Friday, July 29, 2011

Should You Pay Tax on Amazon


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Great Sentiments about the Needs for Our Relationship with China. But I'm Left with All Questions, No Answers

Admiral Mike Mullen has an op-ed in today's NY Times that expresses some wonderful sentiments.  I just don't really think I learned anything from reading it.  Basic exchanges of information have gone on for a long time, I don't have a detailed enough knowledge to say whether or not current exchanges are much different but I can't see them as being any more than marginally so.  In any case, this kind of information sharing, while necessary, is hardly game changing on its own.

Where are more concrete initiatives, say something regarding the South China Sea?  Are efforts being made to examine how Chinese-American security concerns link in with economic concerns?  The Chinese certainly aren't shy about expressing some of their economic concerns in security and foreign policy terms, are we being similarly forthright?

I'm probably expecting too much, but while I think this article expresses praiseworthy sentiments I'm left feeling that I didn't read a single thing that makes me think that anything has changed or that relations are on a firmer basis.  This all seems very informal and non-binding, what's to prevent our next over-reaction or the next Chinese walk-out?  I don't see anything.

I should note, however, that the lines indicate that the admiral is responding to some specific critiques:

I’m not naïve. I understand the concerns of those who feel that any cooperation benefits China more than the United States. I just don’t agree. This relationship is too important to manage through blind suspicion and mistrust. We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.

 On the whole, the op-ed leaves me without answers but with a big question, who exactly is it that is being responded to, and what is their argument?  And why is this being published now?

Book Review: The Roman Republic

This will be a short review.  I picked up Michael Crawford's The Roman Republic at a used bookstore.  It was a good basic overview of the functioning of the Roman Republic and how this changed as its history progressed.  It's done well enough, I haven't read enough about the Republic to have other specific works to compare to, and felt it was worth taking the time to read.

More generally, I have always found the Roman Republic fascinating, particularly as an example of political decay.  It's an excellent example of how an extremely successful society finds itself unable to adapt to its own success and the changing obligations that result from it.  Rome simply couldn't deal with the increasing power of its citizens, by the end of the Republic, the state was basically subject to its leading citizens, making the step to monarchy quite small.  It's a fascinating topic, and one I plan to write a book about one day.

Some Thoughts on Rational Choice Theory Part 1

This is spurred by a rather old blog post on The Stone that I never quite got around to addressing, but meant to.  My first observation is that this is an excellent reminder that some people really do take rational choice theory and rational choice philosophy seriously as ways to describe human behavior.  I often forget this, I don't think I've ever had a professor that took it as gospel, even the economics ones, and I haven't known anyone in person that did.

The next observation is that I really like how the blog takes down rational choice philosophy, worth reading.  Philosophy isn't my forte so no more to say here.

The third thing I want to get into is that this is a great opportunity to discuss rational choice theory.  For the rest of the posts on this subject I will be putting my professor hat on, no doubt many of you will know most, if not all, of what I have to say already but I need the practice.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: The Origins of Political Order

Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order seeks to trace the basic outline of political development from our earliest knowledge up to the beginnings of the modern world.  First off, this is an excellent book, to some degree it summarizes in one volume what I've been trying to do with my reading over the last few years.  Within the book, he describes some of the biological underpinnings of political order as well as the early forms of organization these underpinnings led to, the development of the political form of the modern strong state, as well as the development of the rule of law and accountable government.  He ends the book with a basic theory of political development and decay.  Rather than focusing on summarizing the book, I will lay out my basic critiques of it, hopefully with enough background to be intelligible to the reader.

First of all, I have a basic philosophical disagreement with Dr. Fukuyama.  Fukuyama sees modern liberal political democracy as having solved many of the basic problems of political society and as being the best form of political order we can achieve (this argument is laid out more fully in The End of History and the Last Man, it of course does not mean the end of political change or competition but it does mean that there will be no more fundamental shifts in how societies are organized).  I disagree with this view.  I see a basic continuity in the belief of various societies that they have achieved some kind of apex of political order, something similar is seen in Greece, Rome, and China.  Successful societies that are more competitive than and are emulated by their neighbors tend to believe this, the Chinese for instance seemed to have some writers that believed in something not too far off from democratic peace theory, if only the barbarians were brought within Chinese ritual systems and government than they would be more peaceable and interstate relations would be more predictable.  These beliefs have the benefit of being to some extent true, these forms of international relations are really more peaceable than those with vastly different forms of political belief and structure.  However, their repetition throughout history and later disintegration makes me believe that these ideas are essentially false.  Of course, this is no more than speculation, previous periods of these beliefs lasted for quite a long time and I will be very surprised if anything new arises within my lifetime, so this belief is for all intents and purposes non-falsifiable.  However, it is a basic philosophical difference, I see us as being closer to the beginning of our social evolution than we are towards its end (I don't really see there as being an end, just like there isn't for biological evolution).

More concretely, I do have some more particular critiques.  First of all, Fukuyama contrasts the Chinese with no rule of law frequently with other societies (not just European) that did develop a rule of law.  For long term contingent development, I don't really disagree with this.  However, I am not so sure about the accuracy of crediting lower levels of arbitrary rule in Europe to this, rather than simply to the relatively high level of independent power enjoyed by non-state European political actors (rule of law may have played a role in allowing for the mobilization of this latent power, of course, I don't know enough about it to say either way).  Comparing the two histories, I am struck more by instances of arbitrary rule in Europe, such as the expulsion of the moriscos, persecution of the Huguenots, seizure of church lands in many states, slaughter of the Cathars, suppression of the Hussites, as well as more narrow seizures such as those that were inflicted upon many nobles in the Holy Roman Empire in the 30 Years War.  The examples used of arbitrariness in China tend to date to very early periods, such as Qin shi Huang (definitely megalomaniacal and arbitrary) from the 2nd century BC and Empress Wu in the 7th century AD, or to periods of complete political collapse and restoration, such as the first Ming emperor.  I just don't really see European monarchs as being much more respectful of the law than the Chinese emperors, I see both as feeling constrained more by the powers of their leading citizens or their bureaucracies than they are by any particular respect for the law.  I don't disagree that how these were both institutionalized had long term consequences, I just don't see much difference in contemporary periods and see the restraints as being tied more closely to the relative power of monarch and leading citizens than I do in the normative force of law (and to some extent I do see something fairly similar to the rule of law in the deference to received wisdom and respect for the pronouncements of earlier emperors in China, that this provided restrictions on the emperor doesn't mean that it could have led to the kind of constitutional restraints that the rule of law imposed on the west, this is the kind of coincidental development that wouldn't have been obvious to contemporary observers however).  To sum this up, I agree with Fukuyama on the important long run implications of the rule of law in comparing both societies (and found especially interesting his thoughts on how the law played a role in state building, particularly in England, I'll be reading a few of the books from the bibliography based on this), but I don't really agree with the idea that this provided much normative force in actual practice during contemporary periods of comparison between the two societies.

