Category: History

Why is labor mobility slowing in America?

There is a new and quite interesting paper on this topic, by Kyle Mangum and Patrick Coate:

This paper offers an explanation for declining internal migration in the United States motivated by a new empirical fact: the mobility decline is driven by locations with typically high rates of population turnover. These “fast” locations were the Sunbelt centers of population growth during the twentieth century. The paper presents evidence that as spatial population growth converged, residents of fast locations were subject to rising levels of preference for home. Using a novel measure of home attachment, the paper develops and estimates a structural model of migration that distinguishes moving frictions from home utility. Simulations quantify the role of multiple explanations of the mobility decline. Rising home attachment accounts for nearly half of the decline, roughly as large as the effect of an aging population, and is consistent with the spatial pattern. The implication is recent declining migration is a long run result of population shifts of the twentieth century.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Tyler Ransom.

Learning about the Roots of Progress from the History of Smallpox Eradication

The excellent Jason Crawford at the Roots of Progress has a long-form read on the history of smallpox eradication. It’s an important and insightful piece especially because Jason is interested not just in what happened but why it happened when and where it did and what the lessons are for today:

In 1720, inoculation had been a folk practice in many parts of the world for hundreds of years, but smallpox was still endemic almost everywhere. The disease had existed for at least 1,400 and probably over 3,000 years. Just over 250 years later—it was gone.

Why did it take so long, and how did it then happen so fast? Why wasn’t inoculation practiced more widely in China, India, or the Middle East, when it had been known there for centuries? Why, when it reached the West, did it spread faster and wider than ever before—enough to significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate the disease?

The same questions apply to many other technologies. China famously had the compass, gunpowder, and cast iron all before the West, but it was Europe that charted the oceans, blasted tunnels through mountains, and created the Industrial Revolution. In smallpox we see the same pattern. [Why?]

  • The idea of progress. In Europe by 1700 there was a widespread belief, the legacy of Bacon, that useful knowledge could be discovered that would lead to improvements in life. People were on the lookout for such knowledge and improvements and were eager to discover and communicate them. Those who advocated for inoculation in 1720s England did so in part on the grounds of a general idea of progress in medicine, and they pointed to recent advances, such as using Cinchona bark (quinine) to treat malaria, as evidence that such progress was possible. The idea of medical progress drove the Suttons to make incremental improvements to inoculation, Watson to run his clinical trial, and Jenner to perfect his vaccine.
  • Secularism/humanism. To believe in progress requires believing in human agency and caring about human life (in this world, not the next). Although England learned about inoculation from the Ottoman Empire, it was reported that Muslims there avoided the practice because it interfered with divine providence—the same argument Reverend Massey used. In that sermon, Massey said in his conclusion, “Let them Inoculate, and be Inoculated, whose Hope is only in, and for this Life!” A primary concern with salvation of the immortal soul precludes concerns of the flesh. Fortunately, Christianity had by then absorbed enough of the Enlightenment that other moral leaders, such as Cotton Mather, could give a humanistic opinion on inoculation.
  • Communication. In China, variolation may have been introduced as early as the 10th century AD, but it was a secret rite until the 16th century, when it became more publicly documented. In contrast, in 18th-century Europe, part of the Baconian program was the dissemination of useful knowledge, and there were networks and institutions expressly for that purpose. The Royal Society acted as an information hub, taking in interesting reports and broadcasting the most important ones. Prestige and acclaim came to those who announced useful discoveries, so the mechanism of social credit broke secrets open, rather than burying them. Similar communication networks spread the knowledge of cowpox to from Fewster to Jenner, and gave Jenner a channel to broadcast his vaccination experiments.
  • Science. I’m not sure how inoculation was viewed globally, but it was controversial in the West, so it was probably controversial elsewhere as well. The West, however, had the scientific method. We didn’t just argue, we got the data, and the case was ultimately proved by the numbers. If people didn’t believe it at first, they had to a century later, when the effects of vaccination showed up in national mortality statistics. The method of meticulous, systematic observation and record-keeping also helped the Suttons improve inoculation methods, Haygarth discover his Rules of Prevention, and Fewster and Jenner learn the effects of cowpox. The germ theory, developed several decades after Jenner, could only have helped, putting to rest “miasma” theories and dispelling any idea that one could prevent contagious diseases through diet and fresh air.
  • Capitalism. Inoculation was a business, which motivated inoculators to make their services widely available. The practice required little skill, and it was not licensed, so there was plenty of competition, which drove down prices and sent inoculators searching for new markets. The Suttons applied good business sense to inoculation, opening multiple houses and then an international franchise. They provided their services to both rich and poor by charging higher prices for better room and board during the multiple weeks of quarantine: everyone got the same medical procedure, but the rich paid more for comfort and convenience, an excellent example of price differentiation without compromising the quality of health care. Business means advertising, and advertising at its best is a form of education, helping people throughout the countryside learn about the benefits of inoculation and how easy and painless it could be.
  • The momentum of progress. The Industrial Revolution was a massive feedback loop: progress begets progress; science, technology, infrastructure, and surplus all reinforce each other. By the 20th century, it’s clear how much progress against smallpox depended on previous progress, both specific technologies and the general environment. Think of Leslie Collier, in a lab at the Lister Institute, performing a series of experiments to determine the best means of preserving vaccines—and how the solution he found, freeze-drying, was an advanced technology, only developed decades before, which itself depended on the science of chemistry and on technologies such as refrigeration. Or consider the WHO eradication effort: electronic communication networks let doctors be alerted of new cases almost immediately; airplanes and motor vehicles got them and their supplies to the site of an epidemic, often within hours; mass manufacturing allowed cheap production at scale of needles and vaccines; refrigeration and freeze-drying allowed vaccines to be preserved for storage and transport; and all of it was guided by the science of infectious diseases—which itself was by that time supported by advanced techniques from X-ray crystallography to electron microscopes.

Read the whole thing and follow the roots of progress.

*Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power*

That is the new wonderful and stunning book by Pekka Hämäläinen, here is one excerpt from the opening section:

Two centuries earlier, in the middle years of the seventeenth century, the Lakotas h ad been an obscure tribe of hunters and gatherers at the edge of a bustling new world of Native Americans and European colonists that had emerged in the Eastern Woodlands of North America.  They had no guns and no metal weapons, and they carried little political clout, all of which spelled danger: the odds of survival were slim for people who lacked access to Europeans and their new technologies of killing.  That crisis set off what may be the most improbably expansion in American history.  Lakotas left their ancient homelands and reinvented themselves as horse people in the continental grasslands that stretched seemingly forever into the horizon.  This was the genesis of what I call Lakota America, an expansive, constantly transmuting Indigenous regime that pulled numerous groups into its orbit, marginal and dispossessed its rivals — both Native and colonial — and commanded the political, social, and economic life in the North American interior for generations.  Just as there was Spanish, French, British, and the United States of America, there was Lakota America, the sovereign domain of the Lakota people and their kin and allies, a domain they would protect and, if necessary, expand.  A century later, the Lakotas had shifted the center of their world three hundred miles west into the Missouri Valley, where they began to transform into a dominant power.  Another century later they were the most powerful Indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling a massive domain stretching across the northern Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

…Yet they never numbered more than fifteen thousand people.

I will blog this book a bit more, for now I’ll just say it is very much in the running for very best book of the year.  It brings Native American history to life in a conceptual manner better than any other book I know.  You can buy it here, I found every section gripping and highly instructive and fun to read as well.  Here is a very good and accurate Parul Sehgal NYT review.

Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?

That is the title of my new paper with Ben Southwood, here is one segment from the introduction:

Our task is simple: we will consider whether the rate of scientific progress has slowed down, and more generally what we know about the rate of scientific progress, based on these literatures and other metrics we have been investigating. This investigation will take the form of a conceptual survey of the available data. We will consider which measures are out there, what they show, and how we should best interpret them, to attempt to create the most comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of metrics for the progress of science.  In particular, we integrate a number of strands in the productivity growth literature, the “science of science” literature, and various historical literatures on the nature of human progress. In our view, however, a mere reporting of different metrics does not suffice to answer the cluster of questions surrounding scientific progress. It is also necessary to ask some difficult questions about what science means, what progress means, and how the literatures on economic productivity and “science on its own terms” might connect with each other.

