Category: History

If only it were true

George Bush during the second debate:

Non-homeland, non-defense discretionary spending was raising at 15 percent a year when I got into office. And today it’s less than 1 percent, because we’re working together to try to bring this deficit under control.

Kevin Drum makes it simple.

Here’s the truth about non-defense discretionary spending over the past six administrations:


Nixon/Ford: 6.8% per year

Carter: 2.0% per year

Reagan: -1.3% per year

Bush 1: 4.0% per year

Clinton: 2.5% per year

Bush Jr: 8.2% per year

All percentages are adjusted for inflation. The chart on the right shows raw figures for the past three administrations (from the Congressional Budget Office).

The origins of Monopoly

The board game that is, not the economic phenomenon. It appears to have sprung from the Henry George movement. George, of course, was obsessed with land monopoly and its unproductive rents. It is no accident that the board game assigns such extortionary power to landholders:

On January 5, 1904, Lizzie J. Magie, a Quaker woman from Virginia, received a patent (view patent) for a board game. Lizzie Magie belonged to a tax movement led by Philadelphia-born Henry George; the movement supported the theory that the renting of land and real estate produced an unearned increase in land values that profited a few individuals (landlords) rather than the majority of the people (tenants). Henry George proposed a single federal tax based on land ownership believing a single tax would discourage speculation and encourage equal opportunity.

Lizzie Magie wanted to use her game, which she called “The Landlord’s Game” as a teaching device for George’s ideas. The Landlord’s Game and Monopoly are very similar, except all the properties in Magie’s game are rented not acquired as in Monopoly and instead of names like “Park Place” and “Marvin Gardens” one finds “Poverty Place”, “Easy Street” and “Lord Blueblood’s Estate”. The objectives of each game are also very different. In Monopoly the idea of the game is to buy and rent or sell property so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and eventually monopolist. In The Landlord’s Game, the object was to illustrate how (under the system of land tenure) the landlord had an advantage over other enterprisers and to show how the single tax could discourage speculation.

When I was young I had a counterproductive obsession with owning the yellow properties.

Here is the full story. Here is an NPR account of the origins of monopoly. I am indebted to an email from Lauren Landsburg and Russ Roberts for the initial historical reference.

More Lost Nukes

Concerning yesterday’s post on missing nuclear weapons Gerald Hanner wrote to say:

I once flew with one of the people involved in that lost nuke in South Carolina. It was being carried by a B-47, and they were on their way to a forward-deployed base in England to pull alert. For takeoff the weapon (no one in the business calls them “bombs”) is not pinned into the release mechanism so that it could be released if there was an aircraft emergency after takeoff. Since the “pit” was not installed in the weapon there was no chance of a nuclear detonation. In any case, after a safe takeoff the copilot went back to the bomb bay to place a safety pin in the release mechanism; the pin would not go into the slot it was designed for. After calling back to their departure base to discuss the problem, someone on the ground suggested jiggling the release mechanism a bit to properly align the parts. The copilot did. The next transmission from the aircraft was, “Shit! We dropped it!” The weapon released and went right through the closed bomb bay door; those were heavy dudes back then. You’ve read the rest of the story.

Dave Walker of Lockjaw’s Lair wrote to report on a still-missing nuclear weapon in North Carolina.

It was just after midnight on January 24, 1961. A B52G Stratofortress (one of the greatest airplanes ever to cast a shadow on this fine Earth, IMHO) suffered structural failure in its right wing near Faro, NC. The plane carried two MK39 hydrogen bombs.

The two weapons were jettisoned from the plane. One parachuted safely to the ground, receiving minimal damage. The other plummetted to Earth, partially breaking up on impact. Part of the weapon, however, was never found. The lost portion was the uranium-containing part, as well. Crews dug to a depth of 50 feet in the boggy field, but could never retrieve the warhead. To this day, the lost weapon continues to lie in this field.

Radioactivity tests have come up negative, and the Air Force has purchased an easement on the property to prevent anyone digging. If you’d like to read further on the case of the lost warhead, check out this link.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction Department

In 1958 a nuclear bomb 100 times more powerful than that dropped on Hiroshima was accidentally lost over the coast of Georgia. Amazing! But it doesn’t stop there. At first, there was an intense search but the search petered out when several weeks later another bomb was accidentally dropped near Florence SC – fortunately the latter weapon, although nuclear, was not primed. The bomb’s conventional components, however, detonated on impact creating a huge crater and injuring several farmers. The weapon lost over the Georgia coast may have been found recently by a private radiation expert who measured radiation levels 3,000 times above normal near where the bomb was said to have gone down.

What’s in a Name?

Once, Mrs Joan Robinson, my radical teacher at Cambridge University, and Professor Gus Ranis of Yale University, a ‘neo-liberal’ economist, were observed agreeing with each other that Korea had been a great success.

The paradox was resolved when it turned out that Mrs Robinson was talking about North Korea and Professor Ranis about South Korea!

That is taken from an interview with Jagdish Bhagwati, who I might add is another plausible contender for an economics Nobel Prize.

Thanks to for the link.

Taxes then and now

How can we get Andrew Chamberlain to post more often at The Idea Shop? Here is his latest:

Some famous tax beginnings–and where they’ve ended up:

Up in Smoke: The first federal tobacco tax was passed July 1, 1862, and raised $8,592,000 in 1864. By 2003, federal tobacco taxes raised $8.2 billion, a 948-fold increase. At $4 per pack, that’s enough to build 14 full-size replicas of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa out of cigarette packs. Laid end to end, those cigarettes would stretch from the Earth to the Moon, nine times.

Fueling Taxes: The first state gas tax–one cent per gallon–was passed in Oregon on February 15, 1919, and raised $443,000 the following year. Today, Oregon’s gas tax is 24 cents per gallon, with 2002 collections of $396 million, an 893-fold increase. At today prices that’s enough to buy the gas needed to drive a Honda Accord at 60 miles per hour for twelve and half years–long enough to circle the earth about 265 times.

License to Tax: The first law requiring auto license plates passed in New York on April 25, 1901, and the $1 fee brought in $1,082 the following year. By 2001 motor vehicle registration fees raised $583 million, a stunning 539,000-fold increase. At $2 per mile, that’s enough for a one-mile New York City cab ride for every man, woman and child in the United States–tip not included.

Here is the permalink.

Economic growth and diet

…at that time [eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] food constituted between 50 and 75 percent of the expenditures of laboring families…however…the energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year in the tables of the World Bank. England’s supply of food per capita exceeded that of France by several hundred calories but was still exceedingly low by current standards. Indeed, as late as 1850, the English availability of calories hardly matched the current Indian level.

Not surprisingly, meat was not a major source of calories in earlier times.

One implication of these low-level diets needs to be stressed: Even prime-age males had only a meager amount of energy available for work.

And get this:

…the average efficiency of the human engine in Britain increased by about 53 percent between 1790 and 1980. The combined effect of the increase in dietary energy available for work, and of the increased human efficiency in transforming dietary energy into work output, appears to account for about 50 percent of the British economic growth since 1790.

Keep all that in mind next time you despair about the modern world. The data and quotation are from Robert Fogel’s The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.

Into the Fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

You gave your love to see, in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love…

May your love bring us love.

Bruce Springsteen. From The Rising.

Mexican economic growth – a revision

My good friend, the ever-reliable, ever-intelligent Kevin Grier, writes to me the following about Mexican economic growth:

I believe the primary two problems with mexico are both political (1) very little real competition in the domestic economy (2) no true rule of law. Fundamentally its still a society where personal connections or bribes get lots of things done. The “ideal” of everyday anonymous transactions working out well even when there are time intervals between beginning and end (payment and reward) just is not there.

Also the Mexican civil war at the beginning of the 20th century probably had something to do with the low growth in the first half of the century. That was no joke, that war. The “golden years” could easily be high transitional growth getting back on the BGP after the devastation of the civil war, kind of Mexico’s mini version of the Japanese and German growth miracles after WWII.

imho Mexico is middle income due to “location location location” and is still chained to an almost feudal social and political system.

More specifically, Kevin points out that the available data show Mexican convergence to the U.S. from 1950-75, and from 1870-1900, but not for the twentieth century more generally, I offer apologies for my previous error.

Addendum: Don’t forget to check out Kevin’s Haitian art page, or his music tastes.

Can we judge thinkers by their followers?

Having written recently on what is valid in Karl Marx, I am reminded of an ongoing debate I have with my colleague Bryan Caplan. I like to tell Bryan, only half in jest, that thinkers are responsible for the quality of their followers. Surely if a thinker is bright and rich and multi-faceted, that thinker would attract followers of a similar quality. And a rotten thinker ought not to attract many students of a higher quality. This test is not failproof but it is one way of approaching the question of intellectual quality.

On the negative side, Marx attracted Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. I’ll go out on a limb and claim that Gramsci, Lukacs, Althusser, and Luxembourg are all vastly overrated, even by many non-Marxists. Who then would I cite as illustrating Marx’s positive intellectual heritage? Here are a few options:

1. Walter Benjamin. His work on mechanical reproduction and aura continues to shape debates over contemporary culture. Plus you can mine his notebooks for incisive nuggets of insight; some of them are no more than a sentence.

2. Michel Foucault. Yes the specialists have poked holes in the histories. And his mechanisms are often murky and insufficiently grounded in methodological individualism. Still his accounts of the dark side of the Enlightenment — as found in prisons and hospitals – remain justly influential. And The Order of Things is an interesting albeit flawed look at the comovement of ideas in many disciplines in early modern times. By the way, he developed a strong interest in Mises and Hayek in the latter years of his life.

3. Juergen Habermas. I find much of his work unreadable; he is the strongest argument extant for the use of mathematical economics (why doesn’t he write down a simple model?). Still the early work on the growth of the public sphere in the eighteenth century is impressive. As a work of intellectual history, it offers enviable clarity, range and depth.

4. Ferdinand Braudel. OK, he didn’t have to be a Marxist to write those wonderful books on the Mediterranean and the rise of modern Europe. Still, the emphases on material forces and the long sweep of history are derived unmistakeably from Marx’s writings.

The summary picture is exactly what you would expect. On the whole Marx had a seriously pernicious influence on both the humanities and social sciences. Still, he inspired some significant thinkers and generated important nuggets of insight.

OK, now here is a challenge for real men. Can you tell me, standing on one foot, what exactly is both important and valid in the writings of Martin Heidegger? I’ll assume I can use your name unless you tell me otherwise; a blogged answer is best of all.

Jeffersonians vs Hamiltonians

Entering Monticello,Thomas Jefferson’s home, you are flanked by two busts, Jefferson on one side and Alexander Hamilton on the other. Since the two were political foes it’s a surprising choice. But the busts were placed there by Jefferson himself who said, “we were ever-opposed in life and now we shall be ever-opposed in death.” The Jefferson-Hamilton battle continues to this day (read the link for more and don’t miss the many interesting comments.)


Addendum: Brad was perhaps fooled by the name of this blog but then there are two of us.

Mexico’s lost century?

Mexico is slated to grow at somewhat over four percent this year (this popped up in the Mexican edition of the Miami Herald last week, no link handy). It has responded to the Chinese challenge by retooling its export base toward higher quality and quicker response times; the maquiladoras are once again growing. Higher oil prices do not hurt either. Of course four percent is a rate that most countries in the world would envy.

In the twentieth century Mexico grew at a rate above what the U.S. did (sorry, my exact figures are at home!). Mexican performance would be even better if we take out the disastrous 1980s. And in early colonial times, at least once Mexico recovered from various plagues, Mexico was arguably richer than the British colonies to the north. As late as 1820, Mexican GDP per-capita was in the same ballpark as that of the United States ($1287 U.S., $893 Canada, $760 Mexico, in 1990 dollars as estimated by Angus Maddison). So what went wrong?

