Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Blogging at Its Best from Brad Delong

If you would like a quick, intelligent and sound account of 8,000 years of the political economy of the world, read Brad Delong’s short essay: “China and Economic Growth: Hoisted from the Archives (What I Am Thinking About Right Now Department)”, found here.

It is written in what I would call the Smithian tradition – the looking backwards to from when we came to understand why were are where we are now as a species, and what this means for our prospects in economics.

Here are the first two paragraphs (enjoy the rest of it):

Up until 8000 or so years ago, it was crystal-clear why humans should pursue greater wealth--understood as better spearheads, more knowledge of the local environment, and occupation and control of regions where game was abundant and nourishing plants plentiful. Back when our ancestors were hunter gatherers life was short--high infant mortality plus all the attendant risks of the hunting-and-gathering ecological niche--and quite brutish: low technological levels and being always on the move meant that levels of comfort were low, and the absence of literacy meant that the cultural depth and historical memory of the band could not grow very deep. Life before agriculture was not especially nasty: our hunter-gatherer ancestors were for the most part healthy, well-nourished, alert, and engaged for their short lives. But greater wealth for the band and the individual had very clear benefits: fewer of your babies died, you had a greater chance of living through the next winter, and you had a greater share of what comfort was attainable.

For all of the past 8000 years since the invention of agriculture, the benefits of pursuing greater wealth have been much, much greater than back in the hunter-gatherer days. For the vast majority of the human race, agriculture has been a poisoned cup. Malthusian population pressures have--until the last century or so--kept our numbers high enough relative to our technological expertise that the overwhelmingly large majority of humans have been close to the edge of starvation and well over the edge of malnutrition. If the typical adult male hunter-gatherer human grew to be 5'8", the typical adult male peasant-farmer human over the past several millennia has only grown to be 5'2"--or less. Here too the benefits of increasing wealth for the individual and the group are obvious: richer people have more food and a better diet; their children aren't as protein-deprived and so grow taller, stronger, and smarter; their ability to engage in conspicuous consumption via something as simple as having meat on the table gives them status and social power; plus they have access to the amazing depth of riches of human culture. The rich have enough food that they aren't hungry (and good-enough quality food that their brains and bodies can grow, and their immune systems remain strong), enough clothing that they aren't cold even in the winter, enough shelter that they are not wet, and enough literacy and access to culture that they are not bored

Good stuff, eh? The rest is soound thinking too, and it gets to China as well.


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