Category: History

U.S. Largest Industries, 1890

1. Transportation

2. Agriculture and Related Industries

3. Food, Beverages, and Tobacco Products

4. Metal, Metal Products, and Machinery

5. Textiles, Textile Products, and Clothing

6. Mining and Quarrying

7. Banking

8. Wood, Lumber, and Their Products

9. Leather and Allied Products

10. Slaughtering and Meat Packing

That is from the new and excellent An Illustrated Business History of the United States, by Richard Vague.  How many of you really know everything that is in here?  In that same year Buffalo was the tenth largest U.S. city.  And the most valuable import around that time (1891-1900) was sugar, with coffee #2 and “Hides and skins” #3.

The fly swatter had not yet been invented.

Just remember: picture books are usually better than regular books.

Icelandic fact of the day

This passage concerns the U.S. occupation during World War II:

At its peak, the occupation of Iceland would include the equivalent, statistically speaking, of 55 million foreign troops occupying the United States based on 1940 populations.  There were nearly fifty thousand men and dozens of female nurses, equaling about 40 percent of Icelanders.

By the way, from 1940 to 1946, “the purchasing power of unskilled workers (meaning just about everyone) grew by a whopping 86 percent…”  About two percent of Icelandic women left as brides to American soldiers.  And while Iceland lost about 300 lives during the war (mostly sailors), American servicemen helped to add another 400-500 to the native population.

One of the major political issues in the 1970s was whether the letter “Z” should be included in the Icelandic alphabet, and indeed it was abolished by law in 1973, with an exception being made for the word “pizza.”

That is all from Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island.  I’ll say it again: single country books are underrated.  Maybe there are no great revelations in this one, but if you have been to Iceland, or are planning a trip, it is probably the first book you would want to pick up to cover the country.

Individualism Promotes Benevolence

NYTimes: On average, people in more individualist countries donate more money, more blood, more bone marrow and more organs. They more often help others in need and treat nonhuman animals more humanely. If individualism were equivalent to selfishness, none of this would make sense.

…individualism promotes a more universalist outlook. In focusing on individual rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on groups — and the differences between “us” and “them” that notoriously erode generosity toward those outside one’s own circle.

See also my posts Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle and Testing Doux Commerce in the Lab.

*Modern Paraguay: South America’s Best Kept Secret*

There should be more books serving as introductions to individual countries, and this one, written by Tomás Mandl, is a fine entry in the genre.

…Paraguay was South America’s first country to get electricity, railroads, and an iron foundry.

The Triple Alliance War of 1864-1870:

Although available data and sources remain contested, estimates put the figure at 25 percent of the Paraguayan population killed on the lower end, and upwards of 60 percent on the higher end…

For purposes of contrast, Poland during WWII saw “only” about 20 percent of the population killed.

Under Stroessner, the torture centers were neither secret nor undercover.  And:

The clear pattern post-Stroessner is one of mild support for democracy: While in 2017 more Paraguayans agreed with the claim “democracy is preferable” than in 1995 (55 percent versus 52 percent, respectively), the average for the period was 46 percent….When Latinobarómetro asked Paraguayans to assess their country’s political regime on a range where 1 is “not democratic” and 10 is “fully democratic,” they have responded “5” consistently in almost every year of the twenty-first century.

With mandatory voting the average turnout rate is about 66 percent in recent times.  And:

Notably, the largest center for Paraguayan studies is located in Argentina.

I enjoyed this sentence:

Unfamiliarity with Paraguay is not new.

Paraguay has very low FDI even by Latin American standards, it is typically rated as the most corrupt country on the continent, and a common saying is “¿Con factura o sin factura?”

Highly recommended, you can pre-order here, and yes the author does speak Guarani and he does also know the Solow growth model and why Singapore is interesting.

Hayek and Keynes: Bomb Throwers

Sometime in the summer of 1942, the economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek spent the night on the roof of the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The Germans were in the midst of what some called the “Baedeker bombings,” a campaign to destroy the quaint and historical sorts of buildings that might be found in a Baedeker travel guide, in an effort to break the British fighting spirit. The Cambridge faculty volunteered to spend nights protecting their buildings from damage by extinguishing flames from incendiary bombs. Keynes was a long-time fellow of King’s College. Hayek was in Cambridge for the summer, the London School of Economics having closed due to the blitz.

Keynes’ greatest book, his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money had been published in 1936, to the acclaim and fury of the entire field of economics. Hayek had just finished what was to become his greatest book, The Road to Serfdom, but he had yet to find a publisher for it. When he did publish it, the impact would be explosive.

