Niall Ferguson: Civilization – Is the West History? Medicine

European imperialism gets a bad press these days.  Somehow, world domination just doesn’t seem to be regarded as a valid goal any more.  But when European rule was at its height in Africa, there was an argument that it was a force for good.   It had the mission of civilising the world.  And as the Africans were the most savage, they were naturally the most in need of being civilised.

No empire in history tried as hard to run a civilising mission as the French.  They had originally gone to Africa attracted by the profits available from slavery.  But come the French Revolution there was an outbreak of idealism.  The slaves were freed.  Some were even given the vote.  In Senegal, France’s black subjects went from slaves to French citizens.  Even an African army was created.

The process opened doors to individual Africans in ways that rather undermine the idea of colonial empires being designed purely to oppress the natives.   There was even a black deputy in the French Parliament by 1914 – the grandson of a slave was helping give laws to the French themselves.  This comes as something of a jolt.  We after all, are supposed to be the enlightened liberal ones.  Racist attitudes belong in the past surely.  Well we’ll get onto that a bit later.  First there is another benefit of colonialism to look at.
The biggest issue for the majority of Africans was not political influence but health.  Life expectancy on the African continent was a fraction of that for Europeans – and that gap still exists today.  The gap is being narrowed by the  huge amount of aid that is given to Africa to improve facilities and to provide medicine.  It is often forgotten is that this process actually started in the colonial period.

There was a bit of self interest in this.  Disease was one of the biggest obstacles to European rule.   When the first yellow fever vaccine was developed in a microbiology lab in Senegal, one of the consequences was to widen the range that white men could safely travel and so help with further conquests.

The scramble of the European powers for Africa was certainly motivated by conquest.  But the conquerors took their medical knowledge with them and shared them with their new subjects.  Traditional health options had been limited to witch doctors: great for ethnic authenticity but with a low success rate.  Modern medicine and health practices started the improvement in life expectancy in Africa.   In 1905 the French even set up the world’s first national health service in Senegal. As Niall points out, there were measurable benefits to colonial rule.
It didn’t go that smoothly though.  Although there might be a case to be made that Africans were benefitting from French rule, the Africans themselves were keen to maintain an open mind on the matter.  For example, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Senegal was treated in the most up to date scientific knowledge which involved destroying infected buildings.  The owners didn’t follow the logic and it led to the first general strike in colonial history.
With the turn of the century a more sinister strand of scientific thought came to influence the approach of Europeans to Africans.  Germany at the time led the world in science.  One of the ideas that was current was that of eugenics.  This had been pioneered by Francis Galton who was basically applying lessons learned from the work on evolution of his cousin Charles Darwin.  If our adaptations are down to our genes, and that these adaptations are what leads to progress, does it not make sense to take seriously the effects of genes and to look for ways to optimise the gene pool?

These ideas were prevalent throughout Europe, but fell on particularly fertile soil in Germany.  They chose to put them into practice in their newly acquired colony of Namibia in Africa.  In Namibia the German colonists treated the supposedly inferior Herero natives as little better than animals, even simply shooting them if they got in their way.  In the end this led to a revolt.  The revolt was put down with extreme severity.  The Germans using mortars and machine guns had little difficulty in expelling the tribe of the Heraro into the desert where they were herded into concentration camps.  Genocide had arrived in the twentieth century.  Out of 80,000 Heraro at the time of the revolt only 15.000 survived.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the corpses were used for ‘biological racial research’.  The findings when published discovered that negro blood was inferior and should not be mixed with European blood.

But the supposedly superior Westerners were soon showing anything but racial superiority during the First World War.  This huge civil war within western civilisation led to the biggest river of blood the world had ever seen.  France in particular was being bled dry. The French were soon so short of manpower that they needed Africans to fight for them.  They offered French citizenship in return. The offer proved popular. The French had picked up the eugenics bug too, but as the French often do they came up with their own twist.  Their research had indicated that the less developed nervous systems of the Africans made them less susceptible to both pain and fear.  They were therefore ideal infantry material.
In 1917 this was put to the test and the Senegalese were pitted against the Germans.  But the Senegalese were deployed as canon fodder to spare French losses, so the Germans didn’t have what might have been a useful lesson in suffering defeat at the hands of supposedly racially inferior troops.   In fact by contrast, it fuelled the further development of racial theories.  Surveys of captured Senegalese prisoners of war were used in the production of eugenics textbooks.  These were later to give rise to the awful consequences in World War Two.  We all know the horrors that that led to.

