Category: History

Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh.  I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals.  I was struck by the following:

1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate.  Might that be the central theme in his thought?

4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.”  He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.

5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher.  His audience seems to take this interest in stride.  This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.

6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original.  And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics.  I still enjoy hearing them as music.  And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?

7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”).  He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

It would be hard to pull this off today.  Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended.  Plus he is flat-out funny.  He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.

8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.

9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent.  He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.

10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements.  Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.

11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA.  He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.

 

*The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay*, by Christopher Clapham

A splendid book, why can’t the rest of you ****ers write books this good?  Here is one bit:

…the dynamics of clan works in a significantly different way in Somaliland from the way it does in south-central Somalia.  A single clan-family, the Isaaq, occupy the central areas of the territory, and account for by far the greater part of its population.  Though the Isaaq clans, inevitably, are divided both between and within themselves, they provide a reasonably solid ethnic core, that contrasts with the far more mixed and complex composition of southern Somalia, with its two major clan-families, Darood and Hawiye, and the further problems created by the presence of the Digil-Mirifle and other minority groups.  Somaliland is by no means entirely Isaaq…but its demographic structure means that other clans must either accept Isaaq hegemony and work within it, or else reject the Somaliland state altogether.  They cannot expect to control it.  At the same time, the fact that the Isaaq clans — characteristically of Somali clan politics — do not form a single united bloc provides other clans with the opportunity to build alliances with one or another group of the Isaaq.

Have you ever wanted to read about how ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti fit into this same broad picture?  Just exactly how Somalian and Ethiopian history intersect, from the 1970s onwards?  This here is your book.  I’m running to Amazon right now to buy more from this wonderful author.  You can buy it here.

Kenneth Tynan on Alec Guinness, circa 1952

He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly: Donne, for instance, Milton, Pope, or even Shakespeare…would be comfortably within his grasp.  But he is not, and never will be a star, in the sense that Coward and Olivier are stars.  Olivier, one might say, ransacks the vaults of a part with blowlamp, crowbar, and gun-powder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination.  He does everything by stealth.  Whatever he may do in the future, eh will leave no theatrical descendants, as Gielgud will.  He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails.  Irving, we read, was rapt, too: but it was a weird, thunderous raptness that shook its fist at the gods.  Guinness waves away awe with a witty fingertip and deflects the impending holocaust with a shrug.  His stage presence is quite without amplitude, and his face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up, is a signless zero.  His special gift is to imply the presence of little fixed ideas, gambolling about behind the deferential mask of normality.  The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not tattooed all over him; the latter is the star’s way and Guinness shrinks from it.  Like Buckingham in Richard III he is “deep-resolving, witty”; the clay image on whom the witches work.  An innocence, as of the womb, makes his face placid even when he plays murderers.

Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he does), his true métier will continue to be eccentrics — men reserved, blinkered, shut off from their fellows, and obsessed.  Within such minority men there is a hidden glee, an inward fanatical glow; and in their souls Guinness is at ease.

That is from Kenneth Tynan, Profiles, which is in fact a remarkable and remarkably good book.

My Conversation with Paul Romer

Here is the audio and transcript, Paul was in top form and open throughout.  Yes economic growth, blah blah blah, but we covered many related topics too:

COWEN: And you also think we should simplify the English language. Right?

ROMER: [laughs] Well, there’s two parts to that. One is, in writing and communication, there should be a very high priority on clarity. It’s hard to know what’s the mechanism that enforces that. There are variants on English, like the English used to write the manuals people use to service airplanes, where there’s a very restricted vocabulary. The words are chosen so that you can’t have any ambiguity because you don’t want somebody servicing a plane to get confused. So there are some things you could do on writing, word choice, vocabulary, exposition.

There’s a separate issue, which is that amongst the modern languages, English has the worst orthography, the worst mapping between spelling and sounds of any of the existing languages. And it’s a tragedy because English is becoming the universal second language.

The incidence of people who don’t learn to read is substantially higher in English than in other languages. People have known for a long time, it takes longer to learn to read in English because of the bad orthography. But what hasn’t gotten enough attention is that there’s an effect on the variance as well. There are more people who never get over this hurdle to actually learning to read.

If there were a way to do in English what they’ve done in other languages, which is to clean up the orthography, that could make a huge difference in the variation associated with whether or not people can learn to read English.

And:

COWEN: Can a charter city work if we import good laws from the outside world but not the appropriate matching culture?

ROMER: You’ve zeroed right in on the connection. The real motivation that I had for charter cities was exactly this one that you can see in the US versus New Zealand. You can think of a charter city exercise . . .

This is actually the story of Maryland: We’re going to create laws, and we’re going to guarantee freedom of religion in Maryland, and it’s in the laws; it’s in the institution somehow. That didn’t turn out very well. Maryland had a Catholic elite but then large numbers of Protestant indentured servants or workers. And this kind of commitment to freedom of religion was not stable in Maryland at all.

The case that’s worth trying to copy is Pennsylvania, where William Penn recruited large numbers of people who actually believed in freedom of religion. The word charter comes from the charter that Penn wrote for Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t the document that mattered. What mattered was that there were a bunch of people in the founding population who were committed to this idea of a separation of church and state and religious freedom. And that’s what made it durable in Pennsylvania in a way it wasn’t in Maryland.

And this:

ROMER: …Moses was of this generation that was too enamored of the car, and this is where I think Jacobs had a better intuition. But the challenge, the dichotomy I would pose would be Jane Jacobs versus Gouverneur Morris.

Morris was the guy who drew the grid that laid out the rectangular street map for Manhattan.

We also discussed music, including Hot Tuna, Clarence White, and Paul’s favorite novel, dyslexia, what Paul has learned about management, and much more.  Self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

*Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities*

That is the new and excellent book by Alain Bertaud, so many pages have excellent food for thought.  Here is one simple bit:

Cities are primarily labor markets.

Or this:

…large cities are growing at about the same rate as medium and small cities in the same countries or regions.  It seems that cities’ growth rates follow Gibrat’s law of proportionate effect, which states that the size of a city is not an indicator of its future growth rate — that is, cities’ growth rates are random, with the same average expected growth rate and same variance…The population of larger cities keeps growing, but on average, so do smaller cities.  This seems paradoxical, given that larger cities are more productive than smaller ones.  However, larger cities do not play the same economic role as smaller ones do.  They complement each other’s activities.  The increase productivity of larger cities is therefore linked to the existence and growth of smaller cities.  In turn, smaller cities’ economic growth is dependent on larger cities’ innovations and inventions.

How about this:

In 1830…London’s population density had reached a very high density of 325 people per hectare.  By 2005, however, the density of London had decreased to only 44 people per hectare.  The larger decrease in London’s density has not caused a corresponding decrease in mobility.  On the contrary…

I learned a great deal from the discussion (starts p.287) of Indonesia’s “kampungs,” and how the Indonesian has managed their integration with local infrastructure relatively well.  In contrast, this is the common alternative procedure:

The predictable first reaction of governments has usually been to set minimum urbanization standards to prevent the legal construction of these unsanitary urban villages.  The regulations made the situation worse, as they prevented these informal settlements from obtaining normal urban services from the municipality.  They also created a risk of future demolition, which discourages housing improvement that the households would have naturally done themselves.  Eventually, many governments slowly regularized the older informal settlements in a piecemeal fashion, as is the practice in India, for instance.  But the regularization of informal settlements usually had been conducted with a provision that after a set date, no more informal settlements would be regularized.

The outcomes of these successive policies — first ostracism, then benign neglect followed by reluctant integration — has been disastrous.  A significant share of the urban labor force, otherwise gainfully employed, live in large “informal” settlements often with unsafe water supplies, deficient sanitation, and sporadic solid waste collection.

But:

What made a difference [in Indonesia] was a decision taken in 1969 by the government of Indonesia to concentrate its resources on the improvement of the kampungs’ infrastructure without trying to remove or restructure the existing housing, however small or inadequate it was…And, even more exceptional, since 1969 to this day, the Indonesian government’s support for KIP has been unwavering…The government housing policy objective consists of allowing the poor to settle in and around existing villages at the standards of their choice, while the government concentrates its efforts not on housing construction but on gradually improving residential infrastructure and services to all residential settlements.  The policy has proved largely successful.

Later in the book, pp.351-352 have a fascinating discussion of how relatively good urban/suburban policy, and also the fragmentation of municipalities, contributed to the early success of the tech community in Silicon Valley.

Definitely recommended, this is now one of my favorite books on cities, and it will be joining my “best non-fiction of 2018″ list.  Again, you can buy it here.

Why historians worry more about Trump than economists do

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

…historians stress the importance of contingency, that things really could have gone another way. The decisions of a solitary assassin or the outcome of a single battle can shift the course of history. Particular leadership decisions might have avoided or limited World War I. Or what if the Germans had not, in 1917, put Lenin on a train back into Russia? The Bolshevik Revolution might have been avoided and probably the entire course of history would have been different. A shrewder President Paul von Hindenburg might have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

If you think about these questions enough, you can end up very nervous indeed. Historians have seen too many modest mistakes spiral out of control and turn into disasters.

