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A Splendid Exchange

How Trade Shaped the World

By William J. Bernstein
16-minute read
Audio available
A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein

A Splendid Exchange (2008) offers a comprehensive look at the events and inventions that enabled free trade on a global scale. It also shows how the fight between isolationism, or protectionism, and free trade had been going on long before the term “globalization” was ever coined. History shows us how natural and beneficial trade is between nations but reveals its dark and dangerous side as well.

  • Economists and historians
  • People curious about the roots of globalization
  • Free-market adherents and trade protectionists

William J. Bernstein is a retired neurologist whose popular writing has focused on modern investment strategies and financial history. His books include The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created and The Four Pillars of Investing.

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A Splendid Exchange

How Trade Shaped the World

By William J. Bernstein
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein
Synopsis

A Splendid Exchange (2008) offers a comprehensive look at the events and inventions that enabled free trade on a global scale. It also shows how the fight between isolationism, or protectionism, and free trade had been going on long before the term “globalization” was ever coined. History shows us how natural and beneficial trade is between nations but reveals its dark and dangerous side as well.

Key idea 1 of 10

Trade began in Mesopotamia with early agriculture and the materials for simple tools.

At your local supermarket, you might find fruit and vegetables from places as far away as Peru, New Zealand or Portugal; at Western appliance stores, you’ll see TVs from Japan or Taiwan; and at the clothing store, you’ll find shirts made in China or Bangladesh.

Today’s globalized trade touches every part of our lives – but we hardly notice it anymore.

To get the full story of how we reached this point, we have to rewind several thousands of years to Mesopotamia, where commerce began.

Some of the earliest trade routes formed around the Persian Gulf, where agriculture was being developed and basic manufacturing methods were being used to create advanced tools.

One of the earliest goods to be traded was obsidian, a black volcanic rock that was valued in prehistoric times because it was easy to turn into a razor-sharp weapon or tool.

Archeologists have found obsidian flakes in the Franchthi Cave in Greece that date back over 12,000 years. And the only way for that obsidian to have ended up there was by having been transported from somewhere else, most likely from Mesopotamia.

The region of Mesopotamia is often called “the cradle of civilization.” The ancient and fertile land was located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, two waterways that connect to the Persian Gulf.

Mesopotamia was rich in many goods, including barley, fish and wool. But it also lacked some vital resources, including the timber, metals and stone needed to build weapons, boats and shelters.

The benefit of trade thus quickly became clear, and the Mesopotamian nations of Sumeria, Assyria and Babylonia used their surplus goods to trade for metals from Oman, marble from Persia and lumber from Lebanon. This is how the Persian Gulf became an early center for trade and commerce by 3000 BC.

As civilization slowly spread westward to Egypt and Greece, new trade routes emerged in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Greece exported wine and oils in exchange for the grains it lacked, like the wheat it imported from Egypt.

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