History

Maybe not, possibly patents were more effective.  Here is some new research from B. Zorina Khan, entitled “Prestige and Profit: The Royal Society of Arts and Incentives for Innovation, 1750-1850”:

Debates have long centered around the relative merits of prizes and other incentives for technological innovation. Some economists have cited the experience of the prestigious Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which offered honorary and cash awards, as proof of the efficacy of innovation prizes. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. This study examines data on several thousand of these inducement prizes, matched with patent records and biographical information about the applicants. The empirical analysis shows that inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. Owing to such adverse selection, prizes were negatively related to subsequent areas of important technological discovery. The RSA ultimately became disillusioned with the prize system, which they recognized had done little to promote technological progress and industrialization. The Society acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system. The findings suggest some skepticism is warranted about claims regarding the role that elites and nonmarket-oriented institutions played in generating technological innovation and long-term economic development.

I consider the origins of modern science to be a still under-studied topic.

I strongly favor NATO and I don’t think you can trust the Russians with just about anything, or for that matter make much of a deal with them.  I’m with Mitt Romney on all of this, as I’ve been saying for years.

That said, I feel some of the recent discussions on Trump’s pronouncements have been a bit kontextlos.  I would suggest this wee bit of background history:

1. Not too long ago, Germany did have a national leader, Gerhard Schröder, who in essence ended up as a paid agent of Vladimir Putin.  After leaving office, he has spent much of the rest of his career working for Gazprom.  Try on this bit for size:

Mr Schroeder was Germany’s Social Democrat leader from 1998 until 2005. He is a personal friend of Vladimir Putin and once described the Russian President as a “flawless democrat”. He joined the board of the Russian energy giant Gazprom after losing Germany’s 2005 election and has defended Russia’s response to the crisis in Ukraine on several occasions.

In other words, Germany had its own Trump long before the United States did.  You could call Schröder the Ur-Trump, albeit with a different socioeconomic pose.

2. It was Schröder who made the decision to take Germany off nuclear power and also to make the country energy-dependent on Russia:

As Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder was a strong advocate of the Nord Stream pipeline project, which aims to supply Russian gas directly to Germany, thereby bypassing transit countries. The agreement to build the pipeline was signed two weeks before the German parliamentary election. On 24 October 2005, just a few weeks before Schröder stepped down as Chancellor, the German government guaranteed to cover 1 billion euros of the Nord Stream project cost, should Gazprom default on a loan…Soon after stepping down as chancellor, Schröder accepted Gazprom’s nomination for the post of the head of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, raising questions about a potential conflict of interest.

Russia now provides 35% of Germany’s oil imports and 39% of the natural gas imports.

I say NATO as an instrument for opposing Russia (not its only purpose, however) mostly ended with the Russian gas deal, because Putin can turn off the spigot any time he wants.  Germany, the major European power, can no longer stand up to Russia in a pinch and it cannot do so because of the corruption of one of its major leaders.  (Merkel I believe would not have done the same, but it is hard for her to undo this unfortunate situation, though I applaud the toughness she has shown, which at times has been considerable.)  Furthermore, earlier U.S. presidents, most of all Bush, didn’t have the stones or the means to do anything about this.

If you’re looking for icing on the cake, try this:

3. Germans today are some of the most anti-American people in Europe, and that doesn’t help the Atlantic alliance either.  It’s not uncommon for German citizens to suggest they don’t see much difference between Putin and the United States (NYT), or even may be pro-Putin, and I mean that pre-Trump.  So when Trump equates Putin and Merkel, German citizens have been equating American presidents with Putin for a good while now.  That’s not an excuse or rationale for Trump’s behavior, but it is worth keeping in mind when thinking about how to reboot the alliance moving forward.

I don’t at all favor what Trump is saying, or how many Republicans don’t seem to be complaining, but NATO has been on the ropes for some time now.  On the Russia issue, Trumpismus is far more advanced in Germany than here in the United States.  The sorry truth is that some of what Trump is saying is true, though his current rhetoric probably will end up making it worse.

Bruce Caldwell emails me:

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 4 – 16, 2017. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhD’s will also be considered. Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free housing and reading materials. The deadline for applying is March 3. Travel stipends for those coming from afar will be considered on a case by case basis.

We are very excited about this year’s two week program, which has a somewhat different format from other years. The first week Bruce Caldwell will be the sole lecturer, and will present a mini-history of economic thought class, providing both content and tips on how to set up such a course. The second week is thematic. Steve Medema will present a history of the concept of market failure, and Kevin Hoover will present a history of macroeconomics. Applicants may sigh up for either week, or both. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website, http://hope.econ.duke.edu/

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

Here is what I wrote in 2007, when Prospect magazine asked me to name the most underrated cultural development of the year:

The iPhone. The world really did change…We now have handheld personal computers and personal entertainment centres, yet they are no larger than a thin pack of cards. And no, I’m not a techie, a gadget freak or an Apple lover. The device itself is beautiful as well.

And here was my “overrated” answer:

Overrated: Hollywood movies. US ticket sales recovered this year, but to what end? This was a year for microculture, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The bigger visual productions of the year won’t much stand the test of time. On the bright side, television drama continues to rise in quality.

I am pleased to have bought an iPhone on the first day, I felt at the time it was like seeing the premiere of a Mozart opera.  Many people laughed at me for suggesting such an analogy, and they chided me for my infatuation with such a toy.  I recall Alex walking into my office, asking me what I thought, and I told him the product really did deliver what it promised and that it would change the world.

The funny thing is, I hardly use my iPhone anymore, much preferring the larger iPad.  I haven’t even bothered to order one of the larger iPhones, as for me it isn’t large enough and I marvel that others can use it as much as they do.  In other words, now that I have experience using the product my forecast, if I were to make one historically “blind,” but with that accumulated personal experience in pocket, would be far less accurate than what I said at the time.

How about calling the series “Lonely Planet”?

Years before penning Metamorphosis, considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written, Franz Kafka hoped to make his fortune writing a series of budget European travel guides.

Kafka conceived a business plan for the books, dubbed “on the cheap”, while travelling across the continent with his friend Max Brod in the summer of 1911. This detail was revealed in volume three of Reiner Stach’s biography, Kafka: The Early Years, published in translation (by Shelley Frisch) last month.

The ahead-of-its-time idea (considering the popularity of budget travel tips today) sought to take on the traditional Baedeker travel guides, which then consisted primarily of hotel and restaurant listings, but lacked the insider knowledge Kafka felt was truly valuable to a traveller.

Questions that his guides proposed to address are ones that tourists still seek answers for now. On which days do museums have reduced fees? Are there any free concerts? Should you travel by taxi or tram? How much should you tip? There was also a suggestion to include advice on where to find erotic and sexual entertainment for a fair price.

Stach writes: “Kafka and Brod were convinced that a travel guide that answered all these questions candidly and supplied a select few reasonable and reliable recommendations would instantly beat out the competition … With a series of this kind, they could earn millions, especially if it was published in several languages.”

Yet it seems they were a wee bit clueless on their own travels:

For example, after discovering that Zurich’s city library was closed on Sundays, the pair believed they could still gain entry by asking at the tourist office.

And:

…the pair were so afraid that their idea would be stolen that they wouldn’t reveal the full details of their pitch to a publisher without first securing an advance.

I would have enjoyed hearing the Swiss travel office response.  Here is the full story, via Ted Gioia.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.

lonewolfmcquade_quadFor many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.

The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.

Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.

There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is available on Netflix.

Hat tip: Dan Klein and also Emily Skarbek’s excellent post.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The reports of Boko Haram and terror killings are well known, and they reflect the interlocking and sometimes deadly combinations of regional, religious, sectarian and ethnic identities in the country, not to mention extreme inequalities of income and opportunity. Yet Nigeria has about 180 million people and is larger than Texas. The violence is the most frequently reported story in the West, but the underlying reality is far more complex and shows positive features.

For instance, the city of Lagos is in many regards a marvel of religious tolerance. Nigeria is about 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, and the area surrounding Lagos is also highly mixed in terms of religion. That may sound like a recipe for trouble, but in matters of religion Lagos is almost entirely peaceful. Religious intermarriage is common and usually not problematic, as is the case in many (not all) other parts of Nigeria as well. Many top Nigerian politicians have married outside their religion, kept two separate religions in the family and enjoyed continued political success.

Consider the scale and speed of this achievement. Lagos, with a population of about 20 million, is larger than many countries. It is the most commercially oriented part of Nigeria, and it grew so large only in the last few decades, as it attracted entrepreneurially minded people from many parts of Nigeria and other African countries. By one estimate, 85 new residents arrive every hour. That may sound chaotic, but in essence Nigeria has in a few decades created an almost entirely new, country-sized city built on the ideals and practice of religious tolerance. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim who was supported in his election by many Christian leaders, on the grounds that he would fight corruption more effectively. His running mate served as a Pentecostal pastor.

There are several other points, including an assessment of on the ground safety (better than you might think), do read the whole thing.

I wanted to like this book, as I am keen to discover new perspectives on the arts, even if I don’t agree with them.  “False” books on the arts often illuminate the artworks themselves, sometimes more than do the “true” treatments.  Yet this work I had a tough time making sense of.  I will confess to having read only about a third of it, and browsed some more.  As I understand the book’s thesis, the plasticity of the brain, as it changes across historical eras, helps explain changes in the content of the visual arts.  But I view brain plasticity as a generally overrated idea, evidence for such claims about the arts is hard to come by (how much do we know about differences in brains in ancient Athens for instance? And how good is our theory linking brain differences to artistic content?), and most of all neuroscience itself so often disappears during the book’s exposition.  Even the Amazon summary indicates the rather mysterious nature of the book’s main argument.  It is a beautifully produced volume, and it feels important, and maybe there is finally scope for a book of this kind, but…

Here is a (very) negative review by Matthew Rampley.  Some of you may nonetheless find this interesting.  It is a big ideas book, and perhaps it can prompt you to write a more clearly defined big ideas book in response.

Professor John Van Reenen, who predicted ahead of the referendum that Brexit would cost up to £1,700 per household per year, has been given an OBE for services to economics and public policy making.

Other academics to receive honours include Professor Paul Cheshire, who has argued that the green belt should be opened up to ease the housing crisis. He will receive a CBE in the honours, which are recognising 1,197 people in total.

Here is information about some of the other picks, indirectly (an induced google) via Diane Coyle.

1. Iran’s presidential race in May.  Iran does run real elections — sort of — but will Rouhani survive?  Or will the hardliners ascend again?  How much is Rouhani a hardliner anyway?  Stay tuned.  I’ll just note a theorem in the margins here: the greater the unpredictability of the American president, the more the identities and decisions of the other world leaders matter.  According to Wikipedia, the only announced reformist candidate is a blogger (not a good sign for him or them).

mehdi_khazali

2. How Nigeria copes with its recession.  This is the one country in sub-Saharan Africa that has the size and talent to make a significant commercial breakthrough.  Now that oil prices are back up a bit, can they dismantle their counterproductive exchange and capital controls, boost FDI, and get to four to six percent growth?  Or will they wallow in the range of one to two percent, which hardly means anything in light of Nigeria’s rising population?

3. Whether the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains stable. Joseph Kabila is staying past the end of his second presidential term.  Will this lead to renewed instability and conflict, beyond what is already the case?  “Africa’s World War” ended in 2003, not long ago, and it is not impossible to imagine it resuming.

