Stuff to read

  1. An update on the collapse of recycling in America. (China banned imports of “trash” and American cities cannot afford to run recycling services at prices residents are used to. Either prices rise or the materials go to the landfill.)
  2. A surreal video portraying Capetown when it was near Day Zero (no water)
  3. Jihadists and white extremists have a lot in common (e.g., needing hugs)
  4. Hygiene saves us from infectious diseases but now we’re getting allergies
  5. Inside the world of drop-shippers, theft and counterfeits
  6. Raghuram Rajan is very wise on trade, competition and bank policies
  7. The Cambridge Analytica Facebook manipulation scandal broke one year ago, but politicians have not acted to prevent election manipulation. Fail.
  8. Journalists are suing Trump for threatening their First Amendment rights to safely do their job. Good.
  9. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt on politics, morality, and the coddling of the American mind
  10. This podcast on parenting and breastfeeding makes me question the value of “natural parenting” 

Review: Millennium

This 2016 book (subtitle: “From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years”) by Ian Mortimer is a fascinating read. Mortimer says he wrote the book in response to the common claim that “everything important has happened in the last century,” which he takes as a sign of ignorance about history more than the outcome of careful consideration. 

In this book, he looks at “culturally Western” (European) history over the past millennium, one century at a time, to review the people, events and changes that made a difference in that hundred year period. This structure really helps organize a massive set of materials in an easy-to-follow and fun manner. I wish my history courses — I remember one called “Ancient and Medieval History” that was far too heavy on kings and wars — had been taught with this structure.

In this “review” I will mention the big trends for each century and give my thoughts on 1,000 years of human history.

1000s: “The eleventh century was when the Catholic Church changed from being simply a faith into which people were baptised to being a vast, organised system that governed how they lived and died” Page 19. The Church played a big role in promoting peace among believers, which directed violence at outsiders (the Crusades). The Church also helped end slavery (hold that thought!) as “slave classes” became Christians (“slave derives from the Slavs, who had not yet been converted to Christianity” page 25). Peace also made more sense as improvements in structural engineering improved castles that could defend territories. 

1100s: The Medieval Warm Period made it easier to grow food and raise children, so population expanded and fields replaced forests. More monks meant more literacy but also logical and rational debates over religious dogma, sec, crime and faith. An intellectual renaissance driven by the “rediscovery” of Greek and Roman works that Muslim scholars had preserved while Europe was lost in its Dark Ages. The Arabic world also brought new ideas (Page 45: “al-Khwarizmi’s Zij al-Sindhind introduced Arabic numerals, the decimal point and trigonometry to the West”). Rationality and knowledge improved medicine by replacing faith in God with systematic care that relied on cause and effect. The rule of law spread as Popes and kings replaced ad-hoc whim with a unified rules that made planning, choices and consequences more predictable. 

1200s: The number of towns and cities exploded as markets grew (Amsterdam’s charter dates from 1275). Trade led to coinage, banks, credit, insurance and record-keeping. This last innovation increased demand for clerks and thus literacy, which was increasingly provided by universities that set standards of conduct and qualification: 

Students read for the degree of Master of Arts by studying the seven liberal arts, divided into the ‘trivium’ (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the ‘quadrivium’ (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)… By this time it had become usual for any cleric hoping to attain high office in the Church to read for a Master of Arts degree at a university. Methods of debate, scholarship and attaining knowledge had been formalised and distributed systematically across Christendom. Page 68.

Accountability arose when kings and emperors tried to force their nobles to obey and — when they failed — were forced to accept limits on their power and accountability for their promises. This period initiated the right to trial by jury, an end to arbitrary imprisonment (habeas corpus), and the establishment of parliaments that would advise the king (“parler” means to talk in French). Newly established orders of friars (from the French word for brother, frères) created a bridge between the secular and religious worlds, bringing good works and monastic knowledge to the people. Travel was driven by commerce (going to market; seeking exotic goods) as well as accountability (attending parliament), but mostly by the falling risk to those who ventured beyond their home village and into the “alien” world. Travel brought ideas, freedom, and economic gains. The world began to shrink. 

1300s: The Black Death killed 50-60 percent of Europe’s population and triggered big changes. Rigid institutions on land-ownership, serfdom and wages fell as peasants became more valuable. (One of my favorite papers links the Black Death to social mobility to political competition to colonial/world domination.) The Church lost power, women could choose to marry, and capitalism replaced feudalism. Projectile warfare empowered cheap archers over expensive knights. Nationalism based on language, interest or place emerged as people from difference places encountered each other at markets, parliaments or religious gatherings. Although it created bonds among those within the nation, it also led to conflict with those outside of it. Those “us vs them” conflicts were not accidents. They were encouraged by kings (politicians) who needed to raise armies, collect tax revenues, and maintain domestic peace. Nationalism also meant using vernacular languages over Latin, a move that harmed international relations but aided domestic unity (as well as vastly easing literacy and education efforts). 

