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Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible

Author(s):Goetzmann, William N.
Reviewer(s):Neal, Larry

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

William N. Goetzmann, Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. x + 584 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-14378-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Larry Neal, Department of Economics, University of Illinois.

Long awaited by other financial historians, myself included, William N. Goetzmann’s book has finally appeared! This, after years of research and teaching during which Goetzmann allowed anyone interested in financial history to view his chapters in progress on-line at: http://viking.som.yale.edu. (The website is well worth visiting in any case for the wide selection of primary source materials he has made readily available there for the rest of us.)  The printed product covers defining episodes in the history of finance from ancient Mesopotamia to the sub-prime crisis of 2008.  The introduction explains the themes that underlie the chest-thumping title despite his modest initial disclaimer that, “This book is a somewhat personal narrative about the people, places, and things that, in my view, shaped the history of finance as a technology of civilization” (p. 3). To motivate the structure of the book chapters that follow Goetzmann summarizes the key elements of finance as:
1. Reallocating economic value through time
2. Reallocating risk
3. Reallocating capital
4. Expanding the access to, and the complexity of, these reallocations

After explaining and extolling the virtues of each financial element, however, he broadens and deepens the implications of financial innovations that have occurred through history under each element.  The first element, the re-allocation of economic value through time, he sees as the fundamental feature that allowed civilizations to arise in the first place, wherever and whenever they occurred. Drawing on earlier work by his father, the late historian William H. Goetzmann, he distinguishes cultures as “structures of interrelated institutions, language, ideas, values, myths and symbols.  They tend to be exclusive, even tribal.  Civilizations, on the other hand, are open to new customs and ideas. They are syncretistic, chaotic, and often confusing societal information systems.  They continue to grow in the richness, variety and complexity of societal experience” (p. 9).

Goetzmann concludes with the optimistic view that: “financial technology allowed for more complex political institutions, enhanced social mobility, and greater economic growth – in short, all the major indicators of complex society we call civilization” (p. 14). Following this upbeat overview, there are four major sections, each with a separate introduction to explain the motivation.  Part 1, “From Cuneiform to Classical Civilization,” starts with Babylon and ends with Roman finance making a transition from informal securities markets in the Republic to central control of the money supply and its uses under the Empire.  Part II, “The Financial Legacy of China,” is a thoughtful diversion about the different routes that financial engineers can take, depending on the nature of political controls and contract enforcement.  Part III, the bulk of the book in two hundred pages, describes in loving detail “The European Crucible,” beginning with sovereign debt in Venice and concluding with American substitutes for sovereign debt, often underwritten by Dutch financiers.   Part IV, “The Emergence of Global Markets,” takes the reader into the maelstrom of the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries as global finance made its way among competing political visions in the world, all the while becoming increasingly complex — and disruptive.

Part I, “From Cuneiform to Classical Civilization,” focuses on lasting contributions to the rise of civilizations in the West, starting with writing, then cities, and culminates with a “financial architecture” based on record keeping, contract enforcement, a numerical system that permitted compound interest calculations, and astronomical observations based on a calendar year of 360 days (to make interest calculations easier).  This financial architecture held congeries of cities together in mutually beneficial trade networks, but then also allowed the rise of empires and their disruptive consequences.  Especially poignant is the interpretation of the Muraŝu archive discovered in the ruins of ancient Nippur, which must have been one of the financial centers of the Persian Empire.  Three generations of the Muraŝu family maintained their clay tablets recording outstanding claims on property and business ventures, concluding with their aid to a usurper who overthrew the reigning emperor, Sogdianus.  The Muraŝu family organized the financing of the army of his half-brother, Ochus, who became Darius II.  After which, however, the archive testifies to continuing indebtedness and foreclosures of the various financiers.  Goetzmann concludes, “finance could rapidly and powerfully focus economic assets in one time and place for political gain” (p. 68).

The historical record of finance in the ensuring centuries remains largely to be decoded from the millions of clay tablets now dispersed in museums throughout the world, but the Mesopotamian innovations persisted into Grecian times.  The famed orator, Demosthenes, was often hired to express eloquently and convincingly the case of his client, whether an aggrieved creditor or debtor, before a mass jury of Athenian citizens.  His various speeches demonstrate the sophistication and complexity of Athenian private finance. Goetzmann concludes, “The Athenian state was able to induce investors into the equally risky venture of prospecting and mining through mechanisms for dispute resolution and the means by which the state fairly and transparently allotted property rights” (p. 91).

Roman finance, he argues, laid the basis for later development of corporate enterprises and secondary markets in mortgages as the Roman Republic expanded at the expense of Grecian (and Phoenician) city-states, while adopting their most successful and proven financial techniques, including the use of standardized coins to facilitate impersonal exchanges throughout the unified empire.  Why some forms of private finance, annuities based on rental properties, disappear from the historical record after the rise of the Empire remains a mystery.  The later travails of the Roman Empire with increasingly desperate measures for war finance, moreover, elicit a comparison with the contemporaneous Han Empire in China.

Part II, “The Financial Legacy of China,” basically resolves the so-called “Needham Paradox,” the failure of the technology advances of the Song Dynasty to generate an industrial revolution or further scientific advances that occurred much later in Europe, to the financial divergence between China and Europe. The key factor was the failure of China to develop sovereign debt, whether for its magnificent cities or for the central government.  Only with the opening of China’s treaty ports in the nineteenth century did the Chinese government finally resort to state debt, and even then the first Chinese government bonds were floated on international debt markets rather than in China itself.  But when China did enter global markets of the late nineteenth century, it did so with a vengeance. Shanghai rapidly became one of the great banking centers of the world in the 1920s, but only by discarding the imperial legacy of centuries before.  Goetzmann notes, “There was great debate in the Han over the role of private enterprise versus state ownership [especially regarding salt, iron, and maritime trade] and state ownership won” (p. 174).  Thereafter, the state provided credit to merchants and warlords when it needed to mobilize resources, eventually creating fiat paper money in the Song Dynasty.  Goetzmann concludes, “It is impossible to create fiat money without complete fiat.  Thus, the value of the currency rose and ultimately collapsed with the state” (p. 202).

Part III, “The European Crucible,” develops the logic that led small, competing, and warring city-states scattered across Western Europe to create viable forms of finance that led, with many well-known missteps but also with a few underappreciated financial successes, to modern, global finance.  Goetzmann sees the stages of financial development in Europe as: “first, the emergence of financial institutions; second the development of securities markets; third, the emergence of companies; fourth, the sudden explosion of stock markets; fifth, the quantification of risk; and finally, the spillover of this system to the rest of the world” (p. 203). The next twelve chapters explore both the missteps and the occasional successes that lay the foundations for modern finance.

After 219 pages of fascinating historical episodes, often interleaved with personal accounts of Goetzmann’s encounters with archaeological digs or archival sites, he sums up the lessons of history from the European example.  “Financial technology is redundant, adaptive, and sometimes mercurial.  The institutions we take to be sacrosanct, inevitable, and indispensable are probably not.  Given the random outcome of historical events, another set of institutions might have emerged to solve the same financial problems.  Financial innovation is thus a series of accidents of history — the caprice of time, location, and opportunity” (p. 219).  Consequently, his treatment of the technical advances in probability theory and actuarial science, starting with Fibonacci, Bernoulli and Pascal, contrasts sharply with that of Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (New York: Wiley, 1996).  For Bernstein, the practical application of the Black-Scholes model for pricing options, built on the assumption that past distributions of asset prices could persist over the near future, had created the modern, efficient, global financial market.  For Goetzmann, however, the successes of the early financial markets led to the formalization in mathematical terms of the underlying processes.  He notes with approval the possibilities of non-linearities formalized by his Yale colleague Benoit Mandelbrot and erratic market movements highlighted by another Yale colleague, Robert Shiller.  Both scholars were inspired by observing anomalies in the price discovery processes revealed in the securities markets of the 20th century.

The final success of the European Crucible, according to Goetzmann, however, arose in the American colonies, first with their experiments with land banks (until outlawed by the British Parliament) and then with land companies backed usually by Dutch and British investors.  With all the current fervor surrounding the role played by Alexander Hamilton, thanks to the Broadway musical based on Ronald Chernow’s biography, Goetzmann instead gives Abraham Van Ketwich and a number of other Dutch bankers primary credit for having securitized the early debt of the United States.  True, “Dutch investors made out well when the debt of the United States was reorganized by Alexander Hamilton and the young nation made good on its financial commitments” (p. 386).  So, real credit for America’s success should go to the eighteenth century Dutch investors who developed the financial innovation of closed end mutual funds, which allowed small investors to share the returns from risky assets.

Part IV, “The Emergence of Global Markets,” begins with an interesting discussion of Marx, especially his insights into contemporary finance as demonstrated in his newspaper columns in the New York Daily Tribune in the U.S.  Goetzmann writes, “His prose is terse, witty, and convincing.  When I read these lively columns I can almost forgive him” (p. 411). The Tribune articles by Marx portray a world of “global linkages and geo-political dynamics” and that is what excites Goetzmann about this period of financial history. Especially noteworthy is the amount of information contained in the Investor’s Monthly Manual “quoting thousands of prices for securities from all over the world” (p. 412).  (And it’s available on downloadable pdf files from Goetzmann’s website given above.)  He extols The London Stock Exchange in 1870 as “giant economic lever with the fulcrum planted in the present, balancing past savings and future promises” (p. 413).

There follow fascinating insights into the experiences in pre-revolutionary China (“China’s Financiers”) and pre-World War I and early revolutionary Russia (“The Russian Bear”). Each country attempted to adopt financial innovations and capital from abroad while trying to establish legitimacy for a new government.  Both lapsed into authoritarian regimes espousing Marxian ideology, demonstrating again the historical contingencies under which financial innovations arise or meet their demise.  Chapter 26, “Keynes to the Rescue,” contrasts Keynes’ macro-economic recommendations, familiar to all from his General Theory, with his microeconomic investment strategies in handling the endowments of King’s College at Cambridge University.  At the macro-level, Keynes prescribed governmental spending whenever the animal spirits motivating private investment flagged while at a micro-level he switched from speculating on price movements in equities or foreign exchange (with dismal results) into equity investments in firms with sound management and robust markets.

“The New Financial World” emerged after World War I, not World War II, on Goetzmann’s account.  Highlighting the leadership of the U.S. in finance were skyscraper bonds, which he sees as an application into vertical space of the early American land companies dealing with wide, open horizontal spaces.  Financial architecture mimicked in many ways the new architecture that created a building boom toward the sky.  It is their eventual demise at the end of 1926 that Goetzmann sees as the collapse of a real bubble as “skyscrapers built in Manhattan were … driven by a demand for bonds that backed them rather than by a demand for the amazing new machine to make the land pay” (p. 480). Following the collapse of the urban real estate market in the U.S., returns from applying other new technologies such as radios, autos, and electrical appliances were delayed by a decade of more and equity prices in their companies collapsed, destroying the American public’s craving for investing in the stock markets.

Out of the Great Depression that followed, however, Goetzmann sees the emergence of useful financial innovations, starting with government regulation of the securities markets, implementation of a national Social Security plan, and improvements in mutual fund designs, all leading to post-war developments in financial theories, as well as intense empirical research into the varieties of movements in equity prices.  The challenges of the future, in a global financial system with confidence badly shaken from the 2008 financial crisis, lie in providing assurances to the current working age populations around the world that their future medical expenses and pension benefits can be financed. Attempts to meet these challenges with new financial innovations, whether from private or public initiatives, should be encouraged, as history shows that the consequences of disappointing the public’s expectations have always been disastrous for a civilization.

Larry Neal is the author of A Concise History of International Finance: From Babylon to Bernanke (Cambridge University Press, 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 (July 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Money Pits: British Mining Companies in the Californian and Australian Gold Rushes of the 1850s

Author(s):Woodland, John
Reviewer(s):Kanazawa, Mark

Published by EH.Net (December 2015)

John Woodland, Money Pits: British Mining Companies in the Californian and Australian Gold Rushes of the 1850s. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014. xiii + 282 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4724-4279-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Kanazawa, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

In this aptly-titled book, John Woodland examines the role played by British companies in the gold rushes of the 1850s in California and Australia.  As one who has studied the California gold rush for some time, I have long been struck by how little scholarship exists about the British presence in California during this period.  What little there is, as contained for example in the contemporary writings of Robert Allsop and Henry Vere Huntley, conveys that early on, there was a lot of British interest in financing mining, particularly quartz mining, ventures in California.  However, this interest quickly dissipated through the triumvirate of dry holes, problematic technology, and bad management, causing many companies to beat a hasty retreat.  In the early 1850s, the California quartz mines really did turn out to be money pits, sucking up the capital of many British firms and financiers and yielding little in return.  But this is all we seem to know and the question is: Is this really all there was to the story?

Enter John Woodland, who sets out to try to answer this question, and a similar one for the British presence in Australia, through painstaking archival research.  His strategy is to identify a bunch of British companies operating in both California and Australia and to find out everything he can about them, mostly from news accounts, but also from histories, company documents, and various government sources.  He manages to identify nearly one hundred and twenty such companies which were formed with the intent of carrying out mining in the two countries, though the vast majority of them failed.  The result is a story that is rich in detail, particularly regarding the circumstances of individual companies, each of which has its own unique story to tell.  But the narrative goes further than this by placing these stories within a larger institutional context, enabling Woodland to talk about politics, institutions, and other actors such as the hapless shareholders who lost their shirts by investing in these doomed companies.  Furthermore, the argument speaks to some institutional differences between Australia and California, with contrasting implications for the success with which mining was prosecuted.  The overall discussion is informative and pretty well-crafted.  In reading this book, I learned a lot of things about these two gold rushes that I did not know before.

There are numerous challenges to writing a book like this, which is about many individual companies in two different gold rushes.  Not the least of these challenges are the countless judgment calls that one has to make along the way in terms of what material to cover and what facts to emphasize.  Woodland chooses to place a lot of emphasis on the experiences of a key subset of mining companies, the discussion of which is contained in two chapters that comprise nearly half of the entire book, one chapter devoted to California and the other to Australia.  Given the impressive amount of archival research he has undertaken, Woodland must have found it well-nigh irresistible not to tell us everything he has discovered about these companies, which would account for the richly detailed accounts of so many of them.  This decision, however, comes at a cost: namely, less attention to other aspects of the story that might have shed additional light on the challenges faced by these companies and, therefore, the determinants of their success.  As it stands, Woodland’s ultimate explanation for why so many British companies failed largely comes down to … the triumvirate:  dry holes, problematic technology, and bad management.  In the end, the narrative largely confirms what we already knew about the troubles plaguing these companies.

The book’s narrative provides some tantalizing hints regarding paths forward that might shed additional light on the reasons for the failure of so many companies.  In the discussion of Australia, for example, we see glimpses of  internecine rent-seeking struggles between British companies, local miners, and pastoral interests over regulation of mining leases and mining on private lands.  I wonder if more could have been said, perhaps informed by public choice theory, about the systematic factors that determined who prevailed in the legislative arena and why this changed over time.  One reason this might be particularly illuminating is that the political situation in Australia seems to have stood in sharp contrast to its counterpart in California.   During the California gold rush, mining was by far the dominant industry and some existing evidence strongly suggests legislative capture by mining interests.  Possibly some insights might be gained by a closer examination of the politics surrounding the statutory changes that were given impetus by the playing out of the story of these companies and the challenges they faced.

An additional related issue concerns the contrasts between the institutional contexts in California and Australia, especially in terms of land laws, public/crown ownership of lands, and disposal policies.  My understanding of the California gold rush is heavily informed by the legal standing enjoyed by miners who were operating largely on the public domain, as well as the costs of enforcing both public and private property rights to available land, gold, and water.  It would have been instructive to more fully compare and contrast the situation in Australia.  Without knowing more about the official legal institutions, local organizational responses, and transaction costs than Woodland provides, it is difficult to fully understand the behavior of these companies and the reasons for their success or failure.

None of this is meant to denigrate the real contribution of this book, which is to go well beyond existing accounts in providing detailed information on the specific challenges faced by British mining companies in the mid-nineteenth century gold rushes.  This has been a real void in the scholarly literature and we now know considerably more than we did, thanks to Woodland’s extensive efforts.

Mark Kanazawa has written extensively on the California gold rush.  He is the author of Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush (University of Chicago Press, 2015).  He is Professor of Economics at Carleton College in Northfield, MN.

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 (December 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism

Author(s):Hudnut-Beumler, James
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

James Hudnut-Beumler, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xv + 268 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8078-3079-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Despite the subtitle, which suggests a much broader scope, this history is limited to fundraising by Protestant churches. Each chapter on fundraising in a certain time period alternates with a chapter on how funds have been spent ? on church buildings, on ministerial salaries and support of clergy families, on auxiliary structures, etc. This set of parallel chapters on spending was at least as interesting as the primary, fund-raising chapters, whose themes tended to repeat. Hudnut-Beumler is dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University and has previously written on American church history and religious sociology. His approach is to use theological, sociological, and a few economic, concepts to elucidate a part of religious history.

The author summarizes several historical stages of church funding-raising. In the early federal period, disestablished churches struggled to find voluntary support from their congregations. The alternative, pew rentals, represented a closed-club view of membership with mandatory “dues.” It persisted in places, but largely succumbed to the voluntary model. Creation of a contributory mind-set was difficult and developed only slowly. Even worse for local churches, traveling agents for Christian benevolent associations crisscrossed the nation, competing for the charitable dollar. The first wave of literature on church-funding, which Hudnut-Beunler reviews in detail, was aimed at developing a theology and method of systematic giving to the local church.

By the late nineteenth-century, Protestants discovered the “tithe” of the Mosaic law. Taken seriously, this would create a sense of legal obligation; but in reality it had that effect on only a few members of churches. Meanwhile rummage sales, charitable socials, and the like, persisted ? which implied church-funding was optional, of low priority and worth one’s effort only if connected to some recreational activity. At least some writers realized that the legalistic tithe was inconsistent with Protestantism’s fundamental belief that God’s grace is a free gift. They worked to shift the focus to “stewardship,” a faithful response to God’s grace in all aspects of life. Stewardship, broadly understood, was also consistent with the liberal Social Gospel’s sense of Christian obligation to the whole culture, not just the upkeep of the church.

By the mid-twentieth century, churches were resorting to worldly techniques: annual “every member canvasses” for pledges, weekly offering envelopes, etc. Also, clergy mimicked practices their laypeople encountered in business: annual reports, like corporations, to highlight their efficiency, for example. Expensive fund-raising consultants were employed to run a “building campaign,” using all the persuasive techniques of the secular world. Churches rapidly followed other non-profits in promoting “planned giving” through charitable gift annuities, wills, and so on. None of this replaced the earlier tithing and stewardship emphases; these things simply augmented them. Of course all this worldly technique evoked theological criticism, which Hudnut-Beumler also covers.

The final chapter, on trends since 1980, is perhaps the least focused, perhaps because these trends are still working themselves out. They include the rise of non-denominational churches (that even avoid calling themselves “church”), TV “ministries,” mega-churches, do-it-yourself religion and “spirituality.” Most cater to the individualism and consumerism of American culture. Unfortunately, Hudnut-Beumler cannot state clearly how these relate, or will come to relate, to church fundraising, so strict editing might have dropped this material. However, in the contemporary scene he does see the continuation in one place or other of almost everything that has gone before: the inherent spiritual individualism of Protestants (“faith alone”) that dampens support of institutions (even churches); legalistic preaching about tithing; talk of stewardship; soft-sell, but still worldly, techniques.

Hudnut-Beumler devotes only two short sections to the “Prosperity Gospel,” which in the last century emerged in Pentecostalism and related movements. He notes that this theology is a “radical departure” from usual theological reasons for giving: for it promises a large material blessing from God in return for the believer’s gift. Hudnut-Beumler notes that this quid-pro-quo mentality is more akin to magic than religion according to classical sociology. However, he charitably does not characterize it that way himself. He refrains from predicting where it may lead. Prosperity theology could have benefited from both more sociological and economic analysis (for it is a reversion to a type of theological utilitarianism, a way of thinking assumed by mainstream economics).

Some lessons stand out from this historical review. First, most American Protestants have not given a high priority to church support, and this has not changed dramatically over time despite all the changes in fund-raising theologies and techniques. The inference of many of the clergy quoted by the author is that a majority of their members have pretty worldly priorities. On the other hand, the author thinks that, even in a consumer culture that does not value religion highly, enough people will continue to support religion that things will continue about as is.

The author does a very, very thorough job reviewing an enormous number of books, pamphlets, tracts, audio-visuals and the like written over two centuries (mostly by the clergy) on giving to the church. Cumulatively, this research is impressive. However, the book would not have suffered if the coverage of this material had been pruned. A second criticism is that the author could not resist drawing some conclusions that don’t really emerge from the case he presents. For example, he ends by stating that 250 years of “competition for the Almighty’s dollar” is what has made Protestantism in America “more ubiquitous than even McDonald’s restaurants” (p. 228). Maybe that was a necessary condition to create ubiquity, but it probably isn’t sufficient. And the degree of that “ubiquity” varies greatly by region.

For economists, giving to churches by Protestants presents an interesting challenge for economic theory. First, of course, in the American Protestant tradition services are not priced, like a public good. This may explain the low levels of support provided. But the question for utilitarian economic theory is why is there any support at all? Perhaps the unique twist to this challenge, provided only by Protestantism, is that its own core theology essentially rules out utilitarian reasons to contribute to a church. The central Reformation principle is that salvation is a direct gift of grace by God to the individual, without intermediary. If the church is a necessary intermediary, then there is a utilitarian motive to pay for it. But Protestantism removes that motive. That seems to this reviewer to be a real exception to utility-maximization theory.

Donald E. Frey has written on the Protestant ethic, Puritan influence on Daniel Raymond’s economics in the 1820s, Francis Wayland’s efforts to harmonize evangelical ethics and laissez-faire, and the Social Gospel economics of Richard Ely.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Economic History of Mexico

The Economic History of Mexico

Richard Salvucci, Trinity University

 

Preface[1]

This article is a brief interpretive survey of some of the major features of the economic history of Mexico from pre-conquest to the present. I begin with the pre-capitalist economy of Mesoamerica. The colonial period is divided into the Habsburg and Bourbon regimes, although the focus is not really political: the emphasis is instead on the consequences of demographic and fiscal changes that colonialism brought.  Next I analyze the economic impact of independence and its accompanying conflict. A tentative effort to reconstruct secular patterns of growth in the nineteenth century follows, as well as an account of the effects of foreign intervention, war, and the so-called “dictatorship” of Porfirio Diaz.  I then examine the economic consequences of the Mexican Revolution down through the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, before considering the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. This is followed by an examination of the so-called Mexican Miracle, the period of import-substitution industrialization after World War II. The end of the “miracle” and the rise of economic instability in the 1970s and 1980s are discussed in some detail. I conclude with structural reforms in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and slow growth in Mexico since then. It is impossible to be comprehensive and the references appearing in the citations are highly selective and biased (where possible) in favor of English-language works, although Spanish is a must for getting beyond the basics. This is especially true in economic history, where some of the most innovative and revisionist work is being done, as it should be, by historians and economists in Mexico.[2]

 

Where (and What) is Mexico?

For most of its long history, Mexico’s boundaries have been shifting, albeit broadly stable. Colonial Mexico basically stretched from Guatemala, across what is now California and the Southwestern United States, and vaguely into the Pacific Northwest.  There matters stood for more than three centuries[3]. The big shock came at the end of the War of 1847 (“the Mexican-American War” in U.S. history). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) ended the war, but in so doing, ceded half of Mexico’s former territory to the United States—recall Texas had been lost in 1836. The northern boundary now ran on a line beginning with the Rio Grande to El Paso, and thence more or less west to the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego. With one major adjustment in 1853 (the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of the Mesilla) and minor ones thereafter, because of the shifting of the Rio Grande, there it has remained.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Mexico was a congeries of ethnic and city states whose own boundaries were unstable. Prior to the emergence of the most powerful of these states in the fifteenth century, the so-called Triple Alliance (popularly “Aztec Empire”), Mesoamerica consisted of cultural regions determined by political elites and spheres of influence that were dominated by large ceremonial centers such as La Venta, Teotihuacán, and Tula.

While such regions may have been dominant at different times, they were never “economically” independent of one another. At Teotihuacan, there were living quarters given over to Olmec residents from the Veracruz region, presumably merchants. Mesoamerica was connected, if not unified, by an ongoing trade in luxury goods and valuable stones such as jade, turquoise and precious feathers. This was not, however, trade driven primarily by factor endowments and relative costs. Climate and resource endowments did differ significantly over the widely diverse regions and microclimates of Mesoamerica. Yet trade was also political and ritualized in religious belief. For example, calling the shipment of turquoise from the (U.S.) Southwest to Central Mexico the outcome of market activity is an anachronism. In the very long run, such prehistorical exchange facilitated the later emergence of trade routes, roads, and more technologically advanced forms of transport. But arbitrage does not appear to have figured importantly in it.[4]

In sum, what we call “Mexico” in a modern sense is not of much use to the economic historian with an interest in the country before 1870, which is to say, the great bulk of its history. In these years, specificity of time and place, sometimes reaching to the village level, is an indispensable prerequisite for meaningful discussion. At the very least, it is usually advisable to be aware of substantial regional differences which reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country both before and after the arrival of the Europeans. There are fully ten language families in Mexico, and two of them, Nahuatl and Quiché, number over a million speakers each.[5]

 

Trade and Tribute before the Europeans

In the codices or deerskin folded paintings the Europeans examined (or actually commissioned), they soon became aware of a prominent form of Mesoamerican economic activity: tribute, or taxation in kind, or even labor services. In the absence of anything that served as money, tribute was forced exchange. Tribute has been interpreted as a means of redistribution in a nonmonetary economy. Social and political units formed a basis for assessment, and the goods collected included maize, beans, chile and cotton cloth. It was through the tribute the indigenous “empires” mobilized labor and resources. There is little or no evidence for the existence of labor or land markets to do so, for these were a European import, although marketplaces for goods existed in profusion.

To an extent, the preconquest reliance on barter economies and the absence of money largely accounts for the ubiquity of tribute. The absence of money is much more difficult to explain and was surely an obstacle to the growth of productivity in the indigenous economies.

The tribute was a near-universal attribute of Mesoamerican ceremonial centers and political empires. The city of Teotihuacan (ca. 600 CE, with a population of 125,000 or more) in central Mexico depended on tribute to support an upper stratum of priests and nobles while the tributary population itself lived at subsistence. Tlatelolco (ca 1520, with a population ranging from 50 to 100 thousand) drew maize, cotton, cacao, beans and precious feathers from a wide swath of territory that broadly extended from the Pacific to Gulf coasts that supported an upper stratum of priests, warriors, nobles, and merchants. It was this urban complex that sat atop the lagoons that filled the Valley of Mexico that so awed the arriving conquerors.

While the characterization of tribute as both a corvée and a tax in kind to support nonproductive populations is surely correct, its persistence in altered (i.e., monetized) form under colonial rule does suggest an important question. The tributary area of the Mexica (“Aztec” is a political term, not an ethnic one) broadly comprised a Pacific slope, a central valley, and a Gulf slope. These embrace a wide range of geographic features ranging from rugged volcanic highlands (and even higher snow-capped volcanoes) to marshy, humid coastal plains. Even today, travel through these regions is challenging. Lacking both the wheel and draught animals, the indigenous peoples relied on human transport, or, where possible, waterborne exchange. However we measure the costs of transportation, they were high. In the colonial period, they typically circumscribed the subsistence radius of markets to 25 to 35 miles. Under the circumstances, it is not easy to imagine that voluntary exchange, particularly between the coastal lowlands and the temperate to cold highlands and mountains, would be profitable for all but the most highly valued goods. In some parts of Mexico–as in the Andean region—linkages of family and kinship bound different regions together in a cult of reciprocal economic obligations. Yet absent such connections, it is not hard to imagine, for example, transporting woven cottons from the coastal lowlands to the population centers of the highlands could become a political obligation rather than a matter of profitable, voluntary exchange. The relatively ambiguous role of markets in both labor and goods that persisted into the nineteenth century may perhaps derive from just this combination of climatic and geographical characteristics. It is what made voluntary exchange under capitalistic markets such a puzzlingly problematic answer to the ordinary demands of economic activity.

 

[See the relief map below for the principal physical features of Mexico.]

image1

http://www.igeograf.unam.mx/sigg/publicaciones/atlas/anm-2007/muestra_mapa.php?cual_mapa=MG_I_1.jpg

[See the political map below for Mexican states and state capitals.]

image2

 

 

Used by permission of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

 

“New Spain” or Colonial Mexico: The First Phase

Mexico was established by military conquest and civil war. In the process, a civilization with its own institutions and complex culture was profoundly modified and altered, if not precisely destroyed, by the European invaders. The catastrophic elements of conquest, including the sharp decline of the existing indigenous population, from perhaps 25 million to fewer than a million within a century due to warfare, disease, social disorganization and the imposition of demands for labor and resources should nevertheless not preclude some assessment, however tentative, of its economic level in 1519, when the Europeans arrived.[6]

Recent thinking suggests that Spain was far from poor when it began its overseas expansion. If this were so, the implications of the Europeans’ reactions to what they found on the mainland of Mexico (not, significantly in the Caribbean, and, especially, in Cuba, where they were first established) is important. We have several accounts of the conquest of Mexico by the European participants, of which Bernal Díaz del Castillo is the best known, but not the only one. The reaction of the Europeans was almost uniformly astonishment by the apparent material wealth of Tenochtitlan. The public buildings, spacious residences of the temple precinct, the causeways linking the island to the shore, and the fantastic array of goods available in the marketplace evoked comparisons to Venice, Constantinople, and other wealthy centers of European civilization. While it is true that this was a view of the indigenous elite, the beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated from numerous tributaries, it hardly suggests anything other than a kind of storied opulence. Of course, the peasant commoners lived at subsistence and enjoyed no such privileges, but then so did the peasants of the society from which Bernal Díaz, Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado and the other conquerors were drawn. It is hard to imagine that the average standard of living in Mexico was any lower than that of the Iberian Peninsula. The conquerors remarked on the physical size and apparent robust health of the people whom they met, and from this, scholars such as Woodrow Borah and Sherburne Cook concluded that the physical size of the Europeans and the Mexicans was about the same. Borah and Cook surmised that caloric intake per individual in Central Mexico was around 1,900 calories per day, which certainly seems comparable to European levels.[7]

Certainly, the technological differences with Europe hampered commercial exchange, such as the absence of the wheel for transportation, metallurgy that did not include iron, and the exclusive reliance on pictographic writing systems. Yet by the same token, Mesoamerican agricultural technology was richly diverse and especially oriented toward labor-intensive techniques, well suited to pre-conquest Mexico’s factor endowments. As Gene Wilken points out, Bernardino de Sahagún explained in his General History of the Things of New Spain that the Nahua farmer recognized two dozen soil types related to origin, source, color, texture, smell, consistency and organic content.  They were expert at soil management.[8] So it is possible not only to misspecify, but to mistake the technological “backwardness” of Mesoamerica relative to Europe, and historians routinely have.

The essentially political and clan-based nature of economic activity made the distribution of output somewhat different from standard neoclassical models. Although no one seriously maintains that indigenous civilization did not include private property and, in fact, property rights in humans, the distribution of product tended to emphasize average rather than marginal product. If responsibility for tribute was collective, it is logical to suppose that there was some element of redistribution and collective claim on output by the basic social groups of indigenous society, the clans or calpulli.[9] Whatever the case, it seems clear that viewing indigenous society and economy as strained by population growth to the point of collapse, as the so-called “Berkeley school” did in the 1950s, is no longer tenable. It is more likely that the tensions exploited by the Europeans to divide and conquer their native hosts and so erect a colonial state on pre-existing native entities were mainly political rather than socioeconomic. It was through the assistance of native allies such as the Tlaxcalans, as well as with the help of previously unknown diseases such as smallpox that ravaged the indigenous peoples, that the Europeans were able to place a weakened Tenochtitlan under siege and finally defeat it.

 

Colonialism and Economic Adjustment to Population Decline

With the subjection first of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and then of other polities and peoples, a process that would ultimately stretch well into the nineteenth century and was never really completed, the Europeans turned their attention to making colonialism pay. The process had several components: the modification or introduction of institutions of rule and appropriation; the introduction of new flora and fauna that could be turned to economic use; the reorientation of a previously autarkic and precapitalist economy to the demands of trade and commercial exploitation; and the implementation of European fiscal sovereignty. These processes were complex, required much time, and were, in many cases, only partly successful. There is considerable speculation regarding how long it took before Spain (arguably a relevant term by the mid-sixteenth century) made colonialism pay. The best we can do is present a schematic view of what occurred. Regional variations were enormous: a “typical” outcome or institution of colonialism may well have been an outcome visible in central Mexico. Moreover, all generalizations are fragile, rest on limited quantitative evidence, and will no doubt be substantially modified eventually. The message is simple: proceed with caution.

The Europeans did not seek to take Mesoamerica as a tabula rasa. In some ways, they would have been happy to simply become the latest in a long line of ruling dynasties established by decapitating native elites and assuming control. The initial demand of the conquerors for access to native labor in the so-called encomienda was precisely that, with the actual task of governing be left to the surviving and collaborating elite: the principle of “indirect rule.”[10] There were two problems with this strategy: the natives resisted and the natives died. They died in such large numbers as to make the original strategy impracticable.

The number of people who lived in Mesoamerica has long been a subject of controversy, but there is no point in spelling it out once again. The numbers are unknowable and, in an economic sense, not really important. The population of Tenochtitlan has been variously estimated between 50 and 200 thousand individuals, depending on the instruments of estimation.  As previously mentioned, some estimates of the Central Mexican population range as high as 25 million on the eve of the European conquest, and virtually no serious student accepts the small population estimates based on the work of Angel Rosenblatt. The point is that labor was abundant relative to land, and that the small surpluses of a large tributary population must have supported the opulent elite that Bernal Díaz and his companions described.

By 1620, or thereabouts, the indigenous population had fallen to less than a million according to Cook and Borah. This is not just the quantitative speculation of modern historical demographers. Contemporaries such as Jerónimo de Mendieta in his Historia eclesiástica Indiana (1596) spoke of towns formerly densely populated now witness to “the palaces of those former Lords ruined or on the verge of. The homes of the commoners mostly empty, roads and streets deserted, churches empty on feast days, the few Indians who populate the towns in Spanish farms and factories.” Mendieta was an eyewitness to the catastrophic toll that European microbes and warfare took on the native population. There was a smallpox epidemic in 1519-20 when 5 to 8 million died. The epidemic of hemorrhagic fever in 1545 to 1548 was one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history, killing 5 to 15 million people. And then again in 1576 to 1578, when 2 to 2.5 million people died, we have clear evidence that land prices in the Valley of Mexico (Coyoacán, a village outside Mexico City, as the reconstructed Tenochtitlán was called) collapsed. The death toll was staggering. Lesser outbreaks were registered in 1559, 1566, 1587, 1592, 1601, 1604, 1606, 1613, 1624, and 1642. The larger point is that the intensive use of native labor, such as the encomienda, had to come to an end, whatever its legal status had become by virtue of the New Laws (1542). The encomienda or the simple exploitation of massive numbers of indigenous workers was no longer possible. There were too few “Indians” by the end of the sixteenth century.[11]

As a result, the institutions and methods of economic appropriation were forced to change. The Europeans introduced pastoral agriculture – the herding of cattle and sheep – and the use of now abundant land and scarce labor in the form of the hacienda while the remaining natives were brought together in “villages” whose origins were not essentially pre- but post-conquest, the so-called congregaciones, at the same time that the titles to now-vacant lands were created, regularized and “composed.”[12] (Land titles were a European innovation as well). Sheep and cattle, which the Europeans introduced, became part of the new institutional backbone of the colony. The natives would continue to rely on maize for the better part of their subsistence, but the Europeans introduced wheat, olives (oil), grapes (wine) and even chickens, which the natives rapidly adopted. On the whole, the results of these alterations were complex. Some scholars argue that the native diet improved even in the face of their diminishing numbers, a consequence of increased land per person and of greater variety of foodstuffs, and that the agricultural potential of the colony now called New Spain was enhanced. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the combined indigenous, European immigrant, and new mixed blood populations could largely survive on the basis of their own production. The introduction of sheep lead to the introduction and manufacture of woolens in what were called obrajes or manufactories in Puebla, Querétaro, and Coyoacán. The native peoples continued to produce cottons (a domestic crop) under the stimulus of European organization, lending, and marketing. Extensive pastoralism, the cultivation of cereals and even the incorporation of native labor then characterized the emergence of the great estates or haciendas, which became a characteristic rural institution through the twentieth century, when the Mexican Revolution put an end to many of them. Thus the colony of New Spain continued to feed, clothe and house itself independent of metropolitan Spain’s direction. Certainly, Mexico before the Conquest was self-sufficient. The extent to which the immigrant and American Spaniard or creole population depended on imports of wine, oil and other foodstuffs and textiles in the decades immediately following the conquest is much less clear.

At the same time, other profound changes accompanied the introduction of Europeans, their crops and their diseases into what they termed the “kingdom” (not colony, for constitutional reasons) of New Spain.[13] Prior to the conquest, land and labor had been commoditized, but not to any significant extent, although there was a distinction recognized between possession and ownership.  Scholars who have closely examined the emergence of land markets after the conquest—mainly in the Valley of Mexico—are virtually unanimous in this conclusion. To the extent that markets in labor and commodities had emerged, it took until the 1630s (and later elsewhere in New Spain) for the development to reach maturity. Even older mechanisms of allocation of labor by administrative means (repartimiento) or by outright coercion persisted. Purely economic incentives in the form of money wages and prices never seemed adequate to the job of mobilizing resources and those with access to political power were reluctant to pay a competitive wage. In New Spain, the use of some sort of political power or rent-seeking nearly always accompanied labor recruitment. It was, quite simply, an attempt to evade the implications of relative scarcity, and renders the entire notion of “capitalism” as a driving economic force in colonial Mexico quite inexact.

 

Why the Settlers Resisted the Implications of Scarce Labor

The reasons behind this development are complex and varied. The evidence we have for the Valley of Mexico demonstrates that the relative price of labor rose while the relative price of land fell even when nominal movements of one or the other remained fairly limited. For instance, the table constructed below demonstrates that from 1570-75 through 1591-1606, the price of unskilled labor in the Valley of Mexico nearly tripled while the price of land in the Valley (Coyoacán) fell by nearly two thirds. On the whole, the price of labor relative to land increased by nearly 800 percent. The evolution of relative prices would have inevitably worked against the demanders of labor (Europeans and increasingly, creoles or Americans of largely European ancestry) and in favor of the supplier (native labor, or people of mixed race generically termed mestizo). This was not of course what the Europeans had in mind and by capture of legal institutions (local magistrates, in particularly), frequently sought to substitute compulsion for what would have been costly “free labor.” What has been termed the “depression” of the seventeenth century may well represent one of the consequences of this evolution: an abundance of land, a scarcity of labor, and the attempt of the new rulers to adjust to changing relative prices. There were repeated royal prohibitions on the use of forced indigenous labor in both public and private works, and thus a reduction in the supply of labor. All highly speculative, no doubt, but the adjustment came during the central decades of the seventeenth century, when New Spain increasingly produced its own woolens and cottons, and largely assumed the tasks of providing itself with foodstuffs and was thus required to save and invest more.  No doubt, the new rulers felt the strain of trying to do more with less.[14]

 

Years Land Price Index Labor Price Index (Labor/Land) Index
1570-1575 100 100 100
1576-1590 50 143 286
1591-1606 33 286 867

 

Source: Calculated from Rebecca Horn, Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519-1650 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 208 and José Ignacio Urquiola Permisan, “Salarios y precios en la industria manufacturer textile de la lana en Nueva España, 1570-1635,” in Virginia García Acosta, (ed.), Los precios de alimentos y manufacturas novohispanos (México, DF: CIESAS, 1995), p. 206.

 

The overall role of Mexico within the Hapsburg Empire was in flux as well. Nothing signals the change as much as the emergence of silver mining as the principal source of Mexican exportables in the second half of the sixteenth century. While Mexico would soon be eclipsed by Peru as the most productive center of silver mining—at least until the eighteenth century—the discovery of significant silver mines in Zacatecas in the 1540s transformed the economy of the Spanish empire and the character of New Spain’s as well.

 

 

 

Silver Mining

While silver mining and smelting was practiced before the conquest, it was never a focal point of indigenous activity. But for the Europeans, Mexico was largely about silver mining. From the mid- sixteenth century onward, it was explicitly understood by the viceroys that they were to do all in their power to “favor the mines,” as one memorable royal instruction enjoined. Again, there has been much controversy of the precise amounts of silver that Mexico sent to the Iberian Peninsula. What we do know certainly is that Mexico (and the Spanish Empire) became the leading source of silver, monetary reserves, and thus, of high-powered money. Over the course of the colonial period, most sources agree that Mexico provided nearly 2 billion pesos (dollars) or roughly 1.6 billion troy ounces to the world economy. The graph below provides a picture of the remissions of all Mexican silver to both Spain and to the Philippines taken from the work of John TePaske.[15]

page16

Since the population of Mexico under Spanish rule was at most 6 million people by the end of the colonial period, the kingdom’s silver output could only be considered astronomical.

This production has to be considered in both its domestic and international dimensions. From a domestic perspective, the mines were what a later generation of economists would call “growth poles.” They were markets in which inputs were transformed into tradable outputs at a much higher rate of productivity (because of mining’s relatively advanced technology) than Mexico’s other activities. Silver thus became Mexico’s principal exportable good, and remained so well into the late nineteenth century.  The residual claimants on silver production were many and varied.  There were, of course the silver miners themselves in Mexico and their merchant financiers and suppliers. They ranged from some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time, such as the Count of Regla (1710-1781), who donated warships to Spain in the eighteenth century, to individual natives in Zacatecas smelting their own stocks of silver ore.[16] While the conditions of labor in Mexico’s silver mines were almost uniformly bad, the compensation ranged from above market wages paid to free labor in the prosperous larger mines  of the Bajío and the North to the use of forced village  labor drafts in more marginal (and presumably less profitable) sites such as Taxco. In the Iberian Peninsula, income from American silver mines ultimately supported not only a class of merchant entrepreneurs in the large port cities, but virtually the core of the Spanish political nation, including monarchs, royal officials, churchmen, the military and more. And finally, silver flowed to those who valued it most highly throughout the world. It is generally estimated that 40 percent of Spain’s American (not just Mexican, but Peruvian as well) silver production ended up in hoards in China.

Within New Spain, mining centers such as Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas became places where economic growth took place rapidly, in which labor markets more readily evolved, and in which the standard of living became obviously higher than in neighboring regions. Mining centers tended to crowd out growth elsewhere because the rate of return for successful mines exceeded what could be gotten in commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. Because silver was the numeraire for Mexican prices—Mexico was effectively on a silver standard—variations in silver production could and did have substantial effects on real economic activity elsewhere in New Spain. There is considerable evidence that silver mining saddled Mexico with an early case of “Dutch disease” in which irreducible costs imposed by the silver standard ultimately rendered manufacturing and the production of other tradable goods in New Spain uncompetitive. For this reason, the expansion of Mexican silver production in the years after 1750 was never unambiguously accompanied by overall, as opposed to localized prosperity. Silver mining tended to absorb a disproportional quantity of resources and to keep New Spain’s price level high, even when the business cycle slowed down—a fact that was to impress visitors to Mexico well into the nineteenth century. Mexican silver accounted for well over three-quarters of exports by value into the nineteenth century as well. The estimates vary widely, for silver was by no means the only, or even the most important source of revenue to the Crown, but by the end of the colonial era, the Kingdom of New Spain probably accounted for 25 percent of the Crown’s imperial income.[17] That is why reformist proposals circulating in governing circles in Madrid in the late eighteenth century fixed on Mexico. If there was any threat to the American Empire, royal officials thought that Mexico, and increasingly, Cuba, were worth holding on to. From a fiscal standpoint, Mexico had become just that important.[18]

 

“New Spain”: The Second Phase                of the Bourbon “Reforms”

In 1700, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs died and a disputed succession followed. The ensuring conflict, known as the War of Spanish Succession, came to an end in 1714. The grandson of French king Louis XIV came to the Spanish throne as King Philip V. The dynasty he represented was known as the Bourbons. For the next century of so, they were to determine the fortunes of New Spain. Traditionally, the Bourbons, especially the later ones, have been associated with an effort to “renationalize” the Spanish empire in America after it had been thoroughly penetrated by French, Dutch, and lastly, British commercial interests.[19]

There were at least two areas in which the Bourbon dynasty, “reformist” or no, affected the Mexican economy. One of them dealt with raising revenue and the other was the international position of the imperial economy, specifically, the volume and value of trade. A series of statistics calculated by Richard Garner shows that the share of Mexican output or estimated GDP taken by taxes grew by 167 percent between 1700 and 1800. The number of taxes collected by the Royal Treasury increased from 34 to 112 between 1760 and 1810. This increase, sometimes labelled as a Bourbon “reconquest” of Mexico after a century and a half of drift under the Hapsburgs, occurred because of Spain’s need to finance increasingly frequent and costly wars of empire in the eighteenth century. An entire array of new taxes and fiscal placemen came to Mexico. They affected (and alienated) everyone, from the wealthiest merchant to the humblest villager. If they did nothing else, the Bourbons proved to be expert tax collectors.[20]

The second and equally consequential change in imperial management lay in the revision and “deregulation” of New Spain’s international trade, or the evolution from a “fleet” system to a regime of independent sailings, and then, finally, of voyages to and from a far larger variety of metropolitan and colonial ports. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, ocean-going trade between Spain and the Americas was, in theory, at least, closely regulated and supervised. Ships in convoy (flota) sailed together annually under license from the monarchy and returned together as well. Since so much silver specie was carried, the system made sense, even if the flotas made a tempting target and the problem of contraband was immense. The point of departure was Seville and later, Cadiz. Under pressure from other outports in the late eighteenth century, the system was finally relaxed. As a consequence, the volume and value of trade to Mexico increased as the price of importables fell. Import-competing industries in Mexico, especially textiles, suffered under competition and established merchants complained that the new system of trade was too loose. But to no avail. There is no measure of the barter terms of trade for the eighteenth century, but anecdotal evidence suggests they improved for Mexico. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that these gains could have come anywhere close to offsetting the financial cost of Spain’s “reconquest” of Mexico.[21]

On the other hand, the few accounts of per capita real income growth in the eighteenth century that exist suggest little more than stagnation, the result of population growth and a rising price level. Admittedly, looking for modern economic growth in Mexico in the eighteenth century is an anachronism, although there is at least anecdotal evidence of technological change in silver mining, especially in the use of gunpowder for blasting and excavating, and of some productivity increase in silver mining. So even though the share of international trade outside of goods such as cochineal and silver was quite small, at the margin, changes in the trade regime were important. There is also some indication that asset income rose and labor income fell, which fueled growing social tensions in New Spain. In the last analysis, the growing fiscal pressure of the Spanish empire came when the standard of living for most people in Mexico—the native and mixed blood population—was stagnating. During periodic subsistence crisis, especially those propagated by drought and epidemic disease, and mostly in the 1780s, living standards fell. Many historians think of late colonial Mexico as something of a powder keg waiting to explode. When it did, in 1810, the explosion was the result of a political crisis at home and a dynastic failure abroad. What New Spain had negotiated during the Wars of Spanish Succession—regime change– provide impossible to surmount during the Napoleonic Wars (1794-1815). This may well be the most sensitive indicator of how economic conditions changed in New Spain under the heavy, not to say clumsy hand, of the Bourbon “reforms.”[22]

 

The War for Independence, the Insurgency, and Their Legacy

The abdication of the Bourbon monarchy to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 produced a series of events that ultimately resulted in the independence of New Spain. The rupture was accompanied by a violent peasant rebellion headed by the clerics Miguel Hidalgo and José Morelos that, one way or another, carried off 10 percent of the population between 1810 and 1820. Internal commerce was largely paralyzed. Silver mining essentially collapsed between 1810 and 1812 and a full recovery of mining output was delayed until the 1840s. The mines located in zones of heavy combat, such as Guanajuato and Querétaro, were abandoned by fleeing workers. Thus neglected, they quickly flooded.

At the same time, the fiscal and human costs of this period, the Insurgency, were even greater.[23] The heavy borrowings in which the Bourbons engaged to finance their military alliances left Mexico with a considerable legacy of internal debt, estimated at £16 million at Independence. The damage to the fiscal, bureaucratic and administrative structure of New Spain in the face of the continuing threat of Spanish reinvasion (Spain did not recognize the Independence of Mexico (1821)) in the 1820s drove the independent governments into foreign borrowing on the London market to the tune of £6.4 million in order to finance continuing heavy military outlays. With a reduced fiscal capacity, in part the legacy of the Insurgency and in part the deliberate effort of Mexican elites to resist any repetition Bourbon-style taxation, Mexico defaulted on its foreign debt in 1827. For the next sixty years, through a serpentine history of moratoria, restructuring and repudiation (1867), it took until 1884 for the government to regain access to international capital markets, at what cost can only be imagined. Private sector borrowing and lending continued, although to what extent is currently unknown. What is clear is that the total (internal plus external) indebtedness of Mexico relative to late colonial GDP was somewhere in the range of 47 to 56 percent.[24]

This was, perhaps, not an insubstantial amount for a country whose mechanisms of public finance were in what could be mildly termed chaotic condition in the 1820s and 1830s as the form, philosophy, and mechanics of government oscillated from federalist to centralist and back into the 1850s.  Leaving aside simple questions of uncertainty, there is the very real matter that the national government—whatever the state of private wealth—lacked the capacity to service debt because national and regional elites denied it the means to do so. This issue would bedevil successive regimes into the late nineteenth century, and, indeed, into the twentieth.[25]

At the same time, the demographic effects of the Insurgency exacted a cost in terms of lost output from the 1810s through the 1840s. Gaping holes in the labor force emerged, especially in the fertile agricultural plains of the Bajío that created further obstacles to the growth of output. It is simply impossible to generalize about the fortunes of the Mexican economy in this period because of the dramatic regional variations in the Republic’s economy. A rough estimate of output per head in the late colonial period was perhaps 40 pesos (dollars).[26] After a sharp contraction in the 1810s, income remained in that neighborhood well into the 1840s, at least until the eve of the war with the United States in 1846. By the time United States troops crossed the Rio Grande, a recovery had been under way, but the war arrested it. Further political turmoil and civil war in the 1850s and 1860s represented setbacks as well. In this way, a half century or so of potential economic growth was sacrificed from the 1810s through the 1870s. This was not an uncommon experience in Latin America in the nineteenth century, and the period has even been called The Stage of the Great Delay.[27] Whatever the exact rate of real per capita income growth was, it is hard to imagine it ever exceeded two percent, if indeed it reached much more than half that.

 

Agricultural Recovery and War

On the other hand, it is clear that there was a recovery in agriculture in the central regions of the country, most notably in the staple maize crop and in wheat. The famines of the late colonial era, especially of 1785-86, when massive numbers perished, were not repeated. There were years of scarcity and periodic corresponding outbreaks of epidemic disease—the cholera epidemic of 1832 affected Mexico as it did so many other places—but by and large, the dramatic human wastage of the colonial period ceased, and the death rate does appear to have begun to fall. Very good series on wheat deliveries and retail sales taxes for the city of Puebla southeast of Mexico City show a similarly strong recovery in the 1830s and early 1840s, punctuated only by the cholera epidemic whose effects were felt everywhere.[28]

Ironically, while the Panic of 1837 appears to have at least hit the financial economy in Mexico hard with a dramatic fall in public borrowing (and private lending), especially in the capital,[29] an incipient recovery of the real economy was ended by war with the United States. It is not possible to put numbers on the cost of the war to Mexico, which lasted intermittently from 1846 to 1848, but the loss of what had been the Southwest under Mexico is most often emphasized. This may or may not be accurate. Certainly, the loss of California, where gold was discovered in January 1848, weighs heavily on the historical imaginations of modern Mexicans. There is also the sense that the indemnity paid by the United States–$15 million—was wholly inadequate, which seems at least understandable when one considers that Andrew Jackson offered $5 million to purchase Texas alone in 1829.

It has been estimated that the agricultural output of the Mexican “cession” as it was called in 1900, was nearly $64 million, and that the value of livestock in the territory was over $100 million. The value of gold and silver produced was about $35 million. Whether it is reasonable to employ the numbers in estimating the present value of output relative to the indemnity paid is at least debatable as a counterfactual, unless one chooses to regard this as the annuitized value on a perpetuity “purchased” from Mexico at gunpoint, which seems more like robbery than exchange.  In the long run, the loss may have been staggering, but in the short run, much less so. The northern territories Mexico lost had really yielded very little up until the War. In fact, the balance of costs and revenues to the Mexican government may well have been negative.[30]

Whatever the case, the decades following the war with the United States until the beginning of the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876) are typically regarded as a step backward. The reasons are several. In 1850, the government essentially went broke. While it is true that its financial position had disintegrated since the mid-1830s, 1850 marked a turning point. The entire indemnity payment from the United States was consumed in debt service, but this made no appreciable dent in the outstanding principal, which hovered around 50 million pesos (dollars).  The limits of debt sustainability had been reached: governing was turned into a wild search for resources, which proved fruitless. Mexico continued to sell of parts of its territory, such as the Treaty of the Mesilla (1853), or Gadsden Purchase, whose proceeds largely ended up in the hands of domestic financiers rather than foreign creditors’.[31] Political divisions, if anything, terrible before the war with the United States, turned catastrophic. A series of internal revolts, uprisings and military pronouncements segued into yet another violent civil war between liberals and conservatives—now a formal party—the so-called Three Years’ War (1856-58). In 1862, frustrated by Mexico’s suspension of foreign debt service, Great Britain, Spain and France seized Veracruz. A Hapsburg prince, Maximilian, was installed as Mexico’s second “emperor.” (Agustín de Iturbide was the first). While only the French actively prosecuted the war within Mexico, and while they never controlled more than a very small part of the country, the disruption was substantial. By 1867, with Maximillian deposed and the French army withdrawn, the country required serious reconstruction. [32]

 

Juárez, Díaz and the Porfiriato: authoritarian development.

To be sure, the origins of authoritarian development in nineteenth century Mexico were not with Porfirio Díaz, as is often asserted. Their beginnings actually went back several decades earlier, to the last presidency of Santa Anna, generally known as the Dictatorship (1853-54). But Santa Anna was overthrown too quickly, and now for the last time, for much to have actually occurred. A ministry for development (Fomento) had been created, but the Liberal revolution of Ayutla swept Santa Anna and his clique away for good. Serious reform seems to have begun around 1870, when the Finance Minister was Matías Romero. Romero was intent on providing Mexico with a modern Treasury, and on ending the hand-to- mouth financing that had mostly characterized the country’s government since Independence, or at least since the mid-1830s. So it is appropriate to pick up with the story here. Where did Mexico stand in 1870?[33]

The most revealing data that we have on the state of economic development come from various anthropometric and cost of living studies by Amilcar Challu, Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, and Moramay López Alonso.[34] Their research overlaps in part, and gives a fascinating picture of Mexico in the long run, from 1735 to 1940. For the moment, let us look at the period leading up to 1867, when the French withdrew from Mexico. If we look at the heights of the “literate” population, Challu’s research suggests that the standard of living stagnated between 1750 and 1840. If we look at the “illiterate” population, there was a consistent decline until 1850. Since the share of the illiterate population was clearly larger, we might infer that living standards for most Mexicans declined after 1750, however we interpret other quantitative and anecdotal evidence.

López Alonso confines her work to the period after the 1840s. From 1850 through 1890, her work generally corroborates Challu’s. The period after the Mexican War was clearly a difficult one for most Mexicans, and the challenge that both Juárez and Díaz faced was a macroeconomy in frank contraction after 1850. The regimes after 1867 were faced with stagnation.

The real wage study of by Amilcar Challu and Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, when combined with the existing anthropometric work, offers a pretty clear correlation between movements in real wages (down) and height (falling). [35]

It would then appear growth from the 1850s through the 1870s was slow—if there was any at all—and perhaps inferior to what had come between the 1820s and the 1840s. Given the growth of import substitution during the Napoleonic Wars, roughly 1790-1810, coupled with the commercial opening brought by the Bourbons’   post-1789 extension of “free trade” to Mexico, we might well see a pattern of mixed performance (1790-1810), sharp contraction (the 1810s), rebound and recovery, with a sharp financial shocks coming in the mid-1820s and mid -1830s (1820s-1840s), and stagnation once more (1850s-1870s). Real per capita output oscillated, sometimes sharply, around an underlying growth rate of perhaps one percent; changes in the distribution of income and wealth are more or less impossible to identify consistently, because studies conflict.

Far less speculative is that the foundations for modern economic growth were laid down in Mexico during the era of Benito Juárez. Its key elements were the creation of a secular, bourgeois state and secular institutions embedded in the Constitution of 1857. The titanic ideological struggles between liberals and conservatives were ultimately resolved in favor of a liberal, but nevertheless centralizing form of government under Porfirio Diáz. This was the beginning of the end of the Ancien Regime. Under Juárez, corporate lands of the Church and native villages were privatized in favor of individual holdings and their former owners compensated in bonds. This was effectively the largest transfer of land title since the late sixteenth century (not including the war with the United States) and it cemented the idea of individual property rights. With the expulsion of the French and the outright repudiation of the French debt, the Treasury was reorganized along more modern lines. The country got additional breathing room by the suspension of debt service to Great Britain until the terms of the 1825 loans were renegotiated under the Dublán Convention (1884). Equally, if not more important, Mexico now entered the railroad age in 1876, nearly forty years after the first tracks were laid in Cuba in 1837. The educational system was expanded in an attempt to create at least a core of literate citizens who could adopt the tools of modern finance and technology. Literacy still remained in the neighborhood of 20 percent, and life expectancy at birth scarcely reached 40 years of age, if that. Yet by the end of the Restored Republic (1876), Mexico had turned a corner. There would be regressions, but the nineteenth century had finally arrived, aptly if brutally signified by Juárez’ execution of Maximilian in Querétaro in 1867.[36]

Porfirian Mexico

Yet when Díaz came to power, Mexico was, in many ways, much as it had been a century earlier. It was a rural, agrarian nation whose primary agricultural output per person was maize, followed by wheat and beans. These were produced on haciendas and ranchos in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Mexico, Puebla as well as Oaxaca, Veracruz, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua and Sonora. Cotton, which with great difficulty had begun to supply a mechanized factory regime (first in spinning, then weaving) was produced in Oaxaca, Yucatán, Guerrero and Chiapas as well as in parts of Durango and Coahuila. Domestic production of raw cotton rarely sufficed to supply factories in Michoacán, Querétaro, Puebla and Veracruz, so imports from the Southern United States were common. For the most part, the indigenous population lived on maize, beans, and chile, producing its own subsistence on small, scattered plots known as milpas. Perhaps 75 percent of the population was rural, with the remainder to be found in cities like Mexico, Guadalajara, San Luis Potosí, and later, Monterrey. Population growth in the Southern and Eastern parts of the country had been relatively slow in the nineteenth century. The North and the center North grew more rapidly.  The Center of the country, less so. Immigration from abroad had been of no consequence.[37]

It is a commonplace to see the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) as a critical juncture in Mexican history, and this would be no less true of economic or commercial history as well. By 1910, when the Díaz government fell and Mexico descended into two decades of revolution, the first one extremely violent, the face of the country had been changed for good. The nature and effect of these changes remain not only controversial, but essential for understanding the subsequent evolution of the country, so we should pause here to consider some of their essential features.

While mining and especially, silver mining, had long held a privileged place in the economy, the nineteenth century had witnessed a number of significant changes. Until about 1889, the coinage of gold, silver, and copper—a very rough proxy for production given how much silver had been illegally exported—continued on a steadily upward track. In 1822, coinage was about 10 million pesos. By 1846, it had reached roughly 15 million pesos. There was something of a structural break after the war with the United States (its origins are unclear), and coinage continued upward to about 25 million pesos in 1888. Then, the falling international price of silver, brought on by large increases in supply elsewhere, drove the trend after 1889 sharply downward. By 1909-10, coinage had collapsed to levels previously unrecorded since the 1820s, although in 1904 and 1905, it had skyrocketed to nearly 45 million pesos.[38]

It comes as no surprise that these variations in production corresponded to sharp changes in international relative prices. For example, the market price of silver declined sharply relative to lead, which in turn encountered a large increase in Mexican production and a diversification into other metals including zinc, antinomy, and copper. Mexico left the silver standard (for international transactions, but continued to use silver domestically) in 1905, which contributed to the eclipse of this one crucial industry, which would never again have the status it had when Díaz became president in 1876, when precious metals represented 75 percent of Mexican exports by value. By the time he had decamped in exile to Paris, precious metals accounted for less than half of all exports.

The reason for this relative decline was the diversification of agricultural exports that had been slowly occurring since the 1870s. Coffee, cotton, sugar, sisal and vanilla were the principal crops, and some regions of the country such as Yucatán (henequen) and Durango and Tamaulipas (cotton) supplied new export crops.

 

Railroads and Infrastructure

None of be of this would have occurred without the massive changes in land tenure that had begun in the 1850s, but most of all, without the construction of railroads financed by the migration of foreign capital to Mexico under Díaz. At one level, it is a well-known story of social savings, which were substantial in Mexico because the terrain was difficult and the alternative modes of carriage few. One way or another, transportation has always been viewed as an “obstacle” to Mexican economic development. That must be true at some level, although recent studies (especially by Sandra Kuntz) have raised important qualifications. Railroads may not have been gateways to foreign dependency, as historians once argued, but there were limits to their ability to effect economic change, even internally. They tended to enlarge the internal market for some commodities more than others. The peculiarities of rate-making produced other distortions, while markets for some commodities were inevitably concentrated in major cities or transshipment points which afforded some monopoly power to distributors even as a national market in basic commodities became more of a reality. Yet, in general, the changes were far reaching.[39]

Conventional figures confirm conventional wisdom. When Díaz assumed the presidency, there were 660 km (410 miles) of track. In 1910, there were 19,280 km (about 12,000 miles). Seven major lines linked the cities of Mexico, Veracruz, Acapulco, Juárez, Laredo, Puebla, Oaxaca. Monterrey and Tampico in 1892. The lines were built by foreign capital (e.g., the Central Mexicano was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe), which is why resolving the long-standing questions of foreign debt service were critical. Large government subsidies on the order of 3,500 to 8,000 pesos per km were granted, and financing the subsidies amounted to over 30 million pesos by 1890. While the railroads were successful in creating more of a national market, especially in the North, their finances were badly affected by the depreciation of the silver peso, given that foreign liabilities had to be liquidated in gold.

As a result, the government nationalized the railroads in 1903. At the same time, it undertook an enormous effort to construct infrastructure such as drainage and ports, virtually all of which were financed by British capital and managed by “Don Porfirio’s contactor,” Sir Weetman Pearson.  Between railroads, ports, drainage works and irrigation facilities, the Mexican government borrowed 157 million pesos to finance costs.[40]

The expansion of the railroads, the build-out of infrastructure and the expansion of trade would have normally increased output per capita. Any data we have prior to 1930 are problematic, and before 1895, strictly speaking, we have no official measures of output per capita at all. Most scholars shy away from using levels of GDP in any form, other than for illustrative purposes.  Aside from the usual problems attending national income accounting, Mexico presents a few exceptional challenges. In peasant families, where women were entrusted with converting maize into tortilla, no small job, the omission of their value added from GDP must constitute a sizeable defect in measured output. Moreover, as the commercial radius of Mexican agriculture expanded rapidly as railroads, roads, and later, highways spread extensively, growth rates represented increased commercialization rather than increased growth. We have no idea how important this phenomenon was, but it is worth keeping in mind when we look at very rapid growth rates after 1940.

There are various measures of cumulative growth during the Porfiriato. By and large, the figure from 1900 through 1910 is around 23 percent, which is certainly higher than rates achieved during the nineteenth century, but nothing like what was recorded after 1940. In light of declining real wages, one can only assume that the bulk of “progress” flowed to the recipients of property income. This may well have represented a reversal of trends in the nineteenth century, when some argue that property income contracted in the wake of the Insurgency[41].

There was also significant industrialization in Mexico during the Porfiriato. Some industry, especially textiles, had its origins in the 1840s, but its size, scale and location altered dramatically by the end of the nineteenth century. For example, the cotton textile industry saw the number of workers, spindles and looms more than double from the late 1870s to the first decade of the nineteenth century. Brewing and its associated industry, glassmaking, became well established in Monterrey during the 1890s. The country’s first iron and steel mill, Fundidora Monterrey, was established there as well in 1903. Other industries, such as papermaking and cigarettes followed suit. By the end of the Porfiriato, over 10 percent of Mexico’s output was certainly industrial.[42]

 

From Revolution to “Miracle”

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) began as a political upheaval provoked by a crisis in the presidential succession when Porfirio Díaz refused to leave office in the wake of electoral defeat after signaling his willingness to do so in a famous pubic interview of 1908.[43] It was also the result of an agrarian uprising and the insistent demand of Mexico’s growing industrial proletariat for a share of political power. Finally, there was a small (fewer than 10 percent of all households) but upwardly mobile urban middle class created by economic development under Díaz whose access to political power had been effectively blocked by the regime’s mechanics of political control. Precisely how “revolutionary” were the results of the armed revolt—which persisted largely through the 1910s and peaked in a civil war in 1914-1915—has long been contentious, but is only tangentially relevant as a matter of economic history. The Mexican Revolution was no Bolshevik movement (of course, it predated Bolshevism by seven years) but it was not a purely bourgeois constitutional movement either, although it did contain substantial elements of both.

From a macroeconomic standpoint, it has become fashionable to argue that the Revolution had few, if any, profound economic consequences. It seems as if the principal reason was that revolutionary factions were interested in appropriating rather than destroying the means of production. For example, the production of crude oil peaked in Mexico in 1915—at the height of the Revolution—because crude oil could be used as a source of income to the group controlling the wells in Veracruz state. This was a powerful consideration.[44]

Yet in another sense, the conclusion that the Revolution had slight economic effects is not only facile, but obviously wrong. As the demographic historian Robert McCaa showed, the excess mortality occasioned by the Revolution was larger than any similar event in Mexican history other than the conquest in the sixteenth century. There has been no attempt made to measure the output lost by the demographic wastage (including births that never occurred), yet even the effect on the population cohort born between 1910 and 1920 is plain to see in later demographic studies.  [45]

There is also a subtler question that some scholars have raised. The Revolution increased labor mobility and the labor supply by abolishing constraints on the rural population such as debt peonage and even outright slavery. Moreover, the Revolution, by encouraging and ultimately setting into motion a massive redistribution of previously privatized land, contributed to an enlarged supply of that factor of production as well. The true impact of these developments was realized in the 1940s and 1950s, when rapid economic growth began, the so-called Mexican Miracle, which was characterized by rates of real growth of as much as 6 percent per year (1955-1966). Whatever the connection between the Revolution and the Miracle, it will require a serious examination on empirical grounds and not simply a dogmatic dismissal of what is now regarded as unfashionable development thinking: import substitution and inward-oriented growth.[46]

The other major consequence of the Revolution, the agrarian reform and the creation of the ejido, or land granted by the Mexican state to rural population under the authority provided it by the revolutionary Constitution on 1917 took considerable time to coalesce, and were arguably not even high on one of the Revolution’s principal instigators, Francisco Madero’s, list of priorities. The redistribution of land to the peasantry in the form of possession if not ownership – a kind of return to real or fictitious preconquest and colonial forms of land tenure – did peak during the avowedly reformist, and even modestly radical presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) after making only halting progress under his predecessors since the 1920s. From 1940 to 1965, the cultivated area in Mexico grew at 3.7 percent per year and the rise in productivity in basic food crops was 2.8 percent per year.

Nevertheless, the long-run effects of the agrarian reform and land redistribution have been predictably controversial. Under the presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) the reform was officially declared over, with no further land redistribution to be undertaken and the legal status of the ejido definitively changed. The principal criticism of the ejido was that, in the long run, it encouraged inefficiently small landholding per farmer and, by virtue of its limitations on property rights, made agricultural credit difficult for peasants to obtain.[47]

There is no doubt these are justifiable criticisms, but they have to be placed in context. Cárdenas’ predecessors in office, Alvaro Obregón (1924-1928) and Plutarco Elías Calles (1928-1932) may well have preferred a more commercial model of agriculture with larger, irrigated holdings. But it is worth recalling that one of the original agrarian leaders of the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, had an uneasy relationship with Madero, who saw the Revolution in mostly political terms, from the start and quickly rejected Madero’s leadership in favor of restoring peasant lands in his native state of Morelos.  Cárdenas, who was in the midst of several major maneuvers that would require widespread popular support—such as the expropriation of foreign oil companies operating in Mexico in March 1938—was undoubtedly sensitive to the need to mobilize the peasantry on his behalf. The agrarian reform of his presidency, which surpassed that of any other, needs to be considered in those terms as well as in terms of economic efficiency.[48]

Cárdenas’ presidency also coincided with the continuation of the Great Depression. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexico was hard hit by the Great Depression, at least through the early 1930s.  All sorts of consumer goods became scarcer, and the depreciation of the peso raised the relative price of imports. As had happened previously in Mexican history (1790-1810, during the Napoleonic Wars and the disruption of the Atlantic trade), in the medium term domestic industry was nevertheless given a stimulus and import substitution, the subsequent core of Mexico’s industrialization program after World War II, was given a decisive boost. On the other hand, Mexico also experienced the forced “repatriation” of people of Mexican descent, mostly from California, of whom 60 percent were United States citizens. The effects of this movement—the emigration of the Revolution in reverse—has never been properly analyzed. The general consensus is that World War II helped Mexico to prosper. Demand for labor and materials from the United States, to which Mexico was allied, raised real wages and incomes, and thus boosted aggregate demand. From 1939 through 1946, real output in Mexico grew by approximately 50 percent. The growth in population accelerated as well as the country began to move into the later stages of the demographic transition, with a falling death rate, while birth rates remained high.[49]

 

From Miracle to Meltdown: 1950-1982  

The history of import substitution manufacturing did not begin with postwar Mexico, but few countries (especially in Latin America) became as identified with the policy in the 1950s, and with what Mexicans termed the emergence of “stabilizing development.” There was never anything resembling a formal policy announcement, although Raúl Prebisch’s 1949 manifesto, “The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems” might be regarded as supplying one. Prebisch’s argument, that a directed change in the composition of imports toward capital goods to facilitate domestic industrialization was, in essence, the basis of the policy that Mexico followed. Mexico stabilized the nominal exchange rate at 12.5 pesos to the dollar in 1954, but further movement in the real exchange rate (until the 1970s) were unimportant. The substantive bias of import substitution in Mexico was a high effective rate of protection to both capital and consumer goods. Jaime Ros has calculated these rates in 1960 ranged between 47 and 85 percent, and between 33 and 109 percent in 1980. The result, in the short to intermediate run, was very rapid rates of economic growth, averaging 6.5 percent in 1950 through 1973. Other than Brazil, which also followed an import substitution regime, no country in Latin America experienced higher rates of growth. Mexico’s was substantially above the regional average. [50]

[See the historical graph of population growth in Mexico through 2000 below]

page39

Source: Essentially, Estadísticas Históricas de México (various editions since 1999; the most recent is 2014)

http://dgcnesyp.inegi.org.mx/ehm/ehm.htm (Accessed July 20, 2016)

 

But there were unexpected results as well. The contribution of labor to GDP growth was 14 percent. Capital’s contribution was 53 percent, and the remainder, total factor productivity (TFP) 28 percent.[51] As a consequence, while Mexico’s growth occurred through the accumulation of capital, the distribution of income became extremely skewed. The ratio of the top 10 percent of household income to the bottom 40 percent was 7 in 1960, and 6 in 1968. Even supporters of Mexico’s development program, such as Carlos Tello, conceded that it probable that it was the organized peasants and workers experienced an effective improvement of their relative position. The fruits of the Revolution were unevenly distributed, even among the working class.[52]

By “organized” one means such groups as the most important labor union in the country, the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers) or the nationally recognized peasant union, the CNC, both of which formed two of the three organized sectors of the official government party, the PRI, or Party of the Institutional Revolution that was organized in 1946. The CTM in particular was instrumental in supporting the official policy of import substitution, and thus benefited from government wage setting and political support. The leaders of these organizations became important political figures in their own right. One, Fidel Velázquez, as both a federal senator and the head of the CTM from 1941 to his death in 1997. The incorporation of these labor and peasant groups into the political system offered the government both a means of control and a guarantee of electoral support. They became pillars of what the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously called “the perfect dictatorship” of the PRI from 1946 to 2000, during which the PRI held a monopoly of the presidency and the important offices of state. In a sense, import substitution was the economic ideology of the PRI.[53]

Labor and economic development during the years of rapid growth is, like many others, a debated subject. While some have found strong wage growth, others, looking mostly at Mexico City, have found declining real wages. Beyond that, there is the question of informality and a segmented labor market. Were workers in the CTM the real beneficiaries of economic growth, while others in the informal sector (defined as receiving no social security payments, meaning roughly two-thirds of Mexican workers) did far less well? Obviously, the attraction of a segmented labor market model can address one obvious puzzle: why would industry substitute capital for labor, as it obviously did, if real wages were not rising? Postulating an informal sector that absorbed the rapid influx of rural migrants and thus held nominal wages steady while organized labor in the CTM got the benefit of higher negotiated wages, but in so doing, limited their employment is an attractive hypothesis, but would not command universal agreement. Nothing has been resolved, at least for the period of the “Miracle.” After Mexico entered a prolonged series of economic crises in the 1980s—here labelled as “meltdown”—the discussion must change, because many hold that the key to relative political stability and the failure of open unemployment to rise sharply can be explained by falling real wages.

The fiscal basis on which the years of the Miracle were constructed was conventional, not to say conservative.[54] A stable nominal exchange rate, balanced budgets, limited public borrowing, and a predictable monetary policy were all predicated on the notion that the private sector would react positively to favorable incentives. By and large, it did. Until the late 1960s, foreign borrowing was considered inconsequential, even if there was some concern on the horizon that it was starting to rise. No one foresaw serious macroeconomic instability. It is worth consulting a brief memorandum from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to President Lyndon Johnson (Washington, December 11, 1968) –to get some insight into how informed contemporaries viewed Mexico. The instability that existed was seen as a consequence of heavy-handedness on the part of the PRI and overreaction in the security forces. Informed observers did not view Mexico’s embrace of import-substitution industrialization as a train wreck waiting to happen. Historical actors are rarely so prescient.[55]

 

Slowing of the Miracle and Echeverría

The most obvious problems in Mexico were political. They stemmed from the increasing awareness that the limits of the “institutional revolution” had been reached, particularly regarding the growing democratic demands of the urban middle classes. The economic problem, which was far from obvious, was that import substitution had concentrated income in the upper 10 per cent of the population, so that domestic demand had begun to stagnate. Initially at least, public sector borrowing could support a variety of consumption subsidies to the population, and there were also efforts to transfer resources out of agriculture via domestic prices for staples such as maize. Yet Mexico’s population was also growing at the rate of nearly 3 percent per year, so that the long term prospects for any of these measures were cloudy.

At the same time, growing political pressures on the PRI, mostly dramatically manifest in the army’s violent repression of student demonstrators at Tlatelolco in 1968 just prior to the Olympics, had convinced some elements in the PRI, people like Carlos Madrazo, to argue for more radical change. The emergence of an incipient guerilla movement in the state of Guerrero had much the same effect. The new president, Luis Echeverría (1970-76), openly pushed for changes in the distribution of income and wealth, incited agrarian discontent for political purposes, dramatically increased government spending and borrowing, and alienated what had typically been a complaisant, if not especially friendly private sector.

The country’s macroeconomic performance began to deteriorate dramatically. Inflation, normally in the range of about 5 percent, rose into the low 20 percent range in the early 1970s. The public sector deficit, fueled by increasing social spending, rose from 2 to 7 percent of GDP. Money supply growth now averaged about 14 percent per year. Real GDP growth had begun to slip after 1968 and in the early 1970s, in deteriorated more, if unevenly. There had been clear convergence of regional economies in Mexico between 1930 and 1980 because of changing patterns of industrialization in the northern and central regions of the country.  After 1980, that process stalled and regional inequality again widened. [56]

While there is a tendency to blame Luis Echeverria for all or most of these developments, this forgets that his administration coincided with the First OPEC oil shock (1973) and rapidly deteriorating external conditions. Mexico had, as yet, not discovered the oil reserves (1978) that were to provide a temporary respite from economic adjustment after the shock of the peso devaluation of 1976—the first change in its value in over 20 years. At the same time, external demand fell, principally transmitted from the United States, Mexico’s largest trading partner, where the economy had fallen into recession in late 1973. Yet it seems reasonable to conclude that the difficult international environment, while important in bring Mexico’s “miracle” period to a close, was not helped by Echeverría’s propensity for demagoguery, of the loss of fiscal discipline that had long characterized government policy, at least since the 1950s. The only question to be resolved was to what sort of conclusion the period would come. The answer, unfortunately, was disastrous.[57]

 

Meltdown: The Debt Crisis, the Lost Decade and After

In contemporary parlance, Mexico had passed from “stabilizing” to “shared” development under Echeverría. But the devaluation of 1976 from 12.5 to 20.5 pesos to the dollar suggested that something had gone awry. One might suppose that some adjustment in course, especially in public spending and borrowing, would have occurred. But precisely the opposite occurred. Between 1976 and 1979, nominal federal spending doubled. The budget deficit increased by a factor of 15. The reason for this odd performance was the discovery of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps unsurprising in light of the spiking prices of the 1970s (the oil shocks of 1973-74, 1978-79), but nevertheless of considerable magnitude. In 1975, Mexico’s proven reserves were 6 billion barrels of oil. By 1978, they had increased to 40 billion. President López Portillo set himself to the task of “administering abundance” and Mexican analysts confidently predicted crude oil at $100 a barrel (when it stood at $37 in current prices in 1980). The scope of the miscalculation was catastrophic. At the same time, encouraged by bank loan pushing and effectively negative real rates of interest, Mexico borrowed abroad. Consumption subsidies, while vital in the face of slowing import substitution, were also costly, and when supported by foreign borrowing, unsustainable, but foreign indebtedness doubled between 1976 and 1979, and even further thereafter.

Matters came to a head in 1982. By then, Mexico’s foreign indebtedness was estimated at over $80 billion dollars, an increase from less than $20 billion in 1975. Real interest rates had begun to rise in the United States in mid-1981, and with Mexican borrowing tied to international rates, debt service rapidly increased. Oil revenue, which had come to constitute the great bulk of foreign exchange, followed international crude prices downward, driven in large part by a recession that had begun in the United States in mid-1981. Within six months, Mexico, too, had fallen into recession. Real per capital output was to decline by 8 percent in 1982.  Forced to sharply devalue, the real exchange rate fell by 50 percent in 1982 and inflation approached 100 percent. By the late summer, Finance Minister Jesus Silva Herzog admitted that the country could not meet an upcoming payment obligation, and was forced to turn to the US Federal Reserve, to the IMF, and to a committee of bank creditors for assistance. In late August, in a remarkable display of intemperance, President López Portillo nationalized the banking system. By December 20, 1982, Mexico’s incoming President, Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88) appeared, beleaguered, on the cover of Time Magazine framed by the caption, “We are in an Emergency.”  It was, as the saying goes, a perfect storm, and with it, the Debt Crisis and the “Lost Decade” in Mexico had begun. It would be years before anything resembling stability, let alone prosperity, was restored. Even then, what growth there was a pale imitation of what had occurred during the decades of the “Miracle.”

 

The 1980s

The 1980s were a difficult decade.[58]  After 1981, annual real per capita growth would not reach 4 percent again until 1989, and in 1986, it fell by 6 percent. In 1987, inflation reached 159 percent. The nominal exchange rate fell by 139 percent in 1986-1987. By the standards of the years of stabilizing development, the record of the 1980s was disastrous. To complete the devastation, on September 19, 1985, the worst earthquake in Mexican history, 7.8 on the Richter Scale, devastated large parts of central Mexico City and killed 5 thousand (some estimates run as high as 25 thousand), many of whom were simply buried in mass graves. It was as if a plague of biblical proportions had struck the country.

Massive indebtedness produced a dramatic decline in the standard of living as structural adjustment occurred. Servicing the debt required the production of an export surplus in non-oil exports, which in turn, required a reduction in domestic consumption. In an effort to surmount the crisis, the government implemented an agreement between organized labor, the private sector, and agricultural producers called the Economic Solidarity Pact (PSE). The PSE combined an incomes policy with fiscal austerity, trade and financial liberalization, generally tight monetary policy, and debt renegotiation and reduction. The centerpiece of the “remaking” of the previously inward orientation of the domestic economy was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1993) linking Mexico, the United States, and Canada. While average tariff rates in Mexico had fallen from 34 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 1992—even before NAFTA was signed—the agreement was generally seen as creating the institutional and legal framework whereby the reforms of Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) would be preserved. Most economists thought its effects would be relatively larger in Mexico than in the United States, which generally appears to have been the case. Nevertheless, NAFTA has been predictably controversial, as trade agreements are wont to be. The political furor (and, in some places, euphoria) surrounding the agreement have faded, but never entirely disappeared. In the United States in particular, NAFTA is blamed for deindustrialization, although pressure on manufacturing, like trade liberalization itself, was underway long before NAFTA was negotiated. In Mexico, there has been much hand wringing over the fate of agriculture and small maize producers in particular. While none of this is likely to cease, it is nevertheless the case that there has been a large increase in the volume of trade between the NAFTA partners. To dismiss this is, quite plainly, misguided, even where sensitive and well organized political constituencies are concerned. But the legacy of NAFTA, like most everything in Mexican economic history, remains unsettled.  As a result, the agreement was subject to a controversial renegotiation in 2018, largely fueled by protectionist sentiment in the Trump administration. While the intent was to increase costs in the Mexican automobile industry so as to price labor in the United Stats back into the industry, the long
term effect of the measure—not to say its ratification—remains to be seen.

 

Post Crisis: No Miracles

Still, while some prosperity was restored to Mexico by the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the general macroeconomic results have been disappointing, not to say mediocre. The average real compensation per person in manufacturing in 2008 was virtually unchanged from 1993 according to the Instituto Nacional De Estadística  Geografía e Informática, and there is little reason to think the compensation has improved at all since then. It is generally conceded that per capita GDP growth has probably averaged not much more than 1 percent a year. Real GDP growth since NAFTA according to the OECD has rarely reached 5 percent and since 2010, it has been well below that.

 

 

Source: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/mexico (Accessed July 21, 2016). The vertical scale cuts the horizontal axis at 1982

 

For virtually everyone in Mexico, the question is why, and the answers proposed include virtually any plausible factor: the breakdown of the political system after the PRI’s historic loss of presidential power in 2000; the rise of China as a competitor to Mexico in international markets; the explosive spread of narcoviolence in recent years, albeit concentrated in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Veracruz; the results of NAFTA itself; the failure of the political system to undertake further structural economic reforms and privatizations after the initial changes of the 1980s, especially regarding the national oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX); the failure of the border industrialization program (maquiladoras) to develop substantive backward linkages to the rest of the economy. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the candidates for poor economic performance. The choice of a cause tends to reflect the ideology of the critic.[59]

Yet it seems that, at the end of the day, the reason why post-NAFTA Mexico has failed to grow comes down to something much more fundamental: a fear of growing, embedded in the belief that the collapse of the 1980s and early 1990s (including the devastating “Tequila Crisis” of 1994-1995, which resulted in a another enormous devaluation of the peso after an initial attempt to contain the crisis was bungled)  was so traumatic and costly as to render event modest efforts to promote growth, let alone the dirigisme of times past, as essentially unwarranted. The central bank, the Banco de México (Banxico) rules out the promotion of economic growth as part of its remit—even as a theoretical proposition, let alone as a goal of macroeconomic policy– and concerns itself only with price stability. The language of its formulation is striking. “During the 1970s, there was a debate as to whether it was possible to stimulate economic growth via monetary policy.  As a result, some governments and central banks tried to reduce unemployment through expansive monetary policy.  Both economic theory and the experience of economies that tried this prescription demonstrated that it lacked validity. Thus, it became clear that monetary policy could not actively and directly stimulate economic activity and employment. For that reason, modern central banks have as their primary goal the promotion of price stability” (translation mine). Banxico is not the Fed: there is no dual mandate in Mexico.[60]  This may well change during the new presidential administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known colloquially in Mexico as AMLO).

The Mexican banking system has scarcely made things easier. Private credit stands at only about a third of GDP. In recent years, the increase in private sector savings has been largely channeled to government bonds, but until quite recently, public sector deficits were very small, which is to say, fiscal policy has not been expansionary. If monetary and fiscal policy are both relatively tight, if private credit is not easy to come by, and if growth is typically presumed to be an inevitable concomitant to economic stability for which no actor (other than the private sector) is deemed responsible, it should come as no surprise that economic growth over the past two decades has been lackluster.  In the long run, aggregate supply determines real GDP, but in the short run, nominal demand matters: there is no point in creating productive capacity to satisfy demand that does not exist. And, unlike during the period of the Miracle and Stabilizing Development, attention to demand since 1982 has been limited, not to say off the table completely. It may be understandable, but Mexico’s fiscal and monetary authorities seem to suffer from what could be termed, “Fear of Growth.” For better or worse, the results are now on display. After its current (2016) return to a relatively austere budget, it remains to be seen how the economic and political system in contemporary Mexico handles slow economic growth.

The response of the Mexican public to a generation of stagnation in living standards, as well as to rising insecurity and the perception of widespread public corruption, was the victory of AMLO in the presidential election of July 2018.

AMLO had previously run for President with a different party. After two unsuccessful attempts, he started a new one, called MORENA. He then proceeded to win 53 percent of the vote, virtually obliterating the opposition parties, the incumbent PRI, and the PAN. MORENA also won majorities in both houses of Congress. To most observers, this signified that AMLO would be a potentially strong president, assuming his congressional party remained loyal to him. His somewhat checkered “leftist” past guaranteed that not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of a strong AMLO presidency.

Expectations for AMLO’s presidency are thus high, perhaps unrealistically so. While his initial budget has been generally well received by the financial markets, there is little question as to where AMLO’s priorities lie. He has advocated increases in spending on infrastructure, has moved to restore the real minimum wage to its level in 1994, and pledged to revitalize domestic agriculture. Whether these and a number of other reforms that AMLO has somewhat paradoxically labelled “Republican Austerity” will restore the country to its pre-1982 growth path now constitutes one of the most watched economic experiments in Latin America. [61]

[1] I am grateful to Ivan Escamilla and Robert Whaples for their careful readings and thoughtful criticisms.

[2] The standard reference work is Sandra Kuntz Ficker, (ed), Historia económica general de México. De la Colonia a nuestros días (México, DF: El Colegio de Mexico, 2010).

[3] Oscar Martinez, Troublesome Border (rev. ed., University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ, 2006) is the most helpful general account in English.

[4] There are literally dozens of general accounts of the pre-conquest world. A good starting point is Richard E.W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica (3d ed., University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK, 2005). More advanced is Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. Macleod, The Cambridge History of the Mesoamerican Peoples: Mesoamerica. (2 parts, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[5] Nora C. England and Roberto Zavala Maldonado, “Mesoamerican Languages” Oxford Bibliographies http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199772810/obo-9780199772810-0080.xml

(Accessed July 10, 2016)

[6] For an introduction to the nearly endless controversy over the pre- and post-contact population of the Americas, see William M. Denevan (ed.), The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (2d rev ed., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

[7] Sherburne F Cook and Woodrow Borah, Essays in Population History: Mexico and California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979), p. 159.

[8]Gene C. Wilken, Good Farmers Traditional Agricultural Resource Management in Mexico and Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 24.

[9] Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Aztec Medicine Health and Nutrition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

[10] Bernardo García Martínez, “Encomenderos españoles y British residents: El sistema de dominio indirecto desde la perspectiva novohispana”, in Historia Mexicana, LX: 4 [140] (abr-jun 2011), pp. 1915-1978.

[11] These epidemics are extensively and exceedingly well documented. One of the most recent examinations is Rodofo Acuna-Soto, David W. Stahle, Matthew D. Therrell , Richard D. Griffin,  and Malcolm K. Cleaveland, “When Half of the Population Died: The Epidemic of Hemorrhagic Fevers of 1576 in Mexico,” FEMS Microbiology Letters 240 (2004) 1–5. (http:// femsle.oxfordjournals.org/content/femsle/240/1/1.full.pdf, accessed July 10, 2016.) See in particular the exceptional map and table on pp. 2-3.

[12] See in particular, Bernardo García Martínez. Los pueblos de la Sierrael poder y el espacio entre los indios del norte de Puebla hasta 1700 (Mexico, DF: El Colegio de México, 1987) and Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[13] J. H. Elliott, “A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past & Present 137 (The Cultural and Political Construction of Europe): 48–71; Guadalupe Jiménez Codinach, “De Alta Lealtad: Ignacio Allende y los sucesos de 1808-1811,” in Marta Terán and José Antonio Serrano Ortega, eds., Las guerras de independencia en la América Española (La Piedad, Michoacán, MX: El Colegio de Michoacán, 2002), p. 68.

[14] Richard Salvucci, “Capitalism and Dependency in Latin America,” in Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds., The Cambridge History of Capitalism (2 vols.), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1: pp. 403-408.

[15] Source: TePaske Page, http://www.insidemydesk.com/hdd.html (Accessed July 19, 2016)

[16]  Edith Boorstein Couturier, The Silver King: The Remarkable Life of the Count of Regla in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003).  Dana Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 43. The standard work on the subject is David Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971) But also see Robert Haskett, “Our Suffering with the Taxco Tribute: Involuntary Mine Labor and Indigenous Society in Central New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 71:3 (1991), pp. 447-475. For silver in China see http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/chinawh/web/s5/s5_4.html (accessed July 13, 2016). For the rents of empire question, see Michael Costeloe, Response to Revolution: Imperial Spain and the Spanish American Revolutions, 1810-1840 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[17] This is an estimate. David Ringrose concluded that in the 1780s, the colonies accounted for 45 percent of Crown income, and one would suppose that Mexico would account for at least about half of that. See David R. Ringrose, Spain, Europe and the ‘Spanish Miracle’, 1700-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 93; Mauricio Drelichman, “The Curse of Moctezuma: American Silver and the Dutch Disease,” Explorations in Economic History 42:3 (2005), pp. 349-380.

[18] José Antonio Escudero, El supuesto memorial del Conde de Aranda sobre la Independencia de América) México, DF: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2014) (http://bibliohistorico.juridicas.unam.mx/libros/libro.htm?l=3637, accessed July 13, 2016)

[19] Allan J. Kuethe and Kenneth J. Andrien, The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century. War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713-1796 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) is the most recent account of this period.

[20] Richard J. Salvucci, “Economic Growth and Change in Bourbon Mexico: A Review Essay,” The Americas, 51:2 (1994), pp. 219-231; William B Taylor, Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth Century Mexico (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 24; Luis Jáuregui, La Real Hacienda de Nueva España. Su Administración en la Época de los Intendentes, 1786-1821 (México, DF: UNAM, 1999), p. 157.

[21] Jeremy Baskes, Staying AfloatRisk and Uncertainty in Spanish Atlantic World Trade, 1760-1820 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Xabier Lamikiz, Trade and Trust in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World: Spanish Merchants and their Overseas Networks (Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press., 2013). The starting point of all these studies is Clarence Haring, Trade and Navigation between Spain and the Indies in the Time of the Hapsburgs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918).

[22] The best, and indeed, virtually unique starting point for considering these changes in their broadest dimensions   are the joint works of Stanley and Barbara Stein: Silver, Trade, and War (2003); Apogee of Empire (2004), and Edge of Crisis (2010), All were published by Johns Hopkins University Press and do for the Spanish Empire what Laurence Henry Gipson did for the First British Empire.

[23] The key work is María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, Minería y Guerra. La economía de Nueva España, 1810-1821 (México, DF: UNAM, 1997)

[24] Calculated from José María Luis Mora, Crédito Público ([1837] México, DF: Miguel Angel Porrúa, 1986), pp. 413-460. Also see Richard J. Salvucci, Politics, Markets, and Mexico’s “London Debt,” 1823-1887 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[25] Jesús Hernández Jaimes, La Formación de la Hacienda Pública Mexicana y las Tensiones Centro -Periferia, 1821-1835  (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2013). Javier Torres Medina, Centralismo y Reorganización. La Hacienda Pública Durante la Primera República Central de México, 1835-1842 (México, DF: Instituto Mora, 2013). The only treatment in English is Michael P. Costeloe, The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[26] An agricultural worker who worked full time, 6 days a week, for the entire year (a strong assumption), in Central Mexico could have expected cash income of perhaps 24 pesos. If food, such as beans and tortilla were added, the whole pay might reach 30. The figure of 40 pesos comes from considerably richer agricultural lands around the city of Querétaro, and includes as an average income from nonagricultural employment as well, which was higher.  Measuring Worth would put the relative historic standard of living value in 2010 prices at $1.040, with the caveat that this is relative to a bundle of goods purchased in the United States. (https://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/relativevalue.php).

[27]The phrase comes from Guido di Tella and Manuel Zymelman. See Colin Lewis, “Explaining Economic Decline: A review of recent debates in the economic and social history literature on the Argentine,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 64 (1998), pp. 49-68.

[28] Francisco Téllez Guerrero, De reales y granos. Las finanzas y el abasto de la Puebla de los Angeles, 1820-1840 (Puebla, MX: CIHS, 1986). Pp. 47-79.

[29]This is based on an analysis of government lending contracts. See Rosa María Meyer and Richard Salvucci, “The Panic of 1837 in Mexico: Evidence from Government Contracts” (in progress).

[30] There is an interesting summary of this data in U.S Govt., 57th Cong., 1 st sess., House, Monthly Summary of Commerce and Finance of the United States (September 1901) (Washington, DC: GPO, 1901), pp. 984-986.

[31] Salvucci, Politics and Markets, pp. 201-221.

[32] Miguel Galindo y Galindo, La Gran Década Nacional o Relación Histórica de la Guerra de Reforma, Intervención Extranjera, y gobierno del archiduque Maximiliano, 1857-1867 ([1902], 3 vols., México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987).

[33] Carmen Vázquez Mantecón, Santa Anna y la encrucijada del Estado. La dictadura, 1853-1855 (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986).

[34] Moramay López-Alonso, Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012);  Amilcar Challú and Auroro Gómez Galvarriato, “Mexico’s Real Wages in the Age of the Great Divergence, 1730-1930,” Revista de Historia Económica 33:1 (2015), pp. 123-152; Amílcar E. Challú, “The Great Decline: Biological Well-Being and Living Standards in Mexico, 1730-1840,” in Ricardo Salvatore, John H. Coatsworth, and Amilcar E. Challú, Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 23-67.

[35]See Challú and Gómez Galvarriato, “Real Wages,” Figure 5, p. 101.

[36] Luis González et al, La economía mexicana durante la época de Juárez (México, DF: 1976).

[37] Teresa Rojas Rabiela and Ignacio Gutiérrez Ruvalcaba, Cien ventanas a los países de antaño: fotografías del campo mexicano de hace un siglo) (México, DF: CONACYT, 2013), pp. 18-65.

[38] Alma Parra, “La Plata en la Estructura Económica Mexicana al Inicio del Siglo XX,” El Mercado de Valores 49:11 (1999), p. 14.

[39] Sandra Kuntz Ficker, Empresa Extranjera y Mercado Interno: El Ferrocarril Central Mexicano (1880-1907) (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 1995).

[40] Priscilla Connolly, El Contratista de Don Porfirio. Obras públicas, deuda y desarrollo desigual (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997).

[41] Most notably John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750-1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986). p. 229. My growth figures are based on the INEGI, Estadísticas Historicas de México, 2014) (http://dgcnesyp.inegi.org.mx/cgi-win/ehm2014.exe/CI080010, Accessed July 15, 2016).

[42] Stephen H. Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890-1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989); Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, Industry and Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[43] There are literally dozens of accounts of the Revolution. The usual starting point, in English, is Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution (reprint ed., 2 vols., Lincoln, NE: 1990).

[44] This argument has been made most insistently in Armando Razo and Stephen Haber, “The Rate of Growth of Productivity in Mexico, 1850-1933: Evidence from the Cotton Textile Industry,” Journal of Latin American Studies 30:3 (1998), pp. 481-517.

[45]Robert McCaa, “Missing Millions: The Demographic Cost of the Mexican revolution,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 19:2 (Summer 2003): 367-400; Virgilio Partida-Bush, “Demographic Transition, Demographic Bonus, and Ageing in Mexico, “ Proceedings of the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Social and Economic Implications of Changing Population Age Structures. (http://www.un.org/esa/population/meetings/Proceedings_EGM_Mex_2005/partida.pdf) (Accessed July 15, 2016), pp. 287-290.

[46] An implication of the studies of Alan Knight, and of Clark Reynolds, The Mexican Economy: Twentieth Century Structure and Growth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971).

[47] An interesting summary of revisionist thinking on the nature and history of the ejido appears in Emilio Kuri, “La invención del ejido, Nexos, January 2015.

[48]Alan Knight, “Cardenismo: Juggernaut or Jalopy?” Journal of Latin American Studies, 26:1 (1994), pp. 73-107.

[49] Stephen Haber, “The Political Economy of Industrialization,” in Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortes-Conde, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (2 vols., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2:  537-584.

[50]Again, there are dozens of studies of the Mexican economy in this period. Ros’ figures come from “Mexico’s Trade and Industrialization Experience Since 1960: A Reconsideration of Past Policies and Assessment of Current Reforms,” Kellogg Institute (Working Paper 186, January 1993). For a more general study, see Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Jaime Ros, Development and Growth in the Me3xican Economy. A Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). A recent Spanish language treatment is Enrique Cárdenas Sánchez, El largo curso de la economía mexicana. De 1780 a nuestros días (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2015). A view from a different perspective is Carlos Tello, Estado y desarrollo económico. México 1920-2006 (México, DF, UNAM, 2007).

[51]André A. Hoffman, Long Run Economic Development in Latin America in a Comparative Perspective: Proximate and Ultimate Causes (Santiago, Chile: CEPAL, 2001), p. 19.

[52]Tello, Estado y desarrollo, pp. 501-505.

[53] Mario Vargas Llosa, “Mexico: The Perfect Dictatorship,” New Perspectives Quarterly 8 (1991), pp. 23-24.

[54] Rafael Izquierdo, Política Hacendario del Desarrollo Estabilizador, 1958-1970 (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995. The term stabilizing development was itself termed by Izquierdo as a government minister.

[55]See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968. Mexico and Central America http://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xxxi/36313.htm (Accessed July 15, 2016).

[56] José Aguilar Retureta, “The GDP Per Capita of the Mexican Regions (1895:1930): New Estimates, Revista de Historia Económica, 33: 3 (2015), pp. 387-423.

[57] For a contemporary account with a sense of the immediacy of the end of the Echeverría regime, see “Así se devaluó el peso,” Proceso, November 13, 1976.

[58] The standard account is Stephen Haber, Herbert Klein, Noel Maurer, and Kevin Middlebrook, Mexico since 1980 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). A particularly astute economic account is Nora Lustig, Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy (2d ed., Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1998).  But also Louise E. Walker, Waking from the Dream. Mexico’s Middle Classes After 1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[59] See, for example, Jaime Ros Bosch, Algunas tesis equivocadas sobre el estancamiento económico de México (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2013).

[60] La Banca Central y la Importancia de la Estabilidad Económica  June 16, 2008.  (http://www.banxico.org.mx/politica-monetaria-e-inflacion/material-de-referencia/intermedio/politica-monetaria/%7B3C1A08B1-FD93-0931-44F8-96F5950FC926%7D.pdf, Accessed July 15, 2016.). Also see Brian Winter, “This Man is Brilliant: So Why Doesn’t Mexico’s Economy Grow Faster?” Americas Quarterly (http://americasquarterly.org/content/man-brilliant-so-why-doesnt-mexicos-economy-grow-faster) (Accessed July 21, 2016)

[61]   For AMLO in his own words, see his A New Hope For Mexico: Saying No to Corruption, Violence, and Trump’s Wall. Translated by Natascha Uhlman (New York: O/R Books, 2018).

Citation: Salvucci, Richard . “Mexico: Economic History” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. December 27, 2018. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-mexico/

 

The American Economy during World War II

Christopher J. Tassava

For the United States, World War II and the Great Depression constituted the most important economic event of the twentieth century. The war’s effects were varied and far-reaching. The war decisively ended the depression itself. The federal government emerged from the war as a potent economic actor, able to regulate economic activity and to partially control the economy through spending and consumption. American industry was revitalized by the war, and many sectors were by 1945 either sharply oriented to defense production (for example, aerospace and electronics) or completely dependent on it (atomic energy). The organized labor movement, strengthened by the war beyond even its depression-era height, became a major counterbalance to both the government and private industry. The war’s rapid scientific and technological changes continued and intensified trends begun during the Great Depression and created a permanent expectation of continued innovation on the part of many scientists, engineers, government officials and citizens. Similarly, the substantial increases in personal income and frequently, if not always, in quality of life during the war led many Americans to foresee permanent improvements to their material circumstances, even as others feared a postwar return of the depression. Finally, the war’s global scale severely damaged every major economy in the world except for the United States, which thus enjoyed unprecedented economic and political power after 1945.

The Great Depression

The global conflict which was labeled World War II emerged from the Great Depression, an upheaval which destabilized governments, economies, and entire nations around the world. In Germany, for instance, the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party occurred at least partly because Hitler claimed to be able to transform a weakened Germany into a self-sufficient military and economic power which could control its own destiny in European and world affairs, even as liberal powers like the United States and Great Britain were buffeted by the depression.

In the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt promised, less dramatically, to enact a “New Deal” which would essentially reconstruct American capitalism and governance on a new basis. As it waxed and waned between 1933 and 1940, Roosevelt’s New Deal mitigated some effects of the Great Depression, but did not end the economic crisis. In 1939, when World War II erupted in Europe with Germany’s invasion of Poland, numerous economic indicators suggested that the United States was still deeply mired in the depression. For instance, after 1929 the American gross domestic product declined for four straight years, then slowly and haltingly climbed back to its 1929 level, which was finally exceeded again in 1936. (Watkins, 2002; Johnston and Williamson, 2004)

Unemployment was another measure of the depression’s impact. Between 1929 and 1939, the American unemployment rate averaged 13.3 percent (calculated from “Corrected BLS” figures in Darby, 1976, 8). In the summer of 1940, about 5.3 million Americans were still unemployed — far fewer than the 11.5 million who had been unemployed in 1932 (about thirty percent of the American workforce) but still a significant pool of unused labor and, often, suffering citizens. (Darby, 1976, 7. For somewhat different figures, see Table 3 below.)

In spite of these dismal statistics, the United States was, in other ways, reasonably well prepared for war. The wide array of New Deal programs and agencies which existed in 1939 meant that the federal government was markedly larger and more actively engaged in social and economic activities than it had been in 1929. Moreover, the New Deal had accustomed Americans to a national government which played a prominent role in national affairs and which, at least under Roosevelt’s leadership, often chose to lead, not follow, private enterprise and to use new capacities to plan and administer large-scale endeavors.

Preparedness and Conversion

As war spread throughout Europe and Asia between 1939 and 1941, nowhere was the federal government’s leadership more important than in the realm of “preparedness” — the national project to ready for war by enlarging the military, strengthening certain allies such as Great Britain, and above all converting America’s industrial base to produce armaments and other war materiel rather than civilian goods. “Conversion” was the key issue in American economic life in 1940-1942. In many industries, company executives resisted converting to military production because they did not want to lose consumer market share to competitors who did not convert. Conversion thus became a goal pursued by public officials and labor leaders. In 1940, Walter Reuther, a high-ranking officer in the United Auto Workers labor union, provided impetus for conversion by advocating that the major automakers convert to aircraft production. Though initially rejected by car-company executives and many federal officials, the Reuther Plan effectively called the public’s attention to America’s lagging preparedness for war. Still, the auto companies only fully converted to war production in 1942 and only began substantially contributing to aircraft production in 1943.

Even for contemporary observers, not all industries seemed to be lagging as badly as autos, though. Merchant shipbuilding mobilized early and effectively. The industry was overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission (USMC), a New Deal agency established in 1936 to revive the moribund shipbuilding industry, which had been in a depression since 1921, and to ensure that American shipyards would be capable of meeting wartime demands. With the USMC supporting and funding the establishment and expansion of shipyards around the country, including especially the Gulf and Pacific coasts, merchant shipbuilding took off. The entire industry had produced only 71 ships between 1930 and 1936, but from 1938 to 1940, commission-sponsored shipyards turned out 106 ships, and then almost that many in 1941 alone (Fischer, 41). The industry’s position in the vanguard of American preparedness grew from its strategic import — ever more ships were needed to transport American goods to Great Britain and France, among other American allies — and from the Maritime Commission’s ability to administer the industry through means as varied as construction contracts, shipyard inspectors, and raw goading of contractors by commission officials.

Many of the ships built in Maritime Commission shipyards carried American goods to the European allies as part of the “Lend-Lease” program, which was instituted in 1941 and provided another early indication that the United States could and would shoulder a heavy economic burden. By all accounts, Lend-Lease was crucial to enabling Great Britain and the Soviet Union to fight the Axis, not least before the United States formally entered the war in December 1941. (Though scholars are still assessing the impact of Lend-Lease on these two major allies, it is likely that both countries could have continued to wage war against Germany without American aid, which seems to have served largely to augment the British and Soviet armed forces and to have shortened the time necessary to retake the military offensive against Germany.) Between 1941 and 1945, the U.S. exported about $32.5 billion worth of goods through Lend-Lease, of which $13.8 billion went to Great Britain and $9.5 billion went to the Soviet Union (Milward, 71). The war dictated that aircraft, ships (and ship-repair services), military vehicles, and munitions would always rank among the quantitatively most important Lend-Lease goods, but food was also a major export to Britain (Milward, 72).

Pearl Harbor was an enormous spur to conversion. The formal declarations of war by the United States on Japan and Germany made plain, once and for all, that the American economy would now need to be transformed into what President Roosevelt had called “the Arsenal of Democracy” a full year before, in December 1940. From the perspective of federal officials in Washington, the first step toward wartime mobilization was the establishment of an effective administrative bureaucracy.

War Administration

From the beginning of preparedness in 1939 through the peak of war production in 1944, American leaders recognized that the stakes were too high to permit the war economy to grow in an unfettered, laissez-faire manner. American manufacturers, for instance, could not be trusted to stop producing consumer goods and to start producing materiel for the war effort. To organize the growing economy and to ensure that it produced the goods needed for war, the federal government spawned an array of mobilization agencies which not only often purchased goods (or arranged their purchase by the Army and Navy), but which in practice closely directed those goods’ manufacture and heavily influenced the operation of private companies and whole industries.

Though both the New Deal and mobilization for World War I served as models, the World War II mobilization bureaucracy assumed its own distinctive shape as the war economy expanded. Most importantly, American mobilization was markedly less centralized than mobilization in other belligerent nations. The war economies of Britain and Germany, for instance, were overseen by war councils which comprised military and civilian officials. In the United States, the Army and Navy were not incorporated into the civilian administrative apparatus, nor was a supreme body created to subsume military and civilian organizations and to direct the vast war economy.

Instead, the military services enjoyed almost-unchecked control over their enormous appetites for equipment and personnel. With respect to the economy, the services were largely able to curtail production destined for civilians (e.g., automobiles or many non-essential foods) and even for war-related but non-military purposes (e.g., textiles and clothing). In parallel to but never commensurate with the Army and Navy, a succession of top-level civilian mobilization agencies sought to influence Army and Navy procurement of manufactured goods like tanks, planes, and ships, raw materials like steel and aluminum, and even personnel. One way of gauging the scale of the increase in federal spending and the concomitant increase in military spending is through comparison with GDP, which itself rose sharply during the war. Table 1 shows the dramatic increases in GDP, federal spending, and military spending.

Table 1: Federal Spending and Military Spending during World War II

(dollar values in billions of constant 1940 dollars)

Nominal GDP Federal Spending Defense Spending
Year total $ % increase total $ % increase % of GDP total $ % increase % of GDP % of federal spending
1940 101.4 9.47 9.34% 1.66 1.64% 17.53%
1941 120.67 19.00% 13.00 37.28% 10.77% 6.13 269.28% 5.08% 47.15%
1942 139.06 15.24% 30.18 132.15% 21.70% 22.05 259.71% 15.86% 73.06%
1943 136.44 -1.88% 63.57 110.64% 46.59% 43.98 99.46% 32.23% 69.18%
1944 174.84 28.14% 72.62 14.24% 41.54% 62.95 43.13% 36.00% 86.68%
1945 173.52 -0.75% 72.11 -0.70% 41.56% 64.53 2.51% 37.19% 89.49%

Sources: 1940 GDP figure from “Nominal GDP: Louis Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 — Present,” Economic History Services, March 2004, available at http://www.eh.net/hmit/gdp/ (accessed 27 July 2005). 1941-1945 GDP figures calculated using Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. Federal and defense spending figures from Government Printing Office, “Budget of the United States Government: Historical Tables Fiscal Year 2005,” Table 6.1—Composition of Outlays: 1940—2009 and Table 3.1—Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940—2009.

Preparedness Agencies

To oversee this growth, President Roosevelt created a number of preparedness agencies beginning in 1939, including the Office for Emergency Management and its key sub-organization, the National Defense Advisory Commission; the Office of Production Management; and the Supply Priorities Allocation Board. None of these organizations was particularly successful at generating or controlling mobilization because all included two competing parties. On one hand, private-sector executives and managers had joined the federal mobilization bureaucracy but continued to emphasize corporate priorities such as profits and positioning in the marketplace. On the other hand, reform-minded civil servants, who were often holdovers from the New Deal, emphasized the state’s prerogatives with respect to mobilization and war making. As a result of this basic division in the mobilization bureaucracy, “the military largely remained free of mobilization agency control” (Koistinen, 502).

War Production Board

In January 1942, as part of another effort to mesh civilian and military needs, President Roosevelt established a new mobilization agency, the War Production Board, and placed it under the direction of Donald Nelson, a former Sears Roebuck executive. Nelson understood immediately that the staggeringly complex problem of administering the war economy could be reduced to one key issue: balancing the needs of civilians — especially the workers whose efforts sustained the economy — against the needs of the military — especially those of servicemen and women but also their military and civilian leaders.

Though neither Nelson nor other high-ranking civilians ever fully resolved this issue, Nelson did realize several key economic goals. First, in late 1942, Nelson successfully resolved the so-called “feasibility dispute,” a conflict between civilian administrators and their military counterparts over the extent to which the American economy should be devoted to military needs during 1943 (and, by implication, in subsequent war years). Arguing that “all-out” production for war would harm America’s long-term ability to continue to produce for war after 1943, Nelson convinced the military to scale back its Olympian demands. He thereby also established a precedent for planning war production so as to meet most military and some civilian needs. Second (and partially as a result of the feasibility dispute), the WPB in late 1942 created the “Controlled Materials Plan,” which effectively allocated steel, aluminum, and copper to industrial users. The CMP obtained throughout the war, and helped curtail conflict among the military services and between them and civilian agencies over the growing but still scarce supplies of those three key metals.

Office of War Mobilization

By late 1942 it was clear that Nelson and the WPB were unable to fully control the growing war economy and especially to wrangle with the Army and Navy over the necessity of continued civilian production. Accordingly, in May 1943 President Roosevelt created the Office of War Mobilization and in July put James Byrne — a trusted advisor, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, and the so-called “assistant president” — in charge. Though the WPB was not abolished, the OWM soon became the dominant mobilization body in Washington. Unlike Nelson, Byrnes was able to establish an accommodation with the military services over war production by “acting as an arbiter among contending forces in the WPB, settling disputes between the board and the armed services, and dealing with the multiple problems” of the War Manpower Commission, the agency charged with controlling civilian labor markets and with assuring a continuous supply of draftees to the military (Koistinen, 510).

Beneath the highest-level agencies like the WPB and the OWM, a vast array of other federal organizations administered everything from labor (the War Manpower Commission) to merchant shipbuilding (the Maritime Commission) and from prices (the Office of Price Administration) to food (the War Food Administration). Given the scale and scope of these agencies’ efforts, they did sometimes fail, and especially so when they carried with them the baggage of the New Deal. By the midpoint of America’s involvement in the war, for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Rural Electrification Administration — all prominent New Deal organizations which tried and failed to find a purpose in the mobilization bureaucracy — had been actually or virtually abolished.

Taxation

However, these agencies were often quite successful in achieving their respective, narrower aims. The Department of the Treasury, for instance, was remarkably successful at generating money to pay for the war, including the first general income tax in American history and the famous “war bonds” sold to the public. Beginning in 1940, the government extended the income tax to virtually all Americans and began collecting the tax via the now-familiar method of continuous withholdings from paychecks (rather than lump-sum payments after the fact). The number of Americans required to pay federal taxes rose from 4 million in 1939 to 43 million in 1945. With such a large pool of taxpayers, the American government took in $45 billion in 1945, an enormous increase over the $8.7 billion collected in 1941 but still far short of the $83 billion spent on the war in 1945. Over that same period, federal tax revenue grew from about 8 percent of GDP to more than 20 percent. Americans who earned as little as $500 per year paid income tax at a 23 percent rate, while those who earned more than $1 million per year paid a 94 percent rate. The average income tax rate peaked in 1944 at 20.9 percent (“Fact Sheet: Taxes”).

War Bonds

All told, taxes provided about $136.8 billion of the war’s total cost of $304 billion (Kennedy, 625). To cover the other $167.2 billion, the Treasury Department also expanded its bond program, creating the famous “war bonds” hawked by celebrities and purchased in vast numbers and enormous values by Americans. The first war bond was purchased by President Roosevelt on May 1, 1941 (“Introduction to Savings Bonds”). Though the bonds returned only 2.9 percent annual interest after a 10-year maturity, they nonetheless served as a valuable source of revenue for the federal government and an extremely important investment for many Americans. Bonds served as a way for citizens to make an economic contribution to the war effort, but because interest on them accumulated slower than consumer prices rose, they could not completely preserve income which could not be readily spent during the war. By the time war-bond sales ended in 1946, 85 million Americans had purchased more than $185 billion worth of the securities, often through automatic deductions from their paychecks (“Brief History of World War Two Advertising Campaigns: War Loans and Bonds”). Commercial institutions like banks also bought billions of dollars of bonds and other treasury paper, holding more than $24 billion at the war’s end (Kennedy, 626).

Price Controls and the Standard of Living

Fiscal and financial matters were also addressed by other federal agencies. For instance, the Office of Price Administration used its “General Maximum Price Regulation” (also known as “General Max”) to attempt to curtail inflation by maintaining prices at their March 1942 levels. In July, the National War Labor Board (NWLB; a successor to a New Deal-era body) limited wartime wage increases to about 15 percent, the factor by which the cost of living rose from January 1941 to May 1942. Neither “General Max” nor the wage-increase limit was entirely successful, though federal efforts did curtail inflation. Between April 1942 and June 1946, the period of the most stringent federal controls on inflation, the annual rate of inflation was just 3.5 percent; the annual rate had been 10.3 percent in the six months before April 1942 and it soared to 28.0 percent in the six months after June 1946 (Rockoff, “Price and Wage Controls in Four Wartime Periods,” 382).With wages rising about 65 percent over the course of the war, this limited success in cutting the rate of inflation meant that many American civilians enjoyed a stable or even improving quality of life during the war (Kennedy, 641). Improvement in the standard of living was not ubiquitous, however. In some regions, such as rural areas in the Deep South, living standards stagnated or even declined, and according to some economists, the national living standard barely stayed level or even declined (Higgs, 1992).

Labor Unions

Labor unions and their members benefited especially. The NWLB’s “maintenance-of-membership” rule allowed unions to count all new employees as union members and to draw union dues from those new employees’ paychecks, so long as the unions themselves had already been recognized by the employer. Given that most new employment occurred in unionized workplaces, including plants funded by the federal government through defense spending, “the maintenance-of-membership ruling was a fabulous boon for organized labor,” for it required employers to accept unions and allowed unions to grow dramatically: organized labor expanded from 10.5 million members in 1941 to 14.75 million in 1945 (Blum, 140). By 1945, approximately 35.5 percent of the non-agricultural workforce was unionized, a record high.

The War Economy at High Water

Despite the almost-continual crises of the civilian war agencies, the American economy expanded at an unprecedented (and unduplicated) rate between 1941 and 1945. The gross national product of the U.S., as measured in constant dollars, grew from $88.6 billion in 1939 — while the country was still suffering from the depression — to $135 billion in 1944. War-related production skyrocketed from just two percent of GNP to 40 percent in 1943 (Milward, 63).

As Table 2 shows, output in many American manufacturing sectors increased spectacularly from 1939 to 1944, the height of war production in many industries.

Table 2: Indices of American Manufacturing Output (1939 = 100)

1940 1941 1942 1943 1944
Aircraft 245 630 1706 2842 2805
Munitions 140 423 2167 3803 2033
Shipbuilding 159 375 1091 1815 1710
Aluminum 126 189 318 561 474
Rubber 109 144 152 202 206
Steel 131 171 190 202 197

Source: Milward, 69.

Expansion of Employment

The wartime economic boom spurred and benefited from several important social trends. Foremost among these trends was the expansion of employment, which paralleled the expansion of industrial production. In 1944, unemployment dipped to 1.2 percent of the civilian labor force, a record low in American economic history and as near to “full employment” as is likely possible (Samuelson). Table 3 shows the overall employment and unemployment figures during the war period.

Table 3: Civilian Employment and Unemployment during World War II

(Numbers in thousands)

1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945
All Non-institutional Civilians 99,840 99,900 98,640 94,640 93,220 94,090
Civilian Labor Force Total 55,640 55,910 56,410 55,540 54,630 53,860
% of Population 55.7% 56% 57.2% 58.7% 58.6% 57.2%
Employed Total 47,520 50,350 53,750 54,470 53,960 52,820
% of Population 47.6% 50.4% 54.5% 57.6% 57.9% 56.1%
% of Labor Force 85.4% 90.1% 95.3% 98.1% 98.8% 98.1%
Unemployed Total 8,120 5,560 2,660 1,070 670 1,040
% of Population 8.1% 5.6% 2.7% 1.1% 0.7% 1.1%
% of Labor Force 14.6% 9.9% 4.7% 1.9% 1.2% 1.9%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population, 1940 to date.” Available at http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat1.pdf.

Not only those who were unemployed during the depression found jobs. So, too, did about 10.5 million Americans who either could not then have had jobs (the 3.25 million youths who came of age after Pearl Harbor) or who would not have then sought employment (3.5 million women, for instance). By 1945, the percentage of blacks who held war jobs — eight percent — approximated blacks’ percentage in the American population — about ten percent (Kennedy, 775). Almost 19 million American women (including millions of black women) were working outside the home by 1945. Though most continued to hold traditional female occupations such as clerical and service jobs, two million women did labor in war industries (half in aerospace alone) (Kennedy, 778). Employment did not just increase on the industrial front. Civilian employment by the executive branch of the federal government — which included the war administration agencies — rose from about 830,000 in 1938 (already a historical peak) to 2.9 million in June 1945 (Nash, 220).

Population Shifts

Migration was another major socioeconomic trend. The 15 million Americans who joined the military — who, that is, became employees of the military — all moved to and between military bases; 11.25 million ended up overseas. Continuing the movements of the depression era, about 15 million civilian Americans made a major move (defined as changing their county of residence). African-Americans moved with particular alacrity and permanence: 700,000 left the South and 120,000 arrived in Los Angeles during 1943 alone. Migration was especially strong along rural-urban axes, especially to war-production centers around the country, and along an east-west axis (Kennedy, 747-748, 768). For instance, as Table 4 shows, the population of the three Pacific Coast states grew by a third between 1940 and 1945, permanently altering their demographics and economies.

Table 4: Population Growth in Washington, Oregon, and California, 1940-1945

(populations in millions)

1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 % growth
1940-1945
Washington 1.7 1.8 1.9 2.1 2.1 2.3 35.3%
Oregon 1.1 1.1 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.3 18.2%
California 7.0 7.4 8.0 8.5 9.0 9.5 35.7%
Total 9.8 10.3 11.0 11.8 12.4 13.1 33.7%

Source: Nash, 222.

A third wartime socioeconomic trend was somewhat ironic, given the reduction in the supply of civilian goods: rapid increases in many Americans’ personal incomes. Driven by the federal government’s abilities to prevent price inflation and to subsidize high wages through war contracting and by the increase in the size and power of organized labor, incomes rose for virtually all Americans — whites and blacks, men and women, skilled and unskilled. Workers at the lower end of the spectrum gained the most: manufacturing workers enjoyed about a quarter more real income in 1945 than in 1940 (Kennedy, 641). These rising incomes were part of a wartime “great compression” of wages which equalized the distribution of incomes across the American population (Goldin and Margo, 1992). Again focusing on three war-boom states in the West, Table 5 shows that personal-income growth continued after the war, as well.

Table 5: Personal Income per Capita in Washington, Oregon, and California, 1940 and 1948

1940 1948 % growth
Washington $655 $929 42%
Oregon $648 $941 45%
California $835 $1,017 22%

Source: Nash, 221. Adjusted for inflation using Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl

Despite the focus on military-related production in general and the impact of rationing in particular, spending in many civilian sectors of the economy rose even as the war consumed billions of dollars of output. Hollywood boomed as workers bought movie tickets rather than scarce clothes or unavailable cars. Americans placed more legal wagers in 1943 and 1944, and racetracks made more money than at any time before. In 1942, Americans spent $95 million on legal pharmaceuticals, $20 million more than in 1941. Department-store sales in November 1944 were greater than in any previous month in any year (Blum, 95-98). Black markets for rationed or luxury goods — from meat and chocolate to tires and gasoline — also boomed during the war.

Scientific and Technological Innovation

As observers during the war and ever since have recognized, scientific and technological innovations were a key aspect in the American war effort and an important economic factor in the Allies’ victory. While all of the major belligerents were able to tap their scientific and technological resources to develop weapons and other tools of war, the American experience was impressive in that scientific and technological change positively affected virtually every facet of the war economy.

The Manhattan Project

American techno-scientific innovations mattered most dramatically in “high-tech” sectors which were often hidden from public view by wartime secrecy. For instance, the Manhattan Project to create an atomic weapon was a direct and massive result of a stunning scientific breakthrough: the creation of a controlled nuclear chain reaction by a team of scientists at the University of Chicago in December 1942. Under the direction of the U.S. Army and several private contractors, scientists, engineers, and workers built a nationwide complex of laboratories and plants to manufacture atomic fuel and to fabricate atomic weapons. This network included laboratories at the University of Chicago and the University of California-Berkeley, uranium-processing complexes at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, and the weapon-design lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Manhattan Project climaxed in August 1945, when the United States dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan; these attacks likely accelerated Japanese leaders’ decision to seek peace with the United States. By that time, the Manhattan Project had become a colossal economic endeavor, costing approximately $2 billion and employing more than 100,000.

Though important and gigantic, the Manhattan Project was an anomaly in the broader war economy. Technological and scientific innovation also transformed less-sophisticated but still complex sectors such as aerospace or shipbuilding. The United States, as David Kennedy writes, “ultimately proved capable of some epochal scientific and technical breakthroughs, [but] innovated most characteristically and most tellingly in plant layout, production organization, economies of scale, and process engineering” (Kennedy, 648).

Aerospace

Aerospace provides one crucial example. American heavy bombers, like the B-29 Superfortress, were highly sophisticated weapons which could not have existed, much less contributed to the air war on Germany and Japan, without innovations such as bombsights, radar, and high-performance engines or advances in aeronautical engineering, metallurgy, and even factory organization. Encompassing hundreds of thousands of workers, four major factories, and $3 billion in government spending, the B-29 project required almost unprecedented organizational capabilities by the U.S. Army Air Forces, several major private contractors, and labor unions (Vander Meulen, 7). Overall, American aircraft production was the single largest sector of the war economy, costing $45 billion (almost a quarter of the $183 billion spent on war production), employing a staggering two million workers, and, most importantly, producing over 125,000 aircraft, which Table 6 describe in more detail.

Table 6: Production of Selected U.S. Military Aircraft (1941-1945)

Bombers 49,123
Fighters 63,933
Cargo 14,710
Total 127,766

Source: Air Force History Support Office

Shipbuilding

Shipbuilding offers a third example of innovation’s importance to the war economy. Allied strategy in World War II utterly depended on the movement of war materiel produced in the United States to the fighting fronts in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Between 1939 and 1945, the hundred merchant shipyards overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission (USMC) produced 5,777 ships at a cost of about $13 billion (navy shipbuilding cost about $18 billion) (Lane, 8). Four key innovations facilitated this enormous wartime output. First, the commission itself allowed the federal government to direct the merchant shipbuilding industry. Second, the commission funded entrepreneurs, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser chief among them, who had never before built ships and who were eager to use mass-production methods in the shipyards. These methods, including the substitution of welding for riveting and the addition of hundreds of thousands of women and minorities to the formerly all-white and all-male shipyard workforces, were a third crucial innovation. Last, the commission facilitated mass production by choosing to build many standardized vessels like the ugly, slow, and ubiquitous “Liberty” ship. By adapting well-known manufacturing techniques and emphasizing easily-made ships, merchant shipbuilding became a low-tech counterexample to the atomic-bomb project and the aerospace industry, yet also a sector which was spectacularly successful.

Reconversion and the War’s Long-term Effects

Reconversion from military to civilian production had been an issue as early as 1944, when WPB Chairman Nelson began pushing to scale back war production in favor of renewed civilian production. The military’s opposition to Nelson had contributed to the accession by James Byrnes and the OWM to the paramount spot in the war-production bureaucracy. Meaningful planning for reconversion was postponed until 1944 and the actual process of reconversion only began in earnest in early 1945, accelerating through V-E Day in May and V-J Day in September.

The most obvious effect of reconversion was the shift away from military production and back to civilian production. As Table 7 shows, this shift — as measured by declines in overall federal spending and in military spending — was dramatic, but did not cause the postwar depression which many Americans dreaded. Rather, American GDP continued to grow after the war (albeit not as rapidly as it had during the war; compare Table 1). The high level of defense spending, in turn, contributed to the creation of the “military-industrial complex,” the network of private companies, non-governmental organizations, universities, and federal agencies which collectively shaped American national defense policy and activity during the Cold War.

Table 7: Federal Spending, and Military Spending after World War II

(dollar values in billions of constant 1945 dollars)

Nominal GDP Federal Spending Defense Spending
Year Total % increase total % increase % of GDP Total % increase % of GDP % of federal
spending
1945 223.10 92.71 1.50% 41.90% 82.97 4.80% 37.50% 89.50%
1946 222.30 -0.36% 55.23 -40.40% 24.80% 42.68 -48.60% 19.20% 77.30%
1947 244.20 8.97% 34.5 -37.50% 14.80% 12.81 -70.00% 5.50% 37.10%
1948 269.20 9.29% 29.76 -13.70% 11.60% 9.11 -28.90% 3.50% 30.60%
1949 267.30 -0.71% 38.84 30.50% 14.30% 13.15 44.40% 4.80% 33.90%
1950 293.80 9.02% 42.56 9.60% 15.60% 13.72 4.40% 5.00% 32.20%

1945 GDP figure from “Nominal GDP: Louis Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 — Present,” Economic History Services, March 2004, available at http://www.eh.net/hmit/gdp/ (accessed 27 July 2005). 1946-1950 GDP figures calculated using Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” available at http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. Federal and defense spending figures from Government Printing Office, “Budget of the United States Government: Historical Tables Fiscal Year 2005,” Table 6.1—Composition of Outlays: 1940—2009 and Table 3.1—Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940—2009.

Reconversion spurred the second major restructuring of the American workplace in five years, as returning servicemen flooded back into the workforce and many war workers left, either voluntarily or involuntarily. For instance, many women left the labor force beginning in 1944 — sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily. In 1947, about a quarter of all American women worked outside the home, roughly the same number who had held such jobs in 1940 and far off the wartime peak of 36 percent in 1944 (Kennedy, 779).

G.I. Bill

Servicemen obtained numerous other economic benefits beyond their jobs, including educational assistance from the federal government and guaranteed mortgages and small-business loans via the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 or “G.I. Bill.” Former servicemen thus became a vast and advantaged class of citizens which demanded, among other goods, inexpensive, often suburban housing; vocational training and college educations; and private cars which had been unobtainable during the war (Kennedy, 786-787).

The U.S.’s Position at the End of the War

At a macroeconomic scale, the war not only decisively ended the Great Depression, but created the conditions for productive postwar collaboration between the federal government, private enterprise, and organized labor, the parties whose tripartite collaboration helped engender continued economic growth after the war. The U.S. emerged from the war not physically unscathed, but economically strengthened by wartime industrial expansion, which placed the United States at absolute and relative advantage over both its allies and its enemies.

Possessed of an economy which was larger and richer than any other in the world, American leaders determined to make the United States the center of the postwar world economy. American aid to Europe ($13 billion via the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) or “Marshall Plan,” 1947-1951) and Japan ($1.8 billion, 1946-1952) furthered this goal by tying the economic reconstruction of West Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan to American import and export needs, among other factors. Even before the war ended, the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 determined key aspects of international economic affairs by establishing standards for currency convertibility and creating institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the precursor of the World Bank.

In brief, as economic historian Alan Milward writes, “the United States emerged in 1945 in an incomparably stronger position economically than in 1941″… By 1945 the foundations of the United States’ economic domination over the next quarter of a century had been secured”… [This] may have been the most influential consequence of the Second World War for the post-war world” (Milward, 63).

Selected References

Adams, Michael C.C. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women during World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Air Force History Support Office. “Army Air Forces Aircraft: A Definitive Moment.” U.S. Air Force, 1993. Available at http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/PopTopics/AAFaircraft.htm.

Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976.

Bordo, Michael. “The Gold Standard, Bretton Woods, and Other Monetary Regimes: An Historical Appraisal.” NBER Working Paper No. 4310. April 1993.

“Brief History of World War Two Advertising Campaigns.” Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections, 1999. Available at http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/adaccess/wwad-history.html

Brody, David. “The New Deal and World War II.” In The New Deal, vol. 1, The National Level, edited by John Braeman, Robert Bremmer, and David Brody, 267-309. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975.

Connery, Robert. The Navy and Industrial Mobilization in World War II. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Darby, Michael R. “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941.” Journal of Political Economy 84, no. 1 (February 1976): 1-16.

Field, Alexander J. “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century.” American Economic Review 93, no 4 (September 2003): 1399-1414.

Field, Alexander J. “U.S. Productivity Growth in the Interwar Period and the 1990s.” (Paper presented at “Understanding the 1990s: the Long Run Perspective” conference, Duke University and the University of North Carolina, March 26-27, 2004) Available at www.unc.edu/depts/econ/seminars/Field.pdf.

Fischer, Gerald J. A Statistical Summary of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission during World War II. Washington, DC: Historical Reports of War Administration; United States Maritime Commission, no. 2, 1949.

Friedberg, Aaron. In the Shadow of the Garrison State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Gluck, Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Goldin, Claudia. “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment.” American Economic Review 81, no. 4 (September 1991): 741-56.

Goldin, Claudia and Robert A. Margo. “The Great Compression: Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 2 (February 1992): 1-34.

Harrison, Mark, editor. The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Higgs, Robert. “Wartime Prosperity? A Reassessment of the U.S. Economy in the 1940s.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (March 1992): 41-60.

Holley, I.B. Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964.

Hooks, Gregory. Forging the Military-Industrial Complex: World War II’s Battle of the Potomac. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Janeway, Eliot. The Struggle for Survival: A Chronicle of Economic Mobilization in World War II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951.

Jeffries, John W. Wartime America: The World War II Home Front. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

Johnston, Louis and Samuel H. Williamson. “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 – Present.” Available at Economic History Services, March 2004, URL: http://www.eh.net/hmit/gdp/; accessed 3 June 2005.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kryder, Daniel. Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State during World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Lane, Frederic, with Blanche D. Coll, Gerald J. Fischer, and David B. Tyler. Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951; republished, 2001.

Koistinen, Paul A.C. Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Lingeman, Richard P. Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.

Milkman, Ruth. Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Milward, Alan S. War, Economy, and Society, 1939-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Nash, Gerald D. The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Nelson, Donald M. Arsenal of Democracy: The Story of American War Production. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946.

O’Neill, William L. A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Overy, Richard. How the Allies Won. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.

Rockoff, Hugh. “The Response of the Giant Corporations to Wage and Price Control in World War II.” Journal of Economic History 41, no. 1 (March 1981): 123-28.

Rockoff, Hugh. “Price and Wage Controls in Four Wartime Periods.” Journal of Economic History 41, no. 2 (June 1981): 381-401.

Samuelson, Robert J., “Great Depression.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., ed. David R. Henderson, 2002. Available at http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/GreatDepression.html

U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Fact Sheet: Taxes,” n. d. Available at http://www.treas.gov/education/fact-sheets/taxes/ustax.shtml

U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Introduction to Savings Bonds,” n.d. Available at http://www.treas.gov/offices/treasurer/savings-bonds.shtml

Vander Meulen, Jacob. Building the B-29. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Watkins, Thayer. “The Recovery from the Depression of the 1930s.” 2002. Available at http://www2.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/recovery.htm

Citation: Tassava, Christopher. “The American Economy during World War II”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-american-economy-during-world-war-ii/

Islamic Economics: What It Is and How It Developed

M. Umer Chapra, Islamic Research and Training Institute

Islamic economics has been having a revival over the last few decades. However, it is still in a preliminary stage of development. In contrast with this, conventional economics has become a well-developed and sophisticated discipline after going through a long and rigorous process of development over more than a century. Is a new discipline in economics needed? If so, what is Islamic economics, how does it differ from conventional economics, and what contributions has it made over the centuries? This article tries to briefly answer these questions.

It is universally recognized that resources are scarce compared with the claims on them. However, it is also simultaneously recognized by practically all civilizations that the well-being of all human beings needs to be ensured. Given the scarcity of resources, the well-being of all may remain an unrealized dream if the scarce resources are not utilized efficiently and equitably. For this purpose, every society needs to develop an effective strategy, which is consciously or unconsciously conditioned by its worldview. If the worldview is flawed, the strategy may not be able to help the society actualize the well-being of all. Prevailing worldviews may be classified for the sake of ease into two board theoretical constructs (1) secular and materialist, and (2) spiritual and humanitarian.

The Role of the Worldview

Secular and materialist worldviews attach maximum importance to the material aspect of human well-being and tend generally to ignore the importance of the spiritual aspect. They often argue that maximum material well-being can be best realized if individuals are given unhindered freedom to pursue their self-interest and to maximize their want satisfaction in keeping with their own tastes and preferences.[1] In their extreme form they do not recognize any role for Divine guidance in human life and place full trust in the ability of human beings to chalk out a proper strategy with the help of their reason. In such a worldview there is little role for values or government intervention in the efficient and equitable allocation and distribution of resources. When asked about how social interest would be served when everyone has unlimited freedom to pursue his/her self-interest, the reply is that market forces will themselves ensure this because competition will keep self-interest under check.

In contrast with this, religious worldviews give attention to both the material as well as the spiritual aspects of human well-being. They do not necessarily reject the role of reason in human development. They, however, recognize the limitations of reason and wish to complement it by revelation. They do not also reject the need for individual freedom or the role that the serving of self-interest can play in human development They, however, emphasize that both freedom and the pursuit of self-interest need to be toned down by moral values and good governance to ensure that everyone’s well-being is realized and that social harmony and family integrity are not hurt in the process of everyone serving his/her self-interest.

Material and Spiritual Needs

Even though none of the major worldviews prevailing around the world is totally materialist and hedonist, there are, nevertheless, significant differences among them in terms of the emphasis they place on material or spiritual goals and the role of moral values and government intervention in ordering human affairs. While material goals concentrate primarily on goods and services that contribute to physical comfort and well-being, spiritual goals include nearness to God, peace of mind, inner happiness, honesty, justice, mutual care and cooperation, family and social harmony, and the absence of crime and anomie. These may not be quantifiable, but are, nevertheless, crucial for realizing human well-being. Resources being limited, excessive emphasis on the material ingredients of well-being may lead to a neglect of spiritual ingredients. The greater the difference in emphasis, the greater may be the difference in the economic disciplines of these societies. Feyerabend (1993) frankly recognized this in the introduction to the Chinese edition of his thought-provoking book, Against Method, by stating that “First world science is only one science among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group” (p.3, parentheses are in the original).

The Enlightenment Worldview and Conventional Economics

There is a great deal that is common between the worldviews of most major religions, particularly those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is because, according to Islam, there is a continuity and similarity in the value systems of all Revealed religions to the extent to which the Message has not been lost or distorted over the ages. The Qur’an clearly states that: “Nothing has been said to you [Muhammad] that was not said to the Messengers before you” (Al-Qur’an, 41:43). If conventional economics had continued to develop in the image of the Judeo-Christian worldview, as it did before the Enlightenment Movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there may not have been any significant difference between conventional and Islamic economics. However, after the Enlightenment Movement, all intellectual disciplines in Europe became influenced by its secular, value-neutral, materialist and social-Darwinist worldview, even though this did not succeed fully. All economists did not necessarily become materialist or social-Darwinist in their individual lives and many of them continued to be attached to their religious worldviews. Koopmans (1969) has rightly observed that “scratch an economist and you will find a moralist underneath.” Therefore, while theoretically conventional economics adopted the secular and value neutral orientation of the Enlightenment worldview and failed to recognize the role of value judgments and good governance in the efficient and equitable allocation and distribution of resources, in practice this did not take place fully. The pre-Enlightenment tradition never disappeared completely (see Baeck, 1994, p. 11).

There is no doubt that, in spite of its secular and materialist worldview, the market system led to a long period of prosperity in the Western market-oriented economies. However, this unprecedented prosperity did not lead to the elimination of poverty or the fulfillment of everyone’s needs in conformity with the Judeo-Christian value system even in the wealthiest countries. Inequalities of income and wealth have also continued to persist and there has also been a substantial degree of economic instability and unemployment which have added to the miseries of the poor. This indicates that both efficiency and equity have remained elusive in spite of rapid development and phenomenal rise in wealth.

Consequently there has been persistent criticism of economics by a number of well-meaning scholars, including Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present, 1843), John Ruskin (Unto this Last, 1862) and Charles Dickens (Hard Times, 1854-55) in England, and Henry George (Progress and Poverty, 1879) in America. They ridiculed the dominant doctrine of laissez-faire with its emphasis on self-interest. Thomas Carlyle called economics a “dismal science” and rejected the idea that free and uncontrolled private interests will work in harmony and further the public welfare (see Jay and Jay, 1986). Henry George condemned the resulting contrast between wealth and poverty and wrote: “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent” (1955, p. 10).

In addition to failing to fulfill the basic needs of a large number of people and increasing inequalities of income and wealth, modern economic development has been associated with the disintegration of the family and a failure to bring peace of mind and inner happiness (Easterlin 2001, 1995 and 1974; Oswald, 1997; Blanchflower and Oswald, 2000; Diener and Oshi, 2000; and Kenny, 1999). Due to these problems and others the laissez-faire approach lost ground, particularly after the Great Depression of the 1930s as a result of the Keynesian revolution and the socialist onslaught. However, most observers have concluded that government intervention alone cannot by itself remove all socio-economic ills. It is also necessary to motivate individuals to do what is right and abstain from doing what is wrong. This is where the moral uplift of society can be helpful. Without it, more and more difficult and costly regulations are needed. Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen has, therefore, rightly argued that “the distancing of economics from ethics has impoverished welfare economics and also weakened the basis of a good deal of descriptive and predictive economics” and that economics “can be made more productive by paying greater and more explicit attention to ethical considerations that shaped human behaviour and judgment” (1987, pp. 78-79). Hausman and McPherson also conclude in their survey article “Economics and Contemporary Moral Philosophy” that “An economy that is engaged actively and self-critically with the moral aspects of its subject matter cannot help but be more interesting, more illuminating and, ultimately, more useful than the one that tries not to be” (1993, p. 723).

Islamic Economics – and How It Differs from Conventional Economics

While conventional economics is now in the process of returning to its pre-Enlightenment roots, Islamic economics never got entangled in a secular and materialist worldview. It is based on a religious worldview which strikes at the roots of secularism and value neutrality. To ensure the true well-being of all individuals, irrespective of their sex, age, race, religion or wealth, Islamic economics does not seek to abolish private property, as was done by communism, nor does it prevent individuals from serving their self-interest. It recognizes the role of the market in the efficient allocation of resources, but does not find competition to be sufficient to safeguard social interest. It tries to promote human brotherhood, socio-economic justice and the well-being of all through an integrated role of moral values, market mechanism, families, society, and ‘good governance.’ This is because of the great emphasis in Islam on human brotherhood and socio-economic justice.

The Integrated Role of the Market, Families, Society, and Government

The market is not the only institution where people interact in human society. They also interact in the family, the society and the government and their interaction in all these institutions is closely interrelated. There is no doubt that the serving of self-interest does help raise efficiency in the market place. However, if self-interest is overemphasized and there are no moral restraints on individual behavior, other institutions may not work effectively – families may disintegrate, the society may be uncaring, and the government may be corrupt, partisan, and self-centered. Mutual sacrifice is necessary for keeping the families glued together. Since the human being is the most important input of not only the market, but also of the family, the society and the government, and the family is the source of this input, nothing may work if families disintegrate and are unable to provide loving care to children. This is likely to happen if both the husband and wife try to serve just their own self-interest and are not attuned to the making of sacrifices that the proper care and upbringing of children demands. Lack of willingness to make such sacrifice can lead to a decline in the quality of the human input to all other institutions, including the market, the society and the government. It may also lead to a fall in fertility rates below the replacement level, making it difficult for society not only to sustain its development but also its social security system.

The Role of Moral Values

While conventional economics generally considers the behavior and tastes and preferences of individuals as given, Islamic economics does not do so. It places great emphasis on individual and social reform through moral uplift. This is the purpose for which all God’s messengers, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, came to this world. Moral uplift aims at the change in human behavior, tastes and preferences and, thereby, it complements the price mechanism in promoting general well-being. Before even entering the market place and being exposed to the price filter, consumers are expected to pass their claims through the moral filter. This will help filter out conspicuous consumption and all wasteful and unnecessary claims on resources. The price mechanism can then take over and reduce the claims on resources even further to lead to the market equilibrium. The two filters can together make it possible to have optimum economy in the use of resources, which is necessary to satisfy the material as well as spiritual needs of all human beings, to reduce the concentration of wealth in a few hands, and to raise savings, which are needed to promote greater investment and employment. Without complementing the market system with morally-based value judgments, we may end up perpetuating inequities in spite of our good intentions through what Solo calls inaction, non-choice and drifting (Solo, 1981, p. 38)

From the above discussion, one may easily notice the similarities and differences between the two disciplines. While the subject matter of both is the allocation and distribution of resources and both emphasize the fulfillment of material needs, there is an equal emphasis in Islamic economics on the fulfillment of spiritual needs. While both recognize the important role of market mechanism in the allocation and distribution of resources, Islamic economics argues that the market may not by itself be able to fulfill even the material needs of all human beings. This is because it can promote excessive use of scarce resources by the rich at the expense of the poor if there is undue emphasis on the serving of self-interest. Sacrifice is involved in fulfilling our obligations towards others and excessive emphasis on the serving of self-interest does not have the potential of motivating people to make the needed sacrifice. This, however, raises the crucial question of why a rational person would sacrifice his self-interest for the sake of others?

The Importance of the Hereafter

This is where the concepts of the innate goodness of human beings and of the Hereafter come in – concepts which conventional economics ignores but on which Islam and other major religions place a great deal of emphasis. Because of their innate goodness, human beings do not necessarily always try to serve their self-interest. They are also altruistic and are willing to make sacrifices for the well-being of others. In addition, the concept of the Hereafter does not confine self-interest to just this world. It rather extends it beyond this world to life after death. We may be able to serve our self-interest in this world by being selfish, dishonest, uncaring, and negligent of our obligations towards our families, other human beings, animals, and the environment. However, we cannot serve our self-interest in the Hereafter except by fulfilling all these obligations.

Thus, the serving of self-interest receives a long-run perspective in Islam and other religions by taking into account both this world and the next. This serves to provide a motivating mechanism for sacrifice for the well-being of others that conventional economics fails to provide. The innate goodness of human beings along with the long-run perspective given to self-interest has the potential of inducing a person to be not only efficient but also equitable and caring. Consequently, the three crucial concepts of conventional economics – rational economic man, positivism, and laissez-faire – were not able to gain intellectual blessing in their conventional economics sense from any of the outstanding scholars who represent the mainstream of Islamic thought.

Rational Economic Man

While there is hardly anyone opposed to the need for rationality in human behavior, there are differences of opinion in defining rationality (Sen, 1987, pp. 11-14). However, once rationality has been defined in terms of overall individual as well as social well-being, then rational behavior could only be that which helps us realize this goal. Conventional economics does not define rationality in this way. It equates rationality with the serving of self-interest through the maximization of wealth and want satisfaction, The drive of self-interest is considered to be the “moral equivalent of the force of gravity in nature” (Myers, 1983, p. 4). Within this framework society is conceptualized as a mere collection of individuals united through ties of self-interest.

The concept of ‘rational economic man’ in this social-Darwinist, utilitarian, and material sense of serving self–interest could not find a foothold in Islamic economics. ‘Rationality’ in Islamic economics does not get confined to the serving of one’s self-interest in this world alone; it also gets extended to the Hereafter through the faithful compliance with moral values that help rein self-interest to promote social interest. Al-Mawardi (d. 1058) considered it necessary, like all other Muslim scholars, to rein individual tastes and preferences through moral values (1955, pp. 118-20). Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) emphasized that moral orientation helps remove mutual rivalry and envy, strengthens social solidarity, and creates an inclination towards righteousness (n.d., p.158).

Positivism

Similarly, positivism in the conventional economics sense of being “entirely neutral between ends” (Robbins, 1935, p. 240) or “independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgment” (Friedman, 1953) did not find a place in Muslim intellectual thinking. Since all resources at the disposal of human beings are a trust from God, and human beings are accountable before Him, there is no other option but to use them in keeping with the terms of trust. These terms are defined by beliefs and moral values. Human brotherhood, one of the central objectives of Islam, would be a meaningless jargon if it were not reinforced by justice in the allocation and distribution of resources.

Pareto Optimum

Without justice, it would be difficult to realize even development. Muslim scholars have emphasized this throughout history. Development Economics has also started emphasizing its importance, more so in the last few decades.[2] Abu Yusuf (d. 798) argued that: “Rendering justice to those wronged and eradicating injustice, raises tax revenue, accelerates development of the country, and brings blessings in addition to reward in the Hereafter” (1933/34, p. 111: see also pp. 3-17). Al-Mawardi argued that comprehensive justice “inculcates mutual love and affection, obedience to the law, development of the country, expansion of wealth, growth of progeny, and security of the sovereign” (1955, p. 27). Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) emphasized that “justice towards everything and everyone is an imperative for everyone, and injustice is prohibited to everything and everyone. Injustice is absolutely not permissible irrespective of whether it is to a Muslim or a non-Muslim or even to an unjust person” (1961-63, Vol. 18, p. 166).

Justice and the well-being of all may be difficult to realize without a sacrifice on the part of the well-to-do. The concept of Pareto optimum does not, therefore, fit into the paradigm of Islamic economics. This is because Pareto optimum does not recognize any solution as optimum if it requires a sacrifice on the part of a few (rich) for raising the well-being of the many (poor). Such a position is in clear conflict with moral values, the raison d’être of which is the well-being of all. Hence, this concept did not arise in Islamic economics. In fact, Islam makes it a religious obligation of Muslims to make a sacrifice for the poor and the needy, by paying Zakat at the rate of 2.5 percent of their net worth. This is in addition to the taxes that they pay to the governments as in other countries.

The Role of State

Moral values may not be effective if they are not observed by all. They need to be enforced. It is the duty of the state to restrain all socially harmful behavior[3] including injustice, fraud, cheating, transgression against other people’s person, honor and property, and the non-fulfillment of contracts and other obligations through proper upbringing, incentives and deterrents, appropriate regulations, and an effective and impartial judiciary. The Qur’an can only provide norms. It cannot by itself enforce them. The state has to ensure this. That is why the Prophet Muhammad said: “God restrains through the sovereign more than what He restrains through the Qur’an” (cited by al-Mawardi, 1955, p. 121). This emphasis on the role of the state has been reflected in the writings of all leading Muslim scholars throughout history.[4] Al-Mawardi emphasized that an effective government (Sultan Qahir) is indispensable for preventing injustice and wrongdoing (1960, p. 5). Say’s Law could not, therefore, become a meaningful proposition in Islamic economics.

How far is the state expected to go in the fulfillment of its role? What is it that the state is expected to do? This has been spelled out by a number of scholars in the literature on what has come to be termed as “Mirrors for Princes.”[5] None of them visualized regimentation or the owning and operating of a substantial part of the economy by the state. Several classical Muslim scholars, including al-Dimashqi (d. after 1175) and Ibn Khaldun, clearly expressed their disapproval of the state becoming directly involved in the economy (Al-Dimashqi, 1977, pp. 12 and 61; Ibn Khaldun, pp. 281-83). According to Ibn Khaldun, the state should not acquire the character of a monolithic or despotic state resorting to a high degree of regimentation (ibid., p. 188). It should not feel that, because it has authority, it can do anything it likes (ibid, p. 306). It should be welfare-oriented, moderate in its spending, respect the property rights of the people, and avoid onerous taxation (ibid, p. 296). This implies that what these scholars visualized as the role of government is what has now been generally referred to as ‘good governance’.

Some of the Contributions Made by Islamic Economics

The above discussion should not lead one to an impression that the two disciplines are entirely different. One of the reasons for this is that the subject matter of both disciplines is the same, allocation and distribution of scarce resources. Another reason is that all conventional economists have never been value neutral. They have made value judgments in conformity with their beliefs. As indicated earlier, even the paradigm of conventional economics has been changing – the role of good governance has now become well recognized and the injection of a moral dimension has also become emphasized by a number of prominent economists. Moreover, Islamic economists have benefited a great deal from the tools of analysis developed by neoclassical, Keynesian, social, humanistic and institutional economics as well as other social sciences, and will continue to do so in the future.

The Fallacy of the ‘Great Gap’ Theory

A number of economic concepts developed in Islamic economics long before they did in conventional economics. These cover a number of areas including interdisciplinary approach; property rights; division of labor and specialization; the importance of saving and investment for development; the role that both demand and supply play in the determination of prices and the factors that influence demand and supply; the roles of money, exchange, and the market mechanism; characteristics of money, counterfeiting, currency debasement, and Gresham’s law; the development of checks, letters of credit and banking; labor supply and population; the role of the state, justice, peace, and stability in development; and principles of taxation.I t is not possible to provide comprehensive coverage of all the contributions Muslim scholars have made to economics. Only some of their contributions will be highlighted below to remove the concept of the “Great Gap” of “over 500 years” that exists in the history of conventional economic thought as a result of the incorrect conclusion by Joseph Schumpeter in History of Economic Analysis (1954), that the intervening period between the Greeks and the Scholastics was sterile and unproductive.[6] This concept has become well embedded in the conventional economics literature as may be seen from the reference to this even by the Nobel-laureate, Douglass North, in his December 1993 Nobel lecture (1994, p. 365). Consequently, as Todd Lowry has rightly observed, “the character and sophistication of Arabian writings has been ignored” (See his ‘Foreword’ in Ghazanfar, 2003, p. xi).

The reality, however, is that the Muslim civilization, which benefited greatly from the Chinese, Indian, Sassanian and Byzantine civilizations, itself made rich contributions to intellectual activity, including socio-economic thought, during the ‘Great Gap’ period, and thereby played a part in kindling the flame of the European Enlightenment Movement. Even the Scholastics themselves were greatly influenced by the contributions made by Muslim scholars. The names of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198) and Maimonides (d. 1204, a Jewish philosopher, scientist, and physician who flourished in Muslim Spain) appear on almost every page of the thirteenth-century summa (treatises written by scholastic philosophers) (Pifer, 1978, p. 356).

Multidisciplinary Approach for Development

One of the most important contributions of Islamic economics, in addition to the above paradigm discussion, was the adoption of a multidisciplinary dynamic approach. Muslim scholars did not focus their attention primarily on economic variables. They considered overall human well-being to be the end product of interaction over a long period of time between a number of economic, moral, social, political, demographic and historical factors in such a way that none of them is able to make an optimum contribution without the support of the others. Justice occupied a pivotal place in this whole framework because of its crucial importance in the Islamic worldview There was an acute realization that justice is indispensable for development and that, in the absence of justice, there will be decline and disintegration.

The contributions made by different scholars over the centuries seem to have reached their consummation in Ibn Khaldun’s Maquddimah, which literally means ‘introduction,’ and constitutes the first volume of a seven-volume history, briefly called Kitab al-‘Ibar or the Book of Lessons [of History].[7] Ibn Khaldun lived at a time (1332-1406) when the Muslim civilization was in the process of decline. He wished to see a reversal of this tide, and, as a social scientist, he was well aware that such a reversal could not be envisaged without first drawing lessons (‘ibar) from history to determine the factors that had led the Muslim civilization to bloom out of humble beginnings and to decline thereafter. He was, therefore, not interested in knowing just what happened. He wanted to know the how and why of what happened. He wanted to introduce a cause and effect relationship into the discussion of historical phenomena. The Muqaddimah is the result of this desire. It tries to derive the principles that govern the rise and fall of a ruling dynasty, state (dawlah) or civilization (‘umran).

Since the centre of Ibn Khaldun’s analysis is the human being, he sees the rise and fall of dynasties or civilizations to be closely dependent on the well-being or misery of the people. The well-being of the people is in turn not dependent just on economic variables, as conventional economics has emphasized until recently, but also on the closely interrelated role of moral, psychological, social, economic, political, demographic and historical factors. One of these factors acts as the trigger mechanism. The others may, or may not, react in the same way. If the others do not react in the same direction, then the decay in one sector may not spread to the others and either the decaying sector may be reformed or the decline of the civilization may be much slower. If, however, the other sectors react in the same direction as the trigger mechanism, the decay will gain momentum through an interrelated chain reaction such that it becomes difficult over time to identify the cause from the effect. He, thus, seems to have had a clear vision of how all the different factors operate in an interrelated and dynamic manner over a long period to promote the development or decline of a society.

He did not, thus, adopt the neoclassical economist’s simplification of confining himself to primarily short-term static analysis of only markets by assuming unrealistically that all other factors remain constant. Even in the short-run, everything may be in a state of flux through a chain reaction to the various changes constantly taking place in human society, even though these may be so small as to be imperceptible. Therefore, even though economists may adopt the ceteris paribus assumption for ease of analysis, Ibn Khaldun’s multidisciplinary dynamics can be more helpful in formulating socio-economic policies that help improve the overall performance of a society. Neoclassical economics is unable to do this because, as North has rightly asked, “How can one prescribe policies when one does not understand how economies develop?” He, therefore, considers neoclassical economics to be “an inappropriate tool to analyze and prescribe policies that will induce development” (North, 1994, p. 549).

However, this is not all that Islamic economics has done. Muslim scholars, including Abu Yusuf (d. 798), al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090), al-Tusi (d. 1093), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Dimashqi (d. after 1175), Ibn Rushd (d. 1187), Ibn Taymiyyah (d.1328), Ibn al-Ukhuwwah (d. 1329), Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350), al-Shatibi (d. 1388), Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), al-Dawwani (d. 1501), and Shah Waliyullah (d. 1762) made a number of valuable contributions to economic theory. Their insight into some economic concepts was so deep that a number of the theories propounded by them could undoubtedly be considered the forerunners of some more sophisticated modern formulations of these theories.[8]

Division of Labor, Specialization, Trade, Exchange and Money and Banking

A number of scholars emphasized the necessity of division of labor for economic development long before this happened in conventional economics. For example, al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090) said: “the farmer needs the work of the weaver to get clothing for himself, and the weaver needs the work of the farmer to get his food and the cotton from which the cloth is made …, and thus everyone of them helps the other by his work…” (1978, Vol. 30, p. 264). Al-Dimashqi, writing about a century later, elaborates further by saying: “No individual can, because of the shortness of his life span, burden himself with all industries. If he does, he may not be able to master the skills of all of them from the first to the last. Industries are all interdependent. Construction needs the carpenter and the carpenter needs the ironsmith and the ironsmith needs the miner, and all these industries need premises. People are, therefore, necessitated by force of circumstances to be clustered in cities to help each other in fulfilling their mutual needs” (1977, p. 20-21).

Ibn Khaldun ruled out the feasibility or desirability of self-sufficiency, and emphasized the need for division of labor and specialization by indicating that: “It is well-known and well-established that individual human beings are not by themselves capable of satisfying all their individual economic needs. They must all cooperate for this purpose. The needs that can be satisfied by a group of them through mutual cooperation are many times greater than what individuals are capable of satisfying by themselves” (p. 360). In this respect he was perhaps the forerunner of the theory of comparative advantage, the credit for which is generally given in conventional economics to David Ricardo who formulated it in 1817.

The discussion of division of labor and specialization, in turn, led to an emphasis on trade and exchange, the existence of well-regulated and properly functioning markets through their effective regulation and supervision (hisbah), and money as a stable and reliable measure, medium of exchange and store of value. However, because of bimetallism (gold and silver coins circulating together) which then prevailed, and the different supply and demand conditions that the two metals faced, the rate of exchange between the two full-bodied coins fluctuated. This was further complicated by debasement of currencies by governments in the later centuries to tide over their fiscal problems. This had, according to Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) (1961-63, Vol. 29, p. 649), and later on al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) and al-Asadi (d. 1450), the effect of bad coins driving good coins out of circulation (al-Misri, 1981, pp. 54 and 66), a phenomenon which was recognized and referred to in the West in the sixteenth century as Gresham’s Law. Since debasement of currencies is in sheer violation of the Islamic emphasis on honesty and integrity in all measures of value, fraudulent practices in the issue of coins in the fourteenth century and afterwards elicited a great deal of literature on monetary theory and policy. The Muslims, according to Baeck, should, therefore, be considered forerunners and critical incubators of the debasement literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Baeck, 1994, p. 114).

To finance their expanding domestic and international trade, the Muslim world also developed a financial system, which was able to mobilize the “entire reservoir of monetary resources of the mediaeval Islamic world” for financing agriculture, crafts, manufacturing and long-distance trade (Udovitch, 1970, pp. 180 and 261). Financiers were known as sarrafs. By the time of Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir (908-32), they had started performing most of the basic functions of modern banks (Fischel, 1992). They had their markets, something akin to the Wall Street in New York and Lombard Street in London, and fulfilled all the banking needs of commerce, agriculture and industry (Duri, 1986, p. 898). This promoted the use of checks (sakk) and letters of credit (hawala). The English word check comes from the Arabic term sakk.

Demand and Supply

A number of Muslim scholars seem to have clearly understood the role of both demand and supply in the determination of prices. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) wrote: “The rise or fall of prices may not necessarily be due to injustice by some people. They may also be due to the shortage of output or the import of commodities in demand. If the demand for a commodity increases and the supply of what is demanded declines, the price rises. If, however, the demand falls and the supply increases, the price falls” (1961-3, Vol. 8, p. 523).

Even before Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Jahiz (d. 869) wrote nearly five centuries earlier that: “Anything available in the market is cheap because of its availability [supply] and dear by its lack of availability if there is need [demand] for it” (1983, p. 13), and that “anything the supply of which increases, becomes cheap except intelligence, which becomes dearer when it increases” (ibid., p. 13).

Ibn Khaldun went even further by emphasizing that both an increase in demand or a fall in supply leads to a rise in prices, while a decline in demand or a rise in supply contributes to a fall in prices (pp. 393 and 396). He believed that while continuation of ‘excessively low’ prices hurts the craftsmen and traders and drives them out of the market, the continuation of ‘excessively high’ prices hurts the consumers. ‘Moderate’ prices in between the two extremes were, therefore, desirable, because they would not only allow the traders a socially-acceptable level of return but also lead to the clearance of the markets by promoting sales and thereby generating a given turnover and prosperity (ibid, p. 398). Nevertheless, low prices were desirable for necessities because they provide relief to the poor who constitute the majority of the population (ibid, p. 398). If one were to use modem terminology, one could say that Ibn Khaldun found a stable price level with a relatively low cost of living to be preferable, from the point of view of both growth and equity in comparison with bouts of inflation and deflation. The former hurts equity while the latter reduces incentive and efficiency. Low prices for necessities should not, however, be attained through the fixing of prices by the state; this destroys the incentive for production (ibid, pp. 279-83).

The factors which determined demand were, according to Ibn Khaldun, income, price level, the size of the population, government spending, the habits and customs of the people, and the general development and prosperity of the society (ibid, pp.398-404). The factors which determined supply were demand (ibid, pp. 400 and 403), order and stability (pp. 306-08), the relative rate of profit (ibid, pp. 395 and 398), the extent of human effort (p. 381), the size of the labor force as well as their knowledge and skill (pp. 363 and 399-400), peace and security (pp. 394-95 and 396), and the technical background and development of the whole society (pp. 399-403). All these constituted important elements of his theory of production. If the price falls and leads to a loss, capital is eroded, the incentive to supply declines, leading to a recession. Trade and crafts also consequently suffer (p. 398).

This is highly significant because the role of both demand and supply in the determination of value was not well understood in the West until the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Pre-classical English economists like William Petty (1623-87), Richard Cantillon (1680-1734), James Steuart (1712-80), and even Adam Smith (1723-90), the founder of the Classical School, generally stressed only the role of the cost of production, and particularly of labor, in the determination of value. The first use in English writings of the notions of both demand and supply was perhaps in 1767 (Thweatt, 1983). Nevertheless, it was not until the second decade of the nineteenth century that the role of both demand and supply in the determination of market prices began to be fully appreciated (Groenewegen, 1973). While Ibn Khaldun had been way ahead of conventional economists, he probably did not have any idea of demand and supply schedules, elasticities of demand and supply and most important of all, equilibrium price, which plays a crucial role in modern economic discussions.

Public Finance

Taxation

Long before Adam Smith (d. 1790), who is famous, among other things, for his canons of taxation (equality, certainty, convenience of payment, and economy in collection) (see Smith, 1937, pp. 777-79), the development of these canons can be traced in the writings of pre-Islamic as well as Muslim scholars, particularly the need for the tax system to be just and not oppressive. Caliphs Umar (d. 644), Ali (d. 661) and Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 720), stressed that taxes should be collected with justice and leniency and should not be beyond the ability of the people to bear. Tax collectors should not under any circumstances deprive the people of the necessities of life (Abu Yusuf, 1933/34, pp. 14, 16 and 86). Abu Yusuf, adviser to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), argued that a just tax system would lead not only to an increase in revenues but also to the development of the country (Abu Yusuf, 1933/34, p. 111; see also pp. 14, 16, 60, 85, 105-19 and 125). Al-Mawardi also argued that the tax system should do justice to both the taxpayer and the treasury – “taking more was iniquitous with respect to the rights of the people, while taking less was unfair with respect to the right of the public treasury” (1960, p. 209; see also pp. 142-56 and 215).[9]

Ibn Khaldun stressed the principles of taxation very forcefully in the Muqaddimah. He quoted from a letter written by Tahir ibn al-Husayn, Caliph al-Ma’mun’s general, advising his son, ‘Abdullah ibn Tahir, Governor of al-Raqqah (Syria): “So distribute [taxes] among all people making them general, not exempting anyone because of his nobility or wealth and not exempting even your own officials or courtiers or followers. And do not levy on anyone a tax which is beyond his capacity to pay” (p. 308).[10] In this particular passage, he stressed the principles of equity and neutrality, while in other places he also stressed the principles of convenience and productivity.

The effect of taxation on incentives and productivity was so clearly visualized by Ibn Khaldun that he seems to have grasped the concept of optimum taxation. He anticipated the gist of the Laffer Curve, nearly six hundred years before Arthur Laffer, in two full chapters of the Muqaddimah.[11] At the end of the first chapter, he concluded that “the most important factor making for business prosperity is to lighten as much as possible the burden of taxation on businessmen, in order to encourage enterprise by ensuring greater profits [after taxes]” (p. 280). This he explained by stating that “when taxes and imposts are light, the people have the incentive to be more active. Business therefore expands, bringing greater satisfaction to the people because of low taxes …, and tax revenues also rise, being the sum total of all assessments” (p. 279). He went on to say that as time passes the needs of the state increase and rates of taxation rise to increase the yield. If this rise is gradual people become accustomed to it, but ultimately there is an adverse impact on incentives. Business activity is discouraged and declines, and so does the yield of taxation (pp. 280-81). A prosperous economy at the beginning of the dynasty, thus, yields higher tax revenue from lower tax rates while a depressed economy at the end of the dynasty, yields smaller tax revenue from higher rates (p. 279). He explained the reasons for this by stating: “Know that acting unjustly with respect to people’s wealth, reduces their will to earn and acquire wealth … and if the will to earn goes, they stop working. The greater the oppression, the greater the effect on their effort to earn … and, if people abstain from earning and stop working, the markets will stagnate and the condition of people will worsen” (pp. 286-87); tax revenues will also decline (p. 362). He, therefore, advocated justice in taxation (p. 308).

Public Expenditure

For Ibn Khaldun the state was also an important factor of production. By its spending it promotes production and by its taxation it discourages production (pp. 279-81). Since the government constitutes the greatest market for goods and services, and is a major source of all development (pp. 286 and 403), a decrease in its spending leads to not only a slackening of business activity and a decline in profits but also a decline in tax revenue (p. 286). The more the government spends, the better it may be for the economy (p. 286).[12] Higher spending enables the government to do the things that are needed to support the population and to ensure law and order and political stability (pp. 306 and 308). Without order and political stability, the producers have no incentive to produce. He stated that “the only reason [for the accelerated development of cities] is that the government is near them and pours its money into them, like the water [of a river] that makes green everything around it, and irrigates the soil adjacent to it, while in the distance everything remains dry” (p. 369).