I wrote some thoughts on individualism earlier that were spurred by this book, I won't go into this here.  What did interest me greatly was Fukuyama's description of how Christianity undermined kinship ties and the family more generally, I'll be following up on reading those sources as well.  This does lead me to another critique however.  While Fukuyama spends a great deal of time dwelling on kinship, he doesn't discuss clientage in much more than some passing asides.  I think this is pretty important to the discussion of feudalism in Europe, while Christianity weakened kinship it seems to have largely been replaced by various forms of clientage and other corporate arrangements, not only vassal-lord but also forms of clientage associated with guilds and other corporate arrangements.  I think I understand why this isn't gone into at length, it shows a lot of similarity with kinship and would have unduly complicated an already complex story.  Still, I think it's important to note that these relationships are important to understanding the period and that while they are not completely ignored they could bear more discussion.

I also have some minor disagreements with his contrast between the malthusian world described here and the modern world.  First of all, I tend to see a little more continuity than I think he describes in the book, I reserve judgment on the whole until Vol. 2, however, so will just touch briefly on one aspect of this here.  My main reservation here is that while per capita income may not change much, we do see considerable change occur even in the malthusian economy across time.  This has two elements.  First of all, is the shift in household consumption patterns described in Jan de Vries The Industrious Revolution.  While this books largely describes the shift as occurring during the commercial revolution I think to some extent we do see this earlier, while consumption remains dominated by food there is a greater array of goods that become available to people with what remains of their income and some greater variety of social life.  So those apparently flat incomes probably do conceal at least somewhat greater variety in goods available to people as well as somewhat greater variety of production not directly related to food, even if overall incomes are limited by the very real limits of agricultural activity at this time (to further complicate this there are also some shifts towards monetization under state activity, it is hard to have a differentiated economy when coins are in short supply, as well as some easing of transport costs as more powerful states develop roads allowing more people to participate in more integrated markets, this is getting away a bit from what this books analyzes however).  Also, within those flat incomes can be a degree of disproportion among groups within the large units being analyzed for per capita GDP.  While overall incomes in China may be flat, this is partially the result of extensive growth into poorer areas, even as better settled, more productive areas see substantially higher incomes and greater commercial development.  In this case, poorer regions being settled using either political or technological change (new crops, like potatoes, as well as farming techniques) drag down the overall level of development due to their subsistence nature.  This doesn't mean that richer regions aren't experiencing greater diversification and specialization, but this doesn't show up in aggregate due to marginal extensive growth.  Again, this goes a bit off topic for the book, generally I think that the economic component of development needs fuller treatment than it receives here to fully understand political development.  This is probably better achieved by reading additional books than it would be by expanding this one however, though it is something that will bother me despite understanding the very good reasons for the relatively cursory treatment of economic issues here.

On the whole, however, I can't recommend this book highly enough.  It was really excellent, and provided a great deal of information in one volume that could only be gained otherwise by pretty extensive reading.  I would strongly recommend reading Liberman's Strange Parallels alongside it, many of the same societies are examined from a somewhat different perspective, and with a historian's eye rather than a political scientist's.  For me, the two best pieces are the introductory portions on the state of nature, examining political theory in light of better information on early history and anthropology as well as the comparison of European political development in four different cases, with a fifth case, Denmark, introduced to show an alternative path to modern institutions aside from the standard British case.  I think the most valuable portion of this part is bringing up the problem of a society being too strong relative to the state and how this can be equally destructive as a too strong state, the cases of Hungary and Poland are needed warnings about the need for political balance in protecting individual liberty.  The state is necessary to offset the advantages of the powerful, when it is too weak, individuals become subordinated not to the state, but to the magnates.  I see no reason why this is any different for commercial elites than it is for landed ones, much of Latin America points to how this can happen just as easily whatever form of wealth or political advantages these inequalities take.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Individual and Society

Following from my last post, I think it's necessary to explain in a bit more detail what I think was necessary for the individual as a political unit to become current in broader society required.

The basics of it are that it started as basically an elite idea* that was opposed to the increasingly centralized state that began to more frequently use the punishment of expropriation and exile against these elites in the drive towards centralization.  These punishments took what was previously hereditary right and property that was tied to a family and expropriated it to the state, to be later converted into private property as the seized lands were sold off (I believe this had something to do with Locke's writing, I never saw in it the fully modern notion of modern private property and see a fairly high degree of communal kinship based thought in his narrative, though with a tendency towards individualism, I think noting these influences is important to understanding Locke, assuming that he means fully modern notions of property and of individualism is something that I think is a misreading of his work).  In protest against this, which punished the entire lineage rather than just an individual, the idea of private rights began to take greater hold in elite circles to prevent these kind of intergenerational punishments.  This leads eventually to a greater emphasis on imprisonment and execution of individuals rather than full expropriation, or at least I believe it does, my evidence here is admittedly somewhat thin, it's an area I plan to research more eventually (the persistence of these types of punishments in places such as the Hapsburg Empire along with a more personal and patronage links to political power, as opposed to the increasingly impersonal bureaucracies elsewhere in Europe, is a major part of what leads me to think this).

 Once this elite idea had taken hold, it was a fairly short step to trying to institutionalize this across the rest of society, which in Europe was already well prepared for this.  What is remarkable however is how quickly demands were made for the state to fill in for what was previously provided (such as poor relief, legal courts, law enforcement, etc.) at the village and communal level, either through village and community councils, feudal lords, or other institutions such as guilds.  To me, this seems the critical step for institutionalizing the individual as political unit.  Where before political identity was always tied to either a patron or to a community, once the state began to supply the security and sense of belonging the individual could flourish separate from his identity as a member of a narrowly circumscribed community based on kinship, place, or occupation.  This is the development of the idea of society, which, like individualism, is something we don't really see much of in early political writings, it appears roughly at the same point as individualism (with concepts such as nationalism appearing alongside to drive the process of identity with society).

