False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World, by Alan Beattie

Alan Beattie has a BA degree in history from Balliol Colege, Oxford, and a masters in Eeconomics from Cambridge. As of now, 2009, he is trade editor for the Financial Times.

The text of Beattie's economic history of the world is a mere 301 pages, which means his history is much more spotty than some other histories of the world. The dots he connects are few, described by one favorable reviewer at Amazon as "bits and pieces." Sequence has its revelations, and there is some sequence in his work. But the book is less a history than it is an economics lecture. It suggests a means to a society's economic success: avoid being too isolationist or completely self-sufficient; plan; don't copy what works for others who live with different circumstances but does not necessarily work for you; support property rights and the rule of law; don't let interest groups discourage beneficial development; and poorer nations should avoid customs procedures and corruption that discourages trade and investment.

Chapter 1 compares Argentina and the United States, from the 18th to the 21st century.

He writes that to New England came people with a "tradition of skilled farmers on small homesteads," and Argentina "had a history of a few rich landowners on great estates left by the Spanish, and the aristocratic elitism that came with it."

European emigrants to Argentina had escaped a landowning aristocracy at home only to re-create it in the New World.

In the early decades of agricultural commercialization – the 1860s and 1870s – "the landowners regarded rural life and the actual practice of agriculture with disdain."

A boom of exports from Argentina to Europe in the early 20th century put a lot of money in the hands of the owners of huge swaths of pasture. They spent it on imports or bought more land. Their badly paid employees did not get a the share of wealth that would have contributed to the kind of consumer-industrialization that was rising in the United States.

The same benefits that boosted farming in the U.S. also helped the U.S. to industrialize.

Chapter 2 is about cities and asks why Washington, D.C., did not institute voting.

Ancient Rome,"... a single city, could extract rent from half the civilized world. And that is what Rome became – a parasitic city of rentiers, bureaucrats, and hangers-on – as much as a center of commerce and industry."

"[Because] Rome was not about to set up an elaborate series of soup kitchens throughout Italy, the grain was distributed only to those who came to Rome to receive it... [T]he result: hordes of idle Romans hanging around the city, demanding welfare... 'bread and circuses.' The largesse was paid for by the conquered provinces."

"A successful city is a hard thing to build, and a world-class one even harder. But incompetent or wrongheaded governments have stunted and even destroyed so many in the past that complacency and fatalism in the face of urbanization are profoundly misplaced."

Chapter 3, Beattie asks why Egypt imports half its staple food.

Beattie rails against attempts at self-sufficiency. "The Philippines... grows rice expensively and inefficiently on mountain terraces, nonetheless announced its intention to become self-sufficient."

Egypt, the granary of the Roman Empire became the world's biggest importer of wheat.

Chapter 4 sets out to explain why oil and diamonds are more trouble than they are worth, from the 20th century.

Chapter 5 asks why Islamic countries do not get rich. He concludes:

Muslim societies can choose to succeed, just as Christian or Jewish socieities can, without sacrificing their belliefs. Relgion does not determine economic fate. Islamic countries can get rich. In fact, some do.

Beattie speaks of Confucianism not inhibiting economic development in some East Asian nations without making a distinction between the influence of Confucianism today and that of many centuries past.

He writes of inheritance rules "laid out clearly in the Koran" which may have created a greater equality but "made it difficult to create and sustain any large-sacel business partnership."

"European merchants were powerful enough to have inconvenient laws disposed of, even when that required changing the religious jusrtification of those laws." Their counterparts in Islamic societies were not powerful enough to have this done.

Chapter 6 asks why "our" asparagus comes from Peru.

Chapter 7 asks why Africa does not grow cocaine.

Chapter 8 asks why Indonesia prospered under a crooked ruler and Tanzania stayed poor under an honest one.

Chapter 9 compares pandas and domesticated cats and considers proper economic strategies.

In this chapter, Beattie describes Russia's monarchical past as combining an absolute right to rule and to confiscate property, "indeed, not even to recognize that anyone but the sovereign can fully own property." And he writes of the Mongols separating Russia from Western Europe while the Renaissance "fostered ideas of progress and intellectual diversity."

Chapter 10 is a conclusion which states that "our remedies oft in ourselves do lie."