The Resolution of the Labor Scarcity Paradox

John A. James, Jonathan S. Skinner

NBER Working Paper No. 1504
Issued in November 1984
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

This paper reconciles the apparently contradictory evidence about American and British technology in the first half of the nineteenth century. Past studies have focused on the writings of a number of distinguished British engineers, who toured the United States during the 1850s and commented extensively on the highly mechanized state of the manufacturing sector. Other studies, however, have marshalled evidence that the interest rate was higher, and the aggregate manufacturing capital stock was lower, in the United States relative to Britain. We resolve this paradox by noting that British engineers were most impressed by only a few industries which relied on skilled workers. Using the 1849 Census of Manufactures, we estimate separate production functions for the skilled sector and for the remaining, less skilled manufacturing sector. We find strong relative complementarity between capital and natural resources in the skilled sector, and relative substitutability between skilled labor and capital. Using these parameters in a computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. and British economies indicates greater capital intensity (or labor scarcity) in the skilled manufacturing sector, but overall capital scarcity and higher interest rates, in the U.S. relative to Britain.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w1504

Published: James, John A. and Jonathan S. Skinner. "The Resolution of the Labor Scarcity Paradox," Journal of Economic History, Vol. 45, No. 3, (September 1985) pp. 513-540. citation courtesy of

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