Category: History

Emmanuel Todd, *Lineages of Modernity*

Sadly I had to read this book on Kindle, so my usual method of saving passages and ideas by the folded page is failing me.  I can tell you this is one of the most interesting (but also flawed) books I read this year, with “family structure is sticky and it determines the fate of your nation” as the basic takeaway.

Todd suggests that the United States actually has a fairly “backward” and un-evolved family structure — exogamy and individualism — not too different from that of hunter-gatherer societies.  That makes us very flexible and also well-suited to handle the changing conditions of modernity.  Much of the Arab world, in contrast, has a highly complex and evolved and in some ways “more advanced” family structure, involving multiple alliances, overlapping networks, and often cousin marriages.  The mistake is to think of those structures as under-evolved outcomes that simply can advance a bit, “loosen up with prosperity,” and allow their respective countries to enter modernity.  Rather those structures are stuck in place, and they will interact with the more physical features of globalization and liberalization in interesting and not always pleasant ways.  Many of those societies will end up in untenable corners with no full liberalization anywhere in sight.  Much of Todd’s book works through what the various options are here, and how they might apply to different parts of the world.

To be clear, half of this book is unsupported, or sometimes just trivial.  There were several times I was tempted to just stop reading, but then it became interesting again.  Todd covers a great deal of ground (the subtitle is A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus), not all of it convincingly.  But when he makes you think, you really feel he might be on to something.

Todd describes Germany as having a complex, multi-tiered, somewhat authoritarian family structure, and one that does not mesh well with the norms of feminism and individualism that have been entering the country.  That family structure is also part of why Germany was, relative to its size, militarily so strong in the earlier part of the twentieth century.  He also argues that the countries that stayed communist longer have some common features to their family structure, Cuba being the Latin American outlier in this regard.

Todd makes the strongest bullish case for Russia I have seen.  He reports that TFR is back up to 1.8 after an enormous post-communist plunge, migration into the country is strongly positive, and Russia is very good at producing strong, productive women (again due to family structure).  If you think human capital matters, the positives here are significant indeed.

Here is some related work by my colleagues Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp on cousin marriage.

You can order Todd’s book here.  Recommended, though with significant caveats, mainly for lack of evidence on some of the key propositions.

The First Words of Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620 they were cold, hungry and frightened. Imagine their surprise when on March 16 as they unloaded cannon from the Mayflower in preparation for battle an Indian walked into their encampment and asked, “Anyone got a beer?” Seriously, that’s what happened. Samoset, the thirsty Indian, had learned English from occasional fishermen.

Even more fortunate for the Pilgrims was that Somoset was accompanied by Squanto. Squanto had been enslaved 7 years earlier and transported to Spain where he was sold.  He then somehow made his way to England and then, amazingly, back to his village in New England around 1619. It’s a horrific story, however, because during his absence Squanto’s entire village and much of the region had been wiped out by disease, almost certainly brought by the Europeans. Nevertheless, in 1621 Squanto was there when the Pilgrims landed and he hammered out an early peace deal and most importantly instructed the settlers how to fertilize their land with fish in order to grow corn.

Squanto instructed them in survival skills and acquainted them with their environment: “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”

Anyone got a beer?

 

An American Thanksgiving story without any heroes

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

But as Thanksgiving 2019 approaches, I am struck by another lesson: America’s need to come to terms with a history that, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans, has remarkably few heroes on the side of the white settlers.

And:

Nor is there any major American political ideology that can sit comfortably with the historical treatment of Native Americans, which has been multipartisan in its awfulness. Many libertarians fail to decry the government coercion involved, since they also wish to invoke the growth of the American republic as a major event in the history of freedom. Even if most libertarians are embarrassed by how much of America’s glory is rooted in land theft and massacres, they do not emphasize land reparations as a solution.

And:

This lack of heroes should also make Americans more reluctant to judge their political opponents so harshly. All of us are part of a system built on longstanding historical crimes, and thus we have more in common with those opponents than we might like to think.

Recommended.

William Shatner on mortgages

 

I am once again reminded how expected returns is a critical concept in macroeconomics.  Circa 1985, you could expect to earn much higher returns putting money in a certificate of deposit, thus increasing the opportunity of buying a house back then.  No, you would not earn 12% on your money, but still we need to reckon with the higher opportunity cost of funds to calculate the true home purchase/mortgage cost at that time.

Wealth by Generation and Age

Kurt Andersen made the following arresting tweet

Fraction of all US wealth owned by Boomers & Gen-Xers when the average member of each was age 35:

Boomers, 1989 21%
GenX, 2008 8%
The average Millennial turns 35 in 2023. Right now they own 3%.

There will surely be political implications.

Definitions: Baby Boomer=born 1946-1964, Gen X=born 1965-1980, and Millennial=born 1981-1996.

You can’t take it with you, so this will change eventually but perhaps too late. Think of this as the Prince Charles effect. Prince Charles hasn’t offed his mother and led a revolution yet but in an earlier age he probably would have and surely he has thought about it. Similarly, perhaps the demand among some Gen-Xers and Millennials for wealth redistribution can be understood as a demand to get their share of the pot before they are old and tired.

The data, which are from the Federal Reserve are here.

My Conversation with Mark Zuckerberg and Patrick Collison

Facebook tweets:.

@patrickc, CEO of Stripe, and @tylercowen, economist at George Mason University, sit down with our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg to discuss how to accelerate progress.

Video, audio, and transcript here, part of Mark’s personal challenge for the year, an excellent event all around.  This will also end up as part of CWT.

Why is labor mobility slowing in America?

There is a new and quite interesting paper on this topic, by Kyle Mangum and Patrick Coate:

This paper offers an explanation for declining internal migration in the United States motivated by a new empirical fact: the mobility decline is driven by locations with typically high rates of population turnover. These “fast” locations were the Sunbelt centers of population growth during the twentieth century. The paper presents evidence that as spatial population growth converged, residents of fast locations were subject to rising levels of preference for home. Using a novel measure of home attachment, the paper develops and estimates a structural model of migration that distinguishes moving frictions from home utility. Simulations quantify the role of multiple explanations of the mobility decline. Rising home attachment accounts for nearly half of the decline, roughly as large as the effect of an aging population, and is consistent with the spatial pattern. The implication is recent declining migration is a long run result of population shifts of the twentieth century.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Tyler Ransom.

Learning about the Roots of Progress from the History of Smallpox Eradication

The excellent Jason Crawford at the Roots of Progress has a long-form read on the history of smallpox eradication. It’s an important and insightful piece especially because Jason is interested not just in what happened but why it happened when and where it did and what the lessons are for today:

In 1720, inoculation had been a folk practice in many parts of the world for hundreds of years, but smallpox was still endemic almost everywhere. The disease had existed for at least 1,400 and probably over 3,000 years. Just over 250 years later—it was gone.

Why did it take so long, and how did it then happen so fast? Why wasn’t inoculation practiced more widely in China, India, or the Middle East, when it had been known there for centuries? Why, when it reached the West, did it spread faster and wider than ever before—enough to significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate the disease?

The same questions apply to many other technologies. China famously had the compass, gunpowder, and cast iron all before the West, but it was Europe that charted the oceans, blasted tunnels through mountains, and created the Industrial Revolution. In smallpox we see the same pattern. [Why?]

