Category: History

Will Wilkinson on Thomas Jefferson

The more I read about the guy, the more I dislike him. He was without doubt a man of incandescent brilliance. But he also seems to have been sly, creepy, and an insufferable snob, in addition to having been a racist, slaveholding, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-commercial, Jacobin utopian. When his visage appears on Cato promotional material, as it so often does, I try to stay positive.

I like that Jefferson cared so much about food, but I’ve never found his political writings very illuminating.  Read the whole post, Will serves up some other controversial opinions.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri

For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal
measure – a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the
map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the
holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to
open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect
that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be

In the past four days alone, Oxford’s classicists have used it to make a
series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides,
Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They
even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of
which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New

More here.  Hat tip to The Light of Reason.

More on Papal Elections

This quote from a conclavist to Cardinal Ferrieri in the conclave of Leo XIII says a lot about the process.  I love the last sentence.

The Germans are on his side as will be the Spanish tomorrow because Franchi has now sided with Pecci; Howard, who up to now has voted for Simeoni, will vote for Pecci tomorrow; as I’m sure Your Eminenccy is aware, Bilio declared to Barolini that if he were to be elected he would not accept, for he considers it a heavy burden; Monaco and Randi will continue to vote for Martinelli; Franzelin likes Monaco, but he is wasting his time: Your Eminency, you must accept the truth, God has chosen Pecci.

The quote is cited in The Papal Conclave: How do Cardinals Divine the Will of
.  The author, J.T. Toman has collected voting data (from diaries etc.) of voting in many of the conclaves in order to produce a paper that combines econometrics, theology, and voting theory!

If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, perhaps you will enjoy Incredible Popeman, a new comicbook which "shows the late Polish pontiff meeting comic book
legends such as Batman and Superman to learn how to use superpowers to battle Satan."

Thanks to Daniel Strauss Vasques and Stan Tsirulnikov, respectively, for the pointers.

Claims my Russian wife laughs at (a continuing series)

Start with the idea that the United States can no longer really be regarded as a "new nation."  There is no doubt that America is singularly lacking in ancient chateaux and schlossen…But this scarcely constitutes evidence of youth.  The first settlers arrived when James I was on the throne and England was not yet Britain.  Galileo was offered a chair at Harvard University, which was founded in 1636, before Charles I had his head cut off.  The Declaration of Independence was signed a century before the unification of both German and Italy…Many of the traditions which define Britain as an old country in the minds of admiring Americans — the pomp and circumstance of empire, the rituals of Charles Dickens’s Christmas, Sherlock Holmes’s deer-stalker hat – were invented a century after the American constitution.  "The youth of America is their oldest tradition," Oscar Wilde quipped more than a century ago.

At least I think it is true.  That is from The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.  This book is the best introduction to the history of the so-called "American Right."  It is a worthy successor to George Nash’s earlier tome.

Electing a Pope

After the Athenians, Catholic scholars were among the first to analyze problems of voting (what is today called social choice theory).  The potential for chaotic elections was certainly familar to the Cardinals who after many disputes over who should be Pope settled on the current two-thirds rule for election in 1179.  And while I wouldn’t go so far as  Pope Pius II  who in 1458 said (after his own election (of course!) "What is done by two thirds of the sacred college, that is surely of the Holy Ghost, which may not be resisted," it is interesting to note that 2/3rds does have a number of special stability properties (see the difficult paper of Saari here and the earlier link).

For more on the history and practice of Papal elections you can listen to two free historical lectures from The Teaching Company.   

Junk mail

I’m reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent history of the abolition movement, Bury the Chains.  I’ll post more in the future but there are lots of interesting tidbits on people, institutions and economic history.  Debates about who should pay for incoming cell phone calls, for example, are nothing new. 

Reverend James Ramsay was an outspoken critic of the slave system and was attacked in a variety of ways by the sugar plantation owners, including this:

His enemies sent him packages of stones from the West Indies, because under the prevailing postal system, charges were paid by the recipient.

What determines foreign aid after a disaster?

When it comes to Uncle Sam doling out disaster
relief dollars to foreign countries, it apparently helps to be a friend
of the United States and to catch the eye of the New York Times.  That’s because each news story in the Times about a
natural disaster abroad produces more than a half-million dollars more
in U.S. disaster relief than what the stricken country otherwise would
have received, based on the magnitude of the calamity and other
factors, claim three political scientists who have studied the politics
of disaster relief.

A. Cooper Drury of the University of Missouri, Richard Stuart Olson of
Florida International University and Douglas A. Van Belle of New
Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington compiled data on 2,337
natural catastrophes occurring between 1964 and the end of 1995,
including how often stories about a disaster appeared in the Times.

The Times, in this context, serves as a proxy for general media attention.  Furthermore:

…disaster assistance is awash in politics at every step of the process.
For example, basic foreign policy concerns have a huge impact on the
initial decision of whether to give aid. Allies of the United States
are about seven times more likely than non-allies or neutral countries
to win OFDA approval. And while the Cold War may have brought the world
to the brink of nuclear extinction, those were the salad days of
disaster relief: Awards were significantly larger during the Cold War
years than they are now…

Here is the story; scroll down further for an interesting but flawed discussion of social security and demography (what about birth control pills?).  So far I cannot find the paper itself on line.

The Stories of English

After Shakespeare, playwright Thomas Nashe (who?) contributed more words (nearly 800) to the English language than any other writer.  His successes include: conundrum, grandiloquent, harlequin, impecunious, Latinize, Mediterranean, memorize, multifarious, plausibility, seminary, silver-tongued, terminate and transitoriness.  Balderdash and helter-skelter have been attributed to him as well.

And his failures?

Adequation, apophthegmatical (my personal favorite, it means "pertaining to an apophthegm," what else?), baggagery, clientry, confectionate, intermedium, oblivionize (excellent, no?), bodgery ("botched work"), and collachrymate ("accompany with weeping").  "Chatmate" sounds like a word, and perhaps it will yet receive its due.

"Sparrow-blasting" was intended to mean "being blighted with a mysterious power of whose existence one is skeptical," this could someday come in handy.  By the way, here are some works by Nashe, I am told they include some soft porn.  Here are some amusing quotes from Nashe, including a summary of different ways to be drunk.

The above discussion of words is from David Crystal’s The Stories of English, highly recommended, here is one good review.  The book has more detail than the usual popular treatments of linguistic evolution, yet it remains readable to the educated layman.  Crystal also rebuts the common myth that television is producing a uniform dialect, either in the U.S. or around the world.

DeLong on the Civil War

Brad DeLong has an arresting post on the costs of the civil war.

  • Cost of Civil War to North: $140 per capita (including only economic damages for dead and wounded)
  • Cost of Civil War to South: $340 per capita (including only economic damages for dead and wounded)
  • "Indirect" additional cost of Civil War to South: $450 per capita.

Cost to buy and free all the slaves?  $90 per capita.

Is Ayn Rand important?

No, I don’t mean historically, but rather as a thinker to read today.  Bryan Caplan tells me this is the one hundredth anniversary of her birthday, so here are my bottom lines:

1. Her greatest strength: Her analysis of the mentality of resentment.  She is, oddly, best as a sociologist, albeit in fictional settings.  Wesley Mouch is a brilliant character in his loathesomeness.  Her treatment of cocktail party conversations, while unintentional ridiculous parodies, also point to sad truths.

2. Her worst intellectual tendencies: The competition here is strong.  One could list sheer dogmatism, a necessity to make everything black or white, or an unwillingness to read others carefully or charitably.  More specifically, I will cite her tendency to redefine any favorable aspect of altruism as something other than altruism.

3. What do you really learn from her?  Most of her formal philosophy is wrong or at the very least underargued.  The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism — the greatest force for human good ever achieved — rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.  I don’t know of any better celebration of that combination of forces.

4. Her quirkiest yet correct view: That landing on the moon was an intrinsically wonderful thing to do, and libertarian objections be damned.

5. Her quirkiest yet incorrect view: That Mickey Spillane was a titan of American literature.

Addendum: Here are Bryan’s bottom lines, which with I cannot agree.  Try Alex also, directly above.  Here is Steve Chapman on whether Rand has gone mainstream.  Reason magazine weighs in too.  And here isa humorous treatment of Rand on food.

Why has transportation progressed so slowly, relative to expectations?

"What Bill Buckley once called the "hysteresis effect". When he was traveling around the world on the Concorde, some years back, he observed that–although long-haul transportation as such had gotten much faster in his lifetime–the total amount of time actually needed to get from point A to point B had not diminished proportionately, because of the increasing amount of distance (and therefore time) between the point of departure and the point of embarcation: that whereas when trains were the done thing, it took maybe 10-20 minutes to get from your front door to the station; with prop aircraft and downtown airports, maybe 30-40 minutes; with jet aircraft and "modern" air terminals, an hour or two; and that–speculatively–if there were ever hypersonic transports capable of going from Los Angeles to Tokyo in 45 minutes, it would take three to four hours at each end to travel to and from the spaceport…"

How often did Roman gladiators kill each other?

Gladiators’ combat had become a martial art by the beginning of the first millennium, according to a controversial theory based on reconstructing the fighters’ tactics from Roman artefacts and medieval fight books.

To amuse the crowds around the arena the gladiators would display broad fighting skills rather than fight for their lives, argues archaeologist Steve Tuck of the University of Miami. "Gladiatorial combat is seen as being related to killing and shedding blood," he says. "But I think that what we are seeing is an entertaining martial art that was spectator-oriented."

Here is the full story.  Here is the home page of the researcher, Steve Tuck.  Here is a page on Bruno Sammartino.

City air

Nicholas Kristof updates his story on the sex slaves that he bought (and freed) in Cambodia.  For the main story read the whole thing but the following anecdote caught my eye as saying a lot about problems of development that are not much discussed in the literature: short-time horizons, envy, the dragging down of the ambitious and the almost inherent lack of property rights in small communities.

At first, it turns out, everything went well for Srey Neth. Our plan was for
her to start a shop in her village, near Battambang. She invested $100 I had
given her to build a shack and stock it with food and clothing. For a few
months, business boomed.

The problem was her family. Srey Neth’s parents and older brothers and
sisters had a hard time understanding why they should go hungry when their
sister had a store full of food. And her little nephews and nieces, running
around the yard, helped themselves when she wasn’t looking.

"Srey Neth got mad," her mother recalled. "She said we had to stay away, or
everything would be gone. She said she had to have money to buy new things."

But in a Cambodian village, nobody listens to an uneducated teenage girl.
Indeed, the low status of girls is the underlying reason why so many daughters
are sold to the brothels. So by May, Srey Neth’s shop was empty, and she had no
money to restock it.

Eventually, and with help, Srey Neth moves to the city, in the process recapitulating an important aspect of Western economic development best encapsulated by the German phrase Stadtluft macht frei, city air makes one free (PDF).

Great economists by birthday

The list is arranged both by name and by date. 

Today, of course, is the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton.  Yes, he was also an economist.  Here are his writings on money, which were an offshoot of his work at the Royal Mint.  Newton promoted bimetallism and went to great lengths to fight counterfeiters.  This latter campaign included both new means of executing and torturing them, and dressing up in disguise and catching them in the street.

The economics of dueling

Ron Chernow, in his biography of Alexander Hamilton, writes:

Duels were also elaborate forms of conflict resolution, which is why duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents.  The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive renegotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.

Put that into plain English: We have a Rubinstein bargaining game where players fail to reach an agreement, thereby eating up more and more of the pie.  Each individual plays "chicken" and hopes the other will give in.  But when you approach the precipice…ah…chicken becomes an increasingly dangerous strategy.  The time horizon is truncated, "hold out" behavior becomes riskier, and perhaps the negative wealth effect brings individuals to the bargaining table.  (It is complicated; rising costs may simply make you keener to wait out your opponent.  A mutual increase in risk, however, can boost the likelihood of a bargain.) Then the Coase theorem kicks in and players reach a deal.

Of course to enforce this meeting of the minds, the the probability has to be real that an actual duel will result.

I used to think of duels as an inefficient form of signaling, typically with honor at stake.  In contrast, this hypothesis may suggest that pre-duel risk generation is set privately at too low a level.  The riskier you make things seem with your potential opponent, the more that subsequent would-be duelers will be scared into an agreement. 

The hypothesis also suggests why duels have (mostly) vanished, namely because trading and contract technologies have improved (except in ghettos).  The signaling hypothesis can predict either an increase or decrease in duels, depending on whether the demand for honor or life rises more rapidly with income.