So what did I make of this programme?   It was as ever interesting and engaging.  Some very good points were made.  But it wasn’t remotely what it was billed as.  What was the role of medicine in the triumph of the West?  Well all we learned was that it helped in the colonisation of Africa. A bit.   Though on the evidence presented it would be just as reasonable to conclude that it was the colonisation of Africa that helped the development of medicine.

It is good to be reminded of a few key points that are obvious enough when you think about them, but which it is tempting not to think about.  Racism is not some hangover from the distant past that we have now grown out of.  It was an offshoot of scientific thought at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Eugenics was not a minority viewpoint of a few fanatics, it was the mainstream.  And when you look at it, it isn’t even that unreasonable given the state of scientific knowledge at the time.  Certainly it was advocated by some pretty talented people.  And it had a real influence on history and people’s behaviour.  And that influence was just about as bad as it was possible to be.  Even if it had just been the unfortunate Herero tribesfolk that would have been bad enough.  It isn’t reason to fall out of love with science and progress, but it is reason to think things through.  Niall slipped in a sly dig at the believers in man made climate change at one point.  I believe in man made climate change but I hate it when its supporters use the ‘all scientists agree that it must be true’ line.  All scientists have agreed on things that have been disastrously wrong before.

Final verdict – good show and well worth watching.  Please get around to making the one that would have actually fitted into the series.  That would have been good too.

I have got quite a lot of coverage of Niall Ferguson now.  You may find these links interesting.

Civilization – Is the West History Part 1 Competition

Civilization – Is the West History Part 2 Science

Civilization – Is the West History Part 3 Property

Nial Ferguson – For or Against?

Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo (thanks to Wikipedia for image)

If you are going to write a book proposing that giving aid to Africa is a bad idea, you are going to find it much easier to do if you are African.  If you are an African with a very solid background in economics so much the better.  As it happens Dambisa Moyo is ideally placed.  She was born in Zambia and has studied at several top UK and US universities and worked at Goldman Sachs.  So she can say things that a European or an American might find it much harder to say.

This book is a very clear minded look at the problem of how to help Africa out of the poverty from which it has been trying to emerge since the end of the colonial era in the fifties and sixties.  The thesis is that far from being helpful, aid has actually hindered development in Africa.  We are invited to look at the the history of aid.  Billions of dollars have been spent.   Little has been achieved.  And that giving aid can actually be harmful isn’t the only notion that gets a good kicking in its pages.

First off – is democracy a good thing?  Yes of course, that is something we all believe in.  So isn’t it right to push for democratic governments in Africa?  Not really.  It turns out that if you look at how long a democratic regime lasts, its life span is highly dependent on the country’s per capita income.  In poor countries democracy doesn’t last long.  And it certainly isn’t the case that the most democratic countries have the fastest growth rates.  But it is the case that rich countries are more likely to be democratic than poor ones.  So it looks like the best way to encourage democracy is simply to make countries richer.  Adding strings to aid packages probably won’t help much and will appear patronising.

Aid itself, even in the best case, can be counter productive.  Moyo illustrates this with a hypothetical example.  A small African company makes mosquito nets, but too few of the population can afford them to seriously hold back malaria.  An aid donor comes in to solve this problem by funding the free distribution of mosquito nets.  This solves the problem for a while but in the process puts the local manufacturer out of business.  The anti malaria programme is now totally dependent on aid because there is no longer a home grown supplier.

But it gets worse.  If the government can rely on aid it doesn’t have to tax its population, so it no longer has a direct interest in the well being of its own economy.  Of course we’d all like to believe the politicians would still be motivated by patriotism and idealism.  But we are relying on their good character, not their self interest.

