The arrival of cheap food in England

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.

Here is more from Bee Wilson, via The Browser.


No shit, Jack!

But the last three sentences make no sense, and thus cannot have anything to do with the first, descriptive, part of the citation.

What makes no sense? The relationship between the cost of labor and the cost of goods? The idea that in the Victorian era people worked long hours for low pay? Both of these things are pretty obvious and well-documented.

The cheap imported food and the domestic labor market selling it are not especially connected. It is reasonable to believe that Victorian labor was exploited as much as possible without steamship imported food being distributed via a functional network of rail lines.

How strongly connected they are depends on the truth of the assertion that the public "could only afford to buy these foods" because of low wages. The widespread imports described could not happen without a broad market for the foods.

Labor cost obviously contributed to the cost of the goods. In the Victorian era, labor costs would have been much higher per customer, since they didn't have self-service shopping, and a clerk would have to spend significant time at the counter with each customer helping them and retrieving items for them. Plus, in this era people had much less disposable income and would be much more sensitive to small increases in the price of food.

It's not clear whether the claim is true or not, but there's nothing nonsensical or illogical about it.

Economies are zero sum.

Consumption equals production.

Money is work/consumption in the past or future.

But workers can't not afford to live. Workers either earn an amount equal to what is needed to live or they die, thus reducing the number of workers, reducing the production, which means workers are paid more and can thus live, or production is cut and now wealthy rentier/monopolist capitalist consumers starve because no workers remain to produce.

Bankers can create money to time shift work/consumption to a degree, but not indefinitely.

The reality is that monopolists can extract labor from workers who mostly produce directly what they consume, but only for a time.

Ie, Europeans traded with native hunter/gathers/farmers who produced 90% of what they consumed, goods that cost say an hours labor in a European factory in exchange for goods that required a week or two to produce. But that trade lasted only a few years until the cheap factory goods flooded the native markets and it now required goods costing week of work in European factories in exchange for a week of work by natives. Ie, going from beads to knives and guns.

The only thing that lasted for a century or two was Europeans killing and driving natives from their lands. But even that had to stop.


In the long run, the economy is zero sum.

And government/civilization is the most important consumption good.

Lots of places libertarians can go to find no government. Much of Africa, the Mideast, Central America, but oddly they pick places with government that create good economies and then try to carve out a zone of free lunch protected by a government they don't pay for. Why no go to Afghanistan or Somalia or Sudan? There many get paid less than the cost to live, and then die when eating dirt and grass leads to death.

So if you take this to it’s logical conclusion we should still be in a Malthusian trap.....

If the argument is that the only way that wages rise is through carnage of workers and cuts in production then real wage growth should track with recession or depression.

If this were true then randomly killing off a quarter of the work force would be a benefit to mankind?

What make's you think we are not.

The fact that we have enough food to feed significantly more people than we currently have on the planet. Hunger (the main limiting factor for human growth in previous generations) is now a distribution, not a production, issue.

Yes! Right at this moment. In 1929 when the great depression began about half of Americans either lived on a farm or had close connections to people who lived on a farm. There were only about 120 million living in the U.S. then. Today that number living on or related to those living on a farm is 2% and there are 330 million or so here. I can think of a dozen very real possible disasters that could befall us overnight that would shut down most of the food supply for months and maybe years. We are in a much worse position today exactly because we are so dependent on distribution and production that is 100% out of the hands of most of our population.

You don't know what the Malthusian Trap is, do you? It's not simply system fragility.

The Malthusian trap or population trap is a condition whereby excess population would stop growing due to shortage of food supply leading to starvation. This is inevitable. The only unknowns are; when, how and why.

It most certainly DID propose a mechanism: food production was stated to be unable to keep pace with population rise. Mere starvation IS NOT the Malthusian Trap.

Secondly, that you state that starvation is inevitable demonstrates that you know very little about population ecology. Every population has limiting factors, yes--some thing (well, usually a LACK of some thing) that prevents the population from growing exponentially. Lack of food is a common one in animals; lack of space is a common one in plants. In humans, it's demonstrably true that our limiting factor is our desire to reproduce. If you educate the population--especially the women--your population stabilizes or begins to decline (which is viewed with horror from a sociological and economic standpoint, but which is perfectly in line with predictions of ecology; after the S curve of population growth you usually get wiggles). And if that doesn't work scarce resources have always lead to war, which (from a purely ecological perspective, though some rulers have made it a semi-open intent of war) serves the purpose of removing excess population.

Starvation is demonstrably NOT the most likely limiting factor for humans.

Further, you under-estimate the stability of chaotic systems (which economies are among). Everyone knows the Butterfly Effect, but what they forget is that far more commonly chaotic systems endure massive pressures with very little change. You can demonstrate this yourself--many of your own systems are chaotic in nature, yet you don't die when you go to sleep or if you become mildly ill. Economies have weathered tremendous upheavals and continued on. Elephants can trample through a forest and not destroy it. Stability, not fragility, is the hallmark of chaos (though sudden, rapid changes are also common).

