Friday, December 30, 2016

Economic History in 2016

This is my subjective assessment of some of the major developments in economic history in the last year. Most of the papers I cite are from 2016 (or at least the versions I cite are from 2016) A few are from earlier, but you can just think of it as the long 2016. It seemed long. By the way, I intend to do a another post that focuses more on developments in American economic history.

Measuring Long Run Economic Performance
One of the most significant developments in economic history over the last several decades has been the work to improve our estimates of long run economic performance. Responding to challenges presented by Pomeranz’s Great Divergence and obvious weaknesses in Madison’s estimates, a number of economic historians have worked to develop better estimates of economic performance in Europe and Asia over the very long run. Economic historians continue these efforts but also recognize the limitations of what they have done and, possibly, what they can do.
Stephen Broadberry has done much of this work with a number of different co-authors.  For a recent example see Roger  Fouquet and Stephen Broadberry. "Seven centuries of European economic growth and decline." The Journal of Economic Perspectives 29, no. 4 (2015): 227-244.

Deng and O’Brien raise numerous questions about the usefulness of these estimates for Asia.
New estimates of long term economic performance have prompted new attempts to explain differences in long term economic performance. 

State Capacity and Economic Growth
Economic historians have long recognized that the countries that led the way in modern growth, England and Holland, also led the way in the development of state capacity (the ability to tax and borrow to spend on public goods.) But recent work has attempted to establish this relationship more generally and identify the specific mechanisms by which state capacity contributed to economic growth. Recent work has focused on the combination of state capacity and constraints on state action. The problem, of course, isn’t new: it is the fundamental Hobbesian problem, but economic historians are trying to understand how effective solutions evolved.
See the survey paper on state capacity by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama (available through Noel’s website). The published version of Johnson and Koyama is "States and economic growth: capacity and constraints" Explorations in Economic History.

And this recent Economic Journal paper by Mark Dincecco and Gabriel Katz

Religion and Economic Growth
Related to the work on state capacity, economic historians have shed new light on the relationship between religion and early modern growth. The idea that there might be some connection between economic growth and religion has a long history. This connection was, for instance, central to the stories told by Max Weber and R.H. Tawney.  What is new is that economic historians have gathered evidence and employed techniques that enable them to identify specific mechanisms through which religious beliefs and institutions influenced economic performance.
See, for instance,
Jared Rubin’s forthcoming book
Anderson, Johnson, and Koyama Jewish persecution and weather shocks
This working paper  by Dittmar and Meisenzahl on the religion, politics and public goods in Germany during the Reformation

English Wages and Industrialization
Recent research on wages in England have challenged Robert Allen’s theory of the industrial revolution. Allen’s theory was attractive in its simplicity: relative prices drove the Industrial Revolution in England. People invested in machines because labor was expensive and coal was cheap. Several recent studies have, however, challenged the evidence of high wages in England.
And these great videos of Humphries describing the project.
See also Judy Stephenson’s work on the building trades and her blog post about the papers presented at a workshop on English wages.

You can also look at these blog posts for descriptions of the state of the debate Pseudoerasmus  and Vincent Geloso. By the way, based upon the volume of tweets, blog posts, papers, and working papers I am beginning to believe that Vincent Geloso must actually be the name of a consortium of economic historians.

Note: This post was edited on December 4, 2017 to add a link to he published version of the Johnson and Koyama paper on state capacity.

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