Tag Archives: Economic growth

Ancient Infrastructure and Economic Activity

 

Roman Roads to Prosperity: Persistence and Non-Persistence of Public Goods Provision

Carl-Johan Dalgaard (University of Copenhagen and CEPR), Nicolai Kaarsen (Danish Economic Council), Ola Olsson (University of Gothenburg) and Pablo Selaya (University of Copenhagen)

Abstract: How persistent is public goods provision in a comparative perspective? We explore the link between infrastructure investments made during antiquity and the presence of infrastructure today, as well as the link between early infrastructure and economic activity both in the past and in the present, across the entire area under dominion of the Roman Empire at the zenith of its geographical extension. We find a remarkable pattern of persistence showing that greater Roman road density goes along with (a) greater modern road density, (b) greater settlement formation in 500 CE, and (c) greater economic activity in 2010. Interestingly, however, the degree of persistence in road density and the link between early road density and contemporary economic development is weakened to the point of insignificance in areas where the use of wheeled vehicles was abandoned from the first millennium CE until the late modern period. Taken at face value, our results suggest that infrastructure may be one important channel through which persistence in comparative development comes about.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:12745&r=his

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2018-03-26

Revised by: Martin Söderhäll (Uppsala University)

Summary

In the paper Roman Roads to Prosperity: Persistence and Non-Persistence of Public Goods Provision the question “How persistent is public goods provision in a comparative perspective?” is examined by estimating the impact of Roman road-density on various proxies for economic activity today (modern roads, night-lights and population density) and in 500 CE (roman settlements). This is done for areas of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa covered by Roman roads in 117 CE. The authors argue that the Roman roads “almost presents itself as a natural experiment” since the main purpose of the roads was to simplify military logistics during Roman times. This led to a road network with roads constructed as straight as possible between nodes, especially in newly conquered and undeveloped areas of the Roman Empire.

roman roads_paris

Figure 1: Roman Roads and Night Lights around Paris

The main findings in the paper are that Roman road density in 117 CE has a statistically significant positive effect on all of the above-mentioned dependent variables, suggesting that the spatial distribution of ancient infrastructure still affects the location of economic activity almost 2000 years later. However, the historical density of ancient infrastructure is not enough to explain the density of modern infrastructure as well as economic activity. The authors hypothesize that persistent use and maintenance of said infrastructure is a necessary condition for the link. To examine the hypotheses the authors’ exploit regional variation in the use of wheeled transport during the first millennia CE. This historical natural experiment is made possible since the Middle East and North Africa abandoned wheeled transport during this period, most probably due to the use of camels, which became a more efficient means of transportation in the region some time during the first millennia (Bulliet 1990).

roman_roads_night

Figure 2: Roman Roads Network in 117 CE

The developments in the Middle East and North Africa during the first millennia CE led to ancient Roman roads being used to much lesser extent than in Europe were wheeled vehicles (drawn by horses or oxen) continued to dominate among land-based means of transportation up until the nineteenth century. Thus, the authors’ claim, “one should expect influence of Roman roads today only where persistence in infrastructure is found.” In other words, the effect of Roman roads on economic activity today should be insignificant within the Middle East and in North Africa while it should have a positive effect within Europe. However, one should also expect that the density of Roman roads had a positive effect on economic activity in all studied regions before the abandonment of the wheel and the subsequent loss of interest in the use and maintenance of Roman roads in the Middle East and in North Africa.

roman_roads_modern

Figure 3: Relationship between Roman Road Density in 177 CE and Modern Road Density

Econometrically, the hypotheses set by the authors are examined by a cross-sectional specification where the parameter of interest is the influence of Roman road density on various measures of economic activity today and in 500 CE, controlling for (primarily) geographic traits of the grid cells where road density are measured as well as country and language fixed-effects. The empirical results are in line with those hypothesized by the authors. The density of Roman roads had a statistically significant positive effect on economic activity in all specifications except the ones where the modern day variables capturing the degree of economic activity “today” is regressed on Roman road density in the Middle East and North Africa, further strengthening the argument that persistence in infrastructure can explain comparative development over a period of 2000 years.

Comments

The interpretation and implication of the empirical result is quite straightforward. It is clearly a good idea to keep investing in infrastructure as long as the infrastructure has an economic value, something the authors show was the case in Europe but less so in the Middle East and North Africa where the value of Roman infrastructure dropped. At first sight, one potential remark is the large time gap between the cross sections. How would the interpretation of the results look like if the link between Roman roads and economic activity disappeared in large parts of Europe some time during the period 500-2010 CE? Results from previous research (Bosker et. al. 2013; Bosker & Buringj 2017) ease the worry of this question slightly, since they have shown a relationship between Roman road-hubs and city sizes during the period 800-1800. However, it would have been nice to see some specifications for the years between 500 CE and 2010 CE in this paper as well, possibly using city sizes from DeVries (2013) or Bairoch (1991) as a proxy for economic activity. Especially since the scope differs a bit from that in Bosker et. al. (2013) where the estimation (to my knowledge) is done in a panel setting and in Bosker & Buringj (2017) where only Europe is studied.

Aside from that, I have very little to remark on; I find the argumentation against potential threats to internal validity convincing, and find arguments against external validity quite irrelevant due to the exploratory nature of the paper. In a way, the paper can be summarized as both fun and fascinating.

References

Bairoch, P. (1991). Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn of History to the Present. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bosker, M., Buringh, E., & van Zanden, J. L. (2013). “From Baghdad to London: Unraveling Urban Development in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, 800–1800.” Review of Economics and Statistics, 95 (4), 1418-1437.

Bosker, M., & Buringh, E. (2017). “City Seeds: Geography and the Origins of the European City System.” Journal of Urban Economics 98, 139-157.

Bulliet, R. W. (1990). The Camel and the Wheel.  New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

De Vries, J. (2013). European Urbanization, 1500-1800. London: Routledge.

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Linking the Growth of Globalisation with the Evolution of Transport Technology

The Rise of American Ingenuity: Innovation and Inventors of the Golden Age
By Ufuk Akcigit (University of Chicago), John Grigsby (University of Chicago) and Tom Nicholas (Harvard Business School)

Abstract: We examine the golden age of U.S. innovation by undertaking a major data collection exercise linking historical U.S. patents to state and county-level aggregates and matching inventors to Federal Censuses between 1880 and 1940. We identify a causal relationship between patented inventions and long-run economic growth and outline a basic framework for analyzing key macro and micro-level determinants. We find a positive relationship between innovation and drivers of regional performance including population density, financial development and geographic connectedness. We also explore the impact of social structure measured by slavery and religion. We then profile the characteristics of inventors and their life cycle finding that inventors were highly educated, positively selected through exit early in their careers, made time allocation decisions such as delayed marriage, and tended to migrate to places that were conducive to innovation. Father’s income was positively correlated with becoming an inventor, though not when controlling for the child’s education. We show there were strong financial returns to technological development. Finally, we document an inverted-U shaped relationship between inequality and innovation but also show that innovative places tended to be more socially mobile. Our new data help to address important questions related to innovation and long-run growth dynamics.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23047

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

Review by Tom Spain (Bangor University)

In this paper Akcigit, Grisby, and Nicholas highlight the advancement of transportation technology in the United States between 1880 and 1940, while better transport responded to the need to link the more developed and innovative regions of the country. Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas find that the American transport links were much stronger and of better quality between more developed regions in terms of finance and innovation, which, in turn, Hart and Milstein (2003) point to as key aspects for a successful capitalist society.

BrooklynBridge

Brooklyn Bridge, took 14 years to be constructed (1869-1883). Source: Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images, found in The Guardian, “Brooklyn Bridge under construction – picture of the day,Brooklyn Bridge under construction – picture of the day,” May 24, 2013. 

Research by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas is in line with others such as Harris (2015), who highlights that there is a direct link between advancements in technology and the growth of globalisation. The findings by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas, therefore, can be seen as the starting point for the globalisation of the American model of capitalism.

Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas state that during the 1880s emerged a belief that “geographic connectivity” should increase for there to be a rise in innovation: this increase would open up new markets for businesses to sell to. Here Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas rehearse a well-recognised argument that improvements in geographic connectivity lead to an increase in globalisation, and, therefore, advancements in transport technology are also an important factor for globalisation (Rodriguez 1999).

Another aspect discussed by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas is the link between the amount of investment of American states on transport infrastructure and the amount of innovation emerging from said states. Here it is shown that the more a state invested on transport infrastructure the more innovations came from that state. For instance, the authors mention that in the golden era of innovation the Midwest played a big part in US innovation via manufacturing. However, due to the constant value-seeking attitude towards capitalistic globalisation the contemporary Midwest is not as prosperous as it once was (Castle 1995). However, the question as to whether these states developed in terms of overall population is unanswered. As Banister and Berechman (2001) argue, the geographic connectivity aspects of globalisation may see areas lose resources, skills and, in turn, become poorer.

In terms of what could be improved in the paper by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas, the first thing to note is that it only highlights the level of innovation in terms of the amount of granted patents. This is unlike works conducted by the likes of Feldman and Florida (1994) who not only seek to see the level of innovation in each state but also what particular sector the innovations were in. The paper by Feldman and Florida (1994) also provides more detail of how many of the innovations were successful in terms of whether they were the technological underpinnings for future developments in a specific sector.

Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas suggest that all of the American states where transport and innovation increased also saw a reduction in inequality. In fact, in many cases inequality amongst the most innovative of states rose. This concurs with other research which suggests that inequality is a by-product of globalisation (Piketty and Saez, 2003).

A possible venue of research along the lines suggested by the paper is the importance of the advancement in transport technology and the role that it played in being able to create geographic connectivity. This link can be seen in the work of Usselman (2002).

References

Banister, D. and Berechman, Y., (2001). “Transport Investment and the Promotion of Economic Growth.” Journal of Transport Geography 9(3), pp.209-218.

Castle, E.N., (1995). The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Feldman, M.P. and Florida, R., (1994). “The Geographic Sources of Innovation: Technological Infrastructure and Product Innovation in the United States.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84(2), pp.210-229.

Harris, J., (2015). “Globalization, Technology and the Transnational Capitalist Class.” Foresight 17(2), pp.194 – 207.

Hart, S.L. and Milstein, M.B., (2003). “Creating Sustainable Value.” The Academy of Management Executive 17(2), pp.56-67.

Piketty, T. and Saez, E., (2003). “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(1), pp.1-41.

Rodriguez, J.P. (1999). “Globalization and the Synchronization of Transport Terminals.” Journal of Transport Geography 7(4), pp.255-261.

Usselman, S.W. (2002). Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.