Review: Era of Darkness

This 2016 book about British colonial rule made me understand the meaning and force of “check your privilege.” The author, Shahhi Tharoor, has written many books and has had an extensive career (after earning his PhD at 22 years!) as an Indian politician and international diplomat. 

Tharoor’s documents how the British harmed existing, thriving communities during their rule and explains how their misguided and/or intentionally harmful policies still undermine development in the Indian subcontinent.

(Recall that the East India Company [EIC] converted trading posts into a de facto colonial rule between 1613 and 1857. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Crown ruled the territories as part of the British Empire, also called the Raj. These territories included present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but I will refer to them collectively as “India.” The Empire had significant influence on Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan. The book does not cover events in other territories of the Raj, but they show up as colonial administrators in London move people, goods and money in one giant game of Risk.)

Aside: my personal story

Long time readers will know that I have some connections to India, so I was fascinated by Tharoor’s steady demolition of the legends and excuses justifying White Man’s rule over Brown People who neither asked for nor received “development”.

This book contextualized my family’s history in colonial India. First, there is the fact (via DNA testing) that my father is “one-third” Indian. This ratio is unfamiliar to anyone who thinks of ancestors in terms of halves, quarters, and so on, but it reflects (I think) the intermingling of various (un)acknowledged ancestors over the many generations. (All 4 of my father’s grandparents were born in India. At least half his great-grandparents were, with the rest “born unknown.”) Tharoor notes that the British were far more open to forming families and marrying in the EIC era, so it is easy for me to believe that our ancestors were having children in the open or in secret, whether or not their names appeared in official records or their original (native) spellings.

Second, Tharoor provides abundant evidence of how the British lived at native expense. Wages to white men were 20-40x higher than wages to locals doing the same jobs. Such wealth explains why white mem-sahib’s had servants for every domestic task . White men also enjoyed privileged trading rights, government contracts and other sources of “rents” that would allow them to make easy money on the initiative and hard work of locals forced to use them. (These contracts are still used to enrich citizens of Gulf States — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, et al. — who act as local partners of the foreigners who want to do business there.) My grandfather worked as one of a dozen Assistant Under Secretaries. His brother traded goods with the “home country.” (I would love to get more information on these roles, but I’ve never had the time to dive into the archives.)

Third, the British enjoyed a degree of political power and legal impunity that made it easy for them to (literally) get away with murder. They were allowed to do as they pleased, since Indians had hardly any power to question, judge or condemn abuses. I wish I could ask my father’s parents about their transition from power to forced retirement on their 1949 “return” to England — a place they may never have seen. I assume their pension was entirely inadequate to support a colonial lifestyle in Post-WWII England, and I am sure they were shocked to meet the English working classes.

Interesting facts and ideas

I highlight passages that are novel or present familiar ideas in elegant ways. These notes are neither balanced nor complete because they omit ideas I know and emphasize ideas that interest me.

