Review: Travel as a Political Act

Rick Steves is perhaps the most famous American giving advice on traveling abroad. I have never used his guidebooks (thinking that they were perhaps too generic for my “advanced” backpacking skills), but I just bought one for Italy.

This book (subtitle: “How to leave your baggage behind”) is not a guide for tourists but a guide for understanding other countries and cultures. What I especially enjoyed was how Steves clearly explains foreign ideas in terms familiar to Americans. I would have loved to have this book as a response to the many people who have asked why I travel and what I’ve learned.

This book very easy to read, so it’s also a good one to take on vacation. (These data are a few years old but they show that 40 percent of Americans took zero vacation years in the prior year while only 12 percent vacationed outside the US.)

But let’s get to some interesting parts of the book:

  1. “Travel as a political act” refers to the ways in which we might import new ideas and perspectives from abroad back to the US:

     We can learn more about our own country by observing other countries—and by challenging ourselves (and our neighbors) to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues. Holding our country to a high standard and searching for ways to better live up to its lofty ideals is not “America-bashing.” It’s good citizenship (loc 74).

  2. Travel is also good for YOU. Travel has changed what I eat, how I commute, what I read, and so on. My revelation is not unique. In the 14th century, Ibn Battuta wrote that “traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” For Steves, “travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world” (loc 64).
  3. Steves and I agree that travel helps us understand our own countries better, and we both lament the FUD that our house-bound neighbors espouse. For him, the lesson was to protest war and push for cannabis legalization. My lesson was to accept that Dutch culture was better for me in some ways. Sadly, most people are too afraid to travel or question the status quo:

    As the news becomes more sensationalized [Congress repeals the FCC’s Fairness Doctorine in 1987], the viewer becomes more fearful. And eventually, all that fear metastasizes into the political realm. In the long run, the transformation of news from information to entertainment—making us feel that we’re less safe—threatens the fabric of our democracy…and, ironically, actually makes our country less safe (loc 385).

  4. I agree with Steves that we could bring far more security to ourselves (and the world) by spending money on aid instead of bombs, but corporate war mongers mean that the United States American taxpayers spend $600 billion on the military and 15-times less ($40 billion) on all international affairs. I am sure that the “war on terror” would disappear if we shifted  7 percent of the military budget to doubling the international budget.
  5. Steves captures the tradeoffs for living in “socialist” Europe (loc 1093): 

    European housing, cars, gadgets, and other “stuff” are modest compared to what an American with a similar job might own. It’s a matter of priorities. Just as Europeans willingly pay higher taxes for a higher standard of service, they choose less pay (and less stuff) in exchange for more time off. Imagine this in your own life: Would you make do with a smaller car if you knew you didn’t have to pay health insurance premiums? Would you be willing to give up the luxury of a cutting-edge TV and live in a smaller house if you could cut back to 35 hours per workweek and get a few extra weeks of paid vacation? Would you settle for a 10 percent pay cut if you knew you’d never get an email or phone call from the office outside of work hours? For most Americans, I imagine that the European idea of spending more time on vacation and with their family, instead of putting in hours of overtime, is appealing.

  6. Steves captures the essence of economic migration, immigrant culture and the refugee crisis in three excellent passages:  
    1. If you’re wealthy enough to hire an immigrant to clean your house, you do it—you get a clean house, and the immigrant earns a wage. If you don’t want to trade away your personal freedom to care for an aging parent, you hire someone else to care for them…and it’s generally an immigrant. That’s just the honest reality of capitalism. (loc 1406).
    2. 99 percent of Americans descend from immigrants, whereas much of Europe has been largely homogenous for millennia. In some European countries, large-scale immigration is a fairly recent phenomenon. This makes many Europeans particularly vigilant about ensuring that Europe’s homegrown culture continues to thrive. I share their concern, and yet, it’s easy to fall into contradictions: If diversity is a tenet of EU beliefs, what’s wrong with immigrants wanting to preserve their home cultures? Is it hypocritical to celebrate the preservation of the Catalan language, but expect Algerians to learn Dutch? (loc 1425)
    3. I think the real refugee crisis is the human cost of a failed state. The refugees coming to Europe today are a direct result of poorly drawn borders by European colonial powers a century ago. If Europeans (or Americans) complain about the hardship of housing those refugees, they should ponder the hardship brought about by their ancestors’ greedy colonial policies a century ago (loc 1440).
  7. Steves is also perceptive on (un)sustainable choices and lifestyles:

    In America, we have freezers in our garages so we can buy in bulk to save money and avoid needless trips to the supermarket. In contrast, Europeans have small refrigerators. It’s not necessarily because they don’t have room or money for a big refrigerator. They’d actually rather go to the market in the morning. The market visit is a chance to be out, get the freshest food, connect with people, and stay in touch (loc 1511). 

    The bottom 40 percent of humanity lives on roughly 5 percent of the planet’s resources. The top 20 percent lives on over 75 percent. The greatest concentration of wealth among economic elites in the history of the human race is happening at the same time our world is becoming a global village. Meanwhile, even in the countries that benefit (such as the United States), the spoils go mostly to the already wealthy—padding profits for shareholders even as working-class American jobs are exported south of our borders, leaving many citizens of the rich world underemployed and disillusioned (loc 1859).

    Any society needs to subscribe to a social contract—basically, what you agree to give up in order to live together peacefully. Densely populated Europe generally embraces Rousseau’s social contract: In order to get along well, everyone will contribute a little more than their share and give up a little more than their share. Then, together, we’ll all be fine. The Danes—who take this mindset to the extreme—are particularly conscientious about not exploiting loopholes. They are keenly aware of the so-called “free rider problem”: If I had to identify one major character flaw of Americans, it might be our inability to appreciate the free rider problem. Many Americans practically consider it their birthright to make money they didn’t really earn, enjoy the fruits of our society while cheating on their taxes, drive a gas-guzzler just because they can afford it, take up two parking spots so no one will bump their precious car, and generally jigger the system if they can get away with it. We often seem to consider actions like these acceptable…without considering the fact that if everyone did it, our society as a whole would suffer (loc 2258).

    A perfect example of Danish “social trust” is the image of babies sleeping in carriages outside a restaurant while the parents eat inside. You might say, “But no one is watching!” A Dane will say, “Everyone is watching” (loc 2310).

  8. What about drugs, prisons, terror and the Holy Lands??

    When it comes to soft drugs, policies in much of Europe are also more creative and pragmatic than America’s… Much of the US seems afraid to grapple with this problem openly and innovatively. Rather than acting as a deterrent, the US criminalization of marijuana drains precious resources, clogs our legal system, and distracts law enforcement attention from more pressing safety concerns (loc 2909).

    While America is still building more prisons, the Dutch are closing theirs. My Dutch friends needle me with the fact that the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate—nearly 10 times the Dutch rate—at an annual cost of $60 billion (loc 3037).

    Yes, there are evil people in Iran. Yes, the rhetoric and policies of Iran’s leaders can be objectionable. But there is so much more to Iran than the negative image drummed into us by our media and our government. I left Iran impressed more by what we have in common than by our differences. Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones. Just like my country, Iran has one dominant ethnic group and religion that’s struggling with issues of diversity and change—liberal versus conservative, modern versus traditional, secular versus religious (loc 3707).

    Religions around the world seem to always be stoking turmoil—even though the teachings of those religions say “love your neighbor,” and all of them have the “do unto others…” Golden Rule. I’ve decided that fundamentalism is the crux of the problem…For a person of faith to travel without letting the experience stir what’s inside them is a lost opportunity. Of course, many people actually go on religious trips—pilgrims on pilgrimages. While I’ve never done exactly that, every time I’m at a pilgrimage site, I endeavor to keep a positive attitude about the devotion that surrounds me. It’s easy to be cynical about the reverence given to relics I don’t understand, the determination many have to believe in what seem like silly miracles, or the needless pain someone suffers in the name of their faith—whether by climbing a mountain in bare feet or a long staircase on their knees (loc 3898 and 4097).

    The conditions in Balata [a Palestinian refugee camp] are dismaying, particularly when you think that people have been living this way here for decades. But Israelis point out that Israel has taken in many Jewish refugees and assimilated them into their prosperous society. Meanwhile, they claim that Palestine—and the Arab world—has intentionally kept the West Bank refugee camps in squalor in order to stir public opinion against Israel (4379).

  9. And… finally… coming home:

    On returning from a major trip, you sense that your friends and co-workers have stayed the same, but you’re…different. It’s enlightening and unsettling at the same time (loc 4513).

    Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” These wise words can be a rallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance—whether it’s pastors contending with homophobia in their congregations, employers striving to make a workplace color-blind, or teachers standing up for intellectual and creative freedoms—travelers can stand with them in solidarity (loc 4548).

    My one-handed conclusion is that all Americans should read this book. Travelers will recognize echoes of prior thoughts while the sedentary will (I hope) understand the common humanity that binds us all. 

Review: The Divide

Jason Hickel’s book (subtitled “Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets” in the US and “A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions” in the UK) delves into questions that matter to me, in my post-colonial woke state. In some case, I agreed with Hickel (meaning he’s not wrong); in others, I disagreed (meaning he’s wrong). 

First, where he’s not wrong (i.e., “I agree with him but maybe we’re both wrong”): The colonial period — and a current reality of post-colonial theft by corrupt locals and global elites — was and is terrible for many people now living in “developing” countries. Hickel is right to point out that these countries have been attacked, undermined and stripped of wealth, choice and opportunity. He is right to trace the flow of stolen money from “poor” countries to private bank accounts in “rich” countries (the UK and US being top destinations). He is right to explain how various development agencies are more interested in “hitting KPIs” than actual development.

When he’s wrong, it’s the basic stuff. The World Bank isn’t conspiring to rob the poor; they’re just ideological and incompetent, slaves to the “raving scribblings of some forgotten economist”. The WTO is not trying to (or capable) of exploitative trade regimes. It’s enamored of GDP statistics, fine-tuned rules, and a lack of imagination. These organizations (the IMF, UN, et al.) are the bastard children of quarreling “great powers” who try to dominate but mostly fcuk things up. Should Hickel complain of their harms? Yes, indeed. Does he attribute causality (and thus solutions) correctly? No, I think not. That doesn’t mean trust the World Bank. It means that countries — and citizens — need home-grown solutions. That doesn’t mean trust politicians. They often cause the problems they blame on others (Donald Trump is a gift: a political disaster of random oversized id.)

I had these mixed feelings about the book while I was reading, but I ended up liking the book for its passionate — and often carefully considered — critique of the world’s current order. I agree with Hickel in the main (historic and present exploitation often buried under “sorry we killed you, but we meant well!” propaganda), and most of my remaining criticisms center on his optimistic solutions and ideological critiques.

From here, I’ll add notes in order of topics’ appearance.

  • In 1949, Truman defined “development” as the path towards “fixing” countries of the Global South (GS) damaged by decades or centuries of colonialism by the Global North (GN). This idea implies GS should pursue GN policies and goals. The invention of “underdeveloped” gave space for the existence of a permanent underclass that would be served by charity and photojournalists, but not actual reform.
  • Hickel is right that development aid is a drop in the bucket compared to bad policies and right to question the bona fides of aid organizations that fail to lobby for structural change. (He notes, correctly, that they would go out of business if they reached their professed targets.) He’s also right that absolute poverty (headcount) matters, and that it should be counted via “lack” rather than an arbitrary (and miserly) $1/day “budget”. So, yeah, there are 4.3 billion poor people, which shows how unequal and fucked up the world is. 
  • Hickel says “something is fundamentally wrong with our economic system” (p 13), but I think it’s the political system (in which I include colonial institutions). Perhaps we mean the same thing, as I’ll admit that bad politics can lead to an unfair economic system, but does he mean the same, or does he trust in the (aggregate) honesty of politicians? I don’t.
  • Hickel says that newly independent counties were doing well with their post-colonial policies until their old masters used the World Bank, trade, etc. to derail them. I think progress was more uneven, and their need for advice thus great. I think that GN tried to impose colonial policies but also that GS made some big mistakes. I agree that GS people suffered but GN suffered as well from bad policies (as they are with respect to mismanaged social welfare).
  • I now think humans are lucky to survive their stupidity and greed. A few years ago I thought stupidity and greed rarer. I changed my mind based on the fact that our mistakes are aggregating into larger fuckups, as more dumb spills into more lives.
  • GS “pay” $billions per year to GN via corruption, theft and exploitation. That’s one reason they stay poor. Hickel claims that “unfair trade” strips much more, via underpaid wages. I don’t agree with that one (wages reflect productivity more than bargaining power in global trade), I do agree that the GS is heavily (self-)exploited via pollution, weapons sales, resource exploitation, etc. 
  • Statistical assumptions explain why either 300 million or 900 million Indians are “poor.” but which figure is right? Speaking of explanations, Hickel is sometimes too quick to dismiss the wealth-creating potential of markets, e.g., ignoring China’s entrepreneurs.
  • Inequality is so bad that average global income would need to be $1.3 million/person to raise wages for the poorest above $5/day (holding inequality constant). There’s a crying need for redistribution but — surprise — no political support from the beneficiaries of this scandal.
  • Today, we define “great powers” as those who have invaded, conquored and exploited others (UK, FR, ES, PT, BE, US, RU), not made their diverse subjects wealthy (Ottoman, Mogul, Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires). In this definition, we allow the victors to write exploitation into “inevitable history” rather than question that definition of “empirical success.” 
  • Most colonial wealth was from theft, not productivity. That’s not success. (It’s the same with wealth of the industrial revolution, as the resulting cost from climate disruption might ruin our current prosperity.)
  • Hickel uses massive statistics to impress readers on the magnitude of theft and destruction. I’d put those statistics in terms of, say, the average GN citizen back in the day, or today. The waste was terrible, but it’s ahrd to see in the 000000000000s!
  • Hickel quotes Polanyi, who opposed the commodification of land and labor as impoverishing the poor who lived on the commons. (Hickel calls this the birth of capitalism, but capitalism is millennia older.) I disagree with this IF the poor have free will, but not if their commons is stolen and they are forced into wage labor. That’s not a reason to hate markets for land or labor, but a good reason to hate (political) theft and exploitation.
  • It’s hard to overstate the horrors and evil of colonialism, but the income gap between rich and poor growing from 3:1 to 35:1 makes vampires jealous.
  • Hickel says GS counties made a lot of post-colonial progress, but then he cites the Peróns of Argentina with approval, so I’m less impressed. I agree though, that GS countries should hide from GN exporters while they grow their industries (under intra-GS competition, in my opinion). 
  • Hickel and I have different definitions of “neoliberal” (he says they like to subsidize business; Hayek and Friedman are rolling in their graves), but we agree that GN countries supported terrible GS leaders.
  • Hickel thinks various debt crises are aimed at exploiting the GS, when they are basically organized theft by elites. I agree with him that indebted countries (e.g., Greece in 2009) should just go bankrupt. I disagree with him that they would have an “easy time” thereafter in the markets. 
  • Hickel mixes a few too many conspiracy theories into his text. He’s got a good survey of anti-capitalism without an appropriate skepticism of their claims. His command of macroeconomics, use of data, and understanding of Adam Smith and free trade is sometimes way off. Thus, he assumes victims where there are suicides and threats in good ideas. He sees GS countries as powerless but also purposeful when the opposite is true, as we can see by the “wages of corruption.”
  • Hickel loses credibility with excessive claims on the damage of land grabs and climate change. That undermines his effectiveness only because he continues to miss other driving factors (political greed at many levels). 
  • Hickel ends his book with ideas for helping the poor via structural adjustment. He begins with global debt forgiveness and then moves to global democracy, just wages and recapturing the commons. I agree with these (in theory) but see little hope empirically in a world that is as exploitative as the one he described. OTOH, I am happy to agree that we should dump GDP for GPI, lower consumption, pursue UBI, etc.  At the end of this chapter of fantasies, I had no more wishes left in my magic wand — except perhaps that the rich would agree to Hickel’s changes. Here’s the first step.

My one-handed conclusion is that you should read this book, first, for its description and criticism of the way the world’s poorer people have been made and kept poor. Second, you should read it for a list of good ideas for a better future. Third, don’t read it for its explanation of economics, markets or corruption. People are far more creative — and calculating.


Addendum (23 May): The brutal indifference of colonial murder

Review: Free to Choose

This 1980 book by Milton and Rose Friedman (subtitle: “A personal statement”) is well-known for its role in promoting free markets and deregulation. It sold millions of copies and motivated not one, but two television series devoted to its contents. The book now often serves as a totem for those who rant against “big government,” often (in the case of Fox news et al.) without the covers being opened. (I got my unread copy from my dad, who supports  lots of these “causes.”)

I wanted to read the book to learn how the Friedmans analyzed policies and suggested reforms for the general public. I also wanted to know how many of their ideas stand up to scrutiny from someone (me) who appreciates markets but has some reservations related to the ways that markets interfere with the commons (via, e.g., negative externalities) as well as the importance of non-market public and common-pooled goods.

(Many anti-market types treat Milton Friedman as a corporate hack who supports dictators over babies, but they are often painfully ideological and misinformed.)

It turns out that most of the book is excellent, except where the Friedmans (Rose was perhaps a perfect example of the “woman behind the man” in the way she contributed to work that often bore his name) brushed over collective goods, in what looks to be a spectacular example of over-confident misunderstanding.

In this review, I will follow their ten chapter titles:

In Chapter 1 (The Power of the Market), the Friedmans discuss how prices signal information, provide incentives, and distribute wealth and income. They acknowledge the role of government in distribution and regulation of bads (negative externalities) but caution against trusting governments to choose on behalf of the majority when politicians might choose for themselves. They quote Adam Smith on the role(s) of government:

First, the duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society. [OMG. I tried to get a page reference for this actual quotation. but it seems like there are no searchable editions of Smith on the internet (econlib is dysfunctional). What an ironic failure in the provision of public goods!]

It is in this third role — the provision of public goods — that the government’s place is essential — and contested, by liberals in the American (don’t trust markets) and European (do trust markets) traditions. Sadly, the Friedmans dismiss this role via a sophistic slight-of hand that still surprises me. Here is their text (pp 30-32) with [my comments in brackets]:

Adam Smith’s third duty raises the most troublesome issues. He himself regarded it as having a narrow application. It has since been used to justify an extremely wide range of government activities. In our view it describes a valid duty of a government directed to preserving and strengthening a free society; but it can also be interpreted to justify unlimited extensions of government power.

The valid element arises because of the cost of producing some goods or services through strictly voluntary exchanges. To take one simple example suggested directly by Smith’s description of the third duty: city streets and general-access highways could be provided by private voluntary exchange, the costs being paid for by charging tolls. But the costs of collecting the tolls would often be very large compared to the cost of building and maintaining the streets or highways. This is a “public work” that it might not “be for the interest of any individual to erect and maintain though it” might be worthwhile for “a great society.” [This example describes a collective action problem in providing a public good that government “solves” via collecting taxes to pay for the roads. The Friedmans do not address the problem of congestion that plagues such collective goods but not toll roads that use prices to limit demand.]

A more subtle example involves effects on “third parties,” people who are not parties to the particular exchange — the classic “smoke nuisance” case. Your furnace pours forth sooty smoke that dirties a third party’s shirt collar. You have unintentionally imposed costs on a third party. He would be willing to let you dirty his collar for a price — but it is simply not feasible for you to identify all of the people whom you affect or for them to discover who has dirtied their collars and to require you to indemnify them individually or reach individual agreements with them.

[snip]

To lapse into technical jargon, there is a “market failure” because of “external” or “neighborhood” effects for which it is not feasible (i.e., would cost too much) to compensate or charge the people affected; third parties have had involuntary exchanges imposed on them.

Almost everything we do has some third-party effects, however small and however remote. In consequence, Adam Smith’s third duty may at first blush appear to justify almost any proposed government measure. But there is a fallacy. Government measures also have third-party effects. “Government failure” no less than “market failure” arises from “external” or “neighborhood” effects. [Here the Friedmans seem to imply that market failures will automatically lead to government failure] And if such effects are important for a market transaction, they are likely also to be important for government measures intended to correct the “market failure.” The primary source of significant third-party effects of private actions is the difficulty of identifying the external costs or benefits. When it is easy to identify who is hurt or who is benefited, and by how much, it is fairly straight-forward to replace involuntary by voluntary exchange, or at least to require individual compensation. If your car hits someone else’s because of your negligence, you can be made to pay him for damages even though the exchange was involuntary. If it were easy to know whose collars were going to be dirtied, it would be possible for you to compensate the people affected, or alternatively, for them to pay you to pour out less smoke. [This is a clear application of the “Coase Theorem” that was proposed in 1960; it depends on “low transaction costs” in measuring harm and finding those harmed.]

If it is difficult for private parties to identify who imposes costs or benefits on whom, it is difficult for government to do so. As a result a government attempt to rectify the situation may very well end up making matters worse rather than better — imposing costs on innocent third parties or conferring benefits on lucky bystanders.  To finance its activities it must collect taxes, which themselves affect what the taxpayers do — still another third-party effect. In addition, every accretion of government power for whatever purpose increases the danger that government, instead of serving the great majority of its citizens, will become a means whereby some of its citizens can take advantage of others. Every government measure bears, as it were, a smokestack on its back. [Here I think they lose the plot, by implying that the lack of a specific victim — of climate change, say — undermines government action that would also be unjustified due to its funding via distortionary taxes, which have nothing to do with the problems of externalities (the fallacy of an irrelevant appeal). Then they go on to make quite the leap…]

Voluntary arrangements can allow for third-party effects to a much greater extent than may at first appear. To take a trivial example, tipping at restaurants is a social custom that leads you to assure better service for people you may not know or ever meet and, in return, be assured better service by the actions of still another group of anonymous third parties. [Are they implying that pollution problems can be resolved via a system of tipping?  This trivialization signifies a failure of comprehension to me, as environmental damages — and government actions to reduce them — were well known in the 1970s.] Nonetheless, third-party effects of private actions do occur that are sufficiently important to justify government action. The lesson to be drawn from the misuse of Smith’s third duty is not that government intervention is never justified, but rather that the burden of proof should be on its proponents. We should develop the practice of examining both the benefits and the costs of proposed government interventions and require a very clear balance of benefits over costs before adopting them. This course of action is recommended not only by the difficulty of assessing the hidden costs of government intervention but also by another consideration. Experience shows that once government undertakes an activity, it is seldom terminated. The activity may not live up to expectation but that is more likely to lead to its expansion, to its being granted a larger budget, than to its curtailment or abolition.

So I agree that benefits must exceed costs, but the Friedmans appear to take this exposition as the end of the conversation, i.e., that governments should not, by default, be trusted to regulate negative externalities because such regulations create burdens on the market and require the services of bureaucrats who are paid via taxes. This discussion is oversimplified to the point of uselessness. Only someone as stupid as Donald Trump would read this and conclude that all regulations should be ditched, because it’s too hard to identify winners and losers, and that taxes are theft, but it’s exactly because of idiots like Trump that the Friedmans’ conclusion that regulations are unjustified unless they pass a strict benefits/costs test gets boiled down to “regulations are bad.” That’s a real missed opportunity.

That said, I must note that the discourse around non-excludable (public and common-pooled goods) was underdeveloped in the 1970s, so perhaps the Friedmans were working with the tools of the times. OTOH, they could have thought a little more about what even Adam Smith noticed in the 18th century. (The index has nothing on commons, public goods or collective action — perhaps because it has too many entries on “communism”? 😉 )

In Chapter 2 (The Tyranny of Controls), the Friedmans make a good case for freedom in trade and choice of occupation. They would have dismissed Trump as a short-sighted mercantilist whose policies would harm the country as a whole as they aided the special interests who got his attention. I agree with all this, with the only caveat that I would regulate industries (oil, finance, medicine) that create negative externalities (pollution; financial crises) and/or possess market power (asymmetric information) over consumers.

In Chapter 3 (The Anatomy of a Crisis), they go over the role of government in worsening the Great Depression, mostly by messing up the money supply (the topic that won Friedman his Nobel Prize) and interfering with trade. All I can say about this chapter is that its lessons were not heeded in the late 80s, as a too-big-to-fail financial system attracted government bailouts, and thus even larger risk-taking by those who would privatize profits and socialize losses. (The Friedmans were not fans of business per se.)

In Chapter 4 (Cradle to Grave), the Friendmans argue against social security (setting the foundation for “privatize social security”) as a bureaucratic, unsustainable gift to the rich. They suggest a “negative income tax” (i.e., wage subsidy) as a better way to help poor people. This proposal has been adopted in the U.S., although its recipients are vilified by the Right (and thus attacked by IRS agents asking for masses of paperwork), and the system is also far too bureaucratic in comparison to a universal basic income — an idea that I support and the Friedmans would not due to its potential to tax the productive to reward the lazy. The rest of the chapter complains that government transfer programs are wasteful (due to paperwork and bureaucratic salaries), which may be true to some degree for some programs (regulations written by industry to mess up health care, to give one example) but not for all programs (the IRS and Social Security Administration have tiny budgets relative to the funds they handle). In the end, I think that the Friedmans would regret the extent to which their ideas have been used as dogma by Republicans who cut taxes for the rich while leaving the poor to “bootstrap themselves off the floor, climbing via crumbs scattered by 1 percenters.” 

(In the US, “1 percenters” make more than $420k per year. Worldwide, 1 percenters make more than $32k and/or has a net worth of more than $770k. Scope matters. These figures are also dramatically larger than they were in the 1970s, when the rich paid more tax.)

Chapter 5 (Created Equal) argues for equality of opportunity rather than outcome. In the process, it rails against wealth and income taxes as unfair and harmful to voluntary efforts of the rich to help the poor. Although this perspective is (again) attractive in a world of rights, obligation and community, it’s a recipe for disaster in the present world of “I’ve got mine, fuck you.” It’s for this reason that I favor wealth (property) taxes devoted to funding goods available to all citizens, i.e., education, healthcare and/or basic income. It’s only when you have the basic opportunity to get an education or be healthy that you can thrive.

In Chapter 6 (What’s Wrong with Our Schools?), the Friedmans document the shift from choices among private providers to monopolization of “free” education by the State, which not only pursues its own goals (e.g., obedient citizens) but also spends far more on administrators than on students. They suggest giving educational vouchers to parents who can choose where to send their children (I recently learned this system is used successfully in the Netherlands and Chile; it’s also used, not without controversy, in the US). When it comes to higher education, the Friedmans are against subsidies, since most of the gains go to middle and upper-class students. They suggest that poorer students can afford school by “selling equity” in their future rather than taking (if they can get them) unaffordable loans. This podcast reviews a recent implementation of this system. As someone in “education,” I agree with their critiques and their solutions. I also agree that systems of “grading teachers” are probably worse than systems of parental choice.

In Chapter 7 (Who Protects the Consumer?) the Friedmans complain that government regulations result in lower economic growth and excess spending on bureaucracies that serve themselves or special interests. They then make the error of assuming that governments that make shoddy products (“private goods”) will also make shoddy regulations (“public goods”), which betrays an (intentional?) misunderstanding of the different natures of those goods. Later in the chapter, they are more open to “regulation via prices” (i.e., polluters pay carbon or effluent taxes) but still betray a bias or myopia (Page 215: “One source of atmospheric pollution is the carbon dioxide we all exhale. We could stop that very simply. But the cost would clearly exceed the gain.”) that supports my worry that they have missed an important element of “freedom to choose,” i.e., the freedom from polluted air, water or land that endanger our health or lifestyle. Whereas I agree 100 percent with many of their concerns on government overreach, I think their dismissal of regulations has given too much ammunition to ideologues (Trump, Julian Simon, Walter Block et al.) who think markets can supply public goods or protect common-pooled goods. They cannot.

In Chapter 8 (Who Protects the Worker?), the Friedmans argue against minimum wages, unions, etc., calling instead for more competition between employers. These positions made sense (they came at the end of what is now seen as the high-point in worker wages), but not in a world where industry concentration (thus market power to push down wages) are high and the 1 percenters suck money out of everyone’s pocket via corrupt legislation. I’m sure that the Friedmans would oppose this situation, but they seem to overlook its potential.

In Chapter 9 (The Cure for Inflation), the Friedmans revisit the topics of Chapter 3 and make the observation that governments cause inflation by creating too much money to spend and then benefit when the spending reduces the (book) value of the resulting debts. I wholeheartedly agree, which is one reason why I think that Bitcoin (for all its “interesting” market dynamics) has made the case for an asset with a known, steady and slow issue of new supply. A swap of central banks for “automatic money printing” algorithms might leave fewer tools for “managing” the economy, but fewer tools means that the consequences of their use will be easier to observe and thus their use more careful.

The book ends with Chapter 10 (The Tide is Turning), which accurately reflects the momentum of the late 1970s, when the book was written. In this chapter, they collect thoughts on government over-reach and capture by special interests, highlight attempts to bring more innovation and competition to markets affecting our lives, and even provide pro-forma constitutional amendments on free trade, sound money, and so on. The chapter is inspiring, and definitely had an impact on policy debates in the US and other countries. 

Sadly, the Friendmans, in their opposition to government incompetence, gave too many reasons to oppose government per se. Although I hate the expression “smart government,” I do think there’s a need for the right kind of government and governance at the appropriate level. If I was writing a epilogue for this book (hopefully shorter than this review!), I’d mention that government programs should focus on protecting the collective goods we share and providing the public goods that benefit all of us. My metric would thus focus on subsidies that go to everyone (e.g., children, the sick and the old) rather than special interests (farmers, bankers, the 1 percent) that suck the wealth of the majority. Besides that, I agree on their emphasis on markets, competition and choice over regulation and bureaucracy, but I’d be more cautious about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (Listen to this recent VOX podcast for a discussion on balancing the roles of the State and Market in making a just but productive society.)

Overall, I recommend this book, one-handedly, to anyone who wants to think about the role of government, the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and how ideology can open our eyes — and sometimes blind us.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Dredge Drain Reclaim

Johan van Veen began this book [free download] — subtitled “The Art of a Nation” — during World War II. He “found the time” because the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands had forbidden most Dutch from maintaining the dikes and water works that kept the nation from sinking underwater. It was thus lucky for the Dutch that the Germans lost the war, otherwise they might have had to retreat from rising water that would have taken about half their land, their most important cities, and a majority of their civilization!

In the postwar years, Veen was able to finish the book and add more information, so I read the fifth edition of 1962, which was published after Veen’s 1959 death. 

I found this to be a fascinating read due to its historical detail and wealth of data but also due to Veen’s obvious passion for engineering and water management. This passion was also backed by decades of experience, as Veen was the chief engineer of Rijkswaterstaat (the Dutch government’s body in charge of national water management) and — due to his prescient and insistent warnings about weak and under-maintained dikes — the chief designer of the Delta Works project that began in 1954, right after the tragic storm of 1 Feb 1953 that broke dikes, flooded 1,300km of land and killed over 1,800 Dutch. Veen had warned of such a risk in an earlier version of this book, and he set out immediately to recover, repair and build out defenses that would prevent the same tragedy from happening again. (No such floods have come to pass, but climate change will bring new and unusual challenges.)

The book is divided into four chapters. In the first, Veen sets the scene by reviewing the fascinating culture and history of the “free people” who chose to live at the mercy of the sea rather than pay taxes to live on the lord’s land. I recognized quite some dimensions of Dutch character, as well as learning more about the history that distinguished its regions (in Friesland they began by piling up mud above high tide; in Brabant they dared to block rivers, died by the tens of thousands when dikes broke, and then went out in the world to share sell their dike-building expertise). This chapter (called “Spade work” but more properly drain)  explains why the Dutch take maintenance so seriously (to my great joy) — they have centuries of experience in those everyday tasks and numerous examples of what happens to those who do not keep their dikes strong and drains clear. (Veen confirms that the Dutch did indeed kill those unwilling to do the work needed to protect the community. My favorite (!) punishment was when the resister was skewered with a post and then buried, alive, in the dike that he failed to maintain.) In these early days, the Dutch needed to work with water that was too powerful for mere men. This necessity created men of art, skill and patience enough to build up an area over decades. I was surprised (and then not) to read of the many Dutch working abroad: The Erie canal was financed by the Dutch; its locks were built by Dutch engineers. This section finishes with descriptions of the great leaders who led the Dutch to claim so much of their land from the sea, and plea to ignore short-term profit and loss in favor of the long-term returns to the nation of new land. (Veen’s “think of the children” perspective is easier to understand as claim that a government with a low discount rate can build mega projects. That’s true, but it can also result in white elephants.)

Chapter 2 describes the surprising appeal of dredging, which never struck me as either fun or exciting. To make a long (hundreds of years!) story short, let me assure you that dredges are very exciting for the Dutch, as they — first in horse-driven and then in steam-driven form — made the difference between Amsterdam being a port at the center of an empire and a muddy estuary. Dredging was even more important to Rotterdam, as it allowed the Dutch to build canals and clear rivers to create the capacity that resulted in the largest and busiest port in the world (until Asian ports took over in 2004). 

Chapter 3 “Master of the floods” is actually about land reclamation, which has produced a sizable share of the Netherlands. Here, Veen is in his most excited state, describing the great reclamation of the Zuiderzee. The fact that event did not pass (only one-quarter of the area was reclaimed, most obviously in Almere) makes this chapter interesting, as it reflects both the optimism of an engineer-unchained as well as capturing the boldness of “future” that characterised the post-War generation. The chapter is full of details on the science of land/water interactions, and histories of the efforts to persuade citizens to “invest in the future.” The engineering required to dredge new land into existence was extreme, risky and world-famous. The Dutch are still leaders in explaining how to master (or fight) nature. 

The final chapter is Veen’s argument in favor of the Delta Works, which would cost a fortune but reduce the risk of floods such as that of 1953 by reducing the Netherlands’ linear risk via massive sluices and dams designed to keep the North Sea under control. In this chapter Veen, posing as the guest author “Dr. Cassandra,” argues for the Delta Works. To justify “invest in the future,” we are reminded of the old proverb “economy is   good, except for making dams and dikes.” This is Veen’s argument for ignoring benefit-cost analysis and just building the Delta Works. Luckily for us, he was right, if only in underestimating the value of saving his country from drowning.

I recommend this book on one-hand for its fascinating history and insights into the nation’s character, accomplishments, and power in managing water.

Thanks to PH for sending me this book!


Here are all my reviews.

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.

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.

Review: How Rivers Made America

Martin Doyle’s 2018 The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers educates you on politics, economics, technology and society by telling you the history of how rivers defined America’s development in five areas: Federalism, Sovereignty & Property, Taxation, Regulation and Conservation.

As usual, I will provide a series of notes and thoughts that came up while I was reading rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book. 

1. Rivers in the New World had important recent impacts compared to rivers  the Old World has known for millennia. These impacts came as white settlers displaced First Nations with their technology, expectations and institutions. In some cases, those paradigms were helpful (e.g., shipping or producing power), but most focussed on short-term profit (e.g., pollution, depletion, and deviation) over long-run sustainability.

2. Rivers played a major role in economic and political development. Settlers used rivers to explore the vast country, ship goods from the frontier to the settled East, and join growing cities into what became — before rail roads — a national market.

3. Plenty of companies went broke trying to take over shipping routes, build canals, etc. Their troubles often undermined state finances, which forced states to set strict budgets and the Federal government to get involved in unforeseen and increasingly invasive ways. These origins explain why the US Army Corps of Engineers plays such a big role in building dams, “controlling” rivers, and settling flood plains.

4. Shipping companies lobbied against tolls on rivers, which aided navigation and lowered shipping costs, but also shifted their private costs onto society. These subsidies and distortions grew in 1860s (when the Swamp Acts encouraged settlement in wetlands) and 1930s (when jobs mattered more than productivity).

5. Technology and ideology jointly destroyed any notion that rivers should be left to their own course and flow:

…the 1930s were the apex of the Progressive Era, when leaders were enamored with systems planning, optimization, and engineering… which meant that a central agency—the Corps of Engineers—had to be in charge of planning, engineering, and coordinating. [snip] In the late twentieth century, flood control infrastructure had created an enormous sense of hydrologic security. But it also unintentionally created a perverse incentive that drew people into areas previously considered too high risk for developing. [Locations 1077 and 1224]

6. A small step in Federal involvement often led to massive influence, spending and harm. In 1950 disaster relief meant repairing a local, flood-damaged bridge. By 1988, the Stafford Act “explicitly prohibited the use of ‘arithmetic formulae’ (such as benefit-cost analysis) as a basis for disaster declarations. Disaster relief became codified as a solely political decision, outside traditional economic evaluation.” [Location 1254] The resulting flood of federal money meant that locals didn’t have to pay for recovery, which encouraged “moral hazard” (i.e., ignoring risks) and thus larger  disasters.

7. When Doyle goes west, frontier mentalities clash with historic institutions, and miscalculations multiply:

…water in the West is a zero-sum game. The tribes can’t keep enough water in the river to sustain the salmon if the farmers upstream divert all the water they need for crops and cattle. Someone has to lose. [snip] Downstream groups inevitably prefer rights based on historic use, like those outlined in the appropriation doctrine. For their part, upstream users tend to prefer rights based on contribution to river flow, like those of the riparian doctrine. [snip] In 1976, Stockton and Jacoby showed that the decades of data used to estimate flow on the Colorado River and then divvy it up in the Colorado Compact were in fact the wettest years in half a millennium. The basis of the Colorado Compact was an estimated mean annual flow of somewhere around 16.5 MAF per year; tree-ring data over a much longer period of time suggested that a more realistic estimate would be about 3 MAF per year less than that [meaning the CC is flawed]. [Locations 1598, 1761 and 2121]

8. A tradition of cleaning drinking water (“my problem”) but not sewage (“your problem”) led to public health disasters in the late 19th century and an ongoing battle over water quality that continues to this day. Too few polluters pay, so public waters are often abused in ways that laws allow but the public (if asked) would never support.

9. We can see the switch from local to federal control in the tax system:

In 1902 local government tax revenues exceeded state revenues by 260 percent and national government revenues by almost 40 percent. [snip] Because local city governments bore the burden of providing most services in the early twentieth century, by 1902, property taxes accounted for 42 percent of all government revenues (national, state, and local levels combined). [snip] Before the Depression, there was general consensus that federal funds should be spent only on projects of national need, and local funds would be spent on projects of local interest. Property taxes would be linked to municipal projects, tariff taxes to national projects. But the New Deal created a fiscal system through which the federal government collected income taxes nationally and then spent that revenue via grants to state and local governments—an enormous redistribution of funds and government power across the country. [Locations 2543, 2571, and 2702]

10. Women played a big role in promoting water quality. Although it’s clear that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring raised awareness, it was the efforts of thousands of women across the country that brought laws and funding, but not an end to the problems:

Even FDR’s New Deal, with its expansive building programs, had been minor compared to the spending spurred by the Clean Water Act. In the first twelve years after the act was passed, the federal government spent over $40 billion on wastewater treatment. [snip] For all the benefits of the Clean Water Act, it had an enormous blind spot: Farmers and suburbanites with Irish-green lawns were let off the hook. When a farmer fertilizes a field, or a homeowner uses a bag of fertilizer from the local garden store, they play a role in changing the chemistry of the planet. [snip] By the turn of the twenty-first century, the EPA had classified just under half of the 3 million river and stream miles in the United States as either threatened or impaired, and the cause was fertilizer from agricultural and suburban runoff. [snip] by 1991 the federal share of spending on wastewater infrastructure had dropped to 5 percent. This was a jarring reality for local governments, which suddenly faced the reality of paying for the requirements of the Clean Water Act on their own dime.  [Locations 2852, 2867, 2897 and 2928]

11. The plethora of special-interest districts with poor governance, vague goals and taxing authority resulted in projects that were bad or ruined via corruption and amateur errors (e.g., Flint).

12. America’s obsession with profits (and relaxed view towards the damages resulting from those profits) can be traced to the water-powered mills that turned from grinding grain to generating electricity in an assault on property rights that eventually backfired:

…the desire for economic progress in the early nineteenth century was so strong that it shifted government regulation from favoring established property to supporting whichever use best served economic development. Thus, with the government’s encouragement, dams and mills proliferated in number, complexity, and economic output. As a result, textile manufacturing via hydropower in America quickly surpassed that in England. [snip] When a private power company built a dam or a steam power plant, it had to recoup all those construction costs through higher rates. But when the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] built a dam, the federal government covered some of the costs in the name of broader public interest such as navigation and flood control. This support reduced the cost of power generation and thus reduced the rates TVA needed to charge, so Lilienthal could set far lower power rates than his for-profit private power competitors could afford. [Locations 3173 and 3406]

13. The TVA used to be pretty good. Then it got too big.

14. It took decades of mistakes and wasted effort before “in-channel river restoration” was replaced by allowing the river to move and evolve. Sadly, many rivers are handicapped by Army Corps barriers protecting farms and towns built in flood plains. 

Meanders like those seen in the Mississippi, with their varied flows, depths, and sediments, are considered by ecologists to be the root of the extremely high biodiversity of rivers. Physical diversity begets biological diversity. Yet there are few reasons for industrial society to tolerate meandering rivers [snip] Rivers could be taken from complex, unruly tangles of swamps and floodplains and converted into straight, linear, trapezoidal forms. Channelization made rivers rational. These benefits, however, came with enormous impacts and losses to ecosystems. From destroying fish habitats to eroding banks, channelization inflicted ecological havoc. [Locations 3826 & 3844]

15. A combination of naive-optimism and broker lobbying led to the creation of a market for “river offsets” that would encourage river restoration as a way to pay for destruction elsewhere. This system looked successful on paper, but its emphasis on quantity meant that quality, let alone sustainability, was ignored. 

16. The best way to restore a river is to leave it to flow in its own bed according to seasonal variations, with its own mix of flora and fauna. #CaptainFuckingObvious

My one-handed conclusion is that this book provides a welcome portrait of the many ways that rivers shaped — and were shaped by — America’s urban development and environmental condition. I highly recommend it, and thank JT for the tip.


Read all my reviews here.

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. Edit 13 Apr: Here’s that idea in a video
  • 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. 


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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.


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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.


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