Political Science

Against Salafist jihadis in Sinai, as well as Hamas in Gaza, Egypt and Israel are working together more closely than at any time since the peace treaty was signed. In many respects Egypt and Israel now consider themselves to be closer allies to each other than each is to the United States. Jordan recognises that Israel is a guarantor of its security, the regional power most likely to intervene on its behalf should it face a serious threat.

That is from Nathan Thrall at LRB.

If you pulled over one hundred people on the street, and asked them to state a religious belief they hold, I’m not sure you would get any answer more plausible than “the pyramids were built for the storage of grain.”  Would you now?

Yet we mock Ben Carson for this, but we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Birth, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims.  It’s not so different from the old prejudice that Mormon beliefs are somehow “weirder” than those of traditional Christians, except now it is secularists picking and choosing their religious targets on the supposed basis of sophistication.  The Seventh Day Adventists, Carson’s church, are of course weirder yet.

I doubt the storage claim is true as a dominant explanation, but should there not be some storage — of something — in a profit-maximizing or rent-maximizing model of pyramid supply and inventory management?  Maybe Ben’s economic intuition confirmed what he had heard in church.  And what about Coase’s durable goods monopoly model?  In that treatment the monopolist stores grain, admittedly for the pyramids variable Coase was hermetic in his exposition, perhaps properly so given how much is at stake here.  And “remains of storage pests have been found in grain recovered from pyramid tombs.”  Further argumentation along these lines can be found in F. Zacher’s classic 1937 article “Vorratsschädlinge und Vorratsschutz, ihre Bedeutung für Volksernährung und Weltwirtschaft” (Cowen’s Second Law), which by now has been cited over nineteen times (twenty in fact).

The Quran notes that the pyramids were made of baked clay, when instead according to many standard accounts much of the pyramids are made of quarried limestone (yet even that question is murky and I would not entirely count out the Quranic exposition).  Presumably many Muslims, who ascribe a holy status to the Quran, would defend the baked clay proposition in some manner.  How often is that thrown in their faces?

Might Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, possibly hold some views about Joseph which are not literally true?  After all, those stories do come from the Torah.

Besides, our Founding Fathers had some pretty strange notions about pyramids.  Most of them did a pretty good job in office.

What Ben Carson has done is to commit the unpardonable sin of talking about his religion as if he actually takes it seriously.

Loyal MR readers will know that I am myself a non-believer.  But what I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others.  The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world.  And if you’re trying to understand his continuing popularity, maybe that is the place to start.

Here is the Stanford report of his passing, well done, and here are previous MR mentions of Girard.  He was one of the world’s great thinkers.

I am very excited to report that next week will see the publication of Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, by my colleague Garrett Jones, with Stanford University Press.  This will go down as one of the social science books of the year.

Here is Garett’s opening paragraph:

This isn’t a book about how to raise IQ: it’s a book about the benefits of raising IQ. And a higher IQ helps in ways you might not have realized: on average, people who do better on standardized tests are more patient, are more cooperative, and have better memories. But while dozens of studies by psychologists and economists have established these links, few researchers have connected the dots to ask what this means for entire nations. And since average test scores vary across nations—whether we’re talking about math tests, literacy tests, or IQ tests—an overall rise in national test scores likely means a rise in the number of more patient, more cooperative, and better-informed citizens. This in turn means that higher national test scores will probably matter in ways too big to ignore. And if education researchers and public health officials can find reliable ways to raise national test scores, productivity and prosperity will rise where poverty and disease now flourish.

Here is chapter one, here are Garett’s chapter summaries.  Here is Garett’s home page.  On Twitter, here you will find The Wisdom of Garett Jones.

I think that recent developments in the Middle East, starting with the behavior of Hamas during the Gaza war and continuing with the behavior of ISIS, have struck a nerve among those inclined toward the civilization vs. barbarism axis.

Even if you do not believe that conservatives are right, you have to acknowledge that the news cycle suggests that we are in a civilization vs. barbarism wave. In my opinion, that is why Rand Paul is doing so poorly in the polls. You can criticize him as a candidate, but it is hard to argue that the other candidates are so stellar that they outshine him. I just think that the public is more receptive to the conservative axis than to the libertarian axis. This may always be true, but it is particularly true now.

Here is the full post.

In early October, the [German] district government informed Sumte’s mayor, Christian Fabel, by email that his village of 102 people just over the border in what was once Communist East Germany would take in 1,000 asylum seekers.

His wife, the mayor said, assured him it must be a hoax.

Here is the NYT article, you will note that Herr Holger Niemann is enthusiastic about the new development; he is the lone neo-Nazi on the local town council.  By the way, the town has no stores, they had to install more pumps in the sewer system, and if I understand the article correctly Sumte has no permanent police presence.

At lunch lately we have been arguing how many immigrants can be taken in without seeing political backlash and eventually immigration reduction.  We’ll soon be seeing more data.

Writing in Quartz, Atanu Dey and Rajesh Jain have a very interesting argument that historically slow growth and many of India’s other problems can be traced back to its extractive constitution, which was largely inherited from the British.

For nearly a century, India was under comprehensive colonial British rule. As can be rationally expected, the government that the British imposed on India was not primarily directed towards development, but rather towards extraction. That is only reasonable because wealth extraction is the rationale for colonial rule.

The British, therefore, created the institutional structures, which necessarily includes the government that controlled India through comprehensive government control of the economy. This structure administration and control was left intact when the British decided to leave India, and was taken over by the government of Independent India. Although India attained political independence from the British raj, Indians did not become free of a controlling—and extractive—government.

…The conclusion has to be that India’s problem is structural and systemic, and not idiosyncratic. If the constitution were to change, the ultimate rules of the game would change, the policies (the derived rules) will change, and thus the action on the ground (the play of the game) will change, and therefore the outcome will change.

India needs a new constitution that is consistent with a nation of free individuals living in a complex, modern, large economy. This modern constitution has to be one that guarantees economic freedom to the individual, prohibits the government from making any laws that discriminate among citizens, guarantees freedom of speech and the press, prohibits the government from entering into businesses that are properly the domain of the private sector, and so on. In other words, India needs a constitution that protects the comprehensive freedom of the individual: economic, social and political.

What would be the best form of constitution for India? Westminster or Presidential? First past the post or proportional rule?  Single-member or mixed-member districts? Plurality rule or Borda count? Federalism? Certainly. But what kind of federalism enforced in what way? A Supreme court? How appointed? And what would be the most important rights to codify in a bill of rights?

So many books on China recycle the same stories and historical anecdotes, but this one tells the story from the point of view of economic history.  It is scholarly yet readable, interesting throughout but best in the first half, runs up through contemporary times, and does not have too much overlap with any other China book.  Here is one excerpt:

The urban entrepreneurial elite in eighteenth-century England benefited from absolute and unconditional support from the state, which shielded them against resistance from below.  This support was justified by the increasingly dominant ideology of classical political economy…The dominance of this ideology can be understood against the backdrop of Europe’s interstate conflict that urged state makers to ally with capital in building up its military capacity…The entrepreneurial elite in eighteenth-century China, in contrast, enjoyed only relative and conditional support from the state.  It is true that the Qing state elite never saw the mercantile elite as their antinomies and were diligent in facilitating their business and helping them secure their property rights in merchant-merchant or merchant-official disputes…But when it came to managing conflict between entrepreneurial profits and subsistence of the poor, the state elite often favored the latter at the expense of the former.

File under capitalist oppression is underrated.

Definitely recommended, you can buy the book here.

The subtitle is The Man Who Conquered the World, and this is one of the very best non-fiction books of the year, quite possibly the best.  Virtually every page is fascinating and should be read carefully.  It makes intelligible a period of history which is so often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader,and rather than just throwing a bunch of dates and facts at you it tries to make them intelligible in terms of underlying mechanisms.  Here is one summary bit:

The harshness of the Mongolian habitat and the complexities of nomadic pastoralism help to explain the many potentialities of Mongol society eventually actualised by Genghis Khan.  Care of massive and variegated herds and flocks produced a number of consequences: adaptability and ingenuity of response and initiative; mobility and the capacity for rapid mobilisation; low levels of wealth and of economic inequality; almost total absence of a division of labour; political instability.  Migration meant constant alertness and readiness to fight, since wealth in livestock is almost by definition highly vulnerable to raiding, reiving and rustling. Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops, so the very nature of pastoral life produced a hardier breed than would be generated by the peasantry.  Migration in peacetime also produced martial qualities via the surplus energy available for fighting, since in a pacific context warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.  when the fighting came, it was less destructive than for sedentary societies that had to defend fields of crops, cities, temples and other fixed points.

There were other military ‘spin-offs’ from pastoralism.  Moving huge herds of animals generated logistical skills and the capacity to navigate through uncertain terrain, coordinating with far-flung comrades while doing so.

Strongly recommended, you can buy the book here.

That new book has the subtitle Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped.  In addition to its critique of Putin, there is a good deal of political economy in this book, including some hypotheses which are worthy of further investigation.  For instance:

Unfortunately, Putin, like other modern autocrats, had, and still has, an advantage the Soviet leadership could never have dreamed of: deep economic and political engagement with the free world.  Decades of trade have created tremendous wealth that dictatorships like Russia and China have used to build sophisticated authoritarian infrastructures inside the country and to apply pressure in foreign policy.  The naive idea was that the free world would use economic and social ties to gradually liberalize authoritarian states.  in practice, the authoritarian states have abused this access and economic interdependency to spread their corruption and fuel repression at home.

And this:

It is no coincidence that right-wing autocracies have a much better track record of emerging from political repression and achieving democratic and economic success.  Chile, Portugal, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan — their regimes were about power for the sake of power, without a deeper ideology.  When their regimes fell, with elections in most cases, the roots, the human values of individual freedom, were still healthy enough to flourish.

It is easy enough to criticize Kasparov for being “too hawkish,” but the reality is that virtually all of his earlier predictions about Putin and Russia have come true, including ones which I have heard but he may not have published directly.



The image is from Ian Bremmer.  Here is a new and interesting Vox article, Max Fisher channeling Danny Seidemann, arguing that the Israel and Palestinians situation is in worse shape than it appears.  Hard for me to judge, but I found it stimulating reading.

Here are two sentences about Raj Chetty:

“The unintended consequence of Chetty’s work is a tremendous demoralization of teachers,” said New York University educational historian Diane Ravitch.

It’s funny how you don’t need to know more there.  And this one:

He says he won’t register to vote because he thinks that could bias his “laboratory science” approach to economic research.

Both are from this WSJ Bob Davis profile of Chetty, or Google to the ungated link if you wish.

Shortly after his election, President Peake announced that although he was creating a semi-blind trust, he would not be liquidating his capital holdings abroad.  (Read more here.)  Yet for years Peake had been seeking to expand his commercial operations in the enemy nation of Ruritania, by some measures soon to be the world’s largest economy.

Observers questioned whether Peake could deal fairly and objectively with Ruritania in matters of foreign policy, including the all-consuming conflicts in the South Ruritania Sea.  But of course Peake was a wealthy man and also an honest man.  Furthermore each action of his was under extreme public and media scrutiny, most of all when he dealt with Ruritania.  Some even suggested that the mere possibility of conflicts of interest made Peake tougher on Ruritania than another President would have been.

To make sure no rumors of favor-trading would ensue, thereby weakening Peake’s American influence, Ruritania moved to give Peake’s commercial operations free rein, thus removing the issue from the daily headlines.  Peake, now having avoided the risk of blame, returned to the policy optimum and ceased being so unnecessarily tough with Ruritania.

I hope there will be more installments to this story.

American University professor Thomas Merrill writes:

Hume’s message to the “honest gentlemen” is therefore something like this: “you may not understand this curious character the philosopher; you may think him flaky and unhinged; but if you care about establishing a regime dedicated to individual liberty, you need him around. You need not model your life on his; in fact it is better if you do not. But you need to tolerate him and even be open to being guided by him. Especially do you need to heed his negative message of calling into question the political claims advanced by the various forms of superstition on the basis of alleged insights into the ‘original and ultimate principle.’ Think of the philosopher as you might a garbage man: you might not want to do the job yourself, but it is very useful to society that someone does it.”

That is from Merrill’s Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment, and the passage was sent to me by Daniel Klein, who describes the book as “new and highly recommended.”

There is a lengthy and interesting Chronicle profile by Marc Parry.  It tells the tale of how Rodrik vindicated his father-in-law, a famous general, from false charges of having led a potential coup d’etat against the Turkish government.  Here is one excerpt:

When Rodrik and his wife spoke with Cetin Dogan, though, the general told them he’d never heard of Sledgehammer. They believed him. But that only deepened the mystery. Were the coup plans genuine? Had Dogan’s name somehow been added to them? Rodrik and Pinar Dogan began to investigate the coup documents, which eventually became the centerpiece of a landmark court case that targeted hundreds of military officers. Many called it Turkey’s “trial of the century.” The two economists called it a fraud.

As a social scientist, Rodrik had always believed in the power of evidence to change people’s minds. His Sledgehammer investigation revealed the coup plans to be forgeries. The evidence was clearer than anything he had ever encountered in economics. But it didn’t matter. People clung to the story regardless.

Rodrik has written his own essay on the Sledgehammer episode (pdf). Basically he and his wife ended up playing detective for several years of their lives, and eventually Rodrik’s father-in-law was freed from prison.  Here is a bit toward the end of the piece:

“It’s very easy to read these stories, and they resonate with your own worldview as a liberal,” Rodrik says. “And you’re likely to believe it. I wouldn’t say that it turned me into a conservative. But it made me much more skeptical and much more cautious about what one might say is the standard Northeastern-Ivy League-elite-liberal-establishment narrative about how the world works.”

My recent conversation with Dani Rodrik has both transcript and video.