Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Was Malthus wrong about mortality?

One of the critical assumptions in the Malthusian model of growth that the mortality rate depends inversely on the standard of living. While this is not that obvious to replicate with data we have from Malthus' times, such a relationship ship is even more difficult to establish for previous centuries.

Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda have dug up some inheritance records from England which allowed them to link wealth and age of death. What they find is quite interesting: all strata of society where affected by agricultural conditions. So if there were some poor crops, rich and poor were more likely to die. This fits right into the Malthusian model where the aggregate standard of living matters. The only subtlety is that the rich die a little later. Indeed, the authors do not attribute this mortality to hunger, but rather vagrancy following some poor crop that spreads epidemics. But such a relationship seems to have disappeared by the 17th century, which the authors justify by government intervention to help the poor. This makes it unclear why Malthus made it such a crucial component of his theory.

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