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Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars

Author(s):Bollard, Alan
Reviewer(s):Bossie, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (March 2021)

Alan Bollard, Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. xxi + 321 pp. $25 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-884600-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Bossie, Department of Economics, New Jersey City University.


The economists profiled in Alan Bollard’s Economists at War were all cursed to live in interesting times. All of them were active participants in history as agents of states emerging and collapsing during the violent rending of the 1930s and 40s that birthed modern industrial governance. For those of us who find important echoes in today’s world in which global fascism is again on the rise and the only political force with any energy or will to oppose it has proudly resurrected the “Socialist” label, Bollard provides us with compelling models — both positive and negative — for how economists operated within and with governments to manage the rolling crises that built the twentieth century state.

Economics in our own era have inherited an ideological regime brought about by economists of the baby boomer generation. This intellectual regime has centered around the failures of collective action: the cynicism of public choice theory and the rational callousness of game theory. Within macroeconomics, the great intellectual project of the baby boomers — and Gen X, who came of age when nothing but the neoliberalism of the Great Moderation seemed possible — was to marry Friedman’s centrality of money with micro-founded models of technology and capital that are always in equilibrium. In the New Keynesian consensus that emerged from this project the modern state, even flattened-out as “fiscal policy,” played no role. Multipliers were assumed to be less than one, public debts were assumed to always come due, markets were assumed best deregulated and conservative central bankers were the equilibrium condition.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, caused by a refusal of states to regulate businesses, the ship of this intellectual regime had been increasingly battered against the rocks of reality. Then the COVID recession came, like a great tsunami, and sank the ideology of neoliberalism. Not only do we now have ample evidence that debilitatingly higher interest rates and inflation are not an inevitable consequence of profligate government spending and money printing, but the profession’s proletariat (Temin, 2013) has also risen up in a Credibility Revolution. Empirical economists have chipped away at many ideas that were obviously true twenty years ago. Multipliers are often more than one. The minimum wage does not obviously cause unemployment. The money printer not only can but must go brrr. We find ourselves, much like during the crises of the 30s and 40s intellectually adrift in uncharted waters. For those of us with a historical bent, a major navigation point has been the caldron that formed the modern welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century. Bollard offers and excellent and compelling map of this sea.

Bollard profiles economists operating under all of the emerging, consolidating, and collapsing political-economic systems of the era: capitalist, fascist and communist. Within these systems Bollard provides us with a number of models for how economists interacted and supported their states through depression and war, with an equally compelling epilogue devoted to the roles these men played during the Cold War. Herein lies the first strength of Bollard’s book: its inclusivity. This inclusivity takes three forms. First, as stated, Bollard takes the plurality of political and economic systems engaged in the war seriously. Secondly, Eastern economists are profiled along with Western. While the book is intended to be chronological, it feels like a deliberate decision to open the book with the murder of Takahashi Korekiyo — former Prime Minister and Finance Minster of Japan — by the Japanese military. In doing so Bollard establishes the stakes of the global political drama while also reminding the reader that it was not simply a Western drama. Bollard then segues from Takahashi’s story to that of the unscrupulous Kung Hsiang-hsi, who aided in his family’s rise to riches holding various positions as an economic manager for the Kuomintang’s military kleptocracy in China.

The third way in which Bollard’s inclusivity is evident in his definition of “economist.” I had my initial skepticism of his choices of who to label as an “economist” but as with many of my prior’s going into this book Bollard offers a convincing case for his decisions. Takahashi and Kung are economic policy makers who are joined by Hjalmar Schacht in Germany as profiles in navigating economic policy making during depression and war. These men open the book and provide profiles of the economist as a civil servant. The relationship between these economists and the states they worked for is explicit and obvious. As the book moves on Bollard moves into profiles of economists as academics, and the relationship between these men and their respective governments is more fluid but no less clear.

In this respect, the profile of J.M. Keynes is a useful bridge between the types of economists Bollard profiles, though Keynes was more successful as an academic given that his policy advice was generally ignored or overruled. As someone quite familiar with this period and suffering a bit from “Keynes fatigue,” I went into this book wishing Bollard had picked some other British economist to profile. However, Keynes — as a world historical figure — serves as a central node in the network of relationships between the economists profiled in the book, overlapping with many of them personally and professionally. Even the fact that Keynes had in-laws in Leningrad is used as a transition device. The result is a usefully targeted biography of Keynes that will surely be on the syllabus should I ever decide to teach a class on Keynes again.

Within his exploration of academic economists during the war, Wassily Leontief is a great example of the typical origin stories of the various academics profiled. Forced, like all the other European Jews profiled in the book, to make decisions about how to ride through the instability of the first half of the twentieth century that as often as not targeted them directly, Leontief found his way to the United States and settled into a quiet and productive life following a research program parallel to that of Leonid Kantorovich in the Soviet Union. Though, unlike the comfortable Leontief, Kantorovich’s quiet life was one of suffocation under Stalinism.

Bollard offers a compelling parallel between Kantorovich and American polymath John Von Neumann. Kantorovich was stymied and isolated by the worst impulses of Stalinism while Von Neuman thrived under the worst impulses of American political culture. In a book that features Nazi collaborators, Bollard remains relatively detached with no real villains, except for Stalin. The injustice and irrationality of the claustrophobic intellectual environment that Kantorovich had to survive is palpable in the book. As is the post-Stalin emergence of Kantorovich into the light.

Kantorovich’s first time leaving the USSR on a world tour that started with his accepting the Nobel Prize underscores a theme throughout the book that I felt deeply in this world where the best we can manage are awkward Zoom seminars. Throughout the book Bollard highlights various encounters, seminars and conversations among academics and policy makers. This reminds us that science is collective and participatory, and while the men profiled in this book are all standalone geniuses, the magnifying externalities of that genius are most evident in conversations over a couple glasses of wine or a lunch with a colleague in a seminar room. Kantorovich is a case study in how genius is diminished in both political and physical isolation.

The parallels between Kantorovich and Von Neumann, whose genius floats through his profile as pollen in spring, are striking. Both men made important contributions to economics, nuclear physics, and computer science. Where they diverge, though, leaves me disliking Von Neumann as much as I am sympathetic towards Kantorovich. While Kantorovich’s relationship with his country’s military industrial complex was largely one of survival, Von Neumann’s involvement with the military industrial complex in the U.S. seems to be one in which he thrived. I find it very difficult, even in historical context, to understand how a scientist could see with his own eyes the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons and then champion their use. Imbibing all the worst impulses of game theoretic thinking, Von Neumann created and then championed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the strategy of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Von Neumann’s final days are depicted particularly powerfully: screaming in terror of death and in resentment at his own lost potential. Bollard is right to follow up this scene by reminding the reader that Von Neumann was likely slowly murdered by the same nuclear weapons he advocated using to murder so many other people.

Bollard’s nuanced depiction of Von Neumann is illustrative of another strength of his book: an excellent writer, he presents the economists under consideration as complex and complete figures. This is most clear in his sympathetic depiction of Schacht who was both President of the Reichsbank and Minster of Economics under the Nazi government in the 1930s. Bollard, who has had a rich career as a civil servant in New Zealand — he served at both his country’s Treasury and Reserve Bank and is currently the chair of the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission — portrays Schacht as a civil servant trying to do what he can under conditions he has very little control over. The depiction is probably too sympathetic, but it is nonetheless compelling. The depiction also serves an important purpose in that it forces readers to confront their own complicities and hubris that they would never slide down the slippery slope Schacht did. Further, the ultimately prosperous Schacht is a useful foil to Takahashi’s martyrdom at the hands of his own myopic and militaristic fascist government.

The one exception to Bollard’s general balance between admiration and criticism is H.H. Kung. While all the other economists are portrayed sympathetically and complexly, Bollard seems to outright dislike Kung. Kung is an exception among the economists in the book, the rest of whom were motivated by some kind of higher ideal. The other men were dedicated to their own conception of good governance or motivated by discovery and science. Kung, on the other hand, was simply an opportunist and solely motivated by accruing wealth for himself and his family. A creature of pure corruption, he stands out in a book profiling men devoted to higher ideals than economic accumulation. These higher ideals of governance and science are necessarily collective and cooperative ideals.

Economists at War offers us a diverse series of case studies in men who were thrust into an epic collective struggle by history and employed their energy and genius in that struggle imperfectly. This makes it an important work for economists trying to reimagine a world where there are collective solutions to collective problems. Hopefully, though, we can imagine collectively managing our own global structural shifts adequately enough so that when future historians of economic thought write about our own period we can be portrayed as economists at peace.


Temin, Peter (2013). The Rise and Fall of Economic History at MIT. MIT Department of Economics Working Paper Series.



Andrew Bossie is Chair of the Economics Department at New Jersey City University. His research focuses on the short- and long-run economic effects of World War II on the U.S.

Copyright (c) 2021 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 (March 2021). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

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

Russian Economic Development over Three Centuries: New Data and Inferences

Editor(s):Kuboniwa, Masaaki
Nakamura, Yasushi
Kumo, Kazuhiro
Shida, Yoshisada
Reviewer(s):Nafziger,, Steven

Published by EH.Net (March 2021)

Masaaki Kuboniwa, Yasushi Nakamura, Kazuhiro Kumo, and Yoshisada Shida, editors, Russian Economic Development over Three Centuries: New Data and Inferences. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. xxxi + 443 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-981-13-8428-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.


Most economic historians are in love with their data. A plausible “meet-cute” story opens with a lonely economic historian sitting somewhere dusty — library alcove, middle-of-nowhere archive, a COVID-era office or bedroom — flipping through some massive tome published by the Ministry of Money and Other Stuff, squinting at the impenetrable handwriting of Big Textile Firm’s surely intoxicated accountant, or going blind from excessive Google Booking of that obscure Maltese household survey. All of a sudden, there they are! The beautiful data she or he never knew existed to answer that question that just came to mind. Now, the economic historian may have been in a committed relationship with data from an older project, but they are quickly forgotten as the regression possibilities with these sexy new observations are just too exciting to ignore. [Side note: where do online dating apps fit into this metaphor?] Wooing and vows follow. Of course, a happy union (progeny?) requires coding, checking, summarizing, and analyzing the new data, all of which involve tears, laughter, telling looks, heated arguments, and (un)comfortable silences. But the economic historian is committed, through sickness and health. At least until a new source catches his or her eye.

Although I have no knowledge of their actual experiences, Masaki Kuboniwa (Hitotsubashi University) and his editorial and authorial colleagues — all esteemed Japanese scholars of Russian and Soviet economic history and development — appear to have had many such rewarding data relationships over their careers, as evidenced by this fascinating and useful volume: Russian Economic Development over Three Centuries: New Data and Inferences. Reading through the 450+ pages of this edited volume, topic by topic, data table by methodological note, I was reminded again and again of just how central the work of creating, evaluating, and interpreting data is to the economic history occupation. What would most of us be if not sweethearts to the data loves of our lives?

The volume covers the period from roughly 1850 to 2015, and it necessarily discusses — often in depth — the changes of borders and units as the research subject evolved from the Russian Empire, to the Soviet Union, to the Russian Federation. Following an introductory chapter and a chapter on the sources and structures of official state statistics over the period, different sets of authors then offer ten topical chapters that discuss sources and produce statistical series for population, labor, sectoral developments in agricultural and industry, money and finance, government budgets, foreign trade and earnings, GDP, and, finally, output and rents in the oil and natural gas sectors. Everything is couched in the System of National Accounts framework, with the result that aggregate and macroeconomic time-series indicators available in some form for all or much of the period are the focal points and take precedence over micro-level or geographic variation. Considerable attention is paid to the peculiarities induced in data series by the non-market, Marxist nature of the Soviet economy and the associated definitional issues and statistical practices. Almost uniformly, the chapters make plain their level of confidence in the underlying source material and in any alternative series from the secondary literature. Throughout the volume, Japan naturally serves as an implicit and often explicit point of comparison, often to great effect.

The greatest contribution of this study is to collect and knit together such a large amount of quantitative material documenting long-run trends in Russian and Soviet economic history. Most of the volume’s data originated in official or state-generated sources, but the authors have delved into the archives here and there in an effort to fill in gaps. In general, the focus is on description and summarization rather than analysis; nevertheless, the volume shows the deep knowledge of the region among the authors and provides several substantive contributions to our understanding of Russian/Soviet economic history that are worth spotlighting. I focus on four of the chapters that make particularly important increments to existing scholarship.

First, the chapter on population provides a clear and definitive accounting of how demographic data of various sorts were produced, aggregated, and often politicized over the entire period. The author (Kazuhiro Kumo of Hitotsubashi University) then draws on these underlying sources to construct aggregate series for population, crude birth and death rates, and infant mortality on a roughly annual basis. The result is one of the most carefully executed (and fully documented!) studies of long-run demographic change that this reviewer has ever seen, which, while it does not dramatically change our understanding of Russian/Soviet population history, should be seen as the definitive account going forward. Second, the two sectoral chapters on agriculture and industry bring together in English and in a more condensed way than before the definitive data “spade-work” of Manabu Suhara (Nihon University), which has generally only been available in Japanese. Suhara’s measured and detailed generation of indices of aggregate output in these two sectors (and the underlying sub-sector, input, and price series) — in comparison to other extant series such as those provided by the regime and those produced by the CIA — show how definitions, source accuracy, and missing data within official or otherwise available sources impact resulting interpretations of Soviet (and Imperial) economic development. [An aside: the chapter on state budgets by Shinichiro and Tomoko Tabata (Hokkaido University) similarly sets the standard for central government revenue and expenditure data going forward.] Finally, a chapter by Kuboniwa, Yoshisada Shida (The Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia), and Shichiro Tabata provides a new set of GDP series for 1860–2015 (with considerable additional work on measuring the large informal economy through household budget data in the Soviet period). Their work extends earlier research by a host of scholars and argues, more emphatically than previous studies, for the especially high volatility of growth rates in the Imperial period, followed by very low volatility in the Soviet period and then a return to very high variance after 1990. These important facts have possible implications for our understanding of well-being and policymaking over the entire period. Moreover, by explicitly comparing their series to those of Japan, they establish that economic growth was surprisingly equal in the two countries until the 1960s.

While there is much to admire about this volume, such an endeavor naturally generates items with which a specialist might quibble. While all of the chapters are readable (albeit with numerous examples of non-standard English) and present important insights, the ones on foreign trade earnings and oil and gas rents could have been integrated elsewhere in the text (or included as appendices), and there is some unnecessary repetition of material across the volume. The concentrated focus on the Russian Federation and its direct antecedents means that data and developments of the other former Soviet republics are not really explored, particularly as to how their inclusion or exclusion impacts our understanding of the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition period. Some selective work with important micro-data sources — industrial censuses, household surveys, etc. — would have usefully complemented the emphasis on aggregate data. Relatedly, topics such as living standards, distributional issues, innovation, asset prices, and several others receive, as the authors themselves note, very little attention. The authors do provide some relevant international comparisons but not quite enough for this reviewer’s liking. Finally, for a volume presenting and consolidating so much data, the internal web links to the resulting materials are seemingly broken (as of March 2021). Hopefully, the publisher and research team will rectify that soon (the data appendices are currently available here: Any scholar or student interested in the economic development of this critical region over the last 150 years will benefit from not only reading Russian Economic Development, but also from using, analyzing, and building upon their pioneering (and surely loving) data work.


Steven Nafziger is Professor of Economics and Faculty Affiliate in History at Williams College. Recent publications include “Eastern Europe and the Global Economy, 1800–1914,” (with Matthias Morys) in Matthias Morys, ed. The Economic History of Central, East, and South-East Europe, 1800 to the Present Day (2021) and “The Slow Road from Serfdom: Labor Coercion and Long-Run Development in the Former Russian Empire” (with Johannes Buggle), Review of Economics and Statistics (2021).

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

Schooling under Control: The Origins of Public Education in Imperial Austria 1769-1869

Author(s):Cvrček, Tomáš
Reviewer(s):Cohen, Gary B.

Published by EH.Net (February 2021)

Tomáš Cvrček, Schooling under Control: The Origins of Public Education in Imperial Austria 1769-1869. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. xi + 301 pp. €59 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-16-159267-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gary B. Cohen, Department of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.


In 1774 the Austrian government under Empress Maria Theresa issued a general school ordinance (Allgemeine Schulordnung), which introduced a requirement of six years of primary schooling for children across the realm. Historians of the Habsburg Monarchy have typically praised this as one of the more progressive measures of enlightened absolutist rule, which spurred the advance of literacy, strengthened the state, and aided economic development. Scholars have also noted, though, sharp limits on the further development of education until the 1850s and 1860s, the meager funding and poor general conditions of many schools during the intervening decades, and the persistence of high rates of illiteracy in territories such as Dalmatia, Galicia, and Bukovina. Many voices in the polyglot Habsburg realm and later the successor states criticized the favoring of German-language instruction after the initial grade levels and the privileging of the German-speaking population in the educational system across the Austrian half of the empire through much of the nineteenth century.

Until now, though, hardly any scholars have examined with quantitative rigor the advance of elementary schooling in the Habsburg territories, enrollment levels in various regions, the extent of popular demand for schooling, or the financial calculations for public authorities and parents. In this welcome book Tomáš Cvrček, a lecturer in economics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of University College, London, offers new vistas on the economic, social, and political dynamics of elementary education in the Austrian lands of the Habsburg Monarchy. A native of the Czech Republic, he earned a doctorate in economics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Cvrček demonstrates a strong grounding in the history of Habsburg Central Europe, great skill in assembling a range of statistical sources, and an impressive command of sophisticated analytic methods.

Cvrček identifies two broad categories of causal factors for the general advance of mass schooling in modern societies: the pressure of economic and social development and the impact of government policies and political and ideological purposes. Since, as he notes, the socioeconomic and political drivers are typically linked, how have they interacted? Cvrček organizes his examination of the Austrian experience in a hybrid chronological-topical scheme. The first chapter offers a chronological treatment of institutional developments with subsequent chapters addressing the expansion of the school network and its reach in the population; the political economy of primary schooling; the size, character, and costs of the teaching staff; the costs of attending and the enrollment and attendance rates compared to the total school-age population; the learning process, its effectiveness, and general outcomes; and finally, the end of the Theresian system with the liberal reforms of the 1860s. Wherever possible, Cvrček marshals statistical sources to analyze developments quantitatively, including among other aspects the costs of school operations and the revenue sources; the growth, density, and accessibility of the school network in different regions and socioeconomic milieux; and the changing levels of literacy in various regions and among different generations.

Gathering and analyzing evidence for all this is no mean feat. The statistical sources needed vary greatly in extent and quality across the imperial Austrian territories before the 1870s, and for few of the most important measures of school operations can one find time series data to cover adequately the whole period from the 1770s to the 1860s. Cvrček demonstrates notable ingenuity in assembling usable sources from various regions and extrapolating from what he has. To flesh out the analysis, he applies statistical tests of significance and variance, including regression analysis, and generates sophisticated indices at various points. Readers unschooled in such quantitative analysis may find some of this daunting, but in every instance, Cvrček presents the calculations transparently and explains what estimations and extrapolations have been necessary. Scholars with more expertise in advanced statistical analysis than this reviewer will need to judge the validity of Cvrček’s methods and findings for themselves, but I find the argumentation plausible overall.

Not only economic historians but readers interested in the broader social and political development of modern Habsburg Central Europe will find much of value in the findings here. The primary school network grew highly unevenly from the 1770s to the 1860s, both in its extension across the Austrian territories and in the pace of expansion. Rapid growth in the 1780s gave way to either stagnation in some regions or a return to the slower but steady growth rates that were typical before 1775. Elementary education as a whole stagnated in the 1830s and 1840s, but the central government expressed no dissatisfaction with that until the upheavals of 1848. When the imperial authorities initially mandated the provision of six years of required primary education, they imposed a curriculum of only two years’ duration which was then to be repeated in the subsequent years. At the same time, the government closed a number of secondary and higher educational institutions which it saw as unnecessary. Later, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until after 1848, the central government opposed curricular and pedagogic innovations, and it tended to resist calls in cities and towns for opening more practically oriented Realschulen. Cvrček finds that from the late 1820s until the late 1860s, the overall enrollment ratio never exceeded 60 percent of all five to twelve-year-olds. School coverage of the eligible population throughout the period was lower than the regulations stipulated and, in fact, lower than the officials thought it was, thanks to their inadequate and faulty data collection.

Cvrček sees two underlying reasons for the limited development of primary education before a new round of reforms came in the 1860s. From the outset the central government, which perennially faced budget stringency, committed few financial resources to primary education and left the great bulk of the operating costs for the basic schools (Trivialschulen) to local communities and parents and the cost of facilities to local school patrons or communal councils. The other main factor was the sharp limits on how much schooling the fundamentally conservative government wanted for the general population. The authorities expected a basic grounding in religion, reading, writing, and some arithmetic but little more. The basic goal was to produce a populace that could function adequately in society and the economy with obedience to state and religious authorities and respect for one’s social superiors. Cvrček supports well these arguments with the evidence presented on the framing of the Theresian educational system and the limits on the expansion of primary schools up to the 1860s.

One must register some objections, though, when Cvrček concludes rather simply that the whole system expressed the socially conservative values of a government of the 1770s that were grounded in a “milieu of the gradually fading but still lingering serfdom.” It was “an imposition by a feudal ruler on her serfs to further her, not their, interests” (p. 280). Certainly, the Theresian educational system embodied expectations of a strict social hierarchy and submissive lower orders, but those assumptions applied to a variegated body of subaltern social elements which included free small peasant farmers and herders, servants, craft apprentices, and laborers along with the many serfs. Cvrček, in fact, shows his awareness elsewhere in the book that Austrian society in the era of Maria Theresa and Joseph II already showed considerable dynamism and included increasingly diverse middle and lower strata before the abolition of serfdom, the first waves of the industrial revolution, and the French Revolution had any deep impact.

Gary B. Cohen is Professor Emeritus of modern Central European history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has published monographs, edited volumes, and numerous journal articles and book chapters on social and political development in modern Habsburg Central Europe. Currently he is preparing a contribution to a new Cambridge History of the Habsburg Monarchy on the monarchy’s legacy to governance, political culture, and society in the successor states.

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Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

David Greasley

Martin Chick, Eoin McLaughlin and Les Oxley contributed information to this In Memoriam and bear responsibility for errors and omissions.

David Greasley was born in 1951 in Clowne, a coal-mining centre in the Bolsover district of Derbyshire. He was educated at the University of Liverpool, from which he graduated with a degree in Economics in 1972, before proceeding to postgraduate work in Economic History at the same institution. In 1975, he was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Economic History at the University of Edinburgh. The department, whose senior members at the time included Michael Flinn, Berrick Saul and Christopher Smout, appointed David so as to augment substantially the department’s quantitative and econometric skills. Four years later, in 1979, David completed his Ph.D. thesis on the application of machine-cutting technology in the early twentieth century British coal-mining industry.

In his early years at Edinburgh, David both developed his existing research on the coal-mining industry with articles appearing in Explorations in Economic History, Economica and the Journal of Economic History, and also broadened his research interests and publications on topics such as wages, income and productivity. David’s last publication on coal mining was for a volume on the political economy of nationalisation, edited by Bob Millward and John Singleton. By the mid-1990s, David’s research interests shifted, as he began to work with his Edinburgh economics colleague Les Oxley, to consider both the discontinuities and patterns in economic and industrial growth, including new interpretations of the timing of the British Industrial Revolution. With Jakob Madsen, David also developed further his interests in natural resource economics, especially in relation to the economic history of Australia. With Les, David published widely-cited, pioneering work on the application of time series methods to long-run historical data, as well as breaking new ground in the comparative economic history of the Antipodes. It was in 1995 that ‘Australia’ appeared for the first time in the title of a journal article (Economic Record), and increasingly comparisons of Australia, Canada , New Zealand and the USA became a characteristic feature of David’s work. With Les, David revitalised research on New Zealand economic history with a series of contributions on the ‘Pastoral boom . . .” published in the Economic History Review, 2009; “Regime shift and fast recovery on the periphery . . .” Economic History Review, 2002; “Refrigeration and Distribution: New Zealand Land Prices and real Wages, Australian Economic History Review 2005; and “Knowledge, Natural Resource Abundance and Economic Development . . .,” Explorations in Economic History, 2010. These and other papers have now become standard references in new texts on New Zealand economic history. Fittingly, one of David’s last publications, on the industrialisation of Australia’s natural capital, appeared in the Cambridge Economic History of Australia.

Both before and after his retirement in 2015, David was also heavily involved in a research project with Nick Hanley and others on the long-run analysis of well-being and sustainable development, with carbon continuing to figure at the end of his work as it had at the start. David and co-authors published several papers in the environmental economics field journals on the topic of long-run sustainability. This firstly required historical estimation of “genuine savings,” or “adjusted net savings,” a metric of national savings that takes account of degradation of natural capital that the World Bank has published since the 1990s. The longest series was constructed for Britain for the period 1765-2000. Other series were published for the United States and Germany, and later for Australia. With these new long-run estimates of sustainable development, the papers then tested if the indicators of sustainable development were good predictors of future well-being using the historical record. The original article on Britain, “Testing genuine savings as a forward-looking indicator of future well-being in the (very) long run,” was published in Journal of Environmental Economics & Management and tested genuine savings as a predictor of future changes in real wages. The headline finding was the importance of including measures of technological improvements for long-run sustainability. This study was followed by a comparison of different conceptual ways of measuring sustainable development from flows (investment) and stocks (wealth) and bottom-up versus top-down measures, the study “Historical wealth accounts for Britain,” was published in Oxford Review of Economic Policy. A further paper, “Counting carbon,” published in the Scandinavian Economic History Review, addressed the issue of how to quantify the damage costs of carbon dioxide over time.

