Tag Archives: History

Schools Are For War

The main reason we had rules to force kids to attend primary school was to make obedient soldier citizens to support their nation in time of war. This effect was even stronger for democracies:

Using data from the last 150 years in a small set of countries, and from the postwar period in a large set of countries, we show that large investments in state primary education systems tend to occur when countries face military rivals or threats from their neighbors. By contrast, we find that democratic transitions are negatively associated with education investments, while the presence of democratic political institutions magnifies the positive effect of military rivalries. …

We study historical panel data on education spending and enrollment – for Europe since the 19th century and a larger set of countries in the postwar period – to assess the correlation between military rivalry (or war risk) and primary education enrollment (or the occurrence of educational reforms). … [Our models] show a positive and significant effect of rivalry on primary enrollment, a negative direct effect of democracy, and a positive and significant interaction term between the two. Overall, our empirical results indicate a causal relationship from rivalry to primary educational enrollment. …

An economic literature … finds robust correlations between past wars and current state capacity in international panel data. … [A study] shows that military rivalry raises fiscal capacity in postcolonial developing states. … [Others] find that democracy does seem to have a systematic influence on top rates of estate taxation, whereas wars with mass mobilizations do significantly raise those rates. …

[Prussia pushed schools] to arouse a moral, religious, and patriotic spirit in the nation, to instill into it again courage, confidence, readiness for every sacrifice. …

[France pushed schools to] teach Frenchmen to be confident of their nation’s superiority … It should … eliminate disruptive conflicts and promote the unity of the classes. … The new teaching program … was … designed to teach the child that it was his duty to defend the fatherland, to shed his blood or die for the commonwealth, to obey the government, to perform military service, to work, learn, pay taxes, and so on.

In Prussia, France and Japan … military defeats and/or perceived military threats appear to have prompted an otherwise reluctant ruling class to invest in mass primary education. …In most countries of the sample a war preceded the educational reform, while a democratic transition rarely occurs before the education rise … Most often, the democratic transition instead takes place *after the education reform period. (more)

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Testing My Growth Model

I have suggested that long run growth can be described as a sequence of exponential growth modes, from primates to foragers to farmers to industry, where mode transitions are similar in their degree of suddenness and growth rate change factors. This model will be tested in the future – it suggests that within a century or so we’ll see a change within five years to a new mode where the economy doubles every month or faster.

But my model can also be tested against the past. Our data on the animal, forager, and early farming eras is pretty poor. My hypothesis suggests that the forager era was one big growth mode similar to the farming or industry eras, with a relatively smooth rate of growth in capacity (even if rare disasters temporarily disrupted the use of that capacity), and that the forager to farming transition has a level of smoothness similar to that of the farming to industry transition.

Contrary to my model, many have suggested there was an important comparable revolution in human behavior around 50,000 years ago. My model predicts that growth accelerated smoothly from around 100,000 years ago to the near full speed farming world of about 5000 years ago, similar to the way growth accelerated from 1600 to 1900.

The latest results seem to support my model:

Back in 2000, a now famous scientific paper called “The Revolution That Wasn’t” argued that the then-conventional wisdom that modern human behavior had erupted in a “creative explosion” about 50,000 years ago in Europe was wrong. Rather, anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks contended that modern behavior, including creativity, has deep and ancient roots, going back some 300,000 years ago in Africa (Science, 15 February 2002, p. 1219).

At a meeting here last month, researchers heard new evidence that human evolution took a gradual, rather than revolutionary, course during two other key junctures in prehistory. A study of ancient stone tools from South Africa concludes that hunters manufactured spears with stone points—a sign of complex behavior—200,000 years earlier than had previously been thought. And new excavations at a 20,000-year-old settlement in Jordan, laden with artifacts typical of much later sites, suggest that the dramatic rise of farming villages in the Near East also had early and deep roots. … Many archaeologists now think that apparent “revolutions” are due to gaps in the record or to behavioral shifts triggered by changing conditions, rather than sudden advances in cognition. What appear to be precociously sophisticated behaviors are really reflections of what prehistoric humans were capable of all along. (more)

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Tube Earth Econ

Imagine someone plans to build a gas station far out in an isolated desert. They plan to sell gas and snacks to the truck drivers who come out to deliver gas and snacks. Want to invest?

No? How about if they also sell gas and snacks to passing explorers, out there to signal toughness? Yes, explorers won’t look as tough if they buy gas and snacks from your station. But if the station can lure enough not-so-tough explorers, maybe you’d want to invest.

How about if they also plan to dig oil wells and an oil refinery to make the gas they sell, and a hothouse farm and food processing factory, to grow food for the snacks they sell? How about if they plan to run all this entirely by robots? This plan would make me even less likely to invest. After all, you’d need even more customers to justify a larger scale operation, and I had doubts about enough explorer customers to justify a simple gas station.

This is my reaction to the recent news that some famous investors will spend millions trying to mine asteroids (see here, here, here). Their first product would be rocket fuel to sell to passing NASA rockets. I’m skeptical that NASA wants to buy enough fuel to cover their costs, and I don’t see a flood of other customers eager for robot space gas stations. This new firm also talks about shipping metals like platinum back to Earth, but that seems even crazier anytime soon.

To explore this general issue, let us imagine Tube Earth. While our Earth is a sphere of rock with a 40,000 km circumference, Tube Earth is a very long cylinder of rock with a circumference 1/6 as large, to give it the same surface gravity as Earth. Tube Earth also rotates 24 hours in a day, and has a sun nearby.  The closest spot on the tube to the sun is its “center,” which has Earth-like average surface temperature and seasonal variation. There would be less local temperature variation, as all nearby parts of a tube get the same sunlight.

A length of this tube about twice Earth’s circumference would have about the same surface area as Earth. Imagine that an area of this size held a mix of land and water similar to Earth’s continents. Imagine also that more such clusters of continents are spread all along this tube, spaced roughly twenty Earth circumferences apart. In between is mostly open ocean, with a few small islands.

The tube slowly gets colder millions of km from its center, as those places are further from it sun. Life is spread all along the tube, but so far humans and civilization have only evolved on one near-center cluster of continents. It would take an old style (~12 knot) sailing ship about 4 years to travel in a straight line from one cluster to another, and it would take a jet airliner about 40 days to fly there. Both would need refueling along the way.

My big question here is: how would history, and economic growth, have played out differently on Tube Earth? With all that land out there to colonize, how much more activity would be dedicated to spreading out across the tube? How far would be the furthest flag, subsistence farming town, and modern industrial city at any one time?

My guess is that Tube Earth would look a lot more like our Earth than most space colonization fans expect. Explorers would not have even reached the nearest other continent cluster until the 1800s, and even now there’d be only a few small colonizes there, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture. A several year shipping time would make it very expensive to import modern equipment, and greatly discourage the shipping of mining minerals or farmed food back to the central cluster. Mostly they’d work harder to get more minerals and food from nearby mines and farms.

By 2010 Tube Earth would be lucky to have one monthly airline flight to the next cluster, and a very expensive but welcomed internet connection. Lots of stories would take place there, and it would offer an escape for well-off religious or political refuges. But overall it wouldn’t matter much, because of its huge transport costs.

The key point to note here is that other continent clusters on a Tube Earth are vastly more hospitable and easier to reach than the nearest asteroids or the Moon are from Earth. And the rest of the solar system is even worse. So if other continent clusters would by now matter little for a Tube Earth, asteroids aren’t going to matter much on Earth for a long time to come.

Added: Karl Smith calls it “Invest for Prestige/Get Conned”

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Keynes’ Forager Future

Suresh Naidu pointed me to a fascinating 1930 essay (excerpts below) by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes on the long term future. Consideration of the far future put Keynes into a very far mode, where he upheld far ideals against near practical constraints. While Keynes accepted that farmer ideals of work, property, and saving for the future were needed to maintain economic growth, he detested such ideals, and looked to a future roughly a century hence when, humanity’s absolute material needs being satisfied, we embraced forager ideals for sharing material goods, living in and enjoying the moment, and just doing what feels right.

Now Keynes did note that humans also seek relative status, but he seemed to assume that humans would coordinate to suppress such urges, and to keep just enough farmer habits to preserve material wealth. In his far idealistic mode, he didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that nations would still compete for relative status, and promote farmer norms for that purpose, or that individuals would still work full time seeking personal relative status.

We are now only eighteen years shy of Keynes’ 2030 forecast date. While there has certainly been a weakening of farmer ideals, especially on fertility, we are far from embracing forager ideals overall. We still work hard for material wealth. Our lower classes have moved furthest, more rejecting marriage, religion, and full-time work, via relying heavily on the sharing of others, and this is considered a big problem. Give us another century of similar economic growth, and this lower class malaise might well infect most everyone. But it is far from clear that this would settle at a stable rich no growth equilibrium, rather than economic and population collapse.

In any case, even we preserve farmer norms enough to support continued growth, material wealth per person will only be high until we find new techs to increase population faster than we increase wealth. While in theory-overconfident far mode, Keynes’ is tempted to see his forager-value future as lasting indefinitely, it would in fact only be temporary. The em transition that I envision within a century or two should quickly return most people (i.e., most ems) to near subsistence income, and put a huge premium on reviving farmer-like norms and ideals. And even if that doesn’t happen, growth must slow in the very long run.

Is my summary fair? Judge for yourself; here are excerpts from Keynes’ essay: Continue reading "Keynes’ Forager Future" »

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The History of Inequality

I recently posted on how cities and firms are like distributed as a Zipf power law, with a power of one, where above some threshold each scale holds roughly the same number of people, until the size where the world holds less than one. Turns out, this also holds for nations:

Log Nation Size v Log Rank

The threshold below which there are few nations is roughly three million people. For towns/cities this threshold scale is about three thousand, and for firms it is about three. What were such things distributed like in the past?

I recall that the US today produces few new towns, though centuries ago they formed often. So the threshold scale for towns has risen, probably due to minimum scales needed for efficient town services like electricity, sewers, etc. I’m also pretty sure that early in the farming era lots of folks lived in nations of a million or less. So the threshold scale for nations has also risen.

Before the industrial revolution, there were very few firms of any substantial scale. So during the farming era firms existed but could not have been distributed by Zipf’s law. So if firms had a power law distribution then, it must have had a much steeper power.

If we look all the way back to the forager era, then cities and nations could also not plausibly have had a Zipf distribution — there just were none of any substantial scale. So surely their size distribution also fell off faster than Zipf, as individual income does today.

Looking further back, at biology, the number of individuals per species is distributed nearly log-normally. The number of species per genera:

and the number of individuals with a given family name or ancestor:

have long been distributed via a steeper tail, with number falling as nearly the square of size:

This lower inequality comes because fluctuations in the size of genera and family names are mainly due to uncorrelated fluctuations of their members, rather than to correlated shocks that help or hurt an entire firm, city, or nation together. While this distribution holds less inequality in the short run, still over very long runs it accumulates into vast inequality. For example, most species today descend from a tiny fraction of the species alive hundreds of millions of years ago.

Putting this all together, the number of species per genera and individuals per families has long declined with size as a tail power of two. After the farming revolution, cities and nations could have correlated internal successes and larger feasible sizes, giving a thicker tail of big items. In the industry era, firms could also get very large. Today, nations, cities, and firms are all distributed with a tail power of one, above threshold scales of (three) million, thousand, and one, thresholds that have been rising with time.

My next post will discuss what these historical trends suggest about the future.

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Hail John Watkins

In the 1900 Ladies Home Journal, railroad engineer John Watkins offered unusually insightful predictions for a hundred years hence. His example seems a great place to learn lessons on sources of insight, and systematic biases, in forecasting. Yet while many have commented recently on Watkin’s forecasts, I haven’t seen any drawing lessons.

I see these as Watkins main mistakes:

  1. Overestimating coordination capacities. Watkins said we’d cut underused letters like C,X,Q from our alphabet, eliminate mosquitoes and house-flies by ending their breeding grounds, put all city traffic below or above ground, and accept many American republics into the USA union. All of these require far more coordination than we seem capable of.
  2. Underestimating wealth indulgence and signaling. Watkins said we’d adopt an engineer’s efficiency attitude toward food preparation and personal fitness. People unable to walk ten miles at a stretch would be weaklings, and we’d use central cooking instead of personal kitchens. But rich folks don’t want to work that hard, and humans have long asserted wealth and autonomy via personalized vs. communal dining. Institutional communal food, such as in dorms, ships, military bases, boarding-house, etc., has long been avoided a sign of low status.

Added 10a: The institutional food that is cheapest, and lowest in status, makes you eat where they say, when they say, and what they say. Yes of course a restaurant is “institutional” in some ways, but it costs more because it offers customers more flexibility in time, location, and food.

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Hatin’ On Farmers

Zahavi’s seminal book on animal signaling tells how certain birds look high status by forcing food down the throat of other birds, who thereby seem low status. While this “altruism” does help low status birds survive, they rightly resent it, as their status loss outweighs their food gain.

In our society, “sympathy” by high status folks for low status folks usually functions similarly — it affirms their high status while giving little net benefit to the low status. For example, the latest New Yorker reviews several books on the Roman empire, including one on the lives of ordinary Romans:

Much of what we know about the Roman emperors is based on myth and misunderstanding. But even that much can’t be said for the vast majority of their subjects, whose way of life has barely left a trace in the historical record. …

[It is] an overwhelmingly dark picture. “Invisible Romans” is full of anecdotes and quotations that speak volumes about Roman attitudes toward women, slaves, and the cheapness of life in general. … In general the lot of the ordinary Roman was no different from that of the vast majority of human beings before the modern age: powerlessness, bitterly hard work, and the constant presence of death. The thing that strikes Knapp most about Roman popular wisdom is its deep passivity in the face of these afflictions, which feels so alien to moderns and especially to Americans. The Romans, he writes, had no concept of progress … A slave might dream of manumission but hardly of abolition. For women, “there were no alternative lifestyles and aspirations either offered or considered … Even the amenities of the ‘Roman world, like the famous public baths, lose their lustre … “baths offered not only social interaction but a lack of hygiene schooling even to contemplate.” (more)

It almost seems as if this author feels it would have been better if these pathetic creatures had never existed, if not for their eventually giving rise to worthy creatures like him. So sad, he muses, that they didn’t bother to even imagine the future changes that could justify their miserable existence. He probably thinks it only a coincidence that his disgust affirms his lofty status among all the humans who have ever lived.

Sigh. The lives of ordinary folks in the Roman empire might not have been as nice as this author’s, nor as nice as yours. Yes they sometimes had pain, hunger, and sickness, but even so they were mostly lives worth living, with much love, laughter, engagement, and satisfaction. Poor folk do smile.

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Nostalgia Example

Both magic and nostalgia are common, arise more when we feel threatened, and comfort us in such situations. … Both … rely especially heavily on wishful thinking – magic presumes we are especially able to influence events important to us, while nostalgia presumes that our previous social orders were especially functional, moral, good to people like us, etc. The fact that fantasy tends to combine both magic and nostalgia suggests that some readers have an especially strong tolerance for wishful thinking, and/or demand for comfort, and fantasy targets that audience. (more)

As I’ve enjoy some science fiction by John C.Wright, I found it interesting to read the nostalgia that energizes him:

High Fantasy rests for its paramount appeal on nostalgia: the longing for a world once known, now lost. An Uzi is a more efficient killing machine than the great sword Excalibur, but the Uzi is never to be described in words [as poetic as] these: … The sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers. … Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy.

The difference between a culture that respected and reveres the virginity of the maiden fair and the bravery of the warrior prince, and the cult that reveres the bravery of the transgendered community and protects the crooked penis of a presidential adulterer with comically ferocious self-righteousness, is not merely a difference between an ape and a man, a savage and a savant. … The Middle Ages may have been evil and cruel and dirty in many things, but they were never held Mutually Assured Destruction by thermonuclear annihilation to be a work of wise political policy. …

The only tales ever told in the history of the world without any element of magical or the supernatural were those told in the modern age. … There is a common thread linking speculative fiction with romances and epics and fairy tales of old. That thread is an acknowledgement that the world is wider and wilder and weirder than we suspect, and that there are fields beyond the fields we know where elves might dance in moonlight or demons rage in flame or angels clothed in brightness soar at their lord’s command on errantry to deeds immense of which we mortal men hear no slightest fame. …

The current world in which we live, the current age of darkness, rests on certain assumptions which High Fantasy undermines: the assumption that might makes right, the assumption that man is the master of his own fate, the assumption that the universe is a machine and everything in it (including man) is merely a raw material to be exploited in the restless search for pelf and pleasure. … The assumptions of the modern world, … Low Fantasy undermines them by showing the reader a glimpse of a world where the strength of a man’s arm decided the triumph or downfall of cities, and the honor of his word and the courage of his heart decided the strength of that arm. (more; HT David Brin)

Wright’s skill with words shows me the depth of his feelings, even though such feelings fail to resonate with me – his nostalgia still seems to me mostly wishful thinking. Yes, modernity is missing something, and stories of other eras can highlight what we lack. But some of what we lack is impossible, and so is missing everywhere. And every time and place is missing something; there are so many tradeoffs.

But let me make a prediction. In the future, stories will be told that are set in forager worlds, in farming worlds (where most of our fantasy is set), in industry worlds (like our world), in em worlds, perhaps in further worlds we can now only dimly imagine, and finally in worlds of a vast stable future lasting for trillions of years. My prediction is that in that vast stable future, when they tell nostalgic stories about other eras, they’ll tell more stories set in industry worlds than in farming or forager worlds.

John C. Wright can’t see the romance of our era, compared to farming era romance, but I doubt the first farmers could see much romance in their world, compared to forager worlds. But eventually story tellers will find many fine ways to see our dream-time era conflicts as engaging. For a cosmologically brief time, everything changed rapidly, anything seemed possible, and its mostly rich residents indulged in a great many real-life fantasies.

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Historical Heresy

Famed Historian Angus Deaton:

It is sometimes supposed … that rich people have always lived healthier and longer lives than poor people. That this supposition is generally false is vividly shown by Harris who compares the life expectancies at birth of the general population in England with that of [rich] ducal families. From the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 19th century, there was little obvious trend in general life expectancy. For the ducal families up to 1750, life expectancy was no higher than, and sometimes lower than, the life expectancy of the general population. However, during the century after 1750, the life prospects of the aristocrats pulled away from those of the general population, and by 1850–74, they had an advantage of about 20 years. After 1850, the modern increase in life expectancy became established in the general population. Johansson tells a similar story for the British royals compared to the general population, though the royals began with an even lower life expectancy at birth. …

Men die at higher rates than women at all ages after conception. Although women around the world report higher morbidity [= sickness] than men, their mortality [= death] rates are usually around half of those of men. … Women get sick and men get dead. … Biology cannot be the whole explanation. The female advantage in life expectancy in the US is now smaller than for many years, 5.3 years in 2008 compared with 7.8 years in 1979, and it has been argued that there was little or no differential in the preindustrial world. The contemporary decline in female advantage is largely driven by cigarette smoking; women were slower to start smoking than men, and have been slower to quit. (more)

This is a provocative hypothesis, but I don’t believe it. That is, I don’t believe that in general status and gender were unrelated to mortality until the industrial revolution. Chimp females live longer than chimp males, and I’ll bet that holds for foragers too. I’ll also bet that in both chimps and foragers high status tends to correlate with lower mortality.

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Fertility Fall Myths

In the latest JEL, Tim Guinnane does a nice job debunking misconceptions about the great fertility fall associated with the industrial revolution. For example, “The decline in French fertility began in the late eighteenth century,” and fertility declines were not uniform across Europe:

Mortality decline doesn’t work as an explanation for fertility declines:

Fertility in the United States declined for decades before any noticeable decline in mortality.

Nor does new contraception tech:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, withdrawal and abstinence remained the primary approaches used by married couples. Since these technologies had been available, essentially, throughout human history, it is unlikely that the condom and similar new methods played a strong role in the fertility transition. … Methods available even prior to the fertility transition were sufficient to produce voluntary reductions of the magnitude we observe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nor do child labor laws:

Most [child-labor] measures either did not apply to agricultural work, or did so in a more relaxed way. … German restrictions did not successfully limit the role of children in production at home, which remained important throughout the nineteenth century. And in every case, the restrictions’ impact would depend both on enforcement measures and parents’ desire to evade them. Finally, if child-labor restrictions were introduced when they were mostly irrelevant, …

Nor do new social insurance programs:

Economic ties between parents and children varied dramatically across the societies in question before the fertility transition. … At the other extreme, rural laborers’ children in England would, from at least the early-modern period, leave home for good in their early to mid teens. … social-insurance systems introduced at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were usually replacing earlier schemes. Thus there is no clear “before.” … The broad patterns also do not make it likely that social insurance alone is central to the story. The two forerunners, France and the United States, were laggards in developing social insurance.

Still in the running, he thinks, are increases in urbanization, female employment, and gains to schooling:

Several studies document the existence of fertility control among small groups as early as the seventeenth century. These “forerunners” were usually urban elites or members of minority groups such as Jews. More generally, research based on either sub-national aggregates or micro data often find earlier fertility declines than in national data. The Princeton studies report earlier fertility declines in cities, for example. … Most studies find that urban fertility was lower than rural fertility in the nineteenth century, … Once the fertility transition began, fertility usually fell first in urban areas, with rural areas then catching up. …

Cross-sectional regressions for U.S. states in 1840 show that fertility is negatively correlated with measures of nonfarm labor-market opportunities. Once such proxies are introduced, land prices have no influence on fertility. … Crafts … finds a consistent, negative correlation between women’s [1911] local labor-force opportunities and marital fertility. …

Goldin and … Katz … find that the return to an additional year of [1915 Iowa] high school or college then was, for males, on the order of 11–12 percent. Mitch estimates the present value of acquiring literacy in Victorian Britain for a representative child. The present value of the cost of acquiring literacy would be about £4. At a wage premium of 5 shillings per week for literacy, the present value of the higher wages for a 35-year work life would be over £200.

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