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Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World
Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World
Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
University of Chicago Press, 2010
592 pp., 50.00

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Andrew P. Morriss

The Bourgeois Revaluation

How the modern world came into being.

When you read Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, the second volume in a projected six-book series by economist Deidre McCloskey explaining the origins of the world we live in, you learn in the first nine pages that the average person anywhere in the world in 1800 consumed little. Not just less than we do today—our ancestors consumed tiny amounts in absolute terms. Expressed in modern prices and correcting for the cost of living, McCloskey puts average consumption throughout the world in 1800 at about $3 per day. A few consumed more, some consumed less, but around $3 per day was the total for food, housing, everything. Depressingly, almost everyone in 1800 would have expected his or her descendants long into the future also to consume about $3 per day, since almost everyone's ancestors had been consuming about $3 a day for as long as people had been around. There was much else wrong with the world in 1800—slavery was common, life expectancy short, famines frequent, illiteracy widespread, women oppressed—but the $3 per day figure captures a major part of why we should be glad we live today instead of then.

Fortunately for us, people in 1800 were wrong about their descendants' future. Life rapidly got much better. As McCloskey notes, people in France now consume about $100 per day; in the U.S., $120 per day; in Norway, $137 per day. True, people in China consume "only" about $13 per day; that's still much better than $3 per day and a four-fold increase in the thirty-five or so years since the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution is amazing. Moreover, of the 6.7 billion people in the world, 5.7 billion are doing extremely well by historical standards. Yes, the "bottom billion" are still stuck where everyone was prior to 1800, but the other 5.7 billion are much, much better off.

McCloskey begins Bourgeois Dignity by recounting these numbers (and quite a few more) to ask the question: What happened in 1800? Specifically, what ...

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