Every three years, economic historians from across the globe gather in one place to discuss the latest research in our field. And so it was again this year that, in early August, more than 1400 of these interdisciplinary scholars convened at MIT in Boston for the latest rendition of the World Economic History Congress (WEHC). It was hot and humid outside, but inside the conference and classrooms, the discussions were no less heated.
Normally a friendly and somewhat reserved crowd, it is as if the political developments of the last three years has forced economic historians out of their slumber. That classic history cartoon – an old man sitting in his rocking chair saying ‘Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it’ – seems more apt than ever. As always, there were papers on esoteric topics such as occupational mobility in early-twentieth century Greenland, wine glasses in China during the eighteenth century, or what pollen data can tell us about market integration in Ancient Greece. But it seemed to me, now at my fourth WEHC, that this year the research questions were more aimed at the big questions of the present: How does globalisation lead to populist pushback? Why are inequalities increasing in rich countries, and what can be done about it? How do entrepreneurs use (abuse) networks to become successful? History offers clues (but no quick-fix answers) to all these questions.
Two plenary sessions exemplified this. On the last day of the conference, Jane Humphries and Claudia Goldin debated the missing role of women in economic history. While Humphries, professor of Economic History at Oxford University, discussed the importance of women to the Industrial Revolution, Goldin, a professor of Economics at Harvard, discussed the more recent transition of women into the labour market. She showed, by using extensive data from Harvard Business School graduates, how the gender wage gap can to a large extent be explained by women’s preferences for flexible work. This, she argued, what can be done to close the gap further: women prospered in teams where their skills are substitutable. Instead of operating as a single physician, for example, female doctors were much more likely to stay in the labour market and work more hours if they worked as part of a team of medical experts.
But the big event of the congress was undoubtedly Thomas Piketty’s plenary session. Piketty, who is professor of Economics at the Parish School and known for his best-seller Capital in the 21st Century, has now shifted his inequality work to the political realm. He made a compelling case that the expansion of higher education has altered the traditional alliances in politics. Using three case studies – of France, England and the US – he showed that support from the intellectual elite – those with university degrees – has increasingly shifted to the left in all three countries over the last three centuries. For example, in 1948, less than 20% of all voters with a Masters degree voted for the US democratic candidate; in 2016, it was 70%. Why? Remember that the Democratic Party in the US (or the Labour Party in the UK) is more in favour of redistribution than the Republican Party (or the Conservative Party). For that reason, they tend to get most of their support from the poor (or, at least, those that stand to benefit from redistribution). But the poor is not uneducated anymore. In 1948, slightly more than 20% of voters had a tertiary degree, while in 2016, it was more than 50%. By definition, of course, if 50% of voters have a university degree, they cannot all be in the richest 10%. This means that there has become a disconnect between the educated and the rich. That is why, according to Piketty, new political positions become possible; he identifies four groups of almost equal size that have now emerged in his native France: internationalist-egalitarian (pro-migrant, pro-poor), internationalist-inegalitarian (pro-migrant, pro-rich), nativist-inegalitarian (anti-migrant, pro-rich), and nativist-egalitarian (anti-migrant, pro-poor). The success of Emmanuel Macron was that he could appeal to multiple of these groups.
‘Politics has never been a simple poor vs rich conflict’, says Piketty. ‘One needs to look at the multi-dimensional content of political cleavages.’ We also see this play out in the South African context. The ANC is currently a broad church – from the rural poor to the urban sophisticate. But how long can they maintain this delicate balance, when issues such as globalisation, migration and automation will have decidedly negative effects on one part of their electorate while benefiting another? And these clashes may not be along the fault lines of yesteryear. Capital and labour, poor and rich, educated and uneducated are now in flux. As Piketty says, the US might be returning to the 19th century political alignment, with globalists (high-income, high-education) on one side and nativists (low-income, low-education) on the other. Or it could go the route of the Democratic Party in the US, whose pro-slavery/segregationists introduced poor white policies which also benefited poor blacks. Or we could instead see the re-emergence of a globalist-egalitarian elite like we did in the aftermath of World War II, a system that resulted in the end of colonialism and a global Golden Age of growth.
The high levels of inequality in South Africa would make the continuation of a single, unified ANC seem unlikely in the medium to long run. Rapid globalisation, automation and increasing pressure on immigration are fissures that even a great leader will be unlikely to control. If history (and economic historians) have anything to add, it is that the future is unlikely to be just a continuation of the present.
**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 30 August edition of finweek.