Killing the consensus with one thousand cuts

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Yesterday I finally finished Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. This was no easy read, even at only ~300 pages. Will Ambrosini characterized Greg Clark’s Farewell to Alms as a book length response to The Great Divergence, and I can see where he is coming from. Contra Clark and the dominant consensus in economic history Pomeranz marshals the evidence which suggests that China & Japan were basically as wealthy as western Europe during the 18th century, and that many of the presumed necessary preconditions for the economic liftoff which we term the Industrial Revolution after the fact also held for eastern Eurasia. But Pomeranz has his own solution for why the West, and in particular England, rose to prominence when it did: the location of coal near the core economic regions combined with the massive input of land due to the opening up of the New World.

Those of us who are a bit younger no doubt encountered a fair amount of revisionist history. Instead of a “Whiggish” vision where civilization ascended in a linear fashion from Greece, to Rome, to the Middle Ages and onto the culmination of the Anglo-American culture, we were reminded that during the medieval period the West was much less than the rest, while even during the height of Imperial Rome Han China flourished with relative parity. Instead of these impressionistic generalizations the central figures in economic history, such as Angus Madison, emphasize that the revisionism might have been true in economic terms in 1000, but not by 1500. In the year 1000 western Europe was a rather poor region compared to the Islamic societies or China. By 1500 the conventional wisdom seems to be that much of western Europe was at least at parity, and likely one of the wealthier regions of the world on a per capita basis, if not the wealthiest. Because of the raw size of China and India Asia was still the economic center of the world, but by 1500 Europe, in particular its west, was no longer marginal. Between 1500 and 1800 western Europe might have been the wealthiest and most powerful region of the world on a per unit basis, but non-European powers could still operate on the same playing field, as evidenced by the need for European powers such as Britain and France to curry favor with Asian potentates to obtain trading rights. During the 19th century this changed; what was a difference in wealth on the margins transformed into one characterized by a qualitative chasm (symbolized by the maxim machine gun).

The Great Divergence tries to throw some cold water on the metrics used to make the case that Europe was already wealthier, and more well positioned institutionally, to achieve liftoff at the end of the 18th century. It is obvious that Pomeranz is correct when he seems to imply that there are apples to oranges comparisons; much of eastern Europe remained quite poor, so it was not Europe as a whole which was wealthy (there were even extremely large variations within nations, such as the Rhineland vs. eastern Prussia). Additionally, China was characterized by a great deal of the regionalism so that the most dynamic subunits of that civilization are more usefully compared to with France, Britain and the Low Countries, the most advanced subunits of the greater European economic region. All that being said, only someone who is rather well versed in the literature in economic history could appreciate much of the material that Pomeranz references throughout the narration; to a great extent The Great Divergence was argument by filibuster. Those who are familiar with the full body of the literature may be able to evaluate the power of the argument, but for those of us who are relatively uninformed we are simply confronted with an undifferentiated mass of data.

Some of the data and insight was very useful. For example, cultural historians often attempt to claim that one reason that the Chinese imported so little from European nations was because of their own superior attitude. In other words, the dynamics we observe were driven by variations in taste. This is an entirely plausible argument, and one which I accepted. Entire swaths of scholarship are based for example on the contempt which the Chinese government directed at European trade delegations and their wares. Pomeranz makes the argument that the imbalance in trade was a function of the fact that China was re-monetizing their economy with silver, and Europeans were there to provide silver through the opening of New World mines. The difference in value of silver in China and the rest of the world naturally resulted in an arbitrage opportunity so that the Middle Kingdom was a magnet for this metal; naturally the Chinese had to pay for silver with products, ergo, the export in finished goods such as porcelain. This economic argument does not negate the cultural explanation, one might admit that cultural and economic trends often dovetail or play off each other synergistically, but this sort of datum is gold in trying to understand how history plays out.

With that, I’ll open up the comments to those who know the literature and what their opinions might be.

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  1. I would like to get Clark and Pomeranz in a room and let them go at it in front of an audience of experts. That’s what we do in physics :-) 
    The problem is, I don’t see how Clark could be an expert in estimating per capita GDPs in China in 1500. (Does he read Chinese? Can he do archival work?) Pomeranz would have a similar, perhaps less serious, problem in researching England.  
    IIRC, in Clark’s book he mainly looked at Japan. I’ve read both books, but in both cases the UO library copy, so I can’t go back and look anything up… I wasn’t that impressed with Clark’s Malthusian contentions. It seems to me that per capita GDPs (pcGDPs) varied by quite a bit from place to place and the connection between elevated pcGDP and population increase leading then to decreased pcGDP is tenuous. Malthusian equilibrium might hold in the long run (absent technological innovation), like other economic equilibria, but in the long run we are all dead and a lot of interesting stuff happens in between :-) 
    I read Pomeranz much longer ago so I remember even less of it.  
    I think in both cases I thought the data was pretty thin and social scientists who come to strong conclusions might often be victims of confirmation bias. 
    There’s another book called ReOrient by Gunder Frank which you might find interesting. It’s even less careful than Clark or Pomeranz, but has a lot of interesting ideas. 
    ReOrient (Google books)

