Can a Nation's Soil Explain Its Economic Fortunes?


Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling Stone, Forbes, and Salon.

Jared Diamond argued, in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, that geography is fate. One thread of his theory sought to explain why societies in Eurasia developed more quickly than in the Americas and Africa. Because Eurasia is oriented horizontally, he argued, all of its ancient inhabitants were at roughly similar latitudes, which meant that they worked with roughly similar environments and climates. Thus, a particularly valuable crop or domesticated animal could be put to use just about anywhere on the continent, and one group’s best practices could easily be adopted by other groups—not the case in vertical Africa. Hence, different rates of development.

Two economics researchers, Brown’s Oded Galor and Southern Methodist University’s Ömer Özak, recently published an ambitious paper reminiscent of Diamond's work. Like Diamond, they make an argument that is so simple and intuitive that it at first glance appears reductive: People whose ancestors come from places with richer harvests are more likely to appreciate the benefits of long-term thinking. Essentially, the theory suggests that because people who lived in especially fertile areas had more reason to believe that patience pays off, they came to create cultures that are okay with delaying gratification.

Galor and Özak’s thinking, while data-driven, mostly yields abstract conclusions: The higher the crop yield, the more patient people will be, and the more patient people are, the more dependably their economies will grow. However, the pair's findings are occasionally quite concrete: Modern-day countries that, roughly 500 years ago, had crop yields one standard deviation higher than average build roughly one year of extra schooling into their education systems. In other words, if wheat was really shooting up for your ancestors 500 years ago, then you’re more likely to have had 12 years of schooling instead of 11.

A belief in the importance of education is just one part of why long-term thinking can contribute to economic growth. Economies that take the long view are more likely to make capital investments and spend money on research, and these tendencies often bring about lasting prosperity...

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