Week of June 20, 2021
Recent Developments in Economic History
This week, we’re looking at a few new and interesting papers from the leading economic history journals. A’Hearn et al examine the difficulties with using age heaping as a measure of numeracy; Allen and Heldring model the ninth-century abandonment of Southern Mesopotamia; and Cogneau et al develop a database for studying the fiscal capacity of twentieth-century French imperial governments.
Brian A'Hearn, Alexia Delfino, Alessandro Nuvolari | Economic History Review
Economic historians have recently taken to using age heaping—the over-representation of round numbers in census data—as an alternative measure of human capital, such as the “quantitative sophistication of a population.”1 This survey, focusing on nineteenth-century Italian records, points out some potential problems with the relationship between numeracy and age heaping. First, heaping may inaccurately reflect individual’s knowledge of their ages. Second, and more importantly, ignorance of age may not entail innumeracy; statistical collection by the government was poorly funded, while cultural factors may have either made individuals indifferent to age or interested in distorting the data. Thus age heaping indicates not only paucities of basic numeracy but also modernization (the growth of state capacity) and cultural change (individualism and honesty).
Robert C. Allen and Leander Heldring | Cliometrica
In the ninth century A.D., the sophisticated agrarian kingdoms of Southern Mesopotamia began a precipitous economic decline that resulted—seven centuries after the founding of Uruk—in the eventual desertion of the region. Allen and Heldring, compiling tax data and calibrating a model of a “hydraulic economy,” argue that this cataclysm was the result of high- and low-level political instability. The succession rules of the Abbasid Caliphate, which gave brothers an equal right to the throne, led to anarchy, civil war, and the collapse of the regime.2 The fiscal demands of the competing factions, meanwhile, resulted in extortionate taxation (through double assessment and direct pillage) in a society where revenue farmers had unlimited rights over the populace. Peasants ceased to pay taxes, and the caliphs in return ceased to maintain the irrigation system that made the region arable.
Denis Cogneau, Yannick Dupraz, Sandrine Mesplé-Somps | Journal of Economic History
A vast literature contests the fiscal capacity of late European imperial regimes, particularly in Africa and South Asia.3 Collecting data from 1,700 primary sources (primarily budgetary extracts), the authors seek to compares these figures with GDP per capita in French colonies to represent “fiscal extraction.” They find that this measure was “high,” amounting to 9 percent of GDP in 1925 and 16 percent in 1955—above the range for contemporary independent states. Moreover, this was characteristic of all twentieth-century colonial governments. Despite their fiscal capacity, however, these regimes—beset by inflated wages—were unable to provide public goods and lacking in administrators. After World War II (the “developmental era”), however, growing fiscal capacity was accompanied by increasing expenditure on health and education, as well as a fourfold leap in primary enrollments.4
Mokyr, J. and Ó Gráda, C., ‘ Emigration and poverty in prefamine Ireland’, Explorations in Economic History, 19 (1982), pp. 360– 84.
A pungent quote: “The top-level institutional failure was applying the succession rule of a desert band to a great empire.”
Refer to Frankema and Booth’s 2019 volume Fiscal Capacity and the Colonial State in Asia and Africa, c. 1850-1960 for an excellent survey.
French subsidies during this period were substantial, amounting to 2.7% of GDP.