Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Godfactor

Religion and Innovation

By Roland Bénabou (, Davide Ticchi ( and Andrea Vindigni (



In earlier work (Bénabou, Ticchi and Vindigni 2013) we uncovered a robust negative association between religiosity and patents per capita, holding across countries as well as US states, with and without controls. In this paper we turn to the individual level, examining the relationship between religiosity and a broad set of pro- or anti-innovation attitudes in all five waves of the World Values Survey (1980 to 2005). We thus relate eleven indicators of individual openness to innovation, broadly defined (e.g., attitudes toward science and technology, new versus old ideas, change, risk taking, personal agency, imagination and independence in children) to five different measures of religiosity, including beliefs and attendance. We control for all standard socio-demographics as well as country, year and denomination fixed effects. Across the fifty-two estimated specifications, greater religiosity is almost uniformly and very significantly associated to less favorable views of innovation.

Review by Stuart Henderson (Queen’s University Belfast)

What is the effect of religion on innovation? A recent working paper by Bénabou, Ticchi and Vingini (2015) (henceforth BTV), and distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-04-02, suggests that religious differences contribute to significant variation in attitudes towards innovation. In particular, BTV find a consistent and robust negative relationship between various measures of religiosity and attitudes which are considered more favourable to innovation and change.

BTV use individual-level data from all waves of the World Values Survey from 1980 to 2005. This provides a variety of innovation measures which are categorised under the following three headings: “attitudes toward science and technology”, “attitudes toward new ideas, change, and risk taking” and “child qualities”. On the right-hand-side of the regression specification, religiosity is measured using the following alternatives: “identifying as a religious person, belief in God, importance of religion and importance of God in your life, and finally church attendance”. In addition, further socio-demographic controls are included.


BTV builds especially on Bénabou, Ticchi and Vingini (2013), who similarly find a negative relationship between religiosity and patents per capita across countries and US states. However, their more recent work benefits from a wider spectrum of innovation indicators, as well as the use individual-level data which helps to ameliorate concerns such as the ecological fallacy problem. More generally, their work also adds to a growing economics of religion literature, which has increasingly developed a more nuanced understanding of the causal mechanism associating religion with economic outcomes.

As BVT posit, their work fills a neglected niche which should provide greater clarity on how religiousness (and potentially secularisation) can drive innovation, and thereby long-run growth. Related literature such as Guiso et al. (2003) has emphasised that religious beliefs have a positive association with economic attitudes and growth respectively. However, Barro and McCleary (2003) find that this is tempered by the extent of religious participation, in what can be seen as a believing-belonging trade-off. Similarly, recent work by Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott (2015), and focusing on Ramadan, demonstrates how religious participation enhances the well-being of participants, but negatively affects economic outcomes. As such, while BVT advocate a strong relationship between religion and innovation, there is potentially room for a more refined consideration of religiosity differences especially between those of beliefs and participation. (This seems to be evidenced in that the church attendance religiosity measure is generally weakest across the specifications used by BVT.)


There are a number of further considerations and extensions which may be beneficial for BVT in future work. Take for example when BVT focus on “attitudes toward science and technology”. Here the statistical significance and magnitude of the coefficients fall as we go down the list of statements analysed:

  • “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith”
  • “Science and technology make our way of life change too fast”
  • “The world is better off because of science and technology”

Intuitively, this makes sense. The first and second statements are made in a negative manner, as opposed to the latter which is positive. Furthermore, the first more clearly juxtaposes religion and innovation. Hence, it is possible that the framing of the statements is driving the perceived negative association. Similarly, for the “child qualities” variables, respondents select five they consider “especially important”. The ranking nature of this question, means that if religious faith (which appears as one of the options) is selected, then the values perceived as innovative will on average move down the list, even if people perceive them as important (since only five can be selected). It also seems unusual that religious faith would feature as an alternative choice given the position of religiosity on the other side of the regression specification.

