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The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created Paperback – June 21, 2010


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (June 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0071747044
  • ISBN-13: 978-0071747042
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #253,972 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Rather than dry academic analysis, Bernstein, in his second book (after Four Pillars of Investing), has created a vital, living text-a cogent, timely journey through the economic history of the modern world. He identifies institutions ("the framework within which human beings think, interact and carry on business") as the engines of prosperity. Boiled down to four (property rights, the scientific method, capital markets and communications), these institutions come from ideas and practices that bubbled forth over the course of hundreds of years. Bernstein is clear in explaining that the civilizations that develop and implement these systems thrive, and that those that do not, perish. The Spanish empire, for example, had most of these but lacked effective capital markets. When the gold from the New World dried up, the empire essentially went broke. By 1840 the British had all of these institutions in place, economic growth exploded and the lot of the common man was immensely improved. Today, the U.S. faces the challenge of sustaining prosperity in the face of rapid technological change. Though fairly Eurocentric in focus, Bernstein's narrative tracks the development of these essential ingredients to prosperity over a global landscape-the great dynasties of China get plenty of attention here, as do the Japanese. Solid writing and poignant assessments of the economic players throughout time give texture and flavor to Bernstein's argument: he describes the medieval relationship between the various European kingdoms and the Vatican as "a holy shakedown racket." Packed with information and ideas, Bernstein's book is an authoritative economic history, accessible and thoroughly entertaining.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

With the advent of computers, we tend to think that technology is changing at a more rapid pace than ever. Bernstein, a noted financial expert, reminds us that the invention of the locomotive and the telegraph prior to 1850 had a much greater impact on the lives and well-being of the people of that era. According to his analysis, there was little change in the world's standard of living from the dawn of recorded history all the way to 1820, with technological progress moving in reverse as often as forward. In a very solid review of economic history, Bernstein examines the four factors that fell into place to create a formula for human progress: property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and transportation and communication. From the rise of common law to the invention of the steam engine, from the creation of currencies to shipbuilding, this is an in-depth history of the rise of prosperity. It is topical, as well, examining the impact of economic progress on "happiness," trends in income inequality, and the opposing views of the Christian and Muslim mindsets. David Siegfried
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

William Bernstein, Ph.D., M.D., is a retired neurologist in Oregon. Known for his website on asset allocation and portfolio theory Efficient Frontier, Dr. Bernstein is also a co-principal in the money management firm Efficient Frontier Advisors, has authored several best-selling books on finance and history, and is often quoted in the national financial media.

Customer Reviews

Very well written, interesting and informative.
Merrell T. Denison
At times a little more optimistic than most economic historians...but, hey, it does seem plausible!
David S. Wellhauser
I read this book from the library about seven years ago.
richard g cannell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

250 of 272 people found the following review helpful By Richard Hershberger on September 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
There really is quite a bit good about this book. For one thing, it is very readable. Economic history is not usually regarded as a subject for a real page-turner, but Bernstein manages to come close. For another thing, his economics is solid. He is, as one would expect of a working investment advisor, a free market economist, but he isn't an ideologue. He recognizes that there is more to life than the free market. So he can point out, p. 270, that under Meiji Japan the landlord-tenant system was economically efficient yet a social disaster. And he writes, p. 339, that "History teaches that significant wealth inequality is not as benign as a moderately uncomfortable tax burden is." One of those three stars is for that sentence alone.

So why only three stars? Because economic history needs both good economics and good history: Bernstein's history is very bad indeed.

The first thing that jumps out is how Bernstein relies on popular histories. When he discusses the Middle Ages, for example, he repeatedly cites Barbara Tuchman's _A Distant Mirror_. That is a very good popular history of 14th century northern France. She used scholarly sources, which in turn used original period sources. But this is another way of saying that what we get from Bernstein is three steps removed from concrete facts to ever vaguer generalization, rather like repeatedly photocopying a document. Statements about one place and time get turned into statements about Europe in the Middle Ages. When you deal in vague generalizations you can make the history fit any desired mold. Anyone claiming to have a brilliant historical insight should at least read actual historians.
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Gaetan Lion on July 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
William Bernstein is an excellent economics and business writer. Bernstein has the ability to teach and write about technical concepts in the most accessible way. "The Birth of Plenty" is no exception. This book covers such a breadth of subjects regarding economics, political science, history from the antiquity to nowadays.

His theory is not unique. The countries who prosper are the ones who give their citizen the right to own their property, to communicate freely with each other, to practice the scientific method to replace outdated traditional knowledge, and to take business risk with other people's money. In summary, the countries who prosper are the ones who allow individuals to reap the fruits of their risk-taking efforts. These are not new and original ideas.

After all, there is a long list of economics writers who pretty much said the same thing starting with Adam Smith back in 1776 in the "Wealth of Nations." More recently, Hernando de Soto wrote about the exact same subject in "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else." Also, David Landes' book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor" adopts the exact same theory as Bernstein's. My list could go on an on. This is because it is a subject that fascinates and never gets exhausted.

Even though all the above books are excellent and some are true classics in comparative international economics, Bernstein's book shines because it is so much more readable, accessible, and entertaining to read. While the others come across as dull economics professors, Bernstein comes across as an incredibly lively journalist. He turns his treaty on economics history into a real page turner giving David Browne's "Da Vinci Code" a run for his money [in the page turning department]. Thus, by reading this book you will learn just as much if not more than the other books I have mentioned, and you will have so much more fun.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Frances Goodkins on April 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Normally, I read histories, but not economic books. This one first caught my attention with its title and then its cover. From the very beginning I was seduced by the clarity of the prose and the unique perspective this book offers on our past development and future prospects. Bernstein explains his theories and illustrates them with case studies of Holland, England, Spain, France, and Japan, followed by the Ottoman Empire and an overview of Latin America. Essentially this book explains why we, the United States and other English speaking countries, have wealth and so many other countries do not. Not content to rest there, Bernstein discusses if this wealth makes us happy and its relationship to democracy. While this is much to absorb, the writing style flows smoothly and the historical sweep is dazzling.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The previous reviewer praises Peter Bernstein (a favorite of mine too, and not related to William Bernstein); here's what Peter Bernstein says about this new book (at his web site):
"Bill Bernstein's erudite history of the causes and consequences of growth grasps the main issues and keeps them up front all the way through. This book is a great magnifying glass for studying the complex world of today."
I agree- I think The Birth of Plenty is one of the most important books of the year, and I recommend it highly to anyone trying to understand our time.
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27 of 33 people found the following review helpful By "acschwartz265" on April 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The previous reviewer and I seem not to have read the same book. Nowhere does Bernstein state that all four factors had their origins around 1820-his history of property rights, which dates back to prehistoric times, is very simply the best that I have read anywhere. Nor do I know of any economic authority who doubts that the improvements in property rights in Northern Europe were a major cause of its prosperity, not the other way around. The reviewer, who touts his historical expertise, also seems unaware that Da Gama's most celebrated voyage of discovery took place during the fifteenth century, not the sixteenth.
Both the general reader, as well as historians and economists, will find Bernstein's four-factor paradigm invaluable in understanding how the world arrived in its present state. His prose is lively, and given the weight of the subject, goes down like fine claret. You don't even have to take my word for it-according to the April 5 edition of Publishers Weekly, "Packed with information and ideas, Bernstein's book is an authoritative economic history, accessible and thoroughly entertaining."
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