Category: History


Are there systematic trends around the world in levels of creativity, aggressiveness, life satisfaction, individualism, trust, and suicidality? This article suggests a new field, latitudinal psychology, that delineates differences in such culturally shared features along northern and southern rather than eastern and western locations. In addition to geographical, ecological, and other explanations, we offer three metric foundations of latitudinal variations: replicability (latitudinal gradient repeatability across hemispheres), reversibility (north-south gradient reversal near the equator), and gradient strength (degree of replicability and reversibility). We show that aggressiveness decreases whereas creativity, life satisfaction, and individualism increase as one moves closer to either the North or South Pole. We also discuss the replicability, reversibility, and gradient strength of (a) temperatures and rainfall as remote predictors and (b) pathogen prevalence, national wealth, population density, and income inequality as more proximate predictors of latitudinal gradients in human functioning. Preliminary analyses suggest that cultural and psychological diversity often need to be partially understood in terms of latitudinal variations in integrated exposure to climate-induced demands and wealth-based resources. We conclude with broader implications, emphasizing the importance of north-south replications in samples that are not from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.

Here is the article, via several MR readers.

A countercultural take on China

That is what I serve up in my Bloomberg column, note it is a reminder more than a modal prediction.  Here is one excerpt:

Is the rest of the world getting China wrong yet again? Maybe the country is not doomed to live out unending top-down rule. What is history, after all, but the realization of the wills of countless unpredictable human beings.

Past mistakes about China are too numerous to mention.

A list then follows.  And:

But has China suddenly become so predictable? Are events there now no longer contingent on the exercise of human will? Modern China is one of the most unusual and surprising societies humankind has created. There are no good models for it, nor are there data from comparable historical situations.

There is, unfortunately, a tendency for Westerners to impose superficial narratives on China and the Chinese, often based on scant observation.

To close:

For myself, I don’t have a coherent story about how the Chinese might move to greater liberty in the next 10 to 15 years. But I do think the actions of the current regime can be read as signs of vulnerability rather than entrenchment. Taiwan and Hong Kong, despite its current crisis, remain strong examples of the benefits of liberalization. Meanwhile, the notion of the internet — even with censorship — as a liberalizing force has been too quickly dismissed, especially in an America that has fallen out of love with Big Tech.

Which leads to a reality even deeper than China’s unpredictability: people’s continuing capacity to respond to current events and shape their futures for the better. As you listen, watch and read about China, keep in mind this essential human quality.

There is much more at the link.

Singapore and China, in history

Chinese national identity has long been considered to have been an obstacle to Singapore’s nation-building efforts. This is mainly because China was suspected of using its ethnic links to encourage Singapore’s communist rebellions during the 1950s and 1960s as Lee Kuan Yew was working towards establishing the city state. This study reviews Lee’s exchanges with Beijing and argues that he gave China the impression that he was building an anticolonial, pro-China nation. Beijing therefore responded positively to Lee’s requests for support. Reiterating its overseas Chinese policy to Lee, Beijing sided with him against his political rivals and even acquiesced in his suppression of Chinese-speaking “communists.” In addition, China boosted Lee’s position against Tunku Abdul Rahman, supported Singapore’s independence and lobbied Indonesia to recognize the territory as a separate state. China thus actually played a helpful role in Singapore’s nation building.

That is from Philip Hsiaopong Liu, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Masha Gessen

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Masha joined Tyler in New York City to answer his many questions about Russia: why was Soviet mathematics so good? What was it like meeting with Putin? Why are Russian friendships so intense? Are Russian women as strong as the stereotype suggests — and why do they all have the same few names? Is Russia more hostile to LGBT rights than other autocracies? Why did Garry Kasparov fail to make a dent in Russian politics? What did The Americans get right that Chernobyl missed? And what’s a good place to eat Russian food in Manhattan?

Here is excerpt:

COWEN: Why has Russia basically never been a free country?

GESSEN: Most countries have a history of never having been free countries until they become free countries.


COWEN: But Russia has been next to some semifree countries. It’s a European nation, right? It’s been a part of European intellectual life for many centuries, and yet, with the possible exception of parts of the ’90s, it seems it’s never come very close to being an ongoing democracy with some version of free speech. Why isn’t it like, say, Sweden?

GESSEN: [laughs] Why isn’t Russia like . . . I tend to read Russian history a little bit differently in the sense that I don’t think it’s a continuous history of unfreedom. I think that Russia was like a lot of other countries, a lot of empires, in being a tyranny up until the early 20th century. Then Russia had something that no other country has had, which is the longest totalitarian experiment in history. That’s a 20th-century phenomenon that has a very specific set of conditions.

I don’t read Russian history as this history of Russians always want a strong hand, which is a very traditional way of looking at it. I think that Russia, at breaking points when it could have developed a democracy or a semidemocracy, actually started this totalitarian experiment. And what we’re looking at now is the aftermath of the totalitarian experiment.


