Buck's Reviews > Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

Bourgeois Dignity by Deirdre N. McCloskey
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Mar 15, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: dismal-science

My ancestors were illiterate peasants living in their own filth. But that’s okay – so were yours, and you probably don’t have to go back very far to find them (mine crawled out of the rural idiocy of the Scottish Highlands a mere six or seven generations ago). Unless you happen to be reading this in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, you are enormously, fantastically richer than your great-great-grandparents ever dreamed of being. Even if your Visa card is maxed out and your ’92 Honda Accord is emitting its death rattle, you’re immeasurably better off than your forebears. Why? Among other reasons: because you can read and write; because you aren’t going to die of starvation or malaria or while giving birth to your tenth underweight child; because you have a cell phone in your pocket and Skechers on your feet and, just maybe, in spite of your “poverty”, a 36-inch Sony flat screen in your living room.

This is what Deirdre McCloskey calls the “Great Fact” or simply the “Fact”: i.e. that almost all of us, pretty much across the board, have gotten filthy rich in the last two-hundred years. Since 1800 or so, incomes in the developed world have increased by something like 1500%. Probably much more, in fact, if we could measure the real value of things like Internet access and air conditioning. And contrary to what Michael Moore may have told you, it’s not just those cigar-chomping plutocrats who’ve benefited. Everybody else has made out alright, too. Whereas the poor of two hundred years ago were sometimes reduced to eating grass, the poor of today are reduced to eating KFC Double Downs: a culinary disaster, if you like, but an economic miracle.

To hear McCloskey tell it, no reputable economist disputes the Fact, not even the odd Marxist who’s still skulking around Berkeley. The question is: why? Why did incomes suddenly start shooting up 200 years ago, first in Britain and Holland, then in New England and France, and finally across much of the world? This, apparently, is one of the great white whales of economic history: everybody from Karl Marx to Karl Polanyi has tried to harpoon the sucker. In Bourgeois Dignity, McCloskey examines each theory in turn and patiently explains why it’s total, irredeemable bullshit; then she peddles her own theory. Basically, she says the bourgeoisie did it – or more accurately, a liberated bourgeoisie that was finally empowered to let loose its innovations and creative destruction on the world.

Now, being a largely innumerate English major, I have to take McCloskey’s statistics on faith, but my mushy, liberal-arts-fed brain tells me there’s something to this idea of hers. And then, being an aspiring member of what Keynes used to call the “educated bourgeoisie,” I’m flattered by it. It appeals to my class pride. We created modernity. Fuck, yeah.

I wish I could recommend Bourgeois Dignity to the many Naomi Klein fans I know, just as a neoliberal counterweight. Unfortunately, this isn’t the book that’s finally going to persuade them to get off the bong and go start an IT company. It could have been that book, if it didn’t suffer from some weird chemical imbalance that makes it alternately brilliant and tedious, insightful and repetitive, like that under-medicated guy at the donut shop ranting about the Arian heresy. The cliché that socialism looks great on paper but falls down in practice can be inverted with neoliberalism: it works okay in practice (except when it doesn't), but the theory is homely as all get-out. Meaning, it's prosaic and flawed, but fundamentally right. The way I see it—and I'm comparing great things with small here—is that 20th-century humanity found itself in roughly the same position as Eric Stoltz in Some Kind of Wonderful: faced with two very different visions of the future, we chose the Mary Stuart Masterson of capitalist democracy, which was the right call, but we're collectively haunted by an inner voice that says, "Man, you totally could have banged Lea Thompson." I'd still like to think there's a Molly Ringwald of radical centrism out there somewhere, but that's a whole different movie.
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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Ian (last edited Apr 25, 2011 02:05PM) (new)

Ian Warren Buffet likes to say that a rising tide does not lift all boats, it only lifts all yachts, leaving the rowboats to sink.


Buck Elizabeth, being poor is never any fun, but if you had to choose, 2011 would be a better time to hit the skids than 1911 or, God help you, 1811. Like, way, way better. McCloskey isn’t an idiot. She’s not denying that poverty exists; she’s just claiming that, in capitalist countries, the tendency is for things to get better over the long haul – for everybody. Obviously, the benefits are never distributed equally but, pace Warren Buffet, the rowboats get lifted up, too, albeit less dramatically than the yachts. The conditions of the poor in the developed world have improved immensely over the last couple of centuries. That’s pretty much inarguable. What we can argue about is whether or not the rowboats should be rising faster, or the yachts slower. McCloskey, as a good neoliberal, is pretty laissez-faire. I, as a good Canadian, am slightly pinker.

Brian, McCloskey doesn’t say much about credit, as I recall. She’d probably say it was incidental rather than causative. For her, the prime mover is the liberation of the bourgeoisie. Once they were given enough room to do their thing, everything else followed. Anyway, the roots of investment banking go back to Renaissance Italy, don't they? And for her purposes, she needs to find a smoking gun around the magic year 1800, when things started changing in a big way.


message 3: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Get him, Elizabeth! This is a fight I want to see (as I chomp on my KFC Double Down).


message 4: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Darn it. My poverty-addled brain didn't ever get enough nutition to discern nuance.


Buck Well, neoliberals do tend to be annoying and self-satisfied. There's a certain triumphalism to their tone. I know we shouldn't expect economists to cultivate a dark, tragic vision of life, but they could at least reflect that, while capitalism sucks less than any other system we've evolved, it's still pretty crappy sometimes.


message 6: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Are you arguing with yourself for my sake, Buck? Geez. You Canadians ARE nice.


Buck Somebody has to argue with me. Nobody else seems interested. Where are the Marxist trolls when you need them?


message 8: by Meredith (new)

Meredith Doesn't it seem like looking at only the developed world is a weird way to look at global economics? It seems kind of the same as looking at a city and saying the economics of the city are successful because rich people exist.

Did it talk at all about whether globally, per capita, there are actually more rich people now than there ever have been? Because it seems like you can't really say there are more rich people if there are just more people. Also, it doesn't seem like it counts if the rich people just made the poor people live in different countries than us.

Those are the things that bother me about this.


message 9: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal There are places outside of North America?

Brian? Will you hold me? I'm scared.


message 10: by Buck (last edited Apr 25, 2011 11:22PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Buck Actually, McCloskey does look at the world as a whole, though I gave the impression she was only talking about the developed world. And yes, globally, per capita, people are much better off than ever before, even when you include the stubbornly poor areas of Asia and Africa. In China and India alone, tens of millions of people have been lifted out of dire, abject poverty in the last two decades (which is not to suggest that there aren't still hundreds of millions of very poor people in those countries, or that economic disparity isn't a big problem there). McCloskey would also strenuously object to the leftist notion that our prosperity must come at the expense of someone else's impoverishment. When people trade, everybody benefits. It's when trade is stifled that economies stagnate and people suffer. The dramatic, showstopping examples would be North and South Korea. The biggest problem in many developing countries isn't that there are too many rapacious corporations; it's that there are too few.


message 11: by Buck (new) - rated it 2 stars

Buck Brian wrote: "I'm interested, but I don't know enough to say anything more. All of these "soft sciences" are very pliable- it's easy to use them to promote a certain viewpoint, but if the basics are adhered to b..."

I've looked under the hood and kicked the tires, and I think I agree with all of this. Very discouraging.


message 12: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Evolutionary theory maintains that there is indeed a bourgeois bubble.


message 13: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Esteban wrote: "There are places outside of North America? Brian? Will you hold me? I'm scared."

Hey, Esteban! BOO!

Buck, is she all for a laissez-faire free market or is her position more nuanced than that? Or is this something that she does not deal with?


message 14: by Manny (new)

Manny I'd still like to think there's a Molly Ringwald of radical centrism out there somewhere, but that's a whole different movie.

If I'm understanding your metaphor correctly, I think you may be referring to Scandinavia? You know, socialist states that vastly raised average levels of material wealth. Admittedly, by transforming most of its working class into members of the bourgeoisie, but all the same...


message 15: by Anna (new)

Anna I think you've just summed up the "thank Christ it's not me" appeal of genealogy. My last office job required passing a cabinet of Victorian gynecological instruments every day. Happy with modernity, ta for asking.


message 16: by Buck (new) - rated it 2 stars

Buck Whitaker, McCloskey’s very much in favour of laissez-faire capitalism. However, there’s an interesting moment in the book where she’s discussing Scandinavia and she says something like, “As an honest scientist, I have to admit that the Scandinavian model has been pretty successful.” Still, she would argue that all those tasty social programs are underwritten by the free market. They’re a socialist icing on a capitalist cake.

So to answer your question, Manny, I think there’s a sweet spot somewhere between pure capitalism and a mixed economy. Every country has to find its Molly Ringwald. What works for Swedes won’t work for Americans. Hong Kong is a neoliberal’s wet dream; Oslo is a social democrat’s wet dream. But both are fairly decent places to live, from what I hear. The exact ratio of free enterprise to state planning is something people can and should argue about, and governments can and should tinker with.

Anna, I just read a book about everyday life in North Korea, which supplied an abundance of those “thank Christ it’s not me” moments. Now there’s a country that could use a good dose of modernity.


message 17: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Buck wrote: “ she says something like, 'As an honest scientist, I have to admit that the Scandinavian model has been pretty successful.' Still, she would argue that all those tasty social programs are underwritten by the free market. They’re a socialist icing on a capitalist cake.”

Thanks, Buck. Ya gotta respect that admission. It shows a degree of intellectual honesty.


message 18: by Richard (new)

Richard Buck wrote: "“As an honest scientist, I have to admit that the Scandinavian model has been pretty successful.” Still, she would argue that all those tasty social programs are underwritten by the free market. They’re a socialist icing on a capitalist cake."

Years ago I cam up with my own personal economic system that would make this explicit. I call it "Maslovian Economics" (or "Maslowian", but that just hurts). The idea is that as a society becomes more civilized, the lowest levels in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs become guaranteed to all citizens, in line with the axiom that the measure of how civilized a society is depends on how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

Intermediate levels of the hierarchy would have intermediate levels of intervention; perhaps a combination of subsidies or stricter regulations.

The highest levels are left laissez-faire, with those needs being satisfied by market relations.

Since I'm not a world famous economist and couldn't get elected to dog catcher, the plan is just stagnating in my brain.

I do sometimes think I'll write a science fiction book that will feature such an enlightened civilization, but that seems pretty unlikely, too.

Oh, by the way, great review.


message 19: by Richard (new)

Richard Curiously, just two hours or so after I was pointed towards this review and made aware of this book, I found myself reading a review of it in the latest issue of the beloved The Wilson Quarterly (wilsonquarterly.com). Unfortunately, it's behind their pay wall, so the link only reveals the first paragraph unless you're a subscriber.

However, the review was pretty darn positive, with a caveat. Positives and negatives captured thus: “McCloskey’s critiques of other historians can be tedious, and her writing style is so didactic in places that it becomes irritating. But the broad thrust of her book and her erudite excitement in ideas are exhilarating.”

Meanwhile, for anyone with time to listen but not to read, the splendid BBC4 radio program "In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg" did two episodes last December on the Industrial Revolution, which focus on this question quite a bit. Those would be The Industrial Revolution and The Consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Oddly, in the first of the two the host, who usually leaves the field to his experts, is quite adamant about having his say regarding causal factors. Quite a dustup, compared to his usually shows.


message 20: by Buck (new) - rated it 2 stars

Buck Don’t sell yourself short. Being unfit to run for dogcatcher never stopped anyone from getting into Congress, did it? Just sayin’.

The more I learn about economics, the more I don’t know what to think about anything. Just the other day, I read that, as a country’s GDP rises toward $10, 000, people’s overall happiness increases proportionally, because their basic needs are now being met and they can see tangible improvements in their quality of life. Above $10, 000, though, the results tail off dramatically, as resentment and status anxiety come creeping in. The obvious solution would be to keep everybody at the same artificially depressed level of income and spend the surplus on a massive annual kegger.