And realistically we know that not everyone who goes into public service does so in the public interest.  For the light fingered statesman, siphoning off aid into their own pocket is easy.  It is a lot easier to rob a distant donor than someone who is actually on the spot.

So has the huge quantities of aid given to Africa helped or hindered the development of the continent? With so many billions of dollars expended over such a long time it is hard to believe that it can have actually been harmful to the people receiving it. But this is indeed the case.  And many of the people involved in the process, people like World Bank officials for instance, know this full well. 

What are the alternatives?  Leaving Africa undeveloped doesn’t sound like a great deal for its inhabitants.  And it isn’t realistic.  With the population of the planet set to hit 9 billion by 2050 we need the food that African farmers can produce.  They must have access to the technology they need to increase food production.  And once they have produced it, they must be able to sell it on the world market at a price that makes it worth their while.

While aid is superficially attractive Moyo argues that the discipline imposed by raising money in the bond market where investors expect to see a return on their investment gives much better outcomes in the long run.  Or even the short run.  The few African countries that have chosen to raise money on the bond markets have had success in doing so.  But all the time aid is available governments can take the easy way out and avoid the hard work of making investments productive.

China is proving to be a much stronger help to African development than aid from the West.  The Chinese arrive with a different agenda.  They want Africa’s resources and are willing to pay for them.  They see clearly enough that to do this effectively they need to do more than just write cheques.  They are investing in the infrastructure as well, and offering educational opportunities to Africans in China. Africa has what China needs: China can offer what Africa wants.   And they are doing it with an aim in mind, to develop Africa’s economy to make it possible to use the resources to help the Chinese economy grow.  They don’t have the moral hang ups that Western aid donors have about human rights and promoting environmentally friendly policies, so they are easier to deal with.  Moyo has no trouble at all in titling a chapter ‘The Chinese are our Friends.’

Trade is the most reliable way to generate a sustainable economy, whether with China or anyone else.  It is here that we find the biggest obstacles.  Both America and Europe protect their markets and subsidise their farmers, locking out the much poorer farmers of Africa.  It has always struck me as perverse that sugar is so cheap in my local supermarket.  We all know how unhealthy a sugar rich diet is.  Shouldn’t the government interfere with the workings of the free market.  Increase the price of sugar to decrease the amount of obesity I have thought to myself.

It hadn’t crossed my mind that the free market was already being interfered with to prevent farmers in Africa competing.  African countries raise trade barriers against each other as well, so the desire to help your own producers out is a pretty universal one.   The biggest eye opener of the book for me was how similar the amount of aid given to Africa is to how much it loses through trade barriers.  That certainly puts a very different perspective on aid.

In summary, the take home message of the book is that Africa needs not aid but a leveling of the playing field on which it trades.  If aid is phased out while freer trade policies are brought in, Africa has the resources to respond and start its long delayed catch up with the rest of the world.  The Chinese approach of investing in the continent for profit has turned out to be a better one than the superficially more moral Western one.

The tone and structure of the book is a little confused.  The argument isn’t well developed – you get most of the points in the first couple of chapters and subjects are tackled at different levels.  She often slips into  economist jargon.  This makes bits of it hard work for non-specialists, but it can be interesting.  Do you know what fungible means?  I didn’t and had to look it up.  But she also explains some things about international finance in some detail in plain language which is really good for a general reader.   It isn’t that Moyo is confused about the point she is making,  she is very clear on that.  But I think she hasn’t decided whether this is an academic book or a popular book.  I think she could have written either or preferably both to very good effect. It is an important subject and one that deserves a wider audience.  It would be great if she could do a version of this book that can be read easily by non-economists.  In the mean time don’t let this last minor criticism put you off, this one is well worth putting the effort into reading.

Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Property

I was a bit disappointed with the episode on science last week, but this one was back on form.  There isn’t as much to say this time.  He looked at the histories of North and South America after colonisation by Europeans.  The Spanish seized all the land, enslaved the inhabitants and created a society where a small number of people owned nearly everything.  The natives were left without economic and political rights.  They remain poor to this day.

