Category: History

What does the pessimistic scenario look like?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  No, these are not forecasts, but which of them are so far from the current reality?:

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.


Other technologies will indeed provide a bounty, but not all of it will be positive. Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

Do read the whole thing, which includes a discussion of “my own petty gripes.”  Consider it your pick-me-up for this morning.

Robert Wiblin interviews Yew-Kwang Ng

The podcast is here.  And from Wiblin’s email:

“Hi Tyler,

…I spoke with Professor Yew-Kwang Ng, a 75 year old Chinese-Australian economist in Singapore who was impressively ahead of his time and I would never have expected to exist. He:

  • Was an active columnist in Chinese newspapers in favour of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 80s.
  • Was perhaps the first to write an analytical paper on wild animal welfare/suffering, in 1995!
  • Wrote about the great importance of investing to prevent human extinction in 1991, well before this became a mainstream view. He also tried to tackle resulting infinitarian paralysis before this issue was widely appreciated.
  • Is an advocate of direct brain stimulation, as a drug-alternative which humans don’t abuse or develop tolerance to.
  • Advocated over 50 years for utilitarianism, philosophical hedonism and cardinality in welfare economics and made major theoretical contributions to welfare economics.
  • Developed a theoretical basis for interpersonal utility comparisons.
  • Since forever has been promoting the correct reading of Harsanyi’s Social Aggregation Theorem rather than Rawls’ bastardisation of it.
  • Was a communist revolutionary in colonial Malaysia, but then studied economics and deconverted.
  • Figured out about half of what’s distinctive about ‘effective altruist’ thinking, totally independently and on his own well before most people got to the questions.
  • Was the first to introduce non-perfect competition in macroeconomics by combining microeconomics, macroeconomics, and general equilibrium analysis into ‘mesoeconomics’, showing that Keynesianism and Monetarism are special cases.”

It made me sad that he isn’t more widely appreciated already, even by people building on his work today, so I made a guide to his most pioneering or influential publications to go along with the episode.

It would be great if you could post on MR and Twitter! :)”

The longest history lesson ever is about Texas

n August 24 at 9 a.m., Andrew Torget will take the podium in a University of North Texas auditorium, clad in a suit and armed with 500 pages of notes. Forty-five students will be seated in front of him, notebooks — no laptops! — at the ready.

He’ll open his notes, clear his throat, and begin his lecture. If he’s going to successfully teach the longest recorded history class ever, he won’t be able to stop, aside from occasional brief breaks, for the next 30 hours. At least 10 of his students will have to stick it out, too.

Torget, an associate professor of history at North Texas, is gunning for an official Guinness World Record — for longest history lesson. What will the class cover? Texas history. All of it, he says, “from cave people up until last week.”

Here is the story by Sarah Brown, via Anecdotal.


I was surprised by the consistent level of quality in the production.  It runs for about 2 hours, 20 minutes, with hardly any slow musical moments — how many pop or rap albums can say the same?

I do not agree with those who see it as too authoritarian or too glorifying of raw ambition and war.  In my read of the piece, it is “crazy” King George III who speaks the truth about politics.  The main plot of course has non-white characters in the roles of Founding Fathers.  I view this as an imaginary history, to be compared against what actually happened, to illustrate just how far America is from having an actual emancipatory history.  At the same time, America is the country where people tell such imaginary stories about emancipatory histories, a sign that we are not entirely hopeless.  Yet when it comes to “who is in the room,” and “who gets to tell the story” — two recurring themes — the outcomes have been less than ideal.  I saw Hamilton as a piece about shattered dreams and yet picking up the pieces yet again.

It is striking how good a job Hamilton does at appealing to viewers of all different levels of education and information.

Here is a review from David Brooks (NYT).

Facts about abortion history

1. In 1800, there were no formal laws against abortion in the United States, although common law suggested that the fetus had rights after a process of “quickening.”

2. Ten states passed anti-abortion laws in the 1821-1841 period.  De facto there were many exceptions and enforcement was loose.

3. Abortion became a fully commercialized business in the 1840s, and this led to more public discussion of the practice.  Abortion in fact became one of the first medical specialties in American history.  It is believed that abortion rates jumped over the 1840-1870 period, and mostly due to married women.

