Category: History

Gordon S. Wood’s *Power and Liberty*

The subtitle is Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, and of course self-recommending.  Here is one excerpt:

The breadth and depth of popular interest in the Constitution in 1787-1788 was remarkable.  The towns of Massachusetts, for example, elected 370 delegates to the state’s ratifying convention, of whom 364 attended.  Most were eager to meet and discuss the Constitution.  It took six days for the delegates from Bath, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), to make their way south across rivers and through snow to Boston.  The people of Massachusetts believed they were involved, as the little town of Oakham told its delegates, in deciding an issue of “the greatest importance that ever came before any Class of Men on this Earth.”

And this:

Many expected the electoral college to work as a nominating body in which no one normally would get a majority of electoral votes; therefore, most elections would take place in the House of Representatives among the top five candidates, with each state’s congressional delegation voting as a unit.

You can buy it here.

*Smashing the Liquor Machine*

The subtitle is A Global History of Prohibition, and the author is Mark Lawrence Schrad.  I blurbed the book with this:

The best book on Prohibition, period. It is a revelation on the causes and nature of the Prohibition movement, and takes a properly international perspective, considering colonies and indigenous peoples as well. You will never look at Prohibition the same way again.

Highly recommended, you can buy it here.

My Conversation with Zeynep Tufekci

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Zeynep joined Tyler to discuss problems with the media and the scientific establishment, what made the lab-leak hypothesis unacceptable to talk about, how her background in sociology was key to getting so many things right about the pandemic, the pitfalls of academic contrarianism, what Max Weber understood about public health crises, the underrated aspects of Kemel Mustapha’s regime, how Game of Thrones interested her as a sociologist (until the final season), what Americans get wrong about Turkey, why internet-fueled movements like the Gezi protests fizzle out, whether Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Turkey, how she’d try to persuade a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, whether public health authorities should ever lie for the greater good, why she thinks America is actually less racist than Europe, how her background as a programmer affects her work as a sociologist, the subject of her next book, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Max Weber — overrated or underrated as a sociologist?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Part of the reason he’s underrated is because he writes in that very hard-to-read early 19th-century writing, but if you read Max Weber, 90 percent of what you want to understand about the current public health crisis is there in his sociology. Not just him, but sociology organizations and how that works. He’s good at that. I would say underrated, partly because it’s very hard to read. It’s like Shakespeare. You need the modern English version, conceptually, for more people to read it.

I would say almost all of sociology is underrated in how dramatically useful it is. Just ask me any time. Early on, I knew we were going to have a pandemic, completely based on sociology of the moment in early January, before I knew anything about the virus because they weren’t telling us, but you could just use sociological concepts to put things together. Max Weber is great at most of them and underrated.

COWEN: Kemal Mustafa — overrated or underrated?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Why? My grandmother — she was 12 or 13 when she was in the Mediterranean region — Central Asia, but Mediterranean region, very close to the Mediterranean. She was born the year the Turkish Republic had been founded, 1923, and she was 13 or so. She was just about to be married off, but the republic was a little over a decade — same age as her. They created a national exam to pick talented girls like her. The ones that won the exam got taken to Istanbul to this elite, one of the very few boarding high schools for girls.

The underrated part isn’t just that such a mechanism existed. The underrated part is that the country changed so much in 13 years that her teacher was able to prevail upon the family to let her go. To have a 13-year-old be sent off to Istanbul, completely opposite side of the country, to a boarding school for education — that kind of flourishing of liberation.

I’m not going to deny it was an authoritarian period, and minorities, like Kurds, during that period were brutally suppressed. I can’t make it sound like there was nothing else going on, but in terms of creating a republic out of the ashes of a crumbling empire — I think it’s one of the very striking stories of national transformation, globally, within one generation, so underrated.

There are numerous interesting segments, on varied topics, to be found throughout the dialog.

How to tell when you are reading a truly great history book

When it treatment of secondary topics is better than what you can find anywhere else.  For instance I am reading Alexander Mikaberidze’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.  Just in the span of a few pages, his treatment of Dessalines and his plan to rule Haiti is excellent.  Then his discussion of the French motivations for allowing the Louisiana Purchase is amazing. Yet a page later his take on the evolution of the Swiss confederation, while offered only in passing, is more instructive than I’ve found in books written solely on Switzerland.

This is in the very top tier of history books I ever have read.  Highly recommended.

The cultural life extension query

Rebecca Makkai asks:

You have the power to grant fifty more productive years to an artist of any discipline (writer, musician, painter, etc.) who died too young. Who do you pick?

