Category: History

Revolutionary Characters

If we want to know why we can never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders, there is a simple answer: the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy.  In the early nineteenth century the voice of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being.  The founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves.

That is from Gordon Wood’s new and excellent Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different.  It is in my view the best introduction to the lives and thoughts of the Founders.

I don’t, by the way, agree with the above quotation.  The Founders were not the smartest Americans to have come down the pike.  Instead they a) were extremely wise, and b) had a unique chance to be both great and famous because they were first.  It has not exactly been a string of mediocrities since then, and of course there is more to American life besides the Presidency.

The Nutty Professor

Here’s an amazing piece of the life of Timothy Leary from the NYTimes book review of Timothy Leary: A Biography.

…he finally went to jail, and was likely to be kept there for years
before he would be considered for parole. Characteristically, he
compared himself to "Christ . . . harassed by Pilate and Herod." In a
twist that could have occurred only in 1970, a consortium of drug
dealers paid the Weather Underground to spring Leary from the
California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo – he pulled himself along a
telephone cable over the fence, then was picked up by a car – and
transport him to Algeria. He duly issued a press statement written in
the voice of the Weathermen, the money line of which was: "To shoot a
genocidal robot policeman in the defense of life is a sacred act."

when he and his wife, Rosemary, arrived in Algiers, they found
themselves wards of the exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver,
who was probably smarter than Leary, possibly crazier, and had little
use for him. As Leary acknowledged, rather shrewdly: "It was a new
experience for me to be dependent on a strong, variable, sexually
restless, charismatic leader who was insanely erratic. I usually played
that role myself."

A tale of two pueblos

San Agustin Oapan and Ameyaltepec both lie in the Mexican state of Guerrero.  They share a language (Nahuatl), a common agricultural heritage, and essentially the same gene pool.  Ameyaltepec split off from Oapan in the late eighteenth century; since then interbreeding has continued.  The villages are close together; "forty minutes by foot, or an hour by car," a villager once told me.  Oapan is roughly twice as large: 3000 inhabitants to about 1500 in Ameyaltepec.  Both feel remote.

San Agustin is filthy.  The streets are full of pig **** and drunks.  Ameyaltepec is not quite Geneva, but it is clean.  The pigs are kept off the street.  Drunks are nowhere to be found.  Homes are much better maintained.  Families are at least twice as rich as in Oapan.  Residents of Ameyaltepec work together to construct trade networks (for artisan works) spanning the entire range of Mexico.  They were "colonizing" Cancun while Oapan residents were still cultivating the nearby Cuernavaca.  Ameyaltepec is much more interested in charismatic religion.  Oapan residents criticize them for "saving all their money."  Town politics are much more fractious in Oapan.

I don’t know why the two pueblos are so different.  I do know that many people see some of the worst features of Oapan in Mexican migration to America.  Much of this is rooted in fact; problems with gangs for instance are very real.

When I look at Ameyaltepec I see contingency, culture, and incentives at work.  I don’t see why most parts of the United States cannot manage a comparable success with regard to Mexican-Americans.  Obviously we have greater institutional capabilities. 

In Mexico there are many Ameyaltepecs, albeit with differing details.  There are also large parts of Mexico with virtually zero crime. 

Latino immigration has gone better in Virginia than almost any other part of the United States.  I again see variation and contingency, of course without guarantees of success.

The tale of two pueblos is one reason – but not the only one — why I think large numbers of Mexican-Americans in the United States will work out well.

Comments are open but please make your points without attacking the other commentators.

The changing allocation of time

…70 percent of the decline in hours worked [in the 20th century] has been offset by an increase in hours spent in school.

Here is the paper, which includes new and controversial claims about the evolution of leisure time, most notably that leisure time has not gone up since 1900 and that time spent in household production has increased slightly. 

Note two things.  First, many of the results stem from including the hours of children and the elderly in the calculations, contrary to standard practice.  (For instance, fewer children per family will raise the per capita leisure of adults, while total per capita leisure could fall, since children do not work much.)  Second, an hour is not always an hour; putting clothes into the washer is more fun than doing the entire laundry by hand. 

This is interesting work, but it should not be understood to buttress the popular claims that capitalism works people into the ground or that modernity is overrated.  Let’s start with the "quality" variable and ask whether the 20th century has put people on a higher indifference curve with respect to labor-leisure trade-offs.  The answer should be obvious.

The KGBs Use of Knowledge in Society

In Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, David Warsh notes in passing a bizarrely ironic use of markets by the Soviet KGB.  It is 1984:

The Cold War is entering its climatic phase.  There are war fears at the highest levels of government.  In London, KGB agents have been directed to track the spot price offered by blood banks by officials worried that a sharp rise would be a signal that the West was preparing to mount a surprise attack.

Dismal’s Paradox

Here is the Daily Show’s John Hodgman explaining how the Dismal Science got its name:

Jon Stewart: Uh, the way you’ve explained the tax cuts doesn’t really seem fair.

John Hodgman: Fairness isn’t really the point.  They don’t call economics the dismal science because it’s fair. 

JS:  Well, I suppose not.

JH: No, no, they call it that after Sir Eustice Dismal.  The 18th century English economist who proposed making smokestacks out of children. 

JS: I uh, I actually never knew that.

JH: Yes, it was a very interesting proposal but ultimately flawed.  I mean if you make the smokestacks out of children who will you force to clean them?…

JH: Yes, it’s referred to as Dismal’s paradox.

The real story which, contrary to popular opinion has nothing to do with Malthus, can be found here.

The 20 most important tools ever

Here is the Forbes list.  Only hand-wielded tools count, so the knife is number one and the abacus is number two.  Number twenty is the chisel, leave further suggestions in the comments.  It is not politically correct to wonder about "the whip," but how would it fare on a pure utilitarian calculus, realizing of course it gets animals to do the work?  Maybe "the stone" is not sufficiently handmade, but how else did they cut umbilical cords?

Thanks to Eric and Kathleen for the pointers.

Cultural recovery bleg

I am looking for cases when a culturally flourishing city met a great tragedy, saw some population dispersion, and then recovered its creative energies.  Vienna is an example where this is not true.  Paris has wonderful museums and concerts but it is no longer a global cultural leader as it was before World War II.  I am not aware that Atlanta was culturally important after the wreckage of the Civil War.  Rome faded after (before?) the barbarian invasions.  So are there any good examples?  Comments are open…

The economics of curling

Google often forces you to ponder the multiple meanings of words:

It is a profile bust showing rather handsome features, full forehead, prominent eyeballs, well curved eyebrows, slightly aquiline nose, and firm mouth and chin, and it is inscribed, "Adam Smith in his 64th year, 1787. Tassie F." In this medallion Smith wears a wig, but Tassie executed another, Mr. J. M. Gray tells us, in what he called "the antique manner," without the wig, and with neck and breast bare. "This work," says Mr. Gray, "has the advantage of showing the rounded form of the head, covered with rather curling [emphasis added] hair and curving upwards from the brow to a point above the large ear, which is hidden in the other version."


The text is from John Rae, biographer of Adam Smith.  Here is the link.  Here are details on the medallion.  Here is a post on whether the sport of curling is a province of the rich.  It seems not to be.  This does not surprise me.  It is not income that holds me back.  Here are facts about curling, sometimes called "chess on ice."  Curling is the provincial sport of Sasketchewan.  Here is on how curling explains the world.

Here is a Canadian study on the strongly positive economic impact of curling.  The study confuses gross and net benefits, regional and national benefits, and nominal expenditures with real resource production, as such economic impact studies usually do.  Commit them to the flames.

The Great Mutiny

It started with a fire in Calcutta, circa 1857, here is one summary.  Excerpt:

The insurrection was sparked by the introduction of cartridges rumored to have been greased with pig or cow fat, which was offensive to the religious beliefs of Muslim and Hindu sepoys (soldiers). In a wider sense, the insurrection was a reaction by the indigenous population to rapid changes in the social order engineered by the British over the preceding century and an abortive attempt by the Muslims to resurrect a dying political order.

Here is a BBC summaryWikipedia has considerable detail.

Here is how the Arabs get all those Danish flags, thanks to several readers for the pointer.  The current price is $11 a piece.

Lord of War

I was an equal opportunity merchant of death.

That’s arms dealer

Yuri Orlov played by Nicolas Cage in Lord of War, an ironic portrait of the arms trade in the late twentieth century.  More history, politics and economics than I expected, this is not an action/adventure movie.  Recommended.  Not surprisingly there are some violent scenes.