Category: History

Madagascar fact of the day

President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is weathering the latest in a series of political crises that have debilitated his nation since independence in 1960. In that period, Madagascar is the world’s only non-conflict country to have become poorer, according to the World Bank. Its income per head has nearly halved, to about $400.

That is from the excellent David Pilling at the FT.  According to one estimate, almost one out of two children is stunted through malnutrition.

*Empire of Guns*

The author is Priya Satia, and the subtitle is The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.  Here is one good bit:

In fact, there were so many transitions between peace and war that it is difficult to establish what “normal” economic conditions were.  Eighteenth-century Europeans accepted war as “inevitable, an ordinary fact of human existence.”  It was an utterly unexceptional state of affairs.  For Britons in particular, war was something that happened abroad and that kept truly damaging disruption — invasion or rebellion — at bay.  Wars that were disruptive elsewhere were understood as preservationist in Britain…Adam Smith’s complaints about the costs of war, about the “ruinous expedient” of perpetual funding and high public debt in peacetime, staked out a contrarian position; The Wealth of Nations (1776) was a work of persuasion.  His and other voices in favor of pacific development grew louder from the margins.  By denormalizing war, liberal political economy raised the stakes of the century’s long final wars from 1793 to 1815, which could be stomached only as an exceptional, apocalyptic stage on the way to permanent peace.

In their wake, nineteenth-century Britain packaged their empire as a primarily civilian enterprise focused on liberty, forgetting the earlier collective investment in and profit from the wars that had produced it..

The book offers many points of interest.

Which technological advances have improved the working of autocracy?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

“What have been the really major advances of the past 20 years?” is one of the most common debated questions in my circles. The smartphone is probably nominated most often, while Google, Facebook and fracking have their advocates too. Yet we hardly ever talk about one of the most important developments, perhaps because it raises uncomfortable political issues: the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient

The big innovation in authoritarian governance has been this: subsequent autocratic leaders, most of all in China, have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power. The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more…

A second development was when authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution.  Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.

Scientific public opinion polling has been another advance in authoritarian states. In 1987, the Economic System Reform Institute of China conducted the first Chinese public opinion survey, a breakthrough event. Under Chairman Mao in contrast, the incentive was to report only the good news. In the 1990s, however, Chinese public opinion surveys boomed and also became much more scientific.

There is much more at the link, one of my more interesting columns as of late.

Spatial Competition, the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence

There is a new NBER working paper on those topics by Klaus Desmet, Avner Greif, and Stephen Parente:

A market-size-only theory of industrialization cannot explain why England developed nearly two centuries before China. One shortcoming of such a theory is its exclusive focus on producers. We show that once we incorporate the incentives of factor suppliers’ organizations such as craft guilds, industrialization no longer depends on market size, but on spatial competition between the guilds’ jurisdictions. We substantiate our theory (i) by providing historical and empirical evidence on the relation between spatial competition, craft guilds and innovation, and (ii) by showing the calibrated model correctly predicts the timings of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence.

From the body of the paper, I found these two sentences especially useful:

First, using city size and location data, we quantify how spatial competition increased in England between 1600 and 1800.  Using the same metric, we show that China at the end of the nineteenth century was about 200 years behind England.

Technology in Kubrick’s *2001: A Space Odyssey*

This post serves up some spoilers of detail, though no major spoilers of plot until the penultimate “you must go see it” paragraph.  Upon a re-viewing of this movie, I found the following striking:

1. There is a Skype-like service for phone calls, but it never occurs to anyone that something like sending an email might be possible or even desirable.  A lot of major and even apparently simple technological advances just aren’t that self-evident.  The cameras in the movie also remained quite primitive and clunky, even by pre-smart phone standards.  Maybe people expected a great stagnation in cameras back then.

2. At the time, Kubrick apparently thought it plausible that the audience would buy into common, widespread and indeed commercially viable space travel by 1992.  The film was released in 1968.

3. Pan American flies people into outer space, and apparently used this new market to avoid total bankruptcy.  Their stewardesses still have silly hats and costumes, and they act in a vaguely self-demeaning manner.

4. The film shows some signs of recognizing that Moore’s Law might happen.  Hal for instance is advanced AI, but he is not huge in size.  And the portrait of voice recognition technology is quite realistic.

5. Stars do not twinkle in outer space, however.

6. Hal 9000 would be less creepy with a female voice, and indeed Apple and Amazon figured that out some while ago.  Note to my tech friends: do not program your personal assistant bots with a resentful, quivering, paranoid, passive-aggressive male voice.

7. The movie seems to suggest that chess-playing computers are a major achievement, when in fact this was mastered relatively easily, compared to many other AI problems.  The movie shows this chess game, with Hal as Black.  It is the kind of game you might expect a strong computer to play against a human, namely with a finish based on visually counterintuitive tactics.

8. It is a truly dystopic vision to think that Howard Johnson’s will be serving us food in space.

9. The first time I saw the movie, which I believe was in the mid-1970s, I was more stunned by seeing Americans talking to Russians “as if they were normal people” than by any of the technology.

Here is a good Wikipedia page on technologies in the movie.  Now a few spoilers:

The movie, which I had not seen in many years, I found quite stunning.  It took so many chances, and with so much self-confidence that the originality could be pulled off.  Imagine opening a film with minutes of discordant Gyorgy Ligeti music, played against a dark screen, with no signal that this is even part of the movie.  Then you see a long scene with apes, no dialogue to speak of, and no explanation of how this might fit into a commercially viable product.  Finally the Solow residual is explained!  There is not only no love story, the film arguably has no characters, Hal aside.  Kubrick often expects ballet music to keep you interested, and various movements in space are stretched out to interminable length, yet almost always with striking aesthetic success.  You could generously describe the ending as “underexplained.”  Hardly anything happens in the movie, and yet at the same time it encapsulates the entire history of humanity with extra material on both sides, beginning and end, and a nod in the Hegelian direction.

Go see it on the large screen if you can — I can’t think of any film that is so much worse (or simply different) on TV as this one.  It is one of the better movies ever made, and it dates from a time near Hollywood’s peak.  It is sad that nearly two generations of Americans now do not know this creation as it was intended to be seen, and indeed must be seen.  On 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the theatre had no more than twenty people in attendance.  When it comes to culture, salience usually matters more than you might think.

Towards An International Court of Smart Contract Arbitration

Firms involved in international commerce routinely contract that disputes are to be resolved by private courts of arbitration such as the International Court of Arbitration, the London Court of International Arbitration or the Singapore International Arbitration Center. These courts of arbitration compete for clients and thus have an incentive to resolve disputes fairly, quickly and inexpensively. Courts compete, for example, to provide arbiters who are experts not simply in the law but in the relevant area of commerce. The New York Convention of 1958 says that private arbitration decisions will be enforced by the national courts of any of the 159 signatories; thus private arbitration leverages national enforcement but is otherwise not tethered to national law (e.g. in US see, Mitsubishi v. Soler Chrysler, National Oil v. Libyan Sun). Over time private courts of international arbitration have developed a system of law that transcends nations, an anational law–this is the new lex mercatoria.

I propose that courts analogous to the courts of arbitration that govern international commerce be created to govern smart contracts in virtual space. Arbitration of smart contracts will develop a new private law that will evolve to meet the needs of virtual commerce, a true lex cryptographia. At first, it might seem contradictory to advocate for courts of smart contracts and the development of lex cryptographia. Isn’t the whole point of smart contracts that no courts or lawyers are needed? Similarly, lex cryptographia is usually understood to refer to the smart contracts themselves–code is law–rather than to law governing such contracts. In fact, it is neither desirable nor possible to divorce smart contracts from law.

Smart contracts execute automatically but only simple contracts such as those involving escrow are really self-enforcing. Most contracts, smart or dumb, involve touchstones with the real world. Canonical examples such as the smart contract that lets you use an automobile so long as the rent has been paid illustrate the potential for disputes. Bugs in the code? Disputes over the quality of the car? What happens when a data feed is disputed or internet service is disrupted? Smart contracts applied to the real world are a kind of digital rights management with all of DRMs problems and annoyances.

Some of these problems can be dealt with online using decentralized mechanisms. But we don’t yet know which decentralized mechanisms are robust or cost-effective. Moreover, when marveling at the wisdom of crowds we should not forget the wisdom of experts. Nick Szabo once remarked that if contract law was suddenly forgotten it would take hundreds of years to recover the embedded wisdom. Contract law, for example, is filled with concepts like mistake, misrepresentation, duress, negligence and intention that are not easily formalized in code. Contract law is a human enterprise. And the humans who write contracts want law with terms like negligence precisely because these terms fill in for gaps which cannot be filled in and formalized in contracts let alone in code.

I am enthusiastic about smart contracts on blockchains. Smart contracts will significantly reduce transaction costs and thus let people create valuable, new private orderings. But it will be more profitable to integrate law and code than to try to replace law with code. Integration will require new ways of thinking. The natural language version of a contract–what the parties intend to agree to–may not map precisely to the coded version. Arbiters will be called in to adjudicate and thus will have to be experts in code as well as in law. Smart contracts can be made by anonymous parties who may want a dispute resolved not just privately but anonymously. Smart contracts can be designed with escrow and multisignatory authority so arbiters will also become decision enforcers. All of these issues and many more will have to be understood and new procedures and understandings developed. The competitive market process will discover novel uses for smart contracts and the competitive market process among arbiters will discover novel law. Law will adjust to business practice and business practice to law.

In short, the best way to create a vital new lex cryptographia is through competitive, private arbitration built on the model that already governs international commerce.

Maybe British common law wasn’t so great for colonies after all

Legal Origins and Female HIV

Siwan Anderson

More than one-half of all people living with HIV are women, and 80 percent of all HIV-positive women in the world live in sub-Saharan Africa. This paper demonstrates that the legal origins of these formerly colonized countries significantly determine current-day female HIV rates. In particular, female HIV rates are significantly higher in common law sub-Saharan African countries compared to civil law ones. This paper explains this relationship by focusing on differences in female property rights under the two codes of law. In sub-Saharan Africa, common law is associated with weaker female marital property laws. As a result, women in these common law countries have lower bargaining power within the household and are less able to negotiate safe sex practices and are thus more vulnerable to HIV, compared to their civil law counterparts. Exploiting the fact that some ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa cross country borders with different legal systems, we are able to include ethnicity fixed effects into a regression discontinuity approach. This allows us to control for a large set of cultural, geographical, and environmental factors that could be confounding the estimates. The results of this paper are consistent with gender inequality (the “feminization” of AIDS), explaining much of its prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa.

That is from the latest American Economic Review.  Here is an earlier version and related material.

Is the reversal of the Flynn Effect environmental?

Maybe so, says a new paper by Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg:

Using administrative register data with information on family relationships and cognitive ability for three decades of Norwegian male birth cohorts, we show that the increase, turning point, and decline of the Flynn effect can be recovered from within-family variation in intelligence scores. This establishes that the large changes in average cohort intelligence reflect environmental factors and not changing composition of parents, which in turn rules out several prominent hypotheses for retrograde Flynn effects.

In short, IQ relates inversely to sibling order, and the basic effect is not being generated by a changing composition of married pairs over time.

In other words, we have started building a more stupidity-inducing environment.  Or at least the Norwegians have.  But of course the retrograde Flynn Effect is starting to pop up in the data more generally, and not just in Norway.  From The Times of London:

The IQ scores of young people have begun to fall after rising steadily since the Second World War, according to the first authoritative study of the phenomenon.

The decline, which is equivalent to at least seven points per generation, is thought to have started with the cohort born in 1975, who reached adulthood in the early Nineties.

Have a nice day!

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

The long-run consequences of male-biased sex ratios

From Pauline Grosjean & Rose Khattar, forthcoming, Review of Economic Studies:

We document the short- and long-run effects of male-biased sex ratios. We exploit a natural historical experiment where large numbers of male convicts and far fewer female convicts were sent to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. In areas with more male-biased sex ratios, women were historically more likely to get married and less likely to work outside the home. In these areas today, both men and women continue to have more conservative attitudes towards women working, and women work fewer hours outside the home. While these women enjoy more leisure, they are also less likely to work in high-ranking occupations. We demonstrate that the consequences of uneven sex ratios on cultural attitudes, labor supply decisions, and occupational choices can persist in the long run, well after sex ratios are back to the natural rate. We document the roles of vertical cultural transmission and marriage homogamy in sustaining this cultural persistence.

Hat tip goes to the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Won’t You Be My Neighbor?*

That is the title of the new documentary on the life and career of Mister Rogers.  Are there better movies on?:

1. The roots of American greatness.

2. The importance of “will” in building a succcessful career.

3. Toleration and individualism and respect for children.

This has to go down as one of the better documentaries, and it seems Mister Rogers was a better and more important thinker than many of the intellectuals of his time.  I had not known that Rogers had been trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

On top of all that, the film is Straussian throughout.  Definitely recommended.  By the way, the documentary doesn’t mention this, but the show actually had its origins in Toronto on CBC.

My Conversation with David Brooks

David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.

We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.

[laughter]

COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.

[laughter]

BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.

[laughter]

BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”

[laughter]

BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.

COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.

And on Milton Friedman:

BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.

And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.

Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.

Recommended.  (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)

Barter history teaching markets in everything?

The governments of Myanmar and Israel signed an agreement on Monday that will promote Holocaust education in Myanmar and allow each country to determine how it is depicted in the other’s history textbooks.

The agreement provides for a variety of joint initiatives that feature in standard agreements Israel has signed with other countries, such as encounters between educators and students from both countries and joint study trips. The two countries will also “cooperate to develop programs for the teaching of the Holocaust and its lessons of the negative consequences of intolerance, racism, Anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a part of the school curriculum in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

Here is the unusual story, via a retweet from the excellent Chris Blattman.

The stochastically best book to read on each country

A while back I requested random recommendations from readers about the best books to read about particular countries.  I call them “stochastically best” because I have some faith in your judgments, yet without really trusting you one whit.  Here is one of the two very last installments in that series, taken and collated from comments you all have submitted:

…or Australia it’s still Year of the Angry Rabbit:Bill Bryson’s Down Under for a casual read on an outsider’s perspective or Phillip Knightley’s Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Russell Ward, The Australian Legend

Turkey? I liked Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer.

I liked Hugh Pope’s Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World

Norman Stone wrote a very readable short history of Turkey.

For the Philippines, either “In Our Image” by Karnow or “Touch Me Not” by Rizal

I thought this book on Cambodia was fantastic: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The author won a Pullitzer Prize for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge.

On Myanmar: “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma” by Richard Cockett

Indonesia…etc. for… Indonesia (Elisabeth Pisani)

I second this opinion. Pisani was illuminating for me.

For Thailand: “Thailand’s Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times” by B. J. Terwiel is a fresh look. Many of the other books I have read follow the same boiler-plate narrative that’s been published for decades. His work also brings to light some unique source material that is valuable to the discussion.

Michael King’s “A Penguin History of New Zealand”

The Search for Modern China, China – Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

RE: #17 China Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 “bluebook”) or Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson

Yeah, and for a more contemporary take, the late great Richard Baum’s Great Courses lecture series (2010), Fall and Rise of China, completes the picture (Still noting that Tyler speaking of books, Baum’s lectures are so elegant, that the transcripts serve as a wonderful book.). All and all, Endymion’s work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.

If you collected all of Simon Leys essays on China that would be a very insightful book on the country – mostly touching on culture and politics. Beautifully and memorably written too. Simon Leys seems to me one of the most under-rated essayists of recent decades.

Pakistan, Breaking the Curfew by Emma Duncan

The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu.

India: the Idea of India, Subaltans & Raj: South Asia since 1600, Richard Lannoy : The Speaking Tree

Does anyone have any opinion of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha?

For India, one of my favourite books is “India: A History” by John Keay. It focuses much more on historical facts and events without passing judgement. I believe it is an extremely good and unbiased summary of Indian history from the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India.

While I haven’t found any properly good book that covers South India history, “A History of South India” by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and “A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations” by Noboru Karashima do address this topic.

I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan.

Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country” is a good read, which has chapters dedicated to antiquity and its influence on modern (South) Korea but mostly does concentrate on how the country is now and recent history. Tudor recommends “The Koreans,” since updated as “The New Koreans,” by Michael Breen, and “The Two Koreas” by Robert Carlin as “two foundational texts.” Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.

Burma / Myannmar: The River of Lost Footsteps

Haiti: Dubois’ Aftershocks of History? (though you’d know better)

Here are previous installments in the series.

*Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection, 1815-1849*

The bottom line here is that I ordered all of Philip Dwyer’s other books on Napoleon.  This one covers Napoleon’s time on St. Helena and how the memory of Napoleon was processed after his death, running up through the return of Napoleon’s body to France.  Here is one excerpt:

In 1840, the year of the return of Napoleon’s remains to France, thirteen or fourteen “Napoleons” were admitted to the insane asylum at Bicêtre in the south of Paris.  One can imagine that each of them considered the others to be made.  Of course, there had been people suffering from this kind of delusion even while he was still alive.  In 1818, at least five people were admitted to Charenton hospital believing they were Napoleon.  Now, however, Napoleon was being caricatured, right down to his temperament — ‘imperial’,  proud, haughty, abrupt, tyrannical, capricious, choleric.  The men (and one woman that we know of) who believed they were Napoleon always fit the same profile: they took themselves seriously, they gave orders and they demanded loyalty; in return they treated people with disdain.

Definitely recommended, surprisingly gripping throughout, you can buy it here.