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Economics and the Historian

Author(s):Rawski, Thomas G.
Reviewer(s):Kiesling, Lynne

Thomas G. Rawski, ed., Economics and the Historian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. xiv + 297 pp. Bibliography and index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-520-07268-5; $17.00 (paper), ISBN 0-520-07269-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Lynne Kiesling, College of William and Mary

Economic historians fill a peculiar, and sometimes uncomfortable, intellectual gap in the social sciences. In an ever-fracturing and increasingly compartmentalized scholarly environment, the economic historian may not find a welcoming, collegial home with either historians or economists; the notion of a truly interdisciplinary analysis is more rhetoric than reality for many scholars.

This volume of essays seeks to bridge the gap in the direction of historians. Arguing that economic analysis contributes a useful set of tools to historical scholarship, the eight economic historians writing these essays attempt to negate the stereotype of economic analysis as false quantification and so much mathematical esoterica. These chapters are well written, tightly argued, and should be of value both to the historian looking to learn more about the economic approach to history and to the economist looking for a clear presentation of the general methodological foundations of “historical economics.”

In his introductory chapter Thomas Rawski starts by observing how pervasive economic factors are, and were, in everyday situations, and that economists and historians ignoring each other is a two-way street:

“Even if man does not live by bread alone, economics lurks beneath the surface of any historical inquiry. The economist who hesitates to peek outside the confines of his models can overlook cultural influences on markets. Likewise the historian of labor, of agriculture, of trade policy, of elite politics, of the church, of international conflict, of the arts, of migration, ideas, industrialization, universities, technology, demography, or crime ignores the economic approach at the risk of losing important lines of explanation” (p. 1).

After noting the apparent enthusiasm of economists for the benefits of history, Rawski goes on to discuss briefly the ideas underlying basic economic models; by doing so he lays a foundation of understanding in the reader for the more sophisticated analyses presented in the subsequent chapters.

Rawski also wrote the second chapter, in which he discusses the analysis of economic trends. Historical analysis is especially suited to studying long-term changes in factors such as “economic welfare, distribution of income and wealth, degree of commercialization, patterns of cropping, organization of economic activity, [and] significance and functioning of various economic institutions” (p. 15). Getting to the heart of a common misperception that historians often hold concerning economic modeling, Rawski clearly points out that examining long-term changes in such factors is meaningless without putting the trend in its relevant economic context. Rawski then refers to the most common way to explore aggregate trends across time and across countries, national income accounts, and briefly explores the three areas of economic activity that national income accounts miss: household production, underground activity, and unrecorded costs. However, when we look at broad trends we are looking for general tendencies across time, and national income accounts give us an imperfect, but rather consistent, indication of these tendencies or trends. After a useful explanation of how national income accounts are derived, on both the expenditure and the output sides, Rawski also examines economic cycles and trends within them.

Jon Cohen then provides an interesting discussion of the role of institutions in economic analysis, a currently fruitful area of research in some fields of economics. Cohen defines institutions as “efficient ways of organizing human activity where markets alone will not suffice” (p. 60), such as the firm or the family. In the most basic, most restricted economic model of human behavior, all resources in the economy find their highest value use through the market, without any need for relationships beyond those stemming from market activity. Clearly, this simplistic model abstracts too far from the real relationships of life, all of which do have some economic component (even friendship does–when we spend time with friends and do things for and with them, we forego opportunities to do other things that might also be of value to us). Cohen focuses on the family, the farm, and the firm as institutions that work in conjunction with the market, in a more realistic model of human behavior. In the course of discussing why such institutions exist and what benefits they provide, Cohen highlights the property rights literature building on Coase’s work analyzing the existence of the firm.

Exploring labor economics and labor history, Susan Carter and Stephen Cullenberg creatively construct a dialogue between “Clio” and “Hades,” two professors of history and economics, respectively, on the relative merits of their methodologies. They first discuss social norms and market forces as determinants of female labor-force participation, subsequently covering the individual choice between work and leisure as the basis for most economic models of labor. Carter and Cullenberg reinforce what I perceive as the essential elements of this book: economic models are tools, nothing more, but they are useful tools because they may highlight relationships that might otherwise not have been obvious; these tools, as well as the tools of historical analysis, need to be used in context.

The fourth chapter, written by Donald McCloskey, focuses on the basic model of neoclassical economics and its emphasis on choice. Because economists emphasize resource scarcity, they look at human behavior in the context of individuals making choices facing a set of alternatives. McCloskey argues that (neoclassical, but I would argue all) economists “would urge the historian not to jump hastily to a diagnosis that peasants follow their plows by custom alone or that traders trust each other on grounds of solidarity alone…. Neoclassical economics, in other words, completes sociology and anthropology, because it studies a motivation unattractive to those fields: choice under constraint” (p. 123). Choice transcends markets and permeates nonmarket institutions, as Cohen’s chapter suggested. McCloskey’s articulation of the choice basis of economics also enables him to address a common misperception of economics–economics is not about money alone. Choices made and profits garnered need not be pecuniary. This focus on choice complements other historical approaches emphasizing, for example, culture.

Richard Sutch’s chapter provides a concise survey of macroeconomics, peppered with historical examples that highlight some benefits of aggregate economic analysis. He concludes that thinking in terms of a macroeconomic approach could be useful to the historian, even if he or she is not using aggregate economic data. Sutch clears up another problem area for non-economists–what exactly are inflation and unemployment, and how can we tell if they are present in our historical situation? Sutch also addresses the potential pitfalls of aggregation, fruitfully discussing the benefits of, for example, micro studies of real wages in 1830s Britain by region and by occupation, but reminding the reader not to commit the fallacy of composition. Just because handloom weavers in Lancashire suffered large declines in their incomes does not mean that all British workers fared poorly during the 1830s. Sutch also uses the tools of macroeconomic analysis to understand wartime destruction and postwar economic activity after the Civil War and World War II.

Next Hugh Rockoff tackles the thorny topic of money, banking and inflation. He structures his discussion as the tale of the development of money in a hypothetical economy, using examples from history to illustrate issues that arise as an economy becomes more commercial. He starts in medieval times with a gold-based money, moving on to explain how new discoveries of gold caused inflation. His subsequent explanation of the quantity theory of money and Hume’s price-specie flow mechanism is valuable to non-monetary economists as well as to historians interested in monetary history. Rockoff then discusses the rise of banking, usually starting with individuals “depositing” gold coins with their local goldsmith for safekeeping. As goldsmiths discovered that not everyone wanted all of their money back at the same time, they found that they could make money by lending out some of the deposits they held: thus the birth of fractional reserve banking. This development also meant that the goldsmith had an incentive to pay the depositor interest on his deposit, thereby creating a dimension on which goldsmiths compete for business. Rockoff also explores banking panics, fiat money and central banking, which require more sophisticated economic models and some attention to institutional detail.

The final chapter, by Peter Lindert, highlights the role of international economics in understanding the evolution of trade relationships through history. In the context of discussing international relations, Lindert emphasizes one of the basic tenets of economics–trade creates value, and both parties benefit. But that value is not distributed equally among the trading partners, and Lindert addresses the implications of that fact in terms of the development of trade restrictions (tariffs and quotas) and the evolution of trading relationships. In the final section of his chapter Lindert provides a discussion of the determination of exchange rates that I found extremely valuable, and much clearer than any other I’ve seen on the subject.

Every chapter in this collection provides valuable insights on the use of economic logic and modeling in explaining historical phenomena. I sensed no condescension from the authors toward the methodology of the historians among their readers; I sensed only respect and appreciation for good economic methodology, and an interest in sharing that enthusiasm with historian colleagues.

Lynne Kiesling Department of Economics College of William and Mary


Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Evolution of International Business: An Introduction

Author(s):Jones, Geoffrey
Reviewer(s):Taylor, Graham D.

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by (July 1996)

Geoffrey Jones, The Evolution of International Business: An Introduction . London and New York: Routledge, 1996. xii + 360 pp. Bibliographical references and index. Cloth, ISBN 0-415-10775-X; paper, ISBN 0-415-09371-6.

Reviewed for H-Business by Graham D. Taylor, Professor of History/Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

During the 1960s multinational enterprises emerged as a focus of interest (and much controversy) both for economists and for the general public. Much of the literature of that era (leaving aside the important pioneering works of Raymond Vernon, Charles Kindleberger, and John Dunning) provided a very time-bound perspective on this phenomenon. Economists tended to treat multinationals as byproducts of post-World War II international financial integration and improvements in communications and transport technologies. To the broader public, in the United States and elsewhere, they were associated with U.S. economic expansion and indeed were perceived as reflecting a particularly “American” form of business organization.

Since that era, the international economy has changed dramatically: multinational enterprises became truly “multinational” as East Asian and European firms expanded (or, perhaps more properly in many instances, reappeared) in global markets and new cross-national “strategic partnerships” of firms emerged. During the same period, the historiography of multinational enterprise was vastly enriched by scholars such as Mira Wilkins, D. K. Fieldhouse, Peter Hertner, Shin’ichiYonekawa, and many others, who not only probed well into the pre-twentieth-century origins of multinational activities, but also linked their work with broader reinterpretations of the dynamics of business evolution and organization.

Geoffrey Jones has been very much a part of that international community of scholarship on multinationals, and in this book he has undertaken to synthesize that literature. Jones far too modestly designates the study as a “text book” or “introductory survey.” It is in fact a substantial contribution to our understanding of the historical significance of multinational business, broadly defined to encompass more than the conventional category of “foreign direct investment” (FDI). His book provides a needed overview of the global dimensions of this phenomenon and a coherent framework for analysis of major historical trends and central issues emerging from the literature.

Jones’s study opens with a review of the major interpretive approaches to analyzing multinationals, including concepts of ownership advantage, internalization/transaction cost, and Dunning’s “eclectic model,” all of which are well integrated into the historical chapters that follow. He also links the study of multinational evolution to the themes of organizational development associated with Alfred Chandler and the literature on the firm and national competitiveness.

This section is followed by a general overview of the major trends in multinational operations since the mid-nineteenth century, highlighting the distinctiveness of different periods in that evolution (1880-1914; the interwar period; the 1940s to 1960s; and the period since 1971). This periodization indicates both the continuities of growth of international business and the volatility of that history, reflecting shifts in external factors (“the business environment,” encompassing the impact of wars, shifts in global trade and monetary arrangements, nationalizations and other governmental regulatory measures) and consequent changes in the strategies of firms.

The next chapters review the role of multinationals in specific industrial sectors: natural resources, manufacturing and services. There is a certain degree of repetition in these sections, as Jones works through each period for the different sectors. But it is also clear that very different patterns can be discerned in the forms and motivations underlying international direct investment in each sector, as well as in the internal dynamics of firm organization, relations among firms, and between multinationals and governments.

The final chapters focus on particular issues that have emerged in the literature. These include: the variations among nations and cultures in the propensity of their business enterprises to engage in foreign investment; the relationship between foreign direct investment and economic development, in terms of both home economies (of the multinationals) and host economies; and the relationships of multinationals and governments.

Despite its relative brevity, this is a dense book that covers a wide range of topics relating to the history and theory of multinational business, each in a balanced but succinct manner. Consequently, it would be an oversimplification to suggest that it embraces a particular set of themes or line of argument. But there are certain general characteristics of the history that emerge from the study.

From the late nineteenth to well into the twentieth century, most foreign direct investment was focused on the development of natural resources, with some spinoff growth of ancillary services. Latin America and Asia were particularly notable recipients of this investment. FDI in manufacturing expanded slowly through the early twentieth century and more dramatically in the period after World War II, and the geographic center for such investment shifted to Western Europe. This trend in turn was overtaken by developments in the service sector (particularly in finance) in the past two decades, with East Asia and Western Europe, along with the United States, as major areas of investment activity.

Although there have been periods of single-country dominance in outward investment (the United Kingdom between the 1880s and 1914, and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s), perhaps more significant has been the consistent growth of multinational operations over the past century. As noted earlier, Jones’s approach embraces a range of international business activities. During the pre-World War I era, investment flows were tied to some extent to the “imperial” territories of various European nations (with regions such as Latin America becoming a battleground for European and American investors), and occurred through a peculiar (and primarily British) form called “free-standing companies” (local enterprises owned by foreign syndicates) as well as the more familiar home-and-branch operations.

In the interwar period, as national governments imposed a variety of constraints on international trade and capital flows, international cartels flourished, in part as a means of circumventing them. In the period since the 1970s, a new form of “strategic partnership” among firms of different nationalities has emerged, reflecting both the diverse origins of enterprises in global markets and the effects of financial integration coupled with the growth of regional trade blocs. In each era multinational businesses have altered their forms of operation to suit contemporary conditions, while sustaining a general trend toward growth and integration.

The strength of the book lies in its coherence, its ability to provide a clear framework for a complex process of development over a fairly long time-span. Some of this coherence might have been lost had Jones extended his analysis even further back in time, but it might have been a useful exercise to provide a broader historical perspective on the evolution of international business (as opposed to the evolution of multinational enterprise). Jones does devote a section of his chapter on “Multinationals and Services” to a discussion of the large international trading companies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but generally he focuses on the period after 1880, with an emphasis on improvements in technology (enhancing the internal management of firms in international markets) and financial integration, accompanied by nationalistic trade policies, in shaping a business environment congenial to multinationals.

But, as studies by Larry Neal (on international capital markets), James Tracy and Jonathan Israel (on the Dutch and British “merchant empires”), and Ann Carlos and Steve Nicholas (on the internal organization of trade companies) indicate, by the eighteenth century the international economy had developed strong financial and logistical links, and businesses such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India companies were developing mechanisms for internal communication and management.

Jones’s chapter on multinationals and natural resources understandably gives pride of place to the “nonrenewable” resource sector (mining and petroleum) and does not ignore the “renewable” area. But a review of multinationals in the forest products industry could reinforce some of the points he makes in other contexts. As a capital-intensive industry, forest products (especially pulp and paper) has been a field with a number of multinational actors, such as the British firm Bowater, the Swedish Stora, the U.S. Weyerhaeuser, and Canada’s MacMillian-Bloedel. The intricate links between publishing companies and paper manufacturers in international markets provide another interesting feature of this industry, ranging from direct-investment ventures (such as the Chicago Tribune‘s Canadian pulpmills) to Bowater’s “strategic partnerships” in the 1920s-1940s (not without endless friction) with the British newspaper barons, Rothermere and Beaverbrook, to exploit the forestry resources of North America.