8 million Ukrainians are rolling over in the grave after reading your comments.

Learn the history of that event before using it as an argument for your conclusions.

This is simply misguided. The old system, where most food was produced locally, was much more vulnerable to disasters, because local weather or events could easily knock out the food supply.

Our global food production and distribution system is far more resilient. There is a great deal of redundancy in terms of where food can be sourced from and how it can be transported. Individual components of the system may be "fragile" but the system is not. And, in the event of a huge disaster, coming up with emergency food distribution is a relatively simple problem (unlike regrowing crops).

RIght now we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has brought all sorts of travel and production activities to a halt. Yet, there is no real risk to the food supply. Some individual items have not been available at times, but at no point was the supply of a wide variety of healthy, fresh food stopped.

What are the scenarios that "shut down most of the food supply for months and maybe years" (and would not have a similarly catastrophic effect on the old system)? The ones I can think of are "entire world declares war on America and barricades it completely" and "invading aliens have a zapper that stops technology from working". No realistic ones, though.

The extremely long hours of Dickensian workers has been puzzling to me. Did they really work steadily for 90 hours per week? Was that actually productive?

I'm a reasonably hard-working, self-motivated guy, but the two highest weekly hours I ever did on a timesheet were 83 and then 106 at the end of a major project when I was 26.

My father told me that during WWII the government did a study of Lockheed workers to figure out the optimal number of hours per week. They came up with 52. I've never been able to confirm that anecdote, but it sounds pretty plausible to me as an average for a general workforce (as opposed to late 20s elites like doctors and lawyers).

After ten hours in a day the work that's done is generally fouled up and requires repair or re-doing later anyway, except for the simplest tasks.

Prior your autism is showing

I think it was simple factory work, not unlike today's Alaskan fish processing industry, which routinely requires 100 hour weeks from workers. Presumably the job was simple enough that they were able to mentally dissociate; I hope so for their sake.

I'd be surprised if Victorian food stores were open ninety hours a week.

That's what I initially thought, but reading around in the internet, it appears that Victorian shops were open long hours six days a week, plus half a day on Sunday (shops being closed on Sunday was something introduced by later campaigners, rather than being the traditional thing you might expect).

Depends on what you count as "work". Prior to the 1900s free time was considered sinful and, in many cases, outright dangerous--when you're living two meals from starvation you don't have the option of not doing something. And the Victorian Era was still a time where a lot of work was done by hand. This lead to opportunities for people to work in ways that doubled as leisure. For example: young women would weave straw into hats or churn butter. It allowed them to sit still and gossip while being productive and earning money. For men it tended to be more physical labor--as a kid you'd help farmers pick stones out of fields, as a young man ("teenager" wasn't a thing back then) you'd find some suitably physical thing to do to impress the ladies, and as a grown man you'd do pretty much whatever. Depending on how you define "work" you can make it seem like they were constantly working, or only working about as much as we do. Some very dishonest people re-define "work" to the point where a caveman existence is said to have more leisure time than a modern one--because they don't include repairing equipment, processing foodstuff, and the like under the heading of "work".

The concept of a job was very different back then. A lot of people didn't have one job that they did. You'd show up at a place in the morning (or evening, depending) and the boss would say "You four, I need you picking up dog muck in the streets. You six, the grocers rubbish bins are full. The rest of you lot are collecting ashes down 6th street and 9th street." And that was your job that day. Tomorrow you may go to the docks and work unloading produce; the next day you may tend fires someplace. You did what you needed to to earn enough money to live.

Of course, the higher up you go in society the less true that is. What I described is the lower-class existence. A slightly higher social strata would have jobs they did day-in, day-out. You can't make someone a potter in a day, so a potter needed to be a potter consistently. Guilds were still in evidence (under various names) and looked out for their workers. A LOT of people worked as servants, which again gets into the issue of how to define "work". The upper class obviously had plenty of leisure time, as always.

Regarding income: Often workers were simply not paid. If the product didn't match specs, the workers didn't get anything for producing it. This lead to some very nasty outcomes. Potters in particular got into several bloody confrontations with their employers over this (the police inevitably sided with the employers in these). Again, you can't make a potter in a day. If the quality of the china wasn't up to par, or if you didn't produce enough, you didn't get paid that day. But it was common practice throughout the Victorian economy. So it was pretty easy to work 12-16 hours a day and end up with nothing to show for it.

We buy from Chinese factories that do this. It helps with quality as otherwise with piece work, workers just pass on the bad crap the guy before them on the line messed up.

It's an option for a lot of construction jobs too. The threat of not getting paid tends to keep folks from going too far off the design. Though in these cases there's usually a lot more negotiations during the construction.

It's honestly not a horrible way to pay people. It provides clear incentive to produce work that meets the specs, and as long as you meet the specs you get paid. And, as someone pointed out once, if the work DOESN'T meet specs the owner can't sell it so he has no money to pay the workers.

