Exploring Human Potential

Brawn to Brain to Health: A Virtuous Cycle.

Posted on | February 1, 2024 | 3 Comments

Mike Magee

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future of work. My current obsession relates back to the accelerating forces of human isolation and shifts in the delivery of health care brought on by the Covid pandemic, and the subsequent explosion of health tech opportunists ready to bridge the geographic gap between health care supply and health care (especially mental health) demand.

For historians, work defined by geography and technology has always been a fertile and determinative area of study. This is as timely today as it was in our distant past. As one report put it, “Recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics have generated a robust debate about the future of work. An analogous debate occurred in the late nineteenth century when mechanization first transformed manufacturing.”

As one 2021 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently stated, “The story of nineteenth century development in the United States is one of dynamic tension between extensive growth as the country was settled by more people, bringing more land and resources into production, and the intensive growth from enhancing the productivity of specific locations.”

The researchers specific interest lay at the intersection of industrialization and urbanization, mutually reinforcing trends.

Consider these points:

Our first industrial revolution was “predominantly rural” with 83% of the 1800 labor force involved with agriculture, producing goods for personal, and at times local market consumption.

The few products that were exported far and wide at the time – cotton and tobacco – relied on slave labor to be profitable.

Manufacturing in 1800 was primarily home-based due to most families lack of resources to buy expensive goods, and the distances to traverse in order to access these poorly supplied market places.

The U.S. population was scarcely 5 million in 1800, occupying 860,000 square miles – that’s roughly 6 humans per square mile. And that was before we added the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 which doubled our land holdings while expanding our population numbers by 1/3. The net effect was to further diminish human presence to roughly 4 individuals per square mile.

Concentrations of humans were few and far between in this vast new world. In 1800, only 33 communities had populations of 2,500 or more individuals, representing 6% of our total population at the time.

Transportation into and out of these centers mainly utilized waterways including the Eastern seaboard and internal waterways as much as possible. This was in recognition that roads were primitive and shipping goods by horse and wagon was slow (a horse could generally travel 25 miles a day), and expensive (wagon shipment in 1816 added several days and cost 70 cents per ton mile.)

But by 1900, the U.S. labor force was only 40% agricultural. Four in 10 Americans now lived in cities with 2,500 or more inhabitants, and 25% of Americans lived in the growing nation’s 100 largest cities. 

This radical shift was a function of our Second Industrial Revolution, which had begun a century earlier in Britain, with a 50 year lag time in America. But once we got going in the post Civil War period, we exploded. In fact labor productivity lapped twice over Britain’s performance by 1900.

Our growth was fueled by transformative transportation technology and “inanimate source” (non-water powered) energy.

In the beginning of the 19th century, what manufacturing that did occur was almost always situated next to sources of natural water flow. The rivers and streams drove water wheels and later turbine engines. But this dependency lessened with the invention of the steam engine. Coal and wood powered burners could then create steam (multiplying the power of water several times) to drive engines. The choices for population centers now had widened.

At least as important was the creation of a national rail network that had begun in 1840. This transformed market networks, increasing both supply and demand. The presence of rail transport decreased the cost of shipping by 80% seemingly overnight, and incentivized urbanization.

Within a short period of time, self-reliant home manufacturing couldn’t compete with urban “machine labor.” Those machines were now powered not by waterpower but “inanimate power” (steam and eventually electricity). Mechanized factories were filled with newly arrived immigrants and freed slaves engaged in the “Great Migration” northward. As numbers of factory workforce grew, so did specialization of tasks and occupation titles. The net effect was quicker production (7 times quicker than none-machine labor).

Even before the information revolution, the internet, telemedicine, and pandemic driven nesting, all of these 20th century trends had begun to flatten. The linkages between transportation, urbanization, and market supply were being delinked. Why? 

According to the experts, “Over the twentieth century new forces emerged that decoupled manufacturing and cities. The spread of automobiles, trucks, and good roads, the adoption of electrical power, and the mechanization of farming are thought to have encouraged the decentralization of manufacturing activity.”

What can we learn from all this? 

First, innovation and technology stoke change, and nothing is permanent.

Second, markets shape human preferences, and vice versa.

Third, in the end, when it comes to the human species, self-interest and health wins out. 

Or as  Dora Costa PhD, Professor of Economics at UCLA puts it:  

“Health improvements were not a precondition for modern economic growth. The gains to health are largest when the economy has moved from ‘brawn’ to ‘brains’ because this is when the wage returns to education are high, leading the healthy to obtain more education. More education may improve use of health knowledge, producing a virtuous cycle.”


3 Responses to “Brawn to Brain to Health: A Virtuous Cycle.”

  1. Lawrence Williams
    February 4th, 2024 @ 4:20 pm

    Thanks Mike for an interesting look at the ontological view of industrialization and its relationship to the movement of our population from agrarian to urban. And I believe that your conclusion that self-interest and health are prime movers of human behavior. In fact isn’t health actually a subset of self-interest?
    I would take issue with Dr. Costa’s statement that when the economy moves from brawn to brains one result is that “…the wage returns to education are high, leading the healthy to obtain more education.” As supporting evidence of my disagreement is the current education loan millstone around millions of well educated necks on the bodies of a significant portion of our children’s generation that is destroying them financially in a manner never before seen.I see it in my own kids and I wonder if my constant encouragement of their pursuits of their advanced degrees may have been ill advised given the economic environmental signs at the time? I don’t know what signs I missed but I can certainly see what it is costing all of us right now.
    I say again my very best to you and Patricia. You guys are two of the really good people. Take care my friend.

  2. Mike Magee
    February 5th, 2024 @ 2:20 pm

    Thanks, Larry. I too looked twice at Dr. Costa’s statement. Having all four of our kids in one way or another have careers tied to education, the need for reform and new models seems dominant. The problem it seems is in the design and entanglements of the sector and the crippling cost. It will be interesting to see what choices our grandchildren make – and more likely, the choices our great-grandchildren opt for. (which speaking only for me, I’m likely not to witness.) Arguing in the reverse, if not investment in education, then in what? Thanks as always!

  3. Lawrence Williams
    February 5th, 2024 @ 3:51 pm

    “…if not investment in education, then in what?”. Viewing the current human landscape I think my response must be investment in greed and the narcotic of political power. And those politicians who are so addicted will, like any true addict, do anything, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, helpful or deadly to their constituents to keep and increase their wealth and power.
    As always, my love to you and Patricia. My time spent with you is some of the best of my life. Thank you.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons