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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and clear analysis of the wealth and poverty of nations
The topic of this thrilling book, 20 years in the making, is nothing less than the history of civilization, from the Neolithic Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to today. Rather than relating history as a story of kings, Caesars, popes, prelates and presidents, Gregory Clark tells the story through economic data, much of which is the result of his own analysis of...
Published on 15 Nov 2007 by Rolf Dobelli

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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stimulating but wrong-headed
In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark asks good questions: why did we wait so long for the industrial revolution? why did it occur when and where it did? why has it still not taken universal effect? He attacks the conventional story which sees the crucial pre-condition as the inalienability of property rights, first occurring in England. In other words, he argues that...
Published on 19 May 2008 by Miles Saltiel


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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stimulating but wrong-headed, 19 May 2008
By 
Miles Saltiel "Miles Saltiel" (London England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark asks good questions: why did we wait so long for the industrial revolution? why did it occur when and where it did? why has it still not taken universal effect? He attacks the conventional story which sees the crucial pre-condition as the inalienability of property rights, first occurring in England. In other words, he argues that institutional arrangements don't matter that much.

A Farewell to Alms has three broad strands. First, from the agricultural to the industrial revolution, accumulated capital and improved technology served largely to increase population. This section of the book presents some wonderful data, but Clark's argument is close to circular and less novel than he suggests. In any event, by his own account his analysis allows for a substantial variation in living standards between one and another society.

Second, the industrial revolution was triggered by a slow accumulation of habits and values in English society, making for successful economic practices, which did not occur in (for example) China and Japan. If true, this would be very interesting, so let's explore it a little. Clark's argument draws attention to literacy, violence and interest rates. Let's focus on interest rates, which have the most objective data and are most relevant to economic life. Clark points out that rates in Western Europe fell from 10% or so in the middle ages to 4-5% on the eve of the industrial revolution. He goes on to note that rates include a "risk premium" and a "time-preference", capturing the universal inclination to consume today rather than tomorrow. The customary account of this fall emphasises the decline in the risk premium due to the improvement of property rights. By contrast, Clark argues that property rights were always pretty secure in England. Instead he proposes that there was an alteration in time-preference: that over the 400 to 500-year period, Englishmen became more willing to defer immediate gratification.

His explanation for this is bizarre: that middle-class values (or possibly genes) permeated English society, because of the downward mobility of the surfeit of children born to the wealthy (but not the aristocracy, who killed themselves in battle with such gusto as to fail to reproduce altogether). On its face this is plain odd: everyday observation tells us that those undergoing downward mobility are keen to forget their parents' values. In addition, Clark's evidence won't haul the freight. He compares the surfeit of children born to wealthy testators (makers of wills) in England to the relative dearth born to Samurai and the royal family of Qin Dynasty China. But this fails to compare like with like. Wealthy testators in pre-industrial England were a mix of aristocrats, gentry-farmers and merchants. Samurai were military retainers (presumably not unlike the English aristocrats who also failed to reproduce), while members of the Chinese royal family were just that. We learn nothing from this comparison: Clark has failed to provide a reason to focus on time-preference rather than risk-premium in interest rates. So perhaps property rights are more important than he allows.

Finally, Clark tries to account for the divergence in economic performance between the developed and less-developed world. To simplify matters, he argues that folks in the third world simply work less hard, once again possibly because their genes may incline them to do so. Setting aside the insalubrious whiff of this reasoning, it doesn't dispel the need to consider institutions and property rights. How otherwise to explain the comparative performance of East and West Germany; the success of China after Deng or Spain after Franco, the latter suggestively excluding the Hispanic economies of the Americas over the same period.

A Farewell to Alms presents some wonderful data but its author strains for controversy so much as to undermine his arguments' effect. Clark is stimulating but wrong-headed.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars puts the gloom back in the dismal science, 5 Aug 2009
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Dear Professor Clark

I began your book with excitement. At last, an explanation of the industrial revolution, a timely reminder that Malthus was right, even though we were always taught that as soon as he founded economic science conditions changed and made Malthus wrong. From the perspective of quantitative economic history (your speciality) we can now see that the Malthusian trap is the default condition of humanity; indeed your analysis is even more pessimistic than the good reverend's.

Making lists of people this book will annoy is quite fun. I counted marxists, doctors, teachers, development economists, mothers at bath-time, farmers, UN apparatchiks, republicans, feminists, industrialists... before giving up and beginning a list of those whose preconceptions WON'T be challenged by this book.

After Malthus, you go on to discuss that old chestnut "causes of the industrial revolution". The usual suspects - agricultural efficiency, birth control, the patent office, peace, law and order, minimal taxation, democracy, etc. - are magisterially dismissed.

This leaves your pet theory, that social mobility - specifically downward mobility - and the consequent acquisitiveness is the key to advance. Here (though I've none of your command of the stats) I start to have doubts. The condition you posit is that the upper classes in England were disproportionately fertile, hence spread their genes to all sectors of society. So they were, according to your data (very good charts and tables throughout, by the way). But you would have to prove that the rich were actually different to the poor (the Fitzgerald / Hemingway exchange) to begin with as bourgeois virtue spread through the population. Then you'd have to prove that this was a more rapid and efficient process than other breeding drivers such as infanticide, arranged marriage, endemic disease, militarism, etc obtaining elsewhere in the world. (As an aside, perhaps you could explain why cousin marriage seems to work rather better for the Rothschilds than for Pakistanis?) Then you'd have to explain why, as the speed of development gathered pace upper class fertility dropped off with no effect (or a contrary one) on economic growth. Regrettably, your thesis seems entirely lacking in supporting statistics. Maybe there are none?

To the reader, then, the industrial revolution remains a puzzle. Why, from surely the smuggest period in English history (the Augustan age) did per capita income suddenly take off? Clearly there was some kind of "tipping point" but your book, so far as I can see, fails to identify it and fails to show how it might be replicated. The quotation at the beginning of chapter 11 seems very appropriate.

The title is a clever play on words (Hemingway, Shakespeare, Dryden, Virgil etc.) but what does it mean?
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and clear analysis of the wealth and poverty of nations, 15 Nov 2007
By 
Rolf Dobelli "getAbstract" (Switzerland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
The topic of this thrilling book, 20 years in the making, is nothing less than the history of civilization, from the Neolithic Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to today. Rather than relating history as a story of kings, Caesars, popes, prelates and presidents, Gregory Clark tells the story through economic data, much of which is the result of his own analysis of documentary evidence. Almost every other page contains a beautiful graph, table or chart illuminating some dimly lit bit of history. And Clark's detours are almost as wonderful as his main argument. His writing is elegant and clear, his sense of humor present but not annoying. While this book has outraged some commentators, it's hard to see why, given the caution with which Clark presents his conclusions. Most likely, the flash point is his stress on culture as enabling and retarding economic growth - views that sometimes get wrongly equated with racism. We recommend this book to anyone who wants to quantitatively enhance his or her conception of human history.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The cultural and genetic arguments - again, 27 July 2011
By 
A. O. P. Akemu "Ona" (Rotterdam, The Netherlands) - See all my reviews
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Why did the industrial revolution happen in Britain? Why not in more populous advanced agrarian societies like India or China? Some economics - the institutionalists - have argued that Britain developed institutions (rule of law, property rights, representative democracy etc) that rewarded private enterprise. British entrepreneurs and inventors then took advantage of the benign social regime and, presto, they produced an industrial revolution. Other thinkers like Max Weber attributed British and North European economic success to the Protestant work ethic, which glorifies labour and the enjoyment of worldly goods (presumably, unlike the vapid, other-worldly post-Tridentine Catholicism that held sway in southern Europe). Yet, other thinkers like David Landes have credited factors like genes, culture, climate and race/ethnicity for Britain's economic development. None of these explanations is likely to be the smoking gun; there is, perhaps, some truth in most of the explanations. Mono-causal explanations of complex social phenomena can be nave, at best, and irresponsible at worst. I was therefore surprised that in A Farewell to Alms, Professor Gregory Clark, a distinguished professor of economics history at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), hung his intellectual coattails on the genetic and culture arguments.

RECORDS IN ENGLANDS REALLY IMPRESSIVE
The book is not without merit. I was impressed by the research that Professor Clark presented on economic conditions in pre-industrial Britain, an age he calls the Malthusian age. In this age, population was the main determinant of income per head. Economic productivity in this age was low; any rise in living standards led to a rise in population, which, in turn, led to starvation, disease and subsequent decline in population. Sounds familiar? Life back then must have been nasty, brutish and short.

Citing work from many authors (including his own), Clark shows conclusively that the richer a man was in pre-industrial Britain, the higher the number of surviving children he had: before 1800 (the generally-accepted date of the industrial revolution), the rich in Britain were outbreeding the rest of the population. Huh? Yes, the modern world in the rich have fewer children than the poor bucks this long-run trend. Furthermore, using data from parish records that stretch to 1400, Clark cleverly adduces the literacy rate in Britain using the percentage of plaintiffs and defendants who could sign their names. He demonstrates that rising literacy - a consequence of the Protestant Reformation - correlates with economic output. The volume of economic and social data from pre-industrial Britain is really impressive. It is testament to the relative stability that Britain enjoyed from 1200 to 1800. So far, so good.

AWAY WITH THE INSTITUTIONALISTS?
Professor Clark challenged the institutionalist argument that British society rewarded invention and, therefore, encouraged entrepreneurs like James Watt and Richard Arkwright to invent the steam engine and the cotton mill respectively. Clark showed that almost all notable British inventors of the eighteenth and nineteenth century did not reap massive rents from the productivity increases that their inventions afforded. Most of the surplus was enjoyed, instead, by consumers in the form of cheaper garments. This, according to Clark, suggests that inventors were not "in it for the money". Well, not quite.

Clark's analysis does not distinguish between expectations and outcomes. Perhaps most inventors did not become rich, but there is no telling whether they invested their energies in the hope of becoming rich. And they all had the example of Richard Arkwright who became fabulously wealthy (his estate was worth 0.5million at his death). We, however, have the benefit of hindsight. Expectations of future profit often exceed reality (see the Dotcom boom).

THE GENETIC AND CULTURAL ARGUMENTS - AGAIN
These are the most dubious arguments in the book. Clark argues that upper and middle-class men (the rich) produced more children than the poor. The children of the rich could not maintain the status of their fathers. Hence, they 'downgraded' in status and intermarried with lower classes. In the process, upper class children transferred their superior genes and values to the rest of the society. By 1800, therefore, Britain had become thoroughly bourgeois (hard-working, responsible, inclined to seek profit, loving family etc). Yet, Professor Clark does not give a shred of evidence support this hypothesis. Evidence aside, let's examine this argument. It assumes that: (1) the rich and the rest of society had different values; (2) that the values of the rich were superior to those of the rest of society - at least for wealth generation; (3) that 'downgraded' children of the rich maintained their superior values even as they downgraded in status; (4) The skills needed to prosper in a capitalist system are transferred genetically from parent to offspring. Clark's central thesis rests on these very questionable, eugenist assumptions; yet, he does not produce a single shred of evidence to support his claims.

Clark advances the cultural argument by analysing nineteenth century textile industry in detail. (Like any self-respecting MBA, I love industry analysis.) The textile industry was important in the industrial revolution because it underwent a near sixty-fold productivity increase in the course of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Clark argues convincingly that the textile industry generated most of the productivity growth of the British economy over the argument.

He compares the productivity of Indian and UK textile mills. Even though UK mill workers cost significantly more than their Indian counterparts, investors found the UK textile industry more attractive than India's: using the same inputs as the Indian workers, UK textile workers were considerably more productive than India's. The reason: Indian textile workers were lazier than the UK workers (evidence: high absenteeism). Indian workers seemed to take a more 'relaxed' approach to work than the UK workers. Hmmm.

This comparative analysis is facile. It completely neglects the external environment. Was management style in British mills significantly different from Indian mills? Was there a consistent reflective focus on productivity improvement in Indian mills as there was in UK mills? Clark extrapolates too readily from low productivity to worker attitudes (culture). His data sources here are problematic: He bases his analysis, in part, on (British) accounts of native Indian custom. How unbiased would British accounts of Indian Natives have been?

A Farewell to Alms is incomplete--perhaps necessarily so. I was impressed by the quality of data in England and by how Clark cleverly analysed the data to tell a story of inheritance. Yet, Clark advances a dubious genetic and cultural thesis for which he provided little evidence. This poorly-argued thesis detracts significantly from the quality of the book. The book deserves three stars.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Alternative Take on Economics, 19 Nov 2013
By 
P. Mcloughlin "athertonian" (Banbury, Oxon UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
A serious review of how we got to where we now are in the global economy. It shows that economics is truly a Black Art and that the more we know the more we don't know.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Fails to prove its most surprising and controversial claims, 20 Sep 2013
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This would have been much better off as a series of peer-reviewed journal or workshop submissions, rather than a book in this Princeton series on economic history (which suggests the imparting of knowledge). In some cases, those submissions might never have seen the light of day in the first place - or might have emerged as a much better work thanks to possibly iterated peer review (see one of the other reviews which cites German work that the author was not even aware of).

The research is not sufficient to prove the author's most surprising and controversial claims - and may never be in some cases. Sheer quantity of statistics does not make up for holes in the arguments. As it is, this book will unfortunately mainly provide ammunition to racists, modern imperialists such as Niall Ferguson, and advocates of cutting development aid to poorer countries.

The claim at the end of the book that the income differences between the UK and India were (and hence presumably are) mainly due to worker unproductivity (laziness and/or persistent poor ability) even given the exact same machines would be very important if true, and deserves much more than the cursory treatment the author gives it. Again, if that claim is true, that topic deserves a book to itself - but only if the research is sufficiently high quality and wide ranging (encompassing multiple poor countries and cultures and time periods).

Really, Princeton University should be ashamed of itself for having marketed this book as a "history" - suggesting to purchasers that it was perhaps a textbook or popular exposition of consensus views, rather than a tendentious and highly dubious analysis.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Both great and naif, 5 Jan 2008
By 
Volkmar Weiss - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
Since the sixteenth century the scholarly community in the West has accepted the existence of scientific laws. Over the past four centuries modern science has been preoccupied with the discovery and practical application of these laws. This has revolutionized both the natural sciences and human civilization. While the humanities have also made progress during this time, their results have been less remarkable. They have been unable to account for the forces underlying the changing fortunes of human society. The book by Gregory Clark is another heroic attempt to discover the laws underlying the course of human history.

In 1930 Corrado Gini published his Harris Foundation lecture: "The Cyclical Rise and Fall of Population". Gini understood much of the wheel of history, but made - because of the lack of empirical data - the wrong assumption, that the well-to-do have always fewer children than the poor. Indeed, such is the situation since the last quarter of the nineteenth century until up to today. For theoretical reasons Oded Galor and Moav Omer in their seminal paper "Natural Selection and the Origin of Economic Growth" (2002) came to the conclusion that before 1850 the upper and medium stratum of society must have been more surviving children than the poor. Clark could confirm this assumption with empirical data of his own, and he makes this finding to the cornerstone of his theoretical derivations.

It is a pity that neither Galor and Moav nor Clark are aware of a large body of historical data, supporting their fundamental assumptions and claims. For example, in 1990 a preliminary summary on the "Social and Demographic Originis of the European Proletariat" was published in which we can read: "The data show that rural and urban proletarians are formed from the socially downward mobile sons and daughters and grandchildren of peasants." Despite Clark's staying of one sabbatical year at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) in Berlin, he does not cite any German source. In the Inventory of the German Central Office for Genealogy. Part IV (second edition, 1998, ISBN 3-7686-2099-9), he could find not only a complete bibliography of historical demography of Central Europe, based on local family reconstitutions, but also an exhaustive review (p. 74-176) of studies of differential fertility supporting his core argument. Clark could strengthen his point immediately, if he were able to read original papers and books in French, Dutch, German and Swedish, because the development in West, Central and Northern Europe was in principle the same as in England. - By the way, Ernst Engel undertook not studies of Prussian but of Saxonian working-class budgets.

Nevertheless, Clark wrote a couragous book of high originality, enriched with a large number of very interesting figures and tables, touching with their overall message the borderline of political incorrectness. But he should have better nothing written about the last decades. The last two chapters of his book are extraordinarily weak.

Despite his awareness (Table 14.4) of a general negative relationship between the number of surviving children and the social status of their parents in the modern world - the so-called demographic-economic paradox - in sharp contrast to the preindustrial world, where more children of the rich survive, Clark does not dare to draw any conclusion from this. For example, as Francis Galton became aware of this paradox, he founded the eugenic movement. Clark, too, understands the centuries where larger numbers of children in the households of the rich survived also as a process of a genetic enrichment of the cognitive basis of society. Could be the turning point (in England already about 1850, in Germany three or four decades later) in differential fertility also be the turning point of the cycle of industrialized society? Could it be, that the rich because of their rising social density would be the first to regulate their numbers in a cyclic fashion? What does or could this mean for the Aristotelian cycle of political constitutions, for the future of democracy? What are the differences and the similarities of the industrialized society with the rise and fall of the Roman empire and the repeated cycles within China?

"Why Isn't the Whole Word Developed?" is the caption of last chapter of this book. In agreement with his overall message and insight Clark could maybe find a contribution to the answer in the books by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen IQ and the Wealth of Nations and IQ and Global Inequality as well as in the most recent papers by Heiner Rindermann, Erich Weede and Garett Jones. Seen from this point of view Clark has written the first part of a new world history. To imagine and to write the second part should not be an impossibility. However, it will also be a dangerous look into our future.
Most important in this respect is the article "The Population Cycle Drives Human History ... ", published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies (Number Fall 2007).

Physical scientists are able to observe the natural world more objectively, because the observer is not identical to the observed. Science is not a potential battlefield for the survival of the individual scientist, as history is for the historian. This is the root cause for the failure of the human sciences to generate any laws governing history. I am sure, anyone who discovers such a general law or even the dynamics of the cycle of population and constitutions of the global industrialized society will be doomed to drain the hemlock cup to the dregs as Socrates.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The envious have inherited the earth, 2 Dec 2010
By 
Luc REYNAERT (Beernem, Belgium) - See all my reviews
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While one could agree with some parts of this brief economic history of the world, some major aspects seem to be pure propaganda, biased ideology, blatant lies and perhaps a monumental blunder.

The author's overall picture
Before 1800, the world was strangled by the Malthusian trap: overall living standard gains were lost to population growth.
The Industrial Revolution took off with efficiency advances through innovation, especially in the textile industry. It started in England, because that country had a blessed mix of energy (coal), colonies (markets), a population explosion and innovators.
The economic stasis in developing countries is due to bad management and the nature of the labor force.

Blatant lies
The author's shameful sentence, `the scourges of modern States - war, violence, disorder, harvest failures, collapsed public infrastructure, bad sanitation - were the friends of mankind' (in the Malthusian era) is a blatant lie. It should at least be: ... for a minority of mankind (the wealthy). Not for the poor, because as J. Swift masterfully wrote, the poor have only one means to survive: steal ... to be hanged.
The book also exposes D. Ricardo as a cynical hypocrite (not always). The Iron Law of Wages is only valid for those who survive on wages (the have-nots), not for those who have to pay them (the haves). His statement that `the Poor Laws deteriorate the conditions of both the poor and the rich', is in no way correct. Only the conditions of the rich deteriorate because they have (the capacity) to pay.

Pure propaganda, social Darwinism
The author exposes himself as a propagandist for the Washington Consensus (low tax rates on earnings, free markets for goods and labor, privatization, no governmental intervention). `'Good' government would either make no difference to material living standards in the Malthusian era or lower living standards. Good governments just make life more miserable by reducing the periodic death rate from famine.'(sic!)
For many authors (J. Stiglitz, N. Klein, W. Bello, M. Chossudovsky, A. Roy) the Washington Consensus is a new scourge in our modern world.
For Malthus, `those who commanded more income will have greater reproductive success.' The author explains that the `social evolution in England had a biological basis, driven by selective survival of types (the abundant children of the rich).

Omissions
This book doesn't consider important analyses of the world economic history, like E. Hobsbawm, I. Wallerstein, E. Gellner, F. Braudel or the rabble-rouser's magisterial work `The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844' (F. Engels).

Monumental blunder?
This book ends on the following note: `the wasteful lifestyles of the rulers actually had no social cost in the Malthusian era. The glories of Versailles were not purchased at the price of the poor.' This could be a monumental blunder, because this `lifestyle' could have blocked the Industrial Revolution.
During a long period before 1800, 75 % of all the circulating money was in the hands of the Catholic Church (W. Manchester). What did the Church with the money? Build many Versailles (churches), a kind of Western potlatch.
The breakthrough came with Protestantism on the continent and with Henry VIII in England (G. M. Trevelyan). When Antwerp was captured by the Catholic Spanish king in the 16th century, all its merchants fled to Protestant Amsterdam and created there a Golden Age.

Another Voice
Instead of robbing the developing countries of their last treasures (Z. Sardar), the envious of the West should perhaps listen to another voice, the French demographist A. Sauvy: `spend 2-3 % of your GDP on the developing countries. What an investment!' (`Mondes en marche')

This book is a very mixed bag.
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9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant beginning, 14 Feb 2008
By 
Knoebel "rolfknoebel" (Schwerin, Germany) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
A strange and memorable book by an author, who repeatedly tells his readers, not to have a theory of his subject and yet he most adroitly nudges us into a direction, where truth most probably can be found.

Clark divides the economic history of mankind into a Malthusian stage with stagnant real income per head and a phase of modern growth since 1800 with a steady increase in real income per head unimpeded by a strong growth of population figures.

This book excells for three reasons:

1. he smashes many defective ideas

No, former former hunters and gatherers were not "dumber" than modern man, they may have been more intelligent.
No, Karl Marx has got it ridiculously wrong, he completely missed the strong gains in real income per head disproportinately dished out to unqualified labour.
No, institutions have become helpful to economic change only after the event, after the industrial revolution was well on it`s way!
No the black death did not kill indiscriminately, the desease followed the classic Darwinian concept of killing the sick and the rehabs.
No the waves of plague starting out from 1347 to run through Europe were a good thing, because it raised the per capita income levels of labouring man.
No, slavery was not an inefficient "mode of production" (in Marx` lingo)
No, if underdeveloped countries cannot make productive use of modern technology, there is not "bad management" to blame, it's "bad labour"!
no, preindustrial economies were not stagnant, they were moving forward in subtle but measurable ways.

2. Prof.Clark adds genetic change and natural selection as new variables to explain economic development. This was needed sorely (my opinion) to arrive at better explanations.

3. The best thing I learned: we don`t understand the Malthusian world too well and still less do we know about the rules of the new economic order past 1800.

This book gives a summary of what we sensibly have to know from research on economic development so far. It collects an awesome range of evidence, much of it from the author`s original research. We have Cobb-Douglas and we have the hunting exploits of the Ache in it.
And yet: this ist not the crowning "state" of the discipline, ist`s a brilliant beginning!
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