Review: Amsterdam: A brief life of the city

I read this book a few months ago but got distracted by current events. In the meantime, “something” technical deleted all my notes, so I skimmed the book again and wrote down my thoughts. This review is very long but not as long as Amsterdam’s 750-year history 😉

tl;dr: Amsterdam has evolved over centuries under pressures from survival & conformity versus ebullient openness & risk-taking. In other words, “do what you want as long as you pay your taxes.”

Geert Mak wrote the Dutch original in 1994. Philip Blom translated it into English in 1999. These dates are important because Amsterdam’s renaissance from the depths of the 1980s was still underway; the city was not nearly as popular then as it has been in these past 10 years. (The city’s population hit a nadir of 675,000 in 1985. It grew to 695,000 by 1990, 730,000 in 2000 (+5%), 768,000 in 2010 (+5%), and 872,000 (+14%) today — a record level, if one ignores political boundaries.)

The book begins with a prologue on the character of Amsterdammers: critical, self-effacing, independent, proud but not boastful. Of the greatest importance is the City’s long history of independence in thought, freedom and action. Put differently: Amsterdammers will leave you to your business, unless you’re in the way.

Amsterdam and other nearby villages got their start in the middle of 12th century flooding, slowly building up ground by draining and channeling swamps. These works were directed by dijksgraven (dyke administrators). The town was mostly independent from its distant owner (the Bishop of Utrecht) because it was poor, but local would-be “lords” rebelled for centuries. They mostly lost, and the town on the dammed Amstel was left to fishers, farmers, and traders.

In 1275, the Count of Holland gave “the people abiding near the Amsteldam” freedom from taxation. This document — and its date — marks Amsterdam’s official birth. After some ups and downs and confusion, it was replaced in 1300 by a longer document that established city rights, the rights of citizens and some governing bodies. Amsterdam got its first dedicated pastor in 1334.

Amsterdam wasn’t very important compared to older, bigger and richer towns. That position changed when the Bishop of Utrecht got greedy for tolls from Hanseatic merchants bringing goods from the North and Baltic seas to Flanders, France and the Mediterranean. Amsterdam stepped in as a competing middleman and grew quickly. (The Zuiderzee, before it was renamed IJsselmeer after the afsluitdijk cut off sea access, had that name because it was south of the Noordzee from which many trading cogs traveled.)

A cultural divide emerged:

The Bishops [in Utrecht, inland], relying on the feudal system of landowners and serfs, ruled over farmers who literally had nowhere else to go, and who were weighed down with taxes like old donkeys until they simply caved in. The Counts [of Holland, on the coast], on the other hand, understanding the importance of commerce to their lands, appreciated the fact that merchants were not serfs, and were at liberty to use other routes if they so chose. Furthermore, they understood what would later develop into one of the most important traditions of the Netherlands: the need to deal with the new and the foreign without smothering them with rules and restraints and cheap profit-hunting. In Holland, people opened themselves to the sea and to everything that came from afar, while those on the sandy soil of Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel turned their backs on it. (pp 22-3)

Amsterdam’s growth brought diversification: blacksmiths, goldsmiths, brewers, prostitutes, shoemakers, and more. Windmills ground grain and sawed wood; guilds protected artisan wages. It also had plenty of mud, fires and trade. 

Wooden houses leaned into streets to gain space for living and allow for goods to be hauled to upper floors without hitting the facade. It took several centuries of fire-regulations before stone and brick replaced wood, but  buildings still leaned out to ease goods-exchange. Many houses opened for business in the front while keeping private areas in the back. 

Beer was imported and taxed, which is why we know Amsterdam took one-third of Hamburg’s beer. The city grew in wealth through trade and started to engage in wars. In 1368, Amsterdam sent one ship to help the Hanseatic league defeat a Danish king. Amsterdam received the right to set up a post for trading haring, an important commodity fish. In 1398, Amsterdam sent 50 ships in a war against the Frisians (“exploiting the fact that the Frisians were locked in a desperate civil war, a conflict to the death over issues nobody knows any more” p 32), indicating the city was growing in naval power. City merchants started to circumvent the Hanseatic league’s claimed monopolies on trading routes. By spreading cargoes across multiple boats, merchants reduced risks, made more money, and grew bolder.

As the city grew and matured, its citizens began to see themselves as individuals playing important roles in history. In the 16th century, these trends drove — and were driven — by the Renaissance/Enlightenment. People took last names, had their portraits made, and “took back power” from the kings and priests who claimed power by divine right:

Amsterdam was never a truly medieval city. No king has ever held court here, the Church has never played a truly all-encompassing role, the social and political structures were never determined by the relations between ruler, vassal, and serf. From the very beginning it was a modern city, its citizens were independent and stubborn enough to take care of themselves. p42

The medieval religious past of the city left monasteries and convents with large holdings in the center. Amsterdam gained from its status as a place of pilgrimage (based on a “miracle” in 1345), but its piety was always tempered by the need to do business. Shipping volumes grew fourfold in the 16th century. The city produced cheap, good ships from imported wood and other materials. The city’s population increased five fold, and its land area as well. When conflicts arose between God and Mammon, Mammon won every time, and that trend strengthened after Martin Luther’s 1517 call for reform of the (Catholic) Church.

Religious disputes arrived in a city ready for change:

The streets were full of carts and horses and were strewn with heaps of dung. Everywhere breweries, dyeing shops, tanneries, and scores of other little businesses caused constant stench, smoke, and noise in among the houses in which people lived. Much of the rubbish was thrown into the canals, which led to enormous waves of foul air rolling over the city, especially in summer… More than three quarters of a family’s income was spent on food and the rest on rent, clothing, heat and light. (p 63)

New prophets and visions arrived. The Anabaptists challenged authority on Earth and sought to distribute wealth among all. They tried to take over the city (for God’s work) but failed, facing torture and public execution. The less aggressive Mennonites were likewise punished, as the city fathers liked the current distribution of wealth.

