The “Short” vs. the “Long” Twentieth Century…

Ah. I see that Branko Milanovic has found the first draft of my opening lecture for Econ 115 next semester…

I think whether it is more useful to do the tell of 20th century economic history as the “short” 1914-1989 (as Hobsbswm does) or the “long” 1870-2012 (as I want to) rests on two analytical judgments:

The first judgment that leads you to the “short” century is the judgment that Kuznetsian modern economic growth was implicit in the steam engine, the spinning Jenny, and the iron horse. The belief is that, after that breakthrough, more than two centuries of 1.5%/year frontier-economy TFP growth plus the full demographic transition were largely baked in the cake.

By contrast, the judgment that leads to the “long” century is the judgment that there were three big game-changers. The first was the British Industrial Revolution jump from 0.07%/year to 0.35%/year global TFP growth. The second was the subsequent jump to 1.7%/year. The third was that the world became rich enough and literate enough and feminist enough for the demographic transition to take hold. A world with TFP growth ebbing or even continuing at 0.35%/year is still a semi-Malthusian world. It is a world in which the demographic transition would have had a hard time taking hold. And that world would be a very different world than ours.

That world is very close to ours in some multiverse-timelines sense. As of 1870 and even as of 1919 the Malthusian Devil was still very visible in the mind’s eye. Recall J.S. Mill writing in 1871 in his Principles of Political Economy about the British Industrial Revolution:

Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot…

You can say that Mill wrote that in 1848 and–carelessly–did not revise it for even the 7th edition of 1870. But he did not revise it. And Mill’s Principles of Political Economy was still the Oxford textbook in 1919.

Recall John Maynard Keynes writing in 1919 in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

After 1870 there was developed on a large scale an unprecedented situation, and the economic condition of Europe became during the next fifty years unstable and peculiar…. In this economic Eldorado, in this economic Utopia, as the earlier economists would have deemed it, most of us were brought up. That happy age [had] lost sight of a view of the world which filled with deep-seated melancholy the founders of our Political Economy. Before the eighteenth century mankind entertained no false hopes. To lay the illusions which grew popular at that age’s latter end, Malthus disclosed a Devil. For half a century all serious economical writings held that Devil in clear prospect. For the next half century he was chained up and out of sight. Now perhaps we have loosed him again…

The second judgment that leads you to the short century is the judgment that the big story is that of Leninism as the century’s tragic hero: confidently dreaming of utopia, confidently albeit brutally attempting to build utopia, exhausting itself saving the world from the monstrous dystopia of the Nazi abattoir, and then expiring in “a vast bureaucratic incompetence”. I agree that if you are going to do that tell, 1914-1989 is the 20th century that tells it. (And if you know ex ante that 1914-1989 is the 20th century, then that is the natural story that suggests itself.) But I believe that if you start thinking that the 20th century is 1900-2000, the natural story–the important story–is the more complex one that I want to tell. Then the natural thing to do is not to shorten the century but to extend it, and to extend it to 1870-2012.

Why did Hobsbawm write about the short century in his Age of Extremes? Three reasons:

  1. He was writing in the early 1990s.
  2. He had already written Age of Empire 1870-1914.
  3. There was no way in Heaven, in Hell, or here on God’s Green Earth that Eric Hobsbawm was going to write a triumphalist Fukuyamaesque “end of history” book about the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. He has chosen his side in Germany in the 1920s. And a British gentleman did not turn his coat and change his side under any circumstances–even if it meant one had to spend a lifetime in bed with and making excuses for Josef Vissarionovich…


Eric Hobsbawm (1987): The Age of Empire
Eric Hobsbawm (1995): The Age of Extremes
John Maynard Keynes (1919): The Economic Consequences of the Peace
John Stuart Mill (1871): Principles of Political Economy


Brad DeLong


Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch