Category: History

Duke 2022 Summer Institute on the History of Economic Thought

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 20-29, 2022. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhDs will also be considered.

Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free (double occupancy) housing, a booklet of readings, and stipends for travel and food. The deadline for applying is March 1.

We are very excited about this year’s program, which will focus on giving participants the tools to set up and teach their own undergraduate course in the history of economic thought. There will also be sessions devoted to showing how concepts and ideas from the history of economics might be introduced into other classes. The sessions will be run by Duke faculty members Bruce Caldwell, Steve Medema, and Jason Brent. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website,


Reader request on Herbert von Karajan

From Sean:

From his NYT obit: “But Mr. Karajan was always more than a mere conductor: he was a man of enormous energy and careerist determination, and he managed at his peak, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, to tower over European musical life as no one had done before or is likely to do again. His nickname at the time was ”the general music director of Europe,” leading the Berlin Philharmonic, La Scala in Milan, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival.”
Is this true? How was he able to do this?

A few observations:

1. In that time the central European classical music canon was far more dominant than it is today (later this month the NSO is doing Beethoven with William Grant Still, for instance).  That made the dominance of a few figures such as von Karajan and Klemperer, who specialized in that repertoire, far more possible.  In America, Germanic culture was more influential as well.

2. There was overall less conducting talent around at the time.  Yes, I know the beloved status of your few favorites from back then, and their unique styles, but conductor #30 today, in terms of quality, is far better than before.  Today it is harder for anyone to stand out.

3. The authoritarian and possibly abusive management style of von Karajan was far more acceptable back then.  Without that style, he could not have honed such a unique sound.

4. Back then conductors actually could sell classical LPs and bring in revenue.  This helped enable many of von Karajan’s projects, including costly operas and symphonic cycles.  Whether he would have done as well on YouTube, or other more contemporary media, is very much an open question, but probably not.  He was very much a “whole package” sort of musical star.

4b. Radio really mattered too.  His distant and forbidding but legendary personal style worked well in that medium, and the “always forward impetus whiplash” sonics cut through the poor sound quality.

5. I grew up with von Karajan’s recordings in so many parts of the repertoire, but how many really have held up?  His Bruckner’s 8th and Mahler’s 9th are incredible.  His Cosi is amazing, though too rigidly controlled for my taste.  His Verdi Aida.  A big thumbs up to his Mozart #40 and #41.  But the Wagner I don’t listen to any more.  Never loved his Beethoven cycle.  Rarely is he the conductor in my favorite concerti performances, as he tended to blunt the styles of his accompanying soloists.  Would I ever prefer him for Haydn, or for French music?  No.  Definitely some Strauss (the conductor most suited to him?), or perhaps his Tristan?  I feel I could get 85% of his value with maybe five recordings?  In a way that is quite impressive, but it does put matters in perspective.

6. He was a Nazi, and perhaps that would go over differently today.

7. In short, that was then, this is now.

Why I don’t care about geology

A reader request:

I also recently heard you mention on the Clearer Thinking Podcast that Geology is a field you are not as naturally curious about…would love a blog post on fields that you less interested in with a short reflection on why.

First, keep in mind what it means when I say I am not very curious about geology.  I am for instance quite interested in the origins of geology, how they relate to the Enlightenment, why some of those origins were in Scotland, and how geology developed as a profession throughout the early part of the 19th century with the formation of geological societies for the first time.  I’ve read James Hutton and Charles Lyell (a splendid book to teach reasoning from, among its other virtues), and have a sense of the import of Georges Cuvier for the development of geological science.  And of course geological data had a big influence on Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Darwin at first thought he might be making contributions to geology (in a way he was right).

I know that John Playfair (1748-1819) was a founding father of geology.  He was trained as a minister and worked as a philosophy instructor and later in mathematics.  He became friends with Adam Smith and Joseph Black (an important figure in Linnaean botany) and he tutored Adam Ferguson, a leading light in the Scottish Enlightenment.  His younger brother, William Playfair, wrote on political economy, though his work is no longer widely read, not even by history of thought specialists.

In terms of travel, I have been interested in seeing the different layers of geological strata in France and in China especially, Sicily too, and of course in the Western United States.  Iceland!  I was keen to visit Rotorua in New Zealand.  I worry about super-volcanoes, and have read a book about them.  How about the role of the Massif Central in French history?  Fascinating.

Still I am not interested in geology per se.  I cannot “think like a geologist,” whatever that might mean.  I am interested in the facts of geology when they intersect with other things I am interested in, such as the Enlightenment or travel, or how geological disasters have shaped human societies.  I am interested in economic geology and petroleum geology, and would be interested in any generated knowledge about how “exo-geology” (moons of Saturn!) might relate to the existence of life beyond Earth.  I would like to know more about rare earths and why there is so much lithium in the Bolivian desert.  I am interested in geology as a source of knowledge and data about climate change.

Still, I know very little about what is inside the crust of the Earth, and am comfortable with that.  I couldn’t tell you much about sediments, or thermochronologic studies.  I feel if I learned the models of geology, or how geologists use micro-computed tomography, it would not overlap much with my other interests.  I could be wrong about that, but currently am short on time for figuring out and correcting such possible errors.

So no, I am not all that interested in geology, but it doesn’t hold such a special status either!  I am not interested in most things.  Geology may well come in above average.

One lesson of this post is that it is possible to be interested in things one is not interested in, and vice versa.

The Barbary Pirates

Rumors held that as many as sixty Barbary men-of-war were actively prowling the English Channel, waiting for the opportunity to capture more product for the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli. For most of the seventeenth century, an English or Irish family living near the coast confronted the real possibility that the might be hauled off without warning….[the] numbers suggest that the odds of sudden enslavement by Barbary pirates were far higher for the average Devonshire resident than the odds of experiencing a terrorist attack in a modern-day Western City.

From Steven Johnson’s excellent Enemy of All Mankind, about which I will say more later.

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.


Why has classical music declined?

In the comments, Rahul asked that question as follows:

In general perception, why are there no achievements in classical music that rival a Mozart, Bach, Beethoven etc. that were created in say the last 50 years?

Is it an exhaustion of what’s possible? Are all great motifs already discovered?

Or will we in another 50 or 100 years admire a 1900’s composer at the same level as a Mozart or Beethoven?

Or was it something unique in that era ( say 1800’s) which was conducive to the discovery of great compositions? Patronage? Lack of distraction?

I would offer a few hypotheses:

1. The advent of musical recording favored musical forms that allow for the direct communication of personality.  Mozart is mediated by sheet music, but the Rolling Stones are on record and the radio and now streaming.  You actually get “Mick Jagger,” and most listeners prefer this to a bunch of quarter notes.  So a lot of energy left the forms of music that are communicated through more abstract means, such as musical notation, and leapt into personality-specific musics.

1b. Eras have aesthetic centers of gravity.  So pushing a lot of talent in one direction does discourage some other directions from developing fully.  Dylan didn’t just pull people into folk, he pulled them away from trying to be the next Pat Boone.

2. Electrification favored a variety of musical styles that are not “classical” or even “contemporary classical,” with apologies to Glenn Branca.

3. The two World Wars ripped out the birthplaces of so much wonderful European culture.  It is not only classical music that suffered, but also European science, letters, entrepreneurship, and much more.

4. It is tough to top Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., so eventually creators struck out in new directions.  And precisely because of the less abstract, more personality-laden nature of popular music, it is harder to have a very long career and attain the status of a true titan.  The Rolling Stones ran out of steam forty (?) years ago, but Bach could have kept on writing fugues, had he lived longer.  More recent musical times thus have many creators who are smaller in overall stature, even though the total of wonderful music has stayed very high.

5. Contemporary classical music (NB: not the best term, for one thing much of it is no longer contemporary) is much better than most people realize.  Much of it is designed for peers, and intended to be experienced live.  In the last decade I saw performances of Glass’s Satyagraha, Golijov’s St. Marc Passion, Boulez’s Le Marteau (at IRCAM), and Stockhausen’s Mantra, and it was all pretty amazing.  I doubt if those same pieces are very effective on streaming.  It may be unfortunate, but due to incentives emanating from peers, most non-peer listeners do not have the proper dimensionality of listening experience to proper appreciate those compositions.  To be clear, for the most part I don’t either, not living down here in northern Virginia, but at times I can overcome this (mostly through travel) and in any case I am aware of the phenomenon.  For these same reasons, it is wrong to think those works will have significantly higher reputations 50 or 100 years from now — some of them are already fairly old!

There are other reasons as well, what else would you suggest?

What should I ask Chuck Klosterman?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  If you do not already know, here is part of his Wikipedia entry:

Charles John Klosterman (born 1972) is an American author and essayist whose work focuses on American popular culture. He has been a columnist for Esquire and and wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine. Klosterman is the author of eleven books, including two novels and the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.

His forthcoming book is about the 90s, namely The Nineties: A Book.  So what should I ask him?  Including about the 90s of course.

Hunting smaller animals: is this also a theory of early economic growth?

We found that weighted mean body mass declined log-linearly through time. Mean hunted animal masses 10,500 years ago, were only 1.7% of those 1.5 million years ago. Neither body size at any period, nor size change from one layer to the next, were related to global temperature or to temperature changes. Throughout the Pleistocene, new human lineages hunted significantly smaller prey than the preceding ones. This suggests that humans extirpated megafauna throughout the Pleistocene, and when the largest species were depleted the next-largest were targeted. Technological advancements likely enabled subsequent human lineages to effectively hunt smaller prey replacing larger species that were hunted to extinction or until they became exceedingly rare.

Here is the full paper by Jacob Dembitzer,, via Kobi Haron.

*The Man From the Future*

That is the new biography of John von Neumann, by Ananyo Bhattacharya, highly recommended, probably the best book about him.  Here is one short bit:

Von Neumann himself attributed his generation’s success to ‘a coincidence of some cultural factors’ that produced ‘a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction’. In other words, their recognition that the tolerate climate of Hungary might change overnight propelled some to preternatural efforts to succeed…Moreover, one could reasonably hope that good work in these fields would be fairly rewarded. The truth of general relativity was established through experiment and was not contingent on whether the person who developed the theory as Jew or Gentile.

By the way, a lot of those famous mathematicians thought their high school was crap.  And here is another excerpt:

Equally, von Neumann had no interest in sport and, barring long walks (always in a business suit), he would avoid any form of vigorous physical exercise for the rest of his life.  When his second wife, Klari, tried to persuade him to ski, he offered her a divorce. ‘If being married to a woman, no matter who she was, would mean he had to slide around on two pieces of wood on some slick mountainside,’ she explained, ‘he would definitely prefer to live alone and take his daily exercise, as he put it, “by getting in and out of a pleasantly warm bathtub.”.

I believe my original pointer here came from Tim Harford.

What should I ask Sebastian Mallaby?

From Wikipedia:

Sebastian Christopher Peter Mallaby (born May 1964) is an English journalist and author, Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and contributing columnist at The Washington Post. Formerly, he was a contributing editor for the Financial Times and a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.

His recent writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 2012, he published a Foreign Affairs essay on the future of China’s currency. His books include The Man Who Knew (2016), More Money Than God (2010), and The World’s Banker (2004).

I am also a big fan of his new and forthcoming book on venture capital, namely The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of a New Future.

So what should I ask him?

The Rise and Decline of Thinking over Feeling

In texts, both fictional and non-fictional and in English and Spanish, thinking words relating to technology and social organization (experiment, gravity, weigh, cost, contract) become more common between 1850 and approximately 1977 (beginning of the great stagnation) but since then thinking words have declined markedly and feeling words relating to belief, spirituality, sapience, and intuition (e.g. forgiveness, heal, feel) have become more common.

The graph at right shows the ratio of rationality words to intuition words over time in different corpuses. Paper here.

The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning. To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.” Interpreting this synchronous sea change in book language remains challenging. However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction. Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed. Finally, we show that word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms, supporting the idea that changes in book language do in part reflect changes in interest. All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The authors blame the change in language towards feelings on the failure of “neo-liberalism” which seems dubious and without plausible mechanism. If anything, I would put the causality the other way. A more plausible explanation is more female writers and the closely related feminization of culture.

The analysis is consistent with my earlier post on how quickly the NYTimes became woke.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

The London Blitz and the NIMBYs

NIMBYs can be so bad that they make the London Blitz look good:

We exploit locally exogenous variation from the Blitz bombings to quantify the effect of redevelopment frictions and identify agglomeration economies at a micro-geographic scale. Employing rich location and office rental transaction data, we estimate reduced-form analyses and a spatial general equilibrium model. Our analyses demonstrate that more heavily bombed areas exhibit taller buildings today, and that agglomeration elasticities in London are large, approaching 0.2. Counterfactual simulations show that if the Blitz had not occurred, the concomitant reduction in agglomeration economies arising from the loss of higher-density redevelopment would cause London’s present-day gross domestic product to drop by some 10% (or £50 billion).

Here is the full paper by Gerard H Dericks and Hans R A Koster, via tekl.