Mostly we think scientific progress is indeed slowing down, and this is supported by a wide variety of metrics, surveyed in the paper.  The gleam of optimism comes from this:

And to the extent that progress in science has not been slowing down, which is indeed the case under some of our metrics, that may give us new insight into where the strengths of modern and contemporary science truly lie. For instance, our analysis stresses the distinction between per capita progress and progress in the aggregate. As we will see later, a wide variety of “per capita” measures do indeed suggest that various metrics for growth, progress and productivity are slowing down. On the other side of that coin, a no less strong variety of metrics show that measures of total, aggregate progress are usually doing quite well. So the final answer to the progress question likely depends on how we weight per capita rates of progress vs. measures of total progress in the aggregate.

What do the data on productivity not tell us about scientific progress?  By how much is the contribution of the internet undervalued?  What can we learn from data on crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law?  Might the social sciences count as an example of progress in the sciences not slowing down?  Is the Solow model distinction between “once and for all changes” and “ongoing increases in the rate of innovation” sound?  And much more.

Your comments on this paper would be very much welcome, either on MR or through email.  I will be blogging some particular ideas from the paper over the next week or two.

And here is Ben on Twitter.

Politically Incorrect Paper of the Day: The United Fruit Company was Good!

The United Fruit Company is the bogeyman of Latin America, the very apotheosis of neo-colonialism. And to be sure in the UFC history there is wrongdoing and plenty of fodder for conspiracy theories but the UFC also brought bananas (as export crop), tourism, and in many cases good governance to parts of Latin America. Much, however, depends on the institutional constraints within which the company operated. Esteban Mendez-Chacon and Diana Van Patten (on the job market) look at the UFC in Costa Rica.

The UFC needed to bring workers to remote locations and thus it invested heavily in worker welfare:

the UFC invested in sanitation infrastructure, launched health programs, and provided medical attention to its employees. Infrastructure investments included pipes, drinking water systems, sewage system, street lighting, macadamized roads, a dike (Sanou and Quesada, 1998), and by 1942 the company operated three hospitals in the country.

Given the remoteness the plantations and to reduce transportation costs, the UFC provided the majority of its workers with free housing within the company’s land. This was partially motivated by concerns with diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which spread easily if the population is constantly commuting from outside the plantation. By 1958 the majority of laborers lived in barracks-type structures… [which] exceeded the standards of many surrounding communities (Wiley, 2008).

Image result for united fruit companyThe UFC wasn’t just interested in healthy workers, they also needed to attract workers with stable families:

One of the services that the company provided within its camps was primary education to the children of its employees. The curriculum in the schools included vocational training and before the 1940s, was taught mostly in English. The emphasis on primary education was significant, and child labor became uncommon in the banana regions (Viales, 1998). By 1955, the company had constructed 62 primary schools within its landholdings in Costa Rica (May and Lasso, 1958). As shown in Figure 6a,spending per student in schools operated by the UFC was consistently higher than public spending in primary education between 1947 and 1963.21 On average, the company’s yearly spending was 23% higher than the government’s spending during this period.

…The UFC did not provide directly secondary education although offered some incentives. If the parents could afford the first two years of secondary education of their children in the United States, the UFC paid for the last two years and provided free transportation to and from the United States.

A key driver of UFC investment was that although the UFC was the sole employer within the regions in which it operated, it had to compete to obtain labor from other regions. Thus a 1925 UFC report writes:

We recommend a greater investment in corporate welfare beyond medical measures. An endeavor should be made to stabilize the population…we must not only build and maintain attractive and comfortable camps, but we must also provide measures for taking care of families of married men, by furnishing them with garden facilities, schools, and some forms of entertainment. In other words, we must take an interest in our people if we might hope to retain their services indefinitely.

This is exactly the dynamic which drove the provision of services and infrastructure in unjustly maligned US company towns. It’s also exactly what Rajagopalan and I found in the Indian company town of Jamshedpur, built by Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata.

The UFC ended in Costa Rica in 1984 but the authors find that it had a long-term positive impact. Using historical records, the authors discover a plausibly randomly-determined boundary line between UFC and non-UFC areas and comparing living standards just inside and just outside the boundary they find that households within the boundary today have better housing, sanitary conditions, education and consumption than households just outside the boundary. Overall:

We find that the firm had a positive and persistent effect on living standards. Regions within the UFC were 26% less likely to be poor in 1973 than nearby counterfactual locations, with only 63% of the gap closing over the following 3 decades.

The paper has appendixes A-J. In one appendix (!), they show using satellite data that regions within the boundary are more luminous at night than those just outside the region. The collection of data is especially notable:

For a better understanding of living standards and investments during UFC’s tenure, we collected and digitized UFC reports with data on wages, number of employees, production, and investments in areas such as education, housing, and health from collections held by Cornell University, University of Kansas, and the Center for Central American Historical Studies. We also use annual reports from the Medical Department of the UFC describing the sanitation and health programs and spending per patient in company-run hospitals from 1912 to 1931. We also collected data from Costa Rican Statistic Yearbooks, which from 1907 to 1917 contain details on the number of patients and health expenses carried out by hospitals in Costa Rica, including the ones ran by the UFC. Export data was also collected from these yearbooks, and from Export Bulletins. 19 agricultural censuses taken between 1900 and 1984 provide information on land use, and we use data from Costa Rican censuses between 1864-1963 to analyze aggregated population patterns, such as migration before and during the UFC apogee, or the size and occupation of the country’s labor force.

Overall, a tremendous paper.

*Walter Raleigh: Architect of Empire*

An excellent book, by Alan Gallay, this one will make my year-end “best of” list.  It has merchant voyages, royal monopolies, hermeticism, captive Inuits brought to London to perish, conquests of Ireland, Edmund Spenser, virgin queens, charter cities, and the best overall understanding of early British colonialism/imperialism I have seen.  It is perhaps better read than excerpted, but here is one bit:

[John] Gilbert would not sail again for America until 1583. For three and a half years, English resources that might have gone to overseas expeditions to America had to be devoted to Ireland — the pope’s decision to become militarily involved in Irish affairs deterred the English America; in the coming decade American colonization would be frequently sidetracked by the same three things: events in Ireland, relations with Spain, and the English propensity to go plundering at sea.

And:

For colonization to succeed, the English required investors, sailors, and colonists.  All were difficult to come by.  The English intended to turn the New World into a haven for English Catholics as a way to solve multiple problems: rid England of religious dissidents, obtain investors, and alleviate overcrowding by moving surplus populations of the unemployed overseas to become useful.  English Catholic interest wavered, however…

I am sure to read the whole thing through, you can pre-order here.

The racial integration of the Korean War

The racial integration of the US Army during the Korean War (1950-1953) is one of the largest and swiftest desegregation episodes in American history. This paper argues that racial integration improved white survival rates at the expense of blacks, and resulted in less anti-black prejudice among white veterans decades after the war. Using a novel military casualty file, I construct a wartime similarity index to measure the extent of racial integration across military units and time. Using exogenous changes in racial integration, I show that integrated whites were 3% more likely to survive their injuries than segregated whites, whereas integrated blacks were 2% were less likely to survive their injuries than segregated blacks. Given that blacks were initially confined to noncombat support roles, the results reflect a convergence in hazardous combat assignments. To explore the long-term effects of racial integration, I link individual soldiers to post-war social security and cemetery data using an unsupervised learning algorithm. With these matched samples, I show that a standard deviation change in the wartime racial integration caused white veterans to live in more racially diverse neighborhoods and marry non-white spouses. In aggregate, these results are some of the first and only examples of large-scale interracial contact reducing prejudice on a long-term basis.

That is from the job market paper from Daniel Indacochea of the University of Toronto.

Did the medieval church make us WEIRD?

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology.

That is a new piece in Science by Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrani-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joe Henrich, try this link tooThis one works for sure.  Here is Harvard magazine coverage of the piece.  Here is a relevant Twitter thread.

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of mine at GMU economics, so I am especially excited this work is seeing the light of day in such a good venue.

My Conversation with Ted Gioia

Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History.  We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more.  Here are some excerpts:

GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.

Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.

That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.

The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.

And:

COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…

GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?

Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.

People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.

Learning is Caring: An Agrarian Origin of American Individualism

I am looking forward to reading this one, from Itzchak Tzachi Raz, who is on the job market from Harvard this year:

This study examines the historical origins of American individualism. I test the hypothesis that local heterogeneity of the physical environment limited the ability of farmers on the American frontier to learn from their successful neighbors, turning them into self-reliant and individualistic people. Consistent with this hypothesis, I find that current residents of counties with higher agrarian heterogeneity are more culturally individualistic, less religious, and have weaker family ties. They are also more likely to support economically progressive policies, to have positive attitudes toward immigrants, and to identify with the Democratic Party. Similarly, counties with higher environmental heterogeneity had higher taxes and a higher provision of public institutions during the 19th century. This pattern is consistent with the substitutability of formal and informal institutions as means to solve collective action problems, and with the association between “communal” values and conservative policies. These findings also suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of individualism.

Here is the home page, the paper is not yet available.  Here is his actual job market paper, on adverse possession.  I do hope the author lets me know once this paper is ready, I am very much looking forward to reading it.

How has Paris changed

Following my OECD visit, I have been thinking about how Paris has changed in the almost thirty years I have been going there.  I came up with the following mental list:

1. It is much less of a working class city in the center.

2. Many more immigrants, most of all outside the center.  The center and the periphery are now more different than in times past.

3. People smoke much, much less.

4. The residents are less Marxist, but now more “woke.”

5. English is far more widely spoken, and good French is not so much expected in casual interactions.

6. The average quality of bread is declining.

7. Michelin restaurants, in relative terms, have grown much more expensive.  I recall having a meal at the Hotel Bristol, maybe six years ago, for 150 euros.  A similar meal now goes for 380 euros, more than I am willing to pay.

8. The city has been remarkably economically resilient, in part because of the longstanding emphasis on services.

9. The city now has a burgeoning start-up scene.

10. I believe central Paris is now much more different from the rest of France than it used to be.

What else?

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!

China fact of the day

Any Chinese person who has gone to elementary school or watched television news can explain the tale of China’s 100 years of humiliation. Starting with the Opium Wars in the 19th century, foreign powers bullied a weak and backward China into turning Hong Kong and Macau into European colonies. Students must memorize the unequal treaties the Qing dynasty signed during that period.

There’s even a name for it: “national humiliation education.”

Here is more from Li Yuan at the NYT.

The ebb and flow of political correctness doctrine

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

What caused the P.C. movement to stall after the ‘90s? One theory is that it was due to two particular events. First, a Democratic president was impeached for his sexual conduct with an intern. That made the left (at least temporarily) less interested in rooting out and punishing all abuses of power. Second, the attacks of Sept. 11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a new and different focal point for activist energy: first anti-terror, then anti-war.

The history of political correctness also shows that ideas can have a long genesis, as this essay by Musa al-Gharbi illustrates. The idea of sensitivity training, for instance, was created by Kurt Lewin in 1946-47, and later popularized by Carl Rogers in 1961. The notion of “safe spaces” started in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s. The term “microaggressions” comes from Chester Pierce in 1974. It is possible that the phrase “identity politics” comes from the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977.

The lesson here is clear: If you are dealing in the world of ideas, play the long game — don’t be too discouraged by momentary setbacks. For all the talk of America having a throwaway culture that moves rapidly from one idea to the next, the history of political correctness does not support that vision. It is possible for people to promote and sustain ideas to give them resonance and influence.

Please note I am trying to learn from the history of the movement, and it is not the point of this column to condemn it excesses (which are very real).