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Final Thoughts on GGS? 
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Post Final Thoughts on GGS?
These don't have to be final thoughts in the sense that you've finished the book. I feel it's probably about time to put a wrap on the discussion, though. So, what has impressed you most, both positively and negatively, about the book?

If I might lead off, my strongest impression is of the importance of food production in making possible everything we think of as civilization. It wouldn't actually have taken Diamond to tell me this, as it's not his original discovery, but somehow the way he presented the subject opened my eyes to the basic, and it seems to me indisputable, fact that only by freeing large numbers of people from food production does elaboration of culture become possible. Of course culture existed with hunter-gatherer groups, but the surplus, so to speak, of culture that we call civilization did not. Look around you and think about how many people you encounter daily are food producers. It's an exceedingly small number. For about 98% of us, 99% of the work has been taken out of getting our food. All we have to do is go the grocery store or a restaurant and perhaps do a little cooking.

Following Diamond's thinking about the determinism of the available plant and animal species, another striking thought is that had the offerings of the earth been a little different, or had the climate profile of earth been a little less favorable to agriculture, history would have developed differently, perhaps radically differently. A cap on human populations far below the numbers needed for great states would have meant, for example, that wars would have remained local or regional. We probably would not have the "great" religions or what we call our great art, literature and music. We might not have had such destructive crowd diseases, either. If intelligent life exists on other planets, it would also be subject to limitations imposed by the availability of food.


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Tue Jan 24, 2012 5:20 pm
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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
My main 'take away' from GGS relates to the study of the long sweep of human history as a science, basically the matter he deals with in the Epilogue. I found myself questioning many of his conclusions, not suggesting he is wrong, but that I doubt them and would have to see further evidence and explanation. But I think from the perspective of demonstrating how history can be studied in a scientific way, GGS has considerable value.



Wed Jan 25, 2012 12:06 pm
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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
DWill wrote:
These don't have to be final thoughts in the sense that you've finished the book. I feel it's probably about time to put a wrap on the discussion, though. So, what has impressed you most, both positively and negatively, about the book?

If I might lead off, my strongest impression is of the importance of food production in making possible everything we think of as civilization. It wouldn't actually have taken Diamond to tell me this, as it's not his original discovery, but somehow the way he presented the subject opened my eyes to the basic, and it seems to me indisputable, fact that only by freeing large numbers of people from food production does elaboration of culture become possible. Of course culture existed with hunter-gatherer groups, but the surplus, so to speak, of culture that we call civilization did not. Look around you and think about how many people you encounter daily are food producers. It's an exceedingly small number. For about 98% of us, 99% of the work has been taken out of getting our food. All we have to do is go the grocery store or a restaurant and perhaps do a little cooking.
Thanks DWill for leading this discussion. I have been focussed on other things, and only managed to -re-read the first part of the book, but I still think it is a major classic that helps to explain the science of history and politics. Without this bigger economic story based on material natural resources, we can't have a valid theory of culture.

Whether Diamond takes his own logic to its full conclusion might be something to question. He is very sensitive about geographic determinism, and rightly so, because there is no reason someone taken from one environment into another should be disadvantaged by their origins. But, the other side of this coin is that when people stay in an environment that suffers from major natural geographic disadvantages, they also suffer from the cultural disadvantages that have evolved to cope with the natural circumstance over generations. Understanding these deep causal roots of disadvantage is essential if we want to work out strategies for sustainable and effective economic and social development. Diamond's big lesson is 'pretend it is not true and it will go away' is not a good scientific method.

One of the key developmental lessons here is the central role of cities and urbanization in economic development. There is a group called the Cities Alliance that is trying to get countries to overcome their prejudices against urban drift. Poor rural people will be much better off if they can move freely between city and country. The opportunities in cities are immense, due to concentration of talent, economies of scale, industrial technology, efficiency of service and transport, etc. Agriculture is far more efficient when managed on industrial scale than when using traditional smallholder methods. The revolution of guns germs and steel is only part way complete, and has to be built on to achieve global stability and security.

A further point here is the relation of this material to the debate with Richard Dawkins around group selection. Diamond seems to clearly show the operation of group selection in human evolution, simply because large groups outcompete small groups through greater productivity, competitiveness and efficiency. This theme of economies of scale was addressed by the economist Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations where he pointed out that a pin factory is far more competitive when it uses coordinated industrial efficiency.


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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
It looks as if this discussion is closing up. I am sorry I never could keep up - I am still in the middle of the book. I have enjoyed the read, although I have often found myself nit-picking the specifics of JD's supporting evidence. Over all I think this book contributes greatly to our understanding of human history and why Europe has been the most influential in the past several 1000 years (why they got the guns and took over the world). He has definately convinced me that geography is the single most important factor in answering Yali's question. However, once we hit the 20th century I don't think geography is nearly as important in world developments. We have arrived at a new moment - communication and access to the technologies of communication seem to be the force that is moving the world.

I expect I will plod along and finish the book eventually. At my current speed, I'd say late spring.


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Wed Jan 25, 2012 7:49 pm
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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
Robert Tulip wrote:
Thanks DWill for leading this discussion. I have been focussed on other things, and only managed to -re-read the first part of the book, but I still think it is a major classic that helps to explain the science of history and politics. Without this bigger economic story based on material natural resources, we can't have a valid theory of culture.

Diamond himself is partly responsible for the criticism he receives for over-extending the theory. He opens the book trying to answer Yali's question--that is, why certain areas are advantaged, others aren't--but during the course of the book he tries to extend the influence of geography to what I would call geopolitics. He speaks of autocatalytic processes operating in the development of technology; the same could be true in culture/history, which creates effects that lead us far from the determinism of geography. To explain why Europe, not China, created the modern world, geography doesn't seem of much help. All geography can explain is how China became one of the early centers of farming and why it developed an advanced civilization. Why it withdrew has more complex explanations than its geography. But if we don't assume that Diamond's theory attempts to explain everything, as no social science theory ever will, we can see that it does help explain human history and that it is relevant even today.

I came across a statement by the great historian Samuel Huntington that seems apropos of the criticism that things are more complicated than Diamond makes them out to be: "If you tell people the world is complicated, you're not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it's complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single [cause], or what are the couple of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon."
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Whether Diamond takes his own logic to its full conclusion might be something to question. He is very sensitive about geographic determinism, and rightly so, because there is no reason someone taken from one environment into another should be disadvantaged by their origins. But, the other side of this coin is that when people stay in an environment that suffers from major natural geographic disadvantages, they also suffer from the cultural disadvantages that have evolved to cope with the natural circumstance over generations. Understanding these deep causal roots of disadvantage is essential if we want to work out strategies for sustainable and effective economic and social development. Diamond's big lesson is 'pretend it is not true and it will go away' is not a good scientific method.

That's well said, as usual. Although you can take an child at birth away from an impoverished Aborigine setting and have a pretty fair expectation of seeing her succeed as well as anyone else in a first-world culture, the recovery of an entire culture will take a long time and won't automatically come about even if the geographic disadvantages were somehow mitigated.
Quote:
One of the key developmental lessons here is the central role of cities and urbanization in economic development. There is a group called the Cities Alliance that is trying to get countries to overcome their prejudices against urban drift. Poor rural people will be much better off if they can move freely between city and country. The opportunities in cities are immense, due to concentration of talent, economies of scale, industrial technology, efficiency of service and transport, etc. Agriculture is far more efficient when managed on industrial scale than when using traditional smallholder methods. The revolution of guns germs and steel is only part way complete, and has to be built on to achieve global stability and security.

Then do you see no future in any 'small is beautiful' scenario? In Africa we hear of the 'appropriate technology' movement, whereby people are given machines that may be human-powered and can be easily repaired. The idea is to make a village life sustainable. Even in developed countries, a dream now is to 'go local' in food production, relying mainly on many small, non-industrialized producers. I recognize the element of the romantic in that, but wonder if it might also be a better path toward sustainability.
Quote:
A further point here is the relation of this material to the debate with Richard Dawkins around group selection. Diamond seems to clearly show the operation of group selection in human evolution, simply because large groups outcompete small groups through greater productivity, competitiveness and efficiency. This theme of economies of scale was addressed by the economist Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations where he pointed out that a pin factory is far more competitive when it uses coordinated industrial efficiency.

I wonder, though, whether the size of populations is exclusively a competitive advantage for human groups, and not therefore a selective advantage for animals generally. Although there may be a million times more starlings than there are flickers, I can't see where numbers alone count for that much once there is enough for stable breeding populations. Although larger human cultures able to invent and produce more, we also have the continual problem in human populations of too many people competing for scarce resources and the whole group being weakened as a competitor as a result.


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Last edited by DWill on Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:39 pm, edited 2 times in total.



Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:38 pm
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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
DWill wrote:
To explain why Europe, not China, created the modern world, geography doesn't seem of much help.
This question of the comparative determining material factors in the history of Europe and China is a really interesting big theme. The role of mountains and seas in creating cultural groups is central. Europe evolved a set of competing nation states, after the Roman Empire was swamped by the scale of the Eurasian land mass with the Hun and Vandal invasions. The separation produced by the Alps, the Pyrenees, the English Channel and the Rhine has no equivalent in China, except in separating China itself from Korea, Vietnam and Japan. The massive scale of China allowed centralised power with the designation of Middle Kingdom over thousands of years. As a result, the competitive national pressures seen in Europe between roughly equal powers - Spain, Italy, France, England, Germany - simply did not apply in China. And Portugal got a first mover advantage by its location as the Atlantic coastal power best able to explore Africa and Asia.

There was never any military incentive in China to use gunpowder for cannon, of the type that the equal nation states produced in Europe. So while imperial China was culturally advanced as a result of its size, its stability as a universe unto itself meant it was politically, economically and militarily stagnant, lacking the arms race pressures that occurred at the other end of Eurasia. Now that China is in competition with Europe and America and India, we are seeing it rise back to the natural position that was suppressed by the European conquest of the world.
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Huntington...simplify
Huntington's famous book The Clash of Civilizations is notable for predicting the need for the USA to define its national security interests in opposition to another great power, initially Russia, and then Islam and China. I studied his ideas when I did a graduate diploma in foreign affairs and trade, and must admit that I found his idea confusing that a civilization is the highest rank of human identity. It seems to distil a mythic level of simplicity into what really are nuanced and overlapping complexities. Surprisingly, Huntington's map includes PNG in the west. I'm not sure Yali would agree with that. It is justified by the fact that PNG is within the Oceania security umbrella guaranteed by the US-Australia culturo-military alliance.
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Although you can take an child at birth away from an impoverished Aborigine setting and have a pretty fair expectation of seeing her succeed as well as anyone else in a first-world culture, the recovery of an entire culture will take a long time and won't automatically come about even if the geographic disadvantages were somehow mitigated.
You may be familiar with the syndrome of indigenous people who are removed from their culture who then pine for it. In Australia we have the Stolen Generation, aborigines who were raised by white families, many of whom experience an intense feeling of loss and betrayal, that their identity is in the blood and cannot be simply removed. The scale of cultural genocide in European settler countries like the USA and Australia is so vast that these questions of geographic determinism are far deeper and more sensitive than we can easily grasp.

Australian Aborigines consider that since their ancestors have been here for 60,000 years, their identity is part of the land, whereas the settlers who first arrived 200 years ago (<0.5%) have far shallower rights and identity. American Indians only go back one quarter of the time of Australian Aborigines, but still they have the similar idea that the earth is their mother, as a spiritual identity that regards the settlers with contempt.