1400s: The age of discovery was driven mostly by greed, and it set off the colonial disaster whose effects still immiserate many. Columbus was no saint, but he helped by “exploding the myth that everything worth knowing had already been discovered by the Greeks and Romans” (page 116), which encouraged others to challenge conventional wisdom. Measured standardized time shifted power from God (who made time) and the Church (that rang the bells of time) to humans. Normal people could now measure time, synchronize themselves, and even charge interest, independent of God. Individualism stared back from manufactured mirrors and invaded portraits and letters. Private bedrooms and other habits separated people from their community. Realism replaced abstract images with individual observation, as people related the world to themselves. 

1500s: These summary notes do not capture the insights of this book. The rise of wage labor, for example, led to the invention of breakfast as the third meal for people now working for others. It was a very busy century:

By 1600 most people followed a routine that you will probably recognise. They washed their face and hands and cleaned their teeth when they got up in the morning. They had breakfast and went to school or work for about eight o’clock. They ate lunch around midday, and came home and ate supper with metal knives and spoons off plates, warming themselves at a fireplace. They lay down to rest in sheets on a mattress on a proper bed frame, with their head on a soft pillow. If your main concern is the routine of daily life, you may well conclude that the sixteenth century saw the greatest developments of the millennium. Page 131

The Gutenberg Bible was printed in the mid-15th century, but it was in Latin. Literacy and reading rose dramatically when vernacular-language bibles appeared in the late 1400s-early 1500s. Literacy empowered normal people to learn and communicate without needing permission from priests or aristocrats. Governments began keeping records of births and deaths. Scientists could publish and argue from afar. Women could not be “kept in place” when they could learn from others and teach. The Reformation began as a protest against ungodly norms, but it quickly turned into a conflict between rulers and priests, tradition and innovation. The (now “Catholic”) Church was forced to reform. The many flavors of Protestantism led to debates over conduct and fights between church(s) and states. Although the Catholic Church may have deserved to lose power for its corruption, that loss removed a check on State abuse of power. Better guns increased the randomness of death, thereby removing God’s role in victory and defeat. European nations used their military technology to conquor the world Private violence fell as literacy and organized legal systems made State justice more effective than personal revenge. The need for soldiers also displaced violent men from home to abroad, much to the disadvantage of colonized peoples. 

1600s: The Little Ice Age led to famines,  migration around the world, and increased risk taking as people struggled to survive. The scientific revolution grew out of literacy, rational critique and communication changes from earlier centuries. One good result is that persecution of witchcraft stopped. The medical revolution continued as doctors (i.e., “experts with doctorates”) normalized and tested treatments. The colonial era saw wars, opportunistic migration, governments replaced by occupying forces, freedom for settlers and slavery for many. The West’s business was everyone’s business. The social contract and middle classes arose in the Old World as citizens debated (and fought) for power in relation to the State and freedom to enjoy leisure, respectively. 

1700s: It is said that the British departed their newly independent American colonies playing “The World Turned Upside Down.” Indeed:

By comparison to the taste of previous centuries, which could be salty, sour, bittersweet or just plain bitter as the circumstances dictated, the taste of the eighteenth century has a certain fizz to it – like fireworks and string quartets bursting above the mere mud of human tragedy. Page 189

Improved roads, canals and newspapers made it easier to transport people and goods, and communicate ideas around the world. The scientific method and New World crops (e.g., potatoes) combined to drive an agricultural revolution that lowered food prices and raised population. Liberalism arrived via Voltaire, Rousseau and Turgot, all of them advancing the rights of the individual over the nobility or State. Sexual liberation 1.0 had arrived. Economic liberalism arrived via Adam Smith and others who argued for free trade over government monopolies. Some people started to get much wealthier. Capitalism and coal drove the Industrial Revolution and vast increases in output per worker. Political revolution in America replaced a foreign king with a president restrained by a constitution. The French Revolution lead to the deaths of the king, aristocrats and many citizens in the name of “freedom.”

1800s: 54 percent of the people who lived in the last 1,000 years lived in the last two centuries. Are these centuries half our “total value add”? Hard to say, as quality can matter more than quantity. The forces behind this statistical fact were massive population growth as farm productivity grew and urbanism that lowered the costs of goods and services. “England went from 80% rural in 1800 to 70% urban by 1900” (Page 230). Cheaper transport via railways brought synchronized time, “generic architecture”, industrial trade agglomeration, insanity and empty churches. Steamboats and (safety) bicycles took people far and near at record low costs. Telegrams and telephones sped up communication. Public heath saved millions of lives by discovering, treating and preventing infectious diseases (read my paper). Photography brought the “real world” to distant people and created a new standard of truth. Social revolution driven by popular misery resulted in the franchise for most men, the right for women to work or study at university, and expanded educational, health and pension subsidies. 

1900s: Transport shrank the world, spread benefits and increased volatility:

Rapid modernisation forced the citizens of these nations to go through the same process of skills specialisation that had taken place in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. Many non-Western countries were therefore forced to come to terms with the Scientific, Medical, Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the course of just a few decades. It is no coincidence that as transport networks widened, food yields increased, population expanded, urbanisation increased and literacy rose. In 1900 only 13 per cent of the world’s population lived in towns and approximately 20 per cent could read and write. In 2000 half the world lived in urban areas and over 70 per cent were literate. The whole world was forced to compete in a marketplace created by transport links and the movement of capital and goods. Page 267

Wars killed many but survivors shared what remained as they lived longer lives. The media organized the informal flows of information that had intensified over the last few centuries. Electronics gave us cheap powerful toys but also separated us from the “means of production,” just as the invention of “The Future” made us think about sustainability, population, technology and society. Science fiction was a bet on future lives. 