This is why I refer to individualism and society as two sides of the same coin.  They are inseparable concepts.  Without a focus on, and allegiance to, a broader society the need for social support and group identification leads to people fracturing back into more primitive groupings such as bands or lineage groups (often in the form of gangs and warlordism, though other forms of self-help organizations not so dedicated to violence can be observed).  On the other hand, without the opportunities for gain and social advancement that individualism and markets make possible individuals have little reason to identify strongly with their societies. 

This is at the heart of a basic schizophrenia I see in a lot of politics.  Ideologues on both the left and right have a tendency to want to form a one sided coin, to either have politics and economics devoted to the betterment of the individual or of society with little attention being paid to the other side.  Trying to shave off one of the two faces is impossible, no matter what expedients are used social pressures will always drive the reassertion of the other component, barring expedients strong enough to shatter the coin, breaking society back into its constituent band-like or tribal components.  Real political progress is only possible by linking the strengthening of the society as a whole to the additional opportunities this provides to individuals in the long term.  Trying to push individual interests at the expense of society is just as destructive as trying to implement social change without explicitly linking this back to how it improves individual lives.  What amazes me is that this basic concept seems so infrequently recognize and the emphasis instead placed on an impossible ethic of social responsibility and self-negation (which is more like the kind of band-like or tribal ethic of stasis than it is a modernist political philosophy) or on an ethic of pure individualistic self-help, not recognizing that individual success and merit is impossible without the recognition and participation of society as a whole.

*This reflects of course my current understanding of the subject.  It is one I want to learn more about and will confess upfront my limitations in this respect and that what I know about it comes from sources dealing primarily with other issues and the notion of individualism only indirectly.  I believe Fukuyama will go into this topic as well later in his book, I believe he attributes it in part at least to Christianity.  I am certain this is part of the story, but one I don't know enough about.  Certainly the idea of individual salvation had something to do with it, and this was enhanced by the Reformation and the idea that the individual could have a separate relationship with God.  I don't know enough about this story to work it into the above narrative, which I regard as incomplete.  As I learn more, I may post something updated in the future.

Individualism and the State of Nature

I've started reading Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order.  So far, good book, and much like something I wanted to write eventually myself (I still have a ways to go on my reading list to be prepared for a topic like this, Fukuyama's got a few decades head start on me). 

I'll do a more complete book review later (this cuts close to my primary research interests so there may be a few in depth posts on this particular book), today I want to take up something in chapter two.  Chapter two discusses the state of nature, in particular mentioning Aristotle as well as later liberal theorists.  The key point here is that the starting point of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is basically wrong and Aristotle close to being right when he states that man is naturally a political animal.*  Fukuyama brings a decent body of evidence to back this up from anthropology, sociology, and early history, I won't repeat that here.

What I will observe is that this is a critical component for developing political and economic theory, the natural unit for analyzing human behavior is not the individual but the small band.  This is my main disagreement with a lot of mainstream political/economic theory, they start with the individual with the natural unit as an a priori assumption, which I find indefensible.  We have enough evidence that making an assumption about this isn't necessary, we have evidence that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau simply didn't.  A theory is only as good as the evidence on which it is based, and is confirmed or denied based on further observations.  In this case, further evidence has denied the individual as a natural unit of analysis, why so many rely so heavily on earlier theory based on a thin factual basis rather than starting again with the new evidence baffles me.

This isn't to say that the development of individualism isn't a major advance, it is and it is what makes much of our current economic and political advances possible.  But it's a very late advance, barring some limited precocious exceptions** we don't really see individualism develop as a political idea until early modern Europe.  Something this late developing is pretty obviously not a natural state, instead it is something formed by socio/political/economic circumstances and thus dependent on these circumstances for its continuation (more on this later).  Using the individual as a basic assumption, except for analysis within the current socio/political/economic circumstances within which individualism is already seen to be a valid philosophy, is something I regard as fundamentally flawed.  Removing those circumstances from the picture and assuming individualism as a basis for social organization will necessarily lead to impossible ahistorical outcomes for this reason, the natural unit of analysis for human beings is the band, examining the individual necessitates specifying the conditions which make the individual the appropriate political and economic unit as well as having some understanding of how this can break down (when sufficient pressure or social breakdown occurs we see more advanced and individualistic forms of human identity break down into something like a band structure, we see this in the disintegration of the Chinese state in certain periods, or in the formation of gangs and other units when individuals no longer feel strong ties to their society) is essential to analyzing human behavior in a general sense (rather than in the specific circumstances of modern state and society, most economic analysis for instance assumes that current political institutions will persist, taking a deeper look at human behavior is only necessary when economic analysis starts advocating political and social change, in this case the assumption of rational individualism no longer stands and analysis needs to problematize man's natural tendencies rather than assuming that individual level assumptions will persist in the changed social-political circumstances).

*To share a personal aside, this is an observation that I always felt was fairly obvious, I remember being somewhat befuddled back in high school when the teacher gave us the classical Hobbes/Rousseau question of whether two primitive human beings meeting each other in the woods would fight or flee.  I was baffled, to me it was obvious that it was neither, they'd cooperate since human beings are a naturally social animal, like monkeys or wolves.  I'm not sure if it is because I moved a lot and observed that the first thing people do in a new place is start making friends, or at least contacts, or that I read a lot of Plato and Aristotle early on, but I always found it obvious that, barring the odd loner, people don't really want to be on their own and will work together.  Of course, this works only on a small scale, once people are in a group competition arises and we begin to see more complex interactions, but the first step is always to have a group for those interactions to occur.

** Just taking from Green, there are certainly some earlier philosophical stances that involve something like individualism (with some notable differences).  These stances tend to be confined to the very wealthy and to be basically parasitical in nature as regards the broader society, it's nice to believe that you're an individual actor and self-made man when you have the resources with which to boss people around.  For modern political and economic individualism however, it is necessary that these attitudes spread to encompass people not so privileged that don't get the natural satisfaction of giving orders and having them followed (often for a price).  This takes further political developments to occur.

Idiocy and Taxes

Grover Norquist has a rather silly op-ed in the NY Times today.  I'm just going to pick on this:

Others have tried to redefine “tax increase,” specifically by arguing that eliminating a tax credit, exclusion or deduction in order to rake in more tax revenue should not count as a tax hike. The theory is that any dollar the government failed to take from you in taxes had in fact been given to you in a spending program. By this reasoning, the deduction-killing Alternative Minimum Tax is not a tax hike — a cruel joke on the millions of Americans who get hit by it every year. When a mugger passes you on the street leaving you unmolested, he did not in fact give you your wallet. 

 There's no difference between tax credits, exclusions, deductions and spending.  Norquist is playing semantics.  The government achieves the exact same result whether it gives a credit, exclusion, or deduction for something like buying a house or if it simply reimburses the amount spent later as spending.  But, semantically, we get to call this two different things.  So if I pay $1000 less a year in taxes do to the mortgage interest deduction, this is the exact same as if the government sends me a check for $1000 to reimburse me on the interest paid in the home owners mortgage subsidy (admittedly, there probably would be some difference in when payments arrive, but this is over technical).  But one goes under the tax line, the other the spending line.  Norquist's views are either completely insane, or simply semantic juggling, either way, they're not worth paying attention to.

This points to a deeper issue, though one I'm having trouble conjuring the right words for.  Basically, this is a problem with mistaking the words used to describe something with the thing being described.  In this case, we all have equal duties to the society that we are a member of because this protects our individualism (more on this topic later).  However, because we choose to promote certain actions we choose to subsidize them, thus making the burden unequal when we believe people are acting in a meritorious manner.  We do this in two ways, most countries do this with direct subsidies, which is spending.  We do it via tax breaks.  The result is the same, we change the formally even proportionate burden into a disproportionate one.  But, since we imbue many terms with virtue as well, this basic equivalency is lost and we get hung up on the semantics without walking back a couple of steps to see what is really going on.  I think there's a story in here somewhere about symbolic action, but I don't think I'm the one to tell it.  In any case, my main point is that this whole argument is about mistaking symbols for reality and thus not even trying to figure out what the reality is.  The symbols have become in this case what is really real, and whatever lies beneath is simply being ignored.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Medieval Technlogy and Social Change

Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change is a fairly famous and important contribution to the study of technology.  It is however a bit dated, I read it cause it was short and I found it for $3 in a used bookstore (it helped that I was $2 shy of a discount).  For a more recent study of technology I'd recommend Mokyr's Lever of Riches, though as a more general study it has less to say specifically about the Middle Ages.

Back to White's book.  There are three main parts, the first, on the importance of the stirrup to the development of feudalism, is basically discredited.  What I've read on the topic indicates the advantage of the stirrup, while significant, isn't as great as implied here (and if heavy cavalry was basically dependent on it, how could Alexander's hetairoi have served as a hammer to the phalanx's anvil?) and its development largely took place on the steppe and not in dark ages France.

The second part, on agriculture and particularly the three field system was interesting, but again, dated.  The three field system certainly greatly benefited agriculture and allowed both more population and greater non-agricultural specialization.  Again though, like with the stirrup, other books I've read have stated that the advantages were lower than presented here and that there was more going on.  Other developments, such as the horse collar, were also less influential than claimed because the versions they replaced didn't have as many problems as asserted here.  A good discussion, but it overemphasizes the role of technology in social change, and understandable reaction to its downplaying before this book.

The last section, on mechanical power, I found far more useful.  This is again dated, White claims guns were developed in the west while they have now been decisively identified as a Chinese development (I am planning a post on how late Eurocentrism stayed with us later, I still find it even in books from the 80s) for instance, but this chapter provides much more detailed discussions of medieval technology than I found in Mokyr's book (though Mokyr is an excellent source for what he does cover).  Being highly interested in economic aspects, I found most interesting the discussion of medieval labor saving devices, not just grain mills but also "mills for tanning or laundering, mills for sawing, for crushing anything from olives to ore, mills for operating the bellows of blast furnaces, the hammers of the forge, or the grindstones to finish and polish weapons and armour, mills for producing pigments for paint or pulp for paper or the mash for beer, were to be found all over Europe."  (White 89)  The notion that machinery was not applied to production beyond luxuries before some sort of shift in the Dutch Republic is simply a pernicious myth.  It was all over Europe, and the industrial revolution can't be explained in these terms.  People have been using machinery for primitive production for more than a thousand years, and not just for luxury goods.  Yet I still see this idea repeated (it was widely believed in the 19th century when research such as White's hadn't been conducted, things look simple when you don't know the complexities exist, go figure).  Books like this need to be read just for this knowledge, if nothing else

Alexander to Actium

Peter Green's Alexander to Actium was an excellent book covering a period that generally doesn't receive enough attention.  The Hellenistic era was important to the later development of Rome and provides some great examples of despotism as well as the decadence of these societies.  I personally would have wished for more about the economy, but this book is a general overview and my interests are a bit more specialized.  It provides a balanced account of the basic political history as well as chapters devoted to the society of the time, art, philosophy, the economy, and more.  It is most definitely worth reading.

I took up my issues with the economic aspects earlier, in particular the puzzle of why the Greeks never developed more in the way of productive machinery.  To sum up my early statements, I don't really see this as a puzzle.  Lacking knowledge of what investment would later lead to I don't see why anything other than an observation of the high capital costs and low potential return is necessary to explain why businessmen of this period would favor consumption over investment.  Trying to explain it in terms of slavery or of cultural attitudes seems unnecessary, durable machinery would have been basically non-existent because of poor and expensive metallurgy leading to high depreciation and plenty of land and population was available for extensive development, why would anyone try intensive methods?  It took a very long time to get where we are, once the benefits became obvious we saw rapid development, until then development was essentially serendipitous, I don't think there's anything that needs further explanation here.  Investment and development are simply non-obvious, until the examples were present it simply didn't happen in a predictable fashion.

