Sunday, August 12, 2018

Black Death and Industrial Revolution

Peter Temin distils the literature that connects industrial revolution to the Great Plague,
Voitländer and Voth argue that the scarcity of labor after the Black Death led to a change in agricultural technology. Moving along the wage-rental isoproductivity line, farmers changed from growing crops to tending animals, from arable farming to husbandry... The result of this adaptation of agricultural technology changed the role of women in Medieval society. Switching from crops to husbandry reduced the demand for strength to push plows and expanded the scope of work that women could do. The result was a change in the status of women in society... The reduction in plowing reduced the demand for men’s labor and increased it for women’s labor. Women’s wages rose and their opportunity for work expanded. They delayed marriage, entered service and became more independent... It was a massive change in the structure of society...


The opportunities open to women delayed their marriage and reduced the rate of population growth. The result was the birth of the high-wage economies of England and a few neighboring countries. Voitländer and Voth... estimate that the share of pastoral production in English agricultural output rose dramatically from 47 to 70 percent between 1270 and 1450. And they show by regressions that... the extensive use of pastoral production increased the age of female marriage by more than four years... The adaptation to the initial shock led to a durable rise in people’s income. This in turn led to a demand for more meat in their diet, which of course was accommodated by more husbandry. The whole pattern fit together with the Black Death as a shock that shifted households and the economy from one equilibrium to another.

This all fits in with Allen’s view of the Industrial Revolution being the result of a high-wage economy... Allen argued that the initial innovations of the Industrial Revolution emerged from tinkering by producers to reduce the costs of expensive labor and reap the benefits of cheap power... Allen argues in more recent work that wages and energy prices in North America were close enough to the British pattern for policy initiatives like tariffs, education and infrastructure investments to create conditions hospitable to industrialization. This clearly was true of countries in Western Europe that also followed the British pattern once industrial productivity advanced from its initial level. These countries did not have the factor prices to make the initial innovations of the Industrial Revolution profitable, but further development of these innovations rendered them profitable at factor prices close to those in Britain. And, as Allen noted, policy changes helped industrialization along as it spread.

But this was all within the high-wage area described by Voitländer and Voth. They noted that the European Marriage Pattern extended only from the Atlantic to a line from St. Petersburg to Trieste. Other countries in Asia or Africa were low-wage economies subject to Malthusian pressure on wages, and their factor prices were not close to English prices. Small changes in economic policies were not sufficient to make industrialization profitable in India or Egypt. The story that links the Black Death to the Industrial Revolution therefore is also a story why Europe has industrialized most easily in the past two centuries.

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