Category: History

Let’s all have a revisionist Fourth of July

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Revisionist history serves many useful purposes, and for the most part it should be encouraged — even though many particular revisionist claims turn out to be wrong. The natural human state of affairs is a kind of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. If historians sometimes write a bit too sharply or speculatively to capture the audience’s attention, it is a price worth paying. At any rate, the audience tends not to take them literally or to pay close attention to their more detailed claims.

And:

The problem is that the revisionism isn’t diverse enough. A few issues — most of all those raised by Critical Race Theory — get caught up in the culture wars and are debated above all others. I agree that we should devote more time and attention to America’s disgraceful history of slavery and race relations, and I have incorporated that into my own teaching.

Still, other matters are being neglected. The longer trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is hardly debated, or what that history should mean for current decisions. There is plenty of carping about “the deep state,” but actual history has fallen down a memory hole, including the history of U.S. intelligence agencies.

It gets worse yet. According to one recent survey, 63% of the American public is not aware that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Ten percent had not heard of the Holocaust at all. Or consider the treatment of Native Americans, which was terrible and produced few heroes. Yet American soul-searching on this history seems to be minimal.

America needs revisionism, more of it please, and on timely and controversial topics. But it also needs less politicized and more intellectually diverse interpretations of its history. On this Fourth of July, what America needs is not the promotion of some particular claim of historical hypocrisy, but the elevation of the historical itself.

Recommended, and have a happy Fourth!

U.S. Citizenship exam from 1944

Here is one sample question:

Which of the following states seceded during the Civil War?

The choices are Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Florida.

Or try this one:

What evidence is required for a citizen to be convicted of treason?

The options are:

— It varies by state

— Nothing beyond what is needed to convict an ordinary crime

— The testimony of two eyewitnesses or a open confession in court

— The testimony of two eyewitnesses and an open confession in court

Here is the full Bloomberg piece by David Shipley.  There are many more questions — how many would you get?

The Premonition

In The Premonition Michael Lewis brings his cast of heroes together like the assembling of the Avengers. In the role of Captain America is Charity Dean, the CA public health officer who is always under-estimated because she is slight and attractive, until she cracks open the ribcage of a cadaver that the men are afraid to touch. Then there is Carter Mecher, the redneck epidemiologist who has a gift for assembling numbers into coherent patterns. And Richard Hatchett the southern poet who finds himself at the head of The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), the world’s most important organization during the pandemic; and Joe DiRisi the brilliant, mad scientist picked by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as the person most likely to cure disease…all of them. As you might expect from Michael Lewis, it’s all terribly well done, albeit formulaic and  sometimes over-the-top, e.g.

Charity’s purpose was clear….she was put on earth to fight battles, and wars, against disease. To save lives and perhaps even an entire country. p. 200-201

But Lewis has a bigger problem than over-the-top writing.

The heroes were defeated. Lewis likes to tell stories of brilliant mavericks like Billy Beane and Michael Burry who go against the grain but eventually, against all odds, emerge victorious. But six hundred thousand people are dead in the United States and whatever victory we have won was ugly and slow. Indeed, Lewis assembles his mighty team but then The Premonition trails off as the team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise before they even have a chance to enter the real battle against the virus. It’s telling that none of Lewis’s heroes are even mentioned in Andy Slavitt’s Preventable (about which I will say more in a future post).

To be fair, Lewis’s heroes are fascinating, brilliant people who did some good. As part of the Kremer team I interacted a bit with Richard Hatchett and CEPI. Hatchett headed CEPI and understood the danger of SARS-COV-II before anyone else and with Bill Gates’s support started funding vaccine production and shoring up supply lines before anyone else was off the starting line. CEPI was magnificent and their story has yet to be told in full measure. Had Lewis’s heroes been in charge I have no doubt that many lives could have been saved but, for the most part, the heroes were sidelined. Why and how that happened is the real question but Lewis’s story-telling skills aren’t the right skills to answer that question.

If there is one central villain in The Premonition, it’s the CDC. Lewis acknowledges that his perspective has changed. In The Fifth Risk, the system (the “deep state” used non-pejoratively if you will) is full of wisdom and power but it’s under threat from Trump. In The Premonition, Trump is an after-thought, at best a trigger or aggravating factor. Long before Trump or the pandemic:

Charity had washed her hands of the CDC. “I banned their officers from my investigations,” she said. The CDC did many things. It published learned papers on health crisis, after the fact. It managed, very carefully, public perception of itself. But when the shooting started, it leapt into the nearest hole, while others took fire. “In the end I was like ‘Fuck you’, said Charity. “I was mad they were such pansies. I was mad that the man behind the curtain ended up being so disappointing.” p. 42

As the pandemic starts the CDC fails repeatedly. At the beginning of the pandemic on January 29 the government had started to repatriate Americans from Wuhan bringing some of them to a National Guard base just outside of Omaha. But shockingly the CDC doesn’t test them for the virus.

Never mind that every single one of the fifty-seven Americans in quarantine wanted to be tested: the CDC forbade it. And [James] Lawler [US Naval Commander and national security coordinator on pandemic response] never understood the real reason for the CDC’s objections…Whatever the reasons, fifty-seven Americans spent fourteen days quarantined in Omaha, then left without having any idea of whether they’d been infected, or might still infect others. “There is no way that fifty-seven people from Wuhan were not shedding virus,” said Lawler. p. 176

Many of the people brought home from China are not even quarantined just told to self-quarantine:

…When local health officers…set out to find these possibly infected Americans, and make sure that they were following orders to quarantine, they discovered that the CDC officials who had met them upon arrival had not bothered to take down their home addresses.

…[Charity] posed a rude question to the senior CDC official moved on the call: How can you keep saying that Americans are at low risk from the virus if you aren’t even testing for the virus. She’d been answered with silence, and then the official move on to the next topic. [p.206-207, italics in original]

And all of this is before we get to the CDC’s famously botched test an error which was amplified by the FDA’s forbidding private labs and state governments to develop their own tests. Charity Dean wanted California to ignore the CDC and FDA and, “blow open testing and allow every microbiology lab to develop its own test.” But Dean is ignored and so by as late as February 19, “Zimbabwe could test but California could not because of the CDC. Zimbabwe!” p. 223. The failure of testing in the early weeks was the original sin of the crisis, the key failure that took a containment strategy ala South Korea and Taiwan off the table.

Lewis’s most sustained analysis comes in a few pages near the end of The Premonition where he argues that the CDC became politicized after it lost credibility due to the 1976 Swine Flu episode. In 1976 a novel influenza strain looked like it might be a repeat of 1918. Encouraged by CDC head David Sencer, President Ford launched a mass vaccination campaign that vaccinated 45 million people. The swine flu, however, petered out and the campaign was widely considered a “debacle” and a “fiasco” that illustrated the danger of ceding control to unelected experts instead of the democratic process. The CDC lost authority and under Reagan the director became a political appointee rather than a career civil servant. Thus, rather than being unprecedented, Trump’s politicization of the CDC had deep roots.

Today the 1976 vaccination campaign looks like a competent response to a real risk that failed to materialize, rather than a failure. So what lessons should we take from this? Lewis doesn’t say but my colleague Garett Jones argues for more independent agencies in his excellent book 10% Less Democracy. The problem with the CDC was that after 1976 it was too responsive to political pressures, i.e. too democratic. What are the alternatives?

The Federal Reserve is governed by a seven-member board each of whom is appointed to a single 14- year term, making it rare for a President to be able to appoint a majority of the board. Moreover, since members cannot be reappointed there is less incentive to curry political favor. The Chairperson is appointed by the President to a four-year term and must also be approved by the Senate. These checks and balances make the Federal Reserve a relatively independent agency with the power to reject democratic pressures for inflationary stimulus. Although independent central banks can be a thorn in the side of politicians who want their aid in juicing the economy as elections approach, the evidence is that independent central banks reduce inflation without reducing economic growth. A multi-member governing board with long and overlapping appointments could also make the CDC more independent from democratic politics which is what you want when a once in 100 year pandemic hits and the organization needs to make unpopular decisions before most people see the danger.

Lewis hasn’t lost his ability to write exhilarating prose about heroic oddballs. Page by page, The Premonition is a good read but the heroes in Lewis’s story were overshadowed by politics, bureaucracy and complacency–systems that Lewis’s doesn’t analyze or perhaps quite understand–and as a result, his hero-centric story ends up unsatisfying as story and unedifying as analysis.

*The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade*

That is a new and very useful book by Benjamin T. Smith, oddly it came out first in the UK.  Here is one excerpt:

Over the past fifty years, to earn the median wage, a Mexican has had to sell an average of 700 grams of marijuana, 18 grams of heroin, or 66 grams of cocaine on the U.S. streets. It amounts to weed weighing two cans of soup, coke weighing a tennis ball, or smack weighing just three U.S. quarters. And this is only the average. During the economic collapse of the mid-1980s, it took only 280 grams of marijuana and 4.8 grams of heroin to make the annual wage. You could earn as much growing a single marijuana plant or a window box of poppies as driving a cab for a year.

And this:

Up to the 1970s, violence was rarely employed to sort out disputes between drug traffickers. The trade was relatively peaceful. Cooperation was the rule. Deep ties of blood, marriage, friendship, and neighborhood, which linked many of the traffickers, prevented the frequent use of force. In general, so did the local protection rackets. Both state governors and state cops were keen to avoid conflicts that risked exposing their own ties to the traffickers.

This changed because sometimes the later state authorities sought to institute their own protection rackets, using force toward that end. Many of the gangs sought to extend their turf beyond drugs to other commercial areas, also leading to conflict. Finally, the U.S.-led war on drugs induced a form of Mexican aggressive counternarcotics policing that bred conflict as well.

Overall this is a good book about a hard to research topic.

What should I ask Ruth Scurr?

Dr Ruth Scurr FRSL (born 1971, London) is a British writer, historian and literary critic. She is a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

Her first book, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 2006; Metropolitan Books, 2006) won the Franco-British Society Literary Prize (2006), was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize (2006), long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize (2007) and was listed among the 100 Best Books of the Decade in The Times in 2009. It has been translated into five languages.

Her second book, John Aubrey: My own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2015; New York Review of Books, 2016) was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was chosen as a 2015 Book of the Year in fifteen newspapers and magazines, including: the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sunday Express, the Guardian, the Spectator and the New Statesman. It was chosen as a 2016 Book of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review and the Washington Post.

Scurr began reviewing regularly for The Times and The Times Literary Supplement in 1997. Since then she has also written for The Daily TelegraphThe ObserverNew Statesman, The London Review of BooksThe New York Review of BooksThe NationThe New York ObserverThe Guardian  and The Wall Street Journal.

That is from her Wikipedia page.  She is an expert in the philosophy of biography and her new biography of Napoleon, which views his life through the medium of his involvement with gardens, has been receiving rave reviews.  And here is her home page, and her article on her Cambridge house.

So what should I ask her?

Milton Friedman was once a Keynesian

In the early 1940s, Friedman’s own analysis of monetary policy adhered closely to the dismissive tone prevalent in much other Keynesian literature of that vintage.  His solo-authored contribution to 1943’s Taxing to Prevent Inflation, written while he was at the Treasury, plotted growth rates of the nominal money stock and nominal income for the United States for the period 1899-1929.  To the modern reader, the scatter plot in Friedman’s paper indicates that the monetary growth/income relationship is clearly positive, and reasonably tight by the standards of rate-of-change data.  That was not, however, the judgment Friedman reached in his 1943 paper, in which he concluded instead that the relationship was “extremely unstable.”

That is from p.95 of the recent Edward Nelson two-volume set on Milton Friedman — one of the best books written on any economist!

Long-term gene–culture coevolution and the human evolutionary transition

It has been suggested that the human species may be undergoing an evolutionary transition in individuality (ETI). But there is disagreement about how to apply the ETI framework to our species, and whether culture is implicated as either cause or consequence. Long-term gene–culture coevolution (GCC) is also poorly understood. Some have argued that culture steers human evolution, while others proposed that genes hold culture on a leash. We review the literature and evidence on long-term GCC in humans and find a set of common themes. First, culture appears to hold greater adaptive potential than genetic inheritance and is probably driving human evolution. The evolutionary impact of culture occurs mainly through culturally organized groups, which have come to dominate human affairs in recent millennia. Second, the role of culture appears to be growing, increasingly bypassing genetic evolution and weakening genetic adaptive potential. Taken together, these findings suggest that human long-term GCC is characterized by an evolutionary transition in inheritance (from genes to culture) which entails a transition in individuality (from genetic individual to cultural group). Thus, research on GCC should focus on the possibility of an ongoing transition in the human inheritance system.

That is by Timothy M. Waring and Zachary T. Wood, via a loyal MR reader.

North vs. South India?

The data set used by Paul and Sridhar starts with the year 1960, when per capita income in Tamil Nadu was 51 per cent higher than UP’s. In the early 1980s, this difference had narrowed to 39 per cent. However, over the following decades the gap began to rapidly grow, and in 2005 an average resident of Tamil Nadu earned 128 per cent more than an average resident of Uttar Pradesh. (Statistics available online suggest that by 2021 the gap has increased to almost 300 per cent.)

Taking the South as a whole and the North as a whole, the book found that while the two regions differed only by 39 per cent in terms of per capita income in 1960-61, forty years later the gap had widened to 101 per cent. Now, in 2021, the gap has widened much further. Currently, the average annual per capita income of the four northern states profiled by Paul and Sridhar is about US $4,000, and of the four southern states, in excess of US $10,000, or roughly 250 per cent higher.

The data analysed by Paul and Sridhar show that there are two areas in which the South has done much better than the North. First, with regard to human development indicators such as female literacy rate, infant mortality and life expectancy. Second, in areas critical to economic development such as technical education, electricity generation, and quality and extent of roads. The first set of factors prepares healthier and better educated citizens to participate in the modern economy, while the second set enables much higher rates of productivity and efficiency in manufacturing and services.

Paul and Sridhar also found that the South fares substantially better than the North on governance indicators.

Here is the full piece by Ramachandra Guha, interesting throughout, with a pointer to Alice Evans, via Paul Novosad.

The Edward Nelson books on Milton Friedman

Two volumes, such a wonderful book, for sure one of the best of the year.  Not quite a biography, more a study of Friedman’s career, but his career was his life so this is a wonderful biography too.  Here is one excerpt:

Friedman was a student of business cycles who was prone to say that he did not believe there was a business cycle.  He was a trenchant critic of reserve requirements as a monetary policy tools and a strong advocate of financial deregulation, yet he had many favorable things to say about moving to a regime of 100 percent reserve requirements.  he stressed the looseness of the relationship between money and the economy, yet critics saw his policy prescriptions as predicated on a tight relationship.  He criticized in detail the way the Federal Reserve allowed the money stock to adjust to the state of the economy, yet he was often characterized as treating empirical money-stock behavior as exogenous.  He made fundamental contributions to the development of Phillips-curve theory, yet he was averse to conducting discussion of inflation prospects using Phillips-curve analysis.  He spent much of his first two decades as a researcher working on labor unions and the use of market power in setting prices, yet for the subsequent five decades he found himself accused by critics of predicating his economic analysis on an atomistic labor market, a one-good model, or perfectly competitive firms.

Here is Scott Sumner on the book.  Highly recommended, here is the Amazon link, and volume II.

John Stuart Mill on the English

From causes which might be traced in the history and development of English society and government, the general habit and practice of the English mind is compromise.  No idea is carried out to more than a small portion of its legitimate consequences.  Neither by the generality of our speculative thinkers, nor in the practice of the nation, are the principles which are professed ever thoroughly acted upon; something always stops the application half way.  This national habit has consequences of very various character, of which the following is one.  It is natural to minds governed by habit (which is the character of the English more than of any other civilized people) that their tastes and inclinations become accommodated to their habitual practice; and as in England no principle is ever fully carried out, discordance between principles and practice has come to be regarded, not only as the natural, but as the desirable state.  This is no an epigram, or a paradox, but a sober description of the tone of sentiment commonly found in Englishman.  They never feel themselves safe unless they are living under the shadow of some convention fiction — some agreement to say one thing and mean another.

