DeLong QOTD: Bookwealth, Then and Now

Brad DeLong does the world a great service by posting versions of his intro economics lectures online. If I had gone to UC Berkeley, I would have loved to take his course. I have my problems with the dominant perspectives in economics*, but I also recognize that there are some profound insights available when thinking through such impossible problems as, how much richer am I than Alexander the Great? Here’s DeLong’s take on the subject, from his lecture on historical economic growth and standards of living:

Alexander the Great owned two books–the Iliad and the Odyssey. Alexander the Great carried them with him in a gold chest. The books were worth more than the chest.

I, by comparison, have here in this iPad 20000 books instantly accessible for the price of ten steak dinners. And when Google Books becomes properly online I will have access to millions of books. Alexander the Great thought his books were among the most precious things he owned. In book-wealth, I outstrip him by a factor of ten thousand–and will soon outstrip him by a factor of millions.

I don’t know if anyone has yet created an inflation calculator based on the price of books, but it’d be interesting to see. The last few years would be hard to deal with. Of course, the value of a book changes – owning a book isn’t the same status symbol as it used to be, and the fact that everyone else has access too diminishes the value of the book as a status or positional good. But I think the broader point stands in pretty stark relief: the world we live in is very different, and filled with many more toys for us to play with, than it used to be.

* For example, I’m not sure how to understand DeLong’s claims about limited government being one possible reason for the takeoff in economic growth in the 1500. Government promised not to take your stuff? What about the enclosures? More broadly, while government respect for property rights may have increased, the governments of the 16th-19th century were hardly “limited” in the modern sense of not interfering directly with business. For one thing, these are the governments that legally created the modern corporation in the first place. The whole “limited government” concept is radically under-defined when you start thinking about all the subtle and indirect ways governments make economies possible. But again, I think the broader points DeLong are making are certainly onto something – I just worry about the casual usage of language from contemporary debates to describe a very different process and a very different world. And heck, DeLong suggests students take a “sociology of modernity” class, so that’s pretty cool.

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2 Comments

  1. Brad DeLong

     /  December 27, 2010

    Touché…

    Should be: government promised not to take your stuff if you were rich…

  2. kharris

     /  December 28, 2010

    Such claims as DeLong’s regarding “limited government” should be viewed in both an absolute and a relative sense. Your response suggests the absolute sense. However, if we are considering change in economic circumstances, we ought also to consider change in the conditions within which the economy operates, including the level of government intervention. If intervention declined, but remained at a very high level, while economic output per capita increased, then we ought to recognize that it was the change in the level of government intrusion that is relevant.

    Broadly speaking, we can see the same pattern in modern India. Indian growth took off under Rajiv Ghandi, in response to a decline in government control of private activity. The changes Ghandi implemented were fairly modest, and participants in any advanced industrial economy would still have found the level of government interference terribly oppressive. It is at the level of Indian government interference in private enterprise, especially prior to reform, that Hayekian analysis is unequivocal.

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