History

Flooded Cities

by on September 1, 2017 at 12:35 am in Data Source, History, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the title of a recent research paper (pdf) by Adriana Kocornik-Mina, Thomas K.J. McDermott, Guy Michaels, and Ferdinand Rauch.  Here is the abstract:

Does economic activity relocate away from areas that are at high risk of recurring shocks? We examine this question in the context of floods, which are among the costliest and most common natural disasters. Over the past thirty years, floods worldwide killed more than 500,000 people and displaced over 650,000,000 people. This paper analyzes the effect of large scale floods, which displaced at least 100,000 people each, in over 1,800 cities in 40 countries, from 2003-2008. We conduct our analysis using spatially detailed inundation maps and night lights data spanning the globe’s urban areas. We find that low elevation areas are about 3-4 times more likely to be hit by large floods than other areas, and yet they concentrate more economic activity per square kilometer. When cities are hit by large floods, the low elevation areas also sustain more damage, but like the rest of the flooded cities they recover rapidly, and economic activity does not move to safer areas. Only in more recently populated urban areas, flooded areas show a larger and more persistent decline in economic activity. Our findings have important policy implications for aid, development and urban planning in a world with rapid urbanization and rising sea levels.

One possible implication of these strong results is that, better pricing of flood insurance, which I favor, still probably won’t get most population centers out of those low-lying, relatively vulnerable areas.

Jakob B. Madsen and Fabrice Murtin have a newly published paper on this topic:

This paper constructs an original database on physical capital, labor, education, GDP, innovations, technology spillovers, and institutions to analyze the proximate determinants of British economic growth since 1270. Several approaches are taken in the paper to tackle endogeneity. We show that education has been the most important driver of income growth during the period 1270–2010, followed by knowledge stock and fixed capital, while institutions have not been robust determinants of growth. The contribution of education has been equally important before and after the first Industrial Revolution. Overall, the results give strong support to the predictions of Unified Growth Theories.

I would note two things.  First, the growth equations do at some points rely on long and (possibly arbitrary?) lags.  Second, often literacy is proxying for education, so this is more a paper about the origins of growth and the role of science, and less a study of whether formal education is about signaling or actual learning.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

I was having an email exchange about the possibility that dictatorships and autocracies do centralized monument-building much better than the freer democracies do.  But while this is probably true on average, some of the deviations are of interest.  Here is an excerpt from my response:

In some ways France looks like an autocracy, whereas in Singapore (not a dictatorship of course, but not a full democracy either) the government buildings are deliberately underwhelming (a kind of counter-signaling?).

Almaty and Skopje go overboard in the autocratic direction, the latter being a democracy.  Washington, D.C. does centralized monuments very well, better than anything modern China has come up with.  Cuban government buildings do not at all impress, nothing like Pyongyang.

Morocco invested in what was then the world’s largest mosque, in lieu of a government building upgrade.  Ivory Coast has done much more monument-building than the other African autocracies.

So I wonder what the deeper model looks like…

Here are a few options:

1. Insecure nation-states invest in monuments.  That is correlated with autocracy, but imperfectly.

2. Perhaps nation-states invest in monuments in lieu of concrete achievements for their citizenries.

3. Cuba has not built many monuments because its “origin story” is so strong, and its ideology for a long time has had a fair amount of support from the Cuban people.  Alternatively, Castro himself was the monument.

4. Is Singapore itself the monument to Singapore?  The same might be said of Dubai.  What artificial monuments could top those?

Advocates of Confederate monuments, by the way, ought to ponder the possibility that those very structures are a sign of weakness not strength.

Indian caste system bleg

by on August 26, 2017 at 7:19 pm in Books, History, Religion | Permalink

What should I read to better understand the Indian caste system?  I thank you all in advance for your assistance.

Although all church fees were wrong, argued Francis Sadler in a much-reprinted 1738 tract, “selling” one part of the churchyard for three times the price of another “to keep Rich and Poor asunder as if there were a difference in their dust” was especially ridiculous.

Within the courtyard, “the chancel was a better address than the center aisle, which was, in turn, preferred to the side aisles.”  And lead coffins cost ten times more than coffins of wood.

That is from the excellent The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas Laqueur.  Here is a truly splendid Marina Warner review of the book.

Tim reaffirms his status as one of the great (greatest?) contemporary popular writers on economics, this time turning his attention to technology.  From a Smithsonian interview:

So what made you decide to write a book looking at the modern economy through specific inventions? 

I think it was a slight sense of frustration. I’m an economist, and economics often feels abstract and very impersonal, even though I don’t think it’s abstract or impersonal. As an economics writer, I’m also looking for a way to tell a good story and get some ideas across. I realized if I produced a kind of technological history with lots of ideas and examples I could teach some economics lessons through these very specific stories.

What’s your favorite invention in the book?

It varies, but right now it’s paper. I just loved the realization that there was an alternative to talking about the Gutenberg press. Obviously I have nothing but admiration for the Gutenberg press – it’s a tremendously important innovation. But everybody told me, ‘oh, you’ve doing fifty inventions that shaped the world, you must do the Gutenberg press.’ And I thought, ‘yeah, but it’s so obvious.’ Then I was looking at the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library, and thinking, ‘this bible is printed on something. It’s not printed on nothing. It’s printed on a surface.’ It turns out that the Gutenberg press works perfectly well with parchment, technologically speaking, but economically speaking it doesn’t make any sense without paper. Parchment is just too expensive to produce a long print run. So as long as all you’re doing is handwriting bibles and making them look beautiful, there’s no need to use paper at all. But with paper you’ve got a mass-produced writing surface. It’s often the very cheap inventions that get overlooked, but nevertheless change the world.

Here is an adaptation from the book on the history of barbed wire.  Here is another BBC adaptation on why electricity did not change manufacturing more quickly.  You can pre-order the book here.

Certificate of purchase and receipt for grave space to be sold with miniature bible belonging to woman whose name was immortalised by McCartney

They are expected to sell for between £2,000 and £4,000.

They will go under the hammer alongside the original handwritten score for the song, which is expected to fetch £20,000.

The jar by the door, however, is not up for sale.  Via Ted Gioia.

*The Dawn of Eurasia*

by on August 21, 2017 at 5:34 pm in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

By Bruno Maçães, due out in January.  I was asked to blurb it, I’m going to go “off the reservation” and call it so far the best and most important book I’ve read so far this year.  From Amazon:

In this original and timely book, Bruno Maçães argues that the best word for the emerging global order is ‘Eurasian’, and shows why we need to begin thinking on a super-continental scale. While China and Russia have been quicker to recognise the increasing strategic significance of Eurasia, even Europeans are realizing that their political project is intimately linked to the rest of the supercontinent – and as Maçães shows, they will be stronger for it.

The Kindle edition at least you can pre-order.

Russia fact of the day

by on August 21, 2017 at 3:13 pm in Data Source, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

…the wealth held offshore by rich Russians is about three times larger than official net foreign reserves, and is comparable in magnitude to total household financial assets held in Russia.

That is from Novokmet, Piketty, and Zucman.

That is the excellent title they gave to my latest Bloomberg column.  The piece starts by offering a very simple theory of what statues are for, and then I shift to the perspective of a foreigner.  Here is one bit:

Or consider the debates in Macedonia. The city of Skopje went on a major statue-building binge several years ago, both as fiscal policy and to cement national identity. One of the resulting disputes is whether those statues should emphasize the country’s ancient Greek connections (e.g., Alexander the Great) or the Slavic heritage (e.g., Saints Cyril and Methodius). It’s a strange debate to an outsider, yet to many Macedonians and some of their Greek neighbors (who wish to claim Alexander as their own), it is one of the most fraught issues of the day.

Again, you won’t get too far on this one by debating the life and times of Alexander, whether he led aggressive or defensive wars, or by asking how many slaves he owned. It’s better to focus on which political faction you wish to see assume more authority in Macedonia, and then work backward to figure out your preferred statues.

Similarly, if Macedonians were asked to evaluate the relative moralities of historic American leaders, I hope they would consider a similar approach. I don’t find it so fruitful to debate how much Robert E. Lee does or does not have in common with George Washington  — arguably Washington was a traitor of sorts as well, against a relatively benign British ruler, and he fought against Native Americans and owned slaves. American treatment of Native Americans makes it hard to find many truly “good guys” from that period. Still, we can ask what role Washington statues play in today’s politics; few people are using them to lord over Native Americans.

And my conclusion:

So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third don’t be afraid to make some changes.

Do read the whole thing.

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with her.  On the off chance you don’t already know, here is a brief Wikipedia summary of her work:

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor.[1] As of 2016, she has published seven books,: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016).

But there is much more to her than that.  Here is the full Wikipedia page.  Here is her own home page.

So what should I ask?  I thank you in advance for your inspiration.

Where to even begin enumerating the wealth of fruitful work — some of it highly critical — that continues to emerge from real engagement with Freud’s ideas? Consider Marina Warner’s musings on Freud’s mediation of Eastern and Western cultural tropes told through the story of his Oriental carpet-draped couch; Rubén Gallo’s panoramic exploration of the reception of Freud’s work in Mexico and the reciprocal influence of Mexican culture on Freud; and the rich medley of sociopolitical critiques grounded in Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud’s thought.

The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.

That is from an excellent NYT book review by George Prochnik.

Yana and I saw this Bruce Lee movie last night over Dan Klein’s house, for me it was my first viewing since my undergraduate days.  A few points struck me:

1. Hong Kong is portrayed as a poor, dumpy ghetto; this was 1973.  The Technicolor shots of the city are gorgeous.

2. Black Power, in the character of Williams [Jim Kelly], is shown to be a fundamentally moral and emancipatory force.  And as was so common in movies from the 1970s and 80s, the black guy “gets it.”