  2. PS In ReOrient, p.13, Frank quotes Adam Smith in 1776: “China is a much richer country than any part of Europe.” 
    p.12: in early 16th century population of Beijing and Istanbul were 700k, whereas Paris had 125k. 
    Malthusian trap? Does that simple picture describe cities of almost 1 million people, or is it a bit more complicated?

  3. There’s another book called ReOrient by Gunder Frank which you might find interesting.  
    yeah, i have to read that, it’s cited constantly all over the place. 
    Malthusian trap? Does that simple picture describe cities of almost 1 million people, or is it a bit more complicated? 
    well, cities were population sinks in the pre-modern world. 
    Malthusian equilibrium might hold in the long run (absent technological innovation), like other economic equilibria, but in the long run we are all dead and a lot of interesting stuff happens in between 
    *sigh* yeah. i had some of the same thoughts. 
    I think in both cases I thought the data was pretty thin and social scientists who come to strong conclusions might often be victims of confirmation bias. 
    well, a lot of the time they (pomeranz does this a lot) they’ll refer to a traveler who makes an observation. but obviously stuff like that isn’t really quantitative and subject to impressionistic bias. 
    re: malthusian stuff, i think the assertions based on nutrition are the most plausible. obesity is a modern “epidemic.” but i’m biologically biased.

  4. Regarding coal: Clark has shown coal extraction in England increased due to increased demand, not increases in supply (e.g. there were no major discoveries and there was no “revolution” in extraction technologies). 
    “English coal reserves, known and exploited since medieval times, simply found a much larger market in Industrial Revolution England.” 
    This suggests coal can’t be driving industrialization.

  5. I don’t get the comments about the long run. As long as the Malthusian logic holds (in the long or short run), economies won’t see sustained increases in standard of living. 
    It might be an interesting story, the transition after some shock to the economy, with short-term increases in standards of living, lively characters and a war or two. But these stories tell us nothing about how economies transition out of a regimes where the average life is brutal and short. They’re just interludes in misery.

  6. So, how long can an “interlude” last? A few generations? A few centuries? A thousand years? If your theory can’t tell you that, how good is it?  
    It seems there were long periods of steady improvements in technology, societal organization, etc. in various places (e.g., imperial Rome, China) were those just “interludes”? In those places a lot of resources were used for, e.g., cultural purposes or big engineering projects that didn’t directly translate into increase in population. Building a big temple or library or pyramid or dam doesn’t seem to fit into the “more calories per person = more people” simple formula. 
    Can innovations like better social organization, markets or farming techniques raise standards of living substantially without “breaking out of the trap”? Do all pre-1800 societies have the *same* Malthusian fixed point (equilibrium level)? Could the fixed points be at different per capita GDP levels? 
    These are all obvious questions and I don’t recall Clark giving any answers.  
    He somehow wants to claim that *all* pre-1800 societies were in the trap, and if some were (vastly) richer and more highly developed than others, it must just be a fluctuation away from the fixed point. Well, maybe, but perhaps his model is just too simple. Perhaps it’s a complex dynamical system with many quasi-fixed points at different per capita GDP levels, and societies can move from one to another.

  7. Those are excellent questions, but Clark never claims to be the last word on the topic.  
    Also, your facts are wrong. Rome isn’t an instance of sustained high average standard of living. In Europe, the biological evidence (e.g. height) shows no increases in standard of living from the 1st to 18th centuries with a short interlude in the 6th century (e.g. Koepke/Baten 2005). GDP estimates are flat until the 12th century and only really take off in the 16th or as late as the 18th (Maddison 2001). 
    Its dangerous to assume the history of an elite class maps nicely onto a history of the average person. Once you get acquainted with the data, you begin to realize how utterly extraordinary the modern period is and you’ll see what an enormous question Clark and other economic historians have taken on. 
    Besides theory doesn’t have to explain everything. Evolution doesn’t predict which animals will come into existence. Is that a failing of the theory?

  8. Surely the rise of rational science (mechanics, thermodynamics, chemistry, electromagnetism, and the whole intellectual mindset that led to them) in Europe has something to do with it. There is nothing quite like this systematic search for material causes in China, Islam, or India that I am aware. It is hard to imagine an industrial revolution in the modern sense without an endless stream of new technological inventions based on science.