Quote:
Then do you see no future in any 'small is beautiful' scenario? In Africa we hear of the 'appropriate technology' movement, whereby people are given machines that may be human-powered and can be easily repaired. The idea is to make a village life sustainable. Even in developed countries, a dream now is to 'go local' in food production, relying mainly on many small, non-industrialized producers. I recognize the element of the romantic in that, but wonder if it might also be a better path toward sustainability.
It is a conundrum. Getting into the earth and planting a garden and eating food you have grown yourself is something that is very valuable. But with seven billion people on our planet, pushing nine billion in our lifetimes, the practicality of smallholder production is uncertain. My view is that we will see massive industrial change, with geoengineering to manage climate, continued urbanisation, and consolidation of rural land holdings in large corporate ownership. There are some situations where smallholder agriculture is commercially feasible, but only with a semi-subsistence status.

You rightly raise the contrast of romance and sustainability. As a rule, romantic dreams are not sustainable. However, the anomie of industrial civilization is really bad. There are people in small island states such as the Solomon Islands who have no wish to join industrial civilization, and are often happier with their subsistence affluence. That is all to the good, and should be supported by finding ways they can increase cash incomes with products such as coconut oil and coffee. But on the mass scale, urbanity is the main game, and we have to find ways to make urban life sustainable, including by ways to link urban people back to nature in ways that are sustainable.

I do not like Jeffrey Sachs and his Millennium Villages in Africa. There is far too much ideology and far too little evidence in this approach to development. Africa has to focus on economic growth, and that means cities, industry, scale, governance and modern innovation. The covert agenda of preventing urban drift is a recipe for holding Africa back.
Quote:
I wonder, though, whether the size of populations is exclusively a competitive advantage for human groups, and not therefore a selective advantage for animals generally. Although there may be a million times more starlings than there are flickers, I can't see where numbers alone count for that much once there is enough for stable breeding populations. Although larger human cultures are able to invent and produce more, we also have the continual problem in human populations of too many people competing for scarce resources and the whole group being weakened as a competitor as a result.
My view is that we will move to the sea. 71% of our planet is ocean, on average three miles deep. We can build floating islands on bags of fresh water one mile in diameter, and float around the planet. Climate change will make the move to the sea very attractive. By churning the sea with geoengineering we will soon achieve abundant prosperity on a scale we have not even dreamt of.


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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
Good stuff there. Using geography to explain the interplay, or lack of, between China and Europe seems so malleable a device. Knowing more or less how things turned out, we can easily invent a determining role for geography. Diamond claims that China's relative lack of internal geographic barriers led to early unification under an emperor, which then put the entire country under the fiat of an emperor's wacky decision not to go out on the high seas. So there was too much unification, whereas in a more geographically fragmented Europe, there was 'just the right' degree of unification, which still allowed competition between each unified segment. The trouble with this is that it's subject to reversibility had the situation turned out differently. Unification would be touted as China's crucial strength. We need to look inside China at its cultural history to understand why it turned away from engagement. It's very unlikely that an emperor issued an edict on a personal whim, without that edict coming from strong cultural currents.


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Thu Jan 26, 2012 7:28 am
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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
DWill wrote:
Good stuff there. Using geography to explain the interplay, or lack of, between China and Europe seems so malleable a device. Knowing more or less how things turned out, we can easily invent a determining role for geography. Diamond claims that China's relative lack of internal geographic barriers led to early unification under an emperor, which then put the entire country under the fiat of an emperor's wacky decision not to go out on the high seas. So there was too much unification, whereas in a more geographically fragmented Europe, there was 'just the right' degree of unification, which still allowed competition between each unified segment. The trouble with this is that it's subject to reversibility had the situation turned out differently. Unification would be touted as China's crucial strength. We need to look inside China at its cultural history to understand why it turned away from engagement. It's very unlikely that an emperor issued an edict on a personal whim, without that edict coming from strong cultural currents.