My answer was Schubert, and here is why:

1. Schubert was just starting to peak, but we already have a significant amount of top-tier Mozart.  And I take Mozart to be the number one contender for the designation.  Schubert composed nine symphonies, and number seven still wasn’t that great.  Some people think number eight was unfinished.  Number nine is incredible.  Furthermore, I believe the nature of his genius would have aged well with the man.

2. John Keats is a reasonable contender, but perhaps his extant peak output is sufficient to capture the nature of his genius?

3. After the 1982-1984 period, there was decline in the quality of Basquiat’s output.  His was the genius of a young man, and drugs would have interfered with his further achievement in any case.

4. Buddy Holly had already peaked, and he didn’t quite have the skills or ambition to have morphed into something significantly more.  No one from popular music in that time period did.

5. Frank Ramsey is a reasonable choice, but I am more excited about Schubert.  We still would have ended up with the same neoclassical economics.

6. Perhaps Kurt Cobain’s genius was that of a young man as well?  Nonetheless he is in my top ten, if only for curiosity reasons.  Hank Williams and Hendrix are competitors too.

7. Carel Fabritius anyone?

Who else?  Caravaggio?  Egon Schiele?  Eva Hesse?  I feel they all have styles that would have aged well, unlike say with Jim Morrison.  Seurat?  Thomas Chatterton I can pass on, maybe Stephen Crane or Sylvia Plath from the side of the writers?

Afghanistan thoughts

From my Bloomberg column, here is only one part of the argument, at the close:

The hawks I know, especially those with a politically conservative bent, typically will admit or perhaps even emphasize that the American electorate lacks the stomach for long-term interventions. But rather than consider the practical implications of such an admission, they too quickly flip into moralizing. We hear that the American citizenry is not sufficiently committed, or perhaps that non-conservative politicians are morally bankrupt, or that the Biden administration has made a huge mistake. But those moral claims, even if correct, are a distraction from the main lesson at hand. If your own country is not morally strong enough to see through your preferred hawkish policies, maybe those policies aren’t going to prove sustainable, and thus they need to be scaled back.

I still largely agree with most of the hawk worldview: America can be a great force for good in the world, the notion of evil in global affairs as very real, America’s main rivals on the global stage are up to no good, and there is an immense amount of naivete and wishful thinking in most of those who do not consider themselves hawks. What I do not see is a very convincing recipe for hawk policy success over time.

That all said, I still think the Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan was a policy mistake. The U.S. has allowed a very certain evil to rule about 38 million people, without constraint, and has damaged America’s credibility.

And:

This debate involves a host of untenable views. One camp condemns America’s Afghan interventions but offers few constructive alternatives. Another affiliates with hawkish values, but cannot enforce America’s will. Yet another recognizes the fragility of the current situation, but does not wish to turn over the keys to evil right now and hopes to straggle toward a different set of alternatives.

Very reluctantly, I’ve signed up for the last option.

I don’t by the way agree with Alex’s claim that we got nothing from our involvement in Afghanistan.  We used it to bring down the Soviet empire, at a high benefit to cost ratio, noting that we have subsequently not handled the fallout very well.

Is Africa losing its growth window?

The macro side of the story here is underreported, alas:

One of the saddest stories of the year has gone largely unreported: the slowdown of political and economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no longer a clear path to be seen, or a simple story to be told, about how the world’s poorest continent might claw its way up to middle-income status. Africa has amazing human talent and brilliant cultural heritages, but its major political centers are, to put it bluntly, falling apart.

Three countries are more geopolitically central than the others. Ethiopia, with a population of 118 million, is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-most populous nation and the most significant node in East Africa. Nigeria has the most people (212 million) and the largest GDP on the continent. South Africa, population 60 million, is the region’s wealthiest nation, and it is the central economic and political presence in the southern part of the continent.

Within the last two years, all three of these nations have fallen into very serious trouble.

And:

Based on size and historical and cultural import, Democratic Republic of the Congo ought to be another contender as an influential African nation. But the country has been wracked by conflict for decades. It is not in a position to fill the void created by the failings of Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.

The last few decades have been a relatively propitious time for Africa. There have been a minimum of major wars in the world, and a dearth of major new pandemics (until recently). China was interested in building up African infrastructure, and across the continent countries made great advances in public health.

Could it be that this window has shut, and the time for major gains has passed? And that is not even reckoning with the likelihood of additional damage from Covid on a continent with a very low level of vaccination.

These sub-Saharan political regressions might just be a coincidence in their timing. But another disturbing possibility is that the technologies and ideologies of our time are not favorable for underdeveloped nation-states with weak governments and many inharmonious ethnic groups. In that case, all this bad luck could be a precursor of even worse times ahead.

Here is the link to the full Bloomberg column.

How did China end up with so many people?

I cannot judge this hypothesis, but I have always wondered about the question:

We hypothesize that besides technology and resource expansion, risk-mitigation improvements pushed the Malthusian limits to population growth in pre-industrial societies. During 976-1850 CE, China’s population increased by elevenfold while the Confucian clan emerged as the key risk-sharing institution for members. To test our hypothesis using historical data from 269 prefectures, we measure each region’s clan strength by its number of genealogy books compiled. Our results show that prefectures with stronger clans had significantly higher population density due to better resilience during natural disasters and fewer premature deaths of children. Confucian clans enabled pre-industrial China to sustain explosive population growth.

That is from a new paper by Zhiwu Chen and Chicheng Ma.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Build

The excellent Eli Dourado in the NYTimes:

Many of our country’s problems are reducible, in one way or another, to the fact that we have lost the imperative to transform the physical world. While the soft technology of the internet has marched forward, development of real stuff — of steel and concrete — has slowed, hampered by laws that privilege the status quo.

…Under the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969, federal agencies must produce a detailed statement of environmental impacts for any action — including granting a permit — that significantly affects the human environment. In contrast with the ugly motivations driving zoning, NEPA came into existence riding a wave of environmental consciousness. It was motivated by two well-meaning but mistaken beliefs: that material progress was of environmental quality and that environmental justice could be served through more citizen voice.

…If we want to build infrastructure as well as housing, we need to address environmental review as well as zoning. We must protect the environment, but we need not do it indirectly with laws that operate only through paperwork and court cases. We should do it directly — with stricter air and water standards, smarter conservation policies and a carbon tax. A direct approach would enable speedy government decisions and get shovels in the ground. A pro-building, pro-environment deal, eliminating environmental review in favor of these direct protections, could improve the environment through stricter substantive standards and through a stimulative effect on new, clean infrastructure.

How did the most dynamic country on the planet become so sclerotic? We did it to ourselves. We enacted laws that privilege the status quo at the expense of change and progress. We liberally passed out veto rights to anyone with the money and wherewithal to hire a lawyer. If we want to reverse the damage and create a more prosperous future, we must make it easy to build.

This is also a good opportunity to plug Ezra Klein’s excellent interview with Jerusalem Demsas, How Blue Cities Became So Outrageously Unaffordable. Notably, neither Erza nor Jerusalem let the left off the hook. The subtitle of the episode is How did the party of big government become the party of paralysis? Ezra also pushes back appropriately on some of the nuttier ideas like expanding the welfare state would make homeowners less likely to push for zoning restrictions.

In many ways, we are rediscovering Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations.

How good was Paul Samuelson’s macroeconomics?

Reading the new Nicholas Wapshott book and also Krugman’s review (NYT) of it, it all seemed a little too rosy to me. So I went back and took a look at Paul Samuelson the macroeconomist. I regret that I cannot report any good news, in fact Samuelson was downright poor — you might say awful — as a macroeconomist.

For instance, during the early 1970s there was a debate about President Nixon’s 1971 wage and price controls. There is some disagreement about the actual stance of Samuelson, as Wapshott (p.152) claims Samuelson opposed Nixon’s wage and price controls, but that doesn’t seem to be true. The Los Angeles Times for instance reported Samuelson opining as follows: “With the wage and price controls, he [Nixon] assured a more rapid short-term economic recovery, and made it absolutely certain he would be the overwhelming victor in the 1972 election.” Maybe that is not quite a full endorsement, but consider Samuelson’s remarks on the August 17, 1971 ABC Evening News: “I don’t think that a ninety-day freeze is going to solve the problem of inflation. But it’s a first move toward some kind of an incomes policy. Benign neglect did not work. It’s time the president used his leadership…We’re better off this Monday morning than we were last Friday. Friday was an untenable situation.”[1]

Really?

