Category Archives: Books

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Wallerstein was the primary creator of the core-periphery framework that many historians use to view world economic history. This 1974 book started it all. Several publishers rejected his initial manuscript, but when he did finally get it published, it caught on quickly. Wallerstein eventually completed four volumes in the series before he passed away in 2019.

In the context of the 16th century, the first major core country was Spain, though the Netherlands and England eventually overtook it as silver-induced inflation and the costs of empire caused Spanish decline. The two periods of Spanish dominance and Dutch-English dominance make up what Wallerstein calls the long 16th century. The periphery economies were the somewhat nearby countries that traded with these core economies throughout the long 16th century, and on through later periods.

Typically, periphery economies provide raw materials and food, which the core countries either consume or turn into more finished products. At this stage of the world economy, there were still countries outside of the European core-periphery network. For Wallerstein, these are simply separate economic systems. The boundaries are fluid, and Wallerstein was quick to point out that his categories are not categorical. Countries such as Poland and the Ukraine were nearly always periphery countries in this period. Russia went in and out of the periphery over the years. Farther-off countries such as India and China had their own independent core-periphery networks.

By the 20th century, with industrialization, mass media, and air travel, the entire world was unified into a single core-periphery system. In this book’s focus, the two-part “long 16th century,” this had not yet happened. But this was also the period when that process began in earnest, which is why Wallerstein’s larger project began there.

Wallerstein was a Marxist, and it shows in his hyper-materialist view of history, and his neglect of individuals in favor of focusing on aggregates such as nations, regions, and classes. It also causes him to ignore non-material factors such as culture, art, social norms about openness and progress, and more. Though he favorably cites Douglass North a few times, proving at least some engagement with the economic history literature, he also is not the most astute economic analyst, especially in matters of monetary policy. He seems not to grasp the concepts of equilibrium, the neutrality of money, or the law of one price. These shortcomings are not fatal to his core-periphery thesis, but they don’t help his case.

As the world becomes ever more prosperous in the 21st century, Wallerstein’s core-periphery framework is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s not the worst way to view the history of empires of colonialism, which are based on exploitation and hierarchy. But the world of the post-1800 Great Enrichment is based increasingly on equal exchange and cross-cultural tolerance and respect. There is a long way to go, obviously, and there will be stutters and reversal. But if the process continues, Wallerstein’s thesis will age as poorly as his Marxism already has.

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

The East India Company (EIC) was one of history’s largest monopolies. Its story is relevant to today’s antitrust debate, and the larger question of where the private sector ends and the public sector begins. Dalrymple seems eager to paint a portrait of capitalist and corporate greed, but the facts won’t quite allow it. He grudgingly allows that the EIC was not a free-market institution, but he often insists on treating it that way just the same.

The EIC was a public-private partnership from the start, and received government bailouts. It had de facto taxing authority in India, a power no fully private company enjoys. The EIC had its own 200,000-strong army, twice the size of the British army. The East India Company was a government in everything but name, and it acted like it, to the point of toppling India’s existing government in 1765 and replacing it with itself.

Contemporary economists and philosophers such as Adam Smith and even the conservative Edmund Burke opposed empire and its accoutrements not just on moral grounds, but on fiscal grounds. Ventures such as the EIC cost the government more than they made from it.

Dalrymple doesn’t go into this as much as he should, but the EIC’s story shows that there is no bright line where the private sector ends and government begins. This kind of philosophical discussion would have been very useful for clarifying his message.

The lessons from the East India Company’s story apply to today’s climate of too-big-to-fail, bailouts for politically connected industries, and subsidy programs for businesses big and small. All of these nearly always come with political strings attached, and mix together the public and private in ways few outside of the economics profession expected. Beneficiary companies become executors of government policy, rather than engines of value creation.

