Economic history of the world, short version

Diane Coyle 18 June 2018



First posted on: 

The Enlightened Economist, 25 May 2018

Daniel Cohen’s The Infinite Desire for Growth is a nice bird’s-eye view of the debated issues concerning economic growth from the dawn of civilisation to the present and future. Translated from the French, it starts with a rather masterly synopsis of the issues debated in some of the recent works on growth in the distant past, such as Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now, and some older ones like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and Joel Mokyr’s Gifts of Athena (not to mention French works I haven’t read). 

The first section covers the distant past up to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

The second part canters through some of the recent debates: the singularity, automation and robots, the stagnation versus measurement of digital debate, Piketty and inequality, and the vulnerability of the interconnected global economy to crisis and collapse. Cohen agrees with Robert Gordon‘s contention that innovation just ain’t what it used to be. There’s a final section with some reflections on culture, happiness (lack of), and the question of the demise of democracy. This cites Daniel Bell’s marvellous Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The question is whether our societies are capable of dealing with future upheavals —–be they tech related or a crisis of climate or contagion —–if growth has permanently slowed. I would say the conclusion here is a resounding ‘don’t know’. Which is fair enough.

All of this fits into 153 pages. I’m a bit of a fan of short books, so say this just to indicate the focal length here. The book kept me happily occupied for a 2 hour2-hourtrain ride. And it’s a real service to summarize some very chunky economic histories.

My main complaint —–which grew in force as I read on —–is that a book citing a vast literature only mentions three women’s names, one of them being Margaret Thatcher. The others are Esther Boserup (who gets a proper name check) and Sandra Black (in a footnote). Do women really have nothing to say about all of human (economic) history and the future economy?



Topics:  Economic history

Tags:  book review, economic history

Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge

CEPR Policy Research