Category: History

A Behavioral Interpretation of the Origins of African American Family Structure

That is a new paper by Gerald D. Jaynes, Department of Economics, Yale University.  The abstract is difficult to read, so here is an excerpt from the paper:

The hypothesis underlying my reinterpretation of the origins of contemporary black family structure is, through the late 20th Century, throughout American history, structural differences in the race relations and economic discrimination confronting blacks in rural versus urban locations produced distinct childhood socialization experiences. These distinct socialization experiences exposed urbanized black children (north and south) to large numbers of recusant adults — men and women socially alienated by urban job ceilings and truculently refusing to acquiesce to race relations based in white supremacy. Observation of and interaction with recusant adults and discriminatory economic institutions put urbanized black children at great risk of early projection of a failure to achieve self-verification of an acceptable social identity. The developmental outcome was early adoption of recusant identities and oppositional agencies leading to a polarized choice: either seek self-verification elsewhere by avoiding institutions such as schools, labor markets, and marriage (causing high rates of single parent families), or (attempting to alter one’s reception in such institutions) intensely engage them leading to civil rights activism and a rising black middle class. In contrast, rural black children were more likely exposed to adults seeking self-verification by striving to climb the agricultural tenure ladder a life goal requiring conforming to behavioral norms based in the era’s white supremacist race relations. Failure to self-verify a positive self-image by achieving land ownership or rental tenancy occurred later in life when the adoption of oppositional agencies was greatly mitigated.

Speculative and uneven, but nonetheless of interest.

How to study history of economic thought

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 10-19, 2019. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhDs will also be considered.

Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free housing and a booklet of readings. We are also able to provide limited travel support. The deadline for applying is March 1.

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

*The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis*

That is the new and highly comprehensive book by Sheilagh Ogilvie, and it is likely to stand as one of the more important works of economic history from the last decade.  Here is one opening summary bit:

…my own reading of the evidence is that a common theme underlies guilds’ activities: guilds tended to do what is best for guild members.  In some cases, what guilds did brought certain benefits for the broader public.  But overall, the actions guilds took mainly had the effect of protecting and enriching their members at the expense of consumers and non-members; reducing threats from innovators, competitors, and audacious upstarts; and generating sufficient rents to pay off the political elites that enforced guilds’ privileges and might otherwise have interfered with them.

And yes she really does show this, with a remarkable assemblage of data.  For instance:

…the 14 guilds in Table 2.4 devoted an average of 28 per cent of their expenditures to lobbying.  However, the average was 45 per cent across the five poor guilds and just 14 per cent across the eight rich ones.

Or:

Guild mastership fees could not be paid off in a couple of weeks of work.  Across these 1,102 observations, the average mastership fee consumed 276 days’ wages for a labourer, 215 days for a journeyman, and 1543 days for a guild master.

Operating licenses were expensive too (pp.125-126).  There are more “Ands”:

Guild entry barriers pushed people into illicit production, as emerges from 14 per cent of observations in Table 3.15.

And:

Guild members whose trades stagnated could not legally diversify to other guilded work…

On top of that, guilds typically restricted the training of women and would not let them enter the relevant sectors.  And:

The amount of attention guilds devoted to product quality in their ordinances does not suggest they regarded it as a major concern.

Ouch!  Ogilivie also concludes, and demonstrates using data, that guilds did not promote human capital accumulation or innovation.  The various revisionist defenses of guilds, as produced over the years, basically seem to be wrong.

You can pre-order the book here.

What should I ask Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson

They are my colleagues, and both are economic historians, and they have an important forthcoming book Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom.  I will be doing a Conversation with them.

More generally they have worked on state capacity, nation building, why China evolved into such a large political unit, the Black Death, scapegoating, usury prohibitions in history, the economic impact of volcanic eruptions, and more.  I am always happy to see them.

Their home pages are here and here.  So what should I ask them?

When State-Building Hinders Growth: The Legacy of China’s Confucian Bureaucracy

That is the title of a new paper by Daniel Mattingly:

Do countries with a long history of state-building fare better in the long run? Recent work has shown that earlier state-building may lead to higher levels of present-day growth. By contrast, I use a natural experiment to show that the regions of China with over a thousand years of sustained exposure to state-building are significantly poorer today. The mechanism of persistence, I argue, was the introduction of a civil service exam based on knowledge of Confucian classics, which strengthened the social prestige of the civil service and weakened the prestige of commerce. A thousand years later, the regions of China where the Confucian bureaucracy was first introduced have a more educated population and more Confucian temples, but lower levels of wealth. The paper contributes to an important debate on the Great Divergence, highlighting how political institutions interact with culture to cause long-run patterns of growth.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Predictions for the next twenty years

From New York magazine, here are mine:

American politics will return to the precedent of the 19th century. Then, there was lots of fake news; partisanship was extreme; the media was very biased; Americans reacted politically with extreme emotions and all debates seemed to be full of rancor and bitterness. So in some fundamental ways, this country has not changed. We had a break from that state of affairs in the 20th century because we had the major enemies of the Nazis and then the Soviets. But as those enemies disappeared, we’re fighting among ourselves more, and the nation will go back to an earlier version of its politics, which were highly dysfunctional. You had plenty of people becoming president who probably should not have been.

I don’t see any evidence that we’re headed toward anything like a civil war. Today is a more peaceful era. If you look at polls, you see a generalized loss of trust in many institutions, but the No. 1 clear winner by far is still the military. Police tactics have much improved over the past few decades. The riots of the 1960s are very, very far away. The fighting will stay on social media. The happy people will be those who turn off their smartphones or who don’t put Twitter on them and who just go about living their lives.

But I think the intellectual classes and people in the media will become less and less happy. They’ll be more stressed, and every day they’ll feel like they’re being put through the wringer. Social media has become a kind of opiate of the intellectual class. So, grandparents use social media to track what their grandkids are doing — that’s nice and wonderful. But people who keep on refreshing Twitter for the latest developments in the Mueller investigation — frankly, I think it’s a big waste of time. I think there has been great wrongdoing. I fully support what Mueller is up to. But, at the end of the day, following it moment-to-moment is a kind of trap.

Keep in mind that during a lot of the 19th century, America’s economy grew one and a half percent or 2 percent annually, which was okay. But it was not 4 or 5 percent growth. People felt resources were very scarce. Everything was argued over. A small amount of tariff revenue was a big deal. I think that, too, will be our immediate future. There will be a lot of scarcity. Budgets will be stretched, and, again, everything will be an emotional debate, precisely because there’s so much gridlock. We will look to symbolic politics — who deserves higher status, what kind of rhetoric is permissible. Right now, it’s the coastal elite in major cities versus many other parts of the country. But that will be in flux. Latinos — at what rate will they vote Democratic? Will Asian-Americans defect to the Republican Party?

Democrats still have a big problem: What are they going to run on? They could run on more preschool or no more paid maternity leave. They’re just not that big a deal — not major changes in how America works. I don’t think they’ll end up as the main things we’re debating. If you look at all the attention the “caravan” got — that was just a few thousand people. I think that kind of debate is our future.

The article offers numerous other distinguished and interesting entries.

Non-martial legislation passed during The Civil War

The Homestead Act of 1862, providing (nearly) free land for settlers in designated parts of the West

The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862

The National Banking Act of 1863, creating a national banking system and currency

Several transcontinental railroad bills

The first federal income tax

Created the National Academy of Sciences

Establishment of the Department of Agriculture (which had a significant R&D component), the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Immigration.

Love it or hate it or both, that’s a lot.  Not only do the pressures of war lead to “things getting done,” but of course the Southern states and their representatives had dropped out of Congress.

That is all from Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century.

The option value of civilization

Hi Tyler, I’m a longtime reader of MR and your more recent books.  I enjoyed Stubborn Attachments and was particularly interested in your discussion of the social discount rate.  Like you, I’m inclined to think that this rate should be very low, if not zero.  But more importantly, I think discounting is the wrong financial metaphor to use when discussing the moral worth of the present vs. the future.  Instead, we should look to option pricing theory.  As strange as it seems, option theory provides a neat way to unify many of the claims in Stubborn Attachments, and it gives us arguments for other important claims.  I’m a mortgage-backed securities trader, so embedded mispriced (or unpriced) optionality is always on my mind.

The key idea is that the total moral worth of the universe has some positively skewed distribution: there are more ways for things to be good than there are for it to be bad.  Let’s take this as a given for now; towards the end of this message I explore the consequences of relaxing this assumption.  If the moral worth of the universe has a distribution like this, we can draw an analogy to the payout profile of a call option.  We can imagine that we own an option on the underlying process that generates historical outcomes.

The first thing to recognize is that there’s a fundamental difference between the value of the option, and the value of the underlying.  Translated to moral terms, we should distinguish between the value of present, and the ultimate moral worth of the universe.  The former is just one input in calculating the latter, and the latter should be our primary concern.  We are only indirectly exposed to the value of the present.  We are also exposed to other factors, including the volatility of the historical process, and the social discount rate.

Let’s consider these in turn.  Options theory tells us that the value of an option increases in volatility — a trader would say that an option has positive “vega.”  Thus it makes perfect sense to see you arguing in Stubborn Attachments (and TGS and TCC) for increased social dynamism, risk taking, and openness to innovation.  If we can increase upside volatility, or reduce downside volatility, that’s even better than a symmetric increase in volatility.  My sense is that you view human rights as a way to mitigate downside risk.  This framework implies that some degree of downside mitigation can be traded for upside, a view which seems to be consistent with your view of human rights.

In the option-theoretical framework, the value of an option is decreasing in the discount rate.  But while the specific choice of discount rate changes the overall value of the option, it doesn’t change the sign of any of the sensitivities.  One advantage of this framework is that it can incorporate any particular social discount rate, without affecting the broader conclusions.

We can restate other common questions in this jargon.  Let’s start with the question of the value of the present vs. the value of the future.  In my view, that language is confused.  The value of the future is unknowable and can’t be affected directly.  We should stop talking as if we can.  We can only affect things like the value of the present and the volatility and overall trajectory of the historical process.  Rather than asking about the value of the present vs. the future, we should simply ask “how much should we care about the present, relative to the other things we can affect directly?”  In options jargon, the “delta” of an option is the derivative of the option’s value with respect to the value of the underlying process.  In moral terms, delta is interpreted as the derivative of the moral worth of the universe with respect to the value of the present.  “How much should we care about the present?” can be restated as “What is the delta the option?”

In standard theory, delta is positive (obviously) and increasing in the value of the underlying process.  That is, the second derivative of an option’s value with respect to the value of the underlying process is also positive.  Translated to moral terms: the more valuable the present, the more we should care about it.  This is intuitive, at least to me.  If you think the potential value of the future is vastly greater than the value of the present (i.e. if you think our option is only slightly in-the-money) you should care less about the value of the present.  But if the option is deep in-the-money — if civilization is secure and of great value — we should care more about increasing its value.

We can also think about partial sensitivities.  The most interesting is the sensitivity of delta with respect to volatility: as volatility increases, delta decreases.  In moral terms: the greater the range of historical outcomes, the less we should care about the precise moment we’re in now.  If we think history is highly dynamic, that the space of potential outcomes is very large, and that the far future can be vastly more valuable than the present, we should care less about the specific value of the present.  Similarly, if we think we’re close to the end of history, we should focus on incremental tweaks to improve the value of the present.  The arguments in Stubborn Attachments clearly tend toward the former view.

