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The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus

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

Published by EH.Net (May 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620-1720

Author(s):Hang, Xing
Reviewer(s):Gipouloux, François

Published by EH.Net (November 2017)

Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620-1720. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xii + 332 pp. $100 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-107-12184-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by François Gipouloux, CNRS, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

This book by Xing Hang (assistant professor of history at Brandeis University) follows the trends of recent scholarship on maritime history. (For example, Li Kangying on Ming maritime policy, Zhao Gang on Qing relations with the seas, David Dahpon Ho on the Qing maritime frontier and Tonio Andrade on Taiwan). It is also a brilliant addition to prior work by John Wills, Patrizia Carioti on Zheng Chenggong, as well as Paola Calanca on smugglers and pirates on the Fujian coast.

The book is a contribution to the economic history of an empire’s periphery (China’s south-eastern coast and Taiwan), but at the same time offers a thoughtful view of the diplomatic and military aspects of the Ming-Qing transition. The book also covers the background of the world’s first globalization: how China interacted with other polities, how the Zhengs were able to challenge the financial power of great actors like the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and how the East Asian region began to integrate into a nascent world system.

Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia is an enjoyable read. It covers four generations of the Zheng family, roughly from the early sixteenth century through to the fall of Taiwan to the Qing, in 1683. The book is divided into eight chapters. Three appendixes provide a wide range of quantitative data regarding the volume of the overseas trade managed by the Zheng clan. Appendix 3, in particular, includes very detailed figures of Zheng trade at Nagasaki, which surpassed VOC trade during the 1650-1662 period.

Hang has tapped into a large number of sources, ranging from memoirs, Zheng documents from private collections and Qing archives, along with Dutch, English, Japanese, Korean and Spanish historical records, and inscriptions collected during field work in Fujian. The merit of Hang’s work is that he gathers together a large number of previously disconnected elements in Chinese and Western scholarship, including intra-Asiatic economic changes, military issues, ideological frameworks and business techniques, and he has thus drawn a very complete picture of an autonomous polity, at the periphery of the Chinese empire during the Ming-Qing transition. This was an exuberant periphery, which grew swiftly within the context of the conflict between Ming loyalists and Qing conquerors.

In seventeenth century East Asia, there occurred simultaneously a great, structured expansion of foreign powers and a transition in China’s role in international trade. Hang guides us through a changing geopolitical environment in which the collapse of the southern Ming imposed a complete redirection of economic flows with the emergence of the Indian subcontinent as a prominent silk producer. The Zheng trading organization proved well adapted to the change China underwent in the 1650s, moving from a producer of luxury goods to an importer and processor of raw materials and setting up of a circuit involving Indian textiles and Southeast Asian raw materials in exchange for Japanese silver and Chinese gold.

For a readership focusing on economic history, Chapter 3, “Between Trade and Legitimacy,” is certainly the most thought provoking. The Zheng family amassed huge amounts of wealth that were managed by several firms operating deep in Qing controlled territory, They were able to procure silk, porcelain and other luxury products for the Xiamen warehouse, and reported to their headquarters in Hangzhou from their branches in Suzhou, Nanjing and even Beijing. These firms also served as centers for gathering intelligence on Qing military operations. The “five mountains firms” were also able to supervise the construction of commercial and military seagoing junks. Their operating area was divided, as it was during the Ming Dynasty, into Eastern and Western oceans. Official merchants (guan shang) worked under the Zheng family according to a sophisticated hierarchy consisting of, on the one hand, adopted sons of the clan’s relatives and military commanders and, on the other hand, independent merchants linked to the clan by long-term debts contracted by borrowing capital or ships to trade on behalf of the Zheng organization.

Hang claims that in the 1650s, the Zheng trading network bore all the characteristics of a maritime empire, within the limits of an intra-Asiatic area, stretching from the markets in Japan (Nagasaki), Dutch Taiwan (VOC) and Manila, with extensions to Vietnam and Ayuttaya (Siam), where they dealt with Muslim traders from Bengal and the Coromandel Coast. Within the framework of the limited autonomy of cities or territories in Asia and the impossibility for patrician communities to formalize their own legal arrangements, the patron-client relationship was the cornerstone of any successful and long-lasting business operation in China. The Zheng were no exception. Until his death in 1662, Koxinga adhered to this pattern and reshaped the framework of international relationships and rudimentary bureaucracy of the Ming Dynasty.

The pervasive role that Confucian orthodoxy and filial piety played in this arduous attempt to restore Ming legitimacy is aptly emphasized in this book. What is also striking is the economic contribution of “ideological purity” combined with hard economic realities. However, outright loyalty to the Ming Dynasty did not prevent the Zhengs from protecting their own interests. Hang also carefully analyses the merchants’ double allegiance to the Zheng clan and to European traders and the way they served as channels for communication between them. In the late 1660s, rivalry with the Dutch over silk escalated in Japan and, although merchants could trade freely in the areas under his control, Zheng Jing maintained a strict monopoly on strategic goods (silk, deerskins and sugar).

How should we interpret the integration of the first global network of trade, which brought together the demand for China’s silk and high quality goods with an insatiable thirst for silver? From Zheng Zhilong to Zheng Chenggong, the activities of the trading network evolved from a centralized piratical organization to an informal state. At the time he was consolidating his power (1650), Koxinga possessed several hundred war junks and was able to mobilize 40,000 soldiers. At the same time, he envisioned the highest possible autonomy and sought to establish control over the three south-eastern provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, as well as a 13,000 km long coastline in exchange for his support of Ming restoration. Xing Hang vividly describes the long process of negotiations between the Zheng clan and the Qing, which started as early as 1653 and continued, with interspersed episodes of war, diplomacy and neutrality, until the final conquest of Taiwan in 1683.

Xing Hang’s book documents in detail the extent of Zheng Chenggong’s power at sea. He was able to set up an efficient maritime blockade on Luzon and Dutch Taiwan until the Governor General of Manila gave in and submitted. The Dutch in Taiwan were pressured to soften their position. On the mainland, Koxinga was also able to launch a military expedition (although ultimately defeated), with over a thousand junks and 100,000 soldiers, into the Yangzi River delta. Even after his unsuccessful attack on Nanjing in 1659, Koxinga still maintained control over China’s coastline, from Zhejiang to Fujian.

On the diplomatic front, Zheng Chenggong made several attempts to convince the bakufu to support his military efforts against the Qing. Koxinga’s grand military strategy was two-fold. First of all, he sought to seize the resource rich Yangzi River delta in order to solve his organization’s needs for food and supplies and, at the same time, to take control of primary production of silk and other luxuries. Secondly, he planned an invasion of Dutch Taiwan and Spanish controlled Manila (in 1670 and 1672). The invasion of Taiwan was a consequence of Koxinga’s defeat at Nanking. The takeover of Manila, although poorly defended, never occurred. This overseas expansion, if it had been successful, would have led to the foundation of a maritime China encompassing a huge trading network stretching from Japan to Southeast Asia and able to defy the continental Qing Empire.

Another merit of this book is that it sheds new light on Koxinga’s son, Zheng Jing and on how he achieved, within two decades, the Zheng organization’s transformation into a viable territorial state, with the creation of a sophisticated administration, the rationalization of the kinship networks of southern Fujian and a greater economic diversification. This efficient policy attracted refugees reduced to starvation by the Qing coastal evacuation policy. Xing Hang meticulously describes the power game which led to the ascendancy of Zheng Jing and the diplomatic and military interaction between the VOC, Shi Lang (the former commander who defected to the Qing in 1651 and head of the Qing naval command), and Japan, whose neutral stance adopted in the 1660s complicated the consolidation of the position of Ming loyalists.

The final reason for the Zheng’s failure lies more in the growing competitiveness from the Bengal and Indonesian-based Dutch, a rising East India Company and Southeast Asian trading networks to which the Zheng organisation began to lose market shares, rather than in Qing military offensives and blockades against the island of Taiwan.

François Gipouloux, Emeritus Research Director, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), China, Korea, Japan Research Centre, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, is the coordinator of the International Research Network The Globalisation’s Origins and the Great Divergence: Trading Networks and the Trajectory of Economic Institutions — Europe-Asia, 1500-2000. He is the author of The Asian Mediterranean: Port Cities and Trading Networks in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, 13th-21st century, Edward Elgar, 2011.

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century

John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea

Author(s):Hoeveler, J. David
Reviewer(s):Johnson, Marianne

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

J. David Hoeveler, John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea. Madison: WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. xi + 229 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-299-30780-6.

Reviewed by EH.Net by Marianne Johnson, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin — Oshkosh.

In 2014, as part of the biennial budgetary process, Governor Scott Walker proposed to modify the University of Wisconsin’s mission, known as the Wisconsin Idea, striking the statements to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus,” to “serve and stimulate society,” and to “extend training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.” He also proposed to delete the phrase “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” Instead, the university system was to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

When discovered buried deep within the budget proposal, the changes were met with outcry and condemnation from the University and its supporters. University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross stated “The Wisconsin Idea is embedded in our DNA. It is so much more than words on a page. It is the reason the UW System exists. It defines us and forever will distinguish us as a great public university” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 4 February 2015). The New York Times editorialized “Save the Wisconsin Idea” (16 February 2015).

When confronted, the governor denied instigating the changes and blamed a “drafting error.” Sued by the Center for Media and Democracy and several Wisconsin citizens under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, documents revealed a deliberate attempt to circumscribe the mission of the University of Wisconsin and its system of affiliated schools.

To understand both why the governor had sought the change and the reaction of those in the University of Wisconsin system, it is important to have a book such as that by David Hoeveler on John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea. Combined with Nancy Unger’s biography of Robert La Follette (2000) and Malcolm Rutherford’s The Institutionalist Movement in American Economics (2011), academics and interested readers now have a trio of excellent historical works on the Wisconsin Idea, Wisconsin Progressivism, and Wisconsin’s unique brand of Institutional economics.

Wisconsin gained outsized influence in the early part of the twentieth century, driven by larger-than-life personalities such as “Fighting Bob” La Follete and his partner in reform, University of Wisconsin President Richard Van Hise. The latter is usually credited with the first complete statement of the Wisconsin Idea. Richard T. Ely and E.A. Ross remade the social sciences as taught at American universities, drawing on the German academic tradition of seminars. John R. Commons and his army of disciples oversaw an expansive national political advocacy campaign for labor reform, unemployment insurance, social security and the minimum wage.

Ely was famously prosecuted for espousing socialist doctrines in 1894. The Board of Regents ruled in Ely’s favor, setting the standard for academic freedom. University President, Charles Kendall Adams, writing on behalf of the Board of Regents concluded that “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” This statement can be found on a plaque at the entrance of Bascom Hall, the best-known building on campus.

Though Bascom predates the great hey-day of Wisconsin Progressivism, Hoeveler makes a compelling case for Bascom’s importance in laying the foundation for change at the end of the nineteenth century.

During Bascom’s professional lifetime, two socio-demographic trends emerged that were to fundamentally alter higher education in the United States: an increased demand for specialized education and an increased demand by women for professional training and careers. American universities responded to the first of these changes by expanding course work at all levels. The second shift involved the transformation of educational opportunities for women. With the influence of Progressivism and the suffrage movement, public opinion slowly shifted to support higher education for women. Having lost the battle for co-education at Williams College, Bascom accepted the presidency of the University of Wisconsin in 1874. Earlier that same year, the university had affirmed a co-educational curriculum. Bascom was an avid supporter of women’s access to higher education. Rather than limiting women’s education to domestic subjects and finishing schools, Bascom argued forcefully for their access to a full liberal education stating that “This exclusion of women from our highest seats of learning is among the remnant…[of] a dark and savage past” (Bascom 1872, 2). Bascom’s two daughters both earned their bachelor’s degrees at Wisconsin, where he defended the right for women to face an identical curriculum to men. Florence Bascom became the second woman to earn a Ph.D. in geology in the U.S.

Much of the book is given over to Bascom’s biography and intellectual influences, including German philosophical idealism, the liberal Protestantism associated with the Social Gospel movement in the U.S., and the theory of evolution. Hoeveler argues that “Bascom made a creative synthesis of these intellectual systems and from them forged the beginning of the Wisconsin Idea” (p. 5). Individuals interested in the intellectual influences of the period will find the book particularly useful.

The first two chapters consider Bascom’s education and early career years, with a heavy emphasis on his own writings and philosophical struggles, particularly in reaction to the American Civil War. Chapter 3 addresses Bascom’s move to Wisconsin, where he served as president from 1874 to 1887. Chapter 4 deals with the changing nature of American universities and their role in society at the end of the 1800s, and Chapter 5 looks at the impact of the Social Gospel movement on the University of Wisconsin and American universities more generally.

The next three chapters address the origins of Progressivism which Hoeveler identifies in three distinct forces: (1) the temperance movement, (2) the women’s suffrage movement, and (3) the profound shift in perceptions of class struggles and of labor rights in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Though much of the book provides interesting background for those that study intellectual history, it is Chapter 8 that will capture the attention of historians of economic thought. Most of the material in this chapter will be familiar to economists who work in this period, but Hoeveler does a nice job of situating Bascom in this milieu of change and to introduce Ely who would later play such a significant role for the University of Wisconsin.

Chapter 9 returns to the Wisconsin Idea and guides the reader through Bascom’s departure from Wisconsin, the hiring of Richard T. Ely, Charles Van Hise’s presidency, the arrival of John R. Commons, and the great debates between La Follette and the university over World War I.  These changes left Wisconsin to be viewed as either the “the outstanding liberal university” (Howe 1989, 247) or a “hot bed of radicalism” (New York Times 1930, 34). Though Bascom’s presidency had ended before these momentous events, Hoeveler does a great service by presenting an excellent account of the life of Bascom and reminding us that ideas emerge from a complex interaction of social, political, philosophical and personal forces.


Bascom, John. 1872. “College Organization,” Independent, September 5 (1872), 2 – 3.

Howe, Florence. 1989. “Practical in Her Theories: Theresa Schmid McMahon,” in Lone Voyagers: Academic Women in Coeducational Universities, 1870–1937, ed. G.J. Clifford, 223 – 280. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Rutherford, Malcolm. 2011. The Institutional Movement in American Economics, 1918–1947. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Unger, Nancy C. 2000. Fighting Bob La Follette: A Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

“The Wisconsin Idea,” University of Wisconsin Madison.

Marianne Johnson is the author of several works on Wisconsin Institutionalism and Progressivism in economics including papers in the Journal of Economic Issues (2017, 2015, 2011) and History of Political Economy (2014) — and a book chapter on the “Daughters of Commons” for Routledge (forthcoming).

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

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

The Oxford Handbook of Banking and Financial History

Editor(s):Cassis, Youssef
Grossman, Richard S.
Schenk, Catherine R.
Reviewer(s):Neal, Larry

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

Youssef Cassis, Richard S. Grossman, and Catherine R. Schenk, editors, The Oxford Handbook of Banking and Financial History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xviii + 537 pp., $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-965862-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Larry Neal, Department of Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (emeritus).

The global financial crisis that began in 2007-08 and continued to rattle the Eurozone countries after 2010 has certainly been good for the market for financial history.  The Oxford Handbook of Banking and Financial History is clearly a response to these events.  In their introductory chapter, the editors set out their ambitious agenda, which is to deal with the individual parts of our modern complex financial system and trace how each has evolved over time.  Each chapter ends with some insight into how the current turmoil in global banking and finance might affect part of the global financial system. This broad-ranging approach is very much in keeping with current analysis by policy economists, who have become very sensitive to how our financial system intertwines banks, which specialize in particular niches of the economy; shadow banks, which innovate to find new niches; money markets, which deal with short-term finance; capital markets, which provide long-term finance; and regulators, who attempt to oversee the operation of the financial system for the interest of the public (or the government).  The editors’ goal is to provide anyone concerned with a particular aspect of the financial system an authoritative treatment by an acknowledged expert that is clearly written for the non-specialist combined with a useful bibliography to follow up particular aspects.

The Oxford Handbook is organized into four parts: Part I, Thematic Issues, deals explicitly with the problems that the editors confronted at the outset: how have historians approached the issues in financial history (Youssef Cassis); how have economists dealt with the issues that interest them (John D. Turner); and how have policy makers tried to apply lessons from history for promoting economic development (Gerard Caprio, Jr.).  To pay due attention to historical contingency, economic analysis, and policy relevance in each of the following chapters is, indeed, a daunting task for each author.

Part II, Financial Institutions, takes up these challenges by separating out several categories of distinctly different institutions, a useful distinction too often overlooked in practice and one that illustrates nicely the complexity of any financial system.  Youssef Cassis’s “Private Banks and Private Banking” begins with the initial role models for banks, from their origins in kinship networks in Renaissance Italy to today’s Swiss managers of private wealth.  Gararda Westerhuis’s “Commercial Banking: Changing Interactions between Banks, Markets, Industry, and State” follows by dealing with the nineteenth-century spread of industrialization globally, which led to the rise of universal banks.  By the end of the twentieth century, however, it appeared that commercial banks might be in “a state of terminal decline.” (See Raghuram Rajan, 1998, “The Past and Future of Commercial Banking Viewed through an Incomplete Contracts Lens,” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking. 30(3), 524.)  The financial crisis of 2008 led many observers to push for a separation of investment and commercial banking once again in the interest of financial stability.  Westerhuis goes on to distinguish the motives for establishing market-based systems (U.S. and England) versus bank-based systems (Germany and Japan).  She posits that the two paths diverged early on due to the differences in government control over banks and then the role played by banks in financing industrialization for follower countries, such as Germany and Japan.  Oddly missing from her overview is any consideration of the experience of Scottish banking, which developed joint-stock banks with national branches early in the eighteenth century.  Only after the financial crisis of 1825 did the English care to look seriously at the Scottish example for improving their commercial banking system!  Further, joint-stock banks did not disappear in the U.S. during the “free banking” period as she asserts. While they were confined within state boundaries, limitations on branching within a state varied considerably.  The wide range of experiments undertaken by various states has stimulated a growing and interesting literature among U.S. scholars, largely omitted from her bibliography.

Caroline Fohlin’s “A Brief History of Investment Banking from Medieval Times to the Present” takes up the most challenging role of banks, how to transform short-term liabilities into long-term assets.  Rather than taking specific organizational forms, she prefers to analyze investment banks as a set of services that help finance the long-term capital needs of business and governments. After briefly looking at merchant banks from medieval times to the early nineteenth century, this loose definition requires her to take up individual countries one by one during the nineteenth century.  Sections follow that deal with England, the European continent, Belgium and the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Each section highlights the differences in organizational structures created to accomplish basically the same goals, helping governments promote industrialization.  The twentieth century presents more interesting differences, essentially due to the ways various governments regulated, deregulated, and then re-regulated from the 1920s to the present.  She concludes, “even well-known investment banking names that have endured over the centuries bear little resemblance to their ancestors” (p. 159).

Christopher Kobrak’s “From Multinational to Transnational Banking” takes up the complex transformations of the world’s leading banks by size as they successively internalized their international operations.  The availability of huge advances in information technology combined with increasing opportunities for re-allocating domestic savings across foreign investments provided the basis for the growth of today’s megabanks.  Oddly, however, Kobrak takes as archetypes of the new transnational bank two of the worst performers after 2008 — Deutsche Bank and Citibank.  Relying on their respective annual reports in 2007-2010, he touts each of them as “market players” rather than staid fiduciary agents, lauding their scale and scope of activities that are only vaguely related to financial intermediation associated with banks “lending long, while borrowing short.” He dispassionately notes that three-quarters of Deutsche Bank’s two trillion euros in assets in 2007 were securities held for trading, and 40 percent were financial derivatives (p. 183), without disparaging the obvious omission of fiduciary responsibility. Citibank, similarly, by 2007 had “invested huge resources in creating an internal market, in essence warehousing securities and derivatives to build hedged positions and for future sale” (p. 182). All these intra-bank holdings of assets and liabilities enabled such banks to make a lot of money by proprietary trading that remained unobserved by regulators or by publicly accessible financial markets.  He refrains from criticizing the model developed by these two megabanks, each of which has suffered huge losses and justified public acrimony since 2008, confining himself to the anodyne remark that “megabanks may be forced, as they have many times in the past, to find an intertwined institutional and organizational adaptation more sustainable in the modern social order” (p. 185)!

