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The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

Author(s):Fischer, David Hackett
Reviewer(s):Munro, John H.

Published by EH.NET (February 1999)

David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of

History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. xvi + 536.

$35 (hardcover), ISBN: 019505377X. $16.95 (paperback), ISBN: 019512121X.

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

Toronto.

Let me begin on a positive note. This is indeed a most impressive work: a

vigorous, sweeping, grandiose, and contentious, though highly entertaining,

portrayal of European and North American economic history, from the High Middle

Ages to the present, viewed through the lens of “long-wave” secular price-

trends. Indeed its chief value may well lie in the controversies that it is

bound to provoke, particularly from economists, to inspire new avenues of

research in economic history

, especially in price history. The author contends that, over the past eight

centuries, the European economy has experienced four major “price-

revolutions,” whose inflationary forces ultimately became economically and

socially destructive, with adverse consequences that provoked various complex

reactions whose “resolutions” in turn led to more harmonious, prosperous, and

“equitable” economic and social conditions during intervening eras of “price

equilibria”. These four price-revolutions are rather too neatly set out as the

following: (1) the later- medieval, from c.1180-c.1350; (2) the far better

known 16th-Century Price-Revolution, atypically dated from c.1470 to c.1650,

(3) the inflation of the Industrial Revolution era, from c.1730 to 1815; and

(4) the 20th century price-revolution, conveniently dated from 1896 to 1996

(when he published the book).

Though I am probably more sympathetic

to the historical concept of

“long-waves” than the majority of economists, I do agree with many opponents of

this concept that such long-waves are exceptionally difficult to define and

explain in any mathematically convincing models, which are certainly not

supplied here. For reasons to be explored in the course of this review, I

cannot accept his depictions, analysis

, and explanations for any of them. This will not surprise Prof. Fischer, who

is evidently not an admirer of the economics profession. He is particularly

hostile to those of us deemed to be “monetarists,” evidently used as a

pejorative term. After rejecting not only the “monetarist” but also the

“Malthusian,

neo-Classical, agrarian, environmental, and historicist” models, for their

perceived deficiencies in explaining inflations, and after condemning

economists and historians alike for imposing rigid models in attempting to

unravel the mysteries of European and North American economic history,

Fischer himself imposes an exceptionally rigid and untenable model for all four

of his so-called price-revolutions, containing in fact selected Malthusian and

monetarist elements from these supposedly rejected models.

In essence, the Fischer model contends that all of his four long-wave

inflations manifested the following six-part consecutive chain of causal and

consequential factors, inducing new causes, etc., into the next part of the

chain. First, each inflationary long-wave began with a prosperity created from

the preceding era of price-equilibrium, one promoting a population growth that

inevitably led to an expansion in aggregate demand that in turn outstripped

aggregate supply, thus — according to his model

– causing virtually ALL prices to rise. Evidently his model presupposes that

all sectors of the economy, in all historical periods under examination, came

to suffer from Malthusian-Ricardian diminishing

returns and rising marginal costs, etc. Second, in each and every such era,

after some indefinite lapse of time, and after the general population had

become convinced that rising prices constituted a persistent and genuine trend,

the “people” demanded and

received from their governments an increase in the money supply to

“accommodate” the price rises. As Fischer specifically comments on p. 83: “in

every price-revolution, one finds evidence of frantic efforts to expand the

money supply, after people have discovered that prices are rising in a secular

way.” Third, and invariably, in his view, that subsequent and continuous growth

in the money supply served only to fuel and thus aggravate the already existing

inflation. He never explains, however, for any of

the four long-waves, why those increases in money stocks were always in excess

of the amount required “to accommodate inflation”. Fourth, with such

money-stock increases, the now accelerating inflation ultimately produced a

steadily worsening impoverishment of the masses, aggravated malnutrition,

generally deteriorating biological conditions, and a breakdown of family

structures and the social order, with increasing incidences of crime and social

violence: i.e., with a rise in consumer prices that outstripped generally

sticky wages in each and every era, and with a general transfer of wealth from

the poorer to richer strata of society. Fifth, ultimately all these negative

forces produced economic and social crises that finally brought the

inflationary forces to a halt,

producing a fall in population and thus (by his model) in prices, declines that

subsequently led to a new era of “price-equilibrium,” along with concomitant

re-transfers of wealth and income from the richer to the poorer strata of

society

(where such wealth presumably belonged). Sixth, after some period of economic

prosperity and social harmony, this vicious cycle would recommence, i.e., when

these favorable conditions succeeded in promoting a new round of incessant

population growth, which inevitably sparked those same inflationary forces to

produce yet another era of price-revolution, continuing until it too had run

its course.

While many economic historians, using more structured Malthusian-Ricardian type

models, have also provided a similarly bleak portrayal of

demographically-related upswings and downswings of the European economy,

most have argued that this bleak cycle was broken with the economic forces of

the modern Industrial Revolution era. Fischer evidently does not. Are we the

reforecondemned, according to his view, to suffer these never-ending bleak

cycles– economic history according to the Myth of Sisyphus, as it were?

Perhaps not, if government leaders were to listen to the various nostrums set

forth in the final chapter,

political recommendations on which I do not feel qualified to comment.

Having engaged in considerable research, over the past 35 years, on European

monetary, price, and wage histories from the 13th to 19th centuries, I am,

however, rather more qualified

to comment on Fischer’s four supposed long-waves. Out of respect for the

author’s prodigious labors in producing this magnum opus, one that is bound to

have a major impact on the historical profession, especially in covering such a

vast temporal and spatial range, I feel duty-bound to provide detailed

criticisms of his analyses of these secular price trends, with as much

statistical evidence as I can readily muster. Problematic in each is defining

their time span,

i.e., the onset and termination of inflations. If many medievalists may concur

that his first long- wave did begin in the 1180s, few would now agree that it

ended as late as the Black Death of 1348-50. On the contrary,

the preceding quarter-century (1324-49) was one of very severe deflation,

certainly in both Tuscany (Herlihy 1966) and England. In the latter, the

Phelps Brown and Hopkins “basket of consumables” price index (1451-75 =

100) fell 47%: from 165 in 1323 (having been as high as 216 in 1316, with the

Great Famine) to just 88 in 1346. Conversely, while most early-modern

historians would agree that the 16th-Century Price Revolution generally ended

in the 1650s (certainly in England), few if any would date its commencement so

early as the 1470s. To be sure, in both the Low Countries and England, a

combination of coinage debasements, civil wars, bad harvests, and other

supply-shocks did produce a short-term rise in prices from the later 1470s to

the early 1490s; but thereafter their basket-of-consumables price-indices

resumed their deflationary downward trend for another three decades (Munro

1981, 1983). In both of these regions and in Spain as well (Hamilton 1934), the

sustained rise in the general price level, lasting over a century, did not

commence until c.1520.

For Fischer’s third inflationary long-wave, of the Industrial Revolution era,

his periodization is much less contentious, though one might mark its

commencement in the late 1740s rather than the early 1730s.

The last and most recent wave is, however, by far more the most controversial

in its character. Certainly a long upswing in world prices did begin in 1896,

and lasted until the 1920s; but can we really pretend that this so neatly

defined century of 1896 to 1996 truly encompasses any form of long wave when we

consider the behavior of prices from the 1920s?

Are we to pretend that the horrendous deflation of the ensuing Great Depression

era was just a temporary if unusual aberration that deviated from this

particular century long (saeclum) secular tend? Fischer, in fact,

very

rarely ever discusses deflation, ignoring those of the 14th century and most

of the rest. Instead, he views the three periods intervening between his price-

revolutions as much more harmonious eras of price-equilibria: i.e. 1350-1470;

1650 – 1730; 1820 –

1896; and he suggests that we are now entering a fourth such era. In my own

investigations of price and monetary history from the 12th century, prices rise

and fall,

with varying degrees of amplitude; but they rarely if ever remain stable,

“in equilibrium”.

Certainly “equilibrium” is not a word that I would apply to the first of these

eras, from 1350 to 1470: not with the previously noted, very stark deflation of

c.1325 – 48, followed by an equally drastic inflation that ensued from the

Black Death over

the next three decades, well documented for England, Flanders (Munro 1983,

1984), France, Tuscany (Herlihy 1966),

and Aragon-Navarre (Hamilton 1936). Thus, in England, the mean quinquennial PB

& H index rose 64%: from 88 in 1340-44 to 145 in 1370-74, fal ling sharply

thereafter, by 29%, to 103 in 1405-09; after subsequent oscillations, it fell

even further to a final nadir of 87 in 1475-79 (when,

according to Fischer, the next price-revolution was now under way). For

Flanders, a similarly constructed price index of quinquennial means

(1450-74 = 100: Munro 1984), commencing only in 1350, thereafter rose 170%:

from 59 in 1350-4 to 126 in 1380-84, reflecting an inflation aggravated by

coinage debasements that England had not experienced, indeed none at all since

1351. Thereafter, the Flemish price index plunged 32%, reaching a temporary

nadir of 88 in 1400-04; but after a series of often severe price oscillations,

aggravated by warfare and more coin debasements, it rose to a peak of 138 in

1435-9; subsequent ly it fell another 31%, reaching its 15th century nadir of

95 in 1465-9 (before rising and then falling again, as noted earlier).

Implicit in these observations is the quite pertinent criticism that Fischer

has failed to use, or use properly, these and many other price

indices–especially the well-constructed Vander Wee index (1975), for the

Antwerp region, from 1400 to 1700, so important in his study; and the Rousseaux

and Gayer-Rostow-Schwarz indices for the 19th century (Mitchell &

Deane 1962). On the other hand, he has relied far too much on the dangerously

faulty d’Avenel price index (1894-1926) for medieval and early-modern France.

Space limitations, and presumably the reader’s patience, prevent me from

engaging in similar analyses of price trends

over the ensuing centuries, to indicate further disagreements with Fischer’s

analyses, except to note one more quarter-century of deflation during a

supposed era of price equilibrium: that of the so-called Great Depression era

of 1873 to 1896, at least within England, when the PB&H price index fell from

1437 to 947, a decline of 34% that was unmatched, for quarter-century periods

in English economic history, since the two stark deflations of the second and

fourth quarters of the 14th century. (The Rousseaux index fell from 42.5% from

127 in 1873 to 73 in 1893).

My criticisms of Fischer’s temporal depictions of both inflationary long-waves

and intervening eras of supposed price equilibria are central to my objections

to his anti-monetarist explanations for them, or rather to his

misrepresentation of the monetarist case, a viewpoint he admittedly shares with

a great number of other historians, especially those who have found

Malthusian-Ricardian type models to be more seductively plausible explanations

of

inflation. Certainly, too many of my students, in reading the economic history

literature on Europe before the Industrial Revolution era, share that beguiling

view, turning a deaf ear to the following arguments: namely, that (1) a growth

in population cannot by itself,

without complementary monetary factors, cause a rise in all prices, though

certainly it often did lead to a rise in the relative prices of grain,

timber, and other natural-resource based commodities subject to diminishing

return and supply

inelasticities; and thus (2) that these simplistic demographic models involve

a fatal confusion between a change in the relative prices of individual

commodities and a rise in the overall price-level. Some clever students have

challenged that admonition,

however,

with graphs that seek to demonstrate, with intersecting sets of aggregate

demand and supply curves, that a rise in population is sufficient to explain

inflation. My response is the following. First, all of the historical prices

with which Fischer and my students are dealing

(1180-1750) are in terms of silver-based moneys-of-account, in the traditional

pounds, shillings, and pence, tied to the region’s currently circulating silver

penny, or similar such coin, while prices expressed in terms of the gold-based

Florentine florin behaved quite differently over the long periods of time

covered in this study. Indeed we should expect such a difference in price

behavior with a change in the bimetallic ratio from about 10:1 in 1400 to about

16:1 in 1650,

which obviously reflects the fall in the relative value or purchasing power of

silver — an issue virtually ignored in Fischer’s book. Second, the shift, in

this student graph, from the conjunction of the Aggregate Demand and Supply

schedules,

from P1.Q1

and P2.Q2, requires a compensatory monetary expansion in order to achieve the

transaction values indicated for the two price levels: from 17,220,000 pounds

and 122,960,000 pounds, which increase in the volume of payments had to come

from either increased

money stocks and/or flows. Even if changes in demographic and other real

variables, shared responsibility for inflation by inducing changes in those

monetary variables, we are not permitted to ignore those variables in

explaining historical inflations.

Admittedly, from the 12th to the 18th centuries, to the modern Industrial

Revolution era, correlations between demographic and price movements are often

apparent. But why do so few historians consider the alternative proposition

that much more profound, deeper economic forces might have induced a complex

combination of general economic growth, monetary expansion, and a rise in

population, together (so that such apparent statistical relationships would

have adverse Durbin-Watson statistics to indicate significant serial

correlation)? Furthermore, if population growth is the inevitable root cause of

inflation, and population decline the purported cause of deflation, how do such

models explain why the drastic depopulations of the 14th-century Black Death

were

followed by three decades of severe inflation in most of western Europe?

Conversely, why did late 19th-century England experience the above-noted

deflation while its population grew from 23.41 million in 1873 (PB&H at 1437)

to 30.80 million in 1896 (PB&H

at 947)?

Nor is Fischer correct in asserting that, in each and every one of his four

price-revolutions, an increase in money supplies followed rather than preceded

or accompanied the rises in the price-level. For an individual country or

region, however

, one might argue that a rise in its own price level, as a consequence of a

transmitted rise in world or at least continental prices would have quickly —

and not after the long-time lags projected in Fischer’s analysis — produced an

increase in money supplies to satisfy the economic requirements for that rise

in national/regional prices. Fischer, however, fails to offer any theoretical

analysis of this phenomenon, and makes no reference to any of the well-known

publications on the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments [by Frenkel

and Johnson (1976), McCloskey and Zecher (1976), Dick and Floyd (1985, 1992);

Flynn (1978) and D. Fisher (1989), for the Price Revolution era itself]. In

essence,

and with some necessary repetition, this thesis contends:

(1) that a rise in world price levels, initially arising from increases in

world monetary stocks, is transmitted to most countries through the mechanisms

of international commerce (in commodities, services, labor) and finance

(capital flows); and (2) that monetized metallic (coin) stocks and other

elements constituting M1 will be endogenously distributed among all countries

and/or regions in order to accommodate the consequent rise in the domestic

price levels, (3) without involving those international bullion flows that the

famous Hume “price- specie flow” mechanism postulates to be the consequences of

inflation-induced changes in national trade balances.

In any event, the historical evidence clearly demonstrates that, for each of

Fischer’s European-based price-revolutions, an increase in European monetary

stocks and flows always preceded the inflations. For the first,

the price-revolution of the “long-13th century” (c.1180-c.1325), Ian Blanchard

(1996) has recently demonstrated that within England its elf,

specifically in Cumberland-Northumberland, a very major silver mining boom had

commenced much earlier, c.1135-7, peaking in the 1170s, with annual silver

outputs that were “ten times more than had been produced in the whole of

Europe” for any year in

the past seven centuries. By the 1170s,

and thus still before evident signs of general inflation or a marked

demographic upswing, an even greater silver mining boom had begun in the Harz

Mountains region of Saxony, which continued to pour out vast quantities of

silver until the early 14th century. For this same

“Commercial Revolution” era, we must also consider the accompanying financial

revolution, also evident by the 1180s, in Genoa and Lombardy; and though one

may debate the impact that their deposit-

and-transfer banking and foreign-exchange banking had upon aggregate European

money supplies,

these institutional innovations undoubtedly did at least increase the volume of

monetary flows, and near the beginning, not the middle, of this first

documented

long-wave.

For the far better known 16th-Century Price Revolution, Fischer seems to pose a

much greater threat to traditional monetary explanations, especially in so

quixotically dating its commencement in the 1470s, rather than in the 1520s.

Certainly Fischer and many other critics are on solid grounds in challenging

what had been, from the time of Jean Bodin (1566-78) to Earl Hamilton

(1928-35), the traditional monetary explanation for the origins of the Price

Revolution: namely, the influx of Spanish

American treasure. But not until after European inflation was well underway,

not until the mid-1530s, were any significant amounts of gold or silver being

imported

(via Seville); and no truly large imports of silver are recorded before the

early 1560s (a

mean of 83,374 kg in 1561-55: TePaske 1983), when the mercury amalgamation

process was just beginning to effect a revolution in Spanish-American mining.

Those undisputed facts, however, in no way undermine the so-called

“monetarist” case; for Fischer, and far too many other economic historians,

have ignored the multitude of other monetary forces in play since the 1460s.

The first and least important factor was the Portuguese export of gold from

West Africa (Sao Jorge) beginning as a trickle in the 1460s;

rising to 170 kg per annum by 1480, and peaking at 680 kg p.a. in the late

1490s (Wilks 1993). Far more important was the Central European silver mining

boom, which began in the 1460s, at the very nadir of the West European

deflation, which had thus raised the purchasing power of silver and so

increased the profit incentive to seek out new silver sources: as a

technological revolution in both mechanical and chemical engineering.

According to John Nef (1941, 1952), when this German-based mining boom reached

its peak in the mid 1530s, it had augmented Europe’s silver outputs more than

five-fold, with an annual production that ranged from a minimum of 84,200 kg

fine silver to a maximum of 91,200 kg — and thus well in excess of any amounts

pouring into Seville before the mid-1560s. My own statistical compilations,

limited to just the major mines, indicate a rise in quinquennial mean

fine-silver outputs from 12,356 kg in 1470-74 to 55,025 kg in 1534-39 (Munro

1991). In England, 25-year mean mint outputs rose

from 18,932 kg silver in 1400-24 to 33,655 kg in 1475-99 to 59,090 kg in

1500-24; and then to 305,288 kg in 1550-74 (i.e., after Henry VIII’s

“Great Debasement”); in the southern Low Countries, those means go from 54,444

kg in 1450-74 to 280,958 kg in 15 50-74 (Challis 1992; Munro 1983,

1991).

In my view, however, equally important and probably even more important was the

financial revolution that had begun in or by the 1520s with legal sanctions for

and then legislation on full negotiability, and the contemporary establishment

of effective secondary markets (especially the Antwerp Bourse) in fully

negotiable bills and rentes, i.e., heritable government annuities; and the

latter owed their universal and growing popularity, compared with other forms

of public debt, to papal bulls (1425,

1455) that had exonerated them from any taint of usury. To give just one

example of a veritable explosion in this form of public credit (which thus

reduced the relative demand for gold and silver coins), an issue that Fischer

almost completely ignores: the annual volume of transactions in Spanish

heritable juros rose from 5 million ducats (of 375 maravedis) in 1515 to 83

million ducats in the 1590s (Vander Wee 1977). Thus we need not call upon

Spanish-American bullion imp orts to explain the monetary origins of the

European Price Revolution, though their importance in aggravating and

accelerating the extent of inflation from the 1550s need hardly be questioned,

especially, as Frank Spooner (1972) has so aptly demonstrated,

even anticipated arrivals of Spanish treasure fleets would induce German and

Genoese bankers to expand credit issues by some multiples of the perceived

bullion values. Fischer, by the way, comments (p. 82) that: “the largest

proportionate increases in Spanish prices occurred during the first half of

the sixteenth century — not the second half, when American treasure had its

greatest impact.” This is simply untrue: from 1500-49, the Spanish composite

price index rose 78.5%; from 1550-99, it rose by another 92.1% (Hamilton

1934).

Changes in money stocks or other monetary variables do not, however,

provide the complete explanation for the actual extent of inflation in this or

in any other era. Even if every inflationary price trend that I have

investigate d, from the 12th to 20th centuries, has been preceded or

accompanied by some form of monetary expansion, in none was the degree of

inflation directly proportional to the observed rate of monetary expansion,

with the possible exception of the post World War I hyperinflations.

Consider this proposition in terms of the oft-maligned, conceptually limited,

but still heuristically useful monetary equation MV = Py [in which real y = Y/P

= C + I + G+ (X-M)]; or, better, in terms of the Cambridge “real cash

balances” approach: M = kPy [in which k = the proportion of real NNI (Py) that

the public chooses to hold in real cash balances, reflecting the constituent

elements of Keynesian liquidity preference]. Some Keynesian economists would

contend that an increase in M, or in the rate of growth of money stocks, would

be accompanied by some

offsetting rise in y (i.e. real NNI), whether exogenously created or

endogenously induced by related forces of monetary expansion, and also by some

decline in the income velocity of money, with a reduced need to economize on

the use of money. Since mathematically V = 1/k, they would similarly posit

that an expansion in M,

or its rate of growth, would have led, ceteris paribus — without any change in

liquidity preference, to a fall

in (nominal) interest rates, and thus, by the consequent reduction in the

opportunity costs of holding cash balances, to the necessarily corresponding

rise in k (i.e., an increase in the demand for real cash balances; see Keynes

1936, pp. 306-07). Sometimes, but only very rarely, have changes in these two

latter variables y and V (1/k) fully offset an increase in M; and thus such

increases in money stocks have also resulted, in most historical instances, in

some non-proportional degree of inflation: a rising P, as measured by some

suitable price index, such as the Phelps Brown and Hopkins

basket-of-consumables. [Other economists,

it must be noted, would contend that, in any event, the traditional Keynesian

model is really not applicable to such long-term

phenomena as Fischer’s price-revolutions.

Keynes himself, in considering “how changes in the quantity of money affect

prices… in the long run,” said, in the General Theory (1936, p. 306):

“This is a question for historical generalisation rather than for

pure theory.”]

For the 16th-century Price Revolution, therefore, the interesting question now

becomes: not why did it occur so early (i.e., before significant influxes of

Spanish American bullion); but rather why so late — so many decades after the

onset of the Central European silver-copper mining boom?

Since that boom had commenced in the 1460s, precisely when late-medieval

Europe’s population was at its nadir, perhaps 50% below the 1300 peak, and just

after the Hundred Years’ War had ended, and just

after the complex network of overland continental trade routes between Italy

and NW Europe had been successfully restored, one might contend that in such an

economy with so much “slack” in under-utilized resources, especially land, and

with elastic supplies for so many commodities, both the monetary expansion and

economic recovery of the later 15th century , preceding any dramatic

demographic recovery, permitted an increase in y proportional to the growth of

M, without the onset of diminishing returns an d without significant inflation,

before the 1520s By that decade, however, the monetary expansion had become

all the more powerful: with the peak of the Central European silver-mining

boom and with the rapid increase in the use of negotiable, transferable

credit instruments; and, furthermore, with the Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk

Sultanate (1517), which evidently diverted some considerable amounts of

Venetian silver exports from the Levant to the Antwerp market.

The role of the income-velocity of money

is far more problematic. According to Keynesian expectations, velocity should

have fallen with such increases in money stocks. Yet three eminent economic

historians — Harry Miskimin

(1975), Jack Goldstone (1984), and Peter Lindert (1985) — have sought

to explain England’s16th-century Price Revolution by a very contrary thesis:

of increased money flows (or reductions in k) that were induced by demographic

and structural economic changes, involving interalia(according to their

various models) disproportionate changes in urbanization, greater

commercialization of the rural sectors, far more complex commercial and

financial networks, changes in dependency ratios, etc. The specific

circumstances so portrayed, however, apart from the demographic, are largely

peculiar to 16th- century England and thus do not so convincingly explain the

very similar patterns of inflation in the 16th-century Low Countries, which had

undergone most of these structural economic changes far earlier. Certainly

these velocity model s cannot logically be applied to Fischer’s three other

inflationary long-waves. Indeed, in an article implicitly validating Keynesian

views, Nicholas Mayhew (1995) has contended that the income-velocity of money

has always fallen with an expansion in money stocks, from the medieval to

modern eras, with this one anomalous exception of the 16th-century Price

Revolution. Perhaps, for this one era,

we have misspecified V (or k) by misspecifiying M: i.e., by not properly

including increased issues of negotiable credit; or perhaps institutional

changes in credit (as Goldstone and Miskimin both suggest) did have as dramatic

an effect on V as on M. Furthermore, an equally radical change in the coined

money supply (certainly in England), from one that had been principally gold

to one which, precisely from the 1520s, became largely and then almost entirely

silver, may provide the solution to the velocity paradox: in that the

transactions velocity attached to small value silver coins, of 1d., is

obviously far higher

velocity than that for gold coins valued at 80d and 120d. Except for a brief

reference to Mayhew’s article in the lengthy bibliography, Fischer virtually

ignores such velocity issues

(and thus changes in the demand for real cash balances) throughout his

eight-century survey of secular price trends.

Finally, Fischer’s thesis that population growth was responsible for this the

most famous Price Revolution (and all other inflationary long waves) is hardly

credible, especially if he insists on dating its inception the 1470s. For most

economic historians (Vander Wee 1963; Blanchard 1970;

Hatcher 1977, 1986; Campbell 1981; Harvey 1993) contend that, in NW Europe,

late-medieval demographic decline continued into the early 16th-century;

and that England’s population in 1520 was no more than 2.25 million,

compared to estimates ranging from a minimum of 4.0 to a maximum of 6.0 or even

7.0 million around 1300, the upper bounds being favored by most historians. How

– even if the demographic model were to be theoretically acceptable — could

a modest population growth from such a very low level in the 1520s, reaching

perhaps 2.83 million in 1541, and peaking at 5.39 million in 1656, have been

the fundamental cause of persistent, European wide-inflation, already underway

in the 1520s?

According to Fischer, the ensuing, intervening price-equilibrium

(c.1650-c.1730) involved no discernible monetary contraction, and similarly,

his next inflationary long-wave (c.1730-1815) began well before any monetary

expansion became — in his view — manifestly evident. The monetary and price

data, suggest otherwise, however, incomplete though they may be. Thus, the data

complied by Bakewell, Cross, TePaske, and many others on silver mining at

Potosi (Peru) and Zacatecas (Mexico) indicate that their combined outputs fell

from a mean of 178,692 kg in 1636-40 to one of 101,534 kg in 1661-5, rising to

a mean of 156,497 kg in 1681-5

[partially corresponding to guesstimates of European bullion imports, which

Morineau (1985) extracted fr om Dutch gazettes]; but then sharply falling once

more, and even further, to a more meager mean of 95,842 kg in 1696-1700. During

this same era, the Viceroyalty of Peru’s domestically-

retained share of silver-based public revenues rose from 54% to 96%

(T ePaske 1981); the combined silver exports of the Dutch and English East

India Companies to Asia (Chaudhuri 1968; Gaastra 1983) increased from a

decennial mean of 17,293 kg in 1660-69 to 73,687 kg in 1700-09, while English

mint outputs in terms of fine sil ver (Challis 1992) fell from a mean of 19,400

kg in 1660-64 (but 23,781 kg in 1675-79) to one of just 430.4 kg in 1690-94,

i.e., preceding the Great Recoinage of 1696-98. From the early 18th century,

however, European silver exports to Asia were well more

than offset by a dramatic rise in Spanish-American, and especially Mexican

silver production: for the latter (with evidence from new or previously

unrecorded mines: assembled by Bakewell 1975, 1984; Garner 1980,

1987; Coatsworth 1986, and others), aggregate production more than doubled

from a mean of 129,878 kg in 1700-04 to one of 305,861 kg in 1745-49.

Possibly even more important, especially with England’s currency shift from a

silver to a gold standard, was a veritable explosion in aggregate

Latin-American gold production: from a decennial mean of just 863.90 kg in

1691-1700

zooming to 16,917.4 kg in 1741-50 (TePaske 1998). Within Europe itself, as

Blanchard (1989) has demonstrated, Russian silver mining outputs, ultimately

responsible for perhaps 7%

of Europe’s total stocks,

rose from virtually nothing in the late 1720s to peak at 33,000 kg per annum in

the late 1770s, falling to 18,000 kg in the early 1790s then rising to 21,000

kg per year in the later 1790s.

Finally, even though changes in annual mint outputs are not valid indicators

of changes in coined money supplies, let alone of changes in M1,

the fifty-year means of aggregate values of English mint outputs (silver and

gold: Challis 1992) do provide interesting signals of longer-term monetary

changes: a fall from an annual mean of 348,829 pounds in 1596-1645 to one of

275,403 pounds in 1646-95, followed by a rise, with more than a full recovery,

to an annual mean of 369,644 pounds in 1700-49 (thus excluding the Great

Recoinage of 1696-98). Meanwhile, if the earlier Price Revolution had indeed

peaked in 1645-49, with the quinquennial mean PB&H index at 680, falling to a

nadir of 579 in 1690-94, the fluctuations in the first half of the 18th-century

do not demonstrate any clear inflationary trend, with the mean PB&H index

(briefly peaking at 635 in 1725-9) stalled at virtually the same former level,

581, in 1745-49. Thereafter, of course,

for the second half of the 18th century, the trend is very strongly and

incessantly upward, with almost a

doubling in PB&H index, to 1093 in 1795-9.

Whatever one may wish to deduce from all these diverse data sets, we are

certainly not permitted to conclude, as does Fischer, that inflation preceded

monetary expansion, and did so consistently. Such a view becomes all the more

untenable when the radical changes in English and banking and credit

institutions, following the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694-97,

are taken into account: the consequent introduction and rapid expansion in

legal-tender paper bank note issues (with prior informal issues by London’s

Goldsmith banks), and more especially fully negotiable,

transferable, and discountable Exchequer bills, government annuities,

inland bills and promissory notes, whose veritable explosion in circulation

from the 1760s, with the proliferation of English country-banks, hardly

requires any further elaboration, even if these issues are given short shrift

in Fischer’s book. In view of such complex changes in Britain’s financial and

monetary structures,

subsequent data on coinage outputs have even more limited utility in

estimating money stocks. But we may note that aggregate mined outputs of

Mexican silver more than doubled, from a quinquennial mean of 305,861 kg in

1745-49 to 619,495 kg in 1795-99, while those of Peru more than tripled, from

34,318 kg in 1735-39 (no data for the 1740s) to 126,354 kg in 1795-99 (Garner

1980, 1987; Bakewell 1975, 1984; J.

Fisher, 1975).

Having earlier considered the so-called and misconstrued

“price-equilibrium” of 182 0-1896, let us now finally examine the inception of

the fourth and final long-wave commencing in 1896. Fischer again contends that

population growth was the “prime mover,” despite the fact that Britain’s own

intrinsic growth rate had been falling from its

1821 peak [from 1.75 to 1.31 in 1865, the last year given in Wrigley-Davies-

Oppen-Schofield (1997)]. For evidence he cites an assertion in Colin McEvedy

and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (1978) to the effect that

world population, having increased by 35% from 1850 to 1900,

increased a further 53% by 1950. Are we therefore to believe that such growth

was itself responsible for a 45.2% rise in, for this era, the better structured

Rousseaux price-index [base 100 = (1865cp +1885cp)/2]: from 73 in 1896 to 106

[while the PB&H index rose from 947 in 1896 to 1021 in 1913]?

As for the role of monetary factors in the commencement of this fourth long

wave, Fischer observes (p. 184) that “the rate of growth in gold production

throughout the world was roughly the same before and after 1896.” This

undocumented assertion, about an international economy whose commerce and

finance was now based upon the gold standard, is not quite accurate.

According to assiduously calculated estimates in Eichengreen

and McLean

(1994), decennial mean world gold outputs, having fallen from 185,900 kg in

1850-9 to 135,000 kg in 1880-9 (largely accompanying the aforementioned 44%

fall in the Rousseaux composite index from 128 in 1872 to 72 in 1895),

thereafter soared to

a mean of 255,600 kg in 1890-9 — their graph of annualized data shows that

the bulk of this increased output occurred after 1896 — virtually doubling to

an annual mean of 513,900 kg in 1900-14.

World War I, of course, effectively ended the international gold-standard era,

since the Gold- Exchange Standard of 1925-6 was rather different from the older

system; and the post-war era ushered in a radically new monetary world of fiat

paper currencies, whose initial horrendous manifestation came in the hyper

inflations of Weimar Germany, Russia, and most Central European countries, in

the early 1920s. For this post-war economy, Fischer does admit that monetary

factors often had some considerable importance in influencing price trends; but

his analyses, even of the post-war radical, paper-fuelled hyperinflations, are

not likely to satisfy most economists, either for the inter-war or Post World

War II eras, up to the present day.

This review, long as it is, cannot possibly do full justice to an eight-century

study of this scope and magnitude. So far I have neglected to consider his

often fascinating analyses of the social consequences of inflation over these

many centuries, except for brief allusions in the introduction, where I

indicated his deeply hostile views to persistent inflation for its inevitably

insidious consequences: the impoverishment of the masses, growing malnutrition,

the spread of killer-diseases, increased crime and violence in general, and a

breakdown of the social order, etc.

While some of

the evidence for the latter seems plausible, I do have some concluding quarrels

with his use of real wage indices. Much of our available nominal money-wage

evidence comes from institutional sources on daily wages, which, by their very

nature, tend to be fixed over long periods of time [as Adam Smith noted in the

Wealth of Nations (Cannan ed.

1937, p. 74), “sometimes for half a century together”). Therefore, for such

wage series, real wages rose and fell with the consumer price index, as

measured by, for example, our Phelps Brown and Hopkins basket-of-consumables

index. Its chief problem (as opposed to the better constructed Vander Wee

index for Brabant) is that its components, for long periods, constitute fixed

percentages of the total composite index,

irrespective of changes in relative prices for, say, grains; and they thus do

not reflect the consumers’ ability to make cost-saving substitutions.

Secondly, they are necessarily based on daily wage rates, without any

indication of total annual money incomes; thirdly, the great majority of

money-wage earners in pre-modern Europe earned not day rates but piece-work

wages, for which evidence is extremely scant.

But more important, before the 18th century (or even later), a majority of the

European population did not live by money wages; and most wage-earners had

supplementary forms of income, especially agricultural, that helped insulate

them to some degree from sharp rises in food prices. If rising food prices hurt

many wage-earners, they also benefited ma ny peasants,

especially those with customary tenures and fixed rentals who could thereby

capture some of the economic rent accruing on their lands with such price

increases. It may be simplistic to note that there are always gainers and

losers with both inflation and deflation — but even more simplistic to focus

only on the latter in times of inflation, and especially simplistic to focus on

a real wage index based on the PB&H index. And if deflation is so beneficial

for the masses, why, during the deflationary period in later 17th and early

18th century England, do we find, along with a rise in this real-wage index, a

rise in the death rate from 23.68/1000 in 1626 to 32.14/1000 in 1681,

thereafter falling slightly but rising again to an ultimate peak of

37.00/1000 in 1725 (admittedly an era of anomalous disease-related

mortalities), when the PB&H real-wage index stood at 60 —

some 24% higher than the RWI of 36 for 1626? One of the many imponderables yet

to be considered, though one might ponder that sometimes high real wages

reflect labor shortages from dire conditions, rather than general prosperity

and more equitable wealth and income distributions, as Fischer suggests.

Finally, Fischer’s argument that inflationary price-revolutions were always

especially harmful to the lower classes by leading to rising interest rates is

sometimes but not universally true, even if rational creditors should have

raised rates to protect themselves from inflation. Thus, for the Antwerp money

market in the 16th century,

the meticulous evidence compiled by Vander Wee (1964, 1977) shows that

nominal interest rates fell over this entire period [from 20% in 1515 to 9% in

1549 to 5% in 1561; and on the riskier short term loans to the Habsburg

government, from a mean of 19.5

% in 1506-10 to one of 12.3% in 1541-45 to 9.63% in 1561-55]. In the next

price-revolution, during the later 18th century, nominal interest rates did

rise during periods of costly warfare, i.e., with an increasing risk premium;

but real interest rates actually fell because of the increasing tempo of

inflation (Turner 1984), more so than did real wages for most industrial

workers.

LIST OF REFERENCES CITED:

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denrees, et tous les prix

en general, depuis l’an 1200 jusqu’en l’an 1800,

7 vols. (Paris, 1894-1926).

Peter Bakewell, Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico: Zacatecas,

1546-1700 (Cambridge, 1972).

Peter Bakewell, “Registered Silver Production in the Potosi District, 1550

- 1735,” Jahrbuch fur Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft

Lateinamerikas, 12 (1975), 67-103.

Peter Bakewell, “Mining in Colonial Spanish America,” in Leslie Bethell,

ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, Vol. II: Colonial Latin Amer ica

(Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 105-51.

Peter Bakewell, ed., Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas, Variorum Series:

An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History, 1450 –

1800 (London, 1997):

Ian Blanchard,

Russia’s ‘Age of Silver': Precious-Metal Production and Economic Growth in the

Eighteenth Century (Routledge: London and New York,

1989).

Ian Blanchard, “Population Change, Enclosure, and the Early Tudor Economy,”

Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 23 (19 70), 427-45.

Ian Blanchard, “Lothian and Beyond: The Economy of the ‘English Empire’ of

David I,” in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in

Medieval England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press,

1996), pp. 23-45.

Michael Bordo, “Explorations in Monetary History: A Survey of the

Literature,” Explorations in Economic History, 23 (1986), 339-415.

Bruce Campbell, “The Population of Early Tudor England: A Re-evaluation of the

1522 Muster Returns and the 1524 and 1 525 Lay Subsidies,” Journal of

Historical Geography, 7 (1981), 145-54.

Christopher Challis, “Lord Hastings to the Great Silver Recoinage, 1464 –

1699,” in Christopher E. Challis, ed., A New History of the Royal Mint

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

, 1992), pp. 179-397; C.E. Challis,

“Appendix 1. Mint Output, 1220-1985,” pp. 673-698.

John Coatsworth, “The Mexican Mining Industry in the Eighteenth Century,”

in Nils Jacobsen and Hans- Jurgen Puhle, eds., The Economies of Mexico and Peru

during the La te Colonial Period, 1760 – 1810 (Berlin 1986), pp. 26-45.

Harry Cross, “South American Bullion Production and Export, 1550-1750,” in John

Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds

(Durham, 1983), Appendix II, p. 422.

T revor Dick and John Floyd, Canada and the Gold Standard: Balance of Payments

Adjustment under Fixed Exchange Rates, 1871 – 1913 (Cambridge and New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Barry Eichengreen and Ian W. McLean, “The Supply of Gold Under the

pre-1914 Gold Standard,” The Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 47:2 (May

1994),

288-309.

John Fisher, “Silver Production in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1776-1824,”

Hispanic American Historical Review, 55:1 (1975), 25-43.

Douglas Fisher, “The Price Revolution: A Monetary Interpretation,” Journal of

Economic History, 49 (December 1989), 883 – 902.

John Floyd, World Monetary Equilibrium: International Monetary Theory in an

Historical-Institutional Context (Philadelphia, 1985).

Dennis Flynn, “A New Perspective on the Spanish Price Revolution: The Monetary

Approach to the Balance of Payments,” Explorations in Economic History, 15

(1978), 388-406.

Jacob Frenkel and Harry G. Johnson, eds., The Monetary Approach to the Balance

of Payments (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976),

especially Jacob Frenkel and Harry Johnson, “The Monetary Approach to the

Balance of Payments: Essential Concepts and Historical Origins,” pp. 21-45;

Harry Johnson, “The Monetary Approach to Balance-of-Payments Theory,” pp.

147-

67; Donald N. McCloskey and J. Richard Zecher, “How the Gold Standard Worked,

1880-1913,” pp. 357-85.

FS. Gaastra, “The Exports of Precious Metal from Europe to Asia by the Dutch

East India Company, 1602-1795 A.D.,” in John F. Richards, ed.,

Precious Metals in the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds(Durham, N.C.,

1983), pp. 447-76.

Richard Garner, “Long-term Silver Mining Trends in Spanish America: A

Comparative Analysis of Peru and Mexico,” American Historical Review, 67:3

(1987), 405-30.

Richard Garner,

“Silver Production and Entrepreneurial Structure in 18th-Century Mexico,”

Jahrbuch fur Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft

Lateinamerikas,17 (1980), 157-85.

Jack Goldstone, “Urbanization and Inflation: Lessons from the English Price

Revolution of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” American Journal of

Sociology, 89 (1984), 1122 – 60.

Earl Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain,

1501-1650 (Cambridge, Mass., 1934; reissued 1965).

Earl Hamilton, Money, Prices, and Wages in Valencia, Aragon, and Navarre,

1351 – 1500 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936).

Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England, 1100 – 1540 (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1993).

John Hatcher, Plague, Population, and the English Economy, 1348-1530

(Studies in Economic History series, London, 1977).

John Hatcher, “Mortality in the Fifteenth Century: Some New Evidence,”

Economic History Review, 39 (Feb. 1986), 19-38.

David Herlihy, Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The

Social History of an Italian Town, 1200-1430 (New Haven and London, 1966).

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

(London, 1936).

Peter Lindert, “English Population, Wages, and Prices: 1541 – 1913,” The

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 15 (Spring 1985), 609 – 34.

Nicholas Mayhew, “Population, Money Supply, and the Velocity of Circulation in

England, 1300 – 1700,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser.,

48:2 (May 1995), 238-57.

Harry Miskimin, “Population Growth and

the Price Revolution in England,”

Journal of European Economic History, 4 (1975), 179-85. Reprinted in his Cash,

Credit and Crisis in Europe, 1300 – 1600 (London: Variorum Reprints,

1989), no. xiv.

B.R. Mitchell and Phyllis Deane, eds. Abstract of British Historical

Statistics (Cambridge, 1962)

John Munro, “Mint Outputs, Money, and Prices in late-Medieval England and the

Low Countries,” in Eddy Van Cauwenberghe and Franz Irsigler, ed.,

Munzpragung, Geldumlauf und Wechselkurse / Minting, Monetary Circulation and

Exchange Rates, (Trierer Historische Forschungen, Vol. VIII, Trier,

1984), pp. 31-122.

John Munro, “Bullion Flows and Monetary Contraction in Late-Medieval England

and the Low Countries,” in John F. Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the

Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Durham, N.C., 1983), pp. 97-158.

John Munro, “The Central European Mining Boom, Mint Outputs, and Prices in the

Low Countries and England, 1450 – 1550,” in Eddy H.G. Van Cauwenberghe,

ed., Money, Coins, and Commerce: Essays in

the Monetary History of Asia and Europe (From Antiquity to Modern Times)

(Leuven: Leuven University Press,

1991), pp. 119-83.

John Nef, “Silver Production in Central Europe, 1450-1618,” Journal of

Political Economy, 49 (1941), 575-91.

John Nef, “Mining

and Metallurgy,” in M.M. Postan, ed., Cambridge Economic History, Vol. II:

Trade and Industry in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1952),

pp. 456-93. Reprinted without changes, in the 2nd revised edn. of The Cambridge

Economic History of Europe, Vol. II, edited by M.M. Postan and Edward Miller

(Cambridge, 1987), pp. 691-761.

E.H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, “Seven Centuries of en Centuries of

the Prices of Consumables Compared with B Building Wages,” Economica, 22

(August 1955), and “Sevuilders” Wage-

Rates,” Economica, 23 (Nov. 1956),

reprinted E.H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and

Prices (London, 1981), containing additional statistical appendices not

provided in the original publication.

Frank Spooner, The International Economy and Monetary Movements in France,

1493-1725 (Cambridge, Mass., 1972)

John TePaske, “New World Silver, Castile, and the Philippines, 1590-1800 A.D.,”

in John F. Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the Medieval and Early Modern

Worlds (Durham, N.C.

, 1983), pp. 424-446.

John TePaske, “New World Gold Production in Hemispheric and Global Perspective,

1492 – 1810,” in Clara Nunez, ed., Monetary History in Global Perspective, 1500

- 1808, Papers presented to Session B-6 of the Twelfth International Eco nomic

History Congress (Seville, 1998), pp. 21-32.

Michael Turner, Enclosures in Britain, 1750 – 1830, Studies in Economic History

Series (London, 1984).

Herman Vander Wee, Growth of the Antwerp Market and the European Economy,

14th to 16th Centuries,

3 Vols. (The Hague, 1963). Vol. I: Statistics; Vol.

II: Interpretation, 374-427; and Vol. III: Graphs.

Herman Vander Wee, “Monetary, Credit, and Banking Systems,” in E.E. Rich and

Charles Wilson, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Vol. V:

T he Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe(Cambridge, 1977), chapter V,

pp. 290-393.

Herman Vander Wee, “Prijzen en lonen als ontwikkelingsvariabelen: Een

vergelijkend onderzoek tussen Engeland en de Zuidelijke Nederlanden,

1400-1700,” in Album aan geboden aan Charles Verlinden ter gelegenheid van zijn

dertig jaar professoraat (Gent, 1975), pp. 413-47; reissued in English

translation (without the tables) as “Prices and Wages as Development Variables:

A Comparison Between England and the Southern Net herlands,

1400-1700,” Acta Historiae Neerlandicae, 10 (1978), 58-78.

Ivor Wilks, “Wangara, Akan, and the Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth

Centuries,” in Ivor Wilks, ed., Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the

Kingdom of Asante (Athens, Ohio

, 1993), pp. 1-39.

E.A. Wrigley, R.S. Davies, J.E. Oeppen, and R.S. Schofield, English Population

History from Family Reconstitution, 1580- 1837 (Cambridge and New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

A Future of Capitalism: The Economic Vision of Robert Heilbroner

Author(s):Carroll, Michael C.
Reviewer(s):Emmett, Ross B.

Published by EH.NET (January 1999)

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Michael C. Carroll. A Future of Capitalism: The Economic Vision of Robert Heilbroner. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. ix + 117 pp. $59.95 (cloth). ISBN: 0-312-17754-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ross B. Emmett, Department of Economics, Augustana University College.

A Unified Vision for the Future?

Let me begin with two admissions. First, I would not be a historian of economics today if it were not for Robert Heilbroner. Encountering The Worldly Philosophers in my first-year “history of western civ ” course, and then again (with the same professor!) in my fourth-year “modern intellectual history” course, convinced me that the “economic mind” was central to modernity. I avidly consumed some of his other books as an undergraduate student: The Future as History, The Great Ascent, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, Beyond Boom and Bust, and Marxism: For and Against. Questions regarding the relation between modernity and economics have dominated my career since. I thought it somehow fitting that my first opportunity to hear Heilbroner speak in person came only hours after I defended my dissertation.

Second, the more I reflect on the questions regarding modernity and economics that Heilbroner first raised for me, the less my reflections look like those Heilbroner himself offers. Reading A Future of Capitalism, by Michael Carroll (now teaching at West Virginia State College), confirmed my suspicions regarding the central differences. We will get to those differences in due course, but first, comments about Carroll’s treatment of Heilbroner.

The key to understanding Heilbroner’s work, Carroll tells us, is to construct out of his various works a systematic presentation of his ideas. This is what Carroll sets out to do. After a basic intellectual biography, he uses Heilbroner’s criticism of standard economics to set up the key components of Heilbroner’s “system”: a hermeneutic, multi-dimensional approach aimed at uncovering the hidden unifying structure of capitalist society. Carroll argues that Heilbroner combines Marx’s socioanalysis with a psychoanalytic perspective on human behavior and an economics focused on how power and social organization intersect in the material provisioning of humankind (informed by the work of Adolph Lowe, Heilbroner’s friend and colleague at the New School), in order to reveal the internalized institutions and values which comprise the capitalist system. Carroll moves freely among Heilbroner’s writings spanning several decades to show how his analysis focuses on the interlocking nature of, and tensions among, three central internalized institutions and values in capitalism: the drive to accumulate capital, the market, and division between private and public realms.

Once we appreciate Heilbroner’s understanding of the underlying structure of capitalism, Carroll then asks what Heilbroner’s view to the future would be: uncovering the central contradictions of capitalism allows some tentative conclusions about its further development. Can the system sustain the drive to accumulate? Probably not, but capitalism has proven remarkably resilient; it has the capacity to transform itself even though changes may also create constraints for the system. The system’s real enemies, therefore, are the disruptions which reveal its endemic self- contradictions: structural unemployment, for example, which emerges from the drive to accumulate and the market’s organizing features, yet undermines future productivity, aggregate demand, and people’s hopes for their future. Or globalization, which by extending the market’s organization around the world in the absence of a global institutional base, jeopardizes the system’s separation of the public and private worlds in the drive to “accumulate, accumulate, accumulate.” In these, and other disruptions, Heilbroner sees the evolution of capitalism continuing. The role of an economist like Heilbroner, Carroll argues, is not to sketch out the particular features of the future, but to trace “future visions”: potential outcomes of the evolution of the relations among capitalism’s central elements.

As you may perhaps see from the previous paragraphs, Carroll’s attempt to uncover the unifying structure of Heilbroner’s ideas parallels Heilbroner’s own hermeneutics of capitalism. For the hermeneuticist, interpreting texts and interpreting societies are similar problems. Unlike Heilbroner, however, Carroll’s stance toward Heilbroner’s system is not critical. He is in fact enamored with Heilbroner’s ideas; and not the kind of affection Marx had for capitalism! The net result is a book remarkably like those that appear all too frequently in the history of economic thought — studies of little-known or long-forgotten economists which seek to convince us of their place in the pantheon. Far more interesting would be a serious effort to seek out the reasons why Heilbroner’s ideas have had such little impact on the modern economics profession, or to examine the way his work has been shaped by, and has itself shaped, modernism in the social sciences.

And make no mistake, Heilbroner is a modernist, despite his criticism of the type of modernism inherent in 20th century economics. Heilbroner’s modernism appears in the search for the underlying unity of capitalism, the effort to give it a singular meaning, and the quest to identify its future. Like Marx before him, and numerous other hermeneutic scholars of the mid-twentieth century, Heilbroner searches for unity beneath the fragmentation, even if only to reveal the nature of the fragmentation.

The hermeneuticist’s approach to unity and fragmentation has been at the center of my attention over the past couple of years, as I have been engaged in a series of discussions on hermeneutic theory with a number of my colleagues in other disciplines. One of the key issues we have identified as a source of division among us is the difference between those who believe that hermeneutic theory provides the capacity for creating meaning and unity in the midst of a fragmented social system, and those who believe that hermeneutics provides a means of uncovering meaning, unified or fragmented. The former group identifies the difference between hermeneutics and science with the distinction between the unity and the fragmentation of knowledge–despite epistemological claims for science’s unique role in creating knowledge, science fragments, while hermeneutics unites. (Carroll makes much the same claim in his chapter on Heilbroner’s critique of modern economics.) The latter group, myself included, identified hermeneutics with the uncovering of meaning/s, and sees the quest for unity (in either hermeneutic theory or science) as a peculiar attribute of modernism. In this latter way of thinking, texts such as Heilbroner’s are the sites of multiple meanings, and their interpretation may gain more from trying to locate those different meanings (contextually, or in terms of various interpretive communities) rather than the quest to render them coherent and consistent. In a similar fashion, capitalism is over-determined: a social framework being pulled in various directions by a host of competing self-contradictions and tensions; generating multiple meanings and an array of present realities and future possibilities.

I appreciate hermeneutic theory because it reminds me of things my training in economics attempted to make me forget, and urges upon me a humility in regard to the appreciation of the work of others that modernity encouraged me to ignore. Reading Heilbroner provided much the same experience. In the end, however, I see no more reason to look for a unified account of the future of capitalism than I do a systematic treatment of such a wonderful writer’s lifetime of work.

Ross B. Emmett John P. Tandberg Associate Professor of Economics Augustana University College, Camrose , Alberta, Canada

A scholar of American economics during the interwar years, Ross Emmett has focused on Frank H. Knight and Chicago economics. Two articles will appear shortly: “The Economist and the Entrepreneur: Modernist Impulses in Frank H. Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit,” forthcoming in History of Political Economy (Spring 1999); and “Entrenching Disciplinary Competence: The Role of General Education and Graduate Study in Chicago Economics,” forthcoming in The Transformation of American Economics: From Interwar Pluralism to Postwar Neoclassicism, edited by Malcolm Rutherford and Mary Morgan. A two-volume selection of essays by Frank H. Knight will appear from The University of Chicago Press in the next year

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Bordo, Michael D.
Goldin, Claudia
White, Eugene N.
Reviewer(s):Cain, Louis P.

Published by EH.NET (September 1998)

Michael D. Bordo, Claudia Goldin, and Eugene N. White, editors, The Defining

Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth

Century. An NBER Project Report. Chicago: The University of Chicago

Press, 1998. xvi + 474 pp. $60.00 (cloth). ISBN: 0-226-06589-8

(cloth), 0-226-06589-8 (paper).

Reviewed

for EH.NET by Louis P. Cain, Departments of Economics, Loyola University of

Chicago and Northwestern University.

The “moment” is the Great Depression; what is being “defined” is public policy.

The editors have assembled twelve papers from a distinguished cast of authors

who are closely associated with their subject. The papers discuss almost all

of the programs that persisted from the First and,

particularly, the Second New Deals, but few of those that did not. In their

introduction,

the editors discuss that this is potentially a controversial hypothesis, but

most of the papers simply explain why they agree or disagree with the

proposition, and some do find this was NOT a

“defining moment.” Whether each reader ultimately accepts or

rejects the hypothesis may be little more than a matter of definition.

In any event, each of the papers makes a substantial contribution to our

understanding of the depression. Most will be widely cited. Many readers,

including undergraduates, will want to consult the volume for more than one

paper. Thus, in the interest of disclosure, a thumbnail sketch of each of the

papers is appropriate. These brief synopses emphasize the relation of each

paper to the volume’s general theme. Each contains much more.

The

collection is divided into four sections of three papers each. The first is

entitled “The Birth of Activist Macroeconomic Policy.” Charles Calomiris

and David Wheelock ask whether the substantial changes in the monetary

environment of the 1930s had lasting effects? Those familiar with Wheelock’s

work will not be surprised to note they find little change in the thinking of

the Federal Reserve System. One effect of the New Deal banking laws was to

shift power from the Fed toward the Treasury,

a shift they feel imparted an inflationary bias, especially when conjoined with

the more activist approach to policy that was undertaken concurrently. The

most important legacy of the depression was the departure from gold creating

“the permanent absence

of a ‘nominal anchor’ for the dollar” (63).

The Bretton Woods dollar system allowed the Fed to “stumble” into the inflation

of the 1960s, and the continued absence of something like the gold standard

“provides an enduring legacy of uncertainty” (63) as to monetary policy in the

long run.

Brad De Long notes that the U.S. did not have a fiscal policy

in the

contemporary sense of the term before the Great Depression. It borrowed

heavily during periods of war and tried to redeem the debt as quickly as

possible during periods of peace. Government deficits in peacetime were rare

until

the 1930s, when they proved unavoidable despite the fiscal conservatism of both

Hoover and FDR. Yet, even before Keynes, there was an understanding that

“deficits in time of

recession helped alleviate the downturn” (83). After the second World War, a

fiscal policy consensus emerged that De Long characterizes as: “set tax rates

and expenditure plans so that the high-employment budget would be in surplus,

but do not take any steps to neutralize automatic stabilizers set in motion by

recession” (84).

That consensus proved hard to maintain: “The U.S. government simply lacks the

knowledge to design and the institutional capacity to exercise discretionary

fiscal policy in response

to any macroeconomic cycle of shorter duration that the Great Depression

itself” (82). What has persisted is the willingness to adopt a fiscal policy

stance that imposes a cost — perhaps higher than necessary (higher inflation,

lower saving and productivity) — to insure that there is no return to

Depression-era conditions.

Deposit insurance, the topic of Eugene White’s essay, was a result of the

Depression and is generally considered to be one of its great successes.

Banks became a scapegoat, and the

restrictions placed on the banking business diverted part of what they once

did to other parts of the financial sector. Banking became smaller than it

might have been. Deposit insurance was an attempt to insure the banking system

did not fail again.

White attempts to estimate bank failures under the assumption that deposit

insurance was not adopted. He finds that a stronger, larger banking system

would have resulted in lower failure rates and higher recovery rates.

Thus, it is possible the FDIC increased bank losses. A more important outcome

is that the FDIC changed the distribution of losses. The cost of those losses

is now “distributed to all depositors and hidden in the premialevied on banks”

(119). Thus, even if losses increased, they were unseen by individual

depositors, with the result that a marginal institution remains extremely

popular.

The second part, “Expanding Government,” begins with a paper by Hugh Rockoff on

the expansion of the government sector, largely as a result of a large number

of new federal programs. As Rockoff notes,

“it is easy to see that there was an ideological shift … it is harder to see

what produced it” (125). This ingenious article looks back at the publications

of economists in the 1920s and earlier and finds there were champions for

almost all of the New Deal programs. Curiously, one of the programs economists

did not endorse, one measure that FDR did not champion, was deposit insurance.

When the Depression came and the economic doctors were called, microeconomists

had what they considered successful prescriptions. Some part of that must have

been conditioned by the role of the government in World War I. But another

part is something that Rockoff does not discuss, and it surely is one of the

factors producing an ideological change within the profession.

Even before the Great Depression, the competitive paradigm was under attack.

The merger movement at the turn of the century called into question the

assumptions of constant returns to scale and easy entry and exit. The

emergence of a consumer society called into question the assumption of

homogeneous products. Robinson and Chamberlin’s models are independent of the

Depression, and what impact they would have had in the absence of the

Depression is unclear. It is clear that FDR came into the White House with a

mandate to do something, and the economic doctors had a long list of things to

try, things that had been used successfully elsewhere.

John Wallis and Wallace Oates argue persuasively that the New Deal had a

profound effect on the nature of American federalism through its use of a

little used fiscal instrument — intergovernmental grants. Before the

Depression, different levels of government operated with a much greater degree

of independence than they would thereafter. Intergovernmental grants created

the necessity for cooperation that has characterized the fiscal federalism ever

since; “fiscal centralization and administrative decentralization” (170). They

argue that the new structure was conducive to the growth of government. Like

Rockoff, they note the growth of the federal government did not come at the

expense of state and local governments; both grew. They show how this new

pattern was “the result of the struggle between state and national

governments, and also between the president and Congress, for control over

these programs” (178). How much of this has to do with a states rights’ bias

in the legislative and judicial branches, and how much with the depression

itself, is uncertain.

Gary Libecap examines the regulatory laws effecting agriculture between 1884

and 1970 and the budgetary expenditures that were derived from those laws

between 1905 and 1970. His contention is that “the New Deal increased the

amount and breadth of agricultural regulation in the economy and …

shifted it from providing public goods and transfers to controlling supplies

and directing government purchases to raise prices” (182).

Acreage restrictions and government purchases were the most apparent of what

he terms, “unprecedented, peacetime government intervention into agricultural

markets” (216). Abstracting from those policies, Libecap asks what

agricultural policy might have been in the absence of the Depression.

He believes it would have been more like it had been, but that is the result

of an exercise in which he subtracts laws passed after 1939 with a direct link

to “key New Deal statutes.” One wonders how many any of those statutes would

have been passed in any event; some represent ideas that pre date the

depression.

In the first paper of Section III, “Insuring Households and Workers,”

Katherine Baicker, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz note that there are three

differences between the system of unemployment compensation in the U.S. and

elsewhere: experience rating, a federal-state structure, and limitations on

benefit duration. The question they address is how that system would have been

different had it not been created during the New Deal. There is an implicit

assumption the U.S. ultimately would have adopted some form of unemployment

compensation in the absence of the Depression. To how many other New Deal

programs is this assumption relevant? The authors point to the federal-state

structure as the key difference. Their counterfactual

system is strictly a federal system with no experience rating, a system

consistent with the administration’s recommendation. We got the system we did

because, “The federal-state structure and the manner in which the states were

induced to adopt their own

UI legislation assured passage of the act and guaranteed its

constitutionality” (261). They criticize the system for not having

“changed with the times,” but that is no surprise after reading Wallis and

Oates.

While most people look to the labor legislation of the 1930s as “a defining

moment,” Richard Freeman argues that to be defining an event must “lock in

certain outcomes that persist … when, given a blank slate, society could have

developed something very different” (287). This test creates two interesting

dichotomies in Freeman’s story. The first concerns the framework versus the

results. The legal framework for private sector labor relations has persisted,

and Freeman considers that framework to be

“outmoded.” On the other hand, the unionization attendant to the adoption of

that framework “looks more like a diversion from American

‘exceptionalism’ … than a critical turning point in labor relations”

(287). The density of private sector unions today is similar to what it was

just after the

turn of this century; the voice of those unions in national political discourse

is barely audible. The second dichotomy concerns private versus public unions.

State regulation of the latter has resulted in a relatively stable environment

in which collective bargaining proceeds with less confrontation, but that may

be because public sector managers are not as accountable to the taxpayers as

private sector managers are to the company’s profits. In sum, Freeman

acknowledges that the framework in which lab or relations takes places was

defined during the Depression, but that was not a “defining moment” for labor

relations.

In their study of the creation and evolution of social security, Jeffrey Miron

and David Weil do not examine the role the Great Depress ion might have played

in the program’s adoption. Their emphasis is on the evolution of the program

since its inception. They find that “in a mechanical sense,

there has been a surprising degree of continuity in social security since the

end of the Great

Depression” (320). That is, there has been little change in what each of the

parts does; it is clear the balance between them has changed and that change

has had an impact on the economy. As the population has aged, the balance

between the old-age assistance component,

the basic response to the depression, and the old-age and survivors insurance

component has transformed what was an insurance program benefiting few to a

transfer program benefiting many.

Doug Irwin’s paper on trade policy begins the final section, “International

Perspectives.” Irwin shows that, during the 1930s, the locus of control of

trade policy passed from the legislative to the executive branch of government

largely as a result of “the depression as an

international phenomenon”

(326). Smoot-Hawley marked the end of the old approach. By the end of the

1930s, the average tariff rate had decreased from over 50% to less than 40%.

In another ten years it would be below 15%. While part of this change is

attributable to trade policy,

part should be attributable to fiscal policy (a return to the days of the

Underwood tariff) as the federal income tax came to play a much larger role,

especially in the 1940s. Similarly, the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act was

passed during the depression, but it was not “institutionalized”

until after World War II. When, during the war, Republicans moved to seek

congressional approval and to protect domestic firms competing with imports, it

was clear that the policy changes of the 1930s would persist. Then, after the

war, “the new economic and political position of the United States in the world

… made a return to Smoot-Hawley virtually unthinkable” (350).

The paper by Maurice Obstfeld and Alan Taylor is in many ways the most

expansive in the volume. They begin by investigating more than a century of

data on capital mobility, then propose a framework in which both the downtrend

initiated by the Great Depression and the uptrend of recent years can be

understood. The framework is a policy “trilemma” faced by all national

policymakers: “the chosen macroeconomic policy regime can include at most two

elements of the ‘inconsistent trinity’ of (i) full freedom of cross-border

capital movements, (ii) a fixed exchange rate, and (iii) an independent

monetary policy oriented toward domestic objectives” (354). To the authors,

the

Great Depression was caused by subordinating the third element to the second.

Under the classic gold standard, monetary policy was concerned with exchange

rate stability, not

domestic employment, and capital mobility was facilitated. The abandonment of

gold led to a system

“based on capital account restrictions and pegged but adjustable exchange

rates, one whose very success ultimately led to increasingly unmanageable

speculative flows and floating dollar exchange rates….” (397).

The gold standard plays an equally prominent role in the paper by Michael Bordo

and Barry Eichengreen. To address the question of what the Great Depression

meant for the international monetary sy stem, they examine a counterfactual

world without the Great Depression — but with World War II and the Cold War.

They assume the gold standard would have persisted through the 1930s, been

suspended during the war, and resumed in the early 1950s. Under

these assumptions, “the depression interrupted but did not permanently alter

the development of international monetary arrangements”

(446). The system that did develop in the U.S. was very different than the

hypothesized one, but the factors that ultimately led to the collapse of the

Bretton Woods arrangements would have caused the collapse of the gold standard

– and possibly at an earlier date. Those factors include “the failure of the

flow supply of gold to match the buoyant growth of the world economy and hence

of government’s demand for international reserves” (447).

This, in turn, led to questions about U.S. official foreign liabilities and the

gold convertibility of the dollar. Bordo and Eichengreen believe that,

in these circumstances, a floating system would have resulted leaving us with

more or less what we have today. If one accepts the “ifs” in their argument,

the institutional structure that emerged in the wake of the Great Depression

postponed the transition.

This is a remarkable thought on which to end this volume. Calomiris and

Wheelock discuss the Fed’s recent emphasis on price stability as a short-run

policy concern as a “throwback.” Obstfeld and Taylor discuss the deregulation

and recent growth of the financial sector as creating

a barrier to the reimposition of capital controls. Both discussions concern

long-run adjustments the economy has made as a result of the abandonment of

gold, but both would have taken place had there been no Great Depression if

Bordo and Eichengreen are

correct.

The editors point to four common themes supporting the “defining moment”

hypothesis (6). “First, skepticism about the efficacy of government

intervention withered as the public adopted the attitude that the government

could ‘get the job done’

if the free market did not.” It is unquestionably the case that there was a

loss of faith in the tenets of the competitive model. While this faith was

wavering among social scientists well before the depression, the general

bewilderment of the 1930s created a search for someone who was willing to try

anything. To paraphrase the late John Hughes, before the Great Depression the

federal government only knew how to spend money on rivers, harbors, and post

offices. As Rockoff documents, there were a number of other projects waiting

in the wings.

“Second, many innovations introduced by the New Deal were forms of social

insurance.” While much of the First New Deal took the form of World War I

programs modified for peacetime use, many of the Second New Deal programs were

aimed at ameliorating specific types of suffering, particularly those where

successful experiments had been tried elsewhere. Some undoubtedly would have

been adopted eventually; the depression meant they started earlier than

otherwise would have been the case.

“Third, the character of federalism moved from ‘coordinate’ to

‘cooperative’ with extensive intergovernmental grants, giving greater influence

to centralized government.” This change in form, it is argued,

was necessary to get them through Congress and the Supreme Court, but that is

not necessarily a result of the Great Depression; the states rights’ bias was

present much earlier.

“Last, the conduct of economic policy … changed to give more weight to

employment targets and less

to a stable price level and exchange rate.”

These changes in turn imparted what several authors refer to as a bias in favor

of inflation, but, in a simple Phillips curve world, what developed was a bias

against a return to the conditions of the 1930s. To put it as simply as

possible, those who lived through the Great Depression defined for

policy-makers then and for their grandchildren today that all possible steps

should be taken to avoid repeating the trauma.

Louis P. Cain Departments of Economics Loyola University of Chicago and

Northwestern University

Louis Cain and the late Jonathan Hughes are the authors of American Economic

History published by Addison Wesley. Cain’s article with Dennis Meritt,

Jr., “The Growing Commercialization of Zoos and

Aquariums,”

appeared in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Spring 1998.

His article with Elyce Rotella, “Urbanization, Sanitation, and Mortality in the

Progressive Era, 1899-1929,” will appear in Gerard Kearns, W.

Robert Lee, Marie C. Nels on, and John Rogers, editors, Improving the

Public Health: Essays in Medical History.

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Records of American Business

Author(s):O'Toole, James M.
Reviewer(s):Jimerson, Randall C.

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by H-Business@eh.net and EH.Net (May 1998)

James M. O’Toole, ed. The Records of American Business. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1997. xvii + 396 pp. Bibliographical references and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-931828-45-7.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Randall C. Jimerson , Western Washington University

The Challenges of Documenting Modern American Business

The challenges of documenting American business have led archivists to develop techniques for selection, appraisal, and use of a wide variety of records that provide essential information for depicting aspects of business history and corporate operations. Often working closely with business historians and corporate leaders, archivists have attempted to mine the rich resources worthy of preservation from vast mountains of modern business records. In order to understand past and present approaches taken by archivists to preserve documentation important both to company officials and to outside researchers, this book is essential reading. The Records of American Business provides a variety of perspectives on the current state of archival practice, both for in-house corporate archives and for repositories that collect records relating to American business and enterprise.

This volume is a tangible result of the Records of American Business Project (RAB), sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Hagley Museum and Library and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This project brought together the two collecting repositories with the largest holdings of business records in North America in a joint effort “to refine and redefine the appraisal and use of corporate records” (p. vi). Many of the essays in this volume were first presented at the RAB symposium in April, 1996. By that time, the project had broadened its scope to include many of the most significant institutions and individuals actively engaged with American business records, including corporate archivists, archivists from universities and historical societies, and independent consultants. The variety of perspectives offered in this volume is impressive. The diversity of views indicates that there is no consensus concerning a particular approach to solving archival conundrums, but rather a healthy discourse representing different viewpoints.

The Records of American Business begins with a foreword by the editor, James M. O’Toole, who outlines some of the major themes that emerge from this collection of fourteen essays. One of the most basic issues is placement: should business firms establish in-house archival programs, or place their records at an external research institution? Other issues include the complex process of appraisal, by which archivists determine the long-term value of records. Changing technology has had a significant impact on archival operations, particularly in business firms, which often have confronted new technologies, such as the computer, before other institutions. Finally, O’Toole makes a strong case for the necessity of business archives to redefine their clientele and to build alliances of all kinds with other groups. “Only if alliance building comes to be seen as part of the core of archival services–equal in importance to appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation activities, and all the other familiar archival tasks–will archivists be able to meet the multifarious challenges of modern records,” he concludes (p. xvi). O’Toole insists that these essays have a wider applicability than American business records, since all archivists face similar challenges and problems. This is true, but in straining to make the point he overreaches, advising the reader to substitute the word “academic” or “religious” or whatever term applies to your own setting whenever the word “business” appears (p. vii). I tried this; it simply doesn’t work all the time. Many of the issues presented here apply only, or principally, to a business context. After all, that is the presumed rationale for a volume devoted to business records. That said, it is true that many of these techniques can be adapted to fit other types of institutional settings, and the volume will be useful for all archivists, and it should find a wide audience.

In his introduction, “Business and American Culture: The Archival Challenge,” Francis X. Blouin, Jr., director of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, provides the context for the essays that follow. Quoting Calvin Coolidge’s famous dictum, “The chief business of the American people is business,” Blouin writes that, despite the enormous impact of business institutions on American life, relatively little is known about them. Blouin blames this in part on trends in academic history, which has not focused much attention on business institutions, and in part on the fact that, compared to political, religious and educational institutions, “there is very little documentation with which to work” (p. 1). Blouin discusses the narrow definition of business, as “a set of organizations that have structure and purpose focused on the delivery of goods and services,” and the broader sense of the term, as “an institution that defines culture and values” (p. 3). Both senses should be considered in reading the diverse articles in this volume, he says. Blouin then provides a succinct overview and interpretation of the essays to follow, showing how they relate to three major challenges facing archivists dealing with business records: appraisal, use, and technical issues. This volume presents a variety of perspectives, Blouin states, and this pluralistic approach appears necessary to meet the needs of a diverse group of users.

The fundamental divergence represented here is between corporations that establish their own internal archives and “external” repositories, such as universities, historical societies, and research libraries, which collect records from many different business firms. Although archivists generally encourage businesses to maintain their own archives, over the past decade there has been “a downward trend in the creation of business archives programs in corporations” (p. 351), and several major corporations have closed well-established and apparently successful archives programs, according to Winthrop Group consultant Karen Benedict. Benedict, formerly corporate archivist for Nationwide Insurance, provides an analysis of the choices facing company officials in deciding between maintaining an in-house archives program or placing company records in an outside repository. Although arguing strongly for the first option, Benedict acknowledges that many companies will prefer contracting out for archival services. This, at least, is preferable to destroying caches of significant historical documentation, which is all too common among corporations worried about disclosure of sensitive information.

Many of the reasons for this concern for corporate privacy are implicit in the essay by Philip F. Mooney of Coca-Cola, who is curiously the only contributor actively employed as an in-house business archivist. Mooney contrasts archival myths about business archives with the corporate reality he sees daily. He contends that corporations are “a historic by their very nature” (p. 60), and that in-house “archival professionals need to develop more precise tools to measure bottom-line contributions” (p. 61) and must “constantly seek new opportunities to market [the archives] resources and service to its constituents” (p. 63). Although a few business leaders might appreciate the value of history for institutional memory, decision-making or maintaining corporate culture, Mooney counters that they are rare exceptions. Corporate archivists will have a difficult time justifying their contributions to the financial well-being of the company.

Despite these difficulties, Marcy Golstein depicts in-house business archives moving from a narrow traditional focus to a more flexible approach emphasizing a variety of business uses for archival records. A former archivist for AT&T, now working as a consultant, Goldstein emphasizes corporate archives as “the repository of the corporate memory” (p. 41) and as “knowledge management centers and not historical warehouses” (p. 54). Such arguments sound persuasive, but the declining numbers of corporate archives suggest that fewer business executives are convinced that the costs and potential liabilities of in-house archives justify their continuation.

To demonstrate that some corporate executives have championed the establishment and development of in-house archives, the volume presents brief excerpts from oral history interviews with three such business leaders. These statements repeat some of the traditional arguments in support of in-house archives, but there is not much context or background with which to form a clear perspective on their comments. It would have been more interesting to hear comments from different viewpoints, such as an executive who opposes funding for archives or one who was converted from a skeptic to a true believer. This would help us understand the challenges faced by corporate archivists.

The other side of the debate, comprising most of the essays in this volume, is framed by archivists who do not have direct ties to in-house archives. While corporate archivists seem to be waging a battle for survival and attempting to adapt to ever-changing corporate climates, several major archival institutions have been developing significant research collections of business records. Many of these collections result from business closings or corporate takeovers, with surviving records often being spotty or coming to a repository without opportunity for the archivist to determine in advance which records should be saved. The challenges faced in such circumstances involve selection and acquisition, appraisal, and filling documentary gaps. These are the themes explored in the remaining essays.

The “complex relationship between historical scholarship and the keeping of archival records” is the theme of the lead essay, by Michael Nash of the Hagley Museum and Library. Writing more for archivists than for business historians, Nash provides an historiographic survey from the founding of the Business Historical Society in 1925 to recent studies that focus on trends in American economic, political, and social life, and the impact of gender, race, and workers on business. From a citation study of more than 67,000 footnotes in fifty major business history monographs and five leading journals, Nash concludes that “over time, there appears to be a declining reliance on archival sources” from business firms (p. 35). Nash offers only a few observations based on this finding, principally that archivists should make a more systematic effort to collect records from industry trade associations, lobbying groups, political action committees, and other entities that “can potentially provide the sources that scholars are seeking in order to document the relationship between business, culture, politics, and society” (p. 35). Unfortunately, this recommendation is the final sentence of his essay, so there are no specific suggestions for how this can be accomplished.

The most ambitious effort to answer the questions raised by Nash comes from Mark A. Greene and Todd J. Daniels-Howell, both archivists at Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), who first proposed the RAB Project. Their essay presents a lengthy case study of the MHS effort to develop a pragmatic approach to selecting modern business records for archival preservation. The “Minnesota Method” they developed is based on the assumption that “all archival appraisal is local and subjective” (p. 162), but that, through careful analysis of both records creators and the records themselves, archivists can establish appraisal and selection criteria that are “rational and efficient relative to a specific repository’s goals and resources” (p. 162). The strategy they propose includes: defining a collecting area; analyzing existing collections; determining the documentary universe, including relevant government records, printed and other sources; prioritizing industrial sectors, individual businesses, geographic regions, and time periods from which records will be sought; defining functions performed by businesses and the collecting levels needed to document major functions; connecting documentary levels to priority tiers; and updating this process every three to seven years. They outline priority factors used in making these decisions, documentation levels, and decision points to refine the priority levels. This Minnesota Method combines features of archival approaches to collection analysis, documentation strategy, appraisal, and functional analysis. Complete with eight flow charts, as well as other outlines and charts listing various procedural steps and criteria, the essay presents a detailed explanation of this strategy. Despite the authors’ statement that this “pragmatic method of selection … may seem a modest goal on paper” (p. 206), many archivists would find it a daunting task to adapt the Minnesota Method to their own repositories. The essay’s greatest value, however, is in outlining the complex issues that must be addressed in making appropriate and effective decisions regarding archival selection and acquisition. This is one essay that clearly suggests applicability to other types of historical records beyond the sphere of business.

Whereas Greene and Daniels-Howell focus on documentation for entire industries, Christopher T. Baer examines appraisal of records within a single firm. Baer draws on his extensive experience at the Hagley Museum and Library to explain four parameters that shape his approach to appraisal of business records. Baer’s approach reflects a number of influences, including Alfred D. Chandler’s seminal work and Michael E. Porter’s “Five Forces” of competitive strategy. The four parameters he posits for evaluating business records are function (actions required to achieve elemental purposes), structure (i.e., external structure), strategy (referring to both strategy and tactics), and detail (level of specificity and completeness for a particular record). In explaining the application of such criteria, Baer reviews much of the business management literature of recent decades and provides detailed analysis of factors affecting appraisal of business records. Ultimately, however, he concludes that the parameters he describes are “at best a kind of mental road map” and that the efficacy of appraisal decisions rests “in the archivist’s ability to use them in practice” (p. 120). The archivist is not a scientist searching for abstract truths but “a technologist who must occasionally work in the absence of or in advance of theory and who must use a variety of tools to produce a useful product in response to conflicting and often irreconcilable demands” (p. 121). Baer’s model, not quite as complex as the Minnesota Method, provides a useful starting point for any archivist facing the daunting task of analyzing and appraising voluminous records of a modern business firm. Following a detailed model may not make the work easier, but it should improve the quality and reliability of appraisal decisions.

Compared to the lengthy essays just considered, Bruce Bruemmer’s essay on functional analysis in the appraisal of business records will seem either a welcome relief for harried archivists or a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Bruemmer, archivist of the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, focuses on the documentation needs of individual companies. Borrowing from earlier work by Helen Samuels, Joan Krizack, and others, he applies the concept of functional analysis to business records. This appraisal method concentrates on documenting the most important functions of an organization, rather than its structural hierarchy. Instead of selecting records based on their relationship to the offices that generated them, functional analysis examines the underlying functions performed by the organization as a basis for records appraisal. Particularly as electronic records replace traditional means of communication, archivists must define the documentary needs of the organization at the middle or even the beginning of the records cycle. As Bruemmer argues, “Functional analysis is one of the few tools at the command of archivists to help guide archival practice in the electronic environment because it dictates documentary requirements before records are analyzed” (p. 155). In addition to the proximate goal of ensuring adequate documentation of business, he posits the further goal of strengthening the role of business archivists: “If we rise to the challenge, we may discover that the archive itself has become an essential business function” (p. 158). Although less sweeping in its purview and less complex in its design, functional analysis provides another useful model for documenting modern American business.

As historians well know, the history of business is not told entirely through the records generated by business firms. The forms of “external documentation” that supplement corporate records, according to Timothy L. Ericson, include a broad array of sources created by an individual or agency outside the company. Ericson, archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examines the types of records that document businesses, including printed materials, newspapers, government records, personal papers of business founders or former employees, photographic and cartographic records, oral history, electronic data bases, and the World Wide Web. In some cases, these external sources may be the only records available for studying certain companies, either because official company records have been lost or destroyed or because of access restrictions placed on such records. In some situations, Ericson contends, such limited documentation might be all that is needed for companies that have limited national or even local impact. In other cases, external documentation may provide “a more appropriate level of information” (p. 319) than detailed records of every action taken within a corporation. This approach will be especially useful for small or defunct businesses, for businesses subject to extensive government regulation, to fill documentary gaps, or when only general or summary information is required.

Several essays in The Records of American Business examine specific types of records that are important for business archives. Richard J. Cox examines the impact of electronic records on corporate archives, emphasizing the internal value of business records as evidence and the role of archivists in protecting intellectual property, transaction security, integrity of data, and privacy. James E. Fogerty makes a strong case for the value of oral history in filling gaps in the documentation of business and in explicating corporate culture. Oral history “allows the creation of documents that cut through the formal record of organization to the internal and dynamic record of everyday operation” (p. 264). Ernest J. Dick, another former corporate archivist now working as a consultant, likewise argues for the importance of sound and visual records in providing a more complete documentation of corporate memory and a clearer understanding of corporate culture.

Most of the essays in this volume address the concerns and needs of archivists, scholars, and corporate officials. An important counterpoint is provided by John A. Fleckner, chief archivist at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Starting from the paradox of the public’s dislike of history as an academic subject despite its fascination with history outside the classroom, Fleckner discusses the popular presentation of business history. Drawing examples from history museums, historical sites, corporate depictions of history, and a variety of popular history publications, Fleckner distinguishes three distinct purposes served by popular history of business–to educate an audience; to contribute to business objectives; and to entertain. He urges archivists to look beyond their traditional audiences for business records–scholars and business executives–and to recognize the broader potential for some business records to become “the grist for journalists, public affairs staff, and other popular writers who unlock the history of business to much wider audiences” (p. 345). Given the public’s fascination with old products and advertisements, for example, and the boundless allure of nostalgia, this may well be a valuable approach for archivists to take. Many business advertisers have already discovered this.

The final essay in the volume, “Business Records: The Prospect from the Global Village,” by Michael S. Moss and Lesley M. Richmond, seeks to broaden the perspective beyond the United States. The title is a bit misleading, since the essay deals mainly with the United Kingdom and only tangentially with other European countries, and, after 368 pages of detailed discussion of American business records, this brief essay seems more an afterthought than an integral part of the discussion. Still, the essay does afford a few comparative insights. Reporting that throughout Europe use of business records for research “remains disappointingly low” (p. 381), the authors conclude, “Although a few family historians occasionally consult certain categories of business records … the majority of users seem to be enthusiasts seeking information about a product or service that has captured their imagination” (p. 382). The latter type of use is barely hinted at in other essays in the volume, though for many types of business records it holds true equally in the United States. For example, the majority of researchers in certain collections of railroad records consist of model railroaders and other hobbyists. Moss and Richmond also point out that public sector archives can earn revenue by providing research services for distant researchers, and by selling copies of items in their collections. Particularly significant are their comments about the relationship between historians and archivists. “Throughout Europe there is a complaint, echoing North America, that the archival community has lost contact with historians” (p. 386), they conclude, citing criticism of appraisal methods and demands that more records be preserved for research use. “The historians, for their part, need to understand the issues that confront the archivist and to be aware that they no longer (if they ever did) represent more than a mere fraction of the user community; the records they need for their research are very vulnerable to deaccessioning programmes,” they write (p. 387). Finally, due to the growth of a global economy, they argue that archivists from all countries need to exchange ideas about documentation, appraisal, and use of business records. This call for international collaboration and joint projects is, perhaps after all, a fitting conclusion to a volume of essays about American business records.

The Records of American Business will not be the last word on the subject. But it is a significant step forward in providing broad coverage of a wide range of issues, concerns, and perspectives regarding the selection, appraisal, and use of modern business records. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the process and outcome of archival efforts to ensure adequate documentation of American business in the coming decades.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor

Author(s):Landes, David S.
Reviewer(s):De Long, J. Bradford

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (April 1998)

David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 544 pp. $30.00 (cloth) ISBN: 0393040178.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. Bradford De Long, Department of Economics, University of California-Berkeley.

David Landes has studied the history of economic development for more than half a century. His look at economic imperialism and informal empire in nineteenth-century Egypt (Bankers and Pashas) tells the story of how small were the benefits (either for Egyptian economic development or for the long-run power and happiness of the ruling dynasty) bought at extremely high cost by borrowing from European bankers. His unsurpassed survey of technological change and its consequences in Europe since 1750 (The Unbound Prometheus) remains the most important must-read book for serious students of the industrial revolution. His study of clock-making as an instance of technological development (Revolution in Time) provides a detailed look at a small piece of the current of technological development. His works are critical points-of-reference for those who seek to understand the Industrial Revolution that has made our modern world.

Now David Landes turns to the grandest question of all: the causes of the (so far) divergent destinies and relative prosperity levels of different national economies. The title echoes Adam Smith, but Landes is interested in both the wealth and poverty of nations: Adam Smith lays out what went wrong as the background for his picture of how things can go right, while Landes is as interested in the roots of relative–and absolute–economic failure as of success.

He pulls no punches–of Columbus’s followers treatment of the inhabitants of the Caribbean, Landes writes that “nothing like this would be seen again until the Nazi Jew hunts and killer drives of World War II.” Landes makes no compromises with any current fashion. Readers will remember how columnist after columnist decried high-school history standards (which, truth be told, were not very good) that required students to learn about a fourteenth-century African prince, Mansa Musa, but not about Robert E. Lee; readers of Landes will find three pages on Mansa Musa, and none on Master Robert.

We are all multiculturalists now; or, rather, serious historians have long been multiculturalists.

Nevertheless, Landes’s economic history is a profoundly Eurocentric history. It is Europe-centered without apologies–rather with scorn for those who blind themselves to the fact that the history of the past 500 years is Europe-centered.

Now Landes does not think that all history should be Eurocentric. For example, he argues that a history of the world from 500 to 1500 should be primarily Islamocentric: the rise and spread of Islam was an “explosion of passion and commitment… the most important feature of Eurasian history in what we may call the middle centuries.”

But a history oriented toward understanding the wealth and poverty of nations today must be Eurocentric. Goings-on in Europe and goings-on as people in other parts of the world tried to figure out how to deal with suddenly-expansionist Europeans make up the heart of the story of how some–largely western Europe and northwest Europe’s settler ex-colonies–have grown very, very rich.

Moreover, relative poverty in the world today is the result of failure on the part of political, religious, and mercantile elites elsewhere to pass the test (rigged very heavily against them) of maintaining or regaining independence from and assimilating the technologies demonstrated by the people from Europe–merchants, priests, and thugs with guns in the old days, and multinationals, international agencies, and people armed with cruise missiles in these new days–who have regularly appeared offshore in boats, often with non-friendly intent. To try to tell the story of attempted assimilation and attempted rejection without placing Europe at the pivot is to tell it as it really did *not* happen.

Thus Landes wages intellectual thermonuclear war on all who deny his central premise: that the history of the wealth and poverty of nations over the past millennium is the history of the creation in Europe and diffusion of our technologies of industrial production and sociological organization, and of the attempts of people elsewhere in the world to play hands largely dealt to them by the technological and geographical expansions originating in Europe.

He wins his intellectual battles–and not just because as author he can set up straw figures as his opponents. He wins because in the large (and usually in the small) he has stronger arguments than his intellectual adversaries, who believe that Chinese technology was equal to British until 1800, that had the British not appeared the royal workshops of Mughal India would have turned into the nucleus of an industrialized textile industry, that equatorial climates are as well-suited as mid-latitude climates to the kind of agriculture that can support an Industrial Revolution, that Britain’s industrial lead over France was a mere matter of chance and contingency, or any of a host of other things with which Landes does not agree.

Landes’s analysis stresses a host of factors–some geographical but most cultural, having to do with the fine workings of production, power, and prestige in the pre-industrial past–that gave Eurasian civilizations an edge in the speed of technological advance over non-Eurasian ones, that gave European civilizations an edge over Chinese, Arabic, Indian, or Indonesian, that made it very likely that within Europe the breakthrough to industrialization would take place first in Britain.

And by and large it is these same factors that have made it so damn difficult since the Industrial Revolution for people elsewhere to acquire the modern machine technologies and modes of social and economic organization found in the world economy’s industrial core.

Landes’s account of why Eurasian civilizations like Europe, Islam, and China had an edge in technological development over non-Eurasian (and southern Eurasian) civilizations rests heavily on climate: that it is impossible for human beings to live in any numbers in “temperate” climates before the invention of fire, housing, tanning, and sewing (and in the case of northern Europe iron tools to cut down trees), but that once the technological capability to live where it snows has been gained, the “temperate” climates allowed a higher material standard of living.

I am not sure about this part of his argument. It always seemed to me that what a pre-industrial society’s standard of living was depended much more on at what level of material want culture had set its Malthusian thermostat at which the population no longer grew. I have always been impressed by accounts of high population densities in at least some “tropical” civilizations: if they were so poor because the climate made hard work so difficult, why the (relatively) dense populations?

It seems to me that the argument that industrial civilization was inherently unlikely to arise in the tropics hinges on an–implicit–argument that some features of tropical climates kept the Malthusian thermostat set at a low standard of living, and that this low median standard of living retarded development. But it is not clear to me how this is supposed to have worked.

By contrast, I find Landes’s account of why Europe–rather than India, Islam, or China–to be very well laid out, and very convincing. But I find it incomplete. I agree that it looks as if Chinese civilization had a clear half-millennium as the world’s leader in technological innovation from 500 to 1000. Thereafter innovation in China appears to flag. Little seems to be done in developing further the high technologies like textiles, communication, precision metalworking (clockmaking) that provided the technological base on which the Industrial Revolution rested.

It is far from clear to me why this was so. Appeals to an inward turn supported by confident cultural arrogance under the Ming and Ch’ing that led to stagnation leave me puzzled. Between 1400 and 1800 we think that the population of China grew from 80 million to 300 million. That doesn’t suggest an economy of malnourished peasants at the edge of biological subsistence. That doesn’t suggest a civilization in which nothing new can be attempted. It suggests a civilization in which colonization of internal frontiers and improvements in agricultural technology are avidly pursued, and in which living standards are a considerable margin above socio-cultural subsistence to support the strong growth in populations.

Yet somehow China’s technological lead–impressive in printing in the thirteenth century, impressive in shipbuilding in the fifteenth century, impressive in porcelain-making in the seventeenth century–turned into a significant technological deficit in those same centuries that China’s pre-industrial population quadrupled.

Landes’s handling of the story of England’s apprenticeship and England’s mastership–of why the Industrial Revolution took place in the northwest-most corner of Europe–is perhaps the best part of the book. He managed to weave all the varied strands from the Protestant Ethic to Magna Carta to the European love of mechanical mechanism for its own sake together in a way that many attempt, but few accomplish. Had I been Landes I would have placed more stress on politics: the peculiar tax system of Imperial Spain, the deleterious effect of rule by Habsburgs and Habsburg puppets on northern Italy since 1500 (and the deleterious effect of rule by Normans, Hohenstaufens, Valois, Aragonese, and Habsburgs on southern Italy since 1000), the flight of the mercantile population of Antwerp north into the swamp called Amsterdam once they were subjected to the tender mercies of the Duke of Alva, more on expulsions of Moriscos, Jews, and French Protestants (certainly the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was an extraordinary shock to my seventeenth-century DeLong ancestors), the extraordinary tax burden levied on the Dutch mercantile economy by the cumulated debt of having had to spend from 1568 to 1714 fighting to achieve and preserve independence, and so forth.

I also would spend more time on Britain itself. I, at least, find myself wondering whether Britain’s Industrial Revolution was a near-run thing–whether (as Adam Smith feared) the enormous burden of the Hanoverian fiscal-military state might not have nearly crushed the British economy like an egg. Part of the answer is given by John Brewer’s Sinews of Power, a work of genius that lays out the incredible (for the time) efficiency of Britain’s eighteenth-century fiscal-military state. Most of the answer is the Industrial Revolution. And some of the answer is (as Jeffrey Williamson has argued) that the burden of the first British Empire did indeed significantly slow–but not stop–industrialization.

I don’t know what I think of all the issues in the interaction of the first British Empire, the British state, and British industrialization. Thus I find myself somewhat frustrated when Landes quotes Stanley Engerman and Barbara Solow that “It would be hard to claim that [Britain’s Caribbean Empire was] either necessary or sufficient for an Industrial Revolution, and equally hard to deny that [it] affected its magnitude and timing,” and then says “That’s about it.” I want to know Landes’s judgment about how much. Everything affects everything else, and when economic historians have an advantage over others it is because they know how to count things–and thus how to use arithmetic to make judgments of relative importance.

But the complaint that a book that tries to do world history in 600 pages leaves stuff out is the complaint of a true grinch.

So where does Landes’s narrative take us?

If there is a single key to success–relative wealth–in Landes’s narrative, it is openness. First, openness is a willingness to borrow whatever is useful from abroad whatever the price in terms of injured elite pride or harm to influential interests. One thinks of Francis Bacon writing around 1600 of how three inventions–the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press–had totally transformed everything, and that all three of these came to Europe from China. Second, openness is a willingness to trust your own eyes and the results of your own experiments, rather than relying primarily on old books or the pronouncements of powerful and established authorities.

European cultures had enough, but perhaps only barely enough. Suppose Philip II Habsburg “the Prudent King” of Spain and “Bloody” Mary I Tudor of England had together produced an heir to rule Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and England: would Isaac Newton then have been burned at the stake like Giordano Bruno, and would the natural philosophers and mechanical innovators of seventeenth and eighteenth century England have found themselves under the scrutiny of the Inquisition? Neither Giordano Bruno, Jan Hus, nor Galileo Galilei found European culture in any sense “open.”

If there is a second key, it lies in politics: a government strong enough to keep its servants from confiscating whatever they please, limited enough for individuals to be confident that the state is unlikely to suddenly put all they have at hazard, and willing once in a while to sacrifice official splendor and martial glory in order to give merchants and manufacturers an easier time making money.

In short, economic success requires a government that is, as people used to say, an executive committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie–a government that is responsive to and concerned for the well-being of a business class, a class who have a strong and conscious interest in rapid economic growth. A government not beholden to those who have an interest in economic growth is likely to soon turn into nothing more than a redistribution-oriented protection racket, usually with a very short time horizon.

Landes writes his book as his contribution to the project of building utopia–of building a much richer and more equal world, without the extraordinary divergences between standards of living in Belgium and Bangladesh, Mozambique and Mexico, Jordan and Japan that we have today. Yet at its conclusion Landes becomes uncharacteristically diffident and unusually modest, claiming that: “the one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. We must cultivate a skeptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well…”

Such a change of tone sells the book short, for there are many additional lessons that emerge from Landes’s story of the wealth and poverty of nations. Here are five: (1) Try to make sure that your government is a government that enables innovation and production, rather than a government that maintains power by massive redistributions of wealth from its friends to its enemies. (2) Hang your priests from the nearest lamppost if they try to get in the way of assimilating industrial technologies or forms of social and political organization. (3) Recognize that the task of a less-productive economy is to imitate rather than innovate, for there will be ample time for innovation after catching-up to the production standards of the industrial core. (4) Recognize that things change and that we need to change with them, so that the mere fact that a set of practices has been successful or comfortable in the past is not an argument for its maintenance into the future. (5) There is no reason to think that what is in the interest of today’s elite–whether a political, religious, or economic elite–is in the public interest, or even in the interest of the elite’s grandchildren.

It is indeed very hard to think about problems of economic development and convergence without knowing the story that Landes tells of how we got where we are today. His book is short enough to be readable, long enough to be comprehensive, analytical enough to teach lessons, opinionated enough to stimulate thought–and to make everyone angry at least once.

I know of no better place to start thinking about the wealth and poverty of nations.

(This review is a longer draft of a review subsequently published (at 1/3 the length) by the Washington Post..)

J. Bradford De Long Department of Economics University of California- Berkeley

De Long is co-editor, Journal of Economic Perspectives; Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research; visiting scholar, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; and former (1993-1995) deputy assistant secretary (for economic policy), U.S. Treasury.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Allure of the Foreign: Imported Goods in Postcolonial Latin America

Author(s):Orlove, Benjamin
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E. C.

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (February 1998)

Benjamin Orlove, editor, The Allure of the Foreign: Imported Goods in Postcolonial Latin America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. viii + 226 pp. $42.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0472106643.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Anne E.C. McCants, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of the drawbacks of the standard geographical organization of the historical discipline (broadly defined to include economic history and historical anthropology and sociology) is that scholarship about those regions considered peripheral to Europe and the United States is little read outside of its own subfield. This isolation occurs despite the fact that such scholarship is often heavily influenced by the themes and concerns (and even the methodologies) of the dominant fields in the discipline. Not surprisingly, this unbalanced relationship impacts even the narrative content of regional studies, with primacy often automatically accorded to those historical events which specifically connect the periphery to the “center.”

This volume edited by Benjamin Orlove, on a topic- the import of European goods into Latin America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries- which lends itself easily to a Eurocentric analytical focus, works hard to avoid this pitfall. Moreover, this volume offers all scholars interested in the political and domestic economies of consumption an innovative methodological model to follow, one which seamlessly interweaves the work of historians and anthropologists as well as the standard economic history narrative of the postcolonial Latin American economy with a theoretically informed cultural analysis. The introduction to the volume, written by Orlove (an anthropologist) and Arnold Bauer (an historian) begins with the explicit claim that their project is committed to paying “attention to internal social factors” in explaining the “varied responses to European goods” in Latin America and other parts of the pre-industrial world (p. 1). Their goal is not to reject outright the old export-centered interpretation of Latin American development, but rather to balance it with an understanding of the “partially autonomous” nature of imports and consumption (p. 7). In particular, they want to highlight the important role played by consumption (whether of imports, domestic imitations, or “native” products) in the shaping of new national identities and the establishment and legitimation of social hierarchies within that national experience.

While not all of the individual contributions to this volume live up to the high standards set in the introduction, several are particularly interesting and worth highlighting here. Not surprisingly, the substantive chapter by Orlove and Bauer on the consumption of foreign wine, hot beverages, and houses (in fact building materials and architectural design) in Chile during the Belle Epoque nicely demonstrates the principles they set forth at the outset. They do not discount the importance of macroeconomic forces in their account of the spread (and ultimate imitation) of these foreign goods. Nonetheless, they focus their discussion on the twin issues of European goods as “status markers” and as signs of “modernity” (pp. 116 and 118). They employ both quantitative and qualitative data to tease out what they call the “contradictory pressures to use goods to demonstrate national distinctiveness and global commonality- a contradiction that expressed itself in a tension between national and cosmopolitan styles” (p. 116).

The chapter by Erick Langer on the distribution and meaning of foreign cloth imports among the Chiriguanos in the Lowland Frontier of Bolivia uses very limited source materials in an impressively creative way. His work challenges many of the standard assumptions regarding the interaction between Western goods and indigenous peoples, most notably that the latter are slow to adapt and change, and that consumption of the former will evolve in a linear (progressive) way from little use to greater dependence. He documents convincingly that in the initial period of frontier contact between the Chiriguanos and mestizo ranchers power resided disproportionately with the former; and moreover, that that power was parlayed into significant consumption of highly desired European textiles. It was only with the development of the encroaching cattle economy, the rise of a functioning labor market for nearby Argentine sugar plantations, and the mining boom which put financial resources into the hands of the Bolivian state, that the Chiriguanos lost their command over imports and saw serious reductions in their standard of living. Langer’s analysis of this development in reverse is equally sensitive to issues of ethnography, political power, and neoclassical economics.