These are minor caveats, however, and do not detract from the general quality and significance of Jones’s study. As noted earlier, the book represents a well-organized synthesis of the state of the historiography of international business today, which at the same time can provide a basis for future research in the field, by identifying major lines of argument and the areas of uncertainty and controversy that still must be addressed.

Graham D. Taylor Dalhousie University


Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Who’s In Charge? Workers and Managers in the United States

Author(s):Liebhold, Peter
Rubenstein, Harry
Reviewer(s):Lichtenstein, Nelson

An Exhibit Review

WHO’S IN CHARGE?: WORKERS AND MANAGERS IN THE UNITED STATES February 10, 1996 – April 7, 1996 An Exhibit at the National Museum of American History Washington, D.C.

Reviewed by Nelson Lichtenstein for H-BUSINESS, March 1996 University of Virginia

Smithsonian curators Harry Rubenstein and Peter Liebhold have braved the chilly ideological winds blowing across the Mall to mount this timely and provocative traveling exhibition in the National Museum of American History. The space devoted to the exhibition is relatively small, but the subject is huge: nothing less than a class analysis of the labor process from the nineteenth century industrial era to the contemporary world of computer consoles and just-in-time production techniques.

Rubenstein and Liebhold have assembled some striking artifacts: an ominous set of nineteenth-century iron gates from the Bobson Textile Mills of Philadelphia, which guards the exhibit entrance; a set of the wooden tobacco molds that did so much to deskill turn-of-the-century cigar workers; an early set of time and motion sheets, with stopwatch, used by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth; and a contemporary keyboard from a McDonalds cash register, upon which the dollars and cents numbers have been replaced by “words” like FUDG SUND.

This traveling exhibit, on display at the NMAH through April 7, is well grounded in the spirit of Harry Braverman, perhaps far too much so. Indeed, its first third is an unrelenting exposition of the ideology and praxis of nineteenth-century industrial management, whose quest for industrial hegemony through workplace regimentation and deskilling is starkly explicated. Given the calculated ignorance of the rest of the museum world on this subject, the creators of “Who’s In Charge?” deserve our considerable gratitude, but there is a heavy-handed didacticism here that is most off-putting. No panel invokes the resources upon which the working class itself mobilized a turn-of-the-century resistance: there’s no hint of the communal, republican world first celebrated by Herbert Gutman, or even of the craftsman’s fierce pride and autonomy so well evoked by David Montgomery and the generation of labor historians who followed his lead. No artifacts from either the Knights of Labor or the Industrial Workers of the World are shown.

Historians of technology will find this early section of the exhibit flat-footed as well: a quotation from Karl Marx–who is identified only as an “economist”–encapsulates both the admirable political boldness and the reductionism of the exhibit: “It would be possible to write a history of inventions … made for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.” Driving home the point is an epigram from Frederick Taylor: “In the past workers have been first. In the future the system must be first.”

A short section on the New Deal and the classic era of mid-century collective bargaining stands at the exhibit’s midpoint. Here the focus shifts rather abruptly to discussions of trade unionism, strikes, and the new labor legislation. All this is important, of course, but the resolute focus on the relationship between workers and their immediate bosses, which was the signal virtue of the exhibit’s first section, is missing. A union contract book, a shop steward’s badge, or an actual seniority list posted on a factory bulletin board might well have exemplified the shift in shop-floor power relations so notable in the New Deal era.

The exhibit’s dramatic final section is dominated by an Andon Board taken right out of the jointly operated Toyota-General Motors assembly plant in Fremont, California. With its blinking red, yellow, and green lights revealing the status of each work station, the Andon Board is the physical embodiment of Japanese just-in-time production techniques. Workers have the formal right to stop the line by pulling a cord–in which case their green light turns first to yellow and then, after a pause, to red–but management has quickly learned to process this worker-generated information on labor intensity to “stress” the line in order to achieve relentlessly higher levels of individual productivity.

This exhibition room also displays a series of wonderful posters and advertisements, touting everything from foreman training and employer-employee unity to the virtues of cheap labor in Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean. Although the advocates of the new “team production” schemes are given their due, this final exhibit space is undoubtedly one of the most forthright critiques of contemporary capitalism to appear at taxpayer expense. The glowing set of tributes to the exhibition that appear in the comment notebooks at the exit demonstrate that, whatever the project’s limitations, Liebhold and Rubenstein have tapped an exposed nerve in the way Americans feel about the contemporary world of work.

Nelson Lichtenstein



Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative