The hollow economy

Looking for the next small (pre-party) book, I picked up G.D.H. Cole’s little 1938 Pelican┬áPersons and Periods (I have a 1945 edition). It’s a collection of essays by the economist and leading Fabian intellectual on Daniel Defoe (somebody who would now be considered a leading economic journalist, a Martin Wolf of his day, as well as a famous novelist) and his times.

Persons & Periods

There are some amusing parallels with modern debates about the state of the nation. In Defoe’s writings, and evidently in 1938 too, people bemoaned the dominance of London. “In 18th century England all roads, by land or by water, seemed to lead to London. …. London was, in Defoe’s day, the only town in England that could be reckoned large. … No wonder London seemed to Defoe and his contemporaries a prodigious place. overshadowing the whole country with the multitude and wealth of its consuming public.”

The following chapter is about ‘Roads, rivers and canals.’ In the 18th century, as now, travellers constantly complained about the state of the transport network, although the roads were being improved. “The trouble was not that the roads were getting worse but that they were being called upon to carry a quite unprecedentedly heavy volume of traffic.” Cole argues that the 19th century development of the canals, launched by the Duke of Bridgewater, and then railways, changed the location of people and activity: “In effect, with the advent of the canals, England ceased to be hollow.” The era of the great manufacturing cities of the north and Midlands followed.

Lessons here for our current ‘hollow’ economy? For a rebalanced economy, where the new infrastructure goes will be important.

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One thought on “The hollow economy

  1. The stuff on canals – awesome. Turns out the wikipedia page has a tonne of info.

    “For a rebalanced economy, where the new infrastructure goes will be important.”

    Exactly – and it’s “equally plausible to regard transport investment as a result of a need for movement or as a generator of movement” (Chapman 1979 p.230). So how to work out what/where, especially given we’re meant to be transitioning to a low carbon economy? Helluva tricky problem.

    This Glaeser quote (via own blog link, sorry) really bought home the extent to which infrastructure and technology determines the morphology of the economic landscape. As he says, the kind of point-to-point network travel road vehicles allow has led to `decentralisation of employment’, among other things. A low carbon future with more hub-and-spoke transport (only one possible future) will change the economic forces shaping places.

    I don’t think it’s commonly understood quite how radical a change decarbonisation poses to the spatial economy. Studying older transformations is one way to get a handle on that. Yay for economic history!

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