3. The main villain, Han, reminded me of Chairman Mao, except that the role of the West in the opium trade is inverted and placed on Mao [Han] himself.  It is no surprise that Mao’s China banned the movie.

4. Bruce takes on and defeats a whole group of unimpressive karate experts — was that intended as an anti-Japanese slam?

5. Angela Mao, who played Bruce Lee’s sister, steals the show.  She now lives in Flushing, Queens (NYT).

6. The American male heroes seem not to mind that the women they are given to sleep with are essentially slaves, held under coercion or otherwise dubious circumstances.  The movie seems not to mind that the male heroes do not mind.  And an analogous film today would not have nude scenes, for several reasons, one being the desire to sell it to…China.

6b. The politically incorrect ranking in terms of libido is black > white > Asian, without any apology or attempt at subtlety.

7. Many scenes reminded me of the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice, and also Dr. No.  It is a common theme in movies from that time that a hero can use a diversion to take over a command center; is that still done?  The final mirrors trick seemed to be taken from Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.  Yana remarked that many of the underground sets looked like they were borrowed from Star Trek, and that the “turn the corner” suspense scenes seem to have anticipated Star Wars.

8. “Jackie Chan appears as a guard during the underground lair battle scene and gets his neck snapped by Lee.”

9. The score by Lalo Schifrin remains compelling and Bruce dominates every scene he is in.

10. As was often the case in those times, the exposition is relatively slow, much of the action is saved for the last half hour, and finally the film just ends.

That is my latest column for Bloomberg, here is one bit from it:

In other words, a country can experience hundreds of years of bad events, but if it succeeds in attaching itself to a benevolent, moderately competent protector, it still can have a fantastic future of peace and prosperity, even if it does not stand on the global cutting edge.

And:

If Macedonia doesn’t make it into the EU, it is not difficult to envision a future where the country ends up being picked apart by a variety of pressures from Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece, in some unknown combination. Keep in mind that an independent Macedonian nation has existed for only a few decades over the course of many centuries, and so its continuing existence cannot be taken for granted.

And:

But when it comes to economic development, don’t just look at demographics or economic policy. Ponder the hegemon.

I wish to thank J. and P. for conversations that spurred some of these thoughts.

Skopje notes

by on August 11, 2017 at 12:11 am in Food and Drink, History, The Arts, Travels | Permalink

Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of concrete communist architecture.

Link here, photos recommended.  It seems it is also the roast pepper capital of the world, and this:

The city center holds concrete masterpieces sitting alongside every possible era of architecture from the last two millennium. An ancient Castle fortress looks down from one side, and the world’s biggest cross sits atop an inner city mountain on the other. On one side of the Vardar river that cuts through the city center, is a ancient neighbourhood that could be straight out of Istanbul. On the other, the city square with an enormous “Man On a Horse” statue (just don’t say it’s Alexander the Great, believe me) is a pleasurable and walk-able area normally bustling with activity. Connecting the two areas, is the Stone Bridge, built about 700 years ago – on top of much older Roman foundations. The layers and the contrast is unique for any city of this size.

Imagine a city that is part Habsburg in style, part Ottoman, part communist brutalism, and part Las Vegas/Venetian kitsch except it isn’t kitschy, and with a dash of 300 thrown in for good measure, distributed across dozens or is it hundreds of large statues?

The earthquake of 1963 is mentioned fairly often; it destroyed about 80 percent of the city.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and there is a museum in her honor.  A good day trip from Skopje is the St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, some of the finest woodcarving I have seen.  It is striking to view the church in conjunction with the Saudi-financed mosque across the valley, thereby inducing one to ponder the use of stones to capture space in the game of Go.

I am told there are Macedonian enclaves in Totowa, Clifton, and Garfield, New Jersey.

The food is phenomenal, in addition to the roast peppers there are breads, baked pies, meats stewed with vegetables, white beans, stuffed peppers, trout, and Balkan cheeses, all with that farm to table touch.  Further to the south I recommend the garlic spread.

There is sexual dimorphism in Skopje, and I am told that Donald Trump is more popular in this country than in any other.

The major Macedonian exports are chemical goods, machinery, clothing, iron, and steel.  The measured unemployment rate is about 23 percent, and there is a comparative advantage in producing “fake news.”  There are varying estimates for per capita income, but about 13k (PPP) seems in the ballpark.

Politics was discussed and maps were shown.  To put a twist on the famous quotation about religion in India, when it comes to history, every Macedonian is a millionaire.

English proficiency is high, as Macedonian has only slightly more than 2 million inhabitants and none of the immediate neighbors has a language that is very useful elsewhere.  The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is quite safe here for a tourist.

On the television I watched the first quarter of “NBA Team Africa vs. NBA Rest of the World,” Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki, etc., a real game with refs and a crowd, does the NBA even tell the American market about contests such as this?

If food, architecture, and history interest you, visit the fresh and vibrant Skopje.