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Crises in Economic and Social History: A Comparative Perspective

Editor(s):Brown, A.T.
Burn, Andy
Doherty, Rob
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip R.P.

Published by EH.Net (March 2016)

A.T. Brown, Andy Burn and Rob Doherty, editors, Crises in Economic and Social History: A Comparative Perspective. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2015.  xvii + 401 pp. $45 (paper), ISBN: 978-1-78327-042-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip R.P. Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.

This volume is a collection of essays relating the concept of a crisis to various historical issues.  It consists of an introduction and fifteen separately authored chapters and an index.  After the Introduction the book is divided into five sections, each containing three chapters.  The overarching theme of crisis does not provide a very useful framework to integrate or elucidate the essays. This is because very many events in history can be considered crises; so the term adds little to the understanding and the integration of such disparate events as the epidemic animal diseases afflicting sheep and cattle in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in England (Chapter 4), and the decline of the Tyrolean silk industry during the latter part of the nineteenth century (Chapter 15).  That said, there are some very informative essays, in particularly Philip Slavin’s chapter “Flogging a Dead Cow: Coping with Animal Panzootic on the Eve of the Black Death,” (the aforementioned Chapter 4) and that of Pavla Jirková on the “Plague Year 1680 in Central Europe: Using Czech Plague Registers to Monitor Epidemic Progression” (Chapter 8) are both worth reading. The most useful elements of these essays are their detailed examinations of events that are not in the forefront of economic history.

However, the economic analysis and data manipulation in these essays, where they exist, tend to be primitive at best, and frequently misleading and/or incorrect.  As an egregious example, Chapter 6 on the “The International Crisis of 1972-77: The Neglected Agrarian Dimension” is replete with errors in analysis, or a case of extremely careless proofreading.  On page 167 the author writes: “The USA had come to see cheap sugar as a birthright. . . .  Between 1966 and November 1974, raw sugar made the astonishing climb from 1.4 cents to 66.5 cents per pound.” Where to begin?  First, the U.S. has one of the highest sugar prices in the world because it has quotas limiting the amount of sugar it imports.  To suggest that the United States has low sugar prices compared to most of the rest of the world is simply incorrect. Second, prices in the United States during this period rose from about 40 cents per pound to a peak of less than $1.20 per pound in 1974.  Third world prices for sugar, which are the prices pound mentioned in the above quote, did indeed, peak at about 66.5 cents per pound, but the mean world price of sugar for the entire year of 1974 was 29.66 cents per pound, substantially below the peak price of 66.5 cents per pound. Indeed the peak price was an artifact of the financial markets in the sugar trade with traders, who were short on sugar scrambling to meet their contractual obligations for that month. Reporting that the price rose from 1.4 cents per pound to 66.5 cents per pound is completely false for the United States and, when applied to the world price, economically meaningless. Reporting a peak spot price as illustrative of the increase in sugar prices in 1974 is analogous to reporting the winnings of a lottery pool as daily income and implicitly suggesting that it could be extrapolated to the entire year.  It is sensationalist, bad history, and bad economics.

Another essay, “The Stabilizing Effects of the Dingley Tariff and the Recovery from the 1890s Depression in the USA” (Chapter 15), exemplifies the difficulties I have with this book. In it there is an embarrassing proof-reading mistake in Figure 15-2 where GDP per capita in the United States is measured in the purchasing power of 1996 dollars; the unit of measure is “1996 millions of U.S. Dollars.”  It is easy to see why the proof-reading mistake occurred because the Figure 15-1 (immediately above 15-2) measures GDP in the same units (“1996 millions of U.S. Dollars”).  Mistakes like these are forgivable, but they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Additionally this essay states (p. 375) that after the depression of the 1890s the U.S. economy only reached full capacity again in 1907; yet the aforementioned graphs on GDP and per capita show the U.S. exceeding the pre-depression levels by 1897 or 1898 (depending upon whether GDP or GDP per capita, respectively, is used as the metric).  Other faults in this essay are that it does not distinguish between nominal and effective tariffs and chooses the wool industry, which had one of the highest effective tariffs, as illustrative of the “benefits” (higher prices to consumers are not considered) of the Dingley Tariff.

Not that the essays have no value. On the contrary, they are replete with interesting and valuable anecdotes and insights, but, for the most part, any economic analyses they contain is hindered by the lack of a logical framework consistent with standard economic analysis.  Thus some essays deal with a “shortage” of specie; if there were shortage of specie, then the price of goods should be falling in terms of specie (an ounce of specie would buy more goods and services). Yet they simultaneously mention inflation (declining purchasing power of specie) with the cause being the rising prices of cereals or fuels (dependent on the essay). Here there is confusion between changing relative prices with inflation (a general increase in prices and a decline in the purchasing power of money). At other times the roots of inflation are caused by the rising prices of commodities; so we are to believe that the cause of inflation (increasing prices levels) is increasing prices. This is not only incorrect, it is silly.

In the past generation there has been a substantial retrogression in the economic analyses and economic content of history.  I suspect this has something to do with the increasing emphasis on mathematical complexity in graduate training in economics and the banishment of economic history from the graduate curriculum of most economic departments. This leads to a world with: 1) historians who are ignorant of economics, its data handling techniques, and the extant corpus of economic history; and 2) economists equally ignorant of history, and who illogically claim that history has nothing to teach them. It is illogical because if someone is ignorant of a subject, then he or she cannot debate its merits.

Although I have some difficulties with this volume, for the specialist this book is worthwhile reading if, for the most part, you ignore its attempts at economic analysis and data manipulation, and focus on the stories the essays tell. The past is fascinating and that shines through in this volume in spite of its economic inadequacies.

Philip R. P. Coelho’s most recent publication is “The Evolution of Human Cooperation,” co-authored with James E. McClure in the March 2016 issue of the Journal of Bioeconomics.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative