The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some Are so Poor by David S. Landes

publication date: 1999
pages: 531 (not including back matter)
ISBN: 0-393-31888-5

This book existed on a spectrum of poor writing. At best, David S. Landes’s writing was imprecise; at worst, it was racist. At its most average, it was merely inaccurate. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes attempted to explain, through a historical lens, the current economic circumstances of different nations. In his mind, these nations could most easily be split into the “West” and the “Rest.”

The best thing I can say about this book is Landes clearly had a lot of knowledge rattling around in his head. He shared detailed facts ranging from the most plentiful agricultural products in 18th century England, to the ships and sailors that roamed the Indian Ocean before England established its dominance in that region. However, that’s about all the good I can say about the book. There were just so many problems.

A very basic issue was that Landes rarely provided numbers to support his assertions. Further, when he did provide numbers, he didn’t provide the sources or the sources were vaguely defined. As an example, here is a passage discussing the income gap between countries:

Is the gap still growing today? At the extremes, clearly yes. Some countries are not only not gaining; they are growing poorer, relatively and sometimes absolutely. Others are barely holding their own. Others are catching up.

What an unhelpful passage. What are these countries? Where did you get these ideas?

Next is an example of Landes’s writing that falls on the spectrum I was discussing above. His language was probably just imprecise, but it could be that Landes actually believed what he was writing, in which case he was obviously inaccurate. In this passage, Landes was discussing the health problems that exist in tropical regions. He concluded his discussion with this ridiculous sentence: “The very existence of a specialty known as tropical medicine tells the character of the problem.” Ah yes, much like the existence of gynecology shows how inhospitable and unhealthy vaginas are.

Here is a passage that exemplifies when Landes’s writing would fall somewhere in between inaccurate and racist. In this instance he was discussing how Europe contained diverse people throughout its history, in contrast to other regions in the world.

Europe, in contrast, did not have all its eggs in one basket. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol invaders from the Asian steppe made short work of the Slavic and Khazar kingdoms of what is now Russia and Ukraine, but they still had to cut their way through an array of central European states, including the new kingdoms of their predecessors in invasion – the Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgars – before they could even begin to confront the successor states of the Roman empire.

The implication of his discussion was that other regions, such as Asia, the Americas, and Africa, did not have a diverse group of peoples. I’m no historian, but just a quick check of Wikipedia shows this discussion to be inaccurate. (Asia, South America, Africa)

I have so many more examples of poor and frustrating writing from this book. But I think I’ve made my point. So I will only add one more comment: about the glowing reviews on the book’s jacket. I don’t understand how anyone who read the full 532 rambling and sometimes incoherent pages of this book could enjoy it or find it helpful. The only thing I can think is the reviewers read only a synopsis and brief passage.

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book, which are somehow positive:

New York Times
University of California at Los Angeles
goodreads

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