Past Growth

Kevin Lewis

March 24, 2021

Disease and demographic development: The legacy of the plague
Fabian Siuda & Uwe Sunde
Journal of Economic Growth, March 2021, Pages 1–30


This paper provides an empirical investigation of the hypothesis that population shocks such as the repeated outbreaks of the plague affected the timing of the demographic transition. The empirical analysis uses disaggregate data from Germany and exploits geographic variation in the exposure to medieval plague shocks. The findings document that areas with greater exposure to plague outbreaks exhibited an earlier onset of the demographic transition. The results are consistent with the predictions of the unified growth literature and provide novel insights into the largely unexplored empirical determinants of the timing of the transition from stagnation to growth.

When Did Growth Begin? New Estimates of Productivity Growth in England from 1250 to 1870
Paul Bouscasse, Emi Nakamura & Jon Steinsson
University of California Working Paper, March 2021


We provide new estimates of the evolution of productivity in England from 1250 to 1870. Real wages over this period were heavily influenced by plague-induced swings in the population. We develop and implement a new methodology for estimating productivity that accounts for these Malthusian dynamics. In the early part of our sample, we find that productivity growth was zero. Productivity growth began in 1600 -- almost a century before the Glorious Revolution. Post-1600 productivity growth had two phases: an initial phase of modest growth of 4% per decade between 1600 and 1810, followed by a rapid acceleration at the time of the Industrial Revolution to 18% per decade. Our evidence helps distinguish between theories of why growth began. In particular, our findings support the idea that broad-based economic change preceded the bourgeois institutional reforms of 17th century England and may have contributed to causing them. We also estimate the strength of Malthusian population forces on real wages. We find that these forces were sufficiently weak to be easily overwhelmed by post-1800 productivity growth.

Skills-adjusted human capital shows rising global gap
Wolfgang Lutz et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 February 2021


Human capital, broadly defined as the skills acquired through formal education, is acknowledged as one of the key drivers of economic growth and social development. However, its measurement for the working-age populations, on a global scale and over time, is still unsatisfactory. Most indicators either only consider the quantity dimension of education and disregard the actual skills or are demographically inconsistent by applying the skills of the young cohorts in school to represent the skills of the working-age population at the same time. In the case of rapidly expanding or changing school systems, this assumption is untenable. However, an increasing number of countries have started to assess the literacy skills of their adult populations by age and sex directly. Drawing on this literacy data, and by using demographic backprojection and statistical estimation techniques, we here present a demographically consistent indicator for adult literacy skills, the skills in literacy adjusted mean years of schooling (SLAMYS). The measure is given for the population aged 20 to 64 in 185 countries and for the period 1970 to 2015. Compared to the conventional mean years of schooling (MYS) — which has strongly increased for most countries over the past decades, and in particular among poor countries — the trends in SLAMYS exhibit a widening global skills gap between low- and high-performing countries.

The influence of colonialism on Africa's welfare: An anthropometric study
Joerg Baten & Laura Maravall
Journal of Comparative Economics, forthcoming


This study presents new evidence on the anthropometric development of 47 countries. Did colonialism have an influence on the biological standard of living of Africans? We find that Africans lost stature upon colonization, even after controlling for a number of different variables and potential sample selectivity bias issues. We analyse various types of colonialism and find that both settler colonies and other colonies had an adverse effect on native African heights during the colonialization period.

Public Infrastructure and Economic Development: Evidence from Postal Systems
Jon Rogowski et al.
American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


Although postal systems have been central to statebuilding efforts around the globe, their contributions to development are largely unclear. We argue that the post office affected economic development in both the short and long terms. To test our argument, we combine original data on the cross‐national distribution of postal systems from 1875 to 2007 with granular county‐level data in the United States from 1850 to 2000. In both country‐ and county‐level analyses, we show that the spread of postal systems affected economic outcomes in the short and long terms. The results are robust across dependent variables, model specifications, and estimation strategies. We provide additional evidence that suggests these effects were generated by reducing transaction costs and strengthening social capital. Our findings highlight the role of public infrastructure in promoting economic growth, documenting a channel through which state institutions precede growth, and suggest that statebuilding efforts have longstanding effects on relevant communities.

Psychological Effects of Poverty on Time Preferences
Vojtěch Bartoš et al.
Economic Journal, forthcoming


We test whether an environment of poverty affects time preferences through purely psychological channels. We measured discount rates among farmers in Uganda who made decisions about when to enjoy entertainment instead of working. To circumvent the role of economic constraints, we experimentally induced thoughts about poverty-related problems, using priming techniques. We find that thinking about poverty increases the preference to consume entertainment early and to delay work. Using monitoring tools similar to eye tracking, a novel feature for this subject pool, we show that this effect is unlikely to be driven by less careful decision-making processes.

The Origins of Colonial Investments in Former British and French Africa
Joan Ricart-Huguet
British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


Colonial investments impacted long-run political and economic development, but there is little systematic evidence of their origins and spatial distribution. Combining novel data sources, this article shows that colonial investments were very unequally distributed within sixteen British and French African colonies. What led colonial states to invest much more in some districts than others? The author argues that natural harbors and capes led some places to become centers of pre-colonial coastal trade, which in turn increased later colonial investments not only in infrastructure but also in health and education. Furthermore, distance from pre-colonial trading posts helps explain the diffusion of investments within each colony. The author finds limited support for alternative explanations such as natural resources and pre-colonial ethnic characteristics, including pre-colonial political centralization. These two findings suggest an economic origin for the regional and ethnic disparities observed in the colonial and contemporary periods.

The European coal curse
Elena Esposito & Scott Abramson
Journal of Economic Growth, March 2021, Pages 77–112


In this paper we examine the impact of natural resource wealth by focusing on historical coal-mining across European regions. As an exogenous source of variation in coal extraction activities, we rely on the presence of coal-deposits located on the earth’s surface, which historically facilitated the discovery and extraction of coal. Our results show that former coal-mining regions are substantially poorer, with (at least) 10% smaller per-capita GDP than comparable regions in the same country that did not mine coal. We provide evidence that much of this lag is explained by lower levels of human capital accumulation and that this human-capital effect is concentrated in men. Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that the persistently lower levels of human capital in coal mining regions that we document result from the crystallization of negative attitudes towards education and lower future orientations in these regions.

Marketplace Literacy as a Pathway to a Better World: Evidence from Field Experiments in Low-Access Subsistence Marketplaces
Madhubalan Viswanathan et al.
Journal of Marketing, forthcoming


Multinational companies increasingly focus on subsistence marketplaces, given their enormous market potential. Nevertheless, their potential is untapped because subsistence consumers face extreme constraints. The authors contend that subsistence consumers need marketplace literacy to effectively and beneficially participate in marketplaces. Marketplace literacy entails the knowledge and skills that enable them to participate in a marketplace both as a consumer and as an entrepreneur. This is crucial for subsistence consumers, as they often need to function in both roles to survive. Past research, however, has not empirically examined the influence of marketplace literacy on wellbeing or marketing outcomes related to wellbeing. To address this gap, the authors implemented three large-scale field experiments with approximately 1,000 people in 34 remote villages in India and Tanzania. They find that marketplace literacy causes an increase in psychological wellbeing and consumer outcomes related to wellbeing (e.g., consumer confidence and decision-making ability), especially for subsistence consumers with lower marketplace access, whereas it causes an increase in entrepreneurial outcomes related to wellbeing (e.g., starting a microenterprise) for those with higher marketplace access. Overall, this research generates practical implications for the use of marketplace literacy as a pathway to a better world.

Numeracy development in Africa: New evidence from a long-term perspective (1730–1970)
Gabriele Cappelli & Joerg Baten
Journal of Development Economics, forthcoming


Historical evidence of numeracy on the African continent since the 18th century is presented for the first time based on a panel dataset of 43 African countries covering the periods before, during and after colonialism (1730–1970). Estimates of numeracy draw on the age-heaping methodology: we carefully discuss the potential biases and sources of measurement error concerning the use of this index for long-term analyses. These new estimates enable us to gain a better understanding of long-term African development. We find that the evolution of numeracy over time correlates with differences in colonial education systems, even when controlling for other variables.


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