Category: History

The arrival of cheap food in England

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.

Here is more from Bee Wilson, via The Browser.

Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, easier read through than excerpted, but here is one bit:

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.

And:

The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness?

Recommended.

Lead headline and sub-header for The New York Times

“Overlooked No More: Valerie Solanas, Radical Feminist Who Shot Andy Warhol

She made daring arguments in “SCUM Manifesto,” her case for a world without men. But her legacy as a writer and thinker was overshadowed by one violent act.”

The piece itself notes she argued for the wholesale extermination of men, that other people treated it as satire, but she defended its seriousness.  And of course she shot and tried to kill Warhol and came very close to succeeding.  The nature of her other contributions is far from clear, although toward the end of her life she was eating from a dumpster bin in Phoenix.

Later, she moderated her views, and the NYT piece ends with this:

…the author, Breanne Fahs, writes about an exchange between Solanas and her friend Jeremiah Newton. Newton asked Solanas if her manifesto was to be taken literally. “I don’t want to kill all men,” she replied. But, using an expletive, she added: “I think males should be neutered or castrated so they can’t mess up any more women’s lives.”

Loyal MR readers will know that this is not a media-bashing site, nor is it a NYT-bashing site.  I remain proud to have written there for ten years, and I remain a loyal subscriber, as I have been since I was ten years old.

But…come on.  If you work for The Times, I hope you are in some way able to raise your voice against what can only be described as a grotesque embarrassment, not to mention a contradiction of Black [Men’s] Lives Matter.  Maybe the headline will be gone or changed by the time you read this, but the saddest part is that this seems to be part of a pattern, not just a one-off mistake.  I’ve known many people at the NYT, at various levels, and each and every one has seemed like a good (and talented) person to me.  I can only conclude that something has gone very very badly wrong in the editorial control process.

Addendum: Timothy Noah comments.

What should I ask Nathan Nunn?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, he is an economist at Harvard, you could call much of his work economic history and economic development.  Wikipedia notes:

A recurrent theme in Nunn’s research is the long-term impact of historical processes on economic development, often mediated through institutions, culture, knowledge and technology.

Key findings of his research include the following:

  • Countries’ ability to enforce contracts is possibly a more important determinant of their comparative advantage than skilled labour and physical capital combined.
  • A substantial part of Africa’s current underdevelopment appears to be caused by the long-term effects of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades.
  • Current differences in trust levels within Africa are attributable to the impact of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades, which have caused the emergence of low-trust cultural norms, beliefs, and values in ethnic groups heavily affected by slavery (with Leonard Wantchekon).
  • By impeding not only trade and technological diffusion but also the depredations of slave traders, the ruggedness of certain African regions’ terrain had a significant positive impact on these regions’ development (with Diego Puga).
  • The introduction of the potato within the Columbian exchange may have been responsible for at least a quarter of the population and urbanisation growth observed in the Old World between 1700 and 1900 (with Nancy Qian).
  • In line with Boserup’s hypothesis, the introduction and historical use of plough agriculture appears to have given men a comparative advantage and made gender norms less equal, with historical differences in the plough use of immigrants’ ancestral communities predicting their attitudes regarding gender equality (with Alberto Alesina and Paolo Giuliano).
  • U.S. Food Aid is driven by U.S. objectives and can lead to increased conflict in recipient countries (with Nancy Qian).

So what should I ask him?

*Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe*

By Suzanne Marchand, this a tale of commerce, creativity, mercantilism, nation-building, globalization, industrial organization, and much more.  And this book actually delivers on all of those fronts. Short excerpt:

In accordance with mercantile practices, porcelain makers first sought to pay their bills by increasing sales abroad.  The two markets most hotly pursued at midcentury were the Ottomans and the Russians, both big consumers of hot beverages but lacking functional tableware factories.

Yes it’s that kind of book.  And this:

This focus on porcelain and material goods generally is not an approach familiar to most historians of Germany, who, for understandable reasons, typically feel obliged to treat more serious, often political, subjects.

Recommended, you can pre-order it here.

Claims about American economic growth

From Naomi R. Lamoreaux and John Joseph Wallis:

Before the middle of the nineteenth century most laws enacted in the United States were special bills that granted favors to specific individuals, groups, or localities. This fundamentally inegalitarian system provided political elites with important tools that they could use to reward supporters, and as a result, they were only willing to modify it under very special circumstances. In the early 1840s, however, a major fiscal crisis forced a number of states to default on their bonded debt, unleashing a political earthquake that swept this system away. Starting with Indiana in 1851, states revised their constitutions to ban the most common types of special legislation and, at the same time, mandate that all laws be general in their application. These provisions dramatically changed the way government and the economy worked and interacted, giving rise to the modern regulatory state, interest-group politics, and a more dynamic form of capitalism.

Here is the NBER working paper, titled “Economic Crisis, General Laws, and the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Transformation of American Political Economy,” via Ilya Novak.

Juneteenth: Celebrate Freedom!

I have long favored a new national holiday so I am delighted that VA has recognized Juneteenth and I look forward to this being a national holiday. Juneteenth is a good bookend to July 4, a second day of independence that helped to fulfill the promise of the first. The National Museum of African American History and Culture notes:

Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863, freedom did not immediately come for all enslaved people because Confederate-controlled states refused to implement it. Freedom finally came nationally on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas.

