An ambitious and erratic economic history of the world, from the Fertile Crescent to the current success of Chinese pragmatism.
Jay, the BBC’s economics editor, comes up short in his attempt to write a plain and vivid narrative of economic growth. His breathless rush through mankind’s beginnings and his confusing use of “kya”(1,000 years ago) instead of the standard “b.c.” mar the opening pages. Agricultural life, he tells us, began with a decline of huntable animals and climatic changes; farming led to villages. The Mesopotamian civilizations preceded the Egyptians (around 7000 b.c.), and they all declined around 1000 b.c. for unknown reasons. Coins appeared in Greece around 650 b.c. and were used to pay Alexander’s armies. The Romans created wealth by permitting most individuals to seek profits, and by building superb roads, before they succumbed to measles, smallpox, and barbarians in the third century a.d. With the decline of the Empire, Jay looks to the East. Advanced navigational skills (supported by a superior mathematics that made use of the numeral zero and base-ten calculation) stimulated Indian trade. Arabia flourished next: the Koran supported business, and Islamic entrepreneurs made improvements in textiles, medicine, and papermaking, and a banking system centered in Baghdad financed a thriving economy until the plague arrived in the 14th century. The author’s rapid jumps between topics and locations undermine his wide knowledge; he repeatedly jams economic history into a “waltz” metaphor (a one-two-three, one-two-three of growth, predation, and attempted defense) that distorts as much as it simplifies. The best sections cover globalization in the 16th century and the Industrial Revolution of 1730–1820. Portugal and Spain controlled the seas with advances in shipbuilding, sails and cannons. In the 1600s, the Dutch supplanted the Iberian countries with more capital and less government. After reviewing inventions, a transfer of labor from agriculture to industry, slavery, and rising incomes, the author concludes that the Industrial Revolution remains inexplicable. He zips through the world wars, Communism, and the Great Depression before casting his forecast of the future.
Huge nuggets of macroeconomics, some skillfully refined and some not.