R. Daniel Wadhwani’s “Small-Scale Credit Institutions: Historical Perspectives on Diversity in Financial Intermediation” concludes Part II by lumping together a motley assortment of credit cooperatives, savings banks, industrial banks, pawn shops, and savings and loans associations.  Wadhwani argues their cumulative size makes their impact on their respective economics arguably as great or greater than that made by the commercial, investment, and public banks dealt with in the previous chapters.  Their common origin across many cultures and through past millennia he finds in the ubiquitous presence of ROSCAs (rotating savings and credit associations).  Beginning with small kinship groups desiring to pool their limited resources to enable individual members to acquire a desired goal, perhaps a piece of land, a dwelling, livestock, or even the means to migrate somewhere else for employment, ROSCAs often provide a basis for transition to the more modern forms of intermediation.  These include savings banks, credit cooperatives, and savings and loans, with each evolving quite differently depending on local circumstances.  Critical to their evolution historically is the role of government, whether as regulator (restricting competition), competitor (postal savings banks), or customer (providing sovereign debt as risk-free asset).  The theoretical economic bases for their evolution and persistence are robust, both for their monitoring capability and for their local knowledge of investment possibilities.  Nevertheless, Wadhwani calls attention to more post-modern “theories” that favor the creation of supportive narratives when cultures confront changes in economic regimes.

Part III, Financial Markets, begins with Stefano Battilossi’s “Money Markets,” which emphasizes the importance of access to outside liquidity for banks when they face unanticipated shocks either for increased loans or increased withdrawals of deposits.  Further, Battilossi argues that a key lesson learned by banking theorists and practitioners in the nineteenth century, namely that money markets are essential for a smooth working of the economy but are inherently unstable, was lost over the course of the twentieth century.  The success of the Bank of England in stabilizing the money market at the center of the global economy of the nineteenth century, he argues, was due to a complex combination of close monitoring by the Bank of England and cartel complicity by the major joint-stock banks, each with extensive branching networks domestically and overseas.  U.S. efforts to imitate the British example after creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 failed due to irreconcilable differences in institutional structures between the two banking systems and their respective central banks.  It took over a century and a half for the Bank of England to learn how to avoid being a dealer of last resort, a role that the Federal Reserve System in the U.S. had to undertake in the 2008 crisis, and which it has not yet been able to relinquish.  Readers are left to draw the implications for the future of the global financial system for themselves!

Ranald C. Michie’s “Securities Markets” lays out convincingly and clearly the importance of securities markets for a successful financial system.  Divisibility and transferability of a security expands greatly the potential customer base, adding the virtue of diversity in demands for liquidity among the creditors as well.   He distinguishes clearly between “Primary Securities Markets” and “Secondary Securities Markets,” showing their interdependence in layman’s terms.  “Stock Exchanges” provide the effective linkage between the two levels of markets, but fall prey in turn to problems either of monopoly pricing or government repression. His exposition of the underlying theory of securities markets provides the structure for his narrative that follows. From “Early Developments in Securities Markets,” which only mentions briefly the roles of informal markets in the speculative booms of 1720, Michie insists on focusing on the nineteenth century, starting with the London Stock Exchange in 1801.  It’s unfortunate that he ignores recent work on the Amsterdam stock market, (e.g., Lodewijk Petram, The World’s First Stock Exchange, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), or early work by this reviewer on the precedents for the London Stock Exchange (Larry Neal, The Rise of Financial Capitalism, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).  Committed to the importance of formal structures for modern stock exchanges, however, Michie takes up their rise in the advanced capitalist economies of the nineteenth century and then their eclipse from 1914 to 1975.  Thanks to the exigencies of war finance from World War I through the Cold War, stock markets seemed to “appear somewhat irrelevant in a world dominated by governments and banks” (p. 253)  “The Era of Global Banks” did not come to an end in 2008, however, but what had ended was the “self-regulation that had contributed so much to the attractions of stocks and bonds to governments, businesses, and investors through the reduction or elimination of counterparty risk and price manipulation and the certainty that sales and purchases could be made as and when required” (p. 258).  Big banks are bad once again!

Moritz Schularick’s “International Capital Flows” is the most quantitative and instructive of the chapters, as he summarizes succinctly in nine brief tables and one graph, the levels of international capital flows over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their size relative to Gross Domestic Product, and the main sending countries and main receiving countries over time.  In sum, rich countries invested in poor countries in the nineteenth century, when international capital flows were highest relative to GDP, and the rich continued to invest in poor countries even when capital flows were severely constrained during the period 1914-1975.  But after the collapse of Bretton Woods, when international capital flows rose sharply once again, the result has been for poor countries to invest in rich countries.  Further, when capital does flow suddenly to emerging economies, financial crises often follow when the flow tapers off, undoing whatever economic advance may have occurred.

Youssef Cassis’s “International Financial Centres” concludes the coverage of financial markets by analyzing the recurring features of international financial centers that lead to their persistence over time.  The physical layout of the dominant cities, the combination of functions they perform (government, communications, education, as well as trade and finance), and their organization may change as the technology of transport, communications, and information change, but, Cassis argues, the network externalities created by the concentration of so much expertise in one location make the existing centers hard to replace.

Part IV, Financial Regulation, takes up the most vexing questions for policy makers, starting with Angela Redish’s “Monetary Systems.”  Redish begins with the complexity of metallic currencies with coins minted in varying combinations of copper, silver, and gold in early modern Europe, and deftly reviews the causes that concerned European policy makers as they sought to maintain coins with fixed legal tender values, whether minted in any or a combination of the three precious metals.  Basically, their concerns were the same as today, “whether nominal change can have real consequence for the balance of trade or level of economic activity?” (p. 327).  Redish goes on to trace out the academic literature that has dealt with the Emergence of the Gold Standard, the Latin Monetary Union, the Cross of Gold, the Classical Gold Standard, and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, highlighting the controversies that have arisen under each rubric.  Next, she divides the End of the Gold Standard into the First World War and the Interwar Period, Bretton Woods and European Monetary Arrangements, and the End of Bretton Woods and the Rise of the Euro.  Reproducing faithfully the graph produced by Eichengreen and Sachs to show that countries that stayed committed to the gold standard after 1929 suffered in terms of industrial production relative to those that devalued, she doesn’t point out that the outliers of Germany and Belgium are readily explained by mistaking their formal exchange rate regimes with the ones they followed in practice (Germany using bilateral trade agreements to increase industrial exports while keeping the nominal exchange rate fixed, and Belgium reducing its nominal exchange rate while being forced to maintain existing trade agreements with France).  She concludes with a brief discussion of both inflation targeting under fiat currency regimes and the rise of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin, Her conclusion is merely that “money is information, a method to enable multilateral clearing of myriad transactions.  It would be surprising if the digital revolution did not lead to a revolution in how this information is managed” (p. 339).

Forrest Capie’s “Central Banking” takes up the baton passed on by Redish to provide a brief synopsis of the issues confronting central banks as they have increasingly taken control of the supply of money over the past two or more centuries.  Monetary stability, their prime responsibility, can be assessed in terms of price stability, but financial stability, which has become a major concern, he notes is more difficult to assess, much less to sustain.  Central bank independence, however defined, does seem to correlate with monetary and price stability, which shows that policy lessons have been learned successfully on that score.  Continued independence of central banks, however, hinges very much on attaining and then sustaining financial stability.  This task, very much underway now among the world’s central banks, 174 at last count, may require expanding their role to include financial regulation as well as oversight of the banking system.

Harold James’s “International Cooperation and Central Banks” makes an interesting argument that central banks in their pursuit of the goal of monetary stability naturally tend to cooperate with other central banks internationally, but without need for formal mechanisms.  Cooperation can then be merely discursive, as it was during the classical gold standard.  Financial crises, however, often do call for international cooperation, but cooperation is difficult, perhaps impossible, to sustain given the priority of strictly national policy concerns.  Large countries, needed to make cooperative efforts successful, are the most reluctant to join in cooperative efforts.  His examples cover episodes during the classical gold standard, the interwar period, the brief Bretton Woods period, and the ongoing travail of the euro-system, which he concludes is “the global test case for both the possibilities and the limits of central bank action” (p. 391). In an interesting aside, he explains why the Bank for International Settlements was resuscitated to manage the European Payments Union in the 1950s.  Top U.S. officials were wary of using the newly-established International Monetary Fund because its staff were largely protégés of Harry Dexter White, then under suspicion as a possible Russian agent!

Catherine Schenk and Emmanuel Mourlon-Droul’s “Bank Regulation and Supervision” develops a sub-theme to the arguments presented by Harold James, namely the recurring problems of regulatory competition, moral hazard, and regulatory capture.   Essentially, “[r]eputation and private information are key bank assets in a market with information asymmetry, but this complicates the ability to engage in transparent prudential supervision” (p. 396).  The U.S. stands out for having the most complicated and unwieldy array of conflicted regulatory agencies, summarized in Table 17.1.  The authors conclude, as do Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber (Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, Princeton, NJ: 2014), that it is no accident that Canada and the UK, with more coherent approaches to bank regulation have had fewer banking crises.  Much of the remaining chapter focuses on China and the successive efforts of China’s rulers to establish, then regulate, a banking system to enable industrialization and modernization, concluding, perhaps prematurely, that China managed to reduce the problem of non-performing loans after their peak in 2000.  The difficulties of deciding where to locate the regulator of the banking system are highlighted by tracing the successive efforts of the U.S., then the UK to find an ex post regulatory solution to the problems of recurring financial crises.  The efforts of the Basel Committee, established after the collapse of the Bretton Woods System, are described in the context of the European Union’s efforts to move toward regulatory cooperation within a more limited scope of international cooperation.  Prospects for success on that score are still very much in doubt.

Laure Quennouelle-Corre’s “State and Finance” takes a step back to look at the origins of the ongoing dilemma for the Eurozone of the interaction between governments’ sovereign debt and financial fragility of their banks.  The recurring differences between France and the other members of the European Union form the backdrop for his rambling notes on the interactions of private and public financial institutions, ending with the observation that France alone has had to deal with the European Union’s pro-market ideology versus the French tradition of state intervention.

Part V, Financial Crises, opens with Richard Grossman’s “Banking Crises,” which reprises the standard story of boom-bust cycles, exacerbated when new opportunities for speculative investments open up (first globalization after 1848; second globalization after 1979; post-war adjustments after WWI) but then moderated under strict regulation (capital controls, interest rate restrictions from 1945-71).  In his perspective, the Eurozone crisis fits the boom-bust pattern first described by D. Morier Evans in 1859 (The History of the Commercial Crisis, 1857-58, and the Stock Exchange Panic of 1859, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969).

Peter Temin’s “Currency Crises: From Andrew Jackson to Angela Merkel” takes up the international aspect of the boom-bust paradigm by extending it into national decisions about setting the exchange rate with foreign trading partners and possible investors. To bolster his long-standing conviction that most, if not all, banking crises are really currency crises at heart, he lays out in detail the open macro-economy model developed by Trevor Swan. Swan’s diagram relates a country’s domestic level of production to its real exchange rate.  Internal balance is maintained if production rises with the real exchange rate, while external balance requires the real exchange rate to fall when production increases. The model leads to dire consequences for a country if it does not succeed in maintaining both internal balance (matching domestic investment with domestic supplies of savings) and external balance (matching capital account flows with offsetting trade balances) simultaneously.  Either excessive inflation or long-term unemployment occurs whenever imbalances are sustained due to misguided government policy.  Banking crises then arise as the necessary outcome of such policy failures by governments. The historical evidence to support Temin’s argument starts with Andrew Jackson and the crisis of 1837 in the U.S., continues through the Great Depression in the U.S. in the 1930s, not to mention the concurrent crisis in Germany, and concludes with the ongoing Eurozone crisis, all basically due to misguided political leaders, as named in his sub-title.

Juan H. Flores Zendejas’s “Capital Markets and Sovereign Defaults: A Historical Perspective” concludes the Oxford Handbook.  The first global financial market, arising with the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America after the Napoleonic Wars, saw various devices to cope with the recurring problem of governments defaulting on the sovereign bonds they issued for whatever reason, usually to fight a war or quell a revolution.  Flores recounts the success of the London Stock Exchange in bringing governments to heel if they wanted access to British savers. The monitoring capabilities of the leading merchant bankers, especially the Barings and Rothschilds, put their imprimatur on bonds issued through their firms.  Twentieth century regulatory restrictions on these leading investment banks by their host governments, however, have limited the effectiveness of their “branding” and their intrusive follow-up in monitoring the finances of their customer governments.  Flores casts some doubt as well on the effectiveness of the Council of Foreign Bondholders in the nineteenth century.  He could also have challenged the effectiveness of international financial control committees that served as the model for the League of Nations Financial Commission after World War I if he had cited the recent work of Coskun Tuncer (Sovereign Debt and International Financial Control, The Middle East and the Balkans, 1870-1914, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).  Flores concludes in general that governments that avoided defaulting in times of general crisis did so because they had been excluded from the earlier expansion of international credit.

All in all, the editors did get the compilation in print still in time to be useful for anyone concerned with how the ongoing financial crisis of the early twenty-first century will play out.  Specialists in each topic, however, may be disappointed in the necessary brevity of treatment, not to mention absence of references to their own work, particularly if they worry most about the future of the U.S. financial system.

Larry Neal is the author of A Concise History of International Finance: From Babylon to Bernanke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015

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

The Chinese Market Economy, 1000-1500

Author(s):Liu, William Guanglin
Reviewer(s):Pomeranz, Kenneth

Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

William Guanglin Liu, The Chinese Market Economy, 1000-1500. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2015.  xviii + 374 pp., $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4384-5568-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kenneth Pomeranz, Department of Economics, University of Chicago.

William Guanglin Liu has written a valuable book on a big, important, topic: the general trajectory of the Chinese economy from roughly 1000-1650.  (The title says 1500, but the argument goes beyond that date.) The research is excellent, and the author comes up with some original and inventive ways to use his data.  At times, however, it frames its arguments in overly stark forms, and makes claims that go beyond what it can prove.  But despite these concerns, this is a book well worth reading, which will stimulate very useful debate on fundamental questions of Chinese economic history.

As a first approximation, Liu’s theses are hard to argue with.  The author shows that China experienced very impressive growth during the Song dynasty (ca. 960-1279), a period in which there was also a striking expansion of the role of markets in Chinese society.  He also show that the policies of Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368-1398), founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) dealt a major blow to China’s economy by trying to resurrect an idealized world of largely autarkic and demonetized villages.  It took a long time for China to recover from this: in contrast to many scholars who think that by 1500 China had returned to a market economy generating at least a Song level of prosperity, Liu argues that this did not happen until at least 1600, and quite likely not even then.  Moving beyond China, Liu then suggests that this historical case shows the centrality of market institutions for stimulating economic growth, beginning at a very low level of development.

The first three of these points — the marketization and relative prosperity of Song times, and the damaging effects of early Ming policies — are broadly accepted.  The first controversy concerns matters of degree: how prosperous? How marketized?  How big and lasting a blow did the early Ming inflict?  A second set of controversies centers on causation, and thus on the role of other factors.  For instance, Liu says very little about the many technological innovations during the Song — including the invention of gunpowder, the magnetic compass, paper money, and the importation (from Southeast Asia) of early-ripening rice — except to note that some of the most important innovations did not diffuse rapidly.  Some others would assign those innovations (and some that began in the Tang, such as printing) a good deal of credit for the growth that occurred in the Song, and continued into the Yuan (1279-1368) in some parts of the empire. While we will never have the data necessary to arrive at a precise allocation of growth to different factors, there is still room for further productive discussion about relative weights. Likewise, it is possible to show that the Mongol conquests of the mid-thirteenth century had a devastating impact in some places (especially North China and Sichuan), and very little elsewhere (the Middle and Lower Yangzi Valley, and in the far south); the relative weight of those different regional stories is still unsettled, and matters greatly in whether Liu is justified in placing an overwhelming emphasis on early Ming anti-market policies in explaining an apparent stagnation or decline in living standards between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries.

One of the book’s contributions is to concentrate in one place the arguments for transformational change concentrated in the Song period, and followed by a later reversal: a once popular view (e.g. Elvin 1973) that has lately given way to a tale of more gradual progress across several centuries (Smith and Von Glahn 2003).  Making the best of flawed data, Liu estimates population growth of 0.92% per year between 980 and 1109, a remarkable rate for a pre-modern society.  And drawing on a large body of secondary scholarship, he points to considerable evidence for changes in agriculture — capital deepening, especially in the form of massive investments in irrigation, and increasing use of oxen – which should, logically, have raised agricultural yields significantly, allowing a population that had more than tripled to eat as well or better than its forebears.

Unfortunately, however, we lack much good data on actual yields in the Song.  Liu notes that Dwight Perkins’ well-known estimates are (like most others for this period) inferences from agricultural rents, and that much of the land in question was land used to support schools; he further argues that school land was often rented out at below-market rates, depressing these inferred yields, and that the land which families donated to schools was often their least fertile property, anyway.  Meanwhile several of Perkins’ later data points come from agricultural handbooks, and probably represent optimal results.  Thus Liu argues, the impression of slow but steady growth across centuries that emerges from Perkins’ highly influential work may well be a statistical illusion. He prefers the older idea of a Song boom followed by little progress in subsequent dynasties.   Building on work by Zhou Shengchan, Liu tries to work backwards from data on population and average food consumption to estimate thirteenth century yields in the Lower Yangzi region; the results vary considerably among prefectures, but are generally near the high end of our range of estimates for any period before the arrival of modern farm inputs.  They would therefore leave little room for continued growth in the Yuan, Ming, or even Qing.

If verified, this would be a very important finding, but I have my doubts.  In part, my doubts come from personal experience, as adopting a similar methodology for estimating eighteenth century output of various crops led to extremely high estimates.[1]  There are also technical problems with some of this data (particularly in Table 7.8), though probably not big enough to change the results dramatically.[2]   The most we can say with strong confidence, I think, is that some Song farmers achieved yields near the pre-modern maximum, and more and more of their neighbors caught up over time — though whether this happened over decades or centuries remains very uncertain.

For most non-food items, we simply lack the data to generate serious estimates of per capita consumption in Song times; and while anecdotal evidence of rising consumption exists, Liu prefers not to rely on it.  Instead, he relies on an estimate of real wages for unskilled workers to show that living standards in the Song were as high as they ever got in China prior to the twentieth century.  Because we have not found for China any very long series of wages for privately-hired workers in a relatively standardized occupation in a particular place — like the long runs of wages for construction workers on European cathedrals and colleges, for instance — Liu constructs a long-run series of military wages, for which data are comparatively rich; and because we lack data for enough commodities to construct a long-run price index, he uses grain prices as the denominator for his series.  The resulting series peaks at its very beginning (in 1004) and fluctuates wildly while declining overall for the next roughly 170 years. It is then relatively stable until another steep drop in the early Ming, and recovers slightly in the late Ming before declining again in the early Qing (Figure E-1).

Liu has done us a considerable service by piecing this data series together, but as a proxy for the living standards of ordinary people it must be taken with a very large grain of salt.  Governments did not engage soldiers through a true labor market, nor did the institutional setting of military recruitment or the conditions of being a soldier (aside from the wage) remain constant over time.  Moreover, even if we had a reliable private sector wage series, it would not necessarily follow that this was a reliable basis for estimating popular living standards, much less per capita GDP, as Liu argues (p. 133).  Wage earners were never more than 15 percent of the labor force in late imperial China, and most farmers either owned their own land or had a relatively secure tenancy (especially in Qing times).  Consequently, they earned far more than unskilled laborers did — perhaps three times as much on average, according to preliminary estimates I have made for the eighteenth century (and for the early twentieth, where the data are better). (Among other things, this is confirmed by the fact that tenants and smallholders could support families, while unskilled laborers could rarely afford to marry. And for GDP per capita, we would also have to average in the earnings of well-to-do families.  Last but not least, if the ratio between wages and average farm earnings changed over time — as it might well have, given a gradual strengthening of tenant usufruct rights over the course of the late empire — even a much better wage series might not tell us what we want to know about general living standards.

But if Liu does not prove his most ambitious claims, he does succeed in proving many of his smaller empirical claims.  In particular, the evidence for relative prosperity in the Song and a sharp decline in the early Ming seems too much to explain away, even if one can raise doubts about each individual measurement.  The money supply contracted very sharply in early Ming times, followed by the introduction of government notes (for state payments) that soon became almost worthless; customs receipts (and presumably long-distance trade declined; and the wage decline between ca. 1050 and ca. 1400 is too big to be explained entirely by data problems.  A separate estimate, later in the book, suggests that per capita income in North China might have fallen by as much as half between 1121 (on the eve of the Song loss of the North) and 1420, though output per capita seems to have remained stable in the Yangzi Delta.  Liu also makes a strong case that Song people were freer than their early Ming counterparts, and perhaps even less unequal economically (though Song writing shows so much worry about inequality that one is tempted to believe there was fire behind so much smoke).

This brings us to the problem of explaining these differences.  Liu provides a straightforward answer: Song reliance on the market worked while the early suppression of it backfired.  Moreover, this represents a timeless truth, most recently vindicated by the sharp contrast between the Maoist and post-Maoist periods.  Here. I think, Liu lets his argument outrun his evidence, focusing too exclusively on one broad-brush contrast.

It would be hard to deny that the increased influence of market principles in the Song stimulated growth: above all, probably, the agricultural growth of the south, which required significant investment (especially for water management) that would surely have been more modest had earlier dynasties’ restrictions of private landowning remained in force; and given the surpluses that southern agriculture soon generate, and the relatively easy transportation that its rivers offered, impressive commercial and urban growth soon followed.  Since the coastline south of the Yangzi also has far more good sites for ports than the coastline north of the Yangzi, the southward shift of China’s economic center of gravity was also propitious for foreign trade, which boomed under both the Song and the (Mongol) Yuan.

Even in the south, however, the state provided essential infrastructure (though its role declined over time), and often played a very active role in foreign trade. In the north, meanwhile, both the enormous system of canals built by the Song government and the huge concentration of demand in the capital region were crucial, both for consumer markets and the growth of a precocious iron industry stimulated by unprecedented levels of military spending.   A variety of inventions also must have contributed something to the robust growth of the Song period.

Nor, I think, would many people deny that the early Ming attempt to return to local autarky had serious and lasting negative consequences. But we should bear in mind that the North, where Liu’s decline in estimated output between 1121 and 1420 was concentrated, suffered a number of  major shocks in this period, all of which bypassed or fell much more lightly on the south (except for Sichuan). These included conquests by three sets of northern invaders (including, most devastatingly, the Mongols); the prolonged turmoil that toppled the Mongols and brought the Ming to power; a civil war between supporters of two Ming heirs; and repeated, enormous, Yellow River floods, including two that dramatically shifted the river’s course (out of six such incidents in the last 4,000 years) and made it impossible to rebuild the Song-era canal system.   Ming policies certainly did great damage, too, but the relative size of these setbacks needs more detailed analysis before we can accept Liu’s almost exclusive emphasis on the Ming founder’s anti-market policies.

I would also caution against lumping all the parts of Ming anti-commercialism under the heading “command economy,” and comparing it to an ideal type of “market economy,” as Liu often does (e.g. pp. 1, 4-12, 134-136, 197, 199).  No pre-modern state could maintain the vigorous intervention needed to run a true command economy for long.  The Ming may have been more effective than most, but their massive redistribution of property and forced migration was over by about 1425, with land and labor again being exchanged in private markets;[3] the system of artisan conscription unraveled during the fifteenth century; foreign trade outside the official tribute system gradually returned; and so on.  This did not mark the end of Ming anti-commercialism as an attitude, or of its effects: among other problems, the dynasty never tried to provide the money supply that the private economy needed, saddling its subjects with costs that lingered for centuries.[4]   But even if this failure was originally part of an aggressive state’s attempt at command economy, it soon evolved into something else: the failure of a relatively weak state to undertake even those interventions that could have benefited both itself and the private economy.  The succeeding Qing dynasty (1644-1912) certainly had no dream of a command economy, and often (though not always) sought to encourage markets;  and the state’s share of GDP may have slipped as low as 2 percent, compared to at least 10 percent and perhaps as much as 20 percent at the peak of Song military-fiscalism.[5]  Yet the Qing provided the most stable bronze currency — the money used for most everyday transactions — China had ever known, while uncoined silver provided a reasonably adequate currency for big transactions; and it mobilized impressive resources for various physiocratic projects, from water control to grain price stabilization to promotion of best practices in agriculture and handicrafts. (That it spent much less, proportionately, on its military than the Song or Ming had facilitated this combination of low extraction and significant services.[6])  And for about a century and a half, they presided over impressive demographic and economic growth, Interestingly,  three prominent economic historians — Loren Brandt, Debin Ma, and Thomas Rawski, none of them remotely anti-market — have argued that the principal reason why Qing economic development was not even better was that the government was too minimalist: that a small government spread across a vast area was unable to prevent all sorts of local actors — from bandits to local elites employing private enforcers to rogue government clerks — from interfering with local markets and property rights.[7]  Such interference was clearly a problem in the late Ming as well, though it is not precisely measurable in either period.  It does, however, remind us that a simple contrast between “market economy” and “command economy” does not give us enough tools to understand the different relationships between state and market in imperial China, or anywhere else.

Nonetheless, the book does an impressive job of demonstrating how much dynamism the marketizing economy of the Song generated, and how much of those gains had been lost by the mid-Ming, at least in certain regions.  The author’s efforts to quantify trends that many others have been content to describe qualitatively are impressive; this is a book where the appendices are often as thought-provoking as the text.  The results are not as revolutionary or dispositive as the book sometimes suggests, but they will stimulate productive debates for years to come.


1. Lacking data on the acreage devoted to non-grain crops in certain areas, I decided to estimate how much land must have been devoted to non-grain crops, relying on generally accepted numbers for population, grain consumption, and imports, and then multiply the acreage left over by conservative estimates of yields for the non-grain crops.  The results came out so high that I cut them in every way I could think of — including, in one case, arbitrarily reducing the estimate of non-grain acreage by half. The results I came up with were still at the high end of the existing range of estimates, or in some cases significantly beyond it.  I am not ready to toss out those estimates completely, and would be happy to see this approach vindicated; but I am inclined to be cautious here, especially since Liu has not made the same efforts to depress his results as I did.

2. The conversions from Zhou’s numbers, which mostly use Yuan dynasty measurements, is complicated. Trying to reproduce his results for one prefecture after an email exchange with me, Prof. Liu got a figure about 1 percent lower.

3. A rare set of household-level records, for instance, shows a family with modest landholdings in Huizhou engaged in no less than 18 land purchases or sales between 1391 (not long after the Ming came to power) and 1432.  See Von Glahn 2016: 291-293.

4. Von Glahn 1996 and Kuroda 2000 suggest that this was finally addressed with moderate success in the Qing.

5. Perkins 1967: 492; Wang 1973: 133 for the Qing; Golas 1988: 93-94 comes up with 24 percent for the Song, but admits that this seems unlikely.  Hartwell 1988: 79-80 suggests a bit over 10 percent.

6. On military spending compare Hartmann 2013: 29 with Zhou 2000: 36-38.

7. Brandt Ma and Rawski 2014: 60, 76, and 79.


Brandt, Loren, Debin Ma and Thomas Rawski. 2014.  “From Divergence to Convergence: Reevaluating the History behind China’s Long Economic Boom,” Journal of Economic Literature 52(1):45-123.

Elvin, Mark. 1973.  The Pattern of the Chinese Past.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goals, Peter, 1988. “The Sung Economy: How Big?”  Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 20: 89-94.

Hartmann, Charles. 2013.  “Sung Government and Politics,” in John Chafee and Dennis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, Volume V Part 2: Sung China, 960-1279 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press):19-133.

Hartwell, Robert. 1988. The Imperial Treasuries: Finance and Power in Song China,” Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 20: 18-89

Kuroda Akinobu. 2000. “Another Monetary Economy: The Case of Traditional China,” in A.J. H. Latham and Heita Kawakatsu, eds, Asia-Pacific Dynamism, 1500-2000 (London: Routledge): 187-198.

Perkins, Dwight. 1967. “Government as an Obstacle to Industrialization: The Case of Nineteenth-Century China,” Journal of Economic History 27 (4): 478–92

Perkins, Dwight. 1969. Agricultural Development in China, 1368-1968.  Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Smith, Paul, and Richard Von Glahn, eds., 2003. The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History.  Cambridge:  Harvard Asia Center.

Von Glahn, Richard. 1996.  Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000-1700.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Von Glahn, Richard. 2016.  The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wang Yeh-chien. 1973. Land Taxation in Imperial China, 1750-1911.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zhou Yumin. 2000.  Wan Qing caizheng yu shehui bianqian (Late Qing Fiscal Administration and Social Change).   Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe.

Kenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of History at the University of Chicago.  His best known book is The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2000).  His most recent publication is “The Data We Have vs. the Data We Want: A Comment on the State of the Divergence Debate,” Pt. I and Pt II New Economics Papers (June 8, 2017) Forthcoming publications include “Water, Energy, and Politics: Chinese Industrial Revolutions in Global Environmental Perspective,” in Gareth Austin, ed., Economic Development and Environmental History in the Anthropocene (forthcoming, 2017: Bloomsbury Academic).