Thus, their “tolerance” (read my 2010 post on Dutch tolerance) was more practical than principled:

Tolerance was in this town not a mere principle but a practical necessity: the open merchant city, being the meeting place of all sorts of different cultures, could not allow itself to indulge in the large-scale prosecution of those adhering to different beliefs. (p 62)

The Eighty Years War (1568-1648), although presented as a war of Protestant Calvinists against the rule of Spain’s Catholic king, was more about commerce and middle class rights than religion. Religions laws were barely enforced if they interfered with common sense:

Several centuries later this attitude was to grow into a typically Dutch way of using the law, a modus operandi governed by civic opportunism: the state is entitled to prosecute a crime, but it is not bound to do so, especially if the means of prosecution is deemed to be worse than the crime – as, for instance, in the case of prostitution, or the use of soft drugs. (p 77)

The Eighty Years War began with complaints over aristocratic privileges and high taxes (the tenth penny). After the old order expeled Calvinistic reformers, war began. Although Amsterdam was “loyal” to the Catholic king, the rest of the Netherlands was not. During the war years, Amsterdam was a thriving trading center (even selling food, weapons and ships to the Spanish) and gaining immensely when Antwerp’s port was blockaded and its merchants moved to Amsterdam, bringing trade in silk and diamonds, artists and printers. They were joined by Sephardic Jews fleeing prosecution in Spain and economic migrants from Germany. The city’s language and culture diversified away from its solid but boring fishing roots. 

Amsterdam grew on commerce over land and water:

Decartes said in 1635: “Everyone [in Amsterdam] is so preoccupied by his own profit that I could live here for all my life without ever being noticed by anyone.” There were few palaces and churches or imposing buildings here, and it was noticed by every visitor that this city existed for financial gain alone. The Amsterdam of the “golden” seventeenth century was, to all intents and purposes, one enormous slot machine. Each available piece of earth, every skilled hand, was turned to this end…

…a complete waterscape had come into being, subdivided by pontoons, in which some large and countless small ships rose and fell with the waves…The atmosphere of this strange, sloshing, half-rotting world is recalled in prints from the period: crooked, mossy poles; fences, pontoons and short ladders, the silent water, rowing boats, a few seagulls. For centuries this scene would define the transition from city to water…

The power of this whole complex of capital, trade, and information lay mainly in its thoroughness and speed. The merchants in the city administration watched, hawklike, over the quality of the service sector. Immediately after landing, a shipper knew where to bring his cargo, while a merchant could work even with foreign currencies without any problems and, given the information available in Amsterdam, could ensure that reports from abroad were viable and impartial. Continuity, efficiency and absolute trustworthiness were the key elements of this economic miracle. (pp 100-101, 103)

Migrants seeking wealth and opportunity lived in crowded slums. The solution was to expand by constructing a canal belt (Grachtengordel) district of three canals (heren-, keizer- and prinsen-gracht) in “belt” wrapped around the old center. Construction took decades, hurrying and slowing with the city’s fortunes. Outside the canal belt came the Jordaan (filled with workers’ cottages) and Plantage, which was like a multi-use park.

As Amsterdam grew rich from trade and innovation, it allowed free thinkers, artists, and scientists to chase their passions and heresies. Rich merchants supported these middling classes, but they lived apart, in the canal belt. Ever since then, the city has struggled to balance economic freedom with social cohesion.

Merchants set up joint-stock companies (the first companies in the world to issue shares, and thus reduce risk to investors) to trade and conquor the East (the VOC, or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie colonized Indonesia), West (the WIC, or West-Indische Compagnie, founded New Amsterdam York before trading it for Surinam, which had a profitable slave trade), and North (the Noordische Compagnie harvested whales). These enterprises landed the Dutch in all corners of the world, as sailors, explorers, merchants and imperialists. The Dutch spent less money building better ships, borrowed more cheaply on sophisticated financial markets, found  cheaper goods in diverse markets, used wind-power to process wood and manage put water where they wanted it, and attracted from cheap and skilled labor. In 1650 the Dutch fleet was larger than the English, Scottish and French fleets combined; half the ships sailing to Asia flew Dutch flags.

Amsterdam’s wealth and businesses did not always align with Dutch interests (recall Amsterdam trading with the Spanish enemy). Stadthouder William II of Orange tried to invade the city but failed. In the “peace” that followed, Amsterdam’s leaders agreed to cooperate while William “ruled” the city with a light touch. These “live and let live” arrangements are still common in Dutch culture. 

The end of Amsterdam’s Golden Era arrived via two trends: the rise of neighboring nations and the weakening of Amsterdam’s governance. The beginning of the end was 1672, the rampjaar (disaster year) in which the Netherlands was invaded by France, England, MĂźnster and Cologne, aristocratic neighbors jealous of Dutch success and threatened by the Republic’s support for freedom of religion, trade and thinking (propagated via its free presses). 

Amsterdam’s internal decay began when merchants became bankers, making money from money rather than trade, exploration and risks. These bourgeoisie separated themselves from other citizens (departing to country houses in summers) and used their positions as rentier sinecures rather than platforms from which to reform and strengthen the city’s institutions. Fashion and frippery replaced morality and humility. As local industry lost its productive capacity, bankers, as the “privileged unemployed,” lived off lending  profits.

Amsterdam’s shipping capacity suffered as its harbours and channels silted up (read Dredge Drain Reclaim for an amazing history of Dutch water management). Neighboring countries interfered with trade. London and Hamburg, with both goods and customers, cut out Amsterdam as the middleman. Foreign shipbuilders copied then out-innovated the Dutch.

The city stank from raw sewage and piled rubbish. Public works were neglected as important posts were sold to the highest bidder, rather than the competent or hard working. The Little Ice Age reduced crop yields, prevented ships from carrying fresh water to the city, and killed many. Peasants and migrants crammed into the city, increasing poverty and desperation. Men joined the VOC, trading debt for danger (“Of the 671,000 men who travelled out from Amsterdam, only 266,000 were to return” p 161). For women, “most of the evident easy virtue in the city had nothing to do with freedom and everything with poverty, despair, and powerlessness” (p 162). In 1748, riots broke out against the useless bourgeoisie; preachers condemned their excesses. Manors were raided, their riches tossed into canals. The Great Frost of 1763 marked another step down, as the peace of the Seven Years War allowed neighboring countries, their bankers and merchants to focus on taking market share from the Dutch.

The people began to demand monarchy, but the House of Orange was not ready (or competent) to rule. A third vision — of citizens electing militia and city officials — was ignored when William IV supported corrupt, incompetent, hereditary burgomasters. The people’s revolution went nowhere. 

The Enlightenment brought science and debating societies, as well as hot arguments over politics and governance. Amsterdam’s coffee houses were partisan and rowdy. America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence attracted attention from free thinkers and merchants eager to sell arms, but the British navy, now much stronger than the Dutch, quickly stopped most trade. The Netherlands — and Amsterdam — was no longer a global, let along European, power. The VOC and WIC went bankrupt. William V ignored Amsterdam in his decisions. Revolutionaries battled Royalists in the streets. 

“A house divided cannot stand.” Divided, Amsterdam and the Netherlands were too weak to resist invasion from Revolutionary France. In 1794, the Republic was gone. Trade collapsed, banks emptied, colonies were lost to other imperial powers. In 1810, The Netherlands was a mere province in the French Empire.

Nineteenth-century Amsterdam lacked motor noises and night lighting. It was famously smelly. Life expectancy was 30 years for manual laborers. The city was stuck frozen in time. Power rested in Paris; trade was diverted elsewhere. The population dwindled (below 200,000) as industry and jobs died off. 

In 1813, The end of Napoleon and his empire brought independence and King William I of Orange.* William I took possession of The Royal Palace on Dam Square (built in 1655 as Amsterdam’s town hall; its was the largest administrative building in Europe), which had been seized by the French in  1806. The King neither lived there (the Royal Family lived in The Hague, potentially due to Amsterdam’s unhealthy stink) nor gave it back to the citizens. The King kept it as his residence in Amsterdam, which was declared the national capital (the seat of government is in The Hague).

(* Since 1815, all four kings and one queen had “William” in their names; Queens Juliana and Beatrix are exceptions. The current heir is Princess Catarina-Amalia.)

The city continued to slumber, rejecting the “progress” of the Industrial Revolution, communist calls for uprisings, or mechanical innovations. The train arrived in 1839 and piped water in 1853, but the city sank into decay, its 16th and 17th century buildings gracefully falling apart. The city’s relative poverty and obscurity spared it from the monumental buildings, boulevards and slum clearances shaking Paris, London, and Vienna. (Exceptions being the Rijksmuseum, Central Station, Concertgebouw and the Paleis voor Volksvlijt, which burned down in 1929.)

The city jumped awake in the 1870s, as trade with booming Germany expanded, trade with Dutch Indonesia grew, and South African diamonds fed the city’s ancient industry. Steam-powered trains and ships crossed here and there; lights kept the streets open at night; the North Sea Canal (opened 1876) restored the city’s access to the sea and trade. The new Central Station (opened 1889) cut off the city from the waters of the IJ (officials in The Hague choose its location over local opposition), triggering a cultural change that would include filling in sixteen canals to make way for carriages and trams (and later car parks).

The city’s population grew from 243,000 in 1859 to over 500,000 40 years later. Most new arrivals lived in cheap, poorly built slums. The city administration did not monitor land use. The only “nice” new districts were  built in the Plantage and around the (initially private) Vondelpark. The city’s bourgeoisie and working classes started to blend as workers earned more and rich dressed down. A new middle classes of skilled workers, bureaucrats and managers grew.

Political movements in favor of workers and socialism swept over the city, occasionally facing opposition (and police bullets) from the city’s conservative factions. The city took over private electricity, gas, telephone and water companies. Unions, newspapers and popular education  flourished. The city expanded its neighborhoods (my building dates from 1904), pulled by prosperity and pushed by laws to improving housing conditions.

The Netherlands was neutral in World War I. During the 1920s, political diversity rose and neighborhood differences (and dialects) weakened. Jews, freed in 1825 from their ghettos, educated their children and joined socialist and workers movements. 80,000 Jews (half the Dutch total) composed 13 percent of Amsterdam’s population. In some clubs and districts, they were not welcome but they formed communities in some of the newer residential areas.

Plane-, ship and metal-industries employed many. After a 1921 change in the city’s borders, cheap social housing projects appeared everywhere. (These buildings are still standing, and they were well made.) The city hosted the 1928 Olympics. In 1934, a master expansion plan was published that would guide the city’s development for decades. The unemployed cleared and planted the Amsterdamsebos, which added green space to the city. (We go there to bike, picnic and swim.) Nevertheless, the Depression hit Amsterdam hard. One-fourth of the workforce was unemployed, and their subsidies gave barely enough to eat.

The rise of the Nazis affected the city. Jewish refugees came to Amsterdam. Dutch Nazis (the NSB, or Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging) fought with the socialists and communists. The city’s leaders separated into racist factions. Monne de Miranda, a Jewish alderman with a working-class background who favored cheap housing and subsidized meals, was undermined in the press (De Telegraaf is still quite right-wing) and eventually shipped to a concentration camp where he died (partially due to abuse by fellow prisoners who disliked his politics).

The Dutch planned to remain neutral during WWII. Their Jewish neighbors felt safe. These hopes were dashed by the Nazi invasion on 15 May 1940, the  first time that Amsterdam had been invaded in 400 years. 

At first, the Dutch cooperated with German occupiers, even as Jews lost their rights and trouble makers were fired or imprisoned. The February Strike of 1941 was significant as being the only strike by non-Jews in defense of their Jewish neighbors in Europe, but German violence and Dutch government collaborators ended it.

Could they (should they?) have done more? Mak makes a good point: 

One feels somehow dishonest when writing about this period in Amsterdam’s history, more so than with any other. It is because we know the outcome, whereas the people of Amsterdam did not. It is a difficult time to visualize. A permanent insecurity dominated life, and every decision had to be made against a background of rumours and confused assumptions. This was true not least for the Jewish community… almost nobody at this stage had any idea what was hanging over their heads. In May 1940, for instance, there was considerable pressure from various sides for the destruction of Jews’ registration cards for safety’s sake, but the Jewish community’s leaders adamantly refused…

People who have lived undisturbed for generations, who have not experienced a pogrom for centuries, simply lack the imagination with which to picture the sort of evil that lay in wait for them. Nor can it be denied that the German occupiers displayed great cunning. What appeared at first to be little more than mild harassment turned out to have been but a prelude to the Final Solution.

The displacement of Amsterdam’s Jews was not achieved in a single action but by a process of uprooting, intimidation, marginalization and isolation that was established step by step. The chief means of this was not physical violence, but the insidious power of bureaucracy. With their obfuscating use of language – “work deployment” was the euphemism for deportation to Auschwitz – the persecutors lulled their victims, and often themselves, into a false sense of security. The Germans and many of the Dutch collaborators saw themselves mainly as transport agents transferring a certain product, in this case Jews, from A to B. (pp. 258-259).

Systematic deportations began in June 1942.  (Anne Frank’s family went into hiding on 6 July 1942.) 

Nevertheless, there was a certain bloodless efficiency with which the Dutch condemned their fellow citizens:

…countless Walter Stiers [“just doing his job”] aided the Germans in their discreet mass slaughter. Dutch Railways arranged, without the slightest objection, special night trains to Westerbork and to the German border, for which the bill was paid punctually by the occupiers…[Just last week, over 7.000 victims filed for compensation from the national rail company.]

Other municipal services also carried out the work as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Municipal clerks stamped Js on identity papers, impounded Jews’ radios and bicycles, and sent the Jewish unemployed to labour camps. Almost everybody took great care to hand in his Declaration of Aryan Descent. Amsterdam University collaborated without protest by dismissing Jewish teaching staff and by asking students to sign a declaration of loyalty to the occupiers…

The Germans never posted more than 60 officers in Amsterdam, even at the height of the persecution of the Jews. The rest was done by the Dutch. Of the total number of men deployed in the big raids, about half were ordinary Dutch policemen. Moreover, after October 1942, the Dutch police were ordered to raid Jewish houses on their own, instead of under the leadership of the Sicherheitspolizei or the SS. The majority of these officers did just that, and more: they were so thorough that when they found Jews in a flat for which they did not have an arrest warrant, they took them anyway. (pp. 265-266).

Some Dutch sabotaged Nazi programs, but they were not  numerous:

The Dutch still have a tendency to talk up the extent of their resistance to almost mythical proportions. In reality, proportionally more Jews were deported from the Netherlands than from any other Western European country. As Adolf Eichman was to explain later, the persecution ran “like clockwork”. After the war, an official investigation found that almost half a million Dutch men and women had collaborated with the occupying forces in one way or another…this phase of Amsterdam’s history offers little scope for self-congratulation. Most Amsterdammers were anything but resistance fighters. (pp. 267-268). 

Thus, we should not be surprised that the Dutch can sometimes be blind in taking moral decisions. The Dutch failed to protect 8,000 Bosnians from Serbian murderers in 1995, for example.

Mak finishes his history of WWII with stories of the heroes who took chances, often fatal. Wallie van Hall, the Resistance Banker, helped steal, forge and otherwise source funds to help members of the Resistance (which grew stronger and more popular as the Germans targeted non-Jewish Dutch). In Jan 1945, van Hall was caught and executed by Nazis acting on information collected from a traitor (the man was caught, tried and executed by the resistance).

During the Hunger Winter of 1944-45, thousands of Amsterdammers froze and starved while Resistance leaders bickered over who would hold power after the Germans were gone. Karel Broekhoff, the “militarist” candidate for Police Commissioner, beat the “democracy” candidate with promises to protect collaborating police from retribution. He didn’t serve long before he was admitted to hospital, where he died in June 1946. In 1994 (just before this book was published), researchers found evidence that Broekhoff began collaborating in 1935 with the Gestapo. (He wasn’t always helpful to them, a double-cross that probably saved lives and protected his secret.) Broekhoff’s replacement was most well known for proposing to fill canals to make space for cars.

Canadian forces liberated Amsterdam on 5 May 1945. With one exception (Germans who fired into a celebrating crowd on 7 May), life improved immediately. 

Not surprisingly, conservatives immediately worried about too much sex and celebration:

Amsterdam sought to impose some order on all this. There was indeed a moral problem, but it did not lie with the young or with the girls. If one simply considers the statistics, it is simply a miracle that so few Amsterdammers perished during the Hunger Winter. The reason is simple: during the last months of the war, the people of Amsterdam cheated, deceived and stole on a grand scale. They pillaged and participated in the black market. In order to survive, even the most respectable citizens had to do things that they would rather not remember (p. 284). 

As a result of the backlash, members of the Resistance lost standing and former collaborators were forgiven and left in power. Despite massive political support for Communists and Social Democrats, the City Council stuck with 1939 morality and rules. People were told to marry, work, pay  taxes, and “doe normaal“.

The city was rebuilt, transport and trade revived, and housing expanded to meet demand from new arrivals and locals who wanted more personal space. The average flat went from 4 occupants in 1917 to 3 in the 1950s to 2 in 1994 and 1.84 in 2020. New housing promised modern and stylish, but delivered cheap and plain. Rising incomes allowed people to buy bikes, then scooters and cars. Amsterdam, like many rebuilding cities, decided that the future lay with cars. Thus, old districts were ripped down for widened roads, canals were filled in for car parks, and “visions of the future” meant  abandoning many of the city’s human elements.

After 20 years of discipline, the backlash arrived with flowers in its hair. The Provos [after provoceren, to provoke] were younger people who wanted more from life than a paycheck. They were pro-bike, anti-(tobacco) smoking, and anti-consumerism. They tapped into Amsterdam’s culture of rejecting controls, collaboration, and doe normaal. The Provos had weekly fights with the police, each using the other to build support. Journalists wrote about the events; politicians adopted Provo ideas into their platforms:

…the Provos had the genius to bet on two horses. They pointed out the impossibility of a situation in which wealth and opportunities for personal development were rapidly increasing, while the moral attitude supporting this remained as parsimonious, prudish and authoritarian as it had been in the 1930s. At the same time, however, they also poked fun at the “cream-whipping masses”, tapping into the anti-progressive cultural undercurrent. This situated them exactly at the crossroads of two distinct developments that were extremely topical during the 1960s: on the one hand, they were the catalysts of progress, and on the other they were the romantic conscience of the nation (p 292).

The Provos launched “White Plans” for bikes (against cars), against pollution, for women’s liberation, for cheap housing, and against police brutality (topical!). In 1966, riots interrupted Princess Beatrix’s wedding (to a German who had served in the Wehrmacht). Other protests (to preserve holiday pay, allow cannabis, strengthen women’s rights, etc.) shifted the city’s political balance, but these victories were perhaps pyrric. The city’s center was losing families and businesses, gaining junkies trading stolen bikes for smack, and destabilizing as squatters (krackers) invaded empty buildings. These losses were magnified by the loss of Jewish residents and trade links broken by Indonesia’s 1956 independence.

An attempt to build the City of the Future in Bijlmer completely backfired. Instead of high-rise garden city, the area was settled by poor migrants from newly decolonialized (1975) Surinam who could not live safely in a vast anonymous area built for architects and planners rather than people and community. (Read Jacobs’s 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities to understand the failures.) The Bijlmer debacle was a turning point against replacing neighborhoods with expressways. Opposition to “redevelopment” of Nieuwmarkt stopped a road but not the metro (still a sore topic for many Amsterdammers). Sadly, the squatters who had attracted much support managed to lose it through violence, bickering and not really having a plan or goal. 

In the mid-80s, Amsterdam was divided, dirty and losing economic and demographic power. The population dropped from 868,000 in 1964 to 676,000 in 1985.

Mak’s history ends in 1994, but he ends the book with an enduring observation: 

This ongoing battle [between idealistic Provo’s and conservative administrators] was in principle a confrontation between the “romanticism” and “functionalism”. Functionalism regarded the city as an organism that had to fulfil certain goals. The romantic ideal considered the city as an ensemble of citizens, a collective, with a distinct history and personality (p. 306).

By the end of the 1990s, Amsterdam had found its balance between these two opposing forces. The city grew more attractive as a place to live and work, and it continued on its centuries-old path of sustainability, i.e., the ability to carry on, indefinitely, into the future. Climate change, gentrification, refugees, and coronavirus are just a few of the challenges that Amsterdammers now face. These challenges will force change, but — if  there’s one thing we can count on — Amsterdam will find a way.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend this entertaining, well-written book. My only quibble is the way Mak occasionally jumps decades forward or backwards, but that bug for me as reviewer is a feature for you the reader. Five Stars.

I/O, continued. Production on a large scale

Book 4, Chapter 11

§1. Manufacture is not location specific. Customers can be far away; the quality of land or water does not matter as much as it does for agriculture. Manufacturers are more efficient in terms of Economies of Skill and Machinery. (Marshall dismisses Economy of materials, which are — with the exception of “agriculture and domestic cooking” — often used very efficiently. US pork processors used to say they used “everything but the squeal.”)

§2. “Economies of machinery” refers to the cost advantage that a large manufacturer can gain by amortizing the cost of an expensive but efficient machine across many units manufactured. Thus are larger firms more cost competitive, with most machines as well as ordering parts and inputs in bulk, against smaller competitors. Such advantages, combined with protections via patents that smaller firms often cannot afford to file or license, means that industries tend to concentrate, as larger firms buy smaller ones. The Economist just discussed this problem!

§3. “Economies of skill” refer to the advantages in a division of labor. Larger manufacturers also have an advantage of a larger, more varied workforce, which increases access to special skills or genius.

§4. The entrepreneur can focus on big picture strategy in a larger firm by delegating other tasks; in a smaller firm, there are more distractions but also the opportunity to keep details — and quality control — in focus.

§5. Although the entrepreneur can often grow their business with hard work and (a touch of genius), the larger a business gets in market share, the harder it is to please customers seeking certain features, customization, or variety. Thus, is there a constant struggle between different sized firms in markets. (This analysis does not apply to network economies that help firms like Amazon or Facebook!)

§6. Standardization and economies of scale help larger manufacturers and retailers gain customers with lower prices, at a cost to smaller competitors.

§7. Industries where geography matters — farming, mining, transport — are less subject to economies of scale.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Should the UN declare a responsibility to protect Americans from the Trump administration? (Yes)
  2. Notes on Beirut’s broken sewage system  (and corruption)
  3. Racism, gender and diversity in economics: EconTalk and Capitalisn’t
  4. The Germans rose above their past by facing their failures. The Russians have not reconciled with the real horrors of Stalin; America struggles with its slavery past.
  5. Time to re-read “The Coddling of the American Mind“?

    Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.