A comparative component was brought to the analysis with a three country study of Britain, Germany and the United States: “Empirical Testing of Genuine Savings as an Indicator of Weak Sustainability . . .” was published in Environmental and Resource Economics. The final study built on the three country study with a direct comparison to Australia. It applied a counterfactual analysis to Australian economic history (‘how much better off would the average Australian be if Australia had followed the Hartwick Rule’) by applying the concepts from environmental economics and comparing Australia with OECD peers. The study, “Australia: a land of missed opportunities,” was published in Environment and Development Economics.  It showed how Australia had consistently saved less than OECD peers and this had implications in terms of “lost opportunities.” In all, David published 55 peer-reviewed articles in leading economic and economic history journals, five book chapters, and one edited volume.

In addition to his research, David also picked up more than his fair share of teaching and administration. In teaching, first-year students were introduced to the merits, or otherwise, of Benjamin and Kochin on benefit-wage ratios, while third- and fourth-year students met the work of Milton Friedman, Anna Schwartz, Martha Olney, and others in David’s comparative courses on economic development in the U.K. and U.S. In time, further courses, on “New Zealand and the World Economy, 1870-1939” and “Transforming Australia: Economic Development since 1788,” were added. David’s teaching was popular, conscientious and stimulating, which was especially impressive given the often technical nature of what was being taught. As a mentor and supervisor to postgraduates and colleagues, David generously taught as much by example as by instruction.

As Head of the Department of Economic and Social History between 2001 and 2004, David’s integrity and competence shone. High administrative competence brought its usual unsought rewards, such as David being charged with co-ordinating the Teaching Programme Review for History, before being chosen as the Director of Research in the newly-established School of History, Classics and Archaeology from 2008. In amongst these administrative commitments, David found time to play a major role in bringing the Sixth World Congress of Cliometrics to Edinburgh in 2008. Happily, in 2007, David’s academic achievements were recognised with his promotion to a personal chair in Economic History. With an established international reputation, and a seemingly ever-growing interest in New Zealand, David would self-mockingly complain at his folly in choosing an area of research which involved some of the world’s longest air journeys. Characteristically, he would omit to mention that one such visit had included giving an Academic Linkages Guest Lecture on “Globalisation and Wages” to the New Zealand Treasury in 2003.

David will be much missed, and his death on 12th January 2021 at the age of 69 was all too premature. Quiet, knowledgeable and incisive, David was someone to whom you could go for advice on administrative problems, or to discover, usually in about two minutes, what was fundamentally wrong with your latest favourite hypothesis. A gentle, kind and unassuming scholar, it was a privilege to know him.

David Greasley Bibliography:


  1. David Greasley, Eoin McLaughlin, Nick Hanley, and Les Oxley (2017). Australia: a Land of Missed Opportunities? Environment and Development Economics, 22, 674-698
  2. Greasley, D. and J. B. Madsen, (2016), The Rise and Fall of Exceptional Australian Incomes, 1800-2010, Australian Economic History Review, 57(3), 263-290.
  3. Nick Hanley, Les Oxley, David Greasley, Eoin McLaughlin, Matthias Blum (2016). Empirical Testing of Genuine Savings as an Indicator of Weak Sustainability: A three-Country Analysis of Long-Run Trends, Environmental and Resource Economics, 63, 313-38
  4. Testing genuine savings as a forward-looking indicator of future well-being over the (very) long-run (2014) Greasley, D., Hanley, N., Kunnas, J., McLaughlin, E., Oxley, L. & Warde, P., In: Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 67, 2, p. 171-188
  5. Kunnas, J., McLaughlin, E., Hanley, N., Greasley, D., Oxley, L. & Warde, P., (2014) Counting carbon: Historic emissions from fossil fuels, long-run measures of sustainable development and carbon debt, In: Scandinavian Economic History Review. 62, 3, p. 243-265
  6. McLaughlin, E., Hanley, N., Greasley, D., Kunnas, J., Oxley, L. & Warde, P., (2014), Historical wealth accounts for Britain: Progress and puzzles in measuring the sustainability of economic growth In: Oxford Review of Economic Policy. 30, 1, p. 44-69
  7. Greasley, D., Madsen, J. B. & Wohar, M. E., (2013). Long-run growth empirics and new challenges for unified theory, In: Applied Economics. 45, 28, p. 3973-3987 15
  8. Greasley, D. & Madsen, J. B., (2013) The housing slump and the great depression in the USA , In: Cliometrica. 7, 1, p. 15-35 21
  9.  Greasley, D. & Oxley, L., (2011), Cliometrics and Time Series Econometrics: Some Theory and Applications, in Economics and History: Surveys in Cliometrics. Wiley, Vol. 24. p. 217-287
  10. Greasley, D. & Oxley, L., (2010), Clio and the Economist: Making Historians Count In: Journal of Economic Surveys. 24, 5, p. 755-774
  11. Greasley, D. & Oxley, L., (2010). Cliometrics and Time Series Econometrics: Some Theory and Applications, In: Journal of Economic Surveys. 24, 5, p. 970-1042
  12. Greasley, D. & Oxley, L., (2010) Knowledge, Natural Resource Abundance and Economic Development: Lessons from New Zealand 1861-1939, In: Explorations in Economic History. 47, 4, p. 443-59
  13. Greasley, D. & Madsen, J. B., (2010). Curse and Boon: Natural Resources and Long Run Growth in currently Rich Economies, In: Economic Record. 86, 274, p. 311-328
  14. Greasley, D. & Oxley, L., (2009). The Pastoral Boom, the Rural Land Market, and Long Swings in New Zealand Economic Growth 1873-1939 In: Economic History Review. 62, 2, p. 324-349
  15.  Greasley, D., Inwood, K., & Singleton, J. (2007). Factor Prices and Income Distribution in Less Industrialized Countries 1870-1939, In: Australian Economic History Review. 47, p. 1-5
  16.  Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2007). Patenting, Intellectual Property Rights and Sectoral Outputs in Industrial Revolution Britain, 1780-1851, In: Journal of Econometrics. 139, p. 340-54
  17. Greasley, D. (2006) A Tale of Two Peripheries: Real Wages in Denmark and New Zealand 1875-1939 , In: Scandinavian Economic History Review. 54, p. 116-136
  18. Greasley, D., and Madsen J. (2006). Employment and Total Factor Productivity Convergence, In: Kyklos. 59 (4), p. 527-555
  19. Greasley, D., and Madsen J. (2006). Investment and Uncertainty: Precipitating the Great Depression in the USA, In: Economica. 73 (291), p. 393-412
  20. Greasley, D., & Oxley L. (2005). Refrigeration and Distribution: New Zealand Land Prices and Real Wages in the Refrigeration Era 1873-1939, In: Australian Economic History Review. 45, p. 23-44
  21. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2004). Globalization and Real Wages in New Zealand, 1873-1913, In: Explorations in Economic History. 41, p. 26-47
  22. Greasley, D., and Madsen J. (2003). The Household Balance Sheet, Credit, and Uncertainty at the Onset of the Great Depression in the USA, Research in Economic History. Field, A. (ed.). Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p. 55-77
  23.  In the presence of structural change and non-linearities, Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2002), Regime Shifts and Fast Recovery on the Periphery: New Zealand in the 1930s In: Economic History Review. 55 (4), p. 697-720
  24. Greasley, D., Madsen J., & Oxley, L. (2001). Income Uncertainty and Consumer spending during the Great Depression, In: Explorations in Economic History. 38 (2), p. 225-51
  25. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2000) British industrialization, 1815-1860, a disaggregate time series perspective, In: Explorations in Economic History. 37, p. 98-119
  26. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2000) Measuring New Zealand’s GDP, 1865-1933: a cointegration-based approach, In: Review of Income and Wealth. 46, p. 351-68
  27. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2000) Outside the club: New Zealand’s economic growth, 1870-1993 In: Review of Applied Economics. 14, p. 173-92
  28. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (2000) Real wages in Australia and Canada, 1870-1913: globalization versus productivity, In: Australian Economic History Review. 40, p. 178-98
  29. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1999) Growing apart? Australia and New Zealand growth experiences, 1870-1913, In: New Zealand Economic Papers. 33(2), p. 1-14
  30. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1999) International evidence on shock persistence in the presence of structural change and non-linearities, In: Applied Economics. 31, p. 499-507
  31. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1999) A Nordic Convergence Club? Applied Economics Letters, 6, 157-60.
  32.  Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1998) A tale of two dominions: comparing the macroeconomic records of Australia and Canada since 1870 In: Economic History Review. 35, p. 294-318
  33. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1998) Causality and the first Industrial Revolution, In: Industrial and Corporate Change. 7, p. 33-47
  34.  Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1998) Comparing British and American economic and industrial performance, 1860-1993, a time series perspective , In: Explorations in Economic History. 35, p. 171-95 25 p.
  35. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1998) Vector autoregression, cointegration, and casuality: testing for the causes of the British Industrial Revolution In: Applied Economics. 30, p. 1387-97
  36. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1997) Unit roots and British industrial growth, 1923-92 , In: Manchester School of economic and social studies. 65, 2, p. 192-212 21 p.
  37. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1997) Convergence in GDP per capita and real wages: some results for Australia and the UK, In: Mathematics and Computers in Simulation. 43, p. 429-36
  38.  Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1997) Endogenous growth or big bang: two views of the first Industrial Revolution, In: Journal of Economic History. 57, p. 935-49
  39.  Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1997) Segmenting the countours: Australian economic growth, 1828-1913, In: Australian Economic History Review. 65, p. 39-53.
  40. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1998) Shock persistence and structural change, In: Economic Record. 73, p. 348-62
  41. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1996) Discontinuities in competitiveness: the impact of the First World War on British industry, In: Economic History Review. 49, p. 83-101
  42. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1996) Explaining the United States’ industrial growth, 1860-1991: endogenous versus exogenous models , In: Bulletin of Economic Research. 48, p. 65-82
  43. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1996) Technological epochs and British industrial production, 1700-1992, In: Scottish Journal of Political Economy. 43, p. 258-74
  44. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1995) A time series perspective on convergence: Australia, the UK, and the USA since 1870In: Economic Record. 71, p. 279-90
  45. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1995) Balanced versus compromise estimates of UK GDP, 1870-1913, In: Explorations in Economic History. p. 262-72
  46. Greasley, D., & Oxley, L. (1994) Rehabilitation sustained: The Industrial Revolution as a macroeconomic epoch, In: Economic History Review. p. 760-8 9 p.
  47. Greasley, D. (1993). Economies of scale in British coalmining between the wars. In: Economic History Review. p. 155-9
  48. Greasley, D. (1993). The British economy since 1945, In: Journal of Economic Surveys. p. 283-92
  49. Greasley, D. (1992). The market for South Wales coal, 1874-1913, In: Journal of European Economic History. p. 135-52
  50. Greasley, D. (1992). The stationary of British economic and productivity growth, In: Journal of Applied Econometrics. 7, p. 203-9
  51. Greasley, D. (1990). Fifty years of coalmining productivity: the records of the British coal industry before 1939, In: Journal of Economic History. p. 877-902
  52. Greasley, D. (1989). British wages and income, 1856-1913: a revision, In: Explorations in Economic History. p. 248-59
  53. Greasley, D. (1986). British economic growth: the paradox of the 1880s and the timing of the climacteric, In: Explorations in Economic History. p. 416-44
  54. Greasley, D. (1985). Wage rates and work intensity in the South Wales coalfield 1874-191, In: Economica. p. 383-9
  55. Greasley, D. (1982). The Diffusion of Machine-Cutting in the British Coal Industry 1902 – 1938 Greasley, In: Explorations in Economic History. p. 246 – 68 23 p.

Edited books:

  1. Economics and History: Surveys in Cliometrics Greasley, D. & Oxley, L., 2011, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. 298 p.

Book chapters

  1. Greasley, D. (2015). Industrialising Australia’s natural capital, The Cambridge Economic History of Australia. Ville, S. & Withers, G. (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 150-177
  2. McLaughlin, E., Hanley, N., Greasley, D., Kunnas, J., Oxley, L. & Warde, P., (2017) Historical wealth accounts for Britain: Progress and puzzles in measuring the sustainability of economic growth in Kirk Hamilton and Cameron Hepburn (eds). National Wealth: What is Missing, Why it Matters. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Greasley, D. & Oxley, L. (1999). Competitiveness and growth: new perspectives on the late-Victorian and Edwardian economy, In Britains Decline?. M Dintenfass, JP. D. (ed.). London, p. 65-84
  4. Greasley, D., (1998), Integration of Commodity Markets in History (Proceedings of the Twelfth International Economic History Congress, Seville, 1998). Nunez, C. (ed.). p. 161-75
  5. Greasley, D. (1993). The Coal Industry: Images and Realities on the Road to Nationalization, In Political Economy of Nationalization. Cambridge University Press, p. 37-64

Stefano Fenoaltea

Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Sylla and Gianni Toniolo contributed information and personal recollections to this In Memoriam. Christopher Hanes wrote it and bears responsibility for errors. McCloskey’s own obituary of Fenoaltea has been published in the PSL Quarterly Review (2020). Journal articles and books by Stefano Fenoaltea are listed at the end and referred to in the text by number in the list. References to publications by other people are given in the ordinary way.

            Stefano Fenoaltea died unexpectedly in Rome on September 14, 2020 of a previously undiagnosed cardiac condition, at the age of 77. He stood out for his brilliance and cheerful pugnacity in a generation of economic historians who did great work and were not averse to scholarly dispute.

            Fenoaltea was born in Italy and educated in European schools. He was graduated at Georgetown University (first in his class) in 1963 and received a PhD in Economics from Harvard in 1968. In the first two decades of his career he wrote several papers on the related topics of medieval manors and servile labor. In 1975 he published “The Rise and Fall of a Theoretical Model: The Manorial System” (4), a response to a paper by North and Thomas (1971) titled “The Rise and Fall of the Manorial System: A Theoretical Model.” North and Thomas had argued that serfs provided their labor to lords in an implicit contractual exchange for “the public good of protection and justice” (North and Thomas 1971, p. 778). Fenoaltea examined their argument and concluded that it was “empirically untenable…Their account of later developments is equally unsatisfactory, since it draws on a dubious interpretation of demographic and political history, and appeals to institutional constraints to an extent that is both empirically unjustified and analytically alarming” (pp 408-409). A few months later Fenoaltea published “Authority, Efficiency, and Agricultural Organization in Medieval England and Beyond: A Hypothesis” (5), which presented his own argument about the manorial system: “the advantages of demesne agriculture were attached specifically to the exercise of authority over the labor force” to “increase output by imposing the use of a superior technique” and reenforce “social roles and hierarchy” (p. 695). In 1976 came “Risk, Transaction Costs, and the Organization of Medieval Agriculture” (7). Here Fenoaltea attacked the argument of McCloskey (1975) that medieval peasants farmed scattered small plots in open fields in order to diversify plot-specific risk. McCloskey published a reply (1977); Fenoaltea replied to the reply (10). Both scholars appeared to enjoy themselves, and McCloskey “was driven to write” (in McCloskey’s words) an article that provided further evidence for his original proposition (McCloskey 1984). In “The Slavery Debate: A Note from the Sidelines,” published in 1981, Fenoaltea ran through the no-man’s land in the battle between Fogel and Engerman (1974) and their critics (David et. al., 1976), taking well-aimed shots at both sides. 

            In 1984 Fenoaltea published “Slavery and Supervision in Comparative Perspective: A Model” (15), perhaps his best-known work among English-speaking economic historians, which won the Cole Prize for the best article in the Journal of Economic History that year, and also the Economic History Association’s Fritz Redlich Prize for the best article in economic history worldwide in the past two years. In it, Fenoaltea hypothesizes that the “pain incentives” applied to slaves by the master’s threats of physical punishment could elicit great effort but not carefulness, giving slave labor a competitive advantage in “extremely land- and effort-intensive activities (for example, moving stones from here to there)” (p. 639). He shows how his hypothesis and related ideas can account for many otherwise-puzzling features of slavery from ancient times through the nineteenth century.

            Even better, in my opinion, is “Europe in the African Mirror: The Slave Trade and the Rise of Feudalism” (24) written in 1988 but not published until 1999.[1] Fenoaltea begins by developing a model to explain a puzzle about the transatlantic trade in African slaves. The puzzle is that the trade transported, at great cost, labor to a region with a high land-labor ratio and concomitantly high physical product of labor (the Americas) from another region with a high, perhaps higher land-labor ratio and physical product of labor (Africa). “The challenge is thus to develop a model capable of producing an efficient trade even though the population density is lower and the physical marginal product of labor higher at the source” (p. 124). The explanation proposed by Fenoaltea is that African elites had a demand for European-produced goods, while extremely high transportation costs within Africa prevented African elites from buying European goods with raw materials produced by slaves exploited at home in Africa. Thus, “Even if the backward area is relatively underpopulated,…it may export people to pay for the advanced products its elite wishes to consume but cannot obtain from domestic sources.” Meanwhile, “the profitability of slave exports means that the source area will tend to lapse into endemic petty warfare and lose the benefits of comparatively peaceful exploitation through taxes or tribute” (p. 124). After developing the model for Africa, Fenoaltea applies it to slave trades in Europe from classical times through the medieval era, and speculates that in “the early Middle Ages, when Christian Europe was itself backward relative to the Byzantine and Islamic worlds…. Europeans may thus have tended to export human beings to pay for advanced manufactures: the anarchy that plagued the West may have been due in primis to raids undertaken for the sake of obtaining captives” (p. 125).

            Fenoaltea’s papers in these areas are exemplars of a style once common, now rare in economic history, in which the author takes generally-accepted historical facts, presenting little if any further empirical evidence, and presents a model to explain the facts in words – no math – as the result of transactions costs and other fundamental economic forces along the lines of University of Chicago “Price Theory.” A paper in this style lives or dies on the author’s rhetorical skill and the originality and strength of his argument. If the paper succeeds, it is fun for the reader as well as the author.

            But these papers made up the smaller portion of Fenoaltea’s scholarship. Most of his career was devoted to a different kind of work. Starting with his PhD dissertation (1), Fenoaltea studied Italy’s economic development in the era between the formation of the Italian state in the 1860s and the First World War. For this he needed historical statistics on Italian output. At the time Fenoaltea started out reliable statistics of this type had already been constructed for the United States (Frickey [1947], Gallman [1960, 1966]). But the ones available for Italy were not as good, due partly to a dearth of the historical source material for Italy that was available for the U.S.[2] In order to study Italy’s economy, therefore, Fenoaltea constructed his own series on Italian output: first, indexes of industrial production; eventually, measures of GDP components. Fenoaltea continued this work through the rest of his life in cooperation with excellent scholars in the Bank of Italy as well as Italian academic institutions. He was still constructing new series and improving old ones when he died.

            The reader may wonder how well this work suited the author of “Slavery and Supervision in Comparative Perspective.” For most economic historians the construction of statistical series is not fun – perhaps not as bad as moving stones from here to there, but requiring an unpleasant combination of effort and care. Why did Fenoaltea keep at it?

            Certainly, it gave him opportunities for satisfying, not to say epic scraps, with some of the other scholars working on Italian statistics. It provided foundations for papers challenging existing views of Italian development which Fenoaltea published in prominent English- and Italian-language economic history journals (see list below) and several books (71, 72, 73, 74, 75). In “International Resource Flows and Construction Movements in the Atlantic Economy: The Kuznets Cycle in Italy, 1861-1913” (20, 1988), Fenoaltea used series he had constructed on construction in Italy to test an important hypothesis about the nineteenth-century development of America, Argentina and other new countries. It had been observed that construction, immigration and international capital inflows  in new countries were correlated with each other, and negatively correlated with construction in Britain, in “long swings” or “Kuznets cycles.” It had been hypothesized that the ultimate causal factor in these patterns was the migration flows: capital followed labor across the Atlantic. Italy was a natural experiment to test this. It was a capital-importer like the new countries but a country of emigration. It lost more population at times when new-country immigration was high. Fenoaltea showed that in Italy emigration was positively correlated with construction; construction was “tied to changes in the supply of foreign capital, and thus to British foreign investment – themselves attributable, it would appear, less to variations in domestic British investment opportunities than to changes in investors’ perception of the relative safety of investment in Britain and abroad” (20, p.607). “The Italian experience is thus not merely an exception to, and therefore destructive of, the unified interpretation of the Atlantic economy which attributes construction to migration and capital flows to construction. It suggests an alternative and equally unified interpretation, in which capital flows caused construction, and construction..caused migration” (p. 634). This paper has frequently been cited by economic historians interested in American development and international flows of labor and capital.[3]

            It is clear, however, that for Fenoaltea the construction of statistical series was not a dull task. It was an intellectual exercise that drew on all his knowledge of economic theory and of history – economic, political and technological. According to Gianni Toniolo, Fenoaltea believed:

quantitative reconstruction of the past is practically an unbounded task, even when limited in time and space. To him, the task was particularly challenging given the relative paucity of the original statistics. As a result of his work, Italy’s historical statistics for the years 1861-1913 are undoubtedly the most refined and complete of those for any country I know something about. The level of disaggregation by sector and area is extremely fine, the information about production technologies impressive.

Fenoaltea’s last book begins with a disquisition on the construction of historical economic statistics which “should be compulsory reading for all graduate students in economic history (even more so in economics!)” (Toniolo).[4] In it Fenoaltea lays out his method:

Invent the series you seek to construct, your initial best guess; but don’t stop there, the starting point matters little only if you move beyond it. Draw out the implications of your series as an applied economist would, recognizing technical relationships, the impact of trade, the substitution effects that can be inferred from the typically abundant evidence on relative prices, the income effects, where appropriate, that influence consumption; and set those implications next to the corpus of surviving “data,”  as best you can master it, as an historian would. You will soon enough find that your initial estimates violate “data” constraints, constraints that may be distant but are effective constraints all the same. Revise, rinse, and repeat; at the end of the process you will have a production series, for the “undocumented” industry at hand, that is reasonably tightly constrained by (the application of economic logic to) the historical evidence.

            So much for Fenoaltea’s work. What was the man like?

            Stefano was admirably slender and always appropriately dressed, una bella figura, often in a somewhat country-gentleman mode. It is impossible to imagine him fat and sloppy.[5] He was mischievous. He could not resist needling officious, smug or easy-to-offend people. He did not like to follow rules. He did not respect authority. In fact, he could barely tolerate it. He was entertaining in conversation, an excellent companion for dinner or a walk. He relished wit: like most academics he liked to hear himself talk; unlike many academics he liked to hear other people talk too. He was given to epigrams and prepared jokes, which could be forgiven because they were almost always good, and to amateur sociology (what economic historian isn’t?). A favorite topic was national characteristics, especially differences between Italians on the one hand and Americans, Canadians or Britons on the other.[6] A hint of his conversational style can be found in his articles and books:

Italy’s provinces are the rough equivalent of France’s departements; but where the latter are named after natural features, more barbarico, the former bear the proud names of their principal cities (59, p. 58).

The heirs of the Ancona group continue however to this day to analyse the cyclical fluctuations of the original Vitali series, either out of filial piety  or – in the absence of comprehensive alternative estimates – a Nelsonian talent for exploiting a blind eye; see most recently Delli Gatti et al. (2005) (36, fn. 6).

 In estimating times series, as in love and war, the most important thing is luck (29, p. 726).

Another [problem] is that the sources are opaque…that their hidden defects surface, rather like those of our former spouses, only with extended cohabitation” (75, p. 13)

            Amateur sociologists will want to trace Stefano’s character to his family background and upbringing. He was the son of Sergio Fenoaltea, an opponent of Italian fascism who spent time in Mussolini’s prisons and, after Mussolini’s fall, was a member of an important committee (Italy’s National Liberation Committee) that coordinated resistance to the Germans and cooperation with the allies. After the war Sergio Fenoaltea entered the Italian diplomatic service and eventually served in its top job, ambassador to the United States, from 1961 to 1967, during which Stefano was in college at Georgetown and graduate school at Harvard.[7] Stefano always spoke of his father with great respect and affection.[8] Sergio Fenoaltea remained resolutely pro-American even in the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was raging.[9] Stefano was just as pro-American. You could get him to criticize our clothing, manners and food but not our morals or institutions.

            While his father moved through the diplomatic service, Stefano was educated in French-language schools on the French national curriculum, which is strictly standardized, allowing easy transfers from school to school, and is highly regarded outside English-speaking countries. McCloskey says that Stefano “told me once that his high culture – novels, poetry, and so forth – was French.” Certainly, Stefano shared the French attitude that culture and education were virtues to be displayed rather than (as they are to Americans) sources of embarrassment. He was as fluent in Latin, French and of course Italian as he was in English, which may account for the frequency in his English-language publications of phrases in the other languages. However baffling, even annoying to the monoglot American reader, to Stefano these were simply le mot juste.

            Stefano’s lack of respect for authority was perhaps a form of instinctive anti-fascism, hence an act of filial piety, but his friends agree that whatever its source it was a hindrance to his career. At Harvard, his PhD advisor was not the famous Alexander Gerschenkron though Stefano’s dissertation was directly related to Gerschenkron’s research. According to Fenoaltea’s fellow graduate student Richard Sylla this was because “Stefano had a falling out with Gerschenkron. I never quite understood it, but apparently it had something to do with Stefano challenging some of Gerschenkron’s interpretations of Italian industrialization in the late 19th century, which led Gerschenkron to suggest/demand that he find another dissertation advisor.” According to Deirdre McCloskey, another Harvard student at the time, Gerschenkron “refused to work with him when Stefano questioned The Master’s views on the rate and sources of Italian industrialization. Doubtless Stefano was less than diplomatic about the disagreement.” This incident is a worse reflection on Gerschenkron than on Stefano, of course. Stefano appeared to hold no grudge.[10] When Stefano had himself become a senior scholar he was (in my experience) interested and helpful, rather than defensive, when challenged by a youngster.[11]

            However, it is an unfortunate fact that in academic life it is sometimes necessary to suck up. Stefano could not do that any more than he could turn his head around 360 degrees. Getting tenure was a problem. Stefano’s scholarship won him try-outs in many excellent American economics departments (including among others Penn and Duke) and a stint at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But as of the mid-1990s “Stefano was the greatest economic historian of our cohort who had never gotten tenure” (Sylla).

            Then things took a happy turn. “In 1996, Stefano moved permanently to Italy, to chairs first at the University of Cassino, then at Brescia and finally, in 2003, at the University of Roma Tor Vergata…. He retired in 2013 and took up a visiting professorship at the prestigious Collegio Carlo Alberto (University of Torino)” (Toniolo). About the time Stefano moved to Italy he inherited a house his father had built on a hill outside Marino above the Alban Lake. He lived there for many years with his wife Maria Angela Pieche and their three children. His last book was dedicated to his recently-born grand-daughter.

Journal articles published by Stefano Fenoaltea

1. “Public Policy and Italian Industrial Development, 1861-1913,” Journal of Economic History XXIX, no. 1 (March 1969), pp. 176-179.

2. “Railroads and Italian Industrial Growth, 1861-1913,” Explorations in Economic History IX, no. 4 (Summer 1972), pp. 325-352.

3. “The Discipline and They: Notes on Counterfactual Methodology and the ‘New Economic History’,” Journal of European Economic History II, no. 3 (Winter 1973), pp. 724-746.

4. “The Rise and Fall of a Theoretical Model: The Manorial System,” Journal of Economic History XXXV, no. 2 (June 1975), pp. 386-409.

5. “Authority, Efficiency, and Agricultural Organization in Medieval England and Beyond: A Hypothesis,” Journal of Economic History XXXV, no. 4 (December 1975), pp. 693-718.

6. “Real Value Added and the Measurement of Industrial Production,” Annals of Economic and Social Measurement V, no. 1 (Winter 1976), pp. 111-137.

7. “Risk, Transaction Costs, and the Organization of Medieval Agriculture,” Explorations in Economic History XIII, no. 2 (April 1976), pp. 129-151

8. “On a Marxian Model of Enclosures,” Journal of Development Economics III, no. 2 (June 1976), pp. 195-198.

9. “Real Value Added Once Again,” Annals of Economic and Social Measurement VI, no. 1 (Winter 1977), pp. 133-134.

10. “Fenoaltea on Open Fields: A Reply,” Explorations in Economic History XIV, no. 4 (October 1977), pp. 405-410.

11. “The Slavery Debate: A Note from the Sidelines,” Explorations in Economic History XVIII, no. 3 (July 1981), pp. 304-308.

12. “The Growth of the Utilities Industries in Italy, 1861-1913,” Journal of Economic History XLII, no. 3 (September 1982), pp. 601-627.

13. “The Organization of Serfdom in Eastern Europe: A Comment,” Journal of Economic History XLIII, no. 3 (September 1983), pp. 705-708.

14. “Railway Construction in Italy, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica I, International issue (1984), pp. 27-58, and “Le costruzioni ferroviarie in Italia, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica I, no. 1 (giugno 1984), pp. 61-94.

15. “Slavery and Supervision in Comparative Perspective: A Model,” Journal of Economic History XLIV, no. 3 (September 1984), pp. 635-668.

16. “Public Works Construction in Italy, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica III, International issue (1986), pp. 1-33, and “Le opere pubbliche in Italia, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica II, no. 3 (ottobre 1985), pp. 335-369.

17. “Construction in Italy, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica IV, International issue (1987), pp. 21-53, and “Le costruzioni in Italia, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica IV, no. 1 (febbraio 1987), pp. 1-34.

18. “The Extractive Industries in Italy, 1861-1913: General Methods and Specific Estimates,” Journal of European Economic History XVII, no. 1 (Spring 1988), pp. 117-125.

19. “Transaction Costs, Whig History, and the Common Fields,” Politics & Society XVI, no. 2-3 (June-September 1988), pp. 171-240.

20. “International Resource Flows and Construction Movements in the Atlantic Economy: The Kuznets Cycle in Italy, 1861-1913,” Journal of Economic History XLVIII, no. 3 (September 1988), pp. 605-638.

21. “The Growth of Italy’s Silk Industry, 1861-1913: A Statistical Reconstruction,” Rivista di storia economica V, no. 3 (ottobre 1988), pp. 275-318.

22. “Servi e schiavi,” Rivista di storia economica IX, no. 1-2 (giugno 1992), pp. 45-48.

23. “Politica doganale, sviluppo industriale, emigrazione: verso una riconsiderazione del dazio sul grano,” Rivista di storia economica X, no. 1 (febbraio 1993), pp. 65-77.

24. “Europe in the African Mirror: The Slave Trade and the Rise of Feudalism,” Rivista di storia economica XV, no. 2 (agosto 1999), pp. 123-165.

25. “The Growth of Italy’s Wool Industry, 1861-1913: A Statistical Reconstruction,” Rivista di storia economica XVI, no. 2 (agosto 2000), pp. 119-145.

26. “The Growth of Italy’s Cotton Industry, 1861-1913: A Statistical Reconstruction,” Rivista di storia economica XVII, no. 2 (agosto 2001), pp. 139-171.

27. “Textile Production in Italy, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica XVIII, no. 1 (aprile 2002), pp. 3-40.

28. “Production and Consumption in Post-Unification Italy: New Evidence, New Conjectures,” Rivista di storia economica XVIII, no. 3 (dicembre 2002), pp. 251-298.

29. “Notes on the Rate of Industrial Growth in Italy, 1861-1913,” Journal of Economic History LXIII, no. 3 (September 2003), pp. 695-735.

30. “Peeking Backward: Regional Aspects of Industrial Growth in Post-Unification Italy,” Journal of Economic History LXIII, no. 4 (December 2003), pp. 1059-1102.

31. “La formazione dell’Italia industriale: consensi, dissensi, ipotesi,” Rivista di storia economica XIX, no. 3 (dicembre 2003), pp. 341-356.

32. “Contro tre pregiudizi,” Rivista di storia economica XX, no. 1 (aprile 2004), pp. 87-106.

33. “Textile Production in Italy’s Regions, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica XX, no. 2 (agosto 2004), pp. 145-174.

34. “Einaudi commentatore e protagonista della politica economica: aspetti dell’età giolittiana,” Rivista di storia economica XX, no. 3 (dicembre 2004), pp. 301-308.

35. “La crescita economica dell’Italia postunitaria: le nuove serie storiche,” Rivista di storia economica XXI, no. 2 (agosto 2005), pp. 91-121.

36. “The Growth of the Italian Economy, 1861-1913: Preliminary Second-Generation Estimates,” European Review of Economic History IX, no. 3 (December 2005), pp. 273-312.

37. “Economic Decline in Historical Perspective: Some Theoretical Considerations,” Rivista di storia economica XXII, no. 1 (aprile 2006), pp. 3-39.

38. “Mining Production in Italy, 1861-1913: National and Regional Time Series” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Rivista di storia economica XXII, no. 2 (agosto 2006), pp. 141-208.

39. “The Chemical, Coal and Petroleum Products, and Rubber Industries in Italy, 1861-1913: A Statistical Reconstruction,” Rivista di storia economica XXIII, no. 1 (aprile 2007), pp. 33-80.

40. “Business Fluctuations in Italy, 1861-1913: The New Evidence” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Explorations in Economic History XLIV, no. 3 (July 2007), pp. 432-451.

41. “I due fallimenti della storia economica: il periodo post-unitario,” Rivista di politica economica XCVII, no. 3-4 (marzo-aprile 2007), pp. 341-358.

42. “The Chemical, Coal and Petroleum Products, and Rubber Industries in Italy’s Regions, 1861-1913: Time Series Estimates” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Rivista di storia economica XXIV, no. 1 (aprile 2008), pp. 3-59.


43. “A proposito del PIL, “ Italianieuropei, 2008, no. 1, pp. 165-169.

44. “The Growth of the Utilities Industries in Italy’s Regions, 1861-1913” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Rivista di storia economica XXIV, no. 2 (agosto 2008), pp. 175-205.

45. “Social-Overhead Construction in Italy’s Regions, 1861-1913” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Research in Economic History XXVI (2008), pp. 1-80.

46. “Construction in Italy’s Regions, 1861-1913” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Rivista di storia economica XXIV, no. 3 (dicembre 2008), pp. 303-340.

47. “Shipbuilding in Italy, 1861-1913: The Burden of the Evidence” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Historical Social Research XXXIV (2009), no. 2, pp. 333-373.

48. “Luigi Einaudi storico economico dell’età liberale,” Rivista di storia economica XXV, no. 3 (dicembre 2009), pp. 321-330

49. “Metalmaking in Italy, 1861-1913: National and Regional Time Series” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Rivista di storia economica XXVI (2010), no. 1, pp. 121-153.

50. “The Reconstruction of Historical National Accounts: The Case of Italy,” PSL Quarterly Review LXIII (2010), no. 252, pp. 77-96.

51. “The Effects of Unification: Markets, Policy, and Cyclical Convergence in Italy, 1861-1913” (with Carlo Ciccarelli and Tommaso Proietti), Cliometrica IV (2010), no. 3, pp. 269-292.

52. “On the Structure of the Italian Economy, 1861-1913,” Rivista di storia economica XXVII (2011), no. 1, pp. 61-72.

53. “L’industria e l’economia nelle province dell’Italia liberale: tra storia e geografia” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Semestrale di Studi e Ricerche di Geografia XXIII (2011), no. 2, pp. 31-46.

54 “Lo sviluppo economico italiano dal Risorgimento alla Grande Guerra,” Annali della Fondazione Giuseppe di Vittorio, 2011, pp. 213-227.

55. “The Rail-guided Vehicles Industry in Italy, 1861-1913: The Burden of the Evidence” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Research in Economic History XXVIII (2012), pp. 43-115.

56. “The Growth of the Italian Economy, 1861-1913: The Expenditure Side Re- (and De-) constructed,” Rivista di storia economica XXVIII (2012), no. 2, pp. 285-318.

57 “La cliometria e l’unificazione italiana: bollettino dal fronte” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Meridiana. Rivista di storia e scienze sociali, no. 73-74 (2012), pp. 258-266.

58 “La cantieristica in Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Bollettino dell’Associazione Italiana Documentazione Marittima e Navale, no. 26 (2012), pp. 129-154.

59. “Through the Magnifying Glass: Provincial Aspects of Industrial Growth in Post- Unification Italy” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Economic History Review LXVI (2013), no. 1, pp. 57-85.

60. “The Non-metallic Mineral Products Industries in Italy, 1861-1913: National and Regional Time Series” (with Carlo Ciccarelli), Rivista di storia economica XXIX (2013), no. 3, pp. 267-317.

61. “The Measurement of Production Movements: Lessons from the General Engineering Industry in Italy, 1861-1913,” Explorations in Economic History 57 (2015), pp. 19-37.

62. “Industrial Employment in Italy, 1911: The Burden of the Census Data,” Rivista di storia economica XXXI (2015), no. 2, pp. 225-246.

63. “The Measurement of Production: Lessons from the Engineering Industry in Italy, 1911,” Research in Economic History XXXII (2016), pp. 73-145.

64. “Fenoaltea on Industrial Employment in 1911: A Rejoinder,” Rivista di storia economica XXXI I (2016), no. 1, pp. 113-117.

65. “Understanding the Ancient Near Eastern Economy: A Note from the Sidelines,” Rivista di storia economica XXXII (2016), no. 3, pp. 403-415.

66. “The Engineering Industry in Italy’s Regions, 1861-1913: A Statistical Reconstruction”, Rivista di storia economica XXXIII (2017), no. 2, pp. 159-246.

67. “The Growth of Italy’s Apparel Industry, 1861-1913: A Statistical Reconstruction,” Rivista di storia economica XXXIII (2017), no. 3, pp. 315-350.

68. “The Backlash to Globalization: Some Further Thoughts,” Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi LII (2018), no. 1, pp. 15-20.

69. “Italy in the Market for Seagoing Vessels, 1861-1913: Domestic production, Imports, and Exports,” Rivista di storia economica (in press).

70. “Spleen: The Failures of the Cliometric School,” Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi (forthcoming).

Books published by Stefano Fenoaltea

71. L’economia italiana dall’Unità alla Grande Guerra, pp. viii, 339 (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2006; ISBN: 88-420-7925-1).

72. La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa. 1. Le industrie non manifatturiere (with Carlo Ciccarelli), pp. xlviii, 499 (Rome: Banca d’Italia, 2009).

73. The Reinterpretation of Italian Economic History: from Unification to the Great War, pp. xxi, 296 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011; ISBN: 978-0-521-19238-5).

