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Book review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

This book is about narratives of human progress. I.e. the natural progression from egalitarian bands of maybe 20 people, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states, with increasing inequality and domination by centralized bureaucracy. That progress is usually presumed to be driven by changes in occupations from foragers, to gardeners, to farmers, to industry.

Western intellectuals focus on debates between two narratives: Hobbesians, who see this mostly as advances from a nasty state of nature, and those following in Rousseau’s footsteps, who imagine early human societies as somewhat closer to a Garden of Eden. Both narratives suggest that farming societies were miserable places that were either small advances or unavoidable tragedies, depending on what you think they replaced.

Graeber and Wengrow dispute multiple aspects of these narratives. The book isn’t quite organized enough for me to boil their message down to a single sentence. But I’ll focus on what I consider to be the most valuable thread: we should be uncertain about whether humanity made (is making?) a big mistake by accepting oppression as an inevitable price of material wealth.

The Dawn of Everything asks us to imagine that humans could build (and may have been building) sophisticated civilizations without domination by powerful states, and maybe without depending on farming.

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Book review: The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, by Robert C. Allen.

Here we have yet another explanation of the most important event in history, this time from an economic historian.

Allen mostly focuses on one key piece of the causal chain: British wages were high compared to the cost of energy.

Nearly everything he says seems correct, but I have some medium-sized complaints about what he neglects.

High Wages

British wages were higher than those of just about any other country, at least after 1575. That was an important component in Britain’s lead at producing technological innovation. The initial steps in many key technological advances were crude enough that they wouldn’t have made sense if they were competing with cheap labor.

It seems important to focus on what caused the high wages. Allen is a bit weak here.

He mentions British diets, mostly as evidence of high British wages. But he also hints that the high calorie, high protein diet enabled higher productivity, which may have perpetuated the high wages.

A low ratio of workers to land seems to be part of the story. Malthusian forces usually pushed societies away from this. The Black Death provided some respite from high population density. Allen mumbles something about the Black Death’s effects maybe still being important a couple of centuries later. But why was this more true of Britain than of neighboring countries?

Some urbanization was also important, as inventors needed other skilled craftsmen nearby as sources of ideas, tools, and parts. So maybe it took a good deal of luck for Britain to get just the right population density?

Cheap Energy

Before the 1700s, most countries used wood instead of coal, even when they had an ample supply of coal. Switching to coal required significant redesigns to most systems that burned wood.

Countries such as Britain didn’t recklessly exhaust their supply of wood. Demand for wood in Britain grew due to population growth, and the resulting rise in wood prices would have constrained London’s population growth if it weren’t for increased use of coal. But that was due at least as much to the high cost of transporting fuel over long distances as it was to the limited supply of wood.

Something was fairly unusual about Britain’s best coal mines. They produced unusually cheap coal. That helped Britain switch from wood to coal for heating and machinery, well before other countries did.

That didn’t mean that coal was much cheaper in London than in other major cities. High transportation costs made coal a mediocre option almost anywhere other than right at a mine.

China is a key country to look at when wondering where the industrial revolution could have started. How did China’s cheapest coal mines compare to Britain’s? Allen presents no data. Pomeranz seems to care about the quantity of coal reserves, not the cost of the lowest hanging fruit. Coal use in 1700 seems to have been too small relative to reserves for the quantity of reserves to matter much.

It’s unclear whether anyone knows whether China had locations where coal was as cheap as Britain’s cheapest coal mines.

If China didn’t have cheap coal, how much of that was due to natural conditions, and how much of it was due to less interest in developing cheap coal mines? I’m frustrated at how little I’ve found on this subject. The closest that I’ve found to an answer is this claim from Vries:

My thesis would be that China, in a way, also had its ‘coal’ and its colonies, but that government was a serious hindrance in making the most of them. When it comes to coal mining, the Qing often prohibited opening mines in the first place or wanted those already opened closed down. Initiatives by government itself to open mines or to ‘modernize’ them are absent.

Allen implies that cheap coal is obviously good. I see some tension between that and evidence from the past century concerning the effects of natural resources on economic development. There are enough examples of failing resource-rich countries that economists often refer to a curse of natural resources. The curse appears to mostly depend on large international commodity markets, which didn’t exist for coal until sometime after 1800. So it’s not a strong argument against Allen’s theory. It’s merely a warning that it’s easy to overestimate the benefits of natural resources.

Coal seems like a plausible guess as to why Britain developed key technologies before highly similar societies such as Denmark and the Netherlands. But there were numerous differences between Britain and China. I don’t see a clear argument that coal prices deserve to be treated as one of the top two relevant differences. I’ll guess that, in spite of the “Global” in the book’s title, Allen hasn’t studied China enough to have much insight about why it lagged behind Europe.

Steam Engines

Allen gives a detailed description of the development of steam power, as a clear example of where innovation depended on wages being high relative to energy costs. The first steam engines were inefficient enough that they were only worthwhile at coal mines, where they were used to pump water out of the mines. The inefficient use of fuel made it very sensitive to fuel costs.

It took decade of R&D for Newcomen to perfect this underwhelming machine. That much effort could only be repaid where there were many mines that were willing to buy such machines. Britain had far more coal mines than other European countries, partly because the low price of coal led Britain to heat more homes with coal. So Britain was able to afford more R&D.

It took nearly a century of refining steam engines before it made commercial sense for other countries to adopt steam engines.

Why was Britain’s early adoption of the steam engine important? It took a century or so to produce large benefits, at which time other countries copied it.

Was it because the technical knowledge enabled British innovators to be the first to develop better steam engines, and use them in a variety of applications such as railroads, ships, better factories, etc.? Or was the steam engine mainly a symptom of British innovation abilities?

Allen suggests that Britain’s cheap coal and first-mover advantages were more important than cultural or institutional features, at least up to WWI.

The steam engine and cheap iron were dependent on cheap coal, and had important influences on automating factories and transportation. That included a bit of recursive self-improvement: factory automation was used to mass-produce machines used to automate factories.

Why 1575?

To the limited extent that Allen identifies a start to the industrial revolution, it was around 1575, when British wages began to diverge from the Malthusian patterns seen in most of Europe and Asia (it took at least another century before British wages exceeded Amsterdam wages).

Allen says cheap coal was around well before then, and doesn’t suggest any other resource-based explanation of what changed in the 1500s to break northwestern Europe out of the Malthusian pattern.

Was it due to lingering effects of the Black Death? Wages certainly increased in the 1300s relative to natural resources, particularly land. That’s a potentially important contributor to high wages two or three centuries later.

But why was that effect stronger and more lasting in Britain than in other parts of Europe? Allen’s coal-related explanation is somewhat plausible from the early 1700s to about 1900. But why did wages stay somewhat above Malthusian levels in the 1600s in northwestern Europe? I’m unclear as to whether Allen thinks he has an answer. I think he attributes it to increased agricultural productivity, driven by growing cities. But I don’t see how those cities provided more of a force in Britain than in the rest of Europe and Asia.

It is now time to compare Allen’s ideas with those of my current favorite book on this topic: Henrich’s The WEIRDest People.

Culture

Henrich promotes a clear answer of why the 1500s were special: the rise of Protestant culture.

Allen downplays cultural explanations, enough that I got 90% of the way through the book before realizing that he admits culture played a nontrivial role in the industrial revolution.

Early in the book, he points to versions of cultural arguments that I agree are weak enough to be dismissed. Those versions were probably somewhat popular when the book was written (2009), but have been fading since then. Toward the end of the book, Allen more respectfully mentions several better ideas about cultural influences, mostly from Mokyr.

Here are some relevant cultural influences for which Allen provides some evidence, and which Henrich convinced me are more important than Allen admits:

Industrial Enlightenment

Allen describes Industrial Enlightenment as a process by which the Scientific Revolution influenced industry.

Allen shows that scientific knowledge contributed to some key inventions, such as the steam engine, via better knowledge of the principles by which those inventions worked. But he also argues that other important industries such as cotton advanced without much contribution from scientific knowledge.

The harder-to-evaluate impact of science involves indirect cultural effects. The social networks associated with science may have indirectly influenced innovation, e.g. by encouraging more experimentation in industry.

I’m reminded of this quote from Shut Out:

The evolution of capitalism has led to almost universal acceptance of middle-class values. Whereas the elite of most societies have sought control and leisure, these few modern open access societies have a citizenry that seeks to be productive, to cooperate, and to innovate. It is common to hear complaints that wealthy children today have an unfair advantage because they can access the best schools, get the best education, and therefore perpetuate inequality by working in the most lucrative careers. But everyone should appreciate how revolutionary this is. Elites of the past would scoff at the notion that this even describes elites. Elites don’t need to be productive. Elites have access and control.

Did this change in elite culture begin around 1500? It was certainly far from common for elites to involve themselves in business, but Allen says some important inventors came from elite backgrounds. How much did this differ from other parts of the world?

There are a variety of ways that elite interest in industry might have improved innovation: more spare time and resources to devote to investments that don’t provide quick payoffs, or maybe better cognitive abilities due to better nutrition and/or better genes.

Literacy, Numeracy

These certainly correlated with the changes that seeded the industrial revolution. Allen expresses doubts about the direction of causality.

Marital Rules / Habits

Protestant culture has some features which slow population growth. Europe, and especially northwestern Europe, had several cultural norms which prevented early marriage, and left a relatively large number of people unmarried.

Without something like that, it seems hard to explain why low population density persisted long enough after the Black Death for technology to sustain high wages.

Trade Secrets

Allen reports that innovators depended on learning from mentors. Many cultures have a distrust of strangers that limits such learning to a small circle of people who trust each other because they’ve lived together most of their life.

Protestant culture promoted trust among all Protestants, paving a path to the accumulation of a richer body of trade knowledge. I’m unsure whether Chinese culture had work-arounds which provided adequate substitutes for this source of trust.

Noncomformity

Allen notes that Luddites threatened innovation, particularly in the key cotton industry. Most cultures value conformity more than Protestant culture does. I can imagine that no other culture would have produced entrepreneurs who persevered in the face of that kind of opposition.

Historians versus Scientists

Henrich, and to a lesser extent Allen, have helped to illustrate the differences between historians and scientists.

Historians focus on building stories about particular, unique, events. Whereas scientists seek general theories whenever possible.

Was the industrial revolution a unique event, or was it a long pattern of related events that might be better explained by a broad theory? Historians seem biased toward the former, scientists toward the latter. Allen seems to be mostly a historian, but has enough economic training to be more neutral on this issue than most authors. Whereas Henrich is mostly trying to be a scientist, and not a historian.

To the extent to which it was a long pattern of events, I value the opinions of scientists who focus on theories about which features of 16th through 18th century Britain caused it to stand out. That would help me predict what countries will become more powerful. So I want to avoid erring in the direction that historians err, more than I want to avoid the opposite mistake.

Here are several considerations that lead me to give more weight to Henrich’s cultural model:

There are many markets today which English-speaking countries dominate in ways that are somewhat hard to explain by coal or high wages: the internet, universities, medicine, movies, etc. That seems to create some presumption in favor of explanations that focus on general-purpose abilities such as culture and institutions.

Allen’s perspective encourages us to imagine that a good deal of British success comes from a first-mover advantage that has been self-sustaining for a couple of centuries. That seems to be somewhat large compared to other historical examples of first-mover advantages or resource-based advantages.

What are the best such examples? Cities built around ports have smaller but longer-lasting advantages, due to natural resources (harbors). I guess that’s a good enough comparison that I can’t say that Allen’s perspective is too far-fetched.

Cultural models provide a clear explanation of the timing of the industrial revolution. I don’t see how resource-based models explain the timing.

Allen says that other countries adopted British technology when it became profitable to do so. Yet that only seems true for countries with cultures similar to Britain’s. Asian countries seem to have adopted it mainly after they imported parts of Western culture.

Conclusion

Allen’s account is the strongest analysis I’ve yet seen of the resource-related forces that contributed to the industrial revolution.

I see almost no conflict between Henrich’s account and Allen’s account about what happened after 1500, only some big disagreements about what was important. They disagree a good deal about what pre-1500 causes were relevant, and they both seem relatively weak there.

Allen emphasizes Britain’s geographic luck, and encourages us to imagine that key inventions were just barely useful enough to create a sustainable take-off. Whereas Henrich attributes northwestern Europe’s luck to cultural choices that were in place by 1520 at the latest, and wants us to believe that take-off was close to inevitable by then. The evidence is weak enough that we may never know which is closer to the truth.

Reading both Allen and Henrich will produce a better understanding than either one of them alone will produce. But if you only read one book, read Henrich’s.

Book review: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich.

Wow!

Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author’s future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich’s grand overview of humanity’s first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn’t quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books.

The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic.

However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book’s focus and value.

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Book(?) review: The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, by Tyler Cowen.

Tyler Cowen wrote what looks like a couple of blog posts, and published them in book form.

The problem: US economic growth slowed in the early 1970s, and hasn’t recovered much. Median family income would be 50% higher if the growth of 1945-1970 had continued.

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Book review: Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh).

If you only read the first 3 chapters, you might imagine that this is the history of just one industry (or the mysterious lack of an industry).

But this book attributes the absence of that industry to a broad set of problems that are keeping us poor. He looks at the post-1970 slowdown in innovation that Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation[1]. The two books agree on many symptoms, but describe the causes differently: where Cowen says we ate the low hanging fruit, Josh says it’s due to someone “spraying paraquat on the low-hanging fruit”.

The book is full of mostly good insights. It significantly changed my opinion of the Great Stagnation.

The book jumps back and forth between polemics about the Great Strangulation (with a bit too much outrage porn), and nerdy descriptions of engineering and piloting problems. I found those large shifts in tone to be somewhat disorienting – it’s like the author can’t decide whether he’s an autistic youth who is eagerly describing his latest obsession, or an angry old man complaining about how the world is going to hell (I’ve met the author at Foresight conferences, and got similar but milder impressions there).

Josh’s main explanation for the Great Strangulation is the rise of Green fundamentalism[2], but he also describes other cultural / political factors that seem related. But before looking at those, I’ll look in some depth at three industries that exemplify the Great Strangulation.

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Book review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is decent at history, mediocre at economics, unimpressive at forecasting, and gives policy advice that is thoughtfully adapted to his somewhat controversial goals. His goals involve a rather different set of priorities than I endorse, but the book mostly doesn’t try to persuade us to adopt his goals, so I won’t say much here about why I have different priorities.

That qualifies as a good deal less dumbed-down-for-popularity than I expected from a bestseller.

Even when he makes mistakes, he is often sufficiently thoughtful and clear to be somewhat entertaining.

Piketty provides a comprehensive view of changes in financial inequality since the start of the industrial revolution.

Piketty’s main story is that we’ve experienced moderately steady increases in inequality, as long as conditions remained somewhat normal. There was a big break in that trend associated with WW1, WW2, and to lesser extents the Great Depression and baby boom. Those equalizing forces (mainly decreases in wealth) seem unlikely to repeat. We’re back on a trend of increasing inequality, with no end in sight.

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Book review: The Book of Why, by Judea Pearl and Dana MacKenzie.

This book aims to turn the ideas from Pearl’s seminal Causality into something that’s readable by a fairly wide audience.

It is somewhat successful. Most of the book is pretty readable, but parts of it still read like they were written for mathematicians.

History of science

A fair amount of the book covers the era (most of the 20th century) when statisticians and scientists mostly rejected causality as an appropriate subject for science. They mostly observed correlations, and carefully repeated the mantra “correlation does not imply causation”.

Scientists kept wanting to at least hint at causal implications of their research, but statisticians rejected most attempts to make rigorous claims about causes.

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Experts have been debating the causes of the industrial revolution for a long time, with few signs of agreement. I suggest that’s due to a human-centric bias which assumes that no other species could have caused human progress.

I became curious after reading that, while dogs were domesticated, cats intermixed with humans while showing few signs of domestication. Cats have cooperated with humans for long enough that I’d expect at least a little bit of co-evolution. If it wasn’t the humans selecting for the most docile or friendly cats, then maybe it was the cats selecting for the most docile or friendly humans.

One interesting hint is that various human cultures tell different stories about how many lives a cat has. As far as I can tell, the cultures that were most advanced in the 18th century (Britain, China) say cats have 9 lives, the more southern parts of Europe say 7, and Arab cultures say 6. That’s a fairly striking correlation between how highly cultures think of cats and how prospurrous they were near the start of the industrial revolution.[1]

People feed me, shelter me and love me ... I must be God

The hardest aspect of explaining the industrial revolution is explaining why the China’s level of development around 1800 didn’t enable it to lead the world. Why did Europe do better than China? Britain seems to have stopped eating cats sometime in the 18th century, while cat-eating has only started to become controversial in southern China this century. I’m less sure what the story is for northern China, where cat-eating apparently doesn’t happen today, but I haven’t found evidence about when cat-eating became unpopular there. Southern China is the region that’s generally said to have been advanced enough that it could have experienced an industrial revolution around 1800. Maybe northern China was backwards then for reasons unrelated to cats, maybe they were held back by their cat-eating southern compatriots, or maybe they adopted a cat-safe culture quite recently – could that have been the change that triggered China’s impressive growth over the past 40 years? Can anyone point me to better evidence on this topic?

Another possible reason for China’s lag is that a completely different species of cat (the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis) acted as “pets” in China about 5000 years ago. Felis catus may have pawsed their human domestication plans in China due to distractions from their struggles with the leopard cat.

I can imagine many strategies that the cats could have used to purr-suade humans to change:

  • Cats probably have some influence over who the spread diseases to.
  • They could influence human mating choices, by causing distractions when “bad” humans court each other, versus purring peacefully when “good” humans court.[2]
  • Cat “ownership” can show trustworthiness, once cats establish conditions under which humans recognize cats as high status and/or recognize that cat-friendliness implies a person is less prone to pointless conflict. Cats exert some influence on who they associate with, and they can use that to increase the status of “good” humans, and/or increase the mating opportunities of “good” humans.
  • They could influence which areas have more or less rodents, thereby causing “bad” villages to have more food eaten by rodents than was he case with “good” villages.
  • Eating rodents protected nearby humans from diseases spread by rodents. This was especially important during the black plague.

What benefits would the cats have been selecting for?

I presume an important part of their plan would have been selecting for a wider moral circle, since that would make humans safer for cats to live near.

A wider moral circle is correlated with higher trust, and lower violence. These are likely important for cooperation among groups that are much larger than the Dunbar number. See Fukuyama for more on why that mattered.

So, regardless of whether cats planned to advance human civilization, or were merely protecting themselves, their interests in domesticating humans helped generate conditions that were conducive to an industrial revolution.

[1] – A more exotic version of this story is that we’re living in a simulation, and cats are the avatars of the beings who run the simulation. They’re arrogant enough to taunt us by reusing the same avatar just enough for humans to suspect something, but they stop before leaving enough evidence for anything to be proven.

