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Thu Oct 18, 2012, 06:52 PM

Downton Abbey Economics

How much do Public Broadcast Service viewers understand about the economy that led to the lifestyle of the wealthy Edwardian-era family in the hit series Downton Abbey? If one watched only PBS historical dramas, the British history leading up to the Abby era seems to run to the understanding that Horatio Hornblower (born imaginarily in 1771) and the Royal Navy defeated the French, and somewhere in there, Jane Austen came to her Sense and Sensibility (1811), and didn’t James Watt (1736-1819) invent the steam engine and thus power the Industrial Revolution upon which England built a mighty Empire on which the sun wouldn’t set until World War One came along and upset the elegance and gentility of the Edwardian Era? Well, there may have been a couple of social issues here and there, along with the Titanic, providing the PBS drama with some good plot points.

The historical truth is markedly different. The span of relevant history starts out with a major bailout of the landed gentry and the banking system, and ends with the rise of the financial sector providing much of the income for the Downton Abbeys of the time. It progresses through the Industrial Revolution to a late-Victorian English ruling elite that was smug, narrowly educated and scientifically illiterate, rich from the financial sector but with a manufacturing base that had been increasingly starved for the capital to keep up with the technological pace of change. It spans a time of tectonic social shift from an agrarian economy to one where a rising industrial middle class needed workers for its factories. Because of that fundamental change, the working poor were largely cut off from the land and social structure which produced the food they ate, making them dependant solely on the factories that provided their wages.

The bailout occurred when Parliament passed the Corn Laws, a steep tariff on cheap imported grain As the eminent British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “The Corn Laws which the farming industry imposed on the country in 1815 were not designed to save a tottering sector of the economy, but rather to preserve the abnormally high profits of the Napoleonic war-years, and to safeguard farmers from the consequences of their wartime euphoria, when farms had changed hands at the fanciest prices, loans and mortgages had been accepted on impossible terms.” The linkage to the sub-prime debacle and subsequent bailouts is obvious. Then, as now, making risky loans based on bubble-inflated real estate was a recipe for trouble.

Full post: http://somewhatlogically.com/?p=702

Excellent post, but be sure to read the comments too.

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