  • The idea of progress. In Europe by 1700 there was a widespread belief, the legacy of Bacon, that useful knowledge could be discovered that would lead to improvements in life. People were on the lookout for such knowledge and improvements and were eager to discover and communicate them. Those who advocated for inoculation in 1720s England did so in part on the grounds of a general idea of progress in medicine, and they pointed to recent advances, such as using Cinchona bark (quinine) to treat malaria, as evidence that such progress was possible. The idea of medical progress drove the Suttons to make incremental improvements to inoculation, Watson to run his clinical trial, and Jenner to perfect his vaccine.
  • Secularism/humanism. To believe in progress requires believing in human agency and caring about human life (in this world, not the next). Although England learned about inoculation from the Ottoman Empire, it was reported that Muslims there avoided the practice because it interfered with divine providence—the same argument Reverend Massey used. In that sermon, Massey said in his conclusion, “Let them Inoculate, and be Inoculated, whose Hope is only in, and for this Life!” A primary concern with salvation of the immortal soul precludes concerns of the flesh. Fortunately, Christianity had by then absorbed enough of the Enlightenment that other moral leaders, such as Cotton Mather, could give a humanistic opinion on inoculation.
  • Communication. In China, variolation may have been introduced as early as the 10th century AD, but it was a secret rite until the 16th century, when it became more publicly documented. In contrast, in 18th-century Europe, part of the Baconian program was the dissemination of useful knowledge, and there were networks and institutions expressly for that purpose. The Royal Society acted as an information hub, taking in interesting reports and broadcasting the most important ones. Prestige and acclaim came to those who announced useful discoveries, so the mechanism of social credit broke secrets open, rather than burying them. Similar communication networks spread the knowledge of cowpox to from Fewster to Jenner, and gave Jenner a channel to broadcast his vaccination experiments.
  • Science. I’m not sure how inoculation was viewed globally, but it was controversial in the West, so it was probably controversial elsewhere as well. The West, however, had the scientific method. We didn’t just argue, we got the data, and the case was ultimately proved by the numbers. If people didn’t believe it at first, they had to a century later, when the effects of vaccination showed up in national mortality statistics. The method of meticulous, systematic observation and record-keeping also helped the Suttons improve inoculation methods, Haygarth discover his Rules of Prevention, and Fewster and Jenner learn the effects of cowpox. The germ theory, developed several decades after Jenner, could only have helped, putting to rest “miasma” theories and dispelling any idea that one could prevent contagious diseases through diet and fresh air.
  • Capitalism. Inoculation was a business, which motivated inoculators to make their services widely available. The practice required little skill, and it was not licensed, so there was plenty of competition, which drove down prices and sent inoculators searching for new markets. The Suttons applied good business sense to inoculation, opening multiple houses and then an international franchise. They provided their services to both rich and poor by charging higher prices for better room and board during the multiple weeks of quarantine: everyone got the same medical procedure, but the rich paid more for comfort and convenience, an excellent example of price differentiation without compromising the quality of health care. Business means advertising, and advertising at its best is a form of education, helping people throughout the countryside learn about the benefits of inoculation and how easy and painless it could be.
  • The momentum of progress. The Industrial Revolution was a massive feedback loop: progress begets progress; science, technology, infrastructure, and surplus all reinforce each other. By the 20th century, it’s clear how much progress against smallpox depended on previous progress, both specific technologies and the general environment. Think of Leslie Collier, in a lab at the Lister Institute, performing a series of experiments to determine the best means of preserving vaccines—and how the solution he found, freeze-drying, was an advanced technology, only developed decades before, which itself depended on the science of chemistry and on technologies such as refrigeration. Or consider the WHO eradication effort: electronic communication networks let doctors be alerted of new cases almost immediately; airplanes and motor vehicles got them and their supplies to the site of an epidemic, often within hours; mass manufacturing allowed cheap production at scale of needles and vaccines; refrigeration and freeze-drying allowed vaccines to be preserved for storage and transport; and all of it was guided by the science of infectious diseases—which itself was by that time supported by advanced techniques from X-ray crystallography to electron microscopes.

Read the whole thing and follow the roots of progress.

*Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power*

That is the new wonderful and stunning book by Pekka Hämäläinen, here is one excerpt from the opening section:

Two centuries earlier, in the middle years of the seventeenth century, the Lakotas h ad been an obscure tribe of hunters and gatherers at the edge of a bustling new world of Native Americans and European colonists that had emerged in the Eastern Woodlands of North America.  They had no guns and no metal weapons, and they carried little political clout, all of which spelled danger: the odds of survival were slim for people who lacked access to Europeans and their new technologies of killing.  That crisis set off what may be the most improbably expansion in American history.  Lakotas left their ancient homelands and reinvented themselves as horse people in the continental grasslands that stretched seemingly forever into the horizon.  This was the genesis of what I call Lakota America, an expansive, constantly transmuting Indigenous regime that pulled numerous groups into its orbit, marginal and dispossessed its rivals — both Native and colonial — and commanded the political, social, and economic life in the North American interior for generations.  Just as there was Spanish, French, British, and the United States of America, there was Lakota America, the sovereign domain of the Lakota people and their kin and allies, a domain they would protect and, if necessary, expand.  A century later, the Lakotas had shifted the center of their world three hundred miles west into the Missouri Valley, where they began to transform into a dominant power.  Another century later they were the most powerful Indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling a massive domain stretching across the northern Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

…Yet they never numbered more than fifteen thousand people.

I will blog this book a bit more, for now I’ll just say it is very much in the running for very best book of the year.  It brings Native American history to life in a conceptual manner better than any other book I know.  You can buy it here, I found every section gripping and highly instructive and fun to read as well.  Here is a very good and accurate Parul Sehgal NYT review.

Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?

That is the title of my new paper with Ben Southwood, here is one segment from the introduction:

Our task is simple: we will consider whether the rate of scientific progress has slowed down, and more generally what we know about the rate of scientific progress, based on these literatures and other metrics we have been investigating. This investigation will take the form of a conceptual survey of the available data. We will consider which measures are out there, what they show, and how we should best interpret them, to attempt to create the most comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of metrics for the progress of science.  In particular, we integrate a number of strands in the productivity growth literature, the “science of science” literature, and various historical literatures on the nature of human progress. In our view, however, a mere reporting of different metrics does not suffice to answer the cluster of questions surrounding scientific progress. It is also necessary to ask some difficult questions about what science means, what progress means, and how the literatures on economic productivity and “science on its own terms” might connect with each other.

Mostly we think scientific progress is indeed slowing down, and this is supported by a wide variety of metrics, surveyed in the paper.  The gleam of optimism comes from this:

And to the extent that progress in science has not been slowing down, which is indeed the case under some of our metrics, that may give us new insight into where the strengths of modern and contemporary science truly lie. For instance, our analysis stresses the distinction between per capita progress and progress in the aggregate. As we will see later, a wide variety of “per capita” measures do indeed suggest that various metrics for growth, progress and productivity are slowing down. On the other side of that coin, a no less strong variety of metrics show that measures of total, aggregate progress are usually doing quite well. So the final answer to the progress question likely depends on how we weight per capita rates of progress vs. measures of total progress in the aggregate.

What do the data on productivity not tell us about scientific progress?  By how much is the contribution of the internet undervalued?  What can we learn from data on crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law?  Might the social sciences count as an example of progress in the sciences not slowing down?  Is the Solow model distinction between “once and for all changes” and “ongoing increases in the rate of innovation” sound?  And much more.

Your comments on this paper would be very much welcome, either on MR or through email.  I will be blogging some particular ideas from the paper over the next week or two.

And here is Ben on Twitter.

Politically Incorrect Paper of the Day: The United Fruit Company was Good!

The United Fruit Company is the bogeyman of Latin America, the very apotheosis of neo-colonialism. And to be sure in the UFC history there is wrongdoing and plenty of fodder for conspiracy theories but the UFC also brought bananas (as export crop), tourism, and in many cases good governance to parts of Latin America. Much, however, depends on the institutional constraints within which the company operated. Esteban Mendez-Chacon and Diana Van Patten (on the job market) look at the UFC in Costa Rica.

The UFC needed to bring workers to remote locations and thus it invested heavily in worker welfare:

the UFC invested in sanitation infrastructure, launched health programs, and provided medical attention to its employees. Infrastructure investments included pipes, drinking water systems, sewage system, street lighting, macadamized roads, a dike (Sanou and Quesada, 1998), and by 1942 the company operated three hospitals in the country.

Given the remoteness the plantations and to reduce transportation costs, the UFC provided the majority of its workers with free housing within the company’s land. This was partially motivated by concerns with diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which spread easily if the population is constantly commuting from outside the plantation. By 1958 the majority of laborers lived in barracks-type structures… [which] exceeded the standards of many surrounding communities (Wiley, 2008).

Image result for united fruit companyThe UFC wasn’t just interested in healthy workers, they also needed to attract workers with stable families:

One of the services that the company provided within its camps was primary education to the children of its employees. The curriculum in the schools included vocational training and before the 1940s, was taught mostly in English. The emphasis on primary education was significant, and child labor became uncommon in the banana regions (Viales, 1998). By 1955, the company had constructed 62 primary schools within its landholdings in Costa Rica (May and Lasso, 1958). As shown in Figure 6a,spending per student in schools operated by the UFC was consistently higher than public spending in primary education between 1947 and 1963.21 On average, the company’s yearly spending was 23% higher than the government’s spending during this period.

…The UFC did not provide directly secondary education although offered some incentives. If the parents could afford the first two years of secondary education of their children in the United States, the UFC paid for the last two years and provided free transportation to and from the United States.

