Virginia Postrel On Economic History

Virginia’s recent New York Times column includes an interview with my friend and mentor Joel Mokyr, who recently edited the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, which was published last fall. It’s a masterful work, with over 900 entries (complete with references) on a vast array of topics. For example, I wrote three entries for the encyclopedia: the history of energy regulation, contract enforcement through history, and Adam Smith.

Virginia’s column highlights the themes that emerge from taking such an extensive look at economic history:

Some consistent themes emerge from the many and varied entries. One is the importance of technological innovation in raising living standards.

Consider cotton, an expensive and relatively unimportant textile until the mid-18th century, when spinning became mechanized. Before that innovation, an Indian hand spinner took 50,000 hours – the equivalent of five years and nine months – to spin 100 pounds of cotton. After the invention of the hand-operated cotton mule spinning machine in the 1760’s, that time dropped to 300 hours. With the mule, human fingers no longer had to spin the threads, thread could be spun on many bobbins at the same time, and the strength of the thread improved significantly. After 1825, when the self-acting mule spinner automated the process, spinning 100 pounds of cotton took 135 hours. Cotton became a cheap and common cloth, and cotton production a major industry. …

Another theme is the importance of legal and social institutions, which evolved differently depending on circumstances. …

Despite all the differences across time and space, Professor Mokyr says: “There are certain unifying themes that you see everywhere. People have to make a living. People would rather have more than to have less. On the whole, they don’t behave stupidly. They do as well as they can under the circumstances. The variation is in the circumstances, in the richness and diversity of human economic institutions that have emerged over time.”

One thought on “Virginia Postrel On Economic History

  1. Greetings!

    Just now stumbled onto your blog, thanks to Donald Luskin’s Smart article, “Best Web Sources for Investment Information,” as posted on Yahoo!News. Luskin recommended your blog because you specialize in the economics of oil & energy. So where’s the oil & natural gas my dear Professor?

    Never mind – this message is about econ. hist. Having earned a BA in Econ Hist [minor Bus.Adm.] eons ago at Northwestern,1948, before entering upon a business career [I even became an entrepreneur!], I was interested to learn from your reference to “Virginia’s recent NY Times column,” [Virginia who?] that econ hist is still a respectable science of scholarly endeavor as evidenced by the publication of the,”Oxford Enclylopedia of Economic History.”

    This brings me to econ bubbles. Somehow the current post history of the 2000-2002 bubble burst doesn’t seem to conform to the historical patterns of previous bubbles of similar magnitude, be it the horrenduous Japanese depression/deflation of the 1990’s, the 1929-1938 depression, the Dutch tulip bulb mania, the French Mississippi land bubble, the English South Sea Bubble, etc.

    Is anyone publishing studies on comparative economics involving this most recent bubble – if in fact it was a bubble – someone who holds more than the simple baccalaureate degree that I have?



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