In This Review

World Economic Primacy, 1500-1900
World Economic Primacy, 1500-1900
By Charles P. Kindleberger
Oxford University Press, 1996, 269 pp
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In 1990 the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies inaugurated a program on the "vitality of nations," a term that is vague but pregnant with meaning. A product of that effort, this book focuses on the economic dimension but interprets changes in vitality more broadly. It offers a sweeping review of European economic history since 1500 but also includes late- twentieth century America and Japan. Positing a life cycle for nations -- from youthful vigor and innovation through mature self-confidence to institutional sclerosis and distributional deadlock -- it offers a panorama of the rise and decline of national economies on the world stage. The author, a distinguished economic historian who taught at MIT for over three decades, is agnostic about the future. He is pessimistic about Japan's prospects for taking the mantle of world economic leadership, but he is also pessimistic about the United States. He emphasizes the slowdown in (measured) U.S. productivity growth, the low U.S. savings rate, and the growing American preoccupation with financial assets rather than production. But this is a book to be read for its stimulating intellectual and historical excursions rather than its conclusions.