It always ends in statistics


Thanks to a coffee break with Benjamin Mitra-Kahn, I had already heard of this 2007 famous book on the “long” history (millenniums) of economic growth. The book, “A Farewell to Alms” by Gregory Clark, is now discussed in a symposium published in the August issue of the European Review of Economic History. I thought it was a good occasion to know more about this book – the issue is available for free on CUP until the end of the month. I started reading the rejoinder by Clark (or, how to learn about something by the very end of its tail).

Clark answers to the criticisms of three economic historians, McCloskey being one of them. In essence, Clark’s critics say that he is either wrong (like: he contradicts some of Angus Maddison’s figures) , or that what he says is just rewrapped well-known facts. McCloskey adds something else: that Clark commits social Darwinism.

Economic history has a long relationship with biology. Robert Fogel and Stanley Egerman, in their Time on the Cross (1974), already used measurements of protein intake to estimate the well-being of slaves, to reach the conclusion that “biologically speaking”, being a slave was not that harsh after all. The book caused a lot of stir as one can imagine. Paul David and Peter Temin wrote a lengthy review entitled “Slavery: The Progressive Institution?”. Basically, the reviewers had taken the time and effort to study in detail the 2nd volume of Fogel and Egerman’s book, where all their statistical work and various assumptions were compiled. After a very dense study (the review takes 45 pages of the JEH), David and Telmin concluded that fundamental assumptions were biased, and the results flawed.

The “technical statistical discussion” is the direction the debate on Clark’s book is taking: to answer McCloskey’s criticisms, Clark proposes a measurement of the degree of heredity of wealth. His few equations are simple, but they are the promise of surely loooong debates on the correctness of such or such method: Clark also mentions twin studies, another sure sign that economic history is now far behind, with statisticians in control. And if I judge from past intricate heated debates on wealth and inheritance in statistical economics, the result is that after a few ping-pong exchange, the wider audience gets bored and moves on.