Thursday, 14 February 2002

The wealth and poverty of nations

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 4 in G minor. George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, with Judith Raskin to sing in the fourth movement.

Just read:

David Landes, The wealth and poverty of nations.

This is another birthday present from 2000. I had high hopes of this book as I began; it had good quotes on the covers from places such as The Economist and the Guardian. Unfortunately, after a few chapters, I’d already developed a strong dislike of the author’s style. One mannerism that I particularly disliked was the following rhetorical trick:

In ignoring the possibilities and challenges represented by the West’s advantages in X, the nation Y chose safety over opportunity. Big mistake.

Sometimes it was Bad idea instead of Big mistake, but they all quickly came to grate. Landes all too often worked himself into a disparaging tone about whole countries or cultures, making what he had to say difficult to take. This disparagement was usually directed at the obvious targets, cultures that failed to exploit their potential when in a strong position; in particular Iberia, China, India and the Middle East. He also later got into a bit of a lather about the US’s failings with respect to Japan, so I don't think he's simply a WASP racist. Moreover, I think I probably agreed with 90% of what he had to say (sexism, bad; diverse centres of political power, good; conflation of church and state, bad; encouragement of science, technology and trade, good).

The book is basically an economic history of the world since 1000AD, with lots of discussion of why it was that certain countries did well, and others didn’t. It’s a big book, so there’s quite a lot of interesting detail too. For example, there was a nice contrast drawn between Egyptian and Japanese modernisation attempts in the 19th century.

Disappointingly, there was no room for any discussion of Australasia. I think it would have been interesting to hear Landes’s views about New Zealand’s reliance on primary sectors of the economy (agriculture, fisheries and forestry). Elsewhere he’s pretty scathing about the classical doctrine of comparative advantage, which holds that countries should focus on what they’re good at. In a static world where the possibility of more growth through industrialisation doesn’t exist, comparative advantage makes perfect sense. But France and Germany became a lot richer in the 19th centuries by explicitly trying to catch up with Britain, and not focussing on their comparative advantages in agriculture. Again though, I think Landes makes a mess of his argument by resorting to sarcastic invective rather than trying to explain his point more carefully.