Spread of Ideas

Paper Session

Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM

Hyatt Regency Chicago, Plaza A
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Michel Serafinelli, University of Toronto

New Media and Market Structure: Printing and Europe's Transformation After Gutenberg

Jeremiah Dittmar
London School of Economics and Political Science


How did Gutenberg's printing technology impact European society? We study the role of book content in economic, religious, and institutional development at the city-level -- and the role of competition in determining the amount and content of locally produced books in the 1500s. We focus on the diffusion of (1) business education content and (2) religious ideas during the Protestant Reformation. We construct data on output and industrial organization in printing for all European cities with printing presses 1454-1600. We document positive relationships between business education printing, individual achievement, and city growth, and between Protestant content and city-level institutional change. We then show that printer competition predicts content. We study the relationship between competition in printing, the diffusion of ideas, and economic outcomes directly and using the deaths of printers as a source of exogenous variation.

Creativity Over Time and Space

Michel Serafinelli
University of Toronto
Guido Tabellini
Bocconi University


Creativity is often highly concentrated in time and space, and across different domains. What explains the formation and decay of clusters of creativity? Is there co-agglomeration of creative people in different fields? What general lessons can be drawn from the analysis of creative clusters, to foster innovation and the production of creative talent? Given the central role of creativity and innovation in human progress and economic development, knowing the answer to these questions is particularly important. In this paper we use data on thousands of notable individuals between the XIth and the XIXth century, containing the dates and locations of birth and death as well as occupation, to investigate the spatial distribution of creative elites. We document the emergence of diverse clusters of famous people in arts, business, humanities and sciences in Europe over this period, with some spatial movements of clusters over time. Using another data set with city-specific information on historical socio-economic variables, we provide evidence on the positive role played by local democratic institutions in the production of creative talent. Local institutions are instrumented using regional waves of institutional changes and reversals. We conclude that a culture of openness appears to explain the production of creative elites.

Knowledge Elites and Modernization: Evidence From Revolutionary France.

Mara Squicciarini
University of Leuven
Nico Voigtländer
University of California-Los Angeles


This paper examines the role of knowledge elites in modernization. At the eve of the French Revolution, in the spring of 1789, King Louis XVI solicited lists of grievances (Cahiers de Doléances), in which the public could express complaints and suggestions for reforms of the Ancien Regime. We show that the demand for mass education and democratization was particularly high in re- gions that had a thick knowledge elite, measured by subscribers to the famous Encyclopédie in the 1770s. Historical evidence suggests that this pattern is driven by the spirit of enlightenment of French knowledge elites. Pre-revolution literacy, in contrast, is not correlated with demand for mass education or with the density of knowledge elites. After the French Revolution, knowledge elites played a key role in implementing schooling reforms at the local level. We show that by the mid-19th century, schooling rates were significantly higher in regions with thicker knowledge elites. The same is true of other proxies for modernization, such as association membership, Republican votes, and the share of French-speaking pupils. Our results highlight an important interaction between local culture (the spirit of enlightenment) and nation-wide institutions in economic development: the French Revolution opened a window of opportunity for local elites to pursue their agenda of modernization.
JEL Classifications
  • N1 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations
  • O1 - Economic Development