Category: History

Louis XIV and his motto

Louis XIV was both King of France and a global ruler with global ambitions. He founded colonies in America, Africa and India, tried to seize Siam (as Thailand was then known), sent missionaries and mathematicians to the Emperor of China and launched the struggle for France’s global markets which continues to this day.  The motto he adopted early in his reign, in 1662, expressed his hopes and desires: “Nec pluribus impar” (literally “Not unequal to more”), meaning “not incapable of ruling other dominions”, as well as “not unequal to many enemies”.

That is from the new Philip Mansel book King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV.

Which thinker from the past would you resurrect?

The Scholar’s Stage writes:

If I were to resurrect one person to comment on our current dilemmas, that person would be Hannah Arendt. 

What issue of importance today did she not ponder?  How should Western countries understand and respond to authoritarian states? What makes meaningful community possible? Does bureaucracy, technology, and settled life diminish our freedom?  Why do politicians lie—and what consequences should there be for lying in office? How do political institutions decay? Should we forgive our political enemies? When is violence justified, and when is it not? How can it be controlled or avoided? What should the ‘justice’ in phrases like ‘social justice’ actually mean? What role should guilt, rage, and fear play in our political lives? How should we translate abstract political principles into living realities?

Arendt wrote about all of these things and more. She would have the intellectual background needed to say something useful about the biggest political and social challenges we face today: America’s relationship with China, technology’s encroach upon democracy, the unsettled relation between the sexes, the collapse of American social capital and community life, the strengths and foibles of social justice campaigning, partisanship and ‘post-reality’ politics, and of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wish we could hear her opinions on these things. I wish this because I honestly do not know what her opinions would be. I recognize positions she would not adopt, but I can only guess what she would make of Facebook or consider the proper political grounding for impeachment.

A case is made against several other plausible options, including the Founding Fathers.  One approach is simply to ask who would be good on television, or on social media.  Another is to pick a person whose historical reputation is so strong that he or she cannot be ignored — perhaps that would militate in favor of Abraham Lincoln or how about Jane Austen?  Perhaps attention is the true scarcity that needs to be overcome.

I believe I would revive Confucius, at least assuming everyone would accept that it is indeed the real Confucius.  He is perhaps the person most likely to have an influence in China, and there is some chance he would seek to reverse the current course of political events.

The generator mafia in Lebanon

…blackouts are costing the Lebanese economy about $3.9 billion per year, or roughly 8.2 percent of the country’s GDP.

I asked why the Lebanese government can’t put the private generators out of business.  He replied that EdL [the state-owned electricity company] is losing some $1.3 billion per year, while the private generators are taking in as much as $2 billion per annum.  “It’s a huge business,” he said, “and it’s very dangerous to interfere with this business.”

…Nakhle, an official in the Energy Ministry, was admitting that the generator mafia bribes Lebanese politicians to make sure that EdL stays weak and blackouts persist…

Maya Ammar, a model and architect in Beirut…told me, “The one reason is in Lebanon that we do not have electricity is corruption, plain and simple.”…The electric grid, she continued, is “a microcosmic example of how this country runs.”

That is from the forthcoming and excellent book by Robert Bryce, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.

Economists have not exactly screwed things up

The lack of growth response to “Washington Consensus” policy reforms in the 1980s and 1990s led to widespread doubts about the value of such reforms. This paper updates these stylized facts by analyzing moderate to extreme levels of inflation, black market premiums, currency overvaluation, negative real interest rates and abnormally low trade shares to GDP. It finds three new stylized facts: (1) policy outcomes worldwide have improved a lot since the 1990s, (2) improvements in policy outcomes and improvements in growth across countries are correlated with each other (3) growth has been good after reform in Africa and Latin America, in contrast to the “lost decades” of the 80s and 90s. This paper makes no claims about causality. However, if the old stylized facts on disappointing growth accompanying reforms led to doubts about economic reforms, new stylized facts should lead to some positive updating of such beliefs.

That is the abstract of the new Bill Easterly paper.

*Virtue Politics*

The author is James Hankins, and the subtitle is Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.  Here is one excerpt:

I have sought to present the political ideas of the humanists as the expression of a movement of thought and action, similar in its physiognomy if not in its content to the movement of the philosophes of the Enlightenment.  It was a movement that was stimulated by a crisis of legitimacy in late medieval Italy and by widespread disgust with its political and religious leadership.  Its adherents were men who had wide experience — often bitter, personal experience — with tyranny.  They knew that oligarchs and even popular governments could be as tyrannical as princes.  Their movement was largely in agreement about its goals: to rebuild Europe’s depleted reserves of good character, true piety, and practical wisdom.  They also agreed widely about means: the revival of classical antiquity, which the humanists presented as an inspiring pageant, rich in examples of noble conduct, eloquent speech, selfless dedication to country, and inner moral strength, nourished by philosophy and uncorrupt Christianity.  The humanist movement yearned after greatness, moral and political.  Its most pressing historical questions were how ancient Rome had achieved her vast and enduring empire, and whether it was possible to bring that greatness to life again under modern conditions.  This led to the question of whether it was the Roman Republic or the Principate that should be emulated; and, once the humanists had learned Greek, it provoked the further question of whether Rome was the only possible ancient model to emulate, or whether Athens or Sparta, or even the Persia of Xenophon’s Cyrus, held lessons for contemporary statesmen.

An excellent book, you can order it here.

*Sontag: Her Life and Work*

That is the new biography by Benjamin Moser, along with Ingmar Bergman bios you can call this topic my soap opera equivalent.  Here are a few scattered bits:

“I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation,” Susan wrote in 1971…she read about the University of Chicago, “which didn’t have a football team, where all people did was study, and where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas day and night.  I thought, that’s for me.”

And:

The connection between sex and pain was so natural for her — “All relationships are essentially masochistic,” she told Burch — that she could never imagine the loving partnership of equals that Freud had posited.  Her “profoundest experience,” of her mother’s giving and then withdrawing her love, was perpetually renewed.  Harriet dribbled out her affection by the scant thimbleful, which Susan gratefully slurped down: “I suppose, with my sore heart + unused body, it doesn’t take much to make me happy.”  A couple of weeks later, she described the “total collapse” of their relationship and “blindly walking through a forest of pain.”

And:

Brodsky, after all, was the friend she dreamed of…the teacher she hoped to find in Philip Rieff; the companion she had sought all her life, an intellectual and artistic equal, and even a superior.  She never found another friend as congenial, and it was in these terms that she mourned his premature death, at fifty-five.  I’m all alone,” she told a friend.  There’s nobody with whom I can share my ideas, my thoughts.”

Recommended, for those who care.

Karachi, and the greater violence of New World cities

I like to ask some CWT guests (Charles Mann, Juan Pablo Villarino, and Alain Bertaud) why New World cities are so often so much more violent than Old World cities, including in Europe and Asia.  In the case of Asia, wartime episodes aside, it does seem that so many Asian cities are remarkably safe, especially for men but often for women too.

Recall one of the key principles of reasoning: look for the cross-sectional variation.

While Karachi is relatively safe now, before 2013 it had at least two decades of fairly extreme violence.

And what are some special features of Karachi history, relative to many other Old World and Asian cities?

The city had a very large “new” population, with Hindus (formerly the majority inhabitants) having left and migrants having come from many other parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar too.

The city was hit by a major wave of drug trafficking, heroin in particular.

The city was hit by a major wave of arms trafficking, run by thugs and mafias, often related to the wars in Afghanistan.

This is only one data point, but it supports hypotheses that higher levels of New World violence stem from relatively recent population shifts, drug trafficking, and arms trafficking.  When Old World cities have that blend, they too become quite violent.

Philip K. Dick predicts the future

From 1981:

1995: Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts

2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.

That is from The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, edited by Lawrence Sutin.

My Conversation with Alain Bertaud

Excellent throughout, Alain put on an amazing performance for the live audience at the top floor of the Observatory at the old World Trade Center site.  Here is the audio and transcript, most of all we talked about cities.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Will America create any new cities in the next century? Or are we just done?

BERTAUD: Cities need a good location. This is a debate I had with Paul Romer when he was interested in charter cities. He had decided that he could create 50 charter cities around the world. And my reaction — maybe I’m wrong — but my reaction is that there are not 50 very good locations for cities around the world. There are not many left. Maybe with Belt and Road, maybe the opening of Central Asia. Maybe the opening of the ocean route on the northern, following the pole, will create the potential for new cities.

But cities like Singapore, Malacca, Mumbai are there for a good reason. And I don’t think there’s that many very good locations.

COWEN: Or Greenland, right?

[laughter]

BERTAUD: Yes. Yes, yes.

COWEN: What is your favorite movie about a city? You mentioned a work of fiction. Movie — I’ll nominate Escape from New York.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: Casablanca.

Here is more:

COWEN: Your own background, coming from Marseille rather than from Paris —

BERTAUD: I would not brag about it normally.

[laughter]

COWEN: But no, maybe you should brag about it. How has that changed how you understand cities?

BERTAUD: I’m very tolerant of messy cities.

COWEN: Messy cities.

BERTAUD: Yes.

COWEN: Why might that be, coming from Marseille?

BERTAUD: When we were schoolchildren in Marseille, we were used to a city which has a . . . There’s only one big avenue. The rest are streets which were created locally. You know, the vernacular architecture.

In our geography book, we had this map of Manhattan. Our first reaction was, the people in Manhattan must have a hard time finding their way because all the streets are exactly the same.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: In Marseille we oriented ourselves by the angle that a street made with another. Some were very narrow, some very, very wide. One not so wide. But some were curved, some were . . . And that’s the way we oriented ourselves. We thought Manhattan must be a terrible place. We must be lost all the time.

Finally:

COWEN: And what’s your best Le Corbusier story?

BERTAUD: I met Le Corbusier at a conference in Paris twice. Two conferences. At the time, he was at the top of his fame, and he started the conference by saying, “People ask me all the time, what do you think? How do you feel being the most well-known architect in the world?” He was not a very modest man.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: And he said, “You know what it feels? It feels that my ass has been kicked all my life.” That’s the way he started this. He was a very bitter man in spite of his success, and I think that his bitterness is shown in his planning and some of his architecture.

COWEN: Port-au-Prince, Haiti — overrated or underrated?

Strongly recommended, and note that Bertaud is eighty years old and just coming off a major course of chemotherapy, a remarkable performance.

Again, I am very happy to recommend Alain’s superb book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.

From the comments, on the Coase theorem

#1 on prefiguring of the so-called Coase theorem, consider also p. 396-7 of W.H. Hutt, “Co-ordination and the Size of the Firm,” South African Journal of Economics 2(4), December 1934:

“Now, under one ownership, their relations would, given competitive institutions, be exactly the same, provided that both methods were equally efficient from the social standpoint. There is no reason why the spreading of the lines of responsibility back to several sources should lead to less effective planning than subordinacy to an authority emanating from one source, given the equal availability of relevant knowledge to the managers who devise the plans…The most important significant difference between the two cases is that, in practice, in the one case there may not be the availability of relevant knowledge that there is in the other.”

That is from Daniel B. Klein.  And:

For a still earlier ‘discovery’ with transaction costs and all see my former colleague Yehoshua Liebermann’s “The Coase Theorem in Jewish Law,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jun., 1981), pp. 293-303

That is from Moshe Syrquin, link for both here.

What should I ask Henry Farrell?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  As you read blogs, you might know Henry’s longstanding work over at CrookedTimber, and also his role in Monkey Cage.  Henry is also professor of political science at George Washington University, has with Abraham L. Newman recently published a path-breaking book on the increasingly important concept of weaponized interdependence, is an expert on comparative labor relations, and is an all-around polymath, including on fiction, science fiction, and the politics of Ireland, his home country.  Here is his home page.

So what should I ask Henry?

We had Nash and Schelling — who did the Soviets have?

The bi-polar confrontation between the Soviet Union and the USA involved many leading game theorists from both sides of the Iron Curtain: Oskar Morgenstern, John von Neumann, Michael Intriligator, John Nash, Thomas Schelling and Steven Brams from the United States and Nikolay Vorob’ev, Leon A. Petrosyan, Elena B. Yanovskaya and Olga N. Bondareva from the Soviet Union. The formalization of game theory (GT) took place prior to the Cold War but the geopolitical confrontation hastened and shaped its evolution. In our article we outline four similarities and differences between Western GT and Soviet GT: 1) the Iron Curtain resulted in a lagged evolution of GT in the Soviet Union; 2) Soviet GT focused more on operations research and issues of centralized planning; 3) the contemporary Western view on Soviet GT was biased and Soviet contributions, including works on dynamic stability, non-emptiness of the core and many refinements, suggest that Soviet GT was able to catch up to the Western level relatively fast; 4) international conferences, including Vilnius, 1971, fostered interaction between Soviet game theorists and their Western colleagues. In general, we consider the Cold War to be a positive environment for GT in the West and in the Soviet Union.

That is from a new paper by Harald Hagemann, Vadim Kufenko, and Danila Raskov, via Ilya Novak and Beatrice Cherrier.  And via Kevin Vallier, here is a new paper on how Schelling’s game-theoretic notion of stability may have come from his very early work on macroeconomics.

Frequency of conflict initiation worldwide

That is from the new and interesting Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age, by Bear F. Braumoeller, which is largely a critique of Pinker on trends toward peacefulness (Pinker gives only the more optimistic data on Europe).  And from the text:

…there is variation in the rate of conflict and war initiation over time, and it’s pretty substantial.  Leaving aside the two jumps during the World Wars, the median rate of conflict initiation quadruples in the period between 1815 and the end of the Cold War, after which it abruptly drops by more than half.

The “falling rate of conflict” is thus not entirely reassuring.

How about the deadliness of occurring conflicts?:

Analyzing the two most commonly used measures of the deadliness of war, I find no significant change in war’s lethality.  If anything, the data indicate a very modest increase in lethality, but that increase could very easily be due to chance…Worse still, the data are consistent with a process by which only random chance prevents small wars from escalating into very, very big ones.

Overall, the arguments in this book are strong, and the discussion of data issues is subtle throughout.  You can buy the book here, its arguments seem fundamentally correct to me.

What kind of industrial policy does America need?

That idea is making a big comeback, but let’s make sure we understand the status quo first.  So runs my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Perhaps most important, it should be recognized that the U.S. already has an industrial policy — and has for some time. It is a collection of programs and policies at the federal and state level, many of which are highly imperfect, and so the focus should be on fixing what is already in place.

The first and perhaps most significant component of U.S. industrial policy is a high level of defense spending, much higher than that of any other country. The spinoffs of this spending famously include the internet of course, but also early advances in computers and some later advances in aviation. Today’s orbiting network of satellites is in part a spinoff from the space program, which was partially motivated by military concerns.

It’s not yet clear whether current defense spinoffs will prove as innovative and as potent as those  of the past, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Procurement cycles for weapons can stretch to a dozen years or more, yet technologies are changing far more quickly.

So if I were designing an “industrial policy” for America, my first priority would be to improve and “unstick” its procurement cycles. There may well be bureaucratic reasons that this is difficult to do. But if it can’t be done, then perhaps the U.S. shouldn’t be setting its sights on a more ambitious industrial policy.

I also consider the NIH and the biomedical establishment, and America’s extensive system of state colleges and universities, as part of what is already a quite ambitious “industrial policy,” even if we don’t always call it that.