  6. YouTube can take you down a dark rabbithole, but you can also direct your own adventures.
  7. Minecraft is magic and disconcerting in the same way as life. Explore.
  8. Marmelade
  9. Climate-chaos will put poverty- and corruption-driven migration into overdrive. If the EU and US block migration, then they are more likely to have wars on their frontiers.
  10. America’s failure to deal with the rise of China risks world stability

H/T to PB

I/O continued: The concentration of specialized industries in particular localities

Book 4, Chapter 10

§1. Most early trade was of high-value goods that were light enough to transport to willing buyers. Specialization began with these goods (and resources).

§2. Local specialization occurred when local resources (e.g., metals) were rare, when “demand” appeared (e.g., the royal court), or for a variety of reasons that may date back into forgotten history.

§3. Industry tends to persist, in clusters, once it gets going. That’s because skills and ideas transmit “in the air,” and capital can be used intensively. As local institutions grow and develop, industry gains even more productivity. Imbalances occur if the industry only employs one type of worker in the population (e.g., men in mines), so there’s an incentive to add complementary industries (e.g., textiles to employ women and children) so families can prosper. One-industry towns are thus bad for families, and — because they are not-diversified — vulnerable to downturns. Since trading adds value, they pay higher rents in city centers, while industrial areas occupy cheaper land outside of centers. For more on industrial evolution, read my review of The Economies of Cities (1969) by Jane Jacob.

§4. Cheaper communication, transportation and trade (via lower tariffs) increase trade and specialization, but also migration of skilled workers, which fosters industrial diversification elsewhere. These two trends are good for consumers, competition and innovation.

Recall that “globalization” was very strong before WWI and into the 1920s. In the Depression, it was reversed (making the depression worse), and the Cold War and communism slowed globalization until the 1990s put it back into high gear. With Trump, Brexit, and Covid, globalization has gone into reverse, which harms consumers and workers while benefitting businesses with stronger market power (due to less competition).

“Farmers” in the middle ages also made cloth, tools, buildings, etc., so they were not always “growing food.” Industrialization brought machines and power to agriculture, increasing productivity per worker, but the industrial workers who provide these machines are not counted as the workforce “growing food.” Data on workers or economic activity can therefore be misleading.

Workers do not leave farms to go to factories but into services. The share of workers in factories around 1900 was the same as in 1850 but their output has grown enormously. The growth in service jobs (education, housekeepers, bureaucracy, et al.) occurs because these areas are not amenable to automation. (What a contemporary comment! Read more on the Balassa–Samuelson effect.)

//end chapter 10


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. A (really) deep analysis of the weaknesses in the Big 5 personality tests
  2. The cult catastrophe at WeWork
  3. Our egos + social media – community = mayhem
  4. Discrimination by the State against women and minorities
  5. Social media has fed our egos and rage at the same time as our local social networks have collapsed
  6. Wikipedia’s “culture of neutrality” limits the damage from “my opinion over your facts.”
  7. China’s assurances about flood control may be as hollow as their assurances that “Covid is under control” in Wuhan.
  8. Race and fragility in universities. Related: On White Fragility:Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.”
  9. The story behind airline ticketing
  10. The extremely effective, Swiss political system explained (part 1)

Review: Codes of the Underworld

I met Diego Gambetta back in 2005 when I was a student at a summer school on organized crime. I am still interested in crime and corruption, so I bought this 2009 book awhile back.

So what are criminal codes, and how do they work? At their best, they allow communicating and signalling in a way that non-criminals do not notice, wanna-be criminals cannot counterfeit, and real criminals can understand easily and accurately.

Good codes might be a tattoo that indicate what gang you’re in, a nickname that friends can use but the law cannot, or sexual slang that sounds like a grocery list. In many cases, codes are associated with criminals or terrorists, but they are also used by forbidden groups (gays, prostitutes, activists) whose existence is illegal or forbidden.

Gambetta is a smooth, fluid writer. His elaborate prose sometimes seems too measured for the topics, but his citations, caveats, and hypotheses provided enjoyable, cautious perspectives on the forms behind the shadows.

Chapters are organized into two parts: Costly Signals (e.g., putting yourself at risk to gain trust, fighting for respect, or self-harming to empower) and Conventional Signals (“Fat Tony”, [the organization that shall not be named], and messy dressing).

Here are some notes I made as I read…

  • Prison time is valuable for criminal skills and contacts, but time also strengthens one’s reputation as someone who “has been inside.”
  • There’s no honor among thieves, so they find creative ways to build trust. One is incompetence, i.e., being gangster enough to provide protection for 10% of revenues but not smart enough to take over your business.
  • Corrupt power-brokers promote the most incompetent to show their power surpasses objections. Caligula appointed his horse as senator. Trump hired his son-in-law (and many other incompetent scoundrels).
  • KGB operatives had experience laundering money abroad to fund shell companies pursuing political, economic or military goals. When the USSR fell apart, ex-KGB officers (including Putin) used their skills to entrench their power and wealth. (Listen to this podcast I suggested last month.)
  • If someone knows you have broken a law, then they have power over you. Italy has over 100,000 laws (Germany has 6,000) so Italians have a lot of power over each other. That power can ensure conformity or good behavior. It can also help people evade prosecution.
  • Prison fights increase when prison populations have high turn-over and few opportunities to communicate. “Lifers” have time (and reason) to establish order and reduce violence. A jail of itinerant young men will have many fights, as each new arrival needs to be “put in place.”
  • Women fight more than men.
  • Many threats are bluffs. Prisoners want rank, not injuries. Rape threats and robberies are often directed at rankings.
  • If you do get in a fight, then fight to win, or suffer the long-term consequences. A weaker reputation means abuse.
  • Here, I was annoyed that prisoners were fighting instead of organizing to overcome authorities and escape. Then, Gambetta explained how Polish prisoners organized themselves to improve their conditions. They did not escape, but ex-cons can use their organizational skills outside to become bigger and badder.
  • Psychologists and civilians assume self-harm means self-hatred, since many people think the goals of life are maximum happiness and minimum pain. Self harm can deliver gains — in attention, protection, or respect from others afraid of “that crazy mothafucka.”
  • Mafia are very careful about their body language. A wrong signal can get someone (even the signaler) killed.
  • Gays don’t really use colored handkerchiefs to advertise sexual preferences.
  • Underworld types will use a signal until the general public catches on, then it’s abandoned to posers (who occasionally get killed over confusion about the legitimacy of their signaling).
  • Trademarks retain customer loyalty and pricing power. Heroin stamps mattered on the East Coast of the US because users bought white powder. On the West Coast, “tar” heroin was easier to identify. Stamps are easy to counterfeit, so gangs either switch stamps quickly or kill anyone using their mark. 
  • Mob dads are proud when their sons are inducted into another gang. They prefer an outside confirmation of quality over nepotism (unlike Trump). “The Godfather” got this wrong as “families” are not usually made of blood-relatives but those worthy of becoming “men of honor.”
  • Most of the book focusses on the Italian (and American) mafias, but Gambetta includes examples from prisons, Russia, Japan, and a sprinkling of European countries. I just heard a podcast explaining how law enforcement has trouble decoding minority languages, which also means that scholars have a hard time learning about the criminals that use them. Even so, I would have liked to hear more about the Latin American underworld, which is probably more violent (in murders) and successful (in revenue) than Italy’s mafia.
  • When a family grows larger than the Dunbar number (~150), then they need safe ways to identify each other. The safest way for two wiseguy strangers to meet is to find a made man they both know, who can then introduce them.
  • It’s hard to jail “Ciapudda” (Onion) as a gang boss if the guy you’re holding is named Salvatore Bondino.
  •  Gangsters love to see themselves in movies. They adapt habits (and strategies) from movies. If they are dangerous and nasty in movies, so much the better: It’s easier to intimidate the public, and gangsters make easier money from “protection” than they do on drugs, gambling or prostitution.

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is a fun read for anyone who wants to think about communication — or start a gang. Five Stars.


Here are all my reviews.

I/O, continued. Division of labour. The influence of machinery.

Book 4, Chapter 9

§1. Marshall promises to look into labor, its division and relation to capital and management over several chapters. He begins by supporting “practice makes perfect,” i.e., that:

The mind of the merchant, the lawyer, the physician, and the man of science, becomes gradually equipped with a store of knowledge and a faculty of intuition, which can be obtained in no other way than by the continual application of the best efforts of a powerful thinker for many years together to one more or less narrow class of questions.

While I agree with this formulation, I call attention to the use of “intuition,” which most people define as something you’re born with, but Marshall defines as something acquired. Websters defines it as:

1a: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference
2: quick and ready insight

…so Marshall (and many academics) misuse the word, to the detriment of students who seem to “lack intuition” towards non-obvious ideas — a topic I’ve written about [pdf].

§2. The division of labor allows a worker to become more productive, but an efficient worker’s methods of breaking down tasks into simple, repeated steps makes it easier to replace that skilled worker with a machine or “guided” unskilled worker.

§3. Workers are not replaced by machines due to the division of labor as much as the need to produce large volumes of identical parts at scale. It is thus the size of the market that drives mechanization. Put differently, a business will pay fixed costs (FC) if that’s less than the cost savings (Δc) times volume (q), i.e., FC ≤ Δcq.

Mechanization is also a learning process, so each generation of machines, unlike each generation of skilled workers, is likely to be even more efficient.

§4. Since machines are good at producing identical parts, they allow for interchangeable parts, which aid in repairs (no special modifications needed), lower costs, and make remaining workers (with better general skills) more productive.

Marshall gives the example of American watch-manufacturers using standard parts as a means of taking market share from the Swiss watchmakers selling more expensive, less-reliable watches. That’s one reason I was happy to buy this 1921 Hamilton:

§5. Marshall turns to printing, which has also gone through several technological revolutions (from hand-cut plates, to hand-placed letters, to hot-lead type, to digital layouts). These steps, he emphasizes, can be broken into smaller and more specialized niches (somewhat weakening the power of craft), but their output facilitates new trades requiring more skills (journalist, photographer, artist, et al).

§6. Marshall pushes back against claims that automation has left workers with nothing to think about, without craft. Instead, he emphasizes how a woman can run four weaving machines to produce far more cloth than she could make after a day’s drudgery at the hand-loom. The children of poor farmers, likewise, can earn more and use more education, than they could growing potatoes. Also interesting is his point on how machine labor saves a man’s muscles, so he can relax rather than collapse at the end of a working day. (The traditional critique of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions is that they resulted in more work — and less satisfaction? — than hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but those lifestyles are neither possible for nearly 8 billion people, nor attractive to most.)

§7. Marshall ends by clarifying how improvements within a factory or business are called “internal economies” (of efficiency) whereas “external economies” arise from what would today be called a “cluster” of related businesses, suppliers and buyers. External economies are next.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. How communications technology changes our brains
  2. The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power
  3. “…because of poor political decisions [in the US] that every public-health person I know disagreed with, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
  4. Re-opening schools will be much harder than closing them
  5. Why are cases up and deaths down in the US? Lagging data and more.
  6. Some good background on the rise of Putin (and KGB power)
  7. The world is getting angrier, outrage defeats our public discourse, and how poker players are better at dealing with uncertainty
  8. Colonial powers used opium for income, then made its use criminal.
  9. Rethinking public spaces in the era of Corona
  10. The first EMTs in the world were Black guys from Pittsburgh, until they were shut down by a racist mayor
  11. A funny angry rant on climate change deniers

Industrial organization

Book 4, Chapter 8

§1. Industrial organization (I/O) is the branch of economics concerned with the internal workings of organizations (e.g., Coase’s 1937 Theory of the Firm) as well as their interactions in (non-)market settings.

Marshall’s discuss predates these ideas. He begins with a discussion of how individual specialization (based on the division of labor popularized by Adam Smith) requires group cooperation. Marshall asserts that such inter-personal cooperation is the key to evolutionary success, a point elaborated in authoritative detail in Joseph Heinrich’s 2015 Secret of Our Success [my review]. Marshall cautions that success is not based on “build it, and they will come” skills but a market demand for one’s skills. He also points out (foreshadowing Heinrich) that “those races, whose members render services to one another without exacting direct recompense are not only the most likely to flourish for the time, but most likely to rear a large number of descendants who inherit their beneficial habits” [p 202]. This characteristic is quite important in this corona-era if you want to understand the differences between public health successes and failures (see image).

A side note on sustainability, a concept that grew popular after WWII but whose roots date back to Malthus (1798) but whose implications grew more prominent during the Industrial Revolution:

The law of “survival of the fittest” states that those organisms tend to survive which are best fitted to utilize the environment for their own purposes. Those that utilize the environment most, often turn out to be those that benefit those around them most; but sometimes they are injurious.

§2. Marshall elaborates on the the benefits of group loyalty:

[De]liberate, and therefore moral, self-sacrifice soon makes its appearance; it is fostered by the far-seeing guidance of prophets and priests and legislators, and is inculcated by parable and legend… [T]ribal affection, starting from a level hardly higher than that which prevails in a pack of wolves or a horde of banditti, gradually grows into a noble patriotism; and religious ideals are raised and purified. The races in which these qualities are the most highly developed are sure, other things being equal, to be stronger than others in war and in contests with famine and disease; and ultimately to prevail. Thus the struggle for existence causes in the long run those races of men to survive in which the individual is most willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of those around him; and which are consequently the best adapted collectively to make use of their environment.

…before commenting on “parasitical races”:

For, though biology and social science alike show that parasites sometimes benefit in unexpected ways the race on which they thrive; yet in many cases they turn the peculiarities of that race to good account for their own purposes without giving any good return. The fact that there is an economic demand for the services of Jewish and Armenian money-dealers in Eastern Europe and Asia, or for Chinese labour in California, is not by itself a proof, nor even a very strong ground for believing, that such arrangements tend to raise the quality of human life as a whole

Marshall’s perspective here is not just racist; it contradicts the basic economics of gains from trade. Money lenders play an important role. Jews and Armenians did not take that role out of parasitical desires or genetics, but due to legal restrictions that prohibited them from other work while leaving money lending open to “infidels.” The case with Chinese — who were banned from entering the US by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (only fully cancelled in 1965) — is likewise racist. The Chinese were not parasites but willing laborers hired by willing employers. For anyone following the nativist rants of Trump, Brexiteers (and other chauvinistic populists), Marshall’s attitude will be sickeningly familiar.

§3. Marshall speaks of the natural benefits to caste and class systems (systems the British reinforced and exploited, via “divide and conquor”, in colonial India), and how those systems have been swept aside by the social, political and economic mobilities that have taken over industrial nations. He then reflects (and worries) that these freedoms risk being lost by the rise of “new caste systems” represented by division of labor.

§4. Marshall laments those who ignore Smith’s caveats on the division of labor (satirized by Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times”) in their insistence that more division is always better.

§5. Marshall states that species are will flourish if their members possess habits instincts useful to the individual and group, but he does not assume that’s the same case with humans, who have more discretion — to drink excessively, for instance. With a quick dismissal of the potential for children to inherit their parents learned skills (Mendel’s work had recently been rediscovered; Lysenko’s errors were yet to come), Marshall makes an easier claim: that the children of healthy, well-adjusted parents were likely to grow up healthy and well-adjusted.

Marshall ends the chapter with a plea for slow, thoughtful and persistent advances to improve Mankind, with a special emphasis on rescuing the “lower grades” to improve their lot and on improving the distribution of wealth. How would he drive this process?

Progress may be hastened by thought and work; by the application of the principles of Eugenics to the replenishment of the race from its higher rather than its lower strains, and by the appropriate education of the faculties of either sex [p 207].

Eugenics again. Read the wikipedia article for more on its long history (from Plato to Lee Kwan Yew), but I agree with its opponents: Any eugenic program is likely to be abused (e.g., forced sterilizations in Australia, Canada, the US, et al.), and eugenics are far too slow and ineffective compared to improved public health and education.

When I think about the supporters of Trump, Hitler or other sociopaths, I don’t think “what we need here is some genetic winnowing.” What I think is that we need a population better educated on cause and effect and institutions for resolving conflict with something other than hate and violence.  One can hope.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Higher education faces a financial reckoning with charging a lot for little. Related: The notion of education for education’s sake no longer carries any weight
  2. Really living off the grid changes your timing
  3. Air conditioning is reinforcing climate change, but it isn’t really needed.
  4. Trump’s behavior reflects his upbringing as a spoiled brat. Related: Historians on why Trump is America’s worst president ever
  5. A very Canadian reflection on the passport. Related: Citizenship used to be about community; now it’s mostly about rents 
  6. Heavily monopolized markets make a joke of consumer choice
  7. The museum of whale penises raises many questions
  8. Myths about the Black Death, Middle Ages and Renaissance
  9. What’s wrong with WhatsApp?

As any frequent user of WhatsApp or a closed Facebook group will recognise, the moral anxiety associated with groups is rather different. If the worry in an open network is of being judged by some outside observer, be it one’s boss or an extended family member, in a closed group it is of saying something that goes against the codes that anchor the group’s identity. Groups can rapidly become dominated by a certain tone or worldview that is uncomfortable to challenge and nigh-impossible to dislodge. WhatsApp is a machine for generating feelings of faux pas, as comments linger in a group’s feed, waiting for a response.