Monday, October 12, 2009

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David S. Landes

I don't know what to say about this book. I read it and I enjoyed it, but when I start to think about why, I can't really come up with anything. Landes appears to have written a book explaining why rich countries are rich and poor countries aren't, which is fine, but also easy. No one can argue with the results, because they are what they are, and no one can really argue with the causes, because who really knows what the crucial difference is between America and Nigeria? If we evacuated both countries and repopulated each with citizens from Turkey, say, or if we just switched Americans for Nigerians, what would happen? It's impossible to say with certainty, and so that means any answer is plausible.

Landes's writing style takes some getting used to. He likes to end his paragraphs with biting bons mots, which means the book feels like it was written by a sitcom "gay best friend" character. But, like anything else in life, you get used to it, and by the end of the book the ironic asides even had me smiling.

This book was a school assignment, as was Guns, Germs, and Steel. Of the two, Jared Diamond seemed to do a better job explaining the reasons for economic disparity. Landes points out where it exists, and documents the historic events that resulted from it, but he doesn't give much of a reason beyond, "Some people work harder than others." Sure, that's true, but it shouldn't have taken 650 pages to spit it out.

In some respects, though, Landes's book is more intellectually honest. Diamond appears to go out of his way to avoid pinning the reasons for economic failure on people themselves. It was history, or geography, or biology; anything but humanity itself. This is an understandable reaction to centuries of racial justification. While there's no real arguing that white people are richer than others, modern decency requires an explanation that ignores who's white and who isn't. Landes's book reads like the work of a man who is now old enough to call political correctness the hogwash that it is. Plenty of times he blames poor societies for many of their own problems. He holds up Japan as an example of a poor society that pulled itself up by its sandle-straps, as it were. He seems to say to the modern Arabic world, "The Japanese proved it can be done, so why aren't you doing it?" He writes off the loud excuses of many Latin Americans, Chinese, and Arabians (in Arabia and elsewhere), and calls out their fellow travelers for their intellectual dishonesty. Which is all refreshing to read, but probably not very academically kosher these days.

The top blurb on the book's back is from renowned Stalin apologist Eric Hobsbawm, which made me leery of the political bent I'd be reading, but Landes appears pretty on-board with much more conservative economic thinking than Hobsbawm. Still, though, I never really understood where Landes stood on the idea of comparative advantage. He seemed to feel nations who forwent industrialization in pursuit of their comparative advantage had been sold a defective bill of goods from English economic thinkers, but then he acknowledges the role it played in Japan's advancement. You can't industrialize from the top down; the money for the new equipment has to come from somewhere, and usually that "somewhere" is in less-industrial pursuits. He also seems to be in favor of the idea of using tariffs to protect infant industries, which all my trade textbooks have said is unjustified and hurts the protectionist nation. Landes says only nations who have grown large enough to not need tariffs then tell other nations to get rid of theirs, and points out (correctly) that many modern industrial giants went through a period in their nascent industrialization that involved heavy tariffs.

Because I'm a fan of history as well as economics, this book kept me entertained, even when it seemed to be saying nothing new in the answering of global economic disparity. I didn't like how this brand-new paperback book began falling apart on me within weeks of purchase, though. The glossy layer of the cover began peeling back from the edges. Maybe he should have thrown in a few pages about shoddy workmanship of American-printed books.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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