Dolia, an example of one type of pottery common in Roman times that
completely disappeared from Western Europe after the fall of the empire.

"Ostia Antica Dolia" by AlMare - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Source.

Economic history blogger Pseudoerasmus published an interesting pair of posts earlier this month titled "Economic Growth in the Ancient Greece" and "Ian Morris' Calculations About the Ancient Greece Economy" in which he takes issue with the estimations historians Josiah Ober and Mogens Herman Hansen and archaeologist Ian Morris have developed to measure economic growth in classical Greece. I recommend reading the two post in their entirety. They are an interesting case study in the difficulty facing anyone who tries to apply economic theory to or gain cliometric insights from the ancient past.

The problem is one of data. We simply don't have it. There was no National Bureau of Economic Research, Economic and Statistics Administration, or Bureau of Labor Statistics, or Federal Reserve Division of Research and Statistics in the world of ancient Greece or Rome. While folks like Angus Maddison, Walter Scheidal, Dominic Ratheborne, Chris Wickham and a few others have tried to estimate or model the real wages, labor supply, and GDP per capita of the ancients, ancient economics remains an imperfect art. Wage data is particularly tricky--while useful for understanding economic change within specific classical societies, I cannot think of a wage estimate built on ancient data I would trust in a comparative study.

To try and get around this archaeologists, historians, and the occasional eccentric economist who turns his gaze to the far past will use proxies to gauge the extent of economic growth. Scholars will get quite creative with these proxies; they range from measuring the size of homes to the number and type of animal bones found in trash heaps. One of the most popular proxies are measures of health: things like disease incidence, average age of mortality, and height. There are good reasons for their popularity: they do not need to be fed into complex mathematical models to be used, the source of their data (skeletons) are relatively plentiful, they record the well being of average farmers as well as elites, and can easily be used to measure one society or time against another without the usual challenges that come with comparing quantitative data drawn from radically different social contexts.

I urge caution in using these 'biological standard of living' data points as a proxy for wealth. As I pointed out in a recent post on this question, it is not very difficult to find examples from both the modern and the ancient world where historical measurements of health and of wealth diverge from each other. The examples I discussed included data from the African American "great migration," China and England at the turn of the industrial revolution, the collapse of the Roman empire, and the Neolithic transition to agriculture. In all of these cases wealth did not move into tandem with health--in my mind compelling evidence that what we usually refer to as "'living standards" and wealth are not the same thing." [1]

I received some push back in the comments section of that post. The afore-mentioned Pseudoerasmus wrote:
The term "wealth" is used very loosely in this blogpost.

You need to keep in mind the difference between a society's production per capita and the incomes received by the median person. The former says nothing about how the incomes in the society are distributed, so there may be a lot of income per capita but the median person may be benefiting very little from it. Stature is a very good proxy for incomes received by ordinary people, especially before the 20th century.

There is a big debate on whether wages for the working classes rose during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution or no. Robert Allen for example is a very prominent "wage pessimist". If real wages fell in the period 1800-50 then there is no height paradox.

But this loose use of the word "wealth" most afflicts your statement about the Roman empire. It's plausible that the median Roman was better off in the 1st century than in the 6th, but who says the median inhabitant of the Roman empire was NOT better off in the 6th century than in the 5th?

Who says neolithic farmers were wealthier ? [2]

I will concede that in that earlier post I used the phrase "wealth" in a rather loose way. In less than 1,300 words I moved from industrial America to premodern agrarian empires to hunter gatherer bands. It is difficult to talk about any one variable that might describe all three economic systems without stretching its meaning a bit. What is really necessary in order to make useful comparisons between such different eras is a discussion of fundamentals:  is there a meaningful conception of wealth that applies equally well to the paleolithic hunter gatherer and the information age office worker? What exactly is this thing we call "wealth"?

I cannot promise answers to these questions--I imagine it would take an entire book to answer them, and there are other topics much higher up on my priority list of things I plan to write books about.  However, I do not think it is wasted effort to explore these questions a bit and see if we cannot approach proper answers to them. I must reserve a full exploration of that topic for a later post. Before I delve into it I would like to clarify why I think biometric data--especially average height--is often a poor proxy for wealth and why measurements of a population's biological standard of living should not be confused with a population's wealth. A good place to begin is with the Roman case study mentioned above. I was surprised to find it faulted as my weakest point, for I consider it the strongest and least controversial of the examples given.

Roman cliometrics are only slightly more solid than the uncertain attempts to piece together the size of the Greek economy discussed in Pseudoeramsus's posts.  The most interesting data used in these studies involves wage estimates constructed from payrolls recorded on Egyptian papyri. [3] Unfortunately, there are no comparable records for the Western Empire and we must study the economics of that empire's fall by using what material proxies for wealth that might survive until some archaeologist digs it out of the earth or sea floor.

The most accessible introduction to this topic is Bryan Ward-Perkin's classic The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. As Ward-Perkin's title might suggest, the archaeological record shows that the collapse of the Western Empire can be seen in the collapse of an entire material culture--a "civilization." For awhile it was fashionable for historians to downplay this event, speaking not in terms of the empire's fall and Europe's descent into a "dark age" but of a "transition" or "evolution" of Europe into "late antiquity." Ward-Perkins will have none of this. He fights sophistry with data, providing one example after another of catastrophic collapse.

One of his first examples is pottery. Here is how the good professor describes the pottery found in archaeological sites from before the fall:
"In all but the remotest regions of the empire, Roman pottery of a high standard is common on the sites of humble villages and isolated farmsteads. For example, even on of a tiny farm stead in the hills behind the Roman city of Luna in Italy, which was occupied between the second century BC and the first century AD, produced the following range of pottery vessels: the huge storage jars (dolia) characteristic of the ancient world; coarse kitchenwares that were probably locally made (for the most part fast wheel turned, but including some vessels that were hand shaped), other kitchenwares imported from potteries along the West coast of Italy; amphorae from this same coastal area (with a few shards also from southern Italy and Africa) and finally, the fine glossy tablewares of Campania near Naples and of Arezzo in the Arno valley.... The list is not unimpressive for a peasant household." [4]
This contrasts with the pottery found in post-Roman sites:
"In the post-Roman West, almost all of the material sophistication disappeared. Specialized production and all but the most local distribution became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and qualities of high quality functional goods, which had characterized the Roman period, vanished, or at the very least, were drastically reduced. The middle and lower markets, which under the Romans had absorbed huge quantities of basic, but good quality items, seem to have almost entirely disappeared. 
Pottery again provides us with the fullest picture. In some regions like the whole of Britain and parts of coastal Span, all sophistication in the production and trading of pottery seems to have disappeared altogether: only vessels shaped without the use of the wheel were available, without any functional or aesthetic refinement.... In other areas, such as Northern Italy, some solid wheeled turned pots continued to be made and some soapstone vessels imported, but decorated tablewares entirely, or almost entirely disappeared and even among kitchenwares, and the range of vessels being manufactured was gradually reduced to only a few basic shapes. By the seventh century the standard vessel for Northern Italy was the olla (a simple bulbous cooking pot) whereas in Roman times this was only one vessel type in an impressive batterie de cuisine (jugs, plates, bowls, serving dishes, mixing and grinding bowls, casseroles, lids, amphorae, and others). 
....It was not only the quality and diversity that declined; the overall quantities of pottery in circulation also fell dramatically. This fact is very difficult to demonstrate conclusively; but it will be familiar to anyone who has worked on a post-Roman site--mountains of Roman pottery are reduced to a few interesting but unassuming boxes of post Roman sherds. In both excavation and field survey  while Roman pottery is so abundant that it can be a positive nuisance, post-Roman wares of any kind are almost invariably very scarce. " [5] 
The same thing can be said for building materials and techniques:
In the Mediterranean region the decline in building techniques and quality was not quite so drastic [as in England]--what we witness here, as with the history of pottery production, is a drastic shrinkage rather than a complete disappearance. Domestic housing in post Roman Italy, whether in town or countryside, seems to have been almost exclusively of perishable materials. Houses, which in the Roman period had been primarily of stone and brick, disappeared, to be replaced  by settlements constructed almost entirely of wood. Even the dwellings of the landed aristocracy became much more ephemeral, and far less comfortable: archaeologists, despite considerable effort, have so far failed to find any continuity into the late sixth century of the impressive rural and urban houses that had been a ubiquitous feature of the Roman period.... 
As with pottery, the change was most complete, and significant in the lower and middle markets. In the fifth and six centuries tiles, which as we have seen had been very widely available in Roman Italy, disappear from all but a few elite buildings. It may have been as much as a thousand years later, perhaps in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries that roof tiles again became as readily available and as widely diffused in Italy as they had been in Roman times. In the meantime, the vast majority of the population made do with roofing material that were impermanent, inflammable, and insect infested. This change in roofing was not an isolated phenomenon, but symptomatic of a much wider decline in domestic building standards--early medieval flooring, for instance, in all but palaces and churches, seems to have been generally of simple beaten earth" [6] 
And household goods:
"An object from the Sutton Hoo ship burial that attracts very little attention in its British Museum showcase speaks volumes; the pottery bottle. In the context of seventh century East Anglia, it was almost certainly a high status item, imported from abroad (since it was shaped on a wheel, at a time when all pottery in Britain was hand formed). But in any context of the Roman period, even a rural peasant context, it would be entirely unremarkable, or notable only for its porous fabric and course finish. The economy that sustained and supplied a massive middle and lower market for low-value functional goods had disappeared, leaving sophisticated production and exchange only for a tiny number of high-status objects." [7] 

Ward-Perkins provides more examples, but this is sufficient for our purposes. The trend is clear: the quality and quantity of every-day material goods fell as the empire went into decline. Importantly, this was not just an elite affair. The decline was most dramatic in the households of the West European peasantry, not the West European nobility. The average European farmer in the 8th century lived in a worse house, bought far fewer of possessions from long distance trade, owned fewer possessions over all, and owned material goods of a lower quality than his 2nd century predecessor.

He was also more than three centimeters taller.

Average height of skeletons found in Western European archaeological sites, 1st to 18th centuries.

From Nikola Koepke and Joerg Baten, "The Biological Standard of Living in Europe in the Last Two Millennia," European Review of Economic History 9, no. 1 (2005), p. 14

We thus have two proxies for wealth that moved in different directions at the same time. In terms of health the average European farmer was substantially better off than before; in terms of material possessions the same farmer was in a substantially worse position. How do we reconcile this? Which measure better accounts for this thing called "wealth"?

It is worth it to stop here and reflect on just what determines the changing heights of the populations used in "biological standard of living" measurements.  The relationship between genes, diet, and the heritability of height is a fairly complex one. To simplify a bit, the heritability of height varies from 60-80% depending on the ethnicity of the population in question, and the remainder of variation in height reflects environmental effects, especially nutrition. When the average height of a population changes this is mostly a function of the changing nutritional quality of the food available to the population in question (though disease also plays a small part).  [8]

The quality of the food a household has access to usually is directly related to the income of that household and the general prosperity of the society in which they live. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is no law of economics or nutrition that mandates this be so, and if we search through the historical data we can find instances where it clearly was not. One such example was described at length by Jo¨rg Baten and John E. Murray in their research on the heights of prison inmates in 19th century Bavaria. As they report:
One valuable characteristic of the Bavarian prisoner data sets is the capability of distinguishing among the effects of nativity in the several regions. These regions differed notably in the composition of their agricultural output. While some emphasized milk and dairy products in their production mix, others concentrated on potatoes and still others on bread grains. Surveys from the mid-century allowed us to assign each observation values that represented per capita agricultural production levels in their birth region: milk production as of 1840, potato production as of 1853, and bread grains also as of 1853 (no author, 1854–1859; see also Baten, 1999 for further explanation). To model potential nonlinearities and substitutabilities we used both linear and quadratic terms for the food-production variables.
Food production–adult height relationships were strongly nonlinear in the men’s case while mixed in the women’s case. For both men and women there was an optimal (in height terms) amount of milk production in their birth region; but for both men (353 liters) and women (371 liters) the optimum occurred at a standard deviation above average production levels. Availability of protein from dairy sources may thus have been a binding constraint in the growth process, even if subject to diminishing returns above a large production level. A similar pattern emerged for the effect of potato production on men’s heights. The optimal production level of potatoes was far above the average. The relationship between women’s heights and potato production was linear, positive, and significant, while bread grain production was unrelated to women’s heights. Overall, we find that food production in the prisoner’s birth region was generally positively related to final adult height, but in a complex and nonlinear relationship. [9] 
The implication of these results is that the height of average lower-class Bavarians was strongly influenced by first the availability of milk and secondly the availability of potatoes in a given region.