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

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century

The Fall of the House of Speyer: The Story of a Banking Dynasty

Author(s):Liebmann, George W.
Reviewer(s):Cook, Eli

Published by EH.Net (January 2017)

George W. Liebmann, The Fall of the House of Speyer: The Story of a Banking Dynasty. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015. xii + 244 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-78453-176-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eli Cook, Department of History, University of Haifa.

George Liebmann has written a richly detailed and highly useful history of the final fifty years of the German-Jewish Speyer family’s investment banking empire which spanned across England, the United States and Germany — if not the world. Deeply researched, the book paints a precise picture of the two Speyer brothers — James in United States and Edgar in England — who ran the investment bank on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the twentieth century. Hardly a one-track book, Liebmann delves not only into the Speyer’s business interests but also their philanthropic work, cultural milieu, spousal relations, musical talents, political leanings and personal problems. A declentionist narrative that laments the end of free trade and the rise of “nationalism,” Liebmann convincingly portrays how the Speyers suddenly found themselves torn between warring national allegiances. In tracing the fall of the House of Speyer through Edgar’s exile from England and James’s fall from grace in the United States, the book reminds us how difficult it was for cosmopolitan German-Jewish banking elites living in the Anglo-American world to maintain not only their banking business but their personal ties (which were indistinguishable from each other) following the outbreak of World War I. In the end, as Liebmann carefully shows, a banking empire built on linking German capital with American and English elites was unable to survive the belligerence of the early twentieth century. The rise of Hitler served as the final straw, and the Speyer’s empire collapsed in 1939.

True capitalist pioneers, Phillip Speyer opened the wealthy Frankfurt family’s New York branch in 1837 — well before the Schiffs, the Kuhns, the Goldmans, the Sachses or the Loebs ever made their names in the city. After marketing Union bonds to Europe during the Civil War, the family built much of its fortune and reputation as central architects in the financing of the transcontinental railroads in the 1870s. However, as he is interested mostly in the lives of Phillip’s grandsons, James and Edgar, between the 1890s and the 1920s, Leibmann does not focus much on the Speyers’ role in those great — and, as Richard White’s Railroaded (W.W. Norton, 2012) has taught us, highly corrupt — railroad adventures.

Liebmann’s own account of the Speyers’ business — like the family’s vast financial network — spans the globe. The book does an excellent job of covering James and Edgar’s wide-ranging investment portfolio, be it Los Angeles Aqueducts and London subways, Cuban and Weimar Republic bonds, Philippine and Bolivian railroads, or Hungarian and Bulgarian League of Nations loans. Thick descriptions of all these investment deals will likely be the most useful part of the book for the economic historian. Liebmann shows, for instance, that while Edgar Speyer made the London tube the only privately financed subway in the world, the project only became profitable after the Speyers also made sure to buy the biggest bus company in London. In covering the Speyer’s marketing of Cuban loans, Liebmann nicely demonstrates how this lucrative issuance was secured by Edgar and James’ ability to get the Pro-American Cuban government to commit to permanent taxes (known as the “Speyer Taxes”) on tobacco, alcohol and sugar following the Spanish-American War. Similarly detailed chapters examine the central role the Speyers played in Latin and Central American railroads as well as Eastern European sovereign debt.

Yet while Liebmann does an excellent job documenting the life and work of James and Edgar Speyer, he often misses the opportunity to use his vast knowledge of the Speyers as a lens into bigger historical questions. For example, Liebmann notes how Edgar Speyer was an influential free-market Liberal who railed against increased government and municipal expenditure. Yet he takes this position as a given, and does not link Edgar’s austerity politics with his own business interests. As owners of the London Underground, could it be that the Speyers — and other financial elites — rejected government investment because they were afraid to be priced out of the profitable infrastructure business?

The Speyers could have also served as a tremendous case study for understanding the rise of American imperialism in the early twentieth century, as they were central players in the “dollar diplomacy” taking place in Cuba and the Philippines — the two prize regions that the United States wrested away from Spain at the turn of the century. Their actions — such as the establishment of the Speyer Taxes — would have massive political repercussions. As Liebmann notes, up until 1940 the Cuban government had to devote a whopping 15 percent of its national revenue to service the Speyers’ debt, a development which surely played a role in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s. Such investments, as well as the sovereign debt loans to Weimar Germany and Eastern Europe, belie Liebmann’s simplistic claim that the free-trade Speyers were victims of “nationalism.” If anything, nation-building and the Speyers’ close ties to government leaders helped make them rich.

Finally, the Speyers’ shifting investment patterns — from transcontinental American railways to global railroads and sovereign debt — could have also offered a fascinating look at the United States’ own epochal shift from a nation that attracts capital to a country that exports it. Such a transformation of American capitalism from debtor to creditor has been painfully overlooked by historians, and while Liebmann’s book offers rich material, his analysis of this transformation is lacking.

Despite these faults, Liebmann has written the best account yet of the House of Speyer, the third largest investment banking firm at its peak in the 1900s and one that managed in 1913 the 2015 equivalent of $52 billion in assets. Often overlooked by the Houses of Morgan, Lehman, Goldman and Sachs — perhaps because they are no longer a household name — this book will be an invaluable read for any historian interested in the biggest financial players of the era.

Eli Cook is an Assistant Professor of American History at the University of Haifa in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2013, where he was part of the Program for the Study of Capitalism. He is currently finishing up a book manuscript for Harvard University Press titled The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life.

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Subject(s):Business History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era

Author(s):Leonard, Thomas C.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. xiv + 250 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16959-0.

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

With Illiberal Reformers, Thomas C. (Tim) Leonard of Princeton University opens the door of a closet containing family artifacts of American economists from the half century that straddled 1900. An hour or two or three spent in the family closet via Leonard’s fine book is sobering to any economist who has promoted our discipline as the “queen of social sciences.” These artifacts of our immediate family (economics), near-extended family (social sciences), and more distant family (science) are not pretty. Imagine learning that your great grandfather or grandmother whose name you bear was a member of the mafia or the Klan or perhaps a slave trader. You might be tempted to extinguish the closet light and close the door as you depart. But we should not turn away from this history, because it is revealing of ourselves as well as our forebears. As American Economic Association founder Richard T. Ely (1936, p. 141) wrote in a reflection on the Association’s founding, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.”

With a focus on economics, the book is broadly about educated beliefs and presumptions in the Progressive era. A generation of American scholars returning from graduate study in Germany in the late nineteenth century brought science to bear on what they understood to be the social problems of the day. Many of the problems were products of the transformation of the American economy from agriculture to industry and the growth of cities.  Preeminent among the problems were unmanaged and dysgenic biological and social evolution. Progressives paired biological and social science with social and legal activism to answer the author of Ecclesiastes (“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he has made crooked?” 7:13) with “we can and we will!”

Illiberal Reformers is in two parts. The three chapters in Part I, “The Progressive Ascendency,” cover the pairing of science and religion in the Social Gospel that was the foundation of the American Economic Association’s establishment in 1885; the turn by economists away from Classical Liberalism and so-called laissez-faire; the rise of the expert and the administrative state in the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson presidencies; and the application of the new science of administration to achieve efficiency across the gamut of social activities and institutions. Part II, “The Progressive Paradox,” concerns a paradox that Leonard identifies running through the Progressive reform movement, that people who received a bad draw in the lottery of genetic or social circumstances were viewed both as subjects to be assisted and as threats to be managed, excluded, or if necessary destroyed. This section includes chapters on theories of labor markets and wages; the various strands of Darwinism that informed the reformers; the perceived crisis of dysgenic human breeding; and the eugenic basis for labor reforms that remain key parts of our political economy today.  The chapters brim over with facts, quotations, and references to the Progressives’ writings and activities.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, from our place in history to condemn the Progressives for ignorant intellectual commitments that justified cruel and unjust policies and practices. Many of the statements of leading lights of economics and sociology, religion, politics, jurisprudence, social work, and reform activism are offensive to our sensibilities. We encounter AEA founder Richard T. Ely, who is honored by the AEA each year with the Richard T. Ely Lecture, referring to the poor as a “human rubbish heap” (p. 53) and writing that “the morally incurable” and those “who will not work and will not obey should not be allowed to propagate their kind” (pp. 131-32).  AEA President and monetary theorist Irving Fisher wrote in his Elementary Principles of Economics that “if the vitality or vital capital is impaired by a breeding of the worst and a cessation of the breeding of the best, no greater calamity could be imagined.”  This calamity, however, could be forestalled “by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operation” (p. 227). Preeminent international trade theorist, AEA President, and long-time editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics Frank Taussig wrote in his Principles of Economics that those who would be chronically unemployable with a minimum wage “should simply be stamped out. . . . We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once and for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind” (p. 165).

Nor by current standards do Progressive women reformers fare well. Florence Kelley, settlement worker at Hull House in Chicago and the first woman to hold statewide office in Illinois, held views on immigration and women in the workforce that would be considered by today’s sophisticates beyond the pale. On immigration, Kelley wrote to a correspondent that “I am convinced that the Pacific Coast people are right about the Mongolians; and I am sure that we are utter fools to endure the ruin of the Atlantic Coast by the invasion of Asia Minor and South Eastern Europe” (p. 153). She supported a family wage for men in order to keep wives and mothers in the home. “Family life in the home is sapped in its foundations when mothers of young children work for wages.” A problem with immigrants was that wives of immigrant men were more likely than American natives to be employed outside the home. “The American tradition is that men support their families, their wives throughout life, and the children at least until the fourteenth birthday” (p. 173).

Leonard draws from the history of Progressivism a warning of the dangers of scientific hubris for contemporary intellectuals who concern themselves with public policy. The Progressives wanted to do good, but out of impatience and pride fell prey to various evils. Leonard insists that we should not turn away from the ugliness in the foundations of twenty-first century disciplines of genetics, economics, sociology, demography, medicine and public health (p.189), presuming under the sway of our own progressive presumptions, that time and research funding and effort have over the past century turned pseudosciences into genuine science.