In North America by contrast the land was granted to a much larger group of people, and with land came the right to vote.  The United States was to become the world’s first property owning democracy.  It did very well out of it.  The fate of the native North Americans was not mentioned.  They obviously did not get to participate very much in either the property or the democracy.  African Americans were also excluded from the democracy bit.  Their role in the property side of the equation was to actually be property.

So, swings and roundabouts then.

Niall Ferguson was pretty clear though, that for all of its faults the American system of wide property ownership was the basis of the economic success of the United States.  The racism and genocide were flaws, but not ones that materially affected the rise to world dominance.

What I liked about this programme was the deft way small scale details were woven into the big picture.  We heard a few individual stories, a few tableaux from the history of the two continents and then the overall analysis supplied in plain language direct from Ferguson himself.  It was skilfully done and kept your attention for the full hour. He also has got hold of a good camera crew because the visuals are great.

But you do lose out a lot by this approach.  The historical narrative is simplified considerably.  I think French and Portuguese viewers would be surprised that their contribution to the development of America did not even get a mention.  And I am not sure that slavery in the South was really just a bit of an aberration with no economic effect in the long run. And as for property rights being key to American success, this was stated as a fact rather than made as a case.  Its an argument that is pretty well accepted, but it could have been developed a bit more in a series whose stated aim is to explain the power wielded by the West.

Well worth watching, but well worth thinking about afterwards as well.

Niall Ferguson Civilization Is the West History Episode 1 Competition

Niall Ferguson Civilization Is the West History episode on science

Science – a killer app?

Galileo’s sketches of the Moon – was science one of the reasons for the rise of the West?  (Thanks to Wikipedia)

A lot of people have watched and enjoyed Niall Ferguson’s series on Civilization.  A lot of people have been infuriated by it as well.  One thing that has divided people is his use of the phrase ‘killer app’. 

Personally I found that a useful and evocative shorthand for what was going on.   But I can see why it strikes some people as a bit contrived.  I think this one is a matter of taste.  In the long run the critics will win on this one.  What strikes you as a neat turn of phrase the first time you hear it inevitably wears with repetition.  History is likely to judge against Niall on this one.

There is also a point for pedents.  Strictly speaking  a ‘killer app’ is an application so attractive that it justifies the purchase of the platform on which it runs regardless of what else it can do.  The canonical example is Lotus 1-2-3, the first spreadsheet, which was so useful for business that many bought PCs purely to be able to use it.  But we will ignore that.  It sounds like it means what Niall Ferguson seems to think it means, i.e., an application so deadly that it enables you to beat the competition with it.

But what about the more important point.  Has he correctly identified the six killer apps, or if you prefer,  the six factors that led to the predominance of the West.

I am not at all sure that science should be in the list.  There is no doubt in my mind that if you have any serious sized project it is very likely that the techniques of science will enable you to achieve your objective more quickly and efficiently.  But it is equally true that you can usually get what you want without using science at all.  If you have enough money and manpower few objectives are impossible.   Knowledge is useful, scientific or otherwise, and the more you have the more power you can exert.  But there isn’t anything about scientific knowledge that offers a unique advantage.

A good example is sea power.  European nations took to the science of astronomy enthusiastically to enhance the range and capabilities of their navies.  This was a good use of their resources and the investment paid back handsomely.  But it was applied to already existing ocean going technology that had been developed by trial and error and rule of thumb.  Science helped, and helped a lot, but it didn’t get the process going in the first place and didn’t motivate the creation of sea power in the first place. The Portuguese would have set out in search of spices whatever.  They chose to use the best tools available, but would have gone anyway.

To put it another way, had someone in India or China come up with the theory of gravity just before Newton, would it have made any difference to the course of history?  It is hard to see how it would have done.

Science is a useful tool, but it is also a valuable end in itself.   As the West got richer it was able to devote more resources to doing things that are fun.  Science was a part of this just as much as opera or novels.   People like and enjoy science for its own sake.  My feeling is that a lot of early science was done by men of leisure who were doing it for no better reason than they enjoyed it.  So to my mind, science is a consequence far more than a cause of Western dominance of the world.

My original review of the science episode of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: Is the West History?

Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Science

In the Middle Ages the Muslim world had the planet’s most scientifically advanced culture. It is easy to forget just how powerful they were.  At one stage the Ottoman Empire threatened Vienna.  In July 1683 the Christian world held its breath as the Turks surrounded the capital of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Leopold himself, ran away.  Ottoman victory seemed inevitable.  But supplies were short in the Turkish camp. A Polish army arrived and in a pitched battle saved the day.  Turkish cannons were melted down to cast a huge bell for the cathedral in Vienna.

It was a huge shock to the Ottomans.  It was the first time that they had been defeated by a Christian power.  It was also the first time that the moslem army was not as technologically advanced as its adversaries.  Science had been systematically studied in the West and applied to a wide range of activities including the production and deployment of arms.  The Muslim world had fallen behind.  How could they have got it so wrong?

Osman III was a contemporary of Frederick III.    He designed his own palace called Sansouci, without a care, but he took great care over the state he ran.  His court was small, efficient and without a trace of corruption.  The court of Osman III by contrast was a life of luxury sequestered away from the problems of reality.  The whole culture of government degenerated.  Lucrative civil service posts were sold to the highest bidder rather than the best candidates.   Meanwhile the Prussians were getting on with the business of education and scientific progress.  Religious toleration was practiced – but the Church was not allowed to get in the way of science.  The Turks by contrast were forbidden to even read printed material.  Printing was punishable by death.  Good news for calligraphers, bad news for scholars hoping to keep up with research in the West.

An observatory had been built in Istanbul early in the fifteenth century, which had been ahead of its time in the standard of work it carried out.   In 1577, following an unfortunately inaccurate astrological prediction of a battle against Persia, the observatory was destroyed.  It was a very different story in the West.   The Royal Observatory in London was to be founded a couple of decades later providing data for the likes of Isaac Newton to work on.   It was the West where science, with support from monarchs, was to flourish.  Frederick III offered prizes for the solutions to key scientific problems.

The link between science and military power was not lost on Frederick.  His military base in Potsdam ran the country to the extent that Prussia was described as an army that had a country.  The Prussians were particularly famous for the efficiency of its artillery.  The accuracy of its guns was helped enormously by the application of physics.  In London Benjamin Robbins, a Quaker of all things,  wrote a treatise explaining how to calculate a projectile’s path taking into account wind resistance.  It was translated into German by Euler, who added tables to aid its practical application.

In the nineteenth century an Arabic scholar presented a study to the Sultan explaining exactly that the Turks had to adopt Western ideas if they were to keep up.  A French technical expert was brought in to bring the Turkish armed forces up to date.  In 1843 the Sultan even moved out of the old Tokapi Palace and built a new western style residence.  But it was a facade.  Event the clock was built in Austria.  It wasn’t until Kemal Ataturk in the twentieth century that Turkey really began the root and branch changes it needed.

Ataturk’s vision was to create a secular form of government.  Islam played too dominant a role in the state.  The two needed to be separated.  He also founded a university along with an observatory, finally replacing the one destroyed four hundred years before.

We then move on to Israel from Turkey.  Israel is a Western country, albeit a new one, with secular values.  It is also one of the most scientifically oriented countries in the world.  Israel filed 9,000 patents last year, Iran filed 50.  Science is one of the things that enables a small country surrounded by implacable enemies, but its use of science gives it the ability to hold them back.  But is the East beginning to catch up?

Science is clearly not Niall Ferguson’s strong point.  I thought this programme was much weaker than the first one in the series.  Science may well have been one of the killer apps that helped the West come to dominate the world, but only circumstantial evidence is presented.  Isaac Newton gets a fleeting mention.  Robert Hooke is mentioned in passing.  If you didn’t know that Euler was a mathematician you would imagine that he was simply a translator from the one quick mention he gets.  Even the one man whose actual work is described – Benjamin Robbins the founder of scientific gunnery – gets less coverage than the political figures discussed.  We hear a lot about what science can do and how useful it is.  I would have liked a bit more about what it actually is.

But as a scientist I am probably a bit more sensitive about superficial coverage of science than most people would be.  It was another well structured fast paced and above all interesting show.  It is rapidly becoming the highlight of my week’s television viewing.

