B. Tomka: Austerities and Aspirations

Austerities and Aspirations. A Comparative History of Growth, Consumption, and Quality of Life in East Central Europe since 1945

Tomka, Béla
New York 2020: CEU Press
420 S.
€ 68.00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Tamás Vonyó, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Bocconi University

The prominent Hungarian social historian, Béla Tomka, has written an important book on socialist and post-socialist economies in Central Europe. For international historians, the author is best known for his authoritative textbook A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe (2013). However, he published an equally significant monograph in his native language on the history of economic growth, consumption, and the standard of living in Hungary in the twentieth century.[1] The analytical framework, which Tomka refers to as the “triple approach”, follows directly from this earlier work. Austerities and Aspirations is an extension of this analysis to discuss Central Europe in a comparative European context. His central tenet is that the traditional analysis of economic growth and living standards, which quantitative economic historians have undertaken, does not provide a complete picture of comparative economic development. Only by investigating what growth meant for ordinary consumers and households, can we understand the motives for modernisation and evaluate its societal impact.

The book is primarily descriptive, not analytical. The main chapters compare national trajectories of growth in national income and industrial production, patterns of consumption and leisure, and measures of wellbeing that are used as inputs in the Human Development Index. By contrast, the author devotes less space to exploring the deeper mechanisms behind these trends and does not employ analytical methods from the standard toolkit of economic historians who study growth and development.

Chapter 3 constitutes the most important contribution of the book. While the chapters on economic growth and wellbeing are relatively short and limited to the use of widely known international statistics, the levels and structure of consumption are explored in detail and in much greater length. Quantitative economic history focused extensively on growth processes and finding ways to measure the standard of living in historical perspective, while their manifestation in the way of life of ordinary consumers and households has received much less attention. A benefit of this chapter is that it connects consumption shaped by technological progress with social and demographic change. It highlights how new consumer products such as motor vehicles or television sets affected society, at large, and altered the life of social groups. The lengthy discussion on the extent and use of free time is particularly valuable. While there is extensive historical research on working hours, what their secular decline in the twentieth century implied for growth remains overlooked. In modern industrial societies, free time has become one of the most valuable ‘commodities’ and its growth a paramount social demand. Yet this is not reflected in standard measures of economic performance and social progress such as Gross Domestic Product, real wages, or the Human Development Index. In the absence of better data, historians have studied productivity with employment as the unit of labour input. In the presence of steadily declining average work hours, this practice has underestimated productivity growth and technological progress.

Compared to Chapter 3, the rest of the book makes no major contributions to the literature on post-war economic development in Europe or the history of socialist and transition economies. Chapters 2, 4 and 6 focus on growth and living standards in the post-war era and the period following the collapse of state socialism respectively. They do not present original research and are limited to an overview of well-known international economic statistics. While they may be essential as a context for understanding the social consequences of economic change, they may come across to economic historians as incomplete and out of date. The author ignores standard sources of data on growth dynamics, such as the Penn World Tables [2], on educational attainment and human capital, such as the Barro-Lee Dataset [3], and neglects important recent studies on industrial and human development in comparative perspective [4]. Instead, Tomka often cites older statistical work from the 1980s and early 1990s, which are no longer used or have been revised.

For economic historians of Central Europe, two relevant sets of references are conspicuously missing from the book. Tomka ignores the vast collection of working papers and U.S. government publications prepared by the Research Project on National Income in East Central Europe under the leadership of Thad P. Alton from the 1960s to the 1990s. These do not only remain the source of the Maddison data for Central European economies, 1950-1990; they provide rich statistics based on western accounting methods on the composition of national product, construction and investment, trade, and consumption. The book also makes little use of the recent quantitative economic history of the region, even though this literature offers deeper insights into the dynamics of economic growth. A few of the relevant works are cited but not discussed in detail; others are ignored [6]. The quantitative evidence reported on growth and wellbeing will look pale in comparison with the most recently published collective volume on the quantitative economic history of Eastern Europe [7]. Finally, regional specialists may find the surveyed historiography somewhat imbalanced. While Tomka provides an extensive survey of Hungarian national literature, he only cites international publications on Poland and the former Czechoslovakia.

Austerities and Aspirations makes the ambitious attempt to assess the economic development of East Central Europe in a comparative perspective based on three dimensions of progress: growth, the standard of living, and consumption. The author surveys an impressive range of scholarship and tries to integrate different approaches. While the book ought to be a future reference on the social history of economic development in socialist and transition economies, it does not provide many novels insights beyond the existing literature on the history of economic growth and living standards.

[1]Béla Tomka, Gazdasági növekedés, fogyasztás és életminőség. Magyarország nemzetközi összehasonlításban az első világháborútól napjainkig, Budapest 2011.
[2] All versions available at https://www.rug.nl/ggdc/productivity/pwt/; Robert Feenstra / Robert Inklaar / Marcel Timmer, The Next Generation of the Penn World Table, in: American Economic Review 105 (2015), pp. 3150–82.
[3] Robert Barro / Jong-Wha Lee, A New Data Set of Educational Attainment in the World, 1950–2010, in: Journal of Development Economics 104 (2013), pp. 184–198; Jong-Wha Lee / Hanol Lee, Human Capital in the Long Run, in: Journal of Development Economics 122 (2016), pp. 147-169. Data available at: http://www.barrolee.com/.
[4] Kevin O’Rourke / Jeffrey Williamson (eds.), The Spread of Modern Industry to the Periphery since 1871, Oxford 2017; Leandro Prados de la Escosura, World Human Development 1870-2007, in: Review of Income and Wealth 61 (2015), pp. 220-247.
[5] Tamás Vonyó, Socialist Industrialisation or Post-War Reconstruction? Understanding Hungarian Economic Growth, 1949-1967, in: Journal of European Economic History 39 (2010), pp. 253-300; Alexander Klein / Max-Stephan Schulze / Tamás Vonyó, How Peripheral was the Periphery? Industrialization in East Central Europe Since 1870, in: O’Rourke / Williamson, The Spread of Modern Industry to the Periphery, pp. 63-90; Marcin Piatkowski, Europe’s Growth Champion. Insights from the Economic Rise of Poland, Oxford 2018; Tamás Vonyó / Alexander Klein, Why Did Socialist Economies Fail? The Role of Factor Inputs Reconsidered, in: Economic History Review 72 (2019), pp. 317-345.
[6] Matthias Morys (eds.), The Economic History of Central, East and South-East Europe. 1800 to the Present, London 2021.

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