Regular readers will recall that I have blogged about Stephen Broadberry, usually in the context of his critique of Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson’s “Why Nations Fail“. More recently I was alerted to a critique of Mark Koyama & Jared Rubin’s “How the World Became Rich” by Peer Vries (who I had never heard of before). I had some familiarity with Koyama prior to his book’s publication (I’d even blogged about him), but not Rubin. Within Vries’ review is this quote:

“To claim that one knows for example that GDP per capita in China in the year 980 was 840 1990 international dollars whereas in Japan in the year 1150 it was 572 such dollars, as Broadberry, Guan and Li do, is to practice science fiction.”

The footnote for that sentence reads

“For these figures see Stephen Broadberry, Hanhui Guan and David Daokui Li, ‘China, Europe and the Great Divergence. A study in historical national accounting, 980-1850’, Journal of Economic History 78, 4 (2018) 955-1000, page 989. The entire table presented there suggests a level of precision that we can never achieve. I fully endorse the critique by Deng and O’Brien in their, ‘Tyranny of numbers’. See there note 14 for further articles.”

“Why Nations Fail” (which Vries also has a review of, here) comes in because Koyama & Rubin rely on its distinction between extractive & inclusive institutions, and Vries questions whether the Dutch Republic or post-Glorious Revolution Britain really qualify as “inclusive”. In some ways he reminds me of John Nye on “War, Wine, & Taxes”, emphasizing just how extremely mercantilist Britain was (as “How Asia Works” does for the more recent Asian Tigers). The pseudonymous economic historian “pseudoerasmus” (who recently tweeted about Koyama & Rubin and made a joke about Acemoglu & Robinson’s more recent book you can’t read unless you’re a verified follower) has discussed how Japanese economic growth occurred under conditions of labor repression, and Vries notes the same for Britain in his review.