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Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries)

Editor(s):Sarasúa, Carmen
Reviewer(s):Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Carmen Sarasúa, ed. Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX. (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries.) Alicante, Spain: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante, 2021. 512 pp. € 22 (paperback), ISBN 978-8497177184.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, El Colegio de México.


There has been a growing interest on studying the historic evolution of standards of living, poverty, and inequality. However, long series of wages—a basic input for these inquiries—tend to be scarce and of poor quality, particularly for female wages, and even more so for those living in rural areas. This book is a major step to overcome this hindrance for 18th-19th century Spain. It is the result of a collective project in which several economic historians delved into archives to collect data on wages paid to wet nurses by several foundling hospitals (inclusas) of the different Spanish regions. These institutions received abandoned or exposed babies and placed them in charge of women in rural areas who breast-fed them and took care of all their needs for extended periods of time, in return for a monthly payment.

Wet-nurses’ wages are particularly fit to produce homogeneous and comparable series through long time periods for several reasons. First, the labor required was always the same: raising a child (providing food, clothing, and other needs). Second, they were exclusively money compensations paid monthly, thus avoiding the common problem of dealing with partial retributions in goods or requiring calculating the number of days worked. Third, a great number of people labored in this occupation, thus holding great representativity. Finally, despite being institutional (ecclesiastical or civilian), their wages were very sensitive to the economic juncture since they needed to adjust rapidly to price increases. The series gathered comprise the years between 1700 and 1900 and include information from between 6,602 and 28,325 wet-nurses that offered their services to between 15 to 47 foundling-hospitals.

Another plus of this book is that all chapters pursue parallel questions and follow a similar methodology to collect and analyze the information of the different regions: 1) Galicia; 2) Asturias, Cantabria y Vizcaya; 3) Navarra. Aragón, Álva y Guipúscoa; 4) Castilla; 5) Burgos, Soria y la Rioja; 6) León, Zamora y Salamanca; 7) Madrid y La Mancha; 8) Extremadura; 9) el País Valenciano y Murcia; 10) Almería, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz y Sevilla; 11) Canarias. This allows one to compare their results and place together the different regional pieces to form a picture of the whole country, observing the peculiarities of each region. The first chapter, written by the editor of the book, undertakes this task, offering a national perspective and placing the project and its results within the international debate on the subject.

Each chapter describes the evolution of foundling hospitals in the region studied, in terms of their governance, revenues, capacities, and spatial and social scope. The available sources in some cases limit the period studied, but all chapters seek to assess the number of wet-nurses employed, the areas where these women lived, the evolution of their nominal and real wages, and their relevance to the family income. Thus, the authors had to inquire beyond foundling hospitals, providing a regional mosaic of family characteristics and strategies, main occupations of the population, male wages, and costs of living across the Spanish geography.

The book makes a relevant contribution to the study of poverty, the strategies of those who suffered it, and the institutions devoted to mitigating it. The long period studied offers an extraordinary window to see the changes and difficulties these charitable institutions faced when their control passed from the church to the state, along with those that resulted from the political instability and fiscal penury that Spain suffered through the 19th century. It also shows how the different regions experienced in particular ways the institutional, political, and economic changes that took place in Spain over two centuries. Finally, it also enhances our knowledge on the economic role of women and their participation in the labor force, during an era when census data and other statistical sources are insufficient to assess it.

The richness of the information gathered is so vast that it could not be fully exploited in these chapters. Clearly, the authors that participated in this volume, as well as its editor, understood that it opened fruitful venues of research that go beyond their research scope. Thus, the book generously facilitates the use of the data collected by compiling it in its appendix. In contrast with most economic history studies that focus on analyzing the data and provide few information on how it was assembled, this book offers a thorough description of its sources and methodology. This provides future researchers with the necessary input to produce solid and rigorous analysis. It also opens the way to develop similar projects in other regions where foundling-hospitals existed, such as Latin America, and open the comparative scope of this work beyond Spain.


Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato is Professor of History at El Colegio de México at Mexico City. Her current research projects include the evolution of Mexico’s inequality, standards of living, and women’s participation in the labor force between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Copyright (c) 2023 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 (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II

Author(s):Ma, Debin
Von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Debin Ma and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 845 pp. $155 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1108425537.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


The second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of China picks up where the first volume left off (reviewed here). It covers 1800 to the present, which includes major turning points in the evolution of China’s economy. The most notable include Britain’s conquest of the flourishing Qing dynasty in the 1840s, its eventual collapse and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the “Reform era” (post-1978), and the most recent phase (post-Great Recession), which is a return to top-down planning and Party conformity.

For over 2,000 years, “China has sustained the largest single human society on the planet through the development of one of the most sophisticated agrarian systems in history” (p. 87). Before British colonization of China, the Chinese empire was “the largest economy on earth” (p. 531), where the “Qing…enjoyed standards of living comparable or even superior to those of Europe” (p. 83). There was little indication that things would change. But the Opium Wars did just that. While trade with the West was fairly limited up to this point, the victorious British forced “free trade” (p. 83)—requiring that China open its ports abroad. As with any major change in trade, this was viewed as an investment blessing to some, but also “as a destructive force capable of impoverishing certain sectors of the population and economy” (p. 365). Furthermore, “foreign nationals were exempt from the jurisdiction of Chinese law” (p. 414).

This “semicolonial” subordination (p. 415) to western power inaugurated a great reversal that Kenneth Pomeranz, Andre Gunder Frank, and others have written about. Contrary to ordinary Eurocentric history, Western economic dominance was not a long-term, inevitable result of superior institutions founded over 2,000 years ago, but a highly contingent blip on the screen of Asian dominance in the world system. The book traces out these dramatic changes in chapters covering ideology, institutions and enterprises, finance, money, markets, business organization, foreign trade and investment, education, and other areas up to and beyond the Maoist era.

Readers may find interesting the unusual role played in the Chinese economy by Christian missionaries —who poured into the country starting in the 1860s. By the 1920s, “94% of Chinese counties had records of a missionary presence” (p. 391). This led to the development of a huge number of schools with new curriculum, as well as hospitals. “A great majority of the subjects in the curriculum of the new schools were novel to the Chinese” (p. 393), and improved healthcare opportunities facilitated further population growth (p. 394) and perhaps more critical reflection that helped the revolts of 1911. Readers also learn that (in crude and simplistic terms) “Communism and violent Communist movements originate from Christianity, and naturally the Christian church was essential for the creation of the first totalitarianism” (p. 541). That is, similar to Europe and Catholicism, the institutional churches and movements involved in China validated and empowered state ambitions.

The road to Chinese economic and political statism was gradual. “As early as 1912, Sun [Yat-sen] stated that all major industries in China should be owned by the state” (p. 185); China had to make up for lost time in industrialization. The world wars and threats of Japan provided further reason or opportunity to centralize economic control (p. 165, 186-87). The “institutional genes” of “imperial institution and secretive organization” (p. 543) also contributed to this move. By the time of Mao, the road to totalitarianism had already been laid, and Mao explicitly took Stalin’s model to greater extremes. However, some contributors contend, “Totalitarianism is foreign to the Chinese. When the CCP was established in 1921, the number of Chinese who knew constitutionalism was far more than those who knew Marxism or Bolshevism” (p. 543). There was nothing inevitable about China’s turn towards totalitarian communism—anymore than industrialization and capitalism was inevitable for the British over a century earlier. Whatever the case, the advent of the Maoist period was filled with contradictions not unlike the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as the Bolsheviks promised economic democracy and worker control but then reneged in 1918, so the Chinese Constitution “recognized the peasants’ rights to private land and the property rights of the owners of private firms”—only to nationalize/collectivize a year later (p. 549).