In the conclusion of his book, Mortimer spends some time deciding which century was the most important by ranking them by their impact on meeting needs, as ordered by Maslow (read the book for details).

Then he predicts our future by shifting attention from our “demand” for the good life to the “supply” of resources those goods depend upon. Although I do not agree with the details of his analysis (he worries about running out of oil; I worry about pressures on the commons), I agree that:

The challenge now is not one of expansion but self-containment: a series of problems with which the all-conquering male is ill-equipped to deal. We, Homo sapiens, have never before had to face the problem of our own instincts threatening our continued existence; they have always been for our benefit, the survival of our genes. The frontiers we face now lie not on the horizon – or even in space – but inside our own minds. Page 324, my emphasis.

In this review, I have skipped Morrison’s discussions of each century’s most influential figure, but his discussion of the figure of the millennium leads to this interesting observation:

In highlighting this absence of truly influential women in the past, I hope to draw attention to the capacity for things to be different in the future. I wrote above: ‘The challenge now is not one of expansion but self-containment: a series of problems with which the all-conquering male is ill-equipped to deal.’ The emphasis on the male in that statement was not accidental. The character traits we commonly associate with women, which are less to do with testosterone-fuelled conquests and more to do with nurturing and protection, are much better suited to lead us into the future. If men change in their nature, then no doubt women will do too – and there is a significant danger in that: there will be no advantage for the world if women simply take on male traits. Nevertheless, if there is to be hope for mankind, we must accept that it may be better for us all if the principal agent of change in the twenty-first century is a woman. Page 327

I agree that humanity (and our world) would benefit from less testosterone. 

In his final (post-conclusion) chapter, Mortimer ventures into a future of falling resources and increasing conflict, channeling his inner Malthus and failing (IMO) to appreciate the power of innovation at the same time as he misses the political failures that misdirect our brilliance and greed away from sustainability. After 400 or so pages, I see this omission as a missed opportunity to call for change in community dialogues that could force the political classes to save us from ourselves.

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should read this book to learn about history, think about human progress, and plan for (surviving) a better tomorrow.


Here are all my reviews.

Stuff to read

  1. Struggling millennials need financial help from parents. Related: It’s hard to get ahead if you’re not “of the right class”
  2. Listen to this discussion on the impact of minimum wages on workers!
  3. Robert Schiller (of “Irrational Exuberance” fame) explains political-economy
  4. Lake Erie is now a “legal person” with the right to not be polluted. Big Ag is upset, but Big Ag can go fuck itself or — better — stop killing neighbors. (NB: This move is/will be challenged in court, so it’s not operational yet.)
  5. Facebook is locked in an unwinnable war with the world it helped create
  6. A former jihadist speaks on the war in Afghanistan
  7. Natives owned land before Columbus, so most settlers were stealing
  8. Police criminals, not “dangerous” neighborhoods
  9. Why is American light rail so expensive compared to other countries?
  10. California has a half-million homeless — and a public health crisis

H/T to SM

More Jive Talking!

I’ve got lots of people lined up for interviews, which means more than one episode of Jive Talking per week. Here are listening/subscription options.

Episode 9 (“Julianne Subia is bringing justice to privacy”)

This episode’s motto: “Work to learn the skills for your next job.”

Julianne is a 22-year-old Dutch-American, from Detroit and currently based in Boston. At Leiden University College, Julianne majored in International Justice with a focus on human rights. Since graduating, she has been taking the opportunity to explore different kinds of career paths, and is now doing marketing for Abine, Inc. Abine (www.abine.com) is a startup that sells tools allowing individuals to take control of their online privacy.

Episode 10 (“Brian Czech wants to save us from ourselves”)

This episode’s motto: “Everyone needs to do their part!”

Brian Czech is the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Czech served as a conservation biologist in the headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1999-2017 and as a visiting professor of natural resources economics with Virginia Tech through most of that period. He is the author of three books: Supply Shock, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, and The Endangered Species Act: History, Conservation Biology, and Public Policy. He has published over 50 academic journal articles in more than 20 peer-reviewed journals. Czech is a frequent speaker, commentator, and a regular contributor to the Steady State Herald, CASSE’s blog. He has a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

Email me if you or someone you know should be on Jive Talking!

 

Review: The Secret of Our Success

I first learned of Joseph Henrich when I read his jointly authored paper “In search of homo economicus: behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies” [pdf], which was published in economists’ top journal in 2001. The paper was impressive on two counts. First, it showed economists how anthropologists could use their field knowledge to explain behavior. Second, it undermined (yet again) economists who claimed to be describing “universal”  behavior. Henrich et al.  showed how culture affected human cooperation. Although some economists continue to ignore culture (one of my graduate school professors banned use of that word), those who spend time “among mere mortals” know that culture needs to be accounted for in their theories, analyses, and policy proposals.

It is for these reasons that I bought this 2015 book (subtitled: “How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter”), which I’ll abbreviate as SOS. I wanted to learn more from a guy who asks useful questions and then does all he can to understand and explain the nuances to answering them.

I also want to note that I read this book after Yuval Hariri’s Sapiens, which I found to be insightful but slightly disappointing. (Others are more harsh.) I recommend Henrich’s SOS over Sapiens because it provides deeper insights and more useful ideas.

The secret, btw, is cultural evolution, i.e., how we learn, imitate and improve on ideas, not as individuals but members of a group. It’s from this source that we have language, abstractions, processes and rules-in-use (institutions) that help each generation do better than the last. (Henrich defines “culture” as “the large body of practices, techniques, heuristics, tools, motivations, values, and beliefs that we all acquire while growing up, mostly by learning from other people” Loc(ation) 239.)

For the rest of this review, I will summarize the ideas from SOS that appealed to me and give a few comments. As usual, these notes reflect my own perspective and learning. YMMV 🙂

  1. Some paleo-anthropolgists claim that language differentiates humans  from other primates, but Henrich claims that it is our ability to teach and learn culture. Some primates can learn, communicate and use tools, but they are far worse than humans at these tasks. Data comparing babies to adult and juvenile chimpanzees shows that babies are orders of magnitude better at observing and learning from example.
  2. “Once these useful skills and practices began to accumulate and improve over generations, natural selection had to favor individuals who were better cultural learners, who could more effectively tap in to and use the ever-expanding body of adaptive information available. The newly produced products of this cultural evolution, such as fire, cooking, cutting tools, clothing, simple gestural languages, throwing spears, and water containers, became the sources of the main selective pressures that genetically shaped our minds and bodies. This interaction between culture and genes, or what I’ll call culture-gene coevolution, drove our species down a novel evolutionary pathway not observed elsewhere in nature, making us very different from other species—a new kind of animal” Loc 252, emphasis added.
  3. Humans added “prestige” as a second status that complements or substitutes for status via “dominance,” which animals also have. I think of prestige as wisdom and dominance as strength.
  4. “Norms influence a vast range of human action, including ancient and fundamentally important domains such as kin relations, mating, food sharing, parenting, and reciprocity…Repeated norm violations sometimes provoked ostracism or even execution at the hands of one’s community. Thus, cultural evolution initiated a process of self-domestication, driving genetic evolution to make us prosocial, docile, rule followers who expect a world governed by social norms monitored and enforced by communities” Loc 282-4.
  5. “Our collective brains arise from the synthesis of our cultural and social natures—from the fact that we readily learn from others (are cultural) and can, with the right norms, live in large and widely interconnected groups (are social)… we don’t have these tools, concepts, skills, and heuristics because our species is smart; we are smart because we have culturally evolved a vast repertoire of tools, concepts, skills, and heuristics. Culture makes us smart” Loc 297, 319.
  6. “(N)atural selection made us highly social and cooperative… by working together we conquered the globe” Loc 403. Unfortunately, we seem to have scaled up by too much, as we now lack the cultural or social tools to rein the behaviors that are driving climate change, destroying biodiversity, and thus threatening 100,000 years 2 million years of collective success.
  7. Social learning refers to any time an individual’s learning is influenced by others… Individual learning refers to situations in which individuals learn by observing or interacting directly with their environment and can range from calculating the best time to hunt by observing when certain prey emerge, to engaging in trial-and-error learning with different digging tools…Cultural learning refers to a more sophisticated subclass of social learning abilities in which individuals seek to acquire information from others, often by making inferences about their preferences, goals, beliefs, or strategies and/or by copying their actions or motor patterns…the only exceptional cognitive abilities possessed by young children in comparison to two other great apes relate to social learning, and not to space, quantities, or causality…we humans are rather inclined to copy—spontaneously, automatically, and often unconsciously. Chimpanzees don’t appear to suffer from this cognitive “bug,” at least not nearly to the same degree” Loc 424-564, emphasis added. Humans are worse at game theory than chimps [the real homo economicus!], but humans are much better at learning by imitation, which is an advantage when learning complex processes or concepts.
  8. This skill has its downsides. We learn by copying, and copy more from those with success and prestige. This system works on a small scale as a means of transmitting cultural knowledge, but its remnants fail in today’s world of social media, where people “follow” without any feedback from influencers and copy visible aspects of success without also copying the many hidden steps that led to success. (It also explains the much older practice of paying celebrities to advertise products. Consumers who trust their prestige do not ask questions about the product’s quality.)
  9. “Culture, and cultural evolution, are then a consequence of genetically evolved psychological adaptations for learning from other people. That is, natural selection favored genes for building brains with abilities to learn from others” Loc 808.
  10. “Students may learn more effectively from teachers or professors who match them on these dimensions [sex and ethnicity], which may impact a person’s grades, choice of major, or career preferences…for African-American students at a community college, being taught by an African-American instructor reduced class dropout rates by 6 percentage points and increased the fraction attaining a B or better by 13 percentage points” Loc 1036-44.
  11. “Copying suicide highlights the potency of our imitative tendencies and means that under the right conditions we can acquire practices via cultural learning that natural selection has directly acted to eliminate under most conditions. If humans will imitate something that is so starkly not in our self-interest, or that of our genes, imagine all the other less costly things we are willing to acquire by cultural transmission” Loc 1120.
  12. “You first need to acquire the social norms and rules governing the world you are operating in, and only then is strategic thinking useful. In our world, successful Machiavellians must first be skilled cultural learners. You can’t bend, exploit, and manipulate the rules until you first figure out what the rules are” Loc 1159.
  13. Although our individual ancestors might have been smarter or better skilled at survival than we are (when’s the last time you caught your dinner in the wild?), we are more successful because we can draw on the cumulative cultural experiments and adaptions of our ancestors, some of whom died in ways that help us avoid similar death today.