For Samuelson and many other Keynesians of his era, it was mostly about wage-push inflation. Do you know what my take would have been?: “The wage and price controls are neither good microeconomic nor good macroeconomic policy.” Samuelson did not come anywhere near to uttering such words. In October 1971, Samuelson argued that Nixon’s NEP [New Economic Policy], which included both severing the tie of the dollar to gold and wage and price controls, was “necessary,” and that the wage and price controls were working better than might have been expected.[2]

In October 1971, Samuelson also argued that the Fed should continue to let the money supply grow, to stave off the risk of a liquidity crisis occasioned by America’s lingering involvement in the Vietnam War (what??…if this is fear of a Bretton Woods collapse, print fewer dollars, besides Samuelson wanted to end Bretton Woods). He said he favored presidential “guideposts” to lower the rate of price inflation from four to three percent, but didn’t favor explicit wage and price controls because it wasn’t enough of an “emergency” situation. That is the extent of his opposition to wage and price controls – lukewarm at best, not objecting in principle, contradicting his earlier stances, and showing a poor understanding of monetary economics more broadly. You don’t have to be a hardcore monetarist to realize that continued money supply growth, in an expansionary period, combined with presidential “guideposts” to lower rates of price inflation, was simply an incorrect view.

In a 1974 piece, Samuelson continued to insist, as he had argued in the past, that the inflation of that era was cost-push inflation, and not driven by the money supply. He also asserted (without evidence) that full employment and price stability were incompatible. In one 1971 piece he made the remarkable and totally false assertion that: “…with our population and productivity growing, it takes more than a 4 per cent rate of real growth just to hold unemployment constant at a high level.”[3]

Really?

In other words, his basic model was just flat out wrong. More generally, the Samuelson Newsweek columns of that era make repeated, dogmatic, and arbitrary stabs at forecasting macroeconomic variables without much humility or soundness in the underlying model.

Milton Friedman did have an overly simplified view of the money supply, as many of his critics have alleged and as Scott Sumner would confirm. But as a macroeconomist he was far, far ahead of Paul Samuelson.

Don’t forget how bad macro was before Friedman came along.

[1] For The Los Angeles Times, see Hiltzi (1994), and also see “Questions and Answers: Paul A. Samuelson,” Newsweek, October 4, 1971. For the ABC News remarks, see Nelson (2020, volume 2, p.267).

[2] See “Questions and Answers: Paul A. Samuelson,” Newsweek, October 4, 1971.

[3] See Paul Samuelson, “Coping with Stagflation” Newsweek, August 19, 1974, and for the 1971 remarks see “How the Slump Looks to Three Experts” Newsweek, Oct.18, 1971. On the four percent claim, see Paul A. Samuelson, “Nixon Economics,” Newsweek, August 2, 1971.

That was then, this is now, climate change edition the median voter theorem remains underrated

“Higher gasoline costs, if left unchecked, risk harming the ongoing global recovery. The price of crude oil has been higher than it was at the end of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic. While Opec+ recently agreed to production increases, these increases will not fully offset previous production cuts that Opec+ imposed during the pandemic until well into 2022. At a critical moment in the global recovery, this is simply not enough. President Biden has made clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump. Although we are not a party to Opec, the United States will always speak to international partners regarding issues of significance that affect our national economic and security affairs, in public and private.”

That is, um…not from the Trump administration, rather…

Pigou Club getting smaller!

My Conversation with Andrew Sullivan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the overview:

Andrew joined Tyler to discuss the role of the AIDs epidemic in achieving marriage equality, the difficulty of devoutness in everyday life, why public intellectuals often lack courage, how being a gay man helps him access perspectives he otherwise wouldn’t, how drugs influence his ideas, the reasons why he’s a passionate defender of SATs and IQ tests, what Niall Ferguson and Boris Johnson were like as fellow undergraduates, what Americans get wrong about British politics, why so few people share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, why Bowie was so special, why Airplane! is his favorite movie, what Oakeshottian conservatism offers us today, whether wokeism has a positive influence globally, why he someday hopes to glower at the sea from in the west of Ireland, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Well, and so you get used to real conversations about people, and you don’t mistake credentials for intelligence. You realize that people outside of the system may be more perceptive about what’s going wrong with it than people buried within it. I honestly find life more interesting the more variety of people you get to know and meet. And that means from all sorts of different ways of life.

The good thing about being gay, I will tell you, is that that happens more often than if you’re straight — because it’s a great equalizer. You are more likely to come across someone who really is from a totally different socioeconomic group than you are through sexual and romantic attraction, and indeed the existence of this subterranean world that is taken from every other particular class and structure, than you would if you just grew up in a straight world where you didn’t have to question these things and where your social life was bound up with your work or with your professional peers.

The idea for me of dating someone in my office would be absolutely bizarre, for example. I can’t believe all these straight people that just look around them and say, “Oh, let’s get married.” Whereas gay people have this immense social system that can throw up anybody from any way of life into your social circle.