I very much agree with this statement about China and I think it illustrates where and how JD's geographic determinism may reach its limits for explanation. One of the things I've been thinking about China is that communication between the far reaching areas of China was not very good and therefor the idea of the strong centralized unification is weakened in my mind. If I remember correctly, much power existed with local leaders.


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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
Saffron wrote:
It looks as if this discussion is closing up. I am sorry I never could keep up - I am still in the middle of the book. I have enjoyed the read, although I have often found myself nit-picking the specifics of JD's supporting evidence. Over all I think this book contributes greatly to our understanding of human history and why Europe has been the most influential in the past several 1000 years (why they got the guns and took over the world). He has definately convinced me that geography is the single most important factor in answering Yali's question. However, once we hit the 20th century I don't think geography is nearly as important in world developments. We have arrived at a new moment - communication and access to the technologies of communication seem to be the force that is moving the world.

I expect I will plod along and finish the book eventually. At my current speed, I'd say late spring.

I have finished GGS but I'm still interested in discussing the matters it raises, partly because I'm reading a couple other books, which touch on these subjects.

Saffron, you raise a point here that has come up before in earlier comments but perhaps in slightly different context .. that 'things are different now' .. that geography is much less determinant than it once was due to development of complex societies, technology etc. I partially agree but I would raise the point that our collective tendency to focus on urbanized areas and areas where mankind has had a very significant impact tends to blind us to the circumstances of those who live close to the land. I think there are very significant geographical related events happening, like desertification, break down of perma-frost and related erosion and collapse of soils, rising sea levels and related salination and erosion problems and many other effects that are causing developmental disadvantages even today.

Although I have made some critical comments of GGS, I do feel it has sensitized me to a greater extent as to the role of geography in development and under development. Perhaps this role has faded a bit over the last decades and centuries, but I think our fate is linked integrally with our geography. I would not say 'determined' by it, just linked.

With regards to Yali's question, although I do not want to diminish the importance of the question, I think we have to consider that many people see development as being about a lot more than just 'cargo' ... eg. regaining cultural traditions for example, saving languages that are near extinct, political and democratic development, health etc. Perhaps Yali meant to include such things but I doubt it because the word 'kago' refers to material goods and technology, maybe the meaning could be stretched to include health care but that would be a stretch. So, when we consider the world's have's and have-nots, I would argue that we have to consider the wider basket not just 'kago'. I think GGS does go some way toward seeing this wider basket but Diamond returns to Yali's question as the fundamental one he is answering, when I think in reality, Diamond is addressing a substantially wider question.



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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
giselle wrote:
I have finished GGS but I'm still interested in discussing the matters it raises, partly because I'm reading a couple other books, which touch on these subjects.

Great! I will keep on posting.

giselle wrote:
......I think there are very significant geographical related events happening, like desertification, break down of perma-frost and related erosion and collapse of soils, rising sea levels and related salination and erosion problems and many other effects that are causing developmental disadvantages even today.

Although I have made some critical comments of GGS, I do feel it has sensitized me to a greater extent as to the role of geography in development and under development. Perhaps this role has faded a bit over the last decades and centuries, but I think our fate is linked integrally with our geography. I would not say 'determined' by it, just linked.


Good point and think you are right that our fate is linked to geography. It will play a roll in how the future unfolds - just in different ways than in the past maybe or not with as much force.


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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
Saffron: that's good ... where are you in GGS?

