EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History

Author(s):North, Douglass C.
Thomas, Robert Paul
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R. P.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

North, Douglass C. and Robert Paul Thomas, The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. viii + 171 pp. ISBN: 0-521-29099-6.

Review Essay by Philip R. P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University. <00prcoelho@bsu.edu>

New or Old Economic History? Incentives and Development

This is a landmark book on the impact of property rights on European economic development. Published over a quarter of a century ago, its stated goal is “… to suggest new paths for the study of European economic history rather than … either [a detailed and exhaustive study or a precise empirical test that are the] … standard formats” (p. vii). North and Thomas attempt to identify the elements that allowed the Western European economy to rise to affluence. Their argument is made transparent in Chapter One (Theory and Overview): the key to growth was and is an efficient economic system. Efficient in the sense that the system of property rights gives individuals incentives to innovate and produce, and, conversely inhibits those activities (rent-seeking, theft, arbitrary confiscation and/or excessive taxation) that reduce individual incentives. They argue that property rights are classic public goods because: (1) once a more efficient set of property rights is discovered the marginal cost of copying it is low (compared to the cost of discovering and developing it); (2) it is prohibitively expensive to prevent other political jurisdictions from emulating a more efficient set of property rights regardless of whether they contributed to their construction; (3) and finally, the idea of a set of property rights, like all ideas, is non-rival — we can all consume the same idea and the “stock” of the idea is not diminished. These public good aspects lead them to conclude that there may be under investment in the attempts to create more efficient sets of property rights because the jurisdiction that invests in the development of property rights pays the entire cost of their development but receives only benefits that accrue to its jurisdiction, while other jurisdictions can get the benefits without any of the developmental costs. Thus, the problems of public goods and the “free riders.”

Chapter Two (“An Overview”) sets the historical stage for their analysis. North and Thomas begin with tenth-century Europe and an examination of the classic feudal system. They contend that relatively low population densities and the absence of security (both economic and personal) led to a retreat from market exchange to one of self-sufficiency and to the development of feudalism. Protection was valuable and had to be paid for, but in the absence of markets it was paid for in kind rather than money. Since agricultural output could not be exchanged in the market (land) lords demanded labor services (dues) rather than output shares. Labor dues could be used to produce a more desirable set of consumables than output shares. Lacking market exchange, manorial labor was more fungible than agricultural output. The authors argue that from kings down to peasants, the absence of markets was the mid-wife to feudalism. The second prong of their thesis is that in feudalism, as in any societal arrangement, there existed a myriad of details, known as the custom of the manor that allowed the system to function. Once established, these customs became the set of property rights that molded the economic and personal relationships of feudalism.

As the centuries progressed populations grew and manorial economies replicated themselves. North and Thomas contend that land was available at the constant marginal cost (the cost of clearing land) up to the thirteenth century. At the end of this period diminishing returns to labor employed in agriculture manifested itself. The growth of population densities and the establishment of political order allowed markets to emerge. Diminishing returns and emergent markets gave feudal lords incentives to convert their serfs’ labor dues into fixed money payments. The lords were better off receiving a fixed payment rather than labor dues because the market price for labor was falling due to Malthusian diminishing returns to labor in agriculture. The commutation of labor services into money payments could not be reversed when labor became more valuable during the plagues of the fourteenth century. Amending the custom of the manor was subject to severe transactions costs, consequently by the sixteenth century servile labor in Western Europe was not viable.

Part Two (Chapters 3-7) presents evidence to buttress this thesis. Chapter 3 explores property rights in humans and land, Chapters 4 and 5 develop the frontier movement and the settling of land. Chapter 6 explores diminishing returns to agriculture in the thirteenth century, and Chapter 7 the devastation associated with the fourteenth century. Part Three of the book deals with the period 1500 to 1700 and covers the “unsuccessful” national economies of Spain and France and the successful ones of Holland and England. North and Thomas argue that inefficient sets of property rights hindered economic growth in Spain and France, while more efficient sets promoted the economic growth of England and Holland.

The paragraphs above are a rough sketch of the North-Thomas thesis on the growth of Western Europe. How well have the last 25 years of the twentieth century treated it, and how much consideration should it be given? The first question is relatively easy to answer. Texts and books in European economic development and history generally cite The Rise of the Western World, with the notable exceptions of David Landes and Rondo Cameron. In the academic literature it is frequently cited: The Social Science Citation Index for the years 1986-1990 gives the book about fifteen citations per year (68 total citations in the entire five year period), and for the last decade of the twentieth century (and subsequent to North winning the Nobel Prize in economics) citations rose to about twenty per year.1 But how big is that? It is larger than most, but not in the league of scholarship that alters the way a subject is considered. A relevant example is Ester Boserup’s The Conditions of Agricultural Growth that, for the same period (1986-90), was cited 158 times, or more than twice as frequently as North and Thomas. I believe the citation count assessment of the significance of this book is relatively accurate. The Rise of the Western World is an addition to the historiography of property rights, but it does not accomplish its stated goal: to explain the rise of the West. Furthermore there are significant gaps in its argument.

First, its reliance on Malthusian population theory may be misplaced. In 1966 the aforementioned Ester Boserup published her work The Conditions of Agricultural Growth (not cited in North and Thomas). From empirical evidence she argued that increasing populations led to the intensification of economic activities: From hunting and gathering, to a long-cycle agricultural rotation mixed in with hunting and gathering, to settled agriculture. In Boserup’s analysis output per man-year rises in agricultural societies relative to hunting and gathering societies, but output per hour devoted to the acquisition of food may have fallen. Boserup’s thesis is much more sophisticated than (and contradictory to) the simple Malthusian framework that North and Thomas rely upon. She points out that it is extraordinarily difficult to compare outputs in societies with different levels of production intensity. Population densities lead to different modes of production and entirely different societies. An increase in population density increases the range of productive activities that can be produced for market exchange, and as Adam Smith explains increased specialization leads to increased output and the size of the market limits specialization. North and Thomas recognize this interdependency explicitly. They state that increasing specialization due to increasing population densities may have partially offset Malthusian diminishing returns. How do they know it was a partial offset? The evidence they offer on diminishing returns and a Malthusian crisis in medieval England is primarily derived from the works of James E. Thorold Rogers, who investigated six centuries of wages and prices in England.2

As a source, Rogers is an excellent compilation of manorial roles and other data sources, however he is not a transparent writer and he is difficult to interpret. In volume one of A History of Agriculture and Prices in England (1866) he states, “… we may… conclude that the price of the service [wage labor], in so far as it was affected by competition, represents fully the economical conditions of supply and demand, and is interpreted by the evidence of prices” (p. 253). This may be interpreted to mean that wages are an accurate representation of the laborers’ incomes, but that does not seem to be what Rogers meant. Two pages later he writes that: “In many cases the labourer or artisan was fed. In this case, of course, he received lower wages. … At Southampton, the various artisans are almost invariably fed, … [In 1385] we read … of an allowance instead of food. As a rule, however, the wages paid are irrespective of any other arrangement. Sometimes, but very rarely, and only in the earlier part of the period, the labourer is paid in kind.” And in Six Centuries of Work and Wages (1884), Rogers indicates that feeding workers was considered routine (pp. 170, 328, 354-55, 510, 540-541, etc.).

I interpret Rogers to mean that in the early centuries of his study day laborers did not normally receive family food allowances, but that they were typically fed on the job. Given the nature of work (agricultural labor from shortly after sunrise to sunset) and medieval food preservation and preparation technology, not feeding workers would have forced them to devote significant amounts of time away from working to food preparation and to feeding themselves (just getting bread would be a formidable task given their work hours and the work hours of bakers). Besides being fed on the job laborers frequently had other perquisites such as gleaning, allotments of beer, and small amounts of land for individual agricultural activities (kitchen gardens). All these in-kind payments are mentioned in Rogers (1866) and are considered normal. North and Thomas base their work not only on the wage data from Rogers, but also on his price data for agricultural products.3 In order to determine real wages, money wages are divided by an index of agricultural prices.4 Notice that the numerator typically ignores payments in kind and the denominator is exclusively a food index. Medieval workers’ consumption bundles had a heavy food component, but if one is being partially paid in food and resources devoted to food (kitchen gardens), then real wage indexes that focus solely on the costs of food may be seriously distorted unless the income (both in money and in kind) elasticity for food is one and the overwhelming preponderance of the budget is devoted to food. Mildly put, the data that North and Thomas rely upon to show Malthusian diminishing returns are not entirely adequate to the task.

Other sources question the use of the Malthusian paradigm. James Z. Lee and Wang Feng unequivocally deny that Chinese agriculture from 1300 to 1800 experienced Malthusian crises. Similarly, Julian L. Simon disputed the empirical validity of the Malthusian model. Others question the North and Thomas view of medieval English agriculture. Gregory Clark questions the view of a primitive English agriculture running into diminishing returns in the early fourteenth century.5 Certainly the fourteenth-century plague was a disaster to the European economy, but it does not follow that the plagues that devastated it were direct consequences of Malthusian diminishing returns. More likely it was, as William McNeill hypothesized, a result of an integrated Old World economy that led to the introduction of a “new” pathogen to a dense, flea-ridden European population.6

So there are difficulties with North and Thomas’s belief that the diseases of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are a manifestation of declining living standards (Malthusianism). They do not consider that the plague may have been exogenous, that pathogens are subject to their own dynamics and evolution and not necessarily a result of human intervention.7 North and Thomas simply assert that the plague was a result of over population, diminishing returns, and declining living standards. But if that is so, why did the plague reoccur after population had declined and (according to the data they rely upon) wages had increased? And why did plague occur earlier — in the mid-sixth century? North and Thomas do not have answers.

There is a straightforward explanation to these questions that is grounded in epidemiology: It is that the plague was a “new” disease to fourteenth-century Europe and its relatively dense population resulted in high rates of infection and mortality. These rates decreased as immunities (both acquired and genetic) became more predominant in the populations of Europe. What has this to do with Malthus and diminishing returns? Nothing: The simple Malthusian doctrine correlating high death rates with low living standards is suspect. It assumes that diseases are a function of poverty while there is evidence that the causation runs from diseases to poverty, and it is contradicted by data which show areas with high money incomes (cities) having higher death rates than those areas with low money incomes (rural areas). Consequently any line of reasoning that relies upon the Malthusian doctrine, as does The Rise of the Western World, is suspect.

There are other flaws in their thesis, some minor, some major. A minor omission is that they do not specify why the servile labor force accepted the original commutation of labor services to money payments. According to their high transactions cost model, “the custom of the manor” would have made the initial negotiations prohibitively costly. A simple observation that personal freedom to the individual was worth more than the value of the money payments would correct this omission. And, such an observation would reinforce their claim that when the purchasing power of a unit of money fell (inflation) the lords were unable to switch back to servile labor.

A more significant difficulty with their thesis is their claim that while diminishing returns to labor existed in the countryside, urban areas had constant returns. These are inconsistent with declining real wages, because migration from village to town will prevent agricultural wages from falling.8 Another difficulty is their lack of knowledge of antiquity: They seem to believe that institutional innovations such as insurance and bills of exchange were medieval innovations, but these were known and used at least by the Hellenistic era, and the ancients developed many contractual forms that were resurrected and used again during the European Renaissance.9

So North and Thomas’s book is not without its flaws, but blemishes and all it still makes significant contributions in its emphasis on an efficient set of property rights as a necessary condition for economic development to take place. In this emphasis North and Thomas returned to the fundamentals of economics and its founding father, Adam Smith, who said: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought by the natural course of things.”

The Rise of the Western World is right to echo these sentiments. Since its publication in 1973 the modest increases in economic and personal freedom that the Chinese have experienced have led its population to a degree of affluence entirely unanticipated a quarter of a century ago. Similarly, the decline in law and order has bought economic and personal disasters to many in parts of Asia and Africa. The lesson seems a hard one to learn: the protection of the liberties of people to both their persons and properties is the most effective way to promote the general welfare in the long run. Short-run policies that restrict these liberties inevitably reduce welfare in both the short and long run. By focusing on this lesson in The Rise of the Western World, North and Thomas have done the profession and humanity a meritorious service.

Endnotes:

1. Counting citations is a tricky business because a slight change in the citation can result in an entry separate from the main one. Thus D.C. North and R.P. Thomas may be counted differently from D. North and R. Thomas.

