Category Archives: Industrial Revolution

A Tale of Two Wages: Spinners and the Industrial Revolution

Spinning the Industrial Revolution

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

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

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nuf:esohwp:_145

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016‒07‒23

Review by Thales Zamberlan Pereira

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

waterframe1775

Water Frame, about 1775

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

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

h5_1981-321

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

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

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

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

 

Does Technological Progress Lead to more Human Capital Formation? Evidence from the French Industrial Revolution

The Complementarity between Technology and Human Capital in the Early Phase of Industrialization

By Raphael Franck (Bar-Ilan University and Brown University, raphael.franck@biu.ac.il) and Oded Galor (Brown University, Oded_Galor@brown.edu)

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:bro:econwp:2015-3&r=his

Abstract

The research explores the effect of industrialization on human capital formation. Exploiting exogenous regional variations in the adoption of steam engines across France, the study establishes that in contrast to conventional wisdom that views early industrialization as a predominantly deskilling process, the industrial revolution was conducive for human capital formation, generating broad increases in literacy rates and education attainment.

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay (University of Warwick)

While human capital is often thought to be at the root of any development process, early industrialization itself is often thought to be de-skilling. Images of children working long hours executing repetitive tasks usually come up when one thinks of the Industrial Revolution (Humphries, 2010). Yet there is also the idea that industrial and technical development might lead to a greater need for skilled labour to maintain, fix and adapt new machinery. In this case industrial development might lead to a greater supply of schooling and might result in significant human capital improvements. Focusing on early French industrialization in a recent working paper (distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-05-02), Franck and Galor attempt to demonstrate just this.

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Steam engine from Lille (Nord departement)

Making use of data from the 1840s, the authors find a positive correlation across French departements between the number of steam engines and human capital indicators such as the share of literate conscripts, the share of pupils in the population, and the number of teachers (which would be more suggestive if also set relative to population). This correlation is best illustrated in a series of shaded maps (Figure 3), although the strikingly high levels schooling and literacy in the north-eastern part of France remain to be explained. Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation: it may be that other factors caused both the number of steam engines and the number of teachers to increase in certain areas, which could render any relationship between the two fortuitous.

Figure 3 in Franck and Oded Galor (2015).

Figure 3 in Franck and Oded Galor (2015).

To tackle this endogeneity problem, the authors make clever use of the fact that the first steam engine was introduced in 1735 in Fresnes-sur-Escaut in the Nord departement, near the northern tip of France. Since technology diffusion can be reasonably assumed to occur first around the region where the new technology was first introduced (which was indeed the case), it seems possible to use each departement’s distance from Fresnes-sur-Escaut as an instrument in the regression. In the first stage of the regression, they successfully show that the shorter a departement’s distance from the first steam engine location, the larger the number of steam engines in the departement, which seems quite reasonable.

To prove the exogeneity of the instrument, the authors have to show that human capital formation was not higher closer to the first steam engine location. This is trickier. To support their case, Franck and Galor investigate the relationship between distance from Nord and economic development indicators from around 1700, such as urban population, literacy rates and university location. They find that there is no correlation (although this may be surprising in light of Figure 1). More importantly, human capital may be quite imperfectly captured by these indicators in the pre-industrial era, when human capital may have developed in ways that are quite difficult to measure: through the transmission of skills from masters to apprentices, or learning-by-doing. It has often been shown that there was no clear relationship between technological progress and literacy rates in the early modern era (Mitch, 1999). Accordingly perhaps more detail should be provided in the paper as to why the steam engine was first introduced in this region and not elsewhere.

Figure 1 in Franck and Galor (2015)

Figure 1 in Franck and Galor (2015)

Which brings me to a broader point about the paper. Although its stated aim is to investigate the causal relationship running from technological progress to human capital formation, causality could run the other way around. Although endogeneity issues are explicitly addressed in the paper from (and confounding factors such as land suitability, rainfall, access to waterways, distance from Paris, and market integration duly controlled for), the specific problem of reverse causality is not explicitly dealt with in the text. Reassuringly the IV model should theoretically take care of reverse causality, but the authors could still discuss this possibility in more detail.

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Boys at school in Nord departement in the 19th c.

Overall though, Franck and Galor rather successfully tackle a very important and highly complex aspect of industrialization processes. By showing that technological improvement led to advances in human capital accumulation, these results in turn trigger a number of questions. Through which mechanism did industrialization lead to better schooling and literacy rates? Was the process demand-driven? Or did parents’ higher wages mean that children no longer had to work to help the family? Finally, could child labour abuse in factories have led to local initiatives to promote schooling? This latter hypothesis is discussed by Weissbach (1989), who emphasizes a particularly strong will to change the status quo in Alsatian and nearby regions — which could partly explain the greater spread of schooling in this part of France. Such inquiries could be the subject of fascinating future research.

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Children in a textile factory in 19th c. Provence

References

Humphries, Jane. 2010. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitch, David. 1999. “The Role of Education and Skill in the British Industrial Revolution.” In Joel Mokyr, ed., The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective, 2 ed. Boulder, nd CO: Westview Press, pp. 241–79.

Weissbach, L. S. 1989. Child Labor Reform in Nineteenth Century France: Assuring the Future Harvest. Louisiana State University Press.

Failed by #EconomicGrowth?

Asia’s Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan before 1850

by Tuan-Hwee Sng (National University of Singapore) and Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University)

Abstract: This paper explores the role of state capacity in the comparative economic development of China and Japan. Before 1850, both nations were ruled by stable dictators who relied on bureaucrats to govern their domains. We hypothesize that agency problems increase with the geographical size of a domain. In a large domain, the ruler’s inability to closely monitor bureaucrats creates opportunities for the bureaucrats to exploit taxpayers. To prevent overexploitation, the ruler has to keep taxes low and government small. Our dynamic model shows that while economic expansion improves the ruler’s finances in a small domain, it could lead to lower tax revenues in a large domain as it exacerbates bureaucratic expropriation. To test these implications, we assemble comparable quantitative data from primary and secondary sources. We find that the state taxed less and provided fewer local public goods per capita in China than in Japan. Furthermore, while the Tokugawa shogunate’s tax revenue grew in tandem with demographic trends, Qing China underwent fiscal contraction after 1750 despite demographic expansion. We conjecture that a greater state capacity might have prepared Japan better for the transition from stagnation to growth.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/hithitcei/2014-6.htm

Reviewed by Joyman Lee

Summary

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-09-25 and 2014-10-03. In it Sng and Moriguchi ask why China – with its large population and high levels of technological prowess – was not the first country to industrialize. Existing studies of “divergence” have not explained differences in economic performance between China and Japan. Despite the similarities between the two economies in levels of proto-industrialization, political and legal structures, and living standards. Sng and Moriguchi argue that differences in public finance accounted for important differences in the two countries’ ability to promote economic growth.

In this paper Sng and Moriguchi focus on the important question of size and geography as the central explanatory variable. In particular, the authors develop a context-specific model which suggests that rulers’ need to rely on agents to govern (principal-agent problem) in a pre-modern dictatorship meant that “agency problems increase with its geographical size and heterogeneity” (p5), owing to information challenges which precluded close supervision by rulers of their agents. The model predicts that the larger the polity, the higher the corruption rate, and the lower the tax rate out of fear that subjects will revolt, as expropriation reduces the ruler’s ability to provide social goods commensurate to the tax levied. The higher level of corruption also reduces rulers’ incentives to invest, and hence the provision of public goods per capita. Graft and inefficiencies mean that population and economic growth actually reduces the proportion of the economic surplus available to the ruler. As a result, the size of the polity lowers the tipping point where the negative effects of growth outweigh the positive effects.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Sng and Moriguchi test their hypothesis against a pool of primary and secondary data, which confirms that tax rates were higher in Japan than China, averaging around 34% in Japan (rising to 50-55% in some domains, p29): more than twice of China’s level in 1700 and approximately six times by 1850. Population growth was far greater in China than Japan, where the population stagnated after 1700. Compared to the Qing, Tokugawa Japan enjoyed a higher level of public services in terms of coinage, transportation, urban management, and environmental management (forestry), and in famine relief the Qing’s strengths were cancelled out by 1850. The authors conclude that the large size of China “imposed increasingly insurmountable constraints on the regime’s capacity to collect taxes and provide essential local public goods as its economy expanded,” and that “this factor alone might have been sufficient in holding back China’s transition from stagnation to growth even in the absence of Western imperialism” (p38). In line with the existing scholarship, Sng and Moriguchi contend that Japan’s healthier tax system provided the Westernizing Meiji regime (1868-1912) with revenues to conduct far-reaching reforms.

Comment

Despite its significance in global history, the comparative history of China and Japan is surprisingly overlooked. The “California school,” for instance, has focused largely on the economic “divergence” between China and the West, whereas Japanese economic historians have labored over Japan-Europe differences (Saito 2010). Sng and Moriguchi’s focus on the comparative history of China and Japan is thus relatively new. The authors join political scientist Wenkai He, whose recent book Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State also explores China’s failure to develop a modern fiscal state in the nineteenth century, in comparison with early modern England and Meiji Japan (He 2013). China’s “failure” is especially puzzling in view of the Qing’s overall success in raising revenue in the late nineteenth century (Wong 1997, 155-56).

Sng and Moriguchi’s argument that a state’s ability to increase revenue is inversely affected by size is persuasive. In the absence of institutions to monitor graft, China had seldom been able to pursue rational fiscal strategies – especially at the county level – since the Tang-Song transition (Hartwell 1982, 395-96). In contrast, Japan’s decentralized polity in the early modern period bore close resemblance to Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early modern Japan’s experiences of proto-industrialization and industrious revolution had clear parallels both in England and in the Netherlands.

A magistrate's office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing's inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing's ideological goals.

A magistrate’s office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing’s inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing’s ideological goals.

What this narrative does not explain, however, is why China pursued such an inefficient mode of fiscal management. Given the challenges of graft and the fear of revolt, Sng and Moriguchi assume that it was the most rational or “optimal” course. The authors point to but dismiss lightly the question posed by Qing historians that the goals of the late imperial Confucian state might not have been compatible with “rational” state expansion. In other words, rather than fearing peasant revolt, the choice of tax rate might have to do with ideological reasons. Similarly, the idea that the Japanese state shared a “Confucian” outlook (p4) is overly simplistic, especially as consistently high levels of taxation in Tokugawa Japan undermine the idea that Tokugawa Japan was a “benevolent” state.

While size might have been a key variable in China’s state “weakness,” this does not in itself explain the strengths or weaknesses of China’s overall economy. The large size of China’s internal market, for example, allowed differentiation and specialization which appear to have sustained economic growth even in the absence of an active state. This was true both in the Qing and more recently in China’s informal and private sectors since 1978. Thus there is no reason to assume that the adoption of a “modern” fiscal apparatus was a natural goal for the Qing before 1850. Similarly, by focusing on the state’s fiscal abilities to the exclusion of other factors, Sng and Moriguchi also sidestep an important Japan-centered literature that considers how similarities in economic structures between China and Japan enabled the results of Westernizing experiments in Japan after 1850 to be transferred to China. This point is important because revenues from Japan’s trade with Asia propelled Meiji Japan’s economic growth, no less than the revenues collected by Japan’s indigenous tax structures. Moreover, this was a form of self-sustaining growth built upon constant competitive pressures from below, i.e. from China which was rapidly reproducing strategies developed in Japan (ed. Sugihara 2005).

Despite these criticisms, Sng and Moriguchi’s model offers clear quantitative analysis on an important aspect of a greatly understudied topic, and is recommended for anyone interested in the longue durée economic development of the two countries.

Additional References

Hartwell, R. 1982. “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 365-442 [Dec, 1982].

He, W 2013. The Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State: Early Modern England, Meiji Japan, and Qing China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saito, O. 2010. “An Industrious Revolution in an East Asian Market Economy? Tokugawa Japan and Implications for the Great Divergence,” Australian Economic History Review, vol. 2010, vol. 50, issue 3, pp. 240-261.

Sugihara, K. (ed.) 2005. Japan, China, and the Growth of the Asian International Economy, 1850-1949. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wong, R. 1997. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.