Just a thought about geography playing a lesser role as a determining factor of development nowadays ... I wonder if our perception of this lessening role relates more to our individual freedom and ability to move about the world with ease compared with the geographically restricted lives of our ancestors while the broader societal level impact of geography might be a different question altogether ... for example, where changes or limitations of geography/environment is playing a significant negative role, like areas where water supply is becoming increasingly limited (I'm thinking of California), there may be a loss of population as individuals leave that area for more promising locales .. there may be a brain drain and capital drain as people with the most 'resources' go first ... so the development impact of a negative 'geography' effect may be magnified and may happen quicker than centuries ago. This impact would be measured more at the broader societal level than as impact on individuals who may simply leave for better circumstances elsewhere. I realize I have focused on 'change' here, not long term geographical status as JD does.



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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
I'm glad this is still going. Giselle, it might interest you that in a book of JD's that saffron and I read, Collapse, he does address the very aspects you bring up. I think in GGS he was talking about the geographic hands we are dealt, and what we were able to do with them. He touches lightly on the changes we wrought on our original inheritance. For example, the Fertile Crescent became not so fertile after salinization became such a problem. In Collapse, it's all about how societies fail, which is not always by squandering or over-exploiting resources, but is a fair amount of the time.

I see GGS as being ultimately about power--how power, both economic and military, became distributed as it is. There is much else to consider when we talk about societies that we see as good, but it's an unfortunate fact that power usually trumps.


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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
giselle wrote:
Saffron: that's good ... where are you in GGS?

I am at the end of chapter 13: Necessity's Mother. I've not had a look inside my book since last week - painting right now. When I bought my townhouse I painted everything with the exception of one room - the largest room - I am in the throws of painting it now. I promise to pick the book back up tomorrow evening. What other books are you reading? DWill's mention of Colapsed is apropos. And I also think that maybe the most important take away from GGS is the explanation of how power became distributed as it is. Colapsed is a good follow up to GGS, in that it continues to develope some of JD's ideas about the interaction between humans and the enviroment (geography).


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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
Thanks DWill, I'll see if "Collapse" is available on Kindle. I've become a high tech reader! And I absolutely agree with you .. power makes the difference. Power, which may be derived originally from factors like production of food surplus or technological progress, can be wielded in so many different ways and to different effect, and these ways are surely culturally determined to my mind, so we must sort out the derivation of power from the use of power because they are two different things. Power is much maligned and I think often misused so deservedly maligned, but it is difficult to see how human progress would have been possible without power because without power there would be no authority hence no organization and the amassing of resources needed for significant 'progress' would have been impossible. Whether or not power SHOULD trump is a tricky question but I think the fact that it DOES trump is an observable truth.



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Mon Jan 30, 2012 9:46 pm
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Post Re: Final Thoughts on GGS?
Saffron wrote:
giselle wrote:
Saffron: that's good ... where are you in GGS?

I am at the end of chapter 13: Necessity's Mother. I've not had a look inside my book since last week - painting right now. When I bought my townhouse I painted everything with the exception of one room - the largest room - I am in the throws of painting it. I promise to pick the book back up tomorrow evening. What other books are you reading? DWill's of Colapsed is apropos. I also think that maybe the most important take away from GGS is the explanation of how power became distributed as it is. Colapsed is a good follow up to GGS, in that it continues to develope some of JD's ideas about the interaction between humans and the enviroment (geography).

I understand what you mean about the 'throws of painting' although I think you mean 'throes' :roll: sorry, couldn't resist. Anyway, throes is fine but best if you don't throw your paint, that would be very messy.

I'm reading "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" by William Easterly, I have quoted him on this GGS thread once or twice. It's an ok read, he claims to be a 'gadfly from the World Bank', which I guess means he is a rebel with a cause but his book is pretty much right wing agenda cloaked in a bit of international economics and incentive theory. He does criticize the World Bank and it's policies but then who doesn't? Also, I've been catching up on some World Health Org papers on malaria and related development matters ... its an interest I've had for some time due, in the first place, to personal experience with it. I believe the development impact of malaria is grossly underestimated and misunderstood and I couldn't help saying so when it cropped up in GGS.



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Saffron
Mon Jan 30, 2012 10:05 pm
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