Arnold Kling  

Russell's Question

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Jared Diamond wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel as an answer to what he called Yali's question: how did the rich nations turn out be Europe rather than, say, the islands of the South Pacific?

Russ Roberts wants to know how it is that the cross-country gaps in wealth persist. In the latest econtalk audio file, he presses Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas with this question in a number of ways. For example, he asks Lucas why an uneducated Mexican can earn more in Chicago than in Mexico.

One point that Lucas makes is that a lot of the escape from poverty consists of leaving primitive farms for the city. It's an interesting, wide-ranging interview.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Fundamentalist writes:

I had an interesting prof of third-world economics, Dr. Alexander Kondonassis, tell us that improving productivity in the ag sector has suffered disdain from economists since WWII. Lucas seems to follow the pattern. Dr. Kondonassis believed that productivity increases in ag would do more for a poor country than trying to build factories because most people work in ag in poor countries (about 80%) and their productivity is so low. Building factories lures people away from the farm, but because productivity is already so low on the farm, ag output suffers. Then prices rise and the country starts importing food.

The most common farming tool is a short handled hoe. Simply employing oxen would improve output dramatically, but poor property protection prevents that. Productivity improvements on the farm lead to capital accumulation and investment in small industry. I believe this was Lord Bauer's approach, also.

TGGP writes:

Jared Diamond really only tried to explain why Eurasia, not Europe, became dominant. Considering that Eurasia contains the bulk of the land mass and population, it's not terribly surprising. Diamond didn't do much to explain why western rather than eastern europe, or europe rather than the middle east and asia rose to the top. His "geography is destiny" approach also gives no insights into such stark disparities as North vs South Korea and the old East vs West Germany.

Steve Sailer writes:

Mexico City became perhaps the largest city in the world back in the 1970s and 1980s, so urbanization was already well underway a long time ago. It was widely predicted that Mexico City would keep expanding to 30 million people, but that didn't happen because sneaking into America proved so easy.

M.D. Fatwa writes:

Diamond's book only discusses long-term trends, not short-term historical occurrences. In this sense, the development of agriculture, writing, large population centers, etc. were all determined by geography, and gave a big leg-up to Eurasian societies versus African, North and South American, Pacific/Australian societies. Whether a particular Eurasian society is up or down during a particular century or decade is not really discussed (and when it is, Diamond's arguments are not nearly as compelling).

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