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Assessment of pre-industrial GDP

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    Posted: 01 Jul 2010 at 14:57
Very often we read reports about economic historians making comparative reports between different empires, such as Roman, Persian, Chinese, Arabic, Indian, Egyptian etc. in the pre-inudstrial age.

On the Chinese History Forum, for example, there is an eternal debate of the comparison between the European and Chinese economy prior to 1700 based on so-called GDP and GDP per capita.

regarding that very few pre-modern empires had kept written records of their industrial output or trade volumen, how could economic performance be measured among pre-industrial states?

While it is clear that the Roman Empire would have had a greater economic productivity than the Germanic tribes, that the Ottoman Empire would have had a more sophisticated economy than the Central Asian states, based on what index could economic historians make comparisons between, for example, the pre-contact Aztec economy and the Spanish economy of the same era?


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jul 2010 at 15:07
It's debatable enough what use comparisons between modern countries on a GDP/GNP basis are. Applying it in retrospect to periods before the concept was invented is pointless.
 
Certainly all money measures fail in trying to deal with non-monetary economies (which of course many economists would try and claim is an oxymoron).
 
A better and more objective measure would be the percentage of leisure time[1] on average, plus perhaps longevity/health statistics. Still difficult to know how you'd get reliable data though.
 
[1] Genuine Marxists should appreciate that since Marx declared that reducing working hours was the main purpose of society.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote calvo Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jul 2010 at 15:19
I don't think that longevity and leisure time are that reliable indicators of economic production. As most anthropologists would agree, primitive hunter gatherers in the paleolithic age often lived longer and healthier lives than most peasants and urban proletariat during the historical age, nevertheless their economic output was very basic.

Before the invention of sewers and modern medicine, most people in the cities lived very short and precarious lives, yet the economic production in the city was much greater due to a larger volumen of trade, banking, and employment opportunities.
Economic productivity could , probabaly, be measured by the size of the population, as only civilizations with efficient means of agricultural production could afford to feed a large population, other indicators could include the production of ceramics, steel, wine, construction material, gold and silver mining, and foreign trade, yet these indexes are very hard to give an exact measure.


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote xristar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jul 2010 at 15:40
@ Calvo
You make a mistake: agricultural production, even if it is not traded so as to acquire a value in money, is still an economic output. People in the past prefered to live in villages because villagers were actually "richer". To give you an example: when the Germans occupied Greece in 1941 (Greece being an example of a relatively modern state), the population in the cities suffered terribly from infaltion. In winter of 1941-1942 literally hundreds of thousands were unable to buy even the basics, and starved to death and fled to the countryside. Athens population was reduced by several hundereds of thousands. Yet the city dwellers probably had more cash available than the village people. So while they produced more GDP they were poorer than the farmers of the countryside.

EDIT:
Estimating GDP in money values is useless when money is not circulating very much. In the middle ages, most peasants probably never had any coins.

In order to estimate the comparative wealth if a state or per capita in a population, one should estimate things like materials production, population density and the existence of cities (which indicate a surplus in food production or in trade). The per capita wealth could be measured by their longevity, their daily calorie consumption, the built area per capita (a person with a big stone house is richer than one with a hey hut) etc.


Edited by xristar - 01 Jul 2010 at 15:46
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote drgonzaga Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jul 2010 at 15:45
If, socially speaking, you reside at the top of the food chain in any "civilization" and are sufficiently isolated from the hoi poloi you would enjoy a relatively long life [Ramses II made it into his 90s in the 13th century BC]. But, let's face it, we are dealing with little more than static with statistics and, frankly, there is little quantifiable data upon which to premise unchallengeable conclusions. And if we are to discuss "leisure time", one had best come up with a firm definition of that nebulosity. After all, if you know your anthropology, the average Yanamamo has far more "hammock time" on his hands than any modern suburbanite!
 
One could be cynical and exclaim that urban life generated the parasitic element that feeds on the vitality of any society, but the urbanism of the 16th century was not that of th 18th and the conditions generated by 19th century urbanism came as a consequence of agrarian displacement as the wealthy fabricated their own Arcadias at the expense of viable village life. Frankly, one has to caricature the "rhythm of life through the times" in order to engage in economic fantasies.
 
Just chalk up all this talk on "better lives" as little more than a corollary to the Myth of Progress.


Edited by drgonzaga - 02 Jul 2010 at 13:06
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Anton Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 Jul 2010 at 17:58
Apparently in this book:

A Commercialising Economy: England 1086 to c.1300. Edited by Richard H. Britnell and Bruce M. S. Campbell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, Pp. xi, 228. $59.95.

you can find some of the answers to your question.The review of the books says:

Quote
A Commercialising Economy: England 1086 to c.1300. Edited by Richard H. Britnell and Bruce M. S. Campbell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, Pp. xi, 228. $59.95.
The series of papers in this volume derived for the most part from a small but very active conference held at Leicester (England) in July 1992. But this is by no means your standard collection of conference proceedings. Even when assertions are controversial, the papers are of a very uniform and high quality, a tribute to the hard work of the editors in bringing together a number of important studies on a well-known but puzzling phenomenon: the remarkable growth in trade and economic activity from the eleventh to the early fourteenth centuries. The focus here is England, but the issues raised could apply to most of Europe during the same period.
The volume is dominated by two papers from Graeme Snooks and Nicholas Mayhew regarding the measurement of GDP as a way of quantifying economic growth in England from the date of the monumental Domesday Book (1086) to the beginning of the fourteenth century. This is a highly speculative exercise for such an early period, but it is saved from intellectual sterility by the intelligence and energy that both authors bring to bear on the subject. Both take very different stances, particularly on the measurement of GDP in 1086, where Snooks's estimate is lower by a factor of two or three than Mayhew's. Consequently, Snooks's low base estimate for the Domesday GDP yields calculations of a fairly rapid rise in GDP to 1300, whereas Mayhew's computations produce a more modest increase (see especially p. 74). Whatever one feels about the merits of this sort of exercise, the resulting debate brings an interesting tension that permeates through the book, even to an appendix where the methodology of GDP measurement for the period is further wrestled between Snooks and Mayhew with an additional comment by Christopher Dyer.
Alongside this, the other chapters appear somewhat as satellites, but they are equally worth reading, particularly Richard Britnell's thoughtful survey of the various scholarly approaches to the question of commercialization in England during the preplague period. To some extent following upon his recent and excellent book on the subject (The Commercialisation of English Society, 1000-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), he admirably sets the scene for the volume as a whole. The financial aspect of the question is covered in a paper by Robert Stacey outlining the role played by Jewish lending
in the development of the English economy from the time of William the Conqueror to the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom in the early 1290s. Although Stacey admits that, seen over the entire period, Jews played only a limited role in the commercialization of England, it was a crucial one in establishing antisemitism as a feature of the European psyche, particularly as the English were in the forefront of Jewish persecution at the time.
Although again coming from a somewhat narrow perspective, David Farmer's analysis of woodland and pasture sales on the bishop of Winchester's estates in the thirteenth century is equally challenging. Completed just before his untimely death in 1994, Farmer, more than any other contributor, attempted to get into the minds of lords and manorial officials as they sought to dispose of products that had a more limited range of demand than traditionally marketable commodities such as grain and wool. His conclusion was that the bishops and their officials did not give a high priority to the marketing of these products, but that they seemed increasingly aware of their marketable potential, especially towards the beginning of the fourteenth century.
Bruce Campbell continues in this vein with a very full analysis of seigneurial agriculture in the counties surrounding London. To a large extent this is a reworking of data collected
710    Reviews of Books
for the large "Feeding the City" project that has already resulted in much publication. Here Campbell has refigured the data to measure the degree of commercialization displayed by seigneurial demesnes around London. As might be expected, the results are complex. Pastoral products in general showed a higher degree of production for sale than did grain products, but for both categories household consumption needs tended to take priority. Regional variations, however, were strong enough to indicate that some areas were more inclined than others to produce for the market. This was particularly the case for manors along the Thames, which could take advantage of cheaper water transport.
All the papers in this collection, then, make significant contributions to the theme of early medieval commercialization. There might be a tendency to write this volume off as an extension of work already appearing in several monographs and articles, and certainly those looking for a clear and simple answer to the subject are going to be disappointed. Nevertheless, for its wealth of ideas and useful condensations and reformulations of huge collections of data, scholars considering the preplague English (and indeed European) economy will ignore this volume at their peril.
JOHN LANGDON, University ofAlber


http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=4135476

and the book itself can be found in googlebooks:

http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=tGi7AAAAIAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=A+Commercialising+Economy:+England+1086+to+c.1300&ots=9r_fMl-nCp&sig=PGNQVFNSLh8echZaY0I_jBrecRo#v=onepage&q&f=false


Edited by Anton - 01 Jul 2010 at 18:02
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 Jul 2010 at 11:47
Originally posted by calvo calvo wrote:

I don't think that longevity and leisure time are that reliable indicators of economic production. As most anthropologists would agree, primitive hunter gatherers in the paleolithic age often lived longer and healthier lives than most peasants and urban proletariat during the historical age, nevertheless their economic output was very basic.
Then you have a rather strange (though common) idea of the purpose of the economy, which essentially is the welfare of the populace. Quite obviously, if the conditions you describe hold,  the economic surplus of the hunter-gatherer was greater than that of medieval society.
 