74. La produzione industriale delle regioni d’Italia, 1861-1913: una ricostruzione quantitativa. 2. Le industrie estrattivo-manifatturiere (with Carlo Ciccarelli), pp. vi, 677 (Rome: Banca d’Italia, 2014).

75. Reconstructing the Past: Revised Estimates of Italy’s Product, 1861-1913. (Turin: Fondazione Luigi Einaudi, 2020.

Other references

David, Paul A. , Herbert G. Gutman, Richard Sutch, Peter Temin and Gavin Wright. Reckoning with Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Fogel, Robert William and Engerman, Stanley L. Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown 1974.

Frickey, Edwin. Production in the United States, 1860-1914. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947.

Gallman, Robert E. “Commodity Output, 1839-1899.” In William N. Parker, ed. Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth century. Studies in Income and Wealth, Volume 24. Princeton: Princeton Univesity Press for NBER, 1960.

— “Gross National Product in the United States, 1834-1909.” In Conference on Research in Income and Wealth, Output, Employment and Productivity in the United States after 1800. New York: Columbia University Press for NBER, 1966.

Gerschenkron, Alexander. ‘Notes on the Rate of Industrial Growth in Italy, 1881-1913.” Journal of Economic History, December 1955, 15 (4): 360-375.

McCloskey, D.N. “The Persistence of English Common Fields.” In William N. Parker and E.L. Jones, Eds., European Peasants and Their Markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

— “Fenoaltea on Open Fields: A Comment.” Explorations in Economic History, 1977, 14 (4): 402-404.

— and John Nash.”Corn at Interest: The Extent and Cost of Grain Storage in Medieval England.”

American Economic Review, March 1984, 74(1): 174-187

— “Stefano Fenoaltea (1943-2020).” PSL Quarterly Review, December 2020, 73(5).

Morgenstern, Oskar. On the Accuracy of Economic Observations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

North, Douglass and Robert Thomas. “The Rise and Fall of the Manorial System: A Theoretical Model.” Journal of Economic History, December 1971, 31 (4): 777-803.

[1] In a footnote to the 1999 publication Fenoaltea explains that the article is the same as the 1988 paper and “unforeseen commitments have delayed both the publication of the volume developing the analysis of the African slave trade and, perhaps sine die, the intended further research on early medieval Europe” (p. 123). According to Gianni Toniolo, editor of the journal in which the paper was eventually published (Rivista di Storia Economica), Stefano had signed a contract for the book with Cambridge University Press but “had hardly even begun to write” it.

[2] Fenoaltea describes the development of Italian historical production and GDP statistics in 73 (chapter 1) and  75 (chapter 3). Late-nineteenth century America was full of institutions that gathered economic information, such as active state and local governments, trade associations and business-oriented newspapers, not to mention the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Britain resembled the U.S. to some degree in this respect. Italy, along with most other continental countries, did not.  

[3]It was required reading in graduate economic history classes taught by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, at least.

[4]I agree with Toniolo. In my fantasies, it and Morgenstern (1963) are readings in a half-semester graduate economics core course called “Data.” 

[5]Think of a cheetah.  Try to imagine a fat, sloppy cheetah. You can’t. That is what I mean.

[6] A rough quote on the subject of litter in parks: “In America, public property is everyone’s property; in Italy, public property is no one’s property.”  Claiming to speak from personal experience, Stefano said that Italian high-school soccer players took showy shots whether or not they had a realistic chance of scoring, while British/American/ Canadian kids passed the ball to guys in good positions.

[7] Here is the place for an excellent story about Stefano told by Richard Sylla, who was in graduate school with Stefano. “I invited him to have dinner one weekend with my wife and me at our apartment….He said “I’m not sure about my plans for the weekend. I haven’t decided yet whether I should stay in Cambridge and socialize with my intellectual equals, or go to Washington and intellectualize with my social equals.”

[8] Soon after I first met Stefano he showed me, with pride, his library of classic economics books from the 1880s-1930s (think Edgeworth, Marshall, Pigou, Keynes). Stefano said it had been collected by his father “who had a degree in economics.” That was all he told me about his father at the time but I got the impression that from Stefano’s point of view  the connection between his father and economics conferred dignity on economics.  

[9] According to Sergio Fenoaltea’s New York Times obituary, he resigned as ambassador to America in 1967 at a time when he “seemed to disagree with his Government, particularly with what he felt was Foreign Minister Amintore Fanfani’s lukewar commitment to the North American  Treaty Organization.”

[10]Presumably, one of the reasons Gerschenkron refused to oversee Fenoaltea’s dissertation was that Fenoaltea was constructing an index of Italian industrial production for 1861-1913. Gerschenkron had already constructed such an index. Fenoaltea’s index pointed to different conclusions about Italian development. According to Toniolo, “Gerschenkron did not take it lightly and Stefano had to find himself new dissertation supervisors.” Gerschenkron’s index had been published it in 1955 in an article titled “Notes on the Rate of Industrial Growth in Italy,1881-1913′ (Gerschenkron 1955). In 2005 Stefano published an article with exactly the same title in the same journal (29). In it he wrote “The title of this piece is of course a recent copy of an Old Master…. Alexander Gerschenkron’s classic article,” and counted the years that “have passed since the present writer began unwarily to tread in his teacher’s footsteps…. As my contemporaries will recall, the footsteps I stepped in had not quite been vacated by Gerschenkron’s own feet.”

[11] When I was an assistant professor, about 1990, one of the first papers I wrote presented a hypothesis to explain the distribution of slave labor across occupations and economic sectors. It was different from, and could have been seen as opposed to, Stefano’s argument in “Slavery and Supervision in Comparative Perspective” (15).  Despite my appalling ignorance on the subject Stefano talked to me about it for many days, apparently with pleasure. Without him the paper would have been much worse.

Reconstructing the Past: Revised Estimates of Italy’s Product, 1861-1913

Author(s):Fenoaltea, Stefano
Reviewer(s):Incerpi, Andrea

Published by EH.Net (February 2021)

Stefano Fenoaltea, Reconstructing the Past: Revised Estimates of Italy’s Product, 1861-1913. Torino: Fondazione Luigi Einaudi onlus, 2020. xvi + 329 pp. (online open-access), ISBN: 978-88-32139-02-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrea Incerpi, Department of Economics, Università degli Studi dell’Insubria


One year ago, Stefano Fenoaltea was refining his last remarkable work, Reconstructing the Past: Revised Estimates of Italy’s Product, 1861-1913. His untimely passing interrupted the heated debate started a year before with “Spleen” (Fenoaltea, 2019) and concluded on the pages of the Annals[1] while the editing of the book was coming to a close. The debate was centered on the essence of “Cliometrics” and its methodological foundations: economic theory, data, facts. These are the three tools used to file the oxymoron of a “scientific history,” the poorly-cultured definition hidden by the reputation of Econometrica. Their recovery is crucial to avoid the failure of the econometric school: as economists, as historians, as economic historians (Fenoaltea, 2019). The steps of this path, which lead to a Copernican approach to economic history, are the core of Fenoaltea’s book. Indeed, it is not a work of mere reconstruction of data but a Summa Theologiae of a fifty years of training for the author as an historian. Namely, an economic historian.

The first part of the book, which could be taken as a precious handbook for doctoral students, details the “art” of reconstructing historical data by renewing the failures marked in “Spleen” (Fenoaltea, 2019). Since economics is based on measurement, the good economic historian needs a method to measure in order to be a competent economist. Something that is generally snubbed by economists themselves in favor of the quality of data-processing. This method is a set of rules that Fenoaltea calls le regole dell’arte, with regard to the strict rules imposed by the medieval crafts guilds. Firstly, vet the data. This means verify the credibility of the data and “deconstruct it” investigating the “data-generating process” of the sources (p. 15). The second rule should be a natural impulse to a historian, as such without an objective limit: disaggregation. The assumptions behind each aggregate must be discussed both by vertical and horizontal disaggregation. It means, referring to the topic of the book, across “stage of production” (different time paths) and across “production sequences” (different goods and processes) respectively. The third rule concerns indexation and the general use of “known” series as proxies for the unknown ones. Here the strict rules recalled by the craft guilds leave room for an informal reminder, “a sad comment” (p. 29): thinking. Before indexing, while indexing, after indexing. Clearly, Fenoaltea’s belief in human logic does not match the belief in the intellectual profession of cliometricians. The fourth rule goes back to formal methodology. It concerns the use of a deflator to avoid the distortions of current prices. The deflator must be general and not activity-specific (p. 29). Given the impossibility to identify a standard for the real value of a good or a basket of goods, the general hint applies in a case-by-case basis that must be properly justified. Finally, the fifth rule is a warning about the standard constructs for the economy’s aggregate. Each of them has its proper genesis by circumstances and by the economic agenda. The adoption of GDP is the example of how a practical problem, the need for timely evidence on the economy to stabilize business cycles, can be solved by adopting a conventional measure. Thus, the artisan cliometrician must know what the standard measures quantify and what he wants to measure (p. 36). This is the only secular way to avoid the edicts of clergy economists and the misleading label of their standards of measure.

A focus on the way to treat maintenance activity in the production framework and a brief history of the evolution of Italy’s national accounts lead the way to the following second part of the book. As the title suggests, this part introduces the second generation estimates of Italy’s product related to the production side. This naming concerns the enforcement each generation of estimates has with the previous regole dell’arte. Within an idyllic world made of four generations of estimates, the last one is a pipe dream and the third one is still an ongoing work for the author. Thus, the second generation of estimates, which respects the first three rules, replaces the first generation, which comply with none of them. The production side, as admitted by Fenoaltea (p. 69), is not a deep complaint of Baffigi’s reconstruction (Baffigi, 2015). The agriculture estimates here include evidence of yearly harvest fluctuations and an allowance for on-farm improvements. The industry series update estimates for some industrial sectors: chemical, utilities, engineering, and leather. Revisions in services refer to differences in extrapolation obtained by Zamagni and Battilani (2000) and other minor refinements, such as per capita wages and the rental value of the premises.

The third part of the book refers to the estimates for the expenditure side. These series include several refinements following a basic guiding principle: estimating investments and consumptions by allocating to these the production-side estimates of value added (p. 93). The refinements include a revision of exports and imports and the calculation of an inventory-investments series that rejects the trend-cycle decomposition of aggregate investments proposed by the sesquicentennial corpus of revised national accounts (Toniolo, 2013). Thus, the expenditure side estimates point out two new factors compared to previous reconstructions: a revised downturn of private consumption and the reaffirmation of a long swing Kuznets-cycle for investments.

Finally, the last part of the book concerns the composition of fixed investments. Fenoaltea aims to better distinguish infrastructure investments from business investments. This is possible by disaggregating the data by destination. First of all, distinguishing investments in agriculture from investments in industry. By doing so, the partial disaggregation obtained identifies investments in structures and investments in machinery. Unfortunately, a more ambitious disaggregation of investments, by type (housing, public works, machinery and vehicles) and by destination (housing, services, public infrastructure) relies on weak first generation estimates only, which don’t make this step very satisfactory. The results of the decomposition confirm what Fenoaltea already argued in his previous works (Fenoaltea 1988, 2011): that is the long swing in infrastructure was due to the exogenous changes in the international capital market. Moreover, the investment in tools was similarly developed by the availability of finance (p. 107), mainly the retained earnings of the artisans themselves.

Fenoaltea’s book is the culmination of lifelong research spent reconstructing the past by sources and data. It started early in 1967 at the time of his PhD under the supervision of Alexander Gerschenkron[2], his mentor and target of endless criticism (note 25, p. 35). This methodological controversy narrowed the research of Fenoaltea to the Italian Liberal Age (1861-1913)[3] for a meticulous, and possibly never-ending, improvement of product estimates, as confirmed by his intent to go further in the study. This admirable effort shows probably a “diminishing return” (Baffigi, 2019) for each attempt of refinements. The differences between each stage of reconstruction grow thinner while the interpretation of the Italian Liberal economy is always rooted to the theoretical approach of Fenoaltea as a neoclassical economist.
The reference to Atropos is a sad coincidence, considering the passing of the author, which interrupted his long journey in search of the most accurate interpretations of Italian economic history. If economists are the clergy of a questionable religion, nevertheless Fenoaltea is a leading scholar for cliometricians. And his book is a secular Bible for the methodology of the discipline. A Bible to discuss and to reinterpret. It would not be the first time in history.

1. See Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi, 53 (2).
2. On the relationship with Gerschenkron see D. McCloskey (2020).
3. Fenoaltea masterfully contributed even to other topics such as the English open fields or slavery, mainly in the first part of his career as scholar.


Baffigi, A. (2015). Il PIL per la storia d’Italia. Istruzioni per l’uso. Collana storica della Banca d’Italia. Serie statistiche, vol. V (Venice: Marsilio).

Fenoaltea, S. (1988). International Resource Flows and Construction Movements in the Atlantic Economy: The Kuznets Cycle in Italy, 1861–1913. Journal of Economic History 48, 605–638.

Fenoaltea, S. (2011). The Reinterpretation of Italian Economic History: From Unification to the Great War (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Fenoaltea, S. (2019). Spleen: The Failures of the Cliometric School. Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi 53/2, 5−23.

McCloskey, D. (2020), “Stefano Fenoaltea (1943-2020), PSL Quarterly Review, 73 (295): 393-394.

Rey, G. M., ed. (2000). I conti economici dell’Italia. 3°°. Il valore aggiunto per gli anni 1891, 1938, 1951. Collana storica della Banca d’Italia. Serie statistiche, vol. I (Rome-Bari: Laterza).

Toniolo, G., ed. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of the Italian Economy since Unification (New York: Oxford University Press).


Andrea Incerpi is research fellow in Economic History at Università degli Studi dell’Insubria. Recent publications include “Finance and Development in Italy, 1870-1913” (with Barbara Pistoresi and Alberto Rinaldi), International Journal of Economics and Finance (2020) and “Balancing the Current Account: Remittances and Tourism in Italy, 1861-1914,” Rivista di Storia Economica (2019).

Copyright (c) 2021 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 (February 2021). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

The TRF-GIS: A Geographic Information System of Third-Republic France (1870–1940)

This dataverse contains a comprehensive geographic information system of Third-Republic France. It provides annual nomenclatures and shapefiles of administrative constituencies of metropolitan France from 1870 to 1940, encompassing general administrative constituencies (départements, arrondissements, cantons) as well as the most significant special administrative constituencies: military, judicial and penitentiary, electoral, academic, labor inspection, and ecclesiastical constituencies. It further proposes annual nomenclatures at the contemporaneous commune level that map each municipality into its corresponding administrative framework along with its population count.

Available on the Harvard Dataverse:

Data paper here:

For more information contact: Victor Gay

American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future

Author(s):Stricker, Frank
Reviewer(s):Ohanian, Lee

Published by EH.Net (January 2021)

Frank Stricker, American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2020. x + 267 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-252-08502-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Lee Ohanian, Department of Economics, UCLA.


There is perhaps no more challenging issue to write about in macroeconomics than unemployment. Measurement issues, theoretical issues, even conceptual issues make unemployment like quicksilver. We want to get our hands on it, but it invariably slips through our fingers.

Consider how many different interpretations/definitions exist in the literature. Old school Keynesians created “NAIRU” — the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment — which is based on the Phillips Curve. Neoclassical economists, including Milton Friedman, Edmund Phelps, and Armen Alchian created the “Natural Rate of Unemployment,” which was front and center in Robert Lucas’s misperceptions model that gave birth to the rational expectations business cycle literature.

Search theorists take a different approach, decomposing unemployment into “frictional unemployment,” which is the time it takes an individual to find a job that is a good match for their skills, and “structural unemployment,” which refers to those who remain unemployed long after search and matching frictions can reasonably be operative.

Conceptual struggles are not just academic. The Federal Reserve uses six different concepts of unemployment (known as U1-U6), ranging from the plain vanilla definition, to measures that incorporate long-term unemployment, temporary jobs, and the discouraged worker effect.

Some economists eschew unemployment and instead study alternative labor market indicators such as employment and/or market hours worked as a share of the working age population. The benefit of focusing on how much work is being done is that measurement is conceptually simple. It doesn’t require knowing an individual’s subjective attachment to the labor force or how much time they are devoting to searching if unemployed.

Understanding unemployment is a tall order. Despite this challenge, Frank Stricker — professor emeritus of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills — studies the history of American unemployment from roughly the postbellum period through the 2007-08 financial crisis and its aftermath in American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future.

As a non-economist, Stricker brings a different eye towards the problem of unemployment. He is a passionate advocate for “full employment” and creating high paying jobs. He focuses the book on whether the shifting American model of a free enterprise economy can create achieve these goals. His answer is a clear “no,” and the latter chapters of the book present an explanation for his views, and present an argument for how government can be the solution to the problems he sees as ailing America’s labor market.

Stricker’s passion for struggling individuals throughout America’s history dominates his writing, and this is an important, positive feature of the book. The primary theme is that the U.S. labor market doesn’t function efficiently, thus leaving a lot of human resources underutilized much of the time. His perception is that the U.S. economy rarely achieves full employment, that compensation is limited by the chronic presence of the unemployed, that it has been a mistake to try to fight inflation using unemployment, and that government jobs policies would lead to significantly better economic outcomes.

While I disagree with Stricker’s characterization of the chronic lack of efficiency of the U.S. labor market, I agree with his perspective about the Phillips Curve and the failed logic of using unemployment to fight inflation. I also agree that there are labor market policy reforms available that could be beneficial in principle, including jobs policies. I discuss these issues below.

The book’s major limitation is the lack of a formal economic model to guide thinking about the U.S. labor market and to interpret labor market data. The term “full employment,” which is the centerpiece of the book, means different things to different people and fundamentally requires a model-based definition. Stricker refers to an unemployment rate of 4 percent as a benchmark, but that number is largely a relic from a time when our understanding of the labor market was much more limited.

The book begins with a discussion of the labor market between 1873 to 1920, a period of significant economic growth, including the technological revolutions of electrification and the internal combustion engine. Stricker discusses the period as one of chronic capitalist crises occurring in the 1870s, as well as the panics of 1893, 1907, and weak economic activity around 1914 and the focus of the chapter is the inability of the American economy to maintain full employment. Stanley Lebergott’s unemployment estimates, which are available from 1900 onwards, shed some light on this issue (though only beginning in 1900). The mean rate of unemployment between 1900 and 1920 was about 4.5 percent.

My view is that an average unemployment rate of 4.5 percent is remarkably low. Keep in mind that this period is one in which the American economy was poor and technologically backwards, which means that information costs were very high and mobility costs were very high, both of which increased unemployment. Moreover, new technologies were changing the nature and scope of work, sharply reducing the demand for agricultural workers and for workers employed in formerly labor-intensive technologies. And rural labor markets were not very competitive at that time. The biggest employer in a small town likely had significant monopsony power, which reduces hiring. I see the 1900-1920 U.S. labor market as a glass 4/5th full, rather than a glass that is 1/5th empty, which seems to be what Professor Stricker sees.

Stricker then moves to the 1920s and 1930s, the latter of which encompasses the Great Depression. This is a period in which government policies played an enormous role in impacting the economy. Stricker rightfully focuses on the role of government in this chapter, though he paints with broad strokes, setting this up as either a “laissez-faire” economy or one with government interventions.

But some 1930s government labor market interventions were destructive, including the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Wagner Act, the latter which de fatco permitted the use and threatened use of the sit-down strike. By impeding the normal forces of competition, the NIRA and the Wagner Act created substantial unemployment by raising real wages in manufacturing and other goods-producing sectors far above market-clearing levels. These are the types of policies that should concern labor activists because they create market inefficiencies by preventing mutually advantageous trades between the suppliers and demanders of labor services.

On the other hand, his positive description of government infrastructure projects in the 1930s (think Hoover Dam) is powerfully told, and the economics of these programs is clearly on his side. There is no better time to build infrastructure than when there is low demand for the factors of production that build that infrastructure. Sadly, our ability to do this today is probably much less efficient than it was 85 years ago. Understanding deeply why this is the case would be a wonderful contribution to American economic history.

The book transitions to three different periods that are demarcated by the observed patterns of unemployment and inflation. There is 1940-1974, which he refers to as “Full Employment: Experiments and Battles”; 1975-2000, which he refers to as “Low Unemployment + Low Inflation: Can’t Be Done, Is Done”; and then 2000-2018, which he refers to as “Low Pay, Great Recession.”

The guiding theme of these three chapters is the chronic conflict between labor and capital, and the evolution of economic policies that are both influenced by and shape these battles. The interpretation is that jobs have been limited for much of this period, and these limitations have depressed worker compensation.

The most compelling point discussed in these chapters is the failed policy of using the Phillips Curve to try and manage inflation by tolerating high unemployment. The Phillips Curve has been an extremely costly policy detour that remains in some policy quarters, despite that it empirically has failed for nearly forty years. Stricker correctly argues that this policy has harmed the economy and is one that should have been abandoned long ago.

An important postwar labor development is that labor conflict and frequent strikes, particularly in Rust Belt industries, sowed the seeds for future weak job growth and compensation growth by reducing investment and the adoption of the latest technologies in these industries. The remarkable increase in steel and auto imports reflects foreign producers who became much better at producing these products because of technological superiority and peaceful relations with their workers. Rust Belt industry management deserves some of this blame for the Rust Belt’s decline, but so do the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers, both of whom have admitted that they should have been more cooperative and less combative. What is not recognized in American Unemployment is that the labor movement of the 1950s-1970s damaged future workers.

An important misperception in American Unemployment that is particularly relevant for the recent economy is that wage levels and wage growth are a good proxy for compensation. This was accurate for the 1960s and before, when fringe benefits were a very small fraction of compensation. But today, fringe benefits are nearly 30 percent of compensation.

Competitive models of the labor market predict that real compensation will move closely with worker productivity, but this comparison requires better measurement than using just wages. Worker productivity has increased by about 180 percent since 1965, while compensation has increased by about 125 percent. This is a compensation shortfall of about 30 percent over the 55-year period, which amounts to about a 0.4 annualized percentage point difference. Not perfect, but certainly in the right direction as predicted by the theory. In contrast, measuring compensation using just wages, and deflating by the CPI rather than by the GDP deflator (which is used to construct productivity) shows only a 15 percent increase since 1965. No wonder that Stricker sees workers getting the short end of the stick based on this flawed measure.

The final chapter offers Stricker’s policy ideas. I support in principle his idea of government-provided jobs program, particularly as an alternative to long-term unemployment benefits. A positive externality of this policy is that this expands the ability of otherwise idled workers to contribute to their communities and to enhance their skills. Other policy ideas from Stricker, such as a $20 minimum wage, may not be nearly as productive as he believes, particularly in relatively poor labor markets. Currently, the median Mississippi worker earns less than $15 per hour. The downside of high minimum wages is that they price the least experienced workers, including immigrants, out of the labor market, and essentially force them into public assistance.

What is missing from the policy recommendations section is a detailed assessment of broader forces that will shape the U.S. labor market, including how continued globalization, automation, changing gender roles, and a deficient American K-12 education system will impact future jobs. Almost certainly, the most important policy reform is to improve our schools so that more of our students are adequately trained in STEM disciplines and in written and oral communication, all of which are skills that will be increasingly in demand.

In contrast to Stricker’s views, standard measures of labor market performance show that the American labor market is remarkably efficient. Before the pandemic, nearly six million jobs turned over each month, reflecting large changes in supply and demand across sectors and industries. This works out to be a turnover rate of about 40 percent of jobs annually. In terms of the speed of matching workers, two-thirds of the unemployed found a new match within 14 weeks of unemployment prior to the pandemic. And the percentage of employed prime-age workers (25-54 years old) was 80.5 percent, just below the peak of about 81 percent in the late 1990s. This is not a labor market that is broken.

The problem with our labor market is not that it doesn’t effectively match workers with businesses at compensation levels that are reasonable. Rather, any economy’s ability to create lots of high-paying jobs, which is Stricker’s understandable goal, requires lots of workers with high human capital. For Stricker, unemployed workers are a valuable human resource sitting idle, losing their ability to provide for themselves and their families, and losing the dignity that goes with having a decent job. While most of us agree with Stricker on this point, there is a deeper reason why these workers have been idled that goes far beyond politics and the potential deficiencies of a capitalist economy. It has to do with skills and why more American workers haven’t accumulated more skills to enhance their employability. This is perhaps the most important lesson that the history of labor economics provides, and shows why any discussion of unemployment and the labor market must dig more deeply than Stricker’s engaging and provocative book.


Lee E. Ohanian is Professor of Economics at UCLA and is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of “New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression.”

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Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Emergence of Capitalism in Early America

Author(s):Calvo, Christopher W.
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.Net (January 2021)

Christopher W. Calvo, The Emergence of Capitalism in Early America. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2020. x + 296 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8130-663-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.


Christopher Calvo, who teaches teaches history at Florida International University, focuses on antebellum written thought about emerging capitalism (“intellectual capitalism”). Economists often dismiss these writings as inconsequential, and historians push them into ill-fitting pigeon holes. The first chapter, as introduction, states his desire to “liberate antebellum political economy” (p. 13) from misleading characterizations, and to reclaim it from obscurity. He covers a very large and diverse body of writings, some of the commentary on it, and political developments that formed the context for the writings. Calvo’s focus is broad: rather than parsing someone’s complex economic argument, he describes a writer’s major themes. His thesis is that many thinkers were original, were well aware of the British economists, freely modified British doctrines to fit American realities, or, often rejected those doctrines.

Chapter two considers writers who favored some key ideas of Adam Smith. Northeastern, mainly academic, thinkers, such as Francis Wayland and John McVickar, promoted Smith’s free-trade ideas. But they endorsed free trade, less for its material benefits, and more for what they saw as its moral benefits. Southern thinkers flipped the emphasis: supporting free trade less for moral benefits, and more for its material benefits. Ultimately, some in the South pushed their argument to implausible extremes (see p. 44 and following). But in both regions, thinkers “expressed a complacent optimism about the economic behavior of private individuals, found security in a benevolent natural order, and deprecated political institutions” p. (50).

