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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

'Fear of Cheap Foreign Labor in the Long Depression: 1873-1879'

Tim Taylor:

Fear of Cheap Foreign Labor in the Long Depression: 1873-1879: The US economy was in a continuous recession for 65 months from October 1873 to March 1879. Historians call is the "Long Depression," because the Great Depression from 1929 to 1933 saw "only" 42 consecutive months of economic decline. For comparison, the more recent Great Recession lasted 18 months. ...

Precise government statistics are not available for this time period, of course, but estimates of the unemployment rate for the later part of this period often exceeded 20%, and some exceeded 30%. For those with a job, real wages fell by half. Even those real wages were often paid in the form of company scrip, which could only be used at the company store, and was worth substantially less than cash. ... Output fell sharply. ...

And what was the cause of this collapse? At least one writer back in October 1879, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, believed that globalization and competition from China, India, and Brazil were to blame. An author identified as W.G.M. wrote an essay called "Foreign Trade No Cure for Hard Times," which through the magic of the web can be read online here. W.G.M. argued: 

"We read in a London paper that the Chinese government have purchased machinery, and engaged experienced engineers and spinners in Germany to establish cotton mills in China, so as to free that country from dependence upon English and Russian imports. Though China is somewhat tardy in her action, we may be certain that she is thorough. ... More than this, the time is  not far distant when the textiles from the Chinese machine looms, iron and steel and cutlery from the Chinese furnaces, forges and workshops, with everything that machinery and cheap labor can produce, will crowd every market. The four hundred millions of China, with the two hundred and fifty millions of India,--the crowded and pauperized populations of Asia,--will offer the cup of cheap machine labor, filled to the brim, to our lips, and force us to drink it to the dregs, if we do not learn wisdom. It is in Asia, if anywhere, that the world is to find its workshop. There are the masses, and the conditions, necessary to develop the power of cheapness to perfection, and they will be used. For years we have been doing our utmost to teach the Chinese shoemaking, spinning and weaving, engine driving, machine building, and other arts, in California, Massachusetts, and other States; and we may be sure they will make good use of their knowledge; for there is no people on earth with more  patient skill and better adapted to the use of machinery than the Chinese. When the Chinese government is doing for China, Dom Pedro is doing for Brazil [this would be Dom Pedro II, the last ruler of the Empire of Brazil], though in a different form."

It gives me a smile to think that that dangers of global competition from China, India, and Brazil were being stated so eloquently back in 1879! ...

I wonder how the 1879 argument would have differed if the writer had been able to see how little progress the economies of China and India had made even 100 years after the writing of the article in 1979! For me, an ongoing lesson is that when economic times are rough, blaming other countries is always an easy temptation. ...

    Posted by on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 01:25 PM in Economics, International Trade | Permalink  Comments (35)


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