Monday, December 12, 2011


Many people have seen Niall Ferguson's "Six Killer Apps of Prosperity" talk at the TED blog site.  I greatly enjoyed his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, which elaborates.  It's a great topic and many people, inlcuding Joyce Appleby, Gregory Clark, Hernando deSoto, Francis Fukuyama, Deepak LalDavid Landes, and Deirdre McCloskey (and many others) have had their say. 
One of Ferguson's Killer Apps is "Consumption".  He starts with clothing.  The industrial revolution made cotton garments cheaper and more affordable for large numbers of people around the world.  The author points us to the 1909 photo collection by Albert Kahn showing the variety of garb worn in 50 countries around the world and noting that this variety was soon to end as more and more people could afford what they really wanted, Western dress. The invention of the Singer sewing machine speeded it all up.

It's then a hop-skip-and-jump to blue jeans which the communists could never get right and by which Ferguson highlights that system's great weakness:  it could not meet consumer demand.  Sputniks, yes; levis, no. In fact, jeans were officialy scorned, but that did not help.  When James Dean, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and others acted and appeared in jeans it was really all over for party-line efforts to villify them.

Ferguson has many stories like this.  Historians will surely challenge some of them, but I found the book fascinating.