Chapter 3 turns to the generally negative reception of Malthus and Ricardo in antebellum America. Americans resisted the abstract, deterministic outlook of Malthus and Ricardo. A wide-spread response was that American exceptionalism (of one or another sort) would prevent Malthus’s population crunch. European political systems, not inexorable laws of nature, caused poverty. More generally, many Americans rejected universal economic laws, as typified by British economists, in favor of a more empirical economic methodology. I was impressed by how many Americans advanced data collecting; and how many had versions of productivity growth (beyond Smith’s division of labor) as the American way out of Malthus’s trap (p. 97). Calvo sums up (p. 101-2): The Americans “did not take seriously the perils British economics ascribed to economic growth. … These dangers were neutralized by the exceptionalism of American circumstances.”

In Chapter 4, Calvo argues that antebellum protests against capitalism were hardly revolutionary expressions. Capitalism itself was the revolution; and anti-capitalist writers were actually conservatives, who felt the loss of an older, passing culture. Southern writers argued that chattel slavery was more humane than industrial “wage slavery.” And northern labor radicals favored a return to a craft society, when “social production was organized around the community’s needs, much as they imagined it had been during the premodern age” (p. 128).

The fifth chapter argues that “protectionism represents the quintessential features of a distinctly American brand of intellectual capitalism” (p. 140). It wove together various American values, including “American exceptionalism, free-labor entrepreneurialism, national industrial expansionism, Anglophobia” (p. 140), as it set out a hybrid capitalism boosted by tariffs. These Americans critiqued British free-trade doctrines as being designed to thwart American growth. They also critiqued the British economists for their deductive methodology, and strongly endorsed empirical and pragmatic thought: “protectionists incorporated into their works a bounty of economic data” (p. 152).

Still in this chapter, Calvo also addresses much of the political history surrounding the long-running tariff debates. Among the figures to which he gives significant attention are Alexander Hamilton, Matthew Carey and Daniel Raymond. A thread throughout is an American optimism missing in classical thought: “the industrial future held an economics of growth, not scarcity and stagnation” (p. 169). And tariffs were a means to grasp it. Chapter 6 singles out Henry Carey who “was recognized as the most important thinker of the protectionist movement in his time” (p. 180). In my judgment, Carey’s most important idea was his notion of productivity growth, which released the benefits of industrialization for all sectors the economy (see p. 183 and following). The description of Carey suggests Carey may have anticipated ideas similar to Henry George of a later era, including the agglomeration economies of modern urban economics. Productivity ideas were widespread: even the northeast moralistic writer Francis Wayland got beyond morals and broached productivity growth.

Chapter 7 singles out financial capitalism. Calvo notes the large number of Americans who “viewed banks as abnormal business enterprises” (p. 196 –quoting James Huston). Some did not even view finance as intrinsically connected to capitalism. Yet others were willing to tolerate, or welcome, some kinds of banking under some conditions. But even “friends of finance wrote positively on the role of state intervention” for a healthy financial system (p. 196). In Hamilton’s footsteps, later Whigs could see the necessity of finance; but they favored state regulations. The literature is large, of varying quality, and with myriad nuances.

The final chapter is a conclusion; “during the antebellum period the discipline [of economics] was pursued … with great intensity and was inclusive of an extensive, rich and dynamic range of ideological and theoretical positions” (p. 241).

Calvo has performed a great service, and one must be impressed by his mastery of a massive body of writings. Antebellum economic thought is a large unsettled area, and Calvo imposes some order by suggesting useful classifications. He also introduces the political, economic, and other historical contexts of this outpouring.

Nevertheless, perhaps unjustly, the literature failed to wield much influence on the development of subsequent economics. However, it seems clear that it expressed central tendencies of American views that are still evident today. For example: tariffs and the question whether free trade has been a net benefit to America are current topics. Concepts such as structural racism, rather than abstract economic principles, are today advanced to understand income inequality. (The “historical school” seems very alive in economics outside the academic area.)The role of deregulated banking in creating America’s economic woes of the Great Recession, and legislated remedies, continue to be a lively topic. Calvo’s work reveals that these concerns have deeps roots in American history. For that reason alone, this work is significant.

I have written about Daniel Raymond, one of Calvo’s subjects. It seems to me Raymond’s ideas could not easily be encompassed by describing him as a protectionist. Raymond also had a notion of business cycles and of what now would be called fiscal stimulus. On the other hand, Raymond was arguably as much a throwback to earlier times as the northeastern, academic writers; for his writing also exhibited a large dose of post-Puritan moralism. He just took it in a far less conservative direction. Calvo misses the chance to elaborate the progressive potential of religious morality (he need only have looked ahead some decades to the Social Gospel movement, for example). That said, however, Calvo had to set boundaries to his work. He has produced an impressive work.


Donald E. Frey (Wake Forest University, retired) is the author of America’s Economic Moralists (SUNY Press, 2009)

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

Open: The Story of Human Progress

Author(s):Norberg, Johan
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (January 2021)

Johan Norberg, Open: The Story of Human Progress. London: Atlantic Books, 2020. 440 pp., $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1786497161.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Department of Economics, Northwestern University.


Johan Norberg is a Swedish writer of books aimed at an educated and curious but not specialized audience, in the tradition of writers such as Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, Steven Pinker, Carl Sagan, and Daniel Dennett. He wears his opinions on his sleeve: some of his previous books have titles such as In Defense of Global Capitalism and Non ce n’était pas mieux avant [No, it was not better in the past]. Historians of capitalism, looking for a politically-correct whine about the evils of modernization and a denouncement of triumphalism, please stay away. This is the Cato Institute speaking. He has written a sprawling, wide-ranging, ambitious book with a powerful message. It contains little new information, but the argument it advances is worth restating as he does in this eloquent volume, even if one suspects that the book will be read mostly by people who are already in his camp.

Norberg has read widely, if perhaps a bit with a broad brush. He has a message based on his interpretation economic history, as well as from evolutionary and experimental psychology, with smatterings of political science, sociology and anthropology. He has no time for ambiguities, qualifications, and nuance. There is little in this book in the style of “on the one hand … but on the other.” The message can be expressed succinctly: open-ness leads to progress, and progress is what we want. He defines “open-ness” in its widest sense. In Norberg’s view, it is not just trade in goods and services that matters, but the free movement of people, knowledge, ideas. Moreover, he points out that openness also implies pluralism, diversity, and a competitive, open-access market for ideas. When those were in place in the past, economies thrived. When societies closed up, chased out strangers, terrorized dissenters, and suppressed innovation, their economies stagnated.

Most economic historians would agree with him, if perhaps a little more cautiously. The gains from trade and specialization (“Smithian Growth”) and the long-distance diffusion of ideas were clearly engines of growth of the most successful pre-industrial revolution economies, and even today, globalization is a major driver of modern growth. There are costs to trade, and there are inevitably losers when mobility increases, but Norberg is convinced correctly that the benefits outweigh them. Few economists would dissent, although the benefit/cost ratio of 20:1 that he asserts (p. 270) is not documented, and this reviewer could find no support for such an estimate.

Norberg draws heavily from many of the most influential scholars in economic history that support his views — not least from Deirdre McCloskey, by far the most influential and deepest-thinking libertarian in our profession. I suspect that she would find little to disagree with the message of this book. It is especially refreshing to read a book that almost axiomatically accepts the notion that attitudes and ideas mattered to economic outcomes in the past. Economic historians are increasingly realizing that pure materialist interpretations of history just won’t do. “Cultural beliefs” in one form or another determine economic performance, not just the other way around. The rise of Christianity, the Sunni revival in medieval Islam, the Enlightenment, the rise of neo-Confucianism in Song China, the emergence of socialism — all were in one way or another critical to the economic fate of societies.

Norberg reads history to find support for his ideology. That may be a bad reason to study history, but it helps you to make your point. Norberg’s book makes no pretension of analytical depth: it is a series of ideological arguments connected by well-chosen examples, vignettes and quotes. But it has two great merits. First, it is very well written. Norberg, like all popularizers, writes with great clarity and wit, and the book is full of bon mots, some borrowed, most original. My favorites are “zero-sum is the myth that launched a thousand economic mistakes” and “nostalgia is a necessary human psychological trait, but it cannot be a governing philosophy.”

Second, the book may have the further advantage of being correct, at least in broad lines. Norberg cites with approval a book by the Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrödinger [yes, he with the cat, as Norberg reminds us] attributing the flourishing of Greek science and philosophy to three factors: pluralism, trade, and tolerance. For Norberg, being open to trade and movement is the key to everything, and that includes openness to heterodox and foreign ideas. Much like other libertarian thinkers, he has no interest in current views that explain economic progress in history by the rise in state capacity. Market failures, collective action, and public goods are of little interest to him. When governments pick winners, things go wrong. For him the key to prosperity is free and open markets that bring out the creativity and cooperativeness in humans.

Norberg full-well understands that openness is constantly threatened by dark forces: tribalism, zero-sum thinking, xenophobia, cultural arrogance, and other nasty features that were perhaps useful for most of humanity’s evolutionary past but are now atavistic. Historically, protectionism, aggressive economic nationalism, and intolerance have been tenacious obstacles to economic growth, though identifying and measuring their impact has been harder than Norberg thinks. He stresses correctly that the contributions of openness to growth go well beyond the standard static gains from trade based on comparative advantage. They encompass the flow of ideas, of migrants, and capital as well as undermine monopolies and enhance competitiveness. Openness, as enlightenment writers such as Edward Gibbon stressed, restrained rulers from silencing their most creative citizens, as doing so would just make them go elsewhere.

What the book misses, however, is a good understanding of what was needed for societies to commit to pluralism and engage in trade beside the absence of the benighted troglodytes that threaten it. Here institutions mattered. The book does not bother much with the work of the “institutional bend” in economic history pioneered by Douglass North, Avner Greif, and their colleagues. That work emphasizes the importance of the institutional underpinnings making markets actually work. Norberg does not stress that in order to have a thriving trade, a society needs institutions that reduce transaction costs. Trade and markets require contracts and some kind of certainty that disputes will be settled fairly. Merchants need to be sure that opportunistic and dishonest behavior will not be so rampant as to make markets unravel. They need to spread risks and obtain reliable information. Trust is one critical element in reducing transaction costs in long-distance commerce. Formal commercial organizations built on it were essential to what Ron Harris has called “going the distance.” If we are to explain the achievements of Smithian Growth in history, such institutions must be part of the story. Openness is hard to achieve, and the relationship between the “state” and open-ness is more complicated than Norberg thinks.

Another example of where specialists may raise eyebrows is the question of the gains from openness. Norberg understands full-well that there are always losers in the bargain. Because the benefits are widely spread and the losses are usually concentrated, there is stiff and effective resistance to openness and globalization. One solution is to somehow find a way to transfer part of the gains to those who are immiserized by trade. This is one of the reasons why the Welfare State is so essential to the survival of the open free-market economy and why it can be a free (or at least a bargain) lunch. For Norberg, transfers are the result of rent-seeking and encourage zero-sum mentalities (p. 280), but a good safety net may well be what is required for openness to survive.

Norberg could be criticized for having read too much psychology and too little economics. In his discussion of zero-sum concerns he submits that despite all evidence showing that the world is not zero sum, many people cannot shed the belief that if one party gains from trade, the other inevitably loses. “We changed the world,” he writes, “but our brains did not notice” (p. 265). This is at least debatable. Our brains are perhaps more nimble and adaptable than evolutionary psychologists tend to suppose. Two hundred fifty years of political economy arguing the opposite have not entirely been in vain, even if it has not fully stamped out the primitive economics of zero-sum isolationists. Somewhat surprising, the book makes no mention of the enlightened idea that trade “sweetens” people’s behavior as Montesquieu pointed out thirty years before Adam Smith. Prosperity and commercialization may have changed people’s behavior, and usually in ways that led to more prosperity and tolerance, as a recent contribution by a psychologist to the economic history of the Industrial Revolution has argued.

Norberg’s view of economic history is unabashedly Manichean: a struggle between enlightened open-minded and tolerant pluralists, fighting for cosmopolitan and progressive values, and the dark forces of racism, neophobia, and “America First” demagoguery. The real danger to prosperity and growth is not foreign threats, he submits, it is the reactionary and bigoted enemy within. Any perceived threat — economic or natural — to the status quo could call out unenlightened nationalist populists from beneath their rocks to unleash a search for scapegoats. These scapegoats conveniently are “others” and persecuting them was accompanied by an attack on openness. Some recent research in economic history confirms that at least for anti-Semitic outbursts, this was indeed the case. Less convenient for a libertarian writer, it also turns out that stronger state capacity attenuated this scapegoating.

All the same, whether or not the economic history community will find that past experience invariably supports his views, Norberg’s book is a valuable message for our troubled times.


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) 2021 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 2021). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative