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Category: Great Divergence

Book Review: Naked Economics
(Charles Wheelan)

Sometimes I think it is a fool’s errand to study economics and hope for enlightenment.  Much economics knowledge is too simple for that goal—for example, the relationship of supply and demand to prices.  Such facts are easy to grasp through direct personal experience.  But beyond that, actual enlightenment never comes, because, as everybody knows, economics is not a science.  Economists can’t even analyze the past with any precision or unanimity, much less the future.  Because I thought highly of the explanations of monetary policy in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Money, I hoped that by reading this book I would at least move further down the curve toward enlightenment.  But even the best writers cannot spin straw into gold.

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Book Review: The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (Tonio Andrade)

The Gunpowder Age succeeds in its lesser goal, which is convincing the reader that the common belief the Chinese only used gunpowder for fireworks is wrong.  But it fails in its greater goal, which is convincing the reader that except for a brief period in recent history, China has been the equal of the West in the technology of warfare.  And, in the wreckage of its failure, it confirms and reinforces the accurate perception that China has, for a thousand years, been lacking in scientific and cultural innovation.  Since a lack of innovation has negative implications for the Chinese future, and by modern Western standards is a negative judgment on Chinese society, this is probably not the effect that the Sinophile author of this book, Tonio Andrade, intended to achieve.

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Book Review: How Civilizations Die (David Goldman)

I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times.  His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read.  But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author.  Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column.  The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such.  David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.

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Book Review: The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization (Richard Baldwin)

This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space.  The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures.  In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before.  All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct.  But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop.  Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus:  a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.

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Book Review: The Great Divergence (Kenneth Pomeranz)

It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more.  This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier.  There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”?  Is it England?  England and parts of the Continent?  How does America fit in?  When exactly did this takeoff begin?  Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West?  But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?

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Book Review: Conquests and Cultures (Thomas Sowell)

Last month, in December 2016, maybe as a Christmas gift to himself, Thomas Sowell announced that he was retiring.  Technically, he announced that he was retiring from writing a syndicated column, but at age 86, it seems likely that he does not intend to write any new books, either.  This is unfortunate, but his work is done.  There can be little doubt that Sowell’s many works, taken together, by themselves would be adequate to educate someone raised by wolves on everything a person needs to know about economics, political economy, and much of history.

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Book Review: Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (Toby Huff)

Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is in many ways a companion book to his earlier The Rise of Early Modern Science. That book was a comparative study of the approach to science in the major world cultures, discussing in great detail and breadth why it was that modern science only arose in Europe. This 2011 book complements Huff’s earlier book by more narrowly showing the results of different ways of thinking, in China, India and the Muslim world, when exposed in the early 17th Century to a specific new European invention, the telescope. The sweep of this book is less broad than Huff’s earlier book, but this is an easier read, and very informative in its own right.

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Book Review: Wealth, Poverty and Politics (2nd Edition) (Thomas Sowell)

Thomas Sowell’s latest book, published in 2015 and now revised a year later, is the usual tour-de-force. It’s not so much that there’s anything startlingly new (although there are some interesting new statistics and several new lines of thought), but that Sowell has a unique ability to clearly and concisely bring together an analysis. In this case, that analysis is of “why are outcomes different for different people?” Sowell writes in opposition to the current vogue for equating differential outcomes with differential justice resulting from “malign actions by others,” with negative nods to Thomas Piketty, John Rawls and a wide range of similar social justice warriors.

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Book Review: Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy
(Francis Fukuyama)

“Political Order And Political Decay” is the second volume of Francis Fukuyama’s two-book exploration of the political formation of societies. Or, more precisely, how they ultimately form, or fail to form, Fukuyama’s perfect political society, which is an idealized Denmark. And, how even if they do reach that point, they can then fall backward—not as a whole, but in their political organization, away from Fukuyama’s ideal.

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Book Review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Francis Fukuyama)

Like Daniel Burnham, Francis Fukuyama makes no small plans. “The Origins of Political Order” aspires to be nothing less than an all-encompassing explanation of how human beings created political order. This book carries Fukuyama’s analysis up to the French Revolution; a second volume carries the story to the modern day. This volume is mostly taken up with creating and discussing a coherent framework that explains political order before the modern era. Much of what Fukuyama discusses here is non-Western societies, which makes it particularly interesting.

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