  9. While economics may seem to be the critical factor, I think the economic developments were merely a side effect of the massive culture gap between Europe and Asia. The seafaring European nations developed an aggressive, exploratory, expansionistic culture. The Asian cultures did not. This explains their eventual economic and military dominance. All it took was Spain uniting under one ruler to break off the years of infighting and turn that aggression on the rest of the world. Other countries followed suit and eventually Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands were all full participants in the new style of exploratory empire-building. No Asian power has ever gone through this type of cultural phase (Japan probably comes closest). Basically China has always been happy with it’s own piece of land and has never felt the same kind of drive.

  10. Amanda, the empire hypothesis has been thoroughly studied… see this paper for recent evidence and some good cites. Trade with the Americas, for example, was much less important for industrialization in England than trade with Europe. 
    China could be considered expansionist, exploratory and/or aggressive in various moments of its history. 
    Luke, science and technology were alive and kicking at various moments in Muslim and Chinese history. The Renaissance was a renaissance because Arab scholars preserved and continued the work of the ancients. The fact of China’s technological sophistication centuries ahead of Europe’s is well documented.

  11. I’m not an expert, but when I see arguments like those of Pomeranz and Gunder Frank it seems to me that makes the rise of the West, the Industrial Revolution etc even harder to understand. It’s like looking at the end of a blowout football game, and then being told that the score was tied with 5 minutes to go. If Europe had no special advantage at the end of 18c, then how did they rocket so far ahead in so little time? If a superior attitude played no role, then why did China seemingly ignore the rising threat from the West, while e.g. Japan revolutionized their entire society in order to keep up?

  12. I think that the problem with much of the debate on these topics is that many authors and readers are looking for The Moral Of The Story or even a single cause. People will try to find the triumph of the West already there in classical Athens, for example, or in Rome. Even just comparing China and Western Europe, though, there were lots of turning points on each continent. Why did the Ming dynasty turn inward? Why did the Ch’ing dynasty fail to modernize? After the fact it’s possible to assume that these weren’t turning points, but inevitable outcomes, but we can’t know that and it probably isn’t true. (There’s no doubt in my mind that China’s excessive investment in centralization and political unity was a negative factor, and the tendency in Chinese history was for modernizers and reformers to only have short careers at the top; but these factors were contingent, and it’s possible to look at many places in history and ask what would have happened if Emperor X had lived 20 years longer, or if First Minister Y had stayed in power 15 more years.) 
    Japan always seems to be underrepresented in these arguments. It’s true that the Japanese case is exceptional and unique, but history isn’t on the bell curve. The unique innovations (like mutations) are the most important things. If someone ca, 1900 had written an economic history of the world, the two branches would have been (or should have been) a.) Japan and b.) everyone else. In fifty years, they had matched 300 or 400 years of European development. 
    In 1850 Japan was resource-poor and not at all wealthy. A rather thin elite ruled over a mass of undernourished peasant. However, the levels of literacy and skills were high, there was a fair degree of urbanization, government was efficient and orderly, and (in contrast to China) for whatever reason the government was willing to gamble on a decades long anti-traditional modernization program.  
    My own understanding is that these questions are important and infinitely interesting, and that the more we study them the better we’ll understand them (i.e. I’m not saying that everything will remain a mystery), but the answers we will end up with will be extremely complex and won’t boil down to any simple theory.

  13. Two comments: 
    1) the Malthusian trap idea is so imprecise (or all-encompassing) that some people still claim that we are *in* the trap today — we are running out of raw materials (commodities prices are shooting up), have polluted the planet, ruined lots of arable land, etc. 
    At any moment in human history you will be able to claim that current prosperity is merely a fluctuation, and once (inevitable?) exponential population growth gets going again it will outstrip our ability to provide. 
    All we really know about the “modern” era is that (for a while?) economic growth outstripped population growth. Will it last? Who knows. Did it ever happen in the past? Probably, but that doesn’t fit Clark’s priors, so those were just “fluctuations”. 
    2) You can’t really understand history without getting into the details. In the west we may know the details of European history but not much about Asia (and vice versa). For example, if you ask any Chinese why their civilization didn’t take off (have an industrial or scientific revolution) in 1700 or 1800 they’ll immediately reply that the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) involved the takeover of China by Manchu horsemen (more or less Mongols). Imagine that the Mongols had overrun Europe, would there still have been an industrial revolution there? The Chinese had the historical bad luck of being right next to a source of very tough military invaders (Asian steppes). 
    During the entire time China and the West had their key encounters China was already ruled by foreign invaders who (originally) had very different cultural background (were not as sophisticated or “civilized”). It just wasn’t obvious to the *westerners* since to them the Manchus and Han looked alike. 
    People like Clark, Diamond, Marx, Landes, etc. love overarching simple theories of history. (Why not? makes for a good story, and people are ignorant.) Well, they should learn a bit about dynamics of complex systems and chaos theory. Even very simple nonlinear systems have the following property: in repeated simulations of the system on a computer, an *infinitesimal* change in the initial conditions can radically alter the final state. If civilization / evolution are at all like that, we may be wasting our time trying to fit our particular history into some sweeping theory. 
    (This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the “theory of evolution” — survival of the fittest is almost a tautology — but I doubt if we simulated the biological history of the earth many times with slightly different initial conditions we would get the same organisms we have today. Dinosaurs rule the earth!)

  14. I doubt the Manchu theory, though. The Manchus were heavily Sinified from the beginning, and increasingly so during the dynasty, to the extent that the Manchu language is now more or less extinct.  
    It may be that there was a permanent change in the nature of Chinese government during the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty, though, which affected both subsequent dynasties, whether Chinese or Manchu. The Sung dynasty was an economic powerhouse and (I think) less a closed society than the Ming or the Qing.

  15. You might be right about the Manchus (the devil is in the details when it comes to history!), but modern day (Han) Chinese, rightly or wrongly, will often assert that the bad state of the country when the Europeans arrived had much to do with the Manchus.  
    Certainly it had to be disruptive to have your country taken over by a small minority of foreigners with a different spoken and written language. If it “only” took a few generations for the Manchus to get sinified, that would still be a significant disruption. 
    If we could re-run the simulation without a Manchu conquest, would things have turned out differently?

  16. I’m surprised no one has brought up the simplest answer. Chance and circumstance. 
    Failing that, my personal pet theory is to blame the Mongols for wrecking the Song dynasty which had almost all the trappings of pre-industrial society. If only the Song had developed the matchlock musket a few centuries earlier and shown those shitty nomads whatfor.

  17. Steve, I think you’re confused about what problem these scholars are studying. Its very hard to look at long time-series on living standard data of any type (biological, gdp per capita, whatever) and conclude that we haven’t moved into a new regime over the last couple of centuries. Economic historians aren’t explaining history, they’re explaining that regime change. 
    Population growth is not exponential in developed countries. Famously, population is declining, or will be soon, in most of those countries. The demographic transition is so regular its an empirical law. We should expect, and we see evidence suggesting, developing countries will follow the same pattern. Modern humans, unlike every other animal, *choose* to restrict their numbers well below carrying capacity.

  18. “English coal reserves, known and exploited since medieval times…”: earlier. One of the Roman writers said that the Britons had a remarkable ability to burn stone.

  19. Also, if one is interested in studying dynamic systems, one doesn’t “study the details”. The underlying dynamics are what are interesting in such systems, not particular instances of them. 
    That’s not to say the details aren’t important or interesting. They just don’t provide that much insight into the whole system. 
    I’m reminded of those neat pictures of fractals. Would you say you get a better understanding of those pictures if you study the contours and shapes (e.g. “it looks like a fat fish with puckered lips!”)? Not so much. To understand a fractal, you need to discover its recursive definition, i.e. the simple mathematical formula generating those shapes.

  20. Also, if one is interested in studying dynamic systems, one doesn’t “study the details”. The underlying dynamics are what are interesting in such systems, not particular instances of them. 
    That’s not to say the details aren’t important or interesting. They just don’t provide that much insight into the whole system. 
    I’m reminded of those neat pictures of fractals. Would you say you get a better understanding of those pictures if you study the contours and shapes (e.g. “it looks like a fat fish with puckered lips!”)? Not so much. To understand a fractal, you need to discover its recursive definition, i.e. the simple mathematical formula generating those shapes.

  21. I think what many of you are missing is incentive. 
    European nations during the Age of Exploration, had a huge incentive to develop technology to compete against each other, and they did. 
    China, being an 800 LB gorilla in East Asia didn’t, simple as that.

  22. Countries don’t have incentives; individuals do. If you’re suggesting Chinese institutions didn’t leave much incentive for individuals to innovate, then you’ll need to be more specific about which institutions those were and describe how much effect they had on individual incentives. Its not enough to have a policy, the policy has to be enforced (and thus enforceable) for it to have effect. 
    If you’re suggesting a variant of the empire hypothesis, then take a look at the paper I cited above for a list of citations in that literature. My take away from that literature is that empire had little causal effect in the timing or magnitude of the take off. Its good to remember England was a late comer to the imperial party. 
    But, why do you think there wasn’t innovation in China? There was. And what’s your theory of India? Japan? Both countries were deeply politically fractured before the modern era; there was plenty of competition between sub-states. What about the middle east?

  23. I picked up Peter Turchin’s *Historical Dynamics* — worth reading. Models and data. 

  24. There is nothing quite like this systematic search for material causes in China, Islam, or India that I am aware 
    an unfortunate tendency of theories-of-western-specialness are predicated on the lack of awareness of other histories and civilizations. you can generalize about this too; indians, muslims, chinese, etc., engage in the same tendency. “we are special…to the best of my knowledge.” unfortunately most people aren’t really interested in learning about other societies and their histories.

  25. i agree with john re: the manchus. the kangxi emperor was to a model confucian ruler; i believe some europeans who met him compared him to marcus aurelius. i’m sure modern chinese of course believe in their own arguments about manchu barbarism; the point about ignorance of other cultures and histories holds here, even if it is close at hand (my personal experience with mainland chinese is that they have a rather tenuous grasp of, and minimal interest, in chinese history).

  26. Turchin has a new book coming out later this year. PDF here: 

  27. tx for the references assman!

  28. pushmedia1, 
    Well I think the narrow question that Razib started with was when the GDP per capita crossover between Europe and China happened and whether it is closer to 1500 or 1800. That’s an empirical question and can be directly addressed, although it is difficult for a number of reasons. 
    Whether or not the Malthusian trap is a generally useful idea or model for how civilization works is another question entirely and I don’t recall Pomeranz being focused on it. It only entered the discussion because of Clark. 
    You say developed countries don’t exhibit exponential population growth. You have no more than one or two hundred years of data to support this. We do not know what population trends will be a century or two from now. On the other hand, if some region in the distant past managed to have economic growth > population growth for a similar period of time that is to be dismissed as a fluctuation away from the Malthusian fixed point? The author of the article I linked to previously seems to think that we may be in a temporary fluctuation ourselves. 
    Re: dynamical systems, yes we would like to know the micro-level dynamics of how they work. But that is hardly what the grand historical synthesis projects are about.  
    The point we learn from complex systems is that even if you know the micro dynamics there are very limited things you can say about causality (why did the system do *that*? why did the bubble pop *today*? why did the hurricane hit there?) or about the future behavior of the system (when will the next war / bubble / boom / storm happen?).  
    Micro dynamics of, e.g., weather is fluid dynamics of air, heat transfer, etc. In the case of history, it is how individual people interact, etc. (like micro economics). Even if we understood the micro dynamics perfectly we would not be able to predict the macro behavior of the system with any precision. Even if we have a macro record of what the system did, we can’t necessarily extract the micro rules. 
    So, proposals like “the west got ahead because of  
    1) unique Protestant work ethic (Weber) 
    2) natural selection for middle class values in England (Clark) 
    3) Mongol invasion of China (earlier commenter) 
    4) centralized gov’t in China due to geography (Diamond) 
    5) proximity of coal sources (Pomeranz) 
    are largely pure speculation!

  29. There is a definite argument that China’s unity hurt it, and that (despite a lot of seemingly pointless and destructive wars) Europe’s disunity helped it.  
    One thing you see repeatedly in Europe is heretics and losers of factional disputes from one country fleeing to another, e.g. Jews from Spain or Huguenots from France. In their new country, they didn’t need to be orthodox; they were accepted 1.) because of their talents and abilities and 2.) as a political wedge against their nation of origin. 
    Whereas in China, there was really nowhere to flee to during the periods of unity, and defeated factions and heretics would just retreat to the country and lie low. There was a lot of talent lost that way. 
    It follows from this that the periods of disunity in China (Warring States, Northern and Southern Dynasties, and Southern Sung) should be reexamined; they’re usually thought of as defective, but they might have been especially progressive.

  30. I have never studied Japan and this is grain of salt. But what I’ve been told is that Japan in 1850 was densely populated, poor on a per-capita basis, but had tremendous social capital. 
    “War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe”, Victoria Tin-bor Hui. Cambridge.  
    “The Military Revolution and Political Change”, Brian Downing, Princeton.

  31. It follows from this that the periods of disunity in China (Warring States, Northern and Southern Dynasties, and Southern Sung) should be reexamined; they’re usually thought of as defective, but they might have been especially progressive. 
    buddhism was established as an indigenous chinese religion during the interregnum between the han and sui-tang. 
    the philosophical ideas which shaped the parameters of chinese society of course arose *before* the imperial unity of the chin during the long twilight of nominal zhou rule. 
    europe after 1500 and before 1700 had a nice mix of cultural unity in terms of latin as the lingua franca for the elite (republic of letters), combined with political and religious disunity so that forbidden ideas could generally find a place to settle and incubate. 
    it seems that china as a unified system was great for economies of scale; and extensions of the status quo and incremental improvements would have been favored. OTOH, though europe lacked the economies of scale because of its lack of unity one might suggest that varied cultural backgrounds allowed for an exploration of a greater sample space of possibilities because of disparate incentives and conditions. 
    i’m kind of suggesting a cultural ‘shifting balance.’

