Category: History

If technology has arrived everywhere, why has income diverged?

That is the topic of a new paper by Diego Comin and Martí Mestieri, published in AEJ: Macroeconomics, here is the abstract:

We study the cross-country evolution of technology diffusion over the last two centuries. We document that adoption lags between poor and rich countries have converged, while the intensity of use of adopted technologies of poor countries relative to rich countries has diverged. The evolution of aggregate productivity implied by these trends in technology diffusion resembles the actual evolution of the world income distribution in the last two centuries. Cross-country differences in adoption lags account for a significant part of the cross-country income divergence in the nineteenth century. The divergence in intensity of use accounts for the divergence during the twentieth century.

I am struck by the strength of the two major stylized facts in this paper.  The mean adoption lag for spindles, classified as a 1779 technology, was 130 years, or in other words that is how long it took for the technology to move to poorer countries.  For ships, listed as a 1788 technology, the mean lag is 110 years.  Synthetic fiber is a 1931 technology, with a mean adoption lag of 29 years.  For the internet, a 1983 technology (is that right?), the mean adoption lag is only 6 years.

But the overall story is not so simple.  The more advanced countries use more of these technologies, and use them more effectively (“intensity”), and that gap has been growing over time.  Yes, Ghana has the internet, but it is Silicon Valley that is working wonders with it.  Some technology use begs more technology use.

If you calibrate those parameters properly, it turns out you can explain about 3/4 of the evolution of income divergence across rich and poor countries.

And this story is a metaphor for what, what would Baudrillard say?

The US Postal Service has been ordered to pay $3.5m (£2.6m) for copyright infringement after mistakenly using the wrong Statue of Liberty on a stamp.

The Postal Service used the image of sculptor Robert Davidson’s Las Vegas replica on a 2010 stamp design instead of the New York original.

Mr Davidson called his replica “sexier”, and a judge ruled that the statues were indeed “unmistakably” different.

The Postal Service has not commented on the verdict.

In his original 2013 complaint, Mr Davidson said his work gave the American icon a more “fresh-faced, sultry and even sexier” look, US media reported.

Federal Judge Eric Bruggink ruled on 29 June that Mr Davidson was entitled to a share of the US Postal Service’s (USPS) earnings from the stamp.

USPS sold 4.9bn stamps with the Vegas Lady Liberty image, amounting to profits of $70m before it was retired in 2014, according to court documents.

Here is the link, via Michael Rosenwald, who now has a new history podcast series.

Lviv, Ukraine: a brief recent history

In the twentieth century, L’viv…, now a city in Ukraine, experienced war not just once but many times.  Between 1914 and 1947, the city went through seven regime changes and was shelled by Russian, Ukrainian, German, and Soviet artillery and bombed by German and Soviet planes.  In November 1918, Poles and Ukrainians fought one another for control of the city.  Twnety-five years later, both sides were prepared to battle it out again.  During the same period, the city’s Jewish population lived through several pogroms and experienced repeated bouts of anti-Semitic violence up until the time when almost all of Jews of L’viv were murdered by Nazi Germany.  After World War II, the Soviet government forced the Polish population to leave the city…In 1914 half of the city’s population was Roman Catholic (mostly Poles), 28 percent were Jewish, and 18 percent were Greek Catholic (about two-thirds of them Ruthenians/Ukrainians).  By 1947, L’viv had become an almost homogeneously Ukrainian city…Approximately 80 percent of the city’s’ inhabitants had arrived during or after the war.

That is all from p.1 of Christoph Mick’s study of L’viv.

U.S.A. facts of the day

In 2000, 55 percent of American playgrounds had seesaws, but only 7 percent did by 2004.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation claims it has not installed a new one, except by special request, in over thirty years.  There are now only a few seesaws left in the city.

(TC: As a child, I never had an interest in those infernal things, which seemed to me dangerous and not much fun.)

Most of the “monkey bars” in NYC had been installed by master builder Robert Moses, between 1934 and 1960.

Between 2001 and 2008, about two hundred thousand American children sustained playground injuries, 36 percent of them being broken bones.

That said, Helle Nebelong, a Danish landscape architect, argues that too much uniformity in the environment of children creates other risks, because they come to expect the whole world will be smooth and predictable.  Nature, in particular, is not.

In 1949, “junk” playgrounds were a trend.  They often had paint, nails, and many kinds of secondhand building materials.

The first edition of the Handbook for Public Playground Safety appeared in 1981.

That is all from the new and interesting The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, by Alexandra Lange.

In Defense of the American Revolution

The economic historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes an informed defense of the American Revolution. Here’s the opening:

It has become de rigueur, even among libertarians and classical liberals, to denigrate the benefits of the American Revolution. Thus, libertarian Bryan Caplan writes:  “Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?… [W]hen you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer. In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.”1 One can also find such challenges reflected in recent mainstream writing, both popular and scholarly.

In fact, the American Revolution, despite all its obvious costs and excesses, brought about enormous net benefits not just for citizens of the newly independent United States but also, over the long run, for people across the globe. Speculations that, without the American Revolution, the treatment of the indigenous population would have been more just or that slavery would have been abolished earlier display extreme historical naivety. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Here are the first four:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

Here is the longer list, via Adam.  You can order the book here.

Why Sexism and Racism Never Diminish–Even When Everyone Becomes Less Sexist and Racist

The idea that concepts depend on their reference class isn’t new. A short basketball player is tall and a poor American is rich. One might have thought, however, that a blue dot is a blue dot. Blue can be defined by wavelength so unlike a relative concept like short or rich there is some objective reality behind blue even if the boundaries are vague. Nevertheless, in a thought-provoking new paper in Science the all-star team of Levari, Gilbert, Wilson, Sievers, Amodio and Wheatley show that what we identify as blue expands as the prevalence of blue decreases.

In the figure below, for example, the authors ask respondents to identify a dot as blue or purple. The figure on the left shows that as the objective shading increases from very purple to very blue more people identify the dot as blue, just as one would expect. (The initial and final 200 trials indicate that there is no tendency for changes over time.) In the figure at right, however, blue dots were made less prevalent in the final 200 trials and, after the decrease in the prevalence, the tendency to identify a dot as blue increases dramatically. In the decreasing prevalence condition on the right, a dot that previously was previously identified as blue only 25% of the time now becomes identified as blue 50% of the time! (Read upwards from the horizontal axis and compare the yellow and blue prediction lines).

Clever. But so what? What the authors then go on to show, however, is that the same phenomena happens with complex concepts for which we arguably would like to have a consistent and constant identification.

Are people susceptible to prevalence-induced concept change? To answer this question, we showed participants in seven studies a series of stimuli and asked them to determine whether each stimulus was or was not an instance of a concept. The concepts ranged from simple (“Is this dot blue?”) to complex (“Is this research proposal ethical?”). After participants did this for a while, we changed the prevalence of the concept’s instances and then measured whether the concept had expanded—that is, whether it had come to include instances that it had previously excluded.

…When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening; and when unethical research proposals became rare, ambiguous research proposals began to seem unethical. This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.

Assuming the result replicates (the authors have 7 studies which appear to me to be independent, although each study is fairly small in size (20-100) and drawn from Harvard undergrads) it has many implications.

in 1960, Websters dictionary defined aggressionas an unprovoked attack or invasion,but today that concept can include behaviors such as making insufficient eye contact or asking people where they are from. Many other concepts, such as abuse, bullying, mental disorder, trauma, addiction, and prejudice, have expanded of late as well

… Many organizations and institutions are dedicated to identifying and reducing the prevalence of social problems, from unethical research to unwarranted aggressions. But our studies suggest that even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognize the success of their own efforts, simply because they view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context that they themselves have brought about. Although modern societies have made extraordinary progress in solving a wide range of social problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and infant mortality, the majority of people believe that the world is getting worse. The fact that concepts grow larger when their instances grow smaller may be one source of that pessimism.

The paper also gives us a way of thinking more clearly about shifts in the Overton window. When strong sexism declines, for example, the Overton window shrinks on one end and expands on the other so that what was once not considered sexism at all (e.g. “men and women have different preferences which might explain job choice“) now becomes violently sexist.

Nicholas Christakis and the fearless Gabriel Rossman point out on twitter (see at right) that it works the other way as well. Namely, the presence of extremes can help others near the middle by widening the set of issues that can be discussed or studied without fear of opprobrium.

But why shouldn’t our standards change over time? Most of the people in the 1850s who thought slavery was an abomination would have rejected the idea of inter-racial marriage. Wife beating wasn’t considered a violent crime in just the very recent past. What racism and sexism mean has changed over time. Are these examples of concept creep or progress? I’d argue progress but the blue dot experiment of Levari et al. suggests that if even objective concepts morph under prevalence inducement then subjective concepts surely will. The issue then is not to prevent progress but to recognize it and not be fooled into thinking that progress hasn’t been made just because our identifications have changed.

Time of death, fame, and the internet: a hypothesis

If you were somewhat known, but not very super-duper famous to begin with, it was bad for your reputation to have died right before the internet became “a thing.”

You will have relatively few traces on the internet itself, and right after your death people all of a sudden had this new medium for chatting with others about all sorts of other fascinating things, most of them not you.

Ethnolinguistic favoritism in African politics

African political leaders have a tendency to favor members of their own ethnic group. Yet for all other ethnic groups in a country, it is unclear whether having a similar ethnicity to the leader is beneficial. To shed light on this issue, I use a continuous measure of linguistic similarity to quantify the ethnic similarity of a leader to all ethnic groups in a country. Combined with panel data on 163 ethnic groups partitioned across 35 sub-Saharan countries, I use within-group time variation in similarity that results from a partitioned group’s concurrent exposure to multiple national leaders. Findings show that ethnic favoritism is more widespread than previously believed: in addition to evidence of coethnic favoritism, I document evidence of non-coethnic favoritism that typically goes undetected in the absence of a continuous measure of similarity. I also find that patronage tends to be targeted toward ethnic regions rather than individuals of a particular ethnic group. I relate these results to the literature on coalition building, and provide evidence that ethnicity is one of the guiding principles behind high-level government appointments.

That is from Andrew Dickens in the latest American Economic Review.

The origins of WEIRD psychology

This is one of the most important topics, right?  Well, here is a new and quite thorough paper by Jonathan Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich.  Here is the abstract:

Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.

As you might expect, a paper like this is fairly qualitative by its nature, and this one will not convince everybody.  Who can separate out all those causal pathways?  Even in a paper that is basically a short book.

Object all you want, but there is some chance that this is one of the half dozen most important social science and/or history papers ever written.  So maybe a few of you should read it.

And the print in the references to the supplementary materials is small, so maybe I missed it, but I don’t think there is any citation to Steve Sailer, who has been pushing a version of this idea for many years.

Final installment of stochastically best books to read on each country

These are past suggestions from MR readers, pulled from the comments, endorsed by me only on a stochastic basis:

Michela Wrong, Eritrea

Rwanda: something Prunier, probably Rwanda Crisis though it stops in 1996

Uganda: Season of Thomas Tebo, though it’s fiction (is that disqualifying?)

Eastern Congo: Jason Stearns Dancing with Monsters (like China, the country is too big for one book)

The Government of Ethiopia – Margery Perham’s Ethiopian answer to Ruth Benedict’s Japanese The Sword and the Chrysanthemum.

Ethiopia: – Wax and Gold by Donald Levine – Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia (edited by E. Ficquet & G. Prunier

Pre-colonial Africa: The Scramble for Africa

For DRCongo, I recommend The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. It does a great job of distinguishing between the dizzying array of political factions in Congolese history. It’s shortcomings are in culture and economics. Not a lot to choose from with DRC unfortunately!

From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz was excellent, as was King Leopold’s ghost on the DRC.

Zimbabwe – The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart

Great Lakes region: this was actually good

On Australia: Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding”

On Hong Kong: Gordon Mathews’ “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong”

Tyler mentioned Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s book on the Caribbean for the region, so how about Paul Theroux’s book about the South Pacific, “The Happy Isles of Oceania”?

And if Boston were a country: J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” J. Anthony Lukas

What about outer space? Best book on Mars? The moon?

Is democracy in danger?

From the highly regarded Daniel Treisman:

Influential voices in academia and the media contend that democracy is in decline worldwide and threatened in the US. Using a variety of measures, I show that the global proportion of democracies is actually at or near an all-time high; that the current rate of backsliding is not historically unusual; and that this rate is well explained by the economic characteristics of existing democracies. I confirm that breakdowns tend to occur in countries that are poor, have had relatively little democratic experience, and are in economic crisis. Extrapolating from historical data, I show that the estimated hazard of failure in a democracy as developed and seasoned as the US is extremely low — far lower than in any democracy that has ended in the past. Some suggest that undemocratic public attitudes and erosion of elite norms threaten US institutions, but there is little evidence that these factors cause democratic breakdown. While deterioration in the quality of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Poland is itself cause for concern — as is the reversion to authoritarianism in Russia and Turkey — alarm about a global slide into autocracy is inconsistent with current evidence.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.


COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.


COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”

Madagascar fact of the day

President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is weathering the latest in a series of political crises that have debilitated his nation since independence in 1960. In that period, Madagascar is the world’s only non-conflict country to have become poorer, according to the World Bank. Its income per head has nearly halved, to about $400.

That is from the excellent David Pilling at the FT.  According to one estimate, almost one out of two children is stunted through malnutrition.

*Empire of Guns*

The author is Priya Satia, and the subtitle is The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.  Here is one good bit:

In fact, there were so many transitions between peace and war that it is difficult to establish what “normal” economic conditions were.  Eighteenth-century Europeans accepted war as “inevitable, an ordinary fact of human existence.”  It was an utterly unexceptional state of affairs.  For Britons in particular, war was something that happened abroad and that kept truly damaging disruption — invasion or rebellion — at bay.  Wars that were disruptive elsewhere were understood as preservationist in Britain…Adam Smith’s complaints about the costs of war, about the “ruinous expedient” of perpetual funding and high public debt in peacetime, staked out a contrarian position; The Wealth of Nations (1776) was a work of persuasion.  His and other voices in favor of pacific development grew louder from the margins.  By denormalizing war, liberal political economy raised the stakes of the century’s long final wars from 1793 to 1815, which could be stomached only as an exceptional, apocalyptic stage on the way to permanent peace.

In their wake, nineteenth-century Britain packaged their empire as a primarily civilian enterprise focused on liberty, forgetting the earlier collective investment in and profit from the wars that had produced it..

The book offers many points of interest.