New book - "A Farewell to Alms"

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New book - "A Farewell to Alms"

Post by blacktupelo » Tue Aug 07, 2007 6:52 pm

That's the title of a new book by Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis. The New York Times has an article about the book available here.

From the article:
Dr. Clark believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.
It will be interesting to compare and contrast the ideas in this book with William J. Bernstein's "The Birth of Plenty".

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Post by asset_chaos » Thu Aug 09, 2007 7:31 am

Haven't read the book, but for at least 3 of the 4 "values" I don't see how to ascribe any sort of step change to them around 1800.

long working hours. No newly minted factory worker worked longer hours or harder than an agricultural peasant. And it's still true today. Generally a third-world poor person works hard from sun up to sun down just to barely get enough food to try again tomorrow. Generally the modern peasant works much harder and longer than me or you or anyone who reads this board. That they're still poor seems attributable to something other than hard work.

willingness to save. I'm dubious. Every ancient culture I've read---Roman, Greek, ancient Hebrew, colonial American---contains many exhortations to thriftyness. Maybe peasants lived so much hand to mouth that they couldn't save until the industrial revolution started the long road to mass affluence: an individual must first have a surplus before it can be saved. But I'd need a heap of hard data to convince me that there was a step change in attitude around 1800 that thrift is generally a good thing.

non-violence. I'd debate whether that's a virtue, but I'm hard pressed to see the evidence that it's a mass virture today, much less several hundred years ago.

literacy. This one makes sense. The idea that a more general class of people than just aristocracy ought to be educated did take hold around that time.

On the other hand, the book review from the times may just be bad.
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A Farewell to Alms

Post by Bill Bernstein » Sat Aug 11, 2007 7:08 pm


I'll be reading Professor Clark's book with the most intense of interest as soon as it arrives in the mail. I actually used some of his data in "Birth of Plenty," and have the greatest of admiration for his work. If he believes that there's a genetic component to the story, then I think that anyone at all interested in the origins of modern prosperity should take that hypothesis seriously.

Certainly, an institutional and a genetic explanation are not at all mutually exclusive; obviously, the hereditary aspects of behavior can have profound effects on institutions. Example: it is difficult to imagine voters in, say, Minnesota re-electing someone like Edwin Edwards, as Louisianans did. There is little question in my mind that Minnesota is a wealthier state than Louisiana for just this reason.

What, then, is it that makes Minnesotans less tolerant to corruption than Louisianans? Is it all environmental and cultural, or is there a genetic component as well? Is it possible that psychologists and geneticists will, sooner than we think, identify an "indignation gene?" My guess is yes.

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Re: A Farewell to Alms

Post by White Coat Investor » Sat Aug 11, 2007 8:02 pm

wbern wrote:I actually used some of his data in "Birth of Plenty," and have the greatest of admiration for his work.

Good to see you posting here. I've enjoyed your writings tremendously.
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Post by Alex Frakt » Sun Aug 12, 2007 12:19 am

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, , but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

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.
Assuming these behavioral changes really happened, it's a large and - to my mind - unwarranted leap to suggest a "genetic" basis for what could so easily be explained by cultural differences. Lessons about the importance of thrift and planning for the future are easily passed from generation to generation.

Nature or nurture aside, the central hypothesis that downwardly mobile gentlemen were responsible for changes in middle class behavior suggests an interesting corollary that would explain why the Industrial Revolution took off in England instead of the more technically advanced France. The English preference for primogeniture, in which estates (and the agricultural rents that supported them) passed whole to the eldest son (or closest male descendent), instead of being split amongst all surviving children meant there was a steady supply of younger sons who had a noble upbringing but were forced to seek their own fortunes. The army (officer class), church and government were the traditional destinations of second and even third sons where the family could afford the entrance costs. In these posts they presumably would have a chance of salutarily affecting the lower classes with these strange ideas of thrift and forebearance. The less fortunate were forced into trade where education and the ability to plan ahead would be of great advantage.

Kipling would be so proud.


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Post by grumel » Sun Aug 12, 2007 1:01 am

Theres a nice sideeffect from every genectic explanation. They alow to justify social selection in educational systems, careers and even betweeen countries .

But only a fool could think this has anything to do with the warm welcome of such science. The degree to which genetic factors explain human behaviours - just in my unscientific feeling correlates highly with the prevailing political forces.

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Post by LarryG » Sun Aug 12, 2007 7:05 am

Another effect from the changes of the hard working, poorly fed, population to those enjoying excess refined foods available with little physical labor is the exploding epidemic of type 2 diabetes.

In 1990 only 4 states in the USA had an incidence of diabetes over 6%. By 2010 the projected incidence for all 50 states is over 10%.

I am not aware of the change from 1800 to the present, but I suspect that it would be extremely large.

That is a true growth industry.

Larry G.

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