[2] – I don’t want to express any opinion here about the nature-nurture debate, since there are many ways in which cats could have changed human behavior, and I have little hope of tracking down enough evidence to show which strategies the cats actually used. Feline influence on mating could achieve its results via genetic selection – that would require unusual patience, but produce the most stable results. Or the cats could have focused on making the good humans higher status, and the bad humans lower status – that could potentially produce faster results, but is more likely to depend on continuing feline manipulations of human culture.

See also the book A Farewell to Alms for a more detailed argument that British society has long been subjected to selection pressure which made it ripe for the industrial revolution. Alas, it neglects cats.

[Another underwhelming book; I promise to get out of the habit of posting only book reviews Real Soon Now.]

Book review: Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott.

Scott begins with a history of the tension between the desire for legibility versus the desire for local control. E.g. central governments wanted to know how much they could tax peasants without causing famine or revolt. Yet even in the optimistic case where they got an honest tax collector to report how many bushels of grain John produced, they had problems due to John’s village having an idiosyncratic meaning of “bushel” that the tax collector couldn’t easily translate to something the central government knew. And it was hard to keep track of whether John had paid the tax, since the central government didn’t understand how the villagers distinguished that John from the John who lived a mile away.

So governments that wanted to grow imposed lots of standards on people. That sometimes helped peasants by making their taxes fairer and more predictable, but often trampled over local arrangements that had worked well (especially complex land use agreements).

I found that part of the book to be a fairly nice explanation of why an important set of conflicts was nearly inevitable. Scott gives a relatively balanced view of how increased legibility had both good and bad effects (more efficient taxation, diseases tracked better, Nazis found more Jews, etc.).

Then Scott becomes more repetitive and one-sided when describing high modernism, which carried the desire for legibility to a revolutionary, authoritarian extreme (especially between 1920 and 1960). I didn’t want 250 pages of evidence that Soviet style central planning was often destructive. Maybe that conclusion wasn’t obvious to enough people when Scott started writing the book, but it was painfully obvious by the time the book was published.

Scott’s complaints resemble the Hayekian side of the socialist calculation debate, except that Scott frames in terms that minimize associations with socialism and capitalism. E.g. he manages to include Taylorist factory management in his cluster of bad ideas.

It’s interesting to compare Fukuyama’s description of Tanzania with Scott’s description. They both agree that villagization (Scott’s focus) was a disaster. Scott leaves readers with the impression that villagization was the most important policy, whereas Fukuyama only devotes one paragraph to it, and gives the impression that the overall effects of Tanzania’s legibility-increasing moves were beneficial (mainly via a common language causing more cooperation). Neither author provides a balanced view (but then they were both drawing attention to neglected aspects of history, not trying to provide a complete picture).

My advice: read the SlateStarCodex review, don’t read the whole book.

Book review: State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s – 1850s, by Peer Vries.

Yet another book on why Britain and China diverged dramatically starting around 1800. This one focuses on documenting the differences between the regions, with relatively little theorizing.

Some interesting differences of possible relevance to the divergence:

  • British per capita tax collections were 15 times China’s [1]; Vries emphasizes the underlying British bureaucratic competence.
  • Britain changed its tax rules often; China treated tax rules as if set in stone.
  • British tax policy caused it to promote standardization of a wide variety of weights and measures, which helped long-distance trades; China had nothing similar.
  • Britain’s taxation was more egalitarian than China’s (but still much less egalitarian than today).
  • British government debt looked recklessly high; China consistently had a surplus.
  • British elites wanted to keep the masses poor (to make them industrious); China’s elites seemed neutral or had slight preferences for the poor to prosper.
  • Most British workers were nearly slaves – laws restricted their mobility due to the expectation that most who left their area of work were beggars/thieves; China was less restrictive.
  • Britain condoned or supported powerful monopolies; China broke up concentrations of merchant power / capital under the assumption that they came at the expense of ordinary people.
  • Britain had three times as much farm land per capita as China.
  • Britain was more urban, so it had more commercial / monetary activity.
  • China denied that anything outside its borders mattered. Britain had a fairly global worldview.

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