Saturday assorted links

1. Lawrence Mishel is retiring.

2. John Cochrane on taxing university endowments.

3. Why did everything take so long?

4. The ten best history books of the last ten years?

5. “Margaret Thatcher’s aversion to pandas revealed by declassified papers.

6. “The Queen owns all the swans in Britain.  Or, more accurately: Any unclaimed mute swan in open waters in England and Wales is hers if she wants it.”  Link here, noisy video at that link.

The piece has some excellent sentences, including: “For 700 years swan-related royal duties were handled by the Keeper of the Swans. In 1993, a major shakeup in royal swan bureaucracy split the position into two offices: Swan Marker and Swan Warden. Since then the roles have been held, respectively, by David Barber and Chris Perrins.”

And: “It’s not clear how David Barber got his job. A German reporter asks him outright; he smiles and says mysteriously, “I can’t really answer that, can I.” He owns a boat business, he says, when pressed for further details. He is not an ornithologist.”

And: “Peacocks don’t lay eggs. Peahens do,” the man says, settling smugly back into his seat. “Everybody falls into that trap.” She doesn’t push him overboard, but she should.”

And: “One of the most famous swans in Britain was Mr. Asbo, who conducted a campaign of terror against boaters on Cambridge’s River Cam from 2009 to 2012. (Asbo is British shorthand for an “anti-social behavior order,” a misdemeanor handed out for loutish behavior.) “


Will British Feudalism ever die?

European Union was trying to distroy it but they (you) decided to leave.

4. Commenters should rise to the challenge and name their top ten history books of the past ten years.

"Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind " should have been in that list, surely is in my top ten of non fiction book

Charles Mann's 1493. The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, the last volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, was excellent. Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest.

1) The Story of Civilization Volumes I - XI by Will and Ariel Durnat (listened to a couple times and read it)
2) Death by Government by R. J. Rummel (read it)
3) To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World by Arthur Herman (listened to it)
4) Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America Vol. I by Julian Elfer (listened to it)
5) Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (listened to it)
6) Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman (listened to it)
7) Brigham Young by John G, Turner (listened to it)
8) Passwords to Paradise: How languages Have Re-invented World Religions by Nicholas Ostler (read it)
9) Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (read it)
10) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volumes I - III by Edward Gibbon (listened to it a couple times)

Ten choices isn't really enough, but going through everything, this is what feels like the 10 most useful. I left out a lot of individual biographies, or Great Courses lecture series on China and India and generally places where I can't read the primary material and the English language material is scarce. Also, I (tried) to not include books which were good histories but also making explicit policy proposals, as the criteria for a good history book, for me, would be a density of facts to author speculation. This excludes some interesting books around Iran and Southeast Asia, which make for useful historical context wrapped in a USA policy debate.

The books on the list are not perfect and most, if not all, contain some historical inaccuracies, but they are there for either their detailed historical context, being classics or having important ideas to wrestle with.

I agree with Peri - books shine brightly when you read them and then fade. However the call was for books within the last ten years. Virtually none of those books count.

Stephen Kotkin, Stalin. Volume 1, Paradoxes of power, 1878-1928 was probably the book of the year for me.

I also liked

Orlando Figes. I would like to cite Natasha's Dance but it is probably just outside the time limit. So The Whisperers: private life in Stalin's Russia will do.

I liked The Ark before Noah: decoding the story of the flood by Irving Finkel even though the interesting bits had nothing to do with Noah. It is really about the success of the British liberal state and the Grammar School system before bureaucracy and credentialism killed the vitality of British life.

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire was also pretty good. It made me re-assess the way I thought about the history of the West. However Comanches: the history of a people T.R. Fehrenbach is probably better. Just too old.

I thought James C. Scott's Against the Grain was largely a quick re-hash of things he had written before so I will have to go with The Art of Not Being Governed. It is rare that a book can make you re-think the way you see an entire region. Apart from that nothing much of interest was written on South-East Asia that came across my path recently. A shame given all the turmoil going on.

Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government : a saga of the Russian Revolution was excellent. I liked his Jewish Century too even though his conclusion (that Communism was totally a Jewish thing and that is the wave of the future we should all support) was odd.

I think the N A M Rogers books are excellent but they are probably outside the ten year limit so Ben Wilson, Empire of the deep : the rise and fall of the British Navy instead. He was born in 1980. Getting old is depressing.

The odd thing is that I don't think I have read anything good on Latin America, or India, or the Pacific generally written in the last ten years. Not even anything good on China or Japan. Japan especially used to get very good books written about it but no more.

The closest I have seen to a good book on Africa is Lawrence James Empires in the sun: the struggle for the mastery of Africa : 1830-1990 although I did read a good general history of Africa by Michael someone. However I cannot put my hand on it so I cannot cite it properly. James continues to turn out good works. His Raj : the making and unmaking of British India is about as close as you can get to a good introduction to Indian history. It might just be in the last ten years.

By way of contrast an enormous amount continues to be churned out about World War Two. Has anything new or interesting been written on this subject in the last decade? I don't think so. John Ellis' Brute Force is almost 30 years old. Len Deighton's Blood, Tears and Folly: an objective look at World War II is just a bit younger. They are not perfect but I don't think anything more interesting has been written in the meantime.

Good list, thanks. Re: WWII. The new Victor Davis Hanson book taught me a lot I didn’t know.

The books shine brightly when I'm reading them and then fade away forever, so I'm limited to books I've liked in the last 6-8 months.

History writ large, but casually: "Destiny Disrupted" by Tamim Ansary

History writ small: "Thirteen Days in September" by Lawrence Wright

Gossip as history: "La Belle France" by Alistair Horne

Science: "The History of Chemistry" by John Hudson [an old book you'll only find if you have a library system that doesn't weed books needlessly ... it's unfortunate that younger librarians enjoy this task so much, as they tend to be the last people you'd want to weigh the merits of a book]

Thanks to all for the recommendations throughout the year, and for the gloss you sometimes offer on Tyler's recs, which I have eagerly requested through ILL and then found to be too scholarly for a 3-week loan, at ten minutes a night. I get some conversational mileage out of the first fifty pages, though ...

I would, but I'm afraid the feminists will get passive aggressive with me:

2. Implicit in the imposition of the endowment tax on private colleges is that the endowments are not entirely maintained for a charitable (i.e., educational) purpose. Of course, the tax is a repudiation of the highly successful David Swensen model for managing the endowment of a college. And while Swensen may manage the private college Yale endowment, many public universities are copying the Swensen model. Indeed, several "public" universities are choosing to forego public funding in order to avoid the politics that comes with it. I find it ironic that Republicans would find the Swensen model objectionable. Could it be that Republican object to the "alternative investments" pursued under the Swensen model? Could it be that Republicans object to the success of the Swensen model reflected in the size of the endowments that have followed the Swensen model? What I suspect, what I know, is that many Republicans object to the high tuition charged by universities and colleges with large endowments, the tax a penalty for simultaneously growing both the endowment and tuition. This is made much clearer in the case of public universities that have copied the Swensen model, mostly Republican state legislators objecting to the high tuition while the universities' endowments grow. So why do the politicians care: because it's them and their children who are paying the high tuition. To be clear, I am concerned about the much different opportunities for students graduating from elite colleges as compared to just as good non-elite colleges. This tax, however, will do nothing to level the playing field. What is clear from Cochran's screed is that what he doesn't like about the elite colleges is their liberal faculties (red to the end of his post). In other words, Cochran believes it's fair game to use the Internal Revenue Code to punish the opposition and to reward friends. I always suspected there was something amiss about Cochran, now I know. Here is the list of college endowments that will be subject to the tax:

When you donate to an endowment you can write it off. You are all pettycake Rayward no pattywhack. Not entirely is like saying French eyre. You can't do anything with it. It flops like a pancake. We need to sizzle like a waffle. The choice is yours.

Only if you give a lot of tax policy favored wealth.

Giving $1000 a year will not reduce your taxes. That sum is swamped by the standard deduction.

Giving $1000 cost basis Amazon stock from the early 90s will cost you nothing to give about a million in "wealth". If you were to buy a house, your taxes would reduce the price you could pay substantially.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s and stock prices did not inflate as they have since the 80s. Many stocks had prices in real terms lower than a decade earlier. But they all paid steady dividends. The non-dividend paying stocks, like IBM, were controversial.

2. Rich universities in the U.S. may have abandoned their Christian affiliations but they remain religious establishments in their insistence on retaining their special exemptions in the name of their own versions of social justice and prosperity gospels.

Yep, we should give all the money to churches.

My dislike of pandas is only exceeded by my revulsion at manatees.

I prefer nimble beasts.

5. It reveals nothing of the kind. Just some brief remarks in memoranda by a busy women who didn't wish to devote much time or thought to breeding pandas.

That article has really made me reassess my opinion of Margaret Thatcher. That's the kind of timely, hard-hitting investigative reporting that makes the Guardian such essential reading.

Got a chuckle out of me with that. You earned this +1 :)

Back when we lived in England during the Thatcher years, my father used to subscribe to the Guardian. This story is comparatively tame and well balanced. The Grauniad of that era would have reported how Mrs Thatcher liked to rip out Panda's throats with her teeth and dance naked festooned in their bloody entrails.

It's much worse. She refused to pose with a panda but she agreed to meet with Richard Nixon! (The Guardian knows its readers well.)

But only Nixon could go to the United Kingdom.

She was expected to breed them hersef? Is it a way of mixing minimum state, firing the middle layers of public service, and intervenrionism run amok.

#3 great question.

I think she hits upon one of the reasons : inventions are shockingly hard. The number of people who are capable is quite small. Further, before we had a good amount of wealth/leisure time people “had things to do” and didn’t spend their time “idling around” thinking about inventions. Further before paper and a secure way of storing it, it is likely that many inventions got lost.

Finally, it is very possible that there were software changes in the human mind between 50k BC and today.

Oh, yeah, shockingly hard. Those capable must have been the elites of bygone times who were generally occupied with forcing the slaves and serfs to weed the turnips and pack water up to the castle. It's usually the case that inventors come up with solutions to problems that cause them to be busier than they wish to be. How's it go, "necessity is the mother of invention"? The brain of 50K BC was probably better than the one you have. Its person could probably easily survive or maybe even prosper today, you'd be screwed back then.

But wouldn't the activity of millions of human brains working to maximize the potential of their physical environment over thousands of generations make it probable that they would evolve solutions like rope and the wheel sooner rather than later, in the way of natural selection or spontaneous order? That fact that it didn't happen argues for AI's suggestion that something about human brains changed in those dark ages of what we presume was crude hunting and gathering.

Millions of human brains? There probably weren't, at any one time, until more like 10,000 years ago

What's so crude about hunting and gathering? Are you able to identify all the edible plants in the neighborhood of your residence, provided it's not completely covered in asphalt and concrete? Are you capable of reliably capturing or killing ducks, deer, elk, woodchucks and rabbits without the use of firearms or even metal? How about fish? Can you bring home your limit without any of the accoutrements of the industrial age? Well, of course, you can't. Without the current technological inventory you'd be as helpless as a baby.

You should read Greg Cochran's retrospective on Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: which addresses your points.

From the link: The problem with Diamond’s non-argument is that aptitude tests actually work. A one-hour paper-and-pencil test gives a reasonable estimate of a student’s general problem-solving ability, which is why everybody uses such tests.

Why would a pre-literate do well on a one-hour paper-and-pencil test? He's never had either. The essay is filled with other poor arguments as well.

Right, because we see 50K BC style brains in Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Amazon basin „easily surviving and prospering” every day.

"The brain of 50K BC was probably better than the one you have. Its person could probably easily survive or maybe even prosper today, you’d be screwed back then."

How can you believe this? You go back, you have over 50K years of accumulated knowledge. Somebody from 50K years ago would be little more than a very smart monkey, and would probably get arrested for assault or trespassing immediately.

So you have 50K of accumulated knowledge stuffed in that cranium underneath a backward ballcap? Your brain comes right from the womb with a cultural legacy dating back before Sumer? If you were found as a baby in the bush by Hottentots in a few years time you'd be able to teach them algebra, English history and property surveying?

Lol chuck you really are a marvel. It is hard to get every single thing wrong.

You may get a job with the Yankees as Assistant to the Traveling Secretary.

"Finally, it is very possible that there were software changes in the human mind between 50k BC and today."

And hardware. The difference in inventive capabilities between the top and bottom of humanity today is many orders of magnitude. Grace notes that ancient humans were 'behaviorally' modern, but this is a loose description that may overlook many important differences. The ancient DNA studies show selection over many millennia pre-modern-era for current intelligence-related variants...

"The number of people who are capable is quite small. "

Inventions require work that produce nothing that can be consumed. Few can work for long without consuming.

Without the wheel, turning something is impossible, so you must cut every part of the wheel and axle with linear cuts. Spokeshaves are a tool used rarely today because lathes accomplish the same thing with higher quality using lower skilled labor and faster, is, less labor producing nothing. A spoke is not consumed until the wheel and cart are built and being used.

Capitalism is paying workers to produce things not consumed, and that requires wealth. Leaders with power can force some to produce more than they consume so other workers can be fed to work producing things not consumed, like weapons for gaining more power.

Improving the wheel to support going to war to plunder and then return the goods is a constant investment by the center of power. US taxes fund lots of investments in wheels today in support of the war making that conservatives often argue is the only purpose of taxes.

'“Congratulations on your rail strike victory,” he sent from New York. “Your gutsy leadership both domestically and internationally continues to inspire free peoples everywhere.” She wrote back: “I very much enjoyed our talk the other day”.' Was American English always so ingratiating and verbose?

#3. My guess is that at least some of these things were invented many times in various places but then forgotten and lost to history (or, at least, do not enter the archaeological record until long after first created) . For a new technology to permanently enter the human toolkit, somebody has to invent it. But then they have to teach the craft to the next generation who have to keep passing it on without fail. Or it has to be transmitted from band to neighboring band. (With whom there likely may have been a competitive and unfriendly relationship). And then the invention has to be discovered after tens of thousands of years despite the fact that population densities were very low, a lot of inhabited coastal areas are now submerged, and most potential objects would have decayed.

If these images:

had never been found, would we have wondered why it took so long to invent advanced artistic techniques?

on 4. some books in a list are just not historical, rather ideological. while it's not complete waste of time to read Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber ( he is wonderful author of other books btw - to remind about distorted lenses some view the world and try to put that distorted views on you) , but there a simple question - we know first cases of use of money as a mean of exchange predated first debt records by thousands years, how then debt can be origin of money? the author of a list has a subtle sense of humor or maintains the belief that history is not about facts.


Thinks seem to take twice as long as I expect. Revitalization of specific urban neighborhoods is one example. Getting married is another.

“Peacocks don’t lay eggs. Peahens do.”

I've been a huge nerd my entire life, but even I want to stuff this guy into a locker.

If I recall correctly, there are pre-Columbian childrens pull toys from the Inca empire which do have wheels, but that appears to be the only thing the Incas ever used wheels for.

#3. Just thinking about wheels:
1. In order for wheels to become useful, you have to have roads or at least flat enough areas for them to roll on. There's not much point in having wheels in the jungle or in really hilly rocky land, or swamps or most places. Roads and wheels are a chicken and egg problem. Possibly the invention of agriculture lead to clearing and flattening of land which eventually made wheels useful.

2. In order to make wheels you have to have the tools and arts to make them - at least you need craftsmen capable of carving wood or some other substance into a round shape. In order to get people with that specialized skill, you need a fairly highly developed economic system, capable of supporting craftsmen specializing in woodworking. A stone age culture isn't going to do it.

In other words, a lot of inventions we think are simple and obvious actually depend on a fairly high level of pre-existing civilizational development for them to actually become not only possible, but worth inventing.

#3 - sorry my internet is super slow now, but inventions are 'hard' because there was no patent system (even today's patent system is often a reward for monopoly, rather than real innovation, akin to England's "Salt Patent (monopoly)". The closest this was gotten to in the comments was the stuff about doing inventing does not pay, since it can shame the inventor if the invention fails or even if it succeeds since the inventor is deemed a deviant maverick, and there's no way to transmit the invention to the rest of civilization. The book "Diffusion of Innovation" (classic, sorry can't Google the author) explains how inventions being adopted require a sort of societal 'groupthink'.

Bonus trivia: (from my notes) the physicist Tessaleno Devenas advanced a model for generation learning that relates to this theme of why it's hard to invent and points out it takes two generations for something to be 'perfected' (which btw is much greater than today's 20 year patent term, something AlexT should be irate about; it's also longer than most cave people would care about), and not coincidentally this two generation period corresponds to a Kondratieff cycle. Is TC's "Great Stagnation" simply a fancy way of highlighting the much-underrated Kondratieff cycle?

I think the various Eurasian steppe nomad groups used wagons or carts in the Bronze Age. So wheels are useful on flat, grassy land.

Wheels seem to have been percieved as useful when animals were available to pull the cart/wagon. In societies with no domesticated draft animals, wheels never took off.

@Peter Akuleyev - what about the llama? It's domesticated and a draft animal.

A simple wheelbarrow is useful on all kinds of ground. I'd guess the wheel start from putting a piece of a log down on rolling a heavy object over it. Roads would come much later than useful wheels.

And they only seem to be a couple of thousand years old, despite being easily within the capabilities of people who used wheels before then

Hazel, Richard Bulliet (The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, Colombia UP 2016) agrees. Without a demand, there is no supply. Certainly not enough to leave a record that lasts for thousands of years.

I notice that there is no "books" tag for this 10 best history books (not possible to tag individual posts in assorted links?). and none also for What I’ve been reading on December 30, 2017. Please do tag -- on my bucket list is to go back to your book recommendations and read as many as I can. Thanks.

WKPD, re swans: "... Queen Elizabeth II only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the 15th century.

The mute swans in the moat at the Bishops Palace at Wells Cathedral ... have for centuries been trained to ring bells via strings attached to them to beg for food. Two swans are still able to ring for lunch"

Ringing a bell to be served lunch is a very royal thing to do.

1. These people don't really think they are winning, do they? Look at the US Congress, White House and Supreme Court. They're beating nerdy Democrat centrists, slightly, which seems to suit everybody else, especially Trump.

#3 None of us will solve this by inspection. We can only guess.

FWIW my guess is that language and abstract discussion had to be highly developed before any good idea could be propagated.

Not least the concept of *inventing*. Those of us who were taught what inventing was when we were 5 have a huge advantage.

#3 I don’t think inventions are “hard” , they’re simply not relevant. Wheels, printing , double entry bookkeeping are not useful to hunter gatherers in the savanna. They have nothing to carry for wheels to be of any use.

They invented plenty of things; language , communication, cultural learning, art , cutting tools , many ways of processing food which are not edible directly, ways of hunting collaboratively etc..

You could take today’s humans with their chess playing brains and no technology, put them in the savanna and they would not survive like hunter gatherers could. They would not invent anything. They could not figure it out in time. It takes time and cultural transmission. It’s not a history of geniuses advancing humanity, just normal people with the ability for cultural learning and transmission across generations.

3. Monkeys are curious, but don't ask questions. Evolution made humans capable of ask questions and getting information from each other without direct observation or experience. But asking questions of things and being able to understand the answers is a cultural development and humans are not very good at it.

3. Also, if inventing was easy, I would have invented the flubjibbit long ago. I don't know what a flubjibbert is, but in just a few years you won't know how you got along without one.

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