Woodward Avenue

How does a rust belt city relaunch itself? How can the stakeholders of Detroit, Cleveland, or Milwaukee begin to reinvent their cities and get on a track that leads to greater prosperity, health, and educational attainment that can eventually result in opportunity and quality of life for the urban majority? 

The factors that led to Detroit’s crisis were extended and multiple — loss of manufacturing jobs, white flight, collapsing city revenues, sudden decline in the public school system, city government mismanagement and corruption, and state and federal neglect, to name several. And the crisis has extended over many decades. Tom Sugrue documents that the seeds of decline began earlier than the standard narrative — white flight was well underway in the 1950s (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit). The 1967 uprising was a major punctuation mark in the process, but it was an effect as much as a cause of the decline.

So what can be done today? A key part of the puzzle is bringing good jobs back into the city. This is why there has been so much excitement about the decisions by Compuware, Quicken Loans, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield to relocate their headquarters back into the city. The impact is substantial — something like 10,000 jobs have been brought back into the city, with more to come. Along with the jobs comes a flurry of collateral developments — student interns who come to love the city, demand for housing, new restaurants and cafes along Woodward, and a significant multiplier of jobs associated with these new service businesses.

There is a lot of purposiveness in these business developments, with a good portion of civic-mindedness in the mix. These business leaders wanted to make a difference in the city of Detroit, and their decisions about where to locate their companies help to carry this out. There is a deliberate effort on the part of this group of new-economy business leaders to attract innovative companies to the corridor. Detroit has a long tradition of creativity and the arts. Business leaders want to extend this tradition in the direction of innovative high-tech startups that can take root in Detroit. The goals for the Madison Building restortation illustrate this goal — beautiful open-design space for innovative companies that should strike synergies in the coming years. Twitter opened a Detroit office in the building in the spring.

It’s not simply Michigan chauvinism to say that Detroiters are resourceful. This is an important resource for the future for the city. But the people of the city need some concrete things in order to turn their talents into success — jobs, healthcare, decent education, and better urban transportation.

A leading land use planner for one of the auto companies offered a theory about Detroit’s eventual recovery to me about ten years ago. His theory was that the key to success is the recovery of tens of thousands of professional jobs in the core of the city. At its peak in the 1950s he estimated that there were perhaps 150,000 such jobs in the city of Detroit, and this constituted an economic engine for the city through direct and indirect economic effects. At the low point in the 1990s he estimated that this number had fallen to perhaps 20-30,000 jobs — not enough to support the development the city needed. He projected that if the city could return to 80-90,000 well-paying professional jobs, almost all its other problems would be solvable.

The steps taken by major and small companies in the past five years to locate their operations downtown are a very significant step towards that goal. It seems likely that the three major relocations into the city have resulted in 8-10,000 jobs in the city, and these workers are adding a lot to the vitality of the city as well.

So that’s part of the reason why Woodward Avenue is a happening place today. There are appealing cafes along the street serving lunch to workers in the Compuware Building, there is Motown music blasting from an informal market across the street, and there is a sense of a lively urban environment. What will it look like in ten years?

Michigan’s recovery?

The Mackinac Policy Conference brings forward something new this year — optimism. The state of Michigan has been hammered in the past eight years by the upheaval of the auto industry and the national trauma of the global financial meltdown. Unemployment has been substantially higher than the national average, the city of Detroit has hemmorhaged deficits, and the state’s levels of support for higher education, K-12, and community health have plummeted.

The annual policy conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has reflected a lot of this bad news for the past eight years. This year, though, the mood seems to have changed. There is optimism being expressed that Michigan is on the road back to growth and a higher level of prosperity. Presidents of the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University talk about the impact created by university research (about two billion dollars annually, producing lots of new discoveries and patents). The Governor talks about reform of government and a business-friendly environment thanks to several recent tax reforms, and talks about the importance of education at all levels. And business leaders, including Bill Ford Jr., talk about the recovery of Michigan’s businesses and innovative manufacturing. Michigan has the foundations in place for a more prosperous future. 

So how much credibility does this new optimism have? A few measures are certainly positive. The state’s unemployment rate is dropping to almost the national rate, about 8.5%. There has been a degree of jobs recovery, though still only a fraction of the 800,000 plus jobs the state has lost. Engineering and medical discoveries are finding their way into new businesses from Detroit to Ann Arbor to Houghton. The state’s budget is somewhat more favorable than in previous years, including a likely increase in higher education funding by several percent. 

And yet it is also true that several factors are unchanged or even worse. As the Governor mentioned, eight Michigan cities are “distressed,” with emergency managers or consent agreements in place. The inequities suffered by the state’s African-American and Latino populations in health, education, and employment continue unabated and often unnoticed. The unemployment rate in Detroit is astronomical, especially for young people. Municipal tax revenues have plummeted because of changes in state revenue sharing and across-the-board declines in property values. And the state still has a low rank when it comes to college educated adults. The tax reforms created by the Governor and Legislature were certainly business-friendly, but they were regressive in the extreme, with significant reductions in services for the elderly and the poor. And the Citizens Research Council frankly states that it isn’t possible to assess the net effects of the tax reforms on jobs and quality of life. 

So the interesting question for me is to consider how much of the currently more favorable trajectory can be attributed to wise decisions and plans by policy makers and business leaders, and how much is simply the result of a new roll of the dice in the national economy. So far I haven’t been convinced that there are high-octane strategies for growth, either nationally or regionally. There are some circumstances that clearly impede growth and economic recovery — corruption, unmanageable bureaucracy, predatory actions by powerful private actors, and cronyism, to name several. So addressing these frictions impeding economic development makes logical sense. Likewise, promoting education and talent is surely favorable to economic progress, and enhancing the infrastructure (roads, rails, bandwidth, airline hubs) surely helps too. But Michigan has done almost nothing in the second group and little in the first group. 

So once again, is there a basis for confidence in thinking we now have a set of policies that are steering us in the right direction? Is there a basis for optimism about the effects of our policies and priorities? I’m not so sure. 

It is interesting that the keynote speech at Mackinac was by Tom Friedman, presenting the main ideas of his current book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. And though he insists that his view is optimistic at the national level, it’s hard to square that with the substance of his argument. He argues that the global interconnected world requires constant re-creation of ourselves and our practices, especially in the economic sphere; and that the US is not rising to this challenge. This doesn’t really sound like optimism. 

The path I’d like to see our state pursue is one that respects the demands of social equity as well as growth, so all Michiganders benefit from the progress we seem at last to be experiencing. That will require more explicit choices than we’ve made to date. And it will require re-investment in social goods that have been reduced in recent years. 

Rawls and classical political economy

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is highly relevant to the ways we think about our economic system.  If we just read the citations, Rawls seems to be primarily influenced by “modern” economics — Samuelson, equilibrium theory, game theory, and marginalist theory.  And so we might suppose that his moral worldview reflects a neoclassical vision of economy and society.  However, his thought actually seems to reflect a recognition of the intellectual tension between classical political economy and “modern economics”.  In some ways his framework for thinking about our contemporary economy seems to be closer intellectually to Mill, Ricardo, and Marx than it is to Pareto and Samuelson.

Classical political economy was premised on the labor theory of value—the idea that there is a concrete, economically meaningful measure of value that guides economic organization. Further, there was the idea that the economic needs that individuals had were also concrete—the consumption goods that permitted life to proceed. These goods included items like food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and perhaps schooling. So economic activity, according to the classical economists, was about something objective.

Neoclassical economy, by contrast, rejected even the idea of utility as a concrete or objective human reality. Instead, modern economics bracketed the reality of needs in favor of a metaphysics of subjective preference.  Economists no longer needed to think about what people needed, but rather simply what they preferred; so the utilities “consumers” ascribed to outcomes could be discovered by the quasi-experiments of “revealed preference.” Welfare was then defined as the extent to which the individual can satisfy the range of subjective preferences he or she happens to have.  So classical and modern economic paradigms differ substantially on what economic activity ought to achieve: satisfaction of material needs, for the classical economists; and satisfaction of subjective preferences, for the modern economists.

A major thrust of the critique of neoclassical economics arises at just this point. Development organizations like the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and economists like Amartya Sen have put forward fundamentally different ideas about human wellbeing.  The basic needs approach disputed that the goal of economic development in poor countries should be defined in terms of subjective preferences or utilities.  These thinkers argued instead for achieving a decent minimum for whole populations in the satisfaction of basic needs. A 1975 report from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation to the United Nations (What Now – the 1975 Dag Hammarskjöld Report on Development and International Cooperationlink) is illustrative; it emphasized the idea of basic needs within the discussion of development priorities.

