Category: History

Syncretism and Subterfuge

Cusco’s Cathedral is built upon an Incan palace and filled with gold and silver, much of it melted down from Incan treasures.  It was built, moreover, using the artistry of the native population – amazing carvings, silver work, masonry and paintings. 

If you look carefully, however, the artists managed to inject some of their own culture.  Most peculiar is a painting of the crucifixion.  At first glance it’s a very good but standard painting but look closer and don’t Jesus’s hips seem rather wide?  And can it be, no surely not, but at a certain angle doesn’t it look like he has, well, breasts?  Heh, in the right light he’s kind of se…no, no, stop.  That’s too much even for me.  Once you see it, however, it’s not hard to believe the local theory that the artist used a female model in order to put some Pactta Mama (the Incan mother earth goddess) into his work.

The Spaniards also changed many of the local festivals.  Where before the locals had paraded their mummified ancestors around the square now they were required to parade figures of Jesus and the Saints.  Once, however, the figure of Saint James was dropped.  A peculiar ash was found inside and later shown to be cremated human flesh.  Apparently, the locals had found a way to continue following their customs while at the same time satisfying the Spaniards.

In Defense of Mercenaries

The Gurkhas have been active in the British military since 1817 but they are not British citizens they are Nepalese hired by the British.  In recent years the Gurkha brigades have served in the Falklands, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Iraq.  The Indian army and Singaporean police force also hire many Gurkhas.

The Gurkhas are unusual but not unique.  The United Arab Emirates, where Tyler is now, relies almost exclusively on mercenaries.  The French Foreign Legion continues to attract a small number of mercenaries from around the world.  During the Vietnam war the United States paid the South Korean, Philippine and Thai governments for the use of troops – these were mercenaries paid by proxy.

Should we hire more mercenaries today?  Our military already has hired more than thirty thousand non-citizens.  Why not bypass residency entirely and go straight to Mexico,  India and elsewhere to hire soldiers?  If outsourcing is good for US firms then surely it is good for the US government. 

Outsourcing the military has a number of advantages.  The supply of labor is nearly limitless and the price is low.  Some people will object that quality is low too but if Indians can be trained to do US tax returns they can be trained to fight US wars.   

One reason the Gurkhas are among the most highly regarded troops in the world is that the entrance exam is extremely difficult – only 1 in 30 applicants makes the cut.  The British can pick and choose because wages are high relative to the next best alternative (the Indian army picks up many of the British rejects).  Meanwhile, we are so desperate for troops in the United States that we are forcing old men and women, people who haven’t seen active duty in forty years, back into service.  At US wage rates we could easily hire many thousands of Mexicans.  Many Mexican noncitizens are already
serving honorably in the US military so there is no reason for quality to decline. 

Mercenarism may seem unusual today but in the 18th century a typical European army contained 20-30 percent
foreign troops – mercenarism was the norm.  It’s hard to see how the United States has a comparative advantage in military labor so the future may resemble the past more than it does the present.

Comments are open.

My favorite things Dubai

Brazil_1 No, I can’t afford to stay here, but surely this is my favorite Dubai hotel.  I am told they pick you up at the airport in a white Rolls Royce and then the bridge to the hotel spouts a burst of flame to welcome you.  Supposedly from the water it looks like a cross, which makes it a controversial structure with the local Muslims.  I am going there shortly to eat lunch, if I can believe my guidebook this adventure will involve the use of a submarine.

So far, the Pakistani food here is excellent…and, um…they have a few green median strips along the road, albeit not at social marginal benefit = social marginal cost.  As to my favorite Dubai novel or film, I’ll have to get back to you.

I can tell you one thing, my favorite Dubai blog is Emirates Economist

Addendum: Chris Masse points me to this link of Duba’s mega-projects, take a look.  Here is an overview photo.  Here is the story.  By the way, the UAE just had its first race with the robot camel jockeys.

Is there “vanity sizing” in clothing markets?

Imagine the temptation to sell nominally-marked small sizes (but the clothes are still large) to those who do not "deserve" them.  Does this appeal to self-deception — also known as vanity sizing — occur on a wide scale?   Do we observe ongoing private sector inflation when it comes to clothes sizes? Kathleen Fasanella, a successful apparel pattern maker, says no, it only looks that way sometimes:

Sizes are not created equally; not all mediums from company to company are identical and nor should they be! Manufacturers necessarily target a given consumer profile -even push manufacturers have target demography- and it is more common for consumers of a given profile to share anthropometric characteristics than it is that they not. A medium simply indicates the middle size of a given manufacturer’s size run; that’s it.

