Thursday, September 3, 2009

Economic History and the Variety Gains from Trade

Free Exchange highlights this from a new VOX paper on economic history and pre-industrial revolution welfare improvements:

Tea reached Europe from China in 1606, spreading to France in 1630, and finally to England in 1650...Coffee spread through the Middle East and arrived in Europe in 1615. Sugar, available before 1500 in limited quantities, only became affordable once production centres developed in the Caribbean starting in the mid 17th century.

By the end of the period, sugar, coffee, and tea constituted 7.2% of an average English household’s budget, and roughly 10% of their food expenditure...To put this in perspective, personal consumption expenditure on personal computers in the US in 2004 was only 0.6% of consumption expenditure, meaning that, by at least one metric, the average Englishman valued sugar more than the average American values his or her computer...

Prior to 1700, the average European consumed 182 kg of bread and 182 litres of beer per year...Half of all spending was on beer and bread, and fully three-quarters of all calories came from these two sources alone. The reason for massive beer consumption was simple – water was often contaminated. This was especially true in the cities. Brewed beer was safe. It is hence not surprising that it was consumed throughout the day, often with breakfast, and in all forms – including as beer soup in the morning...

Minivans, satellite TV, the internet, and mobile phones have made life better. The single biggest addition to welfare comes from the introduction of personal computers, credited by Greenwood and Kopecky with a gain of 3.5-4% of consumption expenditure. Compared to these figures, the gains for coffee, tea, and sugar look very large.

The thing to highlight here is the importance of TRADE. Without expanding trade, it is doubtful that tea, coffee, and sugar could have ever become available. Hence, variety gains from trade. It only took until 1980 for Krugman to formalize it in the trade literature.

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