A key driver of UFC investment was that although the UFC was the sole employer within the regions in which it operated, it had to compete to obtain labor from other regions. Thus a 1925 UFC report writes:

We recommend a greater investment in corporate welfare beyond medical measures. An endeavor should be made to stabilize the population…we must not only build and maintain attractive and comfortable camps, but we must also provide measures for taking care of families of married men, by furnishing them with garden facilities, schools, and some forms of entertainment. In other words, we must take an interest in our people if we might hope to retain their services indefinitely.

This is exactly the dynamic which drove the provision of services and infrastructure in unjustly maligned US company towns. It’s also exactly what Rajagopalan and I found in the Indian company town of Jamshedpur, built by Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata.

The UFC ended in Costa Rica in 1984 but the authors find that it had a long-term positive impact. Using historical records, the authors discover a plausibly randomly-determined boundary line between UFC and non-UFC areas and comparing living standards just inside and just outside the boundary they find that households within the boundary today have better housing, sanitary conditions, education and consumption than households just outside the boundary. Overall:

We find that the firm had a positive and persistent effect on living standards. Regions within the UFC were 26% less likely to be poor in 1973 than nearby counterfactual locations, with only 63% of the gap closing over the following 3 decades.

The paper has appendixes A-J. In one appendix (!), they show using satellite data that regions within the boundary are more luminous at night than those just outside the region. The collection of data is especially notable:

For a better understanding of living standards and investments during UFC’s tenure, we collected and digitized UFC reports with data on wages, number of employees, production, and investments in areas such as education, housing, and health from collections held by Cornell University, University of Kansas, and the Center for Central American Historical Studies. We also use annual reports from the Medical Department of the UFC describing the sanitation and health programs and spending per patient in company-run hospitals from 1912 to 1931. We also collected data from Costa Rican Statistic Yearbooks, which from 1907 to 1917 contain details on the number of patients and health expenses carried out by hospitals in Costa Rica, including the ones ran by the UFC. Export data was also collected from these yearbooks, and from Export Bulletins. 19 agricultural censuses taken between 1900 and 1984 provide information on land use, and we use data from Costa Rican censuses between 1864-1963 to analyze aggregated population patterns, such as migration before and during the UFC apogee, or the size and occupation of the country’s labor force.

Overall, a tremendous paper.

*Walter Raleigh: Architect of Empire*

An excellent book, by Alan Gallay, this one will make my year-end “best of” list.  It has merchant voyages, royal monopolies, hermeticism, captive Inuits brought to London to perish, conquests of Ireland, Edmund Spenser, virgin queens, charter cities, and the best overall understanding of early British colonialism/imperialism I have seen.  It is perhaps better read than excerpted, but here is one bit:

[John] Gilbert would not sail again for America until 1583. For three and a half years, English resources that might have gone to overseas expeditions to America had to be devoted to Ireland — the pope’s decision to become militarily involved in Irish affairs deterred the English America; in the coming decade American colonization would be frequently sidetracked by the same three things: events in Ireland, relations with Spain, and the English propensity to go plundering at sea.

And:

For colonization to succeed, the English required investors, sailors, and colonists.  All were difficult to come by.  The English intended to turn the New World into a haven for English Catholics as a way to solve multiple problems: rid England of religious dissidents, obtain investors, and alleviate overcrowding by moving surplus populations of the unemployed overseas to become useful.  English Catholic interest wavered, however…

I am sure to read the whole thing through, you can pre-order here.

The racial integration of the Korean War

The racial integration of the US Army during the Korean War (1950-1953) is one of the largest and swiftest desegregation episodes in American history. This paper argues that racial integration improved white survival rates at the expense of blacks, and resulted in less anti-black prejudice among white veterans decades after the war. Using a novel military casualty file, I construct a wartime similarity index to measure the extent of racial integration across military units and time. Using exogenous changes in racial integration, I show that integrated whites were 3% more likely to survive their injuries than segregated whites, whereas integrated blacks were 2% were less likely to survive their injuries than segregated blacks. Given that blacks were initially confined to noncombat support roles, the results reflect a convergence in hazardous combat assignments. To explore the long-term effects of racial integration, I link individual soldiers to post-war social security and cemetery data using an unsupervised learning algorithm. With these matched samples, I show that a standard deviation change in the wartime racial integration caused white veterans to live in more racially diverse neighborhoods and marry non-white spouses. In aggregate, these results are some of the first and only examples of large-scale interracial contact reducing prejudice on a long-term basis.

That is from the job market paper from Daniel Indacochea of the University of Toronto.