…let’s say that everybody had to use the same sizes, can you imagine the number of sizes the western wear company would be forced to carry as compared to the tutu maker? …consumer expectation that they should be able to walk into any store, anywhere and pick out a medium and expect it to fit them but that’s just not reasonable.

Read Kathleen’s whole post, and here are some rough data.  Here is a typical charge, which also names some (supposed) culprits, such as The Gap, Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic.  I do not have the expertise to evaluate this debate, but I am more generally intrigued by claims that non-uniform, heterogeneous standards are more efficient than pure uniformity.  Note that the fashion industry has never tried "hard enough" to create uniform standards.  I’ve opened up the comments for those who are more sartorially minded than I am.  A related but not identical question is whether movie critics suffer from "praise inflation" over time.

My favorite things Nevadan

I had to use Google for this one:

Author: Walter van Tilburg Clark – The Ox-Bow Incident – one good argument against frontier justice.

Paiute Indian Prophet: Jack Gordon, here is a fascinating link.

Movie, set in: Casino is an underrated Scorsese work, nods also to Leaving Las Vegas and Viva Las Vegas.

Architecture: The competition is stiff.  We are staying in the Luxor, but my favorite would be the little bits on the desolate outskirts of town, with pumping oil derricks and tumbleweed.

Inexcusable Aberration: I still think Showgirls is a good film.

We are here, by the way, for my mother’s seventieth birthday.

Rationality and war

"Until this message," Kissinger would write, "I had not taken Sadat seriously."  …Kissinger would come to understand that Sadat’s objective was to shock Israel into greater flexibility and restore Egypt’s self-respect so that he, Sadat, could be more flexible as well in order to achieve an agreement.  "Our definition of rationality did not take seriously the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect," Kissinger would write.

That is from Abraham Rabinovich’s gripping The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East

Problems no one worries about anymore

The concern over the rising cost of living, which reached an acute stage about 1909, was the basis for much of the criticism directed against cold storage.  In the search for a reason for the greater cost of food, a vocal segment of the public came to believe that the refrigerated warehouse was largely responsible…

It went so far that commissions were appointed to look into the problem.  Which of today’s issues will someday seem equally ridiculous? 

And how did this all happen?

This very human tendency to blame the new and strange may have been stimulated by politicians with ulterior motives…beginning in 1910 the Republicans had blamed cold storage for the high cost of living in an effort to save the high tariff…

Both passages are from Oscar Edward Anderson’s excellent Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and its Impact.

Vermont Fact of the Day

I’m in Vermont singing Eagles songs and toasting marshmallows while gathered around a campfire.  I know, know, but I have only one vote!  One the positive side, it is has been a long time since I’ve really seen the stars.

Here’s an interesting tidbit from our guidebook:

The 1870s saw the maximum of cleared land in the state – at that time as little as 20% of the state was in forest – the figure today approaches 85%.

I can’t vouch for the specific fact but the general idea is certainly correct.  Forestland is up not down.  We think of the city as the enemy of the environment but in fact the main constraint on forest is farmland and better technology has meant that we are producing more food from less land than ever before.  See here for more.

Thanks to Monique van Hoek for the pointer.

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?

Why did the baby boom occur?

We should thank Clarence Birdseye.  Improvements in household technology, starting in the 1920s and 1930s, made kids easier to raise:

The mystery of the baby boom has not been cracked in economics.  The fact that the baby boom was an atypical burst of fertility that punctuated a 200-year secular decline adds to the enigma.  Conventional wisdom ascribes the baby boom to the effects of the Great Depression and/or World War II.  This story has several shortcomings.  First, for the U.S. and many OECD countries, it is hard to detect a strong structural break in fertility due to the Great Depression.  Second, fertility in the U.S. and many OECD countries started to rise before World War II.  Third, at the peak of the U.S. baby boom the most fertile cohort of women was just too young for the Great Depression or World War II to have had a direct effect on them.

The story told here attributes the secular decline in fertility to the tenfold rise in real wages that occurred over this time period.  This increased the cost, in terms of foregone consumption, of raising children.  The baby boom is accounted for by the invention of labor-saving household capital or other labor-saving household products and management techniques, which occurred during the middle of the last century…the increase in the efficiency of the household sector needed to explain the baby boom is not that large.

So let’s say you think demographic aging is a problem today.  What is the policy implication?  Subsidize complex robots?  Let people genetic engineer their kids?

The above passage is from "The Baby Boom and Baby Bust," by Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri, and Guillaume Vanderbroucke, American Economic Review, March 2005.  Here is a free and earlier version of the paper.