Industrialisation and the origins of modern prosperity: evidence from the United States in the 19th century

by Ori Katz (Tel Aviv University)

Wiki Commons. Market scene by Pieter Aertsen, c.1550


The largest economic mystery is the modern prosperity of humankind. For thousands of years since the Neolithic revolution, most humans lived in small communities, working as farmers, and their average standard of living did not change much.

But in the nineteenth century, things changed: large parts of the world become industrialised. In those parts, people moved to live in huge cities, where they worked in manufacturing and commerce, had fewer children, invested more in schooling, and their standard of living began to rise, and then to rise dramatically, and it has never stopped since. Whether you look at life expectancy, birth fatality, income per person or any other measure, the trend is the same. And we don’t really know why.

We have a lot of theories. Some believe that this dramatic change has something to do with a geopolitical environment that encouraged competition and maintained stability in property rights. Others talk about a change in human preferences, maybe even in human biology. But in every theory, two of the main ingredients are the dramatic reduction in fertility and the increasing investment in human capital during the late nineteenth century.

This research examines the effect of industrialisation on human capital and fertility in the United States during the period from 1850 to 1900. This effect is hard to identify, for example because human capital also affects industrialisation, or because other variables such as ‘culture’ may affect both.

To deal with those problems, the study uses the westward expansion of the country as a ‘natural experiment’. The appearance of new large cities such as Chicago and Buffalo led to the development of new transport routes, and the study looks at counties that happened to be close to those new routes.

Those counties experienced industrialisation only because of their geographical location, and not because of the human capital of the local population or other variables. This means that analysing them is similar to a laboratory experiment, where it is possible to change only one parameter and leave the others intact.

Results show a very large effect of industrialisation on both fertility and human capital. These results are in contrast with an old theory according to which industrialisation was a ‘de-skilling’ process that increased the demand for unskilled labour. It seems that industrialisation was conducive to human capital.

They also find that the effects of industrialisation on both fertility and human capital were larger in counties that were already more developed in the first place. This led to a divergence between them and less developed counties. Indeed, when we look at the country level, we see increasing gaps between the industrialised countries and the rest of the world, starting in the nineteenth century, just like the gaps shown at the county level.

The modern period of growth is still a mystery, but these research results tell us that the effects of industrialisation on fertility and human capital are an important piece of the puzzle. These effects might be the reason for the great divergence between nineteenth century economies that created the modern wealth gaps between nations.

The impact of new universities on regional growth: evidence from the United States 1930-80

by Alexandra López Cermeño, Lund University / Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

From ODU  Twitter account

Universities generate growth spillovers beyond simply the local market. Analysing data on the universities founded in the United States between 1930 and 1980, my research shows that these drove growth of GDP and population not only in the counties that hosted them, but also in their neighbouring regions. But analysis of their longer-term impact suggests that although there are growth spillovers, the positive effect wears out if it is not periodically renewed.

The role of universities in generating growth is rarely contested. But most research tend to associate the presence of a university with long-term path dependency. In the era of knowledge and information, the role of universities as producers of new ideas and technologies is crucial to productivity. New light on this subject is required not only to understand the role of cultural amenities but also to explore the spatial dynamics around them.

Long-term analysis that compares recipient counties of their first universities between 1930 and 1980 with statistically similar counties that never got an institution shows that the effect of these new universities implies 20% more growth in terms of GDP. Moreover, the analysis shows that the new amenities eventually had an impact neighbouring counties. These dynamics seem to be related to population migration.

This sizeable increase of GDP in these counties is corresponded by a similar size increase in population: new universities generate migratory movements of workers, which eventually lead to higher housing prices and costs to use other infrastructures. Higher costs motivate many workers to relocate to nearby areas where housing and infrastructures are less expensive and access to the amenity is still feasible.

The positive effect of new universities is therefore neutralised in the longer term unless further investments reduce congestion costs. Indeed, the role of infrastructures such as roads seems to explain a large share of the effect of universities.

But the interaction of universities and infrastructure seems to be defined by the decreasing importance of the latter: whereas physical access to infrastructure seemed to constrain the impact of new amenities before the 1950s, more recently established institutions seem no longer dependent on face-to-face contact.

There is further evidence on the role of knowledge dynamics in my study: in the earlier half of the period 1930-80, all that mattered was getting a new university in the county, whereas in the latter half of the period, the quality of the institution seems to have become much more relevant. Counties where research-intensive institutions were established during the period 1950-80 grew almost 40% more.

My analysis shows that the effect of new academic institutions during the twentieth century induced regional spatial dynamics in terms of migration and GDP. But it indicates that the impact of these new amenities was seriously constrained by the congestion of utilities, which limited the extent of growth to the short run.

Thus, it questions the extent of the impact generated by these institutions that is so praised in recent literature since it suggests that their growth dynamics are not self-sustaining: further investments are needed to keep up with the agglomeration forces that attract population and firms to these counties.