What can we learn from the history of The Machinery Question?

by on April 7, 2017 at 1:00 am in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Recently I read was Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery, from 1836 (later reprinted).

So much of his discussion of handloom weavers could come out of an Atlantic Monthly article from 2015, albeit with different historical references.  However today’s stories typically claim that automation favors tech skills, whereas Gaskell argues power weaving put the skilled workers out of jobs and empowered the less skilled machine supervisors.

Just as Bill Gates called for the taxing of robots, back in the early 19th century many people called for the taxing of machinery.  Gaskell believes this would help labor in the short run but in the longer run actually stimulate more innovation — to avoid some of the tax by lowering capital costs — eventually making labor’s lot all the worse.

Gaskell dives into sociology and suggests that the earlier, less technology-intensive workers were more religious, more devout, and less likely to make political trouble.  Distinctions of rank were in fuller force, and children were less likely to be pressured to work outside the home.  Insofar as the man worked inside the cottage as a sole proprietor, this encouraged an ethic of individual responsibility.  Society was truly decentralized, and those were “the golden times” of manufactures.  The downside is that such individuals were less likely to be literate, and of course output was lower, including food output, and prices were higher.

Since women and children also could work the new power looms, that increased the supply of labor and put downward pressure on wages and on male wages in particular.  Collectively speaking, it would have been better to preserve division of labor within the household, and keep male wages relatively high, and female household production relatively high.

One of the more charming sections of this book was the chapter on how factories spur too much of the animal passions, as men and women are working together long hours and will eventually…dine with Mike Pence.  Furthermore, factory work leads to new norms where women can have premarital sex and still expect to marry someone else later on, without much fear of a reputational penalty.  Premarital sex then rises all the more, and then the looser norms are passed down to the children, worsening the problem all the more.  Eventually England will end up with the sexual norms found in the “warmer climates.”

Overall, Gaskell paints a picture of a world where there are positive social externalities from having individual males tied to pieces of land.  Along those lines, he offers a kind of Georgist critique of the countryside, where too much land has been tied up in speculative enclosures.

Given ongoing mechanization, only in the long run can a society find a “healthy and permanent tone” once again.  He is optimistic about the long run, but not about the transition.

I don’t exactly agree with all of these perspectives, but I was impressed by the intricacy and also clarity of the analysis in this book, which usually does not receive significant mention in the history of economic thought.

Here are various copies of the book.  Even Maxine Berg doesn’t cover Gaskell much.

1 Mason Masters April 7, 2017 at 1:50 am

Any other old books (pre-1900) you might recommend?

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2 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 2:04 am

For those less interested in a google search, archive.org is always a fine source – https://archive.org/details/artisansandmach01gaskgoog

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3 Axa April 7, 2017 at 3:43 am

You´re a joke. Please revisit the link you provide and check who “carefully scanned” the book.

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4 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 5:10 am

Google scanned the book, as noted at the link – ‘Book digitized by Google from the library of the University of Michigan and uploaded to the Internet Archive by user tpb.’ The Internet Archive tends to be quite good at citing its sources, actually.

But for those who actually want a copy, for example to search text, can have a difficult time using the single page images that google books provides, such as seen at this link – https://books.google.de/books?id=_PTxbpVGyCcC&pg=PA1&hl=de&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3 Of course, there may be some other way to access google books than that – suggestions of how to download txt/epub/etc files from google books are more than welcome.

Until then, it is easier to use a link like this – https://archive.org/stream/artisansandmach01gaskgoog/artisansandmach01gaskgoog_djvu.txt and save the file, to have whenever wished, with fully searchable text. Admittedly, though unsurprisingly, only the actual written text seems to be well handled.

Here is a sample of the quality of that text (whether the columnar formatting survives posting is less than likely, though) –

‘PREFACE, V

Nor can any wonder be felt that men should
grow discontented and dissatisfied who labour
fourteen or sixteen hours daily, and earn from
four to six shillings per week, and who see not the
most remote probability that their condition will be
improved. Upwards of a million of human beings
are literally starving, and the number is constantly
on the increase, hand-weaving being the only refuge
for the adult labourer, since the spread of the
factory system.

Irreligion and general immorality must ever
attend hopeless poverty. ‘ Men thus circumstanced
become reckless and dispirited, and it is painful to
witness the growth of unfavourable dispositions in
classes who have been driven to destitution by
causes far beyond their control.* The evidence
given before the Committee above mentioned,
both by the masters and men, is not less startling
than true.’

However, why “carefully scanned”? That text certainly does not appear in any comment, nor in Prof. Cowen’s text. The epub file in Okular seems acceptable also, though in neither format is the conversion flawless. Which, considering that both are free, seems reasonable, particularly in comparison to not being able to search the images provided by google books.

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5 msgkings April 7, 2017 at 2:09 am

Great post, fascinating. It is sometimes impossible to ignore downsides of modernity.

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6 Mason Masters April 7, 2017 at 2:14 am

Hey man, as long as we’re distracted we’ll get through it.

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7 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 2:50 am

Like treating women as fully equal citizens, with the same rights as men. Apparently, this results in ignoring the collective good.

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8 msgkings April 7, 2017 at 12:29 pm

There are upsides of modernity too. Kind of like the internet. Lots of upside, with downsides like giving you a forum.

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9 Mason Masters April 7, 2017 at 11:43 pm

Sick burn tbh

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10 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 2:54 am

‘Collectively speaking, it would have been better to preserve division of labor within the household, and keep male wages relatively high, and female household production relatively high.’

Ok, no surprise that collectively, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen is the sort of thing that a GMU econ professor prefers, or at least is willing to present as an opinion dressed in objective clothing, when it comes to woman and their place in household production, but loyal readers are undoubtedly curious where they should stand on the collective benefits of child labor.

‘Eventually England will end up with the sexual norms found in the “warmer climates.”’

Such a hilariously wrong prediction – England hasn’t even ended up with the sexual norms found in the cooler Northern European climes.

‘Overall, Gaskell paints a picture of a world where there are positive social externalities from having individual males tied to pieces of land. ‘

Just like Jefferson, right? ‘Yeoman’ seems to be the technical term for that lovely chimera – ‘historical – A man holding and cultivating a small landed estate; a freeholder.’ https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/yeoman Though who knows, in today’s America, maybe the proper term is ‘suburbanite.’

‘I don’t exactly agree with all of these perspectives’

Except for what you wrote as your perspective, of course.

‘which usually does not receive significant mention in the history of economic thought’

Likely because economists aren’t all that interested in romanticism or politically tinged fiction – Gaskell’s work is not exactly obscure in that connection. For example (so much for Lenten promises), in connection with this piece of fiction, also coincidentally written by someone named Gaskell – ‘As well as relying on her own experience, Gaskell is thought to have used secondary sources on which to base the setting of the story, including Kay’s The moral and physical condition of the working classes involved in the cotton manufacture in Manchester (1832) and Peter Gaskell’s The manufacturing population of England (1833). Other details to which Gaskell paid particular attention to ensure the realism of the novel include the topography of both Manchester and Liverpool (including the rural environment detailed in the first chapter, and references to road names and prominent buildings), the superstitions and customs of the local people and the dialect. In the earliest editions, William Gaskell added the footnotes explaining some of the words specific to the Lancashire dialect, and after the fifth edition (1854), two lectures of his on the subject were added as appendices. It is widely thought that the murder of Harry Carson in the novel was inspired by the assassination of Thomas Ashton, a Manchester mill-owner, in 1831.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Barton

Oddly, it is quite possible that some obscure economist named Marx may have read Peter Gaskell’s work too, but really, who cares about such a dedicated critic of the best of all possible economic systems in the best of all possible worlds?

But then, that is only the opinion of someone that took a GMU Victorian Literature class from one of those dreaded left wing academics infesting what is currently called the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. And really, who remembers PAGE these days anymore anyways? – http://ahistoryofmason.gmu.edu/exhibits/show/prominence/contents/ncc

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11 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 3:11 am

Oops – too many Gaskell works to keep straight. Gaskell’s ‘Artisans and Machinery’ is a different book than that that was used by Gaskell, which was Gaskell’s ‘The manufacturing population of England.’

Still quite likely that Marx was aware of both works, though, considering that Gaskell was not precisely obscure in that era.

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12 So Much For Subtlety April 7, 2017 at 3:34 am

Ok, no surprise that collectively, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen is the sort of thing that a GMU econ professor prefers, or at least is willing to present as an opinion dressed in objective clothing, when it comes to woman and their place in household production, but loyal readers are undoubtedly curious where they should stand on the collective benefits of child labor.

Actually it would be a surprise as his colleagues would no longer speak to him. However for the rest of us, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen is exactly the sort of thing we should prefer. Everyone would be better off. Remember that women’s satisfaction and happiness has been on a decline since we started to push them to put on a pair of high heels and get out of the kitchen.

Child labor is a more interesting question but clearly the pendulum has swung too far the other way and we keep too many young boys in schools for too long where they are just bored and disruptive when they could be acquiring life skills and earning in the real economy.

Such a hilariously wrong prediction – England hasn’t even ended up with the sexual norms found in the cooler Northern European climes.

The bastardry rate in the UK would suggest otherwise.

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13 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 3:49 am

‘Actually it would be a surprise as his colleagues would no longer speak to him.’

At least one of his eminent (not emeritus) scholar colleagues that I know of still would, unless he has changed a lot in the last 3 decades.

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14 Jawbird April 7, 2017 at 2:55 am

Windows is shutting down, and grammar are
On their last leg. So what am we to do?
A letter of complaint go just so far,
Proving the only one in step are you.

Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes.
A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad
Before they gets to where you doesnt knows
The meaning what it must be meant to had.

The meteor have hit. Extinction spread,
But evolution do not stop for that.
A mutant languages rise from the dead
And all them rules is suddenly old hat.

Too bad for we, us what has had so long
The best seat from the only game in town.
But there it am, and whom can say its wrong?
Those are the break. Windows is shutting down.

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15 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 2:57 am

Free verse, or an early attempt of an AI attempting to become a loyal MR commenter?

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16 dearieme April 7, 2017 at 6:29 am

“positive social externalities from having individual males tied to pieces of land”: he wanted to reintroduce serfdom? Which had vanished four hundred years earlier. Fruitcake!

“Georgist critique of the countryside, where too much land has been tied up in speculative enclosures”: if he didn’t understand what the Parliamentary enclosures were doing he shouldn’t have written about them. Twit.

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17 chuck martel April 7, 2017 at 7:13 am

By 1836 the warped Puritan attitudes about sex had evolved into what became the hypocritical Victorian prudery that endured into the 20th century. The industrial revolution facilitated this as now the internet revolution has expanded the opportunities for sexual adventure. Even so, sexual pornography is publicly condemned while violence pornography is a staple of movies, television, video games, etc.

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18 AHJ April 7, 2017 at 7:40 am

That’s wrong. English sexual mores were highly licentious throughout the 18th and early-mid-19th centuries. What’s now known as “Victorian Repression” didn’t emerge until the latter end of that queen’s reign.

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19 prior_test2 April 7, 2017 at 9:34 am

The part about violence being American’s preferred form of mass pornography remains dead accurate, though.

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20 The Anti-Gnostic April 7, 2017 at 10:20 am

LOL. Keep this loon in Germany.

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21 Slocum April 7, 2017 at 7:49 am

Given the name, location, and shared interests, I’d have guessed that Peter Gaskell was related to Elizabeth Gaskell but apparently not.

“However today’s stories typically claim that automation favors tech skills, whereas Gaskell argues power weaving put the skilled workers out of jobs and empowered the less skilled machine supervisors.”

Automation has always favored those educated workers who design, build and maintain the complex machinery. As for the operation, it can cut either way. The machinery may increase productivity while demanding fewer skills (power looms for weavers, bar-code scanners for cashiers, or assembly-line manufacturing generally). Or the machinery may demand greater skill (using a heavy bulldozer instead of a shovel or a combine instead a scythe).

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22 Niroscience April 7, 2017 at 1:12 pm

For me, the reason why present utomation favours high skill workers (for now) has less to do with the labour inputs these skilled workers add to the capital (AI). Its that they are able to tread water and stay afloat in the sea of job losses, compared to their unskilled peers.

In any case, this is a really cool post – academics’ real comparative advantage is the time and luxury to read old old stuff and interesting tidbits.

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23 The Anti-Gnostic April 7, 2017 at 10:23 am

Didn’t Solow already run thru this, or is he out of fashion in favor of the cheap stoop labor model?

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24 The Anti-Gnostic April 7, 2017 at 10:23 am

@Slocum

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25 mulp April 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm

“Furthermore, factory work leads to new norms where women can have premarital sex and still expect to marry someone else later on, without much fear of a reputational penalty.”

So, women working in factories enables them to engage in premarital lesbian affairs?

Or were men engaged in premarital homosexual affairs until they worked in factories with women when they could be bisexuals?

The logic of the author was classically free lunch, ie, was not zero sum. Ie, men can have sex with women without it being wrong, but women having sex with men is inherently wrong, so the same sex act is both right and wrong, right for the man, wrong for the woman.

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26 Hopaulius April 7, 2017 at 6:24 pm

Today I took my tax paperwork into a tax preparation center at a local community college. The work is done by accounting students certified as tax preparers. Unfortunately the internet was down due to a windstorm. In times past this wouldn’t have been an issue at all; they would have had multiple paper copies of the various forms needed to prepare returns. Alas, the office is devoid of paper forms, and the entire tax system is run through web browsers on ancient computers running Windows 7. When the internet is down, the students can do nothing. Is this progress or regress? It’s hard to view the students as more than machine supervisors who can do nothing when the machine is inoperable.

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