In the EIC’s case, this meant corruption, coups, atrocities, war crimes, and racially motivated mass murders. Today’s rent-seekers’ interests are mostly limited to greed, fortunately. But they are still worth fighting about, and EIC’s cautionary tale is useful for that fight.

Kimberly Clausing – Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital

Kimberly Clausing – Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital

This is a book that needed to be written. Progressives have long had a complicated relationship with trade and immigration. On one side, there is a free-trade tradition including progressive heroes such as Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State; President John F. Kennedy, who passed the 1962 Trade Expansion Act and after whom a major round of liberalizing GATT negotiations was named; and Bill Clinton, who signed NAFTA in to law.

On the other side, the progressive movement’s labor and environmental wings often have at best a transactional relationship with free trade, and at worst an outright hostility to it. Many younger people with social democratic leanings, as well as the older generation of presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have views on trade that are almost identical to President Trump’s. This is a problem Clausing seeks to address.

She mostly makes the usual economists’ arguments in favor of free trade and immigration. This is fine; trade scholars are not her intended audience, progressives are. Clausing’s progressive credentials help to open the ears of an audience that is often closed to similar messages from different messengers. One particular reason that should resonate more than it does is that free trade and liberal immigration are extremely effective anti-poverty policies. And here, Clausing does a good job of explaining why. But she encounters two problems in her book, one of which is not her doing.

Part of the problem in getting more progressives to support pro-poor trade and immigration policies ties into a political realignment that is currently happening, as the historian Stephen Davies and my colleague Iain Murray have been arguing. For most of the post-war period, the dominant political debate was capitalism vs. socialism. Most people and political parties placed themselves somewhere on that spectrum, and thought of themselves in those terms. That dynamic is largely gone now. Just as conservatives under Trump are no longer a free-market-lite party, progressives are no longer a socialism-lite party, younger social democrats’ pretensions to the contrary. Their fight is on different grounds now.

People are beginning to realign themselves on a different axis—nationalism vs. globalism. Conservatives are rapidly taking over the nationalist side. But progressives haven’t quite chosen their path yet—this complicate’s Clausing’s job. Part of the problem is personality. Trump provides a strongly nationalist figure for conservatives to rally around. As of this writing the progressive side lacks such a figure, whether also a nationalist or more cosmopolitan. There is not likely room for two nationalist parties, but Democrats still haven’t made their choice. If Clausing pushes them in the cosmopolitan direction, she will have done a major service.

These political realignments happen every few generations. The current realignment is neither the first nor last time something like this will happen. But it does explain an awful lot of strange political bedfellows in recent years. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump essentially have the same immigration beliefs, and for similar reasons. Fox News host Tucker Carlson was surprised to find himself very much agreeing with Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s economic patriotism plan.

Large parts of Open also have little to with trade and immigration. I am unsure of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Her digressions on taxes, regulations, and inequality are standard-issue, and progressives will find little to object to. On the plus side, this can make her market-liberal trade and immigration stances more palatable, especially to progressives still unsure about their place on the nationalism-cosmopolitanism divide. On the other hand, her proposed regulatory policies would reduce the benefits of open trade and immigration. And her views on inequality focus on ratios, rather than people, precisely opposite the liberal approach that would help the poor. For more on this, see Iain Murray’s and my papers on the subject, “People, Not Ratios” and “The Rising Tide.”

Flaws and all, Clausing has written an important book that has the potential to do a lot of good. Ideally, she will not only nudge progressives in a more free-market direction on trade and immigration policy, she will encourage them to take a more cosmopolitan stance in order to provide an effective opposition to an increasingly nationalist conservative movement.

Mark Forsyth – The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

Mark Forsyth – The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

Just as German seems to have a word for just about every feeling or situation, English and Latin seem to have a word for just about every way to use words. Forsyth knows not just how to use English’s many figures of speech, from metonomy to assonance, but he knows their names—most of which this reader has already forgotten again.

