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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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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 the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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 the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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Top customer reviews
Page 156: "Recent market history reinforces two notions: (1) in an economic state of nature, company managers will cheat shareholders, and (2) without vigorous regulatory oversight of the securities industry by the government, investors are loath to extend equity capital."
Page 176: "Today's libertarians forget that in underdeveloped nations (as the US was in the early nineteenth century), few are willing to lend to private enterprises. The state is often the only party able to attract capital at reasonable [interest] rates."
Page 192: "This link between individual liberty and scientific inquiry partly explains the paradox of how the US, with its narcissistic cult of the individual, continues to lead the world in scientific innovation, despite a deteriorating educational system."
Page 343: "We can conceive of a 'stability envelope' within which a society provides property rights and curbs taxation to the extent necessary to ensure growth of its economy, but not to the point where inequalities of wealth are extreme enough to create social and political instability. The United States appears to be cautiously probing the 'right edge' of that envelope, exploring just how much income and wealth inequality can be tolerated in the interest of encouraging optimum growth. The rest of the developed world seems to dwell on the 'left edge' of the envelope, determining just how much economic growth can be sacrificed in the name of encouraging optimum equality and happiness."
Thankfully, it is not a dense treatise like Wealth of Nations or The General Theory. Like most economics book, those require a strong commitment just to finish reading. They're academic, erudite and hard to digest. Worse, there's so few people I encounter in "normal life" that I could chat with about them. The Birth of Plenty is a book I can chat about with my neighbors and colleagues. The care of authorship and readability makes this book accessible to a much wider audience.
If I were stuck in a university class and required to write critically about this book, I'd take a good hard look at nations with standards of living in significant excess of subsistence and who seemingly lack at least one of the four chair legs (property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and rapid conveyance of information and goods). Qatar, UAE, USSR, and China all seem like good candidates. Property rights span the range between mediocre and non-existent, scientific rationalism is tolerable to varying degrees, yet each are/were prosperous nations. While I don't have a well thought out argument, I just can't shake the feeling that the 4-legged stool was the pre-drawn conclusion and there's more of the story to be told.