Maoism is popularly known for its cult around Mao and the “Great Leap Famine” (1958-1961), where about 30 million people (needlessly) died. This was apparently caused by (a) the use of grain to finance industrialization and repay Soviet debt instead of feeding Chinese people, (b) the cruel confiscation of metal from the population (including cooking tools) to support industrialization, and (c) the consolidation of agricultural cooperatives into ineffective “gigantic peoples’ communes” (p. 645). By this “Great Leap,” China would become “self-reliant,” and never worry about being colonized by the West again (p. 717-19). Maoism as a whole did eliminate excess wealth inequality, increase life expectancy and primary education, and achieved  “food security”; and China “fared better than many other countries—Meiji Japan and Industrial Revolution Britain come to mind—during the early stages of their industrialization” (p. 639). The Maoist consolidation also, in some ways, made the reform era more effective (p. 733), if not simply provided the industrial infrastructure for the next, and most successful phase of all (1970s-2008).

Formal recognition of private property came back in 2004 and, with other reforms, spurred a surge of private enterprise. Private investment, financial reform, entry in the WTO in 2001 (though see p. 827), and less restrictions empowered China’s economy. The Great Recession and Xi Jinping’s grand visions amplified—and overextended—China’s ambitions and initiated a resurgence of top-down control (p. 817-820) and a return of the leader’s personality cult. “Since 2013 all private firms and NGOs…are required to set up CCP branches within the firm and organization,” and “Discussions of constitutionalism and judicial independence are prohibited” (p. 562). Religious freedom is now being eradicated. Academics are facing new obstacles, like “restrictions on participation in international projects and conferences. Foreign textbooks now arouse suspicion” (p. 822). China is vastly better off than it was a half century ago. But the challenge is “how to overcome self-imposed obstacles that prevent improvements in knowledge and capabilities from generating intensive growth that outruns the accumulation of resources” (p. 823).

I greatly enjoyed this work, as much as the first volume. The research is incisive, clearly presented, and the volume is very cogently organized. At one point I wondered how the second volume might have been improved if the contributors had read or paid more attention to the first. I say this because second-volume contributors sometimes had contradictory different perspectives about pre-modern Chinese culture and socio-economic ideas, and this is an important topic given the stereotype of “Oriental Despotism” that economic historians are—or should be—trying to wash out of their clothes. Some discussion on the future impact relating to demographics (e.g., age, population, fertility) might also have been relevant and helpful.

Whatever the case, we stand in a very privileged position to be able to learn many lessons from such massive and historic economic system(s), and both volumes deserve a wide reading.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and a research fellow at LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

Copyright (c) 2023 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 (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Austerities and Aspirations: A Comparative History of Growth, Consumption, and Quality of Life in East Central Europe since 1945

Author(s):Tomka, Béla
Reviewer(s):Piatkowski, Marcin

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Béla Tomka. Austerities and Aspirations: A Comparative History of Growth, Consumption, and Quality of Life in East Central Europe since 1945. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2020. xii + 445 pp. $105 (cloth), ISBN 978-963-386-351-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marcin Piatkowski, Kozminski University in Warsaw.


Béla Tomka’s book is a welcome addition to the underdeveloped and often neglected study of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Tomka documents the evolution of incomes, patterns of consumption, and quality of life in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, as proxies for the whole CEE region, and juxtaposes them against the same changes in Western Europe. The book mostly focuses on the 1950-1990 period of communism in CEE after World War II but covers the years after 1990 as well.

There is much to like about the book, including its approach to going beyond GDP and focusing on the evolution of consumption and quality of life; its wealth of detail on the changes of well-being during the communist period, which are little known outside the region; and its long-term and pan-European perspective, which is often missing in the standard Western-oriented telling of European economic history. The book also provides a useful literature review of the causes of economic divergence between the two parts of the continent. It combines historical statistics on income, consumption and quality of life with a largely convincing narrative. As such, the book would be an excellent reading for scholars interested in the CEE region, idiosyncrasies of real socialism, and the interplay of growth, consumption, and the quality of life.

However, the book would benefit from focusing less on Western Europe and more on CEE, better explaining how it contributes to the existing literature, and elaborating on many important questions that it raises but then often leaves unanswered.

First, the book covers a lot of ground that is already well known, such as the story of the economic development of Western Europe in the 20th century. The economic development of CEE is less well known—which is where the book provides value—but the author’s verbatim use of widely available historical statistics and on the whole unsurprising narrative make it difficult to inspire a new perspective. Historical data on incomes from, for instance, the Maddison Project Database 2020, is just one click away and there is little need to reproduce it. Three charts on changes in GDP, consumption, and quality of life across the continent during 1900-2015 could have easily replaced dozens of pages of tables with (most already outdated) data. The book could have summarized the well-known history of Western development in just a few pages and focused more exclusively on CEE to explain what all the differences in data meant and what drove the changes.

Second, it is not clear what the book adds relative to the scholarly consensus. After reading through the book’s 300 pages and almost 150 pages of notes and references, one may struggle to find what is new, beyond a few intriguing statistics (such as that “in Czechoslovakia, the upper decile’s share of total personal income was 14 percent in 1962, which was the lowest level of income concentration in Europe and probably in the entire world,” p. 160). The lack of original approach is well reflected in the author’s own largely rhetorical research questions about whether CEE’s economic development and quality of life lagged behind Western Europe during the 20th century (yes, it did!) and whether there was any period of convergence and divergence (yes, there was!). It would have been useful for the author to clearly state up front what he is trying to say and how it may be different from what we already know.

Third, the book asks, explicitly and implicitly, multiple important questions but largely does not elaborate on the possible answers. For instance, the author notes that levels of consumption and quality of life in communist CEE were lower than in Western Europe, as would be expected given the large differences in the levels of incomes, but then argues that they should be adjusted for multiple factors that made communist CEE peculiar. These included, on one hand, in-kind services delivered for free or at rock-bottom prices by the communist state (such as nurseries, healthcare, winter and summer holidays and even tickets for theaters and recordings of classical music), high job security, and low inequality. On the other hand, citizens of communist countries in CEE suffered much lower quality of products and services, permanent shortages and long wait lines and lower incomes than what would be suggested by the often inflated production and growth statistics. However, on balance, did these differences increase or decrease the gap relative to Western Europe?  How shall we account for the lack of freedom of speech, restrictions on movement, and lack of free political representation in CEE in the measurement of well-being? How can these factors affect the assessment of well-being in autocracies today? While it is not easy to tackle such questions, it would have been useful for the author to provide even incomplete answers than not to deal with these questions at all.

In addition, the author’s choice of Western Europe as the benchmark for communist CEE overshadows the fact that while communist countries lagged behind Western Europe in practically every facet of development, they nonetheless scored much higher on education outcomes, mortality, gender equality and many other key elements of development and well-being than what would be suggested by their levels of income. Does it mean that under communism CEE countries “punched above their weight” in well-being? Are there any lessons from this experience for developing countries around the world today?

Finally, the book fails to mention that by now all four countries analyzed in the book—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary—as well as the rest of the CEE region from Estonia down to Bulgaria—are all living through their Golden Age, defined as the shortest distance in history between their levels of incomes and quality of life and those in Western Europe. This is surprising in view of the book’s generally useful coverage of the post-1990 period of CEE’s economic resurgence (although somewhat inexplicably for a book completed in mid-2018 it uses data that often end in 2005 or 2010). The book does not mention that the average GDP per capita PPP is now higher in Czechia than in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and is just about to catch up with Italy; or that Poland’s GDP per capita is higher than Portugal’s and is just about to catch up with Spain’s. For a book that focuses on the quality of life, it surprisingly fails to mention that Czechia’s level of well-being, as reflected in, for instance, the OECD Better Life Index, is now higher than Italy’s or that Poland’s well-being is not only higher than Portugal’s but also higher than Japan’s and South Korea’s, even though GDP per capita in the two latter countries is almost one-third higher. Does this mean that CEE countries have been able to transform growing prosperity into higher well-being more efficiently than others? If so, why and how? And more broadly, does their economic success have anything to do with their inclusive communist legacy, as some others, like myself, would argue?

Overall, Tomka’s book is an excellent addition to the small, albeit growing literature that takes a pan-European approach to economic history and goes beyond GDP to also focus on well-being. Many scholars, especially those not familiar with Central and Eastern Europe, will benefit from reading the book. Future research could focus on comparing the developmental experience of CEE not with Western Europe, which has always been well ahead of CEE in development, but with Southern Europe (Greece, Spain and Portugal), which throughout centuries shared similar growth drivers and constraints as CEE. Using an automotive analogy, it could be more illuminating to compare Skoda to Fiat rather than to Porsche. Insights from such an analysis would make CEE’s experience relevant not only to the region’s cognoscenti, but also to a global audience.


Marcin Piatkowski is Professor of Economics at Kozminski University in Warsaw. His book Europe’s Growth Champion: Insights from the Economic Rise of Poland (Oxford University Press, 2018) received the 2019 Polish Academy of Sciences’ prize for Best Book in Economics.

Copyright (c) 2023 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 (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Income and Wealth
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague

Author(s):French, Katherine L.
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Katherine L. French. Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. xvii + 314 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0812253054.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anne E.C. McCants, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The Black Death (1348-51) is a key touchstone in economic history scholarship, marking the transition from the boom period of the High Middle Ages to the long retrenchment in population, urbanization, and market activity that followed. Perhaps even more importantly, it marks the shift from an economy in which most unskilled labor lived a bare-bones existence to one with rising wages for the common man (and likely woman too) and increased standards of living by many metrics, if not health itself, in the face of ongoing visitations of bubonic plague. Not surprisingly, the Black Death is also a watershed for social and cultural historians, who have produced no shortage of theories linking the psychological and social toll of the demographic disaster to the development of new understandings of business, piety, society and the state – in short, the origins of the Renaissance or modernity itself. Katherine L. French’s new book nicely brings these two strands together with a focus on the changes wrought in the material possessions of the households of London’s skilled artisans and merchants.

Most studies that seek to assess the impact of the Black Death on whatever their specific topic of inquiry might be typically begin with the event itself. Very few successfully navigate the source lacunae which mark the middle decades of the fourteenth century. Admirably then, French’s study does look at households both before and after the event, as well as during the troubled decades of intense plague visitations themselves. Her sources begin in the mid-thirteenth century and extend as late as the seventeenth. This opening up of such a long run of archival materials for historical consideration is a significant achievement in and of itself. Her work relies on wills drawn up in the ecclesiastical courts, especially the Commissary Court and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which have the earliest and longest series starting in the 1370s and 1380s. To this, she adds documentation from London’s Court of Husting which dealt mainly with landed property and runs from 1258 into the seventeenth century. From all of these she only used wills identified for citizens, merchants, artisans, or members of their households living within the city walls to keep her population sample relatively stable. As she demonstrates, the Prerogative Court tended to record wealthier households as they often held property in more than one diocese, whereas the Commissary Court was restricted to property in London itself.

French also utilizes a number of household inventories, some of which had been drawn up for probate and others on account of debt.  Inventories are very rarely used for medieval studies because they are extremely difficult sources to work with and quite limited in their coverage. She found 123 post-plague inventories covering 128 houses, and in a few precious cases, she can even link an inventory with a later will, allowing her to assess not only material objects while in use, but in their second life as bequests. Finally, to these archival treasures she adds deep research into the work of archeologists who have documented changing building patterns in London, and elsewhere for comparison, the spatial layout of homes, and the arrangement of people’s possessions within their domestic and business spaces, where they were so often comingled.

What does she unearth with this hard-won trove of source materials? Prior to the plague, both merchants and artisans, despite being “frequently accused of social emulation or worse,” shared “a common way of inhabiting domestic space and conceptualizations of ideal behavior that their domestic space and furnishings [both] created and enabled” (20). Even though the pre-plague records are thin, it is nonetheless safe to say that even better-off Londoners “lived in cramped and minimally furnished rooms. Most of what they had was not worth much and was not worth passing on” (37). For comfort and sociability they most often turned to cushions, coverlets, and mazers and other drinking vessels.

After the plague she finds strong evidence of both more space and greater assets available to those who survived, with a concomitant expansion in material culture. She says that they “neither simply imitate[ed] their betters nor completely invent[ed] new ways of living, but were rather expanding, adapting, and modifying habits that predated the plague in ways that distinguished them from the gentry and aristocracy” (75). In particular, their homes displayed more wall hangings and painted cloths, more textiles overall, and a notable disappearance of weapons from halls. “Piety and continental sophistication gradually replaced militaristic notions of citizenship” she asserts (83). Likewise, she documents an increase in the number of dwellings, even small ones, that had their own kitchen or fireplace. Wealth distinctions were increasingly revealed by the number of rooms rather than the type of heat sources available to the occupants as they had been in the pre-plague evidence.

These newly expanded material lives necessitated new forms of housekeeping to manage both the increasing size of dwellings themselves and the amount of stuff they contained (99). Her evidence reveals that laundry, along with other cleaning tasks as denoted through their material objects, increasingly occupied the work associated with householding. Textiles require much more routine care than wooden or metal objects, and so female labor demand in the household rose in importance after the plague too. Indeed, she observes, “What had been a high-status male job in the elite houses of rural England [that is, domestic service] had become a low-status female one in London” (117). Along with the gendering of domestic work, the evidence of what kind of bequests were left to what kinds of people also suggests that Londoners learned, even if only slowly after the Black Death, “to gender many of their new household possessions” as well (219).

Household Goods and Good Households is an impressive achievement. Its documentation of the material lives of London citizens, from wealthy merchants to middling craftsmen, across the great divide of the Black Death is revelatory; her argument about cultural change in the face of demographic catastrophe is compelling; and her prose is refreshingly readable. Regardless of whether we use the term “revolution” or not for changes in consumption behavior (as is much debated in the eighteenth-century historiography), French offers the field of consumption history many new reasons to look to the fourteenth century for a more complete picture. She tells her readers in the introduction that her project is “to understand what London’s merchants and artisans learned as they learned to buy, use, and live with more stuff not only right after the plague, but in the generations that followed” (3). Her completed project succeeds admirably in doing just that.


Anne E.C. McCants is the Ann F. Friedlaender Professor of History and Director of the Concourse Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among her recent publications is “Economic History and the Historians” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2020).

Copyright (c) 2023 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 (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Insurance Era: Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America

Author(s):Horan, Caley
Reviewer(s):Thomasson, Melissa

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Caley Horan. Insurance Era: Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021. 251 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN 978-0226784380.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Melissa Thomasson, Department of Economics, Miami University.

In this book Caley Horan explores the marketing, investment, and underwriting practices of the insurance industry in the United States, with a particular focus on events after World War II. She argues that as they sought to prevent nationalization and increased regulation, insurance companies played an important role in propagating free-market policies that subjugated moral and ethical questions of risk-bearing and reinforced institutionalized discrimination.

The book is divided into three parts, each with two chapters. In the first section, entitled “Selling ‘Self-Made’ Security,” the author looks at how insurance marketing changed after the New Deal. The government’s involvement in the economy following the Great Depression created the opportunity to redefine the connection between economic security, the insurance industry, and the government. After the Temporary National Economic Committee (TNEC) accused the industry of predatory selling practices, price fixing, and failing to prevent policies from lapsing, the insurance industry formed the Institute of Life insurance (ILI) to act as a “public relations organization” to avoid increased regulation by the federal government (p. 25). These efforts, which apparently succeeded in preventing regulatory changes, later evolved into a campaign in the 1940s to sell more insurance using national security as justification. As Horan notes, while prewar ads focused on economic security for dependents of policyholders, postwar ads focused on policyholders using insurance to secure individual economic freedom, a “celebration of free enterprise and entrepreneurial action with a thinly veiled critique of public action” (p. 28).

In the first part of the book, Horan effectively demonstrates that the insurance industry sought to avoid increased regulation and potential nationalization by showcasing their value and highlighting their socially responsible actions. In some cases, we see this in the creation and marketing of new products such as Blue Shield in the late 1930s. While hospitals had founded the predecessors to Blue Cross plans in the late 1920s and early 1930s, physicians were slower to develop similar prepayment plans, believing that such plans would limit their ability to price discriminate. But they quickly adopted their own version of Blue Cross, called Blue Shield, after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 raised concerns that government could step in and provide nationalized health insurance to fill a perceived gap. The success of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in overcoming adverse selection in the health insurance market also led commercial companies into the market in the 1940s, providing yet another avenue to market “self-made security” to Americans who were worried about communism.

The first chapters of the book are well researched and provide interesting accounts of the development of the insurance industry and insurance advertising during the first half of the 20th century. They detail the data collection efforts insurance companies used to assess risk more accurately (including the famous weight/height tables from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company), offer insight into the origins of driver education (which also involved data collection), and examine how insurance companies used marketing campaigns related to public health and safety to sell their products. However, the chapter also suggests that without insurance company marketing, other forces might have come to dominate, resulting in a more government-based, collectivist approach to economic security. This argument seems to overlook the fact that Americans and non-insurance public interest groups, even before the ILI was founded in 1939, had little appetite for using the government to offset risk, as seen in the repeated failures of attempts to nationalize the health insurance industry during the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the 1940s, before commercial health insurance was well established.

Part II of the book, “Investing in Privatization,” offers a fascinating look at insurance involvement in urban renewal and slum-clearing. It describes how with large amounts of assets and regulatory changes in how they could invest, Metropolitan Insurance built the initially all-White Stuyvesant Town and other communities in New York State and addressed charges of racism by creating Riverton for Black homeowners. Horan also examines how the insurance industry’s decisions on where to locate and what to invest in fueled suburban growth. For example, insurance companies poured millions of dollars into suburban shopping malls, which begs the question as to the role of insurance companies in the decline of the urban core, which the author explores in the third part of the book.

The third section of the book discusses redlining by insurance companies. The author discusses the findings of the Hughes Panel (a presidential advisory panel that issued the report “Meeting the Insurance Crisis of Our Cities” in 1968) and presents a convincing argument that, like the Federal Housing Authority, insurance companies used redlining to discriminate based on race. In response to these criticisms, insurance companies argued that their actuarial analysis of risk justified their practices and provided significant funding for a public relations campaign to “reinvest” in urban areas. This part of the book, which also explores gender discrimination, provides a useful context for considering the benefits and drawbacks of experience rating in insurance markets. (Experience rating is the use of factors that could affect risk such as age, health, location, and previous claims and payouts to guide insurance coverage and premiums.)

Economists are aware of how adverse selection combined with community rating can lead to the failure of insurance. The actuarial science behind experience rating is subjective and prone to error, often assigning individuals the risk of their class regardless of their individual behavior, which can reinforce existing social problems such as racism. In addition, as insurance companies compete for subscribers, those who can cherry-pick often have an advantage. For instance, while Blue Cross and Blue Shield initially community-rated their policies, competition with for-profit insurance companies that relied on experience rating eventually forced them to adopt experience rating as well, leading to many people being unable to afford insurance coverage. In this way, Horan’s thought-provoking book asks a good question: what is the role of flawed experience rating in reinforcing discrimination, and how can the problem be fixed?


Melissa Thomasson is Professor of Economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research focuses on the economic history of the US health insurance and healthcare system.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age

Author(s):Pye, Michael
Reviewer(s):Esser, Raingard

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Michael Pye. Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age. New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2021. xii + 273 pp. $28.95 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-64313-777-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Raingard Esser, University of Groningen.


The title chosen by the US publisher of the present book (as compared to the slightly more prosaic title of the European edition, Antwerp: The Glory Years) sets the tone for this panoramic survey of one of Europe’s most important early modern cities. It indicates both the superlatives and the nostalgia attached to this lively portrait of the metropolis. Michael Pye, a British historian, journalist, and author currently living in Amsterdam, provides his readers with a colourful kaleidoscope of elements that came together in Antwerp and that shaped and were in turn shaped by the city. This is skillfully done through a series of vignettes which focus on its highly international inhabitants. Many of those inhabitants were newcomers from elsewhere in Europe seizing Antwerp’s opportunities to accumulate riches for themselves, for their families, friends and clients. They also generated wealth, prestige, and values for and in Antwerp, which thrived on its image as a centre of creativity and as a way of life. The stories and their protagonists, whom Pye presents, are based on a mine of rich and diverse sources very often from outside the city, which lost many of its archives during the violent mutiny of Habsburg troops in 1576.

Pye elegantly weaves together information from letters, paintings, contemporary histories, novellas, travel accounts, schoolbooks, and songs to provide a series of portraits of famous and less famous men and women who lived, worked, took refuge, and died in the city. Some of them moved on after a temporary stay. His protagonists are property developers such as Gilbert van Schoonbeke, printer/publishers such as Christoffel Plantijn, the female painter Catharina van Hemessen, the language teacher Peeter Heyns, the African servant Katharina (no surname given), early modern adventurers such as Gaspar Ducci who tried his hand in various more or less successful enterprises, and merchant families such as the Portuguese Jews Mendes, who operated in an international network all over Europe and beyond. The common thread in these vignettes is the portrayal of a city in which “everything goes”, where large-scale immigration brought new skills, new products, new markets, new knowledge, and new knowledge sites. The precondition of these opportunities, in Pye’s reading, was religious tolerance (in the early modern sense of the concept) and restraint in political and administrative intervention from urban and religious authorities and the Habsburg rulers of the time.

These stories of the “Golden Years” are harnessed to a chronology which spans the late fifteenth to the second half of the sixteenth century or, more specifically, to the Iconoclastic Fury (1566) and its aftermath characterized by the arrival of the “arch-villain” of Low Countries history, the “Iron Duke” of Alva as new Governor General. Given that the underlying message of Antwerp’s success delivered in Pye’s story is the city’s economic, religious and cultural openness, this end-date – rather gloomily titled “Antwerp is lost” (thus the title of Chapter 14) – might make sense in the light of the tightening rule of the Habsburg regime in the Southern Low Countries, which had already been inaugurated by the highly contested diocesan restructuring that the Spanish king Philip II had instigated in 1559. This, however, is a rather one-sided view of the city’s fortunes, which overplays the role of the confessional regime imposed by the Habsburg authorities and underplays Antwerp’s continuing influence as an international entrepot and global player both in the later decades of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth century. In a way Pye’s chronology continues and even predates an older narrative of Antwerp’s perceived decline. Earlier historiography up to the end of the twentieth century had diagnosed an “ongelukseeuw” – a century of disaster – for the period from 1585 onwards, when the city was retaken by Habsburg’s forces after a five-year period of a Calvinist city council, and the closure of Antwerp’s economic sinew, the river Schelde, for international trade. Much has been written in recent years to redress this narrative, which had also been framed in the context of Amsterdam’s rise as an international powerhouse. The effects of the exodus of skilled artisans and merchants from Antwerp to Amsterdam in the wake of 1585 and the continuing contribution to high-calibre science and arts, for instance in mathematics and architecture, in the Southern Netherlands, have been reassessed emphasizing Antwerp’s enduring role as a centre of trade and knowledge production under Habsburg auspices well into the seventeenth century. (For an overview of the historiography of Antwerp, see Raingard Esser, “Antwerpens ‘Altweibersommer’: Wirtschaft und Kultur in der Scheldestadt zwischen ‘Fall’ (1585) und ‘Frieden’ (1648),” in Wolfenbütteler Barock-Nachrichten 43, 1, 2016, pp. 65-84.)

In Pye’s reading, however, the factors that contributed to the endurance of Antwerp’s role as an international entrepot and cultural centre – the networks of the Catholic Church and, more specifically, the Jesuits operating on the forefront of the Counter-Reformation – have been largely ignored in his book. Antwerp’s printing presses became smaller and less numerous than their Amsterdam rivals, but in 1572 Christoffel Plantijn managed to secure the monopoly to print all breviaries and other liturgical texts for the Habsburg empire, including the large and increasing market in Latin America. Given that religious texts still made up by the far largest number of print products in the seventeenth century, this was a highly lucrative concession.  Also missing are the landmarks of the Catholic agenda of the city, such as the Cathedral and the many religious houses and churches, which formed the fora as well as the financial back-up for much of the exquisite art, for which Antwerp’s artistic community was internationally acclaimed. In Pye’s reading, however, these are much more orchestrated achievements in support of the Habsburg regime and the Counter-Reformation programme of the Catholic Church, rather than the free-ranging enterprises which characterized the earlier decades of the sixteenth century.

The second outdated paradigm that Pye perpetuates in this story centres around the incompatibility of strong guilds and successful entrepreneurship and merchant enterprises. He repeatedly refers to the weakness of Antwerp’s guilds at the time, which allowed for unrestricted market enterprises, new products, and new methods of production unrestrained by rules and regulations installed to keep the status quo of artisanal standards. This perspective ignores the creative power of guilds, again, particularly in the realm of the fine arts including high-quality silverware, top-of-the-range wooden furniture, tapestries, and other luxury products, which were a signature of Antwerp’s trademark as a centre of innovative high-end products. (On the role of early modern guilds, particularly in Antwerp, see the studies of Antwerp historian Bert de Munck, in Karel Davids & Bert de Munck, eds., Innovation and Creativity in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Cities, Ashgate 2014. See also de Munck, Guilds, Labour and the Urban Body Politic: Fabricating Community in the Southern Netherlands, 1300-1800, Routledge 2017.)

The neglect of more recent literature on guilds and their role as guardians of quality is all the more striking since Pye is otherwise well aware of the recent trends in the historiography around Antwerp. His footnotes refer to studies written in many European academic languages, which in turn, demonstrates the international relevance of this very special early modern European metropolis.

What is perhaps not surprising for a book written for the wider anglophone market is that there is considerable coverage of the role of Antwerp in Anglo-Flemish relations and particularly of the agenda of English reformers such as William Tyndale, whose New Testament in English was printed in the city. Overall, however, international relations in and with Antwerp are well-balanced ranging from Lisbon to Istanbul, from Jerusalem to Mexico, from Cologne to Seville.

The composition of the text as a series of vignettes leads to some overlaps, repetition, and jumbled chronology. Sometimes, the story seems just to peter out (see, for instance, pp. 40-41). There are some musings which perhaps are meant as impulses to reflect on current debates, and it might be in this light that the rejection of guilds as stumbling blocks for free enterprises could be seen, thus reflecting more on the neo-liberal agenda of contemporary British politics than on power relations in early modern Antwerp. But, overall, this is a very readable book, which is richly illustrated with well-known and some lesser-known images of the city and its illustrious inhabitants.


Raingard Esser is professor of early modern history at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Her main areas of interest are early modern migration and border studies, and her recent publications include “Norwich’s ‘Disorderly Maids’: Immigrant Women and the Institutions in Early Modern England”, in Raingard Esser & Anita Boele, eds., Nieuwe Tijdingen:Genderpatronen in vroegmoderne (Leuven, 2021), and “Niederländische und Wallonische Migrantinnen in Frühneuzeitlichen Exulantengemeinden”, in Victoria Asschenfeld, et al, eds., Die Neustadt Hanau: Ein Drehkreuz im Europäischen Kunst- und Wissenstransfer (Sandstein Verlag, 2022).

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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century

Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order

Author(s):Sharman, J. C.
Reviewer(s):Lambert, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. C. Sharman. Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. xiv + 216 pp. $17.95 (paperback), ISBN 976-0-691-21007-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Lambert, King’s College London.


This book offers a sparkling critique of the much debated ‘Military Revolution’ thesis of European expansion. Sharman picks up insightful asides from Geoffrey Parker and Jeremy Black, who recognised gaps in the argument, and integrates the work of scholars examining warfare outside the European world, to open a new line of argument. The resulting demolition of long-standing myths of European military superiority over Asian and Africa empires and states is compelling.

Before the 1750s European powers did not use ‘Military Revolution’ methods, or large forces in Africa, Asia, or America. In Asia Europeans were supplicants at Mughal and Ming Courts, anxious to trade, because they were unable to conquer. Portugal’s hard-won Asian empire was effectively restricted to taxing maritime trade at sea and controlling a few key ports. The Iberian powers consistently used extra-European profits to fund wars in Europe and North Africa, with strikingly limited results. In North Africa, centuries of large-scale effort produced little more than a few fortified enclaves that cost far more to defend than they could generate in trade. These were costly vanity projects, not empire building.

More ambitious campaigns ended in disaster. The demolition of an invading Portuguese army, far larger than any force sent to Asia, by Moroccan forces at Alcazer el Kebir in 1578 exposed the core aims of Portugal’s Avis dynasty, crusading and expanding the resource base of a small state. This massive gamble, funded by the profits from African and Asian trade, ended the Avis dynasty, and handed the Kingdom to Spain. The Moroccans used captured Portuguese and mercenary prisoners to expand their empire across the Sahara, to control the gold trade. The Moroccans matched the Portuguese in guns and cannon, while local knowledge, effective leadership and superior cavalry secured victory. Elsewhere the Ottoman Empire dominated eastern Europe long into the 18th century, a system undone by legal and economic changes in land ownership, rather than a ‘Military Revolution’.

The Revolution that handed an edge to the West was the Industrial Revolution, while the collapse of the great Asian Empires, the Mughals and Manchu China, was primarily driven by internal challenges. Europeans came to dominate Africa and Asia long after the ‘Military Revolution’ had passed, recasting the trifling impact of their precursors, and reinforcing contemporary notions of ‘superiority’. Sharman uses the end of these European empires to highlight the relativism of old assumptions. This raises an obvious question: what was the purpose of these European empires? In the case of pre-Revolutionary France prestige and ‘grandeur’ were more important than trade, while Dutch and English/British empire-building efforts were left to chartered companies. In the nineteenth century several ‘new’ empires, notably that of Imperial Germany, were driven by status anxiety.

Critically Sharman establishes that the ‘Military Revolution’ explanation of western imperialism, created in the last era of western empires, has been applied retrospectively to the period between 1500 and 1800 when it was clearly not relevant. European powers consistently prioritised conflict on or immediately adjacent to their own continent over the creation of distant maritime empires. These were primarily treated as a source of funds for European expansion. Walter Raleigh’s imperial vision was unusual only in the clarity with which he made the case that American gold could enable England to defeat Habsburg Spain in Europe. The extraction of funds from the wider world to expend in Europe remained the dominant objective of European activity until the late eighteenth century, with western military superiority emerging neatly coincident with the ’Great Divergence’.

The book concludes by examining how the Europeans finally achieved military dominance, only to lose their empires in the mid 20th century. This assessment tends to underestimate the impact of two global conflicts and United States opposition to European imperialism. That continental military empires including China and Russia have persisted into the twenty-first century, and are still be contested, reflects the dominant Roman paradigm of a land empire homogenised by conquest culture and language. These empires seek security against invasion through terrestrial expansion and close the markets of conquered territories to external trade.

This is a critical text for historians of empires and armies, western and otherwise, not least because it is perfectly pitched to engage and encourage students in history and international relations, especially in institutions places that engage in the study of war and imperialism across the academic disciplines. It should be noted that Sharman, a Professor of International Relations, takes his peers to task for following the flawed assumptions of system-building historians.


Andrew Lambert is a Fellow of King’s College London and Laughton Professor of Naval History. He is the author of The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy (Yale, 2021) and Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (Yale, 2018), winner of the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Book Prize in Military History.

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Subject(s):Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography

Author(s):Alacevich, Michele
Reviewer(s):Darnell, Adrian

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Michele Alacevich. Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. xvi + 332 pp. $26 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0231199834.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Adrian Darnell, retired Professor of Economics, Durham University.


Albert Otto Hirschman was a complex man whose early years were difficult, to say the very least. Born in Germany in 1915, he was the only son of an assimilated Jewish family. In 1933 and not 18 years old he was leaving Berlin in the first exodus of Germans fleeing Nazi oppression. His father, a neurosurgeon, had died just days earlier, and the young Hirschman began studies in Paris. By the time he was 30 had lived in seven different countries on three continents and could write and converse in five languages. He never studied for a higher degree yet went to hold major positions at a dozen elite institutions. To gain an understanding of the details behind these rather bald statements you simply have to read this fascinating book and its more than fascinating subject.

Hirschman’s work as a social scientist is best known in the field of development economics, yet his entrée to the field was more accident than planning. Having fought on the front of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he decided not to join the International Brigades in Madrid but travelled to Trieste to join his sister, Ursula (who had married Eugenio Colorni, the Italian philosopher and anti-fascist activist). Colorni was an important mentor to Hirschman (so much so that Hirschman dedicated his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, 1970, to Colorni’s memory). Hirschman recommenced his studies, graduated from Trieste in 1938, and later wrote a thesis on the franc Poincaré (even though doctoral programmes did not then exist in Italy). His studies were then interrupted again by war – the Second World War – and he proceeded to help refugees flee Europe through Marseille. When that became too dangerous for him, he left for the USA. From 1941 to 1943 he was a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and from 1943 to 1946 he served in the United States Army.

From 1946 to 1952 he was the Chief of the Western European and British Commonwealth Section at the Federal Reserve Board. In this role he published analyses of the European postwar reconstruction and the newly created international economic institutions. And it was his time at the Fed that led him into development economics. Columbia had established a new planning council on the recommendation of the World Bank, and the Columbians asked for an economist who could help them. Alexander Stevenson, then at the Bank and formerly one of Hirschman’s colleagues at Berkeley, recommended Hirschman and so he began to work in the field of development.

To complete the potted statements of his career, he held a succession of academic appointments in economics: Yale from 1956 to 1958, Columbia  from 1958 to 1964, and at Harvard for 10 years (1964–1974). He worked for the Institute for Advanced Study from 1974 until his death at 97 in 2012 (just months after the passing of his wife of over seventy years, Sarah Hirschman).

Perhaps one of the most pervasive of his legacies is the concept of ‘linkages’. Not exactly entirely novel, but in Hirschman’s sharp analyses he was able to articulate how an economic activity encourages new activities to produce inputs to the former (‘backward linkage’) while the outputs of the primary activity themselves become inputs to other processes, thus stimulating and facilitating the production of other goods upstream (‘forward linkage’). While such linkages are readily recognised as input-output constructs, they proved most useful as a general framework within which to construct development strategies (but not as a tool for determining whether to proceed with any one development investment).

Hirschman’s work straddles disciplines, and his development work exemplifies his attempts to intertwine economics and political science. He himself preferred to speak of one interpretative social science. His attempts to integrate distinct social sciences into one, and his attempt to ground that one science in ‘reality’, did however generate some tensions of which he seems to have been oblivious (or perhaps deliberately chose not to dwell on). Indeed, his biographer, Alacevich, does not always spell out all the contradictions in Hirschman’s approach, but rather leaves it to the reader to tease out all the consequences and contradictions. I will confine myself in this review to just a couple.

As is well recognised, a model, by setting to one side several ‘realities’, is designed from the outset as an abstraction. Assumptions are made for various reasons, but one is to simplify the ‘real world’, and a great advantage of such simplifications is that the resulting model is applicable to wide range of circumstances. Models, by their very construction, are not ‘particular’. Hirschman’s work ‘was always occasioned by specific problems to which he hoped to contribute with useful ideas. No ivory tower intellectual, Hirschman was solidly down to earth’ (p xiii). But his very ‘groundedness’ in ‘reality’ meant that much of his work was so particular, so relevant only to the problem at hand, that it was not transferable to similar, but different, problems. His approach to project appraisal illustrates this perfectly. Expressing a dissatisfaction with cost-benefit (CB) analysis he argued for something he described as ‘simpler’, namely ‘judgement in the weighing of alternative objectives and in the trade-off between them’ (Hirschman, 1967, p. 179, here at p. 125). This rejection of CB analysis is one example of Hirschman’s unorthodox approach, but his alternative was seen by the World Bank as, not surprisingly, at total variance to their research agenda; one senior officer was moved to observe that Hirschman’s work contained no useful operational analysis (Demuth to Asher, 1966). Hirschman’s approach may well be a helpful adjunct to more orthodox methods, but it could hardly be described as “simpler” because it is non-operational.

As another example of the internal contradictions in his approach to development planning, Hirschman promoted the idea of not looking at any one issue or project individually but rather constructing what he called a ‘comprehensive plan’. Alacevich describes how Hirschman identified the advantages of such an approach: ‘a plan, because of the large financial commitment involved, would prove a useful ‘tactical weapon’ for policy makers, attempting to stop pressures for additional uncoordinated and haphazard expenditures. A comprehensive plan would help policy makers define a perimeter dividing two huge groups of policies and problems – namely those to be addressed now (within the perimeter of the plan) and those that must be postponed (outside the perimeter).’ (p. 105). In Hirschman’s hands, the concept of a ‘comprehensive plan’ becomes both highly conditional and elastic: the plan is as ‘comprehensive’ as its designers choose. But perhaps effectiveness, as measured in the most direct of economic terms, was not its purpose. As Alacevich notes, as ‘pointless and rigid as a comprehensive plan seem when the question is how to induce economic entrepreneurship, it turned out to be a rich and flexible instrument when the question was how to advance political decisions’ (p. 106).

One of the powerful and recurring themes through Hirschman’s large body of work is the need to understand political processes and decision-making. In Strategy (1958) Hirschman offered a critique of theories of balanced growth and proposed his theory of unbalanced growth, where imbalances created by the growth process can be used to identify areas where policymakers might intervene; he argued that the most critical of shortages in developing countries was often not capital or any other physical asset but actually the capacity to take decisions. In Journeys (1963) the core issue he addressed was ‘the investigation of the behaviour of public decision-makers in problem-solving situations’ (p. 4, here at p. 109). I found the many passages dealing with uncertainty in decision-making most thought-provoking. Hirschman, in Development Projects Observed (1967), introduced the notion of the ‘Hiding Hand’ (dismissed at the time by one senior officer at the Bank as ‘a bit thin, particularly with respect to relevant guidance for those who must decide whether to undertake, continue, or complete a proposed project’ (Asher, 1966, here at p. 122). The Hiding Hand concerns the ‘underestimation of problems [which] induces the implementation of projects which, had all the difficulties been foreseen, would never have been initiated in the first place’ (p. 122). He then argued that problems, when they occur, become the triggers for the construction of creative solutions, leading to their ultimate solution. This idea was later articulated by Hirschman as seeking ‘to prove Hamlet wrong’ to show ‘that doubt could motivate action instead of undermining and enervating it’ (Hirschman 1995, pp.118-9, here at p. 249). Hirschman later suggested that the Hiding Hand was not operationally useful; but as Alacevich seeks to interpret and give meaning to the concept, it ‘was not intended to be a policy tool. It was a way for Hirschman to elaborate on the need to include uncertainty and limited rationality in the [World] Bank’s epistemology’ (pp. 122, 3). To this reviewer the Hiding Hand looks very like a manifestation of the old (Platonic) adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

Hirschman’s innate complexity is well reflected in this dense and compelling biography. His long and varied life, best known amongst development economists but in fact much wider, is excellently told in this volume and its reading will reward anyone interested in Hirschman directly and more generally anyone interested in intellectual history.


Asher, Robert E., to Hirschman, Albert O. World Bank Group Archives, May 27, 1966.

Demuth, Richard H., to Asher, Robert E. World Bank Group Archives, September 13, 1966.

