Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe


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However, Pomeranz, Lee, and Li maintain that the lower Yangzi River basin was not characterized by a Malthusian crisis. The Eurasian demography project is an approach to historical demography that is intended to provide a substantially more detailed understanding of the historical trajectory of demography in different parts of the Eurasian land mass—population size, nuptiality, fertility, mortality, etc.

The authors find that their results cast doubt on the Malthusian conclusions and generalizations about positive and negative checks and Europe versus Asia. They find that family practices, demographic institutions, and economic settings vary sufficiently across the map of Eurasia as to make it impossible to arrive at grand differentiating statements about European and Asian demography or English and Chinese demography.

In particular, they find that the evidence shows that Chinese demographic behavior resulted in fertility rates that were broadly comparable to those of Western Europe. The behavior of agricultural productivity is crucial to this debate. How are we to attempt to resolve the disagreements involved in this debate? Since there is a substantial range of empirical disagreement between the two perspectives, it is logical to hope for some degree of resolution through more detailed factual and empirical research. Here the careful empirical work provided by Robert Allen and Bozhong Li is crucial to the debate.

According to Li, the Chinese farm economy experienced steady labor productivity and rising land productivity, resulting in a level standard of living for rural workers and farmers. Finally, Li and Pomeranz observe that the two paths England and Jiangnan separated in the midth century, with sustained productivity increases in manufacturing and agriculture in England, and static or worsening productivity in Jiangnan. Robert Allen contributes to the debate by assembling a detailed and historically rigorous framework for aggregating costs on historical farming systems England and the lower Yangzi , and arriving at estimates of labor and land productivity, farm wage incomes, and farm family incomes Allen His farm model permits a consistent framework for estimating costs and outputs of Yangtze farming.

His analysis supports detailed comparison of labor productivity in England and the lower Yangzi Delta, and his findings are two-fold.


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First, he finds that the overall level of farm labor productivity in the Yangzi Delta is a bit lower than that of England, but higher than several other regions of Europe; and second, he finds that this level of labor productivity is roughly constant between and Allen : table 5. There was significant change in the intensity of agriculture and fertilizer use beancake ; these changes led to rising output; and the cost of new inputs kept overall labor productivity roughly constant.

And, most significantly, he finds that labor productivity was roughly unchanged through the two centuries between and —a finding that contradicts the expectations of the involution theory. Thus Allen finds that neither the involutionary nor the revolutionary model is adequate to the Chinese data.

This supports the view that Chinese agriculture was neither leading to sustained per-capita growth, nor was it experiencing a longterm trend towards involution. The central question here is, how did rural real wages compare in England and China? This model incorporates data on crops, prices, and labor expenditures for Yangzi and English Midlands farms.

He is able to calculate estimates for family incomes in the two settings. He finds that the Yangzi Delta family income per day was These data indicate that Yangzi family income fell during these centuries but remained slightly higher than rural English family income in And based on trends in English rural wages reported in Allen , we can infer that the Yangzi family income was measurably higher than its English counterpart in This index is based on a wage basket of staple food and clothing, for which there are very good price data in England and sporadic price data in China.

He also provides a simpler index based on the price of a calorie of the basic foodstuff in each country. He then converts money wage data from several countries into a common real wage, and uses these estimates for England, India, Japan, and China to provide a quantitative answer to some of the most basic issues in the involution debate.

This estimate is for a time period that falls within the period of dispute between Pomeranz and Huang, and it clearly favors the Pomeranz position. Throughout his writings Robert Brenner attempts to make a causal argument about differences in the profile of economic development, based on the two kinds of differentiation noted here; he argues that high and low economic developers correspond to differences in social-property systems Brenner , This is a simple causal argument with two foundations: first, an analysis of co-variation between outcomes and institutional settings, and second, an account of a possible social mechanism that shows why social-property systems of a certain sort should be expected to result in sustained economic growth.

Brenner brings this perspective to bear in his contribution to the involution debate Brenner and Isett And, c implementation of technological innovation was rapid in England as a result of the incentives for capitalist farmers. The result of this combination of factors is a steady increase in productivity in England, sustained improvement in the standard of living, and the gathering financial capacity of elites to invest in modernizing technologies in manufacturing.

By contrast, Brenner characterizes China as witnessing erosion of the standard of living and a failure to introduce modern technologies and agricultural improvements; and by inference, the explanation of this outcome is the less favorable institutional setting that Chinese society created for innovation and investment in agriculture. Pomeranz takes issue with both aspects of this theory. He disputes the premise that Chinese agriculture failed to make progress in implementing new technologies of irrigation, cropping, and fertilizers. Instead, he argues that that England shoots forward because of resources from the Americas, cotton and agriculture imports, extension of land in the Americas, and the exploitation of slave labor in the Americas.

Elvin introduces this concept as an alternative way of assessing the degree of intensity with which the Chinese farming system had developed in its use of labor and environmental resources; extremely high environmental pressure would imply something very similar to the high-level equilibrium trap he had hypothesized earlier in his writings Elvin Elvin observes that innovations in technology, or the discovery of new external sources of resources, can dramatically change the degree of pressure experienced by a given economy; so a new water control technology can potentially greatly reduce the costs of restoration of the water system at the end of the production period.

How can countries measure the well-being of their citizens?

That said, the judgment that a given environment is under severe environmental pressure appears to represent an alternative basis for arguing for the conclusion that this economy is undergoing involution. Elvin then asks the question whether there is a basis for comparing China and Europe according to this measure Elvin : He notes that the decisive empirical basis for establishing this conclusion is currently unavailable, but he argues that the evidence of contemporary observations and comparisons offered by Jesuit observers permits some preliminary conclusions.

Significantly, Elvin counts the cost of hydraulic maintenance work as a large component of the renewal cost for resources; other large components include the intensity of Chinese farming and the need for annual labor to replace soil fertility because of the lack of fallow. Sustainability requires restoration of the production system to its initial level of productivity.


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  6. If producers choose not to invest the full amount needed for restoration, then the production system will have lower productivity in the next cycle—with the consequence, once again, of involution in the technical sense declining labor productivity. But the connection is not always so tight. For, as Elvin notes, there are multiple ways of dealing with environmental pressure. As he emphasized in his earlier work on the high-level equilibrium trap Elvin , innovations in technology and technique provide the means for pushing back the productivity frontier.

    Consider briefly the treatment that Pomeranz provides of resources and environment. Pomeranz makes a great deal of the fact that European exploration and colonialism provided vast sources of natural resources into the control of European nations, including England. So it would appear that Elvin is providing a conceptual basis for a new line of criticism of the thesis that England and China were in comparable economic situations at the beginning of the modern era. This approach is worthy of further empirical and historical investigation.

    It is now possible to delineate some areas of best judgment with respect to the primary disagreements involved in the involution debate. Thanks to detailed and rigorous empirical work by Bozhong Li and Robert Allen, the situation of agricultural productivity and the real wage in England and the Yangzi delta is somewhat more clear today than it was when this debate originated. It appears reasonable to conclude with Robert Allen that the real wage for Yangzi peasants was roughly equal to that of English farm laborers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    This finding supports Pomeranz and Lee in their assertion that conditions for ordinary people in England and China were roughly comparable. Second, it seems reasonable to conclude on the basis of work by Bozhong Li and Robert Allen, that agricultural labor productivity was roughly comparable in these two regions as well.

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    Third, the substantial progress that has been made in Chinese historical demography in the past decade effectively eliminates the crude Malthusian interpretation of Chinese population behavior. There was no unconstrained tendency towards population increase up to the carrying capacity of the land; instead, fertility rates and rates of population increase were essentially comparable to those of European populations. This finding too casts doubt on the involution hypothesis, since unrestrained population increase is the central causal mechanism that was hypothesized to push the process of involution.

    The best evidence available today supports the summary conclusions rehearsed above; but it is also possible that subsequent research will call some of these specific findings into doubt. Here the most promising perspective is that of R. Instead, we need to attempt to identify the conjunction of circumstances in Western Europe and East Asia—environmental, international, political, demographic—that created the characteristic patterns of development in the two settings.

    Let us turn now to a related debate that focuses on the status of the Chinese rural economy at the end of the Qing and into the Republican era. This debate raises some of the same issues, but in a later and shorter period of Chinese economic history: the transition from the final years of the Qing empire into the early decades of the Republican period. Many observers have regarded this period as one of agricultural stagnation, falling real rural incomes, worsening tenancy relations, and increasing rural inequalities. These unfavorable economic developments are often taken as preparing the ground for the successful peasant revolution in China.

    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe

    In the s several economic historians offered substantial criticism of this prevailing wisdom. Arguing from a neoclassical economic perspective, Thomas Rawski Rawski , Ramon Myers Myers , and Loren Brandt Brandt have argued that the early Republican economy was more dynamic and forward-moving than this interpretation would suggest. According to these historians, agricultural productivity was rising, rural incomes were improving, and labor markets permitted a degree of social opportunity to the rural poor.

    These are important and controversial claims; if sustained, they require a significant reevaluation of the state and direction of change of the Chinese rural economy in the early twentieth century. These unfavorable economic developments are often taken as setting the stage for the successful peasant revolution in China: increasing rural misery gave peasants a strong motive to support a party that promised land reform and a program aimed at improving the lot of the rural poor. There was growth of output, but it occurred at essentially the rate of population increase—resulting in stagnant per capita incomes Perkins a, b : Perkins acknowledges that there was sustained growth in certain modern sectors e.

    The benefits of modern-sector growth would only be realized in living standard improvement in later decades. Perkins also makes an effort to assess the direction of change in land concentration, tenancy and income distribution during the period. He holds that tenancy rates remained approximately the same during the period, and he denies that there was an abrupt increase in tenancy or landlessness during the early twentieth century Perkins : Feuerwerker maintains that agricultural techniques remained roughly unchanged throughout the period s , with output increasing in pace with population growth through small increase in cultivated acreage Feuerwerker : 3.

    He takes it as certain that rural living standards did not improve throughout the period, but doubts that evidence exists to demonstrate a significant decline in living standards p. Feuerwerker believes that tenancy rates probably did not increase in the early decades of the twentieth century, and he doubts that effective rent levels increased during the period p. He thus adopts roughly the same view as Perkins: that output approximately kept pace with population increase, with the result that average rural welfare remained about constant.

    Robert C. Allen - Google Scholar Citations

    Scholarship in the s focused more attention on distributive issues in the rural economy: the status of tenancy, landlessness, wage labor, peasant welfare and rural inequalities. Mark Selden emphasizes the deterioration of living conditions in Shensi. He details the destructive effects of warlordism and famine in Shensi, and he argues that tenancy in Shensi increased substantially in the s, accompanied by increasing landlessness Selden : Likewise, Carl Riskin emphasizes the significance of income and land inequalities in the Chinese rural economy Riskin : And Victor Lippit focuses attention on the disposition of the rural surplus: through rent, taxation and usurious interest rates the peasant was separated from the surplus available within the rural economy Lippit In short, the received view represents the Chinese rural economy as largely stagnant during the early Republican period.

    Living standards for peasants were stagnant or falling. One school of thought the technological school held that the chief obstacles to development were technological and demographic; population pressure on resources led to an economy in which there was very little economic surplus available for productive investment. The other theory was the distributional school, which held that the traditional Chinese economy generated substantial surpluses that could have funded economic development, but that the elite classes used those surpluses in unproductive ways.

    Brandt and Rawski focus their work on Chinese economic development in the late Qing and early Republican periods. They disagree about some issues; but they agree in rejecting many features of the received view. Rawski argues that economic growth was significant and sustained in pre-war China. It was driven by modernization of transport, factory industry and commercial banking Rawski : xx. He estimates that agricultural growth averaged 1.

    This process of growth led to sustained increase in output and income per capita Rawski : , and this increase led to rising living standards. He argues that there is good evidence of rising consumption of cotton cloth, which he takes to support the conclusion that living standards were rising Rawski : He holds that commercialization progressed rapidly during this period, bringing greater integration between domestic and international markets in rice, cotton, and other important commodities; and that commercialization in turn induced growth in agricultural output, improvement in the agricultural terms of trade, rising real incomes for farmers and laborers alike, and a probable overall reduction in the range of income inequalities in the countryside of central and eastern China.

    In fact, Brandt draws a parallel between the performance of the Chinese rural economy during this period of rapid commercialization and its performance during the period of the post-Mao rural reforms; in each case, he asserts, the gains were the result of greater market activity and specialization. He maintains that the early Republican period witnessed rising real incomes for farmers and laborers alike and a probable overall reduction in the range of income inequalities in the countryside of central and eastern China.

    Brandt uses these conclusions about real wages to argue that labor productivity increased between 40 and 60 percent during the time period Brandt : —suggesting that the rural economy was improving rather respectably during the period.

    And he argues that commercialization of the rural economy had the effect of significantly narrowing income inequalities in rural China Brandt : , by increasing the demand and opportunities for labor. Finally, he denies that land concentration was increasing during this period, arguing that the relative share of income flowing to the bottom of the income distribution tenant farmers, small owner-farmers, landless workers, peddlers, handicraft workers improved during this period relative to landlords Brandt : Here I will maintain that the evidence that Brandt puts forward, while suggestive, falls far short of clinching his case, and the interpretation of the early twentieth century rural economy as static or worsening continues to be more credible.

    Surveying rice price data for South China, Siam, Burma, India, and Saigon the latter being the chief rice exporting markets in Asia , he finds that there are high and rising price correlations between South China and each of the major exporting markets Brandt : And he finds, further, that the interior Chinese economy showed similar integration with respect to rice prices.

    Without providing comparable detail from other locations, Brandt suggests that these results obtain as well in markets for cotton and wheat—supporting the contention that the Chinese rural economy was highly commercialized, reasonably competitive, and extensively integrated into the international economy. At the same time, this is the least novel portion of the argument; few would disagree with the conclusion that the Chinese rural economy was price-responsive and competitive in the period in question.

    And the well-documented shock to the Chinese economy produced by the Great Depression—through its disruption of cotton prices—would be unintelligible except on the assumption that Chinese cotton markets were integrated with international prices. So this line of thought is reasonably well grounded, but does not provide much support for the view that conditions in the countryside were improving.

    Is this a credible conclusion?

    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe
    Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe

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