Note: this review was written as I was watching the programme – and although I have gone back and edited a few details it is pretty much as I first wrote it.  Consequently up until the last couple of paragraphs I may be paraphrasing Ferguson’s opinions rather than expressing my own. I have put my thoughts on whether Niall Ferguson is right when he calls science a killer app here.

My review of the 3rd episode of Civilization: Is the West History – Property
And here is the 4th episode of Civilization: Is the West History – Medicine

See my review of Ascent of Money here.

Niall Ferguson – For or Against?

After reviewing the first episode of Niall Ferguson’s new series last Sunday night, and managing to get it out within 15 minutes of the end of the programme, I had a look around online to see what other reactions it had generated.  To my amazement Niall Ferguson was actually trending on Twitter.  Blimey.

Overall the show seemed to get a positive reception, but while there were some very strong positives there were very strong negatives as well.   One guy on Twitter was so impressed he offered the opinion that if NF was interested, he might turn homosexual for him.  This was just about the most extreme positive view.  I have a feeling that most men and probably most women while appreciating a well put together documentary with a strong point forcefully made wouldn’t go so far as to offer physical gratification to its author.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He had ships much bigger than European ones 200 years later (thanks to Wikipedia)

But there were some pretty hostile receptions too.  Some of these seem to be politically motivated. Ferguson is openly right wing and makes no secret of a free market oriented agenda. Now, my personal political views tend to the left so I can sympathise with people who disagree with Ferguson on these grounds.
But to me, the judgment you should make of a programme like this isn’t how close is it to what I would like to make, but how close is it to what the creator intended.  I have a feeling that Ferguson was congratulating himself on a job well done when he reviewed the final edit.  In fact congratulating himself is something that it is very easy to imagine Ferguson doing.  He does seem tremendously pleased with himself.  Arrogance came up as another criticism.    Well once again, it is nice when you like the person who has done something you like.  But it is a piece of work not a lonely heart ad.  You should judge programme on its merits not its author’s merits.

But there is one line of criticism that is valid, and that is that the history is wrong.  This is much more serious and some people were unimpressed by the content.  The general critique was that he had selected the facts that supported his argument and left out important details that cast the whole story in a different light.  The best criticism of this nature I came across was this blog post, which if it was written from scratch in direct response to the programme is amazing as it appeared less than twenty four hours after the broadcast.

Here is the full article here.

It is well worth reading the whole thing, but to very quickly paraphrase British relations with China were to at least some extent based on coercion rather than competition and the Opium War was basically a way of forcing the Chinese to participate in a trading relationship that they knew very well was harmful to their economy.  I don’t think this necessarily undermines Ferguson’s argument, but it does show that the real world is a bit more complex than you can easily get into a 1 hour television show.

Niall Ferguson: Civilization: Is the West History? – Channel 4

Niall Ferguson – Killer Apps to explain Western Civilization’s success

In 1500 the world superpower was undoubtedly China. The Chinese Empire could fit out huge ships 10 times the size of the Santa Maria which travelled half way across the globe to bring back tribute to the emperor in Nanjing.  A beautiful manuscript survives of a giraffe brought from Africa.  The purpose of these journeys was to overawe the foreigners and no doubt they were overawed.  But as Niall Ferguson points out – it was a bit like the Apollo Moon missions.  It was an impressive display of technological prowess but ultimately pointless.

After sailing about and looking impressive, the fleets were pulled back and closed down.  China could see nothing that they lacked and shut doors on the outside.

By comparison, when Vasco de Gama set out at the behest of the king of Portugal to explore the world, he had a very specific goal in mind.  His project was to open up the spice trade and break the monopoly Venice held over the spice trade.  It was a money making scheme provoked by competition.

Ming China from 1368 to 1644 was the world’s most sophisticated economy by any standard.  But following a series of natural disasters, rebellions and invasions, the dynasty collapsed in a decade with the last emperor hanging himself in shame.  China had looked inward and when it faced a crisis there were no external resources to draw on.

The turgid Chinese bureaucracy stifled innovationwhile in the West competition between states led to innovation that built up the power available to Western nations and in a few centuries to their complete domination of the world economy.  Ferguson describes this competition as one of the ‘killer apps’ that explain Western success.

Niall Ferguson is always worth listening to.  The combination of sometimes provocative ideas with a clear and often humorous presentation makes for an entertaining experience.  The idea that there are particular factors that gave the West an advantage and which will be revealed one programme at a time is a neat one.

This programme was a truly brilliant bit of television.  Lots of footage of interesting scenes from the current world and historical tableaux, with a simple single message explained well and fully.  I hope there is going to be a book (of course there will be).  The book will need to be a lot more detailed and go into more depth, as a book can and should.  Ferguson has a good track record on this so I will look forward to it.  In the meantime I am looking forward to the rest of the killer apps in the rest of the series.

See my review of Ascent of Money here.

Civilization: Is the West History? – Channel 4: “- Sent using Google Toolbar”

How the West Was Lost by Dambisa Moyo

‘That’s how China could finally finish off America, give them aid!’

‘They are pretty much doing that already’

Exchange between Niall Ferguson and Dambisa Moyo

I don’t want to get into the habit of  doing this, but this is a book I haven’t actually read.  What I have done is listened to a podcast where the author describes the book then debates it with Niall Ferguson and an audience of the public.  (See details below)

Dambisa Moyo is an economist from Zambia who has worked at Goldman Sachs and has written a very influential book called Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working (review on its way).  That was about how aid was causing structural problems that made the problem of poverty worse rather than helping it. That is a big enough subject, but she has set her sights still higher with her latest book.

How the West was Lost tackles what will probably look to historians like the big story of the 21st Century – the loss by the West of the commanding position it has held in the world for two or even three hundred years.  With the population of the world heading towards 9 billion and over a billion Chinese aspiring to a standard of living equal to that of Americans and Europeans, there are going to be problems ahead.  Moyo thinks that the West’s response is inadequate.  We have become obsessed with investing in the wrong assets like property when the priority should have been given to education.

There is a sort of twisted parallel with her earlier book.  Africa is failing to develop its perfectly adequate resources because of help in the form of aid that removes the incentive to carry out productive activity.  The vast scale of Chinese investment in the West has had a similar effect in depressing productive activity in Europe and America.  The result is that unemployment is now a really big issue.  Some 30 million Americans are now involuntarily economically inactive.

Globalisation has so far only really benefited the wealthy elites.

Moyo’s suggests that the West should take much more pro-active action than it has so far.  Increased investment in education and research and development is needed.  Few would disagree with that, particularly if someone else is paying.  More controversially she thinks that more effort should be made to protect the West’s intellectual property.  She also speaks with approval of the possibility of trade sanctions and even of defaulting on the debt to China to some degree.

A thought provoking lecture that is well worth a listen to.  If the book is as good it is probably worth a look at too.  I have added it to my list.

(Incidentally if anyone from the publishers is reading this – I’d have it my Kindle already if it were only £5.  As the Kindle edition is the same price as the paperback I will wait and buy the paperback – or will I?  I have to remember to go to the bookshop and order it, and I have lots of other books I already own that I want to read.  A Kindle book isn’t as valuable as a paperback.  I can’t sell it or lend it to anyone.  Might be worth thinking about whether your pricing policy is actually maximising your income?)

Find the podcast here. 

You might also be interested in my reviews of two of Niall Ferguson’s books

The Ascent of money by Niall Ferguson

The Cash Nexux by Niall  Ferguson

The Cash Nexus – Money and Power in Modern World 1700-2000 by Niall Ferguson

I wrote this review of the Cash Nexus a long time ago before Niall Ferguson was all that famous.  I wasn’t very good at writing reviews  back then.  But to be fair, he wasn’t all that great at writing them either.

Have you got a friend who is interesting and intelligent, and is well worth listening to on a subject on which he is very knowledgeable? But who ruins it all by behaving as if he is even more interesting and intelligent than he really is, and being pompous and pouting about it as well. I imagine that Niall Ferguson is such a guy. The Cash Nexus is certainly such a book. Continue reading The Cash Nexus – Money and Power in Modern World 1700-2000 by Niall Ferguson