Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Apr 23, 2021


This book is subtitled "A Very Short Introduction" and is one of the smallest books I've ever seen, about three ounces. Three ounces is exactly the amount of global economic history that my brain can absorb before turning to mush, so I was glad to find it.

Why is the West richer than the rest of the world? Why have some non-Western countries (Japan, China) come from behind and mostly caught up? Why have others failed to replicate the West's trajectory and stayed underdeveloped despite seemingly having enough time to catch up? GEH:VSI tries to answer these questions.

It explicitly disavows explanations that lean too heavily on some populations being better (smarter, harder working, etc) than others, or on narratives of colonial exploitation - sorry if you were looking for anything too juicy. Given its brevity, it can only gesture at justifications for this choice. It's skeptical of the Protestant work ethic because, however much it matched experience in 18-whatever, today "Catholic Italy [is richer than] Protestant Britain" (is this true? Britain has higher GDP today, but Italy was higher when this book was written) It's skeptical of ideas that some countries are "traditionalist" and resistant to change because of [long list of those countries adopting various profitable innovations] - for example African farmers now mostly grow more productive New World crops (but couldn't countries be willing to change in some ways but traditionalist in others?). The reluctance to invoke colonialism too heavily is even less well-explained, but I think it relies on differences between never-colonized countries - for example, Russia and the Ottomans lagged behind the West in much the same way as Asia and Latin America, and even Austria lagged Britain (GEH:VSI does talk about particular problems with colonial policies when they come up, as part of its general policy survey). Overall I think of these exclusions more as a commitment to a paradigm: what would it look like to pursue a project of understanding global economic history without invoking either of these tempting but curiosity-stopping explanations?