Category Archives: Economic History

Where is the growth?

Mismeasuring Long Run Growth: The Bias from Spliced National Accounts

by Leandro Prados de la Escosura (Carlos III)

Abstract: Comparisons of economic performance over space and time largely depend on how statistical evidence from national accounts and historical estimates are spliced. To allow for changes in relative prices, GDP benchmark years in national accounts are periodically replaced with new and more recent ones. Thus, a homogeneous long-run GDP series requires linking different temporal segments of national accounts. The choice of the splicing procedure may result in substantial differences in GDP levels and growth, particularly as an economy undergoes deep structural transformation. An inadequate splicing may result in a serious bias in the measurement of GDP levels and growth rates.

Alternative splicing solutions are discussed in this paper for the particular case of Spain, a fast growing country in the second half of the twentieth century. It is concluded that the usual linking procedure, retropolation, has serious flows as it tends to bias GDP levels upwards and, consequently, to underestimate growth rates, especially for developing countries experiencing structural change. An alternative interpolation procedure is proposed.


Distributed in NEP-HIS on 2015 – 01 – 09

Reviewed by Cristián Ducoing

Dealing with National Accounts (hereafter NA) is a hard; dealing with NA in the long run is even harder…..

Broadly speaking, a quick and ready comparison of economic performance for a period of sixty years or more, would typically source its data from the Maddison project. However and as with any other human endevour, this data is not free from error. Potential and actual errors in measuring economic growth is highly relevant economic history research, particularly if we want to improve its public policy impact. See for instance the (brief) discussion in Xavier Marquez’s blog around how the choice of measure can significantly under or overstate importance of Lee Kuan Yew as ruler of Singapore.

The paper by Leandro Prados de la Escosura, therefore, contributes to a growing debate around establishing which is the “best” GDP measure to ascertain economic performance in the long run (i.e. 60 or more years). For some time now Prados de la Escosura has been searching for new ways to measure economic development in the long run. This body of work is now made out of over 60 articles in peer reviewed journals, book chapters and academic books. In this paper, the latest addition to assessing welfare levels in the long run, Prados de la Escosura discusses the problems in using alternative benchmarks and issues of spliced NA in a country with a notorious structural change, Spain. The main hypothesis developed in this article is to ascertain differences that could appear in the long run NA according to the method used to splice NA benchmarks. So, the BIG question is retropolation or interpolation?

Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Source:

Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Source:

Retropolation: As Prados de la Escosura says, involves a method that is …, widely used by national accountants (and implicitly accepted in international comparisons). [T]he backward projection, or retropolation, approach, accepts the reference level provided by the most recent benchmark estimate…. In other words, the researcher accepts the current benchmark and splits it with the past series (using the variation rates of the past estimations). What is the issue here? Selecting the most recent benchmark results in a higher GDP estimate because, by its nature, this benchmark encompasses a greater number of economic activities. For instance, the ranking of relative income for the UK and France changes significantly when including estimates of prostitution and narcotrafic. This “weird” example shows how with a higher current level and using past variation rates, long-run estimates of GDP will be artificially improved in value. This approach thus can lead us to find historical anomalies such as a richer Spain overtaking France in the XIXth century (See Prados de la Escosura figure 3 below).

An alternative to the backward projection linkage is the interpolation procedure. This method accepts the levels computed directly for each benchmark year as the best possible estimates, on the grounds that they have been obtained with ”complete” information on quantities and prices in the earlier period. This procedure keeps the initial level unaltered, probably being lower than the level estimated by the retropolation approach.

There are two more recent methods to splice NA series derived from the methods described above: the “mixed splicing” proposed by Angel de la Fuente (2014), which uses a parameter to capture the severity of the initial error in the original benchmark. The problem with this solution is the arbitrary value assigned (parameter). Let’s see it graphically and using data for the Maddison project. As it is well known, these figures were recently updated by Jutta Bolt and Jan Luiten van Zanden while the database built thanks to the contributions of several scholars around the world and using a same currency (i.e. the international Geary-Kheamy dollar) to measure NA. Now, in figure 1 shows a plot of GDP per capita of France, UK, USA and Spain using data from the Madison project.

GDP per capita $G-K 1990. France, UK, USA and Spain. 1850 – 2012

The graph suggests that Spain was always poorer than France. But this could change if the chosen method to split NA is the retropolation approach. Probably we need a graph just with France to appreciate the differences. Please see figure 2:

GDP pc Ratio between Spain and France. Bolt&vanZanden (2014) with data from Prados de la Escosura (2003)

GDP pc Ratio between Spain and France. Bolt&vanZanden (2014) with data from Prados de la Escosura (2003)

Figure 2 now suggests an apparent convergence of Spain with France in the period 1957 to 2006. The average growth rate for Spain in this period was almost 3,5% p.a. and in the case of France average growth shrinks to 2,2% p.a. Anecdotal observation as well as documented evidence around Spainish levels of inequality and poverty make this result hard to believe. Prados de la Escosura goes on to help us ascertain this differences in measurement graphically by brining together estimates of retropolation and interpolation approaches in a single graph (see figure 3 below):

Figure 3. Spain’s Comparative Real Per Capita GDP with Alternative Linear Splicing (2011 EKS $) (logs).

Figure 3. Spain’s Comparative Real Per Capita GDP with Alternative Linear Splicing (2011 EKS $) (logs).

In summary, this paper by Prados de la Escosura is a great contribution to the debate on long run economic performance. It poises interesting challenges scholars researching long-term growth and dealing with NA and international comparisons. The benchmarks and split between different sources is always a source of problems to international comparative studies but also to long-term study of the same country. Moving beyond the technical implications discussed by Prados de la Escosura in this paper, economic history research could benefit from a debate to look for alternative measures or proxies for long-run growth, because GDP as the main source of international comparisons is becoming “dated” and ineffective to deal with new research in inequality, genuine savings Genuine Savings, energy consumption, complexity and gaps between development and developed countries to name but a few.


Bolt, J. and J. L. van Zanden (2014). The Maddison Project: collaborative research on historical national accounts. The Economic History Review, 67 (3): 627–651.

Prados de la Escosura, Leandro  (2003) El progreso económico de España (1850-2000). Madrid, Fundación BBVA, , 762 pp.


1) This paper by Prados de la Escosura has already been published in Cliometrica and with the same title

2) Prados de la Escosura’s A new historical database on economic freedom in OECD countries | VOX, CEPR’s Policy Portal.