Amartya Sen went a step further, by introducing a more adequate theory of the human person in terms of capabilities and functionings, and argued for a conception of wellbeing that is defined in terms of the ability of individuals and populations to realize their capabilities. Sen advanced these ideas in many places, including On Economic Inequality and Development as Freedom.  (Earlier posts have discussed the capabilities approach; linklink.)  These are objective criteria of wellbeing, not simply summations of subjective preference satisfaction.  And these frameworks of thought present a major challenge to the foundations of modern economic thought.

In light of these observations, it is very interesting to observe that Rawls defined the foundation of his theory of justice, the original position, in terms that are strikingly classical.  In the original position, representative individuals are asked to deliberate behind a veil of ignorance about what principles of justice they would choose to regulate their social cooperation and competition.  Individuals are presumed to be mutually disinterested, and their sole concern is to adopt principles that they can live with in the resulting society.  But what are their interests?  Rawls says that the participants in the OP are interested in a set of primary goods: material resources and liberties, essentially. These are “things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants” (TJ:92).

So Rawls’s definition of the situation of deliberation within the original position is one that focuses on primary goods, not subjective utilities. And this sounds much closer to a classical assumption about economic interests and the human good than it does a modern assumption.  It offers an objective and realistic assumption about what people need in order to live decent lives.

This line of thought is supported by a second feature of Rawls’s philosophical orientation.  The most basic substantive moral position that Rawls takes is his rejection of utilitarianism as a general principle of justice.  Just institutions are not defined as those that “create the greatest good for the greatest number.”  Instead, they are defined as those that can be assured to provide fair circumstances of life for every citizen.  This is established by the unanimity rule.  Choice within the original position must be unanimous; and this means that it needs to support the interests of every participant.  In order to make the idea of the OP an intelligible one, Rawls needs to specify a decision rule for the participants. He argues for the maximin rule over the expected utility rule: the participants will each choose the path that has the least-bad worst outcome.  This choice of decision rule, it should be emphasized, does not reflect an assumption about risk-averse psychology, but rather a compelling reason for choosing this rule.  The stakes are too high to do otherwise. So when participants deliberate among institutional alternatives from the perspective of the maximin rule, they will choose a governing norm like the difference principle. And this too seems to be an implicit rejection of the foundations of modern economics, including the theory of subjective utility and the idea that the only thing that matters from a moral point of view is maximizing “welfare”. Here Rawls draws on Kant, to recognize that the way that social outcomes arise is morally as important as the value of the outcomes themselves.  Rights based on justice can be in tension with overall maximum utility.
So I’m inclined to argue that the greatest contribution Rawls made to contemporary economics is his strong and philosophically convincing case for primary goods and his definition of a good life. His rationale for primary goods is that a person’s ultimate goals are set by his or her conception of the good, and there is no reason to expect there to be a common agreed-upon standard for the conception of the good. It is logical, however, to observe that there are some goods that every individual requires in order to pursue any conception of the good: access to material resources and liberties. This seems like a nod towards the moral worldview of classical political economy.

(See a post on “property-owning democracy” for more discussion of the institutional implications of Rawls’s reasoning.)

David Graeber’s reflections on money, debt, and violence

David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years has hit a chord with a lot of people who are concerned about rising inequalities in the United States and elsewhere.  Graeber is an economic anthropologist, a discipline that pays close attention to the ways that material arrangements worked in detail in pre-state societies. One of the great works in this field is Marshall Sahlins’ book, Stone Age Economics, which paid very close ethnographic attention to how the social arrangements worked in hunter-gatherer societies when it came to gathering and consuming food and other necessities of life. (My main recollection is that Sahlins found that hunter-gatherers worked much shorter days than their successors, the farmers, and had much more time to enjoy the finer things of life, including stories and jokes.)  Graeber is also described as one of the intellectual sources of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and anti-globalization activism has been an important part of his life for a long time.  (Here is a story in Bloomberg that gives a lot of interesting background.)

The book is difficult to characterize.  It’s about debt and money through history, but it’s really not a work in economic history.  It offers a lot of ethnographic detail about borrowing, lending, gifting, and reciprocating, but it’s not really a work of anthropology.  And it offers morally valenced language to describe debt and credit, but it’s not really a polemical critique of the present financial system.  It is certainly an engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking book, and Graeber appears to know a great deal about the social and institutional histories of the main civilizations of Eurasia.

One line of thought is perfectly clear in the book: Graeber wants to demolish the myth of the truck-and-barter origins of money.  This is the standard story within classical and neoclassical economics. But Graeber thinks it is a complete fiction.  He regards this as a just-so story that doesn’t make any sense ethnographically, and has never been observed in real pre-state societies.

The story, then, is everywhere. It is the founding myth of our system of economic relations. It is so deeply established in common sense, even in places like Madagascar, that most people on earth couldn’t imagine any other way that money could possibly have come about.

The problem is there’s no evidence that it ever happened, and an enormous amount of evidence suggesting that it did not. (28)

Graeber’s case for this position seems to be a sound one.  But why exactly does it matter?  It seems to be a bit analogous to literal-minded social contract arguments: that the state is legitimate because it descends from a primordial agreement among all citizens to create its authority.  But discrediting the origins story doesn’t really tell us anything about the functioning system.  We have an economic system today that coordinates activity through money and credit, and it doesn’t really matter very much if we know exactly how it came about.  I think that Graeber is focused on the issue because he thinks the myth helps to convey the view that the contemporary economist’s view of human activity — self-serving actions designed to maximize one’s own utility — is in fact an historical universal, applying to pre-modern and non-western social settings as well as to the New Orleans cotton exchange.

It’s money that had made it possible for us to imagine ourselves in the way economists encourage us to do: as a collection of individuals and nations whose main business is swapping things. (44)

Graeber’s view, by contrast, is that most human activity doesn’t conform to this model; that the gift relation and the practice of open-ended reciprocity are much more characteristic of the human condition. 

There are many startling facts and descriptions that Graeber produces as he tells his story of the development of the ideologies of money, credit, and debt.  One of the most interesting to me has to do with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in 1900, is widely recognized to be a parable for the Populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, who twice ran for president on the Free Silver platform — vowing to replace the gold standard with a bimetallic system that would allow the free creation of silver money alongside gold. … According to the Populist reading, the Wicked Witches of the East and West represent the East and West Coast bankers (promoters of and benefactors from the tight money supply), the Scarecrow represented the farmers (who didn’t have the brains to avoid the debt trap), the Tin Woodsman was the industrial proletariat (who didn’t have the heart to act in solidarity with the farmers), the Cowardly Lion represented the political class (who didn’t have the courage to intervene). … “Oz” is of course the standard abbreviation for “ounce.” (52)

(This is roughly as startling to me as an interpretation of Star Wars as an extended allegory on Reaganism (intervention in Nicaragua, scary military officers in the background, etc.). This doesn’t quite work, though, since Star Wars appeared in 1977, three years before Reagan’s first election as president.)

One of Graeber’s recurring themes is that money and debt are reciprocals of each other.  He tells many stories about IOU’s being passed around within a community: John promises to give X to Alice; Alice passes on the IOU to Robbie in exchange for a beer; Robbie takes the IOU to the nail shop and exchanges it for a pound of nails from Bert; and Bert eventually comes back to John to redeem the IOU. In this circuit, the statement of debt serves as a basis for folk currency within a local society.  But Graeber argues that the establishment of Bank of England resulted in bank notes that were no more or less than IOU’s from the state (49).

Another theme that comes into the book is the close connection that Graeber draws between money and currency, and violence and war.  He argues that trust and extended credit arrangements work very well during periods of peace; whereas a period of extended warfare puts a premium on the portability and anonymity of precious metals.  So warfare pushes societies (and monarchs) towards the use of currency made out of precious metals.  He goes further: monarchs needed to pay their armies, in Europe, central Asia, and East Asia; and precious metals (coins) work best for the heavily armed and footloose soldiers who made up those armies.