There are several reasons why milk production might be so closely related to regional health differences. The first is simply that milk is perishable; in pre-industrial times raw milk could usually not be transported over 10 kilometers before spoilage, and soured milk could not be sold more than 40-50 kilometers before it too spoiled. Dairy produced locally had to be consumed locally. There was also, as Nikola Koepke points out, "an indirect advantage [to milk production] via equality: the transport problem lead to a very low shadow price of milk in remote milk producing areas. This induced a relatively egalitarian distribution of high-value proteins. Thus, even low income groups could consume a healthy diet. In contrast, in large cities, only high-income groups could afford a protein-rich diet which was based on meat there." [10]

Intrigued by these results, Baten later extended his study to other parts of Europe, looking at Prussian and French conscript records (as well as conscript records in Bavaria) to see if he could find a clearer relationship between milk production and height. The results were unequivocal: across all three countries "milk production per capita" was strongly correlated with average conscript height. This, combined with real wages, accounts for almost all of the variability in heights. [11]

Baten and Stegla found similar results in a long-range study of heights across the modern Near East during the 19th century. Here again we find that populations with most access to milk products--in this case Bedouin tribesmen--were far taller than their countrymen. [12] Perhaps the most interesting study along these lines, however, was Koepke and Baten's attempts to measure dairy production in the Roman and post Roman world. These are the same two researchers that originally reported the drop in average height as classical civilization expanded across Western Europe and then its three centimeter jump after the empire fell. What they found is that the prevalence of cow bones in trash heaps moved in parallel with the decline and jumps in human height. Archaeological sites from the zenith of the empire had few cattle remains, but plenty of bones from swine. [13] In other words, the changes in the average height of European farmers during the Roman and post Roman worlds can largely be explained as a function of the access these farmers had to the proteins found in dairy products.

As purchasing and feeding a cow requires a larger capital investment than purchasing and feeding a pig one could conclude that access to dairy is simply a measure of household wealth by another name. I do not think this fact alone tells the entire story. The prevalence of cattle over swine or pasturage over wheat cropland may just as well reflect a decision on the part of households to focus on the goods which would trade at the highest price on regional markets.  Whether or not cultivating these goods created a side product that substantially improved the health of their children would be less important than the market price of wheat, leather, beef, pork, etc., and the cost of devoting farmland to their production. This also holds true for those peasant farmers too poor to raise larger amounts of livestock themselves or wage workers who did not raise livestock at all. Their access to protein rich dairy products were just as much a product of their location as of their wages or household wealth.

This is the problem with using "biological standard of living" as a straight proxy for wealth. There are simply too many intervening variables that complicate the picture. In the case of European data, the heights recorded over the centuries clearly reflected average household income--but they also reflected average household dairy consumption. Until economic historians begin controlling for dairy consumption in their models, measurements of biological standard of living that rely solely on height data must be used with caution.


[1] T. Greer, "Health ≠ Wealth," Scholar's Stage (22 March 2015).

[2] Pseudoerasmus, comment #2 (25 March 2015), on T. Greer, "Health ≠ Wealth,Scholar's Stage (22 March 2015).

[3] For an introduction to this line of study see Walter Scheidel, ‘Real wages in early economies: evidence for living standards from 1800 BCE to 1300 CE’,  Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53 (2010), 425-462.

[4] Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 92. 

[5] ibid., 105-106.

