Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius brings to life most of the leading economic thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Industrial Revolution, for example, inspired Charles Dickens, in contrast to Carlyle and Mill who were pessimistic about the progress of the new industrial society, to write that “we have risen slowly, painfully, and with many a hard struggle out of all this social degradation and ignorance”. This was the shocking realisation of the mid-nineteenth century: that you could improve your own material condition, and so could your children, and their children.
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Jan Luiten van Zanden recently published what I think is an important contribution to the discussion about the future direction of economic history research. His main point is that too much of recent research has focused on those factors that have had a causal, long-run impact on development outcomes today. Think, for example, of Nathan Nunn’s work on slavery, showing convincingly that the slave trades had the largest detrimental impact in those areas where most slaves originate from (Nunn 2008). Or, for an even more long-term causal link, Ashraf and Galor (2011) show that “in the course of the exodus of Homo sapiens out of Africa, variation in migratory distance from the cradle of humankind to various settlements across the globe affected genetic diversity and has had a long-lasting effect on the pattern of comparative economic development that is not captured by geographical, institutional, and cultural factors”. In short: our level of income today is determined to some extent by how far our Kenyan ancestors walked. Seriously?
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