False Economy | Alan Beattie

Summary of: False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World
By: Alan Beattie


Embark on an insightful journey through the economic history of the world with ‘False Economy’ by Alan Beattie. Discover how countries like the United States and Argentina, which started with similar economic prospects, diverged due to the choices they made in developing their land, embracing manufacturing industries, and navigating international trade. Unravel the role that urbanization plays in a nation’s economic prosperity, with comparisons of overpopulated cities like Buenos Aires to thriving, diversified cities like Madrid, and examine decisions that shape economic balances like agricultural imports and exports.

Paths Diverged: Nations’ Economic Fates

Argentina and the United States initially shared similar foundations as young, agriculturally rich nations. However, their economic destinies changed course as they made different decisions concerning land development and industrialization. The United States, opting to split land amongst skilled laborers, welcomed European farmers who significantly expanded their nation’s western frontier. Additionally, America thrived on embracing manufacturing industries and foreign trade. Contrarily, Argentina chose to entrust its land to a select few wealthy landlords, limiting their agricultural potential. Things worsened when Argentina shunned foreign investors and globalization during twentieth-century industrialization. Instead, they attempted to protect their government monopolies and isolate their markets, ultimately leading to one of the largest governmental bankruptcies in history. The contrasting economic growth paths of these two nations are a testament to the importance of land distribution, industry, and integration in global trade.

Cities Reflect National Economy

Major cities often mirror a nation’s economic situation due to development and urbanization’s impact on prosperity. For instance, Rome during its empire days indicated both growth and instability, with high taxation and warfare resulting from the need to support its inhabitants’ demands. Nowadays, overcrowded cities like Buenos Aires and Mexico City signify the lack of opportunities in their respective countries. In Argentina, 35% of the population resides in Buenos Aires, highlighting the failure of agricultural programs and forcing rural citizens to seek work within the city. Similar situations arise in multiple African cities, with urbanization occurring at the expense of the rest of the nation. A prime example is Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, where taxing the countryside caused farmers to lose business and relocate to slums. In contrast, thriving cities like Madrid and Chicago contribute to diversified national economies, while cities such as Detroit crash due to overreliance on one industry.

Intriguing Global Food Trade

The journey of asparagus from Peru to the United States can be traced back to a 1980s trade agreement, which curbs cocaine production and supplies the U.S. with millions of dollars’ worth of asparagus. Such decisions significantly impact a country’s economic stability. For instance, Egypt, once a wheat-growing nation, now imports wheat due to its considerable water demands, opting to grow water-saving crops like herbs and vegetables for export. In contrast, civil wars and risky military regimes in many African countries hinder their ability to profit from exports, such as coffee. The costs involved in overcoming challenging border crossings and maintaining the quality of produce are often too high for companies to make a profit.

Managing Resources for Prosperity

Finding valuable natural resources in a country may seem like a recipe for success, but history has shown that it can lead to economic chaos if not managed correctly. Comparing the economic situations of countries like Saudi Arabia, Norway, and Chile, it becomes evident that using stabilization funds to responsibly allocate revenue from natural resources can lead to prosperity. However, the struggles of countries like Sierra Leone and Zambia demonstrate that mismanagement and chasing quick wealth can have devastating consequences. A smart partnership, like the one between Botswana and De Beers, is another example of how to create long-term stability from natural wealth.

Although one might assume that discovering oil or diamonds in a country guarantees wealth, this is not always the case. Poor resource management can lead to economic instability, as seen in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Despite a high per capita income, the country suffers from a 25% unemployment rate and a restless population.

On the other hand, Norway exemplifies responsible resource management. By putting excess oil revenue into a national stabilization fund, Norway has achieved economic stability. Similarly, Chile has created stability through a stabilization fund for earnings from its copper resources, showing that these funds can prevent overreliance on a single resource.

The fate of African nations with abundant diamonds or copper further illustrates the importance of proper resource management. Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth led to illicit trading and an eleven-year civil war. Zambia, seeking rapid wealth from its copper mines, pushed out foreign investors but was left with an unstable government due to inexperience and mismanagement.

Conversely, Botswana tapped into its diamond wealth intelligently by partnering with foreign company De Beers. A long-term revenue-sharing agreement allowed De Beers to manage the diamond mines while Botswana invested in a national fund, thereby achieving economic stability from a steady revenue source. This example, along with Norway and Chile, demonstrates that proper management of natural resources is crucial for long-term prosperity and stability.

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