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?
Tyler Cowen is a popular economist, known for an influential blog (Marginal Revolution) and a set of books on economics directed at a general audience. In Average Is Over, a book from 2013, Cowen predicts an American future of increased economic (and thus social) division, as new technology enables those most conversant with it to profit, and forces others to be paid less as they become relatively less productive. This is a common historical occurrence, of course, where those whose skills are no longer valued by the market, from hand weavers to buggy whip makers to floppy disk craftsmen, must ultimately retire or retool, often never regaining their previous income, though the economy as a whole, and thus average and median income, expand in the long run despite short- and medium-term pain and dislocations. The difference in Cowen’s analysis is that he forecasts a permanent division, the result of ever-improving radically new technology and the failure of some, or many, to properly orient themselves with respect to that technology.
I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction. Probably, similar to many doom-and-gloom conservatives, deep down I see myself as bestriding the Apocalypse like a colossus, Bible in my left hand and short-barreled AR-15 in my right. Of course, intellectually I realize that actual apocalypses are very, very bad for everyone involved, so my self-image is buried deep in my id, not a goal I have set for myself. Moreover, my strong belief is that, while it may not be evident yet, the era of apocalyptic fiction is ending, to be replaced by a new literature of optimism and pursuit of excellence. A few months ago, I thought that switch would be quick and smooth. Now, I suspect it will happen slowly over piles of bodies, with the only question being how tall those piles will be. In the meantime, though, we can enjoy The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver’s excellent, and mostly pessimistic, book about the near future collapse of America.
Food City, by the late Joy Santlofer, shows us the amazing history of manufacturing, in this case food manufacturing, in New York City. Nowadays we don’t associate New York with manufacturing, but as recently as 1950, it was one of the largest manufacturing centers in the country. Reading about this lost past is a fascinating exercise, even if there is much less manufacturing in the city today.
For the past few years, I’ve started thinking of basic economics through the prism of a thought experiment. This involves starting all analysis by considering twenty people sitting around on the savanna, each with literally nothing except his or her ability to work. This frame is highly instructive, because it allows the thinker to easily understand certain economics concepts, including, most importantly, that producing what others want is the only way to advance beyond subsistence. As Henry Hazlitt said, “The poor are poor not because something is withheld from them but because, for whatever reason, they are not producing enough.” This is as true for an entire modern society as it is for twenty people in the state of nature.
This book is just not very good. I was excited to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth; it was extensively and positively reviewed and it promised to illuminate an important topic by giving extended, specific analysis. In particular, I wanted to learn about changes in productivity over time. Instead, I first got an interminable, plodding exposition, which repeated commonly known facts ad nauseum for its first 600 pages. But I soldiered on, knowing that the last 100 pages were analysis of current problems and of future productivity. I should have cut my losses—those last 100 pages are exemplars of rank illogic and incoherence. It didn’t end there, either—the book is then, at the last, capped by shrill, unsupported demands that America ingest a massive dose of insufferable and, at best, non-effective, leftist nostrums, considerably more pernicious than the 19th Century patent medicines the author unoriginally decries. When I finished this book, I had to drink a fifth of cheap whiskey just to dull the pain, but now that the hangover is gone, I …
[This is a colloquy between myself and a friend of mine. Italics are her; regular text is me. She is responding initially to a comment I had made about “evil not-for-profits.”] I don’t understand, but without the rhetoric, I really want to see the world through your eyes regarding your comment about “evil not-for-profit…” How is it that people who sacrifice so much for others are evil? I’m a corporate attorney and admire the heck out of people able to do something I’m too greedy to do. While they walk the walk (of spiritual leaders, etc.), I’m just a coward saving money for my own kids’ education, etc. How are they “evil”? Mostly it’s a joke, meant to highlight the absurdity of classifying a businessman as inherently evil. But, given that you ask, here are some thoughts: 1) What makes you think people who work for “not-for-profit” entities “sacrifice so much for others”? That may be true for some, a very few. Let’s say, for example, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. But generally, that’s not …
I read “Capital Without Borders,” a book on wealth management, because I wanted a “how-to” book. How could I, were I to become adequately rich, maximize my wealth by using methods available only to the knowledgeable and connected? Unfortunately for my purpose, “Capital Without Borders” doesn’t delve deeply enough into the precise mechanics of wealth maximization to be a useful “how-to” book. But it does contain a wide variety of interesting insights into the world of the new globalized elite, citizens of no country who completely lack positive feeling and loyalty towards their native lands. These insights are the book’s real value.
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.
“Popular Economics” is a well-written, glib primer. In some ways, it’s a dumbed-down version of Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics In One Lesson,” or a severely dumbed-down version of Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics.” Its goal is to instruct those with little economics knowledge that John Tamny has all the answers. Actually, it’s to instruct them that John Tamny has one answer to all questions, which is that government is an atrocity, and one solution, which is that the government needs to stop interfering in economic activity.