Hirschman, Albert O. The Strategy of Economic Development. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1958.

Hirschman, Albert O. Journeys toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-Making in Latin America. New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1963.

Hirschman, Albert O. Development Projects Observed. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1967.

Hirschman, Albert O. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Hirschman, Albert O. A Propensity to Self-Subversion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.


Adrian Darnell retired as Professor of Economics at Durham University in 2017. He has published extensively on econometrics and its history and regularly contributes to contemporary economic and political debate in The Guardian, The Observer, and The Daily Telegraph.

Copyright (c) 2022 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 (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments, and Time Horizons

Author(s):Offer, Avner
Reviewer(s):Chick, Martin

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Avner Offer. Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments, and Time Horizons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. xiv + 227 pp. £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1108791663.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Martin Chick, University of Edinburgh.


This book has its origins in the Ellen MacArthur Lectures which Avner Offer gave in Cambridge in 2018. The ideas developed in those four lectures are further elaborated here in seven main chapters, whose titles are: patient capital; corruption and integrity; plutocratic blowback; creating humans; exit from work; housing and democracy; and climate change and time horizons. Together they present a complexity of ideas concerning the economic and political conceptualisation of past, present, and future, written in an accessible style and with such a wealth of supporting evidence as to make this book of immense interest both for teaching and research.

The core concern of the book is the temporal boundaries of markets, in particular the private-public sector divide. As Offer writes: ‘the private-public divide runs across the future, not the present. It is a time horizon that lies a few years hence. Running up to that boundary is the playground of market competition. Beyond it is terrain which business prefers not to enter on its own’ (p. xi). Longer, if any, returns on investments in health, education, science, universities, nuclear power, and the mitigation of climate change are just some of the examples cited as areas in which private investors enter with caution. In an inversion of the typical neoliberal advocacy, Offer argues that when private investors do enter these fields, they seek the protection of the state. Particular ire is reserved for those instances when private interests enter markets better suited to the time horizon of the state, and where private financial gains are made while public purpose is obscured. One such is social security, with Rose and Milton Friedman, and Martin Feldstein being criticised for encouraging future pensioners to look to financial equity investment as a source of future higher returns. With the pursuit of such higher returns came higher fees. In the USA in 1999, social security administrative expenses amounting to 0.5 percent of benefit payments, were about one-fifth of the management charges on a private pension account (p. 113). As in the USA, so too in the UK. Offer estimates that in the first decade of personal pension accounts, the average charge ratio was at least 43 percent (p. 105) It was not simply a matter of costs and fees, but also that the equity return approach misstated the fundamental purpose of a social security, risk-pooling income-replacement scheme, this being better reflected in a pensions scheme on a Pay As You Go basis linked to the fundamental growth of GDP.

A dark side to this book concerns corruption. Here there is continuity with Offer’s earlier work, The Challenge of Affluence, in which with the removal of institutional constraints and structures to eating, many individuals struggled to control their appetite and to balance immediate gratification against delayed reward. In this new book, the lessening of government constraints and structures, however seemingly bureaucratic and stuffy, widened the scope for corruption. The chapter on corruption and integrity would make an invaluable central reading for classes on the development of government over the past two centuries. Similarly, the wealth of evidence and discussion in the chapter on the housing market and policies over the past two hundred years would make it a valuable reading for classes in this area.

Ultimately what the book seeks to explain is the persistent presence and size of government. As economies have grown, governments have grown faster. The fourfold increase in the size of the economies of Europe and the United States between 1913 and 1980 was trumped by the increase in public expenditure from around one-tenth of GDP to anywhere between 25 and 50 percent. In the U.K., the recent pandemic has had a wartime ‘ratchet effect’ on public expenditure which as a share of GDP rose from 40 percent immediately before the pandemic, to 53 percent during it, and has now settled back to 45 percent in what we hope is the post-Covid period. Economic history suggests that once ratcheted up during a crisis, public expenditure’s new higher share of GDP does not fall back to its pre-crisis level. Not only does this have implications for the structure of tax systems, with a further likely shift towards indirect taxation including an increasing interest in taxing wealth, but it also raises the central question of what should, and should not, be financed by public expenditure. The experience with the Private Finance Initiative in the U.K. suggests that allowing private companies to aggregate into their required rate of return all their estimated risks of financing, constructing, and maintaining new schools and hospitals for an agreed future is very costly, especially when compared with the rates at which government could borrow in the manipulated monetary conditions following the financial crisis of 2008. Why governments did not take that opportunity to raise money with low-interest, long-duration debt to build assets such as social housing on which the rental returns were higher than the cost of borrowing remains puzzling. The answer probably lies in the politically convenient assumptions made about the relative importance of reducing the national debt/GDP ratio so as not to encumber the future. Not that economists are free of such assumptions. The use made by economists of the social discount rate in assessing the response to climate change also makes its own assumptions about the stability of the entire ecological system. Not only do the time horizons involved in climate mitigation schemes make arguments over the discount rate little short of cute at times, but as Offer underlines they contrast with the relative inattention to the implications of an empirical extrapolation of observed changes in temperature to date. Thought-provoking to the end, Offer has written a highly stimulating, readable book of immense intellectual use to the study of the past and to the present’s consideration of its approach to the future.


Martin Chick is Professor of Economic History at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent book is Changing Times: Economics, Policies and Resource Allocation in Britain since 1951 (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is currently researching the development and use of property rights in, on, and under the seas since 1945.

Copyright (c) 2022 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 (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Author(s):DeLong, J. Bradford
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. Bradford DeLong. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 605 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN 978-0465019595.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University.


The twentieth century was like no other. That statement, of course, is true for any century, but economic historians will strongly argue that degree is everything, and that the twentieth century was more different. The evocative simile of a hockey-stick blade, which turns up sharply in the nineteenth century after a long flat handle, describes far more than just the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the associated rise in temperatures. It includes income, life expectancy, average years of schooling, and many other variables. It is thus with more than usual interest that our profession has looked forward to Brad DeLong’s long-awaited hefty volume that ventures to be a survey of the century worldwide.

The title of the book (not acknowledged) comes from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem of despair, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 after the mayhem of World War I:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(The title was also appropriated by Joan Didion in an essay on the San Francisco counterculture.) How many potential buyers of this book will get this allusion is something that an editor at Basic Books might know. The subtitle, of course, is more direct and will make every red-blooded economic historian want to plunk down for this (very reasonably priced) tome before rushing off to revise their class notes to reflect the insights of this widely respected and erudite scholar and public intellectual.

In many ways, they will not be disappointed. DeLong’s book, as will surprise no one, is exceedingly well written. It provides a narrative that is captivating, witty, often sardonic, at times even entertaining despite the often bleak realities it describes. The twentieth century, whatever else it was, was rarely boring: the rapid trend changes embodied in the hockey stick were punctuated by dramatic and often shocking events: two major wars; a great depression; the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarian movements that threatened and failed to take over the world; the rise and fall and rise of liberal democracies; and a long list of macro-inventions that changed material life on this planet in more dimensions than we can count. Arranged in a roughly chronological order, the book surveys the main events with a keen eye for irony and contingency, and while DeLong never hides his political and economic predilections, he writes with few distracting commitments to one ideological point of view or another.

This book is uncommon in that much of it is written in reference to intellectual history: far more than in most books called “an economic history of —” facts are juxtaposed with thoughts and thinkers. The writings of Hayek, Polanyi, Marx, Luxemburg, Friedman, Feldstein, Hobsbawm, and countless others are confronted with the historical developments as DeLong sees them. What influence did they have on how things turned out? DeLong is particularly fascinated by human folly, miscalculations, and plain ignorance. Time after time he cites some past essay or speech written by a policymaker or intellectual, adding his clear judgment: this was wrong. The only major twentieth century thinker who emerges entirely unscathed from DeLong’s critiques is John Maynard Keynes.

