Weighty Waltz

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Economic history is not an obvious crowd pleaser, as it lends itself more to questions of theory than human interest. Think again, argues Peter Jay, economics editor of the bbc and author of the newly published Road to Riches or The Wealth of Man (Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 383 pages); mankind's economic story is an epic of appetite and Darwinian struggle, of inspiration and endeavor in the face of adversity.

Jay dances across time from the first agricultural revolution to the second industrial revolution, through man's roles as hunter-gatherer, farmer, citizen, imperialist and capitalist. Ancient Rome provides an example of the importance of good governance, for example, while late 17th century Britain had stability and a liberal economic structure. But famine, plague and war have interrupted progress throughout history.

Jay fires off an arsenal of facts, from the curious to the mundane. While readers may not be gripped by the significance of double-entry bookkeeping in medieval Italy, Jay is nothing if not lucid. This is history by "a layman for laymen," as he puts it, and he defends his choice to oversimplify "bravely, but not intolerably."

The contemporary philosophy of "economic bliss" holds complacently that the "good guys-in the shape of political democrats and economic liberals-have finally won," but Jay is skeptical. Despite untold material comforts, the world remains as precarious as ever-if not more so-because of inequality, strife and the threat of catastrophic climate change. Road to Riches may ultimately be the story of progress, but in many ways, Jay warns soberly, the economic waltz of the third millennium may have the same jerky rhythms as those of the first two.