Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Farewell to Alms

Last week the NY Times' estimable Nicholas Wade had a review of a new book by economic historian Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Apparently the crux of the book deals with how the English economy was able to benefit from technological change during the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th Century. Clark seems to move from economics into anthropology and genetics to explain the behavior shifts in the English population that allowed them to take advantage of the new technologies. He studied historic wills in England from the 1200 - 1800 period to come up with this information:

"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. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes."

Though the book isn't available until next month, Clark is already being roundly attacked for advocating Social Darwinism. I will reserve my judgements until I read the book, but I have a tendency to wince when economists venture outside of economics. We had quite a bit of fun a couple of years ago with an economist who insisted that Paleoindian hunting of Pleistocene megafauna was the result of "accidental encounters" - something you could believe only by ignoring the entire archaeological record on the subject.

Clark is doing innovative and provocative research. The first issue that occurs to me is how accurate is his data. How many poor people actually wrote wills in the period he studied? Does his sample really represent the family sizes of poor people? I look forward to reading if and how he addresses this issue.

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