  32. But what I’ve been told is that Japan in 1850 was densely populated, poor on a per-capita basis, but had tremendous social capital. 
    everyone seems to agree on this. the tokugawa were “successful” insofar as they maximized output that could be squeezed out of greater labor intensity. they also encouraged a national program which boosted literacy, etc.

  33. Since we’re talking about incentives, and I know very little about Chinese history… did anyone in the government or in the intellectual class, etc basically have a “Sputnik moment”, when you just take a look at what these guys from Europe can do and say, you know, they might seriously fuck us up, maybe we should figure out what they’re capable of? Fear of being overtaken is a perfectly valid incentive, in fact it seems to me that’s what drove Japan.

  34. “You say developed countries don’t exhibit exponential population growth. You have no more than one or two hundred years of data to support this.” 
    Dude. Talk to a demographer about the Demographic Transition. Its one of the few true empirical laws in social science. BTW, there’s a data point for each country that has transitioned. 
    “We do not know what population trends will be a century or two from now.” 
    True. And we don’t know the sun won’t rise tomorrow, either. The DT is *that* kind of empirical law!

  35. Graphic evidence: hit play on this chart.

  36. This chart.

  37. I give up. I’m trying to link to total fertility by income per person at gapminder. The relationship is downward sloping for countries in all parts of the world.

  38. It seems to me that there is one primary reason why China suffered so much since the start of the industrial revolution, and the rapid ascent of the West. And that reason is simply civilizational hubris. In spite of their foreign ancestry, the Qing rulers were just as insular and conceited about the preeminence of Yellow River civilization as some of their their subjects.  
    When did the first Opium War begin? 1839. And when did the Boxer Rebellion occur? 1901. The Qing dynasty had the span two full generations during which to modernize and adapt, to incorporate all the technologies and procedures that had permitted the West to industrialize. They failed to do so because of conceit, because of an entrenched and complacent sense of superiority.  
    A comparison with Japan during the same period is instructive. The Meiji restoration occurred during the 1860′s, and within the space of sixty years – the same period of time separating China’s first disastrous conflict with the West, and the lunacy of the Boxers – they had gone from an insular archaepelago state to an industrialized empire-builder, capable of contending with the greatest Western powers. And it only took forty years after they opened up to acquire the skill and means to thrash Tsarist Russia on the seas.  
    The huge difference, of course, is that the Japanese, with all due respective to the distinctiveness of their culture, possessed a civilization derived from elsewhere – it was no problem for their pride to borrow from another civilization that came along, and obviously possessed more effacious methods. In fact, for those Japanese intellectuals and scholars who resented the dependence of their culture upon China, the emergence of an alternative could be whole-heartedly embraced. The ruling elite China did not partake of these sentiments.  
    Of course, things have changed now, and the Middle Kingdom hasn’t had such capable rulers since the days of Qian Long and Kang Xi.

  39. “buddhism was established as an indigenous chinese religion during the interregnum between the han and sui-tang.” 
    Not really true. It became widespread during the period of disunity, and they obtained reliable translations of the Mahayana corpus during that period, but Chinese Buddhism only developed features that are unique to it following the restoration of empire.  
    And it was never considered indigenous during the Tang Dynasty or Song Dynasty either – one of the eight great essayists of Chinese literature from the late Tang Dynasty, and a precursor to the Neo-Confucians, Han Yu, wrote a famous memorial to the emperor, decrying Buddhism as a barbaric alien cult (all over worship of a relic of the Buddha’s corpse). The argument in some circles is that Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism was a nationalist reaction to the preponderant influence of Buddhism, which was considered by certain intellectuals to be foreign. In spite of its massive popularity and the many indigenous strains that have existed, I am not sure if Buddhism was ever considered an integral part of Chinese culture during the period, in the same way that, for example, in South-east Asia, Theravadin Buddhism became a defining element of certain ethnic identities(the Thais).

  40. Before you dismiss “natural selection for middle class values in England (Clark)”, broaden it to included, a.o., The Netherlands in the 17th C. Add in, if you will, their development of economic instruments, non-tyrannical form of government, the unusual degree of religious and civic tolerance (with lots of places to flee to when that failed), and something similar to Weber’s Protestant ethic (which must include the rule of law).  
    England’s coal is, of course, important … but would it have mattered without William and Mary on the throne, and the subsequent Bill of Rights?

