There are two striking facts about China.  First, the country is quite large.  Second, the country was remarkably large early in its history, compared to most other political units.  For instance, here is China in 200 AD:

How did this happen?

Or consider a modern version of the puzzle: currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?

I can think of many instructive explanations for China’s early size and unity that are nonetheless derivative.  For instance perhaps a common language for writing played a key role, or perhaps the civil service and the exam system bound the country together.  I don’t mean to gainsay those claims, but they are not fundamental.  In part they are simply alternative descriptions of China’s relatively early unity.  And there still ought to be reasons why those factors were the case, and some of them seem to postdate unity.  On top of that, ideally we would like the explanation to account for China’s periodic descents into fragmentation and sometimes warring chaos.

I can think of a few factors that might count as fundamental, and often they involve economies of scale:

1. There may be greater economies of scale in Chinese agriculture.  One specific hypothesis is that China’s “hydraulic” system of rice irrigation favored a centralized despotic authority (Karl Wittfogel, though I’ve never found this particular view convincing, see also earlier takes on “Oriental Despotism”).

2. There may be economies of scale for fighting land battles with horses.  Alternatively, when it comes to naval warfare — more common for Europe — small countries have a chance to punch above their weight, witness  England and Portugal.

3. China had lower climate volatility than did Europe, and that made it easier for a more stable equilibrium to emerge.  (Or the kinds of climate volatility China had mattered less for its agriculture.)  Big changes in climate, in contrast, periodically overturn political equilibria, most of all when agriculture was a huge chunk of gdp.

4. China has two main, navigable rivers running east to west, the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.  It also has a large space of relatively flat plains.

5. China was formed when the prevailing technologies favored size and scale, and thus size and scale were imprinted onto early Chinese political DNA.  This is a bit like the “inflation” theory of the universe.  (NB: This part of the explanation is arguably “accidental” rather than “fundamental.”)

6. China and Rome are with regard to size and early unity not so different, but China did a better job absorbing the “barbarians” and thus persisted as a larger political unit.

What else?  With some mix of those (and other) factors in place, the more traditional detailed explanations then kick in to promote China’s size as China.

Ideally, an explanation for China’s early size and unity, and why that size and unity bounced back from so many periodic bouts of warring states, should address the following:

a. Why the mountainous Tibet also ended up as a more or less coherent nation-state, and why that too happened fairly early.  That seems to militate against purely rice-based explanations.

b. Why Yunnan was absorbed into China at a relatively late date — the 17th century — but once attached did become a stable part of the country in a manner that other parts of southeast Asia did not mimic.

c. Why Korea remained separate.

d. Why the Khmer empire proved unstable and perished, despite a high level of sophistication and state capacity.

e. Why the Aztec Triple Alliance grew to a much larger size than any political unit in North America at the same time.

What else?

I am grateful to a presentation by Debin Ma, and to comments from the Washington Area Economic History Seminar (recommended!), from a seminar last night.  None of them are implicated in what I have written.  I look forward to Debin’s paper on this topic (here is his earlier 2012 work), and Kenneth Pomeranz is writing an entire book on the question.

Addendum: Here is the Ko, Koyama, and Sng piece (pdf).

Saturday assorted links

by on May 13, 2017 at 1:49 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Friday assorted links

by on May 12, 2017 at 10:16 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

What I’ve been reading

by on May 12, 2017 at 12:25 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. William Vaughan, Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall.  Another first-rate Yale University Press book of art plates and art history, for this they are the best.  Get a hold of as many of them as you can.

2. Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak.  This short Chinese noir novel, with a dash of Murakami, is one of my year’s favorites and also one of this year’s “cool books.”  I finished it in one sitting.  Set in Beijing, the protagonist sells audio equipment, and then strange things happen.  Here is a good interview with the author.

3. David J. Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.  So far I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, but I am surprised it is not receiving more positive attention.  It seems like one of the most thorough and smart and thoughtful biographies of any American president.  It has plenty of detail on Obama’s life and career, and you can learn what Obama’s ex-girlfriend says about how he was in bed at age 22 (“he neither came off as experienced nor inexperienced”, [FU Aristotle!])  Yes, at 1084 pp. of text this is more than I want to know, but what’s not to like?  Here is a good Brent Staples NYT review.  Garrow cribs his main narrative — the artificial construction of his blackness — from Rev. Wright and Steve Sailer, and doesn’t exactly credit them, although that (the former, not the latter) may explain why the mainstream reception has been so tepid.