4. African fertility ratesThey’re high.  In most other parts of the world, including Latin America and the Middle East, fertility has fallen much faster than most commentators had expected.  That is not yet the case for Africa, but will it be?

5. Modi’s India and where it it headed: Maybe the demonetisation was an unforced error, but it seems increasingly likely it was part of a broader strategy to push India into a semi-cashless, biometrically marked, income tax-paying society.  I’ll be curious to see how that goes.

6. Economic growth in Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Pakistan grew 4.7 percent last year and Bangladesh has averaged about six percent for the last decade.  Is all that (relative) good news going to continue?  If so, the world will be in much better shape than otherwise.

7. Will Xi Jinping overturn Chinese political conventions?  His term is supposed to end in 2022, but for a while he has been sending signals he might try to stay on as leader for much longer.  That could bring a new round of political instability to the Middle Kingdom.  Or a new round of stability.  Depending how you look at it.

8. Chinese capital flight and the currency peg.  This one seems to be heating to a boil.  Capital flight continues to rise, using every technique known to mankind including Bitcoin and e-purchases of Singaporean gambling tokens.  The government says that the sporadic reports of USD trades at 7-1 are nonsense, so they must be right.  When will it snap?  And when it does, will it be a non-event or a big deal?

9. American institutions: Will the United States Congress and courts continue to secure some version of rule of law in this country?  And will we agree on what that means?

10. What is the Latin American middle class good for?  Many Latin economies now have built a reasonably-sized middle class, but commodity prices are not in general favoring those economies.  Will those middle classes push their countries into better policies and educational systems?  Slowly but surely, I believe the answer is yes.

There is a chance the French or German elections make this list, but right now the best forecasts are for “business as usual” in both cases.  Brexit will continue to torture us with its drawn-out agony.  And remember — your emotional guide as to what is an important issue often reflects your own selfish concerns about the status of you and your preferred groups.  Do keep that in mind throughout this year.

If you’re looking for a few sleeper issues, I’ll cite Russia-Israel tensions over control of Middle Eastern airspace, economic and institutional recovery in Ukraine combined with sabotage potential from you-know-where, the political economy and geopolitics of aging in Japan, the rise of a Trump-like populist in Mexico, and the potential failure of the Saudi reform process as a few more to keep your eye on.  Climate change and the destroyed parts of the Middle East bear watching too, along with ongoing collapse in Yemen, for water supplies too.

He emails to me:

I thought it great. It brings something strikingly new to the Star Wars universe – new in a number of ways, good ways:

1. It’s a self-contained heroic tragedy. You know the new characters are doomed. A useful comparison is the Obi Wan-Anakin battle in III: The Rogue One feeling of tragedy is less powerful but more comprehensive.

2. The plot and the character development are based on dissension, conflict on the rebellion side. Even the “extremist” plays a vital role in the success.

3. The dedication of rebels to the rebellion is depicted as the best of bad options for making one’s life meaningful, and as something that one gets locked-in to.

4. Rebel activity appears brutal, as though the conventional IV-VI image of the rebellion is but the fanciful illusion of those caught in the day-to-day misery of prosecuting the rebellion. But still that illusion is sustained – in Rogue One we have the drama behind a piece of that larger story, a tragic, engrossing aside.

5. On the rebel side, the Force persuasion appears, not the sage wisdom of Alec Guinness, but more the religion of deplorables, a resort of desperation. Some of the rebels come across as fanatics.

Darth is sparse but still the heavy, more chilling than ever.

BTW, the “Pappa, pappa” scene was, I think, a tribute to the 1995 Cuarón masterpiece A Little Princess.

Here is a good piece on Star Wars and geopolitics.

“The convulsions of a civilized state usually compose the most instructive and most interesting part of its history”

That is from Hume’s History of England, via Dan Klein and also Andrew Sabl.

Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2016 at 12:19 am in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

giotto2

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.