Economists, in contrast, work more with general models than with concrete historical situations, and those models emphasize underlying structural forces. Economies have fairly set populations, birth rates, natural resources, capital stocks, savings rates, trading partners, and so on. So to an economist, the final outcomes are closer to necessary than contingent…

And when it comes to politics, economists of the “public choice” variety tend to see outcomes as controlled by a fairly tight structure of voter preferences and interest groups, variables which a president can change only at the margin and with great effort.

So which perspective is correct — the historian’s or the economist’s?

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of how Paul Krugman’s strong anti-Trump stance fits into this picture.

Fading Legacies: Human Capital in the Aftermath of the Partitions of Poland

This paper studies the longevity of historical legacies in human capital. The Partitions of Poland (1772-1918) represent a natural experiment that instilled Poland with three different legacies of education, resulting in sharp differences in human capital among the Polish population. I construct a large, unique dataset that reflects the state of schooling and human capital in the partition territories from 1911 to 1961. Using a spatial regression discontinuity design, I find that primary school enrollment differs by as much as 80 percentage points between the partitions before WWI. However, this legacy disappears within the following two decades of Polish independence, as all former partitions achieve universal enrollment. Differences in educational infrastructure and gender access to schooling simultaneously disappear after WWI. The level of literacy converges likewise across the former partitions, driven by a high intergenerational mobility in education. After WWII, the former partitions are not distinguishable from each other anymore.

That is from Andreas Backhaus, a job market candidate from University of Munich.

The Political Economy of Lobotomies in the United States

The actual title starts with: “Gordon Tullock Meets Phineas Gage:”, and here is the abstract:

In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a “lobotomy boom” where the use of the lobotomy expanded exponentially. We engage in a comparative institutional analysis, following the framework developed by Tullock (2005), to explain why the lobotomy gained popularity and widespread use despite widespread scientific consensus it was ineffective. We argue that government provision and funding for public mental hospitals and asylums expanded and prolonged the use of the lobotomy. We support this claim by noting the lobotomy had virtually disappeared from private mental hospitals and asylums before the boom and was less used beforehand. This paper provides a more robust explanation for the lobotomy boom in the US and expands on the literate examining the relationship between state funding and scientific inquiry.

That is from Raymond March and Vincent Geloso, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Tyler Cowen predicts our coming 19th century future

Here is my podcast with New York magazine, with a short excerpt of it offered in print.

And they offer this summary: “On the latest episode of 2038, Cowen predicts that over the next 20 years, “this nation will go back to an earlier version of its politics, which were highly dysfunctional. You had plenty of people becoming president who probably should not have been. And yet at the same time we muddled through that era and emerged as modern America.””

*A Fistful of Shells*

The author is Toby Green, and the subtitle is West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.  Here is one excerpt:

The past twenty years have seen a huge boom in studies that show the many different ways in which — even in the shadow of slavery — Africans were decisive actors in building modernity in the Americas.  Rice-growing technologies in West Africa contributed to the emergence of rice plantations in South Carolina and northern Brazil; livestock and herding skills from West Africa were used by Africa herders in many parts of the New World, from Louisiana to Argentina; and fencing techniques  were imported from West Africa and used in agriculture and in defending communities of runaway slaves (known as maroons).  Healing practices from Dahomey and Angola were brought to Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean, and helped to develop new treatments in the colonies; healing practices and medicines were also borrowed by the Portuguese in Angola in an early form of ‘bio-prospecting’.  Warfare techniques learn in the Kingdom of Kongo and in the Oyo-Yoruba Kingdom of what is now southern Nigeria were vital to the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804, as well as the rebellions against slavery in Brazil and Cuba in the early nineteenth century.  In short, just as there were shared frameworks of diplomacy through which Atlantic African kingdoms sought political influence, so the modern world emerged from a mixed cultural framework in which many different peoples from West and West-Central Africa played a significant part.

This book is full of economics, currency movements (both gold and cowrie shells), battles between empires (Portuguese vs. Dutch, above all), and the longue durée.  It is the “Braudel of West Africa,” and the best book on West Africa I have ever read.  It is especially strong on Lusaphone Africa, and one underlying theme is that West Africa was globalizing even before colonialism came along.  Toby Green, by the way, has an impressive background in philosophy and music as well as in history more narrowly conceived.

Very strongly recommended.  It is not out until March of 2019 but you can pre-order now.

The Republican Club — why is this painting interesting?

It hangs in the White House, and Trump seems to like the picture.  What about the image is striking?  I can think of a few things:

1. There are no Founding Fathers in the painting, or other references to the more distant past, and so “Republicans” are presented as a distinct club of their own, above and beyond the broader American tradition.  (On the far right, is that Theodore Roosevelt, Vernon Smith, or somebody else?)

2. The first George Bush (upper left), and Gerald Ford, are both denied a “seat at the proverbial table.”  Bush seems to look on with admiration.  The second George Bush, on the left side of the table seated, appears run down and haggard, defeated by the job.  He looks a wee bit like a paler Obama.

3. Nixon, who had to resign, drinks alcohol while Trump seems to have Coca-Cola.

4. Reagan is shown as Trump’s only peer, while Eisenhower is the one “closest” to Trump, and the one most appreciative.  Of course many of Trump’s policy preferences seem aimed at returning us to the Eisenhower era in some way (higher tariffs, lower immigration, less regulation, etc.)

5. Trump is the only one with a tie, except for TR, and it is a striking red tie.

6. Hoover, Harding, and Coolidge are in the distant back right.

7. It reminds me of a variety of “Last Supper” paintings, though not Leonardo’s.  There are twelve of them.

8. The background, with its column and twinklings lights, is reminiscent of late 19th century French impressionism.

9. Who is the bearded figure in the foreground, with his back to us?  At first I thought it was Mephistopheles, but it turns out to be Lincoln.  He is a passive onlooker with weak shoulders, and with no commanding or influential presence of his own.

10. Andy Thomas, the artist, also painted the very different The Democratic Club.  You could write a short book on the contrasts between the two paintings, for instance notice the Democrats are drinking beer and have a much wider and open background, with fewer columns.

Here is a related interview about the painting.  Via Anecdotal.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.

And:

COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

*Where Economics Went Wrong: Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism*

That is the new book by David Colander and Craig Freedman, here is one short bit:

The best way of conveying our conception of what is at least suggestive of a Classical Liberal stance is to present a handful of economists who, in our view, reflect this attitude.  We have chosen six economists: Edward Leamer, Ariel Rubinstein, Alvin Roth, Paul Romer, Amartya Sen, and Dani Rodrik.  Each have, in our view, displayed a Classical Liberal attitude to methodology in important aspects of their work.

I am very much in favor of what the authors propose here, although I might reserve the term classical liberal for the more traditional political distinction.

Science is getting less bang for its buck

By Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen in The Atlantic:

…we ran a survey asking scientists to compare Nobel prizewinning discoveries in their fields. We then used those rankings to determine how scientists think the quality of Nobel prizewinning discoveries has changed over the decades…

Our graph stops at the end of the 1980s. The reason is that, in recent years, the Nobel Committee has preferred to award prizes for work done in the 1980s and 1970s. In fact, just three discoveries made since 1990 have yet been awarded Nobel Prizes. This is too few to get a good quality estimate for the 1990s, and so we didn’t survey those prizes.

However, the paucity of prizes since 1990 is itself suggestive. The 1990s and 2000s have the dubious distinction of being the decades over which the Nobel Committee has most strongly preferred to skip back and award prizes for earlier work. Given that the 1980s and 1970s themselves don’t look so good, that’s bad news for physics…

Why has science gotten so much more expensive, without producing commensurate gains in our understanding?

There is much more evidence and argument at the linkThis appendix provides more detail on their empirical work.  Self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

Twentieth-century cousin marriage rates explain more than 50 percent of variation in democracy across countries today.

That is the last sentence of the abstract in this job market paper, from Jonathan F. Schulz:

Political institutions vary widely around the world, yet the origin of this variation is not well understood. This study tests the hypothesis that the Catholic Church’s medieval marriage policies dissolved extended kin networks and thereby fostered inclusive institutions. In a difference-in-difference setting, I demonstrate that exposure to the Church predicts the formation of inclusive, self-governed commune cities before the year 1500CE. Moreover, within medieval Christian Europe,stricter regional and temporal cousin marriage prohibitions are likewise positively associated with communes. Strengthening this finding, I show that longer Church exposure predicts lower cousin marriage rates; in turn, lower cousin marriage rates predict higher civicness and more inclusive institutions today. These associations hold at the regional, ethnicity and country level. Twentieth-century cousin marriage rates explain more than 50 percent of variation in democracy across countries today.

Here is Jonathan’s (co-authored) working paper on “The origins of WEIRD psychology.