Leonard’s preferred alternative to the Progressives’ intellectual and ethical commitments is classical liberalism with its emphasis on the primacy of the individual and protection of political, economic and civil liberties. Thus the criticism imbedded in the title, Illiberal Reformers. But liberalism carries its own dangers of antinomian individualism and social isolation if it is not secured by sound ethics and understanding of human nature. How can we know that a return to classical liberalism is progress?

Are there grounds for confidence that a hundred years hence scholars will look back with pride and not shame at the records of what we have presumed to know? How will future scholars view papers presented, for example, in recent (2016) AEA conference sessions on Culture, Prosocial Behavior and Ethnicity; Health, Education and Families; Applications of Behavioral Science; and Behavioral Interventions and Environmental Sustainability? Since the Progressive era, economics has become increasingly specialized and identified with mathematical and statistical technique. Absent grounding in universal and timeless principles of who humans are and their right relationships with each other and with nature we will remain at risk of being technicians in service to whatever are the prevailing fashions. We need sound standards by which to judge our current beliefs and practices along with those of past generations.


Richard T. Ely (1936), “The Founding and Early History of the American Economic Association,” American Economic Review, 26 (1, supplement): 141-50.

J. Daniel Hammond is co-editor with Robert A. Cord of Milton Friedman: Contributions to Economics and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2016.

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

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement

Author(s):Pearson, Chad
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Chad Pearson, Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.  Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. viii + 303 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4776-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts.

Even while the Labor Movement is dying, its history thrives.  For a long time, Labor History was a narrow often sterile discipline focused on the glorious rise of unions and socialist political formations, the formal Labor Movement.  Labor History was populated by advocates whose works often read like sermons, histories of good and honest workers struggling against evil capitalists and their political toadies.  Strikes and unions were good, except where the earnest rank-and-file were betrayed by self-serving union leaders.  Sometimes, these betrayals cost the workers.  But the experience of collective action and struggle always contained good lessons, and task of the labor historian was seen as interpreting these lessons and passing them along to build the labor movement.

While labor historians imagined placing workers and their struggles at the center of historical analysis, by reducing capital, the state, and labor to simplistic Marxist elements, their work was consigned to a leftist ghetto.  Labor History as medieval morality play can contribute little to the broader study of history because it treats all actors as parodies. Ironically, by shrinking all social actors to a simplistic category, this work brought nothing to the understanding of the labor movement or the proper strategy for labor struggles.  In the face of the decline, even the collapse, of the Labor Movement, the old Labor History has had nothing to say except the old mantra of “evil capitalists” and “self-serving union leaders.”

Perhaps it is the crisis of the Labor Movement that has invigorated the field of Labor History.  A new generation of historians has emerged conscious that the old categories are inadequate to understand the current crisis.  They are ready for a much more nuanced approach, one that recognizes the varieties of capital. The experience of the Labor Movement’s rise and decline has forced them to recognize the often-contentious relationship between capital and democratic states, and the role of ideology in shaping not only the Labor Movement, but the response to labor militancy by states and by capitalists.  In short: the new generation recognizes that the making of the capitalist class and any capitalist state is just as challenging as the making of the working class.  By conceiving labor history as a history of contending collective movements, labor historians have enriched our understanding of American employers and their organizations (Ernst 1995; Harris 2006), their bargaining strategies and campaigns against unions (Richards 2008; Sidorick 2009; Cowie 1999), their often-tangled relationship with state officials (Howell 1992; Howell 2005; Friedman 1998; Friedman 2007), and the ideology they developed to sustain their collective action (Phillips-Fein 2009; Harris 1982; Leon 2015).  At its best, this new labor history is contributing, as labor historians have long wanted, to a broader emerging field of the history of capitalism (Beckert 2014).

Chad Pearson’s new book should be seen in the context of this transformation of Labor History into a piece of the larger history of American capitalism. His book uses brief biographies and case studies of local associations to examine the development of the Open Shop movement in American industry before the First World War.  (“Open Shops” are establishments that hire workers without regard for their union membership; in practice, they do not hire union members because they do not sign union contracts.)  In particular, Pearson addresses a question that has often appeared as a paradox to liberal historians eager to portray the American story as a march of progress: the coincidence, both in time and often in personnel, between the Progressive Era “Age of Reform” and the rise of militant anti-unionism and the repression of labor organization.  How to reconcile the seemingly antagonistic positions of progressive reformers like George Creel, who advocated of women’s suffrage, public ownership of utilities, and opposed child labor, while also campaigning for the Open Shop and serving on Citizen’s Industrial Association of America (CIAA) press committee (Pearson 2016, 70)?  What to say of Theodore Roosevelt, bitter critic of both the repressive labor policies of the Anthracite Coal companies and of the closed (union) shop?  Or the liberal hero, Louis Brandeis, who argued that the open shop protected the liberties of both employers and the rights of meritorious unionists and nonunionists alike (Pearson 2016, 83)?

It is the great strength of Pearson’s study that regardless of any personal sympathy with unions and labor militancy, he avoids any cant but evaluates seriously the positions of open-shop employers.  He shows that they, too, were often reformers and their employers’ movement was as much a part of the Progressive Era as was the Labor Movement. In rejecting labor militancy and the closed shop as incompatible with his vision of America’s political traditions, Brandeis, for example, expressed a view of labor relations and the economy that was championed by Progressive Era employers’ organizations, has remained popular in America, and has come to motivate much of our political right.  In this view, free Labor has no social dimension.  It means simply the right of individuals to conduct their businesses and to buy and sell commodities, including their own labor power, untrammeled by the interference of others, either state regulators or other workers or businesses.  An attribute of individuals, freedom is negated by collective action.  Not only does free competition among individuals best promote efficiency, it is fair because it rewards work and merit; and it is just because it represents liberty. Labor unions are a threat to efficiency because they place the lazy and incompetent on equal standing with the hard-working and meritorious.  Worse, through their political action, by promoting regulation and monopoly, they are a fundamental threat to freedom, “the greatest menace” (Pearson 2016, 182).  Far from a selfish battle to increase profits, the campaign for the open shop and the employer in the management of his property, was a noble and generous struggle to protect fundamental principles of justice and fairness.

If the open-shop activists had a general political orientation, Pearson shows that, paradoxically for many historians, it was liberal and progressive rather than reactionary.  Open shop proponents did not see themselves as part of a counter reformist movement; instead, they were part of a tradition of social reform that stretched back to the abolitionists and early Republicans, to Abraham Lincoln rather than Jefferson Davis.  They saw themselves as heirs to the abolitionists, reformers, patriotic and class-neutral proponents of industrial fairness and guardians of ambitious, hard-working individuals. It was natural then for them to oppose monopoly, to favor honest government, municipal efficiency, industrial progress and professionalization. Far from fighting against labor or higher wages, they often condemned abusive managers (like the Anthracite Coal companies), and favored welfare capitalist initiatives and what labor economists today call efficiency wages.

It would be a cheap shot at the open-shop activists to observe that their campaign in defense of individual liberty against collective regulation required collective action, “employer solidarity” and individual sacrifices to benefit the group.  Indeed, their campaigns were often undermined by the actions of self-interested individuals, employers who displayed an inclination not to “give their time to anything that will further the interests of the group. (Pearson 2016, 160, 162).  Like their union opponents, employers’ organizations face a collective action problem, the need to mobilize individual resources to produce public goods. Pearson’s greatest contribution is to show how these organizations addressed this problem, and how they used ideas — the ideology of individual liberty — to mobilize their constituents.  What socialism was for the working-class movement, progressivism became for America’s employers.

Pearson’s work should be read and read carefully by all interested in the history of the Progressive Era, the history of employer organizations, and American political thought.  His work is Labor History in the broadest and finest sense, the history of the development of American capitalist society.


Beckert, Sven. 2014. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Knopf.

Cowie, Jefferson. 1999. Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ernst, Daniel R. 1995. Lawyers against Labor: From Individual Rights to Corporate Liberalism. The Working Class in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Friedman, Gerald. 1998. State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Friedman, Gerald. 2007. Reigniting the Labor Movement: Restoring Means to Ends in a Democratic Labor Movement. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Harris, Howell John. 1982. The Right to Manage: Industrial Relations Policies of American Business in the 1940s. Madison University of Wisconsin Press.

Harris, Howell John. 2006. Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howell, Chris. 1992. Regulating Labor: The State and Industrial Relations Reform in Postwar France. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howell, Chris. 2005. Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leon, Cedric de. 2015. The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

Pearson, Chad. 2016. Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement. American Business, Politics, and Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Phillips-Fein, Kim. 2009. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan. New York: W. W. Norton.

Richards, Lawrence. 2008. Union-Free America: Workers and Antiunion Culture. The Working Class in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sidorick, Daniel. 2009. Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

Jerry Friedman has served as the U.S. editor of Labor History since 2003.

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

Subject(s):Business History
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920

Author(s):Wu, Shellen Xiao
Reviewer(s):Jia, Ruixue

Published by EH.Net (November 2015)

Shellen Xiao Wu, Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. xii + 266 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8047-9284-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ruixue Jia, School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California – San Diego.

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, and is also the largest user of coal-derived electricity. As of 2014, coal-fired power accounts for around 75 percent of China’s total power generation. It is no exaggeration to say that China’s growth in the past few decades has been fueled by coal. This sector also contributes to acute social problems in China including air pollution and workplace safety: China alone accounts for approximately 80 percent of the total deaths in coal mine accidents worldwide.

As an economist fascinated by this sector, I have studied the political economy of coal-fired power and coal mine accidents in China. However, I was ignorant of the history of this sector and find Shellen Xiao Wu’s book both enlightening and entertaining. It provides a vivid historical account of this sector as well as Chinese views of science and technology when the country was transformed from the late imperial to the modern era.
Focusing on the development of the coal sector, the book narrates the history of natural resource management in the late Qing dynasty and early republican period, during which China was forced to open to the West. On the one hand, many leading intellectuals and scholar-officials believed that China must learn from the West in technology for exploiting natural resources. On the other hand, foreign powers’ engagement in China’s natural resources also showed the Qing dynasty’s vulnerability and weakness to imperialism. Both facilitated the state management and legal regulation of natural resources in China. Wu concludes that China and the West had converged in the theory and exploitation of natural resources by the end of the nineteenth century. This has important implications for China’s entry into the modern world and its impact on the development paths of China might be underestimated without understanding the history of this period.