[6] ibid., 107-108.

[7] ibid., 118.

[8] The matter is complicated somewhat by the fact that heritability itself can vary within a genetically similar population living in different environments--a fact I chalk up to reaction norms.  For a lucid introductory discussion of this topic, please see Lai Chao-Qiang, "How Much of Human Height is Genetic and How Much is Due to Nutrition?", Scientific American (11 December 2006).

[9] Jo¨rg Baten and John E. Murray, "Heights of Men and Women in 19th-Century Bavaria: Economic, Nutritional, and Disease Influences," Explorations in Economic History 37 (2000), 361.

[10] Nikola Koepke, "Regional Differences and Temporal Development of the Nutritional Status in Europe from the 8th century B.C. until the 18th century A.D.," PhD Diss., Universität Tübingen (2008), p. 100.

[11] Jo¨rg Baten, "Protein Supply and Nutritional Status in Nineteenth Century Bavaria, Prussia and France”, Economics and Human Biology 7, iss. 2 (2009), 165-180.

[12] Mojgan Stegla and Joerg Baten, "Tall and shrinking Muslims, short and growing Europeans: The long-run welfare development of the Middle East, 1850–1980," Explorations in Economic History 46, is 1 (2009), 132–148.

[13] Nikola Koepke & Joerg Baten, “Agricultural Specialization and Height in Ancient and Medieval Europe”, Explorations in Economic History 42, is. 2 (2008), pp. 127-146

This entry was posted on 25 April, 2015 at 10:33 PM and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


It seems that your understanding of "wealth" leans towards "property" or "durable goods" rather than "income." Then why not use the precise word? A family in Gaul in the seventh century might have a higher income in litres of barley than a family in the second (and perhaps eat better and have less diseases, although I have not looked at the early medieval evidence) but still fewer and worse durable goods because the systems which produced and distributed those had collapsed (compare how today, some people whose incomes are low to middling by preindustrial standards and who spend most of their incomes on food and fuel and textiles own a bicycle or a cell phone which nobody in 1800 could have).

April 26, 2015 at 1:39 AM

How much of this is due simply to population decline in Western Europe after the Fall? And then the increase in cattle raising I guess due to the German invasions, who were cattle herders themselves.

Loss of population density opened land for cattle grazing, so individual farmers were better fed; but the loss of population density also prevented the recreation of the capital intensive production of consumption goods that Rome could afford.

April 26, 2015 at 8:16 AM

@Books and swords-

1. Re: Because I don't think wealth is simply property. That said, I don't think that this would be a bad approach to take--when looking at modern households I don't see any reason to privilege real wages over net worth when assessing the wealth of a household, and there are plenty of instances where economists prefer to work with the latter.

Like biometric data, I see material goods simply as a proxy for premodern wealth. The quality, quantity and diversity of pottery a household owns can suggest things about household wealth, but they are only a sign post. When they move in tandem with biometric data then a strong case can be made that 'wealth' was indeed increasing. But when the two proxies diverge... we need to think a lot harder about what is going on, especially when the biometric data is something clearly influenced by dietary content unrelated or only loosely related to wealth.

"compare how today, some people whose incomes are low to middling by preindustrial standards and who spend most of their incomes on food and fuel and textiles own a bicycle or a cell phone which nobody in 1800 could have."

I'm not sure I agree with this. There was an interesting CATO UNBOUND discussion about this topic earlier this month, taking the much discussed case of stagnant real wages over the last 40 years as its case example. In terms of real wages the average American worker is not much better off now than he was three decades. But in terms of what he can buy with those wages he is incredibly better than before. Who is richer-- the man who has a lower income but the purchasing power to buy a cell phone, or the man with higher income but not enough purchasing power to buy wax candles?

April 26, 2015 at 10:25 PM

2. I decided to hold off this discussion--what conception of wealth is useful for cross century/cross social systems comparisons--from the main post because 1) it was already fairly long as it is 2) two of the books I would like to cite in the discussion, Smil's Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems and Kelly's The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways are both still in transit from Hawaii to here. But I can introduce some of the ideas I am thinking about here, sans citation and the rigor i apply to the stuff in the posts.

