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Ever since the seminal eponymous work by Adam Smith, the wealth of nations has been one of the most intriguing topics of intellectual curiosity and research in both the economics and history. For the most of human history the relative wealth of individuals around the world did not vary much. Poor peasants in the Roman empire had just about enough resources to satisfy their most basic needs, and the same can be said about the, say, Australian aborigines at the same point in time. All of this started to change rater dramatically around the year 1500 AD. At around that time Europe started to diverge from the rest of the world, and this trend has continued to this day. Some parts of the world that were under the European influence managed to keep the pace with Europe, but many had settled into the slower developmental progress. Why was Europe in particular able to advance so rapidly, and what has happened in the other parts of the world, are some of the questions that "Global Economic History - A Very Short Introduction" tries to answer.

If you have never thought about the abovementioned questions, then the material that is presented in this short book can be revelatory. For such a small resource this book contains a remarkable collection of charts, graphs, and other data that can shed a lot of light on the way that wealth and prosperity can be defined through history. Robert Allen bases his analysis on this wealth of data and offers his insights into their meaning in the context of economic development. Economics is notorious for the variety of often opposing views that are invoked to elucidate the real-world phenomena, and it's virtually certain that this short introduction will have its own share of detractors on at least some issues. (For instance, I question the spread of universal elementary education as a cause -rather than the consequence - of economic development.) Nonetheless, Allen presents his points from a very economically sound perspective, and all of the points in this book are well worth paying heed to. The book offers a lot of credibility to the "usual suspects" of the economic development - geography, natural resources, industrialization, functioning institutions, etc. - but it also challenges many widespread assumptions about them, and gives credence to a few others.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is its breadth; it is not just a book based on a few case studies, but an attempt to give a convincing account of the economic development in the entire world over the past half a millennium. In my estimation, given the constraints of the very short introduction format, it manages this aim remarkably well. The book is an invaluable and sober introductory resource that provides a lot of insight into the economic development of nations, and manages to accomplish this without resorting to cheap overarching ideological crutches. It is well worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in these topics.
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on 9 March 2017
Great book
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on 25 June 2013
Clearly, it is no mean feat to simplify a huge topic such as this into a concise and easy to read book. For background, its perfect. The book suggests a few common denominators to kick-start an economy, such as: transport infrastructure, cheap production costs (especially wage prices) proximity to markets, etc., where the same format is used throughout to analyse the rise of regions in the global economy.

This book does it's job well. However, the author provides no personality or humour to a fairly dry topic. Once one gets the rhythm of the way it was researched, it does become a little predictable. It is a very short history and if its background you need, this is where you will find it. I would recommend others to read it.
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on 29 July 2013
The book focuses mainly on the Great Divergence - the rapid economic growth in the West and the slow one in the Rest since the 1500s to the present day. Different causes and explanations for the phenomenon have been briefly discussed; however, Pr. Robert Allen favors a certain approach while he's critical of other ones. Nevertheless he does not detour from scholarly impartiality in his judgments, and his insights are quite sound. The breadth of material covered in this little book is rather fascinating. Not only is it a good introduction to the subject, it can establish a very firm ground for one's further research.
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on 9 July 2015
Having little prior knowledge of the subject, I strongly recomend the book because it does give a detailed and easily understandable introducton. It tells the story up to 1950s perfectly, although the author failed to give an account of post-Second World War macroeconomics in terms of Keyneism, Neoliberalism, GFC, etc.. Nevertheless, I think that he said at some point that he is not going to talka about macroeconomic history. However, this should not be accepted as a good appology, given the intensity of world economy after the Second World War.
The chapter on Africa is truly enlightening and should be paid attention. The wide range of graphs was also extremely helpful. As a whole, the book does provide a perfect VSI up to 1950s, albeit occasionally the author touched on some controversial topics subjectively such as his paragaph on Max Weber.
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on 28 December 2016
Economic history seems to be my favorite topic for over a decade now. There are many very good books on the topic. But if you are not an aficionado of the subject or have only limited time to lend to it, then this book is an extraordinary work for you to consider - it covers this often complex yet vital topic in less than 150 half sized pages. If you want, you'll be thru it in a jiffy, though I recommend a pedestrian pace so you can contemplate the implications of that which is stated as you go.

What will you gain from those roughly 150 pages?

First, it will inform you on topic that is vital to understanding every aspect of civics, economics and politics in current events.

Second you will understand the historical process by which nations advanced into the first world of wealth.

This knowledge is a vital component to keep in mind as you read other topics in history, civics, economics, and so on.

Before reading this book I wondered how the author could cover the subject in only 150 "half-sized" pages. For starters he begins his history at around 1500. Before then human's every where lived basically at a near subsistence level consuming roughly 1800 calories a day. Things only begin to change after that. Initially the change takes place through trade, allowing workers to earn more and more multiples over the subsistence level - some of that wealth gets converted into "stored wealth" or "capital". The more successful nations at trade tended to have higher wages. From 17th century wages in England were higher than most of Europe. So in the approach to the industrial revolution, England had high wages and a significant pool of capital and extremely cheap energy in coal. It also had a legal system that protected property rights (wealth), free contract and intellectual property rights. The latter was necessary to promote innovation in technology. The mother of invention is not necessity, but opportunity. English entrepreneurs reacted to the high wages by adopting and employing the fruits of inventors work. Simply speaking, English entrepreneurs reacted to high wages by substituting expensive labor with capital and cheap energy in the form of the fruits of English inventors. Allen's chief claim here is that high wages and cheap coal made industrialization in England efficacious, but initially it was not so anywhere else.

The amazing phenomena is that high wages lead to the substituting of labor with capital, leading to increases in productivity, which lead to higher wages still, creating a virtuous cycle. The rest of the story is about how increased technological change and government policy lead to the spread of industrialization to those areas in control of policy and the impoverishment of those that either did not understand the policy necessities (Mexico and its failure to implement universal education or were not incontrol of their policy (India).

An important point is that the standard industrial policy used throughout the 19th century that industrialized nearly all the nations that would become part of the first world (industrialized) countries was drawn from Hamilton's report to congress on Manufactures in December 1791. Hamilton's plan for industrializing the United States to catch up to England had three components: high tariffs to protect infant industries from British competition; significant investments in infrastructure - especially in transportation (highways and canals) to create national markets; and a central bank to moderate currency panics and fluctuations and to provide credit to new and growing business and industries. A forth and most necessary component was universal high quality education. The U.S. did not consistently follow this policy, per se, but much of it occurred as happenstance. . It got favorable treatment in the federalist era (1792-1801). A national bank was chartered from 1791 to 1811 and a second bank was chartered from 1816 to 1836. The Wars of the French Revolution/Napoleonic wars, through British blockades had the effect of creating tariffs from continental Europe until 1815, while American shipping industry thrived as a neutral power in the conflict (until 1812). After 1815 a second bank and high tariffs were implemented. Meanwhile a national road was constructed into Ohio and beyond, New England states invested heavily in road improvement drastically shortening the overland trip from New York to Boston, but then the audacious construction of the Erie canal by the state of New York completed in 1825, triggered massive development along the route, along the Great Lakes and the creation of new canals in the MidWest connecting to the Great Lakes. The national bank was not renewed thanks to Andrew Jackson, but Allen points out that by 1840 the U.S. economy had been transformed into one that was self generating and no longer dependent upon psuedo-colonial exports of cash crops to Europe. Also Allen points out that north of the Mason-Dixon line, the U.S. had universal education since pre-colonial times. For the rest of the 19th century, universal education in the north, high tariffs and enormous investments in infrastructure would impel the industrialization of the United States, however the lack of a central bank meant the U.S. was subject to frequent economic panics and significant, debilitating recessions.

In the midst of all of this, Fredrick List, a German national came to live in the United States for a few years in the late teens and early twenties of the 19th century. When he returned to Germany he became a champion for the implementation of the standard plan there. With the creation of the German Zollverein (customs union between most of the German states - a precursor to the formation of Germany and the EU) in 1832 that plan began to go into effect. Various neighboring states, including France, reacted to this development by adopting a similar policy. By 1900 Germanyand the United States had effectively caught up to Britain.

Allen points to Mexico's adoption of the standard plan, sans universal education, and yet remaining poor (an inability to industrialize) as proof of the efficacy of the plan in the 19th century but only when ALL legs are implement. (As the U.S. case suggests, the lack of a central bank once the economy had developed to a certain point proved to be a head wind but not a deterent.)

Japan is always an exception to most ideas concerning economics and policy. Japan, which began industrialization only after 1868 did so without the help of control of tariff's which it did not gain until after 1900 (however, it may have gained some initial protection due to its remote location but before steam powered transport had advanced to the point where its costs was no longer a factor, which would have been achieved before 1900). However, Japan's government played a significant role in direct investments in education, railroads/infrastructure and the construction of manufacturing industries. (Japan also had a favorable and natural endowment in the production of silk cloth which brought it into contact with the technologies of cloth production and was able to make adjustments to the machinery suitable for the local environment to become competitive in cloth manufacturing. After 1910 Japanese industry benefited from a more comprehensive industrial policy).

What's left out this discussions are the details of the policies and plans used in the latter half of the 20th century to stimulate the renaissance in East Asia, [See: "Miti and the Japanese Miracle" by Chalmers Johnson (Post War Japanese Industrial Policy), "Kaisha" by James Abegglen and George Stalk (micro/firm level response to Japanese Industrial policy), The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth" by Michael Schuman (a survey of the post WWII renaissance in East Asia and the policy tweeks made by different nations).

Also left out is a discussion on England's pre-industrial age economic policies. Some of this you can get by reading H-R Chang's "Kicking away the latter" or "Bad Samaratans." England as early as the Tudor years (at least) had implemented tariffs on textiles coming from the continent of Europe. I've often wondered if this accounts for the outcome of the Hundred Years war in France. The outcome of that war was determined by the English losing their alliance with the Burgundians. The Duke of Burgundy controlled most of today's Netherlands and Belgium. Belgium especially was extremely prosperous as the center of cloth, especially wool based, production for Europe. The raw material for the cloth production that was making Belgian Burgundy so wealthy came from York and north central England. English tariff's and policies towards becoming a center of cloth production would have seemed to put the former allies of England and Burgundy at cross purposes. Anyway, the Dukes of Burgundy shifted their allegiance from the English to the French - and perhaps economics and policy explain why. But the major point is that England used an early form of (pre) industrial policy to develop its cloth trade which eventually lead to industrialization in the 18th century.

Being a "very short introduction" Allen had to perform triage to determine what to include, how to include it, and what to leave out. The details I've added in this review you can dig into further by reading some of the recommendations noted here. I think Allen did a very astute job - especially his decision to cut off his historical review at 1500. That's a lot of history to for go, but in some respects its almost irrelevant to that which happens after 1500, and that which happens after 1500 is an incredible inflection point in history. Cutting things off before 1500 makes the efficacy of this book possible. If you read this book and retain its major points, you will be well armed to consider other books in Economic History, or just History, or any books on Civics, Public Policy, Politics, Economics or even Business and Commerce. It might also change how you approach and vote in the field of politics.

This is a very valuable contribution to your personal knowledge at very low cost in money, time and effort. Enjoy the wildly vast empowerment it provides.
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on 25 October 2013
I bought this for my History of the British and Global Economy course at uni, and it does explain points very well, with some very useful data. The book arrived quickly and in perfect condition.
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on 13 April 2013
If you are an economist, interested in history and how economics can influence historical development, this is the book for you.
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on 27 September 2014
Interesting introduction to global economics, highly recommended to anyone who wants an insight into how we got to where we are now in economic terms.
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on 9 November 2014
A fast romp through the first two industrial revolutions, concisely written overview of comparative world developments during those periods.
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