2. North and Thomas cite other evidence, but much of this is ultimately derived from Rogers’s work. For example E.H. Phelps Brown and Shelia Hopkins’s works on wages and prices are based on data gathered from Rogers.

3. North and Thomas rely on the Phelps Brown and Hopkins works (1955, 1956, 1957) on real wages whose data are derived from the wage and price data of Rogers.

4. “Index” may not be a completely accurate term because the index frequently contains only one commodity; then, to be specific, it is a wage series expressed in wheat units.

5. Clark (1991) using labor inputs in harvesting as a proxy for wheat yields finds little change in output per acre over the medieval era. He observes that: “Interestingly the labour input on reaping wheat from 1250 to 1450 seems to have risen little, implying a constancy of yields over this period. This is consistent with the work of Titow and of Farmer on the Winchester and Westminster estates over the medieval period. … Wheat yields were fairly constant over the medieval period, the population losses of the Black Death having little impact on yields” (p. 454, footnotes omitted).

In another article, Clark (1988) observes that relatively low yields per acre in medieval England could be attributed to the relatively high interest rates. Taken together these observations do not lend support to the thesis that medieval Europe was in a Malthusian crisis because, if it were so, we would expect to see declining mean output per unit of labor and increasing mean output per unit of land as diminishing returns makes labor relatively abundant and land relatively scarce. The opposite would occur if, as a result of the Black Death, labor became relatively scarce.

6. North and Thomas do not recognize that the plague may have been the result of increasing living standards. As incomes rose trade increased and disease pools in different regions became integrated. Mortal diseases newly introduced to an area frequently have a devastating impact on the native population. For more on this see McNeill.

7. Exogenous in the sense that the plague was not a disease endemic to fourteenth-century Europe, although, most likely, it had appeared in Europe in the first millennium CE; see J. C. Russell for further information.

8. For a complete specification of this model see Chambers and Gordon.

9. Edward F. Cohen argues and presents persuasive evidence that these institutional forms were abundant in fourth-century BC Athens.

References:

Boserup, Ester. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine, 1965.

Cameron, Rondo. A Concise Economic History of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Gregory. “Yields per Acre in English Agriculture, 1250-1860: Evidence from Labour Inputs,” Economic History Review 44 (1991): 445-60.

Clark, Gregory. “The Costs of Capital and Medieval Agricultural Technique,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 265-94.

Chambers, Edward J. and Donald F. Gordon. “Primary Products and Economic Growth: An Empirical Measurement,” Journal of Political Economy 74 (1966): 315-32.

Cohen, Edward E. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Lee, James Z. and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: Norton, 1998.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books, 1976.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of Building Wages,” Economica 22 (1955): 195-206.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders’ Wage-Rates,” Economica 23 (1956): 296-314.

Phelps Brown, E. H. and Shelia V. Hopkins. “Wage-Rates and Prices: Evidence for Population Pressure in the Sixteenth Century,” Economica 24 (1957): 289-306.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. Six Centuries of Work and Wages. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. A History of Agriculture and Prices in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1866.

Russell, Josiah C. “That Earlier Plague,” Demography 5 (1968): 174-84.

Simon, Julian L. The Economics of Population Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Simon, Julian L. Population and Development in Poor Countries: Selected Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Simon, Julian L. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Simon, Julian L. and Herman Kahn (editors). The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. New York: Oxford, 1984.

Philip R. P. Coelho has written on long-run economic growth (“An Examination into the Causes of Economic Growth,” Research in Law and Economics 1985) and is currently working on the impact of morbid diseases on economic history and growth (see: “Biology Disease and Economics: An Alternative History of Slavery in the American South,” with Robert A. McGuire, Journal of Bioeconomics Vol. 1, 1999; “Epidemiology and the Demographic Transition in the New World,” Health Transition Review, Vol. 7, 1997; and “African and European Bound Labor in the British New World: The Biological Consequences of Economic Choices” with Robert A. McGuire, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 57, 1997.)

?

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Before the Neoliberal Turn: The Rise of Energy Finance and the Limits to U.S. Foreign Economic Policy

Author(s):Selva, Simone
Reviewer(s):Naef, Alain

Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

Simone Selva, Before the Neoliberal Turn: The Rise of Energy Finance and the Limits to U.S. Foreign Economic Policy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xv + 423 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-137-57442-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alain Naef, Department of Economics, University of Cambridge.

 
An abundant literature focuses on Bretton Woods on the one hand, or the liberalization of markets and exchange rates in the 1970s and 1980s on the other. Little is known on the transition between these two periods, however. Simone Selva’s book attempts to make sense of this transition before the “Neoliberal Turn” in the late 1970s, by giving an account of U.S. currency and the functioning of the international monetary system. A Research Fellow in the history of international economic relations at the University of Naples L’Orientale, Selva brings an interesting approach to the subject, specifically tracking the role of the dollar from the 1950s to the late 1970s. Indeed, U.S. balance of payments issues first found their roots in Europe and were linked to postwar loans in the 1960s before the problem moved to Gulf countries in the 1970s. Petrodollars accumulated by oil producing countries had to be disposed of without causing the dollar to suffer. The book explores the struggles of different U.S. presidents to manage both their balance of payments and the dollar.

Chapter 2 describes how American balance of payment deficits in the 1960s conflicted with the country’s military objectives across the world. The Vietnam War was one of these commitments and was a strong inflationary force. As the Federal Reserve increased the money supply to support the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, the dollar weakened, eroding the U.S. competitive position in global markets. Chapter 3 shows how successive devaluations in Europe put more pressure on the U.S. balance of payments. The 1967 devaluation of sterling especially destabilized U.S. policies. This chapter also offers a detailed narrative of the gold crisis in 1967-68, when the price of gold surged and the Gold Pool was disbanded. The author nicely shows how troubles in the USSR prompted the regime to sell gold on the international gold market.

In Chapter 4, Selva argues that inflationary pressures were building up long before the first oil crisis of 1973 — arguing in effect that not all 1970s inflation can be blamed on the price of oil. He describes the Nixon Administration struggling to understand the link between developments in energy markets and the international monetary system. The chapter also offers an interesting account of how U.S. policymakers pushed American banks to open branches in Gulf countries, in an attempt to increase U.S. manufacturing and financial service exports to dollar surplus countries. These U.S. banks then channeled money into the Eurodollar (or Eurocurrency) market in London, where it was then loaned to European countries with balance of payments deficits. This was possible only as long as the Eurodollar market was capable of absorbing currency from oil producing countries.

Around 1974 OPEC countries shifted their investment from short-term (mainly Eurodollar) investments, to long-term ones (mainly loans to governments). Chapter 5 explores what happened when OPEC dollar surpluses overtook the Eurodollar market’s ability to absorb them. Oil producing countries began offering loans directly to governments starting with Egypt, Syria, and France, expanding to other Western countries. The American administration realized that direct investments in the U.S. would have a less detrimental effect on the dollar. Despite public outcry and fears of oil producing countries taking over U.S. firms, the Ford administration promoted direct petrodollar investment into the country. The Treasury actively encouraged OPEC investments in the US, which Selva illustrates with the example of a $100 million investment in telecoms giant AT&T, “openly approved by the Ford Administration” (p. 301).

The research is well documented with archival material across Europe and the U.S. Beyond the archives from international financial institutions, governments, and central banks, the author also relies on archives from the CIA which offer an objective and strategic assessment of the international monetary questions at the time. Selva does not shy away from the complexity of the international monetary system and manages to connect the domestic situation in the U.S. to the troubles of the international monetary system with skill. However, he sometimes lets this complexity cloud the clarity of his argument. The writing is dense. Some paragraphs extend over many pages, some sentences over many lines.

Nonetheless, Simone Selva’s contribution is a solid piece of serious scholarship that helps better understand the origins of the 1970s oil crisis, and how the U.S. managed its balance of payments. It offers a review of American policies at the point when markets became more open and oil production took the center stage in international finance. As such, this detailed analysis will benefit financial historians of the period as well as scholars interested in energy finance and modern American historians.

 

 

Alain Naef is a teaching fellow at the Economics Faculty of the University of Cambridge, where he is finishing a PhD on the role of reserve currencies during the Bretton Woods period. His latest working paper on the Gold Pool with Michael Bordo and Eric Monnet is available at https://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/24016.html and his work on central bank intervention is available at https://ideas.repec.org/p/cmh/wpaper/32.html.

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (October 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Planning and Policy
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus

Author(s):Dudley, Leonard
Reviewer(s):Sasaki, Yu

Published by EH.Net (May 2018)

Leonard Dudley, The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017. vii + 316 pp. $170 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-137-40317-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Yu Sasaki, Waseda Institute of Advanced Study, Waseda University.

 
In The Singularity of Western Innovation, Leonard Dudley of Université de Montréal seeks to identify a cause of “Western innovation,” the term that encompasses the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the military revolution of the twentieth century. For Dudley, a primary cause is what he calls the “language nexus,” or the degree to which the main vernacular of a society was standardized in the preceding centuries. He argues that language standardization was far more advanced in Western Europe before 1800 than in contemporaneous eastern empires of Turkey, India, and China. Europe’s cultural precocity eventually led to key inventions in the modern era, including the steam engine, telegraph, electricity, and submarines. Given that these emerged from select Western states, namely Britain, France, and the United States as a British offshoot, the substantive question that is explored in the book is: what enabled these countries to lead in innovation? Addressing this puzzle is important to economic history, because it helps understand why it was Western Europe that economically “took off” first and not other world regions.

Dudley sets out to investigate this question in fourteen chapters that are organized in three sections. Each chapter clearly identifies a thesis and discusses it in a schematic fashion: on each topic, the European (mostly English) experience comes first as the benchmark case, followed by the brief comparison of the Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese cases. After the introductory chapter, Part I traces the extent to which vernaculars were developed in each society in Chapters 2 through 5. Chapter 2 lays out the foundation of language development by examining the dynastic cycle of the seventeenth century. It points out that while the eastern empires continued to suffer from the dynastic cycle — the pattern of the rise and fall of empires through financial instability, internal rebellion or external attack, and regime replacement — this cycle ceased in England as the power of the Parliament grew stronger relative to that of monarchy. This transformation ultimately gave England stability not only in finance but also in daily lives among ordinary citizens, giving an impetus for trust and cooperation in the subsequent centuries.

Chapter 3 discusses the adoption of print technology. In Europe, the metal movable type, invented by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1450, became the standard tool until the twentieth century. Non-European empires had a distinct experience with print. Although Jews brought Gutenberg presses to the Ottoman domain by the end of the fifteenth century, Istanbul banned private printing in Turkish or Arabic until 1726 (private printing in other languages was allowed). The main rationale for the ban is that the Ottomans relied upon oral communications by religious leaders to broadcast and maintain political authority. Printing presses would leave written records and political adversaries might take advantage of any inconsistency between those records and oral transmission to challenge the authority. In India, it was westerners who led the development of vernacular printing to understand local languages (and aid the business for firms such as the East India Company). It seems that the Mughals preferred hand-written materials to printed forms, and only in the late eighteenth century did vernacular print start by the initiative of an Englishman. China was the birthplace of movable type in the eleventh century, but woodblock printing, a more labor-intensive form, became standard until the late nineteenth century.

Chapter 4 describes literacy rates in the seventeenth century whose variation across the cases comes partly from the availability of the printing press and the size of the book market. Dudley argues in Chapter 5 that another factor that affected literacy was the extent to which the main vernacular of a society was standardized prior to industrialization. He uses the first publication date of a monolingual dictionary to measure language standardization. According to this definition, English was codified by 1658 and French, by 1680. Only in the twentieth century were Hindi, Turkish, and Mandarin Chinese standardized (in 1929, 1932, and 1937, respectively). The difference in the timing of standardization played a critical role, because a standardized language would reduce transaction costs and make collaboration easier in the age of urbanization, automation, and mass production.

The rest of the book discusses the consequences of pre-modern language rationalization for innovations in industrial and military technology, drawing examples from the West. Part 2 describes industrialization. Following an overview of each state’s ability to raise revenue reliably (Chapter 6), steam engines (Chapter 7), machine tools (Chapter 8), and rifles (Chapter 9) are examined. Part 3 focuses on the military dimensions: Chapter 10 goes over geopolitics at the turn of the nineteenth century. Chapter 11 discusses steam ships; Chapter 12, major conflicts between European and Asian powers; and Chapter 13, Europe’s overwhelming force of rifled firearms over Asian rivals. The concluding chapter compares the conventional model of geopolitical competition on Europe’s rise to the language hypothesis explored in the book.

One important contribution that Dudley’s book makes is his insight that language standardization is never a “natural” outcome. One reason, I suspect, is that it is hard to imagine how the uniform use of a language can have a direct and positive impact on the desired outcome for political and economic actors — be it greater revenue or greater trade. The monograph makes it clear that few, if any, pre-modern leaders put priority on investing in language standardization, as seen in the case of the Mughal Empire. There was also wide variation in such incentive within Europe, because countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy did not quickly follow the examples of Britain and France. Given the high fixed costs required to standardize a vernacular, what provides an incentive for language standardization? This question does not receive sufficient attention in the monograph. Future research could examine it to provide a fuller conceptual framework and offer an empirical test of the role of culture in understanding the process of economic development.

Dudley is right to underscore the importance of considering cultural dimensions when one seeks to address big questions such as “Why did Europe — or a specific subregion of it — industrialize first?” Here “culture” refers to a broad term that captures patterns of behavior with regard to actors’ choices of technology, codified rules, and policies, which conventional institutionalist arguments have difficulty explaining. For example, the Chinese relied on woodblock printing (a labor-intensive technology) even though a superior technology, movable-type print (a capital-intensive technology), was available. Their choice may in part be based on their shared preference for time-consuming but cheap labor over an efficient yet expensive technology. Future work can build on Dudley’s insight to shed greater light on the origins of European industrialization.

 
Yu Sasaki is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute of Advanced Study in Waseda University, Tokyo. His recent publications include “Publishing Nations: Technology Acquisition and Language Standardization for European Ethnic Groups,” Journal of Economic History, December 2017. He is currently working on how cultural consolidation within states affects political and economic development on the state level, drawing from early-modern Europe.

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population

Author(s):Bashford, Alison
Chaplin, Joyce E.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. vii + 353 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16419-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin have written a richly sourced and finely detailed account of the writing, reading, and interpretation of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. Their focus is on the 1798 first edition of the Essay and the enlarged 1803 second edition. Bashford (University of Cambridge) and Chaplin (Harvard University) have distinguished records of scholarship in areas related to this project, including history of science, humans’ encounters with nature in early American history, demographic and environmental history, and history of eugenics. Their aim is to expand and reorient the context for reading Malthus’s Essay beyond the conventional. Thus the element in their title, “Rereading the Principle of Population.” This is important work, not the least because Malthus is so widely known, cited, and used as the basis for an intellectual category (Malthusianism), but little read or understood.

The most historically accurate readings of the Essay have set it within the political and economic discourse of England and France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period from just prior to its first edition to the sixth and last (1826). The French Revolution is the event of prime significance for the first edition of the Essay. Malthus wrote in response to ideas of two Englishmen, his father Daniel Malthus and William Godwin, and a Frenchman, Nicolas de Condorcet. Malthus’s father was a political radical and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Malthus himself said that he began the essay from a conversation with his father. The primary subjects of his critique in the text itself are Godwin’s and Condorcet’s Revolution-inspired utopian writings. Bashford and Chaplin have no objection to this orientation for reading the Essay as an argument against utopian political ideas. Rather, they invite us to look beyond the issues that Malthus engaged in 1798 to the sources of data from which he derived his principle of population in the first and second editions. The sources were the new worlds of North America and the South Pacific. Malthus used accounts of European explorers to these new worlds and colonial censuses for evidence of unchecked population growth and the operation of checks on population. Bashford and Chaplin read the Essay in the context of the origins of the principle of population in these new worlds and its implications for them.

The book is in three parts. “Population and the New World” comprises two chapters on “Population, Empire, and America” and “Writing the Essay.” Malthus was a synthesizer of four strands of population analysis, each of which has long historical roots: (1) Judeo-Christian theology, (2) statecraft, (3) political arithmetic, and (4) political economy. Chapter one provides a condensed but fulsome account of these analytical strands as they were available to Malthus. Chapter two includes biographical information on Malthus and his publisher, Joseph Johnson. Their juxtaposition is interesting on several counts. Malthus was an Anglican clergyman and Johnson was a religious dissenter. Malthus was conservative, while Johnson moved in radical circles.  Johnson published a critique of war finance by Malthus’s tutor, Gilbert Wakefield. This led to libel charges against both Wakefield and Johnson. Johnson was fined and sentenced to six months imprisonment. He also published a volume of Benjamin Franklin’s political writings that included “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.” This contained an anticipation (or source) of Malthus’s principle of population. Johnson became a force in the publishing trade with a stable of prominent authors including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband and Malthus’s primary intellectual adversary, William Godwin.

The three chapters of part two are on three new worlds that figure prominently in Malthus’s second edition: New Holland (New South Wales), the Americas, and the South Sea. Where the first edition was largely a response to the utopian political theory, the second edition became a universal history of mankind built around the theme of the means by which population is checked. These chapters give richly textured accounts of the sources available to Malthus for incorporating information on the Americas, Australia, and the South Sea into the second edition and the use he made of them.

Part three, “Malthus and the New World, 1803-1834,” has a chapter each on the public issues of slavery and abolition and colonization and emigration as they related to the principle of population. In both cases Malthus’s principle of population was used to form arguments on either side of the issue. Malthus had become a recognized authority on population. The authors depict Malthus as timid about taking a stand on slavery, perhaps because of personal entanglements through income derived from sugar plantations. The West Indies and British slave trade are conspicuously absent from the otherwise worldwide scope of evidence surveyed in the 1806 edition. On the issue of emigration as an outlet for population Malthus opposed clearance and removal of excess population but not voluntary emigration. The final chapter in this section covers the reception of the 1803 essay in the new worlds up to Malthus’s death in 1834.

The book concludes with a coda. The coda opens with accounts of critical commentary after Malthus’s death regarding his purported indifference to the plight of the poor.  The authors conclude that this was far from the truth. Malthus was concerned to understand population dynamics in order to protect the poor from misery and vice. The coda proceeds to draw material and moral implications from Malthus’s analysis of the European settlement of new worlds in the Americas and South Pacific in the 1803 edition for contemporary and future economic development of “new worlds.” The material implications are that today as before, the poor bear the brunt of material “expansion” by the wealthy. The moral implications, referred to as “moral hazards” in the coda, are that the distribution of benefits and costs of economic development between the rich and poor is unjust.

The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus gives considerably more attention to the 1803 edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population than to the 1798 edition, for it was in the enlarged second edition that Malthus dealt extensively with new world demographics. Further, the coda suggests that it is to the 1803 rather than the 1798 edition that we should turn today for insight into contemporary issues. The suggestion is that 1803-edition population principles have more relevance today and will in the future than the 1798-edition population principles. This suggests that Malthus made changes in substance rather than just in coverage between the first and second editions. This is an enduring question in historical interpretation of texts that underwent numerous or large revisions. In responding to reactions and suggestions of readers and to changing circumstances between one edition and the next, has an author more fully developed a thesis common to all editions or has the author changed the subject matter or thesis? The coda suggests the latter for Malthus.

If we accept the interpretation that the first edition was about British and European internal political issues and the second about English and European relations with lands and native peoples of the Americas and South Pacific, it is not clear to this reviewer that the second edition is more germane than the first to our time. The social and political revolutions of 1968 bear a resemblance to the French Revolution of 1789. The ancien régime remains under assault today as it was in the eighteenth century. Utopian visions of humans, their relations with each other, and with nature, are so embedded in modern culture that they go unrecognized. The objects of assault are no longer Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Church. They are the Constitution, Family, and Christianity. Conservatives, such as Malthus was, fight a rear-guard battle against what has become the Western revolutionary establishment of the early twenty-first century. Against this background it is instructive to reread the 1798 edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population.

J. Daniel Hammond is Hultquist Family Professor in the Department of Economics, Wake Forest University. He is the author of “Malthus, Utopians, and Economists,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 33 (2015): 179-207.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
Europe
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The Rise of the Global Company: Multinationals and the Making of the Modern World

Author(s):Fitzgerald, Robert
Reviewer(s):Hannah, Leslie

Published by EH.Net (September 2016)

Robert Fitzgerald, The Rise of the Global Company: Multinationals and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xii + 622 pp., $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-61496-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Leslie Hannah, London School of Economics.

This is a long-awaited magnum opus from a scholar whose encyclopedic knowledge of multinationals is well displayed in this volume.

It has two great strengths. The first is its coverage of the changing political contexts within which multinationals operated. Other studies are, of course, aware of the devastating effects of wars on (particularly German) multinationals, but no existing work ranges so confidently over the complexities nor adequately conveys the blindness with which participants at the time navigated their ways through the uncertainties created by expropriations and occupations. Those of us who have forgotten which politicians Lockheed bribed, the brand complications created by post-war splits, why the Japanese took over Germany’s Pacific colonies, or how the Kuwait Investment Office was viewed by western intelligence agencies, will find useful pointers to the relevant literature in the text and endnotes. His examples also raise some doubts in my mind as to whether the existing literature’s stress that governments are now more interventionist than in an earlier (supposedly laissez-faire) era is correct.

The second strength is the book’s eclecticism. Fitzgerald is, of course, familiar with the “Anglo-Saxon” country that dominated multinational investing in the nineteenth century (where he begins) and the larger one which dominates it in the twenty-first (where he ends). Yet he appears equally at home with the 1920s competition between the Banque de l’Indochine and Paribas, the extension of Canadian influence in the Caribbean, and Japanese multinationals’ weak modern risk management in Iran. For that reason this book could become a valued and much-thumbed addition to any business historian’s research bookshelf. An added attraction for that purpose (too often neglected in this age of internet searches of online publications) is its superb fifty–page index.

Unfortunately that is not how the publishers and/or author and/or editors have positioned the book. This is a volume in the Economic History Society’s series New Approaches to Economic and Social History, supposedly offering a “concise” survey for “advanced school students and undergraduate historians and economists.” Such words applied to this book risk prosecution under the UK Trade Descriptions Act. There is some attempt to summarize each chapter and sub-sections, but the treatment is far too detailed and unorganized for this purpose. Most undergraduates would find the multiplication of examples impenetrable and directionless and any professor would be doing students a grave disservice in recommending this as a textbook. It would be useful as supplementary reading to generate leads for an essay project (where it is richer in citation of contemporary sources and contains useful warnings against “present-mindedness” in Whiggish perspectives on the past), but Geoffrey Jones’ Multinationals and Global Capitalism, published by Oxford, would more suitably serve as the main course text.

Leslie Hannah lives in Tokyo and is Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. He recently published (with Makoto Kasuya), “Twentieth Century Enterprise Forms: Japan in Comparative Perspective,” Enterprise & Society (2015).

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (September 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War

Author(s):Gordon, Robert J.
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. vii + 762 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-14772-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert A. Margo, Department of Economics, Boston University.

This is the age of blockbuster books in economics. By any metric, Robert Gordon’s new tome qualifies.  It tackles a grand subject, the productivity slowdown, by placing the slowdown in the context of the historical evolution of the American standard of living.  Gordon, who is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University, needs no introduction, having long been one of the most famous macroeconomists on planet Earth.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth is divided into three parts.  Part One (chapters 2-9) examines various components of the standard of living, in levels and changes from 1870 to 1940.  Part Two (chapters 10-15) does the same from 1940 to the present, maintaining the same relative order of topics (e.g. transportation appears after housing in both parts).  Part Three (chapters 16-18) provides explanations and offers predictions up through 2040.  There are brief interludes (“Entre’acte”) between parts, a Postscript, and a detailed Data Appendix.

Chapter 1 is an overview of the focus, approach, and structure of the book.  Gordon’s focus is on the standard of living of American households from 1870 to the present.  The approach is both quantitative — familiar to economists — and qualitative — familiar to historians.  As already noted, the organization is symmetric — Part One considers the pre-World War II period, and Part Two, the post-war.  The fundamental point of the book is that that some post-1970 slowdown in growth was inevitable, because so much of what was revolutionary about technology in the first half of the twentieth century was revolutionary only once.

Chapter 2 draws a bleak picture of the standard of living ca. 1870, the dawn of Robert Gordon’s modern America.  From the standpoint of a household in 2016, conditions of life in 1870 would appear to be revolting.  The diet was terrible and monotonous to boot; homemade clothing was ill-fitting and crudely made; transportation was dependent principally on the horse, which generated phenomenal amounts of waste; indoor plumbing was all but non-existent; rural Americans lived their lives largely in isolation of the wider world.  In Gordon’s view, much of this is missing from conventional real GNP estimates.  Chapter 3 continues the initial story, focusing on changes in food and clothing consumption.  Gordon contends there was not much change in underlying quality but he argues that, by the 1920s, consumers were paying lower prices for food — having shifted to lower-priced sources (chain stores as opposed to country merchants) — and that most clothing was store-bought rather than homemade.

Chapter 4 studies housing quality.  As with other consumer goods, housing also improved sharply in quality from 1870 to 1940.  Gordon argues that much farm housing was poor in quality, while new urban housing was typically larger and more durably built.  Indoor plumbing, appliances and, ultimately, electrification dramatically enhanced the quality of life while people were indoors.  As elsewhere in the book, reference is made to hedonic estimates of the value of these improvements as revealed in higher rents. Chapter 5 details improvements in transportation between 1870 and 1940. These are grouped into three categories.  The first is improvement in inter-city and inter-regional transportation in rail.  This occurs chiefly through improvements in the density of lines and in the speed of transit. The second is intra-city which occurred with the adoption of the electric streetcar.  The third, and most important arguably, is the internal combustion engine and its use in the automobile (and bus).  Gordon especially highlights improvements in the quality of automobiles, noting that the car is not reflected in standard price indices until the middle of the Great Depression.

Chapter 6 details advances in communication from 1870 to 1940.  By current standards, the relevant changes — the telegraph, telephone, the phonograph, and the radio — might not seem like much but from the point of view of a household in 1870, these technologies enabled Americans to dramatically reduce their isolation.  As Gordon points out, one could phone a neighbor to see if she had a cup of sugar rather than visit in person, or listen to Enrico Caruso’s voice on the phonograph if it were not possible to hear him in concert.  The radio brought millions of Americans into the national conversation, whether it was to hear one of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats or listen to a baseball game.  Chapter 7 discusses improvements in health and mortality from 1870 to 1940 which, according to Gordon, were unprecedented.  After summarizing these, he turns to causes, chief among which are improved urban sanitation, clean water, and uncontaminated milk.   Gordon also highlights improvements in medical knowledge, particularly the diffusion (and understanding) of the germ theory of disease.  Chapter 8 studies changes in the quality of work from 1870 to 1940.  These changes were wholly for the better, according to Gordon.  Work became less dangerous, more interesting, and more rewarding in terms of real wages.  Most importantly, there was less working per se, as weekly hours fell, freeing up time for leisure activity.  There was a marked reduction in child labor, as children spent more of their time in school, particularly at older ages in high school.   This was also the period leading up, as Claudia Goldin has told us, to the “Quiet Revolution” in the labor force participation of married women, which was to increase substantially after World War II. Credit and insurance, private and social, is the topic of Chapter 9.  The ability to better smooth consumption and also insure against calamity are certainly improvements in living standards that are not captured by standard GNP price deflators.  Initially the shift of households from rural to urban areas arguably coincided with a decrease in consumer credit but by the 1920s credit was on the rise due to several innovations previously documented by economic historians such as Martha Olney.   Households were also better able to obtain insurance of various types (e.g. life, fire, automobile); in particular, loans against life insurance were frequently used as a source for a down payment on a house or car.  Government contributed by expanding social insurance and other programs that helped reduced systemic risks.

Chapter 10 begins the second part of the book, which focuses on the period from 1940 to the present.  As noted, the topic order of Part Two is the same as Part One, so Chapter 10 focuses on food, clothing, and shelter.  Gordon considers the changes in quality in these dimensions of the standard of living to be less monumental than as occurred before World War II.  For example, frozen food became a ubiquitous option after World War II but this change is far less important than the pre-1940 improvement in the milk supply.  Quantitatively, perhaps the most important change was a reduction in relative food prices which, predictably, led to increase in the quantity demanded.  Calories jumped, and so did obesity and many related health problems.  For clothing, the chief difference is in the diversity of styles and, as with food, a sharp reduction in relative price holding quality constant.  In Chapter 11 Gordon notes that automobiles continued to improve in quality after World War II, mostly in terms of amenities and gas mileage; and their usefulness as transportation improved with the building of the interstate highway system.  Gordon is less sanguine about air transportation, arguing that quality of the travel experience deteriorated after deregulation which was not offset by reductions in relative prices.  For housing, the major changes was suburbanization and a concomitant increase in square footage.  The early postwar period witnessed some sharp improvements in the quality of basic household appliances, and somewhat later, the widespread diffusion of air conditioning and microwaves.

Chapter 12 focuses on media and entertainment post-1940.  Certain older forms of entertainment gave way to television, the initial benefits of which were followed by steady improvements in the quality of transmission and reception.  Similarly, there were sharp improvements in the various platforms for listening to music, with substantial advances in recording technology and delivery — the 78 gave way to the LP to the CD to music streaming and YouTube.  The technology to deliver entertainment also delivered the news in ever greater quantity (quality is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose).  Americans today are connected almost immediately to every part of the world, a level of communications unthinkable a century ago.  A surprisingly brief Chapter 13, recounts the history of the modern computer.  There is no way to tell this history without emphasizing just how unprecedented the improvements have been, from the very first post-war computers to today’s laptops and supercomputers.  Moore’s Law, understandably, takes center stage, followed by the Internet and e-commerce.   Gordon has a few negative things to say about the worldwide web, but the main act — why haven’t computers led a revolution in productivity — is saved for later in the book.

Chapter 14 continues the story of health improvements to the present day.  As everyone knows, the U.S. health care system changed markedly after World War II, in terms of delivery of services, organization, and payment schemes.  Great advances were made in cardiovascular care and treatment of infectious disease through the use of antibiotics.   There were also advances in cancer treatment, mostly achieved by the 1970s; the subsequent “war” on cancer has not been as successful.  Most of the benefits were achieved through diffusion of public health and expansion of health knowledge in the general public (e.g. the harmful effects of smoking).  Since 1970 the health care system has shifted to more expensive, capital intensive treatments primarily provided in hospitals that have led to an inexorable growth in medical care’s share of GNP, increases that most scholars agree exceed any improvements in health outcomes.  The chapter concludes with a mixed assessment of Obamacare.  Chapter 15, on the labor force, is also rather short for its subject matter.  Gordon recounts the major changes in the structure and composition of work since World War II.  Again, it is a familiar tale — improved working conditions due to the shift towards the service sector and “indoor” jobs; rising labor force participation for married women; rising educational attainment, at least until recently; and the retirement revolution.  Your faithful reviewer gets a shout-out in a brief discussion of the “Great Compression” of the 1940s; my collaborator in that work, Claudia Goldin (and her collaborator, Lawrence Katz) gets much more attention for her scholarly contributions on the subject matter of Chapter 15, understandably so.

Part Three addresses explanations for the time series pattern in the standard of living.  Chapter 16 focuses on the first half of the twentieth century, which experienced a marked jump in total factor productivity (TFP) growth and the standard of living.  Gordon considers several explanations, dismissing two prominent ones — education and urbanization — right out of the gate.   In paeans to Paul David and Alex Field, he argues that the speed-up in TFP growth can be attributed to the eventual diffusion of key inventions of the “Second” industrial revolution, such as electricity; to the New Deal; and, finally, to World War II.  Chapters 17 and 18 tackle the disappointing performance of TFP growth and the standard of living in the last several decades of U.S. economic history.  Despite remarkable accomplishments in science and technology the impact on average living standards has been small, compared with the 1920-70 period.  Rising inequality since 1970, which can be tied in part to skill-biased technical change, has made matters worse, as did the Great Recession.  While Gordon is not all doom and gloom, he definitely falls on the pessimist side of the optimist-pessimist spectrum — his prediction for labor productivity growth over the 2015-40 period is 1.2 percent per year, a full third lower than the observed rate of growth from 1970 to 2014.

I think it is next to impossible to write a blockbuster economics book without it being a mixed bag in some way or other.  Gordon’s is no exception.  On the plus side, the book is well written, and one can only be in awe of Gordon’s mastery of the factual history of the American standard of living.  We all know macroeconomists who dabble in the past.  Gordon is no dabbler.  One can find interesting ideas for future (professional-level) research in every chapter — graduate students in search of topics for second year or job market papers, take note.  Many previous reviewers have chided Gordon for his pessimistic assessment of future prospects.  Of course, no one knows the future, and that includes Gordon.  It is certainly possible that he will be wrong about productivity growth over the next quarter-century — but I for one will be surprised if his prediction is off by, say, an order of magnitude.

I am less sanguine about the mixed qualitative-quantitative method of the book.  I gave up reading the history-of-technology-as-written-by-historians-of-technology a long time ago because it was just one-damn-invention-after-another.  At the end of a typical article recounting the history of improvements in, say, food processing, I was supposed to conclude that no amount of money would get me to travel back in the past before said improvements took place — except I never did reach this conclusion, knowing it to be fundamentally wrong.  Despite references to hedonic estimation, TFP, and the like, in the end Gordon’s book reads very much like conventional history of technology.  More than a half century ago Robert Fogel showed how one could quantify the social savings of a particular invention, thereby truly advancing scholarly knowledge of the treatment effects. Yet Railroads and American Economic Growth is not even cited in Gordon’s bibliography, let alone discussed in the text.  If one’s focus is the aggregate, I suppose a Fogelian approach is impossible — there are too many inventions, and (presumably) an adding-up problem to boot.  What exactly, though, do we learn from going back and forth between quantitative TFP and qualitative one-damn-invention-after-another? I’m not sure.  There’s the rub, or rather, the tradeoff.

Criticisms aside, if you are into economics blockbusters, The Rise and Fall of American Growth belongs on your bookshelf, next to Piketty and the like.  Just be sure it is a heavy-duty bookshelf.

Robert A. Margo’s Economic History Association presidential address, “Obama, Katrina, and the Persistence of Racial Inequality,” was published in the Journal of Economic History in June 2016.

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Household, Family and Consumer History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Coordination in Transition: The Netherlands and the World Economy, 1950-2010

Author(s):Touwen, Jeroen
Reviewer(s):van den Berg, Annette

Published by EH.Net (August 2015)

Jeroen Touwen, Coordination in Transition: The Netherlands and the World Economy, 1950-2010. Leiden: Brill, 2014. xiv + 385 pp. $154 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-27255-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Annette van den Berg, School of Economics, Utrecht University.

One of the great debates of the late twentieth century has been around the well-known study Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage (VoC) by Peter Hall and David Soskice, in which developed countries are characterized as either a Liberal Market Economy (LME) or a Coordinated Market Economy (CME), based on five interrelated criteria (spheres). Many scholars have applied the VoC approach since then — including economic historians — trying to reconcile the rather static nature of the approach with a historical, more dynamic analysis. Jeroen Touwen (lecturer in Economic and Social History at Leiden University, and the scientific director of the N.W. Posthumus Institute) adds to this line of research, by applying VoC to the case of the Netherlands after World War II in a careful, critical manner. This has resulted in an impressive and voluminous book of which the principal title, Coordination in Transition, neatly captures the key theme: How did a typical CME react to the structural changes as a result of ongoing globalization (influenced by trade liberalization and technological developments, foremost in information and communications technology), causing a shift to a market-based and knowledge-based economy? One of the new contributions of this book is that it also analyzes recent economic history of the Netherlands, in contrast with most other Dutch studies that only treat the twentieth century.

The Netherlands makes for an interesting case because it is seen as a successful and hybrid CME, with a liberal tradition in business relations as in Anglo-American countries; a strong welfare state like in Scandinavia; and a high degree of coordination similar to Germany. Also readers with no particular interest in the Dutch case (or those who think they already know the country, for that matter) will find this book worthwhile to read, as each chapter sets out with a broader treatment of theoretical considerations before analyzing the Netherlands, each time accompanied by a comparison with several other western OECD countries; and as the author makes relevant statements about (developments of) LMEs and CMEs in general. In so doing, he uses theoretical concepts from several socio-political fields of science, and of many statistical sources, thereby providing the reader with ample information and guidance for further research. The large number of interesting footnotes and references underline the thoroughness and dedication with which the book was written.

In my view, Chapter 2 is the most innovative part of the book because here the author comes up with a novel view on how the original, static VoC framework can accommodate for changes through time by adding a temporal dimension and by focusing on the central concept of non-market coordination, which not only encompasses state-induced regulation, but all kinds of information exchange and negotiation between different stakeholders operating at various levels in the economy. He argues that CMEs, despite all having become more liberal in reaction to structural change, remained characterized by a high degree of deliberative institutions (although often in an adjusted form). Hence, whereas Hall and Soskice theorized that due to institutional complementarities, deregulation of financial markets could “snowball into changes in other spheres as well,” possibly causing a break-up of CMEs, Touwen contends that the overall convergence to the LME did not take place, for which he provides plentiful evidence in the subsequent four chapters.

The limited space in this review does not allow me to elaborate on these chapters in depth. In a nutshell, in all of them Dutch postwar economic history is analyzed by focusing, in succession, on the business system, labor relations, the welfare state and economic policy. As these concern strongly overlapping topics an inevitable disadvantage thereof is that the same themes are addressed several times (be it from different perspectives), which is somewhat tiresome if one would read the whole book in one go. On the other hand, each chapter comes up with additional information and interesting details, thereby delivering further building blocks for the main message of the book: when faced by shocks and external threats, almost in all time periods (except during the polarized 1970s) the Dutch responded gradually but nevertheless adequately via an intricate system of coordination in all five distinguished spheres of the economy (in industrial relations, information sharing with employees, corporate governance, inter-firm networks, and vocational training). Although a deliberate choice of the author, it is a missed opportunity not to elaborate on this last-mentioned sphere, for reasons not explicitly mentioned.  Here and there he just touches upon this important topic, while a bit more comprehensive discussion thereof would have made the application of VoC to the Dutch case complete.

The book clearly describes how non-market coordination in the Netherlands originated in the interwar years and how it developed thereafter. At first this occurred in great harmony under guidance of the state (demand-side, Keynesian policy) in order to restore international competitiveness, culminating in the so-called Golden Years (1950s-1960s). There was close collaboration between government, employer associations and unions at all levels. During the stagflation period of the 1970s unemployment rose, labor relations hardened and the government failed to cut spending. Finally, forced by the structural changes in the world economy, by 1982 the sense of urgency was strong enough for all parties to switch to a more liberal, supply-side economic policy. Wage restraints were accepted in return for the creation of jobs, which were often part-time and temporary. The labor market thus became more flexible. Although this whole process coincided with a drastic reform of the welfare state, it was also accompanied by an active labor market policy, preventing segregation of the labor market as well as a rise in income inequality. So, “more market” went hand in hand with sustained coordination. Addressing the most recent time period, the financial crisis of 2007-10 clearly demonstrates the negative consequences of introducing too much free market, and underscores the continued need for coordination and government regulation. Touwen describes the success of the Dutch CME in terms of “managed liberalization under the wing of consultation.” The ability of non-market coordination to accommodate change forms the connecting thread.

Annette van den Berg (lecturer at Utrecht University School of Economics) is the author (together with Erik Nijhof) of “Variations of Coordination: Labour Relations in the Netherlands” in: K. Sluyterman (ed.), Varieties of Capitalism and Business History. The Dutch Case (Routledge, 2015) and (together with John Groenewegen and Antoon Spithoven) of Institutional Economics. An Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Her email address is j.e.vandenberg@uu.nl.

Copyright (c) 2015 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (August 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Financial Crises, 1929 to the Present

Author(s):Hsu, Sara
Reviewer(s):Wheelock, David C.

Published by EH.Net (November 2014)

Sara Hsu, Financial Crises, 1929 to the Present. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013. v + 178 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-85793-342-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David C. Wheelock, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

In Financial Crises, 1929 to the Present, Sara Hsu of the State University of New York, New Paltz, offers a concise history of several of the world’s major financial crises — from the Great Depression to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08 and European debt crisis of 2009-10.

Financial crises are not easy to define precisely, except perhaps in the context of a stylized model, and different authors have used a variety of quantitative measures to identify and measure the severity of crises. In the first chapter of the book, Hsu explains how different authors define financial crises, focusing especially on the ideas of Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger. Hsu provides neither a precise theoretical nor a quantitative definition of a financial crisis, but aligns herself with Minsky in concluding that unregulated financial systems of capitalist economies are inherently prone to instability and crises with potentially severe macroeconomic repercussions: “Hyman Minsky was right in the sense that given free rein, capitalism has created instability and unanticipated crises” (p. 146).

After a brief summary of how the global financial system has evolved since the 1930s, subsequent chapters review the histories of individual crises, beginning with the Great Depression. Hsu follows John Kenneth Galbraith in tracing the origins of the Great Depression to Wall Street speculation and attributes the eventual market crash to heightened uncertainty and a global credit crunch associated with French claims on British gold and the introduction of the Young Plan in 1929. Although she acknowledges the decline in the money stock and deflation that took hold after the crash, Hsu rejects the view of Friedman and Schwartz (1963) that banking panics and a contracting money supply caused the Great Depression, favoring instead Ben Bernanke’s (1983) emphasis on the nonmonetary effects that financial crises had on the economy.

The Great Depression led to major changes in the regulation of U.S. banks and financial markets, as well as disintegration of the international gold standard and the imposition of capital and exchange controls around the world. Controls became universal during World War II and remained in place for several years after the war under the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Hsu nicely summarizes key features of the Bretton Woods System and its breakdown in the 1970s in the book’s third chapter.
The remaining chapters summarize major financial crises, beginning with the debt crises of emerging market economies in the 1980s. Hsu explains how many emerging market economies had borrowed heavily to support economic growth when commodity prices were rising in the 1970s, only to experience difficulty servicing their debts and obtaining new loans when commodity prices fell after the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy and the U.S. economy went into recession in the early 1980s. This chapter has an especially good summary of how the debt crisis unfolded in different countries and how lenders, governments, and the IMF responded.

Hsu next discusses several crises that occurred in the 1990s, including the Western European exchange rate crisis, Nordic banking crises, Japanese real estate collapse and subsequent “lost decade,” Mexican debt crisis, and Asian financial crisis. A subsequent chapter describes the Russian and Brazilian financial crises of 1998 and the Argentinian crisis of 2000. Like many others, Hsu is highly critical of the “conditionality” requirements imposed by the IMF on nations in crisis. For example, she argues that “The IMF program for Korea went beyond measures needed to resolve the crisis … and, destructively, called for even wider opening(!) of Korea’s capital and current accounts” (p. 91).

The penultimate chapter of the book focuses on the subprime mortgage crisis and recession of 2007-08, which originated in the United States but was felt around the world, and the European debt crisis that emerged in 2009-10. For Hsu, “the crisis showed that all financial markets are unstable and require constant supervision and regulation” (p. 129). She blames “excessive overleveraging” of subprime assets in the form of opaque financial instruments created by a largely unregulated and unsupervised banking system and the trading of those securities “over the counter” rather than through organized and regulated exchanges. She argues that much of the government’s response to the crisis, such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was flawed and failed to halt the crisis.

The final chapter considers alternative policies for preventing future crises and for containing and resolving any crises that might occur. Hsu is generally supportive of capital controls, macro-prudential bank regulations, and countercyclical fiscal and monetary policy, as well as greater coordination of policies across countries. Indeed, she argues that “The preeminence of country sovereignty and competitiveness over global financial stability ensures that fault lines will exist and expand, and that crises will continue to occur. Should country priorities shift en masse from economic growth to economic and financial stability, there is a much greater probability that future financial crises might be prevented” (p. 146).

The book could serve as a supplement for undergraduate courses in economic history, international finance, and macroeconomics or as a reference for anyone wishing summaries of the key events and issues surrounding particular crises. However, the book might hold less appeal for courses in U.S. economic history because it does not cover several noteworthy episodes of financial instability in the United States, such as the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Further, readers interested in more theoretical explanations of the causes and effects of financial crises or those interested in the interplay of political and economic forces that shape the financial regulatory environment and can promote instability and crises even in highly regulated financial systems, as discussed recently by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber (2014), will want to look elsewhere.

References:

Bernanke, Ben S. “Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression,” American Economic Review 73(3), June 1983, pp. 257-76.

Calomiris, Charles W. and Stephen H. Haber. Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Friedman, Milton and Anna J. Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

David C. Wheelock researches U.S. financial and monetary history. His recent publications include (with Michael D. Bordo), “The Promise and Performance of the Federal Reserve as Lender of Last Resort,” in M.D. Bordo and W. Roberds, editors, The Origins, History, and Future of the Federal Reserve: A Return to Jekyll Island. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (November 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit

Author(s):Calomiris, Charles W.
Haber, Stephen H.
Reviewer(s):Rockoff, Hugh

Published by EH.Net (September 2014)

Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber, Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.  xi + 570 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-15524-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hugh Rockoff, Department of Economics, Rutgers University.

Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber, two of America’s leading financial historians, have written an ambitious and in my view a largely successful book to provide an explanation for the political economy of banking through history and across nations. The central question is why some banking systems provide both abundant credit and financial stability over long periods while others, including unfortunately the financial system of the United States, fail to do so.

Summary

Calomiris and Haber develop their analytic framework in chapters 1 through 3. They do so in words. There are no equations to deter the mathematically challenged and prevent their book from reaching a wide audience. Their main point is that banking systems are always and everywhere a political construct: the outcome of what they call the “game of bank bargains.” The players in this game are the government, the public, and various interest groups including, of course, bankers and would be bankers. Governments want the revenues that can be extracted from the banking system and political support. Interests groups in turn want favors from the banking system, typically cheaper credit. The public wants abundant credit and a stable banking system. The outcome of the game of bank bargains depends on the underlying political system. The most important distinction is between democracies and autocracies.  In some democracies, but by no means all, the outcome of the game of bank bargains is a system that provides stable and abundant credit. A democratic government must provide a system that works in some measure for the general public if it is to stay in power. Sometimes, however, the tendency for the game of bank bargains to end favorably in democracies is undermined by what Calomiris and Haber refer to as populism and in particular agrarian populism. To secure the support of agricultural interests governments may impose restrictions on banks — restrictions on where they can locate, who they can lend to, how much they can charge on loans, on when and how much they can collect on debts, and so on. These restrictions may benefit the agrarian interests that sought them while reducing the overall supply of credit and the stability of the system. But an alliance with agrarians may help the ruling party to stay in power. The story with autocratic governments is different. Here there is a tendency for the government to extract as much revenue as possible from the banking system, even at the cost of the overall growth and stability of the economy.

This thesis (which is developed in considerably more detail) is illustrated with historical studies of banking in three democracies, Britain, the United States and Canada, and two autocracies (during much of their history) Mexico and Brazil, with briefer looks at other countries. Britain is covered in chapters 4 and 5. There is a great deal of historical material in these chapters. Along the way one learns about the gradual evolution of democracy in Britain, the disruptive economic and financial effects of wars, and the gradual and fluctuating transformation of the banking system from one at the service of the state to one responsive to the private sector. Professors of economic history may find themselves skipping parts of the narrative here, but the non-specialist can learn a great deal by reading straight through. In general, the earlier history will be less likely to provoke controversy than the more recent history. Perhaps it is simply the clarity of hindsight. Their story of how Britain relied on inflationary finance during the Napoleonic wars, for example, will raise few eyebrows. The authors’ apparent enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution (pp. 147-48) is likely to meet more resistance. The recent crisis, unfortunately, is not analyzed in detail. We learn that British banks were vulnerable to an international crisis because of the boom in the housing market and the high leverage of the banks, but not how these vulnerabilities were the outcome of the game of bank bargains.

The American experience is covered in chapters 6 through 8. Here they address one of the great mysteries of financial history: Why has the United States, a world leader in business, education, and technology lurched from one financial crisis to another through so much of its history? The answer for Calomiris and Haber is, to simplify a complex argument, agrarian populism. Indeed, chapter 6 is called “Crippled by Populism: U.S. Banking from Colonial Times to 1990.” The key for Calomiris and Haber is that farmers, particularly prosperous farmers, did better with local unit banks than they would have with a system of nationwide branch banking. In the short run the rates influential farmers paid might have been higher than they would have been with a nationwide branch banking system, but these farmers knew that the local bank would always be willing to lend to them, even in hard times, because it had no alternatives. The populists, who drew their strength from farmers, then formed an alliance with the unit bankers. Deposit insurance is an important outcome of that alliance. It was pushed by the populists as a protection for the common man, but helped make the unit banks competitive with the large urban banks. The resulting system, with its myriad of local unit banks, was “fragile by design.” Eventually, however, the system of unit banks was broken because of the declining economic role and political power of agriculture.