GESSEN: …I thought Americans were absurd. They will say hello to you in the street for no reason. Yeah, I found them very unreasonably friendly.

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.

There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

Finally there was the segment starting with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Russia proper. Let me start with one. Why is it that Russians seem to purge their own friends so often? The standing joke being the Russian word for “friend” is “future enemy.” There’s a sense of loyalty cycles, where you have to reach a certain bar of being loyal or otherwise you’re purged.

Highly recommended.

“You say you want a revolution…”

That was actually a conservative Beatles song of course, and these days the conservatism is popping up in the American lack of enthusiasm for the Hong Kong protestors.  That is the focus of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Since the protests in Hong Kong started two months ago, I have been struck by the coolness of the American response. I am referring not just to President Donald Trump, who has reiterated that the dispute is an internal Chinese matter. Both the social media I sample and the people I know have been fairly quiescent. I haven’t seen that much cheering and rooting for the protesters, nor have the major Democratic presidential candidates made a show of stressing their dissent from Trump on this issue [there is one Elizabeth Warren tweet]…

The relative indifference may be especially hard to explain when it comes to Americans. After all, the U.S. owes its existence to a rebellion against the British Empire, and against especially long odds. America probably would not have won independence without direct French assistance, while Spain and other nations helped to distract the British on the broader global stage.

Remember the enthusiasm we used to have for the Soviet dissidents, or for Solidarity, also movements facing apparently long odds?  In sum:

…Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.

It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.

There is more at the link, including a discussion of recent demonstrations in Russia as well.

Venice adopting the Renaissance

Venice’s adoption of these Renaissance styles was itself a remarkable break with the past, for the Venetians had always favored the sophisticated East when it came to artistic expression.  But times were changing.  The flame of Byzantium was flickering and even Venice turned its attention to the Western terra firma.  Among the earliest Renaissance artists in Venice was Jacopo Bellini.  The son of a Venetian tinsmith, Bellini worked under Gentile da Fabriano, who produced various now-lost works for the Great Council in 1408.  Bellini accompanied his master to Florence, where he remained for some years learning the new artistic techniques pioneered there.  Later, Bellini traveled to Bruges, where he was introduced to the use of oil paints on canvas — a medium that would forever change Venice.

The seat of high culture in fifteenth-century Venice was not at the governmental center, but in its outskirts at Padua.  There, since 1222, a university had flourished that drew the best minds in Europe and provided an excellent education for Venice’s elite.  After returning to Venice, Bellini set up shop in Padua with his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni.  They were likely influenced by the arrival in 1443 of Donatello, who lived in Padua for about a decade.  His masterwork during those years was the equestrian statue of the condottiere Erasmo da Narni…This magnificent life-size bronze was the first such statue produced since the days of ancient Rome.

That is from Thomas F. Madden, Venice: A New History.

Slavery in the history of Venice

There was a thriving trade in human flesh.  By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries.  The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery.  They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent.  They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens.  Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea — Armenians and Georgians among them — before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus.  They sold boys and young women as concubines.  One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.

Many of them were consigned to Venetian households.  No patrician family was complete without a retinue or three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops.  Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service.  The galleys were stocked with slaves.  But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable.  Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses.  Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324.  In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital.  The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.

That is from Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City.

My favorite things Venice

1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.

2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.  Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.

3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording).  Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.

4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition.  I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”

5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.”  But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”

Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists.  However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.

6. Painting: Ah!  Where to start?  I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works.  And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo.  Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here.  Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.

7. Sculptor: Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and I believe he is now one of the most underrated of Western artists.  His greatest work is in Vienna.

8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.

9. Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli.  I enjoy his Mahler and Strauss and Elgar, and his take on Verdi’s Aida was special as well.

10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.

11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie.  What might that be?

11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”

All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.

I’ll be there in a few days time.

Reading and rabbit holes

Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.

Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?”  Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner.  In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.

I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them.  Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:

How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?

How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?

What were the origins of accounting in Venice?

Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history?  How much power did the Doge really have?

How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?

How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?

Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?

What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?  How did Napoleon treat Venice?

Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list.  But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions.  It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East.  Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes.  Or it may lead you to…

Follow the questions, not the books per se.  Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask.  Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.

Read in clusters!  Don’t obsess over titles.  Obsess over questions.  That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.

My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?  If not, why not?

Open Borders in Svalbard!

Well north of Iceland there is a island archipelago that is governed by Norway but because of a peculiar treaty it has entirely open borders:

When you land in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, you can step off the plane and just walk away. There’s no passport control, no armed guard retracing your steps, no biometric machine scanning your fingers. Svalbard is as close as you can get to a place with open borders: As long as you can support yourself, you can live there visa-free.

In an excellent piece in The Nation, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian describes the history and what it is like to visit:

Formally, Svalbard—known as Spitsbergen until the 20th century—belongs to Norway, which writes the laws, enforces order, builds infrastructure, and regulates hunting, fishing, and housing. Last year, when a Russian man was caught trying to rob a bank in town, a Norwegian judge sentenced him under Norwegian law to a Norwegian jail. But Norway’s control over Svalbard comes with obligations outlined by an unusual 1920 treaty signed as part of the Versailles negotiations ending World War I.

Written in the aftermath of the war, the Svalbard Treaty is both of and ahead of its time. Its architects stipulated that the territory cannot be used for “warlike” purposes. They included one of the world’s first international conservation agreements, making Norway responsible for the preservation of the surrounding natural environment. The treaty also insists that the state must not tax its citizens more than the minimum needed to keep Svalbard running, which today typically amounts to an 8 percent income tax, well below mainland Norway’s roughly 40 percent.

Most radically, the treaty’s architects held Norway to what’s known as the nondiscrimination principle, which prevents the state from treating non-Norwegians differently from Norwegians. This applies not just to immigration but also to opening businesses, hunting, fishing, and other commercial activities. Other countries could not lay formal claims on Svalbard, but their people and companies would be at no disadvantage.

Some 37 percent of Svalbard’s population is foreign born and there is an abandoned Soviet town with statues of Vladmir Lenin. Tyler will also be pleased to know that there are puffins.

I can’t say that I am tempted to move, but given global climate change it’s good to know that I could.

Hat tip: The Browser.

The new Quentin Tarantino movie

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review is titled: “Quentin Tarantino’s Obscenely Regressive Vision of the Sixties in “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”“.

I didn’t love the film, and with each work of his I see, the more I like the others (and him?) less.  My main takeaway was to be reminded of an enormous and unprecedented historical shift.  In the 1960s, in part because of the birth control pill, the sexual opportunities of high status heterosexual men, or even medium status men, increased enormously, in terms of both quantity and quality.  And indeed the men in this movie take advantage of that, to various extremes (wife murder, the Manson cult) and it is not entirely clear how much Tarantino disapproves.

Whatever your normative view of this change, keep it in mind the next time you encounter the “Puritan excesses” of today’s PC movement.  Very rapid historical shifts in norms do in fact bring various forms of reaction and sometimes overreaction, and pushing back against the overreaction is not always the wisest thing to do.

If you want to see southern California on the big screen, you might enjoy Echo in the Canyon more, while its bookend cinematic partner David Crosby: Remember My Name will fill in the Joni Mitchell blank and also show you how deeply unpopular and unlikeable people talk and think about themselves.

The Venetian electoral college

For more than five centuries (from 1268 to 1797) the procedure to elect the doge (chief of state) did not change.

  1. Choose 30 members of the Great Council by lot.
  2. These 30 people are reduced by lot to 9.
  3. These 9 people choose 40 other people.
  4. These 40 are reduced by lot to 12.
  5. These 12 people choose 25 other people.
  6. These 25 people are reduced by lot to 9.
  7. These 9 people choose 45 other people.
  8. These 45 people are reduced by lot to 11.
  9. These 11 people choose 41 other people.
  10. These 41 people elect the doge.

Funny that many Americans blame their electoral system for being complicated. You may think what you want about the Venetian system but it guaranteed what was probably the most stable government in the history of mankind.

That is from Alexey Tereshchenko on Quora, cited in this excellent post on the success of Venice.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.


COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.


APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

We need a new science of progress

That is the title of my Atlantic piece with Patrick Collison, excerpt:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”


Plenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.

Imagine you want to know how to most effectively select and train the most talented students. While this is an important challenge facing educators, policy makers, and philanthropists, knowledge about how best to do so is dispersed across a very long list of different fields. Psychometrics literature investigates which tests predict success. Sociologists consider how networks are used to find talent. Anthropologists investigate how talent depends on circumstances, and a historiometric literature studies clusters of artistic creativity. There’s a lively debate about when and whether “10,000 hours of practice” are required for truly excellent performance. The education literature studies talent-search programs such as the Center for Talented Youth. Personality psychologists investigate the extent to which openness or conscientiousness affect earnings. More recently, there’s work in sportometrics, looking at which numerical variables predict athletic success. In economics, Raj Chetty and his co-authors have examined the backgrounds and communities liable to best encourage innovators. Thinkers in these disciplines don’t necessarily attend the same conferences, publish in the same journals, or work together to solve shared problems.

You may have seen there is a small cottage industry on Twitter suggesting that we ignore antecedents to Progress Studies, but of course that is not the case, as evidenced by the paragraph above, not to mention claims like: “Progress Studies has antecedents, both within fields and institutions. The economics of innovation is a critical topic and should assume a much larger place within economics.”  In fact we consider antecedents in at least nine different paragraphs of a relatively short piece.

The piece is interesting throughout, and I can assure you that Patrick is a very productive and diligent co-author.