Neoliberalism: A Cultural Social Construction

Crisis Without End: Neoliberalism in a Globalized Environment

by Richard N. Rambarran (University of Hyderabad)

Abstract: Since the 1970’s, both politically and theoretically, neoliberalism as an ideology has been on a persistent rise to the point where, in the twenty first century, it has garnered hegemonic dominance. Despite several recurring crises in countries since the ascendance of neoliberalism, we yet remain reluctant to point out the political economy philosophy as a root cause of the crises. Instead, many of the academics within Economics prefer to offer bouts of highly technical reasons for the downturn – this is especially true and almost solely applicable to those who practice within the ‘neoclassical’ conjecture of Economics. In a typical Marxian sense, one would have to look no further than the economic system to determine both economic and social outcomes of a country. What dictates that economic system however is the political philosophy of the leaders who guide the economic system – the policy makers. This paper attempts to show the neoliberal political philosophy, as the common thread for major crises within the last two decades. It also proposes a societal trinity for which change is driven through complex interactions among the political, economic and social spheres.


Circulated by nep-his on: 2015-10-25

Revised by: Stefano Tijerina

Richard Rambarran joins an emerging group of scholars that are spearheading an aggressive global criticism of modern capitalism, and particularly the impact that neoliberalism has had on its most recent methods of implementation within the international system. Thomas Picketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century has lead the way in recent times. Nevertheless Rambarran’s contribution to the discussion is welcomed because it points out that the economic political philosophy behind the social construction of neoliberal ideals is the determinant factor in preserving <status quo, even after numerous economic crises.

Richard Rambarran Research Fellow at The Social Economy Research Group (SERG)

From Rambarran’s point of view, the neoliberal principles have become an “ingrained” ideology fomented by economists, local politicians and bureaucrats, domestic and multilateral institutions, academic institutions, mass media, corporations, and the consumer.[1] He further argues that today’s mainstream professional economist has perpetuated this social construction using its mathematical and econometric technical rhetoric to distance itself not only from the public sphere but also from the critical role once played by the “Classical economists.”[2] The complacency in the professional sphere has permeated the public sphere, where the collective political and social conscience is more concerned in pursuing the possibility of “wealth and great opulence,” occasionally reacting to economic crises like the one in 2008 only to quickly return to the initial passive approach once individual financial issues are partially resolved.[3]

Rambarran centers on the 1997 East Asian crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown in order to illustrate how the economic political philosophy has come to dictate “the very mechanics of our lives” through its systemic and institutional framework. He argues that contrary to the views of many scholars that the rise of neoliberalism came with the emergence of political leaders Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher, the foundations of the political philosophy and its social construction emerged in the post Great Depression era.[4] The solutions to the 1997 and 2008 crises therefore represent a series of theoretical models constructed since the first modern global financial crisis in order to scientifically justify the perpetuation of neoliberalism.

'Well what a coincidence! I'm a financial regulator too!'

‘Well what a coincidence! I’m a financial regulator too!’

The ingrained idea that “human well-being and social welfare” are best advanced by the deregulation of the institutions, programs, and norms that once regulated the capitalist machine, seems to be an unquestionable thought. [5] To get to this social reality, argues Rambarran, classic liberal ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the like had to be dismantled in order to neoliberalism to surge. According to Rambarran, neoliberalism is “not simply a minutely revised version of classic liberalism,” it is a new version of capitalism that reduces the role of the state to its minimal.[6] The business-government alliance that pushed neoliberalism forward after the 1930s slowly twisted the idea that “liberating individual and entrepreneurial freedoms and skills” through institutions, programs, and a normative systems “characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” were actually responsible for the debacle of the market system in 1997 and 2008, and that greater privatization of services and deregulation for the business sector was the only solution moving forward.[7] These are the principles of nation state building under globalization, the basic political economic structures of nations that welcome open market and free trade, the minimal parameters for participating in the global market system; ideas that, as indicted by Rambarran, are part of the subconscious decision making dynamic between politicians, the private sector, and consumers.[8]

The current realities of this “macroscopic trinity” indicate that the business class, defined by Rambarran as the “intellectual class,” heavily influences political, economic, and social perceptions of nation building under a globalized system.[9] An intellectual class responsible for the cultural social construction of neoliberal principles that originated in the industrial world during the first half of the twentieth century and that began to spread across the developing world after the Second World War.

Macroscopic TrinityNeoliberal economists obsessed with breaking the chains of state regulatory systems and interested in returning to the deregulated conditions of the pre Great Depression era used theoretical models to debunk Keynesian economics.[10] During the 1970s and 1980s neoliberal principles became the formula for stagflation in the highly developed countries, and the remedy for the increasing external debt crisis across the developing world. The effective release of the forces of the market justified the dismantling of the social welfare state and the institutional and programmatic bodies that awarded citizens levels of accountability within the triangular dynamic of government-business-constituent relationships across the world. Nationalist development models based on Import Substitution Industrialization were dismantled and replaced by the principles of deregulation, privatization, and the strengthening of private property rights.

According to Rambarran, the implementation of the neoliberal experiment across the world produced mixed results, but the ability of the intellectual class to market success stories through its propaganda machine in order to justify the long-term preservation and expansion of neoliberal principles across the world gave birth to the Asian miracle.[11] Foreign direct investment and the “inflow of speculative money” would be the driving force behind the miracle, as capitalists in the industrial world shifted their production and manufacturing operations to newly unregulated regions of the world while at the same time taking advantage of the liberalization of capital accounts, escaping the already fragile regulatory systems in their own nation states, and setting the tone for the initial stages of accelerated “neoliberal globalization.”[12] Once the “speculative bubble…popped” foreign investors quickly pulled their money from the region, decreasing confidence in the East Asian region.[13] The neoliberal experiment had revealed the need for regulatory systems in order to impede the emergence of new unregulated speculative markets across the world under a more interdependent global market system, but the reshuffling of capital back into the industrial economies allowed the neoliberal propaganda system to quickly market the success of Free Trade zones.

Crisis 1997 Rambarran misses the opportunity to explain the historical developments that took place between the Asian crisis of 1997 and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis that pushed neoliberalism further into the collective subconscious. Discussions about the emergence of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the consolidation of the European Union would have allowed the author an opportunity to illustrate how neoliberal intellectuals engineered and marketed to their constituents the illusion of a globalized economy for the sake of the consumer and the domestic worker.

The author’s lack of historical evidence makes his argument less convincing. The 1997 and 2008 crises help illustrate how neoliberal forces are able to perpetuate their principles even after severe global economic, political, and social damage, but he is not able to explain how the intellectual forces within his “macroscopic trinity” were able to create the social cultural construction that turned neoliberalism into an unquestionable economic political philosophy.

For example how neoliberal economists such as Milton Friedman and Lauchlin Currie together with multilateral organizations engineered the expansion of neoliberalism to markets across the world. How marketing and public relations intellectuals such as Philip Kotler and Daniel Edelman perfected the use of mass media in order translate the principles of neoliberalism to consumers, distancing them from their role as constituents and shifting their agency toward the world of consumption. How the roles of politicians and bureaucrats was redefined by Thatcher and Reagan in order to reinvent the democratic relationship between representative and constituent, and how the educational system at all levels was reengineered in order to replicate and export neoliberal ideals across the world.

A more detailed explanation of the concepts behind his “social trinity” would have clarified the dynamics between the intellectual class, and political, economic, and social actors. Why is there a one-way communication dynamic between economic actors and society? Why is the communication between political and economic actors a one-way dynamic? And why is the intellectual class not present within the political, economic, and social realms but separate from them? I would argue that the success of the expansion of neoliberal thought is that they now represent government, economic policy, and the collective social conscience. It is why it is more prevalent then ever before to see private sector representatives running for office, managing government institutions, and redefining the nature of once sacred social institutions such as universities. It is not a phenomenon of the industrial world but a common trend across the global system.


Duménil, G. & Levy, D. “Neoliberal (Counter) Revolution.” In D. Johnston & A. Saad-Filho, Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader. London: Pluto Press, 2004, pp. 9-19.

Harvey, D. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Rambarran,R. “Crisis without End: Neoliberalism in a Globalized Environment Modeling the Historic Rise of Neoliberalism and its Systematic Role in Recent Economic Downturns,” Munich Personal RePEc Archive, October 22, 2015.

Palley, T. I. “From Keynesianism to Neoliberalism: Shifting Paradigms in Economics.” In D. Johnston & A. Saad-Filho, Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader. London: Pluto Press, 2004, pp. 20-29.

Picketty, T. Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

[1] Rambarran, “Crisis without End”, p. 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For more information see Harvey 2007, Palley 2004 and Dumeril & Levy 2004.

[5] Rambarran, 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 3.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 10.

[12] Ibid., 11.

[13] Ibid., 13.

Society? Economics? Politics? Personality? What causes inequality?

What Drives Inequality?

by Jon D. Wisman (American)

Abstract Over the past 40 years, inequality has exploded in the U.S. and significantly increased in virtually all nations. Why? The current debate typically identifies the causes as economic, due to some combination of technological change, globalization, inadequate education, demographics, and most recently, Piketty’s claim that it is the rate of return on capital exceeding the growth rate. But to the extent true, these are proximate causes. They all take place within a political framework in which they could in principle be neutralized. Indeed, this mistake is itself political. It masks the true cause of inequality and presents it as if natural, due to the forces of progress, just as in pre-modern times it was the will of gods. By examining three broad distributional changes in modern times, this article demonstrates the dynamics by which inequality is a political phenomenon through and through. It places special emphasis on the role played by ideology – politics’ most powerful instrument – in making inequality appear as necessary.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-10-04

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2015-05-05.  It explores a topical issue in political discourse at present, in which the debate has largely been categorised into two major camps.  First, the Conservative argument, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher in Britain (and simultaneously championed by Ronald Reagan and Charles Murray in the USA) was that inequality was good and accepted by the populace as a way of categorising and organising the nation.  Their argument, it so followed, ensured that those who were at the lower part of society would be inspired to work harder as a means to lessen their inequality.  The second argument that has now experienced resurgence in the UK following the election of the left wing veteran Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the opposition Labour Party is that inequality is an evil in society that punishes the poor for their poverty.  The counter argument is that the richer, which have the broadest shoulders, should bear the heaviest burden in times of hardship, and that austerity should not hit the poorest of society in the hardest way.  Thus a political solution should be sought to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth in favour of the poorest in society.  Similar arguments have been made in the US by proponents of increased state welfare.  It is in this context that the debates highlighted in this paper should be seen.

Thatcher and Reagan were the major architects of a change in economic policy away from state welfare.

Thatcher and Reagan were the major architects of a change in economic policy away from state welfare.

This meticulously researched article demonstrates that inequality as a phenomenon has long roots.  Citing that inequality has virtually been omnipresent in the world since the dawn of civilisation, Wisman couches the argument concerning inequality within the wider organisation and economic hierarchy of society.  Building on the argument of Simon Kuznets that inequality, at the beginning of economic development shows vast differences between rich and poor but subsequently stabilises, he looks at other factors beyond economics that contribute to the growing inequality in society.  The heavy focus on political literature examining the impact of politics on rising inequality is especially interesting, and takes this paper beyond the traditional Marxist arguments that have often been proposed about the failures and flaws of capitalism.  Other arguments, such as the impact of the industrial revolution, are explored in detail and are shown to be significant factors in defining inequality.  This runs as a counter-exploration to the work of Nick Crafts who has explored the extent to which the industrial revolution, especially in Britain, was ‘successful’.

Despite the arguments and debates about why inequality exists, there still appears to be no conclusive answer about its cause.

Despite the arguments and debates about why inequality exists, there still appears to be no conclusive answer about its cause.

Ideology is also a factor that is explored in detail.  The explanations for inequality have often been provided with ideological labels, with some offering proposals for eradicating inequality, while others propose that individuals, and not society, should change in order to reverse the trend.  The latter was forcefully proposed by Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman, whereas the former was commonly the battle-cry of post-war socialist-leaning parties (most notably the largely out-of power Labour Party of Britain in the post-war period, with the exception of 1945-51 and brief periods in the 1970s).

The religious argument about helping people who are less fortunate than yourself has now become more tenuous in favour of using religion as a form of legitimizing inequality.

The religious argument about helping people who are less fortunate than yourself has now become more tenuous in favour of using religion as a form of legitimizing inequality.

The exploration of religion as a factor is also particularly interesting here.  Wisman argues that providing state institutions with religious foundations thus legitimises their status, and hereby ensures that inequality has a stronger place in society.  This point, while contentious, has been alluded to in previous literature, but has not been explored in great depth.  The section in this paper on religion is also small, although such is its significance, I am sure the author would seek to expand on this in a later draft.


This paper is wide-ranging, and shows a large number of factors that have contributed to inequality in the western world, especially the USA.  It highlights the fact that the arguments concerning inequality are more complex than has possibly been previously assumed.  Arguing that politics and economics are intertwined, it effectively argues that a synthesis of these two disciplines are required in order to address the issue of inequality and reduce the gap between rich and poor in society.

I found this article absolutely fascinating.  I can offer very little in terms of suggestions for improvement.  However, one aspect did come to mind, and that was the impact of inequality on individual/collective advancement?  Perhaps this would take the research off into a tangent too far away from the author’s original focus, but the issue that sprung to mind for me was the impact of the inequality mentioned by the author on aspects such as educational attainment and future employment opportunities?  For example, in the UK, the major debate for decades has been the apparent disparity between the numbers of state school and privately-educated students attending the nation’s elite universities, namely Oxbridge.  Arguments have often centred on the assumption that private, fee-paying schools are perceived to be better in terms of educational quality, and thus admissions officers disproportionately favour these students when applying to university.  While official figures show that Oxbridge is made up of a higher proportion of state school student than their privately-educated counterparts, this ignores the fact that over 90% of British students are still educated in the state system.  Furthermore, so the argument goes, those with an elite education then attain the highest-paying jobs and occupy the highest positions in society, thus generating the argument that positions in the judiciary and politics are not representative of the composition of society.  These are complex arguments.  This paper alludes to many of these points concerning the origins of inequality.  Perhaps a future direction of this research would be to apply the models highlighted and apply them to certain examples in society to test their validity?


Dorey, Peter, British Conservatism: the Politics and Philosophy of Inequality (London, I. B. Tauris, 2011)

Thane, Pat (ed.) The Origins of British Social Policy (London: Croom Helm ; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978).

Thane, Pat, The Foundations of the Welfare State, (Harlow: Longman, 1982).

A Pre-Protestant Ethic?

Breaking the piggy bank: What can historical and archaeological sources tell us about late‑medieval saving behaviour?

By Jaco Zuijderduijn and Roos van Oosten (both at Leiden University)


Using historical and archeological sources, we study saving behaviour in late-medieval Holland. Historical sources show that well before the Reformation – and the alleged emergence of a ‘Protestant ethic’ – many households from middling groups in society reported savings worth at least several months’ wages of a skilled worker. That these findings must be interpreted as an exponent of saving behaviour – as an economic strategy – is confirmed by an analysis of finds of money boxes: 14th and 15th-century cesspits used by middling-group and elite households usually contain pieces of money boxes. We argue this is particularly strong evidence of late-medieval saving strategies, as money boxes must be considered as ‘self-disciplining’ objects: breaking the piggy bank involved expenses and put a penalty on spending. We also show that the use of money boxes declined over time: they are no longer found in early-modern cesspits. We formulate two hypotheses to explain long-term shifts in saving behaviour: 1) late-medieval socioeconomic conditions were more conducive for small-time saving than those of the early-modern period, 2) in the early-modern Dutch Republic small-time saving was substituted by craft guild insurance schemes.


Circulated by NEP-HIS on 2015-06-20

Review by Stuart Henderson (Queen’s University Belfast)

Thrift is a central tenet of Max Weber’s Protestant-ethic thesis. That is, characterised by a new asceticism, Protestantism, and specifically Calvinism, encouraged capital accumulation by promoting saving and limiting excessive consumption. However, a recent paper by Jaco Zuijderduijn and Roos van Oosten, and distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-06-20, challenges this notion. It suggests that a saving ethic was already evident in Holland in the late‑medieval period – well before the Reformation years, and then actually diminished with the coming of Protestantism.

Banking in Genoa in the 14th century.

Banking in Genoa in the 14th century.

Such contradiction with the Weberian thesis is common in the literature, with recent scholarship finding no Protestant effect (Cantoni, forthcoming) or proposing an alternative causal mechanism (Becker and Woessmann, 2009). However, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten’s work adds a fresh perspective by focusing on savings and saving behaviour, and by employing a pre‑versus‑post investigation strategy. Notably, in relation to saving, the literature has generally been more sympathetic to the Weberian thesis, with Delacroix and Nielsen (2001) finding a positive Protestant saving effect, and more recent work by Renneboog and Spaenjers (2012) suggesting that Protestants have a heightened awareness of financial responsibility. Furthermore, the idea of a pre-Protestant ethic, as raised in this paper, has also been advocated in other inquiry. For example, Anderson et al. (2015) suggest that the Catholic Order of Cistercians propagated a Weberian-like cultural change in the appreciation of hard work and thrift before the coming of Protestantism – an analogy which Weber himself noted, and highlight how this had a long‑run effect in development.

Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090–1153 C.E.) belonged to the Cistercian Order of Benedictine monks.

Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090–1153 C.E.) belonged to the Cistercian Order of Benedictine monks.

In their novel approach, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten utilise both historical and archaeological sources to examine savings and saving behaviour over a period which envelopes the coming of the Reformation. This enables them to deal with two principal issues: first, the size and social distribution of savings by utilising tax records for the Dutch town of Edam and its surrounding area, and secondly, whether saving was strategic (or instead due to an inability to spend) by utilising archaeological evidence on the prevalence of money boxes in cesspits for several Dutch towns. Both sources yield complementary results.

The tax records reveal that middling groups were generally accumulating savings in excess of several months of a skilled worker’s wage well in advance of the Reformation. However, between 1514 and 1563, with the coming of Protestantism, the proportion of households holding cash actually fell, despite a rise in average sums held. Unsurprisingly, cash holding was consistently more common among the wealthier groups in society across all years. See figure 3 from the paper below.

Figure 3

While these tax records reveal the extent of saving, it is the archaeological evidence on money box prevalence which provides a means to link this cash holding with saving behaviour due to the disciplining process involved. Breaking the money box meant incurring an expense, and thus penalised spending. Complementing the historical evidence, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten find that, despite their early prevalence, money boxes decline and eventually disappear by the early‑modern period. Moreover, wealthier households, as gauged from the type of material lining the cesspit, tended to save more than poorer households. See figure 6 from the paper below. (Note: brick-lined cesspits were relatively expensive, wood-lined cesspits were less expensive, and unlined cesspits were least expensive.)

Figure 6

Though Zuijderduijn and van Oosten place considerable emphasis on religion in their work, they posit two alternative explanations for the transition in saving behaviour. First, they suggest that a shrinking share of middling groups in conjunction with prices rising quicker than wages (and even possibly a shortage of small change) may have reduced the ability of persons to engage in saving. In addition, they note the rise of craft guild insurance schemes which could have acted as a cushion against sickness or old age much in the same way that saving would have functioned in their absence. Given this, more work needs to be done on ascertaining the role of religion versus these other hypotheses, or alternatively making religion a less central theme in the paper. One potential avenue could be to attempt to identify if households were more likely Protestant or Catholic, or by utilising an alternative source where religious affiliation could be linked with financial holdings. While difficult, this would help to clarify the statement posed by Zuijderduijn and van Oosten in their introduction – “saving behaviour does not come naturally, and requires discipline. Did a Protestant ethic help converts to find such discipline?” Moreover, Zuijderduijn and van Oosten write in their conclusion that their evidence “suggests that the true champions of saving behaviour were the late-medieval adherents to the Church of Rome, and not the Protestants that gradually emerged in sixteenth‑century Holland” – a statement on which I need further convincing.

Further elaboration is also needed on historical context. In particular, the paper would benefit from further clarity on the evolution of finance in Holland during this period. For example, van Zanden et al. (2012, p. 16) suggest that cash holdings fell between 1462 and 1563, but due to investment in other financial asset alternatives. Furthermore, they comment that the capital markets were used a great deal during this period for investing savings (as well as obtaining credit) – in what would surely be a more profitable pursuit for rational Protestants as opposed to earning zero return holding cash.

Nonetheless, the interdisciplinary and natural-experiment-type approach adopted in this paper has provided inspiration for economic historians on how we can potentially use alternative methodologies to further our understanding of important questions which have previously gone unanswered. While this has been refreshing, the use of such sources demands a comprehensive understanding of historical context for accurate inference, and especially to differentiate between correlation and causation. Zuijderduijn and van Oosten have provided initial persuasive evidence pointing to a decline in saving behaviour in Holland at a time when Weber’s Protestant ethic should have been fostering thrift, but more work needs to be done to disentangle the effect of religious transition from an evolving capital market.


Anderson, Thomas B., Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard, and Paul Sharp, “Pre‑Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic,” Working Paper (July 2015):

Becker, Sascha O., and Ludger Woessmann, “Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124 (2009), 531–596.

Cantoni, Davide, “The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation: Testing the Weber Hypothesis in the German Lands,” Journal of the European Economic Association, forthcoming.

Delacroix, Jacques, and François Nielsen, “The Beloved Myth: Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Social Forces, 80 (2001), 509–553.

Renneboog, Luc, and Christophe Spaenjers, “Religion, Economic Attitudes, and Household Finance,” Oxford Economic Papers, 64 (2012), 103–127.

van Zanden, Jan L., Jaco Zuijderduijn, and Tine De Moor, “Small is Beautiful: The Efficiency of Credit Markets in the Late Medieval Holland,” European Review of Economic History, 16 (2012), 3–23.

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London, UK: Allen and Unwin, 1930).

Was Stalin’s Economic Policy the Root of Nazi Germany’s Defeat?

Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?

By Anton Cheremukhin (Dallas Fed), Mikhail Golosov (Princeton), Sergei Guriev (SciencesPo), Aleh Tsyvinski (Yale)

Abstract: This paper studies structural transformation of Soviet Russia in 1928-1940 from an agrarian to an industrial economy through the lens of a two-sector neoclassical growth model. We construct a large dataset that covers Soviet Russia during 1928-1940 and Tsarist Russia during 1885-1913. We use a two-sector growth model to compute sectoral TFPs as well as distortions and wedges in the capital, labor and product markets. We find that most wedges substantially increased in 1928-1935 and then fell in 1936-1940 relative to their 1885-1913 levels, while TFP remained generally below pre-WWI trends. Under the neoclassical growth model, projections of these estimated wedges imply that Stalin’s economic policies led to welfare loss of -24 percent of consumption in 1928-1940, but a +16 percent welfare gain after 1941. A representative consumer born at the start of Stalin’s policies in 1928 experiences a reduction in welfare of -1 percent of consumption, a number that does not take into account additional costs of political repression during this time period. We provide three additional counterfactuals: comparison with Japan, comparison with the New Economic Policy (NEP), and assuming alternative post-1940 growth scenarios.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-09-28

Review by Emanuele Felice

Until the late 1950s, the era of rapid Soviet growth and of Sputnik, the main question among Western scholars was: When would the Soviet Union catch up with and overtake the U.S.?*

As Cheremukhin et al. correctly emphasize, the subject of this paper – Soviet industrialization in the 1930s – is one of the most important in economic history, and in world history: Soviet Union was the country which played by far the biggest role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, standing almost alone against the land force of the Third Reich and its allies for most of the war and causing 87% of the total Axis’ military deaths (in sharp contrast with World War I, when the Tsarist empire was defeated by a German Reich fighting on two fronts). Emerging from World War II as a superpower, the victorious Soviet Union contributed to shape the next four decades of human history, boasting among its technological achievements the first voyage of a human being to the space. At the same time and during the Stalin regime (1922-1953), the scale of (politically caused) human suffering has had few parallels in world history. Furthermore, as early as the 1930s Stalin’s rule was one of the first totalitarian regimes capable of reaching levels of oppressiveness and manipulation over society unobserved before.

For these reasons Stalin’s Soviet Union should continue to be interrogated by systematic studies. At the core of that regime was industrialization, which aimed to be the material pillar of a new «civilization» (e.g. Kotkin, 1995). Regarding its impact over policy making in the twentieth century, Stalin’s forced industrialization was a source of inspiration for both economists and politicians throughout the world: its planned, top-down, implementation was widely considered to be a successful, though harsh, strategy by some contemporaries.

Joseph Stalin (b 1878 - 1953), Leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953)

Joseph Stalin (b 1878 – 1953), Leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953)

And yet, we still have relatively little macro-economic evidence about the Stalinist period. The article Cheremukhin et al. aims to partially fill this gap, by providing consistent figures, some new arguments and insightful counterfactuals. It builds upon a remarkable amount of original research. First, it provides a comprehensive and coherent reconstruction of data on output, consumption, investments, foreign trade and labour force. These figures are presented separately for the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Data begins in the last decades of Tsarist Russia (1885-1913) and for the the Soviet Union covers the launch of the first five-year plan until the Nazi’s invasion (1928-1940).

Secondly, Cheremukhin et al. propose and elaborate a growth model for the Russian economy in those two periods (i.e. Tsarist Russian and pre-Nazi invention Soviet Union). This is a multi-sector neoclassical model, which is modified to allow for the peculiarity of the economy under scrutiny; namely, due to the institutional frictions and policies that distorted household and firm decisions, three wedges are defined, corresponding to the intratemporal between-sector distortions in capital and labor allocations and to an intertemporal distortion, and price scissors in agricultural prices (between producers and consumers) − which may also be thought of as a fourth wedge − are also introduced for the Stalin’s period.

It may be worth adding that when connecting wedges to policies, the Cheremukhin et al. appear to be adequately aware of the historical context and of the differences between a planned economy and a free-market one: for instance, the response of the Stalinist economy to a drop in agricultural output is likely to be the opposite − because of the price scissors policy which kept producer’s agricultural prices artificially low − to the predictions of a frictionless neoclassical growth model: it will probably lead to a further reallocation of labour from agriculture to industry and services and, therefore, to an additional reduction of agricultural output; such a distortion is here acknowledged and reasonably calibrated.

 “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”, early Soviet poster promoting industrialization, 1917-1921

“Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”, early Soviet poster promoting industrialization, 1917-1921

Thirdly, the paper by Cheremukhin et al. further elaborates on data and models, by providing a number of counterfactuals. Comparisons are made with the Tsarist economy by extrapolating Tsarist wedges for 1885-1913 to the 1928-1940 years. Also by comparing the performance of both economies (Tsarist and Stalinist), for the years following 1940 under the assumption that World War II never happened.

Another comparison takes place with Japan, a country similar to Russia before World War I in terms of GDP levels and growth rates. Early in the twentieth century Japan suffered similar distortions as Russia but during the interwar period Japan undertook an economic transformation which provided Cheremukhin et al. an alternative scenario to both the Tsarist and the Stalin policies (the Japanese projections are based upon previous reconstructions of the Japanese macro-economic figures, which happen to be available for the same period as for Russia, 1885-1940).

Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904

Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904

And what is probably the most intriguing counterfactual, at least in actual historical terms, is yet one more alternative scenario, constructed by assuming that Lenin’s New Economic Policy or NEP (launched in 1921 and outliving Lenin until 1927) would have continued even after 1927: such a counterfactual requires elaborating a model for the NEP economy as well, but unfortunately the lack of reliable data for the years 1921 to 1927 makes the discussion for this scenario «particularly tentative». Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that two more alternative scenarios are provided for the Stalin economy based on alternative growth rates for the years 1940 to 1960 and again under the assumption that World War II never happened; and that robustness exercises are also performed (with further details provided in the appendix).

Broadly speaking, the results are not favourable to Stalin. According to Cheremukhin et al., Stalin was not necessary for Russian industrialization − neither, it could be consequently argued, to the defeat of Nazism and to the Russia’s rise to a superpower status. Actually, by 1940 the Tsarist economy would probably have reached levels of production and a structure of the economy similar to the Stalinist one, but which far less short-term human costs. This result may not be irreconcilable to Gerschenkron’s (1962) theses about substitute factor − in Russia this was the State, already exerting such a role in late Tzarist times − and the advantages of backwardness: these latter would have permitted to backward Russia, once its industrialization had been set in motion at the end of the nineteenth century, to see its distance to the industrialized West reduced by the time of World War II more than in World War I, in any case – that is, also under the Tzarist regime. It does contrast, however, with other findings from pioneering cliometric articles on the issue, such as the one by Robert Allen published almost twenty years ago, according to which Stalin’s planned system brought about rapid industrialization and even a significant increase of the standard of living (Allen, 1998). Similarly, but from a different perspective, long-run reconstructions of Soviet labour productivity tend to emphasize as a problem the slow-down in the period following post World War II, rather than the performance the 1930s (Harrison, 1998) – both Allen and Harrison are cited in this paper, but not these specific articles.

The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station under construction, South-Eastern Ukraine (the work was begun in 1927 and inaugurated in 1932)

The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station under construction, South-Eastern Ukraine (the work was begun in 1927 and inaugurated in 1932)

Now, at the core of the results by Cheremukhin et al. is the finding that, according to their estimates, total factor productivity of the USSR in the non-agricultural sector did not grow from 1928 to 1940. Maybe it is worth discussing this point in a little more detail. Is such a finding plausible? At a first sight it seems puzzling, given the technological advance of that period especially in the heavy sectors. And yet, at a closer inspection it may turn out to be entirely logical: the growth of output was a consequence of massive inflows of inputs, both machinery (capital) and labour. But all considered these were not used in a more efficient way.

In the model by Cheremukhin et al., capital and labour are computed through a Cobb-Douglas production function, with constant elasticity coefficients for labour and capital (0.7 and 0.3 respectively in the non-agricultural sector; 0.55 and 0.14 in the agricultural one, thus assuming a land’s elasticity of 0.31). The authors make a point that the new labour force entering the non-agricultural sector was largely unskilled and, often, was not even usefully employed. Actually exceeding the real needs of that sector: this politically induced distortion could hardly have increased TFP (although, under different assumptions, it could be alternatively modeled through a decreasing elasticity of labour: but the results in terms of total output would not change). This may also explain the good performance of Soviet Union during World War II, when due to manpower shortage the exceeding labour force finally could be profitably employed. The capital stock is calculated by the authors at 1937 prices, for the years 1928-1940.

Anti-Nazi propaganda poster, 1945

Anti-Nazi propaganda poster, 1945

We do not have enough information in order to judge whether a bias can be caused by the use of constant prices based on a late-year of the series. But this possible bias should lead to an underestimation of capital growth in that period  − given that quantities are probably weighted with relative prices lower in 1937 for the heavy sectors, than in 1928 − which would then produce an overestimation in the TFP growth proposed by the authors: in actual terms, therefore, the growth of TFP may be even lower than what estimated; in more general terms – and although caution is warranted for the lack of detailed figures – their results look realistic in this respect.

The most interesting finding, however, is the one relative to the NEP counterfactual. It is the most interesting because, in genuine historical terms, the Tzarist model was no longer a viable option to Stalin, while NEP’s strategy was. But of course, data for the NEP years are much more precarious and thus this counterfactual can only be a particularly tentative one. Nonetheless, the authors build two scenarios for the NEP policy: a lower-bound one, where a growth rate of TFP in manufacturing after 1928 similar to the average Tsarist 0.5% is tested; and an upper-bound one, with a growth rate of 2% similar to the one experienced by Japan in the same interwar period. In the first scenario the results for the Soviet economy would have been slightly worse, but in the second one much better. Given that the two scenarios correspond to the boundaries of the possibility frontier, we may conclude that probably, under the NEP, the performance of the Soviet economy would have been better than both the one observed under the Stalin and that predictable under the Tzar. This may confirm the view that the 1920s were somehow the “golden age” of Soviet communism, as well as the favourable assessment of Lenin’s and later of the collective Soviet leadership in that decade (although, admittedly, Lenin intended the NEP only as a temporary policy). After all, a more inclusive leadership – as opposed to the harshness of Stalinist autocracy in the 1930s, as well as to Hitler despotic conduct of war since the winter of 1941 – was also the one which helped the Red Army to win World War II.

“The victory of socialism in the USSR is guaranteed”, 1932

“The victory of socialism in the USSR is guaranteed”, 1932


Allen,  Robert C., Capital accumulation, the soft budget constraint and Soviet industrialization, in «European Review of Economic History», 1998, 2(1), pp. 1-24.

Gerschenkron, Alexander, Economic backwardness in historical perspective, Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Harrison, Mark, Trends in Soviet Labour Productivity, 1928−85: War, postwar recovery, and slowdown, in «European Review of Economic History», 1998, 2(2), pp. 171-200.

Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1995.

Source of quote:
Gur Ofer (1987) “Soviet Economic Growth: 1928-1985,” Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 1767-1833 (cited in this paper, p. 2).

Who Pays the Bills?

Sovereign Debt Guarantees and Default: Lessons from the UK and Ireland, 1920-1938

By Nathan Foley-Fisher (Federal Reserve Board) and Eoin McLaughlin (St. Andrews)

Abstract We study the daily yields on Irish land bonds listed on the Dublin Stock Exchange during the years 1920-1938. We exploit structural differences in bonds guaranteed by the UK and Irish governments to find Irish events that had long term effects on the credibility of government guarantees. We document two major events: The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and Ireland’s default on intergovernmental payments in 1932. We discuss the political and economic forces behind the Irish and UK governments’ decisions. Our finding has implications for modern-day proposals to issue jointly-guaranteed sovereign debt.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2015-05-16

Review by Sarah Charity (Queen’s University of Belfast)

This working paper abets us in shedding some light on the financial implications for current economic events. One that dominated the headlines most prominently was Scotland’s decision to vote on independence in their recent referendum. Hard-line fiscal policy makers held their breath while questions simmered such as; would an independent Scotland continue debt repayments to Britain? What if they defaulted on these payments? The authors investigate how public debt in Ireland was dealt with during their severance from the political state of the United Kingdom in the early 20th century, focusing on the implementation of UK- and Irish-backed land bonds over this period of significant Irish land reform, when ownership was transferred from landlords to tenants. From this episode in Irish history, we can draw comparisons and learn lessons for today.


Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin look to previous studies in which yield spreads between UK and Irish government bonds are analysed, such as that of Nevin (1963) and Ó Gráda (1994). They contribute to the existing literature by concentrating on land bonds. They base their methodology on the idea of particular structural breaks occurring in their time-series data. They build on the discoveries of Willard et al. (1996) who defined breaks as a change in the intercept of the time series – ‘a shift in the mean’ (p.11-12), while Zussman et al. (2008) also searched for ‘breakpoints’ (p.4) in their methodology. They analyse the shifts in ‘perceived value of sovereign guarantees’ (p.11) by looking for changes in the mean of the yield spreads.

The impact of bond spreads ‘diffused’ (p.15) around three significant events. The first break coincides with the Anglo Irish Treaty passing in 1921 while the second occurred a decade later when the default by Ireland on land bond payments beckoned. Around this time, Eamon De Valera, founder of Irish political party Fianna Fáil, announced the ‘Free State would not honour the bi-annual payments due under various financial agreements between Ireland and the UK’ (p.14). The final break came at the end of the sample period, however this is discounted as irrelevant due to trade war negotiations being ‘unlikely…(to be) sufficient’ (p.15).

Parliamentary acts sanctioned the used of generous government guaranteed land bonds to finance state mortgages, rather similar to the volatile mortgage backed securities of the recent credit crisis, allowing farmers to borrow significant amounts of credit at lower rates. The idea was to curtail the Irish Nationalists, however it proved unsuccessful and the ‘hardline republicans’ (p.6) received independence through the signing of the Treaty in December 1921. A new dawn was on the horizon, bringing with it the promise of a new government – but it was lamentably overshadowed by the onset of the Irish Civil War. The newly established Free State was released from its obligation towards UK public debt in return for permanent partition; however it agreed to maintain annuity payments along with issuance of more land bonds.

The authors calculate the credibility of UK guarantees, otherwise known as sovereign risk, post-independence using yield spreads controlling for risks of inflation and exchange rate alternations. They acknowledge other scholars in assessing the importance of credibility in economic features such as the ‘cost of government finance’ (p.5) as investigated by Flandreau & Zumer (2009) and the estimated behaviour of the government as a ‘counterparty in other contracts’ (p.5) as seen in Cole & Kehoe (1998). Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin found the spread over UK government bonds to be 60 basis points indicating a low credit risk for the UK- and Irish-backed land bonds. Through their estimations they suggested that the increased yield spread of the land bonds during the ‘benchmark’ years from 1921 to 1932 was highly significant. After Ireland defaulted, the land bonds were no longer considered risky and the spread on UK-backed land bonds returned to zero. The authors are perhaps slightly restricted by their sample period. Mercille (2006, p.3) tells us little research exists on the significant long-term costs related to yield spreads, forcing us to seek answers elsewhere.


Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin suggest that the cost of Ireland’s default was greater for their British counterparts. They give reasons for the UK’s intervention such as the insignificant cost to the UK Treasury, who continued making interest repayments to ensure bond holders remained intact; UK war loan negotiations and the fact land bonds were mostly held in the UK ensured Whitehall was an interested party. The authors provide us with a contrasting government reaction to default in another commonwealth country, using the contemporaneous case of Newfoundland, whose debt profile bore echoes of Ireland’s. As previously mentioned, the cost for the UK government of bondholders’ losses through passing on Ireland’s default far outweighed the benefits. In the Newfoundland example, the UK government’s reaction was to withdraw from the imminent burden of financial instability and force confederation of the Dominion with Canada, thus shedding the burden for bondholders’ losses – a consequence independence-seeking Scotland may have wanted to consider.

In the absence of case studies, Ireland’s historical sovereign break up ensures Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin’s ‘simple empirical strategy’ (C.R, 2014) is applicable to and useful in multiple current financial situations whether it be the aforementioned Scottish referendum, or the pending disintegration of Catalonia from Spain. Moodys (2014) discovered that 75% of the 17 country break ups which have occurred since 1983 resulted in sovereign default by the preceding or the new state – albeit these implications ‘cannot be easily applied’ (p.3) to more recent breakups, paving the way for this exploration of Ireland as the model to follow.

This paper describes apportioning fiscal liabilities as ‘complex’ and provides advice for states in the process of seeking dissolution – uncertainty is persistent. Debt must be paid and it may be guaranteed by the Treasury of the former union in the wake of default, but the ambiguity in the outcome remains. According to the blogger C.R., writing in The Economist (2014), it seems as if partition is more straightforward politically rather than financially or economically. From what Foley-Fisher and McLaughlin have taught us in their empirical study, the cost of default and fiscal uncertainty lingers long after secession. In conclusion, the exploits of our Irish ancestors from the previous century are what we, alongside other state governments, must contemplate when the sword of political state break-up strikes again.


Cole, H. L. & Kehoe, P. J. (1998), ‘Models of Sovereign Debt: Partial versus General Reputations’, International Economic Review 39(1), 55–70.

C.R (Feb. 21st 2014) The economics of Scottish Independence- a messy divorce, Blighty Britain Available at: (Accessed: March 22nd 2015)

Ferguson, N. (2006), ‘Political risk and the international bond market between the 1848 revolution and the outbreak of the First World War’, Economic History Review 59, 70– 112

Flandreau, M. & Zumer, F. (2009), The Making of Global Finance 1880-1913, Paris: OECD Publishing.

Hancock, W. (1964), Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs. Volume I Problems of Nationality 1918-1936, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mauro, P., Sussman, N. & Yafeh, Y. (2006), Emerging Markets and Financial Globalization, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercille, J. (2006) ‘The Media and the Question of Sovereign Debt Default in the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland’, University of Sheffield, Available at: (Accessed August 18, 2015).

Moodys (May 21st. 2014) When countries broke up, sovereign default risk spiked, Available at:–PR_299968?WT.mc_id=NLTITLE_YYYYMMDD_PR_299968 (Accessed: March 23rd. 2015).

Nevin, E. (1963), ‘The Capital Stock of Irish Industry’, Economic and Social Research Institute(ESRI) paper No. 17, Dublin. Available at: (Accessed August 18, 2015).

Ó Gráda, C. (1994), Ireland: A new Economic History 1780-1939, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Willard, K. L., Guinnane, T. W. & Rosen, H. S. (1996), ‘Turning points in the Civil War: views from the Greenback market’, American Economic Review 86, 1001–1018.

Zussman, A., Zussman, N. & Nielson, M. O. (2008), ‘Asset Market Prespectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, Economica 75, 84–115.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

The European Crisis in the Context of the History of Previous Financial Crisis

by Michael Bordo & Harold James

Abstract – There are some striking similarities between the pre 1914 gold standard and EMU today. Both arrangements are based on fixed exchange rates, monetary and fiscal orthodoxy. Each regime gave easy access by financially underdeveloped peripheral countries to capital from the core countries. But the gold standard was a contingent rule—in the case of an emergency like a major war or a serious financial crisis –a country could temporarily devalue its currency. The EMU has no such safety valve. Capital flows in both regimes fuelled asset price booms via the banking system ending in major crises in the peripheral countries. But not having the escape clause has meant that present day Greece and other peripheral European countries have suffered much greater economic harm than did Argentina in the Baring Crisis of 1890.


Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2015-01-26

Reviewed by: Stephen Billington (Queen’s University of Belfast)


In this paper Bordo and James seek to analyse the impact of the financial crisis of 2007-8 in the context of previous crisis. Specifically by comparing the experience of periphery countries of the Eurozone with those of the “classic” Gold Standard.


In their paper Bordo and James give a synopsis of the similarities which emerged between both monetary regimes. By adhering to a gold parity there was an expansion in the banking system, through large capital inflows, which was underpinned by a strong effective state to allow for greater borrowing. A nation was effective if it held an international diplomatic commitment, which in turn required them to sign into international systems, all the while this played into the hands of radical political parties who played on civilian nationalism[1]; these events combined lead to great inflows of capital into peripheral countries which inevitably led to fiscal instability and a resulting crisis. Similar dilemmas occurred within the EMU, but much more intensely.


This brings me to the main point that the authors emphasize, that of the contingency rule of the classic gold standard. The latter allowed member countries a “safety valve for fiscal policy”. Essentially this was an escape clause that permitted a country to temporarily devalue its currency in an emergency, such as the outbreak of war or a financial crisis, but would return to normalcy soon after, that is, they would return to previous levels. Bordo and James’ argument is that this lack of a contingency within the EMU allowed for a more severe financial crisis to afflict the periphery countries (Greece, Ireland and Portugal) than had affected gold standard peripheries (Argentina, Italy and Australia) as modern day EMU countries did (and do) not have to option to devalue their currency.


Bordo and James point out that crisis during the gold standard were very sharp, but did not last as long as the 2007-8 crisis. This because the exclusion clause during the gold standard enabled a “breathing space” and as a result most countries were back to growth within a few short years. The EMU story is quite different, say Bordo and James. Mundell (1961) argued that a successful monetary union requires the existence of a well-functioning mechanism for adjustment, what we see in the EMU are a case of worse dilemmas due primarily to this absence of an escape clause.

“Gold outflows, and, with money and credit growth tied to gold, lower money and credit growth. The lower money and credit growth would cause prices and wages to fall (or would lead to reductions in the growth rates of prices and wages), helping to restore competitiveness, thus eliminating the external deficits”

The above quote provided by Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) highlights how the gold standard allowed a country to adjust to a deficit. This point reinforces how Bordo & James argue that due to the constricting nature of the EMU there is no “safety valve” to allowed EU countries to release the steam from increasing debt levels. With respect to the Argentine Baring Crisis of 1890, while the crisis was very sharp in terms of real GDP, pre-crisis levels of GDP were again reached by 1893 – clearly a contrast with the Euro as some countries are still in recession with very little progress having been made as suggested by the following headline: “Greece’s current GDP is stuck in ancient Greece” – Business Insider (2013).

The following graph highlights the issue that in Europe most countries are still lagging behind the pre-crisis levels of GDP.


Bordo and James clearly support this argument. Delles and Tavlas (2013) also argue that the adjustment mechanism of core and periphery countries limited the size and persistence of external deficits. They put forward that the durability of the gold standard relied on this mechanism. This is reinforced by Bloomfield (1959) who states it “facilitated adjustments to balance of payments disequilibrium”.

Vinals (1996) further supports the authors’ sentiments by arguing that the Treaty of Maastricht restricts an individual member’s room to manoeuvre as the Treaty requires sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of GDP – meaning a member cannot smooth over these imbalances through spending or taxation.

Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) state “a major cost of monetary unions is the reduced flexibility to adjust to asymmetric shocks”. They argue that internal devaluations must occur to adjust to fiscal imbalances, but go on to argue that these are much harder to implement than in theory, again supported by Vinals (1996).


Bordo and James focus primarily on three EU periphery countries which are doing badly, namely Greece, Ireland and Portugal. However they neglect the remaining countries within the EU which can also be classed as a periphery. According the Wallerstein (1974) the periphery can be seen as the less developed countries, these could include further countries such as those from eastern Europe[2]. By looking at a more expansive view of peripheral countries we can see that these other peripherals had quick recoveries with sharp decreases in GDP growth, as in the case of the Gold standard countries, but swiftly recovered to high levels of growth again while the main peripheral countries the authors analyse do lag behind.

Untitled2See note 3

Bordo and James do provide a strong insight into the relationship between an adjustment mechanism to combating fiscal imbalances as a means of explaining the poor recovery of certain peripheral countries (i.e. Greece, Ireland, Portugal) and highlight the implications of this in the future of the EMU. If the EMU cannot find a contingency rule as the gold standard then recessions may leave them as vulnerable in the future as they are now.


1) This process can be thought of as a trilemma, Obstfeld, Taylor and Shambaugh (2004) give a better explanation. In the EU the problem was intensified as governments could back higher levels of debt, and there was no provision for European banking supervision, the commitment to EU integration let markets believe that there were no limits to debt levels. This led to inflows in periphery countries where banks could become too big to be rescued.

2) Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and even Cyprus can be included based on low GDP per capita which is equivalent to Greece.

3) Data taken from Eurostat comparing real GDP growth levels of lesser developed countries within the Eurozone who all use the euro and would be locked into the same system of no adjustment.


Bloomfield, A. (1959) Monetary Policy under the International Gold Standard. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Business Insider (2013). Every Country in Europe Should be Glad it’s Not Greece. [Accessed 19/03/2015].

Eurostat, Real GDP Growth Rates [Accessed 21/03/2015].

Dellas, Harris; Tavlas, George S. (2013). The Gold Standard, The Euro, and The Origins of the Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis. Cato Journal 33(3): 491-520.

Gibson, Heather D; Palivos, Theodore; Tavlas, George S. (2014). The Crisis in the Euro Area: An Analytic Overview.Journal of Macroeconomics 39: 233-239.

Mundell, Robert A. (1961). A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas. The American Economic Review 51(4): 657-665.

Obstfeld, Maurice. Taylor, Alan. Shambaugh, Jay C. (2004). The Trilemma in History: Trade-Offs among Exchange Rates, Monetary Policies and Capital Mobility. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER working paper 10396).

Vinals, Jose. (1996). European Monetary Integration: A Narrow or Wide EMU?. European Economic Review 40(3-5): 1103-1109.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974). The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.