The second point I want to take up regards my earlier writing about decadence.  In many of these states we see political decay alongside moral decay particularly among the ruling families.  There are a few points I want to make, first societies such as the Romans engaged in a fair amount of ostentatious consumption even when they were rising, attributing decadence to simple wealth seems misplaced.  Also, these societies started out wealthier than they ended up, wealth seems misplaced as a reason for decadence.  To go back to my earlier writing, I do think this book exposed a flaw.  I had mused that rising elites would generate new forms of morality that would be more appropriate to changing circumstances than the old one, in the Hellenistic case, while there certainly was a flourishing commercial elite alongside the more traditional political elites, there isn't any evidence I'm aware of that this elite developed much in the way of a new moral and ideological system that was opposed by the old elites, they simply didn't posit anything at all.  So, I have to slightly adjust my earlier statements by saying that a new, rising elite produces the opportunity to create a new morality for new conditions that will be opposed by old elites, there is however nothing that will force the new elite to form a new moral underpinning for their rise.  It is simply possible for the old morality to remain the only restraint on individual action with nothing arising to take its place.  This however, is something I see as being only one possibility rather than a general outcome.

The third point I want to make is that the Hellenistic kingdoms provide an excellent example of a conquest elite.  This is the type of regime that best fits the notion of government as intrinsically coercive and concerned mostly with exploiting a subject population  while conceiving of the state as a form of private property.  This fits the Hellenistic governments very well.  It is notable however, that these states aren't generalizable to political society generally, they are a particular form of society and one with distinguishing characteristics, most notably, a reliance on a distinct ethnic community and a belief in the separateness of the governing class from the rest of the society (the institutionalization of class along ethnic, political, and economic lines is also common).

Back to Book Reviews

For a combination of the reasons that I haven't seen anything in the news I'd like to comment on (the debt ceiling is the biggest thing going but there's not much worth saying about it)  and that the book reviews have been the most visited pages on this blog.  So, I'll start doing them again.

I had stopped because the method I was using was taking too much time.  The next set of reviews will be briefer.  I'll be playing around with the format a bit, my main goal will just be to mention some brief impressions of the book and some questions that I arise from it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Last Thoughts on the Long Term

A few posts ago I wrote a bit about the long term, particular in regards to it being little more than a series of short runs and this generally being the best way to look at it.

This view did of course neglect at least one important point, the need for some long term investments.  Obviously, things like infrastructure and education have very high initial costs and fairly low year on year returns.  They are distinguished by  having very long periods over which a return is generated.

My views on the long term being unpredictable aren't meant to argue against this kind of investment.  Though I do tend to view them a bit differently from a standard cost benefit analysis would.  I see these investment's purpose primarily as providing long term flexibility in a changing world.  We can't predict in the long term what will be the great growth areas of the future, though we can predict the stable growth areas, it's quite predictable that decent returns will be generated from improving infrastructure in NYC for instance, however, since NYC is already quite wealthy it is impossible to generate the kind of massive returns that were generated in the past in Silicon Valley, Las Vegas, or Phoenix, the highest rates of return are always in areas that are relatively underdeveloped to begin with and creating the conditions for this kind of serendipitous rise is what I see as the primary reason for long term investments.  Private, medium term investments will suffice to develop long run growth in a place like NYC or to educate the upper management of the future, what it won't do is provide us with the unpredictable rise of formerly remote regions or the mass of nameless but proficient middle managers, technicians, and scientists necessary to  make things work in a modern society.

Of course, this means a great deal of waste.  But so does private investment, creative destruction is a necessary component of private investment because individuals often make mistakes with their allocations of resources.  Wasted long term government expenditure is little different.  For every success, there will be numerous boondoggles, that is the way of any enterprise in this world.  With government, these projects are always readily visible, in the private sector, we often are blinded by survivors bias, we often forget about how much failed investment occurred alongside every Amazon.  It is unreasonable to expect the government to do better.

This also of course doesn't fix the problem of unpredictability, think of canal building for a huge amount of wasted long term investment.  The essential quality of this investment isn't that it will accord well with cost-benefit analysis however, it's that when it pays off it raises the ceiling on total available wealth and increases access to productive activities, having unpredictable effects.  Just because we have no real idea over whether or not it will be worth doing doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, it just means we have to admit we're still basically shooting in the dark with these projects.  I consider madness to look at uncertainty as a reason to simply fall into senescence, no matter how emotionally compelling sloganeering about uncertainty is.

Taxes and Mythology

I rather like David Leonhardt's NY Times article on the inevitability of rising taxes.  What I want to take out of it is this:

How could this be? Above all, I think it reflects a desire to return to the good old days. Not so long ago, nobody was talking about tax increases or Medicare cuts, and the federal budget seemed to be in fine shape. If only we could get back to the past — get spending under control, as the cliché goes — we’d be O.K. The debt ceiling, with its harsh finality, offers the chance.

The fascinating thing about this is that while I think this is very accurate, it is also completely mythological, like Hellenistic nostalgia for the golden age.  Our taxes are the lowest they've been in the better part of a century.  This is a pretty large part of the problem, if we had the taxes of the good old days we wouldn't be having the problems we have now.  If we had never lowered them, we wouldn't have as high of debt payments as we do today and would have lower overall debt.*  This is symptomatic of a kind of malaise that frequently seems to overtake societies, they resist needed changes by instead appealing to a mythology about what worked in the past and try to locate their success in some kind of mythological adherence to virtue rather than the simple pragmatism that generally characterized the mythologized era.  Now, as ever, policies need to match circumstances, there is no golden age ideal that translates across eras.  If there were, every golden age wouldn't be so different.

It's funny, and kinda scary, how recurrent these themes are as well as how events in living memory can be so quickly mythologized.

*While debt rising out of control is of course a problem, I do remain somewhat baffled as to what the threat is as long as interest rates remain low.  The problem of high debt is largely that interest rates begin to rise along with it and debt service payments begin to bite sharply into current revenue, making it hard to deal with unexpected shocks.  We are far away from this point yet.  Rising taxes to levels that most of us have experienced within our lifetimes would do a great deal to close the deficit (projected increases due to an aging population aside, but this is largely temporary as our demographics turn favorable again, and could be completely erased by a changed policy stance towards immigration to balance out our demographic profile, our problems are ultimately entirely political and social, I see little in the way of real economic problems in the US).  Like many people, I'd like to shrink the debt, the burden of interest payments is a drag on more worthy investments, but I fail to see the urgency.  What foreseeable crisis is worse than the one we're in right now?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Brief Thought on Ancient Economics and Technology

[To put this post more succinctly, I am sceptical of the extent to which lack of capitalist investment needs to be explained.  Taking into account the difficulties of investment in later periods, it seems to me that the need to explain anything is the result of looking back rather than looking forward.  Without foreknowledge of what capital investment would do, the low returns that could have been acquired by investment in this era seem like a sufficient explanation.  It is not that the social system, or slavery, or anything else had to be particularly productive, it is sufficient that the expected returns from investment would be low enough not to give someone an incentive to invest rather than consume.  It's like the diminishing returns in the Solow growth model, at some point, despite knowledge of some future higher income, the margin of greater future income becomes low enough that it is unappealing relative to consumption now.  That exponential growth and technological development would occur as a result of these advances is obvious in hindsight, at the time I doubt this would be at all obvious, even assuming a more modern mindset.  Also, it needs to be noted that businessmen tend to be basically conservative, they certainly do some investment that is oriented towards innovation but this tends to be along channels that are fairly well established.  They rarely break truly new ground.  The difficulty with any technology is almost never with producing the various disparate pieces and knowledge necessary for their implementation, it is bringing them together and making them reliable enough for private investment to occur.  This would be far more true in classical times when the sum of knowledge was so much less and the opportunities for disparate ideas and inventions to be put together in new combinations so much fewer.]

I've been on a bit of an ancient history reading binge recently, currently Peter Green's Alexander to Actium.  Excellent book on a poorly known period.

But what I wanted to get at though were some of his comments on the development of technology and the Greek attitude towards science.  I don't really disagree with the basic premise that a major problem with translating Greek theoretical advances to real world applications was the elitist attitude that kept Greek natural philosophers completely separated from actual craftsmen.  What I have a bit of trouble accepting is that across the entire Hellenistic world that there wouldn't be sufficient eccentrics to have at least a few islands of innovation, which theoretically would be able to lead to technical advance and ultimately to these innovators being able to outcompete their less eccentric brethren in in the marketplace if this was all that was blocking them (I have in mind some better documented societies such as rather innovative exceptions in Hapsburg Spain and Austria-Hungary, these had comparable elitist attitudes but did have model farms and other innovative exceptions, there were fairly good structural reasons why their advances didn't spread to the rest of their societies though, it wasn't simply aristocratic attitudes).

Rather, I think too little emphasis is given to the economic constraints faced by any innovator.  Of course, it is true that the Greeks (and later Romans) did have many of the isolated inventions that if combined could have replicated many of the advances of the Dark Ages, and Middle Ages at least (saying the technology was there for an industrial revolution seems off to me, though I've heard it).  However, the existence of isolated technologies is not enough for an entrepreneur to be able to use them industrially.  In every society there's a lot more that can be done on a small scale than can be a large scale.  Think of the advances we use for our most advanced fighter jets, and then think of the relatively primitive planes that we fly in day to day, to just use the most clear and accessible reference I could think of.  We have the technical capacity to make these planes reach some pretty impressive speeds, we lack the technology to mass produce these things at a low enough cost for the consumer.

I think this is largely the problem faced by a hypothetical Hellenistic entrepreneur.  It probably was possible, and it may even be the case that there are undiscovered instances of, Greek merchants using some ingenious inventions to up the productivity of their workers.  However, often on the same page as talking about the great possibilities of Greek technology, severe shortfalls are mentioned, such as the poor quality of metallurgy.  From Braudel, I remember reading that during the early modern period there was a shift in capital investment from largely operating capital to fixed capital (if I am remembering the proper terms), this was caused to a large extent by the increased durability of materials used, with the lower cost of metals and increased strength being the biggest part of this.  Hellenistic metallurgy was very primitive, just using Green he describes it as being an iron bloom that had to be pounded to make a small amount of wrought metal, tempered steel was impossible.

The point being, in these conditions why would a Greek merchant, even an eccentric genius, invest capital in production?  There probably wasn't a reliable source of high quality cheep metal, what was available high quality was expensive, that which was low quality wouldn't last.  Drawing from my memory of medieval capital investments, they sought to minimize the metallic components of devices such as waterwheels, given medieval conditions it was expensive and difficult to replace when these wore down.  If this was a problem then, how much more of a problem would it have been in the Hellenistic age?  Not to even mention the lack of technical manuals, low literacy rates, and the likely even more marked separation of the propertied class that would actually know the basic science from anyone making direct production decisions (after Green I hope to look up some more books on ancient economics, I am running with my impression here that estates and other properties were run through hired managers, who would likely be less well read than their masters, here, I am not certain this is accurate in regards to economic management of the time).

In short, while I don't want to make it sound like Hellenistic merchants would have thought in these terms, the opportunity cost of employing capital was probably higher than that of other activities in this period.  I'm running off admittedly thin data at this point, but my impression is that with poor metals, a shortage of highly skilled craftsmen, and a lack of quality control mechanisms to insure regular access to well machined parts (while there is evidence they could be produced, were they produced in sufficient quantity and at sufficient low cost for someone to accidentally stumble into efficient capital investment?  I doubt it).  I don't doubt that elite beliefs were a significant barrier to investment, but even if this wasn't the case, I doubt that given conditions investments would have paid off anyway.  While we know today what was possible, in an environment where this wasn't known, would it really have looked like a good investment to build machinery to replace labor when the parts were of poor quality, wear was likely to be great, and any skilled craftsmen to maintain it would have been in fairly short supply (I am assuming this, I don't actually know the numbers of top craftsmen in the day, but given low agricultural yields it doesn't seem like there could be too many of the very best in any craft).  This isn't even to mention the uncertainty of the political circumstances.  Why build a somewhat crappy watermill at great cost when it's likely to be destroyed in the constant warfare of the period, better to invest in land which even if ravaged in one year can still be used the next.  Again, this isn't to disagree with the socio-philosophical barriers, just to say that having advances be possible doesn't mean that they would be a rational use of resources for the individual even without that mindset.  I could be way off of course, this isn't my main field.  But I just can't shake the idea that with all the barriers mentioned in these texts that the lack of advances in these areas might make perfect rational sense.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some Brief Thoughts on the State

This is another post that is as much about organizing my thinking on a subject as it is about anything else.  It's primarily elicited by a lot of ancient and medieval history that I've been reading.  It's based on basically two observations.  First, when state power breaks down, we universally see non-state actors taking on more of the attributes of the state.  This can be the growth of secular powers among bishops in dark ages Italy or the broadening of feudal kinship groups from simple extortion of subject populations to gradually take on the duties normally provided by formal governments, such as providing justice and upkeep of at least a very minimal civic infrastructure (Chinese kinship groups and warlords show some of the same dynamics, as do conquest dynasties from the plains, but these are building upon a higher degree of formal structure and I am a bit less certain about the dynamics in these cases, not that I am exactly expert in the western case either).

