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Reading Notes for September 8, Malthus Unbound

Economics 210a, Fall 1999


Massimo Livi-Bacci (1992), A Concise History of World Population (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 30-136.

Background on the demographic transition--on the "Malthusian" population dynamics of pre-industrial societies, on the extraordinary variance of the pre-industrial death rate, on the coming of the mortality declines and growth-enabled fertility increases that then caused the population explosion, and on the subsequent decline in fertility to our present state of near-zero-population-growth in the most industrialized economies.

Do you see any weaknesses in this story? Any hints that the demographic future might not be as already baked-in-the-cake as Livi-Bacci would seem to argue?


Richard Easterlin (1995), "Industrial Revolution and Mortality Revolution: Two of a Kind?" Journal of Evolutionary Economics 5:4 (December), pp. 393-408.

As Easterlin sees it, the population explosion was first of all the consequence of a public-health revolution --argely independent of but parallel to the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution greatly amplified productivity in manufacturing, resource extraction, and agriculture. The public-health revolution greatly increased human life expectancy by giving governments and doctors easy-to-use tools to conquer many of the major causes of death. Both had their origins in modern science. But they proceeded by and large independently.

The mortality decline of the public-health revolution set off the population explosion: fertility was still high and birth control scarce, hence populations grew rapidly. However, Easterlin believes that the population explosion is nearly over: Birth control is now cheap. The education requirements of modern economies have turned children from capital goods--assets to a household's production and insurance for the parents' old age--into consumption goods: sources of joy and of expense. The net result is a fall in the birth rate to match the fall in the death rate, and a worldwide human population that will approach stability over the next century.

This will happen whether the relatively poor economies of the globe succeed in their task of economic growth, or fall further and further behind.

Do you believe him?


Eric Jones (1981), The European Miracle (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 45-70, 85-126, 202-22.

We read four chapters out of Eric Jones's tremendously stimulating--and tremendously speculative--European Miracle:

Technological Drift, 45-70: "Europe was a mutant system in its uninterrupted amassing of knowledge about technology.... Nothing is clearer than that the fires of modernisation and industrialisation, once lighted in Britain and Belgium and the Rhineland, burned quickly to the fringes of this European system. Even Russia and the Christian colonies of the Ottoman Empire smouldered. But at the asbestos edge of the Muslim sphere the fires abruptly died. They never [before World War II] took light over most of the non-European world, Europe's overseas annexes excepted.... Japan was the only successful non-European industrialiser..."

This is a strong statement of "European exceptionalism." Do you buy it? Is there something to be explained in terms of a strongly disproportionate ability of "European" cultures to grab hold of industrial technology and civilization once it is on offer? If so, do you buy Jones's attempts to explain what was special about European culture and modern industrial technology?

The Market Economy, 85-103: In this chapter Jones tries to sketch out how it was that the European economy became a market economy--how the state withdrew largely from the business of prescribing occupations, setting prices and wage rates, and monkeying with what exchanges were allowed in the interest of making its clients happy, and settled back to the business of providing rules of the game and taking a cut through organized systems of taxation. Jones sees--and others, notably Adam Smith before him, saw--this as a step of major, major importance: getting the government's nose out of the detailed business of economic regulation enables a potential explosion of entrepreneurial activity--it is the source of the "industrious revolution" in de Vries's article a little way down the reading list. Read this chapter as background for de Vries's Presidential Address.

The States System, 104-126: The core of Jones's argument in this chapter is that kingdoms--states that see themselves as one of a number of equals and under threat by their neighbors--have a much greater interest in a strong economic base (and in better military technology) than do empires which see themselves as the center of the universe (and only have to keep order among the barbarians). Moreover, many centers of power within a single cultural, political, and economic ekumene give extra-great opportunities for variation, selection, and imitation--which is one of the most powerful mechanisms for change, social or otherwise.

China and the Ming and Manchu Empires, 202-222: The "Great Stagnation" of China under the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties remains one of the great questions of economic history. Certainly any observer of the world around the year 1000 would see China under the Tang and Sung as the world's most progressive and economically dynamic civilization. But what happened thereafter? Why no Chinese industrial revolution?

In my view this chapter is worth reading because it shows Eric Jones thrashing about, searching for answers, without a great deal of success. What answers does Jones try to give? And how convincing are they?


Michael Kremer (1993), "Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990," Quarterly Journal of Economics 108 (August 1993), pp. 681-716.

Depending on who you talk to, this paper is either hailed as a stroke of genius or condemned as showing how a good mind can be ruined by too much exposure to modern economic theory.

I like the paper a lot--especially its first half. I see the correlation of population levels and growth rates as a stroke of genius. I see the correlation of pre-Columbus land areas and population levels as also very suggestive. (I am, however, still waiting for an explanation of slow pre-Columbian growth in Africa: it's hard to argue that it was effectively cut off from Eurasia as far as the diffusion of ideas is concerned when the biggest city in East Africa is named "The House of Peace" in a major language spoken across four thousand miles of southern Eurasia. (After Columbus, on the other hand, I have no problem understanding slow growth in Africa.))

But think...

  • ...what Tom Rothenberg would say about the statistical work.
  • ...whether you learn anything from a phase diagram that predicts that the industrial revolution and modern economic growth happen with probability one once someone realizes that if you hit two chunks of flint together you might get a sharp edge you can use for cutting things.
  • ...whether you can learn anything at all from a model pitched at such an extreme level of abstraction.


J. Bradford DeLong and Andrei Shleifer (1993), "Princes and Merchants: City Growth Before the Industrial Revolution," Journal of Law and Economics 36:5 (October), pp. 671-702.

This place makes an extreme argument for a "political" interpretation of European economic growth in the three-quarters of a millennium before the industrial revolution. Briefly: wherever Habsburg armies conquered and Habsburg dynasts imposed absolutist systems of rule, economies stagnated. Wherever absolutism was successfully resisted (in the city states of Northern Italy up until 1500, in the Netherlands during the wars of the Counterreformation, or in Britain after the Glorious Revolution of 1688) economies flourished.

I will be very disappointed if the class cannot think of at least five reasons why the argument of this paper might not be grossly overstated...


Jan de Vries (1994), "The Industrious Revolution and the Industrial Revolution," Journal of Economic History 54:2 (June), pp. 249-70.

This piece shows our very own Jan de Vries (his office is down in Dwinelle: most years he teaches half of Economics 210a) giving the Presidential Address to the Economic History Association.

If I were to sum up Jan de Vries's lifetime intellectual mission in a couple of phrases, it would be that he attempts to restore honor and place to the concept of the Commercial Revolution--and to undo the damage done to our picture of history by generations of ignorant Marxists.

You see, the Marxist schema sees the birth of the modern world in a transition between "feudalism"--with its kings, lords, knights, serfs, low agricultural productivity, illiteracy, rents-in-kind, and so on--and "capitalism"--with its prime ministers, parliaments, robber barons, bourgeoisie, workers, large pieces of capital equipment, dark satanic mills, markets, and so forth. The first tended to stagnation (and poverty). The second tends to dynamic economic growth and wealth (and unequal distrinbution of the social product). In between comes a... mixed, transitional period, uninteresting in theory and unimportant in practice. Thus someone like UCLA's Perry Anderson can classify the French ancien regime up until 1789 as a "regrouped and recharged feudal mode of domination."

Jan de Vries says: not so. An industrial economy is certainly different from a feudal economy, but it is also very different from a commercial economy. And de Vries sees no reason for presuming that the (earlier) shift from a feudal to a commercial economy is in any sense less central or less important than the subsequent shift from a commercial to an industrial economy.

Hence his presidential address: a study not of the industrial but of the industrious revolution.


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