That is from Mill’s Vindication of the French Revolution of February 1848.

*Ages of American Capitalism*

The author is Jonathan Levy (U. Chicago) and the subtitle is A History of the United States, noting it is mostly an economic history from a left-mercantilist, nation-building point of view.  So far on p.95 I quite like the book, here is one excerpt:

Ironically enough, in some respects Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty came to resemble the eighteenth-century British empire.  Congress revoked all internal taxes.  The military budget was cut in half.  A provision of the 1789 Constitution, the Commerce Clause, granted Congress the authority to regulate commerce “among the several states,” forbidding interstate mercantilist discrimination.  The result was to check state discrimination, opening up a unitary commercial space and increasing the extent of markets and thus the demand for goods.  Empires, while forging common political jurisdiction, accommodate pluralism and difference in rule, often so that different elements in the empire might engage in commerce.  In this respect, the Louisiana Purchase, in essence, handed the United States its own version of a West Indies in the lower Mississippi Valley.  By 1810 already 16 percent of the U.S. slave population lived in the trans-Appalachian West.  New slave-based triangular trades appeared on the North American continent, in a great counterclockwise national wheel of commerce.

741 pp. of text in this one, I am curious to see what comes next.  And my colleague Steven Pearlstein wrote a very good review of the book.

John Stuart Mill on the Californian Constitution

From 1850:

The Californians have not been solely occupied with “the diggings.”  They have found time also to construct a set of institutions…It is worthy of remark how instantaneously any body of American emigrants, as soon as they have formed a settlement, proceed to make a constitution; though European authorities of no small account in their own estimation, are never tired of assuring us that constitutions cannot be made.  But while these sages are stoutly denying the possibility of motion, the Americans, one after another, like Diogenes, rise up and walk; and not one stumble has occurred to mar the completeness of the practical confutation.  Whatever other faults have been found with the Anglo-American constitutions, no one has yet said that they will not work; a fate so often denounced against all constitutions except those which, like the British, “are not made but grow,” or, it should rather be said, come together by the fortuitous concourse of clashing forces.

Mill in particular praised that the California Constitution gave women the right to own their own property.  From the Toronto edition of the Collected Works, vol.XXV.

More on Individualism and Benevolence

This paper investigates the role of individualism in charitable giving. Individualistic societies are those that value individual fulfillment, personal responsibility, and relationships with those outside one’s in-group. Though critics suggest individualism undermines virtues such as generosity, we consider contrary mechanisms first developed in the tradition of classical political economy, especially the “doux commerce” hypothesis (Hirschman 1982), which posits that self-interested pursuit of gains through trade has broader, usually positive, effects on the attitudes and behavior (Matson 2020). Originating in French Enlightenment–era works—especially Montesquieu (1777a, XX.2)—and later found in Mandeville (1988 [1714]), Smith (1982 [1759]), and Hume (1994 [1742]), these arguments fell out of favor within mainstream economics for much of the twentieth century (Boettke 1997). But interest in these works has reemerged alongside growing interest in endogenous preferences (Bowles 1998) and the cultural dimensions of economic activity and as experimental evidence identifying success in trade as a cause of prosocial conduct has accumulated (Smith and Wilson 2019).

…To test our hypotheses, we use evidence from a large cross-section of countries and several measures of individualism, including Hofstede’s (2001) individualism-collectivism index, the index of survival versus self-expression from the World Values Survey (WVS) (Inglehart and Oyserman 2004), and measures of generalized tolerance. Each represents a quantitative measure of culture, or what David Hume referred to as national character (Sent and Kroese 2020). Our empirical results show that individualism is indeed associated with charitable giving, as is economic freedom. The results support the argument of classical liberals thatcommercial society and the social and cultural institutions that support it are sources of the common good.

From Cai, Caskey, Cowen, Murtazashvili, Murtazashvili and Salahodjaev. See my previous post(s) on this topic.