The museum has an excellent online exhibit and tour.

That was then, this is now

About 55 percent of British servicemen [in World War II] were married.

Furthermore, by mid-1943, British military units were dealing with almost one hundred cases of “family anxiety” a day, with about two-thirds of those being infidelity issues, summing yearly to about 7.5 percent of the married British servicemen in North Africa and the Middle East at that time.

That is from Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War 1942-1947, a book I already have reviewed positively.  Reading further, it remains excellent and interesting on every page, is still grossly under-reviewed by MSM, and would make the top five or even top three non-fiction books of the year list since I have started blogging.

Which figures from 1968/1969 look good in retrospect?

Andrew writes to me:

I just wanted to propose a question for your blog, which I’ve read since it launched. Given how the current atmosphere seems a bit like 1968, I was curious who you think comes out of 1968 looking good (or bad) in retrospect. I’m particularly interested in people at universities (my own case), but I’d be curious in general.

A former professor of mine (George Kateb) claimed that my generation (born 1970) was embarrassed by the sixties and I guess particularly by the more radical parts. That’s my impression as well and I assumed that the more radical parts of the sixties and the intellectuals who went along with them would come out looking the worst in retrospect. Is this right? Whose position at the time looks most “correct” today?

It is tough, if only because so many people from both parties then were bad on the Vietnam War issue.  Here are a few who, in my judgment, came out of the era looking good, in no particular order:

1. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), Billie Jean-King, and Curt Flood.

2. Bob Dylan: pro-civil rights and anti-war, and for all of his phases he never went in for the bad, crazy stuff.

3. Paul McCartney: universalist, anti-war, neoliberal integrationist, and the saner part of the Beatles.  Some minus points on the drugs front, however.

4. Julian Bond.  And a variety of other civil rights leaders, but MLK not living long enough to “fit” the question as stated.

5. Harry Edwards (who?).

6. Seán Lemass (who?)  Elsewhere across the waters there is Raymond Aron.

7. Marshall McLuhan

9. Lucille Ball

9. Gene Roddenberry and the rest of Star Trek, including the script writers.

10. Thomas Pynchon: So many others look bad, at least he knew not to say too much or to hang around for too long.

11. Ayn Rand.  With qualifications on a number of fronts, but yes.  She was in fact good on the major issues of those years.

12. These people from the Bay Area.  They are not public figures, but still they deserve mention.

Who else?

Notes: Marxists, Maoists, and advocates of violence are not going to win.  There were plenty of excellent economists back then, but most had a different focus than commenting on the major events of those years, and if memory serves (please correct me if I am wrong) Milton Friedman’s very meritorious anti-draft work came slightly later.  I would have to reread the major feminist book authors to pick the best one, but I do mean for at least one to be on the list, I am simply not sure at the moment which one.  Ralph Nader too?  The astronauts?  They knew to keep their mouths shut once they were finished.

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.

The Spanish Inquisition and the learning curve

Empirical evidence on contemporary torture is sparse. The archives of the Spanish Inquisition provide a detailed historical source of quantitative and qualitative information about interrogational torture. The inquisition tortured brutally and systematically, willing to torment all who it deemed as withholding evidence. This torture yielded information that was often reliable: witnesses in the torture chamber and witnesses that were not tortured provided corresponding information about collaborators, locations, events, and practices. Nonetheless, inquisitors treated the results of interrogations in the torture chamber with skepticism. This bureaucratized torture stands in stark contrast to the “ticking bomb” philosophy that has motivated US torture policy in the aftermath of 9/11. Evidence from the archives of the Spanish Inquisition suggests torture affords no middle ground: one cannot improvise quick, amateurish, and half-hearted torture sessions, motivated by anger and fear, and hope to extract reliable intelligence.

Here is the full piece by Ron E. Hassner, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What should I ask Melissa Dell?

She is a professor of economics at Harvard, and winner of the most recent John Bates Clark medal.  I would describe her as a both a rising star and an already-risen star.  From Wikipedia:

Melissa Dell’s research interests include development economics, economic history and political economy. Her work has mainly focused on explaining economic development through the persistence of historical institutions and climate. She has also investigated the effect of conflict on labor market and political outcomes and vice versa. Much of her research has focused on Latin America and Southeast Asia. She was one of the first economists to use a spatial regression discontinuity design, in her paper on the long-term effects of Peru’s Mining Mita.

Her broader biography is interesting as well (see Wikipedia).  Here is previous MR coverage of Melissa Dell, and here is the very good Clark medal summary of her research.

So what should I ask her?

Rewatching *Serpico*

When I was 12 it was one of my favorite books (by Peter Maas), and shortly thereafter I saw and liked the movie as well.  On this viewing I was struck by the excellent understanding of the culture of corruption, the notion that the mayor is beholden to the police who can threaten to shirk, the performance of Al Pacino, and the wonderful scenes of early 1970s New York City (yes that is Soho you are seeing).

The last quarter of the film should have been shortened.  And for all of its attempts to be a politically correct film, the degree of casual racism and sexism still is astonishing to the modern eye, specifically how either black criminals or attractive women are shown on screen.

Nonetheless recommended, and in particular as historical backdrop for understanding 2020.  Here is a John Arnold thread on the primary of culture in police departments.  And here is the police response to the recent protests.

Here is the Wikipedia page of the actual Frank Serpico, still speaking out against police abuses at age 84.