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I have just finished reading “A Farewell to Alms,” by Gregory Clark, which seeks to explain how and why the Industrial Revolution occurred when and where and how it did, in the textile industry in 19th-century England. Clark argues that a tripling of England’s population from 1760 to 1850, combined with modest productivity gains and the vast expansion of cultivated land in the United States over the same period, were a far more important cause of the Industrial Revolution than the explosion of knowledge and innovation that took place around the same time. “Had [the] English population remained at 6 million into the 1860s, the country’s domestic agricultural sector would have been able to feed and provide raw materials for the English population.” The explosion of its population, however, turned England into a net food importer, forcing it to export manufactured goods. Net exports by the 1860s constituted nearly 20 percent of GDP. Demographic circumstances, then, contributed far more than any special virtues of the English people or their system of governance, to the creation of an industrial economy. [click to continue…]

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America’s Declaration of Independence is an astonishing document, not least for introducing the concept of the pursuit of happiness into the public discourse on how we should organize our political and social affairs. The phrase “pursuit of happiness” sounds as if it were invented in the 1970s – a time of social and personal transformation and self-discovery that Tom Wolfe dubbed “The Me Decade” – not the 1770s.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which has just transformed itself from an absolute into a constitutional monarchy, is famous for the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” invented by the former king – an avid basketball player – who recently abdicated in favor of his son. GNH, if we may call it that, posits an alternative to Gross National Product as an indicator of a country’s well-being, based on measures of psychological health, ecology, education, culture, living standards, community activity, use of time, and good governance. Researchers in the Gross National Happiness Commission have devised a set of statistical formulas that should, eventually, allow all countries to be ranked according to GNH. In spite of the obvious flaws in the methodology – the numbers are based on 72 indicators captured by a detailed nationwide questionnaire administered every two years, and it’s possible that respondents in, say, North Korea would be more circumspect in their answers than the average American – it’s an intriguing idea. [click to continue…]

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