Roughly following a chronological order, the book documents different aspects on how the Chinese worldview changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is particularly appealing that each chapter can be read independently. Chapters 1 through 3 include discussions on views of geology in historical China, Ferdinand von Richthofen’s contribution to Chinese perception of its mineral resources, and missionary translations of geology works. These chapters might be of interest to readers in the field of intellectual history.

I find that Chapters 4 through 6 are more interesting since they touched the economics and politics of natural resources management. In particular, Chapter 4 discusses the opening of modern enterprises in the self-strengthening movement lead by figures like Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong. Chapters 5 and 6 speak to the politics of natural resources. In this period, China was often compared to “a poor man sitting unknowingly on great treasures while thieves attempted to snatch these away.” These two chapters demonstrate how control over natural resources became a symbol of sovereignty in the era of colonialism, which led to the convergence in natural resources management between China and the West.

The strength of this book is that it offers rich historical details and interesting stories such as the career of Ferdinand von Richthofen and other German engineers. However, this level of detail may preclude it from speaking to a broader audience. For instance, those – like me – interested in the economics side of the economic history may find it unsatisfying in answering important questions of interest: why was the self-strengthening movement unsuccessful? How to think about the influence of foreign engineers on domestic human capital in the late Qing period? Are there any implication of the historical events on the spatial distribution of natural resources over time in China? Naturally, answering these questions goes beyond the scope of the book.

In summary, Wu’s book examines different facets of China’s transformation in natural resource management. Historians and scholars interested in the history of science and modernization of China will find the book useful and entertaining. Of course, everyone fascinated by coal will find it is worthwhile reading.

Ruixue Jia studies the development, political economy and economic history of China.  Her publications include “Elite Recruitment and Political Stability: The Impact of the Abolition of China’s Civil Service Exam” (with Ying Bai) Econometrica (forthcoming); “Decentralization, Collusion and Coalmine Deaths” (with Huihua Nie) Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming); “Weather Shocks, Sweet Potatoes and Peasant Revolts in Historical China,” Economic Journal (2014), and “The Legacies of Forced Freedom: China’s Treaty Ports” Review of Economics and Statistics, 2014.

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

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa

Author(s):Ciccarelli, Carlo
Fenoaltea, Stefano
Reviewer(s):Felice, Emanuele

Published by EH.Net (May 2015)

Carlo Ciccarelli and Stefano Fenoaltea, La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa. 1. Le industrie non manifatturiere. Roma: Banca d’Italia, 2009. xlviii + 499 pp., BNI: 2010-2273.
Carlo Ciccarelli and Stefano Fenoaltea, La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa, 2. Le industrie estrattivo-manifatturiere. Roma: Banca d’Italia, 2014. v + 677 pp., ISBN: 978-88-6507-676-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Emanuele Felice, Department of Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

In the last ten years Carlo Ciccarelli and Stefano Fenoaltea have been carrying out a remarkable research program, with the goal of providing yearly series of the industrial production of Italy’s regions, running from the unification of the country (1861) until the eve of World War I, at a level of sectoral detail and historical accuracy probably unparalleled in the rest of the world. Thus far, this work has given birth to a number of articles in Italian and international journals (the Italian Rivista di Storia Economica, above all, but also Research in Economic History, Historical Social Research, and, as the basis for research articles developing on those series, Cliometrica, the Economic History Review, and Explorations in Economic History) and to two voluminous books published under the auspices of the Bank of Italy which are the subject of this review. The first volume, which appeared in 2009, contains the estimates made by the authors for all the non-manufacturing industries (construction, utilities, extractive industries); the second one, published in 2014, covers the extractive-manufacturing industries (metal making, engineering, nonmetallic mineral products, chemicals and rubber); a third book, including the rest of the manufacturing industries (foodstuffs, tobacco, textiles, clothing, leather, wood, paper and printing, and sundry manufacturing) is on the way.

Apart from a brief but illuminating introduction in the 2009 book, these two volumes — which are also freely downloadable at the Bank of Italy website: — are essentially composed of figures (mostly) and of an exhaustive list of sources. They are precious, though, for at least two reasons. First, they constitute a rare example of academic rigor in the burdensome, and at times free-ridden, art of producing historical numbers: as mentioned, these are regional estimates that, in terms of accuracy and sectoral details, to my knowledge are unmatched for any other country. Second, less obviously, because Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea’s figures are charged with great importance not only for our understanding of the economic history of contemporary Italy, but also (maybe more surprisingly, to an international reader) for Italian public debates of our times.

As Alexander Gerschenkron famously put it, the new Italian state, after surviving its first decades as a backward country, lived through “a great industrial transformation”[1] that by the eve of the Great War had turned it into a sort of industrial power — although admittedly of a second-rank kind. It is well-known that the Italian takeoff in those years actually was a regional one, concentrated in the North-West of the country: Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea’s estimates are essential, in this respect, in order to monitor the pace and characteristics of this transformation, and to provide the basic facts upon which different hypotheses, which have been debated by scholars during (at least) the last half a century, can be tested: among these, the roles of protectionist tariffs, investment in human capital, natural resources, and universal banks. In addition, the work by Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea also gives crucial insights into the formation and evolution of the renown Italian North-South divide: their figures suggest that it was mild, although already present, around unification; that in the same period there was a high diversification both within the Mezzogiorno (South and islands) and the Center-North; indirectly, also that the North-South divide, although increasing as expected with the rise of the industrial triangle in the North-West, did so at a slower pace than in the following period (the one going from World War I to World War II).

Of course all the estimates have margins of error and thus they must be taken, as always, cum grano salis. Concerning Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea’s estimates, the potentially most serious problem in my view is that all their figures are at constant prices, as measured in 1911, i.e. at the end of the period. This may have an impact when comparing inter-regional differences half a century earlier, due to the well-known index-number problem (also called “Gerschenkron effect”).[2]  In this respect, there is room for research in the future. For instance, at a detailed level industrial prices for a new benchmark could be produced, if not for 1871, at least for 1891 (thanks to a previous work by Carlo Bardini and Stefano Fenoaltea himself)[3] — that is before the industrial take-off began — and then the 1911-price series could be accordingly rescaled.

Even at this stage, however, and within these caveats, these figures are powerful weapons to step into the arena of what is probably the most lively and widely-felt historical debate in Italy: the one about the regional imbalances — their origins, their evolution, and their causes. This issue has always raised remarkable attention, in both the academy and the wider public opinion, at times also with a strong international echo. It is probably less known to a non-Italian reader that, more recently, the economic history of the Italian regions during the so-called liberal age (1861-1913) has become the field of fierce public contention, with several articles appearing in national and local newspapers and even new-born local political forces trying to establish their identity from those events of the past. Probably as a consequence of the dire and long crisis that the national polity and economy, and thus the national identity, are living through, regionalism has flourished: not only in the North but also, as never before, in the South. And the economic and social conditions of the Italian territories around the time of unification and in the following decades have begun to be discussed even by the layman, as well as by popular pamphlets and through social networks. As expected, this has given rise to a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretations; and even to a new narrative, grossly false but nonetheless widely popular in the South. One based on the illusory myth that the Southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was before unification the third industrial power in the world (!) or, at least, as rich as the Centre-North and fairly well-administrated; and then as a logical consequence, supported by other comptes fantastiques (as the one according to which the harsh military repression in some territories following unification would have caused in the South one million dead, rather than twenty thousand as all the historians hold), that the underdevelopment of the South was a result of unification and intentionally caused by the northern “colonizers,” to their profit. Surprisingly enough, recently this popular narrative has also taken hold in a part (still a minority, apparently) of the Italian academy — often applied economists with poor historical backgrounds.

But then comes the assiduous work by Ciccarelli and Fenoaltea, which in this context can be appreciated in all its rigor and strength. It indicates that, in the years immediately following unification, the industrial production of southern Italy as compared to the rest of the country may actually have improved: if the position of the former Bourbon Kingdom worsened in the extractive-manufacturing industries (from 93% to 87% of the Italian average, in per capita terms), probably as a result of the too rapid extension of the Sabaudian free-trade policy, it strongly increased in the non-manufacturing industry (from 81.5% to 97%); so that, as a whole, southern Italy passed from 83% to 89% of the Italian industrial production average (still in per capita terms). Thus, these data tell us that unification, with its free trade policy beneficial for the extractive sector and its unprecedented activism in construction and utilities, raised industrial output in the South, more than in the rest of the country (where in those years industry was actually rather stagnant). This turns out to be exactly the opposite of what is now becoming conventional wisdom among the (average) educated Southerner. It is results like these that highly scholarly works should strive for.


1. “It is obvious that in the decades following its political unification Italy’s economy remained very backward ….  At the same time, it was equally undeniable that by 1914 a great industrial transformation had taken place in Italy,” p. 360 in Alexander Gerschenkron (1955), “Notes on the Rate of Industrial Growth in Italy, 1881–1913,” Journal of Economic History, 15 (4), 360-375.

2. After Alexander Gerschenkron (1947), “The Soviet Indices of Industrial Production,” Review of Economics and Statistics, 29 (4): 217-226.

3. Stefano Fenoaltea and Carlo Bardini (2000), “Il valore aggiunto dell’industria”, in G.M. Rey, editor, I conti economici dell’Italia, III: Una stima del valore aggiunto per gli anni 1891, 1938, 1951. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 115-238.

Emanuele Felice ( is Visiting Professor, Department of Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He has published extensively on Italy’s long-run economic growth and regional divide (in Cliometrica, Economic History Review, European Review of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, and other journals) and is the author of “GDP and Convergence in Modern Times,” in C. Diebolt and M. Haupert, editors, Handbook of Cliometrics (Springer, forthcoming).   Among his books are Perché il Sud è rimasto indietro (il Mulino, 2013) and Ascesa e declino. Storia economica d’Italia (il Mulino, 2015).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII