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, Shashi 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.

Read all my reviews here.

Review: Valley of Genius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read all my reviews, go here.

Review: Chasing Coral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read all my reviews, go here.

Review: Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth’s book (2017) has attracted a lot of attention. Students has asked if I “teach the doughnut.” Raworth is feted as a rockstar at various festivals. Some reviewers claim a “breakthrough… that will help save the planet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read all my reviews here.

Addendum (Dec 2022): This 2018 article on too much/too little energy use explains these ideas in a more reasonable way.