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Fish or fowl?
on 20 January 2010
The problem with Allen's latest production is that it is neither frankly a manual nor an academic work. If it is meant as the former, it is too argumentative, and if the latter it lacks proper supporting material.
Allen's argument is that the industrial revolution happened in Britain and could only happen there, because it had high wages and low energy costs, in the eighteenth century. The book models the labour savings of certain technological innovations to show that these were only worthwhile in Britain. Thus it says the spinning jenny could only make a positive return in Britain, not France or India. But as an example of its flawed assumptions, it supposes that the workers manning the jenny would only work part-time. Recalculating Allen's IRRs based on full-time work shows the jenny was just as worthwhile elsewhere. Indeed, the question is how Britain managed to flood France with cottons after signing the free-trade treaty of 1786, if French manual costs remained lower than British mechanised costs.
Allen also runs a regression-type model to explain the industrial revolution using different factors (government, energy costs, trade, enclosure) across different countries and sub-periods. But the factors are hand picked and the correlations certainly say nothing about causes. This all sounds rather futile. The last chapters are more interesting: on invention and the role of the Enlightenment, looking at a group of seventy major and less major inventors and their links with Enlightenment figures and institutions, as well as the role of broader cultural factors, such as interest in experimentation, belief in a Newtonian / mechanical world, and numeracy. If you have to read this book, I would advise checking the introduction and then skipping to that section.