DeLong organizes his history around certain themes at the exclusion of others, which is of course his prerogative, and his choices illustrate his originality and imagination. A case where his out-of-the-box style shines through is his repeated juxtaposition of two influential thinkers of the mid twentieth century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polanyi, neither of whom was in the mainstream of economics. Hayek represents the belief in free enterprise and the strong resistance to regulation and redistribution, captured by DeLong’s phrase (repeated multiple times) “the market giveth and the market taketh away, the name of the market be blessed,” whereas Polanyi felt that the “invention” of the market economy during the Industrial Revolution (a wholly imaginary account) was a curse that threatened more fundamental human rights. For DeLong, the welfare states that emerged in the mixed economies in liberal post-1945 Europe represent a “shotgun marriage” between the two ideologies that otherwise shared nothing.

In many other places, DeLong provides keen insights, some big and some small, no more so than when he points out that much technological progress after 1945 was actually partially skill-reducing in that automation and mechanization could rely on workers with low human capital, and all the ingenuity was front-loaded by high-skill engineers and designers. Once that process got fully under way, firms had an irresistible temptation to outsource production to countries where low-skill labor was substantially cheaper — especially in a world in which long-distance communications (and hence control from afar) and transportation (as stressed by Vaclav Smil) became cheap and reliable (pp. 413-414).

One of the more appealing features of this book is DeLong’s willingness to engage the possibility that much of what went wrong in the twentieth century was the result of bad luck and contingency. Anyone familiar with the literature of what Acemoglu and Robinson (not cited) have called the critical junctures of the century, will see how accidents or relatively minor events with cascading consequences may have determined historical trajectories, though perhaps not everyone may embrace his example of the Florida hanging chads that gave an election to the “astonishingly-unqualified-for-the job” G.W. Bush. Others see material structures and inevitable historical forces, says DeLong, where he sees accidents and happenstance. But then he adds, “future historians will probably be in accord with [their interpretations], not mine” (p. 518). My sense is that there may be room for both.

Whether this book will do well with the general public is hard to say, but professional economic historians will notice that there is surprisingly little economics in it. Perhaps inevitably for a book about the twentieth century, it dwells far more on politics than on economics, and while the two are of course inextricable in any account of the world economy, the relative attention paid to politics and policy and the people involved in them seems oddly disproportionate for a book written by a professional economist. The book raises many of the most pertinent questions that economic historians worry about while thinking about the many challenging questions of the twentieth century: What were the economic roots of World War I? Why did the Soviet economy collapse? Why was Western Europe (a mixed economy) so successful after 1945 while Argentina (another mixed economy) failed? Why do some emerging economies become industrialized and in some fashion democratic, while others sink into poverty, misgovernment, and autocracy, ending up like Haiti, Myanmar, or Venezuela? Why did thousands of years of gender inequality and male domination over women come closer to an end in the twentieth century? The reader will find informed and thoughtful reflections touching lightly on all those and many other issues, but few if any well worked-out answers. While many scattered numbers are cited (often not sourced), there are no tables or graphs anywhere. Some of the most important economic developments of the century are either ignored or dealt with so succinctly that any undergraduate reading it may miss their significance. But even when they are discussed, some economic developments with enormous consequences seem to be treated with a broad brush if at all. Throughout the book, DeLong prefers anecdote to analysis, biographical vignettes to insight, bon-mot to depth.

The concept of utopia is a major focus of the book. Somehow, DeLong notes with sadness in his concluding chapter, utopia has eluded us despite the huge increase in material resources; humanity had an opportunity to bring it about and failed. Yet the concept seems less than fully developed. The complex and volatile relationship between the West and the Soviet world in the Khrushchev era is summarized in a typical two-line paragraph: “And so, the world entered a stable, well-shy-of-utopia equilibrium, so you had to squint hard to see it” (p. 331). Clever, but not all that enlightening. The triumph of the West at the end of the cold war, says DeLong, may have proven that the West’s economic system was “better or at least less bad” than communism, but he then adds a warning: “be not proud” —the Western system was not so much “more utopian than less dystopian” (p. 337). Few have ever believed that the economic systems that emerged in the post-1945 mixed free market economies had serious pretension to provide a utopia; but they did provide a reasonable standard of living, access to education, and economic security to a large and growing segment of the population, and in the most successful cases (sadly not including the United States) they all but eliminated poverty. Perhaps the greatest transformation was evident in the (approximate) doubling of life expectancy across much of the world and the spectacular decline in infant and child mortality, which the book barely mentions. That may not have been utopia, but it was pretty good.

Several other important episodes of the economic history of the twentieth century seem oddly under-emphasized or neglected in this volume. One is the economic history of the Soviet Union, which gets one thin chapter sardonically called “really-existing socialism.” DeLong manages to miss the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 involving the death by starvation of at least 2.6 million Ukrainians (see Naumenko’s recent analysis of this catastrophe), whereas Lenin’s taste in classical music somehow deserves a mention. The book never comes to grips with the deeper questions of whether the collapse of the Soviet system really prove that the collectivist experiment “failed” in some definable sense. Nor does it note the many ironies and contradictions of an economic system that side-stepped Hayek’s wisdom regarding the essential role of market prices in the allocation of resources, for which DeLong elsewhere expresses his unqualified admiration for (pp. 93-94, 526). Not to mention the environmental devastation that the workers’ paradise inflicted on the soil, water, and air of the socialist nations.

Equally surprising is the absence of any serious discussion of the miraculous decline in fertility that took place during this period, which has dropped every European country (and now the US) to a fertility level below replacement. For a scholar explicitly committed to a Malthusian view of most of human history, this omission is astonishing (the word “contraception” does not appear in the book). Does a phenomenon this momentous in human history really merit no more than a single paragraph in a chapter titled “inclusion”?

All in all, the great paradox of the twentieth century remains that despite the horrors and the violence and despite repeated setbacks, material life improved more in a hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. To be sure, inequality remained high, which DeLong seems to feel keeps us from utopia; it is surprising that he fails to refer to Walter Scheidel’s recent Great Leveler, which shows at length that a rise in equality and “utopia” rarely went together. The European welfare state was, as DeLong notes in a thoughtful chapter on post 1945 social democracy, as close as we may ever get to it, and even it was far from foolproof. Yet as Peter Lindert’s path-breaking work has shown, it was as good as it gets and it was cheap even if its sustainability remains a continuing open question. Perhaps the economics of the welfare state requires more Lindert and less Polanyi.

The principal driver of the great enrichment, oddly enough, is never seriously discussed in this book. The main primum movens of economic growth was and remained the rapid expansion of the combination of science and technology and the positive interaction of the two, as Robert Gordon has shown in lavish detail. For DeLong the roots of this complex and profoundly transformative mechanism seem to be a minor matter, thus opening this book to a criticism of playing a prince-less Hamlet. DeLong feels that technological progress was generated primarily by industrial research labs and through the “routinization of scientific discovery” (pp. 1, 274, 526). This cursory treatment is wholly inadequate; had it not been for the continued expansion of useful knowledge, all other sources of increased human welfare would have eventually fizzled out. But why and how did it maintain its relentless progress? How was it incentivized and rewarded? Why and how did the West maintain its leadership, and why did the capabilities to deploy it productively reach some countries and not others?

It seems unreasonable to expect that any scholar with a finite life expectancy can do full justice to a subject this enormous. With his idiosyncratic style and approach, DeLong has created an enthralling and coherent narrative of the twentieth century. Readers will be persuaded or not, annoyed here and there, impressed in many places, catch a few errors, but it is hard to put the book down even for those who know most of the details. It is perhaps not a fully satisfactory and complete account, but it serves our profession by fully heeding one tenet: the deadliest enemy of economic history is not error but boredom.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown, 2012.

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Naumenko, Natalya. “The Political Economy of Famine: The Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Journal of Economic History, Volume 81, Issue 1, March 2021, pp. 156 -197.

Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Smil, Vaclav. Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.


Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor, (by special appointment) at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics, Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is A Culture of Growth (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Copyright (c) 2022 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 (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Income and Wealth
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century