George Will is fond of his “Protestant Paradox.” To paraphrase, Protestant thrift creates a wealthy society, which then forgets all about things like Protestant thrift, thus leading to decline.
It’s one of the reasons Will, like most cultural conservatives, often argues we’re going to Hell in a handbasket (even though we never seem to get There).
Now there’s this, from Virginia Postrel’s latest NYT column, on the new Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History:
Consider cotton, an expensive and relatively unimportant textile until the mid-18th century, when spinning became mechanized. Before that innovation, an Indian hand spinner took 50,000 hours – the equivalent of five years and nine months – to spin 100 pounds of cotton. After the invention of the hand-operated cotton mule spinning machine in the 1760’s, that time dropped to 300 hours. With the mule, human fingers no longer had to spin the threads, thread could be spun on many bobbins at the same time, and the strength of the thread improved significantly. After 1825, when the self-acting mule spinner automated the process, spinning 100 pounds of cotton took 135 hours. Cotton became a cheap and common cloth, and cotton production a major industry.
Technology even makes an appearance in the entry on religion, which cites estimates that “attribute 90 percent of income growth in England and the United States after 1780 to technological innovation, not mere capital accumulation.” The relative insignificance of savings undercuts Max Weber’s famous theory that Protestant thrift was the key to capitalist growth.
Read, as they say, the whole thing.