What We’re Reading

by Martin Krieger

The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492  by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein
Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade by Avner Greif 
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
Good Government in the Tropics  by Judith Tendler

There is great pleasure to be found in watching masterful economic explanations of aspects of society or history, where the focus is on specifics and details. The Chosen Few tries to account for the changing population of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century. With the decline of priestly Judaism and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, Jews needed to learn to read the The Torah (the Hebrew Bible), and were mandated to educate their sons. But that would mean that there would be less labor available for agricultural work, so many Jews joined less demanding faiths. However, with the much later rise of cities and commerce, those literacy skills were the secret of the Jewish people that made them useful and necessary. It’s more complicated, nuanced, and you learn lots of history along the way. The promised second volume will begin in 1492.

Greif’s Institutions is an important predecessor, giving an account of late medieval institutions for commerce in terms of game-theoretic notions, with a heavy dose of methodological considerations. Both books can be read by those who know no economics or game theory.



The big theme in all these books is how societies grow rich because of reliable relationships between people and there is a rule of law. Why Nations Fail is the modern successor to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), and here the answer to success is “inclusive institutions” and comparatively infrequent kleptocratic behavior on the part of powerful. Nations fail when there is little participations and wealth is stolen away by the powerful.

Good Government in the Tropics is an account of success stories in developing countries (Brazil), where by success we are talking about projects, cities, and states that belie the usual conventional wisdom that development is a story of failure and corruption. Tendler, like these other authors, is trying to account for the exceptional cases. And economic analysis, of the sort that you’d hope the first course would teach (but usually is only mastered by PhDs after teaching for years) is nicely applied to cases. There are few proofs here, but in all these books there is lots of explanation and great stories.

I am sure the experts can pull these books apart, and the books might well survive quite nicely. But for outsiders they are good reads. I am not the most patient of readers, so I tend to read from the back of the book and selectively thereafter. I am not sure I would go through most of these books from beginning to end, but they warrant it.