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Thursday, August 09, 2007


theory of affluence

suggested reading from the new york times, regarding a book with new data on how the technology of the industrial revolution broke the malthusian trap.

The Industrial Revolution, the first escape from the Malthusian trap, occurred when the efficiency of production at last accelerated, growing fast enough to outpace population growth and allow average incomes to rise. Many explanations have been offered for this spurt in efficiency, some economic and some political, but none is fully satisfactory, historians say.

Dr. Clark’s first thought was that the population might have evolved greater resistance to disease. The idea came from Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which argues that Europeans were able to conquer other nations in part because of their greater immunity to disease.

In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, , but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them.

and this change of widely-held values, it is intimated, is how the industrial revolution took hold.

It is puzzling that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan. Dr. Clark has found data showing that their richer classes, the Samurai in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China, were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England.

also interesting that the decline of classical civilization is notable for the refusal or inability of the nobility to procreate!

Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions as the reason that poor countries remain poor. But the proposed medicine of institutional reform “has failed repeatedly to cure the patient,” Dr. Clark writes. He likens the “cult centers” of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand.

If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.

a deeply engaging point -- effective institutions as bottom-up reflections of society, not top-down leaders of it.

Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”

What was being inherited, in his view, was not greater intelligence — being a hunter in a foraging society requires considerably greater skill than the repetitive actions of an agricultural laborer. Rather, it was “a repertoire of skills and dispositions that were very different from those of the pre-agrarian world.”

Reaction to Dr. Clark’s thesis from other economic historians seems largely favorable, although few agree with all of it, and many are skeptical of the most novel part, his suggestion that evolutionary change is a factor to be considered in history.

this is bound to be terrifyingly controversial, as it amount to saying that the europeans who used the industrial revolution as leverage to dominate the world are effectively genetically superior (that is, better adapted to modern economic and cultural life) to other world populations.

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