  41. Antoine: there are really two questions (the first is a bit easier): 
    1) why didn’t the Chinese adopt western technologies and reforms as quickly as the Japanese? 
    2) why didn’t China have its *own* industrial revolution before the west?  
    Re (1): it doesn’t surprise me when a government can’t efficiently respond to a fairly obvious threat (look at the US and health care or budget / trade deficits). The Japanese response was remarkably effective. 
    Any thoughts on (2), which I feel is the deeper mystery? 
    Pushmedia: “And we don’t know the sun won’t rise tomorrow, either. The DT is *that* kind of empirical law!” 
    Any reasonable person would agree that the probability of the sun not rising tomorrow is much, much smaller than the probability that, e.g., due to a cultural or religious change in the next century or two, population growth rates will increase beyond economic growth rates. Another possible mechanism would be environmental catastrophe. Keep in mind the key variable is the *difference* in population and economic growth rates, so if something happens to *either* we could be pushed back to the Malthusian point. (Re: the sun vs demographics, you obviously didn’t grasp the point of predictability of noncomplex vs complex systems.) 
    I doubt I’m going to respond further unless I feel you’ve grasped this simple point which I have now repeated several times. 
    A secondary point is whether there have been periods in the past when other societies have had EG > PG for, e.g., a few centuries. Those would then be analogous to our current period. I would like to see convincing evidence of an upper bound on the longest period in the past during which EG > PG.

  42. Ok. If you have to keep repeating yourself, I do.  
    “I would like to see convincing evidence of an upper bound on the longest period in the past during which EG > PG.” 
    Look at the cites I gave you. There is no evidence of sustained (centuries long) periods of EG > PG until the 18th c. None. 
    BTW, your simple point has no empirical support and its not as if I haven’t addressed it. All the signs point towards no… we’re not in some centuries long bubble. Humans are not reproducing to the carrying capacity anymore. You’ve produced one data-free cite which was an editorial in a physics journal where these issues are studied in detail, no doubt. 
    Repeating a hypothesis doesn’t constitute evidence for it.

  43. I have never studied the period, but my understanding from scattered readings is that the unsuccessful nineteenth century response of China to the West was contingent — there were reformers who wanted to shift policies to encourage scientific education and industrial development, but the ruling powers didn’t support them, at least not for long. (The Dowager Empress, who ruled from behind the scenes, is usually blamed.) 
    This is an example of what people are talking about when they oppose “essentialism”. If you believe in a Chinese essence or an Eternal China, what happened had to happen. If you believe in contingent history, things could have been different.

  44. pushmedia: *sigh* I’m going to respond for the benefit of others following this thread, even though it’s clear you still don’t get the main point. 
    If people are still debating relative per capita GDPs of Europe vs China during the period 1500-1800 how reliable are your time series? Pomeranz’s basic point is that western scholars were wrong about wealth levels in China. That means the time series were not accurate. The basic methodological questions precede plotting some points on a graph — our knowledge of the past is not that precise. 
    You’re saying you know there was no other period in human history when EG > PG. Consider, e.g., the Song dynasty, which fell to the Mongols, and about which we know far less than 1500-1800 China. How confident are you that estimated GDP and population numbers for Song China are accurate? 
    Also, see the following. Once there are cultural factors which break the more calories = more reproduction = (PG > EG) linkage, the Malthusian model does not apply. It is clear that this has been the case in the past. 
    Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Reality: The Population History of One Quarter of Humanity, 1700-2000 
    In their paper Professors Lee and Wang reexamine the assumptions of classical and Malthusian social theory, particularly the belief that population control requires social constructs specific to the West, in the context of China’s population history from 1700 to 2000. In light of new demographic data and methods, they construct a stylized model of the Chinese demographic system to contrast with the “ideal” model first proposed by Malthus. Their paper suggests that the Chinese demographic system not only provides an alternative to the Malthusian model, but that the supposed universality of Malthusian binarism needs qualification, as does the current understanding of Chinese society and the Chinese economy during the last three centuries. 
    …New data as well as new methods reconstructing the population history of virtually all 1.7 billion Chinese alive since 1950 and 0.5 million of the three to four billion Chinese alive in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries are beginning, however, to support a critique of these hypotheses. Although recent research in Chinese demography is only beginning to uncover regional variations in Chinese population behavior, Lee and Wang point out that the broad contrasts with Western and Malthusian-predicted population behavior are already apparent. Specifically, they identify four distinctive aspects of Chinese population behavior that persist today, that are different from Western population behavior, and that qualify the Malthusian understanding of comparative population behavior in general and China in particular. 
    Lee and Wang contest the characterization of China popularized by Malthus and maintained by contemporary historians. In the typical account, low wages and poor nutrition cause a low standard of living in China. The prevalence of universal and early marriage reduces most people to a level of subsistence, while a custom of partible inheritance dooms even the rich. Finally, extreme misery encourages the common practice of infanticide. Malthus thus concluded that Chinese population processes were dominated by the positive rather than the preventive check, noting that “famines were the most powerful and frequent of all positive checks to the Chinese population.” Population processes inexorably doomed China to poverty and worse. 
    Lee and Wang, however, bring to our attention recent evidence suggesting that Malthus’ understanding of mortality in China, especially infanticide, needs qualification. In China, the distinctive effect of mortality on population was not through famines or epidemics, but through individual proactive interventions. Various individual efforts produced a specific pattern of mortality that was highly differentiated by age, class, sex, and residential group. The use of infanticide in particular meant that survivorship was also determined as much by endogenous decision making as by exogenous fortune. …