  • Tharoor points out early on that Indians share responsibility for their development as well as (for some) collaboration with the British. These facts aside, he asserts that colonialism hindered India’s development.
  • British at home complained of colonial “nabobs” (a mispronunciation of the Indian title of “nawab”) who had grown rich without talent and then returned as nouveaux riches to invade high society.
  • The EIC levied swinging taxes on farmers and returned no public goods. The money was sent to London, and poverty and hunger skyrocketed among peasants.
  • The British displaced village and regional judicial, economic and political governing bodies with centralized rule by whites who had no historic, cultural or linguistic connections to those they ruled, destroying institutions with a thousand years of functional experience. One 24-year old ruled over one million people across 4,000 square miles as tax collector, criminal and civil judge, land administrator, and 7-8 other titles!
  • EIC rule grew more despotic as time passed. In the 1750s, the EIC was taking over territory by force and seizing tax powers from the local rulers they defeated in “treaties.” (This pattern dates back to the conquest of the New World in the 1500s and extended into the colonization of Africa in the late 1800s. Such “treaties” were also used to subjugate China after the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, which may explain China’s nonchalant pursuit of similar policies in recent years.)
  • The British obsession with written procedures and binding decisions subjected locals to inflexible, one-size-fits-all rules that connected locals would try to influence while the majority suffered. In the pre-colonial past, local rulers had debated and ruled in public, according to local conditions. 
  • Tharoor, a member or Parliament, thinks that India needs a different political system, i.e., one that separates executive and political roles. Given the shambles of India’s Parliament, where 35 percent of MPs face criminal charges and personalities dominate parties and platforms, I agree.
  • India was originally a “gender fluid,” sexually tolerant society (have you seen its temples?), but the British criminalized most non-heterosexual, unmarried lifestyles.
  • Nearly all British laws — on sex, free speech, labor, etc. — were intended to strengthen rule rather than foster development. It is in this sense that the British set India‘ s development back a few centuries. India and Britain’s share of world GDP were 23 and 1.8 percent in 1600. At independence (1947), these shares had reversed to 3 and 10 percent.
  • Tharoor shows how colonialism introduced intolerance, corruption and dysfunction. The British did not try to understand India’s ethnic, religious, and caste diversity as much as simplify, categorize and fossilize divisions into familiar boxes imported from home. It did this to facilitate rule by outsiders ignorant of local nuances, to impose their superior culture on others (most obviously by codifying fluid and changeable castes to match their notions of class), and to divide and rule by emphasizing Muslim minority status and Brahmin’s “natural” rule over lower castes. It is hard to understate the massive damage of these interventions, which are — in my opinion — mostly responsible for ongoing sectarian strife within India and between India and Pakistan as well as the corruption of caste-based political parties and discriminatory laws. (The ruling BJP trying to remove Muslims from its history, culture and geography.) 
  • Hindus and Muslims cooperated during the 1857 Mutiny. The shocked British expanded their “divide and rule” techniques to emphasize the differences between these groups (and many other subdivisions). The prejudices they introduced resulted in the split of East and West Pakistan from India, several wars, and endless sectarian strife.
  • India had always produced enough food, but 35 million starved due to British policies of exporting food to “home.” Note that the population during the colonial era was around 200 million, so that’s also a massive share (around 5 percent) of the population, equivalent to, say, 15 million Americans dying today of government-induced starvation. (Not even Trump is that bad.)
  • In the 1519-1939 period, the British “migrated” 5.3 million people, of whom 58 percent were African slaves, 36 percent were Indian indentured laborers, and 6 percent were convicts. The death rate en route among transported Indians was worse than that of slaves. Much of India’s diaspora in the Americas and Southeast Asia was brought by force.
  • The railways were built to exploit locals. Passengers subsidized freight and investors made a fortune lending money for a system that cost nine-times the price per mile of American railways. Locals were prevented from running the system; equipment had to come from the UK.
  • The British used education for exploitation. They shut down the continent’s system of local schools and switched students to English because that was the language of the rulers. In the process they destroyed higher education. (Nalanda University had 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students learning in Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and Arabic before Oxford or Cambridge were founded.) The British had no use for local knowledge or education. At independence, India had fewer schools than centuries earlier and a literacy rate of 24 percent for boys and 8 percent for girls.
  • Post-independence India’s disastrous turn to socialism (and ongoing embrace of chaotic bureaucracy) can be traced to a rejection of “capitalism” (as practiced on them) and a colonial educational system devoted to paper-pushing.
  • Read “The Brown Man’s Burden” here for a rejoinder to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.”

The impact of colonialism on development

Turning from my notes, I’d like to make a few observations of the importance of colonialism on the growth (quantity) and development (quality) of a country.

First, institutions (formal rules and informal norms) play an enormously important role in how people interact in peer-to-peer (e.g., community and markets) and power (e.g., political governance) settings. Colonial rule usually displaces and interferes with local institutions with disastrous results because colonial powers are often interested in transferring wealth “home” rather than building prosperity locally.

Second, colonials mistook power for wisdom. Local culture takes decades to understand, let alone augment. Colonial powers ignored that fact and replaced local solutions to local problems with imported, oversimplified, mistaken policies that failed.

Third, colonials were interested in resources they could carry away (gold, wood, fish, oil) rather than local economic activities or the local environment. In such a “resource curse” situation, they would favor the resource sector, undermine the local economy, and destroy the environment that residents needed for there physical and mental health. Their administrative systems of exploitation also undermined democracy and popular participation, as the one and only goal was wealth extraction.

Fourth, colonial shocks put the vast majority of the world’s population on a worse development path. With the exception of Europe, the “Anglosphere” colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US) and the few non-colonized countries in the world, the net damage (benefit to colonizers less harm to those colonized) is surely negative in terms of wealth, physical and mental health, and political autonomy and freedom.

Fifth, the disaster of Brexit is being mismanaged by the same types who mis-ruled India and the rest of the Empire.

Sixth (and see comments below), many academics have a hard time explaining the impacts of colonialism because they compare different post-colonial results (using “colonized by the French” or “colonized by the English” as dummies in regressions) rather than considering where the countries (or regions, given how inappropriate colonial borders were) would be in the “counterfactual” world without colonialism. It is in this sense that we both underestimate the damage of colonialism and overestimate the success of “the West.”
 
My one-handed conclusion is that anyone lucky enough to live in a country with a colonial past (and that includes the US) should remember that much of their current prosperity and opportunity relative to colonized countries reflects historic rape and pillage more than virtuous hard work. I highly recommend that you read this book (or others written by colonial subjects) to learn how lucky you are — and the challenges that others face.


After reading Era of Darkness, I asked some of my UC Davis professors to recommend some readings on colonialism and development. They hesitated to make any recommendations on such a complex topic, as explained below:
 
Steve Boucher writes:

It’s very important to have students make the link between colonialism and modern, hegemonic notions of “development”.  In this vein, you might find useful some of the chapters from Gilbert Rist’s The History of Development. I often use Chapters 3 (“The Making of a World System”) and 4 (“The Invention of Development”) for this purpose.

There are, of course, a ton of case studies in history that go into gory detail about the direct horrors of colonialism, but I personally think that it is impossible to do justice to the magnitude and complexity of the impact of colonialism in an economics course — unless that is going to be the entire focus of the course.  I encourage students to take courses in US, African and Latin American colonial history, where they will be able to get a serious exposure to these issues.  

In our econ development courses, I think it IS feasible to take a bit of time to get students to think critically about the notion of development and how and when it emerged as a hegemonic concept, and how this historical process shaped the types of questions economists ask (i.e., in Chapter 4 of the Rist text, he discusses how the transition from colonialism to post-colonialism and the emergence of the US helps us understand how and why per-capita growth became the hegemonic development indicator in the post WWII era).

Anyway… I guess my take-home point is that, I completely agree that colonialism and its legacies are crucial to understanding the world today.  However, this is such a big and complicated topic that you have to be careful [about presenting one or two papers on the topic] and make sure that what you cover is useful for the economic concepts that you are charged with developing in the course.

Tu Jarvis writes:

In my epoch, there were numerous efforts to measure the exploitation of colonies by the amount of wealth that was transferred to the colonial power. To my memory, none of these turned up much. The amounts transferred were small relative to the GNPs of the central powers, and even relative to the amounts invested, i.e., I in GNP.  However, the negative impact of the colonial powers seems to have been large in terms of restricted development, which showed up in terms of (lower) infrastructure development, education, property rights (laws, rules, customs, etc.), and suppression of entrepreneurship, i.e., the various components that make up what we know as successful modern economic growth and development. In that sense, Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, without focusing directly on colonialism, provides a good sense of the policies that seem to “work” versus those that do not.

I think much of the literature on Institutional Economics has gravitated in this direction over time.  It originally focused on efforts to reduce transactions costs, and then to the need to create a stable civil society where entrepreneurs would encouraged to make longer-lasting productive investments (and thus the emphasis on property rights as a proxy for that environment, which, at least to me, often seemed “conservative” in orientation). More recently, Institutional Economics has recognized the importance of political and economic “inclusionary” policies and recognized the importance of change in institutions, including the disruption of property rights, when such is needed to break with harmful existing institutions.  It is a pretty big change – but the emphasis is on what leads to beneficial, inclusionary, participatory progress.