The crisis of 2008 in the United States is covered in chapters 7 and 8. As with the case of Britain their account of recent events will be more controversial than their account of earlier periods. Chapter 7, “The New U.S. Bank Bargain: Megabanks, Urban Activists, and the Erosion of Mortgage Standards” describes the origins of the subprime mortgage mania. The story they tell draws on a number of accounts, for example Raghuram Rajan (2011), but it fits well with their earlier emphasis on political bargains. As Calomiris and Haber see it, the crisis began with a bargain between regional banks seeking permission from regulators to merge and urban activists seeking credit for people who were too poor to qualify for home mortgages under traditional standards.  By making subprime loans the banks got the approval of activist groups which in turn meant approval by regulators for mergers — the banks were being good citizens — and the activist groups got what they thought they wanted, more credit for low income borrowers. But that was just the beginning. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were drawn into the coalition and then subprime loan originators such as Countrywide. Politicians benefitted directly through campaign contributions, and indirectly because they could claim to be helping the urban poor without having to levy higher taxes on the middle class.

Chapter 9 then attacks the question of why regulators didn’t force financial institutions to hold capital appropriate for the risks they were taking. In the opinion of Calomiris and Haber that would have been the key to preventing the inevitable losses on bad loans from becoming a crisis. They argue against the view that the problem was deregulation, particularly the often cited removal of the separation of commercial banking from investment banking that had been in place since the1930s. Here I was completely persuaded, although to be honest, this was my belief going in. Ending the separation of commercial banking and investment banking they show, permitted mergers and conversions that helped ameliorate the crisis. The real problem was that prudential regulators didn’t do their job of demanding capital to match risky lending. In part, the reason they failed was that raising capital requirements would have discouraged subprime lending and that would have meant taking on a powerful political coalition. Not all readers will be convinced that higher capital ratios would have prevented the crisis, but most will agree that this was a part of the story.

In chapter 9 Calomiris and Haber turn from the bad boy, the United States, to the good boy, Canada. Although there have been bank failures in Canada, including large institutions, there has never been a financial crisis, not even during the Great Depression. Why? The answer, according to Calomiris and Haber, is a system of large banks with nationwide branching systems, and the resulting efficiency and diversification of risk. That happy outcome was the result of the authority to charter banks being located, from the very beginning, at the national level. I found few things to disagree with in their discussion of Canada and the contrast with the U.S. Michael Bordo, Angela Redish, and I reach a similar conclusion in a paper forthcoming in the Economic History Review.

In section three, chapters 10 through 13, Calomiris and Haber turn from democracies to authoritarian regimes. Here, not surprisingly, things turn out worse than in the democracies. Chapters 10 and 11 describe the history of banking in Mexico. Haber has written extensively about Mexico and these chapters are wonderfully detailed. Here I will just summarize a few observations that are particularly striking. Under General Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911) the banking system was controlled by favored industrialists closely tied to the government. The industrialists benefitted and the government benefitted by extracting revenues from the banking system, but the resulting system failed to provide abundant credit to fuel widespread economic development. It provided, however, at least a modicum of stability.  During the period of the Mexican Civil War (1911-1929), the banking system deteriorated as rival warlords tried to extract resources from banks in regions they controlled. Under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the government established investment banks that helped finance the coalition that supported this authoritarian regime. Commercial banking remained depressed, even when compared to the Diaz era.

Chapter 11 covers Mexico after 1982, a tumultuous period. Budget problems led to reliance on inflationary finance that undermined the banking system and support for the PRI. This was followed by a misguided privatization of the banking system, with the purpose of raising revenue for the government, a run up of bank credit, and finally a crash and a bailout that created further political problems. This story sounds much like the story of the savings banks in the United States. Since the bailout, a new partnership has arisen between the government and foreign banks that have entered to fill the void left by the collapse of the older system. Although Calomiris and Haber see some positives in the new system, they point out that the amount of bank credit relative to GDP — their favorite measure of the abundance of bank credit — was about the same in 2010 as it was in 1910.

Chapters 12 and 13 cover Brazil. Chapter 12 covers the period up to 1889, and chapter 13, the period after, focusing on the transition to democracy. Much of Brazil’s financial history was characterized by heavy reliance on an inflation tax. Weak autocratic regimes couldn’t tax the wealthy oligarchs who supported them. An inflation tax was the easiest alternative. The transition to democracy has, after many steps forward and backward, produced a system that is more responsive to the general interests of Brazil. Even left-of-center governments, however, have faced the problem that it is hard to tax the wealthy elite in Brazil because of their high international mobility. Calomiris and Haber end on a cautiously optimistic note, but warn that populism in Brazil, like populism in the United States, will produce a banking system that subsidizes influential interest groups at the expense of the public.

Chapter 14 looks briefly at banking in other countries – via cross country empirical studies, and short narrative histories of China, Germany, Japan, and Chile — to test the viability of the conclusions reached on the basis of the detailed case studies. Again the ability of Calomiris and Haber to master and organize a huge amount of material is impressive.

Chapter 15, the concluding chapter, wrestles with the dispiriting implication of their argument that has been growing in the background since the first chapter. If banking is always and everywhere the result of a “game of bank bargains” played by the government and powerful interest groups, what role is there for ideas? Can an economist or historian make a difference? Calomiris and Haber struggle mightily to end on an upbeat note. They argue, for one thing, that there are windows of opportunity: economic crises so severe that people are willing to turn to someone with a new set of ideas. They suggest Alexander Hamilton and Margaret Thatcher as examples. But as these examples illustrate, most of the time economists and financial historians are likely to be chroniclers of events rather than makers of history.

Comment

Calomiris and Haber blame America’s banking troubles before 1990 on “agrarian populism” and its support for unit banking. But I think there was another, albeit related, factor that needs to be added to complete story. After all, although unit banks were popular in some parts of the United States, Americans often showed themselves willing to support branch banking. Before the Civil War many southern states, as Calomiris and Haber note, had branch banking systems (pp. 171-73). And Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa had mutual support systems that Calomiris and Haber (pp.174-75) celebrate. The unique weakness of the American banking system was that branching, even when permitted, ended through much of our history at the state line. But why were state governments able to keep their control over banking for so long? Support for state control of banking was an outcome of the larger battle between the states and the federal government for power. And that battle, of course, was to a great extent about race: the South was always the strongest advocate of state power. Keeping the right to charter and regulate banks at the state level, in other words, was simply one more battle in an ongoing war. The fight over the Second Bank of the United States is a good example. The bill to recharter the Bank passed the House and Senate only to be vetoed by Andrew Jackson. That vote, in itself, shows that there was strong support for nationwide branch banking. Recall that the Second Bank was not simply a banker’s bank on the Federal Reserve model. The Second Bank had branches in all parts of the country that made commercial loans. This was by any definition nationwide branch banking. Was there any opposition to rechartering the Second bank? Or was it just Andrew Jackson who was opposed? New England, the Western States, even the slave states that would remain within the Union in the Civil War all voted to recharter in both the House and Senate. The future Confederate States were different. With the exception of Louisiana, they voted overwhelmingly against recharter (Wilburn 1967, 9). Racism and populism, tragically, became entwined in the South. But the battle over states’ rights and racism, I believe, needs to be brought into the story as one of the reasons for the long delay in the adoption of nationwide branch banking. Racism also helps explain the desire in the United States to find a way to help poor people that did not involve higher taxes and transfers that Calomiris and Haber discuss when they explain the origins of the subprime crisis.

Calomiris and Haber use the term populism to refer simply to all politicians and parties who put great store in the will of the common man. By their definition Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and William Jennings Bryan (p. 150) were all populists. But what about populism more narrowly: the People’s Party and its charismatic leader William Jennings Bryan? The Bryanites, as Calomiris and Haber point out, eventually supported deposit insurance which protected private unit banks. But the main goals of the populists, as can be seen in their party platforms, were nationalist and socialist, which would have ultimately undermined the local unit banks. The populists wanted to end the National banking system and replace its bond-backed currency with fiat paper issued by the federal government. They wanted a postal savings system to provide a safe haven for the deposits of farmers and the urban poor, and they wanted the federal government to provide low interest rate loans to farmers by issuing paper money based on deposits of excess grain: the subtreasury plan.  These goals were all achieved in some measure: the postal savings system was established in 1910, the Federal Reserve with its government-issued currency in 1913, and various agricultural programs that provided federal loans to farmers were enacted in the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, I would add that Calomiris and Haber focus on only two outcomes for the banking system: abundant credit and stability. These are clearly the most important. Much of the support for unit banking, however, was based on other considerations. One argument, although I have never seen much evidence for it, was that locally owned banks provided and continue to provide credit differently from branches of large national chains. Local bankers know the background of potential borrowers. So a borrower with a sterling character but few assets to put up as collateral would be more likely to get a loan from a locally-owned bank than from a branch of a big chain. There was also the stability and continuity of the local community to think about. A local bank, it might be argued, would be more likely to provide ongoing community leadership than a branch filled with managers hoping to be promoted to the main office in New York or San Francisco as soon as possible. Perhaps it was all a fiction — Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life — but nevertheless it’s a possibility that we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand. Economic progress is not just about real GDP per capita.

Bottom line

This is a beautifully-written book. Calomiris and Haber are always thoughtful, always clear, and they have an eye for the telling metaphor and the thought-provoking fact.  More importantly, the book reflects the authors’ mastery of a vast amount of material on the history of banking. No one will be persuaded by all of their analyses, and there will be some pushback when it comes to their analyses of more recent and controversial events. Nevertheless, Fragile by Design is a must-read for economic historians, a book to be put on the shelf with O.M.W. Sprague’s History of Crises under the National Banking System, Bray Hammond’s Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, and similar classics.

References:

Bordo, Michael, Angela Redish, and Hugh Rockoff (forthcoming), “Why Didn’t Canada Have a Banking Crisis in 2008 (or in 1930, or 1907, or . . .)?” Economic History Review.

Hammond, Bray (1957), Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rajan, Raghuram G. (2011), Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sprague, O. M. W. (1910), History of Crises under the National Banking System, Washington: Govt. Print. Office.

Wilburn, Jean Alexander (1967), Biddle’s Bank: The Crucial Years, New York: Columbia University Press.

Hugh Rockoff’s most recent book is America’s Economic Way of War: War and the U.S. Economy from the Spanish-American War to the Persian Gulf War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (September 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Europe
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

U.S. Economy in World War I

Hugh Rockoff, Rutgers University

Although the United States was actively involved in World War I for only nineteen months, from April 1917 to November 1918, the mobilization of the economy was extraordinary. (See the chronology at the end for key dates). Over four million Americans served in the armed forces, and the U.S. economy turned out a vast supply of raw materials and munitions. The war in Europe, of course, began long before the United States entered. On June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian revolutionary, shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. A few months later the great powers of Europe were at war.

Many Europeans entered the war thinking that victory would come easily. Few had the understanding shown by a 26 year-old conservative Member of Parliament, Winston Churchill, in 1901. “I have frequently been astonished to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European War.” He went on to point out that in the past European wars had been fought by small professional armies, but in the future huge populations would be involved, and he predicted that a European war would end “in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.”[1]

Reasons for U.S. Entry into the War

Once the war began, however, it became clear that Churchill was right. By the time the United States entered the war Americans knew that the price of victory would be high. What, then, impelled the United States to enter? What role did economic forces play? One factor was simply that Americans generally – some ethnic minorities were exceptions – felt stronger ties to Britain and France than to Germany and Austria. By 1917 it was clear that Britain and France were nearing exhaustion, and there was considerable sentiment in the United States for saving our traditional allies.

The insistence of the United States on her trading rights was also important. Soon after the war began Britain, France, and their allies set up a naval blockade of Germany and Austria. Even food was contraband. The Wilson Administration complained bitterly that the blockade violated international law. U.S. firms took to using European neutrals, such as Sweden, as intermediaries. Surely, the Americans argued, international law protected the right of one neutral to trade with another. Britain and France responded by extending the blockade to include the Baltic neutrals. The situation was similar to the difficulties the United States experienced during the Napoleonic wars, which drove the United States into a quasi-war against France, and to war against Britain.

Ultimately, however, it was not the conventional surface vessels used by Britain and France to enforce its blockade that enraged American opinion, but rather submarines used by Germany. When the British (who provided most of the blockading ships) intercepted an American ship, the ship was escorted into a British port, the crew was well treated, and there was a chance of damage payments if it turned out that the interception was a mistake. The situation was very different when the Germans turned to submarine warfare. German submarines attacked without warning, and passengers had little chance of to save themselves. To many Americans this was a brutal violation of the laws of war. The Germans felt they had to use submarines because their surface fleet was too small to defeat the British navy let alone establish an effective counter-blockade.

The first submarine attack to inflame American opinion was the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. The Lusitania left New York with a cargo of passengers and freight, including war goods. When the ship was sunk over 1150 passengers were lost including 115 Americans. In the months that followed further sinkings brought more angry warnings from President Wilson. For a time the Germans gave way and agreed to warn American ships before sinking them and to save their passengers. In February 1917, however, the Germans renewed unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to starve Britain into submission. The loss of several U.S. ships was a key factor in President Wilson’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Germany and to seek a declaration of war.

U.S. Entry into the War and the Costs of Lost Trade

From a crude dollar-and-cents point of view it is hard to justify the war based on the trade lost to the United States. U.S. exports to Europe rose from $1.479 billion dollars in 1913 to $4.062 billion in 1917. Suppose that the United States had stayed out of the war, and that as a result all trade with Europe was cut off. Suppose further, that the resources that would have been used to produce exports for Europe were able to produce only half as much value when reallocated to other purposes such as producing goods for the domestic market or exports for non-European countries. Then the loss of output in 1917 would have been $2.031 billion per year. This was about 3.7 percent of GNP in 1917, and only about 6.3 percent of the total U.S. cost of the war.[2]

On March 21, 1918 the Germans launched a massive offensive on the Somme battlefield and successfully broke through the Allied lines. In May and early June, after U.S. entry into the war, the Germans followed up with fresh attacks that brought them within fifty miles of Paris. Although a small number of Americans participated it was mainly the old war: the Germans against the British and the French. The arrival of large numbers of Americans, however, rapidly changed the course of the war. The turning point was the Second Battle of the Marne fought between July 18 and August 6. The Allies, bolstered by significant numbers of Americans, halted the German offensive.

The initiative now passed to the Allies. They drove the Germans back in a series of attacks in which American troops played an increasingly important role. The first distinctively American offensive was the battle of the St. Mihiel Salient fought from September 12 to September 16, 1918; over half a million U.S. troops participated. The last major offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, was launched on September 26, with British, French, and American forces attacking the Germans on a broad front. The Germans now realized that their military situation was deteriorating rapidly, and that they would have to agree to end to the fighting. The Armistice occurred on November 11, 1918 – at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.

Mobilizing the Economy

The first and most important mobilization decision was the size of the army. When the United States entered the war, the army stood at 200,000, hardly enough to have a decisive impact in Europe. However, on May 18, 1917 a draft was imposed and the numbers were increased rapidly. Initially, the expectation was that the United States would mobilize an army of one million. The number, however, would go much higher. Overall some 4,791,172 Americans would serve in World War I. Some 2,084,000 would reach France, and 1,390,000 would see active combat.

Once the size of the Army had been determined, the demands on the economy became obvious, although the means to satisfy them did not: food and clothing, guns and ammunition, places to train, and the means of transport. The Navy also had to be expanded to protect American shipping and the troop transports. Contracts immediately began flowing from the Army and Navy to the private sector. The result, of course, was a rapid increase in federal spending from $477 million in 1916 to a peak of $8,450 million in 1918. (See Table 1 below for this and other data on the war effort.) The latter figure amounted to over 12 percent of GNP, and that amount excludes spending by other wartime agencies and spending by allies, much of which was financed by U.S. loans.

Table 1
Selected Economic Variables, 1916-1920
1916 1917 1918 1919 1920
1. Industrial production (1916 =100) 100 132 139 137 108
2. Revenues of the federal government (millions of dollars) $930 2,373 4,388 5,889 6,110
3. Expenditures of the federal government (millions of dollars) $1,333 7,316 15,585 12,425 5,710
4. Army and Navy spending (millions of dollars) $477 3,383 8,580 6,685 2,063
5. Stock of money, M2 (billions of dollars) $20.7 24.3 26.2 30.7 35.1
6. GNP deflator (1916 =100) 100 120 141 160 185
7. Gross National Product (GNP) (billions of dollars) $46.0 55.1 69.7 77.2 87.2
8. Real GNP (billions of 1916 dollars) $46.0 46.0 49.6 48.1 47.1
9. Average annual earnings per full-time manufacturing employee (1916 dollars) $751 748 802 813 828
10. Total labor force (millions) 40.1 41.5 44.0 42.3 41.5
11. Military personnel (millions) .174 .835 2.968 1.266 .353
Sources by row:

1. Miron and Romer (1990, table 2).

2-3. U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975), series Y352 and Y457.

4. U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975), series Y458 and Y459. The estimates are the average for fiscal year t and fiscal year t+1.

5. Friedman and Schwartz (1970, table 1, June dates).

6-8. Balke and Gordon (1989, table 10, pp. 84-85).The original series were in 1982 dollars.

9. U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975), series D740.

10-11. Kendrick (1961, table A-VI, p. 306; table A-X, p. 312).

Although the Army would number in the millions, raising these numbers did not prove to be an unmanageable burden for the U.S economy. The total labor force rose from about 40 million in 1916 to 44 million in 1918. This increase allowed the United States to field a large military while still increasing the labor force in the nonfarm private sector from 27.8 million in 1916 to 28.6 million in 1918. Real wages rose in the industrial sector during the war, perhaps by six or seven percent, and this increase combined with the ease of finding work was sufficient to draw many additional workers into the labor force.[3] Many of the men drafted into the armed forces were leaving school and would have been entering the labor force for the first time in any case. The farm labor force did drop slightly from 10.5 million in 1916 to 10.3 million workers in 1918, but farming included many low-productivity workers and farm output on the whole was sustained. Indeed, the all-important category of food grains showed strong increases in 1918 and 1919.

Figure 1 shows production of steel ingots and “total industrial production” – an index of steel, copper, rubber, petroleum, and so on – monthly from January 1914 through 1920.[4] It is evident that the United States built up its capacity to turn out these basic raw materials during the years of U.S. neutrality when Britain and France were its buying supplies and the United States was beginning its own tentative build up. The United States then simply maintained the output of these materials during the years of active U.S. involvement and concentrated on turning these materials into munitions.[5]

Figure 1

Steel Ingots and Total Industrial Production, 1914-1920

Prices on the New York Stock Exchange, shown in Figure 2, provide some insight into what investors thought about the strength of the economy during the war era. The upper line shows the Standard and Poor’s/Cowles Commission Index. The lower line shows the “real” price of stocks – the nominal index divided by the consumer price index. When the war broke out the New York Stock Exchange was closed to prevent panic selling. There are no prices for the New York Stock Exchange, although a lively “curb market” did develop. After the market reopened it rose as investors realized that the United States would profit as a neutral. The market then began a long slide that began when tensions between the United States and Germany rose at the end of 1916 and continued after the United States entered the war. A second, less rise began in the spring of 1918 when an Allied victory began to seem possible. The increase continued and gathered momentum after the Armistice. In real terms, however, as shown by the lower line in the figure, the rise in the stock market was not sufficient to offset the rise in consumer prices. At times one hears that war is good for the stock market, but the figures for World War I, as the figures for other wars, tell a more complex story.[6]

Figure 2

The Stock Market, 1913-1920

Table 2 shows the amounts of some of the key munitions produced during the war. During and after the war critics complained that the mobilization was too slow. American troops, for example, often went into battle with French artillery, clearly evidence, the critics implied, of incompetence somewhere in the supply chain. It does take time, however, to convert existing factories or build new ones and to work out the details of the production and distribution process. The last column of Table 2 shows peak monthly production, usually October 1918, at an annual rate. It is obvious that by the end of the war the United States was beginning to achieve the “production miracle” that occurred in World War II. When Franklin Roosevelt called for 50,000 planes in World War II, his demand was seen as an astounding exercise in bravado. Yet when we look at the last column of the table we see that the United States was hitting this level of production for Liberty engines by the end World War I. There were efforts during the war to coordinate Allied production. To some extent this was tried – the United States produced much of the smokeless powder used by the Allies – but it was always clear that the United States wanted its own army equipped with its own munitions.

Table 2
Production of Selected Munitions in World War I
Munition Total Production Peak monthly production at an annual rate
Rifles 3,550,000 3,252,000
Machine guns 226,557 420,000
Artillery units 3,077 4,920
Smokeless powder (pounds) 632,504,000 n.a.
Toxic Gas (tons) 10,817 32,712
De Haviland-4 bombers 3,227 13,200
Liberty airplane engines 13,574 46,200
Source: Ayres (1919, passim)

Financing the War

Where did the money come from to buy all these munitions? Then as now there were, the experts agreed, three basic ways to raise the money: (1) raising taxes, (2) borrowing from the public, and (3) printing money. In the Civil War the government had had simply printed the famous greenbacks. In World War I it was possible to “print money” in a more roundabout way. The government could sell a bond to the newly created Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve would pay for it by creating a deposit account for the government, which the government could then draw upon to pay its expenses. If the government first sold the bond to the general public, the process of money creation would be even more roundabout. In the end the result would be much the same as if the government had simply printed greenbacks: the government would be paying for the war with newly created money. The experts gave little consideration to printing money. The reason may be that the gold standard was sacrosanct. A financial policy that would cause inflation and drive the United States off the gold standard was not to be taken seriously. Some economists may have known the history of the greenbacks of the Civil War and the inflation they had caused.

The real choice appeared to be between raising taxes and borrowing from the public. Most economists of the World War I era believed that raising taxes was best. Here they were following a tradition that stretched back to Adam Smith who argued that it was necessary to raise taxes in order to communicate the true cost of war to the public. During the war Oliver Morton Sprague, one of the leading economists of the day, offered another reason for avoiding borrowing. It was unfair, Sprague argued, to draft men into the armed forces and then expect them to come home and pay higher taxes to fund the interest and principal on war bonds. Most men of affairs, however, thought that some balance would have to be struck between taxes and borrowing. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo thought that financing about 50 percent from taxes and 50 percent from bonds would be about right. Financing more from taxes, especially progressive taxes, would frighten the wealthier classes and undermine their support for the war.

In October 1917 Congress responded to the call for higher taxes with the War Revenue Act. This act increased the personal and corporate income tax rates and established new excise, excess-profit, and luxury taxes. The tax rate for an income of $10,000 with four exemptions (about $140,000 in 2003 dollars) went from 1.2 percent in 1916 to 7.8 percent. For incomes of $1,000,000 the rate went from 10.3 percent in 1916 to 70.3 percent in 1918. These increase in taxes and the increase in nominal income raised revenues from $930 million in 1916 to $4,388 million in 1918. Federal expenditures, however, increased from $1,333 million in 1916 to $15,585 million in 1918. A huge gap had opened up that would have to be closed by borrowing.

Short-term borrowing was undertaken as a stopgap. To reduce the pressure on the Treasury and the danger of a surge in short-term rates, however, it was necessary to issue long-term bonds, so the Treasury created the famous Liberty Bonds. The first issue was a thirty-year bond bearing a 3.5% coupon callable after fifteen years. There were three subsequent issues of Liberty Bonds, and one of shorter-term Victory Bonds after the Armistice. In all, the sale of these bonds raised over $20 billion dollars for the war effort.

In order to strengthen the market for Liberty Bonds, Secretary McAdoo launched a series of nationwide campaigns. Huge rallies were held in which famous actors, such as Charlie Chaplin, urged the crowds to buy Liberty Bonds. The government also enlisted famous artists to draw posters urging people to purchase the bonds. One of these posters, which are widely sought by collectors, is shown below.

But Mother Had Done Nothing Wrong, Had She, Daddy?

Louis Raemaekers. After a Zeppelin Raid in London: “But Mother Had Done Nothing Wrong, Had She, Daddy?” Prevent this in New York: Invest in Liberty Bonds. 19″ x 12.” From the Rutgers University Library Collection of Liberty Bond Posters.

