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A History of the Global Economy: 1500 to the Present

Editor(s):Baten, Joerg
Reviewer(s):La Croix, Sumner

Published by EH.Net (January 2017)

Joerg Baten, editor, A History of the Global Economy: 1500 to the Present.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  xiv + 369 pp. $40 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-107-50718-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sumner La Croix, Department of Economics, University of Hawaii-Manoa.

In the past two years, there has been a boomlet in global economic histories targeted to a variety of audiences.  They include a handbook oriented towards academics and graduate students (Francesco Boldizzoni and Pat Hudson, editors, Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History (2016)) and two books more oriented to undergraduates and a general audience (Robert Allen, Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction (2015) and Larry Neal and Rondo Cameron, A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present, fifth edition (2015)). A new addition to this field is A History of the Global Economy, a collection of 32 essays edited by Joerg Baten (University of Tübingen), which provides a sweeping introduction to the history of the global economy from 1500.  The volume was commissioned by the International Economic History Association and the editor states that his aim is to organize a “non-Eurocentric history” that presents “economic history in a balanced way.”  The volume is anchored by essays on ten regions that each have “circa 500 million inhabitants today,” although it might have been useful to split the Southeast-Asia-Australia-New Zealand region into two parts given the disparate development paths of economies in Southeast Asia and Australasia.  The regional essays are supplemented by “interlinking notes” that summarize critical debates among economic historians and “take a global perspective” on “core indicators” of development and growth and “highlight notes” that consider particularly interesting puzzles and topics. Senior scholars specializing in each region have written the ten anchor essays, while some of the most distinguished economic historians (e.g., Jeffrey Williamson and Steven Broadberry) were recruited to write some of the interlinking and highlight notes.

Anchor chapters are by Jan Luiten van Zanden (North-western Europe), Joerg Baten (Southern, eastern, and central Europe), Price Fishback (United States and Canada), Luis Bértola and José Antonio Ocampo (Latin America), Osamu Saito (Japan), Debin Ma (China), Rima Ghanem and Joerg Baten (Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia), Tirthankar Roy (South Asia), Martin Shanahan (Southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand), and Gareth Austin (Sub-Saharan Africa).  Each author makes a sustained effort to incorporate four measures of the “core dimensions of development” into their analysis: Gross domestic product per capita, height as an indicator of health and the quality of nutrition, basic numeracy as an indicator of education, and the Polity IV index as an indicator of democracy.  Baten argues that while these measures are not available for all regions and times, they are sufficiently available to allow the reader to compare the welfare of populations across regions over at least some of the four dimensions.  The core dimensions of development are presented in each chapter via a unified set of figures and maps.  Another common set of nicely-conceived maps is used to identify directions and compositions of trade flows within and across regions, centers of economic activity in each region, and specialization in production within regions.

One of the strengths of this book is that the text is kept to a manageable length of 355 pages, but this also means that some important topics receive sparse coverage.  For example, the chapter on North-western Europe devotes no space to cataloging major inventions of the industrial revolution while devoting considerable space to more general interpretations of its origins.  Not much space is devoted in any of the chapters to national or international macroeconomic policy.  Instead the emphasis is placed on broader demographic trends, market integration and international trade, and institutional change.  The chapter on Japan is lucid and informative on the 1500-1868 period, but then provides just two pages of analysis for the 1868-2010 period.  This is unfortunate, as a more complete discussion of Japan’s rapid pre-World War II development, its post-war economic miracle, and subsequent stagnation over the 1990-2010 period would surely have been of great interest to many readers.  The effects of war receive little attention except in the U.S./Canada essay.  All that aside, some of the missing topics are filled in by the ten highlight notes and the twelve interlinking notes.  Examples of topics covered by the notes include brain drain from India, the Sputnik shock, the natural resource curse in Latin America, trade and poverty in the third world, women in global economic history, Alfred Chandler’s insights into business history, state finances in civil wars, and Japanese industry during the Second World War.

In sum, Joerg Baten has brought together some of the best people in the field of economic history, and they have written a great set of essays that is surprising unified by the questions they consider as well as by the use of core indications of development and a unified set of maps and figures.  The book is particularly noteworthy for its avoidance of economic jargon and its clear writing.  Authors avoid extensive citation of sources in the text, keep footnotes to a minimum, and provide a brief list of references for each chapter. Students in an introductory or upper-division course in global economic history could easily digest its contents while specialists in economic history could also benefit from reading this volume, as its regional syntheses incorporate the larger literature on regional and economic growth that has emerged in the last 25 years.

Sumner La Croix is the author (with Alan Dye) of “The Political Economy of Land Privatization in Argentina and Australia, 1810-1850,” Journal of Economic History 73(4), 2013.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII