Gregory Clark

ancestor by Javier Jaen

Gregory Clark (b. 1957) is an economic historian at UC, Davis. His grandfathers were migrants to Scotland from Ireland, and he was born in Bellshill, Scotland. In 1974 he and a fellow pupil won the ‘Scottish Daily Express’ school debate competition. After school he earned his B.A. in economics and philosophy at King’s College, Cambridge in 1979 and his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1985. He has also taught as an Assistant Professor at Stanford and the University of Michigan. At Davis his areas of research are long term economic growth, the wealth of nations, and the economic history of England and India.

Clark is most well known for his book, ‘A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.’ He argued that the current divide between rich and poor nations came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution originating in Britain. Prior to 1790, Clark asserts, man faced a Malthusian trap: new technology enabled greater productivity and more food, but was quickly gobbled up by higher populations. In Britain, however, as disease continually killed off poorer members of society, their positions in society were taken over by the sons of the wealthy.

By that, according to Clark, less violent, more literate and more hard-working behavior were spread culturally and biologically throughout the population. This process of ‘downward social mobility’ eventually enabled Britain to attain a rate of productivity that allowed it to break out of the Malthusian trap. Clark sees this process also til today as the major factor why some countries are poor and others are rich. His theses was described by critics as discharging Western politics from every responsibility for the poverty most people on earth are living (and also does not refer in the economic history to events like the oppressive aspects of colonialism).

Quite critical were reviews looking at the methods (for example accused factual mistakes and complains about missing sources). Economist Deirdre McCloskey of the University of Illinois stated about Clark’s theses on genetic influence, that ‘the main failure of his hypothesis is, oddly, that a book filled with ingenious calculations […] does not calculate enough. It doesn’t ask or answer the crucial historical questions.’ She concluded: ‘[…] Clark’s socio-neoDarwinianism, which he appears to have acquired from a recent article by some economic theorists, has as little to recommend it as history.’ Danish economist Karl Gunnar Persson stated in the ‘European Review of Economic History’ that Clark’s ‘Malthusianism is at times more evangelical than empirical and analytical.’

More critical are journalist David Warsh economic historian and Joachim Voth. Voth argues that Greg Clark’s book is mainly based on a paper of the authors Galor and Moav from 2002 and that Clark has just added some fragmentary and probably unrepresentative points. Similarly, Warsh suggested that ‘Clark’s book is, to put it frankly, self-aggrandizing to the point of being intellectually dishonest.’ However, famed American economist Robert Solow was more charitable in his criticism. He disagreed on the main thesis and accented instead for example institutional changes as reasons for industrialisation. He described some part of the book as stereotypical, some parts as fascinating and thought-provoking—and some parts as just irritating.

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