The still-underrated Todd Kliman interviews her:

I’ve been given special powers, and I appoint you czar (funny, isn’t it, how we have so many appointed czars in this unaristocratic country) of food in the US. What is your first order of business? What sorts of laws do you push for? What public statements do you make? What is your 5-year plan? Your 10?

Me? A czar? My first order of business would be to go to the bathroom and throw up in sheer terror. I’m not a fan of appointed czars or of five-year plans. I am a fan of incremental changes. Look what’s happened in the 15 years since I wrote the article. Walmart’s become a major player, so has Monsanto, celebrity chefs, sustainability, and locavore have become household words, fats and sweeteners have been vilified and un-vilified, and now Taco Bell is removing artificial flavoring and coloring, corporations are scrambling to make their products appealing to those who want healthful and organic foods, and McDonald’s is in trouble. No one could have predicted or managed these changes. And many have happened through the power of the word. So I’d turn down the offer. The pen is mightier than the czar!

A memorial dedicated to the 32 Basque whalers who were killed in the West Fjords in 1615 in what’s known as Iceland’s only mass murder was unveiled in Hólmavík, the West Fjords, on April 22, the last day of winter. At the occasion, West Fjords district commissioner Jónas Guðmundsson revoked the order that Basques could be killed on sight in the region.

“Of course it’s more for fun; there are laws in this country which prohibit the killing of Basques,” Jónas told mbl.is. When asked whether he’s noticed an increase of Basque tourists since the order was revoked, he responded, “at least it’s safe for them to come here now.”

President of Gipuzkoa Martin Garitano spoke at the ceremony, as did Icelandic Minister of Education and Culture Illugi Gunnarsson, strandabyggd.is reports. The speeches were followed by musical performances and a moment of prayer.

The program included Xabier Irujo, descendant of one of the murdered Basque whale hunters, and Magnús Rafnsson, descendant of one of the murderers, taking part in a symbolic reconciliation, as it says on etxepare.eus.

There is more here, via Peter Kobulnicky.

The author is Michael North, and this new and excellent book, when it comes to the earlier centuries, emphasizes the role of Swedes and Germans in shaping a region of prosperity and trade.  The most interesting section (starts p.239) is about the 1920s, when the Baltic nations underwent a radical deindustrialization, due to their severing from the Russian empire.  That is when they deviated from the Nordic economies, which for the most part continued their industrialization.

I also recommend Sverre Bagge, Cross & Scepter: The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation.  If nothing else, this book will make you wonder if the recent success of the Nordic nations are in fact so deeply historically rooted after all.  As North (p.205) points out: “Industrialization arrived in all of these countries relatively late.”  Tom Buk-Swienty’s 1864: The Forgotten War That Shaped Modern Europe is a good book on how and why Denmark lost so much territory to Prussia/Germany.

From the comments, on dissimilation

by on May 23, 2015 at 2:18 pm in History | Permalink

John Smith writes:


“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

There is a new paper by Karol Jan Borowiecki, published in Oxford Economic Papers:

I investigate the consequences of long-run persistence of a society’s preferences for cultural goods. Historical cultural activity is approximated with the frequency of births of music composers during the Renaissance and is linked with contemporary measures of cultural activity in Italian provinces. Areas with a 1% higher number of composer births nowadays show an up to 0.29% higher supply of classical concerts and 0.16% more opera performances. Classical concerts and opera performances have also rather bigger audiences and obtain greater revenues in provinces that have been culturally active in the past. Today, those provinces also exhibit a somewhat lower supply of other forms of entertainment (e.g., sport events), thereby implying a tantalizing divergence in societies’ cultural preferences that is attributable to events rooted in the past. It is also shown that the geography of composer births is remarkably persistent over a period of seven centuries.

For the pointer I thank Ben Southwood.

That is the new Anders Aslund book, and it is instructive throughout.  Here are a few things I learned:

1. 80 percent of Ukrainian youth receive higher education of some kind.

2. Ukraine has the world’s highest rate of pension expenditures as a share of gdp, at about 18 percent, circa 2010.  Most of that is old age pensions, and that is for a population with a relatively short lifespan, 68.5 years, 122th in the world according to UNDP.

3. At the time of publication, Ukraine’s public expenditures stood at 53 percent of gdp.

4. “Ukraine is running out of money…”  OK, that one I already knew.

5. “No economy has fared as poorly in peacetime as Ukraine did from 1989 to 1999.  For a decade, Ukrainian GDP plummeted by a total of 61 percent, according to official statistics.”  Some of this, however, was offset by the growth of black markets.

6. Crimea is no longer included in Ukraine’s formal measure of gdp, although Donbas is still included.

Why China is hard to figure out

by on May 18, 2015 at 12:31 am in Economics, History | Permalink

It’s not just the differences of language, history, and culture.  It’s not just the (sometimes) questionable economic data, or the paucity of good Chinese academic research until very recent times.

Today’s China is sui generis.  The country has grown so quickly that every decade or so there is a very new China.  And so we cannot easily look to the past as a guide.  In economic terms, China seven years ago is equally removed from China today as the United States about thirty-five years ago is removed from the United States today, putting recent cyclical factors aside.

You could say that China’s recent past is relatively thin in terms of information.   For a more extreme example, how well would we understand an economy which went from zero to fully grown in the span of a week?  When do the diagnostics get to be run and how well would we understand its resiliency?  Arguably we also would not understand the resiliency of an economy which never grew and never changed in our sample…which raises the question of which rate of economic growth makes recent history “thickest” in terms of information and instructiveness?

Economics aside, China’s political system also has changed much more than ours, and it is less predictable than ours.