Finally, we can return to the original assumption, that the value of the future is biased to the upside.  I don’t think you argue for this explicitly, but it’s implied in your idea of Crusonia plants.  What would a negative or inverse Crusonia plant look like?  Could one even exist?  I think it’s vastly more likely for civilization and value to simply be wiped out, than it is for a monstrously evil future to occur.  But if you disagree, you can account for it in the option framework.  The more likely an evil future, the more symmetric (and less option-like) our payout profile.  You can think of humanity as owning some combination of a long call and a short put.  If our portfolio contains equal positions in each, our total delta is 1 — implying that the value of our options position is identical to the value of the underlying.  Translated into moral terms: the more symmetric we think future outcomes are, the more we should care about the present.

This is a new framework for me, but I think it is useful.  I’m sure there are other implications that haven’t yet occurred to me.  I can’t imagine I’m the first to come up with this framework: after all, Cowen’s Second Law states that there’s a literature on everything.  There’s perhaps some precedent in Nassim Taleb’s work and his popularization of options theory and its usefulness in non-financial contexts.  I’m sure someone in the Effective Altruism community has kicked these ideas around; I’m just not aware of it.  If you know of any related work, I’d love to be pointed in the right direction.

That is from MR reader CK.

The Economic Motives for Foot-Binding

From Lingwei Wu and Xinyu Fan at AEA:

What are the origins of gender-biased social norms? As a painful custom that persisted in historical China, foot-binding targeted girls whose feet were reshaped during early childhood. This paper presents a unified theory to explain the stylized facts of foot-binding, and investigates its historical dynamics driven by a gender-asymmetric mobility system in historical China (the Civil Examination System). The exam system marked the transition from hereditary aristocracy to meritocracy, generated a more heterogeneous composition of men compared to that of women, and triggered intensive competition among women in the marriage market. As a competition package carrying both aesthetic and moral values, foot-binding was gradually adopted by women as their social ladder, first in the upper class and later by the lower class. Since foot-binding impedes non-sedentary labor, but not sedentary labor, however, its adoption in the lower class exhibited distinctive regional variation: it was highly prevalent in regions where women specialized in household handicraft, and was less popular in regions where women specialized in intensive farming, e.g. rice cultivation. Empirically, we conduct analysis using county-level Republican archives on foot-binding to test the cross-sectional predictions of our theory, and major findings that are robust and consistent with key theoretical predictions.

There are other interesting papers at the link, relating to culture and women’s issues.

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?

COWEN: Yes.

KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit

I am tempted to call this long piece on a boring subject the best I have read in 2019, but you know I think that might remain true by the end of the year.  Here is an excerpt from the Belgium section:

I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.

Or Denmark:

The leftish Information provides the most useful articles. One has a headline in English, though anchored in the land of Elsinore: ‘To Be or Not to Be, That Is Not the Question’. The real ‘question’ doesn’t concern the merits of Leave or Remain, but the complexities of a twin crisis, in both the UK and the EU. Another piece, published shortly after the referendum, describes the division of a nation into Leavers and Remainers as afgrundsdyb. Meaning ‘abyssal’, the term, I am told, hints at the unfathomable as well as the unbridgeable, while evoking something that is certainly dangerous to approach.

I enjoyed this line:

Croatia has more experience than most of entering and exiting alliances.

From the Germany section:

‘Brexit shows that the Brussels bureaucracy, that alleged monster that employs no more civil servants than a central German city administration, has done a great job. The extent of interconnectedness at all levels has to be renegotiated: supply chains, industry standards, food and pharmaceutical standards, security architectures, rural and air transport structures, fishing rights, research collaborations, student exchanges, a vast frictionlessness system is now in jeopardy’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

This I had not known:

…in Norway the conservative right is overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU.

And finally:

Being a Brit in Sweden can be embarrassing just now. We’re one of the Swedes’ favourite peoples, admired for our history and culture, and loved for Engelskt humor. Shocked they may be; but a diet of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers means that Swedes are not altogether surprised.

The authors are numerous, the whole piece was published in The London Review of Books, definitely recommended.  I would note that “what group X really thinks of Y” remains an under-exploited genre in journalism, and elsewhere, and it is one of the best ways of learning about a topic.

That was then, this is now

[Andrew] Jackson imagined his role as that of a Roman tribune or dictator, summoned to executive power for a season for defend the plebeians against corrupt patricians.  That meant, among other things, slashing federal expenses and retiring the national debt.

Jackson in fact worked hard to strike down “internal improvements” in only a single state, as he was convinced that such legislation was unconstitutional, and that a corrupt Congress was working to enrich itself.

That is all from Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, p.60.

Sister Wendy has passed away

Here are some notices.  In addition to her duties for the Church, she was an art historian “for the people.”  I thought she had a remarkably good eye, and was especially strong in explaining the virtues of late medieval/early Renaissance art, most of all works “from a school” or attributed to a pseudonym.  She was “a thing” in the 90s, so if you don’t know her work I would recommend all of her books, they are full of life and love for art and yes love for the reader too.  Here is the NYT obituary.

The Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.

“I love bringing my kids here,” I heard from my Eritrean Uber driver, the first person I’ve met who admits to going.  The lavishly funded museum is indeed a world unto itself.  Here is what struck me on a recent visit:

1. The interior and the staff feel like nowhere else in D.C., like a cross between the Midwest and a Mormon temple perhaps.  There is much more wood paneling than one sees around town.

2. It is unabashedly the most universalistic and cosmopolitan interior in the area.  There is a large room with circular shelves, containing all the Bibles in different languages they could find.  Long columns list the languages of those Bibles, and a flashing sign indicates that 977,977 different Bible chapters would need to be translated before every chapter of the Bible is available in all of the world’s languages.

3. You can see plenty of old Bibles from the centuries, and while they are attractive, none are quite good enough for an art museum like say The Walters in Baltimore.

4. There is a station playing references to the Bible from popular music.  As I stopped by it was serving up “Four Horsemen” by The Clash, and then it segued into “Hard Headed Woman” by Elvis Presley.

5. Entrance costs $25.99, plus premia for special exhibits.

 

6. The museum bends over backwards to be non-denominational, that said the intended neutrality imposes biases of its own.  The big losers are the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, because this is indeed a museum about a book, not about a church community.  The connection between this book, and the communities it has spawned, is precisely the murky angle here and it seems almost deliberately obscured.  The Amish also are not prominent in the displays.  Imagine if people really just read and worshiped the book.  This truly is a museum about a book.

7. The museum tries not to refer to “the Christian Bible” or “the Hebrew Bible,” but that intended neutrality breaks down when you encounter the two sections for “the Old Testament” and “the New Testament.”  The Jews lose.

8. There is a section — entirely respectful — where a Jewish scribe writes out biblical text for viewers.  There is another exhibit of ancient Biblical life where you can walk among stone houses, read panels about biblical references to water, read about the Second Temple, and employees are paid to dress in (supposed) clothing from that period and say “Shalom” to you.

9. The museum is extraordinarily literal, and if you wanted to explain to space aliens what the Bible was, you could take them here.  That said, they would end up understanding the Bible far better than Christianity.

10. There is a very interesting section on bibles for slaves, and which sections of the original Bible they omitted.  On a wall display, visitors are asked to write out whether they consider these “slave bibles” to be proper Bibles or not.  Most say no.

11. There is a questionnaire, a bit like a Twitter quiz.  It first notes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton reinterpreted the Bible in the late 19th century, so as to make it more sympathetic to the rights of women.  It then asks the visitors whether reinterpretations of the Bible should be allowed today.  So far 61 percent have answered “no.”

12. The gift shop is lavish.  The museum restaurant Manna serves kosher food.  Here is the Wikipedia page for the museum.

13. The google headline for the museum has the subtitle “One of the Ten Best Museums in DC.”  It is odd they do not think it is the best.