Archive for November, 2005
Book Review: The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, by Kenneth Pomeranz
This book does a good job of criticizing many Anglo-centric explanations of why Europeans industrialized first by providing detailed evidence that the area near the Yangzi river delta was mostly as advanced as England when England started the industrial revolution.
It does a less convincing job of arguing that coal and new world land were the main reasons for England’s success. I’m tempted to believe that American sugar provided desperately needed calories to break out of a Malthusian trap, but the evidence doesn’t show that became significant until the industrial revolution had already started.
Conveniently located coal undoubtedly gave England a boost, but not a big enough boost that there is a practical way to decide it was more important than the numerous cultural differences which might have given England the edge it needed.
The book makes a serious effort to dismiss those cultural explanations, but is not thorough enough. In particular, I’m disappointed with the cryptic way that it dismisses the relevance of the ideas in Helmut Schoeck’s book Envy.
The style is often deadening, with lengthy descriptions of details whose relevance is unobvious.
The Bush administration’s abuse of innocent Muslims hasn’t been getting as much coverage as it deserves, so I’m encouraging you all to spread the word about this account of the government’s continuing abuse of Muslims that it admitted months ago were innocent (thanks to Andrew Sullivan).
What is Congress doing about this boost to Al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts? Trying to restrict the habeas corpus rights of the victims so that we don’t hear about them.
Monopolies tend to become insensitive bureaucracies, and governments tend to be some of the most monopolistic entities around. (If you think of monopolies as bad only because they get monopoly profits, or think other kinds of harm are avoidable given monopoly power, I recommend reading Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas : The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World). Democracy has sometimes been effective at reducing the extent to which governments have acted as monopolies, by creating competition between factions. In recent years, gerrymandering has virtually eliminated that competition for many legislative bodies.
California Proposition 77 would eliminate the conflicts of interest that make current gerrymandering a major threat to democracy, and would give us instead something that works more like our judicial system. Our judicial system isn’t ideal, but it’s better than what a legislature does when the voters are unable to influence the legislature.
Critics have complained that Prop 77 is imperfect, but haven’t provided a clear explanation of why the alleged imperfections could be considered large in comparison to the difference between the current gerrymandering and a competitive democracy, or why it would be harder to adopt improvements to Prop 77 later than it is to adopt it now.
For a while now I’ve been bothered by the absence of an eloquent phrase for monopolies on ideas that doesn’t perpetuate the recent claim that those monopolies deserve the same respect as ownership of physical objects. That claim has caused some presumptions which distort discussion of copyrights and patents, and lead to thoughtless conclusions such as this attack on Google’s Print Library (a project which sounds like it will respect copyrights more carefully than Google’s main search engine does).
Eric Drexler recently mentioned that “intellectual pseudo property” is an appropriate term, and pointed out that many of the rules it refers to are more like a lease than ownership. Apparently Markus Krummenacker used the phrase first (without a succinct argument that it should replace the phrase intellectual property).
Finally someone has produced a quantitative measure that tests the ideological biases of supreme court justices, and it shows a good deal of bias. It looks more like a collection of small biases rather than a simple polarization into left and right.
An article titled Alito isn’t “pro-life” or “pro-choice” but “pro-law.” by Jon Adler (who I knew when he was an undergrad and whose opinions I respect) has led me to believe that Alito will be less influenced by his personal biases than the average justice.