Category: History

The volatility of events is correlated (and not always in a good way)

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Consider bad economic news, which is relatively unambiguous. With stock market returns, volatility is correlated over time, and it is higher in bear markets. To some extent the bad mood is contagious, and the bad events behind the volatility may be interlinked as well.

To be clear, the stock market has done fine lately. The latest bad news is about politics and public health, not corporate earnings. Still, the stock market is readily measurable and can offer clues about how broader social processes are connected over time — and one obvious conclusion is that volatility tends to feed upon itself, not usually in positive ways.


Another problem is what my colleague Bryan Caplan has labeled “the idea trap.” Social science research indicates that in troubled times people are more likely to turn to bad ideas. The distressed German economy of the 1920s and early 1930s, for example, helped to breed support for the Nazis.

More recently, the global economy has been very much a mixed bag since the financial crisis of 2008. So people might begin to embrace worse ideas, which in turn will breed subsequent volatility. Such a cycle can worsen over time, and a ragged recovery from the Covid-19 deep recession could exacerbate this dynamic. It simply isn’t good for decision-making if everyone is feeling frazzled and stressed.


Who Runs the AEA?

That is a new paper by Kevin D. Hoover and Andrej Svorenčík:

The leadership structure of the American Economics Association is documented using a biographical database covering every officer and losing candidate for AEA offices from 1950 to 2019. The analysis focuses on institutional affiliations by education and employment. The structure is strongly hierarchical. A few institutions dominate the leadership, and their dominance has become markedly stronger over time. Broadly two types of explanations are explored: that institutional dominance is based on academic merit or that it based on self-perpetuating privilege. Network effects that might explain the dynamic of increasing concentration are also investigated.

I wonder how the AEA budget will hold up now that interviews can be done by Zoom and meeting attendance is not required.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

That was then, this is now

The 1954 United States Capitol shooting was an attack on March 1, 1954, by four Puerto Rican nationalists; they shot 30 rounds from semi-automatic pistols from the Ladies’ Gallery (a balcony for visitors) of the House of Representatives chamber in the United States Capitol. They wanted to highlight their desire for Puerto Rican independence from US rule.

The nationalists, identified as Lolita LebrónRafael Cancel MirandaAndres Figueroa Cordero, and Irvin Flores Rodríguez, unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and began shooting at Representatives in the 83rd Congress, who were debating an immigration bill. Five Representatives were wounded, one seriously, but all recovered. The assailants were arrested, tried and convicted in federal court, and given long sentences, effectively life imprisonment. In 1978 and 1979, they were pardoned by President Jimmy Carter; all four returned to Puerto Rico.

Here is further information.

Does soil heterogeneity induce greater individualism?

Itzchak Tzachi Raz says maybe so:

This paper studies the impact of social learning on the formation of close-knit communities. It provides empirical support to the hypothesis, put forth by the historian Fred Shannon in 1945, that local soil heterogeneity limited the ability of American farmers to learn from the experience of their neighbors, and that this contributed to their “traditional individualism.” Consistent with this hypothesis, I establish that historically, U.S. counties with a higher degree of soil heterogeneity displayed weaker communal ties. I provide causal evidence on the formation of this pattern in a Difference-in-Differences framework, documenting a reduction in the strength of farmers’ communal ties following migration to a soil-heterogeneous county, relative to farmers that moved to a soil-homogeneous county. Using the same design, I also show that soil heterogeneity did not affect the social ties of non-farmers. The impact of soil heterogeneity is long-lasting, still affecting culture today. These findings suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of culture.

Here is the full paper.  See also his paper on homesteading: “…we find that areas with greater historical exposure to homesteading are poorer and more rural today.”

Globalization is older than you think

Asian spices such as turmeric and fruits like the banana had already reached the Mediterranean more than 3000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. A team of researchers has shown that even in the Bronze Age, long-distance trade in food was already connecting distant societies…

Working with an international team to analyze food residues in tooth tartar, the LMU archaeologist has found evidence that people in the Levant were already eating turmeric, bananas and even soy in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Stockhammer. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana and soy outside of South and East Asia.” It is also direct evidence that as early as the second millennium BCE there was already a flourishing long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices and oils, which is believed to have connected South Asia and the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt.

Here is the full account, I strongly suspect globalization is much older than is commonly believed. Via Bruno M.

*The Way We Were* (with broad spoilers)

Oddly, I had never seen this 1973 movie before, and found a number of points noteworthy.  It is a more effective critique of the “white male patriarchy” than today’s performative yelpings, and makes the latter look, if anything, both hysterical and understudied.  And imagine a two hour movie which consists of little more than having two major stars — Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford — talk to each other.  I miss this in more recent Hollywood cinema.  And remember when movies generated hit songs?  By today’s standards, the sexual relationship between the two starts with her raping him while he is drunk (with implicit commentary on the famous bedroom scene from “It Happened One Night.”)  Circa 1973, the main sympathetic character (Streisand) could be shown as a fan of Lenin and Stalin (and Roosevelt) without anyone being too offended.  Nor does anyone mind that she smokes, drinks (more than a sip), and gets into scuffles while pregnant.  The core substantive takeaway from the plot seems to be “Jewish people should marry their own,” which is not the brand of segregationism that has remained popular today.

As stated, this movie for me was a first-time watch rather than a rewatch, but still it felt like a rewatch, as the most interesting elements were all a look into the past.  The more our world moves away from its previous moorings, the more “what to rewatch” will become an important skill.  Or what to reread, or what to listen to again.  This topic and this skill is underdiscussed.  When it comes to the past, increasingly “the uncensored” is more interesting than “high quality” per se.

Overall this movie is more interesting now than it was at the time of its release, so I guess I am glad I waited.  Here is an OK but quite cliched 1973 review of the film.  And here is Ebert from 1973.

That was then, this is now — Pakistan edition

Ayub Khan ended the political turmoil to become the country’s first military ruler in 1958. He revived the economy, carried out agrarian reforms, provided stimulus to the industry and encouraged foreign investment.  State-backed capitalism and alliance with the US powered a ‘golden age’ of high growth rates under Ayub Khan’s reign. The growth was significant enough for the international media to take a note of it.  In January of 1965, New York Times went on to predict that Pakistan might be on its way towards an economic milestone reached ‘by only one other populous country, the United States’.  A year later, The Times, London, called Pakistan’s survival and development ‘one of the most remarkable examples of state and nation-building in the post-war period’.  Pakistan was ‘considered to be one of the few countries at the time that would achieve developed-country status’.

That is from Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s recent and really quite good The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan.

School Closures During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited interest in responses to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the last comparable U.S. public health emergency. During both pandemics, many state and local governments made the controversial decision to close schools. We study the short- and long-run effects of 1918-19 pandemic-related school closures on children. We find precise null effects of school closures in 1918 on school attendance in 1919-20 using newly collected data on the exact timing of school closures for 168 cities in 1918-19. Linking affected children to their adult outcomes in the 1940 census, we also find precise null effects of school closures on adult educational attainment, wage income, non-wage income, and hours worked in 1940. Our results are not inconsistent with an emerging literature that finds negative short-run effects of COVID-19-related school closures on learning. The situation in 1918 was starkly different from today: (1) schools closed in 1918 for many fewer days on average, (2) the 1918 virus was much deadlier to young adults and children, boosting absenteeism even in schools that stayed open, and (3) the lack of effective remote learning platforms in 1918 may have reduced the scope for school closures to increase socioeconomic inequality.

That is from a new paper by Philipp Ager, Katherine Eriksson, Ezra Karger, Peter Nencka, and Melissa A. Thompson.  This is very good and important work, though you will find some Denkfehler in the second half of the abstract, namely confusing short- and long-run (is it so appalling to consider that “school” isn’t always “useful learning” over a 20-year time horizon?) and confusing inequality with absolute performance.  Those are simple points people, you are being misled by your ideology.

*Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition*

By Mark Lawrence Schrad. From the Amazon summary:

This is the history of temperance and prohibition as you’ve never read it before: redefining temperance as a progressive, global, pro-justice movement that affected virtually every significant world leader from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries.

I have been reading the galleys, I will blurb it, it will be one of the best non-fiction books of 2021, more in due time you can pre-order here.

What should I ask Patricia Fara?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and did her PhD at the University of London

Her areas of particular academic interest include the role of portraiture and art in the history of science, science in the 18th century England during the Enlightenment and the role of women in science. She has written about numerous women in science, mathematics, engineering, and medicine including: Hertha AyrtonLady Helen GleichenMona Chalmers WatsonHelen Gwynne-VaughanIsabel Emslie HuttonFlora MurrayIda MacleanMarie Stopes, and Martha Annie Whiteley. She has argued for expanded access to childcare as a means of increasing the retention of women in science. She has written and co-authored a number of books for children on science. Fara is also a reviewer of books on history of science. She has written the award-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) [and Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity (2012). Her most recent book is A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War” (2017). In 2013, Fara published an article in Nature (journal), stressing the fact that biographies of female scientists perpetuate stereotypes.

And she has a new book coming out on Isaac Newton.  So what should I ask her?

That was then, this is now

Many professors at universities routinely quizzed their students too, although not as commonly as faculty at smaller colleges did.  [In 1910]…a questionnaire of University of Chicago faculty revealed that 25 of 122 replying professors gave some kind of quiz each day; 31 gave them each week, and 10 others did so every other week.  The following year, in 1911, a survey of 188 economics professors around the country showed that 171 of them employed “oral quizzes” in class; only 60 of them used written tests.  Surveying undergraduates alongside faculty, the 1910 University of Chicago survey found that four of five students favored written tests over oral ones.

That is from Jonathan Zimmerman’s quite interesting The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.

That was then, this is now, Malthus and Ireland edition

In the present wreck of empires, and under the extinction of all international law, no small state can hope to maintain its independence.  Great Britain and Ireland, from their situation, their language, and their mutual necessities, seem naturally destined to support each other’s strength, and supply each other’s wants; and we are quite convinced, that nothing but extreme misgovernment can separate them.  Heavy indeed, then, will be the responsibility of those men, under who administration, or by whose previous unconciliatory measures such a separation is effected — whether the immediate cause of it be foreign conquest, or internal commotion.

That is Thomas Robert Malthus, “On the State of Ireland (II), published in the Edinburgh Review in 1809.  It made perfect sense back then — and today — and yet for entirely different and indeed almost opposite reasons.

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

What might an end to the Great Stagnation consist of?

If indeed it did, they are asking a similar question at The Economist. In recent times you might cite the onset of Apple’s M1, GPT-3, DeepMind’s application of AI to protein folding, phase III for a credible malaria vaccine, a CRISPR/sickle cell cure, the possibility of a universal flu vaccine, mRNA vaccines, ongoing solar power progress, wonderful new batteries for electric vehicles, a possibly new method for Chinese fusion (?), Chinese photon quantum computing, and ongoing advances in space exploration, most of all from SpaceX. Tesla has a very high market valuation, and Elon is the world’s second richest man.

Distanced work is very important, and here is a separate post on that.

I would say that almost certainly the great stagnation is over in the biomedical sciences.  It is less obvious that the great stagnation is over more generally, as we might simply retreat into our former sloth and complacency once we are mostly vaccinated.  Applied Divinity Studies has posed some pointed questions about why we might think that stagnation is over.

If you are looking for a quick metric to indicate the great stagnation might be over, consider total factor productivity.  It is entirely possible that tfp in 2021 will be 5 or more, its highest level ever.  (To be sure, this will show up as a measured increase in inputs more than as tfp, but we all know why those inputs will be increasing and that is because of science…yes this is a problem with tfp measures!)  Over the two years to follow after that, we should be seeing very high tfps around the world.  So that will be very high tfp for a few years.

Again, that is not proof of a permanent or even an ongoing end to the great stagnation.  But it is something.

Two more general points seem relevant.  First, many of the biomedical advances seem connected to new platforms, new modes of computation, new uses of AI, and so on, and they should be leading to yet further advances.  Second, there are (finally!) some very real advances in energy use, and those tend to bring yet other advances in their wake, and not just advances in bit space.

But not all is rosy.  If you recall my paper with Ben Southwood, the obstacles standing in the way of faster scientific progress, such as specialization and bureaucratization, mostly remain and some of them will be getting worse.

My The Great Stagnation, published in 2011, offered some pointed predictions.  It argued that the “next big thing” was already with us, namely the internet, but we simply hadn’t learned to use it effectively yet.  Once we put the internet at the center of many more of our institutions, rather than treating it as an add-on, the great stagnation would end.  Numerous times (using roughly a 2011 start date) I predicted that the great stagnation would be over within twenty years time, though not in the next few years.  The Great Stagnation in fact was an optimistic book, at least if you read it to the end and do not just mood affiliate over the title.

By no means would I say that specific scenario has been validated, but as a prediction it is looking not so crazy.

The gains from truly mobilizing the internet may in fact right now be swamping all of the accumulated obstacles we have put in the way of progress.

I also wrote, in 2011, that as the great stagnation approaches its end, we will all be deeply upset, and long for the earlier times.  That too is by no means obviously wrong.