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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rather short and witty book on a vast subject
If chronologically authored, an account or analytical narrative about economic history of the world would have taken-up many volumes. Instead, Alan Beattie, world trade Editor of the Financial Times, chose to employ his wit, knowledge and researching skills to conjure up this book comprising of short thematic chapters offering viewpoints coupled with historical contexts...
Published on 13 Oct 2009 by Gaurav Sharma

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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesnt have the answers it claims
Clearly Alan Beattie can put together a series of anecdotes well enough, but therein lies the problem. Economists like this one have all appeared as if by magic over the past couple of years claiming to have all the answers. frankly the truth is something more along the lines of being wise after the event. Some parts of this were certainly educational and interesting...
Published on 13 Oct 2009 by RMTooting


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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rather short and witty book on a vast subject, 13 Oct 2009
By 
Gaurav Sharma (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Hardcover)
If chronologically authored, an account or analytical narrative about economic history of the world would have taken-up many volumes. Instead, Alan Beattie, world trade Editor of the Financial Times, chose to employ his wit, knowledge and researching skills to conjure up this book comprising of short thematic chapters offering viewpoints coupled with historical contexts on anything from natural resources and agriculture to urbanisation and economic progress (or lack of it in some cases).

As for the element of surprise, Beattie is true to his word. He begins the narrative by fictionally staging the 9/11 attacks in Argentina and economic collapse of the U.S. Of course, in 2001 actual events occurred the other way round, but the author suggests it could so easily have been different. For most of the 19th century both nations held similar economic potential, yet the U.S. evolved into a superpower while Argentina went into near-terminal decline. He argues that such a trajectory was not preordained but down to differing employment of resources and political will. Both countries, he opines, were given "similar hands" at one point in history, but played them very differently.

Continuing down this path, Beattie offers a similar type of analysis about why, for instance, abundant natural resources turn out to be a curse for some nations or why religion is no hindrance to economic progress or prowess of others. Spread over ten chapters, in this short book, the auther has picked and chosen his way through history, commerce, business practices, politics and religious texts to make his arguments. Chapter 2 (on urbanisation, especially in Latin America), Chapter 3 (on trade) and Chapter 4 (on natural resources) are the ones I particularly liked.

On the other hand, one minor criticism I offer is that Beattie, at times, comes across as working needlessly overtime to live-up to the "surprising" bit in the book's title. Fictionally moving 9/11 to Argentina or opining that if the U.S. does not sort out some of its problems in the financial system, it too could head down Argentina's path is a bit over the top if not downright silly. The content of this book does not need steroid shots. However, regrettably it has escaped the author. Nonetheless, an overt eagerness to impress the reader should not be held against him.

Overall, it is a good book and by the time the reader reaches concluding pages, the author seems to have pulled ample lessons from our economic history that we ought to take note of. Rounding off with Shakespeare's words - "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie" - is not half bad an idea, either.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesnt have the answers it claims, 13 Oct 2009
This review is from: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Hardcover)
Clearly Alan Beattie can put together a series of anecdotes well enough, but therein lies the problem. Economists like this one have all appeared as if by magic over the past couple of years claiming to have all the answers. frankly the truth is something more along the lines of being wise after the event. Some parts of this were certainly educational and interesting to read about making this more of a starting off point than a destination. One cant help but get the feeling that the author (and others of similar pop-econ books) has cherry picked anecdotes and phrases. he does come close at times to wearing his capitalist heart on his sleeve, particularly when wheeling out the well worn cliche that government should "get out of the way".
In summary, there are points of interest here and there but this book is really far too superficial to be anything other than a light read.
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49 of 60 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nothing surprising in this book, 22 July 2009
This review is from: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Hardcover)
As axiom-based and model-driven economics met its ignominious fate, economic history jocks emerged, ready to hawk alternative (hi)stories to the bemused public. Few such products are of lasting value: and this in not one of them.

The underlying theme of the book is that economic development is path-dependent - which is another way of saying: `historical phenomenon'. Decisions are taken, and they have consequences. Once basic decisions are taken, it is difficult to reverse them. Some decisions turn out to be wise (Botswana), some foolish (Zambia or Sierra Leone). Most, however, were inadvertent. "It seemed like a good idea at the time" - most politicians criticised in the book would have answered. So what else is new? History is a heady mix of structure and contingency. Contingency dominates. Small causes can make a big difference. Nothing is pre-determined. So we cannot `learn' from Botswana's experience or, put it another way, we would not even be able to replicate it in Botswana itself if we were to rewind the tape of history and let it out again (S. J. Gould on evolution).

The economic history served up as `surprising truth' is either blandly formulated received knowledge, or superficial criticism. Take the chapter on trade: Venice and Genoa grew wealthy on trade? Well - they'd exploited beforehand their respective salt monopolies in Comacchio and Hyeres to the hilt. Florence became a banking centre? Hmm - only after a surreptitious and systematic debasing of the coin had impoverished the countryside in favour of the centre. England grew strong on overseas trade? Rather, it prohibited the export of raw wool and the end of the Middle Ages - destroying the clothing industry of Florence and much of Flanders - and stopped imports on Indian cottons in 1721 until it could beat them through mechanised production. The `free' trade flows between the Americas and Britain were sustained by a ruthless monopoly on shipping - thanks to the British Navy and the fact that Britain was an island where harbours could be easily controlled (these later aspects are referred to in a later Chapter on "politics of development": by degrading them to an amusing lecturette on the dismal politics of trade policy they empty the measures of their development impact).

The chapter on religion is particularly weak. As they famously say: guns don't kill people, people kill people. The same with religion: when religion becomes an instrument of mass coercion freedom and economic development suffer. It suffered after Christianity took over from paganism, during the counter-reformation, under Aurangzeb in India. More is difficult to generalise about - pace Huntington. We are thrown back to power struggles, and each one is unique. The attempt to frame religion as the dominating factor across continents - as it is done here with Islam is plain hopeless. The result is a confused and confusing discussion switching back and forth between empires, with throwbacks to legal commercial systems and more. One further point: originally, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols were all nomadic societies with a system of laws to fit their mode of life. These laws were overlaid on the existing system of laws of sedentary societies and local family systems. It worked, for a time, but not always. As for the section on India, it fails to integrate dominant economic role of minorities - Jains, Parsees, and Marwaris. A few howlers lighten the reading: the French Huguenot Protestants were hardly present in Medieval Europe (pg. 147), and China's predominant religion is not Buddhism (pg. 144), which in any case is not a religion to begin with.

Innovation is not even mentioned as a serious driver of development - let alone the impact of emulation. Manias, crises and crashes do not rate a word - as if only trade mattered. Finally, economic history has long been a whiggish history of the West - a luminous process of virtuous innovation and capital deepening around lofty principles like industrious toiling and free trade. Slavery has yet to be accommodated within this trope. The role of women in economic development is largely ignored, despite the fact that on a reliable daily basis the `gatherers' were providing far more calories than the lazy hunters. Settlement owes much to the willingness of women to pound acorn for hours. And the role of women in agriculture, cottage industry, domestic service, and in the factories is hardly mentioned. A `surprising' chapter could have focused on gender issues, in particular on the role of women in family education which, far more than `increase in agricultural productivity, is causing the demographic transition.

The occasional whiff of prejudice is regrettable. I thought bald sentences like: "only a highly skilled privately owned foreign company like De Beers had the expertise actually to dig diamonds out" had gone out with the admission of women to London Clubs. Another nugget is: "Trade unions that can halt production, particularly while mineral prices are high, are in a similar position to bandits blocking a mountain path". For good measure the image is repeated a few paragraphs later. One wonders what terms the author uses for bankers who (many of them high on cocaine according to author) - drove their financial companies into the ground as they hauled in hundred of millions in boni and golden parachutes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not at all surprising - the conventional economic orthodoxy packaged up as a series of anecdotes, 12 Jan 2012
By 
Anybody who was expecting some relationship between this book and the popular anti-cuts website 'false economy' will be sadly disappointed. This is a totally unsurprising remix of economic orthodoxy (free trade is always good, you can't buck the market, government intervention will always go wrong), nicely illustrated with some very partial anecdotes from history. Although the apparent message of the book is that governments and societies have choices, the actual message is that you don't - you must always follow the 'free-market' path or it will end in tears. Economic laws have the validity of natural laws, which they resemble.

Curiously, the evidence to counter this thesis is right there in the very anecdotes that it recounts. The British economy took off in the early C18th as a result of the energy and capital input it received from slavery and dispossession. The US's role as sponsors of anti-labour violence in South America and elsewhere may have impacted on the country's reputation as the global champion of liberty. And so on.

Of course, what isn't the book is as revealing as what is. So lots about the ultimate failure of any strategies that try to buck the market. German and Scandinavian (or even French) capitalism might as well not exist. Singapore barely figures. Lots about China though, which has pursued the kind of free-market Leninism that he seems to admire - 'free markets' without a free society.

There are some enjoyable bits - I quite liked the bits about the East India Company, and the Anti-Corn Law League, but all of this is very partial. There are some obvious bloopers - Zaire wasn't 'part of the Democratic Republic of Congo', was it? And the conclusion, which is a belated attempt to introduce a bit of humility in the face of a rather obvious crisis of the global model he spends most of the book propounding, is thoroughly unconvincing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inside this book is a great book waiting to be written, 19 May 2011
Alan Beattie is a good writer and provides a whole list of anecdotes to back up his various propositions. This is not a scholarly work, but a light read about many of the economic and historical events and issues of the global economy.

It can be a very dry subject, and Mr Beattie has made a good attempt to make the subject readable. However, I would only lend this book to my students with the warning that there is a lot missing here, and probably ask them to read Fernand Braudel's A History of Civilizations as an alternative viewpoint.

A couple of observations:
1) Despite the title, it is not an economic history of the world
2) There are some statements made which are clearly half-baked ( resources & culture do not determine history )

Mr Beattie, if you are reading this, please write another book which re-addresses these issues in more detail. However for this very readable effort you get 4/5.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Economic history can be fun!, 30 April 2012
By 
Simon Barrett "Il penseroso" (london, england) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Somewhere between journalism and scholarship (Beattie cheerfully credits four works on which he has principally drawn), this affable book's schoolmasterly asides (Madrid is the highest capital in Europe; John Masefield was Poet Laureate for 40 years) are only mildly distracting; and any book that writes foetid in the traditional manner, pointing us to the correct pronunciation, gets my vote - we don't write fetus, now do we? 'Fettid' stinks. And respite's quite beyond help; it rhymed with cesspit* until the NHS took it into care. Now how about covert, which Neil MacGregor mispronounced twice this lunchtime - and he a Scot! (It's just 'covered' said with a Scots accent - or was till the 1st Gulf war)

* The more culturally conservative or simply less confused Americans cleave to the true pronunciation; see Chambers (actually Barnhart) Dictionary of Etymology
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5.0 out of 5 stars outstanding, 8 April 2011
By 
Wide-ranging and entertaining, even for someone, like me, who has never had much interest in history.

It provides a great background as to why international trade carries on like it does, where it does. My favourite chapters were subtitled "why did Argentina succed and the US stall?", "why dont Islamic countries get rich?", "why doesnt Africa grow cocaine?". The answers are surprising.

Outstanding
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars False Economy, 26 July 2009
By 
D. E. Yates (Evesham UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Hardcover)
Alan has written the background and his understanding of many of the influences and choices leading to the present worldwide economy. He has used his keen interest in history and economic training to carry out this analysis.
He starts with a comparison of today's Argentina and USA whose economies are similar at the beginning of the 20th century. He examines and argues the reasons for their present day differences. Other factors including corruption, religion and natural resources are also reviewed making the analysis in this book more comprehensive.
It is refreshing to read a book written in layman's terms presenting Alan's understanding of the reasons for "why we are where we are today". However, each sentence of the book requires concentration and occasionally a dictionary!
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Counterintuitive, 24 July 2009
By 
Neil Bradford (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Hardcover)
An entertaining and insightful book explaining why the world is the way it is, and in particular why it isn't how we imagine it should be. For example -- organized corruption is better than weak democracy. Well written -- worth the read.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very good book., 22 July 2009
By 
Mr. M. D. Burton (Edinburgh) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Hardcover)
I really enjoyed this book as I'm into books that deal with business stories. Alan Beattie has presented what could have been a complex and boring analysis of contrast in the world's economies in an exciting way.

I don't know how complete his arguments are as I'm not an economist but they certainly made sense to me.

I would recommend this book to someone aged 14+ who wants to know how the world got to be the way it is.
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