And economic surplus is the point: obviosly a million people will actually produce more output than a hundred.
 
QUOTE=drgonzaga]If, socially speaking, you reside at the top of the food chain in any "civilization" and are suficiently isolated from the hoi poloi you would enjoy a relatively long life [Ramses II made it into his 90s in the 13th century BC].
[/QUOTE]
True. If I didn't mention it originally I meant average longevity.
Quote
After all, if you know your anthropology, the average Yanamamo has far more "hammock time" on his hands than any modern suburbanite!
Which on its own is a plus for the Yanamamo, no?

Originally posted by Anton Anton wrote:

Apparently in this book:

A Commercialising Economy: England 1086 to c.1300. Edited by Richard H. Britnell and Bruce M. S. Campbell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, Pp. xi, 228. $59.95.

you can find some of the answers to your question.The review of the books says:

 
Yes the review makes the book look interesting. It also highlights the fact that GNP/GDP measures aren't particularly productive of anything but dissension.
 
@Xristar - agreed completely.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote calvo Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 Jul 2010 at 12:57
Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

Then you have a rather strange (though common) idea of the purpose of the economy, which essentially is the welfare of the populace. Quite obviously, if the conditions you describe hold,  the economic surplus of the hunter-gatherer was greater than that of medieval society.
 
And economic surplus is the point: obviosly a million people will actually produce more output than a hundred.
 


The question is complicated.
Throughout most of history (except from the 19th century onwards), the more "civilised" and "urbanised" societies had greater populations, greater trade and production activities, yet the bulk of the population lived far more precarious lives than the more primitive rural, pastoral, or hunter-gatherer societies.

If we compare a city like Rome or Constantinople at their heyday, crowded living conditions, diseases, and malnutrition reduced the average life expectancy. The effect was known as the "urban graveyard effect".
On the other hand, many of the mountain tribes of Atlas in North Africa lived exclusively by animal husbandry, hunting, and gathering, yet people were generally better fed and lived longer lives.

although taking these statistics into consideration, any economist would conclude that Rome and Constantinople were economically far more advanced than the mountain tribes of Atlas.




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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Anton Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 Jul 2010 at 17:57
Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

Yes the review makes the book look interesting. It also highlights the fact that GNP/GDP measures aren't particularly productive of anything but dissension.


Sure, but one should start with something, make some simple models and estimations. There is always some indirect data that can be used to test your ideas.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 Jul 2010 at 11:41
Originally posted by calvo calvo wrote:

Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

Then you have a rather strange (though common) idea of the purpose of the economy, which essentially is the welfare of the populace. Quite obviously, if the conditions you describe hold,  the economic surplus of the hunter-gatherer was greater than that of medieval society.
 
And economic surplus is the point: obviosly a million people will actually produce more output than a hundred.
 


The question is complicated.
Throughout most of history (except from the 19th century onwards), the more "civilised" and "urbanised" societies had greater populations, greater trade and production activities, yet the bulk of the population lived far more precarious lives than the more primitive rural, pastoral, or hunter-gatherer societies.

If we compare a city like Rome or Constantinople at their heyday, crowded living conditions, diseases, and malnutrition reduced the average life expectancy. The effect was known as the "urban graveyard effect".
On the other hand, many of the mountain tribes of Atlas in North Africa lived exclusively by animal husbandry, hunting, and gathering, yet people were generally better fed and lived longer lives.

although taking these statistics into consideration, any economist would conclude that Rome and Constantinople were economically far more advanced than the mountain tribes of Atlas.
Some might. But it hinges on the definition of 'advanced'. Sociological and technological factors like urbanisation shouldn't be confused with economic ones. Otherwise you'd be rating a society as economically more advanced because it had computers and the internet while its unemploment rate was horrible.  
To use 'advanced' meaningfully you need to have a goal in mind towards which the advancement is progressing. What sort of goal do you have in mind when you think of a short lifespan as being 'more advanced' than a long one?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 Jul 2010 at 11:44
Originally posted by Anton Anton wrote:

Originally posted by gcle2003 gcle2003 wrote:

Yes the review makes the book look interesting. It also highlights the fact that GNP/GDP measures aren't particularly productive of anything but dissension.


Sure, but one should start with something,
But why GDP/GNP? We haven't achieved any more control over the economy since those concepts were invented than we did  before.
 
Quote
make some simple models and estimations. There is always some indirect data that can be used to test your ideas.

What happens more often is that data going against the ideas is simply ignored.
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