Interesting throughout.  And again, here is Andrew’s new book Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

That was then…

Here is an excerpt from Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, the guy who coined the term “The Third Reich” (hint: he wasn’t against it):

The Left has reason.  The Right has wisdom…Masculinity is the essence of wisdom.  It takes character not to succumb to self-delusion.  The conservative man possesses this character as well as the physical prowess and moral determination to act in accordance with this character…He has the innate ability to pass judgement, and to make deductions, to recognize reality…Conservatism is based on an understanding of human nature.

That is from the new and excellent book Nazis and Nobles: The History of a Misalliance, by Stephan Malinowski.  This book builds on themes from Arno Mayer’s old and excellent The Persistence of the Old Regime.

It is an interesting question why these sentiments — some of which are cliched rather than offensive per se — are as correlated with fascism as they are.  In my oversimplified model, feminization is the key variable.  Van den Bruck saw the feminization of society coming, and opposed it, but I believe he was more interested in Nazism and fascism per se.  Many current commentators also oppose that feminization virulently, and that leads them to take up with strange and rather unfortunate bedfellows, namely fascists, as fascists do in fact have modes of discourse for opposing or criticizing feminization.  Often fascism per se is not the main interest of today’s right-wing thinkers, and if you started lecturing them on Speer’s building plans for Berlin, or earlier German cartel policy, their eyes would glaze over.  They are more interested in the current cultural wars, but they don’t always have the intellectual equipment to fight them, and so they look to fascists, a badly mistaken choice.

I say feminization is here to stay, we need to find workable versions of that — how’s that for a challenging intellectual project?  Those of us looking backwards to “the nasty people” are going to find themselves staring down a dead end, intellectually and otherwise.  Hungary and Salazar are not the future, people.  You should be jumping on better bandwagons, or if need be building them yourselves.

“My favorite things Hungary” — my revisionist take

Way back in 2011, when I was visiting Hungary, I did a post in typical MR style: My Favorite Things Hungary.  I had no particular political point in mind, and indeed the current disputes over Hungary did not quite exist back then.  Nonetheless, if you survey the list, just about every one of my favorites listed ended up leaving Hungary.  The one exception, as far as I can tell, is film director Béla Tarr, but he is a critic of both nationalism and Orban.

All the rest left Hungary.

And while I cannot give you exact numbers, a large number of them were Jews or half-Jewish, hardly examples of Christian nationalism.

You should note that Hungary has a longstanding tradition of flirting with fascism and indeed going beyond mere flirting, for instance as exemplified by the Horthy government of the interwar years.

Once you get past all the polemics and name calling (not to mention the reality), here is the lesson I draw from the current debate over how parts of the Right are embracing Hungary.  It is genuinely the case that liberal societies often draw upon less liberal societies for a good deal of their cultural vitality, most notably the United States recruiting various creators from Central Europe — including Hungary — during the 20th century.  (Or the blues drawing some of its depth from the history of slavery.)  That point should be appreciated, even though we all should recognize it is not worth Hungary’s history, including its feudal and conquered past, for being able to say your country produced Bartok and Solti.

The current Hungary, sadly, has nothing remotely like the Hungarian cultural blossoming that ran from Liszt through Ligeti.  Instead it is giving us an empty huff and puff of rhetoric, “owning the Libs,” having “the right enemies,” gender role polemics, and so on.  It is not producing great buildings like the Budapest of times past, and it is not developing a significant Christian tradition of the sort that might have marked the 19th century Hungarian Church (however you might feel about that, I can tell you it is not my thing, though I can appreciate the liberal elements in it).

These days we have a U.S. television show host visiting Hungary and serving up thin polemics which are then debated on Twitter.  There is only a thin veneer of culture behind the whole thing, and a lot of unearned borrowing against earlier Hungarian creative traditions.

Don’t fall for it.  If you wish to respect Hungarian culture, listen to Bartok’s “Out of Doors” [Im Freien], or Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.  What is there now is the straggling remnant of a cultural destruction led by both fascists and communists.  Current commentators can spin the current situation all they want, but it hasn’t worked out for the better, and Hungary is lucky to be in the EU at all.

Even American cultural borrowing from Central European traditions peaked some time ago.  George Szell brought Beethoven to the Cleveland Orchestra in 1946, and it was adored and financially supported by conservative Midwestern businessmen, as it should have been.  Szell passed away in 1970.  Ligeti himself stretches improbably late into Hungary’s cultural golden run.

If you think the current right-wing Hungary fandom is going to restore or revitalize either Hungarian or American culture, there is a bridge I would like to sell you, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in fact…