  14. “Childhood is a period of intensive cultural learning, including playing and the practicing of adult roles and skills, during which time our brains reach nearly their adult size while our bodies remain small. Adolescence begins at sexual maturity, after which a growth spurt ensues. During this time, we engage in apprenticeships, as we hone the most complex of adult skills and areas of knowledge, as well as build relationships with peers and look for mates” Loc 1309.
  15. Cooking, food processing and tools allowed our energy-intensive brains to grow larger and more sophisticated. Our bodies also evolved for hunting, throwing and digesting cooked food. The same processes explain why we sweat to cool ourselves off: we do not need to fear dehydration because we learned to find, store and carry water. 
  16. “Blue and green eyes are a side effect of natural selection favoring genes for lighter skin among cereal-dependent populations living at high latitudes. If cultural evolution hadn’t produced agriculture, and specifically techniques and technologies suitable for higher latitudes, then there would be no blue or green eyes. In all likelihood then, this genetic variant only started spreading within the last six millennia, after agriculture arrived in the Baltic region” Loc 1703.
  17. “Humans reliably develop emotions and motivations to seek out particularly skilled, successful, and knowledgeable models and then are willing to pay deference to those models in order to gain their cooperation (pedagogy), or at least acquiescence, in cultural transmission. This deference can come in many forms, including giving assistance (e.g., helping with chores), gifts and favors (e.g., watching their children), as well as speaking well of them in public (thus broadcasting their prestige). Without some form of deference, prestigious individuals have little incentive to allow unrelated learners to be around them and would not be inclined to provide any preferential access to their skills, strategies, or know-how” Loc 2339.
  18. “Both dominant and prestigious men tended to get their way at group meetings, but only prestigious men were respected and generous… Dominant individuals tended to (1) act overbearing, (2) credit themselves, (3) use teasing to humiliate others, and (4) be manipulative. Meanwhile, prestigious individuals (1) were self-deprecating, (2) attributed success to the team, and (3) told jokes” Loc 2403, 2469.
  19. “Saint Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, made giving to the poor admirable. Rich Christians began to compete to see who could give the most to the poor (often through the church), inspired by paragons like Ambrose, who gave all their wealth away. Prior to this, giving to the poor was puzzling (at best) since the poor had little or nothing to give back. This move may have been crucial to the long-run success of the Church as an organization (and, no doubt, the poor appreciated it too). For the same reason, charitable organizations open their efforts to raise money by featuring donations from highly prestigious individuals, whose generosity is subsequently made known…by behaving altruistically, and because they are role models for others, prestigious individuals can increase the overall prosociality of their local groups or their sections of the social network. This, of course, means that any altruism is only altruism in the short-term sense. In the longer run, prestigious individuals who behave generously get to live in a social network that, by virtue of their own actions, becomes more generous and cooperative” Loc 2546, 2562.
  20. “If the elderly are so often prestigious across human societies, why aren’t they particularly admired or respected in many Western societies? To answer this, we return to the evolutionary logic. The aged are accorded prestige and deference when more decades of experience and learning can provide a proxy measure for accumulated knowledge and wisdom. However, if a society is rapidly changing, then the knowledge accumulated by someone over decades will become outdated rather quickly” Loc 2630.
  21. “The Great Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court and legislature that persisted for centuries at the beginning of the Common Era. When deliberating on a capital case, its seventy judges would each share their views, beginning with the youngest and lowest-ranking member and then proceed in turn to the “wisest” and most respected member. This is an interesting norm because (1) it’s nearly the opposite of how things would go if we let nature take its course, and (2) it helps guarantee that all the judges got to hear the least varnished views of the lower-ranking members, since otherwise the views of the lowest-status individuals would be tainted by both the persuasive and deferential effects of prestige and dominance” Loc 2732.
  22. “Social norms about sexual fidelity mean not only that the husband is monitoring his wife’s sexual and romantic life, but so is the rest of the community, making it much tougher for the wife to behave in ways that might lower the husband’s confidence that his wife’s children are indeed his children. This has a psychological impact on the husband, motivating him to invest more in his wife’s offspring (because they are more likely to be his). Wives also know that if they are caught violating fidelity norms (e.g., having sex with someone else), it will influence their reputation with people well beyond their current husband and his kin” Loc 2902.
  23. College life? “Perhaps even more enduring and powerful than synchrony are the potent social bonds forged among those who share terrifying experiences. Such experiences have been routinely created in different ways by male initiation rites in societies across the globe and throughout history…Being in a ritual relationship, while holding genetic relatedness constant, is strongly associated with sharing meat and information, as well as receiving help when one is sick or injured. These culturally constructed ritual relationships are much more important than close genetic relatedness” Loc 3188, 3242.
  24. In experiments, I found that cooperation within a group rises when it is competing with other groups: “Intergroup competition provides one important process that can help explain the spread of norms that foster prosociality. Different groups culturally evolve different social norms. Having norms that increase cooperation can favor success in competition with other groups that lack these norms. Over time, intergroup competition can aggregate and assemble packages of social norms that more effectively promote such success, and these packages will include social norms related to cooperation, helping, sharing, and maintaining internal harmony” Loc 3300.
  25. … and that cooperation will fade if its raison d’être disappears: “prosocial institutions age and eventually collapse at the hands of self-interest, unless they are renewed by the dynamics of intergroup competition. That is, although it may take a long time, individuals and coalitions eventually figure out how to beat or manipulate the system to their own ends, and these techniques spread and slowly corrode any prosocial effects” Loc 3354.
  26. But these people defectors also put themselves at risk: “In small-scale societies, as in many communities, the sanctioning of norm violators begins with gossip and public criticism, often through joking by specific relatives, and then intensifies to damage marital prospects and reduce access to trading and exchange partners. If violators are still not brought into line, matters may escalate to ostracism or physical violence (e.g., beatings) and occasionally culminate in coordinated group executions…perpetrators can only get away with such actions when they target a norm violator, a person with his reputational shield down. Were they to do this to someone with a good reputation, the perpetrator would himself become a norm violator” Loc 3675, 3691. This passage reminds me of the grim scene in Zorba the Greek, where the young widow is killed after a suitor commits suicide, because she was “too seductive” for the men of the village.
  27. “Why would natural selection have built us to be norm internalizers? Broadly speaking, internalizing motivations helps us to more effectively and efficiently navigate our social world, a world in which some of the most frequent and dangerous pitfalls involve violating norms. Such motivations may help us avoid short-term temptations, reduce cognitive or attentional loads, or more persuasively communicate our true social commitments to others” Loc 3853. Norms, in other words, help us cooperate in producing and protecting the collective goods that contribute to define group prosperity. If you compare successful to failing communities and states, you will see that they mainly differ in the presence or absence of such institutions.
  28. “The psychological machinery that underpins how we think about “race” actually evolved to parse ethnicity, not race. You might be confused by this distinction since race and ethnicity are so often mixed up…when children or adults encounter a situation in which accent or language indicate “same ethnicity” but skin color indicates “different race,” the ethnolinguistic markers trump the racial markers” Loc 3996, 4003. I’ve written about misplaced racism.
  29. Why are so many people engaged in culture wars without a concern for the feelings or future of their neighbors? Too much prosperity. “By strengthening prosocial group norms, the experience of war resulted in more, and more energized, community organizations. Why would war have these prosocial effects? During hundreds of thousands of years, intergroup competition spread an immense diversity of social norms that galvanized groups to defend their communities; created risk-sharing networks to deal with environmental shocks like drought, floods, and famines; and fostered the sharing of food, water, and other resources” Loc 4056.
  30. Sapiens with individually smaller brains beat Neanderthals with individually larger ones because they created a hive mind: “Once individuals evolve to learn from one another with sufficient accuracy (fidelity), social groups of individuals develop what might be called collective brains. The power of these collective brains to develop increasingly effective tools and technologies, as well as other forms of nonmaterial culture (e.g., know-how), depends in part on the size of the group of individuals engaged and on their social interconnectedness… Larger populations can overcome the inherent loss of information in cultural transmission because if more individuals are trying to learn something, there’s a better chance that someone will end up with knowledge or skills that are at least as good as, or better than, those of the model they are learning from… by acquiring distinct elements from different people, learners can create “innovations” without “inventions”; that is, by recombining things copied from different models, novelties can emerge without individuals themselves thinking up a new technique on their own. This process turns out to be crucial for understanding innovation” Loc 4134, 4204, 4277.
  31. “Languages are cultural adaptations for communication. These communication systems had to adapt (culturally) to our brains, exploiting features of our ape cognition, and at the same time, created new selection pressures on our genes to make us better communicators. These genetic evolutionary pressures were powerful, shaping both our anatomy and psychology: they pushed down our larynx to widen our vocal range, freed up our tongues and improved their dexterity, whitened the area around our irises (the sclera) to reveal our gaze direction, and endowed us with innate capacities for vocal mimicry and with motivations for using communicative cues, like pointing and eye contact…cultural evolution is a key reason why existing languages are so easily learned by children, and some of the recurrent features of languages, like syntax, are likely the result of cultural evolution working to keep languages learnable, especially as vocabularies expand” Loc 4494, 4883.
  32. That said, language did not make humans unique: “(1) quite a bit of cultural transmission and cultural evolution is possible without language. Cultural information about tool manufacture, fire making, dangerous animals, edible plants, cooking, and diet (food choice) can all be acquired…(2) language itself is a culturally evolved product, so it can’t cause culture… (3) language has at its core a rather serious cooperative dilemma: lying, deception, and exaggeration. Lying with language is cheap, at least in the short term, and is a potentially powerful way to exploit and manipulate others…Thus, for complex communicative repertoires to evolve in the first place, this cooperative dilemma has to have already been at least partially solved” Loc 5001-18.
  33. West is best different: “People from different societies vary in their ability to accurately perceive objects and individuals both in and out of context. Unlike most other populations, educated Westerners have an inclination for, and are good at, focusing on and isolating objects or individuals and abstracting properties for these while ignoring background activity or context. Alternatively, expressing this in reverse: Westerners tend not to see objects or individuals in context, attend to relationships and their effects, or automatically consider context. Most other peoples are good at this” Loc 5229.
  34. Henrich spends some pages describing his theory for how humans got going, in terms of cultural-genetic evolution. I will not summarize that process, but I’ll tempt you with its start: “In many primates, such as chimpanzees, female bodies unmistakably signal when they are sexually receptive and capable of getting pregnant, sometimes using shiny buttock swellings. This means that once a male has hung around a female long enough, he’ll know her cycle, and thus know when it’s safe to head off to find some more receptive females or build alliances among males. In humans, however, females are potentially sexually receptive all the time, and males cannot reliably predict when their mate can get pregnant. So, by concealing ovulation at least partially, males are forced to be around their mates more often than they would otherwise and end up engaging in a lot of reproductively unnecessary sex. As a by-product, this extra “hanging around” his mate will further solidify his relationships with any offspring who are hanging around their mother” Loc 5904. In the pages that follow, he links hanging around to the growth of clans, sexual division of labor, and collective brains: “we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits” Loc 6239.
  35. And thus we arrive at the secret of our (varying) success: “Once we understand the importance of collective brains, we begin to see why modern societies vary in their innovativeness. It’s not the smartness of individuals or the formal incentives. It’s the willingness and ability of large numbers of individuals at the knowledge frontier to freely interact, exchange views, disagree, learn from each other, build collaborations, trust strangers, and be wrong. Innovation does not take a genius or a village; it takes a big network of freely interacting minds. Achieving this depends on people’s psychology, which arises from a package of social norms and beliefs, along with the formal institutions they foster or permit” Loc 6283.

Bottom Line: I strongly recommend this book for its deep and interesting explanations for how we got here as a species, how we behave and cooperate today, and how to understand the various pushes and pulls of our social and cultural institutions.


Here are all my reviews.

Chinese investments in Ethiopia

Jade writes*

Last summer, I spent a month in Ethiopia. My family and friends thought my travel plans were surprising, but upon arrival in Addis Ababa, I learned that I didn’t attract much attention from the Ethiopians. They are used to seeing Chinese faces like mine. The value of Chinese investment projects in Ethiopia reached an estimated 4 billion USD last year. China is Ethiopia’s largest trade partner in terms of  exports (16% of the total, worth 344 million USD) and imports (33% of the total, worth 2.65 billion USD). These numbers reflect two sets of policies.

First, Ethiopia wants to attract foreign investments by improving its investment and business climate. Favourable policies combined with a big domestic market and a strategic location in the Horn of Africa make Ethiopia attractive for foreign investors.

Second, China huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) means that trillions of dollars in infrastructure financing are flowing to developing countries. On the one hand, BRI can be seen as a massive development project, providing unprecedented economic growth. On the other, BRI might result in unsustainable debts to Chinese creditors [pdf] and lost sovereignty. These are the two main narratives around Chinese investment in Africa.

It is indisputable that foreign investments have brought economic growth to Ethiopia. It has the fastest growing economy in the region, but growth has not necessarily brought higher incomes or better living conditions for the poorest citizens of one of the poorest countries in the world

This relationship may resemble the picture of foreign investors swooping into African countries to plunder natural resources with the cooperation of local elites, but Ethiopia’s story seems different. For one, Ethiopia does not have fossil fuels or rare earth minerals. Its main export is coffee, and  Chinese investments are focused on infrastructure and manufacturing. Second, the crackdown on corruption under Prime Minister Abiy seems effective. Our usual suspects, the resource curse and corruption, are not the main perils facing high-growth Ethiopia.

So is it just a matter of time until economic growth ‘trickles down,’ or are  new industrial parks, power plants and railways only benefitting Chinese companies and employees? And what other adverse effects might there be?

I was in the northern Afar region. Here, Afar men have worked for generations to extract blocks of salt in the sweltering desert heat. The salt is then transported by camels to the nearest market. The trek takes several days. When I was there, I saw many trucks marked with Chinese characters. New tarmac roads were just under construction, with the promise of more efficient transport. But infrastructure developments could have huge environmental impacts.

Will these developments destroy the environment and traditional ways of living, or bring prosperity? In the end, it is probably a combination of both.

