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[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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Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.

1.

War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.

2.

Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).

3.

Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.

4.

National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?

5.

He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.

6.

That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.

7.

In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression, by Scott B Sumner.

This is mostly a history of the two depressions that hit the U.S. in the 1930s: one international depression lasting from late 1929 to early 1933, due almost entirely to problems with an unstable gold exchange standard; quickly followed by a more U.S.-centered depression that was mainly caused by bad labor market policies.

It also contains some valuable history of macroeconomic thought, doing a fairly good job of explaining the popularity of theories that are designed for special cases (such as monetarism and Keynes’ “general” theory).

I was surprised at how much Sumner makes the other books on this subject that I’ve read seem inadequate.
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Book review: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, by Ian Morris.

This book gives the impression that Morris had a halfway decent book in mind, but forgot to write down important parts of it.

He devotes large (possibly excessive) parts of the book to describing worldwide changes in what people value that correlate with the shifts to farming and then industry.

He convinces me that there’s some sort of connection between those values and how much energy per capita each society is able to use. He probably has a clue or two what that connection is, but the book failed to enlighten me about the connection.

He repeatedly claims that each age gets the thought that it needs. I find that about as reasonable as claiming that the widespread malnutrition associated with farming was what farming cultures needed. Indeed, his description of how farming caused gender inequality focuses on increased ability of men to inflict pain on women, and on increased incentives to do so. That sounds like a society made worse off, not getting what it needs.

He mentions (almost as an afterthought) some moderately interesting models of what caused specific changes in values as a result of the agricultural revolution.

He does an ok job of explaining the increased support for hierarchy in farming societies as an effect of the community size increasing past the Dunbar Number.

He attributes the reduced support for hierarchy in the industrial world to a need for interchangeable citizens. But he doesn’t document that increased need for interchangeability, and I’m skeptical that any such effect was strong. See The Institutional Revolution for a well thought out alternative model.

I had hoped to find some ideas about how to predict value changes that will result from the next big revolution. But I can’t figure out how to usefully apply his ideas to novel situations.

See also Robin Hanson’s review.

Book review: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, by Ian Morris.

The ambitious attempt to quantify the sophistication of societies is a partial success.

His goal is to compare the development of the two leading centers of human progress over the past 16000 years (western Eurasia and eastern Asia).

I read this book before looking at summaries of his previous book. The Measure of Civilization was designed to provide support for the claims in the prior book, but was objective enough that I didn’t infer from it what the main message of the prior book was.

When I focus on the numbers in this book and ignore other ideas I’ve read, the most plausible hypothesis I see is that the east followed a more risk-averse strategy than the west. The west suffered at least one crash (200-700 CE) that was a good deal worse than anything the east is known to have experienced.

He tries to measure four different quantities and aggregate them into an index. But the simplest way to scale them leaves two (information use and military power) insignificant until about 1900, then rising at a rate which seems likely to make them the only factors that matter to the index fairly soon. He briefly looks at some better ways to aggregate them, but they still seem inadequate.

In sum, the basic idea behind measuring those four quantities seems sound. If he wasn’t any more arbitrary about it than I suspect, then the book has been somewhat helpful at clarifying the trends over time of the leading human cultures, and maybe added a tiny bit of insight into the differences between east and west.

Book review: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, by William J. Bernstein.

This is a history of the world which sometimes focuses on how technology changed communication, and how those changes affected society.

Instead of carefully documenting a few good ideas, he wanders over a wide variety of topics (including too many descriptions of battles and of individual people).

His claims seem mostly correct, but he often failed to convince me that he has good reason for believing them. E.g. when trying to explain why the Soviet economy was inefficient (haven’t enough books explained that already?) he says the “absence of a meaningful price signal proved especially damaging in the labor market”, but supports that by mentioning peculiarities which aren’t clear signs of damage, then describing some blatant waste that wasn’t clearly connected to labor market problems (and without numbers, doesn’t tell us the magnitude of the problems).

I would have preferred that he devote more effort to evaluating the importance of changes in communication to the downfall of the Soviet Union. He documents increased ability of Soviet citizens to get news from sources that their government didn’t control at roughly the time Soviet power weakened. But it’s not obvious how that drove political change. It seems to me that there was an important decrease in the ruthlessness of Soviet rulers that isn’t well explained by communication changes.

I liked his description of affordable printing presses depended on a number of technological advance, suggesting that printing could not easily have arisen at other times or places.

The claim I found most interesting was that the switch from reading aloud to reading silently and the related ability to write alone (as opposed to needed a speaker and a scribe) made it easier to spread seditious and sexual writings due to increased privacy.

Bernstein is optimistic that improved communication technology will have good political effects in the future. I partly agree, but I see more risks than he does (e.g. his like of the democratic features of the Arab Spring aren’t balanced by much concern over the risks of revolutionary violence).

Book review: Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by Charles W. Calomiris, and Stephen H. Haber.

This book start out with some fairly dull theory, then switches to specific histories of banking in several countries with moderately interesting claims about how differences in which interest groups acquired power influenced the stability of banks.

For much of U.S. history, banks were mostly constrained to a single location, due to farmers who feared banks with many branches would shift their lending elsewhere when local crop failures made local farms risky to loan to. Yet comparing to Canada, where seemingly small political differences led to banks with many branches, it seems clear that U.S. banks were more fragile because of those restrictions, and less competition in the U.S. left consumers with less desirable interest rates.

By the 1980s, improved communications eroded farmers’ ability to tie banks to one locale, so political opposition to multi-branch banks vanished, resulting in a big merger spree. The biggest problem with this merger spree was that the regulators who approved the mergers asked for more loans to risky low-income borrowers. As a result, banks (plus Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) felt compelled to lower their standards for all borrowers (the book doesn’t explain what problems they would have faced if they had used different standards for loans the regulators pressured them to make).

These stories provide a clear and plausible explanation of why the U.S. has a pattern of banking crises that Canada and a few other well-run countries have almost entirely avoided over the past two centuries. But they suggest the U.S. banking crises should have been more unique among mature democracies than was actually the case.

The authors are overly dismissive of problems that don’t fit their narrative. Commenting on the failure of Citibank, Lehman, AIG, etc to sell more equity in early 2008, they say “Why go to the markets to raise new capital when you are confident that the government is going to bail you out?”. It seems likely bankers would have gotten better terms from the market as long as they didn’t wait until the worst part of the crisis. I’m pretty sure they gave little thought to bailouts, and relied instead on overly complacent expectations for housing prices.

The book has a number of asides that seem as important as their main points, such as claims that Britain’s greater ability to borrow money led to its military power, and its increased need for military manpower drove its expansion of the franchise.

Book review: How China Became Capitalist, by Ronald Coase and Ning Wang.

This is my favorite book about China so far, due to a combination of insights and readability.

They emphasize that growth happened rather differently from how China’s leaders planned, and that their encouragement of trial and error was more important than their ability to recognize good plans.

The most surprising features of China’s government after 1978 were a lack of powerful special interests and freedom from ideological rigidity. Mancur Olson’s book The Rise and Decline of Nations suggests how a revolution such as Mao’s might free a nation from special interest power for a good while.

I’m still somewhat puzzled by the rapid and nearly complete switch from a country blinded by ideology to a country pragmatically searching for a good economy. Coase and Wang attribute it to awareness of the harm Maoism caused, but I can easily imagine that such awareness could mainly cause a switch to a new ideology.

It ends with a cautiously optimistic outlook on China’s future, with some doubts about freedom of expression, and some hope that China will contribute to diversity of capitalist cultures.

Book review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark.

This book is a mostly entertaining defense of Christian and libertarian cultures’ contribution to Western civilization’s dominance.

He wants us to believe that the industrial revolution resulted from mostly steady progress starting with Greek city-states, interrupted only by the Roman empire.

He defends the Catholic church’s record of helping scientific progress and denies that the Reformation was needed, although he suggests the Catholic church’s reaction to the Reformation created harmful anti-capitalist sentiments.

His ideas resemble those in Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, yet there’s little overlap between the content of the two books.

The early parts of the book have too many descriptions of battles and other killings whose relevance is unclear.

I was annoyed at how much space he devoted to attacking political correctness toward the end of the book.

In spite of those problems, he presents many interesting ideas. Some are fairly minor, such as changes in privacy due to the Little Ice Age triggering the invention of chimneys. Others provide potentially important insights into differences between religions, e.g. “many influential Muslim scholars have held that efforts to formulate natural laws are blasphemy because they would seem to deny Allah’s freedom to act.”

Alas, I can only give the book a half-hearted endorsement because I suspect many of his claims are poorly supported. E.g. he thinks increased visibility of child labor in the 1800s caused child labor laws via shocked sensibilities. Two alternatives that seem much more plausible to me are that the increased visibility made the laws feasible to enforce, and the increased concentration of employers into a separate class made them easier scapegoats.