Ibn Khaldun also analyzed the effect of government expenditure on the economy and is, in this respect, a forerunner of Keynes. He stated: “A decrease in government spending leads to a decline in tax revenues. The reason for this is that the state represents the greatest market for the world and the source of civilization. If the ruler hoards tax revenues, or if these are lost, and he does not spend them as they should be, the amount available with his courtiers and supporters would decrease, as would also the amount that reaches through them to their employees and dependents [the multiplier effect]. Their total spending would, therefore, decline. Since they constitute a significant part of the population and their spending constitutes a substantial part of the market, business will slacken and the profits of businessmen will decline, leading also to a decline in tax revenues … Wealth tends to circulate between the people and the ruler, from him to them and from them to him. Therefore, if the ruler withholds it from spending, the people would become deprived of it” (p. 286).

Economic Mismanagement and Famine

Ibn Khaldun established the causal link between bad government and high grain prices by indicating that in the later stage of the dynasty, when public administration becomes corrupt and inefficient, and resorts to coercion and oppressive taxation, incentive is adversely affected and the farmers refrain from cultivating the land. Grain production and reserves fail to keep pace with the rising population. The absence of reserves causes supply shortages in the event of a famine and leads to price escalation (pp. 301-02).

Al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) who, as muhtasib (market supervisor), had intimate knowledge of the economic conditions during his times, applied Ibn Khaldun’s analysis in his book (1956) to determine the reasons for the economic crisis of Egypt during the period 1403-06. He identified that the political administration had become very weak and corrupt during the Circassian period. Public officials were appointed on the basis of bribery rather than ability.[13] To recover the bribes, officials resorted to oppressive taxation. The incentive to work and produce was adversely affected and output declined. The crisis was further intensified by debasement of the currency through the excessive issue of copper fulus, or fiat money, to cover state budgetary deficits. All these factors joined hands with the famine to lead to a high degree of inflation, misery of the poor, and impoverishment of the country.

Hence, al-Maqrizi laid bare the socio-political determinants of the prevailing ‘system crisis’ by taking into account a number of variables like corruption, bad government policies, and weak administration. All of these together played a role in worsening the impact of the famine, which could otherwise have been handled effectively without a significant adverse impact on the population. This is clearly a forerunner of Sen’s entitlement theory, which holds the economic mismanagement of illegitimate governments to be responsible for the poor people’s misery during famines and other natural disasters (Sen, 1981). What al-Maqrizi wrote of the Circassian Mamluks was also true of the later Ottoman period (See Meyer, 1989).

Stages of Development

Ibn Khaldun stated the stages of development through which every society passes, moving from the primitive Bedouin stage to the rise of village, towns and urban centers with an effective government, development of agriculture, industry and sciences, and the impact of values and environment on this development ( Muqaddimah, pp. 35, 41-44, 87-95, 120-48, 172-76). Walliyullah[14] (d. 1762) later analyzed the development of society through four different stages from primitive existence to a well-developed community with khilafah (morally-based welfare state), which tries to ensure the spiritual as well as material well-being of the people. Like Ibn Khaldun, he considered political authority to be indispensable for human well-being. To be able to serve as a source of well-being for all and not of burden and decay, it must have the characteristics of the khilafah. He applied this analysis in various writings to the conditions prevailing during his life-time. He found that the luxurious life style of the rulers, along with their exhausting military campaigns, the increasing corruption and inefficiency of the civil service, and huge stipends to a vast retinue of unproductive courtiers, led them to the imposition of oppressive taxes on farmers, traders and craftsmen, who constituted the main productive section of the population. These people had, therefore, lost interest in their occupations, output had slowed down, state financial resources had declined, and the country had become impoverished (Waliyullah, 1992, Vol. I, pp. 119-52). Thus, in step with Ibn Khaldun and other Muslim scholars, al-Maqrizi and Waliyullah combined moral, political, social and economic factors to explain the economic phenomena of their times and the rise and fall of their societies.

Muslim Intellectual Decline

Unfortunately, the rich theoretical contribution made by Muslim scholars up until Ibn Khaldun did not get fertilized and irrigated by later scholars to lead to the development of Islamic economics, except by a few isolated scholars like al-Maqrizi, al-Dawwani (d. 1501), and Waliyullah. Their contributions were, however, only in specific areas and did not lead to a further development of Ibn Khaldun’s model of socio-economic and political dynamics. Islamic economics did not, therefore, develop as a separate intellectual discipline in conformity with the Islamic paradigm along the theoretical foundations and method laid down by Ibn Khaldun and his predecessors. It continued to remain an integral part of the social and moral philosophy of Islam.

One may ask here why the rich intellectual contributions made by Muslim scholars did not continue after Ibn Khaldun. The reason may be that, as indicated earlier, Ibn Khaldun lived at a time when the political and socio-economic decline of the Muslim world was underway.[15] He was perhaps “the sole point of light in his quarter of the firmament” (Toynbee, 1935, Vol. 3, p. 321). According to Ibn Khaldun himself, sciences progress only when a society is itself progressing (p. 434). This theory is clearly upheld by Muslim history. Sciences progressed rapidly in the Muslim world for four centuries from the middle of the eighth century to the middle of the twelfth century and continued to do so at a substantially decelerated pace for at least two more centuries, tapering off gradually thereafter (Sarton 1927, Vol. 1 and Book 1 of Vol. 2). Once in a while there did appear a brilliant star on an otherwise unexciting firmament. Economics was no exception. It also continued to be in a state of limbo in the Muslim world. No worthwhile contributions were made after Ibn Khaldun.

The trigger mechanism for this decline was, according to Ibn Khaldun, the failure of political authority to provide good governance. Political illegitimacy, which started after the end of khilafah in 661 gradually led to increased corruption and the use of state resources for private benefit at the neglect of education and other nation-building functions of the state. This gradually triggered the decline of all other sectors of the society and economy.[16]

The rapidly rising Western civilization took over the torch of knowledge from the declining Muslim world and has kept it burning with even greater brightness. All sciences, including the social sciences, have made phenomenal progress. Conventional economics became a separate academic discipline after the publication of Alfred Marshall’s great treatise, Principles of Economics, in 1890 (Schumpeter, 1954, p.21),[17] and has continued to develop since then at a remarkable speed. With such a great achievement to its credit, there is no psychological need to allow the ‘Great Gap’ thesis to persist. It would help promote better understanding of Muslim civilization in the West if textbooks started giving credit to Muslim scholars. They were “the torchbearers of ancient learning during the medieval period” and “it was from them that the Renaissance was sparked and the Enlightenment kindled” (Todd Lowry in his ‘Foreword’ in Ghazanfar, 2003, p. xi). Watt has been frank enough to admit that, “the influence of Islam on Western Christendom is greater than is usually realized” and that, “an important task for Western Europeans, as we move into the era of the one world, is … to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world” (Watt, 1972, p. 84).

Conventional economics, however, took a wrong turn after the Enlightenment Movement by stripping itself of the moral basis of society emphasized by Aristotelian and Judeo-Christian philosophies. This deprived it of the role that moral values and good governance can play in helping society raise both efficiency and equity in the allocation and distribution of scarce resources needed for promoting the well-being of all. However, this has been changing. The role of good governance has already been recognized and that of moral values is gradually penetrating the economics orthodoxy. Islamic economics is also reviving now after the independence of Muslim countries from foreign domination. It is likely that the two disciplines will converge and become one after a period of time. This will be in keeping with the teachings of the Qur’an, which clearly states that mankind was created as one but became divided as a result of their differences and transgression against each other (10:19, 2:213 and 3: 19). This reunification [globalization, as it is new called], if reinforced by justice and mutual care, should help promote peaceful coexistence and enable mankind to realize the well-being of all, a goal the realization of which we are all anxiously looking forward to.

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[1] This is the liberal version of the secular and materialist worldviews. There is also the totalitarian version which does not have faith in the individuals’ ability to manage private property in a way that would ensure social well-being. Hence its prescription is to curb individual freedom and to transfer all means of production and decision making to a totalitarian state. Since this form of the secular and materialist worldview failed to realize human well-being and has been overthrown practically everywhere, it is not discussed in this paper.

[2] The literature on economic development is full of assertions that improvement in income distribution is in direct conflict with economic growth. For a summary of these views, see Cline, 1973, Chapter 2. This has, however, changed and there is hardly any development economist now who argues that injustice can help promote development.

[3] North has used the term ‘nasty’ for all such behavior. See the chapter “Ideology and Free Rider,” in North, 1981.

[4] Some of these scholars include Abu Yusuf (d. 798), al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Abu Ya’la (d. 1065), Nazam al-Mulk (d.1092), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), Shah Walliyullah (d. 1762), Jamaluddin al-Afghani (d. 1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949), Sayyid Mawdudi (d. 1979), and Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980).

[5] Some of these authors include al-Katib (d. 749), Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 756) al-Nu‘man (d. 974), al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Kai Ka’us (d. 1082), Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Turtushi (d. 1127). (For details, see Essid, 1995, pp.19-41.)

[6] For the fallacy of the Great Gap thesis, see Mirakhor (1987) and Ghazanfar (2003), particularly the “Foreword” by Todd Lowry and the “Introduction” by Ghazanfar.

[7] The full name of the book (given in the bibliography) may be freely translated as “The Book of Lessons and the Record of Cause and Effect in the History of Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries.” Several different editions of the Muqaddimah are now available in Arabic. The one I have used is that published in Cairo by al-Maktabah al-Tijarriyah al-Kubra without any indication of the year of publication. It has the advantage of showing all vowel marks, which makes the reading relatively easier. The Muqaddimah was translated into English in three volumes by Franz Rosenthal. Its first edition was published in 1958 and the second edition in 1967. Selections from the Muqaddimah by Charles Issawi were published in 1950 under the title, An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406).

A considerable volume of literature is now available on Ibn Khaldun. This includes Spengler, 1964; Boulakia, 1971; Mirakhor, 1987; and Chapra, 2000.

[8] For some of these contributions, see Spengler, 1964; DeSmogyi, 1965; Mirakhor, 1987; Siddiqi, 1992; Essid, 1995; Islahi, 1996; Chapra, 2000; and Ghazanfar, 2003.

[9] For a more detailed discussion of taxation by various Muslim scholars, see the section on “Literature on Mirrors for Princes” in Essid, 1995, pp. 19-41.

[10] This letter is a significant development over the letter of Abu Yusuf to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (1933/34, pp. 3-17). It is more comprehensive and covers a larger number of topics.

[11] These are “On tax revenues and the reason for their being low and high” (pp. 279-80) and “Injustice ruins development” (pp. 286-410).

[12] Bear in mind the fact that this was stated at the time when commodity money, which it is not possible for the government to ‘create,’ was used, and fiduciary money, had not become the rule of the day.

[13] This was during the Slave (Mamluk) Dynasty in Egypt, which is divided into two periods. The first period was that of the Bahri (or Turkish) Mamluks (1250-1382), who have generally received praise in the chronicles of their contemporaries. The second period was that of the Burji Mamluks (Circassians, 1382-1517). This period was beset by a series of severe economic crises. (For details see Allouche, 1994.)

[14] Shah Walliyullah al-Dihlawi, popularly known as Walliyullah, was born in 1703, four years before the death of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707). Aurangzeb’s rule, spanning a period of forty-nine years, was followed by a great deal of political instability – ten different changes in rulers during Walliyullah’s life-span of 59 years – leading ultimately to the weakening and decline of the Mughal Empire.

[15] For a brief account of the general decline and disintegration of the Muslim world during the fourteenth century, see Muhsin Mahdi, 1964, pp. 17-26.

[16] For a discussion of the causes of Muslim decline, see Chapra, 2000, pp. 173-252.

[17] According to Blaug (1985), economics became an academic discipline in the 1880s (p. 3).

Citation: Chapra, M. “Islamic Economics: What It Is and How It Developed”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/islamic-economics-what-it-is-and-how-it-developed/

Hours of Work in U.S. History

Robert Whaples, Wake Forest University

In the 1800s, many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week and the length of the workweek became an important political issue. Since then the workweek’s length has decreased considerably. This article presents estimates of the length of the historical workweek in the U.S., describes the history of the shorter-hours “movement,” and examines the forces that drove the workweek’s decline over time.

Estimates of the Length of the Workweek

Measuring the length of the workweek (or workday or workyear) is a difficult task, full of ambiguities concerning what constitutes work and who is to be considered a worker. Estimating the length of the historical workweek is even more troublesome. Before the Civil War most Americans were employed in agriculture and most of these were self-employed. Like self-employed workers in other fields, they saw no reason to record the amount of time they spent working. Often the distinction between work time and leisure time was blurry. Therefore, estimates of the length of the typical workweek before the mid-1800s are very imprecise.

The Colonial Period

Based on the amount of work performed — for example, crops raised per worker — Carr (1992) concludes that in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake region, “for at least six months of the year, an eight to ten-hour day of hard labor was necessary.” This does not account for other required tasks, which probably took about three hours per day. This workday was considerably longer than for English laborers, who at the time probably averaged closer to six hours of heavy labor each day.

The Nineteenth Century

Some observers believe that most American workers adopted the practice of working from “first light to dark” — filling all their free hours with work — throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century. Others are skeptical of such claims and argue that work hours increased during the nineteenth century — especially its first half. Gallman (1975) calculates “changes in implicit hours of work per agricultural worker” and estimates that hours increased 11 to 18 percent from 1800 to 1850. Fogel and Engerman (1977) argue that agricultural hours in the North increased before the Civil War due to the shift into time-intensive dairy and livestock. Weiss and Craig (1993) find evidence suggesting that agricultural workers also increased their hours of work between 1860 and 1870. Finally, Margo (2000) estimates that “on an economy-wide basis, it is probable that annual hours of work rose over the (nineteenth) century, by around 10 percent.” He credits this rise to the shift out of agriculture, a decline in the seasonality of labor demand and reductions in annual periods of nonemployment. On the other hand, it is clear that working hours declined substantially for one important group. Ransom and Sutch (1977) and Ng and Virts (1989) estimate that annual labor hours per capita fell 26 to 35 percent among African-Americans with the end of slavery.

Manufacturing Hours before 1890

Our most reliable estimates of the workweek come from manufacturing, since most employers required that manufacturing workers remain at work during precisely specified hours. The Census of Manufactures began to collect this information in 1880 but earlier estimates are available. Much of what is known about average work hours in the nineteenth century comes from two surveys of manufacturing hours taken by the federal government. The first survey, known as the Weeks Report, was prepared by Joseph Weeks as part of the Census of 1880. The second was prepared in 1893 by Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright, for the Senate Committee on Finance, chaired by Nelson Aldrich. It is commonly called the Aldrich Report. Both of these sources, however, have been criticized as flawed due to problems such as sample selection bias (firms whose records survived may not have been typical) and unrepresentative regional and industrial coverage. In addition, the two series differ in their estimates of the average length of the workweek by as much as four hours. These estimates are reported in Table 1. Despite the previously mentioned problems, it seems reasonable to accept two important conclusions based on these data — the length of the typical manufacturing workweek in the 1800s was very long by modern standards and it declined significantly between 1830 and 1890.

Table 1
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked in Manufacturing, 1830-1890

Year Weeks Report Aldrich Report
1830 69.1
1840 67.1 68.4
1850 65.5 69.0
1860 62.0 66.0
1870 61.1 63.0
1880 60.7 61.8
1890 60.0

Sources: U.S. Department of Interior (1883), U.S. Senate (1893)
Note: Atack and Bateman (1992), using data from census manuscripts, estimate average weekly hours to be 60.1 in 1880 — very close to Weeks’ contemporary estimate. They also find that the summer workweek was about 1.5 hours longer than the winter workweek.

Hours of Work during the Twentieth Century

Because of changing definitions and data sources there does not exist a consistent series of workweek estimates covering the entire twentieth century. Table 2 presents six sets of estimates of weekly hours. Despite differences among the series, there is a fairly consistent pattern, with weekly hours falling considerably during the first third of the century and much more slowly thereafter. In particular, hours fell strongly during the years surrounding World War I, so that by 1919 the eight-hour day (with six workdays per week) had been won. Hours fell sharply at the beginning of the Great Depression, especially in manufacturing, then rebounded somewhat and peaked during World War II. After World War II, the length of the workweek stabilized around forty hours. Owen’s nonstudent-male series shows little trend after World War II, but the other series show a slow, but steady, decline in the length of the average workweek. Greis’s two series are based on the average length of the workyear and adjust for paid vacations, holidays and other time-off. The last column is based on information reported by individuals in the decennial censuses and in the Current Population Survey of 1988. It may be the most accurate and representative series, as it is based entirely on the responses of individuals rather than employers.

Table 2
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, 1900-1988

Year Census of Manu-facturing JonesManu-

facturing

OwenNonstudent Males GreisManu-

facturing

GreisAll Workers Census/CPS All Workers
1900 59.6* 55.0 58.5
1904 57.9 53.6 57.1
1909 56.8 (57.3) 53.1 55.7
1914 55.1 (55.5) 50.1 54.0
1919 50.8 (51.2) 46.1 50.0
1924 51.1* 48.8 48.8
1929 50.6 48.0 48.7
1934 34.4 40.6
1940 37.6 42.5 43.3
1944 44.2 46.9
1947 39.2 42.4 43.4 44.7
1950 38.7 41.1 42.7
1953 38.6 41.5 43.2 44.0
1958 37.8* 40.9 42.0 43.4
1960 41.0 40.9
1963 41.6 43.2 43.2
1968 41.7 41.2 42.0
1970 41.1 40.3
1973 40.6 41.0
1978 41.3* 39.7 39.1
1980 39.8
1988 39.2

Sources: Whaples (1990a), Jones (1963), Owen (1976, 1988), and Greis (1984). The last column is based on the author’s calculations using Coleman and Pencavel’s data from Table 4 (below).
* = these estimates are from one year earlier than the year listed.
(The figures in parentheses in the first column are unofficial estimates but are probably more precise, as they better estimate the hours of workers in industries with very long workweeks.)

Hours in Other Industrial Sectors

Table 3 compares the length of the workweek in manufacturing to that in other industries for which there is available information. (Unfortunately, data from the agricultural and service sectors are unavailable until late in this period.) The figures in Table 3 show that the length of the workweek was generally shorter in the other industries — sometimes considerably shorter. For example, in 1910 anthracite coalminers’ workweeks were about forty percent shorter than the average workweek among manufacturing workers. All of the series show an overall downward trend.

Table 3
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, Other Industries

Year Manufacturing Construction Railroads Bituminous Coal Anthracite Coal
1850s about 66 about 66
1870s about 62 about 60
1890 60.0 51.3
1900 59.6 50.3 52.3 42.8 35.8
1910 57.3 45.2 51.5 38.9 43.3
1920 51.2 43.8 46.8 39.3 43.2
1930 50.6 42.9 33.3 37.0
1940 37.6 42.5 27.8 27.2
1955 38.5 37.1 32.4 31.4

Sources: Douglas (1930), Jones (1963), Licht (1983), and Tables 1 and 2.
Note: The manufacturing figures for the 1850s and 1870s are approximations based on averaging numbers from the Weeks and Aldrich reports from Table 1. The early estimates for the railroad industry are also approximations.

Recent Trends by Race and Gender

Some analysts, such as Schor (1992) have argued that the workweek increased substantially in the last half of the twentieth century. Few economists accept this conclusion, arguing that it is based on the use of faulty data (public opinion surveys) and unexplained methods of “correcting” more reliable sources. Schor’s conclusions are contradicted by numerous studies. Table 4 presents Coleman and Pencavel’s (1993a, 1993b) estimates of the average workweek of employed people — disaggregated by race and gender. For all four groups the average length of the workweek has dropped since 1950. Although median weekly hours were virtually constant for men, the upper tail of the hours distribution fell for those with little schooling and rose for the well-educated. In addition, Coleman and Pencavel also find that work hours declined for young and older men (especially black men), but changed little for white men in their prime working years. Women with relatively little schooling were working fewer hours in the 1980s than in 1940, while the reverse is true of well-educated women.

Table 4
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, by Race and Gender, 1940-1988

Year White Men Black Men White Women Black Women
1940 44.1 44.5 40.6 42.2
1950 43.4 42.8 41.0 40.3
1960 43.3 40.4 36.8 34.7
1970 43.1 40.2 36.1 35.9
1980 42.9 39.6 35.9 36.5
1988 42.4 39.6 35.5 37.2

Source: Coleman and Pencavel (1993a, 1993b)

Broader Trends in Time Use, 1880 to 2040

In 1880 a typical male household head had very little leisure time — only about 1.8 hours per day over the course of a year. However, as Fogel’s (2000) estimates in Table 5 show, between 1880 and 1995 the amount of work per day fell nearly in half, allowing leisure time to more than triple. Because of the decline in the length of the workweek and the declining portion of a lifetime that is spent in paid work (due largely to lengthening periods of education and retirement) the fraction of the typical American’s lifetime devoted to work has become remarkably small. Based on these trends Fogel estimates that four decades from now less than one-fourth of our discretionary time (time not needed for sleep, meals, and hygiene) will be devoted to paid work — over three-fourths will be available for doing what we wish.

Table 5
Division of the Day for the Average Male Household Head over the Course of a Year, 1880 and 1995

Activity 1880 1995
Sleep 8 8
Meals and hygiene 2 2
Chores 2 2
Travel to and from work 1 1
Work 8.5 4.7
Illness .7 .5
Left over for leisure activities 1.8 5.8

Source: Fogel (2000)

Table 6
Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040

Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000

Source: Fogel (2000)
Notes: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.

Postwar International Comparisons

While hours of work have decreased slowly in the U.S. since the end of World War II, they have decreased more rapidly in Western Europe. Greis (1984) calculates that annual hours worked per employee fell from 1908 to 1704 in the U.S. between 1950 and 1979, a 10.7 percent decrease. This compares to a 21.8 percent decrease across a group of twelve Western European countries, where the average fell from 2170 hours to 1698 hours between 1950 and 1979. Perhaps the most precise way of measuring work hours is to have individuals fill out diaries on their day-to-day and hour-to-hour time use. Table 7 presents an international comparison of average work hours both inside and outside of the workplace, by adult men and women — averaging those who are employed with those who are not. (Juster and Stafford (1991) caution, however, that making these comparisons requires a good deal of guesswork.) These numbers show a significant drop in total work per week in the U.S. between 1965 and 1981. They also show that total work by men and women is very similar, although it is divided differently. Total work hours in the U.S. were fairly similar to those in Japan, but greater than in Denmark, while less than in the USSR.

Table 7
Weekly Work Time in Four Countries, Based on Time Diaries, 1960s-1980s

Activity US USSR (Pskov)
Men Women Men Women
1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981
Total Work 63.1 57.8 60.9 54.4 64.4 65.7 75.3 66.3
Market Work 51.6 44.0 18.9 23.9 54.6 53.8 43.8 39.3
Commuting 4.8 3.5 1.6 2.0 4.9 5.2 3.7 3.4
Housework 11.5 13.8 41.8 30.5 9.8 11.9 31.5 27.0
Activity Japan Denmark
Men Women Men Women
1965 1985 1965 1985 1964 1987 1964 1987
Total Work 60.5 55.5 64.7 55.6 45.4 46.2 43.4 43.9
Market Work 57.7 52.0 33.2 24.6 41.7 33.4 13.3 20.8
Commuting 3.6 4.5 1.0 1.2 n.a n.a n.a n.a
Housework 2.8 3.5 31.5 31.0 3.7 12.8 30.1 23.1

Source: Juster and Stafford (1991)

The Shorter Hours “Movement” in the U.S.

The Colonial Period

Captain John Smith, after mapping New England’s coast, came away convinced that three days’ work per week would satisfy any settler. Far from becoming a land of leisure, however, the abundant resources of British America and the ideology of its settlers, brought forth high levels of work. Many colonial Americans held the opinion that prosperity could be taken as a sign of God’s pleasure with the individual, viewed work as inherently good and saw idleness as the devil’s workshop. Rodgers (1978) argues that this work ethic spread and eventually reigned supreme in colonial America. The ethic was consistent with the American experience, since high returns to effort meant that hard work often yielded significant increases in wealth. In Virginia, authorities also transplanted the Statue of Artificers, which obliged all Englishmen (except the gentry) to engage in productive activity from sunrise to sunset. Likewise, a 1670 Massachusetts law demanded a minimum ten-hour workday, but it is unlikely that these laws had any impact on the behavior of most free workers.

The Revolutionary War Period

Roediger and Foner (1989) contend that the Revolutionary War era brought a series of changes that undermined support for sun-to-sun work. The era’s republican ideology emphasized that workers needed free time, away from work, to participate in democracy. Simultaneously, the development of merchant capitalism meant that there were, for the first time, a significant number of wageworkers. Roediger and Foner argue that reducing labor costs was crucial to the profitability of these workers’ employers, who reduced costs by squeezing more work from their employees — reducing time for meals, drink and rest and sometimes even rigging the workplace’s official clock. Incensed by their employers’ practice of paying a flat daily wage during the long summer shift and resorting to piece rates during short winter days, Philadelphia’s carpenters mounted America’s first ten-hour-day strike in May 1791. (The strike was unsuccessful.)

1820s: The Shorter Hours Movement Begins

Changes in the organization of work, with the continued rise of merchant capitalists, the transition from the artisanal shop to the early factory, and an intensified work pace had become widespread by about 1825. These changes produced the first extensive, aggressive movement among workers for shorter hours, as the ten-hour movement blossomed in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. Rallying around the ten-hour banner, workers formed the first city-central labor union in the U.S., the first labor newspaper, and the first workingmen’s political party — all in Philadelphia — in the late 1820s.

Early Debates over Shorter Hours

Although the length of the workday is largely an economic decision arrived at by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor, advocates of shorter hours and foes of shorter hours have often argued the issue on moral grounds. In the early 1800s, advocates argued that shorter work hours improved workers’ health, allowed them time for self-improvement and relieved unemployment. Detractors countered that workers would abuse leisure time (especially in saloons) and that long, dedicated hours of work were the path to success, which should not be blocked for the great number of ambitious workers.

1840s: Early Agitation for Government Intervention

When Samuel Slater built the first textile mills in the U.S., “workers labored from sun up to sun down in summer and during the darkness of both morning and evening in the winter. These hours ? only attracted attention when they exceeded the common working day of twelve hours,” according to Ware (1931). During the 1830s, an increased work pace, tighter supervision, and the addition of about fifteen minutes to the work day (partly due to the introduction of artificial lighting during winter months), plus the growth of a core of more permanent industrial workers, fueled a campaign for a shorter workweek among mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, whose workweek averaged about 74 hours. This agitation was led by Sarah Bagley and the New England Female Labor Reform Association, which, beginning in 1845, petitioned the state legislature to intervene in the determination of hours. The petitions were followed by America’s first-ever examination of labor conditions by a governmental investigating committee. The Massachusetts legislature proved to be very unsympathetic to the workers’ demands, but similar complaints led to the passage of laws in New Hampshire (1847) and Pennsylvania (1848), declaring ten hours to be the legal length of the working day. However, these laws also specified that a contract freely entered into by employee and employer could set any length for the workweek. Hence, these laws had little impact. Legislation passed by the federal government had a more direct, though limited effect. On March 31, 1840, President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating a ten-hour day for all federal employees engaged in manual work.

1860s: Grand Eight Hours Leagues

As the length of the workweek gradually declined, political agitation for shorter hours seems to have waned for the next two decades. However, immediately after the Civil War reductions in the length of the workweek reemerged as an important issue for organized labor. The new goal was an eight-hour day. Roediger (1986) argues that many of the new ideas about shorter hours grew out of the abolitionists’ critique of slavery — that long hours, like slavery, stunted aggregate demand in the economy. The leading proponent of this idea, Ira Steward, argued that decreasing the length of the workweek would raise the standard of living of workers by raising their desired consumption levels as their leisure expanded, and by ending unemployment. The hub of the newly launched movement was Boston and Grand Eight Hours Leagues sprang up around the country in 1865 and 1866. The leaders of the movement called the meeting of the first national organization to unite workers of different trades, the National Labor Union, which met in Baltimore in 1867. In response to this movement, eight states adopted general eight-hour laws, but again the laws allowed employer and employee to mutually consent to workdays longer than the “legal day.” Many critics saw these laws and this agitation as a hoax, because few workers actually desired to work only eight hours per day at their original hourly pay rate. The passage of the state laws did foment action by workers — especially in Chicago where parades, a general strike, rioting and martial law ensued. In only a few places did work hours fall after the passage of these laws. Many become disillusioned with the idea of using the government to promote shorter hours and by the late 1860s, efforts to push for a universal eight-hour day had been put on the back burner.

The First Enforceable Hours Laws

Despite this lull in shorter-hours agitation, in 1874, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first enforceable ten-hour law. It covered only female workers and became fully effective by 1879. This legislation was fairly late by European standards. Britain had passed its first effective Factory Act, setting maximum hours for almost half of its very young textile workers, in 1833.

1886: Year of Dashed Hopes

In the early 1880s organized labor in the U.S. was fairly weak. In 1884, the short-lived Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) fired a “shot in the dark.” During its final meeting, before dissolving, the Federation “ordained” May 1, 1886 as the date on which workers would cease working beyond eight hours per day. Meanwhile, the Knights of Labor, which had begun as a secret fraternal society and evolved a labor union, began to gain strength. It appears that many nonunionized workers, especially the unskilled, came to see in the Knights a chance to obtain a better deal from their employers, perhaps even to obtain the eight-hour day. FOTLU’s call for workers to simply walk off the job after eight hours beginning on May 1, plus the activities of socialist and anarchist labor organizers and politicians, and the apparent strength of the Knights combined to attract members in record numbers. The Knights mushroomed and its new membership demanded that their local leaders support them in attaining the eight-hour day. Many smelled victory in the air — the movement to win the eight-hour day became frenzied and the goal became “almost a religious crusade” (Grob, 1961).

The Knights’ leader, Terence Powderly, thought that the push for a May 1 general strike for eight-hours was “rash, short-sighted and lacking in system” and “must prove abortive” (Powderly, 1890). He offered no effective alternative plan but instead tried to block the mass action, issuing a “secret circular” condemning the use of strikes. Powderly reasoned that low incomes forced workmen to accept long hours. Workers didn’t want shorter hours unless their daily pay was maintained, but employers were unwilling and/or unable to offer this. Powderly’s rival, labor leader Samuel Gompers, agreed that “the movement of ’86 did not have the advantage of favorable conditions” (Gompers, 1925). Nelson (1986) points to divisions among workers, which probably had much to do with the failure in 1886 of the drive for the eight-hour day. Some insisted on eight hours with ten hours’ pay, but others were willing to accept eight hours with eight hours’ pay,

Haymarket Square Bombing

The eight-hour push of 1886 was, in Norman Ware’s words, “a flop” (Ware, 1929). Lack of will and organization among workers was undoubtedly important, but its collapse was aided by violence that marred strikes and political rallies in Chicago and Milwaukee. The 1886 drive for eight-hours literally blew up in organized labor’s face. At Haymarket Square in Chicago an anarchist bomb killed fifteen policemen during an eight-hour rally, and in Milwaukee’s Bay View suburb nine strikers were killed as police tried to disperse roving pickets. The public backlash and fear of revolution damned the eight-hour organizers along with the radicals and dampened the drive toward eight hours — although it is estimated that the strikes of May 1886 shortened the workweek for about 200,000 industrial workers, especially in New York City and Cincinnati.

The AFL’s Strategy

After the demise of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) became the strongest labor union in the U.S. It held shorter hours as a high priority. The inside cover of its Proceedings carried two slogans in large type: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” and “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay.” (The latter slogan was coined by Ira Steward’s wife, Mary.) In the aftermath of 1886, the American Federation of Labor adopted a new strategy of selecting each year one industry in which it would attempt to win the eight-hour day, after laying solid plans, organizing, and building up a strike fund war chest by taxing nonstriking unions. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners was selected first and May 1, 1890 was set as a day of national strikes. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 workers gained the eight-hour day as a result of these strikes in 1890. However, other unions turned down the opportunity to follow the carpenters’ example and the tactic was abandoned. Instead, the length of the workweek continued to erode during this period, sometimes as the result of a successful local strike, more often as the result of broader economic forces.

The Spread of Hours Legislation

Massachusetts’ first hours law in 1874 set sixty hours per week as the legal maximum for women, in 1892 this was cut to 58, in 1908 to 56, and in 1911 to 54. By 1900, 26 percent of states had maximum hours laws covering women, children and, in some, adult men (generally only those in hazardous industries). The percentage of states with maximum hours laws climbed to 58 percent in 1910, 76 percent in 1920, and 84 percent in 1930. Steinberg (1982) calculates that the percent of employees covered climbed from 4 percent nationally in 1900, to 7 percent in 1910, and 12 percent in 1920 and 1930. In addition, these laws became more restrictive with the average legal standard falling from a maximum of 59.3 hours per week in 1900 to 56.7 in 1920. According to her calculations, in 1900 about 16 percent of the workers covered by these laws were adult men, 49 percent were adult women and the rest were minors.

Court Rulings

The banner years for maximum hours legislation were right around 1910. This may have been partly a reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding female-hours legislation in the Muller vs. Oregon case (1908). The Court’s rulings were not always completely consistent during this period, however. In 1898 the Court upheld a maximum eight-hour day for workmen in the hazardous industries of mining and smelting in Utah in Holden vs. Hardy. In Lochner vs. New York (1905), it rejected as unconstitutional New York’s ten-hour day for bakers, which was also adopted (at least nominally) out of concerns for safety. The defendant showed that mortality rates in baking were only slightly above average, and lower than those for many unregulated occupations, arguing that this was special interest legislation, designed to favor unionized bakers. Several state courts, on the other hand, supported laws regulating the hours of men in only marginally hazardous work. By 1917, in Bunting vs. Oregon, the Supreme Court seemingly overturned the logic of the Lochner decision, supporting a state law that required overtime payment for all men working long hours. The general presumption during this period was that the courts would allow regulation of labor concerning women and children, who were thought to be incapable of bargaining on an equal footing with employers and in special need of protection. Men were allowed freedom of contract unless it could be proven that regulating their hours served a higher good for the population at large.

