Globalisation, inequality and Swedish catch up in the late nineteenth century. Williamson’s real wage comparisons under scrutiny
The idea of rapid factor price convergence in the latter half of the nineteenth century stems from an article from 1995 by Jeffrey Williamson. That article presented real wage comparisons of unskilled urban workers for seventeen countries. Sweden, along with the rest of Scandinavia, appeared to be an influential case in accounting for much of the alleged factor price convergence taking place. This paper takes a closer look at all the three steps that have to be accomplished in order to establish real wage comparisons focusing on Sweden in relation to the US and the UK. The most important finding is twofold. First, that the US-Sweden wage gap is considerably smaller for industrial than for building workers, and second, that the rate at which Sweden’s real wages approached the American and the British has been overestimated. Swedish real wages did grow rapidly, but not as rapidly as Williamson’s comparison will have us to believe, because his real wage series does not constitute a representative account of the Swedish real wage experience. I argue that as we suffer from a serious paucity of data for narrow and thereby comparable selections of unskilled workers resorting to encompassing wage measures is a more viable option.
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