Category: History

That was then, this is now, wartime casualties edition

U.S. Civil War combat deaths per day: 449

World War II U.S. combat deaths per day: 297

Covid-19 U.S. deaths per day: > 1,000

And rising, 1500 per day seems baked in, 2000 per day might also be within reach.  I just don’t get you people who say this isn’t a big deal.

By the way, deaths as a percentage of population isn’t the right metric here.  Losing 320,000 lives (including excess deaths) has about the same moral import, whether or not there are a billion Morlocks living under the earth’s surface, though that fact would change the loss greatly as measured in percentage terms and of course make it look much smaller.

If one thousand lives (and more) per day is not a big deal, then what is?  The global toll is much larger of course, and most of the gdp contraction has come from fear rather than lockdowns per se — see for instance Sweden.

And as Scott Gottlieb tweeted:

This is not a question of lockdowns vs no lockdowns. The question is how do we take targeted measures, get broader compliance to prudent steps like masks, distancing, avoiding large gatherings; to reduce, slow spread so that the healthcare system doesn’t risk getting overwhelmed.

You won’t do a bit of restraint to stem these losses, and shift infections into the future, while a good vaccine is coming not to mention other therapeutics?  Or try this simple question: If you are a limited government libertarian, then when would you deploy government action if not now?

Speaking of “that was then, this is now,” here is Jeffrey Tucker of AIER (of GBD fame) predicting, circa October 14, that there will never be a vaccine.

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

Love and Liberty: A Short History of Adam Smith in Love

The author devotes his full scholarly attention to the mystery of Adam Smith’s love life by carefully re-assembling all the admissible amorous evidence, by subjecting such facts to critical lawyerly scrutiny, and by drawing reasonable inferences from these sundry proofs. Part 1 of this paper will set the stage by revisiting several intriguing hypotheses concerning Doctor Smith’s sexuality and romantic attachments. Next, Part 2 presents four pieces of evidence regarding Adam Smith’s lost loves: (i) an obscure but intriguing footnote in Dugald Stewart’s 1793 biography of Smith’s life and writings, (ii) a letter dated July 14, 1784 addressed to Professor Stewart, (iii) a brief anecdote by Henry Mackenzie, a prominent Scottish lawyer and writer, as well as (iv) a letter dated 18 September 1766 containing key corroborating details about Adam Smith’s lost loves. Part 3 then speculates about the whereabouts of Adam Smith’s lost diary and also about why Smith instructed his literary executors as early as 1773 to destroy his private papers and correspondence. Next, Parts 4 and 5 of this paper will consider two additional clues that may shed light on this amorous enigma. Specifically, Part 4 will revisit Adam Smith’s analysis of romantic love in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, while Part 5 will discuss the legal and ecclesiastical regulation of sex in 18th Century Scotland and France–the locales of Smith’s love affairs. Part 6 then presents one last and potentially relevant clue: the notorious case of the Chevalier de La Barre, which played out during Adam Smith’s sojourns in Paris and Abbeville, and Part 7 concludes with observations for future research. In short, contrary to the conventional biographical wisdom, reports of Adam Smith’s love life are not mere rumors or unfounded speculations. Although Adam Smith’s lifelong devotion to his intellectual life and to his widowed mother Margaret Douglas may have ultimately prevented him from getting married and forming his own household, the evidence will show that it is “more likely than not” that Adam Smith was deeply in love at least twice in his life.

That is a new working paper by F.E. Guerra-Pujol.

*Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art*

By Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an excellent book, a very responsible treatment of what we do and do not know about Neanderthals, with a bit on Denisovans as well.  It is a book full of sentences such as: “Micro-morphology has also provided proof that, far from being slovenly, Neanderthals were regularly disposing of their rubbish.”  It seems they enjoyed mussels and also grubs, among many other foodstuffs.  The hearth was the center of the home and they had fairly advanced systems for butchery.  They used leather and deployed pigments.

I enjoyed this segment:

Parisians, Londoners or Berliners today with ostensibly European heritage have very little connection even to Mesolithic people just 10,000 years ago.  The vast majority of their DNA comes from a massive influx of Western Asian peoples during the Neolithic.  This means that many of the first H. sapiens populations are more extinct than the neanderthals; not a great sign of evolutionary dominance.

Recommended, you can order here.

Christina Romer!

Christina Romer is excellent in this video on her work and influence. Obama had a great line. When Romer, clearly upset, told Obama that the economy was much worse than expected and heading downwards he replied, “Christy, it’s not your fault….yet.”

An interesting tension in Romer’s work. Her early work suggests that macroeconomic policy has not done much to stabilize the economy. Yet her later work has been in trying to stabilize the economy!

The window tax

The window tax in Great Britain (1696–1851) provides a remarkable case of tax-induced distortions in resource allocation. Tax liabilities on dwelling units depended on the number of windows in the unit. As a consequence, people boarded up windows and built houses with very few windows, to the detriment of both health and aesthetics. Using data from local tax records on individual houses, the analysis in the paper finds compelling evidence of such tax-avoidance and goes on to make a rough calculation of the excess burden associated with the tax.

Here is the full paper by Robert M. Schwab and Wallace E. Oates.

What should I ask Zachary Carter?

Zachary is first and foremost the author of the New York Times bestselling The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.  Here is part of a broader bio:

Zach Carter is a senior reporter at HuffPost, where he covers economic policy and American politics. He is a frequent guest on television and radio whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among other outlets. Zach began his career at SNL Financial (now a division of S&P Global), where he was a banking reporter during the financial crisis of 2008. He wrote features about macroeconomic policy, regional economic instability, and the bank bailouts, but his passion was for the complex, arcane world of financial regulatory policy. He covered the accounting standards that both fed the crisis and shielded bank executives from its blowback, detailed the consumer protection abuses that consumed the mortgage business and exposed oversight failures at the Federal Reserve and other government agencies that allowed reckless debts to pile up around the world. ​Since joining HuffPost in 2010, Zach has covered the implementation of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, political standoffs over trade policy and the federal budget, and the fight over the future of the Democratic Party. His feature story, “Swiped: Banks, Merchants and Why Washington Doesn’t Work for You” was included in the Columbia Journalism Review’s compilation Best Business Writing. ​

So what should I ask him?

Stagnation is the real risk

The accelerated economic growth also accelerated our path along the inverted-U shape of risk. Faster growth means people are richer sooner, so they value life more sooner, so society shifts resources to safety sooner—and ultimately we will begin the decline in risk sooner. As a result, the overall probability of an existential catastrophe—the area under the risk curve—declines!

…The model also suggests a broader insight. Making people richer doesn’t improve their well-being, but it can also change what they value. In this case, people value life more as they grow richer, and valuing life more leads them to care more about reducing existential risk.

That is from a very useful essay by Leopold Aschenbrenner.  It is from the newly appeared second issue of Works in Progress, an excellent on-line journal.  And here is Samuel Hughes defending pastiche.

*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

Keynes on what is required to make a great economist

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together.  He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

That is from Keynes’s 1924 essay on Marshall, reprinted in Essays in Biography. Most of all, it is Keynes describing himself!

Thoughts on Peter Burke’s new book *The Polymath*

1. No one is really a polymath.

2. No one is really a unimath, for that matter.

3. Many supposed polymaths apply a relatively small number of learning techniques to many fields.  They remain specialized, although their modes of specialization happen not to line up with how the academic disciplines are divided.  Say you apply non-parametric statistics to five different fields — do you have one specialization or five?

4. What to make of the economist who can run experiments, use computational methods, build models, run regressions, find new data sources, has mastered machine learning, can speak fluently about macroeconomics, and popularize for a lay audience.  Is there any such person?  (No.)  Would he or she count as a polymath?

5. The medieval polymaths Albert the Great and Ramon Llull seem especially impressive to me, because they had to learn before printing presses or easy travel were available.

6. One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.  “I can tell exactly how much people weigh just by looking at them.”  That sort of thing.  What is your claim in this regard?  Polymaths also must encompass the trivial!

7. How many “polymaths” are great at say only seven very trivial tasks, and fail to excel at anything important.  Should the polymath concept be held hostage to Jeremy Bentham?

8. Is Leibniz — amazing philosopher, an inventor of the calculus, mastery of languages, theologian, diplomacy, legal reform, inventor, political theorist, and supposed expert on China — the most amazing polymath of all time?

9. Leonardo seems a little thin in actual achievement (though not imagination) once you get past the visual arts.  And there are fewer than fifteen paintings to his name.

10. I think of the 17th century as a peak time for polymaths.  Enough chances to learn and create things, and read lots, but not so much knowledge that you could stand on only one frontier.

11. John Stuart Mill is the most impressive polymath economist.

12. Alan Turing contributed to virtually every field, but in some sense he did only one thing.  Von Neumann did more than one thing, did he do two?  He too contributed to virtually every field.

13. I am very much a fan of Susan Sontag, but I think of her as having done, in essence, “only one thing.”

14. Here is a good piece Beware the Casual Polymath.

I am very happy to recommend this book, especially to MR readers, the full title is The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke.

Samuel Brittan has passed away

At the age of 86, he was one of Britain’s great liberals.  He wrote columns for the FT for almost fifty years, defended capitalism, and also was an early advocate of an ngdp approach.  From the FT:

Brittan had a wonderful, restless intelligence which made him an ideal, if demanding, companion…Peter Jay wrote that when he was economics editor of The Times, he was “haunted by the spectre . . . of Brittan endlessly at work, morning, noon and night, reading, reading, reading, while I tried ineffectually to reconcile the demands of work and family life”.

His Capitalism and the Permissive Society is now but a shell of a listing on Amazon, but I can recall Roy Childs excitedly telling me about the book.  Back then, it seemed like the way forward for liberalism, a way to develop a truly emancipatory vision of free market capitalism.  Now all that seems so long ago.

Here is Sam’s Wikipedia page, note the badly “off” and misrepresentative second sentence: “He was a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a non-profit organisation “restoring balance and trust to the climate debate” that has been characterised as promoting climate change denial.”

Here was Sam in the 2009 Spectator:

I have no expertise on the subject of global warming; nor do I have a strong view about it. But I do know attempted thought control and hostility to free speech when I see it; and I find these unlovely phenomena present among all too many of the enthusiasts for climate action. Words such as ‘denial’ are intentionally brought into the debate and recall those who deny the reality of the Nazi Holocaust.

Here is John McDermott’s Ode to Sam upon Sam’s retirement in 2014.  And here is Cardiff Garcia on Sam.

Ralph Hawtrey was a Moorean

Hawtrey came from a family long associated with Eton, where he was educated himself, before coming up to Trinity in 1898.  In 1901 he was 19th Wrangler; in 1903 he briefly entered the Admiralty, before going to the Treasury, where he found his vocation as an economist and remained for forty-one years.  He was a very faithful Apostle, attending every annual dinner until 1954, when he was prevented from going by ill health.  He was devoted to Moore, whose impassioned singing of Die Beiden Grenadiere made him realize how horrible war was for the soldiers who actually did the fighting: this constituted an epiphany for Hawtrey, and reinforced his life-long Liberalism.  Moore was so much the most important influence on the life and career of Sir Ralph Hawtrey that he spent his last years working on a systematic philosophical treatise (inspired also by Robin Mayor), which was to have been a summa of his twenty-odd books and the hundreds of letters he published in The Times.  He was married to the famous pianist Titi d’Aranyi.

That is from Paul Levy’s book Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.  Here is more on Titi, also known as Hortense, who studied with Bartok and received numerous letters from him.  And here is Scott Sumner on Hawtrey, one of the great monetary economists.