Are we living in the early 19th century?

I frequently make this reference in talks, though I can’t recall having blogged it yet.

Here is one report from the front today:

Corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent since the end of 2008, he said, but disposable income inched ahead by 1.4 percent annually over the same period, after adjusting for inflation.

“There hasn’t been a period in the last 50 years where these trends have been so pronounced,” Mr. Maki said.

If we turn to the industrial revolution, what do we see?  Relatively high productivity from “restructuring,” (machinery replacing labor) but relatively low productivity from innovation or total factor productivity.  Robert C. Allen, in his “Engels’ pause: Technical change, capital accumulation, and inequality in the British industrial revolution” (pdf, the final version is in Explorations in Economic History, 2009) estimates TFP from the time at about 0.69% a year, hardly a stunning number (the number runs in the 2%-3% range for the 1920s and 1930s) and actually that early number is close to what we are seeing today for TFP.

From 1780 to 1840, output per worker rose 46% and the real wage index rose by only about 12%, noting that none of these numbers are close to exact.  (Contra Ricardo, the share going to land is declining steadily and capital is capturing the gains.)  The significant real wage gains come after 1840 and — in my view — even more after 1870.  After 1830 TFP is growing at the higher rate of about 1% a year, still not impressive by the standards of the early 20th century however.

During the early 19th century, there is much creative ferment, but much less in terms of products which translate into gains in living standards for the average person.

By the way, you also have theorists — Malthus, Lauderdale, Chalmers, Attwood, and others — who thought the main problem was simply lack of aggregate demand, which Malthus called effectual demand.  They were absolutely right about part of the picture in the short run but missed most of the larger truths.

Eventually all of the creative ferment of the industrial revolution pays off in a big “whoosh,” but it takes many decades, depending on where you draw the starting line of course.  A look at the early 19th century is sobering, or should be, for anyone doing fiscal budgeting today.  But it is also optimistic in terms of the larger picture facing humanity over the longer run.


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