Both men were intellectual bomb throwers; creatively destructive in their attacks on prevailing orthodoxies.

Eric Samuelsen on his play, Clearing Bombs, which somehow I missed when it was performed in Salt Lake City in 2014. Did any of you see it?

The British in 18th century India

The British were obliged to design a state structure in India virtually from scratch, because the one Warren Hastings lashed together between 1772 and 1784 was considered to have failed.  He had tried to adapt traditional Indian practice while adding a British top layer to it, but this compromise never worked well.  Absence of supervision, abundant temptation, scarcity of reliable information and poor communication between Calcutta and the mofussil (rural areas) created multiple problems.  When placed in Indian shoes, Europeans often behaved worse than their native predecessors.  Hastings’s system lacked discipline, so British politicians resolved in the early 1780s to supply standards and enforce them.  Pitt’s India Act of 1784 and the Cornwallis Code of 1793 were the results.

Traditional ruling practices in India were replaced by specific rules, designed to reduce personal discretion.  What the British most feared in their own rulers — arbitrary power — they were determined, at least initially, to deny to those placed in authority in India.

Just as the US Constitution was designed to thwart the central executive, so the objective of the Cornwallis system of 1793, its near contemporary, was to restrain the EIC’s [East India Company’s] servants in India.  The collective self-regulation that it set up, by means of boards and committees, worked fairly well in enforcing honesty within government in India after 1784, but not in achieving efficiency.  Day-to-day government was not facilitated, and judicial decisions slowed to a crawl.  Meanwhile tax revenues, instead of sticking to British fingers, stayed somewhere out in the rural areas, hid behind an opaque wall of legal and customary technicalities.

That is from Roderick Matthews’s excellent Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.  Here is my previous post on the book.

*New Order* (this movie review is full of spoilers)

I found this Mexican movie unpleasant to watch, quite a few reviews are negative, and very few of you ought to see it.  Yet at least it is fundamentally interesting, and it does show off some skills of movie-making, such as good cinematography and creation of tension and communicating a sense of Mexico City.

Most gringos won’t understand it.  Most of the time watching you think it is a racist movie about revolt from indigenous Mexicans who stick together from motives of racist solidarity.  By the end of the movie, but only at the end, you realize the paler skinned elites of the Army engineered the whole thing.  What seemed to be the racism of the movie is in fact implicit commentary on the racist paranoia of the Mexican elites.  And then finally you realize that the outrages committed by the indigenous people in the movie are mirroring outrages committed under the Conquest (e.g., rape, kidnapping for ransom), and that in reality the Conquest is being re-committed each and every day by the elites, yet with these somewhat racist paranoid fantasies layered on top that the logic of the Conquest someday will be reversed by the indigenous.  And yet always it will be the elites in charge, who at the same time make their paranoid racist dystopian nightmares the fundamental narrative of society, thereby screwing everybody over double.  The faucets do not in fact produce green water, though kind of they do, as cadmium green is a national color of Mexico.

YMMV, but at least a day later I am still thinking about it.

Did humans evolve to be suited for large-scale cooperation as well?

Here is the new Boyd and Richardson paper:

We present evidence that people in small-scale, mobile hunter-gatherer societies cooperated in large numbers to produce collective goods. Foragers engaged in large-scale communal hunts, constructed shared capital facilities; they made shared investments in improving the local environment; and they participated in warfare, alliance, and trade. Large-scale collective action often played a crucial role in subsistence. The provision of public goods involved the cooperation of many individuals, so each person made only a small contribution. This evidence suggests that large-scale cooperation occurred in the Pleistocene societies that encompass most of human evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that large-scale cooperation in Holocene food producing societies results from an evolved psychology shaped only in small group interactions. Instead, large scale human cooperation needs to be explained as an adaptation, likely rooted in the distinctive features of human biology, grammatical language, increased cognitive ability, and cumulative cultural adaptation.

If true, this would revise a fair amount of social science, including Hayek on atavistic desires and also various “off the cuff” invocations of evolutionary biology and assumptions about the conditions of early human evolution.

Via Kevin Vallier, who has recently published Trust in a Polarized Age, a book of interest to anyone considering this topic.

My Conversation with Pierpaolo Barbieri

Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Pierpaolo joined Tyler to discuss why the Mexican banking system only serves 30 percent of Mexicans, which country will be the first to go cashless, the implications of a digital yuan, whether Miami will overtake São Paolo as the tech center of Latin America, how he hopes to make Ualá the Facebook of FinTech, Argentina’s bipolar fiscal policy, his transition from historian to startup founder, the novels of Michel Houellebecq, Nazi economic policy, why you can find amazing and cheap pasta in Argentina, why Jorge Luis Borges might be his favorite philosopher, the advice he’d give to his 18-year-old self, his friendship with Niall Ferguson, the political legacy of the Spanish Civil War, why he stopped sending emails from bed, and more.

Here is just one bit:

COWEN: Why did Argentina’s liberalization attempt under Macri fail?

BARBIERI: That’s a great question. There’s a very big ongoing debate about that. I think that there was a huge divergence between fiscal policy and monetary policy in the first two years of the Macri administration.

The fiscal consolidation was not done fast enough in 2016 and 2017 and then needed to accelerate dramatically after the taper tantrum, if you want to call it, or perceived higher global rates of 2018. So Macri had to run to the IMF and then do a lot of fiscal consolidation — that hadn’t been done in ’16 and ’17 — in’18 and ’19. Ultimately, that’s why he lost the election.

Generally speaking, that’s the short-term electoral answer. There’s a wider answer, which is that I think that many of the deep reforms that Argentina needed lack wide consensus. So I think there’s no question that Argentina needs to modify how the state spends money and its propensity to have larger fiscal deficits that eventually need to be monetized. Then we restart the process.

There’s a great scholar locally, Pablo Gerchunoff, who’s written a very good paper that analyzes Argentine economic history since the 1950s and shows how we move very schizophrenically between two models, one with a high exchange rate, where we all want to export a lot, and then when elections approach, people want a stronger local currency so that we can import a lot and feel richer.

The two models don’t have a wide acceptance on what are the reforms that are needed. I think that, in retrospect, Macri would say that he didn’t seek enough of a wider backing for the kind of reforms that he needed to enact — like Spain did in 1975, if you will, or Chile did after Pinochet — having some basic agreements with the opposition that would outlive a defeat in the elections.


COWEN: The best movie from Argentina — is it Nine QueensNueve reinas?

BARBIERI: It is a strong contender, but I would think El secreto de sus ojos, The Secret in Their Eyes, is my favorite film about Argentina because of what it says about the very difficult period of modernization, and in particular, the horrors of the last military regime that marked us so much that it still defines our politics 50 years since.


Sarah Ruden’s Gospels translation

Am I the one who should be judging this?  I am neither Christian nor have any fluency in ancient Greek.  Nonetheless as a reader experience I am happy to give this one an A+.  The “discursive glossary of unfamiliar word choices in English” is superbly useful, better arranged than most uses of footnotes.  More importantly, to me it reads “like the New Testament ought to read.”  (Please revisit my first sentence here!)  Other translations, even say the serious Oxford one, sound too much like “a lot of casual stories in colloquial English” for my taste.  This sounds like The Bible.

I had not known that Sarah Ruden was a Quaker, and perhaps that is why she is willing to veer away from the “chatty” approach and delve into the strangeness of these texts.  You should pair this with David Bentley Hart and other translations (do read the first Amazon review), but for now I am willing to call this one “an event.”  Heartily recommended.

Here is the Amazon link, the company came through after San Francisco failed me.

“The Chiefs Now in This City”

Virginia, the largest British colony, had nearly 350,000 people in 1763, but the capital, Williamsburg, had no more than 2,000 residents, black and white.  The largest urban center in Virginia was actually Norfolk, another port at the intersection of key trade networks.  Norfolk thrived exporting timber, tar, and tobacco to Europe and provisions to the Caribbean, and it was the sixth-largest city in mainland British America by the second half of the eighteenth century.  Like Baltimore, it had a population of more than 6,000 by 1776.  Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, was even smaller than Williamsburg.  Andrew Burnaby, an English vicar, saw it in 1759 and reported: “None of the streets were paved, and the few public buildings here are not worth mentioning.”

The largest city in the southern colonies and the wealthiest in all of the North American colonies was Charleston, or Charles Town, the seat of government in South Carolina.

The author is Colin G. Calloway, the subtitle is Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America, and the main theme is Native American interactions with the major urban areas of the British colonies.

*Peace, Poverty and Betrayal*

The author is Roderick Matthews, and the subtitle is A New History of British India.  This book has been highly controversial for its supposed “whitewashing” of British rule in India, but so far I find it insightful and indeed revelatory.  It is to date my favorite book this year, most of all conceptual but also remarkably well-informed historically.  Here is one excerpt:

Ultimately, we should condemn [British] colonialism not because it was self-glorifying and arrogant, but because it was small-minded and fearful.

Colonial rule was undoubtedly heavily responsible for the fact that India remainder both poor and backward — but the high Rah hid a subtler hypocrisy, in the way that Indian landlords, for a muddle of humanitarian and political reasons, were denied the scope that their British counterparts had allowed themselves.  British landowners drove their tenants off the land and adopted new methods of husbandry to increase profitability, which allowed them to create the agricultural surplus that stimulated the industrial revolution, and provided Britain with a float of national wealth to pay for colonial adventures.  Rural India remained overmanned and underproductive.

This short charge sheet differs from the extensive accusations made by modern left-leaning historians, who recognize economic exploitation but choose instead to emphasize cultural issues, especially the bureaucratization of Indian society and the introduction of capitalist norms.  This is hardly fair, because the progressive middle classes in India would have done broadly the same things if they could.  Almost nothing of the imperial administrative agenda was undone in independent India.  However, it is true that the modernization process was rushed and defective.  It was too self-interested, and the guiding hands were not indigenous.  Something similar might have emerged, but with a more Indian face.  We cannot know.

I will be covering this book more, but so far strongly recommended.  It is no accident that the author, while an experienced Indian historian, is not an academic.

My Conversation with Daniel Carpenter, on regulation and also the FDA

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, I found it a very substantive and also illuminating episode.  Carpenter is very, very smart and also very well-informed historically.  Here is part of the summary:

Daniel Carpenter is one of the world’s leading experts on regulation and the foremost expert on the US Food and Drug Administration. A professor of Government at Harvard University, he’s conducted extensive research on regulation and government organizations, as well as on the development of political institutions in the United States. His latest book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, details the crucial role petitions played in expanding the franchise and shaping modern America.

Here is an excerpt from the non-FDA section, much of which focuses on (non-FDA) regulation:

COWEN: What kinds of records should the Postal Service keep about itself?

CARPENTER: [laughs] Great question. There’s a whole set of things that they don’t since the Griswold decision and since the First Amendment decisions. They don’t keep as much records of what goes through the mail. They can’t prohibit things like pornography, contraception.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “itself.” I would start with the idea that basic privacy restrictions, which governed the postal system as much through norm as by law in the 19th century and early 20th century, should govern the system.

It’s a crime if I were to walk past your mailbox and open your letter. I’m committing a federal crime, but there were also norms that seals were not to be broken, things like that. I do think whichever way the Postal Service goes — and it’s quite possible that you could imagine an electronic platform for the US postal system — I think basic privacy restrictions have to be guaranteed.

Actually, in some respects, I think we need to know a fair amount about what postal workers do without, say, calling for Amazon tracking. But if we think that postal workers are misplacing ballots or not providing birth control pills or something like that, then we should probably have some way of picking up on that kind of nefarious behavior.

In the FDA section I got mad at him, the first (but not last?) time that has happened in a CWT, do read or listen to the whole section, the two of us really had at it!  Here is a tiny sliver from it:

COWEN: But shouldn’t there be a button within the FDA that can be pushed, where the FDA goes into a kind of wartime mode?

I don’t want to misrepresent Carpenter by an ill-chosen excerpt, so please do digest his full set of replies.  Recommended.

*American Republics*

That is the new Alan Taylor book and the subtitle is A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.  Excerpt:

With 124,000 inhabitants in 1813, Mexico City was twenty times bigger than Washington, D.C. — and about forty times grander.  Poinsett described the public buildings and churches as “vast and splendid,” providing “an air of grandeur…wanting in the cities of the United States.”  A German intellectual, Alexander von Humboldt, thought the city’s statues and Baroque palaces “would appear to advantage in the finest streets of Paris, Berlin and [St.] Petersburg.”

…Mexico City had an array of cultural institutions created during the colonial era.  “No city of the new continent, without even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico,” marveled Humboldt.  The United States had nothing to match Mexico’s Academy of Fine Arts, National Botanic Garden, National University, and School of Mines.  Founded in 1551, the university was the oldest in the Americas.

The book is excellent, including on Mormons, and also the War of 1812, and it will be one of the best books of this year.  It is time to admit that Taylor is not only one of the best historians, but he is one of the best writers period in any field.  Recommended.