New article: How accurate are the British colonial Blue Books?

I have a new article out at the Economic History of Developing Regions on the British Blue Books, a staple source of statistical information for historians of the British Empire. In the article, I compare the retail prices listed in the Blue Books with market prices collected from African newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and show that in some contexts the Blue Books can be an unreliable source for price history.

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The rent was too damn high: Singapore edition

As my more devoted readers know, I am very interested in the relationship between housing costs and historical living standards and have shown that incorporating estimates of housing costs in a measure of the real wage in colonial Dakar makes a substantial difference to the story. I’m trying to accumulate more evidence for the proposition that housing costs matter, and in particular the proposition that housing costs likely swallow up a substantial fraction of the increase in real urban income in cities in developing countries where housing supply is relatively inelastic. One part of the developing world which is relatively…

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Food prices and the Little Divergence

One of the less remarked upon ‘divergences’ in the economic history literature is the ‘Little’ Divergence between West Africa and Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. Up until around the 1970s, the differences in income between the two regions were not large. But after that point, Southeast Asia grew much quicker. Some Southeast Asian countries—Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar—have followed a more ‘West African’ path, but broadly speaking the divergence in striking. There is no single explanation for the divergence. One is simply the existence of Japan, which seeded low-wage industries in which it was no longer competitive to Southeast Asia with…

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Urbanisation without industrialisation

One of my favourite papers from the past 10 years is Gollin, Jedwab and Vollrath’s paper on ‘Urbanisation with and without industrialisation‘. They note the difference between ‘production cities’, where manufacturing dominates, and ‘consumption cities’, where the services sector rules. They connect this with natural resources, and with non-homothetic preferences in consumption: a natural resource boom brings ‘manna from heaven’ (essentially, income without opportunity cost), and this can be spent on food, manufactures or services. As incomes grow, the demand for food grows too, but not in proportion to income. People demand more manufactures and more services. Since manufactures can…

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Gratuitous chart #3: integration in the market for enslaved labour

Recently Martin Klein wrote an interesting article suggesting that the functioning of urban slave labour markets in Africa require more theorising, and (fortunately, since a chapter of my dissertation is on precisely this subject) I agree. One question worth exploring is a subset of the more broader question of market integration: were domestic African markets for enslaved labour integrated with the broader trans-Atlantic slave trade? Paul Lovejoy and David Richardson argued about twenty-five years ago that they were integrated, rejecting Emmanuel Terray’s thesis that they were two essentially distinct and unconnected markets. But Lovejoy and Richardson’s conclusion was based on…

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Gratuitous chart #2: market integration in Lower Burma, and some quick thoughts on GDP reconstructions

Via a rather circuitous route, I’ve become extremely interested in domestic market integration: basically, I was thinking about the way we measure agricultural output in the past. Often, it’s a version of what we might call the “Malanima shortcut”; though he wasn’t the first to use the idea of a demand function to estimate agricultural output, his application to Italy is probably one of the best-known uses of the trick. The way it works it basically just to assume a demand function for food: y = f (food prices, other prices, income). This function is often abbreviated to simply y…

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The rent was too damn high!

Over the last ten years we have learnt a lot about living standards in the developing world. I won’t attempt to summarise every single paper here. Mostly these have come from a reconstructions of real wages, one of the easiest economic statistics to reconstruct in historical periods: all you need is information on the nominal wages of unskilled workers and on the prices of the kinds of goods that unskilled workers would buy (mainly grains, and some meat and cloth). To calculate what we might called an ‘Allen welfare ratio’ (after Bob Allen, who pioneered the particular subsistence basket of…

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Gratuitous charts #1: social mobility in Dakar, c.1910

Part of my thesis is about the role of African cities in structural change in the colonial period, taking the Senegalese city of Dakar as an example. In particular, I look at the occupational attainment of rural-urban migrants compared to people born in Dakar—i.e., what kind of jobs do people get, conditioned on their human capital, their age, their sex and so on. Though this isn’t really the focus of the chapter, the dataset I constructed allows me to look in some detail at social mobility. The data comes from the état civil of Dakar—that is, the civil registration of…

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