New Arguments about Shorter Hours

During the first decades of the twentieth century, arguments favoring shorter hours moved away from Steward’s line that shorter hours increased pay and reduced unemployment to arguments that shorter hours were good for employers because they made workers more productive. A new cadre of social scientists began to offer evidence that long hours produced health-threatening, productivity-reducing fatigue. This line of reasoning, advanced in the court brief of Louis Brandeis and Josephine Goldmark, was crucial in the Supreme Court’s decision to support state regulation of women’s hours in Muller vs. Oregon. Goldmark’s book, Fatigue and Efficiency (1912) was a landmark. In addition, data relating to hours and output among British and American war workers during World War I helped convince some that long hours could be counterproductive. Businessmen, however, frequently attacked the shorter hours movement as merely a ploy to raise wages, since workers were generally willing to work overtime at higher wage rates.

Federal Legislation in the 1910s

In 1912 the Federal Public Works Act was passed, which provided that every contract to which the U.S. government was a party must contain an eight-hour day clause. Three year later LaFollette’s Bill established maximum hours for maritime workers. These were preludes to the most important shorter-hours law enacted by Congress during this period — 1916’s Adamson Act, which was passed to counter a threatened nationwide strike, granted rail workers the basic eight hour day. (The law set eight hours as the basic workday and required higher overtime pay for longer hours.)

World War I and Its Aftermath

Labor markets became very tight during World War I as the demand for workers soared and the unemployment rate plunged. These forces put workers in a strong bargaining position, which they used to obtain shorter work schedules. The move to shorter hours was also pushed by the federal government, which gave unprecedented support to unionization. The federal government began to intervene in labor disputes for the first time, and the National War Labor Board “almost invariably awarded the basic eight-hour day when the question of hours was at issue” in labor disputes (Cahill, 1932). At the end of the war everyone wondered if organized labor would maintain its newfound power and the crucial test case was the steel industry. Blast furnace workers generally put in 84-hour workweeks. These abnormally long hours were the subject of much denunciation and a major issue in a strike that began in September 1919. The strike failed (and organized labor’s power receded during the 1920s), but four years later US Steel reduced its workday from twelve to eight hours. The move came after much arm-twisting by President Harding but its timing may be explained by immigration restrictions and the loss of immigrant workers who were willing to accept such long hours (Shiells, 1990).

The Move to a Five-day Workweek

During the 1920s agitation for shorter workdays largely disappeared, now that the workweek had fallen to about 50 hours. However, pressure arose to grant half-holidays on Saturday or Saturday off — especially in industries whose workers were predominantly Jewish. By 1927 at least 262 large establishments had adopted the five-day week, while only 32 had it by 1920. The most notable action was Henry Ford’s decision to adopt the five-day week in 1926. Ford employed more than half of the nation’s approximately 400,000 workers with five-day weeks. However, Ford’s motives were questioned by many employers who argued that productivity gains from reducing hours ceased beyond about forty-eight hours per week. Even the reformist American Labor Legislation Review greeted the call for a five-day workweek with lukewarm interest.

Changing Attitudes in the 1920s

Hunnicutt (1988) argues that during the 1920s businessmen and economists began to see shorter hours as a threat to future economic growth. With the development of advertising — the “gospel of consumption” — a new vision of progress was proposed to American workers. It replaced the goal of leisure time with a list of things to buy and business began to persuade workers that more work brought more tangible rewards. Many workers began to oppose further decreases in the length of the workweek. Hunnicutt concludes that a new work ethic arose as Americans threw off the psychology of scarcity for one of abundance.

Hours’ Reduction during the Great Depression

Then the Great Depression hit the American economy. By 1932 about half of American employers had shortened hours. Rather than slash workers’ real wages, employers opted to lay-off many workers (the unemployment rate hit 25 percent) and tried to protect the ones they kept on by the sharing of work among them. President Hoover’s Commission for Work Sharing pushed voluntary hours reductions and estimated that they had saved three to five million jobs. Major employers like Sears, GM, and Standard Oil scaled down their workweeks and Kellogg’s and the Akron tire industry pioneered the six-hour day. Amid these developments, the AFL called for a federally-mandated thirty-hour workweek.

The Black-Connery 30-Hours Bill and the NIRA

The movement for shorter hours as a depression-fighting work-sharing measure built such a seemingly irresistible momentum that by 1933 observers predicting that the “30-hour week was within a month of becoming federal law” (Hunnicutt, 1988). During the period after the 1932 election but before Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congressional hearings on thirty hours began, and less than one month into FDR’s first term, the Senate passed, 53 to 30, a thirty-hour bill authored by Hugo Black. The bill was sponsored in the House by William Connery. Roosevelt originally supported the Black-Connery proposals, but soon backed off, uneasy with a provision forbidding importation of goods produced by workers whose weeks were longer than thirty hours, and convinced by arguments of business that trying to legislate fewer hours might have disastrous results. Instead, FDR backed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Hunnicutt argues that an implicit deal was struck in the NIRA. Labor leaders were persuaded by NIRA Section 7a’s provisions — which guaranteed union organization and collective bargaining — to support the NIRA rather than the Black-Connery Thirty-Hour Bill. Business, with the threat of thirty hours hanging over its head, fell raggedly into line. (Most historians cite other factors as the key to the NIRA’s passage. See Barbara Alexander’s article on the NIRA in this encyclopedia.) When specific industry codes were drawn up by the NIRA-created National Recovery Administration (NRA), shorter hours were deemphasized. Despite a plan by NRA Administrator Hugh Johnson to make blanket provisions for a thirty-five hour workweek in all industry codes, by late August 1933, the momentum toward the thirty-hour week had dissipated. About half of employees covered by NRA codes had their hours set at forty per week and nearly 40 percent had workweeks longer than forty hours.

The FSLA: Federal Overtime Law

Hunnicutt argues that the entire New Deal can be seen as an attempt to keep shorter-hours advocates at bay. After the Supreme Court struck down the NRA, Roosevelt responded to continued demands for thirty hours with the Works Progress Administration, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and, finally, the Fair Labor Standards Acts, which set a federal minimum wage and decreed that overtime beyond forty hours per week would be paid at one-and-a-half times the base rate in covered industries.

The Demise of the Shorter Hours’ Movement

As the Great Depression ended, average weekly work hours slowly climbed from their low reached in 1934. During World War II hours reached a level almost as high as at the end of World War I. With the postwar return of weekly work hours to the forty-hour level the shorter hours movement effectively ended. Occasionally organized labor’s leaders announced that they would renew the push for shorter hours, but they found that most workers didn’t desire a shorter workweek.

The Case of Kellogg’s

Offsetting isolated examples of hours reductions after World War II, there were noteworthy cases of backsliding. Hunnicutt (1996) has studied the case of Kellogg’s in great detail. In 1946, 87% of women and 71% of men working at Kellogg’s voted to return to the six-hour day, with the end of the war. Over the course of the next decade, however, the tide turned. By 1957 most departments had opted to switch to 8-hour shifts, so that only about one-quarter of the work force, mostly women, retained a six-hour shift. Finally, in 1985, the last department voted to adopt an 8-hour workday. Workers, especially male workers, began to favor additional money more than the extra two hours per day of free time. In interviews they explained that they needed the extra money to buy a wide range of consumer items and to keep up with the neighbors. Several men told about the friction that resulted when men spent too much time around the house: “The wives didn’t like the men underfoot all day.” “The wife always found something for me to do if I hung around.” “We got into a lot of fights.” During the 1950s, the threat of unemployment evaporated and the moral condemnation for being a “work hog” no longer made sense. In addition, the rise of quasi-fixed employment costs (such as health insurance) induced management to push workers toward a longer workday.

The Current Situation

As the twentieth century ended there was nothing resembling a shorter hours “movement.” The length of the workweek continues to fall for most groups — but at a glacial pace. Some Americans complain about a lack of free time but the vast majority seem content with an average workweek of roughly forty hours — channeling almost all of their growing wages into higher incomes rather than increased leisure time.

Causes of the Decline in the Length of the Workweek

Supply, Demand and Hours of Work

The length of the workweek, like other labor market outcomes, is determined by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor. Employers are torn by conflicting pressures. Holding everything else constant, they would like employees to work long hours because this means that they can utilize their equipment more fully and offset any fixed costs from hiring each worker (such as the cost of health insurance — common today, but not a consideration a century ago). On the other hand, longer hours can bring reduced productivity due to worker fatigue and can bring worker demands for higher hourly wages to compensate for putting in long hours. If they set the workweek too high, workers may quit and few workers will be willing to work for them at a competitive wage rate. Thus, workers implicitly choose among a variety of jobs — some offering shorter hours and lower earnings, others offering longer hours and higher earnings.

Economic Growth and the Long-Term Reduction of Work Hours

Historically employers and employees often agreed on very long workweeks because the economy was not very productive (by today’s standards) and people had to work long hours to earn enough money to feed, clothe and house their families. The long-term decline in the length of the workweek, in this view, has primarily been due to increased economic productivity, which has yielded higher wages for workers. Workers responded to this rise in potential income by “buying” more leisure time, as well as by buying more goods and services. In a recent survey, a sizeable majority of economic historians agreed with this view. Over eighty percent accepted the proposition that “the reduction in the length of the workweek in American manufacturing before the Great Depression was primarily due to economic growth and the increased wages it brought” (Whaples, 1995). Other broad forces probably played only a secondary role. For example, roughly two-thirds of economic historians surveyed rejected the proposition that the efforts of labor unions were the primary cause of the drop in work hours before the Great Depression.

Winning the Eight-Hour Day in the Era of World War I

The swift reduction of the workweek in the period around World War I has been extensively analyzed by Whaples (1990b). His findings support the consensus that economic growth was the key to reduced work hours. Whaples links factors such as wages, labor legislation, union power, ethnicity, city size, leisure opportunities, age structure, wealth and homeownership, health, education, alternative employment opportunities, industrial concentration, seasonality of employment, and technological considerations to changes in the average workweek in 274 cities and 118 industries. He finds that the rapid economic expansion of the World War I period, which pushed up real wages by more than 18 percent between 1914 and 1919, explains about half of the drop in the length of the workweek. The reduction of immigration during the war was important, as it deprived employers of a group of workers who were willing to put in long hours, explaining about one-fifth of the hours decline. The rapid electrification of manufacturing seems also to have played an important role in reducing the workweek. Increased unionization explains about one-seventh of the reduction, and federal and state legislation and policies that mandated reduced workweeks also had a noticeable role.

Cross-sectional Patterns from 1919

In 1919 the average workweek varied tremendously, emphasizing the point that not all workers desired the same workweek. The workweek exceeded 69 hours in the iron blast furnace, cottonseed oil, and sugar beet industries, but fell below 45 hours in industries such as hats and caps, fur goods, and women’s clothing. Cities’ averages also differed dramatically. In a few Midwestern steel mill towns average workweeks exceeded 60 hours. In a wide range of low-wage Southern cities they reached the high 50s, but in high-wage Western ports, like Seattle, the workweek fell below 45 hours.

Whaples (1990a) finds that among the most important city-level determinants of the workweek during this period were the availability of a pool of agricultural workers, the capital-labor ratio, horsepower per worker, and the amount of employment in large establishments. Hours rose as each of these increased. Eastern European immigrants worked significantly longer than others, as did people in industries whose output varied considerably from season to season. High unionization and strike levels reduced hours to a small degree. The average female employee worked about six and a half fewer hours per week in 1919 than did the average male employee. In city-level comparisons, state maximum hours laws appear to have had little affect on average work hours, once the influences of other factors have been taken into account. One possibility is that these laws were passed only after economic forces lowered the length of the workweek. Overall, in cities where wages were one percent higher, hours were about -0.13 to -0.05 percent lower. Again, this suggests that during the era of declining hours, workers were willing to use higher wages to “buy” shorter hours.

Annotated Bibliography

Perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the shorter hours movement in the U.S. is David Roediger and Philip Foner’s Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (1989). It contends that “the length of the working day has been the central issue for the American labor movement during its most vigorous periods of activity, uniting workers along lines of craft, gender, and ethnicity.” Critics argue that its central premise is flawed because workers have often been divided about the optimal length of the workweek. It explains the point of view of organized labor and recounts numerous historically important events and arguments, but does not attempt to examine in detail the broader economic forces that determined the length of the workweek. An earlier useful comprehensive work is Marion Cahill’s Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement since the Civil War (1932).

Benjamin Hunnicutt’s Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (1988) focuses on the period from 1920 to 1940 and traces the political, intellectual, and social “dialogues” that changed the American concept of progress from dreams of more leisure to an “obsession” with the importance of work and wage-earning. This work’s detailed analysis and insights are valuable, but it draws many of its inferences from what intellectuals said about shorter hours, rather than spending time on the actual decision makers — workers and employers. Hunnicutt’s Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day (1996), is important because it does exactly this — interviewing employees and examining the motives and decisions of a prominent employer. Unfortunately, it shows that one must carefully interpret what workers say on the subject, as they are prone to reinterpret their own pasts so that their choices can be more readily rationalized. (See EH.NET’s review: http://eh.net/book_reviews/kelloggs-six-hour-day/.)

Economists have given surprisingly little attention to the determinants of the workweek. The most comprehensive treatment is Robert Whaples’ “The Shortening of the American Work Week” (1990), which surveys estimates of the length of the workweek, the shorter hours movement, and economic theories about the length of the workweek. Its core is an extensive statistical examination of the determinants of the workweek in the period around World War I.

References

Atack, Jeremy and Fred Bateman. “How Long Was the Workday in 1880?” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (1992): 129-160.

Cahill, Marion Cotter. Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement since the Civil War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.

Carr, Lois Green. “Emigration and the Standard of Living: The Seventeenth Century Chesapeake.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (1992): 271-291.

Coleman, Mary T. and John Pencavel. “Changes in Work Hours of Male Employees, 1940-1988.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 46, no. 2 (1993a): 262-283.

Coleman, Mary T. and John Pencavel. “Trends in Market Work Behavior of Women since 1940.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 46, no. 4 (1993b): 653-676.

Douglas, Paul. Real Wages in the United States, 1890-1926. Boston: Houghton, 1930.

Fogel, Robert. The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Fogel, Robert and Stanley Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Gallman, Robert. “The Agricultural Sector and the Pace of Economic Growth: U.S. Experience in the Nineteenth Century.” In Essays in Nineteenth-Century Economic History: The Old Northwest, edited by David Klingaman and Richard Vedder. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1975.

Goldmark, Josephine. Fatigue and Efficiency. New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1912.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1925.

Greis, Theresa Diss. The Decline of Annual Hours Worked in the United States, since 1947. Manpower and Human Resources Studies, no. 10, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 1984.

Grob, Gerald. Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1961.

Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline. Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline. Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Jones, Ethel. “New Estimates of Hours of Work per Week and Hourly Earnings, 1900-1957.” Review of Economics and Statistics 45, no. 4 (1963): 374-385.

Juster, F. Thomas and Frank P. Stafford. “The Allocation of Time: Empirical Findings, Behavioral Models, and Problems of Measurement.” Journal of Economic Literature 29, no. 2 (1991): 471-522.

Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Margo, Robert. “The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume II, The Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, 207-243. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Nelson, Bruce. “‘We Can’t Get Them to Do Aggressive Work': Chicago’s Anarchists and the Eight-Hour Movement.” International Labor and Working Class History 29 (1986).

Ng, Kenneth and Nancy Virts. “The Value of Freedom.” Journal of Economic History 49, no. 4 (1989): 958-965.

Owen, John. “Workweeks and Leisure: An Analysis of Trends, 1948-1975.” Monthly Labor Review 99 (1976).

Owen, John. “Work-time Reduction in the United States and Western Europe.” Monthly Labor Review 111 (1988).

Powderly, Terence. Thirty Years of Labor, 1859-1889. Columbus: Excelsior, 1890.

Ransom, Roger and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Rodgers, Daniel. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Roediger, David. “Ira Steward and the Antislavery Origins of American Eight-Hour Theory.” Labor History 27 (1986).

Roediger, David and Philip Foner. Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day. New York: Verso, 1989.

Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Shiells, Martha Ellen, “Collective Choice of Working Conditions: Hours in British and U.S. Iron and Steel, 1890-1923.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990): 379-392.

Steinberg, Ronnie. Wages and Hours: Labor and Reform in Twentieth-Century America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1982.

United States, Department of Interior, Census Office. Report on the Statistics of Wages in Manufacturing Industries, by Joseph Weeks, 1880 Census, Vol. 20. Washington: GPO, 1883.

United States Senate. Senate Report 1394, Fifty-Second Congress, Second Session. “Wholesale Prices, Wages, and Transportation.” Washington: GPO, 1893.

Ware, Caroline. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study of Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1931.

Ware, Norman. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895. New York: Appleton, 1929.

Weiss, Thomas and Lee Craig. “Agricultural Productivity Growth during the Decade of the Civil War.” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 527-548.

Whaples, Robert. “The Shortening of the American Work Week: An Economic and Historical Analysis of Its Context, Causes, and Consequences.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1990a.

Whaples, Robert. “Winning the Eight-Hour Day, 1909-1919.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990b): 393-406.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus Among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions.” Journal of Economic History 55, no. 1 (1995): 139-154.

Citation: Whaples, Robert. “Hours of Work in U.S. History”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/hours-of-work-in-u-s-history/

Handbook of World Exchange Rates, 1590-1914

Author(s):Denzel, Markus A.
Reviewer(s):Officer, Lawrence H.

Published by EH.NET (December 2010)

Markus A. Denzel, Handbook of World Exchange Rates, 1590-1914. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010. clii + 614 pp. $165 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-0356-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence H. Officer, Department of Economics, University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 1962 a great historian of foreign exchange wrote: ?There is everything to be said for compiling continuous series of exchange rates for all the important exchanges in the principal Foreign Exchange markets, at least from the sixteenth century, but preferably also for the late Medieval Period. The material is there, in public records and business archives. But to make it accessible is a task that only some well-endowed research department could undertake? (Einzig, 1970, p. xii).

In fact, the task was largely done and the results made public in the last decade of the twentieth century via a set of 11 volumes under the rubric W?hrungen der Welt (Currencies of the World). Markus A. Denzel, Professor at University of Leipzig and the author of Handbook of World Exchange Rates, 1590-1914, was one of the editors of all but the first volume of this set. The eleven-volumes of W?hrungen der Welt are a fantastic resource for the monetary historian and exchange-rate specialist; but, for most potential users, it has the twin defects of a language barrier and the sheer mass of data presented. Therefore, eight years ago, Denzel began work on the Handbook, the objective of which is to present the content of W?hrungen der Welt into one manageable volume and in English, thus correcting the defects. As the author states: ?it was the central aim of this edition to act as an English anthology presenting the most important exchange rate series in the form of a handbook? (p. v).

But the author does more than simply condense the data series in the eleven German volumes into one English volume. Table 1 summarizes the various parts of the Handbook. Although over four-fifths of the book is devoted to exchange-rate series, there are over a hundred pages left over. A good part of the latter page group is devoted to two general histories, the first of which is a history of international ?cashless payments,? beginning with the bill of exchange in Europe (specifically Italy) in the Middle Ages and concentrating on that Continent, but also with reference to Arabian, Armenian, Chinese, and Indian experiences. This is as detailed a history of international exchange instruments as could be found anywhere — but here all in one place. Denzel continues the history beyond the bill of exchange to the telegraphic transfer and the check.

Table 1
Anatomy of the Handbook

use of handbook??? ?????? ??? ??? ??? ??? ????????????????????????????????? 12 pages
history of foreign exchange and currency systems??? ?????? ?? ? 89 pages
list of data sources??? ?????? ??? ??? ??? ??? ?????????????????????????????? 12 pages
bibliography??? ?????? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ???????????????????????????????????? 30 pages
exchange-rate series (text and tables)??? ???? ??? ??? ????????????? 614 pages
total substantive pages??? ???? ??? ??? ??? ??? ?????????????????????????? 757 pages

Also impressive is the related history of currency systems, again beginning in the Middle Ages (with the various regional divisions of the pound). Coins and moneys of account are the subject, and paper money is also considered. Denzel correctly observes that banknotes began in Sweden, but does not mention the much earlier Chinese experience with paper money. There is a discussion of the classic gold standard (1870-1914) with its different types, and Denzel points out that only four countries (Britain, France, Germany, United States) had a ?true? gold standard, meaning circulating gold coin and/or paper money and token coins convertible into gold.

The list of data sources and the bibliography are both remarkable. Data sources consist of four types: (1) unprinted sources, exchange-rate currents, and price currents, (2) newspapers, (3) merchant manuals, and (4) other printed sources. There is also an incredibly long list of merchant manuals underlying the Handbook in general, constituting 56 lines in small font (p. xx, note 37). The bibliography and footnote references demonstrate an extensive knowledge of the literature — both of data sources and of historical analysis. Denzel discusses early currency and exchange-rate handbooks in various languages and notes modern predecessor handbooks that began with McCusker (1978) and Spufford (1986). The bibliography is fantastic, suffering only from the inexplicable omission of Einzig (1970). The only serious criticism of the Handbook is the lack of an overall index.

While the exchange-rate series text and tables are based mainly on W?hrungen der Welt, the Handbook series are not simply replications of W?hrungen der Welt series. Some data are taken from two relevant volumes of Quellen und Forschungen zur Historischen Statistik von Deutschland (?Sources and Research on Historical Statistics of Germany?); errors in W?hrungen der Welt and Historischen Statistik von Deutschland are corrected; and there is new source material for several countries (Australia, Canada, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Uruguay).

The exchange-rate tables are presented in an individual-country framework. For each country, there are lists and/or discussions of data sources, location of exchange markets, data sources, concordances with the W?hrungen der Welt or Historischen Statistik von Deutschland series, and other available data (not tabulated in the Handbook). Also, a history of the country?s currency units and international exchange instruments is presented, as well as a list of historical references. The exchange-rate series are arranged according to the domestic city of quotation, with separate series for each foreign city. The denomination is the domestic price of foreign currency, that is, the number of units of domestic currency per unit of foreign currency. However, the foreign-currency unit is generally not the basic unit (for example, one pound sterling) but rather a multiple of that unit (for example, 100 pounds sterling).

Generally, only series for the most important domestic market are provided; but there are exceptions. In particular, exchange rates for multiple domestic markets are presented for the period prior to currency standardization or integration of domestic markets. Again unlike W?hrungen der Welt, domestic exchange series are generally not shown; but as usual there are exceptions (for example, domestic exchange of Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco on New York).

Different from the monthly series in W?hrungen der Welt with concomitant annual averages, the Handbook shows only annual averages. A criticism common to each work is that the annual average pertains only to one observation per month, with beginning-of-month the preferred day; whereas a true monthly average would incorporate all market days during the month. For each year, Denzel shows the number of months used to compute the annual figure. While each series begins with the earliest year for which data are available, the last year is 1914 and July the last month — so at most seven observations underlie the observation for that year. (Only one country, Poland, has an earlier final year — see Table 3 below.)

A unique usance (period of time for payment of bill of exchange) is selected for a given series — the dominant usance, with the shortest usance taken if dominance cannot be established — whereas W?hrungen der Welt has alternative series (varying with usance). For example, W?hrungen der Welt provides the New York on London rate in several alternative series: 60 day exchange rate, sight exchange rate, and cable-transfer exchange rate. The corresponding Handbook series is unique: the 60-day rate for 1783-1879, followed by the cable-transfer rate.

Denzel chooses market quotations over official rates and exchange rates (for bills of exchange) over ?money rates? (exchange of coin). So he is not concerned with parity rates as such (although he does pay attention to parity), and exchange rates are deliberately expressed as absolute levels rather than deviations from parity. He states that money rates are tabulated in cases when exchange rates are quoted in inflationary paper currency; but he does not correct the New York on London paper exchange rate during the greenback period and also for other periods of suspension of specie payments.

Table 2 shows the regional coverage of the Handbook?s exchange-rate series. The emphasis on Europe (including Britain) is apparent, with almost two-thirds of country specific pagination devoted to that region. The regional bias is primarily a result of history (especially the 1914 end-year).

Table 2
Regional Coverage of Exchange-Rate Series

Region??? ??? No. of? Countries??? Pages (Text and Tables)
??? ??? ??? ??? ??????????????????????????????? Number??? Percent of Total
Europe??? ????????? ??? 13??? ?????????? ??? ??? 398??? ??????????? 65
America??? ????????????? 8??? ???????????? ??? ??? 94??? ??????????? 15
Asia??? ??????????? ??? ?? 8??? ???????????? ??? ??? 86??? ??????????? 14
Oceania??? ????????????? 2??? ??????????????? ??? 18??? ????????????? 3
Africa??? ??????????? ??? ? 2??? ??????????????? ??? 18??? ????????????? 3
Total??? ????????? ?????? 33??? ?????????? ??? ??? 614??? ????????? 100

Table 3 lists the 33 domestic countries for which the Handbook provides data series. The ordering is according to number of country-specific pages devoted to the country. One again sees the European emphasis, with only two non-European countries in the top ten. It is interesting that just eight countries account for half (50.7 percent) of the total country pagination.

Table 3
Exchange-Rate Series: Country-Specific Text and Tables

Country??? ??? ??? ????????????? Range of Observations??? ??? No. Pages
Italy??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ??????????????? 1590-1914??? ??? ?? ? ????? 88
Germany??? ????????? ??? ??? ????????????? 1657-1914??? ??? ?????????? 64
England/Great Britain??? ??? ?????????? 1590-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 54
Netherlands??? ????????? ??? ??? ????????? 1593-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 45
Thirteen Colonies/U.S. ?? ????????? ?? 1660-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 32
France??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ???????????? 1760-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 28
Hapsburg Monarchy??? ????????? ??? ?? 1754-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 24
China??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ????????????? 1764-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 22
Russian Empire??? ????????? ??? ??? ???? 1695-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 20
Sweden??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ?????????? 1700-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 19
Argentina??? ????????? ??? ??? ??????????? 1824-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 14
Switzerland??? ????????? ??? ??? ????????? 1842-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 14
Brazil??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ????????????? 1808-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 12
Canada??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ?????????? 1757-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 12
Denmark??? ??? ??? ?????????????????????? 1696-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 12
Mauritius??? ????????? ??? ??? ???????????? 1825-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 12
British India??? ????????? ??? ??? ???????? 1819-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 11
Ottoman Empire??? ????????? ??? ?????? 1760-1914??? ?????? ??? ??? 11
Australia??? ????????? ??? ??? ????????????? 1822-1914??? ?????? ??? ???? 9
Netherlands India??? ????????? ??? ???? 1818-1914??? ?????? ??? ???? 9
Japan??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ????????????? 1861-1914??? ?????? ??? ???? 8
Persia??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ????????????? 1809-1914??? ?????? ??? ???? 8
Straits Settlements??? ????????? ??? ??? 1834-1914??? ?????? ??? ???? 8
Cape Colony/South Africa???????? ??? 1811-1914??? ?????? ??? ???? 7
Egypt??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ?????????????? 1869-1914????????? ??? ??? ? 7
Poland??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ???????????? 1696-1812????????? ??? ??? ? 7
Jamaica??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ?????????? 1675-1914????????? ??? ??? ? 6
Spain??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ?????????????? 1820-1914????????? ??? ??? ? 6
Chile??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ??????????????? 1827-1914????????? ??? ??? ? 5
Mexico??? ????????? ??? ??? ??? ???????????? 1886-1914? ?????? ??? ??? ? 5
New Zealand??? ????????? ??? ??? ???????? 1841-1914?? ?????? ??? ??? ? 5
Indochinese Union??? ????????? ??? ??? 1888-1914?? ?????? ??? ??? ? 3
Uruguay??? ????????? ??? ??? ????????????? 1871-1914?? ?????? ??? ??? ? 3

In sum, the Handbook is the result of a monumental undertaking with an overwhelmingly successful outcome. Scholars will be indebted to Denzel for years to come. The Handbook is admirable not only for its substance but also for the professionalism of its style and organization. Publication of the Handbook is an event which Paul Einzig would have applauded with gusto.

References:

Paul Einzig (1970), The History of Foreign Exchange, second edition. London: Macmillan.

John J. McCusker (1978), Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Peter Spufford (1986), Handbook of Medieval Exchange. London: Boydell and Brewer.

Lawrence H. Officer is Professor of Economics at University of Illinois at Chicago and Director of Research at MeasuringWorth.com. His most recent books are Everyday Economics: Honest Answers to Tough Questions and Two Centuries of Compensation for U.S. Production Workers in Manufacturing, both published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Copyright (c) 2010 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 (December 2010). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain

Author(s):Poovey, Mary
Reviewer(s):Mitch, David

Published by EH.NET (January 2009)

Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. x + 511 pp. $59 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-67532-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Mitch, Department of Economics, University of Maryland ?- Baltimore County.

In recent decades, literary critics have generated a body of scholarship that they have come to label the New Economic Criticism. This body of work defies ready summary but suffice it to say that it represents the interest of literary critics in economic literature and matters economic from a variety of perspectives. It has become sufficiently extensive to be the subject of the edited volume by Woodmansee and Osteen (1999). New economic critics are publishing book length studies with major academic presses, hold important chairs in university literature departments (e.g. Marc Shell at Harvard, Catherine Gallagher at Berkeley), and are producing new generations of literature doctorates. Mary Poovey (Samuel Rudin Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English, New York University) is one of the leading new economic critics and her latest work Genres of the Credit Economy can be seen as a contribution to this field and certainly draws heavily on it; on pages 10-14 she provides her own distinctive overview of this field of literary criticism.

Poovey?s book itself is an exercise in what could be called genre analysis and it is both apt and ironic as she herself notes on p. 14 that her latest work further confirms her own originality in producing new intellectual genres. This ability is already on display in one of her earlier books, A History of the Modern Fact (1998), which can be described as a history of epistemology in work on economic and social affairs. That book put forward the plausible, albeit provocative, claim that by the first half of the nineteenth century, writers on economic and social affairs had come to emphasize quantitative measures regarded as objective facts as the foundation of knowledge and policy discussion in contrast with a previous skepticism of such facts. The social constructionist perspective evident in her 1998 book is amply on display in her latest effort. To my mind, she is fundamentally correct in the underlying premises both of her earlier book and of her new one. A History of the Modern Fact presumes that ?quantitative objective facts? in actuality entail considerable amounts of political and social interpretation (e.g. election vote counts, census population totals, national income measures, cost of living and poverty indexes). Her latest book presumes that the functioning of a modern credit economy fundamentally entails elements of trust. I suspect that one could readily find widespread agreement with both premises with the latter in particular being perhaps self-evident. However, in the case of her earlier book there are issues to be raised regarding her chronology of changing cultural attitudes towards quantification in social affairs, her degree of mastery of vast bodies of both contemporaneous literature and more recent historiography, and the extent to which the changes in epistemological cultural attitudes she maps out are primarily relativistic or have entailed genuine social progress. For a quite skeptical take on Poovey?s earlier book by a leading historian of science see Margaret Jacob?s essay in History and Theory (2001).

?Genres of the Credit Economy states in its opening sentences that it tries to address two questions that arise from Poovey?s earlier book: ?If the kind of knowledge that contemporary society values is really the modern fact, then why does the discipline of Literary studies matter? What can Literary scholars do?? (p. 1). As Poovey explains in a footnote to this passage, these dilemmas arise insofar as prioritizing facts tends to devalue the activity of interpretation, the activity that would seem the focus of Literary studies. Although Poovey at points (p. 14) labels her latest book as a history, its chronological development is less linear than in her previous History of the Modern Fact. Her latest book alternates between tracing general intellectual trends and fine-grained textual analysis of specific works; she jumps back and forth in time in her consideration of various genres. After setting forth her general thesis that imaginative, economic, and monetary forms all emerged as distinctive genres in response to the rise of a credit economy, the core of Poovey?s text consists of detailed readings concentrating on modes of argumentation, organization, and style in selected works of economic and imaginative literature written in Britain between 1650 and 1870.

Poovey acknowledges that other intellectual genres that she does not consider were involved in the modern differentiation of economics and literary criticism; she points in particular to natural philosophy (p. 5). However, she notes ?a conviction that many contemporary scholars share ? that economics and Literary studies have some special relationship to each other.? She goes on to argue that the two fields should be studied together because of a common concern with what literary critics term the problematic of representation. Poovey defines the problematic of representation as ?one way scholars describe the gap that separates the sign from its referrant or ground (of value or meaning), whether the gap takes the form of deferral, substitution, obscurity? (p.5). It is perhaps apparent why the relation between sign and referrant should be an on-going concern of literary scholars; however, she argues that financial crises have also brought this problem to the fore in the fields of economics and finance and that it is useful to consider the parallel treatments of this problem in the cases of the two disciplines. She also takes note of the frequent employment of financial themes by nineteenth century British novelists.

Another term sometimes used by literary critics also recurs throughout her discussion: naturalized (or alternatively naturalization). By naturalization Poovey means a process by which behaviors which are initially new and strange and hence subject to suspicion and scrutiny become customary and taken for granted. She emphasizes its importance for the use of new types of monetary instruments in a credit economy: ?money has been naturalized: through the social process that I describe in this book, money has become so familiar that its writing has seemed to disappear and it has seemed to lose its history as (various forms of) writing? (p.3). To highlight the significance she attaches to these two terms, she introduces each of them by placing them in italics in the text (pp. 3, 5). And one of Poovey?s central claims is that both naturalization and the problematic of representation were central to functioning of money in the rise of the modern credit economy.

In a preamble, she describes the emergence of imaginative literature, financial writing, and monetary instruments as distinctive written genres over the course of the eighteenth century in Britain. She argues that all three genres developed as ways of ?naturalizing? the use of money and hence of dealing with the problematic of representation inherent in monetary instruments: that such instruments frequently only symbolize some underlying item of value without guaranteeing access to the item itself.

The first two self-identified chapters of the book consider writing about money in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first chapter takes up the attention given by contemporaries between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth century to the problematic of representation inherent in money. She backs into this through looking at J.R. McCullough?s collection of pamphlets dealing with money. She gives particular attention to Joseph Harris? ?An Essay upon Money and Coins? published in 1757-58, in which he challenges the ideas that either the imprint on a coin?s face or its metallic content is its source of value. Then after quickly touching on Locke?s views on the nature of money, she fast-forwards to debates in the early nineteenth century involving Ricardo, McCullough, and Macaulay among others on the desirability of convertibility between coins, paper money, and bank notes. In the last section of the chapter, Poovey offers the intriguing suggestion that writing regarding money in the eighteenth century frequently blurred the distinction between fact and fiction and she identifies a fact/fiction continuum in this regard. The second chapter looks at episodes in what she identifies as generic differentiation of treatments of Money. She notes that Defoe?s work frequently blurred fact/fiction distinctions and in particular focuses on a manuscript of his since labeled Roxanne. Poovey argues that it was later editors who classified this work as fiction; she suggests that one of Defoe?s aims in this text was the non-fictional one of explaining the workings of credit. One example of the insights her literary background provides is her observation (p. 98) that Defoe employed the classical oral rhetorical device of elaboration, i.e. offering long lists in order to engage listeners in an imaginative flight, in written form, with a similar aim of engaging the reader?s imagination. She turns to parallels between James Steuart?s work on Political Economy and Fielding?s novel Tom Jones, noting similarities in the treatment of personal character in each. She then notes Adam Smith?s more abstract mode of argumentation in contrast with Steuart?s more fictionalized narrative. The chapter concludes with observations on the blend of fact and fiction in Thomas Bridges? Adventures of a Bank-Note (1770-71), a work based on depicting the perspective on passing surroundings a bank note might have as it made its way from holder to holder, including intervals when tucked in a woman?s bosom (p. 149).

A first ?interchapter? then takes up the rise of book publishing and of the issuance of bank commercial paper. This really constitutes her brief notes on matters that are pertinent to issues elsewhere in the book; as she notes herself, these issues have been taken up in much greater depth by other authors; indeed each of these topics deserves and has been given book length treatment by others and I did not find the 17 pages she devotes to them sufficient to add much further insight to this other work.

Chapters three and four take up the emergence of economic writing as a distinctive set of genres in the early nineteenth century. Chapter three takes note of increasing skepticism about the workings of the growing credit economy. It examines publications by critics of paper money such as William Cobbett and John Francis Bray. Chapter four takes up the differentiation of writing on economic theory from financial journalism. After giving relatively brief attention to David Ricardo?s employment of abstraction in his theoretical work, she focuses at some length on J.R. McCullough as a writer engaged in both economic theory and journalism. She then turns to Walter Bagehot?s and D. Morier Evans? emergence as specialized economic journalists while attributing to William Stanley Jevons the effort to define economics as a narrow specialist science, giving particular attention to his interest in developing a sun spot theory of the business cycle. Poovey?s general argument in this chapter is that economic journalism and abstract economic theory became increasingly differentiated in the early to mid nineteenth century as part of a social process of naturalizing credit instruments. Economic journalists such as Bagehot and Evans instilled familiarity with the financial system and depicted the occasional crash or panic as an aberration from normal stability. At the same time the emergence of abstract economic science as practiced by Jevons with his work on sunspot theory ? precisely because it employed arcane, mysterious techniques apparently at variance with observable reality ? in Poovey?s view helped establish an expertise which could testify to the value of bank money. This authority provided a way of dispelling doubts about credit instruments implied by the problematic of representation.

Chapter Five then turns to literary authors and suggests that Wordsworth and Coleridge were keen to separate aesthetic from commercial value in literature. Poovey suggests that their concerns were motivated by the growth in demand for cheap popular publications. In a second interchapter, Poovey notes that recent work by literary critics on Harriet Martineau employs formal aesthetic criteria of organic unity in evaluating Martineau?s work though claiming to deviate from literary formalism. She then proposes an alternative approach to interpretation she labels ?historical description? as a means of engaging with texts while placing them in a larger historical narrative. She illustrates her approach in Chapter Six which offers meticulous readings of novels by Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope focusing on passages in which financial matters come to the fore. Her arguments include the audacious economic determinist claim that Jane Austen?s Pride and Prejudice was in large degree a response to the Bank Restriction Act of 1797: the breach of promise to redeem bank notes with gold explicit in the Bank Restriction Act according to Poovey motivated Austen?s interest in portraying Elizabeth Bennett?s concern about her potential broken promise to thank Mr. Darcy.

The book concludes with a four page ?Coda? in which Poovey bemoans both the low current prestige of literary studies in comparison with that of economics in modern American and British universities and the divide that has arisen between the two disciplines.

Recent economic events would seem to make it abundantly evident that the modern economy is a credit economy and that loss of confidence in credit instruments and their underlying connection to value can wreak economic havoc. Thus, Poovey?s theme is certainly timely. The book itself raises numerous stimulating questions and surveys a wealth of literature both past and more contemporary with which I, for one, was not previously familiar.

One general issue of evaluation posed by her book is that implied by the questions she poses in her introduction ? namely whether a post-modernist literary critic can bring any useful tools to bear in understanding the history of economics, economic history or modern economics. Quite possibly, new economic critics, including Poovey, are aiming their work primarily at fellow literary critics; but as Poovey herself wonders in the passage cited above from her introduction, should those outside of this guild take the burgeoning body of work by new economic critics seriously?

Difficulties are certainly evident with the scope of Poovey?s book. While the range of her reading is impressive both in contemporary sources and in the more recent historiography both of social scientists and literary critics, there are notable omissions in her surveys of relevant literature. Moreover, at points she openly acknowledges not having completed her scholarly homework and assumes an alarmingly nonchalant attitude about not having done so. These issues surface when at points she fails to distinguish or at least elides the fields of economic history and the history of economic thought. This shows up in a particularly egregious manner in her introduction (pp. 9-10) in which she admits her inability to trace out the relationship between the modern discipline of economics and its nineteenth century precursors and blames this on the lack of interest of modern economists in the history of their discipline. She then states (p. 10), ?I can only hope that some day an economic historian will write a version of this history from the other side so that Literary scholars like myself can see how this discipline?s present informs the way we understand its past.? I presume that she means ?historian of economics? rather than ?economic historian? in this passage. Poovey clearly has done some reading in the history of economics and indeed even cites such standard works as Schumpeter?s History of Economic Analysis. I am not clear on what are the requirements for Poovey?s desired ?history from the other side? or why Schumpeter?s work or Mark Blaug?s less compendious Economic Theory in Retrospect or the Warren Samuels, Jeff Biddle, and John Davis edited Companion to the History of Economic Thought would not suffice. It would seem that Poovey simply ran out of energy in trying to master the history of economics as well as modern economics. So why undertake to write the parallel histories of economics and literary criticism from a modern perspective unless one is prepared to take on the admittedly formidable task of reading reasonably deeply in the comparison discipline as well as one?s own discipline? Later (p. 94) she claims that ?economic historians rarely consider Defoe?s writing at any length.? However, the works she cites to illustrate this are all histories of economics. No mention is made of early modern economic historian Peter Earle?s book entitled The World of Defoe.

Given Poovey?s focus on the rise of the credit economy, a particularly glaring omission from her bibliography is Anne Goldgar?s Tulipmania (2007), which provides particularly rich documentation of the psychological reactions and issues of trust and betrayal associated with the mid-seventeenth century Dutch tulip bubble. Perhaps Goldgar?s book came out too late for Poovey to incorporate it in her own analysis. In her discussion of the problem of monetary shortage no mention is made of the important study by Thomas Sargent and Francois Velde, The Big Problem of Small Change (Princeton, 2002).

Central parts of Poovey?s argument are often based on a complex and extensive secondary literature. While she does have her own distinctive take or twist in most of these instances, she frequently does not succeed in the space she has allotted in convincingly expounding the arguments and evidence in question. For example, her claim that money is simply one form of written literary genre comes across as a bit contrived in the 25 pages she devotes to it in comparison with Deborah Valenze?s book length study, The Social Life of Money in the English Past or Carl Wennerlind?s article ?Money Talks but What Is It Saying? Semiotics of Money and Social Control.? Poovey (p. 59) does acknowledge and cite extensively from Valenze?s work while arguing for her own greater emphasis on the role of other written genres in naturalizing money as a genre.

I found the organization and coverage of Poovey?s book rather fragmented and indeed cubist in nature; by cubist, I mean offering shifting perspectives on a given object rather than a cohesive, continuous overview. This may in large part reflect her unabashed use of the tools of literary criticism. Rather than attempting any sort of comprehensive or connected overview, Poovey picks and chooses particular works for intensive analysis. While her choices are intriguing, they also seem idiosyncratic. I was unaware before reading Poovey?s book of Thomas Bridges? Adventures of a Bank Note; and its premise of a banknote?s eye view of the world is interesting. However, it is less evident to me that this work is central to understanding eighteenth century literature on finance.

Although Genres of the Credit Economy considers examples of how the fields of economics and literary criticism treat the problematic of representation, at the end of the day it doesn?t really develop the comparisons and contrasts between them. This, in part, stems from the book?s cubist organization as it jumps back and forth between time periods and subject areas and genres without offering a developed concluding chapter that pulls together her take on how writing on finance and economics has dealt with the problematic of representation inherent in financial markets in comparison with how literary studies have done so.

Poovey?s book itself has the phrase ?mediating value? in its subtitle; at points she does take up the contrast between market value and aesthetic value. And she does note issues regarding the influence of market criteria on aesthetic values raised both by nineteenth century authors and subsequent critics; both groups of writers essentially employed aesthetic values to assess the workings of the market. Yet she does not consider work by economists that discuss the engagement between the market and the aesthetic, both using the market to evaluate aesthetics and the use of aesthetics to evaluate the market. Thus no mention is made of the work of David Galenson, among others, that uses art auction prices as a means of assessing relative artistic or aesthetic merit or the work of Tyler Cowen that argues that market forces of competition lead to cultural richness and diversity rather than bland homogeneity, as is commonly alleged. Nor does she consider arguments by Cowen (2008) regarding how literary works can provide fodder for developing economic models, nor Frank Knight?s claim that ?economics is a branch of aesthetics and ethics to a larger degree than of mechanics? (1935, p. 97) ? and she only briefly touches on the work by McCloskey regarding rhetorical forms in economic argument.

Poovey?s choice of end point for her study in the 1870s would seem to derive from her focus on the relationship between the problematic of representation and the rise of the credit economy. She argues that by the 1870s the field of economic theory had become differentiated from financial journalism. Both endeavors in her view served to naturalize how the credit economy deals with the problematic of representation ? financial journalism by providing familiarity and economic theory by providing the authority of the technical expert. In the meantime, imaginative writing and literary criticism had begun to develop its own distinctive approach to the problematic of representation through emphasizing elite aesthetic values over popular taste in literature.

However, by abruptly ending her account of disciplinary differentiation in the 1870s, it seems to me that Poovey forestalls consideration of important aspects of both continuity and change central to understanding evolving contrasts and relationships between the economic and literary fields of endeavor. One literary genre that has been persistently used by economists and writers on economics over the centuries as a means of reaching general audiences is the parable and its kindred, the fable and the allegory. She does give some mention to Daniel Defoe?s and Harriet Martineau?s use of the parable. Yet the continuity of this tradition would seem worthy of further consideration. She makes no mention of Mandeville?s Fable of the Bees (though she does give brief attention to Mandeville in History of the Modern Fact). And after taking up Martineau in the second interchapter, Poovey drops further consideration of this genre. But notable nineteenth century practitioners include Frederic Bastiat in France and more recently in the U.S. Paul Heyne and Russell Roberts, as well as the pseudo-nominal Angus Black and Marshall Jevons among others. (Richard Stern, the novelist, was invited to review Marshall Jevons? Fatal Equilibrium for the Journal of Political Economy under George Stigler?s editorship and Stern did not give it very high literary marks.) Perhaps Poovey?s focus on the financial sector accounts for her decision to treat this genre only briefly. However, Hugh Rockoff?s article on the Wizard of Oz as a monetary allegory and subsequent literature (Hansen 2002; Dighe 2002) suggests scope for literary critics to consider the persistence of this genre even with a narrower focus on financial and monetary matters.

The employment of the genres of the parable, fable, and allegory in economic writing raises the more general question of whether an examination of the relationship between economics and literature should focus on how each field has engaged with ethics, the nature of human happiness, politics, and social policy. It can be argued that increasing concerns to establish economics as a science, with strong empirical and formal foundations ? i.e., to distinguish economics from political economy on the one hand and to emphasize the importance of aesthetic, conceptual and formalistic concerns in the study of literature on the other ? have displaced or at least obscured an underlying concern with ethics and human well-being common to both economics and literary studies. These are issues of long standing pedigree (see for example the work of Frank Knight, Lionel Robbins, Matthew Arnold, Chris Baldick, Wayne Booth, and Deirdre McCloskey). While this theme is not given much consideration in Poovey?s book, it is a central focus in the book by Poovey?s student, Claudia Klaver, A/Moral Economics. However, many of the key developments in this regard in both disciplines seem to me to have occurred in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century as each became increasingly centered in academic institutions. Despite Poovey?s claim that it is common concern with the problematic of representation that leads to an inherent affinity between economics and literature, one might well think that the underlying architectonic discipline is ethics rather than economics or literary criticism despite intellectual imperialistic tendencies of each of these latter two disciplines. But Poovey?s 1870 cutoff for her study would seem to preclude examination of this issue.

Poovey?s take on the differentiation of economics and literary studies does allow for both external, societal influences and internal disciplinary considerations in both fields. However, it seems to me that she does put more emphasis on external social influences in the cases of economics and financial journalism than literary studies, casting British economists and financial journalists as running-dog lackey apologists for an emerging credit economy. One danger of genre analysis is that genres themselves become reifications based on overly rigid boundaries between fields of intellectual endeavor. One central issue she poses is the degree of specialization which has occurred not only between such broad spheres of endeavor as writing on economic affairs and imaginative literature but also within such spheres. One of the chief merits of Poovey?s study is bringing into play a rich array of ephemeral and journalistic publications in conjunction with more enduring classics of economic theory. Poovey?s underlying premise is the common presumption of the inevitability of increasing intellectual specialization. In her account, eighteenth century writers such as Defoe and Smith covered a broad range of topics even within a given work ? with Defoe in particular blurring the fact and fiction distinction in his coverage of financial affairs. Then in the early nineteenth century, in her view, work on economic theory came to be distinguished from writing aimed at popular audiences, in turn distinguished from coverage offered by financial journalists. Similarly, literary writers were increasingly concerned to emphasize the importance of distinctive aesthetic imperatives from those of the market for popular literature. In her concluding ?Coda,? she suggests that in the early twenty-first century, it is unusual for academic economists to produce work aimed at a general audience, citing in a footnote Steven Levitt?s Freakonomics and Robert Shiller?s Irrational Exuberance as exceptions, while it is even rarer in her reckoning for literary critics to write for general audiences.

However, taking the case of economics, it is of interest to consider longer term trends in the extent to which prominent economists have continued to cross the borders or even simultaneously engage in not only academic work on economics but also economic policy making, business endeavors, and writing aimed at student and general audiences, even if economists in general are not necessarily renaissance people. One can begin with the case of David Ricardo, who at various points in his career engaged in stock broking and service in Parliament as well as writing on economics. If Ricardo?s writing on economics was in some sense more intellectually specialized than Adam Smith?s, he was far more engaged than Smith in business and political endeavors. And although Poovey depicts William Stanley Jevons as emblematic of the narrowing of economics into a largely theoretical, mathematical, and university-centered discipline, she considers only his work on marginal utility and sun spot theory. She makes no mention of Jevons? influential policy-oriented publications including Methods of Social Reform, The State in Relation to Labour, and The Coal Question. And there is certainly a long line forward of prominent academic economists who have been active in policy circles as well as producing introductory textbooks and other literature aimed at general audiences such as Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Samuelson, and Milton Friedman. Currently Ben Bernanke?s introductory economics textbook is still in print and coming out in new editions while he serves as Federal Reserve chairman following his quite successful academic career at Princeton and another Princeton academic, Paul Krugman, the latest Nobel laureate in economics, is also an introductory textbook author, New York Times columnist, and television talking head ? to name just a couple of many possible current examples. And academic economists have also pursued financial ventures, as the notorious 1997 episode of Nobel-laureates Robert C. Merton?s and Myron Scholes? involvement in the Long-term Capital Management debacle illustrate. In other words, the increasing specialization of texts by genre does not necessarily reflect a corresponding specialization of the authors who write them. In the case of economics, one could explain some of this by the extensive market both for textbooks and popular economic commentary in contrast with, say, fine imaginative literature. Publishers, perhaps, have much stronger economic incentives to induce leading economists to produce introductory textbooks and work aimed at popular audiences than to do the same for literary critics. Books by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, or Stanley Fish may not have the sales potential of those by Milton Friedman or Paul Krugman. But this still leaves the ongoing pattern of those who have pursued successful careers in both academic economics and economic policy-making from John Maynard Keynes to Lawrence Summers.

A parallel issue unexplored by Poovey and presumably occurring after her end period of the 1870s is the apparent increasing separation between those who write imaginative literature and those who produce criticism of it. The examples of literary criticism she cites in chapters 5 and 6 are primarily by those also engaged in imaginative writing such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Trollope. This raises the question of whether the divide between those who write imaginative literature and those who produce literary criticism has become wider than the gap between those who write on economic theory, those who craft economic policy, those who write economic journalism, and those who engage in financial affairs. And if this is the case, what accounts for the greater degree of specialization by those engaging in literary studies than in economic studies? Have the underlying ethical commitments of economists to social well being been stronger than those of more ivory tower literary critics? Although Poovey does not explore these issues, her mode of genre analysis should at least be credited for giving rise to them.

Poovey mentions J.R.McCullough?s activity as a book and pamphlet collector but omits consideration of those in subsequent generations who engaged in this activity. Some might infer that an increasingly analytical mind set resulted in the extinction of the economist bibliophile, although Poovey herself does not explicitly state this. However, W.S. Jevons, who in the eyes of literary scholars such as Claudia Klaver and Poovey had quite narrow analytical interests, in fact appears to have been a quite keen economics bibliophile. By Keynes? account, Jevons transmitted this bug onto the famed economics book collector and Cambridge economist, Herbert Foxwell. And Keynes himself was an avid antiquarian book collector (Keynes, Essays in Biography; Harrod, Life of Keynes). The importance of the book and pamphlet collector for establishing the dimensions of various intellectual realms and genres may warrant further consideration. Foxwell?s collections formed the basis for both the Goldsmith?s and Kress libraries and these collections have now entered electronically searchable cyberspace as the Making of the Modern World database. Keynes thought highly enough of Foxwell?s contributions to economic science as to pen a 23-page obituary for the Economic Journal on Foxwell?s demise in 1936.

Despite the limitations that I think are evident in Poovey?s book, the genre perspective she offers is worthwhile for pointing to alternative intellectual boundaries and for posing questions that may not readily occur to those working within the disciplines she considers. She usefully brings into play a rich array of contemporary and ephemeral literature bearing on economic and financial matters. And her notion of the fact-fiction continuum raises interesting issues about alternative relationships between evidence and theory. The new economic criticism more generally can be seen as providing economists and more specifically historians of economics and economic historians a means of addressing what could be called the Robert Burns problem: seeing ourselves as others see us. My own impression is that while historians of economics and economic historians have not totally ignored the new economic criticism, they have hardly embraced it with enthusiasm. Offsetting any inclination to welcome those with an interest in one?s own subject matter, are likely primordial instincts to defend professional turf boundaries and claims of scholarly expertise. Furthermore, I suspect that much of the new economic criticism is grounded in an ideological outlook that some historians of economics would perceive as uncongenial. Thus Poovey in her concluding Coda (p. 419) refers to ?the longing for an alternative to the market model.? The extent and complexity of this body of work is a further reason for outsiders to neglect it; the new economic criticism, at least from this reviewer?s limited experience, is not an easy read yet there seems lots of it to process before one can claim to have much sense of it. Nevertheless, the new economic criticism probably does deserve further attention by historians of economics and economic historians. As Robert Burns reminds, seeing ourselves as others see us can free us from many a blunder and foolish notion as we become more aware of the louses crawling on our own bonnets.

References:

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Thomas J. Sargent and Francois R. Velde (2002), The Big Problem of Small Change, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Joseph Schumpeter (1954), History of Economic Analysis, London: Allen and Unwin.

Robert J. Shiller (2000), Irrational Exuberance, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Richard G. Stern (1986), ?Review of The Fatal Equilibrium by Marshall Jevons,? Journal of Political Economy 94 (3): 683-84

Deborah Valenze (2006), The Social Life of Money in the English Past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carl Wennerlind (2001), ?Money Talks, But What Is It Saying? Semiotics of Money and Social Control,? Journal of Economic Issues 35 (3): 557-74.

Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen, editors (1999), The New Economic Criticism: Studies in the Intersection of Literature and Economics, London: Routledge.

David Mitch is Professor of Economics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (email: mitch@umbc.edu). He is the author of ?Market Forces and Market Failure in Antebellum American Education: A Commentary? Social Science History (Spring, 2008). He is currently revising an essay on ?Chicago and Economic History? for the forthcoming Elgar Companion to the Chicago School of Economics and is also working on high stakes educational testing in Victorian England.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

L??conomie morale, pauvret?, cr?dit et confiance dans l?Europe pr?industrielle

Author(s):Fontaine, Laurence
Reviewer(s):Hautcoeur, Pierre-Cyrille

Published by EH.NET (January 2009)

Laurence Fontaine, L??conomie morale, pauvret?, cr?dit et confiance dans l?Europe pr?industrielle. Paris: Gallimard, 2008. 439 pp, ?20 (paperback), ISBN: 978-2-0707-8577-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Paris School of Economics.

Economic history frequently suffers a tension between a purely economic approach that considers homo economicus as invariable through time and space, and a relativist approach that refuses any broad comparison because of the supposed incommensurability of human activities experienced in different settings. The influence of anthropologists, especially in the tradition of Karl Polanyi, has contributed in particular to the idea held by many historians that Ancien R?gime societies were qualitatively different from modern ones, and that their economies cannot be studied in the same terms because economic activity was embedded in social life. Furthermore, this statement is sometimes reintroduced in today?s policy debates in a more normative way, when it is argued that the markets should be submitted to social institutions and needs as was the case up to the Industrial Revolution.

Laurence Fontaine ? an economic historian at Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris ? helps us to clarify these questions in a particularly interesting way since, as a social historian, she insists on the importance of social relationships in the provision of credit in early modern Europe, but she also, and indistinguishably, emphasizes the role of the market as allowing the poor, and especially women, to escape the constraints and limitations that result from their social position. To that extent, her book is not only a good one for those wanting to better understand the economies ? and particularly the credit markets ? of early modern Europe, but it also provides a way out of that enduring epistemological debate.

Although I have chosen to open this review by insisting on that epistemological contribution, the book is not centered on these issues, which appear mostly in the conclusion. Most of the book actually discusses the provision of credit in the Ancien R?gime economy. It chooses to study it ?from below,? that is from the point of view of economic agents and not from that of institutions, governments or economic theorists (even if all of these appear sparsely). The focus is on the ordinary agents: the poor and lower middle class, in contrast to the most-studied bourgeoisie. Because of these choices, the book is based mostly on qualitative sources, such as diaries, letters, death inventories, small firms? accounting books, and prison records, with some attempts at quantifying the questions under study, but only at an individual or local level and for relatively short periods. A few chapters build on an insightful use of contemporary novels and theater. If unsystematic, the documentation is abundant: examples are taken from all over Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The book is organized in a thematic order (with chapters on the poor, the peasantry, the elite, urban micro-credit, women, pawnshops, usury, mentalities, exchange practices and the construction of trust). This organization brings a strong sense of the fact that most economies inearly modern Europe faced similar problems, even if the variety of traditions or the different choices that were taken by governments when creating or regulating institutions are frequently mentioned. It downplays long-term change, even if some particular transformations are mentioned.

As is typical of any book dealing with such a large period and space, it is mostly based on a large ? indeed impressive ? bibliographical base (30 pages of references, mostly in English, French and Italian, with occasional Dutch, German and Spanish). It is, perhaps more importantly, based on Fontaine?s experience studying the poor and migrants (especially peddlers) of early modern Dauphin? and Savoie.

The first important result of the book is to show that credit was not only developed among the well-to-do in early modern Europe (as shown for example by Hoffman, Postel-Vinay and Rosenthal in Priceless Markets). It was a daily part of the ?survival strategy? of the poor, more important, indeed, than the help provided by charitable institutions. Most of the working poor needed credit in order to start or to keep their small businesses running in the face of accidents, delays, illness, and life-cycle events ? and this was true as much in the countryside as in the cities. Fontaine shows that the few remaining traces suggest that oral credit was ubiquitous, that written credit was much more frequent than what is observed in notaries? archives (because of the cost and delay of their certification), and that a majority in the population died with negative assets ? that is, unpaid debts superior to their belongings.

Credit was organized in various circles, starting from the closest relatives (the family and neighbors), social authorities (the lord, notables), institutions (guilds, pawnshops) and, lastly, foreigners ? as most moneylenders were considered (either Lombard, Savoyard or Jew). Except for very small amounts, credit among equals (or relatives) ? was rarely much of a resource for the truly poor … because their relatives were poor too, and also because even ?family solidarity is everything but natural? (p. 36). Actually, such solidarity could only result from a well-organized community, which was able to constrain the borrower. Therefore most of the credit to the poor came from notables, institutions and moneylenders.

Among these, the lords were probably those with the most specific behavior in the Ancien r?gime. They frequently lent substantial amounts to their vassals, especially to their farmers. These debts were seldom reimbursed, and mostly implied yearly payments (which could be in kind). They could be restructured when either the lender or the borrower left or died, and parts of them could even be abandoned gracefully in periods of hardship. Fontaine argues that these debts were part of a broader social relationship, which explain both that the lords had to lend in order to maintain status and reputation even when reimbursement was anticipated as almost impossible, and how they were able to force payments for long periods, thanks to their local power.

Aristocrats actually reciprocated downward the relationships based on political dependence they suffered towards the princes to whom they forcefully lent and asked for privileges or rents as payments. When in debt (and they were frequently so), they dismissed and ill-treated their moneylenders (who always suffered bad treatment if they tried to obtain payment through legal means), except those who had been able to access some personal secrets, as was frequently the case when wives pawned their jewelry to old women lenders (the marchandes ? la toilette made famous by novelists down to Balzac). On the other hand, aristocrats considered their gambling debts as the only serious ones because they were purely personal, among equals, and a symbol of their lives? dedication to risk and gratuitousness.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum, poor women had no power and a precarious status. Fontaine shows that the legal position of women mostly deteriorated in much of Europe in the early modern period, obliging them to participate in the most informal and unsecured credit markets. However, her conclusion is not that the market was dangerous to women, but quite the opposite, since where women started participating in markets, they ended up not only surviving, but even obtaining some recognition, as merchants if not as wives: ?Everywhere and since the Middle Ages, the development of markets boosted the legal autonomy of women? (p.144).

Credit was then not limited to the world of the merchants, as often described, but penetrated, although unevenly, all classes of society. As early as the first half of the sixteenth century, Rabelais could write that ?nature created man only to lend and borrow.? Usury laws were unable to restrict the ubiquity of credit, as the Church actually abandoned applying them as early as the sixteenth century. At that time, the states took over the issue and maintained or reinforced usury laws, but let develop a jurisprudence which allowed for many exceptions and by-paths.

Credit was ubiquitous and diverse, but Fontaine argues that its diversity can be better understood using a bipolar lens. Step by step, her book builds a representation of the credit market that distinguishes two ideal-types of credit relationships. These two ideal-types are clearly delineated in chapter 8 thanks to the use of Shakespeare (Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice), Moli?re and the Tableau de Paris by Louis-S?bastien Mercier. The first one is ?aristocratic? the second one ?merchant.?

In the aristocratic world, credit relationships are embedded in social relationships and religious imperatives: interest is frequently hidden or in kind, or even disguised in voluntary gifts, debts have no definite term or can be prolonged indefinitely, the relationship between debtor and creditor is statutory or personal. In the merchant world on the other hand, the contract is precisely defined and respected thanks to strong guarantees, and the relationship is impersonal or among equals thanks to a strong role of the law. If this distinction is similar to the one usual among anthropologists, Fontaine?s claim is actually very different: first because she argues both types of relationships co-existed permanently (even if their relative importance varied) and most people could enter both types of relationships, choosing with whom to contract. Second because the market was not intrinsically less humane than the personal relationship: if less open to credit restructuring for personal reasons, it was more rule-based and thus more protected against the creditor?s power. So individuals chose both what type of relationship they wanted to enter and with whom to enter it. They, usually, had some choice, and the social environment, although constraining, was also a space of opportunities.

Even more important, Fontaine shows that the aristocratic and the merchant economies not only conflicted but also penetrated each other. Chapter 6 is very illuminating in that respect, showing that pawnshops (monte di pieta) were invented in the early fifteenth century by Franciscans wanting credit to become a complement to charity, one through which the poor could get more autonomy and capacity to exert their talents, although escaping the dangers of usury and over-indebtedness.

The last chapter on the social construction of credit provides the reverse example: while Franciscans accepted the role of credit markets in helping the poor, merchants never entirely rejected some ?aristocratic? dimension of credit. Analyzing bankruptcies and the relationships among merchants in hard times, Fontaine shows that they appealed to the community to which they belonged, and obtained help as long as they were truly integrated into it, much like in the aristocratic economy.

The book then concludes that both market and personal relationships were always present in early-modern credit, but focuses mostly on the role of the market in allowing the emancipation of the poor and the development of their capabilities, in an explicit reference to Amartya Sen. Although I had great pleasure in reading this convincing and powerful book, a few critical remarks must be added. First, although the book?s approach encompasses many topics, some important ones are missing. The practices and culture of credit among merchants is given little place. This is certainly intended as a necessary correction in view of its excessive place in the previous literature, but the correction is probably also excessive. Public credit is also absent, to some extent in contradiction with the author?s very views on the relationships between princes and some of their aristocratic creditors. Maybe most importantly, this is a history with little historical change. As mentioned earlier, some changes are mentioned in various chapters, but no answer is given to the most important question: if there was a substantial change in the way credit markets worked from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, what was that change and where did it come from? The author could have linked the emancipation towards the power element in aristocratic relationships with the development of legal and representative institutions; nevertheless, law is little present except in the chapter on women, and politics is altogether absent. Finally, contemporary economic thought and modern theory are absent. Both have nevertheless proved to be useful in order to understand early modern economies (see e.g. Grenier?s L??conomie d?Ancien R?gime as an attempt based on contemporaries). Fontaine actually uses some concepts from imperfect information theory, but quite clumsily. These remarks suggest that an even broader synthesis would be welcome in order to provide a truly comprehensive view of early modern credit.

Some of the book?s arguments are not well presented, and would have gained from better writing. The author frequently makes the point that personal debts were extended for long periods, but does not relate this clearly to the annuities model which was so dominant in farming and public debt in the period. Over-indebtedness is forcefully asserted, but insufficiently demonstrated in economic terms, since payment flows should be related to incomes rather than volumes of debts to assets. More seriously, the author argues that the fact that the poor invested all their income in clothes or jewelry reflected a ?preference for illiquidity? (e.g., p. 132), when actually these goods were chosen because they were highly liquid (thanks to the pawnshops the author describes so well), and were given preference over money because of the riskiness of money that could be stolen or be forcefully borrowed by relatives.

Other remarks are more formal. Although the book is quite beautiful, it is not well edited. Chapter two is somewhat repetitive of chapter one, some developments (e.g. on women?s legal status on pp. 134-56) are too long and are not well integrated into the general story. A more careful reading by the publisher would also have avoided the repetition of entire sentences (pp. 164 and 165, pp. 185, 186 and 189, pp. 244 and 265) or quotes badly cut (p. 172).

In spite of these small shortcomings, this book remains an impressive synthesis and a brilliant essay. One should hope that it will be rapidly translated into English in order to get the wider readership it deserves.

References: Jean-Yves Grenier, L??conomie d?Ancien R?gime: un monde de l??change et de l?incertitude, Paris, Albin Michel, 1996. Philip T. Hoffman, Gilles Postel-Vinay, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Priceless Markets: The Political Economy of Credit Markets in Paris, 1660-1870, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur is Professor of economics at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Paris School of Economics, Paris. His recent publications include Le march? financier fran?ais au 19e si?cle, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2007, the edition of a special issue of Histoire et Mesure on bankruptcies, “Bankruptcy Law and Practice in 19th Century France,” in Insolvency and Bankruptcy Laws: Issues and Perspectives (JAI University Press, 2008) and “Why Didn’t France Follow the British Stabilization after World War One?” (with M. Bordo), _European Review of Economic History, 2007.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval