Introducing “highlights”: Ridolfi on premodern France and Jongman on the Roman empire

From now on there will be once in a while posts written by others in this blog. These will be written both by young scholars and by more senior, established scholars.

The idea is that these scholars will write short essays about the main conclusions (and possibly policy implications) from their overall work. Scholars will write about their work overall: the forest, not the trees. Speculation about future work and general considerations about the state of the field are welcome. Hence the logic is different (and a complement, not a substitute) from that of blogs such as EHES’s Positive Check or EHS’s The Long Run, where people write about one specific paper at the time.

Consistent with this policy, the two inaugural posts will be written by:

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How important was colonial trade for the rise of Europe?

I recently gave an interview to Garret M. Petersen of the Economics Detective Radio where we discuss some of my work. You can listen to it in this link: Money, Trade and Economic Growth in the Early Modern Period (interview).

In the interview, we discuss at one point the matter of how important was colonial (and otherwise intercontinental) trade for macroeconomic outcomes such as growth and urbanization in Europe. As I notice in the interview, my position on this (see my Cliometrica article for details) stands between two extremes:

  1. that of Eric Hobsbawm or Immanuel Wallerstein, who argue Europeans profited a huge deal from the colonies. This view is very prevalent in some political circles today, if not the person on the street, who often believes that “imperialism” or “colonialism” is what what made the West Rich, through exploitation of the rest of the world. It is related to “dependency theory”.
  2. by contrast, that of many if not most economic historians, who believe that such trade (and the violence that came with it) didn’t matter very much for outcomes back in Europe.

The latter view became the orthodoxy among economists and economic historians after Patrick O’Brien’s 1982 paper, which in one of many of Patrick’s celebrated phrases, claims that “”the periphery vs peripheral” for Europe. He concludes the paper by writing:

“[G]rowth, stagnation, and decay everywhere in Western Europe can be explained mainly by reference to endogenous forces. … for the economic growth of the core, the periphery was peripheral.”

This is the view that remarkable scholars such as N. Crafts, Deirdre McCloskey, or Joel Mokyr repeat today (though Crafts would argue cotton imports would have mattered in a late stage, and my reading of Mokyr is that he has softened his earlier view from the 1980s a little, specifically in the book The Enlightened Economy.) Even recently, Brad deLong has classifyied O’Brien’s 1982 position as “air tight”.

Among economists and economic historians more on the economics side, I would say that O’Brien’s paper was only one of two strong hits against the “Worlds-System” and related schools of thoughts of the 1970s, the other hit being Solow’s earlier conclusion that TFP growth (usually interpreted as technology, though there’s more to it than that) has accounted for economic growth a great deal more than capital accumulation, which is what Hobsbawm and Wallerstein, in their neo-Marxist framework, emphasize.

Let me be clear from the outset that the idea that it was European exploitation of foreign peoples that made it rich is, by itself, highly simplistic, and, in short, nonsense. The view held by many historians and members of the public, that colonialism essentially equals why the west is rich is evidently false. This view is seductive in part because of the nasty violent means and institutions (such as slavery), clearly immoral from the normative standpoint of our times, which was often associated with it. Even if partially true it fails to ask why was Europe the part of the world capable of doing this, which in turn raises the obvious suspicion that the deep causal factor lies elsewhere.

To a degree in the interview I react more against the opposite version, the point (2) above, the idea that it did not matter at all. But this is because I hold the fact that (1) is false as more evident.

One irony with all of this is that for more than a decade now, Patrick O’Brien has changed his mind. He has, indeed refereed to this in writing (as far back as 2006), and several people have witnessed seminars where the speaker mentions “as Patrick O’Brien has concluded, colonies didn’t matter for European development…” only to have Patrick raise and kindly but firmly inform the speaker of his change of heart.

Last year at the American Economic Association meeting in S. Francisco, my good friend Deirdre McCloskey even told me in disappointment how me she feels Patrick should go back to his old view! But I feel there’s good reason for his change of mind. Patrick certainly hasn’t adopted a Hobsbawm-Wallerstein type of position. He is now simply of the view that, at the margin, trade with other parts of the world did matter for European development. It’s does not explain everything, but it mattered a bit. This is what I find empirical support for in my own work.

My discussion has focused on the impact of trade for the European economy.  As Brad deLong notices, a different matter is that of whether such trade had an impact on other parts of the world (positive or negative). Patrick O’Brien sometimes refers to himself as a “mercantilist”. So I conclude by noting that some ideas related to the benefits of protectionism (once an idea almost banished from the realms of “serious” economics), especially as it applies to countries that are not at the frontier, has been taking hold among some young and very competent economic historians, such as Réka Juhász or Luigi Pascali. Perhaps I’ll write more about this in a future post.

 

 

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New job! University of Manchester

Starting in September, I will become a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the Department of Economics of the University of Manchester.

I will greatly miss Groningen, where I have spent 2 wonderful years and shall leave many happy memories and friends behind.

But on the upside, it will be great to teach economic history in the city which witnessed the birth of the industrial revolution!

Where can you study for a Masters in Economic History?

If you are interested in why some countries became rich and others stayed poor, then a Masters in Economic History could be the degree you are looking for.

While development economics and development studies study poverty today, much (but by no means all) of economic history concerns why some countries managed to escape poverty (all countries started off poor in absolute terms) and others didn’t. This too has important lessons for poor countries today.

There are other reasons to study economic history, and the field is about other things, too. But to stay focused let’s discuss this one. When undergraduate students tell me that they would like to study more economic history, this is the usual reason they point out. It was also what attracted me to the field from the start.

This post is written for all students who wish some guidance in this matter, and possibly for some teachers who may wish to direct them as well. There is an earlier list by eh.net but it is rather incomplete insofar as European schools are concerned, seems to be outdated, and does not distinguish MSc from PhD programs (that is, many of the schools it lists are US schools that do not offer a terminal MSc degree).

Employers tend place good value in masters in economic history, which they see as presenting a good balance between the quantitative skills of economics and the essay-writing craftsmanship of history.

Of course, a Masters in Economic History can be also a good entry point for a PhD in economic history itself, or one in economics, in history, or in related fields such as political science.

My review below will be centered on good schools in Europe. My choice of which schools are included was inevitably somewhat arbitrary and by no means are all good programs included. Most of the programs below are taught in English. (Though I should write here as a disclaimer that anything they announce is their responsibility!)

Note that in the USA students in economics-related fields go straight to PhD and there is no emphasis in independent masters in such areas. My list is based on schools and programs I have had some sort of direct or indirect contact with. The list below is in no particular order –any of these programs should give you a good education.

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In the United Kingdom there is a lot on offer:

Several universities in Spain have departments of economic history and offer such masters. Here I list three:

In Sweden, there are also several departments of economic history.

Again, let me emphasize that I am not endorsing any of these programs; this list is just to get you started. Many things vary here, including cost. If your favorite school or program isn’t listed, that doesn’t mean that it’s not good. I welcome further suggestions to be added.

Bear in mind that if you want to do a PhD in Economics at a top school, a Masters in Economics is a better bet from a technical perspective, even if you later want to specialize in economic history (of the cliometric kind), despite the fact that an MSc in Economic History would expose you to a different set of ideas and methods. If your first degree is from a North American institution, then know that for PhDs in economics at top US schools, a background in maths or computer science may be more appropriate than even an economics first degree.

A Masters in Economic History may also not be the best entry point for a PhD in History itself either, since not many (“pure”) history departments are friendly towards the quantitatively-inclined methods of modern economic history, though there are exceptions (or better put, there are history departments where some faculty members will be exceptions).

Nonetheless, some economics departments do offer degrees where you can take a graduate course in economic history, and this may be the right balance you’re looking for. For instance, in my own department at the University of Groningen, many students do a research masters in economics while specializing in economic history, and they sit in a graduate course called “Economic Growth in History” (just like this blog).

Other European places have a concentration of economic historians, despite (to my knowledge) not offering MSc degrees in economic history; but you would certainly be taught by some of them if you take a masters in economics or history; examples include the Historical Economics and Development Group of the University of Southern Denmark, the Center for economic history of Queen’s university, Belfast, and, last but certainly not the least, Utrecht has an important cluster of people working on Economic and Social history.

Spending a Windfall

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The paper “Spending a Windfall: American Precious Metals and Euro-Asian Trade 1531-1810”, by André C. Silva and myself, is now available as a GGDC working paper.

Here’s the abstract:

During the early modern period, Asia ran a large current account surplus with Europe. We show that the critical factor to stimulate Euro-Asian trade was not the new trading routes to Asia, but the European access to American precious metals. We use a dynamic general equilibrium model to reproduce historical data and calculate alternative scenarios. We find that European imports of Asian goods were up to thirteen times higher than they would have been without new routes and without precious metals. The effect of American precious metals is six times larger than that of the discoveries of new trading routes.

90% of the European imports of porcelain, silk, tea, and other luxuries from Asia during the early modern period were paid for in silver. The traditional and still currently accepted explanation by most historians for this imbalance of early modern Euro-Asian trade relies on cultural factors. It is said that Asians have always had a penchant for hoarding treasure (this is the view of Hamilton, Keynes, Kindleberger, and Maddison). By contrast, our explanation for the patterns of Euro-Asian trade in the early modern period does not rely on different preferences for Asians. Instead, the observed trade patterns emerge as a natural consequence of rational agents taking decisions in a dynamic general equilibrium context.

Our model of international trade has two “countries”, two goods and money. The demand for money is obtained with a money-in-utility specification. The two agents, denoted Europe and Asia, have identical preferences. Each agent produces a domestic good. All of the silver windfall is given to the European agent. There are also transaction costs, which apply to international transactions only.

We feed the historical data to the model. The windfall is given to the European agent. From 1500 to 1800, 85% of the world’s silver and over 70% of world’s gold came from America. The following figure (taken from Figure 4 in the paper) shows, in blue, the annual amount of “discoveries” of precious metals in America during 1531-1810, expressed in grams of silver per capita. In red, in shows our counterfactual: a world where new routes to Asia were found, but no precious metals existed in America.

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The following figures (also taken from Figure 4 in the paper) then decouple the results of the historical and counterfactual scenarios for consumption and trade between Europe and Asia. In this one we can see that thanks to the new routes and the precious metals (mainly silver), European consumption of Asian goods was about 13 times what it would have been by the second quarter of the seventeenth century. However, most of that effect was due to the availability of American precious metals and not to the new trade routes themselves (note that two new routes to Asia were found, one through the Cape of Good Hope and the other through the Pacific). The new routes (and its associated technical and organizational change) would have at most doubled the previous trade levels.

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Not only did the new routes have a much smaller economic impact on trade than did American precious metals, but the sign of their effect on trade patters was also different. This is clear if we look at what happens to net exports of European goods to Asia: in the counterfactual world of no precious metals existing, they increase. Historically,  we know that this wasn’t the case.

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As the figures suggest, our simulations show that the combined effect of the discovery of precious metals in America plus new trade routes to Asia led to Euro-Asian trade volumes that were up to 13 times what they would have otherwise been. After peaking in the second quarter of the seventeenth century the effect diminishes over time as the early modern period advances but is still over 10 times as late as 1750.

In the paper, we also consider the effect of rising incomes in Europe, and show that its effect was marginal relative to what can be attributed to the windfall of precious metals.

Early modern Euro-Asian trade started off a historical dynamic process with broad consequences for Europe. While foreign trade accounted for a small percentage of European GDP at this time, it provided dynamic expansion opportunities. Early modern trade with Asia led to the emergence of mercantile companies such as the Dutch VOC and the English East India Company, which in many ways were the prototype for modern multinationals.71 It permitted the development of modern financial markets in Amsterdam and London. It induced an industrious revolution which encouraged additional labor input and market participation in Europe, necessary preconditions for the process of modern economic growth and for the industrial revolution itself. It stimulated economic growth and urbanization, through a process of spillovers and agglomeration economies. Trading with Asia (and America), may have also induced a shift in the wealth and political power from the land-owning elite to the hands of a merchant, entrepreneurial class. Positive spillovers also resulted from the increased inter-continental exchange of ideas. Finally, international trade and war always came together, and external warfare was one of the most powerful drivers behind European state-building.

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GDP reconstructions for the early modern period

Angus Maddison is justly famous for historical national account reconstructions.

He did much of his work at the University of Groningen, where I currently teach. Work in his tradition continues here, where we have the Groningen Growth and Development Centre, and host the (soon-to- be-updated) Maddison and Clio infra projects.

Despite the importance that Maddison’s GDP and population figures had in stimulating our thinking about economic history and development, it is fair to say that his pre-1820 figures were less than solid. (In one review published in the Journal of Economic History, Gregory Clark said of Maddison’s tendency to “guesstimate” that his figures were as real as medieval relics.)

One reason why most of Maddison’s pre-1820 numbers were indeed questionable is that, while he often relied on the work of others when he could, there just wasn’t much quantitative work available for the period prior to 1820.

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But in the last 10 years, economic historians have done a lot work using archival data specific to each country, in ways that are reasonably comparable across space and time (no easy feat). Even taking into account the tremendous uncertainty that will always exist about national account reconstructions for the past (especially about levels, as I explain here), I think it is fair to say we have now made much progress.

Steve Broadberry has been doing an excellent job summarizing what we’ve been learning (and how it was done); see for instance this Journal of Economic Perspectives paper, co-authored with Fouquet. (Ungated version here.)

The following table shows per capita GDP in “international” GK 1990 dollars. (For the sources, see p. 15 of this paper.) To have a rough idea of what this means, keep in mind the World Bank’s definition of poverty as having less than 1 dollar a day, hence about 350 dollars per year. This is a rather arbitrary definition, for sure. It can also be difficult to compare societies which consume very different kinds of goods (see Angus Deaton’s work on PPPs), not to mention that it’s difficult to control for quality improvements. Nevertheless, these problems are mitigated for premodern economies, which consumed reasonably similar baskets, with the exception of different foodstuffs (for instance, for fat, olive oil in South Europe and butter in North Europe).

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What is clear from the table is that these societies lived well above physical subsistence. And all of them grew in the 1550-1750 period, though some more than others, and though later there were some reversals. (Note that economic historians conventionally refer to countries using their modern borders which refer to a physical territory even for periods when such “countries” did not yet exist, as was the case here for Germany.)

Maddison claimed that Europe experienced significant levels of real income growth during the early modern (i.e. 1500-1800) period. By contrast, Gregory Clark argues that this was not the case. Getting the timing and magnitude of growth right can help us falsify some theories and clarify others. It may also help new explanations surface. Determining who is right in these matters has important implications for our understanding of the origins of the industrial revolution, for instance.

Though medieval income levels were generally higher than Maddison believed (and hence early modern growth slower, given what we know about nineteenth century levels), the conclusions have overall been closer to the position of Maddison than to that of Clark. Interestingly, the opposite is true if we look at the long term evolution of real wages instead of GDP growth; Clark usually focuses on real wages, though he also has a paper on English GDP; but as it is calculated from the demand side, it rests heavily on those.

Also notice that by 1500 population levels had not yet fully recovered from the Black Death, so when we look at early modern growth we should really be looking at what happens after the 1550s. The most anti-Malthusian implication of the data is the fact that both real income per capita and population levels (the latter not shown above) grew at the same time, for most of these countries, during much of the early modern period. Hence for several of these economies the early modern period was one of both intensive and extensive growth.