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Paul Baran’s Economic Surplus Concept, the Baran Ratio, and the Decline of Feudalism

Lambert, Thomas (2020): Paul Baran’s Economic Surplus Concept, the Baran Ratio, and the Decline of Feudalism.

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In his book, the Political Economy of Growth (1957), and in an article he wrote several years earlier (1953), the economist Paul A. Baran noted how in an economic system characterized by a hierarchy of classes and where economic and political power are concentrated in the top class of such a system, the amount of output and income above what is consumed by most people (e.g., food, clothing, housing, public safety, education) mostly goes to the top class. This extra amount is what he called the economic surplus, a form of savings or income left over after consumption. In a feudalistic system, there is little incentive to use the proceeds of this type of surplus to buy more tools and equipment for more production of output and income. The lord or baron has little incentive to lend or give serfs money because he may not benefit from any increased productivity by them. It is with capitalism that such incentives to re-invest in production become important. This paper uses recently published and estimated historical data to illustrate Baran’s observations and thoughts on feudalism. It is shown that during the 13th and 14th centuries in England that the economic surplus declined, and this decline helps to explain the “crisis of feudalism” that started in the 13th century. It is not until several centuries later when capitalism becomes the dominant economic system that the economic surplus begins to rise on a consistent basis probably due to the reinvestment of a portion of the surplus into productive activities and a greater ratio of capital income to rental income and a greater ratio of investment to economic surplus. However, and somewhat surprisingly, by the 19th Century the surplus still does not attain levels reached in the 13th Century.

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