One solution to this potential bias is to examine differences between and within denominations (as BVT already allude to). Indeed, previous work such as Arruñada (2010) has demonstrated how denominational groupings (Catholics vs. Protestant) differ in their economic attitudes. Moreover, by excluding those who are not religious, and then focusing on the gradation in religious practice, BVT could more precisely understand how the intensity of religious practice influences innovation attitudes. In addition, by focusing not only on denominational differences, but also on religious intensity, BVT could potentially deal with the issue of nominal religious identity/cultural labelling, something which has received little attention in previous work.


The issue of causality is also important, with recent literature employing a variety of novel approaches to deal with such problems. In particular, instrumental variables have become especially popular, and have helped to alleviate concerns such as reverse causality and endogeneity. More broadly, for BVT there exists an opportunity to address how their attitudinal indicators of innovation are reflected in innovation outcomes. While difficult, this would potentially have much greater policy implications, especially if one believes in the functional nature of religion. (There also exists opportunity to examine how socio-demographic factors such as gender interact with religion and thereby affect innovation.)

In sum, BVT have effectively added a much-needed innovation perspective to the economics of religion literature. These initial results suggest that various forms of religiosity have a negative association with attitudinal measures of innovation at the individual-level, complementing previous work by Bénabou, Ticchi and Vingini (2013) across countries and US states. Moreover, their rich data set provides much opportunity to more precisely focus on what facets of religion influence innovation, and thereby not only understand how religion affects society across a recent period of economic history, but also better understand the very nature of religion itself.


  • Arruñada, Benito, “Protestants and Catholics: Similar Work Ethic, Different Social Ethic,” Economic Journal, 120 (2010), 890–918.
  • Barro, Robert J., and Rachel M. McCleary, “Religion and Economic Growth Across Countries,” American Sociological Review, 68 (2003), 760–781.
  • Bénabou, Roland, Davide Ticchi and Andrea Vindigni, “Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion and Growth,” Princeton University, Research Paper No. 065‑2014, Dietrich Economic Theory Center, (2013).
  • Bénabou, Roland, Davide Ticchi and Andrea Vindigni, “Religion and Innovation,” NBER Working Paper No. 21052, (2015).
  • Campante, Filipe, and David Yanagizawa-Drott, “Does Religion Affect Economic Growth and Happiness? Evidence from Ramadan,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130 (2015), forthcoming.
  • Guiso, Luigo, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales, “People’s Opium? Religion and Economic Attitudes,” Journal of Monetary Economics, 50 (2003), 225–282.

Northern Lights: Computers and Banks in Nordic Countries

ICT the Nordic Way and European Savings Banks

by J. Carles Maixé-Altés ( Universidad da Coruña

Abstract: This paper discusses the world industry of savings banks, a genuine world collaborative consortium, through which, from the 1950s, the International Savings Banks Institute (nowadays, the World Savings Banks Institute and European Savings Banks Group) was highly active in introducing ICT to retail banking. In this environment, Nordic savings banks, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, their Central Savings Banks and their industry associations occupied a separate place in European movements around developments of computerization and automation in retail financial services. The synergies in Nordic countries were superior to the rest of Europe and collaboration was intense. This paper highlights the leadership and the influence that the ICT development models of Nordic savings banks had on their European retail banking associates.


Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo


In today’s world Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups. Swedish success stories include familiar names such as file sharing site The Pirate Bay (established 2003), video chat and calls Skype (established 2003) and music streaming Spotify (established 2008). These developments have not gone unnoticed by the media (see article by Forbes) nor by historians. There is a growing and vibrant body of systematic studies on the economic, business and technological history of Nordic computing as reflected by the fourth edition of History of IT in the Nordics (HiNC4) confrence on August, 2014. All of these HiNC conferences have been followed by an edited book of accepted papers, published by Springer’s increasingly succcessful History of Computing series (a series under the stewardship of Martin Campbell-Kelly (Warwick)).



The paper by Joan Carles Maixé-Altés contributes to above mentioned literature and was distributed by Nep-His on 2014-11-1. In it he succesfully intertwined topics of great importance which, with the exception of Scott & Zachariadis (2012 and 2013), have been dealt in isolation, namely: not for profit financial institutions, technological innovation in the late 20th century and international competitive collaboration.

Maixé-Altés gained access to previously unexplored archival material from the International Savings Banks Institute (nowadays the World Savings Banks Institute and European Savings Banks Group). The focus of this first instalment of Maixé-Altés’ research deals with the efforts by Nordic savings banks (i.e. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden) to gain scale in information and comunication technology (ICT) through co-operation. Savings banks were born in 1810 in Rothwell, Scotland as part of the 19th century “thrift movement”. This organizational form was replicated across Europe and British colonial dominions. Today savings banks have dissapeared from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and most European countries. This regardless of whether they had narrow (e.g. UK) or broad operations (e.g. Sweden, Spain). However, they remain important players in retail banking in Germany, Norway and Portugal.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be the Scandinavian countries and the Nordic Countries are these three plus the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Greenland.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be the Scandinavian countries and the Nordic Countries are these three plus the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Greenland.

Analytically, this paper proposes a double point of view. Firstly, Nordic countries are considered early adopters of computer technologies and, simultaneously, ingintegral to the processes of dissemination and appropriation of foreign business models. Secondly and whilst detailing the efforts by Nordic savings banks on computarisation, Maixé-Altés reminds us of the heteregoneity of organizatonal forms in retail finance during the 20th century. Also how the democratic principles behind these particular form of corporate governance led to an “open door” policy for the sharing of best organizational practice as well as to collaborate across borders with “sister institutions” to faclitate their economic and social objetives. But as was pretty much the case across retail banking in the 1960s and 1970s, savings banks in Nordic countries adopted computer technology with the twin hope of increasing efficiency of operation and counter attack the growth of commercial banks within the market for retail deposits.

With those analytical aims in mind the paper structures in four main sections while preceeded by an introduction and finalised by a concluding section. Maixé-Altés starts his story with the first steps of co-operation within national borders. These led, for instance, to the establishment of “central savings banks” or institutions that help gain critical mass in whole sale financial markets. This to substantiate his claim that collaboration is well embeded within savings banks. He then moves to explore co-operation within electronic data processing in general while providing details of an “emblematic case” of this collaboration: Nordisk Spardata.

J. Carles Maixé-Altés

J. Carles Maixé-Altés

Critique / Comentary

I very much liked the paper. However, I will advance a couple of ideas which future work on these archives could bear in mind.

First, Maixé-Altés’ emphasis on changes in hardware as an index for co-operation in data processing suffers from a common shortcoming in this literature (an issue shared by many econometric studies of technological change in financial institutions), namely its focus on back-office transaction processing and an over reliance in hardware and central processing units while “missing .. the choices being made between operating systems, programming languages, network technologies, databases, or the source of application software.” (Gandy 2013: 1228). More could then be said about these choices and the formation of standards and computer networks.

Secondly, I fundamentally disagree with Maixe-Altes’ claims around the use of “real time” computing. As I have argued in Bátiz-Lazo et al. (2014) as well by Martin (2012) (and evidence in Scott & Zachariadis (2012 and 2013)), in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s distant devices and computers could be connected but the nature of the banking business meant that form of “on line” communitation still required human intervention and therefore it was not “real time”. Moreover, Haigh’s (2006) seminal contribution documents how database and database management systems were still in its infancy in the 1970s. This effectively meant there was no random access to electronic data. Updates had to be run in “batches”. Full digitalization of customer accounts was “work in progress” and very much an effort that starts in the late 1950s in Sweden (as documented by Bátiz-Lazo et al., 2014) but doesnt materialise until at least the late 1980s.

There is some indirect evidence of this in, for instance, the fact that in the 1980s, human tellers at retail branches supplied indiviuals with balance of available funds “as of last night”, that is, once a central processing unit had been able to gather and sort through all the transactions earlier in the working day (Indeed, I have personal recollections of programming with COBOL in the mid 1980s and having to script sorting programmes). Another telling example is that automated teller machines (ATM) relied on combination of information stored on the activation token’s magnetic stripe and a list of overdrawn or otherwise delinquent and cancelled accounts stored on a cassette tape inside the machine itself (see image below). In short, Maixe-Altes’ claims around the use of “real time” computing’could be tone down a notch.

Back of RT650 by Burroughs Corp. (undated)

Back of RT650 by Burroughs Corp. (circa 1980). Source: Charles Babbage Institute (Ascension 90, Series 75, Box 44, Folder 2).)

In summary, Maixe-Altes’ is an interesting part of the history of computing, banking and financial history. It points out there is much more to be said about understanding the technologies of the late 20th century as well as the economic history of competition, cross-border collaboration and not-for-profit financial institutions. On top of this Maixe-Altes ventures into histories of networking and real-time computing, and, more importantly, puts the historical discussions in the context of banking strategy. As such, an intersting new addition to this growing literature.


Bátiz-Lazo, B., Karlson, T. and Thodenius, B. (2014) “The Origins of the Cashless Society: Cash Dispensers, Direct to Account Payments and the Development of On-line, Real-time Networks, c. 1965-1985”, Essays in Economic and Business History 32(May): 100-137.

Gandy, A. (2013) “Book Review: Technological Innovation in Retail Finance (2012, Routledge)”, Economic History Review 66(4): 1227-12278.

Haigh, T. (2006) “’A Veritable Bucket of Facts’:Origins of the Data Base Management System”, ACM SIGMOD Record 35(2): 33-49.

Martin, I. (2012) “Too Far Ahead of Its Time: Barclays, Burroughs and Real-Time Banking”, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 34(1): 2-16.

Scott, S., Zachariadis, M. (2012) “Origins and Development of SWIFT, 1973–2009” Business History 54(3): 462-483.

Scott, S., Zachariadis, M. (2013) The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT): Cooperative Governance for Network Innovation, Standards, and Community. London: Routledge (Global Institutions Series).

The postman always rings twice: measuring market access and endowment in the German Empire through postal data

It’s all in the Mail: The Economic Geography of the German Empire


Florian PLOECKL ( University of Adelaide


Information exchange is a necessary prerequisite for economic exchange over space. This relationship implies that information exchange data corresponds to the location of economic activity and therefore also of population. Building on this relationship we use postal data to analyse the spatial structure of the population distribution in the German Empire of 1871. In particular we utilize local volume data of a number of postal information transmission services and a New Economic Geography model to create two index measures, Information Intensity and Amenity. These variables respectively influence the two mechanisms behind the urban population distribution, namely agglomeration forces and location endowments. By testing the influence of actual location characteristics on these indices we identify which location factors mattered for the population distribution and show that a number of characteristics worked through both mechanisms. The model is then used to determine counterfactual population distributions, which demonstrate the relative importance of particular factors, most notably the railroad whose removal shows a 34% lower urban population. A data set of large locations for the years 1877 to 1895 shows that market access increases drove the magnitude of the increase in urban population, while endowment changes shaped their relative pattern.


Review by Anna Missiaia

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-04-11. The work by Florian Ploeckl lays in the expanding branch of historical economic geography, which looks at, broadly speaking, the role of geographical factors in regional development. In particular, the author looks at the effect of actual location characteristics on the information exchange and endowment (calculated through two indices) in the German Empire between 1877 and 1895. The empirical model used in the paper uses the indices that describe market access and endowments effects as dependent variables and test which geographic, institutional and cultural characteristics shaped them.


Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898), First Chancellor of Germany

The paper relies on detailed data on the postal system to measure the diffusion of information across 41 districts in the Empire. The creation, after the German unification, of a common and homogeneous postal system with the same rates across locations allows the author to use postal flows as proxy for “information intensity”.   This measure tells us the level of information exchange for each location considered. The author meticulously identifies business related correspondence for each location by selecting specific types of mail for the analysis and relating it to the general mail. The empirical exercise appears very well engineered and executed.


 Kaiserliches Postamt sign, about 1900

The next step is to relate this indirect measure of economic activity to the access to markets for any given location. Following a well-established practice in the discipline, Ploeckl relies on the concept of market potential. Market potential is a measure of the centrality of a given location and can be constructed in two main ways. The first option, when trade volumes among locations are available, is a gravity model. This is the method used nowadays by economic geographers but also economic historians lucky enough to have access to internal trade flows (see Redding and Venables, 2004 for the former and Wolf, 2007 for the latter). This method basically looks at actual levels of trade and derives from these the potential for a location. The second option, used when trade flows are unknown, relies on the methodology proposed by Harris (1954) which uses GDP of the locations weighted by the inverse of distance to calculate the potential levels of trade across the locations given the size of their economies. Examples of this estimation procedure are Crafts (2005), Schulze (2007) and more recently Crafts and Klein (2012). This paper approaches the issue in a very innovative way, escaping the dichotomy that normally characterizes the calculation of market potential. As we understand, neither trade volumes nor regional GDP are available for Germany in this period. Therefore the author relies on the assumptions that “market potential translates in commercial transactions” and that “each transaction causes the same amount of mail” to claim that the measure from step 1 is able to capture the access to markets of the locations. The first assumption is shared with the broader group of scholars that use gravity models for market access and is perfectly reasonable when dealing with trade volumes. The use of quantitative evidence on correspondence to proxy for economic activity is not new in the literature: Crafts (1983) provided GDP estimates based, among the others, on letters per capita. The method proved to be quite misleading applied for instance to the Italian case (Esposto, 1997). Because of the indirect measure used in the paper, the relationship between information flows, market potential and actual exchange is of course much more questionable. However, it must be pointed out that the empirical effort in this paper makes its use of postal data more convincing compared to other more dated attempts.

The paper is also very interesting in that it finds a way to split market access into firm market access and consumer market access. This is a crucial point in the analysis of market forces as the two measures could well be following very different trajectories.

The last step is to calculate an endowment index based on real wages and the trade cost matrix across locations (the details on the methodology are explained in Ploeckl, 2012).

The bottom line results of the paper are that important factors like railroads and coal were important in the location of population (and therefore economic activity) both through the market channel and the endowment channel. The impact of these channels is quantified through counterfactual analysis, leading for instance to a 30% impact of the removal of the railroads on the population level.

Summing up, this paper contributes to a very hot debate on the determinants of the location of economic activity. It does so by finding an innovative empirical method to overcome the chronic lack of data in historical research. The limitations of these indirect methods should not, as usual, be neglected. However, the exercise appears more than reasonable and some features of these papers could find fruitful applications in a variety of other lines of research in historical economic geography.


Crafts, N., 1983, Gross National Product in Europe 1970-1910: Some New Estimates, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 20, No. 4, 387-401.

Crafts, N., 2005, Market Potential in British regions, 1871-1931, Regional Studies, Vol. 39, pp. 1159-1166.

Esposto, A., 1997, Estimate Regional Per Capita Income: Italy, 1861-1914, Journal of European Economic History, Vol. 26, No. 3, p.585-604.

Ploeckl, F., 2012, Endowments and Market Access; the Size of Towns in Historical Perspective: Saxony 1550-1834, Vol. 42, p. 607-618.

Redding, S. and A. Venables, 2004, Economic Geography and International Inequality, Journal of International Economics, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 53-82.

Schulze, M. S., 2007, Regional Income Dispersion and Market Potential in the Late Nineteenth Century Hapsburg Empire, LSE Working Papers no. 106/07.

Wolf, N., 2007, Endowments vs. Market Potential: What Explains the Relocation of Industry after the Polish Reunification in 1918?, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 44, (2007), 22-42.