What You Exported Matters: Persistence in Productive Capabilities across Two Eras of Globalization

This blog was first published on the Rebuilding Macroeconomics website.

By Isabella Weber, Tom Westland and Maya McCollum

“The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep…” This was how John Maynard Keynes described the globalisation of the Belle Epoque before the First World War. London, and by extension Britain, was at the centre of the world economy: not just a global manufacturing powerhouse, but also the ruler of a vast colonial domain upon which the sun famously never set. The global division of labour was stark: Britain and other Western nations largely produced manufactured goods. But they also exported a whole range of temperate agricultural goods like wheat, beef and barley. Elsewhere in the European colonial empires, products like cotton, cocoa and coffee were exported, often at very low prices and sometimes with forced labour, to sate a growing demand in the global economic core for tropical luxuries. 

More than a century has passed since World War I heralded the collapse of this world order. Today, another globalization wave that has shaped the world since the 1980s is ebbing. The question we ask in our ESRC Rebuilding Macroeconomics project What Drives Specialisation? A Century of Global Export Patterns is simple: what is the legacy of the First Globalization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the economic fortunes of countries during the Second Globalization? Or in other words, to what extent have countries’ positions in the international economic order been persistent across the two globalizations with some trapped at the bottom and others floating on top?

To answer this question, we have assembled a large new database of global commodity exports from 1897-1906. We exploit the fact that this period was the high point of colonial trade statistics and use a large variety of primary sources in five languages. To the best of our knowledge, ours is the most ambitious census of world trade for the previous globalization to date. This allows us to investigate the long-term wealth of nations in ways that aren’t possible with GDP data. The latter is sparse and unreliable for large parts of the world before the Second World War.

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