Category: History

*Buying Gay*

…what I found as I traveled around the country researching was that the notion of a “gay market” was already enjoying wide currency nearly a decade before Stonewall.  It was most clearly visible on the nation’s newsstands.  A social scientist who examined the largest newsstand in Dayton, Ohio, in 1964 found twenty-five magazines targeting a gay audience — so many that the salesperson had established a special section for what he called his “homosexual magazines.  He mixed the magazines of the homophile political organizations, ONE and Mattachine Review, with the far larger cache of physiques.  With twenty or more “little queer magazines” on American newsstands, each selling between twenty thousand and forty thousand copies, physique magazines represented a major industry.

…Editors of tabloid and mainstream magazines realized the extent of this market whenever they published an article on homosexuality and saw their sales soar.  Homophile leaders, too, saw how putting the words “the Homosexual Magazine” on their otherwise demurely titled ONE magazine increased sales.

That is from the recent and quite interesting book by David K. Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs sparked a Movement.  Remind me again, this earlier media landscape was a) worse than the internet, or b) better than the internet.  Which one was it again…?  In any case, this book is an excellent reminder of just how much the early gay political movement was tied to markets and consumer capitalism.

What should we infer from a much older migration to the New World?

This news is important in its own right:

Surprisingly old stone points found in a Mexican cave are the latest intriguing discovery among many to raise questions about when humans really arrived in the Americas.

For most of the 20th century archaeologists generally agreed that humans who had crossed the Beringia land bridge from Siberia to North America only ventured further into the continent only when retreating ice sheets opened a migration corridor, about 13,000 years ago. But a few decades ago, researchers began discovering sites across the Americas that were older, pushing back the first Americans’ arrival by a few thousand years. Now, the authors of a new study at Mexico’s Chiquihuite cave suggest that human history in the Americas may be twice that long. Put forth by Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas (Mexico), and his colleagues, the new paper suggests people were living in central Mexico at least 26,500 years ago.

Ardelean’s work was published in Nature and paired with another study that presented a broader look at 42 known early human sites across North America from the Bering Strait to Virginia. Data from those sites were used to model a much earlier peopling of the Americas, and help scientists reimagine not only when but how the first people reached and populated the New World. The model features a number of archaeological sites, including Chiquihuite cave, which are intriguing but controversial enough, as experts disagree whether the sites actually evidence human occupation.

Here is the Smithsonian article.  Of course I also wonder what is the rational Bayesian update?  That it takes longer to build a civilization than we had thought?  That people are more mobile than we had thought?  How much mobility precedes civilization?  All seem to be true.  Perhaps the truly scarce input in human history is “conceptual categories, understood properly in the relevant context.”  If those categories are very difficult to come by, it would help explain why the flowering of civilizations indeed did not follow immediately from these migrations, or indeed from the origin of mankind.  So this is partly a victory for Paul Romer’s theories, noting that the necessity of context may mean these ideas are not pure public goods in any simple sense.  You can’t just drop into Mexico, circa B.C. 3000 and bark out “here’s what the Mayans and Aztecs did!”.  Arguably the context as the scarce part is more important than the idea proper.

Brazil fact of the day

Considering the limited infrastructure routes, high rate of wear and tear, and the need for various input materials, per-mile Brazilian infrastructure costs are typically quadruple those of a flat, arable, temperate territory — with additional premium for the roads that must pierce the Escarpment.

That is from Peter Zeihan’s quite interesting Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in a Disunited World.  The Escarpment, by the way, refers to the cliffs that run along Brazil’s coastal zones and have kept Brazil so long from integrating their cities and building a truly stable nation-state.  The lack of navigable rivers throughout most of the country does not help either — North America was blessed in this regard.

Here is Zeihan’s take on Rio:

…its decline will be emblematic of several of the country’s coastal cities.  It’s too far from the Northern Hemisphere to be involved in manufacturing supply chains, too isolated to serve as entrepot or processing center, and too densely populated to be safe.

Zeihan likes to solve for the equilibrium.

How Canada was populated, and depopulated

Americans were the first major population group to settle permanently in Canada in more than token numbers, and they dominated Canada’s population for six decades.  From the 1770s until the 1830s, the majority of English-speaking Canadians were U.S.-born…

Over the preceding decades, most ambitious and inventive immigrants to Canada had quickly departed for the United States.  The colonies were left with a self-selected group who didn’t want much from life: an agrarian, very religious, austere population of peasants and labourers who tended to see change and growth as a threat rather than an opportunity and a consumer economy as generally sinful excess.

That is from Doug Saunders, Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million, in addition to its positive programme this is also a useful book for understanding Canadian history.

George Mason’s critique of the American Constitution

Not long ago someone tweeted this part:

The President of the United States has the unrestrained Power of granting Pardons for Treason; which may be sometimes exercised to screen from Punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the Crime, & thereby prevent a Discovery of his own Guilt.

And that led me to wish to read the whole thing.  Mason of course was an anti-Federalist, and in his short piece he lays out why he opposes the proposed new constitution.  Here is what I found striking:

1. He feared that the President would become a tool of the Senate or of his own cabinet.

2. He feared the Senate would not be directly accountable to the people.  Of course, in due time we changed that through constitutional amendment.

3. He feared the federal judiciary would end up taking over state and local judiciaries.

4. The Senate can excessively legislate through the use of treaties — quite a contemporary objection by the way.

5. The individual states won’t be able to levy tariffs on trade across state borders.

6. Federal and state legislatures won’t be able to pass enough ex post facto laws (the strangest worry to me).

7. He made various claims that ended up being made obsolete by the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

8. The southern states would end up systematically outvoted.

9. The Vice President could end up becoming too powerful through his role in the Senate.

It is striking to me in these early writings how much people worry about the evolution of the Senate, and how little attention they pay to the Supreme Court, which at the time was viewed as not slated to be so powerful.

The problem of “Congress will toss away its legislative and war-making roles, and give up a lot of effective control of the budget” was also nowhere to be found in the words of the early critics, as far as I can tell.  Nor did they have much of a notion of the rise of the administrative state.

Mason was a forceful writer, but the broad lesson is simply that the future is very difficult to predict.

My Conversation with Melissa Dell

Interesting throughout, here is the transcript and video and audio, here is part of the summary:

From the impact of the Mexican Revolution to the different development paths of northern and southern Vietnam, her work exploits what are often accidents of history — whether a Peruvian village was just inside or outside a mine’s catchment area, for example — to explain persistent differences in outcomes. Her work has earned numerous plaudits, including the John Bates Clark Medal earlier this year.

On the 100th episode of Conversations with Tyler, Melissa joined Tyler to discuss what’s behind Vietnam’s economic performance, why persistence isn’t predictive, the benefits and drawbacks of state capacity, the differing economic legacies of forced labor in Indonesia and Peru, whether people like her should still be called a Rhodes scholar, if SATs are useful, the joys of long-distance running, why higher temps are bad for economic growth, how her grandmother cultivated her curiosity, her next project looking to unlock huge historical datasets, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

DELL: Yeah, I’ve done some work looking at the persistence of economic development in Vietnam. The work I did, actually, was limited to what was South Vietnam because there’s also been huge events, obviously, that have happened in the past hundred years in North Vietnam, with a war that destroyed much of the country and was fought over an extended period of time.

But when you look, in general, at places in Vietnam that have a similar recent history, but going back in time, one of them was part of a much stronger, more centralized state. The other one was part of what is today Cambodia, a much weaker state, generally ruled by local lords instead of by a strong centralized state.

You see the towns that were part of the stronger, centralized state going back before colonialism, so several hundred years ago. More recently, they have better-functioning local governments. They’re richer. They’re better off, which shows that places that have a long history of governance seem better able to do that more recently.

So places going back a long time ago — they were part of the central state. They had to collect taxes locally to send up to the central state. They had to organize military conscripts. The central state mandated that they had certain laws.

More recently, those places also have more functional local governments and are also better off economically, whereas the places that never had that structure that comes from a state — it was, essentially, if you were living in that area, there’d be a warlord that you sent tribute to. But there was never any regular taxation, never any organized local government under a central state. Those places much more recently — when there were constitutional reforms in Vietnam that gave them a degree of self-government — they weren’t able to do that very effectively.

They weren’t able to keep the positions on their local city council filled. They weren’t able to provide, as effectively, local public goods, like education or health services. So really, having this long history of governance makes places more able to do that today. That’s relevant because there’s been a big push to have local governments provide an important role in providing public goods, et cetera.

If places don’t have a history of doing that, perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to have a much harder time. When the World Bank says, “Well, we want to give local autonomy to let local governments decide how to provide schools in the way that works best for them,” that’s going to work in places that have a long history of providing education. In places that don’t, they’re more likely to have a hard time.

COWEN: But if you select your cases on the basis of having similar histories, aren’t you selecting for persistence because the locales that have reversals of fortune — a big war in North Vietnam, Communism coming to North Vietnam — that’s a kind of mean reversion. It deliberately gives them a not-similar history. Do you then not overrate the degree of persistence in the dataset by just taking the sliver that is indeed continuous with its own history?

DELL: I think that you could imagine writing papers about different things. Our motivation was, we wanted to think about if the historical state could have a role at all. In order to do that, you don’t really want to compare South Korea to the Philippines — which is what most of the historical literature on this does — because they’re different in so many ways. We know that South Korea looks really different from the Philippines, but there’s so many ways that they can be different.

By looking within South Vietnam, we wanted to say, “Okay, these are places that had a much more recent modern history. Can their past history still matter?” But we’re not saying that that begins to explain everything. There’s other forces that happened more recently that we think are also important.

Certainly, there can be mean reversions, and the argument is not that things are always persistent. I think part of the literature is about understanding why sometimes things persist and sometimes they don’t. Certainly, more recent events can matter, and we’re not claiming that there’s an R-squared of one that a place’s history is its destiny, but that there are these forces.

Next up will be Nathan Nunn, and I asked him a series of related questions about persistence…

Rewatching *The French Connection*

I had not seen this 1971 movie since I was thirteen or so, and I was startled by how well I remembered the famous “subway scene.”  This time around, it struck me much more as a portrait of the decline of New York City than as a plot-driven vehicle per se.  “Popeye” (Gene Hackman) has no back story or love interest whatsoever, so I viewed this as a tale of how the dysfunctionality of New York simply was absorbing everything in its wake.  It is perhaps the best movie to view to understand just how much NYC has improved, and if you click on the top link you can see they were not just filming in dumpster bin sites but rather in the heart of Manhattan.

It is striking how tacky, and indeed poor, the “rich people” appear to be when the movie is trying to make a point about income inequality.  The critique of “the War on Drugs,” as it later became known, is ahead of its time.  The shots of Marseille are lovely.

It is hard to believe they almost cast Jackie Gleason in the lead.


Rereading Ayn Rand on the New Left

It used to be called The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, but the later title was Return of the Primitive.  It was published in 1971, but sometimes drawn from slightly earlier essays.  I wondered if a revisit might shed light on the current day, and here is what I learned:

1. “The New Left is the product of cultural disintegration; it is bred not in the slums, but in the universities; it is not the vanguard of the future, but the terminal stage of the past.”

2. The moderates who tolerate the New Left and its anti-reality bent can be worse than the New Left itself.

3. Ayn Rand wishes to cancel the New Left, albeit peacefully.

4. “Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned.”  Ouch, it would be good to resuscitate this entire essay (on racism).

5. She fears the collapse of Europe into tribalism, racism, and balkanization.  I am not sure if I should feel better or worse about the ongoing persistence of this trope.

6. It is easy to forget that English was not her first language: “Logical Positivism carried it further and, in the name of reason, elevated the immemorial psycho-epistemology of shyster lawyers to the status of a scientific epistemological system — by proclaiming that knowledge consists of linguistic manipulations.”

6b. Kant was the first hippie.

7. The majority of people do not hate the good, although they are disgusted by…all sorts of things.

8. Like many Russian women, she is skeptical of the American brand of feminism: “As a group, American women are the most privileged females on earth: they control the wealth of the United States — through inheritance from fathers and husbands who work themselves into an early grave, struggling to provide every comfort and luxury for the bridge-playing, cocktail-party-chasing cohorts, who give them very little in return.  Women’s Lib proclaims that they should give still less, and exhorts its members to refuse to cook their husbands’ meals — with its placards commanding “Starve a rat today!””  Feminism for me, but not for thee, you could call it.

Overall I would describe this as a bracing reread.  But what struck me most of all was how much the “Old New Left” — whatever you think of it — had more metaphysical and ethical and aesthetic imagination — than the New New Left variants running around today.  As Rand takes pains to point out (to her dismay), the Old New Left did indeed have Woodstock, which in reality was not as far from the Apollo achievement as she was suggesting at the time.

The arrival of cheap food in England

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food.

Here is more from Bee Wilson, via The Browser.

Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, easier read through than excerpted, but here is one bit:

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.


The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness?


Lead headline and sub-header for The New York Times

“Overlooked No More: Valerie Solanas, Radical Feminist Who Shot Andy Warhol

She made daring arguments in “SCUM Manifesto,” her case for a world without men. But her legacy as a writer and thinker was overshadowed by one violent act.”

The piece itself notes she argued for the wholesale extermination of men, that other people treated it as satire, but she defended its seriousness.  And of course she shot and tried to kill Warhol and came very close to succeeding.  The nature of her other contributions is far from clear, although toward the end of her life she was eating from a dumpster bin in Phoenix.

Later, she moderated her views, and the NYT piece ends with this:

…the author, Breanne Fahs, writes about an exchange between Solanas and her friend Jeremiah Newton. Newton asked Solanas if her manifesto was to be taken literally. “I don’t want to kill all men,” she replied. But, using an expletive, she added: “I think males should be neutered or castrated so they can’t mess up any more women’s lives.”

Loyal MR readers will know that this is not a media-bashing site, nor is it a NYT-bashing site.  I remain proud to have written there for ten years, and I remain a loyal subscriber, as I have been since I was ten years old.

But…come on.  If you work for The Times, I hope you are in some way able to raise your voice against what can only be described as a grotesque embarrassment, not to mention a contradiction of Black [Men’s] Lives Matter.  Maybe the headline will be gone or changed by the time you read this, but the saddest part is that this seems to be part of a pattern, not just a one-off mistake.  I’ve known many people at the NYT, at various levels, and each and every one has seemed like a good (and talented) person to me.  I can only conclude that something has gone very very badly wrong in the editorial control process.

Addendum: Timothy Noah comments.

What should I ask Nathan Nunn?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, he is an economist at Harvard, you could call much of his work economic history and economic development.  Wikipedia notes:

A recurrent theme in Nunn’s research is the long-term impact of historical processes on economic development, often mediated through institutions, culture, knowledge and technology.

Key findings of his research include the following:

  • Countries’ ability to enforce contracts is possibly a more important determinant of their comparative advantage than skilled labour and physical capital combined.
  • A substantial part of Africa’s current underdevelopment appears to be caused by the long-term effects of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades.
  • Current differences in trust levels within Africa are attributable to the impact of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades, which have caused the emergence of low-trust cultural norms, beliefs, and values in ethnic groups heavily affected by slavery (with Leonard Wantchekon).
  • By impeding not only trade and technological diffusion but also the depredations of slave traders, the ruggedness of certain African regions’ terrain had a significant positive impact on these regions’ development (with Diego Puga).
  • The introduction of the potato within the Columbian exchange may have been responsible for at least a quarter of the population and urbanisation growth observed in the Old World between 1700 and 1900 (with Nancy Qian).
  • In line with Boserup’s hypothesis, the introduction and historical use of plough agriculture appears to have given men a comparative advantage and made gender norms less equal, with historical differences in the plough use of immigrants’ ancestral communities predicting their attitudes regarding gender equality (with Alberto Alesina and Paolo Giuliano).
  • U.S. Food Aid is driven by U.S. objectives and can lead to increased conflict in recipient countries (with Nancy Qian).

So what should I ask him?

*Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe*

By Suzanne Marchand, this a tale of commerce, creativity, mercantilism, nation-building, globalization, industrial organization, and much more.  And this book actually delivers on all of those fronts. Short excerpt:

In accordance with mercantile practices, porcelain makers first sought to pay their bills by increasing sales abroad.  The two markets most hotly pursued at midcentury were the Ottomans and the Russians, both big consumers of hot beverages but lacking functional tableware factories.

Yes it’s that kind of book.  And this:

This focus on porcelain and material goods generally is not an approach familiar to most historians of Germany, who, for understandable reasons, typically feel obliged to treat more serious, often political, subjects.

Recommended, you can pre-order it here.