Category: History

From Charles Kenny

Friends: I’m writing to tell you about my latest book and ask you to take a look (and share the news).

Your World, Better is written for the smart and engaged middle school student.  It looks at how America and the World has changed since the reader’s parents and grandparents were young: what has happened to health and wealth, homes, school and work, rights and democracy, war and the environment, happiness and depression.   It talks about the things that have gotten better, the sometimes-intensifying challenges that remain, and what readers can do about them.  (Some of you might hear echoes of my earlier book Getting Better –it is a source, but this is a very different text).

I wrote it because my (middle school age) elder daughter’s friends appear largely of the opinion that everything is terrible, and after the last eighteen months it is a little hard to blame them for thinking that. Your World Better is optimistic, but it doesn’t shy away from the considerable problems we face: from inequality through discrimination and depression to climate change and infectious threats.  It is meant to encourage kids to help make the world better: tip them from hopelessness toward action, not into complacency.  I hope you think I get the balance right.

The pdf of Your World Better is available to download in my blog for free.  Or you can buy a kindle version for 99 cents or a hard copy for $8.10.  Any author royalties from those sales will be donated to UNICEF.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

A Miniature Masterpiece

Superb NYTimes disquisition on a masterpiece of Indian miniature painting. The text, formatting, visuals, all beautifully done–better than any museum exhibit I can recall.

In addition to the subject matter this piece has a lot to say about online education and how news is becoming a winner take-most market. Note what Tyler and I said on endogenous fixed costs in our piece on online education in the AER and consider how many newspapers could put together a display of this quality.

Shaked and Sutton (1987) and Sutton (1998) show that when quality is primarily vertical, meaning that there is a measure of quality such that all consumers agree that higher quality is more preferred, then increased market size does not result in reduced concentration. Instead, as market size increases, firms invest more in quality, which endogenously increases economies of scale and maintains market concentration.

Along related lines, Berry and Waldfogel (2010) show that there are many more restaurants in larger than smaller cities, but even as city size increases by a factor of 10 there is no tendency for the number of newspapers to increase. Larger cities have more restaurants than smaller cities because economies of scale are limited and quality differs “horizontally,” according to taste (thus, larger cities have more diverse restaurants). Yet larger cities are served by roughly the same number of newspapers as smaller cities because quality is more vertical, most newspaper consumers want more coverage, better writers and more features.

Addendum: Tim and Marcos remind of previous items in this series which I also loved, The Birth of the Self Portrait and A Picture of Change.

The new Michela Wrong book

It is called Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, and so far it is very good.  Here is one bit:

As a Rwandan psychologist once told me: “To show emotional reserve is considered a sign of high standing.  You do not just pour out your heart in Rwanda.  You do not cry.  It’s the opposite of Western oversharing, a form of stoicism.

A culture that glories in its impenetrability, that sees virtue in misleading: to someone proposing to write a nonfiction account embracing many of the most controversial episodes in Rwandan history, it posed a bit of a challenge.

Recommended, I will continue reading, and this one is likely to make the “best non-fiction of the year” list.

Arguments for Africa

Despite the past centuries’ economic setbacks and challenges, are there reasons for optimism about Africa’s economic prospects? We provide a conceptual framework and empirical evidence that show how the nature of African society has led to three sets of unrecognized “latent assets.” First, success in African society is talent driven and Africa has experienced high levels of perceived and actual social mobility. A society where talented individuals rise to the top and optimism prevails is an excellent basis for entrepreneurship and innovation. Second, Africans, like westerners who built the world’s most successful effective states, are highly skeptical of authority and attuned to the abuse of power. We argue that these attitudes can be a critical basis for building better institutions. Third, Africa is “cosmopolitan.” Africans are the most multilingual people in the world, have high levels of religious tolerance, and are welcoming to strangers. The experience of navigating cultural and linguistic diversity sets Africans up for success in a globalized world.

Here is the NBER paper from Soeren J Henn and James A. Robinson.

*Island On Fire*

A good book, recent winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, the author is Tom Zoellner and the subtitle is The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire.  Here is one excerpt about Jamaica, the central theater for the book:

Among the staple crop civilizations of the nineteenth century, Jamaica was noteworthy for what it didn’t have in abundance: granite monuments, private gardens, schools, parks, beautiful churches, columned public halls.Nobody thought to bring a printing press until sixty-six years after the British takeover.  Graceful mansions like those built in the American South were less common in Jamaica and generally seen only around Kingston and on the shore of St. James Parrish, where the wealthier planters aimed to impress their neighbors with bloodwood floors, wine cellars, silverware, china sets, and ancestral portraits on the walls.  But the master’s “Great House” was more commonly made of crude materials and sometimes looked no better than a barn with windows.  As a government secretary described them, many country estates were “miserable, thatched hovels, hastily put together with wattles and plaster, damp, unwholesome and infested with every species of vermin.”


What should I ask Pierpaolo Barbieri?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is the opening part of his Wikipedia page:

Pierpaolo Barbieri (Buenos Aires, May 17, 1987) is an economic historian, researcher, Executive Director at Greenmantle[and founder of Ualá, an Argentina-based personal financial management mobile app. He is the author of the book Hitler’s Shadow Empire: The Nazis and the Spanish Civil War. He has been featured in publications like Financial Times, New York Times, Foreign Affairs, El País, and The Wall Street Journal.

Ualá has been highly successful as of late in the payments space, including with the unbanked, and here is Pierpaolo on Twitter (mostly Spanish language).

So what should I ask him?

The mortality of scholars

After recovering from a severe mortality crisis in the seventeenth century, life expectancy among scholars started to increase as early as in the eighteenth century, well before the Industrial Revolution. Our finding that members of scientific academies—an elite group among scholars—were the first to experience mortality improvements suggests that 300 years ago, individuals with higher social status already enjoyed lower mortality. We also show, however, that the onset of mortality improvements among scholars in medicine was delayed, possibly because these scholars were exposed to pathogens and did not have germ theory knowledge that might have protected them. The disadvantage among medical professionals decreased toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Here is more from Robert Stelter, David de la Croix, and Mikko Myrskylä.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Testing Todd

Emmanuel Todd, that is.  Here is a recent paper from Jerg Gutmann and Stefan Voigt:

Many years ago, Emmanuel Todd came up with a classification of family types and argued that the historically prevalent family types in a society have important consequences for its economic, political, and social development. Here, we evaluate Todd’s most important predictions empirically. Relying on a parsimonious model with exogenous covariates, we find mixed results. On the one hand, authoritarian family types are, in stark contrast to Todd’s predictions, associated with increased levels of the rule of law and innovation. On the other hand, and in line with Todd’s expectations, communitarian family types are linked to racism, low levels of the rule of law, and late industrialization. Countries in which endogamy is frequently practiced also display an expectedly high level of state fragility and weak civil society organizations.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

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

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

When Did Growth Begin?

The subtitle of the paper is “New Estimates of Productivity Growth in England from 1250 to 1870” and it is by Paul Bouscasse, Emi Nakamura, and Jon Steinsson:

We provide new estimates of the evolution of productivity in England from 1250 to 1870. Real wages over this period were heavily influenced by plague-induced swings in the population. We develop and implement a new methodology for estimating productivity that accounts for these Malthusian dynamics. In the early part of our sample, we find that productivity growth was zero. Productivity growth began in 1600—almost a century before the Glorious Revolution. Post-1600 productivity growth had two phases: an initial phase of modest growth of 4% per decade between 1600 and 1810, followed by a rapid acceleration at the time of the Industrial Revolution to 18% per decade. Our evidence helps distinguish between theories of why growth began. In particular, our findings support the idea that broad-based economic change preceded the bourgeois institutional reforms of 17th century England and may have contributed to causing them. We also estimate the strength of Malthusian population forces on real wages. We find that these forces were sufficiently weak to be easily overwhelmed by post-1800 productivity growth.

Via Anton Howes.  Here is a related tweet storm from Steinsson.

Google Trends as a measure of economic influence

That is a new research paper by Tom Coupé, here is one excerpt:

I find that search intensity rankings based on Google Trends data are only modestly correlated with more traditional measures of scholarly impact…

The definition of who counts as an economist is somewhat loose, so:

Plato, Aristotle and Karl Marx constitute the top three. They are followed by B. R. Ambedkar, John Locke and Thomas Aquinas, with Adam Smith taking the seventh place. Smith is followed by Max Weber, John Maynard Keynes and the top-ranking Nobel Prize winner, John Forbes Nash Jr.

…John Forbes Nash Jr., Arthur Lewis, Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman and Friedrich Hayek are the most searched for Nobel Prize winners for economics, while Tjalling Koopmans, Reinhard Selten, Lawrence Klein, James Meade and Dale T. Mortensen have the lowest search intensity.

Here are the Nobelist rankings.  Here are the complete rankings, if you are wondering I come in at #104, just ahead of William Stanley Jevons, one of the other Marginal Revolution guys, and considerably ahead of Walras and Menger, early co-bloggers (now retired) on this site.  Gary Becker is what…#172?  Ken Arrow is #184.  The internet is a funny place.

I guess I found this on Twitter, but I have forgotten whom to thank – sorry!

Is this truly an Irish equilibrium?