Although the campaigns may have improved the morale of both the armed forces and the people at home, how much the campaigns contributed to expanding the market for the bonds is an open question. The bonds were tax-exempt – the exact degree of exemption varied from issue to issue – and this undoubtedly made them attractive to investors in high tax brackets. Indeed, the Treasury was criticized for imposing high marginal taxes with one hand, and then creating a loophole with the other. The Federal Reserve also bought many of the bonds creating new money. Some of this new “highpowered money” augmented the reserves of the commercial banks which allowed them to buy bonds or to finance their purchase by private citizens. Thus, directly or indirectly, a good deal of the support for the bond market was the result of money creation rather than savings by the general public.

Table 3 provides a rough breakdown of the means used to finance the war. Of the total cost of the war, about 22 percent was financed by taxes and from 20 to 25 percent by printing money, which meant that from 53 to 58 percent was financed through the bond issues.

Table 3
Financing World War I, March 1917-May 1919
Source of finance Billions of Dollars Percent (M2) Percent (M4)
Taxation and nontax receipts 7.3 22 22
Borrowing from the public 24 58 53
Direct money creation 1.6 5 5
Indirect money creation (M2) 4.8 15
Indirect money creation (M4) 6.6 20
Total cost of the war 32.9 100 100
Note: Direct money creation is the increase in the stock of high-powered money net of the increase in monetary gold. Indirect money creation is the increase in monetary liabilities not matched by the increase in high-powered money.

Source: Friedman and Schwartz (1963, 221)

Heavy reliance on the Federal Reserve meant, of course, that the stock of money increased rapidly. As shown in Table 1, the stock of money rose from $20.7 billion in 1916 to $35.1 billion in 1920, about 70 percent. The price level (GDP deflator) increased 85 percent over the same period.

The Government’s Role in Mobilization

Once the contracts for munitions were issued and the money began flowing, the government might have relied on the price system to allocate resources. This was the policy followed during the Civil War. For a number of reasons, however, the government attempted to manage the allocation of resources from Washington. For one thing, the Wilson administration, reflecting the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, was suspicious of the market, and doubted its ability to work quickly and efficiently, and to protect the average person against profiteering. Another factor was simply that the European belligerents had adopted wide-ranging economic controls and it made sense for the United States, a latecomer, to follow suit.

A wide variety of agencies were created to control the economy during the mobilization. A look at four of the most important – (1) the Food Administration, (2) the Fuel Administration, (3) the Railroad Administration, and (4) the War Industries Board – will suggest the extent to which the United States turned away from its traditional reliance on the market. Unfortunately, space precludes a review of many of the other agencies such as the War Shipping Board, which built noncombatant ships, the War Labor Board, which attempted to settle labor disputes, and the New Issues Committee, which vetted private issues of stocks and bonds.

Food Administration

The Food Administration was created by the Lever Food and Fuel Act in August 1917. Herbert Hoover, who had already won international fame as a relief administrator in China and Europe, was appointed to head it. The mission of the Food Administration was to stimulate the production of food and assure a fair distribution among American civilians, the armed forces, and the Allies, and at a fair price. The Food Administration did not attempt to set maximum prices at retail or (with the exception of sugar) to ration food. The Act itself set what then was a high minimum price for wheat – the key grain in international markets – at the farm gate, although the price would eventually go higher. The markups of processors and distributors were controlled by licensing them and threatening to take their licenses away if they did not cooperate. The Food Administration then attempted control prices and quantities at retail through calls for voluntary cooperation. Millers were encouraged to tie the sale of wheat flour to the sale of less desirable flours – corn meal, potato flour, and so on – thus making a virtue out of a practice that would have been regarded as a disreputable evasion of formal price ceilings. Bakers were encouraged to bake “Victory bread,” which included a wheat-flour substitute. Finally, Hoover urged Americans to curtail their consumption of the most valuable foodstuffs: there were, for example, Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

Fuel Administration

The Fuel Administration was created under the same Act as the Food Administration. Harry Garfield, the son of President James Garfield, and the President of Williams College, was appointed to head it. Its main problem was controlling the price and distribution of bituminous coal. In the winter of 1918 a variety of factors combined to cause a severe coal shortage that forced school and factory closures. The Fuel Administration set the price of coal at the mines and the margins of dealers, mediated disputes in the coalfields, and worked with the Railroad Administration (described below) to reduce long hauls of coal.

Railroad Administration

The Wilson Administration nationalized the railroads and put them under the control of the Railroad Administration in December of 1917, in response to severe congestion in the railway network that was holding up the movement of war goods and coal. Wilson’s energetic Secretary of the Treasury (and son-in-law), William Gibbs McAdoo, was appointed to head it. The railroads would remain under government control for another 26 months. There has been considerable controversy over how well the system worked under federal control. Defenders of the takeover point out that the congestion was relieved and that policies that increased standardization and eliminated unnecessary competition were put in place. Critics of the takeover point to the large deficit that was incurred, nearly $1.7 billion, and to the deterioration of the capital stock of the industry. William J. Cunningham’s (1921) two papers in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, although written shortly after the event, still provide one of the most detailed and fair-minded treatments of the Railroad Administration.

War Industries Board

The most important federal agency, at least in terms of the scope of its mission, was the War Industries Board. The Board was established in July of 1917. Its purpose was no less than to assure the full mobilization of the nation’s resources for the purpose of winning the war. Initially the Board relied on persuasion to make its orders effective, but rising criticism of the pace of mobilization, and the problems with coal and transport in the winter of 1918, led to a strengthening of its role. In March 1918 the Board was reorganized, and Wilson placed Bernard Baruch, a Wall Street investor, in charge. Baruch installed a “priorities system” to determine the order in which contracts could be filled by manufacturers. Contracts rated AA by the War Industries Board had to be filled before contracts rated A, and so on. Although much hailed at the time, this system proved inadequate when tried in World War II. The War Industries Board also set prices of industrial products such as iron and steel, coke, rubber, and so on. This was handled by the Board’s independent Price Fixing Committee.

It is tempting to look at these experiments for clues on how the economy would perform under various forms of economic control. It is important, however, to keep in mind that these were very brief experiments. When the war ended in November 1918 most of the agencies immediately wound up their activities. Only the Railroad Administration and the War Shipping Board continued to operate. The War Industries Board, for example, was in operation only for a total of sixteen months; Bernard Baruch’s tenure was only eight months. Obviously only limited conclusions can be drawn from these experiments.

Costs of the War

The human and economic costs of the war were substantial. The death rate was high: 48,909 members of the armed forces died in battle, and 63,523 died from disease. Many of those who died from disease, perhaps 40,000, died from pneumonia during the influenza-pneumonia epidemic that hit at the end of the war. Some 230,074 members of the armed forces suffered nonmortal wounds.

John Maurice Clark provided what is still the most detailed and thoughtful estimate of the cost of the war; a total amount of about $32 billion. Clark tried to estimate what an economist would call the resource cost of the war. For that reason he included actual federal government spending on the Army and Navy, the amount of foreign obligations, and the difference between what government employees could earn in the private sector and what they actually earned. He excluded interest on the national debt and part of the subsidies paid to the Railroad Administration because he thought they were transfers. His estimate of $32 billion amounted to about 46 percent of GNP in 1918.

Long-run Economic Consequences

The war left a number of economic legacies. Here we will briefly describe three of the most important.

The finances of the federal government were permanently altered by the war. It is true that the tax increases put in place during the war were scaled back during the 1920s by successive Republican administrations. Tax rates, however, had to remain higher than before the war to pay for higher expenditures due mainly to interest on the national debt and veterans benefits.

The international economic position of the United States was permanently altered by the war. The United States had long been a debtor country. The United States emerged from the war, however, as a net creditor. The turnaround was dramatic. In 1914 U.S investments abroad amounted to $5.0 billion, while total foreign investments in the United States amounted to $7.2 billion. Americans were net debtors to the tune of $2.2 billion. By 1919 U.S investments abroad had risen to $9.7 billion, while total foreign investments in the United States had fallen to $3.3 billion: Americans were net creditors to the tune of $6.4 billion.[7] Before the war the center of the world capital market was London, and the Bank of England was the world’s most important financial institution; after the war leadership shifted to New York, and the role of the Federal Reserve was enhanced.

The management of the war economy by a phalanx of Federal agencies persuaded many Americans that the government could play an important positive role in the economy. This lesson remained dormant during the 1920s, but came to life when the United States faced the Great Depression. Both the general idea of fighting the Depression by creating federal agencies and many of the specific agencies and programs reflected precedents set in Word War I. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression era agency that hired young men to work on conservation projects, for example, attempted to achieve the benefits of military training in a civilian setting. The National Industrial Recovery Act reflected ideas Bernard Baruch developed at the War Industries Board, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration hearkened back to the Food Administration. Ideas about the appropriate role of the federal government in the economy, in other words, may have been the most important economic legacy of American involvement in World War I.

Chronology of World War I
1914
June Archduke Franz Ferdinand is shot.
August Beginning of the war.
1915
May Sinking of the Lusitania. War talk begins in the United States.
1916
June National Defense Act expands the Army
1917
February Germany renews unrestricted submarine warfare.
U.S.S. Housatonic sunk.
U.S. breaks diplomatic relations with Germany
April U.S. declares war.
May Selective Service Act
June First Liberty Loan
July War Industries Board
August Lever Food and Fuel Control Act
October War Revenue Act
November Second Liberty Loan
December Railroads are nationalized.
1918
January Maximum prices for steel
March Bernard Baruch heads the War Industries Board
Germans begin massive offensive on the western front
May Third Liberty Loan
First independent action by the American Expeditionary Force
June Battle of Belleau Wood – the first sizable U.S. action
July Second Battle of the Marne – German offensive stopped
September 900,000 Americans in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne
October Fourth Liberty Loan
November Armistice

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Ayres, Leonard P. The War with Germany: A Statistical Summary. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1919.

Balke, Nathan S. and Robert J. Gordon. “The Estimation of Prewar Gross National Product: Methodology and New Evidence.” Journal of Political Economy 97, no. 1 (1989): 38-92.

Clark, John Maurice. “The Basis of War-Time Collectivism.” American Economic Review 7 (1917): 772-790.

Clark, John Maurice. The Cost of the World War to the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1931.

Cuff, Robert D. The War Industries Board: Business-Government Relations during World War I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Cunningham, William J. “The Railroads under Government Operation. I: The Period to the Close of 1918.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 35, no. 2 (1921): 288-340. “II: From January 1, 1919, to March 1, 1920.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 36, no. 1. (1921): 30-71.

Friedman, Milton, and Anna J. Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Friedman, Milton, and Anna J. Schwartz. Monetary Statistics of the United States: Estimates, Sources, and Methods. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Kendrick, John W. Productivity Trends in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Koistinen, Paul A. C. Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Miron, Jeffrey A. and Christina D. Romer. “A New Monthly Index of Industrial Production, 1884-1940.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990): 321-37.

Rockoff, Hugh. Drastic Measures: A History of Wage and Price Controls in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Rockoff, Hugh. “Until It’s Over, Over There: The U.S. Economy in World War I.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper w10580, 2004.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975.


Endnotes

[1] Quoted in Gilbert (1994, 3).

[2] U.S. exports to Europe are from U.S. Bureau of the Census (1975), series U324.

[3] Real wages in manufacturing were computed by dividing “Hourly Earnings in Manufacturing Industries” by the Consumer Price Index (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975, series D766 and E135).

[4] Steel ingots are from the National Bureau of Economic Research, macrohistory database, series m01135a, www.nber.org. Total Industrial Production is from Miron and Romer (1990), Table 2.

[5] The sharp and temporary drop in the winter of 1918 was due to a shortage of coal.

[6] The chart shows end-of-month values of the S&P/Cowles Composite Stock Index, from Global Financial Data: http://www.globalfinancialdata.com/. To get real prices I divided this index by monthly values of the United States Consumer Price Index for all items. This is available as series 04128 in the National Bureau of Economic Research Macro-Data Base available at http://www.nber.org/.

[7] U.S. investments abroad (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975, series U26); Foreign investments in the U.S. (U.S.

Citation: Rockoff, Hugh. “US Economy in World War I”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/u-s-economy-in-world-war-i/