  45. Thanks for sharing data. Neither of your cites, however, give any indication of sustained increases of standard of living. The Song was a glorious era for the elite in China, but the question economic historians concern themselves with is did that glory trickle down to the masses? There’s no evidence of this.  
    All estimates I’ve seen (which are for after Song… post 1700) have GDP per capita just above subsistence, a severe decline after the opium wars and only increases in standard of living after the implementation of Mao’s first five year plan. I don’t have Maddison in front of me so I don’t know what his estimates were for standard of living during the Song. 
    Lee and Wang’s analysis is consistent with what Clark calls Malthusian logic. Their point is that Malthus, the man, thought the only preventative check on population was age at marriage. This was true in Europe. This turns out to be false in China. Chinese married young and in contrast to European couples had few children in marriage (accomplished via infanticide). This finding is now an accepted part of the consensus; we now know there were two ways to have preventative checks on population. 
    Their main finding is that Malthus was wrong to use China as an example of a society that relied on positive checks to control population. They don’t claim, as you suggest, Malthusian logic wasn’t working in China before (very) modern times. 
    Their findings are not evidence of breakage of “the more calories = more reproduction = (PG > EG)” link. Until very recently in China, technological innovations there were matched, with some lag, by population growth. As Lee and Wang document, population tripled from 1750 and 1950 and its doubled since then. They give no suggestion that standards of living increased. Given low fertility in marriage the increase in population must have been accomplished by a higher rate of married. Thus, as always with Malthusian logic technology led to more mouths to feed not more food per mouth.

  46. Since no one seems to have noticed my (only slightly tongue in cheek) comment on the example of The Netherlands to this discussion, I just came across this from Kenneth Anderson
    Compound interest is an essential ingredient in the Industrial Revolution take-off that, for the first time in human history, carried human societies beyond the near-Malthusian equilibrium….  
    Taken as a whole system, compound interest is a mechanism for making long term investment in society not just more efficient, but generationally vastly more equitable.
    This is part of what I meant by the importance of new economic instruments. And then, this too: 
    …the best way of preventing despotism is to have the King indebted to his own citizens – freedom for the citizenry because the King owes them money.  
    “Of course, that requires a robust Parliament to represent those interests and prevent the King from repudiating the debts. But in England it worked….
    Ïn other words, non-tyrannical gov’t. 
    This is heavyweight back-up to my brief argument. 
    And China, to loop around, had neither.

  47. pushmedia1, 
    You guys are making this much more complicated than it really is. China has been a united cultural unit for thousands of years, they have never had any inclination towards expansion, they have always looked inwards. 
    On top of this, they have very little genetic diversity. They all think alike. How else could their government get 86% approval ratings in independant surveys? 
    On the other hand, the west consisted of diverse groups and warring factions who, because of their military needs, discovered vast resources and put them to effective use. What reason would China have for doing anything like this? Read the history of China sometime, it is a snoozefest compared to western history. 
    The real explanations are simple, more complex theories are just myth-making by experts who need to justify their expertise.

  48. Even economic historian Angus Maddison admits that little is known about Song dynasty macroeconomics, or even population.  
    “…None of the authors who have dealt with the Sung period have tried to quantify the achievement in macroeconomic terms. This is understandable as hard evidence is scarce. Nevertheless, it seems useful to advance a quantitative guesstimate because one is otherwise left with qualitative and literary interpretations whose meaning is very elastic. In this situation it is difficult to know the degree to which judgements diverge. The advantage of quantification is that it helps to sharpen the focus of debate. “ 
    Despite this one admission of uncertainty, Maddison’s writing is replete with authoritative statements that seem to have little basis in actual data. Reading Maddison is just like reading any of these overconfident economic historians: they are plausibly victims of confirmation bias, they make (seemingly) quantitative estimates from the flimsiest data, they dismiss conflicting historical data with a wave of their hands, and they do not seem to understand the use of error estimates to qualify their results. The very fact that Pomeranz’s claims about 1500-1800 cannot be convincingly refuted suggests to me that we know very little about earlier periods. 
    If one applies reasonable error estimates to population and GDP during any of these ancient periods I doubt one can exclude the possibility of centuries-long periods where EG > PG. I suspect that any macroeconomic time series describing the distant past is simply lending a “spurious air of technicality” to sheer ignorance.