The British health system is the single most important issue driving opposition to Irish unification in Northern Ireland. Citizens of Northern Ireland get free medical care as part of the U.K.’s socialized medicine. British taxpayers subsidize Northern Ireland’s public services to the tune of $12.5 billion, according to one estimate. That’s a lot of money to give up for the nationalist cause. Nor is it clear more generally what the costs of unification would be or who would pay them, or what the economic benefits of unification might involve and who would get them.

It rubs my intuition the wrong way to believe that one form of socialised medicine over another is actually the major factor.  In any case, here is more from Kimberly Cowell-Myers.

What should I ask Daniel Carpenter?

I will be doing a Conversation with Daniel, who is a professor of political science at Harvard and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of regulation and also the FDA.  Here is part of his bio:

Professor Carpenter’s previous scholarship on regulation and government organizations appears in Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA (Princeton, 2010), winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award of the Social Science History Association; and of The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton, 2001), winner of the Gladys Kammerer Prize of the American Political Science Association and the Charles Levine Prize of the International Political Science Association.  With David Moss of Harvard Business School, he is the author and co-editor of Preventing Regulatory Capture: Special Interest Influence in Regulation and How to Limit It (Cambridge, 2013).

And coming out in May:

Professor Carpenter’s research on petitioning appears in his forthcoming book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 (Harvard University Press, 2021)

So what should I ask him?

The beginnings of my early “job” publishing journal articles

No, I was not paid directly for this job, but it has been worth an enormous amount to me, most of all as a path to tenure and also future career opportunities of a broader nature.

I started publishing earlier than most people, with two articles accepted which I wrote at age nineteen, though it took a while for them to come out.

There I was at George Mason University, an undergraduate, and I figured I needed to do something to advance my lot.  And I already had the experience of beating adults at chess at young ages.  So it seemed to me I could publish something, even if not in the very best journals.

I was also well aware that GMU was specializing in various brands of Austrian and market-oriented economics, so some portfolio diversification would not be a bad thing, in part to ensure I would learn other traditions, and in part to signal that I was interested in them, as indeed was (and still is) the case.

I had been doing a lot of reading on the Cambridge capital debates, and so I thought I would try publishing a piece in the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics.  I sent it in, and they took it!  While I had thought this was possible, I still was quite surprised at the outcome, as it was my very first submission to a refereed journal.  The piece was “The rate of return in general equilibrium: a critique,” and it focused on the claims of Christopher Bliss and others that GE models were a successful resolution to the capital reswitching debates.  Editor Paul Davidson gave me detailed and excellent comments to help turn it into a publishable piece.

I was aware of course that such pieces would brand me as “not on the mainstream fast track,” but still it seemed like a very good deal to me.

Another area I had been studying was public goods theory, at the original behest of Walter Grinder, an early inspirational mentor of mine.  So I wrote up some of my ideas on public goods theory, but put them in a neo-institutionalist framework, and sent it off to Review of Social Economy, an institutionalist journal.

They accepted the piece too!  Of course I had to respond to the comments from Reviewer 2, ever-valuable training to this day.  Note that with these early pieces I received only modest help from GMU faculty at the time.

I also was doing a term paper for a British history class, and I studied the 17th century British mercantilist Nicholas Barbon, and early advocate of free trade and also YIMBYism for London, following the Great Fire.  I turned that into a submission too, and a bit later it was accepted at Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, then edited by Warren Samuels.  That was “Nicholas Barbon and the Origins of Classical Liberalism,” and it contained some of the ideas that later evolved into state capacity libertarianism.  I recall three referee reports, not just two, and lots of follow-up work that was required.

My learning from these experiences was pretty simple:

1. I ought to keep on trying and writing more, but aiming higher.

2. My experience with early success in chess was not entirely unique, so of course this boosted my confidence more generally.

3. Try things, and make people tell you no.  Just keep on trying, in the most naive “Reader’s Digest” sense.  Most people simply won’t be doing that, so it can be a huge comparative advantage.

4. It is worth writing for people with ideas and political viewpoints different from one’s own, and they might have a real interest in what you are doing, especially if you can become fluent in their languages as well as your own.

5. I realized I didn’t have to grow up “having a chip on my shoulder,” as I saw was the case with many other young libertarians or for that matter left-wing radicals.  I figured I would and could strike out along a different path of eclecticism.

6. The publications probably got me get accepted into top graduate schools, as I was accepted everywhere I applied, basically the top six plus a few safety schools.  That validated my earlier decision to go to George Mason as an undergraduate and work on my own, rather than be stuck with more homework and more conformism at a bigger name university.  I figured that subsequent “work on my own” decisions might turn out well too, and later they did.

Here is a chain linking to my earlier posts on other early jobs.

And so that publishing job was to continue for a long time, in conjunction with my other labors of course…