The Paper Age

October already!

I just finished reading Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age by Daisy Hay, thanks to a couple of train journeys and a quiet evening alone at home. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s one of the mini-genre of books (like The Lunar Men) that paints a picture of an era’s ideas through a description of the people who gathered to talk and wirte and indeed paint about them. In this case it’s Britain of the 1770s to 1790s, and the centre – although an enigmatic character himself compared to some of his famous authors and illustrators – was Unitarian publisher Joseph Johnson. The central event giving the book its narrative arc is the French Revolution, and the subsequent crackdown on freedom of speech and worship by the British Government.

Anyway, the relevance here is this passage about a magazine started by Johnson, the Analytical Review (great title). One reviewer is quoted: “This is a PAPER AGE.” the book continues, “Paper had become the engine of Britain’s emergent capitalist economy, as banknotes, share certificates, contracts and promissory notes circulated out from London into the provinces and across the globe.” The magazine estimated that nine tenths of Britain’s trade relied on the medium of paper.

I suppose ours is an ELECTRON age. Although electrons, as Ed Conway makes so plain in the excellent Material World, depend entirely on a material substrate.

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Classes, elites and people

I was very excited to get a proof copy of Branko Milanovic’s new book, Visions of Inequality From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War, a while ago. The book is out in early October so it seems ok to post about it now. For anybody interested in inequality – and we all should be – anything by Milanovic is an essential read. His collation and interpretation of global inequality data is masterly, and his perspective from a socialist background (he was born in former Yugoslavia) is always interesting.

This new book is an intellectual history of how economists of the past have perceived and analysed inequality. The chapters cover Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Pareto, Kuznets and then – for the second half of the 20th century – a cluster of neoclassical economists during the period the book labels as ‘the long eclipse of inequality studies’. The Cold War involved in the west the myth (in economics although not in life) of a classless society. The book aims to describe each thinker’s ideas about the dynamics of income distribution, but not their normative perspective. Hence the discussion of Marx covers the evolution of wages and the downard tendency of the rate of profit but not the labour theory of value and alienation.

As I’m no expert on the history of thought, I learned a lot from the earlier chapters. The earlier thinkers all framed their analysis around the concept of social classes: “Classes were the natural concepts around which income distribution was ‘built’.” With Pareto, the analysis shifted to interpersonal distribution within a framework of the social hierarchy (the eltie vs the rest), and then with Kuznets and the later neoclassicals to individuals. This was partly driven by the availability of data on individual incomes from income tax records, after the introduction of direct taxation. The distribution among individuals could be sliced in different ways – location, education, occupation – but the background context of social structure faded. And then, after around 1960, economists’ interest in income distribution faded too. Why?

One comment Milanovic makes in the introduction struck home: “The puzzle was solved when I realized that the discipline of economics, as it was taught and studied betweem 1960 and 1990 in the West, was really designed for the period of the Cold War. …. Inequality seemed like a problem that was going away, and this reduced interest in studying it.  … Each side [in the Cold War] had to insist that it was more equal and less class based than the other.” The book quotes Kuznets’ 1955 AEA Presidential Address calling for economists to begin to look at processes of long-term change – technology, demography, social frameworks: “Effective work in this field necessarily calls for a shift from market economics to political and social economy,” Kuznets said. Of course, this did not happen and economics doubled down on the market framework. “We might say that economics as a field stagnated or even regressed, at least in its understanding of income distribution under modern capitalism,” Milanovic comments.

This has changed in recent years, with the empirical work of economists like Milanovic, Saez and Piketty – I would add the prescient prior work of Tony Atkinson (Inequality: What Can Be Done is a terrific overview and battle cry), who was ahead of his time. Visions of Inequality ends with a call to augment the study of individual incomes with a greater focus on non-labour income, on household income rather than the individual wage earner, and on global inequality. My addendum would be the distribution of unpaid work within the household and the community. It’s an exciting time to be studying inequality thanks to the data and recent scholarship, and an important time given how unsustainable the current distribution has become – after all, the term ‘elite’ has become an insult in political debate. This book is a great scene setter for the modern debate, not least in illustrating the link between ideas of inequality and the times in which ideas are formed.

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The Industrial Revolution: causes, consequences

I’m a sucker for any book about the Industrial Revolution, having grown up in its heartland in Lancashire cotton country, and have just read two. One was a re-read, of Joel Mokyr’s classic The Lever of Riches, as I wanted to refer to some aspects as I draft my new book. In particular, the many examples of time saving – for instance, “Although the paper industry is not often thought of as a typical industry of the Industrial Revolution, the Fourdrinier machine was in fact a revolutionary device. It reduced the time involved in making a given piece of paper from three weeks to three minutes.” The book focuses on the relationship between technological progress and economic growth to explore the perennial questions: why Britain? Why then?

The other is Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson’s new book Slavery, Capitalism and The Industrial Revolution. It’s a synthesis of a lot of recent research on Britain’s role in the slave trade and the economies of the Caribbean, and the interaction between slavery and empire and the way the Industrial Revolution in Britain took shape. I’ve read enough about the Industrial Revolution that I’d come across quite a lot of the material before – such as the links between compensation paid to slave-owners after abolition and the growth of financial services and funding of investment and consumption in Britain. The Bank of England has a fascinating working paper on compensation payments, and the UCL project is magisterial. The authors repeat the claim that the debt the government issued to pay compensation wasn’t paid off until 2015 – understandably, as the Treasury tweeted to that effect – although it’s more accurate to say that low interest rates then enabled the  redemption of some consols.

But in any case the book does a terrific job of presenting a synoptic view of the role of slavery in answering the Why Britain? Why then? questions. History is over-determined, in retrospect. Searching for ‘a’ cause is doomed to fail. This book does not make that claim, acknowledging other explanations in the mix. It offers, though, an important perspective on an aspect of the Industrial Revolution that has only relatively recently come into focus.

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It’s the economy, stupid

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok was unexpectedly gripping. It’s a large tome, and I can’t remember how it came to be in my pile. But perhaps it’s because the events collectively described as the collapse of Communism marked history as part of my own life that I found the detailed descriptions here of Soviet politics over the years from the arrival of Garbachev and the collapse of the USSR so compelling. In the late 1980s I was working for DRI Europe where my job included trying to understand perestroika and the Soviet economic reforms to explain to clients. We were on holiday in remote Herefordshire watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on a small black and white TV, whose grainy footage felt somehow appropriate for a world historical event. Then came the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution and the not-at-all-velvet overthrow of the Ceaucescus in Romania over the Christmas holiday. German re-unfication. And of course the collapse of the USSR and western ‘victory’ in the Cold War. If only we’d realised then that the West was a construct of the same system, except that its collapse on our side of the Iron Curtain would be a slower business.

Anyway, aside from the fascinating detail, the message I took away from Collapse was the perennial: it’s the economy, stupid. If there’s high inflation and people’s living standards are falling because of food shortages and other problems, you will have zero political room for manoeuvre and will open the way to political snake-oil peddlers to offer “easy” solutions. Oh.

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Coffee and communism

“This project was hugely successful, perhaps one of the most effective aid projects ever conducted.” What would you guess this to be?

The line is from Katja Hoyer’s Beyond The Wall: East Germany 1949-1990. The context was the fact that the GDR ran out of coffee in 1977. “Afternoon coffee had become a daily ritual, not just comforting but essential as a psychological crutch,” Hoyer writes. It signalled stability and material comfort after the deprivations the middle-aged and older generation had experienced as young adults. The commodities crisis and the GDR’s chronic lack of foreign exchange meant the country couldn’t import any more coffee. What to do?

The solution was to come to a fraternal socialist arrangement with Vietnam, desperately poor after its own conflict. “East Germany could help the brother state rebuild itself while solving its own coffee problem.” GDR provided an enormous aid package and helped build massive infrastructure including a hydropower plant, and in return would get half of Vietnam’s coffee output for 20 years.

Vietnam now produces 20 million 60kg bags of coffee a year – almost all exported – in an industry employing 2.6 million people, the book reports. Unfortunately for East Germany, the coffee plants didn’t produce their first beans until 1990, too late to save the Communist regime. The coffee shortage was a striking illustration of the economy’s long-term unsustainability. It was too small and unproductive to continue to provide enough material and consumerist comforts to keep the population satisfied.

For a few years in the late 1980s a small part of my job involved monitoring the Soviet economy during the era of perestroika. The best estimates in the west (the CIA’s) over-estimated the strength of the planned Communist economies in the years running up to 1989. Extensive borrowing – and for the USSR itself, resource exports – was needed to fund enough consumption for political stability, given low productivity. Beyond The Wall is very interesting in its highlighting of the social benefits of the stability and the growing comforts East Germany provided its population; for a (significant) minority life there was intolerable, but for the majority it had some compensations. Until it didn’t.