January 16, 2011


Q&A: Learning to love the bourgeois: Crass middle-class values are what made the modern world, and we ignore them at our peril (Joshua Rothman, January 16, 2011, Boston Globe)

We live in an age of abundance and plenty. Before around 1800, the average European ground out a basic existence on about $3 a day, while today the average American enjoys around $127 a day in food, shelter, energy, and other goods. Millenniums of bare subsistence have given way to two centuries of luxury. What happened?

That’s the question Deirdre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is asking in a sweeping multivolume account of the birth of the Industrial Revolution: the period, starting around 1800, when life improved, suddenly and chaotically, for millions of people across the Western world, as factories opened, cities exploded, and technologies began multiplying.

Economists and historians have varied explanations for what set off the industrial bomb. Most are quantitative in nature: They focus on the expansion of the labor market, on new inventions, or on new patterns of trade or investment. But McCloskey, who also teaches literature and philosophy, has a different theory. As she sees it, it was culture, not economics, that lit the fuse. In her new book, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World,” she argues that changing attitudes toward innovation and money-making, rather than changing technologies or markets, unleashed industrialization. Essentially, people started seeing business as a dignified pursuit, and it boomed.

Everything after 1776 is just a coda.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 16, 2011 8:57 AM
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