Category: History

*Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime*

That is the new book by Lt. General David Barno and Nora Bensahel, here is one excerpt;

This emphasis on decentralized, independent battlefield actions, long a part of German military thinking, once again became a central tenet of German army doctrine in the modest force of the post-Versailles period.  Mission orders were regularly emphasized and practiced during peacetime training exercises.  moreover, the German army relentlessly critiqued the performance of its leaders and units in exercises and war games.  Commanders and staff officers at all levels were expected to do so candidly and objectively, without regard to personal embarrassment or potential career damage.  This candor extended to critiquing the performance of senior officers and higher headquarters as well.  These principles made German doctrine inherently adaptable in the face of battle.

And then a few pages later:

In stark contrast to the Germans, in the French army there was “no large-scale examination of the lessons of the last war by a significant portion of the officers corps.”  Partly as a result, the lessons that the French army drew from world War I led to a warfighting doctrine that was nearly the polar opposite of that developed by the Germans.  The French army assumed that the next war in Europe would largely resemble the last.  The staggering number of French casualties during World War I led French leaders to conclude that an offensive doctrine would prove both indecisive and prohibitively costly.  They reasoned that a defensive doctrine would best preserve their fighting power and prevent the enemy from winning another major war through an offensive strike.  As a result, nearly all French interwar thinking focused on leveraging defensive operations to prevail in any future war.

Overall, it is striking to me just how much substance there is in this book per page — a rarity to be treasured!  You can order it here.

My Conversation with Audrey Tang

For me one of the most fun episodes, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  And here is the longer than ever before summary, befitting the chat itself:

Audrey Tang began reading classical works like the Shūjīng and Tao Te Ching at the age of 5 and learned the programming language Perl at the age of 12. Now, the autodidact and self-described “conservative anarchist” is a software engineer and the first non-binary digital minister of Taiwan. Their work focuses on how social and digital technologies can foster empathy, democracy, and human progress.

Audrey joined Tyler to discuss how Taiwan approached regulating Chinese tech companies, the inherent extraterritoriality of data norms, how Finnegans Wake has influenced their approach to technology, the benefits of radical transparency in communication, why they appreciate the laziness of Perl, using “humor over rumor” to combat online disinformation, why Taiwan views democracy as a set of social technologies, how their politics have been influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their oral culture, what Chinese literature teaches about change, how they view Confucianism as a Daoist, how they would improve Taiwanese education, why they view mistakes in the American experiment as inevitable — but not insurmountable, the role of civic tech in Taiwan’s pandemic response, the most important remnants of Japanese influence remaining in Taiwan, why they love Magic: The Gathering, the transculturalism that makes Taiwan particularly open and accepting of LGBT lifestyles, growing up with parents who were journalists, how being transgender makes them more empathetic, the ways American values still underpin the internet, what he learned from previous Occupy movements, why translation, rotation, and scaling are important skills for becoming a better thinker, and more.

This bit could have come from GPT-3:

COWEN: How useful a way is it of conceptualizing your politics to think of it as a mix of some Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions mixed in with Daoism, experience in programming, and then your own theory of humor and fun? And if you put all of that together, the result is Audrey Tang’s politics. Correct or not?

TANG: Well as of now, of course. But of course, I’m also growing, like a distributed ledger.

And this:

COWEN: You’re working, of course, in Taiwanese government. What’s the biggest thing wrong with economists?

TANG: You mean the magazine?

COWEN: No, no, the people, economists as thinkers. What’s their biggest defect or flaw?

TANG: I don’t know. I haven’t met an economist that I didn’t like, so I don’t think there’s any particular personality flaws there.


COWEN: Now, my country, the United States, has made many, many mistakes at an almost metaphysical level. What is it in the United States that those mistakes have come from? What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

COWEN: Have we started correcting them yet?

TANG: I’m sure that you have.

Definitely recommended.

Why are North and South India so different on gender?

From Alice Evans:

Region is a strong predictor of female survival, literacy, autonomy, employment, and independent mobility. A woman with the exact same household wealth/ caste/ religion will likely have more autonomy if she lives in the South.

It does not seem to be a function of wealth, nor was colonialism a major factor.  And cousin marriage, which is more prevalent in the south?  Alice notes:

Southern women may have gained autonomy despite cousin marriage, not because of it.

Islam, however, is one factor:

In sum, gender segregation became more widespread under Islamic rule. Men continue [to] dominate public life, while women are more rooted in their families, seldom gathering to resist structural inequalities.

But perhaps most significantly:

Female labour force participation is higher in states with traditions of labour-intensive cultivation…

Wheat has been grown for centuries on the fertile, alluvial Indo-Gangetic plain. Cultivation is not terribly labour-intensive, though cereals must still be processed, shelled and ground. This lowers demand for female labour in the field, and heightens its importance at home.

Rice-cultivation is much more labour intensive. It requires the construction of tanks and irrigation channels, planting, transplanting, and harvesting. Women are needed in the fields. Rice is the staple crop in the South.

And this:

Pastoralism may have also influenced India’s caste-system. Brahmins dominate business, public service, politics, the judiciary, and universities. Upper caste purity and prestige has been preserved through female seclusion, prohibiting polluting sexual access. These patriarchal norms may be rooted in ancient livelihoods. Brahmins share genetic data with ancient Iranians and steppe pastoralists. Brahmins also comprise a larger share of the population in North India and only 3% in Tamil Nadu.

Over the centuries, male superiority may have become entrenched.


Northern parents increasingly support their daughters’ education, but this is primarily to improve their marriage prospects, not work outside the home.

There is much, much more at the link, including some excellent maps, visuals, and photos.

It’s getting better and worse at the same time

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

The larger question is how to know when this great stagnation is ending. Counterintuitively, the answer might be when people are most upset — because that’s generally how most humans react to change, even when it proves beneficial in the longer run. These feelings arise in part from the chaos and disruption brought about by some pretty significant changes.


People, here is the good news and the bad news: Change is upon us. We are entering a new era of crises — in politics and biomedicine, with climate and energy, and not incidentally, about how prudently we spend our time.

The regretful truth is that progress is never going to be easy. The great technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, remember, were followed by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. Innovations such as radio and the automobile improved countless lives but also broadcast Hitler speeches and led to destructive tanks.

I’m not predicting the same catastrophe for today. I’m only saying that when the discontent is palpable, as it is right now in America, keep in mind that true breakthroughs may already be underway.

The examples are in the longer text.  Recommended!

What is the single best volume to read on China?

I do not know!  But this is one of the questions I receive most often, after “Can we have more of Tyrone?”, and “What do you mean by “Straussian”?”

I do find that Michael Wood’s new The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People is a plausible contender for this designation.  Consistently interesting, substantive, and conceptual, but without over-interpreting for the sake of imposing a narrative straitjacket.

Due out November 17, I am pleased I paid the extra shipping costs to get it from the UK.

Might you all have alternative suggestions for a single best book on China?

The social function of Harvard and other elite universities

Here is a new study by Valerie Michelman, Joseph Price, and Seth D. Zimmerman:

This paper studies social success at elite universities: who achieves it, how much it matters for students’ careers, and whether policies that increase interaction between rich and poor students can integrate the social groups that define it. Our setting is Harvard University in the 1920s and 1930s, where students compete for membership in exclusive social organizations known as final clubs. We combine within-family and room-randomization research designs with new archival and Census records documenting students’ college lives and career outcomes. We find that students from prestigious private high schools perform better socially but worse academically than others. This is important because academic success does not predict earnings, but social success does: members of selective final clubs earn 32% more than other students, and are more likely to work in finance and to join country clubs as adults, both characteristic of the era’s elite. The social success premium persists after conditioning on high school, legacy status, and even family. Leveraging a scaled residential integration policy, we show that random assignment to high-status peers raises rates of final club membership, but that overall effects are driven entirely by large gains for private school students. Residential assignment matters for long-run outcomes: more than 25 years later, a 50-percentile shift in residential peer group status raises the rate at which private school students work in finance by 37.1% and their membership in adult social clubs by 23.0%. We conclude that the social success premium in the elite labor market is large, and that its distribution depends on social interactions, but that the inequitable distribution of access to high-status social groups resists even vigorous attempts to promote cross-group cohesion.

You can think of this as another attempt to explain the relatively high returns to education, without postulating that students learn so much, and without emphasizing signaling so much.  Going to Harvard is in fact winning access to a very valuable set of networks (which in turn is signaling as well, to be clear).

For the pointer I thank Tyler Ransom.

The persistence of migration outcomes

How persistent are economic gaps across ethnicities? The convergence of ethnic gaps through the third generation of immigrants is difficult to measure because few datasets include grandparental birthplace. I overcome this limitation with a new three-generational dataset that links immigrant grandfathers in 1880 to their grandsons in 1940. I find that the persistence of ethnic gaps in occupational income is 2.5 times stronger than predicted by a standard grandfather-grandson elasticity. While part of the discrepancy is due to measurement error attenuating the grandfather-grandson elasticity, mechanisms related to geography also partially explain the stronger persistence of ethnic occupational differentials.

That is the abstract of a piece by Zachary Ward, from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.  In a number of regards this paper goes well beyond the previous literature.  Here is another interesting sentence:

…I find that 51 percent of initial ethnic gaps in occupational income remained after three generations.

The author also notes:

Rather than argue for an ethnic-specific causal mechanism, I instead point to measurement error and geography as key reasons for the stronger persistence of ethnic differentials across three generations.

I am not so convinced, as where you choose to live is endogenous to your expected labor market quality.  I am somewhat more persuaded by this point:

…the ethnic mean provides more information about the father’s true occupational status.

Iin other words, what appears to be an influence of ethnicity might instead be a transmission channel through the background of one’s own father.

At times the author seems naive, at other times Straussian, or maybe just afraid?  To be clear, I am myself an extreme culturalist, and that is not a Straussian remark.  This is in any case a major contribution to a contentious debate.

*The Murder of Professor Schlick*

The author is David Edmonds, and the subtitle is The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.  I very much enjoyed this book, and found its direct style refreshing, and I hope it will serve as a model for others.  The author actually tells you what you want to know!

I enjoyed the small tidbits.  I had not known that Frank Ramsey traveled to Vienna for psychoanalysis, because he was in love with a married woman his senior.  Ramsey ended up drinking the Freudian Kool-Aid, and also in Vienna became acquainted with Wittgenstein’s sister Gretl.

I had forgotten that Quine was two years the senior of A.J. Ayer.  He also spoke sarcastically of his forthcoming audience with Wittgenstein but sought it nonetheless.  Quine learned German remarkably quickly in Vienna, and then was lecturing philosophy in it without much difficulty.

Karl Popper was first an apprentice cabinetmaker, then a social worker, and then a teacher before he became a professional philosopher.  When he moved to New Zealand during the War, the university library in Otago had fewer books than his father’s library back home.

You can pre-order the book here.

European paintings show a rise in trustworthiness

Building on recent advances in social cognition, we design an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Our results show that trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe. Further analyses suggest that this rise of trustworthiness displays is associated with increased living standards.

That is from a new paper by Lou Safra, in Nature.  Scroll down a few pages for some good photos, basically the people in the paintings look less pissed off over time.  Via Lionel Page.

My Conversation with Alex Ross


ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?


The durability of violent revolution

…regimes founded in violent social revolution are especially durable. Revolutionary regimes, such as those in Russia, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, endured for more than half a century in the face of strong external pressure, poor economic performance, and large-scale policy failures. The authors develop and test a theory that accounts for such durability using a novel data set of revolutionary regimes since 1900. The authors contend that autocracies that emerge out of violent social revolution tend to confront extraordinary military threats, which lead to the development of cohesive ruling parties and powerful and loyal security apparatuses, as well as to the destruction of alternative power centers. These characteristics account for revolutionary regimes’ unusual longevity.

That is from a new paper by Jean Lachapelle, Steven Levitsky, Lucan A. Way, and Adam E. Casey.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Toots Hibbert, RIP

Possibly a Covid death (NYT), he was leader of Toots and the Maytals, and along with Desmond Dekker a favorite figure from the earlier period of reggae music.  “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” I still listen to frequently, among others.  I was lucky to see him in concert twice, once as recently as two years ago, the other time in the late 1990s…

The Washington Consensus Works: Causal Effects of Reform, 1970-2015

Sustained economic reform significantly raises real GDP per capita over a 5- to 10-year horizon.

Despite the unpopularity of the Washington Consensus, its policies reliably raise average incomes.

Countries that had sustained reform were 16% richer 10 years later.

As for the method:

In this paper, we define generalized reform as a discrete, sustained jump in an index of economic freedom, whose components map well onto the points of the old consensus. We identify 49 cases of generalized reform in our dataset that spans 141 countries from 1970 to 2015. The average treatment effect associated with these reforms is positive, sizeable, and significant over 5- and 10- year windows. The result is robust to different thresholds for defining reform and different estimation methods.

There are dozens of books trying to tell you this is not true, but…it is true, at least as best we know.

That is all from the new paper by Kevin and Robin Grier, did you know by the way that I helped to fix them up, leading to their later marriage and also coauthorships?

*Where is my flying car?: A memoir of future past*, by J. Storrs Hall

Who is this guy?  How come no one told me about this book until Adam Ozimek asked about it?

One of the main arguments of the book is that we could have had major technological advances in multiple areas if only we had put in another fifty years of hard work on them.  Flying cars could have been a thing some time ago!

The author estimates that if quality nanotechnology were up and running, it would take only about a week to rebuild the entire United States.  Just imagine how silly the current building permit system would seem then.

The anecdotes on the history of helicopters are interesting and obsessive in a good way.

One of the arguments is simply that we have not much succeeded in boosting our aggregate use of energy.  Hall also argues we do not face sufficient challenges, in part because nuclear deterrence has worked so well.

An editor would not approve of the organization and rambling structure of this book, including the lengthy digressions on technologies of the author’s choice and fascination.  It does not bother me.

Here is one short bit, not actually representative of the basic style, but I enjoyed it anyway:

If you are a technologist working on some new, clean, abundant form of energy, I wish you all the luck in the world.  But you must not labor under the illusion that should you succeed, your efforts will be justly rewarded by the gratitude of the people you have lifted from poverty and enabled to have a bright and growing future.  You will be attacked, your work will be lied about by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation.

But only if it works.

You can buy it here, Kindle only for $3.14, note it is a full-length book with all the proper trappings.  It’s one of the best and most interesting books on technology in some time, either ignore or enjoy the organizational infelicities, first published in 2018.