So for any question about contemporary China, it is n = 1, if that.

Has it been so bad?  For us?  For them?  How many of us had even noticed?

Here are some information (pdf), and here (pdf), I thank Matthew Vogel for reminding me of this.

Here is my previous post on ISDS and TPP.  Here is a good CRS brief on previous trade agreements with Vietnam.

Supposedly they were built to guard the tomb of an emperor:


So what’s up?

1. The emperor had a state-dependent utility function (e.g., money is worth less when you are dead), and this was the ancient equivalent of cryonics.  If there was a chance you might be called back to life, spend a lot of resources protecting your corpse and its burial site.

2. The emperor was signaling (sorry Noah!) his ability to assemble such an impressive row of life-size figures, and of course the original had many more than what has been restored to date.

3. This was a form of fiscal policy, to stimulate the economy in slow times, by employing craftsmen.

4. The guild of said craftsmen was an influential interest group.

5. It was intended as a gift to a distant future; what else could they have done that would be of more value to us today?

6. Because the emperor could.

What else?

In 2012 economists at the University of Auckland published research establishing clear correlations between family circumstances and incidents of child abuse or neglect. “No one realized we were sitting on such rich data in terms of its predictive power,” says Rhema Vaithianathan, who led the research. “We can find children who are at considerably elevated risk, and we can find them at birth.”


Using data from welfare, education, employment, and housing agencies and the courts, the government identified the most expensive welfare beneficiaries—kids who have at least one close adult relative who’s previously been reported to child safety authorities, been to prison, and spent substantial time on welfare. “There are million-dollar kids in those families,” English says. “By the time they are 10, their likelihood of incarceration is 70 percent. You’ve got to do something about that.”

Moving closer to home:

Jennie Feria, who oversees risk assessment for L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services, says one idea is to rate families, giving them a number that could be used to identify who’s most at risk in the way lenders rely on credit scores to determine creditworthiness. “The way we may use it, it’s going to be like it’s a FICO score,” Feria says. The information, she says, could be used both to prioritize cases and to figure out who needs extra services. “It’s at the very early stages, because we don’t know how we’re going to use it yet exactly.”

It will be interesting to see how that one develops.  The article is by Josh Eidelson.

Stephan F. Gohmann has a paper on this topic, here goes:

Most southern states have fewer breweries per population than the rest of the country. This paper examines why. The main outcome is that in the South, the number of breweries is negatively associated with higher campaign contributions from big breweries, the number of beer distributors per capita, and the Southern Baptist adherence rate. In the non-South, these associations are insignificant or positive. The limited number of breweries in the South follows the idea of bootleggers and Baptists where those who gain economically from limited competition—large breweries and distributors—side with groups morally opposed to alcohol to keep breweries out.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Guantánamo Diary*

by on May 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm in Books, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

That is the recent book by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been held at Guantánamo for many years.  This is a classic of prison literature, and I will teach it next year in my Law and Literature class.  Almost every page is interesting:

It is just amazing that the FBI trusts the Jordanians more than the other American intelligence agencies.


I don’t know any other language that writes Colonel and pronounces it Kernel.

His written English is quite good.  Definitely recommended, and the heavily redacted nature of the text enhances the reading experience rather than detracting from it.  Here is a good review from The Guardian.

The residential segregation bill won the City Council’s approval of December 9, 1910…

Blacks simply were not allowed to live in white neighborhoods, and when it comes to mixed blocks, it was hardly the rule of law which reigned.  Blacks who moved into mixed blocks were penalized when white politicians wanted to do so.  The entire regime was extreme:

Baltimore’s innovation was the use of government legislation to achieve systematic, citywide race separation.  “Nothing like it can be found in any statute book or ordinance record of this country,” the New York Times wrote.  “It is unique in legislation, Federal, State, or municipal — an ordinance so far-reaching in the logical sequence that must result from its enforcement that it may be said to mark a new era in social legislation.”  Baltimore thus became a national leader in residential segregation.

That is from Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, by Antero Pietila.  Anyone interested in the roots of current problems in Baltimore should read this book

Robin Grier (with Jerry F. Hough) puts it thus:

The great weakness of the Spanish government was not its bureaucratic nature, but its inability to build an effective bureaucracy until the 1700s. Without an effective bureaucracy, Spain was doomed to a personalistic policy process in which options and tradeoffs often were not properly weighed. Rulers could not trust the market because they were incapable of taxing decentralized economic activity.

One example of the lack of bureaucratic capability during the 1500s and 1600s is found in the example of Philip’s attempt to conquer England with the Spanish Armada. Until the 1580s Philip’s “defense department” had only one secretary assisted by a handful of clerks, none with military experience.

As he prepared to launch the Spanish Armada to try to conquer England, he doubled the number of responsible defense officials to two – one for the army and one for navy!

The ships were largely rented from Genoa. Although many of them were sunk in the failed attack, Philip did not try to build a merchant fleet of his own to match Elizabeth’s rapid expansion of her armed merchant fleet at the same time.

That is from her new and excellent The Long Process of Development: Building Markets and States in Pre-industrial England, Spain and their Colonies, recommended.  This is essential reading for the history of colonial Mexico in particular.

*Digital Gold*

by on May 6, 2015 at 9:37 am in Books, Economics, History, Science | Permalink

The author is Nathaniel Popper and the subtitle is Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money.

This excellent work is the book on Bitcoin you’ve been waiting for, most importantly it doesn’t require that you are the kind of person who wants to read a book on Bitcoin.  I devoured my copy right away, it is full of information, explanation, and good humor, definitely recommended and entertaining throughout.

Here is Popper’s piece on Bitcoin and Argentina, here is Popper on Twitter.