4. Franklin Foer, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.  The title says it all.  I disagreed with almost everything in this book, still it is useful to see where the Zeitgeist is headed.

5. The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, assorted authors and editors and photographers.  One of the best and most readable introductions to Incan civilization.  I’ll say it again: you all should be reading more picture books!  They are one of the best ways to actually learn.

Two useful books for presenting meta-information on learning things are:

Ulrich Boser, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, and

Eric Barker, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

And Thomas W. Hazlett, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone, is a very learned, market-oriented look at what the title promises.

Thursday assorted links

by on May 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Do we end up with too many bike lanes?  And does Canada’s tech hub have a chance?

2. MothersAgainstTurbines.com.

3. Ravens remember.

4. Criticisms of cosmic inflation theory.

5. History of the term “priming the pump.”  Back to the 19th century.  And here is Lauchlin Currie (among others), predating Keynes (pdf).

6. Contemporary art show for dogs: “That’s not the only thing about it that caters to canines: dOGUMENTA, Dawson is quick to emphasize, is not about dogs or by dogs, but for dogs, meaning artworks are installed at puppy-eye-level, and considerate of their color perception limitations.”

That is a splendid 1996 book on mathematics and mathematical researchers, by Gian-Carlo Rota.  I found philosophical, mathematical, and also managerial insights on most of the pages.  It is playful and yet earnestly serious at the same time.  Here is one bit:

He [Alonzo Church] looked like a cross between a panda and a large owl.  He spoke in complete paragraphs which seemed to have been read out of a book, evenly and slowly enunciated, as by a talking machine.  When interrupted, he would pause for an uncomfortably long period to recover the thread of the argument.  He never made casual remarks: they did not belong in the baggage of formal logic.  For example, he would not say “It is raining.”  Such a statement, taken in isolation, makes no sense.  (Whatever it is actually raining or not does not matter; what matters is consistence.)  He would say instead: “I must postpone my departure for Nassau Street, inasmuch as it is raining, an act which I can verify by looking out the window.”

It is full of the sociology of everyday life, in mathematical communities that is, for instance:

How do mathematicians get to know each other?  Professional psychologists do not seem to have studied this question; I will try out an amateur theory.  When two mathematicians meet and feel out each other’s knowledge of mathematics, what they are really doing is finding out what each other’s bottom line is.  It might be interesting to give a precise definition of a bottom line; in the absence of a definition, we will give some typical examples.

…I will shamelessly tell you what my bottom line is.  It is placing balls into boxes, or as Florence Nightingale David put it with exquisite tact in her book Combinatorial Chance, it is the theory of distribution and occupancy.

The author fears the influence of philosophy on mathematics, which led to this paragraph:

Philosophical arguments are emotion-laden to a greater degree than mathematical arguments and written in a style more reminiscent of a shameful admission than of a dispassionate description.  Behind every question of philosophy there lurks a gnarl of unacknowledged emotional cravings which act as a powerful motivation for conclusions in which reason plays at best a supporting role.  To bring such hidden emotional cravings out into the open, as philosophers have felt it their duty to do, is to ask for trouble.  Philosophical disclosures are frequently met with the anger that we reserve for the betrayal of our family secrets.

Definitely recommended, the book also has some of the best and most concrete discussions of Husserl’s philosophy I have seen, along with a meta-account of such, and also there is a discussion of the exoteric and esoteric readings of cosmology and black holes and indeed mathematics too.  Here is further information on Gian-Carlo Rota the author.

For the pointer to the book I thank Patrick Collison.

The Belt and Road is How

by on May 10, 2017 at 5:57 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

What a world we live in where the US government rips up trade deals and the Chinese government produces excellent educational videos in favor of free trade, even if they are for propaganda purposes.

Hat tip: Joe Weisenthal.

