Feature

How culture feeds into the poverty trap

Why are some countries wealthy while others seem doomed to eternal poverty?

How culture feeds into the poverty trap

Robert SamuelsonThe Washington Post

Why are some countries wealthy while others seem doomed to eternal poverty? asked Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. For a long time, most economists argued that any society could “nurture economic growth by adopting sound policies.” But now economist Gregory Clark has mounted a strong argument that culture is the determining factor. In his new book, A Farewell to Alms, “Clark suggests that much of the world’s remaining poverty is semi-permanent.” Some societies, he says, simply lack the “bedrock values” that lead to growth and rising living standards. He notes that in the early 1800s, China, Japan, and England all enjoyed political stability, low taxes, and open markets. Yet England—not China or Japan—was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. What made England different? Clark says it was that country’s “middle-class values of patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, and education.” Other societies, he says, are “dominated by tribal, religious, ideological, or political values” that can impede economic development. Historians might take issue with some of Clark’s assertions, but there’s no disputing his broader point: “Culture counts.”

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