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Mapping Yesterday's Economic Geography, Today

The economy we measure isn't the economy we have.
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A 1923 Ford Model T racing car on display in Las Vegas, Nevada.   (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A 1923 Ford Model T racing car on display in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Big Data provides lots of information in real time. But why we measure what we measure remains anachronistic. This is an old problem. Here's economist Diane Coyle unpacking economic statistics of national concern:

In the Statistical Abstract for the United Kingdom for 1871–1885, most of the 200 pages provide great detail on trade in agricultural products, including from the colonies, and the public finances. There are just twelve pages on factories, mines and railways. So at the height of the Industrial Revolution official statistics provided scant information about the dynamic manufacturing economy. The reader can find monthly sales of corn in English and Welsh market towns, or the volume of guano and gutta percha imported into the United Kingdom, but rather little about factories other than their number, employment and – to be fair – the number of power looms and spindles installed.

Emphasis added. A lag exists between what numbers a country decides to track and the actual economic geography of the times. Better and faster agricultural data won't illuminate the world of manufacturing. More than likely, a society tracks the wrong things. And then policy suffers.

Fast-forward to 1914 and the same set of mesofacts endures. The era of agriculture still rules. An atlas regales a "thrusting young entrepreneur" with all the necessary information circa 1860:

In 1914 John G. Bartholomew, the scion of an Edinburgh mapmaking family and cartographer royal to King George V, published “An Atlas of Economic Geography”. It was a book intended for schoolboys and contained everything a thrusting young entrepreneur, imperialist, trader or traveller could need. As well as the predictable charts of rainfall, temperature and topography, it had maps showing where you could find rubber, cotton or rice; maps showing the distribution of commercial languages, so that if you wanted to do business in Indonesia you knew to do so in Dutch; and maps showing the spread of climatic diseases, so that if you did find yourself in Indonesia you knew to look out for tropical dysentery. It also contained the map you see here, which told you how long it would take to get there from London: between 20 and 30 days.

The isochronic map mentioned at the end of the quoted passage looks rather cutting edge compared to the location of cotton or rice. In this era of globalization, railroads annihilated distance. The world got smaller where there were tracks. Trains defined economic geography.

In 1860, trains defined the expanse of economic geography. But by 1914, trains defined the limits of economic geography, "Transportation in America was terrible once you got away from the railroads," according to historian John Staudenmaier. Bartholomew published his atlas in the year when such data became irrelevant.

Henry Ford's Model T re-drew the atlas. Economic activity would sprawl away from waterways and railways. Manufacturing would finally supplant agriculture as the object of bureaucratic obsession. Gross Domestic Product would measure this output, but not until the 1940s!

Today, we still obsess over GDP, a number best suited for the height of the Industrial Revolution during the second half of the 19th century. That world came to an end in 1914, when the world was still busy measuring an economic geography ending in the 1870s.


Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.