I hinted at "my understanding of wealth" in the first post on health and wealth when I stated "This is because sustained economic growth occurs when people are able to make more stuff and do more things with less effort"

Effort is of course another way to say "energy." I take my inspiration here from the way the behavioral ecology school of cultural anthropology compares hunter gatherer groups and HG survival strategies to each other. Some groups have more possessions, more complex technology, etc. than other groups. If wealth were simply about property than they would be wealthier. But int he context of HG groups this makes little sense, for the ones with most tech, most possessions, etc. tend to be those who live in the most hostile environments (e,g, the Inuit). There simply isn't a need for that kind of complexity or production in places where resources are obtained more easily.

One of the ways anthropologists get around this problem is by calculating the energetic utility of different activities, strategies, or objects. In essence, how many calories does the average HG man burn making that tool or hunting that way, and how many calories does he get from it. This is essentially applying EROI to human activity. I don't see why this couldn't apply to all human activity. Compare the amount of energy a human being must directly invest in a given productive activity vs. the energetic value of what is ultimately produced or perhaps the (energetic) value of what can be traded for the goods or services produced.

The ideas are still a bit rough, but I think it would be interesting to see if I can mess with the equations the human behavioral ecologists use to assess HG activity and apply it to simple agriculture, and work upwards from there.

April 26, 2015 at 10:25 PM


Koepke and Baten's basically reach that same conclusion. They add in the effects of lower urbanization rates--the more urbanized a society is or the greater demand there is for land, the costlier it becomes to raise cattle instead of swine. Meat is a perishable good and it made more economic sense to pen pigs close to the cities (where the demand for meat comes) than put cattle to pasture there.

Or at least that is how they tell it.

April 26, 2015 at 10:29 PM

I don’t really have any problem with the stuff you cite from Ward-Perkins. Clearly, the large-scale commerce of a well-integrated empire (appears to have) permitted ordinary households to consume a wide variety of non-subsistence material goods. And just as clearly the receding of that empire diminished consumption possibilities.

It also seems pretty clear, with imperial expansion and urbanisation, there was a trade-off between the biological standard of living and the material standard of living. Move to a crowded, filthy, disease-ridden town and get less stature, shorter life, more of your children dying, etc. But in exchange you get to lead a less dreary, more complex, and variegated life, filled with organised entertainment, luxury goods from the East, clothes made by people other than yourself, etc. etc. etc.

You can think of the above in terms of curves like this one ( ) Points on the curve represent different trade-offs. With greater technological sophistication, the curve not only shifts outward (more of both kinds of goods can be consumed/produced), but it also becomes less concave & straighter (there is less of a trade-off between the consumption possibilities).

I’m a little confused about what you’re saying with respect to height. You started this thing with an observation about Pomeranz. He used biological living standards as one of the proxies for living standards. You took exception to this, because you are able to find cases where height does not seem to say much about income.

Explain to me how this is not one of those cases where some people argue against a correlation that’s less than 1 by saying it’s not 1….

As purchasing and feeding a cow requires a larger capital investment than a pig one could conclude that access to dairy is simply a measure of household wealth by another name.

Not the right way of looking at it. When you have more land, you can support more cattle. So cattle share is likely a particular form of land wealth.

Regarding your extrapolations re dairy & height from Köpke & Baten ( )

 In other words, the changes in the average height of European farmers during the Roman and post Roman worlds can largely be explained as a function of the access these farmers had to the proteins found in dairy products.

Of the variation in height that is actually explained (about 2/3), cattle share is somewhat more important than land/capita. 1SD in each case is associated with 1cm and 0.7cm in extra height, respectively.

And that’s for the sample as a whole, which includes Roman and non-Roman populations. And the difference appears to be driven by the non-Roman population.

Refer to the results in Table 3.

In model 1, the coefficients on the cattle share and on the antiquity dummy are statistically significant, but not for any of the regional dummies. In other words, there is an unidentified negative effect on height that’s not from cattle share and that’s driven by Roman-era data.

In model 2, the only stat. significant coefficients are for land/capita and the NE Europe dummy. In other words, a regression which includes land/capita but not cattle share appears to have omitted variables related to NE Europe. As Köpke & Baten themselves say, this suggests cattle in NE Europe.

But this thing has only N=25 covering like 1500 years !

April 27, 2015 at 2:17 AM

I am also away from my library on this subject, and to be honest I am in the position of looking at these debates from the outside wondering if there is good enough data and enough conceptual rigour to justify a closer look. (BTW, Geoff Kron has some work on Roman intensive farming of game and fish which you might want to look at if you are interested in how much protein a culture's food ways provide).

I suppose that I am not convinced that the adoption of a more efficient staple such as potatoes, or changes in the economy which allow many people to keep dairy cattle, are “unrelated or only loosely related to wealth.” I think that the choice between being less sunburnt and hungry every day and having a cell phone is a choice which reasonable people could make different ways ... which is why economists try to work with abstractions like income in liters of barley or grams of Ag or US$1990. Because the data is so unreliable and the concepts so slippery, I think it is all the more important to chose our words carefully and define them precisely, rather than use terms like “wealth” which can mean whatever one wishes them to.

For as long as people have been aware of the changes which we call industrialization, they have noticed that industrialization brought some material things which almost everyone wants and others which almost everyone does not want. The central moral questions are how much of this destruction was necessary for industrialization to occur at all, and how long did it take before a reasonable person would decide that living in an industrializing society was clearly better than living in a preindustrial one. In my view, presenting the material circumstances which leave skeletons with long bones and teeth with even enamel as a distraction from the material circumstances which leave pots and house foundations and slag heaps evades these two questions, and that is a shame, because while why the first industrial revolutions began when and where they did is academically interesting, the other two questions have very direct and practical implications about how people should behave today.

April 27, 2015 at 4:44 AM

I’ve reexamined this passage from part 1 :

Pomeranz marshals a fascinating catalog of statistics to compare  the living standards of Western Europeans and the Chinese of the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas on the eve of the industrial revolution. The data points he list range from infant fatality rates to protein intake to luxury good consumption. For almost every variable the story is the same: the Europeans were no better off (and sometimes worse off) than their Chinese contemporaries. Therefore, Pomeranz implies, during the 18th century the average European could not have been much wealthier than the average Chinese. [4]

This section of the book is built upon the false premise that wealth and the things usually included in standard of living indexes are functional equivalents that more or less move in tandem. [5] The trouble is that this is often not true. Research done since The Great Divergence was published proves the point. Folks like Bozhong Li, economic historian at Hong Kong University of Science and technology, and Jan Luiten van Zanden, historian at Utrech University, have put in the hard work needed to create a more exact measure of proto-Industrial household wealth in Western Europe and China, and have found that families in the Netherlands and Southern England were more than twice as wealthy as those in the Yangtze river delta. [6] As was the case with America's great migration, wealth and living standards simply did not match up.

Both protein intake and luxury good consumption are implicitly addressed in the real wage series constructed by Allen, van Zanden, and Li. Silver wages are deflated by different consumption bundles which include basic foods plus tea and sugar.

“Infant fatality rates” are cited by Pomeranz only in order to address why life expectancies at birth were so low in East Asia.

So what remains in the Pomeranz case as an illustration that “wealth and living standards simply did not match up” ? Only life expectancy. That’s also the only biometric indicator of living standards, in this case.

The real flaw in Pomeranz’s argument (which has been pointed out by Clark, for example) is that life expectancy in premodern China was likely an indicator of LOW living standards. To the extent that LE was higher, mortality rates were lower, and therefore living standards were lower. That’s precisely what Allen, van Zanden, and Li confirmed.

April 27, 2015 at 8:50 AM

Clarification: Pomeranz argues life expectancy at birth was low in China because rates of infanctide were high. He then goes on to say life expectancy at 1 was pretty good. And my point is that, that's an indicator of relatively low mortality past the neonatal stage. Lower mortality then implies lower living standards, all else equal.

April 27, 2015 at 8:56 AM

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