I realize nobody’s interested in Canadian politics (least of all Canadians), but the polls suggest my fellow countrymen seem to be toying with the idea of electing a socialist government. Does the CIA still sponsor military coups? This is just a neighbourly heads-up, but somebody might want to get on the blower to Langley.


message 21: by Richard (new)

Richard Buck wrote: "Being unfit to run for dogcatcher never stopped anyone from getting into Congress, did it? Just sayin’."

Hey, I didn't say I was unfit for dogcatcher, but unelectable. I'm pretty sure I'd make an adequate dogcatcher, but my real expertise would be as galactic emperor.

Since the only thing sacrosanct in the U.S. budget is the military, I'm sure sure there's room for one more invasion. And the fact that it'd be close to home and in someplace that isn't a dust-choked desert would make it a very popular war, I'm sure.


message 22: by Szplug (new)

Szplug Great review, Buck.

The cliché that socialism looks great on paper but falls down in practice can be inverted with neoliberalism: it works okay in practice (except when it doesn't), but the theory is homely as all get-out.

I like this very much—and I shall use it in the future, perhaps even making out like I'm the one that came up with it.

but the polls suggest my fellow countrymen seem to be toying with the idea of electing a socialist government.

Toyed with, but, ultimately, rejected. One hell of a tease while it lasted, though.


message 23: by Buck (new) - rated it 2 stars

Buck It was a close-run thing. Don't get me wrong: I wish the NDP well, and have even, in moments of great spiritual distress, voted for the party, but I'd be horrified if they ever formed a government. Hey, let's put a bunch of 20-year-old potheads in charge of the world's 9th-largest economy. What could go wrong?


message 24: by Szplug (last edited Jul 25, 2011 12:17PM) (new)

Szplug but I'd be horrified if they ever formed a government

Agreed. It would be a disaster.


message 25: by Ian (new)

Ian Canada is the world's 9th-largest economy? Really? I mean, come on, really?


message 26: by Ian (new)

Ian And this reminds me, there are several specific statements in the review that I forgot to comment upon when I first graced it with my "like" vote.

"...you’re immeasurably better off than your forebears. Why? Among other reasons:... because you have a cell phone in your pocket and Skechers on your feet and, just maybe, in spite of your “poverty”, a 36-inch Sony flat screen in your living room."

How very Canadian. I have a 50-inch in my living room and a 37-inch in my bedroom. That's America, baby. Love it or buy a bigger TV.

"Whereas the poor of two hundred years ago were sometimes reduced to eating grass, the poor of today are reduced to eating KFC Double Downs: a culinary disaster, if you like, but an economic miracle."

The KFC Double Down is a fucking culinary masterpiece, dude. Gawddammit I love me some KFC Double Down.

" insightful and repetitive, like that under-medicated guy at the donut shop ranting about the Arian heresy."

Umm, the "Arian Heresy" is supposed to have both words capitalized, jerk. And no, I'm not under-medicated, and yes, so what if I just really like donut-shop coffee?


message 27: by Buck (new) - rated it 2 stars

Buck Umm, the "Arian Heresy" is supposed to have both words capitalized, jerk.

Not only that, but 36 inches isn't even a standard flat-screen size. So basically, this whole review is a tissue of errors and inaccuracies. Except for the bit about being "collectively haunted by an inner voice that says, "Man, you totally could have banged Lea Thompson."" I still stand by that.


message 28: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks for another really enjoyable review, Buck.

The comments about progress reminded me of a quote about success or happiness that I can't track now that I need it.

It seeks to define success or happiness as a fraction.

The numerator is achievement and the denominator is ambition or aspiration.

We can always make ourselves less happy by the quantum of our ambition or aspiration.

This might be why people are richer than they were in the past, but feel poorer.

We can't afford the infinity of choices that are available to us, well we can't afford to have them all.


message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

Brilliant review.


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