Monday, January 11, 2010

The Basics

"Thorstein Veblen" over at ECONOMISTS FOR FIRING LARRY SUMMERS is showing interest in development economics.  MUST encourage that sort of behavior.  So I posted the following:
A little off topic but I have been thinking a lot about your interest in development economics and whether one economics textbook is better than the other.
Most of these economics texts are damn near worthless (at best) and misleading and pernicious nonsense (at worst.) The fatal flaw most of them share is that they seem so clueless about how the industrial superpowers got the way they did. And face it, if you don't understand the "successes", there is NO possibility you can understand the "failures." And so a book on sub-Saharan problems of development is about as useless as the views of Victorian Protestant missionaries.
Which leads to recommendation #1. Get your arms around the basic facts of the Industrial Revolution. Yes, this is a HUGE topic but there are two utterly delightful books to use as a starting point. Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man" and James Burke's "Connections." Both are companion volumes to documentaries done for BBC / PBS. Yes they are British, but when it comes to the history of industrial development, it's a fine place to start. You can fill in the German and Japanese gaps later.
Then read Veblen's "Instinct of Workmanship." It was his magnum opus--by his own description his best book (by far!) And what I find so interesting about it is that he turns the newly-invented tools of cultural anthropology on the industrial explosion of capability that was happening all around him. Sort of a 1914 Burke and Bronowski from POV of the son of successful American pioneers.
And not to be too immodest, but I believe the first eight chapters of my "Elegant Technology" is a damn fine effort to describe industrial development. I have devoted most of my adult life to understanding how the industrialization of North America happened--mostly out of pure curiosity. A one point, I was actually granted a 19-claim product-by-process patent for my attempts to add a little bit to the industrial heritage of USA.

"Elegant Technology" is available as a .pdf file at my web site.

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