Assessing the Determinants of Economic Growth in South East Asia

The Historical State, Local Collective Action, and Economic Development in Vietnam

By Melissa Dell (Harvard University), Nathaniel Lane (Stockholm University), Pablo Querubin (New York University)

Abstract – This study examines how the historical state conditions long-run development, using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a strong centralized state in which the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, which followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. Using a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary, the study shows that areas historically under a strong state have higher living standards today and better economic outcomes over the past 150 years. Rich historical data document that in villages with a strong historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through civil society and local government. This suggests that the strong historical state crowded in village-level collective action and that these norms persisted long after the original state disappeared.


Circulated by nep-his on 2017/03/19

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

What was the impact of the ancient Vietnamese Dai Viet empire in promoting long-term economic development? That is the main question the authors try to assess. Their inquiry is embedded within the now large literature on the importance of culture and institutions, as deep determinants of growth. The contribution the paper makes is, however, not restricted to adding one more piece of evidence in favor of it, but, more importantly, in providing empirical support for a specific transmission channel: how state capacity can be built through time via the fostering of local self-organization capabilities.

The paper’s main story builds on the idea that two distinct meta-societies existed within East Asia, and idea around which, by the way, there is general agreement. One of these societies based on Chinese precepts, prevalent in the Northeastern region; and other spread in the Southeast throughout the Indian Ocean.  Societies of the former category were historically constituted around a sort of Weberian professional bureaucracy that consolidated the working of a central state. The latter depended more on informal networking mechanisms among local elites to survive, and hence, tended to promote hierarchical patriarchal relationships.

Today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam (henceforth Vietnam) is an interesting case study precisely because it arose out of the union of those two distinct cultures. The northern part, the Dai Viet, is an example of a Sino-style state, while the southern part of Vietnam (initially part of the Champa State and later as part of the larger Khmer Empire) resulted from a Indo-style society.  Figure 1 below offers map of present day Vietnam aligned with the size of the historical Dai Viet empire. Figure 1 suggests the Dai Viet expanded southwards through time but ended up establishing its final frontier in 1698 (orange color). It is this border the authors think provides a natural experiment that allows a clean regression discontinuity (RD) strategy that permits the disentanglement of the effect of being part of a bureaucratized state vis a vis a patriarchal state.


Figure 1: Dai Viet Historical Boundaries (Dell et al., 2017)

The use of the RD design is appropriate, the authors argue, because the chosen border resulted from exogenous contingencies that do not reflect any difference in future economic potential. The 1698 demarcation was settled on the ridges of a river, but there was nothing else particular to it that made that boundary preferable to other potential borders. The Dai Viet stopped its expansion because of constrains imposed by a local civil war (something that has nothing to do with the river itself). Moreover, the environmental characteristics of both sides of the river are almost identical (or vary smoothly), so there is no important geographical difference either. The only thing that changes abruptly is that on the east shore of the 1698 border, Dai Viet settlers occupied and controlled the land, while Khmer villagers occupied and controlled the land to the west of the river. Another possible counterargument to the use of the 1698 border as a natural experiment is the relevance of migration: if settlers moved across villages (at any time after the establishment of the original border), then the boundary becomes inconsequential. The authors argue that, even though they do not have historical data to control for it, there is qualitative evidence that refers to negative attitudes towards outsiders within the villages, which constitutes an important constraint to any major migratory flow. Today, both sides are part of Vietnam. It is then possible to assess if Die Viet institutions still exert some type of effect in current economic outcomes.

Figure 2 portraits the main outcome of the paper. Using household expenditure data from recent censuses (2002-2012), the authors find that today, villages situated along the historical Die Viet side of the border earn a third more than those communities that are situated on the historical Khmer side (Within the figure, the darker the zone depict lower earnings).


Figure 2a: Household Consumption, RD Graph (Dell et al., 2017)

The authors, however, not content with establishing the effects on current outcomes, look for historical evidence too. They collect data from different periods of Vietnamese history: 1878-1921 for the French Colonization, 1969-1973 for the South Vietnam State, and 1975-1985 for the early Communist Period; and find that the pattern is persistent through time: The Diet Viet zone is, in general, more developed than the Khmer side.

How can these results be interpreted?  The income differences must be due to the Die Viet heritage of greater state capacity that acted through local community self-organization that made them more co-operative and facilitated the resolution of local collective action problems. To test whether this transmission channel matters, the authors looked for data on social capital. Their main sources were the surveys and census of the South Vietnamese period. What they find corroborates their story: villagers on the Diet Viet side were more prone to participate in community activities, to collect more taxes (that at the time were local responsibility, not provincial), to have greater access to public goods (health, school and law enforcement), to be skeptical of central government in favor of local, and to give more to charity.


All in all, the authors do a thorough job in assessing the robustness of their main story. They control for several of potential alternative stories and/or possible variables that could affect the results and mechanisms.  Any critique of it may sound redundant or unreachable.  Yet, I would point to three different aspects that may be important.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I would stress that although the argument makes sense, the narrative is unclear as to how specifically the Dai Viet, which supposedly was a centralized bureaucratized state, fostered local governance. As the authors mention in the introduction, the literature on social capital is ambivalent on its effects on economic outcomes. As it is, the paper’s contribution is the finding of empirical evidence on the presence of a particular transmission channel (from state to local governance), but without a clear model and/or an analytical narrative, we are left in the dark about how explicitly this mechanism worked its way throughout society.

Second, and pushing the level of pickiness even further, one can always speak of a potential omitted variable bias. I must ask then: what about genes? The authors minimize ethnic fragmentation as a problem because they find the studied area is cataloged as being almost entirely composed of homogeneously ethnic Vietnamese. The problem is that censuses and surveys may under-report true ethnicity, and cannot capture genetic differences at all. By the authors’ own account, we are told the Diet Viet State originated as, and remained for a long time, Chinese. Moreover, as Tran (1993) attests, Chinese ethnicity may conflate the results of the paper in other several ways:

  • the largest Chinese migration occurred between the late 17th century and early 19th century, just at the time that the Dai Viet-Khmer border was being established;
  • The Chinese settled mostly in southern Vietnam, the part that the authors use as study case;
  • Chinese early importance resided precisely in that they helped establish new villages and trade outposts. They (not merely the Diet Viet heritage) helped to build local governance structures.

If ethnicity has been underreported and/or Chinese genetics matter in fostering economic development in any way (as suggested by Ashraf-Galor, 20013a, 2013b) then the interpretation of the paper could dramatically change: the importance of the Dai Viet state would be downplayed in favor of just being more ethnic/genetic Chinese. After all, it is known that there is a correlation between having larger ethnic Chinese minority and larger economic growth (Priebe and Rudulf, 2015).

Third, related to the last point: one would expect that given the importance of the result – the long-term reach of Diet Viet institutions–, its impact would feel more broadly across all the territory, not only in the immediate zones of the frontier which were the last to be incorporated into the state.  Figure 3, for example, shows the level of poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann,2004). It is visible that the area under study (along the last border of the historical Diet Viet) has the lowest share of poverty in the whole country. The immediate area to the left (which coincides with the area that historically belonged to the Khmer Empire) is poorer indeed. But the differences are minor if we compare them to the rest of current Vietnam, which belonged almost entirely to the Diet Viet, and has the largest poorer areas.  The RD design may be identifying a non-observable variable that is concentrated in the southern part (like ethnicity or/and genes) and is not broadly distributed across the rest of Vietnam.


Figure 3: Incidence of Poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann, 2004: 155).

Additional References

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013a. Genetic Diversity and the Origins of Cultural Fragmentation. The American Economic Review: Papers on Proceedings 103, 528–533.

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013b. The “Out of Africa” Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review 103, 1–46.

Epprecht, M., Heinemann, A., 2004. Socioeconomic Atlas of Vietnam: A depiction of the 1999 Population and Housing Census. Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Bern.

Priebe, J., Rudolf, R., 2015. Does the Chinese Diaspora Speed Up Growth in Host Countries? World Development 76, 249–262.

Trần, K., 1993. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Historicising Business Strategy

Evolving Ideas about Business Strategy

by Pankaj Ghemawat (NYU Stern, USA and IESE Business School, Spain)


This paper updates an earlier article published in Business History Review that concluded that by the second half of the 1990s, there had been a profusion of new, purportedly practical ideas about strategy, many of which embodied some explicit dynamics. This update provides several indications of a drop-off since then in the rate of development of new ideas about strategy but also a continued focus, in the new ideas that are being developed, on dynamics. And since our stock of dynamic frameworks has, based on one enumeration, more than doubled in the last fifteen to twenty years, updating expands both the need and the empirical basis for some generalizations about the types of dynamic strategy frameworks—and strategy frameworks in general—that managers are likely to find helpful versus those that they are not.

Source: Business History Review 90, 1-23 (DOI:

Review by Kyle Bruce (Macquarie University, Australia)

Editor’s note

Ghemawat’s 2017 paper below should not be read in isolation but as part of a round table organized at Harvard Business School that brought together historians and management scholars to discuss the origins of ideas in business and management. The results of the round table were published as a special edition of the Business History Review. In this sense, Ghemawat’s contribution to the special issue and its discussion by Chris McKenna (in the same special issue) came to an independent yet similar conclusion to that expressed by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, who suggested “that in the age of social information networks, economists need to rethink how and why information really spreads.” (See a summary of Shiller’s ideas in The Role of Narratives in Economics).

It is laudable that the executive editors of the Business History Review created a space to disseminate the results of the round table through the journal. However, as you will read below, Kyle Bruce questions whether this is the right way to engage other management scholars in business history as, strictly speaking, the contribution by Ghemawat would be found wanting as scholarly work of international standing.

A final note is that in its comments to Ghemawat, even McKenna gets it wrong by pointing to Lotus 1-2-3 as the first spreadsheet. It actually was VisiCalc.

Having said that, the aim in this space is to generate academic debate through a blog format. So by all means do chip in.

Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo
General Editor NEP-HIS & Editorial Board member, Business History Review.

As a historian and teacher of strategy and, moreover, as a close follower of Ghemawat’s work, I was very much looking forward to his recent update of his 2002 BHR paper on the history of the sub-discipline. I habitually invoke the decade-and-a-half old piece as background reading for my Executive MBA strategy students and hitherto have experienced little, if any, pushback from students typically cagey about the words “theory” or “history”. Regrettably, I am not so sure the updated paper under review here will escape unscathed for the simple reason that it is pretty tough to follow. Let me explain.

After briefly overviewing the 2002 paper that in essence discerned a profusion of new ideas about strategy – particularly those embodying a more dynamic approach – dating from the early to mid-80s, Ghemawat introduces his new findings. After a big peak in the mid-90s, there has been a marked drop-off in new ideas, but dynamics “is a sustained interest focus of strategic innovation rather than one of passing interest” (p. 5; emphasis added). So far, so good you might think, but I started to worry about the phraseology (“strategic innovation”?) attendant on the use of analytical tools from strategy and adjacent sub-disciplines to make sense of his findings; namely, “what should one make of the drop-off overall and the shift toward more attention to dynamics? And what, if anything, should be done?” (p. 8).

Pankaj Ghemawat

Pankaj Ghemawat

Unless the strictures concerning the dreaded “so what?” question have been lifted in history journals such as BHR, I could not discern after several reads a compelling argument as to why readers should be at all bothered by the findings presented? For students of the strategy-as-practice literature, for instance, the suggestion there’s fewer models and frameworks out there for practising managers to employ is not a concern given they probably don’t use them anyway. For my MBA students who routinely complain of framework fatigue, again, the theory drop-off is not a problem. And so, for me, the remainder of the paper was rather superfluous and unnecessarily complex. Curiously, I think Ghemawat makes it so when he concludes that while it’s certain there’s been a drop-off in the “rate of development of big new strategy ideas/frameworks, it is much harder to be definite about the welfare implications” (p. 10; emphasis added). For me, this conclusion renders redundant both the ensuing “what is to be done” question he poses, as well as the next eight-and-half pages of the article devoted to “a critical assessment of frameworks new and old” (p. 2).

After several reads of these aforementioned pages, I could not really follow or appreciate the “irreversibility” and “uncertainty” dimensions utilised to assess how dynamic current frameworks really are. However, I felt comforted when Ghemawat concludes that “quite a few” of said frameworks “seem subject to some practical limitations” (p. 19). This comfort was short-lived, though, when he finishes the paper with the frustrating and seemingly throwaway line that the way forward, as it were, “is to shift some attention away from the chronologies of frameworks to historiography that attempts to assess them in some fashion” (p. 21). I immediately asked myself: “well, why didn’t he just do this, then??”


For me, and I trust also BHR readers, a historiographical piece embodying intellectual history, actor-network theory, or sociology of scientific knowledge to account for the “trials of strength” in strategy theory, the tension between contributions from the academy and those from business practice, and the current fascination with dynamics, would have been an easier and more interesting read. Like much being published in business and management history journals of late, Ghemawat’s paper is short on actual history and, notwithstanding the final sentence, even short on how to DO history. I was left wondering why this paper was published in this journal and asking myself what this paper’s place tells me about BHR? I have no answers for these questions but look forward to some in due course.


Ghemawat, P. (2002) “Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective”, Business History Review 76(1): 37-74. (DOI:

Little Britain? Empire and the rise of protectionism in interwar Britain.

When Britain turned inward: Protection and the shift towards Empire in interwar Britain

By Alan de Bromhead (Queen’s University Belfast), Alan Fernihough (Queen’s University Belfast), Markus Lampe (Vienna University of Economics and Business) and Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke (University of Oxford)

International trade became much less multilateral during the 1930s. Previous studies, looking at aggregate trade flows, have argued that discriminatory trade policies had comparatively little to do with this. Using highly disaggregated information on the UK’s imports and trade policies, we find that policy can explain the majority of Britain’s shift towards Imperial imports in the 1930s. Trade policy mattered, a lot.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-03-20

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper provides an interesting insight into tariffs, and their role in interwar Britain from a perspective that has not been previously examined.  An examination of this issue is timely, especially with the debates surrounding the implication of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, and the threats issued by the American Trump administration concerning future trade policy.  It demonstrates that the impact of tariffs during the economic crises of the 1930s had a variable impact, and did not always achieve their intended outcome.  In this respect, the impact of punitive trade policies from a historical perspective can provide a very important context to future negotiations as the world becomes acclimatised to a very different political landscape.

Tariff reform was a huge issue for the British government in the early twentieth century, and the subject of significant political propaganda.

The paper is deeply researched, and draws on a wide collection of data.  One of the main conclusions is that trade blocs made very little difference, nor did the imperial preference scheme, to the balance and nature of the British economy in the crisis years.  However, it does show that the change in the nature of trade, away from free trade to focusing specifically on empire did have specific outcomes that shaped the direction of the British economy, but that these changes were caused specifically by trade policy rather than anything else.  Indeed, the authors show that as a result of the changing nature of the British government’s trade policy, a 70% increase in empire trade was reported in the period 1930-33.  In this respect, the paper poses a very interesting question that is addressed, but will need further historical enquiry:  Did trade policy contribute to return of intra-Imperial trade?

The paper looks at a range of policies pursued by the British government in the period after the First World War, some of which were discriminatory, in order to evaluate the nature of its economic and trade development.  In compiling their conclusions, a huge amount of data was analysed, including data sets from 42 countries examining 200 products categories between 1924-1938.   The data showed that dramatic changes were seen in the nature of Britain’s trade and economic policy in the period 1931-33.  Nevertheless, these changes had long roots.  The abolition of free trade after the First World War saw the introduction of the McKenna Duty, which imposed a 33.5% tariff on cars, clocks, watches, films and musical instruments ad valorem (based on the value of the goods).  This was later intensified with the implementation of the 1921 Safeguarding of Industries Act, where a 33.5% tariff was placed on the imports of key goods.  However, despite the apparent punitive nature of these policies, the British economy was largely Liberal up to 1930, when the Abnormal Importations Act allowed 100% tax on all manufactured goods from outside the empire.


Utilising goods from the empire was seen as an excellent opportunity for the British government to stablilise its economy during the challenges of the Great Depression.

Realising the potential difficulties that such a punitive law could unleash, a more compassionate deal was reached in the 1932 Import Duties Act, where it was agreed that a 10% tax be imposed on imported goods, although this exempted products from the empire.  This concession was achieved with the aim of ensuring improved access to dominion markets, and resulted in several bilateral agreements with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, India and Southern Rhodesia.  Nevertheless, with the introduction of quotas for agricultural products through the Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933, there were now restrictions on the type of farming products that could be imported.  Moreover, in a tone that is reminiscent of the pro-Brexit camp both during and after the referendum, the British explored deals that went beyond the traditional confines of Europe in order to strengthen its economy, and this included Scandinavian countries and Argentina.  This not only improved British trade prospects, but provided the mutually-beneficial element to these countries in order to maintain access to the British market for the purpose of trade.


The 1932 Import Duties Act was seen by many as symbolic of punitive protectionist policies pursued by the British government.


There are so many fantastic elements to this paper that not only shed new light on the issue of tariffs, but also provide the foundation for future debate.  Nevertheless, the authors have highlighted what they believed were the difficulties in their research, especially concerning the masses of data that they collected.  They believed that there were inconsistencies in the data, but have done a wonderful job in using spreadsheets to predict the results in the absence of concrete data.  In some cases, the use of complicated mathematical formulas has been used to come to these conclusions.  The fact that the paper engages in counterfactual debate provides an important foundation for future discussion, but also lends itself to its own difficulties.  Counterfactuals, although interesting, cannot be definitively proven.   In this respect, the paper poses several “what if” questions relating to tariffs, especially what would have happened if tariffs had not been increased.  In their conclusions, they argue that it appears that the empire did better with tariffs than without, and if there was free trade, there would only have been a modest increase in the empire share of trade.  Thus, the impact of British protectionist policies proved substantial, and, they argue, account for a shift of around 50% of trade towards the empire by 1930.   The conclusions are interesting and useful, but as the authors explain, a lot of work needed to be done to fill the gaps in the data.  It is the interpretation of these gaps in the data, especially the ways in which some conclusions have been reached through the use of counterfactual debate that will undoubtedly provide the platform for future historical enquiry on this topic.


Eichengreen, Barry, and Douglas A. Irwin. The slide to protectionism in the Great Depression: Who succumbed and why?. No. w15142. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009.

Capie, Forrest. Depression & Protectionism: Britain Between the Wars. Vol. 2. Routledge, 2013.

Temin, Peter. Lessons from the great depression. MIT Press, 1991.

How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility?

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism

By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford (

Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses financial markets to transfer financial entitlement over time. Social democracy came up against the limits of public expenditure in the 1970s. The ‘market turn’ from social democracy to market liberalism was enabled by easy credit in the 1980s. Much of this was absorbed into homeownership, which attracted majorities of households (and voters) in the developed world. Early movers did well, but easy credit eventually drove house prices beyond the reach of younger cohorts. Debt service diminished effective demand, which instigated financial instability. Both social democracy and market liberalism are in crisis.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-01-29

Review by: Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa, Bangor University


This paper emerged from Avner Offer’s Tawney Lecture at the Economic History Society’s annual conference, Cambridge, 3 April 2016 (the video of which can be found here).

In this paper Offer discussed two macroeconomic innovations of the 20th century, which he calls “the market turn”. These are the changes in fiscal policy and financialisation that encompassed the shift  from social democracy to market liberalism from the 1970s onwards. Social democracy is understood as a fiscal innovation which resulted in the doubling of public expenditure (from aprox. 25 to 50 per cent of GDP between 1920 and 1980). Its aim was reducing wealth inequality. Market liberalism encompassed a monetary innovation, namely the deregulation of credit which allowed households to increase their indebtedness from around 50 to 150 per cent of personal disposable income, mainly for the purpose of home ownership. According to Offer the end result of market liberalism was increasing wealth inequality. See Offer’s depiction of this process in the graph below.

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration. (Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration.
(Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Offer considers that both social democracy and market liberalism are norms captured by the single concept of a “Just World Theory” (Offer & Söderberg, 2016).The ideals behind social democracy are said to be supported by ideas found in classical economics, while the ideals behind market liberalism are said to have emerged from a redefinition of the origins and nature of economic value found in neoclassical economics. Contrasting the ideas behind social democracy and market liberalism brings about  questions such as:

  • Where does value come from?,
  • Is it from production or is it from personal preferences and demand for the good/service?,
  • What is just and fair?,
  • What do we as individuals deserve as reward?, and
  • Is there really a trade-off between equality and efficiency?

Answering any of these question is not simple and heated debates abound around them. Offer, however, rescues the idea of life-cycle dependency, where the situation of the most vulnerable individuals is alleviated through collective risk pooling rather than financial markets. According to Offer,  life-cycle dependency was the dominant approach to reducing poverty in most developed countries until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Then collapse of the Bretton Woods accord that followed, led to the liberalization of credit by removing previous constraints. This in turn resulted in the “market turn”.

Avner Offer

Professor Avner Offer (1944). MA, DPhil, FBA. Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford since 2011.

Offer then turns to analyse the events after the collapse of Bretton Woods that led to the increase of household indebtedness while focusing on the UK. The 1970s was a very volatile decade for Britain.  For instance, oil price increases and the secondary banking crises of 1973 resulted in the highest annual increase of the inflation rate on record. Offer argues, while citing John Fforde (Executive Director of the Bank of England at that time), that the Competition and Credit Control Act 1971 was as a leap of faith in the pursuit of greater efficiency in financial markets. This Act was accompanied by a new monetary policy where changes in interest rates (the price of money) by the central bank was to bring about the control of the quantity of money. Perhaps unexpectedly and probably due to a lack of a better understanding of the origins of money, that was not the case. Previously lifted credit restrictions had to be reinstated.

Credit controls were again lifted in the 1980s. This time policy innovations went further by allowing clearing (ie commercial) banks to re-enter the personal mortgage market. The Building Societies Act 1986  allowed building societies to offer personal loans and current accounts as well as opened a pathway for them to become commercial banks (which many did after 1989 and all those societies that converted  either collapsed or were taken over by clearing banks or both). Initially and up to the crash of house prices in September, 1992, personal mortgage credit grew continuously and to levels never seen before in the UK. According to Offer, during this period both political parties supported the idea of homeownership and incentivised it through programs like “Help to Buy”. However, the rise in the demand for housing combined with the stagnation in the supply of dwellings pushed up house prices, making it more difficult for first-time buyers to become homeowners. Additionally, according to Offer, the wave of easy credit of the 1980s brought with it an increase in wealth inequality and an increase in the fragility of the financial system. As debt repayments grew as proportion of income, consumption was driven down, with subsequent effects on production and services. On this Offer opined:

“In the quest for economic security, the best personal strategy is to be rich.” (p. 17)

The paper ends with possible and desirable futures for public policy initiatives to deal with today’s challenges around wealth inequality and mounting personal credit. He argues that personal debt should be reduced through rising inflation,  a policy driven write-off or a combination of both. He also argues to reinstate a regime where credit is rationed. He states that financial institutions should not have the ability to create money and therefore the housing market funding should return to the old model of building societies. He has a clear preference for social democracy over market liberalism and as such argues that austerity should end, since it is having the exact opposite effects to what was intended.

Brief Comment

Offer’s thought provoking ideas comes at a time when several political and economic events are taking place (e.g. Brexit, Trump’s attack on Dodd-Frank, etc.) which, together, could be of the magnitude as “the market turn”. Once again economic historians could help better inform the debate. Citing R. H. Tawney, Offer opened the lecture (rather than the paper) by stating that:

“to be an effective advocate in the present, you need a correct and impartial understanding of the past.”

Offer clearly fulfils the latter, even though some orthodox economists might disagree with his inflationary and credit control proposals. As per usual his idea are a great contribution to the debate around market efficiency in a time when the world seems to be in constant distress. Perhaps we ought to generate more and better research to understand the mechanisms through which market liberalism generated the current levels of wealth inequality and financial instability that Offer describes. More importantly though, is analysing if social democracy can bring inequality down as it did in the past. In my view, however, in a world where productivity seems to be stagnated, real wages are decreasing, and debt keeps growing, it is highly unlikely that the public sector can produce the recipe that will set us in the path of economic prosperity for all.

Additional References

Offer, A., & Söderberg, G. (2016). The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn. Princeton University Press.
(Read an excellent review of this book here)

On Social Tables, Inequality and Pre-Industrial Societies

“Towards an explanation of inequality in pre-modern societies: the role of colonies and high population density”

by Branko Milanovic (City University of New York)

Abstract: Using the newly expanded set of 40 social tables from pre-modern societies, the paper tries to find out the factors associated with the level of inequality and the inequality extraction ratio (how close to the maximum inequality have the elites pushed the actual inequality). We find strong evidence that elites in colonies were more extractive, and that more densely populated countries exhibited lower extraction ratios. We propose several possibilities linking high population density to low inequality and to low elite extraction.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2016-11-13

Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)

Given the recent increase in the availability of good-quality data on pre-industrial (or pre-modern) societies, there is much need for works of synthesis aimed at discovering the factors shaping long-term inequality trends. Branko Milanovic has been particularly active in this field, with the publication of a recent book on Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016, Harvard University Press) [see the reviews here – Ed]. In this new working paper, Milanovic tries to move forward, using a large database of social tables to single out the potential causes of differences in historical inequality levels and in inequality extraction. He focuses in particular on institutional factors (inequality in colonies vs other areas) and on demographic factors (population density). The results are very interesting and represent a useful step forward in our understanding of inequality change in preindustrial societies.

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-11-13. It makes use of a relatively large collection of social tables for preindustrial societies, including overall 40 social tables for about 30 distinct countries/world areas over a very long time: from Athens in 330 BCE to British India in 1938. As is well known, social tables allow us to roughly estimate income inequality. They are particularly useful in situations of relative scarcity of data and although they have been in use for centuries – the first example is Gregory King’s social table dating 1688 – many new ones have recently been produced for a variety of preindustrial societies across the world (see Lindert and Williamson 2016 for the U.S., Saito 2015 for Japan, Broadberry et al. 2015 for England, and Alfani and Tadei 2017 for Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Central African Republic). Although estimating complete distributions is the better option (see for example the accurate reconstruction of income distribution in Old Castile around 1750 by Nicolini and Ramos 2016, the impressive work by Reis 2017 on Portugal from 1565 to 1770, and finally, the estimates of wealth inequality in the period 1300-1800 produced by the EINITE project for a variety of Italian pre-unification states and other European areas: Alfani (2015, 2017); Alfani and Ryckbosch (2016); Alfani and Ammannati (2017), this is not always possible or feasible and social tables must be considered a good alternative especially when there is a relative scarcity of data.


As rightly argued by Milanovic, the recent accumulation of new evidence has not been accompanied by equal advances in the work on causal factors driving inequality change in preindustrial times. The seminal article by Van Zanden (1995), in which long-term inequality growth in the Dutch Republic was explained by long-term economic growth, has later been nuanced by works demonstrating that during the early modern period, in many parts of Europe inequality grew also in phases of economic stagnation, or even decline (Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2016). The role played by large-scale mortality crises, particularly plague epidemics, has been underlined and the Black Death of 1347-51 has been shown to be the only event able to produce large-scale and enduring inequality decline in the period from ca. 1300 to 1800 (Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ammannati 2017). In a very recent book, Scheidel (2017) has taken this line of reasoning further, arguing that all substantial declines in inequality recorded in human history are due to catastrophic events (epidemics, wars, revolutions…).

Milanovic’s aim is to find further regularities, looking for possible economic, institutional or demographic drivers of inequality change in preindustrial times. He adopts the theoretical framework of the Inequality Possibility Frontier (introduced in Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson 2011), arguing that we should focus not only on how unequal a society is, but also on how much inequality it manages to “extract” compared to the maximum inequality it could achieve given that everybody needs to reach at least the subsistence level. Hence, as an economy manages to increase the per-capita surplus produced, it also acquires a potential for becoming more unequal. A first relevant empirical finding is that colonies tend to be exceptionally extractive, especially at low levels of per-capita GDP. As Milanovic points out, this is not surprising and can be explained by colonies being more exploitative, i.e. being pushed closer to the inequality possibility frontier by rapacious elites. This is apparent when looking at inequality extraction (being a colony raises the “inequality extraction ratio” by almost 13 percent points), but not necessarily when looking at overall inequality as measured by a Gini index.

Branko Milanovic

Branko Milanovic

A more novel finding is the negative correlation between population density and both inequality and inequality extraction. In fact, a “high number of people per square kilometer seems to be a strong predictor of relatively egalitarian economic outcomes” (p. 16). Explaining this empirical finding is not easy and Milanovic resorts to two conjunctures: 1) in a less extractive economy, the poor enjoy relatively good living conditions and this might lead to greater population growth; or 2) a particularly dense population might be better able to make the position of the elite/of the ruler relatively precarious, enjoying de facto some sort of control over the actions of the elite and forcing it to adopt less extractive policies. As is clear, the direction of causality is the opposite in the two explanations – which are probably to be considered not mutually exclusive. Other correlates of inequality and inequality extraction include per-capita GDP and urbanization rates, which turn out being borderline significant (per-capita GDP) or positively but non-significantly correlated (urbanization rate), coherently with what was found by other recent comparative studies (Alfani and Ryckbosch 2016; Alfani and Ammannati 2017).


Undoubtedly, Milanovic’s new article helps to fill in a real need for more comparative research on preindustrial societies. The findings, albeit provisional, are very interesting and either they provide useful confirmation of what has already been argued by others – for example about the inability of per-capita GDP to explain preindustrial inequality growth in a satisfying way– or they lead us to think along new lines, especially regarding the impact on inequality of demographic variables. In fact, as urbanization rates proved to be a far poorer explanatory variable for inequality change than we expected (see in particular Ryckbosch 2016; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2016; Alfani and Ammannati 2017), demographic factors came to be perceived as probably relevant, but also somewhat puzzling (exception made for mass-mortality events like the Black Death, whose inequality-reducing effects now stand out very clearly). Population density offers us a novel perspective and in time, might prove to be the right path to follow.

However, there is also some space for constructive criticism. A first point to underline is that, differently from what Milanovic argues, the time might not yet be ripe for the kind of definitive and encompassing comparison that he seems to have in mind. The data available is still relatively scarce, including for Europe, which is the world area that has attracted the greatest amount of recent research. Additionally, social tables, albeit easily comparable, are not perfectly comparable – for example because they can include a greatly varying number of classes/groups. In some instances, classes are very few and we have no hint at within-class inequality. These are two reasons why, as argued above, complete distributions are strictly preferable to social tables. Finally, in the current version of Milanovic’s database, for the vast majority of countries only one social table is available, whereas multiple social tables for the same country at different time points would make for sounder statistical analyses. There are ongoing projects, especially EINITE and related projects, whose aim is to provide comparable state-level information on wealth and income inequality for large areas of the world at different points in time in the long run of history, but these projects are heavily dependent on new archival research and require time to be completed.


Secondly there are other possible common factors shaping long-term inequality change which Milanovic cannot consider in the context of the current article. Some of these have been underlined by a recent comparative paper by Alfani and Ryckbosch (2016) which, although focusing on “only” four European states during 1500-1800, nevertheless had the advantage of having recourse to inequality measures produced with a common methodology and covering all states continuously in time. This study underlined two factors common to all the areas covered: 1) “proletarianization”, i.e. the progressive disappearance of small peasant ownership, which occurred throughout Europe during the early modern period, and 2) the inequality-increasing consequences of the rise of the fiscal-military states from ca. 1500. These factors might have played a role also in other world areas, from the broader Mediterranean to East Asia and maybe elsewhere – but at present that is no more than speculation.

Obviously, such criticism in no way negates the considerable usefulness of Milanovic’s new paper – which is also a further demonstration of how his relatively new concept of the inequality possibility frontier allows for a deeper understanding of the actual conditions and consequences of distribution. It does, however, indicate that we are still a long way from being able to identify without ambiguity the main causes of inequality change in preindustrial societies that so many international economic historians are now attempting to discover.

Selected bibliography

Alfani, G. (2015), “Economic inequality in northwestern Italy: A long-term view (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)”, Journal of Economic History, 75(4), 2015, pp. 1058-1096.

Alfani, G. (2017), “The rich in historical perspective. Evidence for preindustrial Europe (ca. 1300-1800)”, Cliometrica 11(3), forthcoming (early view: ).

Alfani, G., Ryckbosch, W. (2016), “Growing apart in early modern Europe? A comparison of inequality trends in Italy and the Low Countries, 1500–1800”, Explorations in Economic History, 62, pp. 143-153.

Alfani, G., Ammannati, F. (2017), “Long-term trends in economic inequality: the case of the Florentine State, ca. 1300-1800”, Economic History Review, forthcoming.

Alfani, G., Tadei, F. (2017), Income Inequality in Colonial Africa: Building Social Tables for Pre-Independence Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, IGIER Working Paper, forthcoming.

Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Klein, A., Overton, M, Van Leeuwen, B. (2015), British Economic Growth 1270-1870, Cambridge University Press.

Lindert, P.H. and Williamson, J.G., Unequal gains. American growth and inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2016.

Milanovic, B. (2016), Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, Harvard University Press.

Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H., Williamson, J.G. (2011). “Pre-Industrial Inequality”, The Economic Journal, 121, pp. 255-272.

Nicolini, E.A., Ramos Palencia, F. (2016), “Decomposing income inequality in a backward pre-industrial economy: Old Castile (Spain) in the middle of the eighteenth century”, Economic History Review, 69(3), pp. 747–772.

Reis, J. (2017), “Deviant behaviour? Inequality in Portugal 1565–1770”, Cliometrica, 11(3), forthcoming (early view:

Ryckbosch, W. (2016), “Economic inequality and growth before the industrial revolution: the case of the Low Countries (fourteenth to nineteenth centuries)”. European Review of Economic History, 20(1), pp. 1-22.

Saito, O. (2015), “Growth and inequality in the great and little divergence debate: a Japanese perspective”, Economic History Review, 68(2), pp. 399–419.

Scheidel, W. (2017), The Great Leveller: Violence and the Global History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Present, Oxford University Press.

Van Zanden, J.L. (1995), “Tracing the Beginning of the Kuznets Curve: Western Europe during the Early Modern Period”, Economic History Review 48(4): 643-664.

The Enigma of Chinese Business Records

Discovering Economic History in Footnotes: The Story of the Tong Taisheng Merchant Archive (1790-1850)

By Debin Ma (London School of Economics) and Weipeng Yuan (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

 Abstract: The Tong Taisheng (统泰升) merchant account books in Ningjin county of northern China in 1800-1850 constitute the most complete and integrated surviving archive of a family business for pre-modern China. They contain unusually detailed and high-quality statistics on exchange rates, commodity prices and other information. Utilized once in the 1950s, the archive has been left largely untouched until our recent, almost accidental rediscovery. This article introduces this unique set of archives and traces the personal history of the original owner and donor. Our story of an archive encapsulates the history of modern China and how the preservation and interpretation of evidence and records of Chinese economic statistics were profoundly impacted by the development of political ideology and in modern and contemporary China. We briefly discuss the historiographical and epistemological implication of our finding in the current Great Divergence debate.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-9-11

Reviewed by Joyman Lee


Cover page of the Tong Taisheng account book


This paper is the first stage in a four-part project to set out the history of the Tong Taisheng archive, the history of the firm, the history of Ningin county, and the larger North China economy in the mid-nineteenth century on the eve of the Opium War. Tong Taisheng was a medium-sized family-owned local grocery store that sold a large variety of dry goods, and the discovery of a genealogy (1903) allows the family’s history to be traced back for 16 generations, or 491 years to 1404, when the family migrated to Ningjin and started life there as farmers. Through diligence and thrift, the family business expanded, and it came to own 300 mu of land (48 acres) before a temporary setback in the 7th and 8th generation. Afterwards, the family made a comeback through commerce, invested heavily in education (as one would expect for local elites), with the result that family wealth and business stabilized to between 300-800 m. As a sign of their social status, the family was frequently entrusted with mediating and resolving village disputes at the point the archive ended in the mid-nineteenth century.

This is an impressive and ambitious project that aims to uncover the history of an extraordinary business archive in Ningjin county, Shandong province in North China. Although the data from the archive was briefly utilized by the leading Chinese economic historian at the time, Yan Zhongping, in 1955, the archive has disappeared from view until its rediscovery by the authors. Surprisingly, most of the documents were donated by a member of the lineage operating the archive (and the business) in 1935, and were simply sitting untouched in the National Library and the Institute of Economic Research of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, both in Beijing. According to the authors, the data amounts to ‘over 11 thousand data points of copper-silver exchange rates with transaction dates and quantities, five and six different types of silver used, loans and interest rates of clients, all in daily frequency’ (p7), as well as detailed prices of about 40 or 50 types of commodities. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of the Chinese accounting system, of the traditional monetary system and the impact of nineteenth-century opium trade and silver outflow, and to quantify China’s traditional marketing structure that forms the core of William Skinner’s landmark study on China’s macroeconomic regions (1964).

The authors offer a detailed description of the four categories of information available: firstly, original account books,  or journals or daily books (流水账) to record daily transactions of cash and goods in copper cash and silver, which constitute the bulk of the archive; secondly, postal account books, or general trade ledgers (交易总账), which were sorted by the name of the business house or customer; thirdly, summary account books, with information on strung coins account, profits and dividend account; and fourthly, miscellaneous account books, with details of temporary dealings and transactions, and accounts of loans, land purchases, and income from interest on loans. The entire archive was in traditional Chinese format with string-bound Chinese paper, was hand-written in classical Chinese, and requires specialized learning and expertise to decipher.


General trader ledger account from 1846, reflecting the ‘four columns’ (四柱法) system in traditional Chinese accounting


The richness of the archive should be self-evident, and it is all the more extraordinary in light of the paucity of detailed economic information on pre-imperial China. As the authors highlight, much of Robert Allen’s (2011) critique of the eighteenth-century Chinese data used by Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), centers on the data’s alleged imprecision in relation to Europe. As the authors put it, the paucity of Chinese historical data is in itself an intriguing historical question, as it invites us to question whether it is the result of poor record keeping, or whether it is more a reflection of the poor state of archival collection given China’s tumultuous modern history. Similarly, it will be valuable for scholars to consider whether China’s alleged lack of rich historical data is indeed suggestive of the lack of a high level of economic development or rationality compared to Europe.

As the authors point out, part of the need for uncovering and developing the Tong Taisheng archive is epistemological. Because of the invisibility of the type of sources that the archive represents – due partly to political manipulation – academic researchers in China have become unfamiliar with the bookkeeping and accounting methods in the documents. The disappearance from view of these documents meant that researchers came to be predisposed towards source materials that were more familiar to Western eyes. The unenviable consequence was an interpretation of the past through a “European” or colonial framework (p17).

Owing to the originality of the sources, Ma and Yuan’s ongoing study of the Tong Taisheng business archive is likely to be highly important not only for Chinese business history, but also for the business history of other non-Western regions plagued by similar problems of the paucity of data, as well as the lack of awareness among researchers of types of documents that are very different from the ones familiar to Western researchers.

Additional References

Allen, R, Bassino, J, Ma, D, Moll-Murata, C, Van Zanden, J. 2011. “Wages, Prices, and Living Standards in China, 1738-1925: In Comparison with Europe, Japan, and India”. Economic History Review 64, S1: 8-38.

Pomeranz, K. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Skinner, W. 1964. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China”. Journal of Asian Studies 24: 3-43.

A Tale of Two Wages: Spinners and the Industrial Revolution

Spinning the Industrial Revolution

by  Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Benjamin Schneider (Cornell)

The prevailing explanation for why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in Britain is Robert Allen’s (2009) ‘high-wage economy’ view, which claims that the high cost of labour relative to capital and fuel incentivized innovation and the adoption of new techniques. This paper presents new empirical evidence on hand spinning before the Industrial Revolution and demonstrates that there was no such ‘high-wage economy’ in spinning, a leading sector of industrialization. We quantify the working lives of frequently ignored female and child spinners who were crucial to the British textile industry in the Early Modern period with evidence of productivity and wages from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. Our results show that spinning was a widespread, low-wage, low-productivity employment, in line with the Humphries (2013) view of the motivations for the factory system.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016‒07‒23

Review by Thales Zamberlan Pereira

In Spinning the Industrial Revolution, Humphries and Schneider last words are: “the route to mechanization and factory production was a response to low not high wages.” This is a direct statement against Robert Allen’s high wage economy (HWE) explanation for the Industrial Revolution. The low wage authors (LWA) argue that the wages Allen uses were only available to a “rare group of spinners” and, therefore, were not a representative sample, which should include lower wages from women and children. There was a direct link between productivity and remuneration, and only a limited number of spinners could produce several pounds of fiber in a week and/or had the ability to make finer counts of yarns.


Water Frame, about 1775

Humphries and Schneider present an important discussion about different sources for spinner’s wages and how we should measure their earnings, but what does their evidence mean for Allen’s HWE? I leave to Allen himself to respond: “Humphries never analyses the British labour supply from an international perspective.”[i] Even considering the lower wages from women and children in spinning, the important question is if real wages in Britain were higher than other parts of the world. The authors avoid this discussion, making the alternative argument that “there should have been an increase/jump” in spinners’ wages before the innovations period (around 1760s). But since Allen’s explanation for the Industrial Revolution has a “global perspective”, what matters is if wages in Britain (or in the northwest regions) were higher than in comparable regions in Europe (we can also add Asia here). Humphries and Weisdorf ‘s paper (“Unreal Wages”), along with many other recent research (Broadberry et al. latest book), shows that real wages were slowly increasing for centuries, so why there is a need for a spike? In addition, since inventions in spinning were largely associated with cotton, one important limitation of the paper is that most of the primary sources used for spinning productivity are not for cotton (See Table 4). As pointed out by John Styles, there is even no proper data for Lancashire, the main cotton region.

The LWA also make the argument that inventors (such as Arkwright) never expressed concern about high wages in spinning. But if spinners did not have wages higher than the British average, even if Britain had the highest wages in the world, one would not expect this demand. In the age before spinning machinery, when the “earnings in weaving were constrained” by low productivity, how much the average wages should be used to measure the connection between high costs and innovation? There are two aspects here that deserve some attention: higher wages for those workers with higher productivity, and a “wage premium” for those who produced finer yarns. Humphries and Schneider argue that, since spinners were paid piece rates, there was a demand for more “experienced spinners” to produce finer counts of yarn. As the long debate between Nick Harley and Javier Cuenca Esteban has showed, finer cotton textiles were the first wave of products that came out of the new inventions. The low productivity of a spinner to produce a 20-count yarn (a high count at the time), presented in the paper, suggests that to use averages wages to test its impact on innovation may be misleading in the case of textiles. The average spinner could not produce a yarn with the quality (and quantity) required to test the HWE hypothesis. This, I think, is part of the argument that John Styles makes when he writes about the “general tendency in much of the literature to think about spinning as if were a single activity – unskilled women’s work.”


Humphries and Schneider conclude that “overcoming the low productivity and inconsistent quality in spinning and taking advantage of low wages for spinners
and female and child workers more generally may have been the spur for tinkerers
and inventors in the late eighteenth-century textile industry.” While the first part of this sentence is an important one, it would be interesting to see more evidence on the latter part. The reason for this is that recent projects to reconstruct the famous spinning machines showed that they were “uncomfortable” to use and needed “a fair degree of strength to operate.”[ii] Since some of the locations for the author’s spinning records contain a large proportion of children, it would be useful to know if they really could operate the spinning machines.

The debate between the LWE and the HWE hypotheses prompted a series of very interesting replies during the last few weeks (see Judy Stephenson, Vincent Geloso, John Styles, Psedoerasmus). There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but maybe the next step for this debate to move forward is to have better real wages for France. New French real wages would present the “global perspective” that Humphries and Schneider’s paper lack. My take on this debate is that we should be conservative about what new pieces of evidence really mean for our broader interpretations of historical events. Otherwise we will just be jumping to the next omitted variable as the “real explanation.” The fact that the average wage for spinners was lower than the one presented by Allen does not imply that British high-wage economy was a statistical artifact. We need better data for other countries before claiming that “the route to mechanization and factory production was a response to low not high wages.”

[i] Robert C. Allen, “The High Wage Economy and the Industrial Revolution: A Restatement,” The Economic History Review 68, no. 1 (February 1, 2015): 14, doi:10.1111/ehr.12079.

[ii] R. L. Hills, “Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton. Why Three Inventors?,” Textile History 10, no. 1 (October 1, 1979): 114–26, doi:10.1179/004049679793691321.