Wednesday assorted links

by on May 10, 2017 at 1:47 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Yes, the Garry Kasparov, here is the link to the podcast and transcript.  We talked about AI, his new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, why he has become more optimistic, how education will have to adjust to smart software, Russian history and Putin, his favorites in Russian and American literature, Tarkovsky, his favorite city to play chess in, his match against Deep Blue, Ken Rogoff, who are the three most likely challengers to Magnus Carlsen (ranked in order!) and who might win.  Here is one excerpt:

GK: The biggest problem, and I’ve been talking about for quite a while, that we’re still teaching very specific knowledge in the schools. Instead of teaching what, we have to teach how because this knowledge may be redundant 10 years from now. We are preparing kids for the world that will change dramatically. By the way, we already know it will look different. So what’s the point of trying to teach kids at age 10, 11, 12 without recognizing the fact that when they finish college, when they will become adults looking for jobs, the job market will be totally different?


COWEN: …If we look back on centuries of Russian history, do you think there’s something in Russian geography or demographics or geopolitics — what has it been that has led to such unfree outcomes fairly systematically?

Where do you find the roots of tyranny in the history of Russia? Is it a mix of the size of the country, its openness to invasion, its vulnerability, something about being next to a dynamic Europe, on the other side, China? What is it?

KASPAROV: It’s a long, if not endless, theoretical debate based on our interpretation of certain historical events. I’m not convinced with these arguments about some nations being predetermined in their development and alien to the concept of democracy and the rule of law.

The reason I’m quite comfortable with this denial . . . We can move from theory to practice. While we can talk about history and certain influence of historical events to modernity, we can look at the places like Korean Peninsula. The same nation, not even cousins but brothers and sisters, divided in 1950, so that’s, by historical standards, yesterday.


Let’s look at Russia and Ukraine, and let’s look, not at the whole Ukraine, but just at eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. In the former Soviet Union, the borders between republics were very nominal. People could move around, it was not a big deal. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official state border between Russia and Ukraine was respected, but people still could move around. They didn’t need special visas.

When we look at ethnic Russians born and raised in Kursk and Belgorod on the Russian side and across the border, say in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk on the Ukrainian side, there were people that could be hardly separated anything. They read the same newspaper, Pravda, watched the same television, spoke the very same language, not even accents. But somehow, in 2014, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, we saw a huge difference. Most of ethnic Russians in Ukraine signed for the Ukrainian army, fighting against Putin’s invasion, against the same Russians that came from the other side.

It could be a long debate, but I would say that one of the main reasons is that Ukraine experienced in 1994 a gradual transition of power from one president to another after sitting president Leonid Kravchuk lost elections and walked away. Ukrainians somehow got an idea that power is not sacred, and government can come and go, and they can remove it by voting.

And even despite the fact that Ukraine never experienced higher living standards than Russia, people realized that keeping this freedom, keeping this ability to influence their bureaucrats and government through the peaceful process of voting and, if necessary, striking, far more effective than Russia’s “stability” where the same leader could be in charge of the country with his corrupt clique for a long, long time.

On computer chess, I most enjoyed this part of the exchange:

KASPAROV: But I want to finish this because what we discovered in this process . . . I wouldn’t overweight our listeners with all these details. I don’t want just to throw on them the mass information.

COWEN: It’s amazing what people will enjoy, though. You’d be surprised.

Self-recommending!  We cover many other topics as well, again you can read or listen here.

And I strongly advise that you buy and read Garry’s wonderful new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.

Let’s say you’ve read and loved Julian Simon, who stressed mankind’s indefatigable power of creation and innovation.  I certainly have.  Simon stressed that the cost of producing real resources likely would fall, thereby spreading wealth across mankind.  The bad news is that probably should make you a Malthusian.

The classical economists understood very well that the wages to labor cannot for very long exceed the cost of production to labor.  And if you are an optimist about the cost of producing copper, tin, and steel, you probably should be an optimist about the cost of bringing more humans into the supply chain for labor.  this could happen through:

1. Developing more and better IT to ease outsourcing.

2. Lowering the costs of raising children, so families choose to have more niños.  Or subsidize births, just for the heck of it.

3. Building human-like robots, or smart software that performs human-like functions.

4. Encouraging current individuals to work more hours or retire later in life, etc., or just taking in more immigrants of the kind who will compete with native workers and lower their wages.

5. Robin Hanson’s Ems.

6. 120 years from now, corporations build artificial wombs and create babies in large numbers in East Timor, for factory work, or military reasons, or to satisfy idiosyncratic philanthropic visions.  Or maybe just as gaming companions.  They will be bred or drugged so as to enjoy their lives, thereby brunting external criticisms, besides how many of you worry about Mauritania as it is?

7. What else?  Chimeras?  Aliens?  Imports from parallel universes?  Of course it is fine to focus on #1-4 and stick with the more commonsensical scenarios.

The Simon fan should not be a pessimist about this broad panoply of alternatives, even if he rejects some of the options as implausible.  Whether you like it or not, they all imply various forms of downward pressure on wages in the wealthier countries.  There is simply no reason for the technological optimist to think the cost of reproducing labor and labor substitutes should remain high forever.  The higher are real wages, the greater the pressures for such innovation!  Just visit Nevada — why should all that land remain empty, Australia all the more so?  Markets will create more surplus, but the best default presumption is that will be eaten up by the numbers, and not by your special privileged position as a natural-born North American, or whatever you may be.

Of course the optimists wish to have it both ways, but I say no, if you are an optimist about the cost of producing non-human resources, apply similar analysis to the cost of producing substitutes for humans.  The classical economists were a lot smarter than they are given credit for these days.

For a useful conversation related to this topic, I thank Bryan Caplan, John Nye, and Robin Hanson, can you guess which one disagreed with me most?

Tuesday assorted links

by on May 9, 2017 at 12:19 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

It still was a mistake, most of all for Greece and Cyprus.  Yet overall its prospects are looking up, as I argue in my most recent Bloomberg column.  Here is the most revisionist passage:

I now think of the 2008-2012 period as unwinding a long-term bubble of overinvestment in the EU periphery, and thus those were special circumstances when virtually all economic policies were radically underperforming. Given that a recurrence of such conditions is unlikely, the euro will do much better in the future.

Along related lines, compare the performance of fiscal austerity now with that earlier period. Greece has been going through an unprecedented fiscal adjustment, with a primary surplus running at 3.9 percent of gross domestic product; yet Greek output, while ailing, has remained roughly stable. Portugal has been cutting back drastically on public sector investment, dropping its public sector deficit from 4.4 percent of GDP to 2.1 percent. Rather than imploding, the economy grew by 1.4 percent.

Of course, fiscal austerity didn’t perform nearly as well in the earlier part of this decade, and neither did the euro. The economic implosion from the unwinding of the bubble was simply too strong, so we should not overgeneralize from the very negative performance during those years.

Here is the most important passage:

One of the original goals of the euro was to tie countries to the European Union and its rules for free trade and free migration. The major EU country that eschewed euro adoption, the U.K., has now voted itself out the union altogether, to its detriment. Estonia and Latvia, which adopted the euro in part for political reasons to tighten their bonds with the EU, still seem secure against potential Russian aggression. The biggest political trouble spots seem to be Hungary and Poland, neither of which are euro members. That may be a coincidence, but it may also reflect a very real psychological tie resulting from the currency adoption.

Do read the whole thing, there are several other arguments at the link.

Let’s say that somehow Britain had let its opportunity pass by (lost the wrong war?), or perhaps never had been in the right position at all (no Gulf Stream?).  When would the world have seen an Industrial Revolution?  Keep in mind Song China came relatively close to having a break through of some kind, but still did not pull it off; some commentators suggest the same about the Roman Empire.

My initial presumption is that “industrial revolutions,” if we can even make the term plural in that way, are remarkably difficult to see through.  I offer a few points:

1. Mankind spent about a hundred thousand years before making enough progress to attain the civilizations of Sumeria and Mesopotamia.  Along the way, people discovered how to tame fire and use various stones and metals, but still it was a long, tough slog to a point that still was almost 6000 years short of an industrial revolution.

2. I see, in world history, only two regional units being in a position at all to make a run at an industrial revolution, namely Rome and its offshoots, and China.  That is discouraging, especially because each of those required a fairly large, semi-unified territorial area.  (As an aside, I view “how did China get so big so quickly?” as one of the most under-discussed questions of world history.  Try it sometime, it’s better than arguing about Trump or ACA.)

2b. Were the Roman Empire and China actually independent events?

3. I fear what I call “the James C. Scott dead end,” namely that many territories will develop strong enough “state capacity-resistant” units that further Chinas and Romes will be difficult to achieve in terms of the size of the political unit.  Imagine a world like Laos or northern Thailand.  You may think that is a “mountains effect,” but neither the Great Plains nor Africa developed a China or Rome equivalent in earlier times, or much in the way of a very large or effective political unit.  By the way, when is the next James C. Scott book coming out?

4. I also fear the “energy dead end.”  The Aztec empire and its precursors created an amazing time, most of all for biotechnology — they bred corn out of a crummy weed, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, and without external grants.  Tenochitlan may have been larger and more impressive than any European city, and the residents probably ate better too.  Yet they used the wheel only for children’s toys and, more importantly, they stuck with direct uses of solar power.  There is no evidence of them coming remotely close to a major deployment of fossil fuels.  They did burn coal for fuel, and to make ornaments, but seemed to have no idea of how to put the pieces together to make it an energy source for powerful machines.  For most of their purposes, solar energy seemed to work remarkably well, and Mexico had plenty of it.  It nourished their food and kept them warm.

5. The economic historian R.C. Allen overrated the role of coal in the British Industrial Revolution, and this has kept many people away from seeing #4.  Don’t assign coal a dominant monocausal role in the Industrial Revolution, just have an n-factor model where fossil fuels are one of the binding constraints; circa 2017 we still need them!  By the way, here is an Allen essay on the Britishness of the Industrial Revolution, closely related to this blog post.  I agree with most of his sentences as stand-alone claims, though he vastly underrates the role of non-energy factors in the bigger picture.

6. The Incas also had a remarkably advanced civilization, in select areas ahead of Europeans and spanning a fairly large geographic area at its peak with plenty of state capacity.  They too seemed to be in a cul-de-sac with respect to an industrial revolution, energy again being one factor as best we can tell.

7. Many people fear internecine warfare as preventing an industrial revolution in alternative locales, and while that is a factor, I worry more about “the James C. Scott dead end” and “the energy dead end.”  What other possible dead ends are there?

8. At what point was a European/British industrial revolution “in the bag”?  1740?  1600?  1050?  If the Brits had failed us, at what point would Japan or Bohemia have picked up the ball and run with it?  Seventy years later?  Three hundred years?  Never?

9. The optimistic perspective is gained from studying the history of the arts.  Then one sees European culture as having a series of mini-industrial revolutions, starting in late medieval times and rapidly accelerating progress in painting, sculpture, perspective, bookmaking, goldsmithing, musical instruments, musical notation, paper-making, and many other areas, most of all in northern Italy and also Franco-Flemish territory and a bit later Germany.  Bach came before the British “Industrial Revolution” and his genius had a lot of preconditions too!  The “special” thing about the British IR is that it overturned Malthusian assumptions, but from the point of view of understanding how the inputs related to the outputs, and how so many new, complex innovations were possible all at once, that is arguably of secondary import.  Study Monteverdi, not coal!

For this post I am thankful to a recent lunch conversation with John Nye, Bryan Caplan, and Robin Hanson, of course implicating none of them in these views, though can you guess who disagreed the most?

Monday assorted links

by on May 8, 2017 at 1:37 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Profile of Clayton Christensen.

2. Is Roger Federer more loss averse than Serena Williams?

3. Venice (Italy) bans kebab shops.

4. “Russian website shows unsecured video streams from across Canada.

5. New and even more shocking results on income stagnation.: “…economists should search for explanations for households’ current financial woes in the youth and childhood of today’s workers.  “We are maybe looking at the wrong place for the solution to stagnation in wages and rising inequalities,” Guvenen said. “To understand higher inequality, we should turn and take a closer look at youth.””

6. Fewer than one in one thousand teachers in Colorado is “ineffective” — what a state!

7. With proper calibration, the Comey effect is much smaller than you might think (NYT).

8. Trailer for Blade Runner 2049.

Here is a link to the download and partial transcript, Russ is one of the very best interviewers and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler Cowen: And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

There is more…