends in the industry itself: the period from 1720 to 1782, the era from 1782 to 1815, and finally the years between 1815 and 1850. In these chapters, Pearson places the industry into the historiography of the British industrial revolution. Throughout, he takes an approach that explores the entirety of the market in insurance. He explores the vagaries of fire insurance firms in the provincial areas as well as in larger cities. He meticulously compiles and analyzes a mountain of data, synthesized into over fifty figures and tables — an impressive and (no-doubt) time-consuming contribution in their own right.

The second section of Insuring the Industrial Revolution examines the industry’s internal organization in a thematic explication of its central elements. It explores four broad topical areas: the process of company foundation and the social, political, and economic networks behind this process; the marketing of insurance and the development of networks of agents to manage the insurance transactions; the core practice of underwriting and its change over time, including the challenges of assessing risk; and the trends in how companies invested their capital and understood that capital in terms of their broader portfolio of risk, as well as how the insurance industry operated as an investment from the perspective of individual investors.

Although well written, it is easy to get lost in the details of this story. Pearson lovingly and painstakingly recounts an exhaustive list of similarities and differences in the industry, paying special attention to the geographic differences between Britain’s various provincial areas, and between the provinces and the major metropolitan centers. Sometimes frustrating from the perspective of a reader, this level of specificity nonetheless advances the larger purpose of the book, which is to recognize that subtle — and sometimes contradictory — manner in which the industry developed. Nor is this precisely a critique of Pearson’s skill as a writer. To the contrary, Pearson shows deft authorial voice in juggling such a complex story. For example, both the first and second sections of the narrative cover the same material, but there is little sense of redundancy here. In fact, Pearson’s examination of the various elements of the insurance industry is exceptionally well constructed. These chapters are a primer on the basics of insurance, introducing issues that did not disappear in 1850 but would continue to haunt insurers well into the twentieth century.

Insuring the Industrial Revolution will become a touchstone for future research on the history of fire and property insurance in part because of the connections that Pearson makes between industrialization and fire insurance. More importantly, though, this work also lays out an agenda for future research into the industry. Pearson provides a compelling argument as to why we should seek to better understand the connections between economic development and property insurance. He suggests, too, that we must look at the subject globally, developing rich cases studies that explore the history of insurance in Europe, the United States, and other places. And, through the example of what he has done with the British fire insurance industry, he demonstrates the benefits of weaving such case studies into the comparative history of property insurance. Not only will we get a better sense of the particulars of the industry, but we will also be able to better understand how the expansion of global economic connections may have fostered the stability of the insurance industry by creating a market in reinsurance and dispersing risk more widely. And, finally, we must keep in mind that the history of the fire insurance industry does not end in 1850 with the advent of more sophisticated tools for understanding risk. Rather, the industry’s continued evolution occurs in a direct relation to broader economic, political, and societal changes, not the least of which is that the danger of fire itself will continue to shift in modernizing societies.

Indeed, if Insuring the Industrial Revolution shows how the study of fire insurance contributes to broader debates in economic history, it also suggests implicitly that we place the study of fire insurance into a wider historical lens. Unfortunately, Pearson is a bit too guarded about such possibilities, arguing that “establishing an evidential link between the expansion of insurance and broad attitudinal changes in a society is extremely difficult” (368). However, I believe that we should nonetheless push the boundaries here and broaden the frame. We should identify ways in which the expansion of fire (and property) insurance was related to changes in the social, cultural, and political realms. I agree that such connections are difficult to prove, but as I suggest in my own work on urban fire risk, the work of insurers had tremendous implications for society. These include encouraging consumerism and the consumer safety movement; fire underwriters’ activities are clearly linked to shifting perceptions of societal danger; and, at the very least, insurers’ visions of the world frequently have been built into the material landscapes of ordinary life.

Insuring the Industrial Revolution is a singular achievement. Robin Pearson demonstrates that fire insurance played a consequential, if sometimes ambivalent, role in the industrial revolution. He also provides a roadmap that future scholars in this area will follow when constructing their own studies of the history of fire insurance. I hope that this fine study garners the wide audience it deserves.

Mark Tebeau is author of Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950 (Johns Hopkins University Press: 2003).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Effortless Economy of Science?