As a result, while credit systems tend to dominate in periods of relative social peace, or across networks of trust (whether created by states or, in most periods, transnational institutions like merchant guilds or communities of faith), in periods characterized by widespread war and plunder, they tend to be replaced by precious metal. (213)


The Atlantic Slave Trade as a whole was a gigantic network of credit arrangements. Ship-owners based in Liverpool or Bristol would acquire goods on easy credit terms from local wholesalers, expecting to make good by selling slaves (also on credit) to planters int he Antilles and America, with commission agents in the city of London ultimately financing the affair through the profits of the sugar and tobacco trade. (149)

Graeber has a preferred alternative to a society based on barter, market exchange, debt, warfare, slavery, and peonage.  It is what he calls a “human economy”:

This is why I developed the concept of human economies: ones in which what is considered really important about human beings is the fact that they are each a unique nexus of relations with others — therefore, that no one could ever be considered exactly equivalent to anything or anyone else.  In a human economy, money is not a way of buying or trading human beings, but a way of expressing just how much one cannot do so. (207)

An intriguing, and somewhat perplexing, part of Graeber’s analysis is his effort to link the value systems of Eurasia’s great civilizations to the social creation of money, credit, and debt.  A central thrust here is his analysis of the “Axial Age” — the period from 800 bc to 600 ad when there was great creativity in the emergence of new spiritual leaders and movements.  There was, simultaneously, extensive warfare; and there was the simultaneous invention of currency in several widely separated places.  He illustrates this nexus with the case of China:

The golden age of Chinese philosophy was the period of chaos that preceded unification [during the Warring States period], and this followed the typical Axial Age pattern: the same fractured political landscape, the same rise of trained, professional armies and the creation of coined money largely in order to pay them. We also see the same government policies designed to encourage the development of markets, chattel slavery on a scale not seen before or since in Chinese history, the appearance of itinerant philosophers and religious visionaries, battling intellectual schools, and eventually, attempts by political leaders to transform the new philosophies into religions of state. (235)

So what is the connection he wants to draw between value systems, social violence, and money?  It is unclear to me; somehow Graeber weaves together a fascinating narrative involving each of these. He does think there is a connection, but it’s difficult to see what is thought to be causal in the story.

In fact, some of the historical connections are so uncannily close that they are very hard to explain any other way. Let me give an example. After the first coins were minted around 600 bc in the kingdom of Lydia, the practice quickly spread to Ionia, the Greek cities of the adjacent coast. The greatest of these was the great walled metropolis of Miletus, which also appears to have been the first Greek city to strike its own coins.  It was Ionia, too, that provided the bulk of the Greek mercenaries active in the Mediterranean at the time, with Miletus their effective headquarters. Miletus was also the commercial center of the region, and perhaps, the first city in the world where everyday market transactions came to be carried out primarily in coins instead of credit. Greek philosophy, in turn, begins with three men: Thales, of Miletus (c. 624 bc- c546 bc), “Anaximander, of Miletus (c. 610 bc- c546 bc), and Anaximenes, of Miletus (c. 585 bc- c525 bc) — in other words, men who were living in that city at exactly the time that coinage was first introduced. (244)

He pulls out “materialism” as a thread in the philosophical systems that emerged in the Axial Age — China as well as Greece — and suggests an analogy between the idea of an abstract fundamental physical substance that is the substrate of everything physical, and the idea of an abstract unit of measure of all commodities, money (245); but it’s hard to see a consistent and compelling idea here about the intertwining development of philosophy and economics.  Here is the closest he comes to a statement of the nature of the connection he finds:

What we see then is a strange kind of back-and-forth, attack and riposte, whereby the market, the state, war, and religion all continually separate and merge with one another. (248)

Where does it all lead?  After a walk through the Middle Ages (major improvement in quality of life over the Axial Age, according to Graeber), we get to capitalism:

Starting from our baseline date of 1700, then, what we see at the dawn of modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates — in practical effect — to pump more and more labor out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces an endlessly expanding volume of material goods. (346)

Does he bring this parable to a practical piece of advice?  He does, actually:

In this book I have largely avoided making concrete proposals, but let me end with one. It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way. (390)

As I mentioned at the start, Graeber is also an activist who has been strongly involved in anti-globalization protests in the past fifteen years.  His Direct Action: An Ethnography is an interesting cross-over book bringing together his anthropologist’s training and his activist experience; it is an ethnography of the anarchist activism movement as he has experienced it.  I’ll discuss this work in a future post.

Here are two interviews with Graeber that give a pretty good idea of his style and critical views about the present (linklink).  Both are very interesting to listen to.

Beyond divergence

As I’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a major debate in economic history in the past 20 years about what to make of the contrasts between economic development trajectories in Western Europe and East Asia since 1600.  There had been a received view, tracing to Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, that European “breakthrough” was the norm and Asian “stagnation” or “involution” were the dysfunctional cases. E. L. Jones represents this view among recent comparative economic historians (The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia).  

Then Kenneth Pomeranz and Bin Wong challenged this received view in a couple of important books.  Pomeranz argued inThe Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. that the premises were wrong. He argued that Chinese productivity and standard of living were roughly comparable to those of England up to roughly 1800, so China’s economy was not backward.  And he argued against the received view’s main theories of Europe’s breakthrough — the idea that European economic institutions and property rights were superior, or the idea that Europe had a normative or ideological advantage over China.  Instead, he argued that Europe — Britain, to be precise — had contingent and situational advantages over Asia that permitted rapid growth and industrialization around the end of the eighteenth century.  These advantages included large and accessible coal deposits — crucial for modern steam technology — and access to low cost labor in the Americas (hidden acreage).  Bin Wong made complementary arguments in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, where he addressed the parallel processes of development of political and economic institutions in the two sets of polities. Wong’s most fundamental insight was that both processes were complex, and that balanced comparison between them is valuable. 

Now the debate has taken a new turn with the publication of R. Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal’s Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe. Rosenthal is an accomplished historian of European economic development, and Wong is an expert on Chinese economic, social, and political history. So their collaboration permits this book to bring together into one argument the full expertise available on both ends of Eurasia.  

The book aims to unsettle the debate in fundamental ways. Wong and Rosenthal take issue with a point that is methodologically central to Pomeranz, concerning the units of comparison.  Pomerantz wants to compare England with the lower Yangzi region in China, and he gives what are to me convincing arguments for why this makes sense.  W&R want to compare Europe with China, making England a special case. And they too have good reasons for their choice.   

Second, they disagree with the temporal framing that has generally been accepted within this debate, where economic historians have generally focused their research on the early modern period 1600-1900). Against this, they argue that the causes of divergence between Europe and China must be much earlier.  They set their clock to the year 1000, and they examine the large features of political and economic development that started around that time. 

Finally, they offer crippling objections to a number of standard hypotheses about Imperial China as a place to do business. They show that there were alternative credit institutions available in Ming and Qing China. They show that the Chinese state was sensitive to levels of taxation, and kept taxes low (generally comparable to European levels). And they show that Imperial social spending (the granary system, for example) was generally effective and well managed, contributing to economic prosperity. So the traditional explanations for Chinese “stagnation” don’t work as causal explanations. 

They find one major difference between Europe and Asia during the first part of the second millennium that seems to matter. That is the multiplicity of competing states in Europe and a largely hegemonic Imperial state in China and the scale of the relevant zones of political and economic activity. Chapter 4, “Warfare, Location of Manufacturing, and Economic Growth in China and Europe,” lays out this argument. Here are the key points.

We believe that the most persuasive explanation for Europe’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century transformations is best provided by comparing the politics of economic change within China and Europe in the centuries that preceded their visible economic divergence. (6)

To explain these differences in factor prices, we will stress conditions that are the outcomes, we will argue, of more basic differences in the spatial scale of polities in China and Eu rope. In this analysis we parallel Robert Allen’s recent work on the progress of industrialization in England (2009a). Indeed, Allen puts special emphasis on relatively high wages and low fuel costs in explaining why the technologies we as-sociate with industrialization were developed and deployed in England. (7)

From the perspective of what individuals choose, we think that some of the most important factors influencing different likelihoods of economic change in the early modern era  were unintended consequences of actions taken for reasons largely unrelated to improving the economy. (8)

Instead, we take the contrasting spatial scales of Chinese and Europe an polities as key factors that both let and led rulers in these regions to develop different political priorities and policies. (14)

The competing states of Europe were frequently drawn into conflict; and conflict often resulted in warfare.  R&W argue that this fact of competition had a fateful unintended consequence.  It made fortified cities much safer places than open countryside. And this in turn changed the calculation about where “manufacture” could occur at lowest cost.  Labor costs were higher in cities, so absent warfare, producers were well advised to pursue a putting-out system involving peasant workers (proto-industrialization; link). But with the threat of marauding armies, European producers were pushed into urban locations.  And this in turn gave them incentives to develop labor-saving, capital-intensive techniques.  Putting the point bluntly: China didn’t have an industrial revolution because it was too safe an environment for labor-intensive production.

Another important feature of Before and Beyond Divergence is its use of simple economy models to explore the incentive characteristics of various historical circumstances.  For example, they provide a simple representation of the costs of contracting in China (76-77), the costs of warfare on manufacturing (108-109), and a mathematical analysis of credit and interest in China (135). Their perspective is one that essentially presupposes the idea of decision-making based on prudence, or a rough-and-ready rational choice framework. They believe that various historical circumstances change the price and opportunity environment for producers and consumers. So once we can estimate the magnitude of these changes, we can also gauge the approximate magnitude of the change in behavior that results.  Or in other words, their approach is one of economic historians, not simply historians of economic institutions and behaviors. They are reluctant to consider cultural or normative sources of behavior.

Certainly this book too will generate a lot of critical response. It is an important contribution.

Historical GDP estimates for early modern China


Li Bozhong is one of China’s most influential economic historians, and he is undoubtedly the most internationally connected.  Much of his work in the past several decades has been devoted to constructing a detailed economic history of the lower Yangzi Delta (for example, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).  His findings have been crucial empirical contributions to the “involution” debate (linklinklink) about whether the Chinese economy was stagnant and significantly less productive than the European economy.  Thanks to his research we now have a much more informed understanding of the economic dynamics of the Lower Yangzi region in the early modern period (1620-1850).  And his research largely supports the “no involution, significant productivity growth” interpretation.  (Ken Pomeranz has a nice review of Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 here.)

Li’s most recent book has now appeared in Chinese, and it takes an important step forward in terms of methodology.  (The book includes an extended summary in English, which allows non-Chinese speakers to get the highlights of method and findings.)  The important step that Li introduces here is a first effort to apply the methodology of historical national accounts to China.  Essentially this method allows the researcher to use the discipline of GDP accounting to arrive at systemic and internally validated estimates of economic activity in a region over a period of time.  (Jan-Pieter Smits, Edwin Horlings, and Jan Luiten van Zanden provide an extensive and detailed description of the method in “Dutch GNP and its Components, 1800-19193” (link).  Olle Kranz describes the method in application to Sweden here.)

Li’s current book is a massive effort (over 600 pages), but it is itself only a pilot project for a more ambitious study to come in future years.  Li has selected one limited district within his previous area of study in the lower Yangzi Delta (Huating-Lou), and attempts to apply the method of historical GDP to this limited region for a single period of time (1823-29).  His goal is to determine whether the discipline and method of historical GDP can shed new light on the scattered economic statistics and materials that more traditional economic histories have assembled.  The results are highly interesting, and they challenge several key assumptions that have been made about the early Qing economy.

Li hopes for two advantages from this approach.  The first is that it provides a unified framework within which to organize and validate existing economic data.  “Because the methods of the GDP study are quite elaborate and standardized, they can provide a coherent macroeconomic framework covering the whole economy” (603).  And the second is to provide a consistent basis for comparison with other historical regions where the same methods have been utilized.  This means that the kinds of comparisons suggested by recent work in Eurasian economic and demographic history will be enhanced as other scholars apply the methodology to European regions.

Huating-Lou is roughly a single county, Songjiang County, with an area of 870 square kilometers and a population in 1816 of 563,052.  (From the maps it appears that the county falls squarely within the current city of Shanghai.)  So the area covered by Li’s study is a microcosm of the larger economic region in which it is lodged; Jiangnan had a population of roughly 36 million in the mid nineteenth century.  Li makes use of the same kinds of data sources he has used in earlier works: gazetteers, agricultural handbooks, and modern field investigations of the region (in particular, the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company studies from 1937-41).  Essentially Li proceeds by transforming the variety of data provided by these sources into a uniformly formatted table of national accounts.


The method involves attempting to estimate the magnitude of economic activity in several sectors by assessing production, expenditure, and income. The idea is that the data for these three aspects of the economy are fairly independent; but they should be expected to lead to similar estimates of overall economic activity. (If production estimates indicate a region is producing 10 million yuan of goods, but income estimates indicate only 2 million yuan of income, we can be assured that there is an important data inconsistency.) The method involves making use of the System of Historical National Accounts to provide a unified framework for collecting and presenting the economic data. (See also a paper by Frits Bos describing the use of national accounts as a tool for economic history (link).)

Here is a description of this method as implemented by Luiten van Zanden and colleagues for the Netherlands (link):

Our main method is to gather specific information on annual output and added value in each of the most important economic branches, following the System of National Accounts (SNA) used in contemporary economic-statistical research. The starting point is the production approach; the branches that are being reconstructed include agriculture, herring fisheries, peat extraction, production of textiles, sugar and paper, to name but a few. Weights will be derived from a reconstruction of the structure of the labour force in three moments in time: 1510/14, 1670/80 and around 1800. Combined, the chronological series and the data on the structure of the labour force will serve as a basis for estimating developments in the level and structure of national income.

Li’s results are fascinating.  First, he finds that production, income, and expenditure estimates for Huating-Lou in 1823-29 all converge on an estimate of about 13.5 million taels of silver.  The production estimate is 13.5 million taels, the income estimate is 13.3 million taels, and the expenditure estimate is 13.9 million taels.  So the three systems of accounting all point to approximately the same level of economic activity.  This amounts to an estimate of GDP per capita of about 24 taels of silver.



Second, the sectoral composition of the Huating-Lou economy is genuinely surprising (as indicated in table 1).  We commonly think of China’s Ming-Qing economy as largely rural and agricultural.  But the primary sector, including agriculture and fisheries, amounts to only 31% of the local economy, while the secondary sector (manufactures and textiles) contribute 33% and the tertiary sector (commerce, service, government, etc.) contributes 36%.  The prior expectation we might have had of the early modern Chinese economy as largely agricultural is flatly refuted for this region by the 1820s.  This finding is corroborated by Li’s analysis of the structure of employment in the region; only 27% of employment was in the primary sector, with 56% in the secondary and 16% in the tertiary sectors.

Third, Li points out that the composition of income is also somewhat surprising.  Wages represented 61% of the Huating-Lou economy; rent 11%; interest 3%; profit 20%; and depreciation 6%.  What is surprising about this estimate is the unexpectedly low percentage of all income that derived from rent — contradicting the idea that the Chinese economy was a rent-dominated one.  (Earlier work by Victor Lippit (Land Reform and Economic Development in China: A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance) sought to estimate the total surplus created by the Chinese rural economy; he estimates 10.7% of income from rent, 3.4% of income from farm business profits, and 2.8% from rural interest payments.  See Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science, pp. 121-22, for more discussion.  Li’s estimates of rent and interest are about the same as Lippit’s, whereas Li’s estimate of profits is substantially higher than Lippit’s.)

All of this is highly interesting, though (as Li emphasizes throughout), it is based on only one small region during one limited time period.  So it will be very interesting to see whether it is possible to perform this kind of analysis for larger parts of the historical Chinese economy.

Estimating economic activity was one of the goals of this research.  The other was to establish a consistent basis for comparison across different parts of Eurasia.  Li takes up the comparison with the Netherlands that is made possible by the work mentioned above by Jan-Pieter Smits, Edwin Horlings, and Jan Luiten van Zanden (link).  And indeed, the comparisons are very interesting.  Here is the comparison of the sectoral composition of Huating-Lou and the Netherlands:


And here is the comparison for the structure of employment:

The one comparison that Li does not highlight (in the English summary, anyway) is the GDP per capita comparison between Huating-Lou and the Netherlands.  This comparison raises some of the issues involved in a recent discussion here of the standard of living (post), since the Dutch analysis is denominated in guilders and the Chinese work is denominated in taels of silver.  Smits, Horlings and van Zanden estimate a Dutch population size of  2,163,092, implying a GNP per capita of 227 guilders per capita.  Recall that Li estimated a per capita GNP of 24 taels.

So what is the conversion of tael to guilder?  Here I have to go beyond my own specialized knowledge and speculate a bit, so this calculation shouldn’t be taken uncritically.  The guilder was defined in 1840 as equivalent to 9.45 grams of fine silver (link).  A tael was equivalent to 37.3 grams of silver, according to Li.  So in silver equivalents, the Dutch GDP per capita was 227*9.45 grams of silver, and the Chinese GDP per capita was 24*37.3 grams of silver — 2,145 grams versus 895.2 grams.  By this estimate, the early nineteenth-century Dutch economy produced a silver equivalent per capita over two times that of the Chinese economy.  However, the purchasing power of silver was significantly greater in China than Europe; so this estimate overstates the disparity in real wage between the two regions.  In “Real Wages in Europe and Asia: A First Look at the Longterm Patterns” Robert Allen estimates the wage basket for China at 247.3 grams of silver, versus 579.7 grams of silver in England (link, pp. 180, 182).  If we took the wage basket as the basis of a cost-of-living deflator, then the disparity between the Netherlands and China essentially disappears.  The Dutch GDP per capita PPP-adjusted product is 3.7 against a 3.6 per capita PPP-adjusted product for China, using the wage basket as deflator.  This would indicate that the Dutch economy was marginally richer than the Chinese economy in the lower Yangzi region — but not by much.

Li finishes this comparison by raising the question of traditional versus modern economies.  Both economies considered here contradict the assumptions of a “traditional” economy — largely rural, largely agricultural, and largely stagnant.  Instead, these comparisons indicate a surprisingly urban, manufacturing- and service-based economy in the second decade of the nineteenth century, and Li argues that we can appropriately describe each of them as a “modern” economy.

Li’s book is an important new contribution to Chinese economic history, and the historical GDP method seems to be a highly fruitful innovation. It is a really valuable new analytical perspective on the Chinese economy.  I hope the book will be translated into English as quickly as possible.


The standard of living across time and space


A very basic question for historians is how to measure and compare the standard of living experienced by people in different historical settings. Is it possible to arrive at credible estimates of the standard of living in the Roman Empire, medieval Burgundy, nineteenth-century Britain, and twentieth-century Illinois? Can we say with any confidence that Romans had a higher (or lower) standard of living than a twelfth-century Burgundian?

One part of the problem is conceptual. What do we mean by the standard of living? Is there a specific set of characteristics that are constitutive of the standard of living — say, nutrition, income, access to health remedies and education, quality of housing, personal security? And how should we take account of the unequal distribution of these characteristics across a given population? Should we be content with an estimate of an average level of nutrition — even though this may reflect a misleading impression of the circumstances of the poorest segment of society? Should we hope to be able to arrive at an estimate of the standard of living of certain typical social actors — landless workers, skilled laborers, merchants?

The second major problem we must confront is the availability and quality of historical data about wages, prices, and consumption. The series of wages and prices that are available in different countries are, of course, incomplete. And, more importantly, the commodities that satisfy basic nutritional needs are different in different countries and regions. So it is necessary to make assumptions about the nutritional equivalents in different cultures before we can begin to arrive at estimates of relative standard of living.

Different approaches to these problems have been offered in the past fifty years. One logical approach is to consider a list of “necessities of life” and to estimate the degree to which these necessities are available to people of various stations in various times and places. Nutrition, housing, and clothing are close to the core for much of the history of humanity, and for much of that time, these goods have been available largely through the market at a price. So a standard approach has been to define a wage basket; measure the prices of the goods in the basket; and measure the typical earnings of people in historical settings of interest. This allows us to calculate the subsistence rate — the percentage of the population whose income is more than sufficient to purchase the items in the wage basket. What this leaves out is “self production” (for peasant farmers, for example) and state provision. Another logical approach is to look at the human results — the overall health status of people at various times and places. This can be estimated by contemporary data — height, longevity, and age information collected by the military, for example — or by analysis of skeletal evidence centuries later. (Amartya Sen’s The Standard of Livingreviews many of the complexities of defining the standard of living and offers his own rationale in terms of capabilities and functionings.)

An important step forward is now possible in our ability to estimate and compare historical living standards, thanks to the research by an international group of scholars in Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe, edited by Robert Allen, Tommy Bengtsson and Martin Dribe. The introduction to the volume by Allen, Bengtsson, and Dribe does a great job of providing an overview of the issues. All the essays are first-rate, and particularly noteworthy are contributions by Kenneth Pomeranz, Li Bozhong, and Robert Allen. (Here is a link to the table of contents of the volume, which gives an idea of the breadth and rigor of the research.)

This group has concentrated their efforts around the current controversy about European and Asian growth patterns in the early modern period. This has several parts: first, careful comparison to determine whether there was a significant difference in the standard of living between Europe and Asia (as held by Smith, Malthus, and Marx); and second, to attempt to determine the timing and causes of differences as they emerged. The editors describe the group’s purposes in the introduction in these terms:

How did the standard of living in Europe and Asia compare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? (Kindle loc 230)

The main concern of this book is to assess when the gap between the East and the West emerged and to not only take economic perspectives into consideration but social and demographic ones as well. (Kindle loc 159)

The researchers bring three methodologies to bear on these questions: economic analysis of prices and wages to estimate the real wage; demographic analysis of biometric features such as height, longevity, and fertility to estimate relative standard of living; and historical population analysis to observe the severity of adaptation (mortality, fertility, migration) created in a population by shortterm economic stress, including especially food prices. Here the reasoning is that a population that is close to the edge of subsistence in normal times may be expected to have higher mortality, lower fertility, and greater out-migration than a population with a more comfortable standard of living. So demographic change can be used as an indirect measurement of a population’s standard of living. Using these three reasonably independent instruments of observation, it is reasonable to expect that we will gain a fairly accurate idea of the standard of living in a region and how it compares to other regions. The last approach is probably the most innovative:

There were demographic responses … to high food prices. In the worst case, high prices caused death for those unable to buy enough to eat. In less extreme situations, people resorted to demographic strategies in response to high food prices. These included postponed marriages, migration, and delayed births. Studies of the correlation of death, migration, marriage, and childbearing with food prices, therefore, provide a new approach to the measurement of the standard of living. When aggregate data show that high food prices raised mortality or reduced fertility, one can conclude that the bulk of the population had a low standard of living. (Kindle loc 288)

Cameron Campbell and James Lee make use of this approach in their contribution, “Living standards in Liaoing, 1749-1909: Evidence from demographic outcomes,” to assess the standard of living of the bulk of the population in Liaoning in northeast China. They find that the mortality and fertility responses to changes in rice prices essentially disappeared in the north and south of Liaoning in 1780-1850 — which leads them to infer that the standard of living and nutrition had risen over the past century. (James Lee and others return to this kind of reasoning in Prudence and Pressure: Reproduction and Human Agency in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900, by Noriko Tsuya, Wang Feng, George Alter, and James Lee.)

Robert Allen attempts to establish something like an empirical baseline for the real wage in different parts of Europe and Asia in his contribution, “Real wages in Europe and Asia: A first look at the long-term patterns”. He compiles a large dataset of wage data for a number of European cities, and he makes careful inferences about comparable data for India, Japan, and China.

Wages reveal the standard of living if they are compared to the price of consumer goods. This is the interpretation that matters in assessing the prosperity of Asia vis-a-vis Europe. Provided low Asian wages were matched by low consumer goods prices, the standard of living of workers could have been the same at both ends of Eurasia even though Asian manufacturers had a competitive advantage in the textile industry. (Introduction to “Real Wages”)

Allen notes that it is necessary to make a number of adjustments in order to estimate the cost of a wage basket in Asia, because of large differences in diet. Allen stipulates 143 kgs/year of rice for the Asian basket versus 208 kgs/year of bread in the European basket. And he converts prices and wages into silver to permit comparison of prices across Europe and Asia. Here is one of Allen’s summary graphs comparing laborers’ real wages in Japan (farm), Kyoto, England (farm), Oxford, and London.

The graph indicates a significant premium for laborers’ wages in London, whereas Japanese and English farm wages are fairly similar throughout most of the period. And it indicates a “take-off” for London laborers’ wage beginning in the mid-nineteenth century — not paralleled by a similar take-off in Kyoto.

Here are Allen’s conclusions:

The wage comparisons undertaken in this paper support several important conclusions about living standards in pre-industrial Europe and Asia.

First, wages expressed in grams of silver were lower in China and India than in Europe. The views of the eighteenth century observers cited by Parthasarathi are confirmed. This is important since it was the proximate cause of Asia’s competitive advantage in textiles and luxury manufactures and was, thus, the basis for Asian-European trade in the early modern period. Why these differentials persisted for hundreds of years is an important question in international and monetary economics that must be addressed to explain the dynamics of the world economy in this period.

Second, low Asian silver wages were matched by low Asian prices with the result that living standards in Asia were similar to those in many parts of Europe. Farm workers in Europe and urban workers in central and southern Europe did not enjoy higher living standards than their counterparts in Asia.

Third, some parts of Europe did generate higher real wages than we find in Asia. When real wages were at their peak following the Black Death, most Europeans had a higher standard of living. But this was a transitory condition for most of the continent. High wages persisted only in the commercial centres of the northwest – London and the Low Countries generally. During the eighteenth century, the provincial towns of England were drawn into the same high wage orbit, but agriculture was left behind. This dynamic, urban economy was the engine of growth in early modern Europe, and Asia appears to have had no counterpart. It is possible, of course, that a more extensive Asian database would reveal a parallel: the absence of information on urban Chinese wages is particularly troubling in this regard. However, neither the Japanese cities nor the capital of the Moghul Empire had particularly high wages. The evidence at hand suggests that Asia lacked Europe’s engine of growth. (Conclusion of “Real Wages”)

Contributions by Kenneth Pomeranz and Li Bozhong take up the issue of the supposed backwardness and stagnation of the Chinese rural economy at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy Pomeranz argued that England and the Yangzi Delta region had roughly comparable levels of productivity and similar levels of standard of living for poor people (laborers and peasants). In his contribution to this volume he pushes this argument forward with more empirical analysis of the standard of living in China. He attempts to handle the “commensurability” problem mentioned above by converting subsistence food commodities to calorie equivalents. He finds that Chinese data for seventeenth century laborers indicate a daily diet of 2,800 calories for adults in the eighteenth century (Kindle loc 532).

Overall, then, the food component of the standard of living seems generally comparable in eighteenth-century China and Europe, and in the most advanced regions of both. (Kindle loc 626)

So Pomeranz’s research here broadly confirms the view he advanced in The Great Divergence, that the standards of living in comparable regions of Europe and China were roughly the same; and he also confirms a significant decline in the standard of living for the bulk of the Chinese population in the nineteenth century.

Li Bozhong takes up the stagnation issue from a different point of view, a careful consideration of farm labor productivity in the Lower Yangzi region. This extends his important work in Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. And his central finding is an important one as refutation of the standard involution interpretation of China’s economic history; he finds that agricultural productivity rose from 1620 to 1850.

The central theme of this chapter is that labour productivity on farms did improve in Jiangnan between 1620 and 1850. The region of Jiangnan, located in east China and consisting of eight late Imperial Chinese prefectures in the Yangzi Delta, has been the most economically and culturally advanced area in China for centuries. … In some sense, this region is the best ‘window’ through which we can clearly see economic changes in China before the arrival of the modern west. (Kindle loc 1038)

The issue of productivity is key to an assessment of the standard of living, because flat or declining productivity in a region with a rising population implies a falling standard of living — the general “theorem” of Malthus. So Pomeranz’s finding would be difficult to support if we were forced to conclude that agricultural productivity was constant or falling. But Li’s careful and data-rich analysis indicates, to the contrary, that there was substantial gain in productivity from the Ming to the mid-Qing.

The ‘trinity pattern’ is the optimal pattern in the Jiangnan peasant economy because under this pattern higher yields per mu can be achieved with lower inputs. As I point out above, in the early seventeenth century, a farm ran, on average, 15 mu of cultivated land with a multi-cropping index of 140%, the second crop being wheat. The yield per mu was 1.7 shi for rice and 1 shi for wheat. If all the 15 mu of land were planted in rice, this farm would harvest 26 shi of rice and 6 shi of wheat, together equivalent to 30 shi of rice. In contrast, in the mid-nineteenth century, the average farm size was 9 mu with a multi-cropping index of 170&. Per mu yield was 2.5 shi of rice and 1 shi of wheat. Farm output was 23 shi of rice and 6 shi of wheat, totalling 27 she of rice, 10% below the early seventeenth-century figures. However, if we calculate labor productivity according to the number of workers, output per worker would be 15 shi of rice in the early seventeenth century and 27 shi of rice in the mid-nineteenth century respectively. That is, the figure for the late Ming period is only 55% of the mid-Qing figure. (Kindle loc 1160)

So labor productivity had risen significantly from 1650 to 1850. Li’s conclusion is clear:

Since labour productivity and the standard of living are inseparably linked, the rise in farm labour productivity in Jiangnan implies an increase in the peasants’ standard of living. … There is little doubt, therefore, that real incomes of peasants did improve considerably in Jiangnan at this time. Second, the quality of the peasants’ diet also improvied in Jiangnan during the period. Fang Xing suggested that ordinary Jiangnan peasants ate more fish, meat, and tofu, drank more tea and wine, and consumed more sugar than ever before. … The improved standard of living can also be seen in the increase in consumption, not only of ‘ordinary goods’ like cotton cloth, but also of ‘luxury goods’ such as silk, wine, tobacco, and opium. (Kindle loc 1221)

What is most valuable about this project is the empirical grip it provides on these important questions: What have been the dynamics of the standard of living across Eurasia from the middle ages to the twentieth century? And, eventually, what economic and demographic forces account for the inflection points and persistent differences in different regions that are documented? And, as all the contributors agree, one of the key discoveries is the fact of variation at every level, from regions of England to regions of Europe to the ends of Eurasia.

The contributions of this book show the highly complex and diverse pattern of the standard of living in the pre-industrial period. The general picture emerging from these studies is not one of a great divergence between East and West during this period, but instead one of considerable similarities. These similarities not only pertain to economic aspects of standard of living but also to demography and the sensitivity to economic fluctuations. In addition to these similarities, there were also pronounced differences within the East and within the West — differences that in many cases were larger than the differences between Europe and Asia. This clearly highlights the importance of analysing several dimensions of the standard of living, as well as the danger of neglecting regional, social, and household specific differences when assessing the level of well-being in the past. (Kindle loc 455)


Marx on a global wage


What is the longterm tendency in the wage for relatively unskilled labor?  In the United States we’ve been thinking about this problem in the past three decades in the context of “outsourcing” and the flight of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. Moderate- and high-wage industrial jobs have left the country in large numbers.  In the 1970s and 1980s apparel manufacture largely left the US for Latin America and Asia, and in the 1990s and 2000s heavy manufacturing jobs (in the auto industry in particular) were widely perceived to have fled to Asia.

What are the effects of these global shifts in manufacturing for the wage in all countries?  It turns out that Karl Marx had some remarkably prescient ideas about this question in the 1860s that still seem important today.  Here are some markedly current observations from Marx’s Capital (link) on the wage in a competitive international context:

A writer of the 18th century, often quoted already, the author of the “Essay on Trade and Commerce,” only betrays the innermost secret soul of English capitalism, when he declares the historic mission of England to be the forcing down of English wages to the level of the French and the Dutch. [37] With other things he says naively: “But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously … then labour must, of course, be dear…. When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, etc.” [38] He quotes the work of a Northamptonshire manufacturer, who, with eyes squinting heavenward moans: “Labour is one-third cheaper in France than in England; for their poor work hard, and fare hard, as to their food and clothing. Their chief diet is bread, fruit, herbs, roots, and dried fish; for they very seldom eat flesh; and when wheat is dear, they eat very little bread.” [39] “To which may be added,” our essayist goes on, “that their drink is either water or other small liquors, so that they spend very little money…. These things are very difficult to be brought about; but they are not impracticable, since they have been effected both in France and in Holland.” [40] (Capital I, chap. 24)

And the footnote amplifies:

[40] Today, thanks to the competition on the world-market, established since then, we have advanced much further. “If China,” says Mr. Stapleton, M.P., to his constituents, “should become a great manufacturing country, I do not see how the manufacturing population of Europe could sustain the contest without descending to the level of their competitors.” (Times, Sept. 3, 1873, p. 8.) The wished-for goal of English capital is no longer Continental wages but Chinese.

In other words, Marx’s view in 1867 was that there is an inevitable competitive pressure on British firms (high wages) to seek out manufacturing locations in other countries where labor costs are lower; and, of course, this movement brings competitive downward pressures on the domestic manufacturing wage.  So the British manufacturing wage falls as low-wage European competitors (eventually Chinese competitors) are able to produce commodities at lower unit cost.  This has a long-term global result: the unskilled manufacturing labor market becomes global, and the wage approaches a global equilibrium that is significantly lower than the present.

One thing is striking about this observation in 1867 is the reference to China.  Mr. Stapleton’s observations in 1873 were highly speculative; China was a century from becoming a great manufacturing country.  But Marx’s eye was focused on the long-term patterns; and he (and Mr. Stapleton) correctly noted the inherent logic of global competition for low-wage labor.  The long-term result, apparently unavoidably, is that production processes that involve low-skill labor will be involved in a rapid race to the bottom, leading to an equilibrium wage across nations that is barely sufficient for subsistence.

Another major force operating on the level of the wage for unskilled labor that Marx emphasizes is the rapid introduction of technology and innovations enhancing labor productivity — leading to a reduction in the demand for labor and putting more downward pressure on the wage.  Writing after the American Civil War about English cotton manufacture, he writes:

The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer. This direct antagonism between the two comes out most strongly, whenever newly introduced machinery competes with handicrafts or manufactures, handed down from former times. But even in Modern Industry the continual improvement of machinery, and the development of the automatic system, has an analogous effect. “The object of improved machinery is to diminish manual labour, to provide for the performance of a process or the completion of a link in a manufacture by the aid of an iron instead of the human apparatus.” [119] “The adaptation of power to machinery heretofore moved by hand, is almost of daily occurrence … the minor improvements in machinery having for their object economy of power, the production of better work, the turning off more work in the same time, or in supplying the place of a child, a female, or a man, are constant, and although sometimes apparently of no great moment, have somewhat important results.” [120] “Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is t)laced in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it.” [121] “On the automatic plan skilled labour gets progressively superseded.” [122] “The effect of improvements in machinery, not merely in superseding the necessity for the employment of the same quantity of adult labour as before, in order to produce a given result, but in substituting one description of human labour for another, the less skilled for the more skilled, juvenile for adult, female for male, causes a fresh disturbance in the rate of wages.” [123] “The effect of substituting the self-acting mule for the common mule, is to discharge the greater part of the men spinners, and to retain adolescents and children.” [124] The extraordinary power of expansion of the factory system owing to accumulated practical experience, to the mechanical means at hand, and to constant technical progress, was proved to us by the giant strides of that system under the pressure of a shortened working-day. But who, in 1860, the Zenith year of the English cotton industry, would have dreamt of the galloping improvements in machinery, and the corresponding displacement of working people, called into being during the following 3 years, under the stimulus of the American Civil War? A couple of examples from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories will suffice on this point. A Manchester manufacturer states: “We formerly had 75 carding engines, now we have 12, doing the same quantity of work…. We are doing with fewer hands by 14, at a saving in wages of £10 a-week. Our estimated saving in waste is about 10% in the quantity of cotton consumed.” “In another fine-spinning mill in Manchester, I was informed that through increased speed and the adoption of some self-acting processes, a reduction had been made, in number, of a fourth in one department, and of above half in another, and that the introduction of the combing machine in place of the second carding, had considerably reduced, the number of hands formerly employed in the carding-room.” Another spinning-mill is estimated to effect a saving of labour of 10%. The Messrs. Gilmour, spinners at Manchester, state: “In our blowing-room department we consider our expense with new machinery is fully one-third less in wages and hands … in the jack-frame and drawing-frame room, about one-third less in expense, and likewise one-third less in hands; in the spinningroom about one-third less in expenses. But this is not all; when our yarn goes to the manufacturers, it is so much better by the application of our new machinery, that they will produce a greater quantity of cloth, and cheaper than from the yarn produced by old machinery.” [125] Mr. Redgrave further remarks in the same Report: “The reduction of hands against increased production is, in fact, constantly taking place, in woollen mills the reduction commenced some time since, and is continuing; a few days since, the master of a school in the neighbourhood of Rochdale said to me, that the great falling off in the girls’ school is not only caused by the distress, but by the changes of machinery in the woollen mills, in consequence of which a reduction of 70 short-timers had taken place.” [126]

(Capital I, Chapter 15)

The note is important as well:

[126] l. c., p. 109. The rapid improvement of machinery, during the crisis, allowed the English manufacturers, immediately after the termination of the American Civil War, and almost in no time, to glut the markets of the world again. Cloth,’ during the last six months of 1866, was almost unsaleable. Thereupon began the consignment of goods to India and China, thus naturally making the glut more intense. At the beginning of 1867 the manufacturers resorted to their usual way out of the difficulty, viz., reducing wages 5 per cent. The workpeople resisted, and said that the only remedy was to work short time, 4 days a week; and their theory was the correct one. After holding out for some time, the self-elected captains of industry had to make up their minds to short time, with reduced wages in some places, and in others without.

So is there any way out for the worker?  Is there any scenario where ordinary working people can earn a moderate to high wage and corresponding standard of living?  There is, through education and skill.  The only way of maintaining a high wage for workers is on the basis of a given workforce possessing the ability to accomplish production tasks on the basis of non-generalized knowledge and skill.  When labor is a commodity that is interchangeable in Karnataka, Guangdong, and Detroit, the wage will approach something like a low-level equilibrium.  But when workers are able to add exceptional value to the process through their skills, talents, and knowledge, they will share in that productivity in the form of higher wages and a higher standard of living.

This observation converges with several themes already discussed in earlier postings: the attractiveness of the “high-skill” alternative to mass manufacturing that is highlighted by Chuck Sabel (link), and the current urgency that we should all feel about making sure that all young people have the opportunity to complete a tertiary degree (link).




Urban and metropolitan problem solving


The issues that almost all large American metropolitan regions and cities are facing are important and messy. Here is a short list: racial segregation, concentration of poverty, poor health and nutrition, poor schools, crime and violence, and disaffection of young people. These problems are important because they hold back the personal lives of millions of Americans living in poverty and degraded urban neighborhoods. And they are messy because they are multi-causal and interconnected. Each problem feeds into another, and it is generally difficult to say what kinds of policy changes and plans would lead to eventual improvement. These are “wicked” problems (link) that require planners to work with complex and unpredictable processes in an effort to improve Cleveland, Chicago, Oakland, Miami, Houston, Kansas City, and Detroit.

There is another reason why urban and metropolitan problems are hard to solve — the lack of political will to seriously address the problems in a long-term and sustained way. State legislatures often have an anti-urban bias. Regions often embody conflicts of interest between suburbs and city. Jurisdictions are often more concerned about their own narrow interests than in finding workable regional solutions. And the Federal government often fails for decades to mount serious and realistic urban strategies. So the result is often stasis — nothing happens.

One aspect of the challenge is the availability of timely, reliable data about a region’s health and performance. City governments collect a lot of data about health status, land use, and crime; but they are often reluctant to make their information available to researchers and the public. Foundations and individual researchers undertake studies focused on one problem or another; but often the reports are difficult to find and difficult to compare.

So we might hypothesize that the situation would be improved if there were an active, well-resourced clearinghouse for regional data from a wide range of sources: census, municipal departments, academic studies, land use surveys, and environmental surveys. Ideally these data sets would be managed by a professional staff who are able to integrate the various sources into a query-based GIS system, and ideally the data sets themselves would be publicly available (subject to appropriate privacy conditions). this kind of regional data warehouse would not directly solve the problems the region faces; but it would give a clear understanding of the scope and distribution of the problems that need to be addressed; it would provide an empirical base for proposed policy solutions; and it would provide a baseline for eventually evaluating the policies that are adopted.

Fortunately, there are good examples of exactly this kind of effort underway in various regions around the country. One such effort is underway at the Community Research Institute, part of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University in Michigan (link). The Institute focuses primarily on several counties surrounding Grand Rapids, but it is also preparing to expand its coverage to other parts of Michigan. With a foundational database linking US Census data geographically, the Institute attempts to provide geographically linked data down to the neighborhood level. Here is an example of a map of the teen birth rate in neighborhoods of Grand Rapids (link). The Center has developed a general tool, MAPAS, that can serve as a platform for integrating and presenting a wide range of social data sources (link).



A similar effort is underway in the Detroit metropolitan region, under the rubric of Data Driven Detroit (link). D3 is attempting to create this kind of publicly accessible, spatially presented data warehouse for the city and the region, and the early results are promising.  Here is a report on a recent study conducted by D3 on housing stock in Detroit (link).

So how can data sources like these be folded into good planning efforts for urban and metropolitan progress? The city of Detroit under the leadership of Mayor Dave Bing is just beginning an important planning effort that ties into the need to adjust the cityscape to the dramatically smaller population it now contains. This effort is called the Detroit Works Project (link), and it is explicitly committed to data-driven decision making and planning.

Another effort that is underway is the Integration Initiative within Living Cities (linklink). Detroit is one of the cities that has been funded within the program.  Here is how Living Cities describes the national project of the Integration Initiative:

The Integration Initiative builds upon Living Cities’ 20-year history of investing in cities. It acknowledges both the power and limitations of the neighborhood as a lever for change and seeks to drive a broader perspective that recognizes the role systems and regions must play in securing economic opportunity for low-income people.

The Integration Initiative will provide at least $80 million in grants, loans and Program-Related Investments (PRIs) to five regions to help them tackle the greatest barriers to opportunity for low-income residents, including education, housing, health care, transit and jobs. Living Cities and its members are making a total investment of $15 million in grants, $15 million in PRIs and $50 million in commercial debt. PRIs are flexible, low-cost loans provided at below-market rates to support charitable activity.

In order for a project like this to succeed, it needs to be based on solid empirical data.  It is crucial for the progress of metropolitan Detroit, and other cities around the country, that the region succeed in creating a unified regional data source.


Transmitting technology

How do large technological advances cross cultural and civilizational boundaries? The puzzle is this: large technologies are not simply cool new devices, but rather complex systems of scientific knowledge, engineering traditions, production processes, and modes of technical communication. So transfer of technology is not simply a matter of conveying the approximate specifications of the device; it requires the creation of a research and development infrastructure that is largely analogous to the original process of invention and development. Inventors, scientists, universities, research centers, and skilled workers need to build a local understanding of the way the technology works and how to solve the difficult problems of material and technical implementation.

Take inertial guidance systems for missiles, described in fascinating detail by Donald MacKenzie in Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. The process MacKenzie describes of discovery and development of inertial guidance was a highly complex and secretive one, with multiple areas of scientific and engineering research solving a series of difficult technical problems.

Now do a bit of counterfactual history and imagine that some country — say, Burma — had developed powerful rocket engines in the 1950s but did not have a workable guidance technology; and suppose the US and USSR had succeeded in keeping the development of inertial navigation systems and the underlying science secret. Finally, suppose that Burmese agents had managed to gain a superficial description of inertial navigation: “It is a self-contained device that tracks acceleration and therefore permits constant updating of current location; and it uses ultra-high precision gyroscopes.” Would this be enough of a leak to permit rapid adoption of inertial navigation in the Burmese missile program? Probably not; the technical obstacles faced in the original development process would have to be solved again, and this means a long process of knowledge building and institution building.  For example, MacKenzie describes the knotty problem posed to this technology by the fact of slight variations in the earth’s gravitational field over the surface of the globe; if uncorrected, these variations would be coded as acceleration by the instrument and would lead to significant navigational errors.  The solution to this problem involved creating a detailed mapping of the earth’s gravitational field.

This is a hypothetical case. But Hsien-Chun Wang describes an equally fascinating but real case in a recent article in Technology and Culture, “Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s-1860s” (link). There was essentially no knowledge of steam power in Chinese science in the mid-Qing (early nineteenth century). The First Opium War (1839-1842) provided a rude announcement of the technology, in the form of powerful steam-driven warships on the coast and rivers of eastern China. Chinese officials and military officers recognized the threat represented by Western military-industrial technology, but it was another 25 years before Chinese industry was in a position to build a steam-powered ship. So what were the obstacles standing in front of China’s steam revolution?

Wang focuses on two key obstacles in mid-Qing industry and technology: the role of technical drawings as a medium for transmitting specifications for complex machines from designer to skilled workers; and the absence in nineteenth-century China of a machine tool technology.  Technical drawings were an essential medium of communication in the European industrial system, conveying precise specifications of parts and machines to the workers and tools who would fabricate them.  And machine tools (lathes, planes, stamping machines, cutting machines, etc.) provided the tools necessary to fabricate high-precision metal parts and components.  (Merritt Roe Smith describes aspects of both these stories in his account of the U.S. arms industry in the early nineteenth century; Harpers Ferry Armory and New Technology.)  According to Wang, the Chinese technical culture had developed models rather than drawings to convey how a machine works; and the intricate small machines that certainly were a part of Chinese technical culture depended on artisanal skill rather than precision tooling of interchangeable parts.

So communicating the technical details of a complex machine and creating the fabrication infrastructure needed to produce the machine were two important obstacles for rapid transfer of steam technology from Western Europe to Qing China.  But perhaps a more fundamental obstacle emerges as well: the fact that Chinese technical and scientific culture was as yet simply unready to “see” the way that steam power worked in the first place.  When steam warships arrived, acute Chinese observers saw smoke and fire, and they saw motion.  But they did not see “steam-driven traction”, or the translation of kinetic energy into rotational work.  (This is evident also in the drawing of the treadmill water pump above; the maker of the drawing clearly did not perceive from the Italian drawing how the motion of the treadmill was translated into the vertical pumping action.)  Wang quotes a description from an observer in Guangzhou in 1828:

Early in the third month … there suddenly came from Bengal a huo lunchuan [fire-wheel ship] …. The huo lunchuan has an empty copper cylinder inside to burn coal, with a machine on the top.  When the flame is up, the machine moves automatically.  The wheels on both sides of the ship move automatically too. (37)

And another observer wrote in Zhejiang in 1840:

The ship’s cabin stores a square furnace under the beam from which the wheels are hung.  When the fire is burning in the furnace, the two wheels turn like a fast mill and the ship cruises as fast as if it is flying, regardless of the wind’s direction. (37-38)

The give-away here is the word “automatically”; plainly these observers had not assimilated a causal process linking the production of heat (fire) to mechanical motion (the rotation of the paddle wheels).  Instead, the two circumstances are described as parallel rather than causal.

So the fundamental motive force of steam was not cognitively accessible at this point, even through direct observation.  By contrast, the marine utility of paddlewheel-driven warships was quickly assimilated. Chinese commanders adapted what they observed in the European naval forces (powerful paddlewheels that made sails unnecessary) to an existing technology (human- or ox-driven paddlewheels), and large “wheel-boats” saw action as early as 1842 on Suzhou Creek (40).

Wang notes that several Chinese inventors did in fact succeed in discerning the mechanism associated with steam power by the 1840s. Ding Gongchen succeeded in fabricating a model steam rail engine 61 centimeters long and a 134-centimeter model paddlewheel steamboat; so he clearly understood the basic mechanism at this point.  And Zheng Fuguang appears to have mastered the basic concept as well.  But here is Wang’s summary:

Ding’s efforts show that despite the circulating writings of a few experimenters, the steam engine remained a novelty, which was difficult to understand and probably impossible to reproduce.  Interested parties were discussing it, however, but attempted to grasp it in terms of their indigenous expertise alone rather than more broadly understanding the new Western technology. (45)

In 1861, during the Taiping Rebellion, a senior military commander Zeng Guofan created an arsenal in Anqing for ammunition, and also set about to create the capacity to build steam-powered ships.  With the assistance of experts Xu Shou and Hua Hengfang, the arsenal produced a partially successful full-scale steamship by 1863, and in 1864 Hua and Xu succeeded in completing a 25-ton steamship, the Huanghu, that was capable of generating 11.5 kilometers per hour.  The Chinese-build steamship had arrived.

Here is how Wang summarizes this history of technology adaptation over a 25-year period of time:

The path from the treadmill paddlewheel boat to the Jiangnan arsenal’s steamers was a long journey of discovery. Qing officials experimented with the knowledge and skills available to them, and it took time–and trial and error–for them to realize that steamboats were driven by steam, that machine tools were necessary to turn the principle of steam into a workable engine, and that drawings had to be made and read for the technology to be diffused. (53)

So perhaps the short answer to the question posed above about cross-civilizational technology transfer is this: “transfer” looks a lot more like “reinvention” than it does “imitation.”  It was necessary for Chinese experimenters, officials, and military officers to create a new set of institutions and technical capacities before this apparently simple new technological idea could find its way into Chinese implementations on a large scale.

(The image at the top is one of the most interesting parts of Wang’s very interesting paper; it establishes vividly the difficulty of transmitting technologies across different technical cultures.  The Italian drawing dates from 1607, and the Chinese copy dates from 1627.  As Wang points out, the Chinese version of the drawing is visually highly similar to the Italian original; it is a good copy.  And yet it fails to designate any of the technical features of how this treadmill-operated water pump works.  The pair of drawings are fascinating to examine in detail.)

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