Category: History

Stagnation is the real risk

The accelerated economic growth also accelerated our path along the inverted-U shape of risk. Faster growth means people are richer sooner, so they value life more sooner, so society shifts resources to safety sooner—and ultimately we will begin the decline in risk sooner. As a result, the overall probability of an existential catastrophe—the area under the risk curve—declines!

…The model also suggests a broader insight. Making people richer doesn’t improve their well-being, but it can also change what they value. In this case, people value life more as they grow richer, and valuing life more leads them to care more about reducing existential risk.

That is from a very useful essay by Leopold Aschenbrenner.  It is from the newly appeared second issue of Works in Progress, an excellent on-line journal.  And here is Samuel Hughes defending pastiche.

*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

Keynes on what is required to make a great economist

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together.  He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

That is from Keynes’s 1924 essay on Marshall, reprinted in Essays in Biography. Most of all, it is Keynes describing himself!

Thoughts on Peter Burke’s new book *The Polymath*

1. No one is really a polymath.

2. No one is really a unimath, for that matter.

3. Many supposed polymaths apply a relatively small number of learning techniques to many fields.  They remain specialized, although their modes of specialization happen not to line up with how the academic disciplines are divided.  Say you apply non-parametric statistics to five different fields — do you have one specialization or five?

4. What to make of the economist who can run experiments, use computational methods, build models, run regressions, find new data sources, has mastered machine learning, can speak fluently about macroeconomics, and popularize for a lay audience.  Is there any such person?  (No.)  Would he or she count as a polymath?

5. The medieval polymaths Albert the Great and Ramon Llull seem especially impressive to me, because they had to learn before printing presses or easy travel were available.

6. One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.  “I can tell exactly how much people weigh just by looking at them.”  That sort of thing.  What is your claim in this regard?  Polymaths also must encompass the trivial!

7. How many “polymaths” are great at say only seven very trivial tasks, and fail to excel at anything important.  Should the polymath concept be held hostage to Jeremy Bentham?

8. Is Leibniz — amazing philosopher, an inventor of the calculus, mastery of languages, theologian, diplomacy, legal reform, inventor, political theorist, and supposed expert on China — the most amazing polymath of all time?

9. Leonardo seems a little thin in actual achievement (though not imagination) once you get past the visual arts.  And there are fewer than fifteen paintings to his name.

10. I think of the 17th century as a peak time for polymaths.  Enough chances to learn and create things, and read lots, but not so much knowledge that you could stand on only one frontier.

11. John Stuart Mill is the most impressive polymath economist.

12. Alan Turing contributed to virtually every field, but in some sense he did only one thing.  Von Neumann did more than one thing, did he do two?  He too contributed to virtually every field.

13. I am very much a fan of Susan Sontag, but I think of her as having done, in essence, “only one thing.”

14. Here is a good piece Beware the Casual Polymath.

I am very happy to recommend this book, especially to MR readers, the full title is The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke.

Samuel Brittan has passed away

At the age of 86, he was one of Britain’s great liberals.  He wrote columns for the FT for almost fifty years, defended capitalism, and also was an early advocate of an ngdp approach.  From the FT:

Brittan had a wonderful, restless intelligence which made him an ideal, if demanding, companion…Peter Jay wrote that when he was economics editor of The Times, he was “haunted by the spectre . . . of Brittan endlessly at work, morning, noon and night, reading, reading, reading, while I tried ineffectually to reconcile the demands of work and family life”.

His Capitalism and the Permissive Society is now but a shell of a listing on Amazon, but I can recall Roy Childs excitedly telling me about the book.  Back then, it seemed like the way forward for liberalism, a way to develop a truly emancipatory vision of free market capitalism.  Now all that seems so long ago.

Here is Sam’s Wikipedia page, note the badly “off” and misrepresentative second sentence: “He was a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a non-profit organisation “restoring balance and trust to the climate debate” that has been characterised as promoting climate change denial.”

Here was Sam in the 2009 Spectator:

I have no expertise on the subject of global warming; nor do I have a strong view about it. But I do know attempted thought control and hostility to free speech when I see it; and I find these unlovely phenomena present among all too many of the enthusiasts for climate action. Words such as ‘denial’ are intentionally brought into the debate and recall those who deny the reality of the Nazi Holocaust.