Finally, the chapter by Josiah Heyman on the changing meaning of import consumption along the Mexico-United States border between the Porfirian 1880s and 1890s and the present is worth noting separately. Using government import statistics, household inventories, and extensive field interviews, Heyman develops a richly nuanced description of the cultural meanings attached to a variety of US-made goods, as well as to the retail sources for those goods. Most importantly, he documents the changing nature of those meanings over time, even in some cases among the same individuals. This leads him to the provocative conclusion that “neither the meaning of nationhood nor of import is constant” (p. 180); followed by the suggestion that the meanings of standards of living may also vary greatly across different political contexts. This is certainly rich food for thought for economic historians, many of whom are deeply committed to the enterprise of assessing past standards of living.

In short, this is a book worth reading beyond the immediate circle of scholars whose work focuses on the development of the Latin American economy and polity. Much of the source material, and the strong commitment to cultural analysis found in this volume will not be overly familiar to economic historians. But many of the questions raised, and the evidence presented to answer them, make an important contribution to areas of inquiry of long-standing interest to economic historians.

Anne E.C. McCants Department of History MIT

Anne McCants is the author of Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam (University of Illinois Press, 1997). She is currently working on a project dealing with the emergence of consumer culture in the Dutch Republic.

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century

Industrial Constructions: The Sources of German Industrial Power

Author(s):Herrigel, Gary
Reviewer(s):Shearer, Ronald A.

EH-NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by H-Business@eh.net (January, 1998)

Gary Herrigel. Industrial Constructions: The Sources of German Industrial Power. Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences Series, 9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. x + 480 pp. Tables, notes, bibliography, maps, and index. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-46273-8.

Reviewed for H-Business by Ronald A. Shearer , University of British Columbia

The question, addressed in this book is: does the literature on German industrialization accurately describe the process that occurred? Alternatively, considering the long sweep of history, how did one of the most successful examples of industrialization in modern times come to pass? Readers may want to extrapolate the analysis to address a broader question: how does any economy industrialize? While Herrigel does not explicitly answer this broader question, his analysis may nonetheless be very relevant in various other contexts.

For economists, Herrigel’s analysis is at once informative and frustrating. Two aspects of this book are important for economists interested in the process of industrialization and economic development. First is the forceful demonstration of the interaction between the social environment, governmental structures, and politics on the one hand and profit seeking decisions of business firms and the supporting activities of business associations on the other. In the German case, the interaction partially shaped the course of industrialization and was partially shaped by it. Second, but equally important, is Herrigel’s careful exploration of the nature and role of regional diversity in German industrial development, an aspect of economic development that has important echoes in many countries. What economists will find frustrating is what is missing in the analysis and the exaggerated assertions made or implied regarding the relevance of “traditional” social and economic analysis. Both are reflected in the virtual neglect (perhaps better, the rejection) of very basic economics in the exploration of the behaviour of firms and industries in the various episodes considered in the book. The problem is most acute in the sections dealing with long run industrialization up to 1945 but is not absent in the post World War II material. Economists will also be concerned about the lack of verifiable quantitative evidence on the importance of the regional industrialization process so clearly described in the book for the long run growth of the German economy. If we grant the story of the development of a “decentralized industrial order,” what difference did it make, not only for the growth of regional economies but also for the growth of the national economy?

The book is well researched and carefully documented. The author’s research included an impressive number of interviews with significant people in industrial firms and associations, universities and governments, and the analysis and conclusions are carefully related to the existing literature. Indeed, some 40 percent of the pages are devoted to notes and bibliography, a rich treasure for students and researchers. The index is short but adequate. Several maps help elucidate the geographical dimensions of the analysis. Many readers will find the writing style of the opening, quasi theoretical chapter overly laden with dense, unrelenting, unfamiliar jargon and may be annoyed by the excessive repetition of some theoretical propositions. By contrast, the historical material and illustrative case studies are presented clearly and effectively. The book has the added merit of being as up-to-date as can be expected. Herrigel pursues his analysis of German industrialization into the 1990s with interesting interpretations of the problems that began to haunt German industry at the beginning of this decade.

While I find aspects of the book less than satisfactory in terms both of content and presentation, on balance, the strengths of the book vastly outweigh its defects. It is a rewarding work for anyone interested in German industrialization and the development of the German state and for anyone interested in the process of industrialization in general. It is a book that merits careful study.

The theoretical approach is presented in an Introduction (Chapter One), and the main theoretical propositions are restated at various places in other chapters. Herrigel’s bete noire is an explanation of German industrialization that focuses almost single mindedly on large, complex, largely self contained conglomerate firms (with strong links to associated banks) what he calls “autarkic firms.” He argues that an interpretation of German industrialization of which the primacy of such firms was the fundamental pillar dominated the “post World War II research agenda” on German industrial development, to the detriment of a deeper understanding of German industrialization. He attributes this agenda to Gershenkron and his disciples, building on the shoulders of Schumpeter and augmented by various later analysts of business management, industrial organization and technological invention, innovation and diffusion in capitalist economies. In this agenda, the smaller industrial enterprises, if considered at all, were seen as an appendage of the central autarkic firm sector or a minor enclave in the aggregate economy. The autarkic sector was the driver; the small business sector a passenger. To the contrary, Herrigel argues, what he calls the “decentralized industrial order” had a vibrant, independent development based in the states of western and southwestern Germany. It played an important role in German industrialization, although Herrigel is deficient in not presenting convincing quantitative indices of how important.

As befits a political scientist, Herrigel’s focus is on governance, namely on what he calls “industrial governance.” While the precise meaning of governance in this context is a bit vague, it is the emphasis on more or less independent regional industrial networks that leads to his depiction of this sector of the economy as an “industrial order.” The decentralized industrial sector is not seen as a part of a larger “industrial structure,” but as something separate in organization, ethos and production characteristics, with its own historical roots, social coherence and governance institutions. Herrigel’s analysis of the development of this sector is evolutionary, reflecting his rejection not only of the language (“which I dislike”, p. 23) but also the substance of neo classical economics. As a result, we have a picture of the development of an industrial sector without reference to underlying production economics.

In three chapters (Chapters Two through Four), Herrigel explores the history of the decentralized and autarkic sectors up to World War II, including an important chapter on the interaction between the firms and business organizations in these sectors and the political system. He finds the roots of the divergent development of the two sectors in the systems of land inheritance in different sections of Germany. Where impartible land inheritance was the rule, a landless proletariat was created, providing the necessary labor force for large scale enterprises. Where partible land inheritance was the rule, the division of the land into smaller and smaller units resulted in a population of land owners for whom cultivation of the land could not be a full time occupation. They engaged in “rural industry” while retaining their land, developing specialized skills and social traditions. The result, the substance of Chapter Two, was the development of regional concentrations of specialized, small scale, mutually supporting factories producing for domestic and eventually world markets. They cooperated in various ways, including farming out production to each other and to home producers and in the development of common services. In the process they developed a distinctive social ethos and an appropriate set of industrial institutions that became the basis for subsequent evolution of the sector.

The emphasis on the long run consequences of impartible land inheritance is interesting. It is surprising, however, that in this context Herrigel does not devote attention to the possibilities for market transactions in land which could have led to consolidation of holdings and the creation of the landless labor force that he sees as so important in the other regions. Similarly, it is surprising that he does not devote considerable space to the analysis of patterns of interregional migration (or limitations thereon) which would seem to be an important adjunct to his analysis.

Underlying it all, no attention is devoted to the economics of production of the products in question. Economic considerations intrude only so far as market conditions affected the performance of the firms and led to adjustments in products and institutions. However, there must have been more than just the ethos of the industries that made industrial production viable in these regions. I looked in vain for some consideration of traditional (“neoclassical”) location of industry considerations, including careful consideration of the nature of the products and available production techniques, including questions of potential scale economies and the optimal scale of production. Nor is there any consideration of relative factor prices in the different regions. Herrigel’s use of the concept of governance in this context is also puzzling. It is clear from his discussion that the firms were autonomous units; they made the production and investment decisions in their own self interest. The role of regional associations in facilitating production as described by Herrigel seems far from the rule making and enforcement that I associate with governance. In part, these associations provided various kinds of support for the firms (in the jargon of neoclassical economics, their activities created “external economies,” services whose benefits could not be fully captured by any individual firm but which lowered the costs or improved the competitive position of the industry as a whole). In part they were cartels, attempting to protect the firms from adverse developments in the market or to take advantage of a strong collective position in the market. As with any cartel of independent firms, when the individual firms saw a strategic advantage in diverging from cartel policy, the cartel became unstable and tended to break down. That is all familiar to economists who study industrial organization. From Herrigel’s discussion, I think the governance concept is stretched very thin in this context. The analysis would be helped immensely by incorporating relevant economics. The analysis of the autarkic sector (Chapter Three) is built around a case study of the Ruhr iron and steel industry with a shorter but still important study of the machinery industry. The analysis has the same character as the analysis of the decentralized sector; the same strength and what I see as the same weaknesses. Heavy emphasis is placed on the evolution of the institutions of the sector and the interaction among firms within the institutions and between the institutions and government, with minimum consideration for locational and production economics. About the only non institutional locational factor noted is passing mention of the availability of abundant iron and steel in the Ruhr Valley. Careful attention is given to the interaction between industry and banks, and the impulse to cartelization is carefully documented. As in the case of the decentralized sector, the analysis of the instability of the cartels could benefit from incorporation of relevant economics, but the analysis on the social and political levels is well developed and persuasive.

The third chapter in this group (Chapter Four) is a stimulating analysis of the interaction between the industrial structure and the political system. Careful attention is given to the role of industries in affecting public policies and the effects of the structure of government on industrial development in Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era. The strong message emerging from the analysis is the importance of a federal system of government in promoting the development of the decentralized industrial order and the prevention of its domination by the autarkic industrial order. There are also interesting conclusions about the inconsistency of the centralized Weimar Republic with the established pattern of decentralized industrialization and the roots of the attraction of members of the decentralized sector to the Nazi movement. The period since World War II is the substance for the third part of the book (Chapters Five through Seven). The organization is the same as in the second part: a chapter on the decentralized sector (Chapter Five), one on the autarkic sector (Chapter Six), and one on the interrelations between business and government in the process of industrialization (Chapter Seven). The latter includes the unduly brief conclusion to the book. The analysis of the decentralized and autarkic sectors is in three phases, the period of the economic miracle from 1945 to the mid 1970s, the struggle for restructuring through the 1980s, and finally some relatively brief but nonetheless insightful observations on the pressures that appear to be emerging in the 1990s.

Given the longer run argument developed earlier in the book, the central issue in the analysis of the early part of the post war period is the apostasy of a number of firms in the decentralized sector. Penetration of the autarkic form of organization into the regional domain of the decentralized industrial order occurred as some producers “adopted mass production strategies … by breaking out of the institutional and practical framework that governed production and administration” in the decentralized industries (p. 148). The informative case study is of the Daimler Benz AG automobile manufacturing firm, but it is said to be representative of a number of firms in the decentralized regions. The Daimler Benz process of conversion from specialized production of luxury vehicles to mass production of standardized vehicles is carefully documented. A strong measure of vertical integration of production relationship replaced what Helliger refers to as the horizontal relationships among firms in the decentralized order. The lesson is clear: technology and markets changed and the reality of the production economics of the modern automobile industry intruded. Once again, a healthy dose of economic analysis is called for. While hinted at, it is never adequately developed.

The 1980s brought another major shift in German industrial behaviour. Through cases studies of steel, machinery and automobile manufacturing, Herrigel traces the renewed development of the large scale industrial conglomerates in the postwar period and their amazing production performance during the economic miracle. Intensified international competition in the 1980s induced a reconsideration of the merits of centralization. A search for flexibility and reduced costs led to some decentralization with positive effects on the decentralized industrial sector. However, in this instance, decentralization created dependency in the sense that it involved the use of decentralized firms as sources of supply. As Herrigel argues, the organizational problems of large scale industry seemed to intensify in the early 1990s.

The final chapter (Seven) returns to the themes of Chapter Four, the interaction between industry and government in the postwar period. Not surprisingly, the influences flow both ways as pragmatic adjustments in government fostered and accommodated necessary adjustments in the industrial structure. In the early postwar period, the federal structure of government imposed by the allies provided support for both the decentralized industrial system and autarkic firms. Both sectors flourished. As centralization of industry spread through the economy, greater centralization of economic policy also occurred, particularly in labor relations and in the management of aggregate demand. The reversal of the centralization movement in the 1980s also saw some relaxation in the centralizing governmental arrangements. The mutual adjustment and adaptation of government and industry was not always smooth and trouble free, but it occurred and is an essential element in the Herrigel story. What are the broader lessons that can be abstracted from this analysis? It would be interesting to have an extended discussion of this question by Herrigel, but I carry away three points from his work. First is the proposition that regional diversity is likely to be a basic element in any industrialization process and that radically different forms and scales of industrialization are likely to be appropriate in different regions. It follows that industrialization policies should not pursue as a single-minded objective the creation of large scale, vertically integrated manufacturing firms. A mixture of types of firms and industries is more likely to be appropriate. Second, over time, the relative balance among types of industries is likely to change as technology, external competition and market conditions change. Flexibility and the capacity to adapt to fundamental changes are vitally important if crises are to be avoided. But perhaps the most basic lesson of all is the third one. To be successful, industries have to be compatible with the social and economic characteristics of the regions in which they are located. They are best cultivated by a governmental structure that is sensitive to regional aspirations, possibilities and concerns. I read Herrigel’s work as an argument for a decentralized federal structure of government that adapts pragmatically to changes in fundamental economic conditions. I have criticized Herrigel for the lack of economics in his analysis of German industrialization. Perhaps I am unfair. Within its own terms of reference, Herrigel has written a remarkably good book. He explicitly disavows any intention of presenting a general theory of German industrialization, and he does not present himself as an economist. Indeed, he abruptly rejects the approach of the economist. However, in an age that values interdisciplinary studies, there has to be a happy medium somewhere. What I would like see as the ideal is a Herrigel paired up with an equally well prepared and research-minded economist to produce a definitive work on German industrialization which carefully integrates the political and social institutional analysis with appropriate production, locational and organizational economics (probably in a game theoretic context).

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Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

John Stewart Kennedy: The Man Who Found the Money

Author(s):Engelbourg, Saul
Bushkoff, Leonard
Reviewer(s):Churella, Albert J.

EH.NET Book Review

Published by H-Business (August 1997)

John Stewart Kennedy: A Transitional Financier

Reviewed by Albert Churella, Department of History, The Ohio State University, for H-Business

Saul Engelbourg and Leonard Bushkoff. The Man Who Found the Money: John Stewart Kennedy and the Financing of the Western Railroads. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996. xiv+257pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, and index. ISBN 0-87013-414-0 (cloth).

During the second half of the nineteenth century, financial intermediaries became more specialized and more professionalized in response to the vastly increased capital requirements of the rapidly growing railroad network, and of other industries as well. The Man Who Found the Money describes the personal journey of one mid-level financier who played an important role in the American economy, although he was never so powerful or well known as Jay Gould, Jay Cooke, or J. P. Morgan. During his career, John Stewart Kennedy (1830-1909) moved from early efforts as a commission agent to later involvement in railroad finance, and finally to a retirement devoted to carefully tailored philanthropy. As his professional abilities matured in tandem with American financial markets, Kennedy became both more successful and more focused on specific types of financing. In the process, Kennedy–like contemporary J. P. Morgan–was always acutely aware that trust was far more important than adherence to any rigidly defined code of professional conduct. Still, despite Kennedy’s almost paranoiac efforts to maintain the trust of his business associates, he often engaged in financial transactions that, in the eyes of later financial professionals, seemed to indicate serious conflicts of interest. Kennedy, like most transitional financiers, would have been puzzled by this notion, believing that so long as the relatively informal financial arrangements of the time worked in the best interest of all concerned, then investors could earn profits, financiers could maintain public trust, and “conflict of interest” was a matter of no great consequence.

