Book Club: Sampling Pseudoerasmus’ “Top 25 Economic History books since 2000”

Some months ago, Pseudoerasmus posted The 25 most stimulating economic history books since 2000 – not a “best” list, exactly, but a list premised on “best” = “makes you think”.  My original, absurd hope was to review several of the books in depth.  I’m settling instead for possibly-useful capsule descriptions of volumes that led, in my case, to significant encounters.

  • Robert Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Probably the most discussed book on the list.  Per Allen, the BIR happened in Britain (not elsewhere) because wage levels and factor endowments made profitable the type of innovation it required.  Allen’s induced-innovation hypothesis is both of impeccable Oxonian pedigree (see J.R. Hicks Theory of Wages – 1932!) and freshly provocative.  Whether you are enchanted or infuriated, you won’t, as a reader, be unaffected: Allen’s insouciant, matter-of-fact explorations will get into your head.
  • Stanley Engerman & Kenneth Sokoloff, Economic Development in the Americas since 1500. Factor endowments meet path dependence. Sober – sometimes to the point of dull – but never less than masterful.  Covers some of the same ground (but a longer time frame) as O’Rourke and Williamson (see below), but focuses on comparative within-country factors that forced societies onto different developmental paths.
  • Oded Galor, Unified Growth Theory. For me, Galor’s hedgehog pursuit of a universal growth theory mars the pleasure to be had from his broad, fox-like erudition.  I would recommend skipping the book and working instead through Galor’s major papers of the last 25 years.
  • Avner Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade. A book recognized to be important, this volume is the hardest-to-read of the set reviewed here, at times a textbook case of how to be unreadably theoretical.  The problem is not just the game theory, which perhaps anyone would have found difficult to integrate into the narrative, its the repetitive sociological – and economic – jargon.  So read it in small chucks, or, echoing what I said about Galor, go directly to Grief’s papers – which are beautiful – and reconstruct his major arguments for yourself.  Grief, over his career, has developed an amazing natural experiment in comparing the operating mechanism of various trading communities (Maghribi, Genoese, Venetian, Hanseatic) of the medieval “Commercial Revolution”.  His attempts to generalize from these communities’ attempts to resolve “the fundamental problem of exchange” don’t completely convince me, but the hypotheses that Greif draws from the medieval period are the most important since Henri Pirenne’s.
  • Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850. Someone tell me why Mokyr, the editor, for Princeton University Press, of perhaps the most prestigious and beautifully produced series in economic history, would submit to the awful treatment he receives from Yale University Press?  To me, this book (a competitor and counter-argument to Allen’s “induced innovation”) weakly plays a potentially stronger hand.  But maybe I just hate the awful typeface, the cheap paper, etc.  Pseudo also recommends Mokyr’s The Gifts of Athena, which is in the P.U.P. series – go that way and tell me what you think.
  • Kevin O’Rourke & Jeffrey Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy. An eerily prophetic book.  Perhaps you come away from Allen or Engerman & Sokoloff feeling that you’ve gained a deeper understanding than you do from this volume, but those books won’t provide the theory-supported insight into today’s headlines that you will gain from O’Rourke and Williamson.  With a few others (e.g., Dani Rodrik, Robert Fogel), O’Rourke & Williamson, as the century turned, predicted the current populist backlash.  Read this book, certainly, before you conclude that trade and immigration are red-herring issues and that the declining fortunes of unskilled worker in developed countries are primarily driven by technological change.  The last time around, at least, there was more to the story.
  • Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Pomeranz is the most balanced and persuasive of the “California School” China hands; he set the research agenda, in many ways, for the early 2000’s.  The author’s recent openness to equally persuasive counter-arguments and corrections does not diminish this book’s achievement in the slightest.  I also recommend his The Making of a Hinterland – prophetic, in its own way, without any such intention.
  • Jeffrey Williamson, Trade and Poverty: How the Third World Fell Behind. Trade matters.  Reading this extension of Williamson’s somewhat similar Ohlin lectures, you might wrongly think it is all that matters.  But what was useful here to me – who was raised on Immanuel Wallerstein’s more ideologically charged version of this story – is Williamson’s almost Joe Friday approach to core-periphery divergence.  This book is not nearly “just the facts”, but it’s an impressive example how to marshal quantitative data in support of a theoretical argument.

And my favorite since-2000 econ history book not on Pseudo’s list?  Depends on my mood, but on a this June night, Richard Goldthwaite’s The Economy of Renaissance Florence, nicely produced by Johns Hopkins University Press, seems a worthwhile recommendation.  No theory here at all, but if you’ve worked your way through even a few of Pseudo’s recommendations, you won’t be in needful in that area.

Update (6/8/17):  I made some minor updates to the Avner Greif entry.  Having originally called his book the “worst-written” of the set, I went back to the book and decided the original judgment was a bit too breezy.  Greif’s book is a theoretical treatise, not a historical narrative of the medieval ‘Commercial Revolution’, and it should be read that way.  By contrast, O’Rourke and Williamson, one of the books I liked best, is arguably too light on theory.  You would really have to go back to these authors’ papers if you wanted to understand how they are applying trade theory to the data or make your own assessment if their application of the theory represented a valid approach.  With the book’s readability comes a larger requirement to take the argument on faith.

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