Here is John McDermott’s Ode to Sam upon Sam’s retirement in 2014.  And here is Cardiff Garcia on Sam.

Ralph Hawtrey was a Moorean

Hawtrey came from a family long associated with Eton, where he was educated himself, before coming up to Trinity in 1898.  In 1901 he was 19th Wrangler; in 1903 he briefly entered the Admiralty, before going to the Treasury, where he found his vocation as an economist and remained for forty-one years.  He was a very faithful Apostle, attending every annual dinner until 1954, when he was prevented from going by ill health.  He was devoted to Moore, whose impassioned singing of Die Beiden Grenadiere made him realize how horrible war was for the soldiers who actually did the fighting: this constituted an epiphany for Hawtrey, and reinforced his life-long Liberalism.  Moore was so much the most important influence on the life and career of Sir Ralph Hawtrey that he spent his last years working on a systematic philosophical treatise (inspired also by Robin Mayor), which was to have been a summa of his twenty-odd books and the hundreds of letters he published in The Times.  He was married to the famous pianist Titi d’Aranyi.

That is from Paul Levy’s book Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.  Here is more on Titi, also known as Hortense, who studied with Bartok and received numerous letters from him.  And here is Scott Sumner on Hawtrey, one of the great monetary economists.

*Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime*

That is the new book by Lt. General David Barno and Nora Bensahel, here is one excerpt;

This emphasis on decentralized, independent battlefield actions, long a part of German military thinking, once again became a central tenet of German army doctrine in the modest force of the post-Versailles period.  Mission orders were regularly emphasized and practiced during peacetime training exercises.  moreover, the German army relentlessly critiqued the performance of its leaders and units in exercises and war games.  Commanders and staff officers at all levels were expected to do so candidly and objectively, without regard to personal embarrassment or potential career damage.  This candor extended to critiquing the performance of senior officers and higher headquarters as well.  These principles made German doctrine inherently adaptable in the face of battle.

And then a few pages later:

In stark contrast to the Germans, in the French army there was “no large-scale examination of the lessons of the last war by a significant portion of the officers corps.”  Partly as a result, the lessons that the French army drew from world War I led to a warfighting doctrine that was nearly the polar opposite of that developed by the Germans.  The French army assumed that the next war in Europe would largely resemble the last.  The staggering number of French casualties during World War I led French leaders to conclude that an offensive doctrine would prove both indecisive and prohibitively costly.  They reasoned that a defensive doctrine would best preserve their fighting power and prevent the enemy from winning another major war through an offensive strike.  As a result, nearly all French interwar thinking focused on leveraging defensive operations to prevail in any future war.

Overall, it is striking to me just how much substance there is in this book per page — a rarity to be treasured!  You can order it here.

My Conversation with Audrey Tang

For me one of the most fun episodes, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  And here is the longer than ever before summary, befitting the chat itself:

Audrey Tang began reading classical works like the Shūjīng and Tao Te Ching at the age of 5 and learned the programming language Perl at the age of 12. Now, the autodidact and self-described “conservative anarchist” is a software engineer and the first non-binary digital minister of Taiwan. Their work focuses on how social and digital technologies can foster empathy, democracy, and human progress.

Audrey joined Tyler to discuss how Taiwan approached regulating Chinese tech companies, the inherent extraterritoriality of data norms, how Finnegans Wake has influenced their approach to technology, the benefits of radical transparency in communication, why they appreciate the laziness of Perl, using “humor over rumor” to combat online disinformation, why Taiwan views democracy as a set of social technologies, how their politics have been influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their oral culture, what Chinese literature teaches about change, how they view Confucianism as a Daoist, how they would improve Taiwanese education, why they view mistakes in the American experiment as inevitable — but not insurmountable, the role of civic tech in Taiwan’s pandemic response, the most important remnants of Japanese influence remaining in Taiwan, why they love Magic: The Gathering, the transculturalism that makes Taiwan particularly open and accepting of LGBT lifestyles, growing up with parents who were journalists, how being transgender makes them more empathetic, the ways American values still underpin the internet, what he learned from previous Occupy movements, why translation, rotation, and scaling are important skills for becoming a better thinker, and more.

This bit could have come from GPT-3:

COWEN: How useful a way is it of conceptualizing your politics to think of it as a mix of some Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions mixed in with Daoism, experience in programming, and then your own theory of humor and fun? And if you put all of that together, the result is Audrey Tang’s politics. Correct or not?

TANG: Well as of now, of course. But of course, I’m also growing, like a distributed ledger.

And this:

COWEN: You’re working, of course, in Taiwanese government. What’s the biggest thing wrong with economists?

TANG: You mean the magazine?

COWEN: No, no, the people, economists as thinkers. What’s their biggest defect or flaw?

TANG: I don’t know. I haven’t met an economist that I didn’t like, so I don’t think there’s any particular personality flaws there.


COWEN: Now, my country, the United States, has made many, many mistakes at an almost metaphysical level. What is it in the United States that those mistakes have come from? What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

COWEN: Have we started correcting them yet?

TANG: I’m sure that you have.

Definitely recommended.

Why are North and South India so different on gender?

From Alice Evans:

Region is a strong predictor of female survival, literacy, autonomy, employment, and independent mobility. A woman with the exact same household wealth/ caste/ religion will likely have more autonomy if she lives in the South.

It does not seem to be a function of wealth, nor was colonialism a major factor.  And cousin marriage, which is more prevalent in the south?  Alice notes:

Southern women may have gained autonomy despite cousin marriage, not because of it.

Islam, however, is one factor:

In sum, gender segregation became more widespread under Islamic rule. Men continue [to] dominate public life, while women are more rooted in their families, seldom gathering to resist structural inequalities.

But perhaps most significantly:

Female labour force participation is higher in states with traditions of labour-intensive cultivation…

Wheat has been grown for centuries on the fertile, alluvial Indo-Gangetic plain. Cultivation is not terribly labour-intensive, though cereals must still be processed, shelled and ground. This lowers demand for female labour in the field, and heightens its importance at home.

Rice-cultivation is much more labour intensive. It requires the construction of tanks and irrigation channels, planting, transplanting, and harvesting. Women are needed in the fields. Rice is the staple crop in the South.

And this:

Pastoralism may have also influenced India’s caste-system. Brahmins dominate business, public service, politics, the judiciary, and universities. Upper caste purity and prestige has been preserved through female seclusion, prohibiting polluting sexual access. These patriarchal norms may be rooted in ancient livelihoods. Brahmins share genetic data with ancient Iranians and steppe pastoralists. Brahmins also comprise a larger share of the population in North India and only 3% in Tamil Nadu.

Over the centuries, male superiority may have become entrenched.


Northern parents increasingly support their daughters’ education, but this is primarily to improve their marriage prospects, not work outside the home.

There is much, much more at the link, including some excellent maps, visuals, and photos.

It’s getting better and worse at the same time

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

The larger question is how to know when this great stagnation is ending. Counterintuitively, the answer might be when people are most upset — because that’s generally how most humans react to change, even when it proves beneficial in the longer run. These feelings arise in part from the chaos and disruption brought about by some pretty significant changes.


People, here is the good news and the bad news: Change is upon us. We are entering a new era of crises — in politics and biomedicine, with climate and energy, and not incidentally, about how prudently we spend our time.

The regretful truth is that progress is never going to be easy. The great technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, remember, were followed by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. Innovations such as radio and the automobile improved countless lives but also broadcast Hitler speeches and led to destructive tanks.

I’m not predicting the same catastrophe for today. I’m only saying that when the discontent is palpable, as it is right now in America, keep in mind that true breakthroughs may already be underway.

The examples are in the longer text.  Recommended!

What is the single best volume to read on China?

I do not know!  But this is one of the questions I receive most often, after “Can we have more of Tyrone?”, and “What do you mean by “Straussian”?”

I do find that Michael Wood’s new The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People is a plausible contender for this designation.  Consistently interesting, substantive, and conceptual, but without over-interpreting for the sake of imposing a narrative straitjacket.

Due out November 17, I am pleased I paid the extra shipping costs to get it from the UK.

Might you all have alternative suggestions for a single best book on China?

The social function of Harvard and other elite universities

Here is a new study by Valerie Michelman, Joseph Price, and Seth D. Zimmerman:

This paper studies social success at elite universities: who achieves it, how much it matters for students’ careers, and whether policies that increase interaction between rich and poor students can integrate the social groups that define it. Our setting is Harvard University in the 1920s and 1930s, where students compete for membership in exclusive social organizations known as final clubs. We combine within-family and room-randomization research designs with new archival and Census records documenting students’ college lives and career outcomes. We find that students from prestigious private high schools perform better socially but worse academically than others. This is important because academic success does not predict earnings, but social success does: members of selective final clubs earn 32% more than other students, and are more likely to work in finance and to join country clubs as adults, both characteristic of the era’s elite. The social success premium persists after conditioning on high school, legacy status, and even family. Leveraging a scaled residential integration policy, we show that random assignment to high-status peers raises rates of final club membership, but that overall effects are driven entirely by large gains for private school students. Residential assignment matters for long-run outcomes: more than 25 years later, a 50-percentile shift in residential peer group status raises the rate at which private school students work in finance by 37.1% and their membership in adult social clubs by 23.0%. We conclude that the social success premium in the elite labor market is large, and that its distribution depends on social interactions, but that the inequitable distribution of access to high-status social groups resists even vigorous attempts to promote cross-group cohesion.

You can think of this as another attempt to explain the relatively high returns to education, without postulating that students learn so much, and without emphasizing signaling so much.  Going to Harvard is in fact winning access to a very valuable set of networks (which in turn is signaling as well, to be clear).

For the pointer I thank Tyler Ransom.

The persistence of migration outcomes

How persistent are economic gaps across ethnicities? The convergence of ethnic gaps through the third generation of immigrants is difficult to measure because few datasets include grandparental birthplace. I overcome this limitation with a new three-generational dataset that links immigrant grandfathers in 1880 to their grandsons in 1940. I find that the persistence of ethnic gaps in occupational income is 2.5 times stronger than predicted by a standard grandfather-grandson elasticity. While part of the discrepancy is due to measurement error attenuating the grandfather-grandson elasticity, mechanisms related to geography also partially explain the stronger persistence of ethnic occupational differentials.

That is the abstract of a piece by Zachary Ward, from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.  In a number of regards this paper goes well beyond the previous literature.  Here is another interesting sentence:

…I find that 51 percent of initial ethnic gaps in occupational income remained after three generations.

The author also notes:

Rather than argue for an ethnic-specific causal mechanism, I instead point to measurement error and geography as key reasons for the stronger persistence of ethnic differentials across three generations.

I am not so convinced, as where you choose to live is endogenous to your expected labor market quality.  I am somewhat more persuaded by this point:

…the ethnic mean provides more information about the father’s true occupational status.

Iin other words, what appears to be an influence of ethnicity might instead be a transmission channel through the background of one’s own father.

At times the author seems naive, at other times Straussian, or maybe just afraid?  To be clear, I am myself an extreme culturalist, and that is not a Straussian remark.  This is in any case a major contribution to a contentious debate.

*The Murder of Professor Schlick*

The author is David Edmonds, and the subtitle is The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.  I very much enjoyed this book, and found its direct style refreshing, and I hope it will serve as a model for others.  The author actually tells you what you want to know!

I enjoyed the small tidbits.  I had not known that Frank Ramsey traveled to Vienna for psychoanalysis, because he was in love with a married woman his senior.  Ramsey ended up drinking the Freudian Kool-Aid, and also in Vienna became acquainted with Wittgenstein’s sister Gretl.

I had forgotten that Quine was two years the senior of A.J. Ayer.  He also spoke sarcastically of his forthcoming audience with Wittgenstein but sought it nonetheless.  Quine learned German remarkably quickly in Vienna, and then was lecturing philosophy in it without much difficulty.

Karl Popper was first an apprentice cabinetmaker, then a social worker, and then a teacher before he became a professional philosopher.  When he moved to New Zealand during the War, the university library in Otago had fewer books than his father’s library back home.

You can pre-order the book here.