To what do we owe our 20-pound Butterball turkeys, our high-definition TVs, our spacious and warm homes this Thanksgiving? Something that won’t be high on anyone’s list of things to be grateful for, but undergirds our way of life — a centuries-old economic revolution that changed the very terms of human existence.
In his eye-opening new book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, Gregory Clark produces a chart tracking income per person throughout history. By Clark’s account, it is essentially flat from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1800, reflecting the crushing burden of providing for our material wants in an environment of economic stasis. Then, income per person explodes upward around 1800, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution that first arrived in England. Without it, most of us would still be living poor, nasty, brutish and short lives.
How poor? “The average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 B.C.,” Clark argues. “Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: 30 to 35 years. Stature, a measure both of the quality of diet and of children’s exposure to disease, was higher in the Stone Age than in 1800. And while foragers satisfy their material wants with small amounts of work, the modest comforts of the English in 1800 were purchased only through a life of unrelenting drudgery.”
Throughout most of history, Clark argues, humankind was caught in a “Malthusian trap”: Small economic advances were outpaced by resulting population growth that made it impossible for living standards to increase. The massive productivity gains of the Industrial Revolution — driven essentially by expanding knowledge — broke the trap and created modern life as we know it.
“The richest modern economies are now 10 to 20 times wealthier than the 1800 average,” Clark writes. In these economies, it is the unskilled who have benefited most. “Unskilled male wages in England have risen more since the Industrial Revolution than skilled wages,” Clark writes, “and this result holds for all advanced economies.” There have always been very rich people. What’s changed in the past 200 years is the growth of wealth and its spread.
It all started in England, and there’s a roiling academic debate about why. Clark attributes it partly to the slow but sure spread of middle-class values in England: Literacy and numeracy increased, hours worked rose, and interpersonal violence declined.
In his new book “God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World,” Walter Russell Mead picks up the story from a geopolitical perspective. England embarked on its capitalist revolution at exactly the time when “the country that mastered this new system would gather rewards that far outstripped all the treasures of any empire in the past.” With that came world power. England reaped the benefits first, then its successor as a superpower, the United States.
The formulas for the two countries’ success have been the same: “An open, dynamic and capitalist society generated innovations in finance, technology, marketing and communications. Those innovations offered the open society enormous advantages in world trade. The wealth gained in this way provided the basis for military power that could withstand the largest and mightiest rival empires of the day.” The effect was to empower two liberal societies that had the wherewithal to beat back dictatorial challenges from continental Europe — from Napoleon’s France to Hitler’s Germany to Stalin’s Russia.
And so the miracle that started 200 years ago marches on. “Currently, industrial societies appear to be doubling their rate of technological progress every 10 years,” Mead writes. “If this continues, and there is every reason to suppose that it will, the 21st century will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of ‘normal’ human progress.”
So long as it remains an open and dynamic economy, the United States is positioned to stay at the heart of this progress. Thank goodness for that, and pass the drumstick.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate