This blog aims to encourage discussion of economic and social history, broadly defined. We live in a time of major social and economic change, and research in social science is showing more and more that a historical and long-term approach to current issues is the key to understanding our times.
by Maria Stella Chiaruttini (European University Institute)
Risorgimento history and mythology have, from the very beginning, been a cornerstone of Italian nation building and are still informing public rhetoric and education. However, while their predominance in public discourse has decreased over the last few decades, stereotypical views of Italian unification have begun to be increasingly and vociferously called into question, especially in the South, by cultural associations and popular history writers. Opposing the nineteenth-century interpretation of the messianic role played by Piedmontese patriots and institutions in unifying the country, they highlight the shortcomings of Italian unification, advocating a ‘counter-history’ of the Risorgimento in which the South is portrayed as the hapless victim of ruthless colonizers.
This picture is most provocatively put forward in L’invenzione del Mezzogiorno by the journalist and political activist Nicola Zitara (Jaca Book, 2011). The book, based on secondary literature and addressing a non-academic audience in an extremely polemical style, traces back the origins of the North-South divide to the pillage of the South by a gang of Northern robber bankers. Though lacking in scientific rigor and fairness, it has the merit of addressing one of the – surprisingly – least studied aspects of the Italian ‘Southern question’, namely the financial one. It is indeed high time to open a historical debate on the financial divide still characteristic of today’s Italy. Even more importantly, the financial history of the Risorgimento can offer new insights into two major contemporary issues: economic regionalism, recently come to the forefront with Brexit and the Catalan crisis, and the nexus between finance and politics that emerges constantly in the ongoing EU crisis.
As part of a larger project on Italian financial integration during the Risorgimento, this research focusses on the early development of modern financial markets in the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Two Sicilies and their clash in the first years after Unification. On the basis of extensive archival research, it questions both the traditional view of Southern backwardness versus Northern progress and the revisionist stance praising the superiority of the old Southern system. Apart from the huge differences between the financial systems of the former Italian states, which make the very concept of a financial ‘North’ meaningless, this study shows the crucial role that political events played in shaping financial markets in the Two Sicilies and Piedmont-Sardinia, determining comparative advantages and disadvantages that would prove crucial after 1861.
Interestingly, both kingdoms faced sovereign default, although at different stages. The Two Sicilies came close to bankruptcy in the early nineteenth century, when public debt, already high due to the Napoleonic wars and the expensive restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, skyrocketed after the 1820 constitutional uprisings were crushed by a long and costly Austrian military occupation. From then on, the constant concern of the Bourbons was the repayment of foreign debt. To this end, they consistently implemented an austerity policy which, coupled with the political and financial troubles of 1848, delayed any major banking reforms for decades. At the same time, however, the Southern public national bank, the Bank of the Two Sicilies, managed a sophisticated cashless payment system countrywide that, although working less smoothly than is usually assumed, helped to finance public debt while ensuring monetary stability. Moreover, the role played by Southern business elites in consolidating a model of financial development which favoured Naples at the expense of the rest of the country should not be overlooked.
The rather primitive financial system of the Kingdom of Sardinia was, on the contrary, completely overhauled in less than one decade to sustain the war effort during the disastrous First War of Independence (1848–49), pay for war reparations and enable Prime Minister Cavour to pursue his expansionary policies. From 1848 on, the Piedmontese government found its closest ally in an initially modest bank of issue, the Bank of Genoa, later National Bank and forerunner of the Bank of Italy. Under Cavour’s leadership and with the support of a dynamic business elite, a complex credit system closely integrated with the international markets emerged – a system, however, plagued by large-scale speculation and dependent on both government support and foreign patronage.
The first few years after Unification were particularly traumatic for the South, although not unequivocally negative from the point of view of financial development. The region suffered heavily from monetary and credit disruptions due to warfare, the ever-increasing burden of Italian public debt with its corollary of note inconvertibility, and the decrease of its political and economic power within the new state. The expansion of the Piedmontese National Bank dealt a fatal blow to the Bank of Naples, as the Bourbons’ bank was renamed. At the same time, however, it encouraged the latter to update its business model and the provinces benefited from the creation of a branch network first by the National Bank and later by the Bank of Naples. However, banking competition also came at the cost of financial instability, since, due to bitter regional antagonism, Italy constantly swung between banking pluralism and de facto note monopoly until the early twentieth century. By analysing the feud between the National Bank and the Bank of Naples, this study also shows how the ‘constructed identity’ of the two banks was instrumental to the private interests of their respective business groups, giving rise to conflicting narratives still in currency today.
Following decades of long run economic decline, recent calls to establish a “Northern powerhouse” offer some hope for the reinvigoration of once proud manufacturing regions of the industrial revolution. A recent 2015 report by the Alliance Project suggested that the textile sector had the capacity to create 20,000 jobs in the Manchester region by 2020.
But how would such a revival cut across the systemic causes of longer run decline? And what lessons, if any, can be learned from earlier phases of industrialisation?
To examine the long run rise and fall of the Lancashire textile industry, this research project has assembled financial data from over a hundred mainly Lancashire textile firms over the period c.1790-2000. Analysing this data in the context of wider economic trends and the strategic options available to individual firms offers new perspective on the long run dynamics of this once great industry.
Regardless of the size of the market, and the market share of the firms involved, firms’ profits were typically highly volatile. So although market instability was a continuous feature, profit instability reflected specific investments, which differed through time, according to ownership, industry organisation and technology.
In the early industrial revolution, the working capital cycle of inventory and credit was crucial, such that profit volatility reflected material supply and monetary conditions. Firms that were most successful in financial terms automated specific processes, using their enhanced capacity to exercise control over the remainder of the value chain and final product markets.
Greater investment in fixed capital in subsequent phases of industrialisation meant added risk in the face of volatile markets. Entrepreneurs were pressured by such investments to impose notoriously long working hours and lobby against regulatory interventions.
The most successful firms built partnerships that combined technical innovation, market access and mutual financial support. Like modern day venture capitalists, entrepreneurs operated through informal networks rather than hierarchical integrated structures.
Throughout the nineteenth century, and up to the post war boom and slump of 1919-1921, volatile profits reflected over-investment during upturns and surplus capacity during downturns. After 1920, firms that were most successful were those that avoided the temptation to refinance during the 1919 boom, and such firms at least survived, as profit opportunities dwindled in a declining market.
As more firms exited the industry, the remainder were absorbed by textile-based conglomerates. These firms enjoyed a short-lived period of success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, promoted by regional assistance and productivity-boosting capital investment.
Even so, exports dwindled further and the textile producers became increasingly dependent on contracts with large retailers. The more financially successful took advantage of strategic relationships with retailers to make further productivity enhancing investments.
The globalisation of retail in the 1990s undermined these relationships, resulting in the outsourcing of much of the remaining British textile industry to cheaper overseas locations. The few surviving firms had adopted niche strategies producing specialised fabrics for sectors like healthcare, outdoor equipment and motor vehicles.
Recent successes stories have also reflected strong demand in international markets for authentically British clothing. The Burberry brand is one good example and Marks and Spencer’s “Best of British” range is another. Authenticity requires genuine sourcing, which helps explain the opening of the first Lancashire cotton-spinning mill for several decades, in 2015, at Tower Mill, Dukinfield.
If textiles are to revive further in Lancashire, the lessons of history are important.
Regional, rather than national, financial institutions, ranging from informal networks to country banks to local stock markets, underpinned previous phases of development, and London’s influence as a financial centre then, and today, has little to do with investment in northern manufacturing.
Public sector funding, via the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has helped secure the immediate future of Tower Mill. Meanwhile, recent research has identified further growth potential in the form of medium and small textile firms in the region fit the usual criteria for investment by private equity (n=52) and venture capital firms (n=125).
However, these are mere possibilities, and a far cry from the closely integrated networks of innovation and finance that underpinned success in earlier generations. Even if the demand for “Britishness” in fashion conscious international markets remains stable, and that is a big “if”, given the long run context of volatility, supportive regional financial institutions seem to be lacking.
In this sense, the lessons of history overshadow the future of the textile component of the Northern powerhouse project.
By Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Today, village shops are often seen as central to village life and their closure is greeted with alarm because, like pubs, they act as a litmus for the health and vitality of our rural communities.
Yet we know little about the long-term history of village shops: how widespread they were, what they sold, how they traded, who their customers were and how they related to the wider community. This is partly because they have been overlooked by historians of retailing, who are dazzled by the bright lights of the city and the seemingly revolutionary changes wrought by department stores and chain stores, who are seen as ushering in “modern” practise like display, fixed prices and leisure shopping. Rural historians have long focused on the production of the countryside; marketing is of interest only when it comes to selling the produce of farms.
This article rescues village shops from both the neglect of historians and the rose-tinted perspective of nostalgia. It reveals how shopkeepers like Ralph Edge, an ironmonger in late seventeenth-century Cheshire, stocked goods from around the world, including calicos from India, tobacco from across the Atlantic, raisins from the Mediterranean; how Rebecca Course managed the credit of her customers to her shop in early-Victorian Buckinghamshire; and how Hardy Woolley mixed retailing in rural Lincolnshire with writing books of trade hints for his fellow shopkeepers.
We know about these people through their entries in trade directories, often with people listing several trades alongside their shop; their inventories, which tell us about their stock held, shop fittings, and sometimes their by-employments; their account books, which reveal prices, identify their customers and their shopping habits and uncover often complex credit arrangements; their diaries and memoirs, which let us into the lifeworld of a small number of shopkeepers and give us some understanding of their motivations and concerns.
Not every village had its own shop, of course, but most of England’s rural population was within easy walking distance of a shop. Whilst the image of the general store is perhaps misleading, they supplied a wide range of items, bringing the expanding world of goods into rural society. We should not judge them against the contested and problematic standards of urban modernity, but rather as businesses and social spaces that served the needs of their customers. The entries in Charles Small’s mid nineteenth-century account book which record mending baskets and mangling clothes for some of his customers may seem quaint and old-fashioned at a time when department stores were emerging in major cities. And the agonising of Thomas Turner about whether to execute an order for distraining the goods of Mr Darby, who owed him about £18 in shop debts, could be seen as a sign of weak business practice. Yet these men – and thousands of other men and women like them – were running businesses that thrived on customer loyalty and their place within the socio-economic fabric of their village communities. They were in the swing of broader changes in retail practice, but deeply embedded in their localities.
The full article is published on the Economic History Review and is available here
By Paul Atkinson (University of Liverpool) – research conducted at Lancaster University thanks to ERC funding.
This work looked at the variation in infant mortality across time and place in country districts of England and Wales between 1851 and 1911. It used statistical methods to find patterns in the data from nearly 90% of rural places to show that, far from being one undifferentiated whole, the countryside was divided into zones with their own infant mortality trends. Broadly, infant mortality in the 1850s was worst in an eastern zone of England, but improved fastest here; across a large zone of south and central England infant mortality was somewhat lower than in the first zone in the 1850s (especially in the far south), but dropped somewhat more slowly; while in northern and western England, and in Wales, infant mortality began at lower levels than the rest of the country but stagnated or even increased, above all in the remotest districts.
How infant mortality changed in seven clusters of Registration Districts: for their locations, see map. The eastern zone is made up of Fenland and Mercia; Wessex, Severn and Trent form the south-central one and Health and Moor and Upland the final zone.
The obvious question is what made these patterns? Mainly different factors from the ones operating in towns, where the combination of crowding and poor sanitation made diarrhoeal disease the major killer, and where falling fertility was associated with decreasing infant mortality. This research identified statistically three other factors associated with infant mortality across time.
First, maternal health – plainly a factor in towns as well, but partly masked there by stronger influences. This work confirms – using a much larger dataset – Millward and Bell’s finding that the mortality of females from tuberculosis at reproductive ages, a good indicator of their general health, predicted infant mortality, explaining about a quarter of the variation in it. So, what makes mothers sick makes babies sick: probably poor nutrition above all, though we could not test that directly.
Second, maternal education, again relevant in towns too, but obscured there. Horrell, Oxley and Humphries have shown how a disadvantaged status within the household for women could produce excess female mortality: the research extends this argument to their babies. Literate women had higher status and more access to resources including food. What makes mothers vulnerable – in our study, their illiteracy – makes babies vulnerable. Female literacy predicted about a sixth of the variation in infant mortality.
The third factor linked with rising infant mortality in this period was remoteness, measured as the distance from the centre of each district to London. This was not just a characteristic of very remote locations, but applied at all distances above 100km. Exactly why infant mortality in the remotest places improved most slowly – even went backwards until the 1890s – is not very clear. This research argues that it was a mixture of large-scale out-migration stripping regions of their healthier inhabitants; possibly, the gradual way new ideas about infant care may have diffused from the biggest cities into the country, and, probably, features of rural social organisation: we argue elsewhere that the general trend to force women out of the agricultural labour market across the later nineteenth century was excluding them from forms of labour which benefited their status, and their babies’ welfare, in northern and western upland, pastoral farming areas, but harmed them in the arable south and east.
This amounts to an argument for two things: attention to ‘the mother as medium’ when explaining infant mortality rates, and attention to the diversity and particularity of local economies and cultures as we study the countryside of the past.
B. Saul (1965) once referred to late nineteenth-century Britain as the ‘export economy’. During this period, one of Britain’s largest export markets—in some years, the largest market—was the United States. To the United States, Britain exported a range of (mainly manufactured) goods spanning such industries as iron, steel, tinplate, textiles, and numerous others.
A forthcoming article in the Economic History Review argues that the total volume of British exports to the United States was significantly affected by American tariffs during the interval from 1870-1913. The argument runs contrary to the more general finding of Jacks et al. (2010) that Britain’s trade with a sample of countries, i.e. not just the United States, was uninfluenced by foreign tariffs.
This argument complements some previous studies that focused on specific commodities that Britain exported to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Irwin (2000) found that Britain’s tinplate exports to the United States were indeed responsive to changes in the American duty on tinplate. Inwood and Keay (2015) reached a similar conclusion regarding Britain’s pig iron exports to the United States. However, as this research claims, the determinacy of American tariffs for the volume of British exports was not limited to only certain commodities, but rather applied to the bilateral flow of trade, as a whole.
The United States imposed different duties on different commodities. Because the composition of commodities that the United States imported from all countries collectively differed from the composition of commodities that the United States imported from Britain, the average American tariff is an inaccurate measure of the tariff level encountered by, specifically, British exports to the United States. For this reason, this research reconstruct an annual series of the bilateral American tariff toward Britain for the interval from 1870-1913, using the disaggregated data reported in the historical trade statistics of the United States. This reconstructed series is crucial to the argument.
The figure above presents the average American tariff and the reconstructed bilateral American tariff toward Britain, both expressed as percentages (ad valorem equivalent percentages, to be precise). In the 1890s, the average American tariff and the bilateral American tariff toward Britain do not follow a similar course. For example, whereas the tariff revisions of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 had little effect on the average American tariff, these tariff revisions resulted in the bilateral American tariff toward Britain declining from 45% in 1893/4 to 31% in 1894/5.
This econometric analysis of the Anglo-American bilateral trade flow relies upon the empirically-correct bilateral American tariff toward Britain. In this respect, the forthcoming article in the Economic History Review departs from other historical studies of trade, which use average tariffs as approximations of bilateral tariffs.
Perhaps the reconstruction of another country’s bilateral tariff toward Britain—Germany’s tariff toward Britain is an obvious choice—would reveal that the effect of foreign tariffs on British exports was more widespread than just the bilateral American case. Nevertheless, the importance of the bilateral American case should not be diminished, as the United States was a large export market of Britain, the ‘export economy’ of the late nineteenth century.
by Richard Blakemore (University of Reading) – research conducted at the University of Exeter thanks to a ERC project.
In April 1642, Michael Johnson sailed from London aboard the Fame. The voyage took him to northern France, southern Spain, and the Caribbean, and Johnson started it with a ‘venture’, a personal investment of cash or goods, worth £5. He spent the voyage ‘turneinge and winding’ (as one of his shipmates put it) his venture and his wages: hiring out his cabin to passengers, buying and selling at each port. By the time the ship was heading for home, Johnson had accumulated 200 pieces of eight and some cargo, altogether worth roughly £50 – ten times his original ‘venture’.
This example invites us to reconsider the traditional image of mariners as wage workers, as poor and unskilled labourers, sitting at the bottom of a strictly ranked workforce. That is what this article is set to do.
This idea of mariners has endured among historians in part because it was popular among those mariners’ contemporaries, especially during the early modern period when global trade and shipping expanded enormously. A proverb from that period claims that ‘the sea and the gallows refuseth nobody’. Yet this interpretation has also been founded on a relatively limited analysis of sailors’ wages, which sought mainly to identify averages across the sector. This article presents a more detailed discussion of this topic, based on a dataset gathered from the papers of the High Court of Admiralty. It is possible to download the dataset here.
The data confirms the impression of a hierarchical labour market, with clear thresholds between ranks. Most mariners (sailors with no specific role) earned less than most specialists (men with a specific job, like boatswain, gunner, or carpenter); most specialists earned less than masters and master’s mates, who navigated and commanded ships. However, there was also remarkable variety – across the seventeenth century, mariners earned between 5 and 55 shillings a month, specialists between 13 and 100 shillings, though in both cases there was predictable lumping around a median point.
Such variation can be explained by the circumstances of a voyage, such as length, destination, and anticipated riskiness. In wartime, for instance, wages rose for most seafarers. This also reflects different levels of skill and social capital for individual sailors at all levels of the shipping industry. In other words, we must recognise that at least some mariners, as well as those at higher ranks, were experienced workers who could claim a skill premium in their wages.
As well as exploring this variety in wages, we also need to look beyond them to other forms of income – something which, like wages, scholars have often treated briefly, and with more attention to the activities of shipmasters. There were multiple available arrangements. Sailors might receive a share of the profits from a voyage, especially when working on a fishing vessel or a privateer, and they also expected a full ‘diet’ aboard ship, and protested loudly when the food did not meet their expectations.
Most crucially, it seems that Michael Johnson was not alone. Many sailors of all ranks carried goods aboard ship, sometimes in their own cabin or chest, sometimes in larger volumes with the ship’s other cargo. This is an area that historians have begun to investigate in more depth (as in this article by Beverly Lemire, and this roundtable edited by Maria Fusaro). Though there is not enough evidence on the value of these goods for a systematic analysis, we can at least establish that the practice was ubiquitous, and that it formed a significant portion of many seafarers’ incomes.
There are implications from this evidence for our wider understanding of the shipping industry and early modern economic developments. As well as the idea that they were unskilled, sailors have often been seen as an exploited group, essential to but not benefitting from European economic growth, to which shipping and trade were dynamic contributing sectors. There is some truth to this picture: sailors’ working lives were certainly hard and dangerous, and the period saw rising inequality, with wages falling behind inflation. Nevertheless, studying seafarers’ wages and trade shows us that they sought to make the best of, and some of them were able to successfully operate in, the venture economy of early modern shipping.
Full article: Blakemore, R. J. (2017), Pieces of eight, pieces of eight: seamen’s earnings and the venture economy of early modern seafaring. The Economic History Review, 70: 1153–1184. doi:10.1111/ehr.12428. Available here
On Marten Seppel, Keith Tribe (eds.) Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2017 (ISBN 978 1 78327 212 9)
There has been a growing interest in cameralism over the last five to ten years, but it has been claimed that the only scholarly book-length treatment of cameralism in English was a 1909 work by Albion Small.
Fortunately, things are changing: the annual conferences of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought are dominated by young French and Italian scholars; the developing field of intellectual history has upgraded the quality of work done in the history of economics; and from the later 1970s onwards the history of eighteenth century political thought has emerged as a very sophisticated field, within which the study of cameralism no longer seems such a minority interest. If there is a “logic” it could be described as a literature of economic management. Thought about this way, it then becomes more obvious quite why it is so hard to define, since there is no strictly equivalent body of writing in contemporary languages such as English and French. It has become more and more clear (as argued also our collection) that besides Germany and Austria, cameralist literature on state and economy also had great influence in Sweden, Russia, Denmark and even Portugal.
The present collection focuses on the practices of cameralism. In the 1930s August Wolfgang Gerloff argued that eighteenth-century cameral science was “die Lehre von der Staatspraxis, die Lehre von der praktischen Politik” (a doctrine directed to state practice, to practical politics). However, Andre Wakefield writes that cameralism was a kind of fantasy fiction or even a utopian theory, rather than any particular plan that could be followed by administration. He believes that cameralist authors did realise that their teaching was too theoretical.
One of the main goals of our book was to bring out the innovative tendencies associated with cameralist discourse in the eighteenth century. This objective raised intriguing questions such as: did cameralism change the world? Or was there a “cameralist revolution”?
However, it may be too easy to assimilate ideas of “progress” to a present-centred history lacking an understanding of past historical commentary and argument. While it would be wrong to suggest that cameralism in some way changed the world, what we can say is that it changed the language with which the world was conceived. Whatever the outcome of cameralist “practice”, by the later part of the eighteenth century there was a new language of state administration that became transformed into the financial sciences of the nineteenth century, and thence became part of the language of public administration. It gave “practitioners” a way of talking to each other about the way in which they conducted their affairs.
What the study of cameralist literature has brought to light is the extent of our ignorance about early modern Europe, its politics and administration, its economy and society. The sheer volume of material that recent work has revealed compels us to think about new ways of exploring networks of activity and argument. Rosenberg’s work on Prussia remains important, but today it would not be appropriate to write a history of bureaucratic rule without examining the language of administration. The key to that lies in the study of cameralist literature and its language, and in a new approach to the work of administration in the European states of the eighteenth century. As I suggest above, my problem with “mercantilism” is that it presents a grid that obscures from us both diversity and convergence in early modern economic literature. Insofar as our book on cameralism and administration shows the sheer diversity of this material, I hope that it provides encouragement to others to explore this literature more systematically than has ever before been attempted.
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by J. Rutterford (Open University), D.P. Sotiropoulos (Open University), and C. van Lieshout (University of Cambridge)
In today’s financialised societies, households are exposed to financial risk. Researchers are currently exploring how such households make financial decisions and manage financial risk in practice. There are also substantial efforts being made by government, regulators, charities and financial players to increase the financial literacy of households to help them make better financial decisions.
This study explores the financial decisions made by a sample of late Victorian investors and attempts to draw some lessons from a period which, in its global outlook and investment opportunities, is similar to today.
The research shows that investors diversified their portfolios both internationally and across sectors, well before the mathematical benefits of diversification were modelled by Markowitz in the form of modern portfolio theory (MPT), which recommends that portfolio weights be chosen according to the returns and risks of individual securities but also according to the correlations between the various security returns. At the time of our study, though, contemporary investment publications also promoted the benefits of diversification in terms of enhanced yield without increased risk; they showed this by using historical data to quantify the greater returns achievable. So, nineteenth century UK investors were also aware of the benefits of spreading risk across different types of securities as recommended by MPT. The most common advice, though, was not to mathematically calculate correlation matrices, as does MPT, rather the advice was to invest equal amounts in a range of securities, the so-called 1/N or naïve diversification approach.
The paper breaks new ground in our understanding of what Victorian investors did in practice with their portfolios. Up to now, researchers have merely acknowledged that such diversification took place, or have used market prices to argue that Victorian investors ought to have diversified and quantified what such investors, had they had perfect foresight, would have gained in return terms. In contrast, this paper looks in detail at a sample of 508 investor portfolios at death, using carefully analysed probate data, for the period 1870 to 1902.
The results of the analysis of these investor portfolios allow us to draw a number of interesting conclusions. For example, the probate records of our sample show an almost equal number of women and men held financial portfolios at death, highlighting the importance of women investors in this period. Also, the research finds that, for these estates at death which included financial securities, investments represented on average a substantial 60% of gross assets, the remainder being property, life assurance, loans and cash.
The average number of financial securities held in a sample portfolio was 4.5, with a median of only 2. Surprisingly, though, this level of diversification is not dissimilar to that of portfolio holdings from US samples in the 1970s and 1990s, one hundred years later, and decades after MPT was formalised in the 1950s and 1960s. In our sample, the level of diversification was linked to wealth, with the top quartile in gross wealth terms holding an average of 11 securities in their portfolios, with men holding more diversified portfolios than women.
However, overall, investors did not hold securities in equal weights, as generally recommended in the investment literature of the period. They did not manage financial risk via naïve diversification. Nor did they evenly spread their risks across sectors and countries. For example, investors living outside London – – as well as less wealthy investors preferred the securities of domestic companies other than railways. This indicates a preference for local investment, which offers an alternative route to risk reduction, that of trust in local enterprise. This is in line with recent research on trust in the economic history literature. The research also finds that wealthier investors, who held more securities, were more willing to hold international and government securities than the less wealthy. In contrast, a surprising 35% of our sample of investors held only non-railway corporate securities in their portfolios.
In conclusion, individual investors in this late nineteenth century sample did diversify, but not as much as recommended by the contemporary literature. Instead, they relied more closely on local trust networks for their financial decision making. This does not mean that investors failed to see the benefits of international, sectoral or naïve diversification. Rather, and this is a key lesson for today’s decision makers, non-wealthy households who hold the majority of their wealth in non-tradable form and who are unable to easily hedge financial risk, are reluctant, as were their forebears, to embrace relatively sophisticated financial approaches to investment. They prefer, instead, to rely on trust, whether of the companies in which they invest or of their financial intermediaries.
Everything (well,… most things) you know about wages 1650 -1800 is wrong. That’s a great opportunity for historians
by Judy Stephenson (University of Oxford)
My forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review (abstract available here) makes some big claims about the level of nominal and real wages in urban England before industrialization. There is an early working paper version here
Specifically, I argue that the data used for the years between 1650 and 1800 are completely wrong because the people who compiled them (who go back in some cases to the 1930s and late nineteenth century) took figures from bills for construction services rather than actual wage books. As an actual wage book from the contractor who built the South West Tower of St Paul’s shows, men were not paid these charge out rates, they were paid considerably less.
This has some big ramifications for some influential economists and historians who have relied on long established data sets of ‘builders wages’, such as those of Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955, 1956) to create macroeconomic models of the past to calculate real wages and infer GDP; to argue that Britain had ‘high wages’; or a comparative advantage in traded goods; or a narrower ‘skill premium’ and better institutions.
In truth, that these wages were ‘wrong’ is in no way surprising to anyone who has ever done work on early modern earning. Any historian of the eighteenth century sensed that these ‘average wages’ were unreasonably high and that their implied welfare ratios gave a falsely rosy picture. (As someone face palmed; ‘A labourer in London able to afford a respectable basket of goods for a family in the mid eighteenth century?? Have you read Dorothy George?’). Those who have ever worked with labour records and account books know that the homogenous figures found by Elizabeth Gilboy were questionable, and indeed in 2011, John Hatcher had successfully called into question the golden age of the fifteenth century. ‘Real’ day wages and wage accounts are always fascinatingly messy, unpredictable, and varied, yet econometricians clung to the old data sets because they believed it was too difficult to find anything else.
My findings make the idea that Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the long eighteenth century hard to sustain. If paid wages were 25% lower than we thought, the real wage for labourers through this period in London was not the highest by far. Rather, it seems, they were at the lower end of NW European advanced economies.
This is exciting for economists who think that explaining why the industrial revolution happened in Britain is the ‘Holy Grail’ (it’s back up for grabs). But, the debunking of these inaccurate wage series also makes it a really exciting time for people who want to understand the role of labour in the economy, and who think that the period before collective bargaining and factories has some strong parallels with our own. Lots has been written about the decline of ‘history’ in economic history, but the new opportunity is as wide and bright for historians as it is for economists and econometricians. This breakthrough in this long-run view on wages came not from new statistical techniques, but from the margins of dusty parchment, little iron pins, raggy old papers, smudged watered down ink, and the tentative ‘x’s’ and proud flourishes of the archives.
It’s time to stop recycling tired old data sets and expecting new technology to tell us something different about them. There is a wealth of sources and data in London archives, which have never been used before because they didn’t look comparable to Elizabeth Gilboy’s ‘day rates’, but which offer historians and economists the potential to look at earning, bargaining and the capital labour relationship in new ways. There is exciting work in progress from established and new scholars in the field. No one data set will ever be able to replace the supposed reliability of Phelps Brown and Hopkins, but even they were very tentative about their sources.
by Evan Wigton-Jones (University of California, Riverside)
Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in issues of economic inequality. This research offers a contribution to this discussion by analysing the effects of inequality within Brazil.
Firstly, it shows that the climate is a key determinant of long-run inequality in Brazilian context. It uses data from a national census conducted in 1920 to show that warmer regions with high rainfall were characterised by plantation economies, with a wealthy agricultural elite and a large underclass of poor labourers. In contrast, cooler and drier areas were conducive to smaller family farms, and hence resulted in a more equitable society.
The study then uses information from the 2000 census to show that this local inequality has persisted for generations: areas that were historically unequal in 1920 are generally unequal today as well.
Finally, the research shows that greater long-term inequality inhibits regional development. It also shows evidence that inequality affects local governance, as municipal spending on health, education and welfare is significantly lower in more economically unequal areas.
To show the climate’s influence on local inequality, the study created an index that quantifies the relative suitability of land for plantation agricultural production. The metric is based on the temperature and precipitation requirements of different crops that are uniquely plantation or smallholder in their method of production. For example, sugarcane has historically been produced on large plantations, while wheat was often cultivated on small farms.
The research then shows that localities with a favourable climate for plantation agriculture contained a more unequal distribution of land. To measure the concentration of land ownership, it calculates a Gini index – a standard measure of inequality that ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (one individual holds all land).
As Brazil’s economy was predominantly agrarian in 1920, this distribution of land is a good proxy for that of income and wealth. The research combines this with data on municipal spending in the 1920s to show that local governments with higher land inequality spent less on education, health, public goods and public electricity. For example, a one unit increase in the Gini index is associated with a .76 percentage point decline in such spending.
The effects of this inequality have ramifications for contemporary socio-economic welfare in Brazil. Not only has local inequality persisted throughout the twentieth century, but it has also hindered present-day municipal development. Here it measures local development using the municipal-level human development index (HDI) – a metric that accounts for education, public health and income – for the year 2000.
It shows that historically unequal areas score much lower on the HDI: a one unit increase in 1920 land inequality is associated with a reduction of .38 points in this index (which, like the Gini index, is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with a higher score indicating greater development).
Furthermore, the legacies of historical inequality are still manifest in contemporary local governance: a one unit increase in historical inequality is associated with a .49 percentage point decrease in municipal-level welfare spending for the year 2000.
These findings suggest several important conclusions:
First, the environment may play an important role in determining inequality and long-term development, even within countries.
Second, economic disparities can persist for generations.
Lastly, inequality can have a corrosive effect on welfare and governance, even at a local level.
It should be noted, however, that this study has focused on inequality within Brazil. The extent to which these findings can be generalised to other settings requires further study.