Category: History

Maybe the last sentence here is wrong?

“Barbarism” is perhaps best understood as a recurring syndrome among peripheral societies in response to the threats and opportunities presented by more developed neighbors. This article develops a mathematical model of barbarigenesis—the formation of “barbarian” societies adjacent to more complex societies—and its consequences, and applies the model to the case of Europe in the first millennium CE. A starting point is a game (developed by Hirshleifer) in which two players allocate their resources either to producing wealth or to fighting over wealth. The paradoxical result is that a richer and potentially more powerful player may lose out to a poorer player, because the opportunity cost of fighting is greater for the former. In a more elaborate spatial model with many players, the outcome is a wealth-power mismatch: central regions have comparatively more wealth than power, peripheral regions have comparatively more power than wealth. In a model of historical dynamics, a wealth-power mismatch generates a long-lasting decline in social complexity, sweeping from more to less developed regions, until wealth and power come to be more closely aligned. This article reviews how well this model fits the historical record of late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages in Europe both quantitatively and qualitatively. The article also considers some of the history left out of the model, and why the model doesn’t apply to the modern world.

That is by Doug Jones, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Ireland during World War II

The Republic of Ireland of course was neutral.  I had not known these facts:

1. Irish were allowed to emigrate to Britain to work, but with assurances they would not be conscripted.

2. Ireland engaged in heavy censorship during the War, mostly to stop people from getting the impression that the War was a moral struggle between good and evil.  The government wished to avoid pressure to enter the war, fearing the initial strong support for neutrality might fade.  This censorship even covered the telephone and telegraph, or at least tried to.

3. German broadcasts to Ireland did get through, and “There was still a tendency in Ireland at the end of the war to believe that Irish suffering was more marked than that experienced anywhere else in Europe, a narrow mindset which government policies facilitated.”

4. Erwin Schrödinger spent much of the War in Ireland.

5. The Belfast Blitz of 1941 made 100,000 homeless and damaged 53 percent of the homes in Belfast.

6. Following the death of Hitler, Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera visited the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences, an action that was much criticized at the time.

That is all from The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, a quite good book by Diarmaid Ferriter.

Derry notes, Northern Ireland’s second largest city

People in Derry are still talking about the 1680s…it is bad to be a “Lundy,” namely a traitor to your cause but the bar here has become a high one.  You are either with them or against them.

The 17th century city wall seems fully intact, the buildings are splendid, and the green, wet, and hilly natural setting is a perfect fit.  The town is long on history, short on things to do.  It is perfect for a two-day trip.

I witnessed a Loyalist parade — the men were not feminized, nor did they seem happy. It is now so much “common knowledge” that Britain really does not care about them.  So what is their future and with whom?  Given differential birthrates, Catholics seem headed to become a majority in NI as well.

Most of the city centre is Catholic, and unlike Belfast it is not difficult to imagine Derry rather easily being swallowed up by the Republic of Ireland, some of which even lies to the north of Derry.

I went to see where Bloody Sunday occurred in 1972, and it shocked me how small the “contested territory” is/was.  It feels as if you can count each and every home, and one’s mind starts wandering to the Coase Theorem and Hong Kong real estate billionaires and Special Enterprise Zones.

Real estate in Northern Ireland seems dramatically underpriced, though along a thirty-year rather than a ten-year time horizon.  But should you buy closer to Belfast?

In some ways Derry reminded me of parts of West Virginia, including the Scots-Irish faces, the bygone glories, and also the “every family has an addiction” signs in the center of town.

One hundred years ago, in 1921, who would have thought that joining with the Irish Republic would lead to more prosperity than joining with Britain?  Therein lies a cautionary note for us all.

Operation Warp Speed: A Story Yet to be Told

Operation Warp Speed was by far the most successful government program against COVID. But as of yet there is very little discussion or history of the program. As just an indication I looked for references in a bunch of pandemic books to General Perna who co-led OWS with Moncef Slaoui. Michael Lewis in The Premonition never mentions Perna. Neither does Slavitt in Preventable. Nor does Wright in The Plague Year. Nor does Gottlieb in Uncontrolled Spread. Abutaleb and Paletta in Nightmare Scenario have just two index entries for Perna basically just stating his appointment and meeting with Trump.

Yet there are many questions to be asked about OWS. Who wrote the contracts? Who chose the vaccines? Who found the money? Who ran the day to day operation? Why was the state and local rollout so slow and uneven? How was the DPA used? Who lifted the regulations? How was the FDA convinced to go fast?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suspect when it is all written down, Richard Danzig will be seen as an important behind the scenes player in the early stages (I was involved with some meetings with him as part of the Kremer team). Grogan at the DPC seems under-recognized. Peter Marks at the FDA was likely extremely important in getting the FDA to run with the program. Marks brought people like Janet Woodcock from the FDA to OWS so you had a nominally independent group but one completely familiar with FDA policy and staff and that was probably critical. And of course Slaoui and Perna were important leaders and communicators with the private sector and the logistics group but they have yet to be seriously debriefed.

It’s also time for a revisionist account of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors. Michael Kremer and I spoke to the DPC and the CEA early on in the pandemic and argued for a program similar to what would later be called OWS. The CEA, however, was way ahead of the game. In Sept of 2019 (yes, 2019!) the CEA produced a report titled Mitigating the Impact of Pandemic Influenza through Vaccine Innovation. The report calculates the immense potential cost of a pandemic and how a private-public partnership could mitigate these costs–all of this before anyone had heard the term COVID. Nor did that happen by accident. Thomas Philipson, the CEA chair, had made his reputation in the field of economic epidemiology, incorporating incentives and behavioral analysis in epidemiological models to understand HIV and the spread of other infectious diseases. Eric Sun, another CEA economist, had also written with Philipson about the FDA and its problems. Casey Mulligan was another CEA chief economist who understand the danger of pandemics and was influenced by Sam Peltzman on the costs of FDA delay. So the CEA was well prepared for the pandemic and I suspect they gave Trump very good advice on starting Operation Warp Speed.

In short, someone deserves credit for a multi-trillion-dollar saving government program! More importantly, we know a lot about CDC and FDA failure but in order to know what we should build upon we also need to know what worked. OWS worked. We need a history of how and why.

China campaign of the day

The Chinese government has ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities as it escalates a fight against what it sees as a cultural import that threatens China’s national strength.

In a directive issued on Thursday, China’s TV watchdog said entertainment programs should firmly reject the “deformed aesthetics” of niangpao, a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men.

The order came as Beijing tightens control over the country’s entertainment industry, taking aim at an explosion of TV and streaming shows that hold increasing sway over pop culture and the youth.

Young, delicate-looking men who display gentle personalities and act in boys’ love dramas have amassed large fan bases mostly comprising women. Many of them, like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, are China’s top-earning celebrities.

They came in sharp contrast with the older generation of male stars, who were expected to sing revolutionary songs and play intrepid, aggressive soldiers defending the country from foreign enemies.

But the more gender-neutral aesthetics have come under criticism from conservative voices in society. Some officials and parents fear the less macho men on TV would cause young men to lose their masculinity and therefore threaten the country’s development.

Here is the full story, and I thank B. for the pointer.  As I said yesterday, I do get the point but such campaigns are not for me…

My dialogue with Lipton Matthews

I appeared on his podcast, and we discussed trust, Jamaica and Trinidad, what you can learn from visiting funerals for five years, what I want for my non-funeral and why, social media and outreach, neurodiversity and autism, the importance of Kant and Hegel, and more.

Here is Lipton’s broader podcast series, many good guests.  Here is Lipton on Twitter.

A simple illustration of the benefits of feminization

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)

From Michelle Goldberg (NYT), that in a nutshell is the case for the feminization of society, which I see as bringing strongly positive net benefits for both men and women, in most but by no means all cases.

Do note that if you ever see me describing this feminization in not entirely glowing terms, that is part of my desire to give you the entire unvarnished picture, as I would with most other topics.  (The most common reading mistake you can make in these parts is to over-infer an entire mood affiliation from a single post.)

When it comes to feminization, I also think sometimes of my grade and junior high school gym teacher, Mr. O (I will omit his full name, but in fact we also called him “Mr. O”).  He acted like a tough guy, but in fact was just a…grade school gym teacher.  Nonetheless he acted as if he was auditioning for the role of Patton in a Hollywood movie.

He smoked his cigarillos (?) in that kind of plastic thing-y, like the Penguin did on the original Batman show.

If a smaller or less athletic kid took a tough spill, or was picked on by the others, he would say “Suck it up, kid!”, with little sympathy.  (If you are wondering, the worst he ever said to me was “That was a stupid foul, kid,” in a fifth-grade basketball contest.  So I didn’t bear a personal grudge against him.)

He seemed to love the game of Bombardment, as in fact I did too.  (I still remember being one of the last two men standing, but losing to Jimmy Gravelis, who caught my too-weak toss.)

He was a Roman Catholic and a veteran of the Korean War.  He seemed to stare too long at the boys entering and leaving the shower, after the exercise period of gym.  But no one really questioned this.

Even as a kid, I thought he was a bit…sick and also over the top.  In some ways though he was a good teacher and he definitely maintained discipline.  Kids were afraid of him.  And he toughened them up for the world to come.

Still, at the end of the day I am not wishing to return to the cultural ascent of Mr. O.

I would rather live in a more feminized world, even if I still miss Bombardment.  But if you are not a fan of this new arrangement…hey, “Suck it up kid!”

Addendum: You might argue that I had the best of both worlds, namely to grow up in the “tougher” society, but live most of my life in the more feminized society — maybe so!

The capital life extension query

From Arjun Narayan:

Loyal reader here and I’ve been pondering an altered version of your post [the other day] -You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?

It’s worth considering the counterfactual: Elon Musk almost ran out of money in 2008 and was bailed out by Daimler. we would be far worse off on a few dimensions (lithium ion battery production, but also the urgency with which every carmaker is now attacking the transportation electrification problem). Who else should we go back in time and similarly bail out?

My answer is the companies that built the NYC subway which went bankrupt – the BMT, IRT, and IND. After the city takeover in ~1940, construction slowed over a generation, and no infrastructure has been built since. It’s unclear if infrastructure will ever be built in NYC again. It’s clear to me that the only time to build was right then and there, and we should have “overbuilt” to the maximum extent possible when we could.

And in terms of returns to society, what is the value of 10% more efficient subway service (faster/longer/more frequent)? 20? 50%? We could absorb more population (NIMBYs notwithstanding), and as the largest city in the US, the agglomeration effect means it is most impactful here.

I am very curious what your answer would be!

I do not have a better answer than that, unless you start getting into military scenarios.  If you are allowed to consider cyclical scenarios, how about more money to bail out U.S. banks in the 1929-1932 period?  More funds to limit the German deflation before Hitler, or alternatively to bail out the Weimar government so hyperinflation and later social collapse does not come?  But I take those possibilities as beyond the initial question.

Could a cash infusion alone have kept Intel active and successful in the high-quality chips market?  Somehow I doubt that.  More money for Novavax in 2020-21 as a contender?  That could have helped the rest of the world a good deal, given how slow they have been to convert their very important science into an actual product.

Gordon S. Wood’s *Power and Liberty*

The subtitle is Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, and of course self-recommending.  Here is one excerpt:

The breadth and depth of popular interest in the Constitution in 1787-1788 was remarkable.  The towns of Massachusetts, for example, elected 370 delegates to the state’s ratifying convention, of whom 364 attended.  Most were eager to meet and discuss the Constitution.  It took six days for the delegates from Bath, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), to make their way south across rivers and through snow to Boston.  The people of Massachusetts believed they were involved, as the little town of Oakham told its delegates, in deciding an issue of “the greatest importance that ever came before any Class of Men on this Earth.”

And this:

Many expected the electoral college to work as a nominating body in which no one normally would get a majority of electoral votes; therefore, most elections would take place in the House of Representatives among the top five candidates, with each state’s congressional delegation voting as a unit.

You can buy it here.

*Smashing the Liquor Machine*

The subtitle is A Global History of Prohibition, and the author is Mark Lawrence Schrad.  I blurbed the book with this:

The best book on Prohibition, period. It is a revelation on the causes and nature of the Prohibition movement, and takes a properly international perspective, considering colonies and indigenous peoples as well. You will never look at Prohibition the same way again.

Highly recommended, you can buy it here.

My Conversation with Zeynep Tufekci

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Zeynep joined Tyler to discuss problems with the media and the scientific establishment, what made the lab-leak hypothesis unacceptable to talk about, how her background in sociology was key to getting so many things right about the pandemic, the pitfalls of academic contrarianism, what Max Weber understood about public health crises, the underrated aspects of Kemel Mustapha’s regime, how Game of Thrones interested her as a sociologist (until the final season), what Americans get wrong about Turkey, why internet-fueled movements like the Gezi protests fizzle out, whether Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Turkey, how she’d try to persuade a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, whether public health authorities should ever lie for the greater good, why she thinks America is actually less racist than Europe, how her background as a programmer affects her work as a sociologist, the subject of her next book, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Max Weber — overrated or underrated as a sociologist?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Part of the reason he’s underrated is because he writes in that very hard-to-read early 19th-century writing, but if you read Max Weber, 90 percent of what you want to understand about the current public health crisis is there in his sociology. Not just him, but sociology organizations and how that works. He’s good at that. I would say underrated, partly because it’s very hard to read. It’s like Shakespeare. You need the modern English version, conceptually, for more people to read it.

I would say almost all of sociology is underrated in how dramatically useful it is. Just ask me any time. Early on, I knew we were going to have a pandemic, completely based on sociology of the moment in early January, before I knew anything about the virus because they weren’t telling us, but you could just use sociological concepts to put things together. Max Weber is great at most of them and underrated.

COWEN: Kemal Mustafa — overrated or underrated?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Why? My grandmother — she was 12 or 13 when she was in the Mediterranean region — Central Asia, but Mediterranean region, very close to the Mediterranean. She was born the year the Turkish Republic had been founded, 1923, and she was 13 or so. She was just about to be married off, but the republic was a little over a decade — same age as her. They created a national exam to pick talented girls like her. The ones that won the exam got taken to Istanbul to this elite, one of the very few boarding high schools for girls.

The underrated part isn’t just that such a mechanism existed. The underrated part is that the country changed so much in 13 years that her teacher was able to prevail upon the family to let her go. To have a 13-year-old be sent off to Istanbul, completely opposite side of the country, to a boarding school for education — that kind of flourishing of liberation.

I’m not going to deny it was an authoritarian period, and minorities, like Kurds, during that period were brutally suppressed. I can’t make it sound like there was nothing else going on, but in terms of creating a republic out of the ashes of a crumbling empire — I think it’s one of the very striking stories of national transformation, globally, within one generation, so underrated.

There are numerous interesting segments, on varied topics, to be found throughout the dialog.

How to tell when you are reading a truly great history book

When it treatment of secondary topics is better than what you can find anywhere else.  For instance I am reading Alexander Mikaberidze’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.  Just in the span of a few pages, his treatment of Dessalines and his plan to rule Haiti is excellent.  Then his discussion of the French motivations for allowing the Louisiana Purchase is amazing. Yet a page later his take on the evolution of the Swiss confederation, while offered only in passing, is more instructive than I’ve found in books written solely on Switzerland.

This is in the very top tier of history books I ever have read.  Highly recommended.

The cultural life extension query

Rebecca Makkai asks:

You have the power to grant fifty more productive years to an artist of any discipline (writer, musician, painter, etc.) who died too young. Who do you pick?

My answer was Schubert, and here is why:

1. Schubert was just starting to peak, but we already have a significant amount of top-tier Mozart.  And I take Mozart to be the number one contender for the designation.  Schubert composed nine symphonies, and number seven still wasn’t that great.  Some people think number eight was unfinished.  Number nine is incredible.  Furthermore, I believe the nature of his genius would have aged well with the man.

2. John Keats is a reasonable contender, but perhaps his extant peak output is sufficient to capture the nature of his genius?

3. After the 1982-1984 period, there was decline in the quality of Basquiat’s output.  His was the genius of a young man, and drugs would have interfered with his further achievement in any case.

4. Buddy Holly had already peaked, and he didn’t quite have the skills or ambition to have morphed into something significantly more.  No one from popular music in that time period did.

5. Frank Ramsey is a reasonable choice, but I am more excited about Schubert.  We still would have ended up with the same neoclassical economics.

6. Perhaps Kurt Cobain’s genius was that of a young man as well?  Nonetheless he is in my top ten, if only for curiosity reasons.  Hank Williams and Hendrix are competitors too.

7. Carel Fabritius anyone?

Who else?  Caravaggio?  Egon Schiele?  Eva Hesse?  I feel they all have styles that would have aged well, unlike say with Jim Morrison.  Seurat?  Thomas Chatterton I can pass on, maybe Stephen Crane or Sylvia Plath from the side of the writers?

Afghanistan thoughts

From my Bloomberg column, here is only one part of the argument, at the close:

The hawks I know, especially those with a politically conservative bent, typically will admit or perhaps even emphasize that the American electorate lacks the stomach for long-term interventions. But rather than consider the practical implications of such an admission, they too quickly flip into moralizing. We hear that the American citizenry is not sufficiently committed, or perhaps that non-conservative politicians are morally bankrupt, or that the Biden administration has made a huge mistake. But those moral claims, even if correct, are a distraction from the main lesson at hand. If your own country is not morally strong enough to see through your preferred hawkish policies, maybe those policies aren’t going to prove sustainable, and thus they need to be scaled back.

I still largely agree with most of the hawk worldview: America can be a great force for good in the world, the notion of evil in global affairs as very real, America’s main rivals on the global stage are up to no good, and there is an immense amount of naivete and wishful thinking in most of those who do not consider themselves hawks. What I do not see is a very convincing recipe for hawk policy success over time.

That all said, I still think the Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan was a policy mistake. The U.S. has allowed a very certain evil to rule about 38 million people, without constraint, and has damaged America’s credibility.

And:

This debate involves a host of untenable views. One camp condemns America’s Afghan interventions but offers few constructive alternatives. Another affiliates with hawkish values, but cannot enforce America’s will. Yet another recognizes the fragility of the current situation, but does not wish to turn over the keys to evil right now and hopes to straggle toward a different set of alternatives.

Very reluctantly, I’ve signed up for the last option.

I don’t by the way agree with Alex’s claim that we got nothing from our involvement in Afghanistan.  We used it to bring down the Soviet empire, at a high benefit to cost ratio, noting that we have subsequently not handled the fallout very well.