Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz

Kenneth Pomeranz adds The Great Divergence to the growing list of books trying to shed some light on why the west has been so comparatively successful economically. His point of view is novel, and he does a good job of showing that there's something important missing from the other explanations: up to about the 1700s, the standard of living and growth trajectories of the economies of China, Japan, and India apparently were comparable to the economies of the strongest countries in western Europe.

That's not enough for Pomeranz, though; he wants to convince us that the important difference was Britain's access to coal deposits, and to the new world's agricultural productivity. Without coal, Pomeranz argues that Britain's technological growth would have been curtailed, and without access to the new world, Britain would have been subject to some kind of cross between a malthusian and a mercantilist disaster. Britain would have been unable to increase its agricultural productivity in order to free workers to move to the factories, and wouldn't have had a ready market for its growing manufactured goods.

The explanation falls short, however, since it doesn't seem likely that the east would have exploited these resources if they had discovered them. We need an explanation that starts a step earlier: why were the western countries racing to discover new markets and resources? Why were they poised to exploit foreign resources when they found them? Why were the asian countries so insular, and how long would it have taken for them to change if the western countries hadn't made contact first? It's possible that the lack of an external market would have slowed growth, but it seems likely that the technologocial growth path would have continued, albeit in some other direction. And the malthusian argument has lost most of its force. (See my previous post for agreement and disagrement.)

Even if you are interested in the argument, I don't recommend the book. Pomeranz goes into excrutiating detail to convince us that the eastern and western economies were comparable. I often found myself reading the third or fourth or tenth paragraph past any argument I could reconstruct trying to figure out why he was telling me how many calories peasants in some country had access to, or how many hours a day they had to work for a pair of pants. I'm really glad to see that someone has found access to a deep source of historical data about how ordinary people lived their lives in countries that haven't been described well in the history I've had access to. But Pomeranz is not the one to make it come alive. I needed more road signs as he was telling me all this so I could remember which economy he was talking about, and what part the details had to play in his larger argument.

And if you are interested in the argument, it looks like Brad DeLong is well tied into that community, and can both provide connections to the literature, and tell you which historians are onto a relevant lead. He has a detailed analysis of Pomeranz that simultaneously gives him more credit, and knocks down the argument that the New World is really the key.

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