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Institutions, Innovation, and Industrialization: Essays in Economic History and Development

Editor(s):Greif, Avner
Kiesling, Lynne
Nye, John V. C.
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

Published by EH.Net (May 2015)

Avner Greif, Lynne Kiesling, and John V. C. Nye, editors, Institutions, Innovation, and Industrialization: Essays in Economic History and Development.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. v + 430 pp.  $49.50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-15734-4.

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

Although it would be difficult to prove conclusively I believe the level of social capital in the economic history profession is very high, absolutely and relative to other fields in economics.  Because the field is small, new entrants are quickly integrated into the fold.   Senior scholars take their mentoring responsibilities seriously, and not just to their own students.  On the back end, there is a very strong tradition of Festschriften, the formal honoring of distinguished individuals by research conferences and requisite commemorative volumes.   For economic historians who have produced many more successful PhDs in their career than the average number of chapters in an edited volume, the decision of whom to include in the published Festschrift (as opposed to the conference) is a delicate challenge.   As the co-editors note in their introductory remarks, this certainly was the case with the volume under review, honoring as it does Joel Mokyr, one of our most prodigious scholars and certainly one of the most prolific in replenishing the profession with new PhDs over the past several decades.  The co-editors are all well-known Mokyr students.  Avner Grief is the Bowman Family Endowed Professor in Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University; Lynne Kiesling is Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Economics at Northwestern University; and John V. C. Nye is the Frederic Bastiat Chair in Political Economy and Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

The book is divided into four sections.  The first without title or number presents the co-editors’ introductory remarks; and two chapters, one by Cormac Ó Gráda (“Neither Feast nor Famine: England before the Industrial Revolution”) and a second by Joel Mokyr (“Progress, Useful Knowledge, and the Origins of the Industrial Revolution”).  The second section (“Institutions”) contains four chapters by Grief (“Coercion and Exchange: How did Markets Evolve?”); Gergely Baics (“Meat Consumption in Nineteenth Century New York:  Quantity, Distribution, and Quality, or Notes on the ‘Antebellum Puzzle’”; Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth (“Funding Empire: Risk, Diversification, and the Underwriting of Early Modern Sovereign Loans”); and Noel D. Johnson, Mark Koyama, and Nye (“Establishing a New Order: The Growth of the State and the Decline of Witch Trials in France”).   The third, (“Innovation”) has four chapters by Fabbio Braggion, Narly R.D. Dwarkasing, and Lyndon Moore (“Increasing Market Concentration in British Banking, 1885 to 1925”); Peter B. Meyer (“The Catapult of Riches: The Airplane as a Creative Macroinvention”); Karine van der Beck (“England’s Eighteenth Century Demand for High-Quality Worksmanship: Evidence from Apprentice, 1710-1770”); and Rick Szostak (“A Growth Agenda for Economic History”).  The fourth and final section (“Industrial Revolution”) is the longest with five chapters by Hoyt Bleakley, Louis Cain, and Joseph Ferrie (“Amidst Poverty and Prejudice: Black and Irish Civil War Veterans”); Ralf R. Meisenzahl (“How Britain Lost its Competitive Edge: Competence in the Second Industrial Revolution”); Carolyn Tuttle and Simone A. Wegge (“Regulating Child Labor: The European Experience”); Joyce Burnette (“Decomposing the Wage Gap: Within- and Between-Occupation Gender Wage Gaps at a Nineteenth Century Textile Firm”); and Eric Jones (“The Context of English Industrialization.”   Most of the authors are former doctoral students of Mokyr; others are long-time colleagues or professional associates (Cain, Jones, Ferrie).

Due to the eclectic nature of the book and space constraints being what they are, I shall hit the highlights as I see them and make some general observations.  Joel Mokyr’s chapter is a very effective summary of a forthcoming Princeton University Press book on the question near and dear to his heart: Why England? The Baics chapter provides an abundance of fresh quantitative data on the “antebellum puzzle,” showing that meat consumption appears to have declined in New York City in the late 1830s and early 1840s.  Karine van der Beek creatively uses archival records of apprentices subject to the stamp tax to study how the demand for certain types of skilled labor changed during the Industrial Revolution.   The Bleakley, Cain and Ferrie chapter uses unique data from the Early Indicators project collected by Mokyr’s cross-town colleague, the late Robert Fogel, to provide new insights into economic mobility experienced by Civil War veterans, by race and ethnicity.

The blurbs on the back cover of the book tout the “cutting-edge” (Harold James) and “pioneering and provocative” (Stephen Haber) nature of the chapters, but that is not how I see them for the most part.  As practiced today in the United States economic history is mostly indistinguishable in style and technique from other branches of applied economics.   Absent a few passing references to game theory here and there, and some simple algebra in Peter Meyer’s chapter, there is no formal modeling in this book.  When on display (and not often) the econometrics would be right at home in any 1980s issue of Explorations in Economic History.  There is some unevenness in substance and execution across the chapters, not uncommon in Festschrift.  I could have done without the Szostak chapter and its unnecessary eleven-step “program” of recommended behavior for today’s economic historians (“Focus on economic growth.  Focus some more.”)  It reminded me of sterile debates over the “New Economic History” that consumed far too much time (and journal space) back in the 1960s and 1970s and which are irrelevant today, in my personal experience.

What the essays do possess collectively is a studied, patient eye for historical context and clarity of exposition that has always been part and parcel of Joel Mokyr’s work, traits that he has most effectively transmitted to his students.   There is also an abundance of deep respect and affection for the dedicatee that shines through in every chapter.   Social capital runs very high in the Mokyr extended family, as this volume effectively demonstrates.

Robert A. Margo is the current President of the Economic History Association.  His most recent books are Human Capital and History: The American Record (co-edited with Leah Boustan and Carola Frydman) and Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective (co-edited with William Collins), both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII