Category: History

China fact of the day

Bureaucratic politics is a politics of privilege.  By 1956, the wages of the highest-ranking party and government personnel were set at 36.4 times those of the lowest rank.  (By way of comparison, the highest wage in the “corrupt” Nationalist government in1946 was 14.5 times that of the lowest wage.)

That is from the new and important The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Yang Jisheng, who himself participated in the Cultural Revolution.

What should I ask Dana Gioia?

Dana is what I call one of the world’s information billionaires.  For more specifics, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Michael Dana Gioia (/ˈɔɪ.ə/; born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer. He spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. He served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2003 and 2009. Gioia has published five books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, song cycles, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies.

Gioia is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, where he teaches, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum. In December 2015 he became the California State Poet Laureate.

He is also well-known as a composer of opera libretti, and more recently as a spokesperson for the importance of Catholicism for culture.  And he is brother of TedGioia, former CWT guest.  And here is Dana’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with him — so what should I ask?

That was then, this is now, now it’s now again

To see how much the sanitary and medical revolutions have changed the risks of global interaction, examine what kills Americans abroad these days: cardiovascular events including heart attacks account for 49 percent of all deaths, injuries for a further 25 percent, and infectious diseases other than pneumonia for just 1 percent…even travel to pathogen-rich environments has become far, far safer than it used to be: a study of 185 deaths of US Peace Corps volunteers,  placed in some of the world’s least healthy countries, found that unintentional injuries and suicides were far more deadly than infection, accounting for more than 80 percent of deaths between them.

That is from Charles Kenny’s new and excellent The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, which was started well before Covid.

A “Garden of National Heroes”?

This was presumably my last Bloomberg column about a policy from President Trump, here is the setting:

On his way out the door, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding on his earlier call for the creation of a “Garden of American Heroes.” The context is that recent events have supposedly shown that the U.S. no longer believes in its own greatness and has mocked its own history and heritage, and so this new tonic is needed to restore a spirit of homage and pride. Thus the government should carve out a new public space, full of statues of great Americans.

Here is one excerpt:

My first worry is that, however important heroism may be, it is not well represented en masse. The U.S. celebrates the heroic best when presenting an ethos of individualism, yet the executive order lists 244 Americans to be honored. In contrast, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials are solo presentations. The Iwo Jima statue in Arlington, Virginia represents a collective effort of flag raising, by only six soldiers. Mount Rushmore has just four presidents.

My worry is that a Heroes Garden of 244 would appear more collectivistic, even mildly fascistic, than heroic. It is hard to avoid a numbing effect when the number of figures is so large. Large numbers of figures also sometimes indicate victimization, such as in the “Tragedy of the Peoples” Holocaust memorial in Moscow, or with the more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


A final worry is that we do not live in a time of great portrait sculptors. Contemporary artists may be ironic or acerbic or witty or deeply conceptual to wonderful effect, as you can learn from a tour of the sculptures at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington or the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. But I don’t see many first-rate works with the aesthetic of, say, Michelangelo’s David or the portrayals of American heroes created by Augutus Saint-Gaudens. The reluctance of contemporary sculptors to communicate the quality of heroism is likely to produce a bland garden featuring an ugly official culture.

There are further points at the link.

What should I ask Sarah Parcak?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Sarah Helen Parcak is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, who has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In partnership with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

And here is Sarah on Twitter.  Here is her very useful bio page.  Here is her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes the Past.  So what should I ask her?

The volatility of events is correlated (and not always in a good way)

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

Consider bad economic news, which is relatively unambiguous. With stock market returns, volatility is correlated over time, and it is higher in bear markets. To some extent the bad mood is contagious, and the bad events behind the volatility may be interlinked as well.

To be clear, the stock market has done fine lately. The latest bad news is about politics and public health, not corporate earnings. Still, the stock market is readily measurable and can offer clues about how broader social processes are connected over time — and one obvious conclusion is that volatility tends to feed upon itself, not usually in positive ways.


Another problem is what my colleague Bryan Caplan has labeled “the idea trap.” Social science research indicates that in troubled times people are more likely to turn to bad ideas. The distressed German economy of the 1920s and early 1930s, for example, helped to breed support for the Nazis.

More recently, the global economy has been very much a mixed bag since the financial crisis of 2008. So people might begin to embrace worse ideas, which in turn will breed subsequent volatility. Such a cycle can worsen over time, and a ragged recovery from the Covid-19 deep recession could exacerbate this dynamic. It simply isn’t good for decision-making if everyone is feeling frazzled and stressed.


Who Runs the AEA?

That is a new paper by Kevin D. Hoover and Andrej Svorenčík:

The leadership structure of the American Economics Association is documented using a biographical database covering every officer and losing candidate for AEA offices from 1950 to 2019. The analysis focuses on institutional affiliations by education and employment. The structure is strongly hierarchical. A few institutions dominate the leadership, and their dominance has become markedly stronger over time. Broadly two types of explanations are explored: that institutional dominance is based on academic merit or that it based on self-perpetuating privilege. Network effects that might explain the dynamic of increasing concentration are also investigated.

I wonder how the AEA budget will hold up now that interviews can be done by Zoom and meeting attendance is not required.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

That was then, this is now

The 1954 United States Capitol shooting was an attack on March 1, 1954, by four Puerto Rican nationalists; they shot 30 rounds from semi-automatic pistols from the Ladies’ Gallery (a balcony for visitors) of the House of Representatives chamber in the United States Capitol. They wanted to highlight their desire for Puerto Rican independence from US rule.

The nationalists, identified as Lolita LebrónRafael Cancel MirandaAndres Figueroa Cordero, and Irvin Flores Rodríguez, unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and began shooting at Representatives in the 83rd Congress, who were debating an immigration bill. Five Representatives were wounded, one seriously, but all recovered. The assailants were arrested, tried and convicted in federal court, and given long sentences, effectively life imprisonment. In 1978 and 1979, they were pardoned by President Jimmy Carter; all four returned to Puerto Rico.

Here is further information.

Does soil heterogeneity induce greater individualism?

Itzchak Tzachi Raz says maybe so:

This paper studies the impact of social learning on the formation of close-knit communities. It provides empirical support to the hypothesis, put forth by the historian Fred Shannon in 1945, that local soil heterogeneity limited the ability of American farmers to learn from the experience of their neighbors, and that this contributed to their “traditional individualism.” Consistent with this hypothesis, I establish that historically, U.S. counties with a higher degree of soil heterogeneity displayed weaker communal ties. I provide causal evidence on the formation of this pattern in a Difference-in-Differences framework, documenting a reduction in the strength of farmers’ communal ties following migration to a soil-heterogeneous county, relative to farmers that moved to a soil-homogeneous county. Using the same design, I also show that soil heterogeneity did not affect the social ties of non-farmers. The impact of soil heterogeneity is long-lasting, still affecting culture today. These findings suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of culture.

Here is the full paper.  See also his paper on homesteading: “…we find that areas with greater historical exposure to homesteading are poorer and more rural today.”

Globalization is older than you think

Asian spices such as turmeric and fruits like the banana had already reached the Mediterranean more than 3000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. A team of researchers has shown that even in the Bronze Age, long-distance trade in food was already connecting distant societies…

Working with an international team to analyze food residues in tooth tartar, the LMU archaeologist has found evidence that people in the Levant were already eating turmeric, bananas and even soy in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Stockhammer. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana and soy outside of South and East Asia.” It is also direct evidence that as early as the second millennium BCE there was already a flourishing long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices and oils, which is believed to have connected South Asia and the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt.

Here is the full account, I strongly suspect globalization is much older than is commonly believed. Via Bruno M.

*The Way We Were* (with broad spoilers)

Oddly, I had never seen this 1973 movie before, and found a number of points noteworthy.  It is a more effective critique of the “white male patriarchy” than today’s performative yelpings, and makes the latter look, if anything, both hysterical and understudied.  And imagine a two hour movie which consists of little more than having two major stars — Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford — talk to each other.  I miss this in more recent Hollywood cinema.  And remember when movies generated hit songs?  By today’s standards, the sexual relationship between the two starts with her raping him while he is drunk (with implicit commentary on the famous bedroom scene from “It Happened One Night.”)  Circa 1973, the main sympathetic character (Streisand) could be shown as a fan of Lenin and Stalin (and Roosevelt) without anyone being too offended.  Nor does anyone mind that she smokes, drinks (more than a sip), and gets into scuffles while pregnant.  The core substantive takeaway from the plot seems to be “Jewish people should marry their own,” which is not the brand of segregationism that has remained popular today.

As stated, this movie for me was a first-time watch rather than a rewatch, but still it felt like a rewatch, as the most interesting elements were all a look into the past.  The more our world moves away from its previous moorings, the more “what to rewatch” will become an important skill.  Or what to reread, or what to listen to again.  This topic and this skill is underdiscussed.  When it comes to the past, increasingly “the uncensored” is more interesting than “high quality” per se.

Overall this movie is more interesting now than it was at the time of its release, so I guess I am glad I waited.  Here is an OK but quite cliched 1973 review of the film.  And here is Ebert from 1973.

That was then, this is now — Pakistan edition

Ayub Khan ended the political turmoil to become the country’s first military ruler in 1958. He revived the economy, carried out agrarian reforms, provided stimulus to the industry and encouraged foreign investment.  State-backed capitalism and alliance with the US powered a ‘golden age’ of high growth rates under Ayub Khan’s reign. The growth was significant enough for the international media to take a note of it.  In January of 1965, New York Times went on to predict that Pakistan might be on its way towards an economic milestone reached ‘by only one other populous country, the United States’.  A year later, The Times, London, called Pakistan’s survival and development ‘one of the most remarkable examples of state and nation-building in the post-war period’.  Pakistan was ‘considered to be one of the few countries at the time that would achieve developed-country status’.

That is from Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s recent and really quite good The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan.

School Closures During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited interest in responses to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the last comparable U.S. public health emergency. During both pandemics, many state and local governments made the controversial decision to close schools. We study the short- and long-run effects of 1918-19 pandemic-related school closures on children. We find precise null effects of school closures in 1918 on school attendance in 1919-20 using newly collected data on the exact timing of school closures for 168 cities in 1918-19. Linking affected children to their adult outcomes in the 1940 census, we also find precise null effects of school closures on adult educational attainment, wage income, non-wage income, and hours worked in 1940. Our results are not inconsistent with an emerging literature that finds negative short-run effects of COVID-19-related school closures on learning. The situation in 1918 was starkly different from today: (1) schools closed in 1918 for many fewer days on average, (2) the 1918 virus was much deadlier to young adults and children, boosting absenteeism even in schools that stayed open, and (3) the lack of effective remote learning platforms in 1918 may have reduced the scope for school closures to increase socioeconomic inequality.

That is from a new paper by Philipp Ager, Katherine Eriksson, Ezra Karger, Peter Nencka, and Melissa A. Thompson.  This is very good and important work, though you will find some Denkfehler in the second half of the abstract, namely confusing short- and long-run (is it so appalling to consider that “school” isn’t always “useful learning” over a 20-year time horizon?) and confusing inequality with absolute performance.  Those are simple points people, you are being misled by your ideology.

*Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition*

By Mark Lawrence Schrad. From the Amazon summary:

This is the history of temperance and prohibition as you’ve never read it before: redefining temperance as a progressive, global, pro-justice movement that affected virtually every significant world leader from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries.

I have been reading the galleys, I will blurb it, it will be one of the best non-fiction books of 2021, more in due time you can pre-order here.