4. Drug companies started to supply their own abortion “remedies” in the 1840s on a much larger scale.

5. At this time there were few moral dilemmas, at least not publicly expressed, about the termination of pregnancies in the earlier stages.  That came later in the 20th century.

6. In 1878, a group of physicians in Illinois estimated the general abortion rate at 25%.  In any case during this time period abortion was affordable to many more Americans than just the wealthy.

7. Several states started to criminalize abortion during the 1850s.

8. 1857-1880 saw the beginning of a physicians’ crusade against abortion.  By 1880, abortion was illegal in most of the United States, and this occurred part and parcel with a rise in the professionalization of the medical profession.  These policies were later sustained and extended throughout the 1880s and also the early twentieth century.

9. Over the 1860-1880 period, doctors succeeded in turning American public opinion significantly against abortion.  The homeopaths supported them in this.

This is all from the very useful and readable book Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, by James C. Mohr.

Margaret Thatcher and the size of government

There are those who still believe that the Thatcher government (1979-1990) rolled back the state and cut taxes.  In fact Thatcherism involved an increase in the proportion of national income passing through the state and an increase in the tax burden.  Only income taxes went down, with great publicity — the more hidden taxes increased.  Value Added Tax, a form of purchase tax, was increased and was by comparison with income taxes regressive, though not quite as regressive as the additional taxes which were levied on alcohol and tobacco…the Thatcher government, and indeed subsequent ones, ended up spending more in absolute and even in relative terms on welfare taken overall.

That is from David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century.  Here are my previous posts on the book and on other work by Edgerton.

Claims about secularization and economic growth

Damian Ruck, the study’s lead researcher in the University of Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences, said: “Our findings show that secularisation precedes economic development and not the other way around. However, we suspect the relationship is not directly causal. We noticed that secularisation only leads to economic development when it is accompanied by a greater respect for individual rights.

“Very often secularisation is indeed accompanied by a greater tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc. But that isn’t to say that religious countries can’t become prosperous. Religious institutions need to find their own way of modernising and respecting the rights of individuals.”

Alex Bentley from the University of Tennessee, added: “Over the course of the 20th century, changes in importance of religious practices appear to have predicted changes in GDP across the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean that secularisation caused economic development, since both changes could have been caused by some third factor with different time lags, but at least we can rule out economic growth as the cause of secularisation in the past.”

Here is the press release, here is the paper, via Charles Klingman.

My Conversation with Vitalik Buterin

Obviously his talents in crypto and programming are well-known, but he is also a first-rate thinker on both economics and what you broadly might call sociology.  You could take away the crypto contributions altogether, and he still would be one of the very smartest people I have met.  Here is the audio and transcript.  The CWT team summarized it as follows:

Tyler sat down with Vitalik to discuss the many things he’s thinking about and working on, including the nascent field of cryptoeconomics, the best analogy for understanding the blockchain, his desire for more social science fiction, why belief in progress is our most useful delusion, best places to visit in time and space, how he picks up languages, why centralization’s not all bad, the best ways to value crypto assets, whether P = NP, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could go back into the distant past for a year, a time and place of your choosing, you have the linguistic skills and immunity against disease to the extent you need it, maybe some money in your pocket, where would you pick to satisfy your own curiosity?

BUTERIN: Where would I pick? To do what? To spend a year there, or . . . ?

COWEN: Spend a year as a “tourist.” You could pick ancient Athens or preconquest Mexico or medieval Russia. It’s a kind of social science fiction, right?

BUTERIN: Yeah, totally. Let’s see. Possibly first year of World War II — obviously, one of those areas that’s close to it but still reasonably safe from it…

Basically, experience more of what human behavior and what collective human behavior would look like once you pushed humans further into extremes, and people aren’t as comfortable as they are today.

I started the whole dialogue with this:

I went back and I reread all of the papers on your home page. I found it quite striking that there were two very important economics results, one based on menu costs associated with the name of Greg Mankiw. Another is a paper on the indeterminacy of monetary equilibrium associated with Fischer Black.

These are famous papers. On your own, you appear to rediscover these results without knowing about the papers at all. So how would you describe how you teach yourself economics?

Highly recommended, whether or not you understand blockchain.  Oh, and there is this:

COWEN: If you had to explain blockchain to a very smart person from 40 years ago, who knew computers but had no idea of crypto, what would be the best short explanation you could give them, basically, for what you do?

BUTERIN: Sure. One of the analogies I keep going back to is this idea of a “world computer.” The idea, basically, is that a blockchain, as a whole, functions like a computer. It has a hard drive, and on that hard drive, it stores what all the accounts are.

It stores what the code of all the smart contracts is, what the memory of all these smart contracts is. It accepts incoming instructions — and these incoming instructions are signed transactions sent by a bunch of different users — and processes them according to a set of rules.

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

What did 17th century food taste like?

I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it” was “still rather rare in France.” Likewise, Brussels sprouts don’t appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.

That is from a longer post by Benjamn Breen at Res Obscura.  And here is his post on when California was the Bear Republic.

Crack cocaine as a cause of violence

Crack cocaine markets were associated with substantial increases in violence in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s. Using cross-city variation in the emergence of these markets, we show that the resulting violence has important long-term implications for understanding current levels of murder rates by age, sex and race. We estimate that the murder rate of young black males doubled soon after crack’s entrance into a city, and that these rates were still 70 percent higher 17 years after crack’s arrival. We document the role of increased gun possession as a mechanism for this increase. Following previous work, we show that the fraction of suicides by firearms is a good proxy for gun availability and that this variable among young black males follows a similar trajectory to murder rates. Access to guns by young black males explains their elevated murder rates today compared to older cohorts. The long run effects of this increase in violence are large. We attribute nearly eight percent of the murders in 2000 to the long-run effects of the emergence of crack markets. Elevated murder rates for younger black males continue through to today and can explain approximately one tenth of the gap in life expectancy between black and white males.

That is from William N. Evans, Craig Garthwaite, and Timothy J. Moore.

Facts about British exports (and imports)

Yes, I am continuing to read David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, and it is one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.  Here are a few points I gleaned from my time spent with the book on the plane last evening:

1. During WWII, British imports kept to their pre-war levels, with imports of munitions picking up the slack.  The book stresses how much the British empire did in fact pay off, as Britain through a variety of mechanisms forced or induced its colonies to lend it resources during this critical time.  Along some  dimensions, the British economy became more global due to the conflict.

2. In 1942, exports from Malaya (mostly rubber) to the U.S. were higher than UK exports to the U.S. at that time.

3. Early in the 20th century, wheat in Great Britain was about ten times more expensive than coal.  Britain was the largest importer of food, and in essence sold coal for foodstuffs.

4. British coal was centered in rural areas, and this kept British country life economically vital.  Furthermore this mining was largely horse-powered.

5. From the end of WWII to the 1980s, more people left Britain than migrated to it.

6. Goods trade as a percentage of gdp was about 32% for Britain around 1920, and then lower at about 20% in 2000.

I hope to write about this book more, but I’ll tell you two of the overall messages right now.  One is that the history of British economic globalization is more lurching and back and forth than you might think.  Another is that British industry was more successful, innovative, and scientific during periods of supposed decline than you might think.

And by the way, while we are on the topic of must-read books, here is another rave review for Varlam Shalamov.

Simplifiers vs. constructors in science

Simplifiers give one a better overall picture of how the world works, whereas constructors are trying to build something.  The balance seems to be shifting, for instance in physics:

Within the Physics label…we find the simplifiers dominated three quarters of the Nobel Prizes from 1952 to 1981, but more recently constructors have edged the balance with more than half of those from 1982 to 2011.

There is also a shift toward constructors in chemistry, though it is less abrupt.  In the fields of physiology and medicine, however, simplifiers reign supreme and there has been no shift across time.  Three-quarters of the prizes are still going to simplifiers.

Does that mean we should be relatively bullish about progress in those areas, based on forthcoming fundamental breakthroughs?

All these points are from Jeremy J. Baumberg’s new and interesting The Secret Life of Science: How It Really Works and Why It Matters.

*Kolyma Stories*, by Varlam Shalamov

It is difficult to express just how good these Gulag short stories are.  I would very literally second the blurb by David Bezmozgis:

“As a record of the Gulag and human nature laid bare, Varlam Shalamov is the equal of Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, while the artistry of his stories recalls Chekhov. This is literature of the first rank, to be read as much for pleasure as a caution against the perils of totalitarianism.”

That is not blurb inflation.  Note that the book is long (734 pp. of stories), and the reading is slow, mostly because the narratives lack redundant information, not because they are clumsy or awkwardly written.  It also takes perhaps a few stories to get into the swing of things and figure out how the fictional yet not fictional universe works here.  But the content is entirely gripping, and full of social science.  You can buy it here.   A second volume from this translator will appear in 2019, completing the series.

An earlier version of the work, with a different translation and less complete, was published in 1995.  By the way, here is the author’s Wikipedia page.

Have you ever wondered how the contemporary world would react if a masterpiece were dropped into its midst?  If your guess was “with a fair amount of indifference unless it was Elena Ferrante and even then it wouldn’t really change anything except give rise to probably what will be a mediocre television series”…well, you were right.  For Shalamov, I don’t yet see an Amazon review.

Here is my earlier post on what Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag.

Theo asks, and I intersperse my answers

Dear Tyler,

Due to the asymmetry of fame I feel that I know you quite well so I am just going to bombard you with random questions and hope that you see fit to answer some of them.

You seem to value journalism very highly. Is it just out of necessity as a generalist, or does popular writing on a topic have important information that can’t be learned from the academic/scholarly side?

Journalists have to try to explain things that actually happened to other human beings, often educated ones but not specialists either.  It is hard to overrate the importance of that process to developing one’s thoughts and self, no matter what you may think of particular journalists in today’s MSM.

Related: Which elite profession or slice of society is most opaque to journalists and “book-learning” in general? (Oddly some of the categories that come to mind are those which are some of the most written-about – food, sex, friends, law, politics. But it’s probably maths.)

Making things.  Archaeology.  These days, tech.  Maths.  Journalism.

How much less interesting would it be to read Shakespeare if no-one else ever had? Does the answer differ much across top-tier “great” artists?

It would not be less interesting at all, maybe more interesting, because the shock of discovery would be all the greater.  Admittedly, many artists require lots of discussion with other people, maybe rock and roll most of all?  But not Shakespeare.

Overrated vs underrated: The New Yorker. How about Samin Nosrat?

The New Yorker has had a consistent voice and remarkable brand for more decades than I can remember (I recall Patrick Collison making a similar point, perhaps in a podcast?).  Since I am now above the median age for the United States, that makes them underrated.  The literariness of the historical New York and Northeast and the integration of American and European culture also have become underrated topic areas, and The New Yorker still does them, so that too makes the magazine underrated.

And who is Samin Nosrat?  She must therefore be underrated.

Does the world have too many writers, or not enough? What about comparative literature professors? How should we think about the future of literary culture when the written word is becoming so much more culturally dominant at the same time as books and journalism are falling apart?

What variable are we changing at the margin?  If people watch less TV and write more, that is probably a plus.  I also would favor fewer photographs and more writing.  But I wouldn’t cut back on charity to increase the quantity of writing.  If only comparative literature professors were people who simply loved books — at the margin a bit more like used book store owners and somewhat less like professors — and would compare them to each other…then I would want more of them.  Until then, I don’t know how to keep the extra ones busy.

Why does the USA not have open borders with Canada?

I believe America should have open borders with any nation that has a more generous welfare state than we do.  That covers Canada, even though Canadian insurance coverage for mental health and dentistry isn’t nearly as good as you might think.  As to why we don’t have open borders with Canada, I don’t think American voters would see that as solving any concrete problem (can’t we get many of the best Canadians anyway?), and it would feel a bit like giving up control, so why do it?

To what extent are Trump, Brexit, Orban, Erdogan, rising murder rates and stalling trade growth worldwide part of the same phenomenon? If they aren’t completely separate, which way does the contagion run?

Yes, no, and maybe so, get back to me in a few years’ time.

Have a great day…

You too!