Category: Books

Slavery in the history of Venice

There was a thriving trade in human flesh.  By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries.  The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery.  They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent.  They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens.  Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea — Armenians and Georgians among them — before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus.  They sold boys and young women as concubines.  One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.

Many of them were consigned to Venetian households.  No patrician family was complete without a retinue or three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops.  Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service.  The galleys were stocked with slaves.  But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable.  Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses.  Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324.  In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital.  The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.

That is from Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City.

My favorite things Venice

1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.

2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.  Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.

3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording).  Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.

4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition.  I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”

5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.”  But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”

Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists.  However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.

6. Painting: Ah!  Where to start?  I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works.  And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo.  Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here.  Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.

7. Sculptor: Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and I believe he is now one of the most underrated of Western artists.  His greatest work is in Vienna.

8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.

9. Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli.  I enjoy his Mahler and Strauss and Elgar, and his take on Verdi’s Aida was special as well.

10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.

11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie.  What might that be?

11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”

All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.

I’ll be there in a few days time.

*More from Less*

The author is Andrew McAfee and the subtitle is The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — And What Happens Next.

I am a fan of Andrew’s work more generally, and most of all I am pleased to announce this is a book full of good economic reasoning.  From the publisher’s attachment:

How did we start getting more from less?  Largely because of two unlikely heroes: capitalism and technological progress.  As the book explains, capitalism’s relentless quest for profits is also an endless search for lower costs — after all, a penny saved is a penny earned — and natural resources cost money.  Tech progress gives companies countless opportunities to dematerialize: to use bits instead of atoms, and so consume fewer resources even as they grow.

I have yet to read my way through all of the book, and I will be reporting more on this.  I can assure you, however, that Andrew is not a denialist on the issues where worry really is called for.  Here is the Marc Andreessen blurb:

“In More from Less Andrew McAfee conclusively demonstrates how environmentalism requires more technology and capitalism, not less. Our modern technologies actually dematerialize our consumption, giving us higher human welfare with lower material inputs. This is an urgently needed and clear-eyed view of how to have our technological cake and eat it too.”

In any case, I wanted to bring this book to your attention as soon as possible.

Reading and rabbit holes

Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.

Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?”  Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner.  In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.

I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them.  Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:

How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?

How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?

What were the origins of accounting in Venice?

Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history?  How much power did the Doge really have?

How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?

How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?

Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?

What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?  How did Napoleon treat Venice?

Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list.  But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions.  It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East.  Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes.  Or it may lead you to…

Follow the questions, not the books per se.  Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask.  Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.

Read in clusters!  Don’t obsess over titles.  Obsess over questions.  That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.

My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?  If not, why not?

How I choose fiction

An MR reader emails me:

Reading: what is your decision model for choosing fiction?

Here is a description, these are not necessarily recommendations for you:

1. If a woman as smart (or smarter) as I am tells me to read a particular work of fiction, it is likely I do so.  If a smarter man tells me to read a particular work of fiction, odds are I will ignore it.

2. I am least likely to read American fiction.  The 1850s, Faulkner, and Pynchon aside, American fiction seems more superficial to me than say European or Latin American fiction.  American fiction is also very popular in…America, which leads to an excessively loose selection mechanism for those residing in this country and reading its media.  Whereas if a novel from El Salvador (Castellanos Moya) makes its way in front of your eyes, it may be quite good.

3. In genre fiction, I am most likely to read American fiction.  Superficiality is less of a problem, and vitality is more likely to be relevant.

4. I track fiction reviews in the NYT, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Financial Times, the WSJ and WaPo, BookForum, The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and on-line, and I buy what seems interesting to me.  I read the blog Literary Saloon which covers fiction in translation.  I will randomly sample other sources as well, sometimes the Guardian too or the London Times.  I will click on “best of” lists relating to fiction.

5. If I am in a German- or Spanish-speaking country, I’ll buy a few titles from the front tables and also ask an intelligent-seeming clerk what I ought to be reading.  I don’t always get around to actually reading those, noting that the final equilibrium has not yet arrived.

6. I used to scan the “New Arrivals” section of the local public libraries for fiction titles, but in recent years I have cut back on my fiction consumption and this practice has fallen by the wayside.  It was not leading to a high hit rate in any case (too many second- or third-tier books by writers I already like but who are past their peak years).

7. I will periodically reread old classics, on a more or less random basis, mostly correlated with how long ago I last read them.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jonathan Paine’s Selling the Story: Transaction and Narrative Value in Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola combines several interests of mine in an effective fashion.  This book is most useful for seeing economic themes in some of the classic authors, above and beyond their citations of monetary values and payments.

2. The Bretton Woods Agreements, Together with Scholarly Commentaries and Essential Historical Documents, edited by Naomi Lamoreaux and Ian Shapiro.  Virtually all edited collections are sleep-inducing, but this one is consistently interesting, at least if you are the kind of person who might possibly be drawn in by the title.  Doug Irwin, Barry Eichengreen, Kurt Schuler, and Michael Bordo are among the contributors.

3. Ken Ochieng’ Opalo, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies.  The book also is more exciting than the title and subtitle indicate.  It covers the determinants of cross-national African legislative successes, and argues that often the best and strongest legislatures emerge from a context of previously effective autocracy.

4. Roger Faligot, Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi JinPing.  A sobering account of how much spying — indeed spying on a mass level — has been central to Chinese history since the advent of communism.  I found some parts of this book too detailed for me to read the entire thing, but arguably that ought to scare you all the more.  Note that the narrative essentially ends around 2008.

5. Mario Bertolotti, The History of the Laser.  Only about half of this book, at most, covers the laser.  Those parts seemed fine enough, but what I really enjoyed was the coverage of the development of electromagnetic theory leading up to the laser.  The book is also good for showing that the “transistor revolution” starting in 1948 was not really so distinct from the earlier industrial and electromagnetic revolution of the late 19th century.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.


COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.


APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

*The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets*

That is the new book by Thomas Philippon, and perhaps the title is a bit misleading, as the book covers both regulatory barriers and natural economic forces behind higher concentration levels.  I am a big fan of Philippon’s work, but I am not so convinced by his arguments in this book.  Most of all, he is trying to argue for systematically greater monopoly power in the American economy, but he is reluctant to provide much evidence for output restriction, the sine qua non of market power.

First note that market power does not seem to be up at the level of actual market competition.  And capital’s share of income does not seem to be rising in a manner consistent with the monopoly theory, see here and here.

I agree with him about health care, and also (highly regulated) cable television and thus internet connections.  I agree with all of his suggestions for removing regulatory barriers to entry, for instance by allowing foreign airlines to serve domestic U.S. markets.  From a policy point of view, I am quite close to his perspective.

But when it comes to monopoly power too much of his evidence is circumstantial. OK, there is greater stability for market leaders in many sectors, and weak investment aggregates, but all the time antitrust suits find evidence for output restrictions — so why doesn’t this book offer more of such evidence?  Here is one passage (p.39) that caught my attention:

…we see a sharp increase in concentration in the airline industry after 2010.  That is enough to trigger our interest, but not enough to conclude that competition has weakened.  We must first check that concentration has also increased at the route level.  We find that it has.  We can further show that it came together with higher prices and higher profits.

I have only a pre-publication copy, and perhaps some of the book is missing in my edition, but I don’t see the cited evidence presented, nor is it in the airlines section starting on p.137 (which does document increasing concentration at the national level).  To consider the contrary evidence, here is an excerpt from an earlier MR post:

As for output restrictions, here is the DOT series on aggregate miles flown.  No doubt, there are problems around the time of 9/11 and also the Great Recession, with 2008-2012 being a period of slight quantity contraction.  But in 1985 there were 275,864 [million] total miles flown, in 2006 it was 588,471, and 641, 905 in 2015.  I’ll ask again: if there is so much extra monopoly, where are the output restrictions?

Or look at the price index.  Overall prices are down considerably since 2008, and from about 2000 to 2016 they run from about 250 (eyeballing) to about 270, noting 1998-2010 saw a huge run-up in oil prices.

Since I wrote that post there is clearer evidence for a steady price decline since 2012 (he is claiming higher concentration since 2010), just look at the price index, which is FRED channeling BLS.  Now maybe those are the wrong numbers for some reason, but I don’t see anything in the Philipson book to counter them.  I don’t see output restriction considered at all.  I don’t see a price series presented at all.

That is only one sector, but it reflects my deeper worries about the book.  I just don’t see the evidence for output restrictions, or, in many cases I don’t see the evidence for higher prices.

The most sustained discussion of prices comes on pp.114-122, where it is shown that PPP-adjusted prices are higher in America than in Europe, and furthermore the gap is growing.  That is far too much aggregation for my tastes (“Europe”), PPP adjustments are not exactly scientific, it is not very direct evidence for market concentration being the culprit, and furthermore if I understand him correctly, the Big Mac index also has the United States becoming relatively more expensive, even though McDonald’s clearly has faced massive competition in recent years.

To be sure, if you believe in a productivity slowdown, as I do, you also have to feel that America’s economic sectors, in some counterfactual sense, could be much more dynamic, more prone to disruption, and yes more competitive.  It is a great disappointment to me that is not the case.  But that is far from the view that monopoly power is increasing in the American economy in an economically significant manner, across a wide variety of sectors (health care caveat noted, and even that is selective, as there has been a significant cost slowdown).

So I remain skeptical about the main claims in this book.

*Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language*

That is the new book by Gretchen McCulloch, here is one excerpt:

The passive-aggressive potential of the single period started being reported in thinkpieces in 2013…The string of dots got a thinkpiece in 2018, though it has been popping up in comment threads since at least 2006, while it cousins, the hyphen and string of commas, have been less extensively reported but have occasioned long comment threads on blogs and internet forums.  Despite the fears mongered by headlines, it’s not the case that the passive-aggressive meaning has killed all other uses of the period.  The linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who’s definitely younger than the peak dot-dot-dot generation, did a study of periods in his own 157,305 text messages.  He found that, true, periods were rare in short, informal messages — ones less than seventeen characters or containing lol, u, haha, yup, ok, or gonna.  But they were still often found in messages longer than seventy-two characters or containing words like told, feels, feel, felt, feelings, date, sad, seems, and talk.  The added weight of the period is a natural way to talk about weight matters.

Most books on the internet I find vacuous, this one had some material of interest, though perhaps for some people it is too navel-gazing.  But if you are going to spent that much time staring at a screen, and typing text into little boxes, surely you might wish to understand it better.  Most of all, I enjoyed the discussion of how different generations have learned to use the internet somewhat differently, depending on when they started.

*Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century*

By George Packer, I thought this book would be dull, but in fact it is interesting throughout.  Holbrooke, if you don’t already know, was a lifetime American diplomat, but much more than that too.  Here is one excerpt:

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel.  But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war.  “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”  The whole scene repelled the Boston Puritan Henry Cabot Lodge.  “I not only don’t wanna,” he said, “I don’t wanna wanna.”

A vivid passage to be sure, but two points.  First, why call the one sensible guy a “Puritan”?  (Yes, the Puritans in fact were great, but I don’t think the remark is to be taken in that spirit.)  Second, it seems to me that many Ubangi women are likely quite beautiful, and probably I saw some of them while in Ethiopia.  Furthermore, at least these days, it is optional whether they wish to take on the famed “lip plate.”

In any case, I would describe the book as “rollicking.”  You can order it here.

For the recommendation I thank Mr. C. Weber.

*Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy*

By Nadia Urbinati, I think of this book as the next step after Martin Gurri.  Here is one bit:

…the massive usage of the internet — which is an affordable and revolutionary means of interaction and information sharing by ordinary citizens — has supercharged the horizontal transformation of the audience and made the public into the only existing political actor outside institutions born from civil society.

But more significantly, populism is so diverse and the word is so often misused, how should we best understand it?  First, by breaking down parties, the new internet populism raises the status of personalized individual leaders, such as Trump and also AOC.  Thus:

…populism in power is actually a new form of mixed government in which one part of the population achieves a preeminent power over the other(s).  As such, populism competes with (and, if possible, modifies) constitutional democracy in putting forth a specific and distinctive representation of the people and the sovereignty of the people.

Populism also has a hard time giving up power, because the rhetoric is purifying, and the pretense is that the current government does in fact represent a more or less unitary “will of the people,” enemies of the people aside of course.  Elections are about revealing a majority opinion that (supposedly) already exists, and thus populism does not fit entirely easy into standard democratic practice.

Here is more:

As such, populism is more than merely a movement of contestation or mobilization, and it should not be confused with social movements in civil society.  Populism is a movement of contestation against the existing political establishment, but one that seeks a majority that would rule with unchecked ambitions and plan to remain power for as long as possible, though without revoking political liberty or eliminating adversaries.  The “benign” aspects of populism in power include its dwarfing of the opposition and minorities by humiliating them and creating an overwhelming propaganda campaign that endlessly reinforces the power of majority opinion.

Populism is not just a style of politics, so you can’t expect a successful and truly left-wing populism, nor will populists end up as a successful vehicle for “right-wing” ideas either.  Beware!

There is too much political science jargon in this book, and many of the paragraphs are too long or too circuitous, and furthermore much of the best content is difficult to summarize.  Nonetheless this book makes more sense to me than the treatments of populism I read in the mainstream press or in “intelligent” magazines, and I found it genuinely insightful throughout.  Recommended, at least if you are up for a particular kind of read.  You can pre-order the book here.