Book Review: 'False Economy,' by Alan Beattie

Sunday, April 26, 2009

False Economy

A Surprising Economic History of the World

By Alan Beattie

Penguin. 321 pp. $26.95

Pop social science -- think Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's "Freakonomics" or Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" -- is tricky. Authors risk sacrificing the intricacies of a scholarly discipline in the service of reader-friendly anecdotes. But Alan Beattie, the world-trade editor at the Financial Times and a former economist for the Bank of England, resists this kind of reduction in "False Economy," a thorough examination of economies from the age of empire to the age of the IMF. Standing proudly against psychology, dialectical materialism and inevitability, Beattie writes, "History is not determined by fate. . . . It is determined by people." He insists that it is not destiny but the right and wrong decisions by political leaders that cause societies to rise and fall.

Beattie's analysis dazzles with particulars: He explains why Africa doesn't grow cocaine (poor infrastructure), why Peru grows most of the asparagus consumed in the United States (good lobbyists), and why pandas (whose diet is almost exclusively bamboo) and command economies (which can function only under inefficient bureaucracies) are endangered by inflexibility. A lover of Adam Smith's invisible hand, Beattie criticizes protectionist mollycoddling of inefficient industries. But despite his generally conservative outlook, his far-reaching history is grounded in a curiously Obama-esque, populist belief that open markets guided by modest, business-friendly policies can guide us through the current economic downturn -- that, as Shakespeare put it, "our remedies oft in ourselves do lie."

-- Justin Moyer

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