He is also very funny. This book is less about improving one’s writing, and more about having fun with language while admiring how crafty some of its best practitioners can be. Forsyth has a way of making fun of Shakespeare while showing how truly talented he was. He also doesn’t confine himself to stuffy classics in his examples, and uses references to popular music and recent movies even younger readers would be familiar with. This book is short, reads easily, and Forsyth’s sly, ever-present humor makes for an entertaining read. Hopefully the reader also gets a sense of how to avoid writing the kind of purple prose Forsyth might mock.

Andrew McAfee – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next

Andrew McAfee – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next

This would be good for an undergraduate economics course. McAfee’s thesis captures the core insights of economic growth and what causes it. He also makes the true but unpopular case that prosperity results in a cleaner environment. Poverty pollutes. In wealthy countries, people can afford to care about environmental quality, and also develop more efficient production processes that cause less harm in the first place. McAfee never uses the term, but economists call this phenomenon the environmental Kuznets curve. Basically, pollution and other harms increase until a country reaches roughly $4,500-$5,000 of per capital GDP. At that level of wealth, people don’t have to worry as much about their next meal will come from, or basics such as sturdy shelter and tolerable sanitation. Children can go to school instead of working on the farm. With those needs mostly being met, people then become interested in next-level wants, which include a clean environment.

McAfee writes a simple, direct style that reads a little bit like an introductory textbook. He also doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty the way similar works by authors like Hans Rosling, Matt Ridley, and others do. This isn’t a bad thing; he’s serving a different niche than they are.

He is quite direct in stating his belief that free markets are the reason most of the world are now on the right side of the environmental Kuznets curve, and that markets are why he is confident enough that improvements will continue. So confident that he is willing to bet his own money that numerous indicators will improve—see his website for more, and to bet against him if you wish. He is willing to wager up to $100,000 of his own money.

Paul Kriwaczek – Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Paul Kriwaczek – Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

A survey history of Mesopotamia from about 8,000 years ago until the sixth century B.C., with a special emphasis on Babylon, from its rise around 1800 B.C. to its collapse.

The chapters on cuneiform writing, commerce, the birth of trade, and the Sumerian education are especially fascinating. One of the most common archaeological finds are clay writing tablets that students used for practice. From these, we can glean much about how writing was taught, as well as what was taught. Another useful insight is that Mesopotamian language was a lot like ours. It depended heavily on context and inside cultural knowledge. In our time, a sign with a picture of a car can mean many things—a warning for pedestrians, or to mark a parking spot or a garage, and so on. Many cuneiform words were the same way. Their base-60 numbering system treated decimal places similarly—the only way to tell, say, 26 from 206 or 2,006 was context. One imagines this was grist for many a court case.

The famously severe legal codes of Hammurabi and other Mesopotamian figures had a similar lack of literalism. The more severe punishments, including a horrific precursor to Roman crucifixion, were either written down only to instill fear, or were carried out extremely rarely for the same reason. A Gary Becker-inspired economic analysis of how the severity and frequency of Mesopotamian punishments affected crime rates would make for an interesting historical study, though the data collection problems are rather obvious.

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

A history of science that is accessible to nearly everyone. This would be an excellent gift for a bright middle schooler or high schooler who is interested in science, or for adults who enjoy trivia. Bryson covers all the main sub-disciplines, including cosmology, geology, chemistry, biology, archaeology, anthropology, and more. He also tells some stories about the scientists behind many major discoveries, but without overdoing it—ahem, Neil Degrasse Tyson. The breadth comes at the expense of depth, but that is not the worst of sins for a book like this. Interested readers can find plenty of additional reading for topics that spark their interest.

Bryson is a bit of a sensationalist, leaning heavily on apocalyptic scenarios wherever possible, from the odds of meteor strikes to catastrophic earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. This worst-first tendency harms his credibility as a narrator and gives off a bit of a boy crying wolf vibe, but one understands the strategy as a way to create excitement for younger people and scientific novices.