Author(s):Mirowski, Philip
Reviewer(s):Boland, Lawrence

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Philip Mirowski, The Effortless Economy of Science? Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. v + 463 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-3322-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence Boland, Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.

This book is a collection of sixteen essays of which six were published in readily available journals and eight in collections. In addition to the Introduction, there is one original essay at the beginning. All of them will provide new evidence for Mirowski’s critics, particularly those who complain about his over-the-top style.

The common thread for the essays is that all are about heretics — starting with Mirowski himself. Readers with first-hand familiarity with the academic life of a heretic will easily appreciate these essays. The sub-theme for all of the essays is a challenge for the common view that in science there is a market place for ideas. The sub-theme is common place in so-called Science Studies and apparently even in some Philosophy of Science literature.

Much of this book will be familiar to readers of Mirowski’s previous books. But the focus throughout is what he calls the science-economics nexus. In his Machine Dreams that nexus concerns how modern economics is financially promoted by outside agencies such as the U.S. Air Force and Naval Research, etc. One could say that even though the economics of research matters, it is not a “market place of ideas” as some would claim, but (I would say) a competition for “shelf space.” As is well known in the grocery store business with the Pepsi-Coke wars, this is not really a case of perfect competition. Machine Dreams explains why the competition was not market-based and to a great extent rigged. The heretics discussed here were the ones unable to get shelf space and the question addressed is why.

The book is divided into five parts. In Part One, after an introduction that explains everything one needs to know about the essays, Mirowski begins by confessing to being an aging enfant terrible. In Part Two, he begins his critical examination of those who try to see science as a “market place of ideas” and other attempts to characterize science by using characterizations of society. The chief heretic to be examined is Michael Polanyi who is of primary interest because he explicitly tried to create an economics of science. Thomas Kuhn comes in for critical examination for his attempt to create a sociology of science, as does the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher who goes so far as to use neoclassical and game theory as a basis for characterizing social structure of science. Of particular concern is the apparent privatization of science which seems to be rendering ordinary academic science journals to be useless.

Part Three raises many questions concerning the na?ve presumptions of economists and social scientists about numbers and constants that they think can be found in natural sciences. One issue raised is that too often social scientists think that measurements involve a natural process when in fact even in physics the constants needed to establish measurements depend on the stability other alleged constants and thus can often be open to question. Part Four takes this into the common quantitative territory of econometrics. In particular, Mirowski takes on the proponents of Cliometrics and the na?ve presumptions of proponents of rational expectations, as well as others who equate neoclassical rationality with economic success. He provides evidence of a convincing counter-example to such presumptions. The more general questions involve when economists adopt the latest mathematical fad to model neoclassical economics without thinking things through. This discussion involves another heretic, Benoit Mandelbrot, a mathematician who understood the limits of mathematical model building.

Part Five strikes at the heart of neoclassical economics, the so-called Laws of Supply and Demand. The chief heretic here is William Thomas Thornton who was a friend of John Stuart Mill and yet was critical of the Laws of Supply and Demand and in particular the basic notion of such a thing as a demand or supply curve that is taken for granted in textbooks today. Armed with Thornton’s perspective, Mirowski turns to the obvious culprit, Alfred Marshall, whose presentation of demand and supply curves is the fountainhead of almost every neoclassical textbook. This part closes out with a consideration of historiographical questions that might be asked by a wise historian of science. The heretic here is Henry Ludwell Moore, who Mirowski argues began an empirical approach to economics that was intended to be a critique of Marshallian demand and supply analysis contrary to conventional wisdom. And in the last and most difficult chapter, the challenge for historians of economic thought is how they go about reconciling ordinary demand and supply analysis or market exchange analysis as a view of science with an alternate view that might see sciences as a “gift economy”.

An obvious audience for this book is all of the aspiring heretics out there who will find Chapter 1 to be particularly interesting. Obviously, it is a book that should be read by all true-believers in neoclassical economics. But since economics today is being taught as if it is a matter of catechism rather than critical thinking, there is probably not much hope. Surely, historians of thought can find a lot here to cause them to reconsider some sacred cows.

Lawrence Boland’s recent publications include Foundations of Economic Methodology: A Popperian Perspective, free PDF copies of his previous five books and many other publications can be found at

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative