Category: History

My Conversation with Patricia Fara

The last chat was with Brian Armstrong about bitcoin, this one started with Isaac Newton and bit coins (really).  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWTeam summary:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at Cambridge University and well-known for her writings on women in science. Her forthcoming book, Life After Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career, details the life of the titan of the so-called Scientific Revolution after his famous (though perhaps mythological) discovery under the apple tree. Her work emphasizes science as a long, continuous process composed of incremental contributions–in which women throughout history have taken a crucial part–rather than the sole province of a few monolithic innovators.

Patricia joined Tyler to discuss why Newton left Cambridge to run The Royal Mint, why he was so productive during the Great Plague, why the “Scientific Revolution” should instead be understand as a gradual process, what the Antikythera device tells us about science in the ancient world, the influence of Erasmus Darwin on his grandson, why more people should know Dorothy Hodgkin, how George Eliot inspired her to commit unhistoric acts, why she opposes any kind of sex-segregated schooling, her early experience in a startup, what modern students of science can learn from studying Renaissance art, the reasons she considers Madame Lavoisier to be the greatest female science illustrator, the unusual work habit brought to her attention by house guests, the book of caricatures she’d like to write next, and more

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s start with Isaac Newton. How was it that he died rich?

FARA: He earned his money from several different ways. When he went down to London, he had far more than he ever did as a Cambridge professor because he was running the London Mint. He got a fat salary for that. He also got a premium, a reward for every single gold coin that was minted.

He invested in global trading companies like the East India Company, for example, that were sending guns and textiles out to Africa and then shipping enslaved peoples over to the Americas.

He also invested in other stock market companies. There was this famous occasion — it’s the anniversary this year of what’s called the South Sea Bubble — when he invested a small fortune in a new company, the South Sea Company, and he watched the levels rise, and he stayed in there, and he sold when the stocks had gone up. He made a small fortune, but then he made the classic beginner’s error. He invested in again at a higher price, and he watched the value crash.

So he did lose several million in today’s currency on that particular venture. But in general, when he died, he was an extremely rich man, and you can tell that — the inventory of his possessions runs to a vellum scroll that’s 17 feet long.

COWEN: What was it that he collected so obsessively to have all these possessions?

FARA: Well, a lot of it was equipment for catering. He’s got this reputation for being very antisocial, but he had hundreds of plates and sets of cutlery and things like that. He also had that ultimate Georgian luxury: he owned two silver chamber pots.

He spent money on having a good number of portraits of himself painted that he would send out to other people as bribes or as rewards for their allegiance to him. He had furniture. He had decorations. He had a carriage. He had a sedan chair tucked in the stables. He had lots of servants.

On Newton’s time at The Royal Mint

COWEN: Now, as you know, Newton spends what, over 30 years working at the Mint?

FARA: Yes.

COWEN: What’s your model of why he did this? How much was it for income? Did he think he was done with major contributions, say, to physics and optics? How do you think about that decision in his life?

FARA: I think he was very frustrated with being at Cambridge. He applied for several positions there, which he didn’t get. In theological terms, he was rather at odds with everybody else at Cambridge because he was a very, very devout believer in God, but he didn’t adhere to the traditional, to the orthodox Anglican theological belief in the Trinity, so that was difficult for him.

He’d been trying to leave Cambridge for some time, and he had a very close friend, Charles Montagu, the Earl of Halifax, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, very influential man. He managed to find Newton this very prestigious job at the Mint that paid a good salary. The minute Newton heard about it, he downed tools at Cambridge, rushed down to London, and he moved and started a new life within a few months.

…COWEN: What do you think about Newton’s basic idea on silver recoinage — bring in all the silver coins, melt them down, reissue at a lower value? Was he right about that or not? Or do you side with John Locke?

Recommended, interesting throughout.

My days as a teenage chess teacher

I’ve already blogged my earlier job working in the supermarket, so I thought I would add a few remarks on my very first job as chess teacher, which I did at ages 14-15.

I had three regular students, two adults (about 50 and late 20s) and one a younger chess prodigy himself, maybe 10 or 11, plus some other occasional students.  I would have had more students if they (or the parents) did not have to pick me up and drive me to the lesson site.  By the way, at that time no one thought it was strange that relative strangers would simply come and pick me up in their cars and take me away.

From this job, I learned a few things rather quickly:

1. At the time a 14-year-old paid chess teacher seemed odd.  But if you just did something, the world might accept it.  Make other people tell you no, don’t do that preemptively yourself.

2. Chess teaching isn’t mainly about chess.  A chess teacher has to have a certain mystique above all, while at the same time being approachable.  Even at 14 this is possible.  Your students are hiring you at least as much for your mystique as for the content of your lessons.

3. Not everyone taking chess lessons wanted to be a better chess player.  For some, taking the lesson was a substitute for hard work on chess, not a complement to it.  The lesson for them was a fun social experience, and it kept the game of chess salient in their minds.  They became “the kind of person who takes chess lessons.”  I understood this well at the time.  Some of the students wanted to show you their chess games, so that someone else would be sharing in their triumphs and tragedies.  That is an OK enough way to proceed with a chess lesson, but often the students were more interested in “showing” than in listening and learning and hearing the hard truths about their play.

4. Students are too interested in asking your opinion of particular openings.  At lower-tier amateur levels of chess, the opening just doesn’t matter that much, provided you don’t get into an untenable position too quickly.  Nonetheless openings are a fun thing to learn about, and discussing openings can give people the illusion of learning something important, if only because you can share opening moves with the top players and thereby affiliate with them.

5. What I really had to teach was methods for hard work to improve your game consistently over time.  That might include for instance annotating a game or position “blind,” and then comparing your work to the published analysis of a world-class player, a’ la Alexander Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster.  I did try to teach that, but the demand for this service was not always so high.

6. The younger chess prodigy I taught was quite bright and also likable.  But he had no real interest in improving his chess game.  Instead, hanging out with me was more fun for him than either doing homework or watching TV, and I suspect his parents understood that.  In any case, early on I was thinking keenly about talent and the determinants of ultimate success, and obsessiveness seemed quite important.  All of the really good chess players had it, and without it you couldn’t get far above expert level.

7. I don’t remember exactly how much I was paid, but it felt like a lot of money at the time.  But when I stopped playing chess, I also stopped giving chess lessons.  I felt I had learned — and earned — from it what I could.

My history of manual labor

Here is another request:

What is the hardest manual labor you’ve ever done? I love intellectual policy wonk commentary, but I can’t help but feel some small amount of disdain for people who SEEM (a possibly faulty assumption) to have never really suffered trying to solve problems in the physical realm. There’s so much abstract data/policy up for debate, but how many talking heads have even replaced a toilet or turned a wrench in their lives?

From ages 16 through 18 I worked in the produce department of a supermarket, and that involved a fair amount of lifting of heavy boxes and additional physical labor, though nothing as hard as digging ditches or as unpleasant as cleaning toilets.  My first job was at Hillsdale Valley Fair, where at the same time James Gandolfini (Sopranos star) was a shopping cart fetch boy.  My second job was at Hillsdale Stop & Shop, again in the produce department.

These were fundamental experiences for my core outlook, for these reasons and more:

1. I learned that earning money is very good for people’s psyches.  No amount of money, neither large nor small, ever should be taken for granted because somewhere along the way someone earned it.  At the time I felt very rich.

2. The people slated to fail in life might be just as intelligent as those set to succeed.  And often they are funnier and more fun to hang around with and sometimes in these kinds of jobs more productive as well.  Yet somehow they do not have the conceptual frameworks that might put them on the road to success, nor could they acquire such frameworks easily.

3. It is not that easy to find a good produce department manager.  Really quite a few skills are required, not the least of which is the ability to handle and motivate the junior staff.  The most difficult quality to find in the produce managers, however, was the discipline to avoid saying “**** you” to the store bosses, who were always busting their chops.

4. They all thought I was weird.  It was periodically remarked that I didn’t smile very much.  Yet most of the time I was having a blast.  I was producing stuff.

4b. I learned that being called “****head” a few times a week is not such a terrible thing.  Sometimes it made me smile.

4c. I had to wear a tie or they would send me home.  That seemed just to me.

5. I continued working several nights a week for the first half of my freshman year at Rutgers Newark.  After I got back from the long drive to classes (I lived at home still), accompanied by Bruce Springsteen music, I would either wrap lettuce or go read Nassau Senior and Malthus.

6. Back then they did not hire women to work in the backrooms of the produce department, so it was quite a “guys club” in terms of rhetoric and ethos.  I remained polite.

7. It was stupid that they ever wrapped bananas in clear wrap in the first place, and I was relieved when they stopped the practice.  Plums were by far the most fun fruit to wrap into packages.

What should I ask Shadi Bartsch?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, most of all about her forthcoming and very good translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  She is a professor of classics at the University of Chicago, and here is Wikipedia:

Bartsch has contributed to classical scholarship in the areas of the literature and culture of Julio-Claudian Rome, the ancient novel, Roman stoicism, and the classical tradition.

She is an expert on Lucan, Persius, Seneca, and other writers of the time, most of all the age of Nero, and she is now working on a book on the reception of the classical authors amongst the Chinese intelligentsia.  Here is Shadi on Twitter.

So what should I ask her?

Who first noticed the tech was ready for human genome sequencing? (that was then, this is now)

Perkin Elmer’s last purchase had been a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company called PerSeptive Biosystems, a protein-analysis enterprise started by Lebanese-born wunderkind Noubar Afeyan seven years earlier, when the ink was still wet on his Ph.D. from MIT. Afeyan had sold his company to Perkin Elmer for almost $400 million. The deal had yet to be finalized, and formally speaking Afeyan wasn’t yet a Perkin Elmer employee. But he was at the meeting in Foster City, too. Like Lipe and Barrett, he shared White’s vision of “moving up the food chain” and getting into the genetic information business. But like them, he didn’t really have a clear idea how that was to be done.

It was Afeyan, the newcomer, who first said the words. The head of the multicapillary-machine production team was winding up a presentation on the instrument’s design and capacity. There were twenty-odd people around the table, discussing such matters as pricing, costs, and marketing strategy. This was the first time Afeyan had heard that the project even existed. He was taking some notes and idly doing some calculations. “You know, with enough of these machines, we could sequence the whole human genome,” he remarked. A few people chuckled at the notion, and the discussion returned to serious topics. But now Hunkapiller was hunched over his yellow pad, scribbling. After a minute he looked up. “He’s right,” he said. “Who’s right?” asked White. “Noubar. With two hundred machines, we could sequence the human genome in three years.” Most people in the room hardly knew Noubar Afeyan, but they knew Michael Hunkapiller. He would not interrupt a serious discussion except for something even more serious.

That is from James Shreeve’s The Genome War, here is more detail from the NYT in 1999, and for the pointer I thank Patrick Collison.  Of course that is the same Afeyan Noubar who co-founded Moderna and now chairs it, here is my earlier CWT with him.

Why don’t Americans take the law seriously any more?

Why do so many Americans today have such an unusual relationship with the law? Has the relative isolation of the pandemic made people more susceptible to crowd enthusiasms, and thus less respectful of authority? Or is it that their daily interactions with the internet are so frequent and intense that their emotions are governed by some new set of principles, and the law feels like a distant memory? Might some recent leaders have been setting bad examples when it comes to respecting the law?

2020 was also a year in which the U.S. murder rate rose significantly — by more than 50% in many cities — and reckless driving was much more common.

If the U.S. is ever going to get back to normal, we need to understand this problem. It’s not just about breaking the law. It’s that so many Americans don’t even seem to notice that the law applies to them, too.

Yes the column has riffs on various recent episodes of brazen, poorly thought out law-breaking — did you have to put that Capitol selfie on-line?  That was then, this is now:

During the era of civil disobedience, Americans marched for civil rights or to protest the Vietnam War. Sometimes they broke the law deliberately, but there was a finely honed sense of the various lines. If your goal was to be arrested, you knew how to achieve it without being locked away for years. There were guides for how to behave and get arrested, and many arrests were orchestrated.

Martin Luther King Jr. was not shocked when he ended up in Birmingham jail, where he composed his famous letter. Getting arrested was a sign of status with other members of the movement, and multiple arrests meant that you understood the lines well enough to be spending most of your time out in the world, ready to get arrested yet again.

So what happened?

*Empire of Silver*

The subtitle is A New Monetary History of China, and the author is Jin Xu.  This is the first book this year to go straight to my “best books of the year list,” here is one excerpt:

Let’s shift the scene back to 1262, when the two poles of world civilization, Venice in the West and the Southern Song in the East, both faced the specter of war, and funding for these wars hung by a thread.  Almost simultaneously, the authorities of both places came up with plans to deal with their emergencies, both involving the most advanced financial innovations of that time.  The Southern Song’s Jia Sidao raised military funding by using the steadily devaluing huizi to buy up public land the strip the populace of wealth.  Venice took a different road: Its parliament authorized the government to mortgage its tax revenue, and when a fiscal deficit developed, the administration issued government bonds paying interest of 5 percent.  In retrospect, Venice’s financial innovation summoned the magic power of public debt as capital and effectively led Europe into an era of financial revolution.  As for china, the excessively issued huizi did not regain the favor of the market; rather, public discontent and unrest threw open the door for invasion by the Mongolians.

…we witness China taking the lead on finance and currency, but in the wrong direction.  China, at a very early stage, had “flying money” (feiqian) for remitting funds, as well as pawnshops, silver shops, and other such establishments for credit transfer; the Song dynasty’s paper currency originated in private institutions; and private local banks (qianzhuang) and money-exchange shops (piaohao) experienced extraordinary growth in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  So why didn’t China produce a modern banking industry?

…The unbankability of China’s currency led to the failure of China’s paper currency system and forced it to take the silver route. Without banks, and without the coinage of silver, progressing from bank notes to paper currency was out of the question.  Currency could only exist in the form of confusing and outmoded metage currency.

Definitely recommended, you can buy it here.  And “metage” — what a good word!

My Conversation with Benjamin Friedman

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

Benjamin Friedman has been a leading macroeconomist since the 1970s, whose accomplishments include writing 150 papers, producing more than dozen books, and teaching Tyler Cowen graduate macroeconomics at Harvard in 1985. In his latest book, Religion and the Rise of CapitalismBen argues that contrary to the popular belief that Western economic ideas are a secular product of the Enlightenment, instead they are the result of hotly debated theological questions within the English-speaking Protestant world of thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume.

Ben joined Tyler to discuss the connection between religious belief and support for markets, what drives varying cultural commitments to capitalism, why the rate of growth is key to sustaining liberal values, why Paul Volcker is underrated, how coming from Kentucky influences his thinking, why annuities don’t work better, America’s debt and fiscal sustainability, his critiques of nominal GDP targeting, why he wouldn’t change the governance of the Fed, how he maintains his motivation to keep learning, his next big project on artificial intelligence, and more.

Here is one excerpt about religion:

COWEN: If we think of the most influential advocates for capitalism in the mid–20th century, there’s Hayek, I would say Keynes at most phases of his career — maybe not all, Milton Friedman. They seem to be largely secular rather than religious. If we look at theologians — while there’s a great diversity of views, on average, they seem to be left-leaning. So why is it the religious thinkers lean towards socialism, and the economists are quite secular?

FRIEDMAN: I think there’s a part of the story that you’re missing, and that has to do with the coming together at mid–20th century in America, of religious conservatism and economic conservatism. I think the catalyst that brought them together was the existential fear of world communism. Here we are — call it 70 years later, and it’s difficult to put ourselves back in the shoes of Americans in the 1950s, but that was a real fear.

Communism, at least as advocated at that time, had a unique feature of being simultaneously the existential enemy of lots of things that we hold dear. It was the enemy of Western-style political democracy, but it was also the enemy of Western-style market capitalism, and importantly for purposes of this line of argument, it was the enemy of Western-style religion.

I think the religious conservatives and the economic conservatives realized that they had an enemy in common, and they took the threat seriously, and this led them to come together.

And about macro:

COWEN: Pandemic aside, if, on average, G is greater than R, can’t we just grow our way out of the debt? As you mentioned, now borrowing rates are negative in real terms, right? Economic growth, on average, is positive, so just keep on plowing straight ahead. Let the clock tick.

FRIEDMAN: There are two parts of the sustainability question, and you hit one of them correctly. If your economy is growing in real terms faster than the debt, then you can grow your way out of any debt. But there’s another side of it, and that’s how rapidly are you taking on new debt?

Let’s take your question seriously and say we’re going to put the pandemic aside. In the year before the pandemic — we’re talking about the government’s fiscal year 2019, so ended September 30, 2019 — none of us had talked about pandemics yet. In that year, the US government spent $4.5 trillion, and it only took in, in revenues, $3.5 trillion.

That $1 trillion deficit, even at a time of a fully employed economy and, of course, before the pandemic hit, that was nearly 5 percent of our national income — even though our economy was growing nicely, more rapidly than the rate of interest that the government was paying on the debt, we were on the other side of the equation, adding new debt so rapidly that the debt-to-income ratio was going up instead of down.

So simply pointing to the so-called R-minus-G factor, I think, is a very incomplete way to look at the question of sustainability.

Recommended, and here is Ben’s new and very interesting book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

China fact of the day

Bureaucratic politics is a politics of privilege.  By 1956, the wages of the highest-ranking party and government personnel were set at 36.4 times those of the lowest rank.  (By way of comparison, the highest wage in the “corrupt” Nationalist government in1946 was 14.5 times that of the lowest wage.)

That is from the new and important The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Yang Jisheng, who himself participated in the Cultural Revolution.

What should I ask Dana Gioia?

Dana is what I call one of the world’s information billionaires.  For more specifics, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Michael Dana Gioia (/ˈɔɪ.ə/; born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer. He spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. He served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2003 and 2009. Gioia has published five books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, song cycles, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies.

Gioia is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, where he teaches, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum. In December 2015 he became the California State Poet Laureate.

He is also well-known as a composer of opera libretti, and more recently as a spokesperson for the importance of Catholicism for culture.  And he is brother of TedGioia, former CWT guest.  And here is Dana’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with him — so what should I ask?

That was then, this is now, now it’s now again

To see how much the sanitary and medical revolutions have changed the risks of global interaction, examine what kills Americans abroad these days: cardiovascular events including heart attacks account for 49 percent of all deaths, injuries for a further 25 percent, and infectious diseases other than pneumonia for just 1 percent…even travel to pathogen-rich environments has become far, far safer than it used to be: a study of 185 deaths of US Peace Corps volunteers,  placed in some of the world’s least healthy countries, found that unintentional injuries and suicides were far more deadly than infection, accounting for more than 80 percent of deaths between them.

That is from Charles Kenny’s new and excellent The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, which was started well before Covid.

A “Garden of National Heroes”?

This was presumably my last Bloomberg column about a policy from President Trump, here is the setting:

On his way out the door, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding on his earlier call for the creation of a “Garden of American Heroes.” The context is that recent events have supposedly shown that the U.S. no longer believes in its own greatness and has mocked its own history and heritage, and so this new tonic is needed to restore a spirit of homage and pride. Thus the government should carve out a new public space, full of statues of great Americans.

Here is one excerpt:

My first worry is that, however important heroism may be, it is not well represented en masse. The U.S. celebrates the heroic best when presenting an ethos of individualism, yet the executive order lists 244 Americans to be honored. In contrast, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials are solo presentations. The Iwo Jima statue in Arlington, Virginia represents a collective effort of flag raising, by only six soldiers. Mount Rushmore has just four presidents.

My worry is that a Heroes Garden of 244 would appear more collectivistic, even mildly fascistic, than heroic. It is hard to avoid a numbing effect when the number of figures is so large. Large numbers of figures also sometimes indicate victimization, such as in the “Tragedy of the Peoples” Holocaust memorial in Moscow, or with the more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

And:

A final worry is that we do not live in a time of great portrait sculptors. Contemporary artists may be ironic or acerbic or witty or deeply conceptual to wonderful effect, as you can learn from a tour of the sculptures at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington or the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. But I don’t see many first-rate works with the aesthetic of, say, Michelangelo’s David or the portrayals of American heroes created by Augutus Saint-Gaudens. The reluctance of contemporary sculptors to communicate the quality of heroism is likely to produce a bland garden featuring an ugly official culture.

There are further points at the link.

What should I ask Sarah Parcak?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Sarah Helen Parcak is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, who has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In partnership with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

And here is Sarah on Twitter.  Here is her very useful bio page.  Here is her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes the Past.  So what should I ask her?