Kennedy spent much of his childhood in Glasgow, Scotland, and received there a solid education that enabled him to rise quickly from a shipping clerk to a salesman of rails and other iron products. In 1856, he became a junior partner in M. K. Jesup & Co. and subsequently spent most of his time in the United States. Kennedy served primarily as a commission merchant for various U.S. railroads, performing a wide variety of financial transactions that ranged from procuring rails and other supplies to paying interest on bonded debt to arranging for additional capital. These activities were hardly routine or specialized–instead, Kennedy relied on personal knowledge and on a carefully cultivated network of contacts in Europe and the United States, all of whom were bound together by mutual trust.

In 1868, Kennedy became a private commercial banker when he established J. S. Kennedy and Co. in New York City. (His growing financial independence may well have been influenced by the American Civil War, which had provided countless business and financial opportunities, but the authors do not mention this pivotal event in their book). Like most such banks, Kennedy’s was a small operation, with only a few partners and clerks to assist him. Kennedy still served as a commission merchant, often representing both railroad buyers and equipment sellers–hence concern over the issue of conflict of interest. Increasingly, however, Kennedy became more involved in the management of new or financially weak railroads. As a representative of the Scottish-American Investment Company, for example, Kennedy not only helped funnel Scottish capital into the U.S., he also helped rescue Scottish investors from some of their unwise investments. During the late 1870s, Kennedy helped to restore the City of Glasgow Bank to financial solvency; an activity that brought him scant financial reward, but that increased greatly the respect and trust accorded him by his financial contemporaries.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Kennedy helped to arrange financing for components of what later became the Great Northern Railway, bringing him into close association with “Empire Builder” James Jerome Hill. Kennedy’s new role as “James Hill’s emissary to the world of high finance” (p. 104) caused him to dissolve J. S. Kennedy and Co. in 1883, although he still continued to serve as a commission merchant for the procurement of two specialized items–steam locomotives and rails– for Hill. As a director and officer of the Minneapolis and Manitoba (the chief precursor to the Great Northern), Kennedy helped to shape that railroad’s policies. Kennedy and Hill had very different visions for the road’s future, however, since the former favored a conservative financial strategy that emphasized slow long-term growth as the territory served by the railroad became more developed, while the latter favored operational cost savings and frequent short-term financial offerings that would provide the railroad with just enough capital to make a rapid push to the Pacific.

Disagreements with Hill, while never terribly acrimonious, nonetheless helped to persuade Kennedy to retire. Other issues contributed to this decision. These included growing conflicts with other railroads in the Northwest (including the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, and the Northern Pacific) and stress-related illnesses stemming from involvement in several lawsuits over the course of his career and from continual efforts to defend his reputation against charges that conflicts of interest had undermined his trustworthiness. Even after his 1888 resignation from his position as vice president of the Minneapolis and Manitoba, Kennedy remained active in railroad finance. He moved gradually from professional activities to philanthropy during the 1890s, giving away a large portion of his $67 million fortune to museums, libraries, hospitals, and other charitable institutions.

The life and career of John Stewart Kennedy is certainly a fitting choice for a book. His financial dealings spanned two continents and encompassed a period that began with the first tentative railroad consolidations and ended with the Northern Securities Case of 1904. He helped to finance one of the most important railroads to be built in the United States, and served as a close adviser to railroad magnate J. J. Hill. His career reflected the broad nineteenth-century transition from the diversified activities of general commission merchants to the emergence of private commercial banks to the development of specialized financiers.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this work, however, is that Kennedy has not been effectively integrated into these larger developments. The brief segments at the beginning and end of each chapter do provide a broad overview (occasionally too broad, giving information that is almost self-evident), but these passages are often poorly integrated with the body of the text–possibly an artifact of the dual authorship of the book. The book is also somewhat disjointed, with an abundance of short chapters, one-sentence paragraphs, and awkward transitions; all indicative of a merited condensation of a much longer work–a condensation that was not, unfortunately, accompanied by a thorough rewriting. More specifically, sharper editing would have helped to reduce the frequency of cliches, jargon, and (often mixed) metaphors; for example: “In effect, events were in the saddle, and men could only ride.” (p. 142)

Without question, this is a thoroughly researched and highly detailed work. The authors (primarily Engelbourg) have marshaled an impressive array of information from a wide variety of manuscript collections and published secondary sources. While earlier works, such as Dolores Greenberg’s pioneering study of Morton, Bliss & Company, offer a more comprehensive and better-integrated overview of mid-level finance during the nineteenth century, The Man Who Found the Money is still of value to historians of nineteenth-century railroad finance for its encyclopedic coverage of an important individual financier of that era.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Farm and Factory: Workers in the Midwest, 1880-1990

Author(s):Nelson, Daniel
Reviewer(s):Sundstrom, William A.

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (August 1997)

Daniel Nelson, Farm and Factory: Workers in the Midwest, 1880-1990. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995. 258 pp. Includes tables, bibliographical references, and index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-253-32883-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William A. Sundstrom, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University.

Daniel Nelson’s latest book delivers both more and less than it promises. On the plus side, the book is actually more general than the title would suggest, providing a useful survey of much of the literature on twentieth-century American labor history. Although many of the book’s examples are drawn from midwestern industries and cities, much of the literature cited is not geographically specific. In this sense, the book is a worthy sequel to the author’s Managers and Workers (University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), updating, extending, and broadening that book’s coverage. The greatest virtue of Nelson’s work in the past has been his attention to both the management and labor sides of the employment relationship, as well as the political context of industrial relations. Farm and Factory shares these virtues, synthesizing a wide range of secondary sources from labor, social, and economic history. The book contains less original historical research than many of Nelson’s previous efforts, although it makes extensive use of his own work on such topics as company unions and rubber workers.

On the minus side, Nelson (Department of History, University of Akron) never makes a compelling case for the distinctiveness of the Midwest’s labor history, which would justify the book’s regional focus. Admittedly the region’s industrial composition was unlike that of other regions, with its unusual mix of agriculture and heavy industry. But Nelson claims that these quintessential midwestern sectors had relatively little influence on each others’ labor history. Thus it might be argued that the evolution of the institutions and politics of labor in the Midwest was largely shaped by industry rather than location. Contrast this implication of Nelson’s book with Gavin Wright’s Old South, New South, (Basic Books, 1986) another book about a regional labor market during the twentieth century. In it, Wright depicts a southern labor market that was truly unique in its institutions and development, in large part because of its isolation.

This is not to deny that Nelson has identified some aspects of the midwestern labor experience that had a unique regional character. The socialist and farm-labor political coalitions associated with such names as Robert LaFollette, for example, appear to have been a homegrown midwestern phenomenon; but at the same time, Nelson notes that such coalitions were short-lived and had little lasting influence. Nelson also notes that union density was higher than average in the Midwest, which became the crucible of the twentieth-century industrial union movement. Again, however, it is not clear whether this was the product of some peculiarly midwestern predisposition toward unionism or merely an accidental consequence of the region’s industrial structure. Such a question could be sorted out with careful comparative analysis, contrasting the industrial union movements in the Midwest and, say, the Middle Atlantic regions for similar industries. But Nelson’s book provides very little in the way of comparative research.

Farm and Factory is arranged in sections chronologically. The first period covered, 1880-1900, sets the stage. In 1880, about half of midwestern workers were engaged in farming, and farm employment increased in numbers over the next two decades. At the same time, the period witnessed a dramatic increase in the relative importance of industry. Because the demand for agricultural labor continued to grow, the industrial labor market depended largely on immigrant workers for its supply, rather than rural-urban migrants. The immigrant character of industrial employment was not, of course, unique to the Midwest at this time.

The book’s first chapter, on farming, includes the first installment of what was for me one of the book’s most fascinating recurring themes: the nature and evolution of women’s work. Nelson’s book demonstrates how much scholarship over the past two decades has been devoted to the area of women’s labor history. In the case of farming, Nelson describes the gender division of labor, how it differed across different farm products, and how by the second half of the century the increased complexity of the farming business (and perhaps the increased educational attainment of farm women) resulted in many farm wives assuming the role of business manager. Later in the book he examines the feminization of clerical work, and the postwar growth of women’s labor- force participation.

Nelson’s attention to clerical and service-sector labor is welcome, given the traditional emphasis of labor history on industrial work, but after a promising discussion of office work near the turn of the century in Chapter 3, the remainder of the book devotes only a handful of pages to the service sector and clerical or white-collar employment. No doubt this lacuna reflects shortcomings in the secondary literature that Nelson draws upon, as well as Nelson’s view that the character of office work was subject to less dramatic technological and institutional changes over the course of the century. Be that as it may, “farms and factories” are indeed the book’s central focus; the rest of the midwestern labor market is treated as a residual category that soaked up a growing share of the work force as employment in agriculture and industry shrank relatively and, eventually, absolutely.

Nelson’s history of labor and labor management in the mass production industries of the Midwest is fairly conventional. He highlights the role of the federal government in creating a political and legal environment that facilitated the rise of industrial unionism: the protective legislation of the NRA and NLRA and the subsequent wartime boost given to unionism by war production demand and government intervention. Nelson’s narrative of the sit-down strikes, the escalation of hostility between labor and capital during the thirties, and the rivalry between the AFL and CIO also suggests the importance of historical contingency in creating the system of labor relations that would persist over the decades that followed.

The book’s final chapters describe the brief postwar “golden age” of economic prosperity and relatively stable industrial relations between Big Business and Big Labor. Nelson provides a multifaceted picture of the demise of this golden age. Economic change was clearly one challenge: competition from lower-cost regions and foreign producers placed pressure on the region’s bread-and-butter manufacturing industries. To this conventional deindustrialization story Nelson adds another critical factor in the demise of union influence in the Midwest: rising racial tensions as the Great Migration brought large numbers of black workers into northern cities. The generally progressive stance on racial issues of the CIO unions alienated a large portion of the rank and file during the tumultuous sixties, with the consequence that “[r]ace, more than any other issue, undermined the unions’ carefully nurtured influence outside the workplace” (p. 187).

In his concluding chapter, Nelson traces the roots of the Midwest’s woes during the 1970s and 80s to various “institutional constraints” put into place beginning in the 1930s, which served to reduce the regional economy’s flexibility and innovativeness. “By the 1970s midwestern workers faced the worst of both worlds: some producers had become obsolete, while others continued to innovate in traditional ways (mechanizing operations, for example) that limited employment opportunities” (p. 203). This claim is provocative, and echoes some of the criticisms of U.S. institutional rigidities to be found in the work of authors like Sabel and Piore or Lazonick. But Nelson provides only the sketchiest defense of this view. Is it not possible that the Midwest was just a victim of bad luck, its economy more dependent on Rust Belt industries than other regional economies for largely unavoidable historical reasons? To shore up his claim of institutional failure, Nelson would have to show what other regions did differently to avoid the Midwest’s difficulties. Again, the absence of a comparative approach precludes his doing this.

In sum, Farm and Factory would serve as a solid textbook in twentieth century U.S. labor history, in spite of its regional focus. The coverage of union and nonunion developments, the evolution of personnel management, the role of politics and government, and nontraditional sectors and workers (including women and minorities) is, to my knowledge, unavailable anywhere else. This breadth of coverage, of course, comes at the cost of diminished depth. One particularly misses a compelling account of how the Midwest’s sad economic fate at the end of the century was the product of the region-specific historical evolution of its labor institutions and politics.

William A. Sundstrom Department of Economics Santa Clara University

William A. Sundstrom is Associate Professor of Economics at Santa Clara University. He is the author of numerous articles on the history of U.S. labor markets, including, most recently, “The Racial Unemployment Gap in Long-Run Perspective” (with Robert W. Fairlie), American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings (May 1997).

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

Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture

Author(s):Hanley, Susan B.
Reviewer(s):Honda, Gail

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (July 1997)

Susan B. Hanley. Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xiv + 213 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-520-20470-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gail Honda, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago.

What do the objects which surround us–the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes we live in–tell us about how well we are living? How are they indicative of our health and physical well-being? Can we gauge our progress as a society by observing and analyzing the material world around us?

Susan B. Hanley, in her latest book on Tokugawa (1600-1868) Japan, culls a dazzling array of material evidence to argue that the level of physical well-being of the Japanese rose throughout the Tokugawa period, and that life in Tokugawa Japan was healthful relative to that in industrialized Europe. This high level of physical well-being, which existed on the eve of Japan’s industrial revolution (1868-1945), gave rise to a robust and literate labor force which enabled the Japanese to build a powerful industrial nation. Moreover, she argues, what we have come to know as everyday “traditional” Japanese material life, which was cultivated during the 250 years of the Tokugawa period, persisted through the middle of the twentieth century, and provided a foundation of stability which eased the often turbulent transition in government, the economy, and social structure.

With the discerning eye of a master novelist, and an equally engaging literary style, Hanley, Professor of Japanese Studies and History at the University of Washington, takes the reader on a tour of everyday life in Tokugawa Japan, all the while analyzing the objects of consideration and carefully piecing them together in her cogently honed argument. One can almost smell the rough-hewn walls and bare earthen floors of the early Tokugawa one-room commoner homes as she describes their cool, dark interiors and central gathering area for cooking and heating. By the end of the Tokugawa period, she writes, the typical commoner home had several rooms, raised foundations, wooden or tatami (rush mat) floors, and sliding paper doors which enabled the residents to open the interior to the sunshine and warm breezes of the outdoors. All of these changes, Hanley argues, led to a more healthful living environment which raised the level of physical well-being of the Japanese.

She defines the level of physical well-being as “the standard of living [defined as per capita income] plus ‘quality factors’ that can be positive or negative. . .Examples of quality factors are the quality and level of nutrition, incidence of disease, level of general health, number of children per family, the percentage of dependent persons, the size and quality of housing, the kind of heat available, and the many other aspects of life that affect our physical well being” (pp. 10-11). Hanley then analyzes the quality factors by examining what she calls material culture, or “physical objects that people use or consume in their everyday lives, most of which are either made or else natural objects put to specific use by people. . . [She] concentrate[s] on what are considered the basics: food, clothing, and shelter, and concomitant aspects such as hygiene and sanitation. The artifacts of daily life reveal use of resources, the level of technology, how people cooked, what kind of houses they lived in, and levels of comfort, sanitation, and health–in short, how people lived” (p. 12).

Specifically, Hanley finds that Tokugawa Japan’s material culture gave rise to many positive quality factors which elevated the the Japanese people’s physical well-being to a level higher than the standard of living alone would indicate. To cite a few examples of quality factors from the many intriguing ones she presents: the daily 1900-calorie Tokugawa diet of grains, vegetables, and soybean products was probably not only adequate for the body stature of people at the time (army recruits had an average height of 5’4″ in the late-nineteenth century), but was comparable to the late-nineteenth century English commoner diet of bread, porridge, biscuits, vegetables, milk, cheese, and lard. With regard to personal hygiene, Hanley points out that regular bathing was not an important part of Western culture until the nineteenth century, whereas in Japan accounts of public baths and references to bathing regulations indicate that bathing was a widespread custom by the eighteenth century. The Tokugawa water supply and sewage system were also quite healthful relative to systems in Europe because of the custom of collecting urine and night soil for fertilizer. Rather than allow human waste to collect in cesspools where excrement could seep into the subsoil, or to be flushed into rivers which fed into the drinking water supply, as was commonly done in the West, the Japanese assiduously collected, then bought and sold human waste and thereby avoided the problem of water supply contamination. As a result of many of these positive quality factors, life expectancy in Tokugawa Japan, Hanley demonstrates, was similar to that of nineteenth century Europe.

Thus, Hanley’s book is a valuable contribution to the literature in economic history, Japanese history, and historical demography in four primary ways: first, it offers plausible reasons and solid evidence for Japan’s success in industrializing beginning in the late nineteenth century; second, it stimulates cross-cultural comparisons by presenting evidence which can be reasonably compared across countries; third, it provides insight into and information on the everyday life of Japanese commoners during the Tokugawa period; and fourth, it discusses life expectancy, fertility control, and family structure, all important gauges of the level of physical well-being in Tokugawa Japan. Thoroughly researched and highly readable, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan will not only be widely used as a reference book, but will surely be savored by many whose interest will be held from cover to cover.

Gail Honda Department of Sociology University of Chicago

Gail Honda is author of “Differential Structure, Differential Health: Industrialization in Japan 1868-1940,” in the forthcoming book, Health and Welfare during Industrialization (University of Chicago Press), edited by Richard Steckel and Roderick Floud. In August 1997, she will move to the Department of History at the University of Hawaii where she will teach Japanese history and continue her research on economic development and health.

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