The nineteenth century was an absolute, complete disaster for Mexico. By 1870, US per-capita had just about doubled but Mexican per-capita GDP had fallen to $710. Crime was rampant and the so-called infrastructure was a disaster. Many goods were carried on foot across rocky paths, not fit to be called roads. At the same time North Americans were building railroads, canals, and factories. Only late in the nineteenth century, under the regime of Portfirio Diaz, did Mexico start constructing a usable transportation network.

I can think of a few ways of interpreting these facts:

1. Mexico had one very unlucky century. In reality Mexico is better suited to grow than is the U.S.. Mexican government is low in quality, but in many ways it is very small. And perhaps you need big government more in some centuries than others.

2. The superior Mexican performance of the twentieth century represents “catching up,” sometimes called “growth convergence.” This sounds the most intuitive, although it implies that one bad century has kept Mexico captive in poverty for a long, long time. How long did it take Germany and Japan to recover from Allied bombing and losing the War? You can claim that these countries had superior institutions, but Mexican institutions have allowed for rapid growth for a long time. Note also that the evidence in general does not favor growth convergence, although you can come up with something if you leave Africa out of the growth equation.

3. Something about the Mexican economy is not robust to very bad times. Mexico has a higher variance economy than does the U.S., and the distribution of these growth rates is not normal. The Mexicans (implicitly) accept this high variance to enjoy a higher mean growth rate. But every now and then they pay a very steep price for this tradeoff.

4. We do not understand something fundamental about growth. We like to think of growth rates and income levels as conceptually separate to a greater degree than they are. The Solow model in particular shows us how to decompose changes into “once-and-for-all” and “growth-affecting” perturbations in growth. Perhaps this distinction can mislead us into looking for separate “causes of growth,” as distinct from our analyses of levels.

Am I allowed to vote for all four hypotheses? Even if they contradict each other to some extent?

Plus ca change…

There is a widespread prejudice against the newspapers, based on the belief that they cannot be trusted to report truly the current events in the world’s life on account of incompetence or venality. But in spite of this distrust we are almost altogether dependent on them for our knowledge of widely interesting events….The function of the newspaper in a well-ordered society is to control the state through the authority of facts, not to drive nations and social classes headlong into war through the power of passion and prejudice.

The source? The American Newspaper: A Study in Social Psychology (JSTOR) by one Delos Wilcox writing in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science…. July 1900.

My favorite things Mexican

I am in Mexico, and you will be hearing more about this. Here are a few of my favorite things.

1. Favorite Mexican novel: Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rolfo. A hilarious and moving tale of visiting rural Mexico and encountering the dead. The true heir to Dante. I remain surprised by how many people do not know this marvelous work, though the English translation does not capture the humor well. Will you be turned off if I tell you this is a favorite of Susan Sontag’s?

2. Favorite Mexican music: Mexican rap is extraordinarily eclectic and creative. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite group, but Control Machete is one place to start.

3. Favorite Mexican artist: Marcial Camilo Ayala, whom I am currently visiting in Cuernavaca. Here is one of my favorite pieces of his; here is one in black and white. If you pay in advance (less than you think), I am happy to help you get one.

4. Favorite Mexican food: Chicken with mole sauce, a’ la Puebla or Oaxaca. For real authenticity, make sure you crumble in the stale tortilla.

5. Favorite Mexican movie: You probably already know Y Tu Mama Tambien, Amores Perros, and El Mariachi. So I’ll recommend Luis Bunuel’s old version of Wuthering Heights, a truly strange adaptation that captures the spirit of the original novel remarkably well. You do not have to buy into Bunuel’s later, more pretentious work to like this one.

Addendum: My favorite Mexican dish might be Chiles Nogada.

The Olympics and Greek History

Here are two free 30 minute lectures from the Teaching Company.

The Olympics: From Ancient Greece to Athens, Parts 1 and 2.

From 776 BC onwards, the greatest champions among the Greeks began assembling every four years at Olympia in western Greece to assert their strength and physical prowess. Who were the most charismatic of the ancient Greek Olympic heroes? To truly understand the origins of the Olympics, why do we really need to begin with Homer? In these specially commissioned lectures, Professor McInerney takes you on a journey back to the Olympics of the ancient Greek world.