Don't get me wrong--the Victorians horrifically abused this system. They honestly believed the lower classes were brutes little better than animals and treated them as such. I'm only defending the theory, not the Victorian practice.

The Corn Law tariffs were repealed in 1846, but it took until the 1870s for ocean shipping and overseas production to really get going. Frozen meat was shipped across the Atlantic from the US as early as 1874 and modern refrigerated shipping of beef got going in the 1880s.

The big crash of 1873 is when England's rural aristocrats, who had been the world's most enviable people at least since Waterloo in 1815, were stressed economically by the decline in food prices leading to a decline in farm rents. That's when the Downton Abbey era of aristocrats marrying foreign heiresses (especially Americans, such as Consuela Vanderbilt and Jennie Jerome) to pay for a new roof for the family manse began.

That was the beginning of the end for the landed class overall. Loss of economic power presaged the complete loss of political and social authority as well.

Trollope was writing right at the beginning of this period, and his novels are all about class and financial anxiety. Of course, love and money tend to win out in the end in his books, and I think a lot of his popularity came from not only capturing the stress of the times but reassuring readers that things will go on as they always have. Look how much of our traditions still trace back to the Victorians.

It's Consuelo and is not, as they say now, gendered (although words, and only words, have always been either gendered or not gendered).

What's more obviously wrong is the overblown claims that the costermongers were in any way responsible for the Industrial Revolution or British growth. All they were doing was moving food around London; this is extremely low-value added, and the perfect competition the writer cites is proof of that! The costermongers existed only because their labor was nearly worthless and schlepping a small cart of fruit around by foot was the best that could be done with such nonskilled low-value labor, and they were soon and easily dispensed with, and the people better employed elsewhere.

(Yes, I have read Mayhew. It's actually quite a fascinating account of all the street trades then, well worth reading even if you are not interested in economic history. Mayhew, incidentally, strongly disagrees with OP about how trapped the costermongers were, discussing at length how they could easily work themselves out of poverty if they would just stop renting their carts and wheelbarrows at extortionate rates - from smarter, more patient, ex-costermongers - but they are too short-sighted and enjoy drinking and gambling too much to save up the small amount it'd take to buy a wheelbarrow. Sounds familiar...)

Eggs? Why would the British need to import eggs and why would they be regarded as a something new to eat?

Comparative advantage! :-)

5 kilograms of feed would need to be imported to England to make one kilogram of eggs. But yeah, lower labour costs are probably the reason. Also, given the amount of food moving into England, the value of chicken poop may have been comparatively more on the continent.

Malthus at work...working hard.

Bonus trivia: refrigeration was invented, accidentally, by an Austrian engineer named Hell (sometimes spelled as J. K. Hoell) in the 18th *yes!* century. But both the inventor and the public misunderstood why Hell's compressed air water pump used in mining was producing snowflakes in July, and the invention was not pursued. Nowadays Hell could get a patent for a 'new use for an old device'.

Buy local is a movement of those rich enough to ignore economics

Who don't like buying expensive greenhouse tomatoes in the winter.

For most of the US, "in season" local food in the winter is more preserved than fresh, or items that were dug out of the ground or harvested and stored: potatoes, carrots, kale, apples, and of course grains.

And most winter food is less fresh than those items, because for centuries survival through the winter meant eating food that had been salted, dried, smoked, or fermented. Or in recent centuries, canned.

So there's your local food. We can get fresh meat year-round (though there is some seasonality to slaughtering animals for meat) but for most places the local seasonal food is potatoes and sauerkraut during the winter.

I would have said there is no fresh local produce in the winter for most of the U.S., but living within a fixed rhythm is not a hallmark of a country with stores selling Christmas items year round.

Are you suggesting Chicagoans should import food to decrease poverty? Sounds a little ethnocentric . . .

No, because those who handle food will get poorer.

Christ, what would her recipes, if any, look like?

Honestly? Pretty horrific by today's standards. But then again, we don't have the same nutritional needs (as explained below) and we don't have the same tastes. To most people the idea of eating cow intestines is disgusting, and the taste IS different. But it's not inherently unappetizing, it's just something we're not accustomed to. Same with many of the dishes in the past. Very few of them were inherently poisonous (this isn't getting into the issue of food adulteration, which WAS inherently poisonous; see milk's history), they just catered to a different population than today.

And honestly, some of it's not half bad even to a modern pallet. Depends on your tastes, mood, level of physical activity, weather, and willingness to try new things, I suppose.

The variety increase was similarly very high in the last ten years in my supermarket. There are many more startups and differentiated food and nonfood products vying for my attention now than they were then. Sounds strange, but I'm still wondrous every time I go there.

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old

A vast exploited empire had nothing to do with it then. All that effort and ennobling of savages for waste

Yes, the British Empire mercilessly exploited its imperial subjects in Denmark, Spain, Argentina, the United States, and Canada. And clearly wasted all that effort and ennobling of savages. Even after electing a president with a British mother, look at the muddle the colonials have made of it in the United States.

(Poe's Law, broadly defined, rears its head again)

Hilariously enough, rayward immediately jumps in below to demonstrate which side of poe this lands on.

Clever. Improved standards of living on the backs of . . . . slave labor or, fast forward, sweat shops in Asia. Yes, aren't we selective about our moral outrages. Speaking of moral outrages, how about the outrage of evangelical Christians or, conversely, the outrage of secularists. There's a new book by a professor, an evangelical who was educated at Notre Dame and teaches at a Christian college, about evangelical Christians and how they evolved into the Christians they are today. It's fascinating how the human mind works, and how the human mind can work in tandem with the minds of millions of others. The human mind is not a free agent. The evolution of the evangelical mind began in reaction to the threat of communism following WWII, a threat not only to religious freedom but to independent thought. How ironic. [To be clear, the workings of the collective mind apply to the moral outrages of the use of certain words and symbols, something we have been reading about here at MR.] Here's an interview of the author of the book: This is what the author says at the end of the interview: "But for evangelical dissenters, this is indeed a tragedy. And yet I think even those who are resisting, or who are calling this out and who are struggling with the direction that evangelicalism has taken, still need to reckon with the ways in which they, too, as part of this tradition, have been complicit in this ideology." Substitute whatever outrage one has for the word "evangelicalism", and there you have it: the tragedy of the workings of the collective mind. What's your outrage? With whom do you share it?

That Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday were still around to react to the threat of communism following WWII.

Speaking of turkeys, how in the heck can grocers give them away for free as loss leaders?

That tells us much about the ag economy.

I understand that classical economics is not the only way to look at this story, but I feel like the article needed to at least wave in that direction. The market valued the work of the costers very little, which suggests that cheap food was not built on their exploitation. Maybe look at the exploitation of the people overseas who had their land and goods stolen and were enslaved to work it.

Yeah, it just buries the cost over in another off-balance-sheet entity. i.e. in the military budget.

Not unlike another waning empire I can think of

Yes, the costers and clerks of England took those jobs of their own free will. They would have likely have been even worse off without the market. The same cannot necessarily be said of people in the colonies who were in many cases forced to grow the food after having their traditional lands taken away and becoming subjected to new taxes or production mandates. The article should have discussed those people more.

"Of their own free will"

Was this before or after they elites enclosed the commons and kicked them off the land?

According to the article, a lot of these costers were immigrants from Italy.

Historically, every last farm worker who could flee from farm work did flee from farm work. Absolutely they considered the privations of factory and shop work to be a step up from the privations of plowing a field.

Except the French ones, who tried to destroy the machines with their wooden shoes.

I presume there were others as well.

When I was a kid I'd spend time at the grain elevator with my grandfather. My grandfather grew up plowing with horses, as did many of his contemporaries, and left the farm as soon as they were able to work in factories. Those conversations really gave clarity to this issue. I remember once, while the men were waxing nostalgic (and I'd gotten bored waiting for our hog feed to be done), I asked if they'd want to go back to living like they did on the farm. The looks they gave me were mixed surprise and horror--they couldn't understand why anyone would want to live that way. These being old farmers, I was informed of the stupidity of the idea in language that was quite colorful (Mom was NOT happy that I'd been exposed to it). This was a century after the time period in question; the conditions of farmers during the Victorian era were almost certainly worse.

The major grain exporters in the 1870s were the U.S., Russia, and Argentina. Refrigerated shipping also allowed the U.S. and Argentina to export beef to the rest of the world. But most working class people had grain heavy diets so the global trade in grain and the opening of frontiers in Russia and the Western Hemisphere are a big part of the story of cheap food after 1870.

Wilson: "The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain"

True, but that steep rise in living standards also occurred, if to a somewhat lesser extent, from 1820 to 1870 but maybe more from 1913 to 1950 and from 1950 to 1990.

Angus Maddison's calculated GDP per capita, PPP for the UK in 1990 dollars:

1820 $1,700
1870 $3,200.....1.3% for 50 years
1913 $4,900.....1.1% for 43 years
1950 $6,900.....1.0% for 37 years
1990 $16,400...2.2% for 40 years

There had been no increase in the British 42 year life expectancy from 1820 to 1870 but that went up to 47 by 1900 and 52 by 1913. The 1913 to 1950 period had a larger increase from 52 years to 68 years.

I'm guessing that sanitation lagged industrialization. This was the period when germ theory was being developed, and a public-health campaign to reduce tuberculosis was underway.

There is a big and controversial literature on what happened to working class, not average, living standards in England before the mid-19th century. Average income went up but incomes and overall living standards for the working class are at issue. By 1870, pretty much everyone agrees there were across-the-board improvements.

There was probably a 15+ year period where the standard of living fell for the average worker in the middle part but there were clear gains from 1820 to 1870.

I believe Tyler is telling us a joke, and the punchline comes at the end.

Cheap food .. Work 90 hours week .. Still can't afford it.

Population must have plummeted as everyone starved.

Obviously they didn't, but costers may have had to do much more than most people had to do to avoid starvation. Poverty was/is actually a thing. Remember we are talking about the bottom 10% (or so), not the average person or even the average working class person.

Cheap food (and cheap basics in general) is really foundational to civilization. Only if people are freed up from having to spend all their time and income on necessities can they then spend them on innovation. This is the main reason why the Industrial Revolution took off in England, which was already the world’s richest country in the early 1800s due to its colonial empire. For most of human history, people were trapped in a cycle of subsistence living where there was never sufficient surplus wealth to invest in innovation.

The comments that food has been cheapened today also ignore what average people ate in the past. Most people in the past (even as late as 1800, and even in the most developed parts of the world like England) got most of their calories from cheap starches like oats and rice (even bread was considered a luxury or at least a middle-class food item for much of history, as it required more energy to make than gruel). The poor people eating donuts and burgers today weren’t eating fish and kale back then, but oat gruel with a bit of meat once a week if lucky. If you wanted to eat oat gruel today, you could do that and it would be both much cheaper and less likely to give you obesity than donuts and burgers.

British colonies were a huge cost and little to no benefit. Some monopolists got rich, in a classic privatized gains socialized losses sense.

It’s certainly not the reason Britain became wealthy

If they got such little benefit from them, why do you think they went to such great lengths to fight for and indeed expand them?

Without the colonies, where would they have gotten the cheap food mentioned in the article, or valuable industrial resources like rubber, or profitable cash crops like tea, opium, cotton, etc.?

Sure lots of those profits went to the rich—but those were the same rich who were then investing in industrialization.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first country that really produced massive excess wealth was then the first to industrialize. Industrialization certainly wasn’t the result of just liberalism and peaceful trade; otherwise you’d expect Holland to have gone first.

The costs weren't very large, neither were the benefits. Investments from colonial trade were not critical, and colonial traders largely didn't invest in domestic industry or consumption but in more overseas production and trade. The industrial cores of the West were simply ahead enough (at least in military science) that they could largely do this stuff even if it never really worked out with clear, large, systematic benefits and was often a loss for investors and the treasury.

As said before to you, mainstream econ history's largely worked this stuff out. Read it. Don't rely on what you want to be true (which I'm still guessing is a notion that the "West" wasn't ahead of Asia in science and tech, until colonialism helped them out.)

(Although I don't really understand why you bring up Holland? Larger and more extensive empire relative to size of nation than Great Britain. You know this right? Basic stuff ).

The thing I find interesting is that people who might most argue for free trade today, might also argue against the utility of colonies back then.

Back in the day, if global free trade agreements were not on the table, colonies were how you got the closest facsimile.

In other words, the counterfactual to colonial trade might have actually been closed markets.

A lot of colonies did have closed trade though. This was a major cause of the American Revolution—the British forcing the American colonies to trade through Britain and not allowing them to have free trade with the rest of the world.

Colonies of the day were in trade networks: rum from Bermuda to Virginia, tobacco from Virginia to Britiain. Etc.

" This is the main reason why the Industrial Revolution took off in England, which was already the world’s richest country in the early 1800s due to its colonial empire."

Fun fact: The per capita GDP of the Netherlands and the UK were the same in 1820 at $3,400 in today's dollars. Italy, France and Germany were at around $2,200 and the U.S. was slightly higher at $2,500.

Okay I tried to post this twice and failed both times. Maybe it was too long? So I’ll say it more succinctly:

- Holland fell behind England (and even Belgium and France) during the industrial revolution despite being more liberal and Protestant; this challenges cultural explanations for industrialization. Better explanations are England’s larger empire and military power (absolute size is what matters in terms of generating market access and resources to fuel industrialization) and better access to the resources such as coal needed to fuel industrialization.

- Mainstream econ estimates are that India and China led global GDP until India collapsed in the 1700s and China in the 1800s. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is when those areas were colonized. Any plausible timing for when the West overtook Asia (1600-1800) would at least coincide with colonialism.

- Industrialization did not happen in “the West” but specifically in England. Many parts of the West which did not have colonial empires (Italy, Austria-Hungary, even Ireland, etc.) remained backwards until the 1900s. So industrialization was not caused by some factor common to “the West,” but rather something specific to England.

The whole idea that you can quantify "liberalness" and "Protestant" need and Holland had more of this, therefore should have industrialised firstly is very specific to ideas that liberalism and Protestantism were the causal cultural factors (who is saying they were?) and secondly seems so extremely overconfident in your ability to derive a rigorous measure of this from what seem to be your historical stereotypes.

India and China long had lower per capita gdp and productivity.

Those nations you've listed also had higher productivity and per capita income than China and India, and a much easier time catching up.

Well if you don’t think liberalism and Protestantism played a role, what would you say did? I say liberalism and Protestantism are the factors that people argue because this is what I was taught in school.

Prior to the colonial era, most people in all countries were stuck at the subsistence minimum. There might have been temporary times of higher per capita incomes and productivity, but for the most part there were not major differences in these values between most places in the world (not to mention, any per capita GDP estimates going back centuries are guesswork at best). Anecdotal accounts by European travelers prior to the colonial empire did not suggest that they thought of Asia as less advanced. Even as late as 1800, actual wage records show that unskilled laborers in China earned comparable pay to those in Italy and Germany (though they were already far behind England and Holland):

Moreover, even if there were differences, these differences were tiny compared to the differences that opened up during the colonial and industrial periods.

Once again, economic historian Agnus Maddison's estimates in 2011 dollars:

In 1660:

Netherlands $4,700
France $1,700
UK $1,600
China $1,100
India $1,100

In 1700:

Netherlands $3,800
France $1,700
UK $2,400
China $1,000
India $1,000

GDP per capita PPP for regions, 1 to 2008, Maddison

I don’t see how that contradicts what I said. You see in that Wikipedia page Bairoch’s estimates put Asian GDP per capita similar to European GDP per capita until about 1800, while Madison puts European GDP per capita (outside England and Holland) as similar to Asian GDP per capita in 1500, about 25% higher in 1600, and 50% higher in 1700, certainly nothing like the huge orders of magnitude difference that developed later. This data also illustrates my point about how Holland, the first major democracy in early modern Europe, fell significantly behind Britain in industrialization, even though it had all the traditional factors that industrialization is attributed to such as liberalism, capitalism, and the Protestant work ethic. Don’t get me wrong, Dutch culture surely helped and it was a successful society, but these cultural factors turned out to be less important than the coal, military might, and vast colonial empire of Britain.

Those are not the only differences between Britain and Netherlands that led to a change of relative position.

"Anecdotal accounts by European travelers prior to the colonial empire did not suggest that they thought of Asia as less advanced."

Not just Asia, Bernal Diaz was certainly dazzled by the abundance of food in Aztec Mexico. I have the same impression of at least the more advanced Native Americans, like in Pacific Northwest, Lewis and Clark said they were the only fat Indians they met.

It depends on where we lay "prior to the colonial empire", since the colonial empire of the Spanish in the Americas is much earlier than largely is European empire in Asia and Africa, and earlier in economic divergence.

But certainly by the 1600s-1700s we have travellers who clearly regard there as being a divergence in the main (if there are still local divergences which are relatively large compared to continental and states divergences!).

Read - / (note here that even when technological advances are not noted, high levels of material production are)

We also know that agricultural employment relatively low in England prior to colonial empire, implying a relatively substantial services and production economy -

The general consensus is that the contrarian California School take where structurally and in living standards, and in technology, everything was the same, before the Europeans got their 'ghost acres' and even well after, is just mostly not actually borne out by evidence. There were differences. The California School narrative is a reasonable corrective not to push these back even further, but the general traditional narrative that Western Europe was diverging even by the 1500s is closer to correct than the California School one of late divergence, pushing this even to the 1800s!

The causality is not clear. Did the British cause these countries to collapse or did it merely take advantage of instability to establish footholds there? Not everything revolves around the West either -- the Persians invaded and sacked Delhi almost 20 years before the Battle of Plassey so it is not as if the British dismantled a singularly cohesive Mughal Empire.

On the second point, England had lots of coal which was a critical ingredient of early industrialization. Coal was too expensive to ship in the early days and the only plausible alternative I have heard to coal-centric industrialization in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have been factories powered by water wheels. And this, of course, would have required rivers with the requisite flow rate of water. Thousand of pages of ink have been spilled on the topic of why England was the first place to industrialize but the colonial connection is very thin.

Governments do stupid things all the time. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam....WWI...

Oranges from Spain, butter from Denmark.....

I don’t think this is all that controversial, the colonies were a money sink with privatized gains and socialized losses.

How much did Britain spend just in the 7 years war?

Well they got America out of it. Not a bad deal all in all.

In which we learn that zaua lives today in a parallel universe in the state of British North America...?

They got to send a lot of their excess population there and then gained a friendly, culturally similar trading partner for the rest of time that bailed them out in two world wars. I say that was a good deal.

OK, that was a pretty good save.

"They got to send a lot of their excess population there "

Fascinating. Are you an open borders type? I believe so?

UK migration to the US wasn't really a lot of population.

In the long run the UK may be slightly better off in this world than one with no United States of America, and worse than in many others, but it did lead to the industrial revolution or modern economic growth, and accrued very little benefit to anyone at the time.

The colonies actually were very profitable that's why the British were able to run their empire for centuries and the Spanish for a century before that. The world ran on gold then so there was a zero sum, mercantile view of global trade in those days but the formula for new growth and to get rich quick was through conquest. Spain's century of gold should give nuance to the view that colonies aren't profitable. The key is to win your wars.

Obviously this doesn't mean that keeping every colony is a moneymaker. When the local population gets equal access to your technology that raises your cost of enforcement. What is ruinously expensive and will absolutely end your colonial ventures is losing wars because the terms negotiated at the treaty table puts a ceiling on your possible profits. Like being bested militarily by the North American rebels. Now you must settle for regular trade negotiations with lots of protectionism all around and agree to their annoying political stipulations. Not as profitable as an outright colony where you completely set the terms but you make some cash and you don't have to go to war over it. India and China's inability to beat the British meant they could run their international opium cartel, among other commodities, setting the terms for both buyer and seller unconditionally. Was that profitable? Absolutely.

Spain's influx of precious metals from its colonies was just the pre-modern equivalent of printing money. It led to a gigantic spike in inflation and a cycle of debt so ruinous that it ended in sovereign default.

Colonies were mostly racketeering enterprises in which people at the top got very wealthy but the contribution to overall national income is questionable. As Tom T says, if you try to spend precious metals at home, you wind up with inflation. And if you spend it abroad in the 1600s or 1700s, you get... tobacco, sugar, slaves to work on the plantations that produce tobacco and sugar, coffee, tea, Chinese porcelain, Indian fabrics, and other middle class luxuries. None of this obviously translates into state power or national development and, indeed, we don't see modern economic growth take off until the 1800s.

There are more complexities to it than I lay out of course. Colonies were often profitable enough in the medium term, or plausibly had the prospect of such profits, that they were not immediately dissolved.

But in the general case, the picture as described by Skeptical, Ricardo and myself is more accurate than the one Zaua lays out.

Colonies were at best somewhat profitable for some individuals and allowed some tax collection by the state (in the past, tariffs and excises more important than generalized income and estate taxes!), while often socializing their costs to the nation of origin. They were more driven frequently by concerns of national prestige and mercantilist ideas which did not pay off than they were actually driven by pure economic calculation. Those colonial profits which did accure were generally reinvested in more colonial production or luxury consumption that often flowed straight back out of the nation which the colony "belonged" to ("China is the silver grave of the world" etc) that did not particularly help the development of industry. They specifically did not lead to large amounts of accumulation of wealth within England or flows of material resources to England that were causal on England doing those interesting things with energy resources, industrial production, etc and the broader phenomenon that we term the Industrial Revolution. Colonialism was something Western European nations could do because of large advantages in ships, guns, armies, finance, etc. from earlier technological advances, not something they needed to do to precipitate development - a symptom of development, not a cause.

The other issue in this article that is not addressed is—if we were to pay more for food, how would we know that the money would be going to the poorest workers who are picking the food for starvation wages, and not the marketing people, the commodities traders, or the relatively well-off workers who are more visible to us? And if we pay more for food but buy less of it as a result, or buy from entities that don’t even employ the poorest workers at all, does that really result in more cash going to those poorest workers?

Why is that an issue?

The modem analogue being Wal-Mart, which not only feeds the poor more effectively than anyone had ever done but also employs many of society's least productive workers.

"big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay." Forced, eh? With Maxim guns presumably.

Ms Wilson would seem to be a bit dim.

Looking back to the days when people starved quietly and out of sight?


Uncharitable to the extreme. No one is worse off with an additional voluntary employment opportunity. The fact that they moved from Italy to take the work is clear evidence of that.

You are one weird dude.

Do you actually support the argument that the only reason for people work is that somebody is pointing machine guns at them?

"poor people work"

Or are you arguing that no one starved in late 18th century - early 19th century Europe?

What are you arguing? Dearieme was obviously being sarcastic mentioning guns, and 'No one is worse off with an additional voluntary employment opportunity' is the basis of free trade and all voluntary transactions. This is an econ blog, so don't be surprised to see an econ angle here.

You guys live to excuse a lot don't you.

Excuse basic economics? If they had a better deal going back to the farm and growing their own food, as also most 100% humanity did before them, then they would have. If 90 hrs as a shopkeeper was so bad, then they go on to a better job available, just as we do today. So they had options, and chose the best one for themselves. Life was crap back then, but a little better than what their parents had, just like for the last 100,000 years.

Most people have a crap understanding of what working a farm in Victorian England was like. The reality is that it was little better than the labor that slaves had to do in America at the time, only with the added bonus that since the farmers were ostensibly not slaves, they were responsible for any debts incurred. A LOT of farmers went bankrupt and ended up in work houses--basically one bad year would ruin you. It was constant work, meaning not just "sun-up to sun-down" but often through the night (animals don't give birth or get sick at convenient times).

People have this asinine idea that the options in the past were "Live like I do now, maybe a bit worse, or live like they did in the time period in question." The reality is that the options were "Live life as they did in the past, or live a worse one."

(At a basic level our 3 Musketeers are arguing that 90 hour weeks are fine. Because nobody put a gun to their head.)

Yes of course 90-hour weeks are fine. The workers would only starve faster with fewer hours (if indeed all clerks slowly starved and moved from Italy to have the privilege of starving in Britain)

You realize many, many people work 90-hours weeks to this day. Many in much more strenuous jobs.

Peak bottom.

No argument for better lives "to this day" - just self-satisfaction that economics has equations for misery.

anonymous is starting to remind me of the 'your not here for the hunting, are you?' joke.

Out of interest, what do you think is the hourly work week for the ethnic minority entrepreneurs who run small convenience stores?

One of the interesting elements on this topic is that the Victorians seem to have eaten quite a lot of food - - "In short, the mid-Victorians ate twice as much as we do, but due to their high levels of physical activity remained slim ... Men worked on average 9–10 hours/day, for 5.5 to 6 days a week, giving a range from 50 to 60 hours of physical activity per week".

High work weeks and levels of physical activity within work gave rise to much higher levels of food consumption... But less obesity. They'd perhaps look at us and make a value judgment about how we "accept" "gluttony" and "sloth"...

A relatively sedentary job at 90 hours a week (costers) may have been pretty attractive given the general long and strenuous work weeks which were about.

I don't get it. You're seriously arguing they would have been better off with a maximum work week of 40 hours? That people today who work 90 hours/wk would be better off with that rule? Or what?

Holy crap this is a dumb thread. -100

Apparently grocers in the UK offered employment at a wage level where people from Italy moved hundreds of miles to take the job.

You make an asinine attempt to turn this into "pointing machine guns at grocery clerks" but it makes absolutely no sense and is borderline retarded.

You then turn to "long hour weeks are not okay" but that has nothing to do with the premise. Apparently these long hour weeks were so much better than living in Italy at whatever wage offered there that it was a deal worth taking.

Pure retard, distilled. Unless you're attempting to make a 'ban immigration' post to shore up grocery clerk wages (and food costs) over a hundred years ago.

Magical thinking, ironically Trumpista.

Not machine guns, but yes, the government had the authority to literally force people to work. If you think a cudgel isn't in the same category as a gun, I envy you your easy, safe life; I can assure you from personal experience that hand-to-hand weapons very clearly get the point across, as it were. Look into work houses sometime. Or the pottery riots. Or the press gangs. Or....Victorian law, for crying out loud. They didn't try to hide what they were doing. It was accepted that the upper class had the right to dictate how the lower classes lived, except in rare cases where the lower classes rose up violently (and were put down with equal violence).

Victorian England WAS NOT a bastion of free enterprise. It was an attempt to graft some aspects of free enterprise onto a framework of a caste system, with the upper castes using pseudo-economic and pseudo-scientific reasoning to brutalize the lower castes.

The limited evidence suggests social mobility was pretty much the same then as now, probably higher.

It's hit and miss, with fits and starts. The British Royal Navy, for example, went back and forth as to what was required to become a commissioned officer. They instituted a test to ensure lieutenants had basic competency--they could sail a ship without undue risk to it. After a while--after too many of those dirty lower-class folk got in--the requirement that you be a gentleman increased in importance. They went back and forth on what that means. Individual admirals and captains had different opinions on it, and who you had sitting on your board determined what version of the requirements you had to meet.

Since the Navy was a microcosm of the culture we can, obviously with some caveats, extrapolate this to society as a whole. And it makes sense. The old caste system was falling away and the idea of free enterprise was starting to take hold. But humans don't like change to our social systems; old ways die hard. The old guard would make life hell for those who were trying to change society if they had any opportunity to do so (see the worker's riots).

I would also say that our society isn't as free of castes as many like to pretend.

+1 funny. +2 for surprise factor if it really was prior.

Did a comment get cancelled?

With regard to "cheap food people can't afford to eat with 90 hours work", an office clerk 150 years ago could eat quite well if he ate a diet like the Irish or highland Scotts of the time. But he would not because he would consider it beneath him. So they would work themselves into an early grave to eat bread instead of rye and attempt to better their lot or at least prevent themselves from falling onto the rung below. I also suspect London at the time was like Silicon Valley today. Very expensive for the menials to live in.

Laborers would often live hand to mouth and had high mortality rates. While they may have had more fun on payday, this is what the clerk was working hard not to be.

Europe had famine well into the early colonial period.

But if we start the clock in the late colonial age, it is much reduced.

Note that the top article chooses the 1870s as a start, in which efficient bulk trade might matter more than simply possessing a colony.

Famine that was reduced because clerks insisted on eating wheat bread and could downgrade to oats and rye if times got tough. Of course, if you were Scottish or Irish it might be the oats and rye you'd normally eat that get diverted to English mouths. Of course, as meat eating increased there were more animals who'd get the chop when harvests were poor and acted as a buffer to help keep the humans fed.

My father said it there were kids in the neighbourhood who wouldn't make it through the winter each year. The ones whose families tried to get by on just bread and lard. So European death from inadequate food wasn't that long ago at all.

I’m horrified this article can be promoted on an econ blog.

Yes, costers had an godawful life. No, that’s not because the food they sold was (too?) cheap. If anything, that helped them not starve.

Obviously, their occupation had no barriers of entry, and they ruined themselves in a race to the bottom.

So, the outrage (if there is any) was that they had no better, more value creating options (like becoming factory workers, which, the article stresses, did NOT starve).

There probably was some ‘regulatory’ intervention by state and/or trade unions, which prevented them leveling up. But that’s just a guess, informed by how these disgraces are caused today

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