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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange (Kindle Edition) is a history book about trade. If I had any doubt that my knowledge of world history comes largely from playing Civilization, this book dispelled it all. From the early exchanges of stone tools in the Mesapotamian region to the spice trade of the middle ages, this book covers it all. Even the legendary Chinese trader/admiral Zheng He (which Bernstein translates as Cheng Ho) is covered.

The modern era, including the rise of the multi-national trading corporations (which in the tradition of modern corporations started wars and were not at all adverse to using force to achieve their means) and the collapse and rise of the modern international trading regimes such as GATT. At this point, the narrative becomes more interesting for those who are concerned with modern politics and trade policies, with a surface coverage of Stolper-Samuelson, for instance. Bernstein himself is a free-trader, but I was very pleasantly surprised by his balanced coverage of the issues, including his castigation of the free-traders' vilification of labor concerns:
Such sentiments not only unnecessarily antagonize workers but also are unfair; American industry has in fact been much more adept than labor at getting protection, particularly in the form of non-tariff barriers: quotas, subsidies, antidumping legislation and the like. Trade economists are slowly beginning to realize that they must stop being their own worst enemies.
Bernstein goes on to quote Dani Rodrik. I wish that this section of the book was longer, but I'm guessing that Bernstein didn't really want any controversy as part of what is essentially a history book.

All in all, the book is recommended, but it's definitely long going, and you must have an interest in the history of trade, or the middle sections will send you to sleep.

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