Bottom line: Chinese investments in Ethiopia have brought economic growth, but development is a more complicated story.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Stuff to read

  1. Jive Talking: “Zach Malik had 5 jobs before starting his MSc
  2. Bad news for sustainability: American millennials are driving plenty
  3. Ralph Nader has good ideas on how to improve US politics.
  4. Women die because we measure “the world” according to male metrics
  5. I don’t 100% agree with Salaita’s politics, but he writes beautifully about academic corruption and the nobility of “honest” work.
  6. Northern Macedonia The Republic of North Macedonia explains the tricky do’s and don’ts of its name
  7. Generation Z (born since 2000) is very stressed
  8. The president of Y-combinator on start-ups and innovation
  9. Concrete-demand is a macro driver of climate change. Related: This paper explains how 90 private, state-owned and nation-state producers of oil, cement and natural gas are responsible (on the production side) for 63 percent of cumulative global GHG emissions. These guys are, in other words, the biggest opponents to doing anything about climate.
  10. Google and Microsoft are eager to help oil firms, thereby undoing all their “green” pledges.

H/Ts to PB and PH

Inequalities and industrialisation

Alex writes*

Inequality in Europe changed with 19th century industrialisation. At that time, wealth was concentrated amongst the upper echelons of society, but the industrial bourgeoisie used their profits to join the landed aristocracy [pdf]. 

Work in cities led to rapid urbanization of Western Europe throughout the 19th century. Terrible conditions led people to call for more rights. This was first met by deaf ears, but the Communist Manifesto of 1848 mobilised the workers to call for decent working and living conditions. Stronger labour rights meant less working hours for children  and reasonable salaries for adults. Politicians in Western Europe supported such reforms to compete with rising social democratic and socialist political parties. Germany’s Bismarck, for example, enacted laws in 1883-84 that compensated workers for sickness and accidents. The development of labour rights led to political rights. Voting rights in Germany were granted universally in 1919 under the Weimar Republic.

The changing norms in society led to new institutions, the labour rights movement, universal voting rights, and the welfare state. These changes increased economic development as prosperity benefited more people. Changing norms in Germany and Sweden (where men could vote in 1919 and women in 1921) gave rise to notions such of “Gemeinschaft und Volk” or “Samhälle och Folk” (Community and People), which led to institutions such as “Folkhemmet,”  a political idea that presented the Swedish welfare state as a home for the people and means of development.

Bottom line: The normative changes that Europe has experienced throughout the 19th and early 20th century are largely due to industrialisation. Wealth inequalities and a growing workforce demanding more labour rights led to a more equal distribution of wealth. Hence a shift from solely economic growth to better economic development. These labour rights then further translated into voting rights, changing values, and a welfare state that would protect workers and citizens from the hazards of life. 


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Accountability and development

Dyma writes*

One of the main outcomes of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine was the removal of a Russian puppet government. It was believed that the Russian grip on Ukraine’s economy was so strong that it was almost solely to blame for the country’s bad economic performance. After the revolution and a period of deep recession and inflation, the first quarter of growth relieved the country. However, in the years to come GDP growth was nowhere near as fast as some predicted or hoped for (Trading Economics, 2019). Ukraine was also lagging in development measures. Why?

Let us start with one of the root causes of the problem. In order to stay in power, the government had no problems with popularity right after the revolution, given the alternatives. After time, however, leaders had to defend their position, and they did this by avoiding responsibility for slow or missing progress. The government had two groups to please: normal people and economic elites. Normal people have no problem starting another revolution. Economic elites have a lot of political leverage due to the double balance problem (North et al., 2006).

In order to please the people, the government subsidises communal utilities: water, electricity, natural gas, and internet. In order to please the oligarchs, the government effectively subsidises their economic activity: usage of the national railway system, their businesses and factories, including the commodities that they need such as natural gas and coal (Evans, 2006). As a result, commodities used by the heavyweight industries owned by the oligarchs are available at below-market prices.

But what’s the connection between too low prices and slow development?

Let us use natural gas as an example. If it can be bought for less than the market price by people and industries, then two things happen. First, the subsidy money is usually extracted from another government controlled industry, which makes that industry uncompetitive. Secondly, the industry that ends up purchasing the cheap gas becomes uncompetitive too, should the price of gas increase because of a higher market price or a reduced subsidy. The reason for this being the fact that gas may constitute half of the price of the final product – an increased cost or a decreased market price for that product disables the business to some extent.

Uncompetitive businesses, in turn, do not invest into R&D, innovation, education, infrastructure and technology, which slows down growth and development. Apart from the lack of ability to invest, there is usually lack of incentive too. If the gas is that cheap, why would you look for more advanced technology?

Bottom Line: After a revolution and a period of recession Ukraine is not experiencing fast growth or development rates that one would expect or hope for. The mechanism that is preventing the improvement from happening has its root in the government’s need to avoid responsibility to the people and oligarchs. Through subsidising communal utilities as well as the large-scale economic activity of big economic players in the country, the government effectively makes those industries uncompetitive. Which, in turn, prevents any investment into R&D, innovation, education, infrastructure and technology.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).