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Culture and Prosperity: The Truth About Markets - Why Some Nations Are Rich but Most Remain Poor Hardcover – May 25, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kay, an Oxford economist with a regular column in the Financial Times, tries to follow up on the success of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, but falls short of the mark (not to mention being perhaps a few years too late). The historical examples used to illustrate basic economic principles lack pizzazz, and hypotheticals meant to reflect contemporary individuals are equally stiff. Kay largely forgoes cultural analysis in order to meticulously define the most fundamental rules of market economies in the sort of dry academic prose that spends as much time announcing the contents of upcoming chapters as it does on dealing with the subject at hand. Eventually, Kay comes around to the suggestion that markets are successful when they are buttressed by strong institutions working together in "disciplined pluralism," but he never quite explains why some cultures are able to achieve and sustain such conditions while others aren't. He also points out that these ideal economic conditions are at some variance with the "American business model" of self-interested players operating with little government interference or taxation, but this is neither a new nor original observation. Though closing chapters do make a compelling argument for the supremacy of microeconomic analysis over sweeping macroeconomic theories, that simply isn't enough to propel the book ahead of better competitors with a long head start.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Kay, a British economist and columnist, offers insight into American economic life in relation to other economies. He contends that rich states, including the U.S., most European countries, Canada, and Japan, are the product of literally centuries of civil society, politics, and economic institutions all evolving together. He cites the lessons learned from the common characteristics of productive economies, which include the evolutionary development of market institutions, the need for these institutions to be integral to the social and political realities of the state, and pluralism (which he defines as the role of open debate and decentralized authority instead of central planning). We also learn what causes different levels of productivity in various countries; the fact that unrestrained greed and opportunism leads to poor countries, not rich ones; why the industrial revolution happened in Britain and not China; and why America is the showcase for capitalism and Russia currently is not. The author cautions, "markets work, but not always and not perfectly." Mary Whaley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: HarperBusiness; First Edition edition (May 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060587059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060587055
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #604,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

You need to change your thinking!
Donald Mitchell
This is perhaps a very controversial view and can generate a healthy debate.
B.Sudhakar Shenoy
Very interesting and engaging book, highly recommended.
Giovanni Polastri

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I am quite accustomed to having scholars in other fields point out the follies of most economic theories. Seldom have I seen the questioning sword come from an economist. The novelty was quite rewarding.

As Culture and Prosperity suggests, economics has a limited ability to predict and explain human behavior. Many other fields do better. One problem is that much economic analysis assumes what does not exist: everyone considers only economic factors in their decisions; perfect information exists; circumstances are in a stable state; and so forth. Many economists proudly proclaim that it doesn't matter whether or not their work predicts anything accurately or not. All that matters is that the math is correct.

In Culture and Prosperity, the nominal topic is explaining why people in some countries enjoy more prosperity than those in other countries. Actually, that subject takes up less than a quarter of the book. So if that's your main interest, you may find this book to be a little overkill.

To answer the question posed in the topic, you take a brief tour through the history of economic thought from Adam Smith through to the latest theorists and Nobel Prize winners in economics. If you find all of that more than you want to know, just pick up the argument in part five after reading the opening examples.

One of Professor Kay's strengths is that he uses interesting human examples to make his points. He also avoids math for those who find that challenging. Further, he minimizes the use of jargon. It's an unusually clear argument.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Harold McFarland HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on June 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The subtitle to this book describes the content succinctly - "Why Some Nations are Rich but Most Remain Poor". Author John Kay, a prominent British economist, postulates that one of the reasons is due to cultural factors. These cultural norms may both free and confine the society when it comes to prosperity. If international trade benefits both rich and poor countries then why do poor countries remain poor? In a brilliant exposition of economics he argues that it is not the free markets and constant search for materialistic acquisition that has made America prosperous but it is largely a factor of the various institutions we have in place. That is one reason why many countries have been unsuccessful in trying to emulate the American economic machine. If our success were based entirely on free markets then bringing them to other countries would allow them to prosper, but they often do not. If you were taught the traditional Adam Smith and Keynesian economic models you will be delighted with this additional perspective on the international market and why our models often don't work in other countries. By the same token the models that work in their cultures may not work at all in ours. A fascinating read and a fresh view of international economics, "Culture and Prosperity" is a highly recommended book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By B.Sudhakar Shenoy on August 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The title and the cover design of this book are extremely attractive. So are the introductory chapters that start with the description of the hypothesis based on the title. This evokes further interest and the soon we find ourselves reading topics that are a rare combination of economics, literature and culture.

There are examples of people in different continents whose income levels in dollar terms vary astronomically. Those who live in poor countries earn less despite good academic qualifications while even a not so educated farm worker in a rich country like Sweden is paid handsomely. The book attempts to solve this mystery.

There are only nineteen countries with a combined population of about 1 billion that are "rich". These countries spring back to prosperity within a short time even when they are flattened by bombs - Germany and Japan for example. It is interesting to note that these nineteen countries have many similarities - statistically atleast - in terms of economic policy, honesty of people, climate, etc. Switzerland tops this list. These "rich" countries are not dependent on their natural resources and have significant trade in value added products and services between them. The rest of the world is just not able to catch up. ( Even the oil kingdoms do not appear in the list of rich in terms of per capita GDP). The book goes on to explain that it is disciplined pluralism with a combination of economic, social and political institutions that is responsible for such success.

Let us then look at the "poor". Pakistan for example has nuclear weapons capability, but a weak public health care system. Can a nation boast of technology when people die from disease ?. This discussion goes on.
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Format: Hardcover
There have been many arguments put forward as to why some nations seem forever destined to remain poor and others, primarily European in cultural heritage, are prosperous. Those arguments range from the extreme believers in absolutely free markets as the reason for wealth to the relentless and continuous exploitation of the poor as the reason for poverty. As is nearly always the case when there are two extremes, the truth is somewhere in the middle, with each nation having different reasons for their economic performance. However, there are some general reasons, and Kay cites them with examples.
The first requirement for prosperity is a government whose members are not concerned solely with increasing their personal wealth. Although there are many others that he could have used, Kay cites the example of Joseph Mobutu in the Congo (Zaire). In terms of natural resources, the nation is extremely wealthy, but under Mobutu the country, with the exception of his cronies, was completely bankrupted. Kay also places a lot of blame on Western institutions that supported the Mobutu regime, lending billions of dollars that have largely vanished with no physical evidence remaining. Organized mineral production in the country has largely ceased.
In general, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa all suffer from the problem of greed and weak, incompetent government. In an excellent quote, Tom Friedman states, "Come to Africa- it's a freshman Republican's paradise. Yes, sir, nobody in Liberia pays taxes. There's no gun control in Angola. There's no welfare as we know it in Burundi, and no big government to interfere in the market in Rwanda. But a lot of their people sure wish there were." These examples also demonstrate that free markets are not the answer.
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