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The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created: How the Prosperity of the Modern Work was Created [Kindle Edition]

William J. Bernstein
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

    “Compact and immensely readable . . . a tour de force. Prepare to be amazed.”
    John C. Bogle, Founder and Former CEO, The Vanguard Group

    Bernstein is widely respected as author of the bestseller, The Intelligent Asset Allocator

    Identifies and explains the four conditions necessary for human progress

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Product Description

From the Back Cover

"...a tour de force...prepare to be amazed."

John C. Bogle, Founder and Former CEO, The Vanguard Group

A bold new look at the continuing era of prosperity how we got here, and where we could be headed

Why didn't the Florentines invent the steam engines and flying machines that Da Vinci sketched? What kept the master metallurgists of ancient Rome from discovering electricity?The Birth of Plenty takes a fascinating new look at the key conditions that had to be in place before world economic growth and the technological progress underlying it could occur, why those pathways are still absent in many parts of today's world, and what must be done before true, universal prosperity can become a reality.

"Not long after 1820, prosperity began flowing in an ever increasing torrent; with each successive generation, the life of the son became observably more comfortable, informed, and predictable than that of the father. This book will examine the nature, causes, and consequences of this transformation..."

From the Introduction

The Birth of Plenty doesn't mean to suggest that nothing of note existed before 1820. What The Birth of Plenty suggests and supports with irrefutable fact and groundbreaking analysis is that, from the dawn of recorded history through 1820, the "mass of man" experienced essentially zero growth, either in economic standing or living standards. It was only in the third decade of the nineteenth century that the much of the world's standard of living began to inexorably and irreversibly improve, and the modern world was born.

But what changed, and why then? Noted financial expert and neurologist William Bernstein isolates the four conditions which, when occurring simultaneously, constitute an all-inclusive formula for human progress:

-Property rights Creators must have proper incentives to create
-Scientific rationalism Innovators must be allowed to innovate without fear of retribution
-Capital markets Entrepreneurs must be given access to capital to pursue their visions
-Transportation/communication Society must provide mechanisms for effective communication of ideas and transport of finished products

Beyond just shining a light on how quickly progress occurs once the building blocks are in place, however, The Birth of Plenty examines how their absence constitutes nothing less than a prescription for continued human struggle and pain. Why do so many parts of the world remain behind, while others learn to adapt, adopt, and move forward? What must long-troubled nations do to pull themselves from the never-ending spiral of defeatism? The Birth of Plenty addresses these timely and vital questions head-on, empirically and without apology, and provides answers that are both thought-provoking and troubling.

The Birth of Plenty frames the modern world's prosperity or, in far too many cases, continuing lack of prosperity in terms that are ingenious yet simple, complex yet easily understood. Entertaining and provocative, it will forever change the way you view the human pursuit of happiness, and bring the conflicts of both the world's superpowers and developing nations into a fascinating and informative new light.

About the Author

William Bernstein (North Bend, OR) runs a for its quarterly journal of asset allocation and portfolio theory, Efficient Frontier.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2030 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 4 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill Education; 1 edition (12 July 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0041842UQ
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #458,426 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

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Top Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Made me feel happy! 26 April 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The day after finishing this book I felt strangely happy. It is really a history book and, since history is not normally my thing, I did not expect to enjoy it. However it is the first history book I have actually enjoyed reading. It is well and convincingly written and puts the whole of modern history into context.

I have now realized what made me happy. The guilt that I had unknowingly harbored was lifted from me. You see I have increasingly felt that my wealth, our wealth, was due to our exploitation of the mineral and human resources of the rest of the planet. It is true that we have much to feel guilty about, the slave trade particularly, but our continued wealth is not a direct result of exploitation; it is the result of Bernstein's magic four factors being present together in our country.

Now I can still give to Oxfam, but it won't feel like guilt money!

The astonishing counter-intuitive idea that democracy does not lead to wealth, but the other way around, convincingly argued, was a real eye opener, as was much else in this wonderful book. Gorge W Bush should definitely read it!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended! 3 Aug. 2004
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound, "a village explainer," and said that was fine if one happened to be a village. Author and historian William J. Bernstein is an explainer, so put on your village thinking cap. This sprawling book skips over a broad surface of economic history, theology, sociology, engineering, politics and mechanics, like a flat pebble over a smooth pond. Readers with scant grounding in these disciplines can still have a good time as they gaze slightly slack-jawed at this colorful, fast-moving assemblage of facts, theories and prejudices, all mixed, mingled and as surprising as a carnival parade. Readers who know these subjects, on the other hand, will relish the sweep of Bernstein's saga even if they balk at the inevitable simplifications, exaggerations, contradictions and foggy facts that result from compressing world economic history into 400 pages. Bernstein arranges his history around the four pillars that, he says, support continual economic growth: property rights, the scientific method, capital markets and communications. Given that framework, his presentation is logical and lively. We liked this entertaining read, which is imbued with a history buff's excitement.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  80 reviews
267 of 293 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Explaining everything, or at least trying to 1 Sept. 2004
By Richard Hershberger - Published on
There really is quite a bit good about this book. For one thing, it is very readable. Economic history is not usually regarded as a subject for a real page-turner, but Bernstein manages to come close. For another thing, his economics is solid. He is, as one would expect of a working investment advisor, a free market economist, but he isn't an ideologue. He recognizes that there is more to life than the free market. So he can point out, p. 270, that under Meiji Japan the landlord-tenant system was economically efficient yet a social disaster. And he writes, p. 339, that "History teaches that significant wealth inequality is not as benign as a moderately uncomfortable tax burden is." One of those three stars is for that sentence alone.

So why only three stars? Because economic history needs both good economics and good history: Bernstein's history is very bad indeed.

The first thing that jumps out is how Bernstein relies on popular histories. When he discusses the Middle Ages, for example, he repeatedly cites Barbara Tuchman's _A Distant Mirror_. That is a very good popular history of 14th century northern France. She used scholarly sources, which in turn used original period sources. But this is another way of saying that what we get from Bernstein is three steps removed from concrete facts to ever vaguer generalization, rather like repeatedly photocopying a document. Statements about one place and time get turned into statements about Europe in the Middle Ages. When you deal in vague generalizations you can make the history fit any desired mold. Anyone claiming to have a brilliant historical insight should at least read actual historians.

On a more concrete level, there are countless howlers: We have the Catholic Inquisition in Edinburgh over a century after the Scottish Reformation. We have a credulous retelling of the story of Galileo dropping weights off the leaning tower of Pisa. We are told that the "conventional military wisdom" is that an American defeat at the Battle of Midway might have forced the U.S. to sue for peace. Who holds this conventional wisdom? Not any military historian who doesn't want to get laughed out of the room. One is left with the feeling that he learned this from watching bad documentaries on the History Channel. And so on, and so on, and so on. The book is full of these.

Playing a game of 'gotcha!' is beside the point if the book holds together despite the occasional error. Unfortunately, it does not. The thesis breathlessly reported in the promotional material is that the economic revolution of England circa 1820 was the result of four factors coming together: property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and modern transportation and communication. This actually is only the subject of less than half the book. Much of the rest is devoted to the proposition that these same four factors are necessary and sufficient for other nations to reproduce the revolutionary growth. It really isn't obvious or clear that the basic factors needed to invent a phenomenon are the same as those needed to duplicate it. The assumption, apparently unexamined, results in an unhappy combination, with yet more tucking and folding and stretching needed.

Consider the fourth factor, modern transportation and communications. In 1820 this meant railroads and telegraphs. Bernstein correctly shows how their invention resulted from modern science and their exploitation was made possible through property rights and capitalization. In other words, railroads and telegraphs resulted from the other three factors. But this means that transportation and communications aren't a fundamental factor at all, but derive from other, more basic factors: combine the three fundamental factors, stir, let the pot simmer for a couple of centuries, and you have your fourth factor. It doesn't make sense to treat it as fundamental when considering 1820 England. On the other hand, other nations have no need to re-invent the railroad. So if you look at how other nations can reproduce the effect, it makes sense to treat transportation and communications as a basic necessity.

That's a pretty abstract complaint. Even it does involve a bit of folding and tucking, who cares so long as the model works? But it doesn't. Bernstein completely fails to explain how Germany underwent similar growth in the 1890s. On page 157 he notes the tiny German capital market in 1873, and on page 370 he mentions that 1870 to 1913 Germany had the second-fastest growth in the world. How can this be? This is not merely nitpicking. If Germany lacked any of the purportedly necessary factors, yet achieved rapid growth without them, the thesis is disproved. I honestly don't know if Bernstein didn't notice the problem, ducked the issue, or has an explanation but left it out to keep his page count down.

The whole thing smacks of a pet idea which attempts to neatly tie everything together, but fails. Were this the first draft of a doctoral thesis it would, one trusts, be followed by extensive revision. But in the hands of an established writer it gets published, and he being a capable writer, he writes convincingly.

So why do I give it as many as three stars? For the reasons I gave in my first paragraph, I think this is a suitable book for some readers. Someone who wants a painless introduction to both history and economics will come out knowing more than when he went in, and reading this book might lead to reading better books. But for my money I think that even after fifteen years Paul Kennedy's _The Rise and the Decline of the Great Powers_ holds up well and covers a lot of the same ground better.
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So much info, so easy to read, a rare combination! 15 July 2004
By Sympa - Published on
William Bernstein is an excellent economics and business writer. Bernstein has the ability to teach and write about technical concepts in the most accessible way. "The Birth of Plenty" is no exception. This book covers such a breadth of subjects regarding economics, political science, history from the antiquity to nowadays.

His theory is not unique. The countries who prosper are the ones who give their citizen the right to own their property, to communicate freely with each other, to practice the scientific method to replace outdated traditional knowledge, and to take business risk with other people's money. In summary, the countries who prosper are the ones who allow individuals to reap the fruits of their risk-taking efforts. These are not new and original ideas.

After all, there is a long list of economics writers who pretty much said the same thing starting with Adam Smith back in 1776 in the "Wealth of Nations." More recently, Hernando de Soto wrote about the exact same subject in "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else." Also, David Landes' book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor" adopts the exact same theory as Bernstein's. My list could go on an on. This is because it is a subject that fascinates and never gets exhausted.

Even though all the above books are excellent and some are true classics in comparative international economics, Bernstein's book shines because it is so much more readable, accessible, and entertaining to read. While the others come across as dull economics professors, Bernstein comes across as an incredibly lively journalist. He turns his treaty on economics history into a real page turner giving David Browne's "Da Vinci Code" a run for his money [in the page turning department]. Thus, by reading this book you will learn just as much if not more than the other books I have mentioned, and you will have so much more fun.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Historical Read 7 April 2004
By Frances Goodkins - Published on
Normally, I read histories, but not economic books. This one first caught my attention with its title and then its cover. From the very beginning I was seduced by the clarity of the prose and the unique perspective this book offers on our past development and future prospects. Bernstein explains his theories and illustrates them with case studies of Holland, England, Spain, France, and Japan, followed by the Ottoman Empire and an overview of Latin America. Essentially this book explains why we, the United States and other English speaking countries, have wealth and so many other countries do not. Not content to rest there, Bernstein discusses if this wealth makes us happy and its relationship to democracy. While this is much to absorb, the writing style flows smoothly and the historical sweep is dazzling.
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Say What? 5 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on
The previous reviewer and I seem not to have read the same book. Nowhere does Bernstein state that all four factors had their origins around 1820-his history of property rights, which dates back to prehistoric times, is very simply the best that I have read anywhere. Nor do I know of any economic authority who doubts that the improvements in property rights in Northern Europe were a major cause of its prosperity, not the other way around. The reviewer, who touts his historical expertise, also seems unaware that Da Gama's most celebrated voyage of discovery took place during the fifteenth century, not the sixteenth.
Both the general reader, as well as historians and economists, will find Bernstein's four-factor paradigm invaluable in understanding how the world arrived in its present state. His prose is lively, and given the weight of the subject, goes down like fine claret. You don't even have to take my word for it-according to the April 5 edition of Publishers Weekly, "Packed with information and ideas, Bernstein's book is an authoritative economic history, accessible and thoroughly entertaining."
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What the other Bernstein says 8 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on
The previous reviewer praises Peter Bernstein (a favorite of mine too, and not related to William Bernstein); here's what Peter Bernstein says about this new book (at his web site):
"Bill Bernstein's erudite history of the causes and consequences of growth grasps the main issues and keeps them up front all the way through. This book is a great magnifying glass for studying the complex world of today."
I agree- I think The Birth of Plenty is one of the most important books of the year, and I recommend it highly to anyone trying to understand our time.
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