As a result, while I think it useful to point out to students that colonial rule was extremely damaging to many regions of the world for a long period of time, I would point to the reasons why it was damaging – and also how difficult it has been in many countries to change even after colonialism ended.  Nonetheless, countries did emerge, and relatively quickly, at least in historical perspective.  The East Asia Tigers were growing rapidly by the 1960s, China joined in the 1980s, India a bit later, and Africa has shows signs of progress in the last 15-20 years.  So, institutions have changed and growth has spread.  “Convergence” means different things to different people, but lower income countries are, in the main, clearly growing more rapidly than developed countries today.  It’s not always clear whether this is due to the end of colonialism or to increasing globalization which has allowed such exceptional increases in communication, travel, education, trade and the like, but there must be many reasons. 

Obviously, there were countries like Thailand that were never colonized that also took a long time to develop, and Latin America, which was independent by roughly 1810, has grown, but not rapidly, despite being free of direct colonialism for many years. Was it affected by colonialism?  Probably.  But would the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas have been markedly more successful in the absence of contact with Spain?  Not an easy question to answer in my opinion. 

I guess I’m suggesting that it’s useful for students to understand history, including the desire for some people to dominate and benefit from others, but that isn’t limited to colonialism.  It existed throughout history and was often more vicious than was colonialism, and it continues today by a wide range of countries, e.g., US, Russia, China, with different economic and political institutions.  I’d thus try to focus on the broader policies and institutions that seem beneficial.  If students can think about those and come up with a useful tool bag, they’re more likely to be able to do something beneficial in their own work. 

I’m always reminded that revolutionaries, whether Mao, Castro, Ortega or whomever, always seem to be incredibly certain that they know the way and are quite willing to use power to cement their own rule, which is often not democratic or broadly beneficial.  So, the end of colonialism still required other changes. 

Review: Valley of Genius

I bought this book for two reasons. First, I went to high school with its author Adam Fisher. Second, I am always interested in learning more about the history of innovation, entrepreneurship and start-ups.

I haven’t talked to Adam in 30 years, so my relation with him was more relevant in alerting me to the book’s existence than it was in my decision to buy it. That decision was based on Adam’s unusual method of telling the “uncensored history” through a “mashup” of first person perspectives on various Silicon Valley companies and trends. (Here’s the he-said-she-said excerpt on Facebook.)

The book’s 28 chapters are arranged into “waves” that struck Silicon Valley, moving from hardware (70s and 80s), to the internet (90s) and then to social media (00s). These topics overlap and intermingle, but the groupings provide structure in a history book with nearly as many characters as the cast of War and Peace. 

I found this book to be an exciting read due to its broad coverage of most of the major players in the Valley over the past 50 years and its technique of telling stories using the fresh perspectives of actual participants. In combination, I learned a lot more about the evolving culture in my “home town” and how that culture changed itself before it changed the world.

And what do I mean by culture? Try this (Loc 382):

Your basic values are essentially the architecture of the project. Why does it exist? And in Silicon Valley there are two really common sets of values. There are what I call financial values, where the main thing is to make a bunch of money. That’s not a really good spiritual reason to be working on a project, although it’s completely valid. Then there are technical values that dominate lots of places where people care about using the best technique—doing things right. Sometimes that translates to ability or to performance, but it’s really a technical way of looking at things. But then there is a third set of values that are much less common: and they are the values essentially of the art world or the artist. And artistic values are when you want to create something new under the sun. If you want to contribute to art, your technique isn’t what matters. What matters is originality. It’s an emotional value.

This quote captures the main tension that’s explored in the book (and prevalent in Silicon Valley), i.e., the tensions between free and corporate, hippy and troll, community and individual, art and engineering, acid rainbows and beery white dudes. 

Thus, the Valley’s inhabitants face a struggle between creating “insanely great” improvements in our lives and sacrificing us to their greed, ego and power. The book is full of warnings and wisdom from this struggle:

There was kind of a social policy: “You own your own words” was mostly about people had to get permission if they were going to quote you, but it was also about taking responsibility for your words.

Larry Brilliant: And the reason that The Well succeeded was because of those things—not because of the software, not because of the money.

The tension between taking responsibility (and being held accountable) for your actions and denying that responsibility in a quasi-libertarian excuse to screw over others also plays an important role in my research and teaching. In many instances, water policy affects the social distribution of costs and benefits. In many instances, those policies are flawed because some group is able to take benefits for themselves at a cost to others. That’s the tension between a farmer’s consumption of groundwater and the community’s security. That’s the tension between Facebook’s promise to connect the world, and its business of profiting from manipulating those connections.

I highly recommend (5-stars) this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the humans who built a Valley of Genius. Is the genius good or evil? The answer depends on who takes responsibility and who is held accountable.


To read all my reviews, go here.

Review: Chasing Coral

This documentary follows a team of activists, scientists and divers as they try to document the death of coral reefs. Along the way, they explain how the oceans are absorbing the brunt of the impacts of climate change disruption, and how coral death is the “canary in the coal mine” of other impending impacts.

The sad part of this film is that it’s mostly about the effort to capture time lapse images of dying coral, not about actually saving the coral from death. This set of goals is mostly because so few people know that coral is dying but also because the driving force of death — net increases of GHGs — can only be countered by overcoming “the world’s greatest market failure” or what I prefer to call “the greatest tragedy of the commons.” 

I’ve tried to do the same thing (raise awareness, drive action) with the Life Plus 2 Meters books that I edited and published in the last two years, so I am both supportive of this type of media and pessimistic about its potential impact in a world where people are often too busy or indifferent to act and where politicians and corporations are often pushing for more exploitation and fewer restrictions on GHG emissions, as if their additional profits will insulate them from dying ecosystems and the ensuing collapse of food chains, reduction in global oxygen supplies, etc. (For a discussion of similar impacts from the loss of polar ice, read this depressing overview.)

The movie makes a few good points about how important oceans are. The biggest is that oceans are absorbing 93% of excess heat retained by GHGs. Without this sink, we’d have average surface temperatures of 50C rather than the 14.4C we have now. Second, they explain how coral are more sensitive to warmer ocean waters because they can’t move away. The analogy they use is that a 2C (3.6 Freedom unit) fever can kill a coral just as it can kill a human. Our normal temperature is 36.8C (98.2F) and a fever starts at 37.7C/100F, which is only 1C/1.8F higher. We are, in other words cooking the coral by raising water temperatures above their viable threshold:

In the movie, the team talks about monitoring the death of coral reefs from a floating restaurant full of people who eat and dance while floating over death. Coral reefs provide food and biodiversity. Their death will lead to the collapse and death of a large share of oceanic ecosystems, which will not just be bad for divers and the 500+ million people who depend on reefs for food, but also on the rest of the world that will be more vulnerable to tsunamis that are no longer blocked by reef ecosystems, the need to feed people from other sources (raising the price of food for everyone else), and the other numerous impacts of a disrupted ocean.

Although they are eventually able to capture the before and after images of a reef that dies over the course of a few months of hot water (image below), I am sad to see that there’s still far too little attention on the looming oceanic catastrophe that is going to hit humans in the near — not far! — future.

My one-handed conclusion is that we’re going to suffer a great loss of biodiversity with the death of the ocean’s corals (about half the world’s coral has died in the past 40 years, with 40% of that death occurring in the past three years). I highly recommend this film (5 stars), if only to educate yourself to a world not long with us.


To read all my reviews, go here.

Review: Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth’s book has attracted a lot of attention. Students has asked if I “teach the doughnut.” Raworth is feted as a rockstar at various festivals. Some reviewers claim a “breakthrough… that will help save the planet.”

So I had to take a look at this book, and a look was all I took.

First — and no surprise — Raworth has not discovered or uncovered anything. She’s just written out a number of well-known ideas that economists have discussed for decades.1

Second — and quite annoying — Raworth presents these ideas as a radical rejection of “conventional economics,” but her strawman caricature of those conventions is based on a Frankenstein-copy/paste-mess of ideas that are usually out-of-date, discredited or merely misinterpreted (by her).2

Third — and thanks god — she does explain a number of useful concepts that economists (and other social scientists) have been exploring for years. These ideas include many that I use for teaching and research, which is why I was not really impressed by the doughnut. (FYI, the idea is that we don’t want to “fall in the hole” of being too poor and miserable, nor “exceed the boundary” of unsustainable behavior.) With this in mind, I might recommend her book, as I would recommend Freakonomics or Economics: A Users Guide, except that all these books distort what economists actually do and the economic method. Raworth, in other words, gives a distorted view of economics (often derided as the “Econ 101 perspective”) that is likely to deceive readers into thinking they understand when all they’ve learned is a superficial perspective that falls apart when questioned.

I often say that an expert is someone who knows what’s missing from an argument (and thus what questions to ask). From this perspective, I can say that Raworth’s arguments are full of holes and wishful thinking.

Fourth — and here’s my elitist perspective — Raworth’s background (BA and MSc degrees from Oxford; 10 years at Oxfam) means that she has lots of real world NGO experience but lacks experience with markets and economic theory. It’s thus no surprise that she’s suspicious of “neoliberal markets” and unaware of economists’ work on market failures, environmental economics, etc. I often say that an expert is someone who knows what’s missing from an argument (and thus what questions to ask). From this perspective, I can say that Raworth’s arguments are full of holes and wishful thinking. I would have been interested in her analysis of development, as Oxfam’s model puts far more reliance on “good people helping poor people” (and often failing because they are either not that good or just do the wrong things; read my paper) than on poor people helping themselves (and succeeding when corrupt governments and dodgy aid groups are not conspiring against them). 

Fifth — and here’s my impatience — I didn’t read her whole book. Indeed, I could barely manage the first two chapters before I sat down to write this. Her prose is chirpy and her passion clear, but I disliked her preachy and snide tone (“it’s us good ones against them bad ones, dear”) on topics that are familiar to me and better discussed by other writers. (I’m now reading The Secret of Our Success and — wow –Heinrich’s work is stunning; review to come.)

Sixth — and here’s the (w)hole — Raworth seems eager to toss out the baby (economics) with the bathwater (her confusions of economics with politics, human actions with human aspirations) in her quest to “think like a 21st century economist.” The sad part is that many all of these ideas were in circulation among economists in the 20th century, but not in general circulation. Why not? Because many people don’t like sharing the commons, many people want new cars, and many people, sadly, don’t care about poor people. So Raworth doesn’t need to “fix economics” as much as “fix humanity.” I doubt that this message will reach her readers — probably all of whom are well-meaning and well-off but politically naive or powerless. In every course I teach, I emphasize that markets are embedded in society/politics but that markets (where “excludable” goods are managed) have nothing to do with development or sustainability — the “non-excludable goods” that Raworth doughnut emphasizes — which are subject to political and community management.

Bottom line: I give this book 4-stars for its aspirational discussion of how we should behave, its selective review of useful economic ideas, and its overall emphasis on ideas that economists have been working on for 50-plus years. If you want to understand how economics actually works, then start here or here [pdf]. If you want a good overview of “political-economic thinking” and the state, then listen to Pete Boetkte (and read his SEA paper).


  1. Example: The 1987 Brundtland Report
  2. Example: “There will be no shortage of the Earth’s resources, claimed the laissez faire economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, if markets are permitted to do their job.” That may be true by the strict definition of “market resources” such as oil or gold, but she uses this example to claim economists think “EARTH, which is inexhaustible — so take all you want” [p 70]. That statement is much broader, since Earth’s environment — as something we share in the commons — is not a market resource. This difference is known by the vast majority of economists (“negative externalities”) but I’ve written more here.

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