Monday, March 01, 2010

"The crisis we are in"

I thought I did not have an hour to listen to Stephen S. Cohen talk about his recent book with Brad DeLong, The End of Influence: What happens when other countries have the money. But I was wrong.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820

British History Online has webbed a searchable version of this reference work, for serious research or serious fun.

Image: Market Hill in St. Edmundsbury, 1700.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brad DeLong provides an approach to the last 20 years of world history

He calls it: Six Issues for a Panel... and it's US-centric, but worth some thought:

Twenty years ago--with the end of the Cold War--American policy got dammed up:

  • It was clear we needed to do something to balance the long-term social-insurance spending promises both parties were making with the long-term tax base, and we haven't.

  • It was clear--first for national-security and domestic-congestion reasons, and then for global-warming reasons as well--that we needed to start imposing Pigovian taxes on coal and oil-driven energy use, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that we needed to reform America's health care financing system, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that America, as the globe's sole hyperpower, had a unique opportunity to build a world in which we could live very comfortably and peacefully once we were no longer a hyperpower or even a superpower but instead only one (if we are lucky) of several great powers--and we haven't.

To this in the past three years we have added:

  • A recognition that the "Greenspanist" bet--deregulate finance, rely on financial company shareholders via corporate control to limit moral hazard, and bet that the Federal Reserve can lean up after any elephants that stampede through--was wrong. We need to restructure financial regulation--and we haven't.

  • A recognition that the "central problem of macroeconomics" has not in fact been solved. We need to solve it--both in the short run of recovery from this recession, and in the long run of creating a world that is net, whether through global imbalances or other factors, as vulnerable to episodes like this as our world turns out to be.

About these six issues, two questions:

  • Which of these six policy issues will--as many of them have been doing--continue to drift, and what damage will drifting do?

  • Which of these six policy issues will the Obama administration actually be able to address--and what will be the consequences for the world of how it addresses them?

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

If you want to slam academia... don't need to go after advanced literary theory. In fact there are juicier and more important targets. From D-squared Digest, via Brad DeLong:

Part Five - How Freaked Is Economics?

Well, I promised myself I'd finish this before the sequel appeared in the shops, and the conclusion has been made, shall we say, somewhat easier by the fact that the burden of my conclusion - that there is something terribly, horribly wrong with the state of modern economics - has become somewhat of an open door to push against. I swear that my notes for this review (begun in 2003!) contain the draft passage:

"When future generations ask the economics profession 'What were you doing while the great bubble built up ahead of the Second Great Depression?', and we have to reply 'Lots and lots of quirky little working papers about sumo wrestling and speed-dating', it is going to be really, really, fucking embarrassing"

And we did, and it was; thank God nobody told the truth to HM The Queen, or the high brows of the economics profession might be decorating a series of pikestaffs outside Traitors' Gate.

The basic problem with the Freakonomics era was that the profession abandoned the study of production, consumption and exchange. I don't wholly agree with Lord Skidelsky, but he is right - economics is the study of the economy, it's not the study of "rational choice" or "behaviour" in the abstract, and the fact that econometricians have invented a huge part of the toolkit of modern statistics doesn't mean that anything you can estimate using an econometrics package is thereby "economics".

We stopped doing economics and started doing awful amateur-hour sociology, basically, because we believed that all the major problems had been solved, that some form of dynamic general equilibrium was all that there was to be said about the economy considered as a system, and that the only interesting things to do were growth theory and finance. It is no coincidence that Freakonomics began in Chicago; for a guy like Levitt who doesn't possess the engineering-maths to be a finance theorist or the empirical skills to do endogenous growth, there was literally nothing to do.

The sociology of academia in the USA also played its part, as James Heckman spotted at the time. Because of the unenviable economics of the academic labour market in American universities, graduate students were encouraged to finish their PhDs according to a specific schedule, to write dissertations that were capable of being turned into journal articles in a specific way, and to follow fashion in citation-gathering. Heckman was tearing his hair out over this, obviously, as this made it more or less economically unviable to carry out the kind of economic work that he does (and did) - careful, time-consuming, incremental, often abstruse but always relevant to the very big questions of the economy.

And so we ended up with Freakonomics, the disciplinary equivalent of the battery chicken. The subject matter became more and more cutesy and trivial, methodological corner-cutting in "natural experiments" became the norm, and the idea that there could actually be a subject of macroeconomics became almost quaint. ...

But however things have turned out, my intuition is that Freakonomics has had its moment in the sun. The central selling point was always, basically, academic machismo; the presumption on the part of economists that because they were "smart" in the Larry Summers sense, they could turn their hand to anything and the rest of the world was bound to listen to them. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone.

To be able to put such material before student-age readers (of whom I hope I still have some) was one big reason for starting this blog. Will you find a killer critique like this in a textbook? Unlikely.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Bad Samaritans, by Ha-Joon Chang

I just discovered this book, which came out a couple of years ago, thanks to Brad DeLong, who provided a link to a pre-print to chapter 9, "Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans
- Are Some Cultures Incapable of Economic Development?"

Phil Paine and I have been working from a similar set of ideas when we discuss the world history of democracy (or political systems of other kinds). If I were teaching first-year World History, this might be the first thing I would have my students read. Anyone interested in world or comparative history should be exposed to this.

Here are some killer quotes:

So there you go. A century ago, the Japanese were lazy rather than
hardworking; excessively independent-minded (even for a British socialist!)
rather than loyal “worker ants”; emotional rather than inscrutable; lighthearted
rather than serious; living for today instead of considering the future
(as manifested in their sky-high savings rates). A century and half ago, the
Germans were indolent rather than efficient; individualistic rather than
cooperative; emotional rather than rational; stupid rather than clever;
dishonest and thieving rather than law-abiding; easy-going rather than
These characterisations are puzzling for two reasons. First, if the
Japanese and the Germans had such “bad” cultures, how have they become
so rich? Second, why were the Japanese and the Germans so different from
their descendants today? How could they have so completely changed their
“habits of national heritage”?


Not being able to see this, culture-based explanations for economic
development have usually been little more than ex post facto justifications
based on a 20/20 hindsight vision. So in the early days of capitalism when
most economically successful countries happened to be Protestant Christian,
many people argued that Protestantism was uniquely suited to economic
development. When Catholic France, Italy, Austria, and Southern Germany
developed rapidly, particularly after the Second World War, Christianity,
rather than Protestantism, became the magic culture. Until Japan became
rich, many people thought East Asia had not develop because of
Confucianism. But when Japan succeeded, this thesis was revised to say that
Japan was developing so fast because its unique form of Confucianism
emphasised cooperation over individual edification, which the Chinese and
Korean versions allegedly valued more highly. And then Hong Kong,
Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea also started doing well, so this judgment
about the different varieties of Confucianism was forgotten. Indeed
Confucianism as a whole suddenly became the best culture for development
because it emphasised hard work, saving, education, and submission to
authority. Today, when we now see Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia,
Buddhist Thailand, and even Hindu India doing economically well, we can
soon expect to encounter new theories that will trumpet how uniquely all
these cultures are suited for economic development (and how their authors
have known about it all along).


Fortunately, we do not need a cultural revolution before economic
development can happen. A lot of behavioural traits that are meant to be
good for economic development will follow from, rather than being
prerequisites for, economic development. Countries can get development
going through means other than a cultural revolution, as I explained in the
preceding chapters in this book. Once economic development gets going, it
will change people’s behaviour and even the beliefs underlying it (namely,
culture) in ways that help economic development. A “virtuous circle”
between economic development and cultural values can be created.
This is essentially what happened in Japan and Germany. And it is
what will happen in all future economic success stories. Given India’s recent
economic success, I am sure we will soon see books that say how Hindu
culture – once considered the source of sluggish growth in India (recall the
once-popular expression, “Hindu rate of growth” 29) – is helping India grow.
If my Mozambique fantasy in the Prologue comes true in the 2060s, we will
then be reading books discussing how Mozambique has had a culture
uniquely suited to economic development all along.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Out of the East: Spices and the medieval imagination, by Paul Freedman

This book was a real treat, and not just because much of it was about food and dining. It's one of the best-written medieval/early modern history books I have read in a long time, and one of the most original.

If you have ever eaten, tried cooking or just read about aristocratic food in the Middle Ages -- and aristocratic food is almost all we know about -- you already are aware that medieval feasts included a lot of highly spiced foods. The spices used in "savory" dishes then are hardly ever used today except perhaps in desserts; some, like grains of paradise and zedoary are hardly known. There has been some good scholarly work in recent years as to why medieval cooking and modern European differ so much; Terence Scully, for instance, has explained the connection between the ancient and medieval medical theories involving the four humours and medieval recipies and feast design. But Paul Freedman's book probably is accessible to more readers while actually covering a great deal of novel material.

One very interesting subject Freedman covers is how the appeal of some of the favorite exotic spices faded dramatically when European merchants gained direct, routine access to them. People still wanted cloves and nutmeg, but they no longer thought of them as powerful, almost spiritual substances. And when it became known that grains of paradise came from the mundane West Africa (precisely, "the Grain Coast") and not the earthly paradise, Europeans slowly lost interest in them.

There is much more in this book -- lots about early European exploration and the role of spices in motivating it -- and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds this review in the least interesting.

Update: Phil Feller directs us to an NPR interview with Freedman.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why do historians study the subjects they study?

It's not just that they are faddy people, says Magistra and Mater, in a rather long (but interesting!) post:

Chris [Wickham] has contributed enormously to socio-economic history, and much of the talk was implicitly a call for this to be prioritised, in combination with archaeological expertise. Indeed Chris explicitly contrasted the fruitful relationship of history with archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s (with a historical tendency towards broad-sweep structural analysis, based on socio-economic history) with the historians’ later move away from archaeology with the linguistic turn. This meant that post-processural archaeologists in the late 1980s and 1990s found historical collaborators hard to come by.

It seemed clear to me in the talk that what Chris really wants is the 1970s back, but it’s not just structuralism that now seem as out of date as glam rock (and less likely to be revived). The big problem now is that socio-economic history provides few obvious reasons for studying the Middle Ages, let alone the early Middle Ages. Why should the economic history of the Middle Ages be of interest to anyone but specialists? My sense is that until recently there were two possible broader connections. If you were interested in grand Marxian analyses, then slave and feudal modes of production were an important part of the model to be studied. Meanwhile for an analysis of the roots of industrialisation or capitalism as a whole, late medieval England and its textile trade or late medieval Italy and its banking system were useful places to look.

The problem is that current global capitalism has advanced so far that many of the early steps look entirely irrelevant...

In contrast, other aspects of the early Middle Ages do seem to have more obvious contemporary resonance. Early medieval historians exploring theology, the construction of ethnicity, the development of the state, gender roles or the use of history as propaganda can all show connections between then and now in a way that has become difficult for early medieval socio-economic history. Archaeology can contribute to some aspects of these themes (it’s been very important for looking at ethnicity and culture, for example), but it’s not central to these issues in the same way as it is to socio-economic history.

That doesn’t mean that the study of medieval socio-economic history isn’t valuable or important in its own right, but I can’t see it returning to centre stage again. Chris ended by presenting an analysis of historical change in Palestine and Syria in the period 500-900. It was a good example of how much you can deduce from an area with a well-explored archaeological record without going to written sources. However, I’m not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant. Arguing that archaeology should be an equal partner with history rather than its handmaiden may be a sound position, but it isn’t really going to be effective if what is offered is an attenuated vision of history where structural pattern has replaced story. [Emphasis Muhlberger.]

The bolded passage is the part that really caught my eye. Like M&M, I have tremendous respect for Chris Wickham and his work, but even without a lot of exposure to recent literary theory, my work of the last ten years has focused on why people tell the stories they do, in my case about war and chivalry.

Image: Could this come back???

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Another good bookshelf to explore

A number of times in the last two years or so I have linked to Phil Paine's blog over at his multipurpose website. Not so often often I have mentioned his latest reading section. The last few entries in that section gives me the excuse to remedy that lack.

Two books particularly caught my attention. The first is #16396 -- yeah, Phil reads a lot -- (Michael H. Shuman) The Small-Mart Revolution ― How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition. Here are the comments that caught my attention:

I would like to see everyone involved with urban reform and with democratic renewal activism to read this book. There is a powerful undercurrent of change going on in both the United States and Canada, definitely something moving up from the grass roots and ignored by both the media and the elite political drones. It's something far more creative and significant than a mere flaky fashion for "anti-globalism" demonstrations, with which the reader might at first confuse it. It's the fact that people — ordinary people — are starting to question the orthodoxies they have been taught about how things "have to be", and realizing that their self-interest, as well as their future, depends on re-envigorating local economic and political power...

At the heart of his study are the premises that every consumer choice that prefers local sourcing over distant sourcing increases the "multiplier effect" of transactions in an economy, and that import substitution is the engine economic growth. He exposes the disastrous consequences of bribing and luring distant corporate powers into a locality rather than creating conditions for organic local economic creativity...

He also grasps that those same governments will quickly "agree" with rational critics and make a big, but entirely phony, show of following the rational path, while changing nothing. This shows that he has some real-life experience of trying to reform things. But he is at his best when he describes situations where dedicated people have actually made advances in democracy and prosperity, despite all the obstacles. The good news is that those advances are more numerous and vigorous than one would guess. The media have no interest in telling you about them. To describe these successful initiatives, Shuman coins the acronym LOIS ("local ownership and import substitution").

A much briefer comment on another book struck close to home:

16397. (Robert McCloskey) Homer Price.

This was one of the "children's classics" that I had glanced at as a child, but never actually read. A pity. McCloskey was a gentle humorist with a charming style and great human empathy, who chose to write for children rather than, say, subscribers to the New Yorker. He was also a talented artist, in a style reminiscent of Ernie Pyle. The world he writes about now seems so far away that a contemporary child might have some problems interpret it. It would seem exotic, rather than comfortingly familiar. But if you are an adult with any feeling for American social history, the child-viewpoint stories about pet skunks, donut machines, and giant balls of string will be fascinating.

I read that book as a kid and more or less recognized the environment, even though it was about pre-World War II times and I was born after the war. after all, Homer Price lived near me!

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Three interesting posts from my hiatus

I only skimmed over my blog feeds after returning from my vacation, but I am glad I did so, and didn't just delete wholesale. There was some good reading, a bit of which I am going to share with you.

To start with a post that is mainly of interest to academics, here's Michael Drout ruminating on the administrative demands made on professors. But of course it's not just profs who suffer through meetings:

When I was Chair of Ed Pol I used to joke that we needed "Meeting Dosimeters" similar to those used for people who work with radioactive materials. When your dosimeter has gone above the safety level, you simply can't do any more work with radioactivity that month. It should be the same thing with meetings and other Chair stuff: decide how much you are going to do per week, and stick to that. To quote my friend Bryon Grigsby, who is now a Provost: "Nobody is going to die based on what happens in the English department."
There might be a big market for those "meeting dosimeters."

On a more historical note, here's another brilliant and thoughful post by Jonathan Jarret on medieval agricultural economics and various ways we can understand the relations between practice and records. It's vegetable barter time!

Finally, one news item I was sorry to miss, from the Telegraph: Knights Templar heirs in legal battle with the Pope.

Here's the gist:

The Association of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Christ, whose members claim to be descended from the legendary crusaders, have filed a lawsuit against Benedict XVI calling for him to recognise the seizure of assets worth 100 billion euros (£79 billion).

They claim that when the order was dissolved by his predecessor Pope Clement V in 1307, more than 9,000 properties as well as countless pastures, mills and other commercial ventures belonging to the knights were appropriated by the church.

But their motive is not to reclaim damages only to restore the "good name" of the Knights Templar.

"We are not trying to cause the economic collapse of the Roman Catholic Church, but to illustrate to the court the magnitude of the plot against our Order," said a statement issued by the self-proclaimed modern day knights.

The fate and alleged guilt of the Templars is a legitimate subject. One does wonder, however, how this Association can claim "descent" from the 14th century members of the historic Order. Simple answer: The same way everyone else does, more or less by assertion.

For more, see Wikipedia, which I would guess has tons of material on the dubious descendents of the Templars.

Images: Templars being burned for heresy and apostasy.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Were there commercial brands 5000 years ago?

Phil Paine has argued for a long time that many of the economic activities that we think of as characteristically modern -- especially commercial trade networks -- go back much farther in history and are typical of many cultures. Here is an interesting piece of news from the archaeological front. David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, is now arguing that the well-known Mesopotamian bottle stoppers, which bear stamped-clay symbols, were in some cases used as brand logos. Here's the article from the New Scientist.

Image: One of the bottle stoppers in question, or perhaps a seal that produced bottle stoppers.

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