I have just finished writing an article about the link between energy and human settlement. You could have noticed that I have been kind of absent from scientific blogging for a few days. I had my classes starting, at the university, and this was the first reason, but the second one was precisely that article. On Wednesday, I started doing some calculations, well in the lines of that latest line of my research (you can look up ‘Core and periphery’ ). Nothing very serious, just some casual dabbling with numbers. You know, when you are an economist, you start having cold turkey symptoms when you are parted with an Excel spreadsheet. From time to time, you just need to do some calculations, and so I was doing when, suddenly, those numbers started making sense. It is a peculiar feeling when numbers start making sense, because usually, you just kind of feel that sense but you don’t exactly know what it actually is. That was exactly my case, on Wednesday. I started playing with the parameters of that general equilibrium, with population size on the left side of the equation, and energy use, as well as food intake, on the other side. All of a sudden, that theoretical equilibrium started yielding real, robust, local equilibria in individual countries. Then, something just fired off in my mind. My internal happy bulldog, you know, that little beast who just loves biting into big, juicy loafs of data, really bit in. My internal ape, that curious and slightly impolite part of me, went to force the bulldog’s jaws open, but it got fascinated. My internal austere monk, that really-frontal-cortex guy inside of me, who walks around with the Ockham’s razor ready to slash into bullshit, had to settle the matters. He said: ‘Good, folks, as you are, we need to hatch an article, and we do it know’. You don’t discuss with a guy who has a big razor, and so all of me wrote this article. Literally all of me. It was the first time, since I was 22 (bloody long ago), that I spent a night awake, writing. The result, for the moment in the pre-editorial form, is entitled ‘Settlement by energy – can renewable energies sustain our civilisation?’ and you can read it just by clicking this link.
Anyway, now I am in a post-article frame of mind, which means I need to shake it off a bit. What I usually do in terms of shaking off is having conversations with dead people. No, I don’t need candles. One of my favourite and not-quite-alive-anymore interlocutors is Jacques Savary, a merchant and public officer, who, in 1675, two years after both the real and the fictional d’Artagnan had been dead, published, with the privilege of the King, and through the industrious efforts of the publishing house run by Louis Billaine, located at the Second Pillar of the Grand Salle of the Palace, at Grand Cesar, a book entitled, originally, ‘Le Parfait Négociant ou Instruction Générale Pour Ce Qui Regarde Le Commerce’. In English, that would be ‘The Perfect Merchant or General Instructions as Regards Commerce’. And so I am summoning Master Savary from the after world of social sciences, and we start chatting about what he wrote regarding manufactures (Book II, Chapter XLV and XLVI). First, a light stroke of brush to paint the general landscape. Back in the days, in the second half of the 17th century, manufactures meant mostly textile and garments. There was some industrial activity in other goods (glass, tapestry), but the bulk of industry was about cloth, in many forms. People at the time were really inventive as it came to new types of cloth: they experimented with mixing cotton, wool and silk, in various proportions, and they experimented with dyeing (I mean, they experimented with dying, as well, but we do it all the time), and they had fashions. Anyway, textile and garment was THE industry.
As Master Savary starts his exposition about manufactures, he opens up with a warning: manufactures can lead you to ruin. Interesting opening for an instruction. The question is why? Or rather, how? I mean, how could a manufacturing business lead to ruin? Well, back in the day, in 17th century, in Europe, manufacturing activities used to be quite separated institutionally from the circulation of big money. Really big business was being done mostly in trade, and large-scale manufacturing was seen as kind of odd. In trade, merchants of the time devised various legal tools to speed up the circulation of capital. Bills of exchange, maritime insurance, tax farming – it all allowed, with just the right people to know, a really smooth flow of money, even in the presence of many-year-long maritime commercial trips. In manufacturing, many of those clever tricks didn’t work, or at least didn’t work yet. They had to wait, those people, some 200 years before manufacturing would become really smooth a way of circulating capital. Anyway, putting money in manufacturing meant that you could not recover it as quickly as you could in trade. Basically, when you invested in manufactures, you were much more dependent on the actual marketability of your actual products than you were in trade. Thus, many merchants, Master Savary obviously included, perceived manufacturing as terribly risky.
What did he recommend in the presence of such dire risk? First of all, he advised to distinguish between three strategies. One, imitate a foreign manufacture. Second, invent something new and set a new manufacture. Third, invest in ‘an already established Manufacture, whose merchandise has an ordinary course in the Kingdom as well as in foreign Countries, by the general consent of all the people who had recognized its goodness, in the use of fabric which have been manufactured there’. I tried to translate literally the phrasing of the last strategy, in order to highlight the key points of the corresponding business plan. An established manufacture meant, first of all, the one with ‘an ordinary course in the Kingdom as well as in foreign Countries’. Ordinary course meant a predictable final selling price. As a matter of fact, this is my problem with that translation. Master Savary originally used the French expression: ‘cours ordinaire’, which, in English, becomes ambiguous. First, it can mean ‘ordinary course’, i.e. something like an established channel of distribution. Still, it can also mean ‘ordinary rate of exchange’. Why ‘rate of exchange’? We are some 150 years before the development of modern, standardized monetary systems. We are even some 100 years before the appearance of paper money. There were coins, and there was a s***load of other things you could exchange your goods against. At Master Savary’s time, many things were currencies. In business, you traded your goods against various types of coins, you accepted bills of exchange instead of coins, you traded against gold and silver in ingots, as well, and finally, you did barter. Some young, rich, and spoilt marquis had lost some of its estates by playing cards, he signed some papers, and here you are, with the guy who wants to buy your entire stock of woollen garments and who wants to pay you precisely with those papers signed by the young marquis. If you were doing really big business, none of your goods has one price: instead, they all had complex exchange rates against other valuables. Trading goods with what Master Savary originally called ‘cours ordinaire’ meant that the goods in question were kind of predictable as for their exchange rate against anything else in that economic jungle of the late 17th century.
What worked on the selling side, had to work on the supply side as well. You had to buy your raw materials, your transport, your labour etc. at complex exchange rates, and not at those nice, tame, clearly cut prices in one definite currency. Making the right match between exchange rates achieved when purchasing things, and those practiced at the end of the value chain was an art, and frequently a pain in your ass. In other words, business in 17th century was very much like what we would have now if our banking and monetary systems collapsed. Yes, baby, them bankers are mean and abjectly rich, but they keep that wheel spinning smoothly, and you don’t have to deal with Somalian pirates in order to buy from them some drugs, which you are going to exchange against natural oil in Yemen, which, in turn, you will use to back some bills of exchange, which will allow you to buy cotton for your factory.
Now, let’s return to what Master Savary had to say about those three strategies for manufacturing. As he discusses the first one – imitating a foreign factory – he recommends five wise things to do. One, check if you can achieve exactly the same quality of fabric as those bloody foreigners do. If you cannot, there is no point in starting imitation. Two, make sure you can acquire your raw materials, in the necessary bracket of quality, in the place where you locate your manufacture. Three, make sure the place where you locate your operations will allow you to practice prices competitive as compared to those foreign goods you are imitating. Four, create for yourself conditions for experimenting with your product and your business. Launch some kind of test missiles in many directions, present your fabrics to many potential customers. In other words, take your time, bite your ambition, suck ass and make your way into the market step by step. Five, arrange for acquiring the same tools, and even the same people that work in those foreign manufactures. Today, we would say: acquire the technology, both the formal, and the informal one.
As he passes to discussing the second strategy, namely inventing something new, Master Savary recommends even more prudence, and, in the same time, he pulls open a bit the veil of discretion regarding his own life, and confesses that he, in person, had invented three new fabrics during his business career: a thick woollen ribbon made of camel wool, a thick drugget for making simple, coarse, work clothes, and finally a ribbon made of woven gold and silver. Interesting. Here is a guy, who started his professional life as a merchant, then he went into commercial arbitrage for some time, then he went into the service of a rich aristocrat ( see ‘Comes the time, comes the calm duke’ ), then he entered into a panel of experts commissioned by Louis XIV, the Sun King, to prepare new business law, and in the meantime he invented decorative ribbons for rich people, as well as coarse fabrics for poor people. Quite abundant a walk of life. As I am reading the account of his textile inventions, he seems to be the most attached to, and the most vocal about that last one, the gold and silver ribbon. He insists that nobody before him had ever succeeded in weaving gold and silver into something wearable. He describes in detail all the technological nuances, like for example preventing the chipping off of the very thinly pulled, thread size, golden wire. He concludes: ‘I have given my own example, in order to make those young people, who want to invent new Manufactures, understand they should take their precautions, not to engage imprudently and not to let themselves being carried away by the profits they will make on their first fabrics, and to have a great number of them fabricated, before being certain they will be pleasant to the public, as well as for their beauty as for quality; for it is really dangerous, and they will risk their fortune at it’.