The second observation is how we see various different types of organizations taking upon a similar set of tasks across different societies that have basically now been taken up by the modern state.  In particular, I'm thinking of the frequent formation of guild like entities in different societies and how these, as well as religious bodies, usually end up fulfilling the kind of social insurance roles filled by the modern state.  Guilds frequently perform tasks such as providing subsistence to widows and orphans of former guild members as well as providing services such as burial.  We also see mutual assistance compacts that serve to provide a degree of judicial protections, which bear at least some similarities to protections later extended by the modern state to its citizens. 

Something that largely preceded modern growth is the break down of these institutions (largely because the state was attempted to centralize and expand its power, to the extent this had to do with growth it happened to be an unanticipated benefit of political aggrandizement, history has a rather of large number of instances of good things happening for reasons that are not philosophically or morally defensible).  I don't believe that it is any coincidence that Britain possessed a legal system which extended rights to its citizens that obviated the need for some guild services and that it was the first to experience the industrial revolution (not that I'm claiming causality here, this is what I would call a contingent, or really catalytic factor, rather than a causal one).  It's also notable that states with strong guilds tended towards moving slower towards industrialization (I particularly have Austria-Hungary in mind, guilds were also strong in other parts of Germany however, as well as Italy, so I do want to emphasize that I see this as an influential and not causal factor). 

The reason I believe this had such a significant impact is that pre-modern societies had substantially divided sovereignty (and not in the rationalized modern institutional sense of defined hierarchies and shared responsibilities between various levels and branches within one larger entity but rather in a sense of competing claims by institutionally separate entities which were decided by raw power more than anything else) that was shared between a variety of corporate bodies, often crossing formal political lines.  This meant that even nominally commercial entities, guilds being the most notable example, also found themselves tied up with a variety of non-commercial interests, some political, others simply representing people's non-economic interests such as social status or security.  I think a not insignificant part of modern growth was the rationalizing of these ties, in particular restricting the kinds of non-economic activities that tied people to these corporate bodies and allowed them to act more as individuals* as well as restricting most competition to the economic realm and away from the social and status based activities that tied up so much time and effort in the pre-modern world.

In this sense, I see the primary role of the state as being a body which allows individuals to focus their efforts and competition primarily to the economic sphere by providing a venue in which society can address its numerous non-economic concerns (of course, the family also plays this role, I have what could loosely be called public concerns in mind).  Something that is striking about the modern era compared to others is the extent to which competition is restricted almost entirely to the economic realm and to be primarily between individuals, rather than being competition in just about every sphere of human life and involving mostly corporate bodies with ascriptive membership (which is not to deny the ambition of individuals in earlier history in the economic, social, political, and especially military spheres, however it is striking the extent to which certain ethnic groups and corporate groups, whether guilds or family banking houses, dominated all spheres of pre-modern life).   Once these impediments were removed and competition focused primarily on economic, rather than the whole realm of economic-social-political that makes up life, growth seems to accelerate markedly.

Following from this, I see the role of the state as keeping this separation firmly in place.  Growth occurs because business is able to focus on business.  The more that the state is unable to fulfill other social tasks, the more that businesses (or potentially other corporate bodies) will have to evolve to fill these social roles.  This will erode the efficiency they gain by specialization on economic tasks. Many of these tasks, such as social insurance, are inherently inefficient.  Their inefficiency proceeds from what they are, private institutions that used to fill these roles, such as guilds, did not provide them at all more efficiently than the state has been able to.

I'm not sure how coherent I've made the above, I plan to take up some individual aspects of this later.  But this viewpoint is a really big part of what drives my politics.  I am very pro-market and pro-business, however, unlike many I do not see them as essentially more efficient by their nature.  I see them as efficient because they have such a short writ of things to be concerned with, they can treat all the inefficient stuff as things they can ignore since the state is there to pick up the residual concerns of the members of society.  I see the biggest threat to this as the view that the private sector is more efficient by its identity as the private sector, rather than that it is more efficient as a result of the tasks it is called upon to fill and the short writ of factors it needs to take into account.  For this specialization to occur, it is necessary for another entity, necessarily less efficient by the infinite size of the concerns it must address, to exist that can fulfill all of the social institutional roles demanded by the members of a society.  The tendency towards the concept of additional stakeholders in business, as well as the tendency to try to get the private sector to take on roles previously fulfilled by the public sector, concerns me.  I see it as threatening to widen the range of concerns the private sector must address beyond simple profit, which I believe would erode the market system.**  More on this topic later.

* I plan a few posts on rational choice theory which will address how modern institutions such as democracy and aspects of the market system work to force people to act more as individuals and less as members of corporate bodies.  For various reasons that would take time to go into, I see corporate identity as something that is more natural than the modern emphasis on individual identity.  I do see individualism as a major advance, but I don't really see it as a natural unit.  We see various forms of corporate identity pop up too quickly in times of lawlessness and it appears too often in various forms of historical political organization.

** I see a much more simple explanation for the development of markets as being the restriction of private activity rather than its expansion. 

More on the Long Run

This post is little more than free-association but after yesterday's post and doing some more reading I've been thinking a bit about what people mean by the long and short run.  I won't pretend to be consistent about this myself, but I thought it might clarify things a bit (I'm not sure whether I'm trying to clarify things for myself or readers of yesterday's post, bear with me) if I explained a bit about what I had in mind by the terms long vs. short run.

Short run is the most obvious, its the time period that we have good data on and can be reasonably sure of the impacts of our actions, generally several months to a few years.  Short run policies would be things like a WPA-style program of public works or playing around with interest rates.  With these things we can be pretty certain of the immediate short term effects.

Medium term is where things get hazy, but we have some reasonable models (or failing that, metaphors and analogies) to predict the impacts of our short term actions.  So we can create a government infrastructure bank or change rules regarding, say, housing, with a goal of changing investment patterns.  Generally, we're thinking 5 - 10 years out and a lot of academic bickering over whether or not the right model is being applied.  In many cases we can be reasonably sure that the impact of any intervention will be in the direction we want it to be, but we are often unsure of its magnitude.  So we can be reasonably sure that an investment in early childhood education will result in better educated more valuable workers later on, but we can't be sure that it will be good value for our money relative to other investments.  On a policy level, the medium term can also be thought of as the primary level where relative power positions matter, based on these policies there will be meaningful and fairly predictable movements in the relative positions of say China, the US, and Europe.  This matters for diplomacy and international negotiations of various sorts, the current short term statuses of these states (such as the economic downturn in the US) don't do a lot to alter the diplomacy (though they do some) but the impacts of these short term shocks on predictable medium-run concerns do matter.

The long term is where we don't really have the tools to influence or predict the consequences of actions, other than in some trivial or commonplace ways.  In the long run, individual policies don't matter, it's the cumulative impact of dozens or hundreds of policies that determine outcomes.  In the long run, we often see the unanticipated consequences of actions that looked sensible in the short and medium terms.  To give an example (this is drawing from a paper I wrote for a US economic history course as an undergrad, first thing that sprang to mind but I confess in advance there may be some inaccuracies in the following since I simply don't trust my memory that far back) we can look at the decline of the US steel industry.  In particular, US companies invested heavily in very capital intensive plants that represented the best technology on offer at the time.  However, organizational and technological developments ended up undermining this, the Japanese focused on a different type of steel plant that involved less upfront costs and ultimately proved more competitive (though their lower wages didn't hurt, but they retained competitiveness as wages rose).  This led, among some other factors (to expand on my earlier warning, I am vastly oversimplifying this story, the basics of US steel plants being locked into much larger facilities and thus relatively inflexible does stand up however) to a relative decline in the role of US steel production.  Of course, in the long term, US steel production did recover and we have a pretty good steel industry today.

However, within this long run there are many short runs, some of those short runs still impacting us today.  In particular, at its nadir, the decline in US steel production led to mass plant closures and unemployment among US steel workers, leading to blighted areas such as Gary, Indiana.  In the long run, of course, everything looks OK, US steel production became profitable again and recovered.  But, in some of these short runs, there was a lot of human misery caused because the owners of the US steel companies couldn't foresee the long-run shifts in production and operations, lives were lost, individuals ruined, etc.  All this would have been avoided if somehow the owners and managers of US steel companies had foreseen future shifts and not invested in these plants.  But, they couldn't.  The tools for making these predictions simply don't exist.  With few exceptions there is simply no way to know whether or not our plans for long run growth are those of the US or the Japanese, both evidently thought they knew what they were doing, but in the long run only one turned out to be right.

Which brings me to the kind of long run planning I believe we can do.  We can plan in the long run for a series of short runs, that we know will consist of periods of growth, periods of contraction, and periods that are just ho-hum and unremarkable.  We can plan in the long run to have the flexibility to address the different challenges of these periods.  When there's a downturn, when our long run plans go bad, we can have plans in place so that there's flexibility to address blight in cities like Gary.  We could have had plans to help people relocate and to wind down those plants more slowly.  What we can't do is make long run policies that will let us be the Japanese steel industry rather than the American, life's just too complicated for that.

This is what drives me crazy about the current calls for austerity.  It reminds me of stories about Ethiopian or Somalian famines where grain was stored in the country but wouldn't be dispersed (a more apt comparison would have been if they were refusing to take loans to buy more grain, but alas, the real world analogies I can think of don't always precisely match my rhetorical purposes).  The purpose of long run policies for growth is to address the kind of short term that we are currently in.  The call for austerity is like taking grain to store for a later famine, during a famine.  It's complete madness.  Undoubtedly policies pursued today will have unanticipated long term effects, many of them negative.  But anyone that says they know what these will be is selling snake oil.  Neither the history of business or governments is replete with institutions that were able to adequately plan for their long term growth.  Rather, the survivors bias is towards those institutions that act admirably in cases where the short run was uncongenial to them and that were able to survive them relatively well, to bounce back strongly when times were better.  Long term planning that goes much beyond simply hedging our bets for the unavoidable thin times is simply beyond us, and the more I hear about the long term in the midst of a terrible economy the more I despair.  Which isn't to say the long term, in the sense of things we do have somewhat under our control such as quality of labor force or infrastructure, shouldn't be thought of or invested for, but we do need to acknowledge that long term planning is really thinking about a series of short runs rather than as something truly distinct.  Human life occurs in the short run, the long run is simply an abstraction to organize our thinking and should not be privileged at the expense of the real suffering we see around us, especially since we have such little grasp of what influences things in the long run.*

*As a brief aside, look at the wide disparity in policies pursued in the developed world and the relative comparability in life styles across them.  To the extent that policies are impacting this, we are really only talking about very marginal differences.  However, we do see some really sharp short term fluctuations, such as the unemployment rate or the murder rate in the US relative to Europe in the 90s.  The degree of difference between the similar long run trajectories under different policy regimes and the short run noise that seems to occur is something that I think needs to be considered in these discussions.  Of course, at extremes long runs can matter, compare the developed world to Zimbabwe, but the set of policies under discussion, while containing a great degree of variance, isn't to such an extent that we're talking about a reversion back to arbitrary rule and cronyism.  The long term stakes of individual policy outcomes current in political debate are really quite small, but loom quite large in the short term for the individuals impacted by them.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Long Run

While catching up on things (though some catch-up is going to involve even older topics than this, there's a couple of more theoretical topics I've been meaning to tackle for months that I hadn't found the time for, and now have) I came across this rather good post by Krugman.

This is basically the problem that attracts me so much to political science, and to a slightly lesser degree economics and history.  What fascinates me is how much focus we human beings place on the things we can't change, and how often we ignore the things we can.  If there is any point to the scholarly endeavor, I think it lies in giving a good first approximation of what aspects of our lives are under the control of human societies, and which aspects are simply outside of any kind of conscious control.  The most important aspect of policy is in realizing both the limits of policy and its possibilities.  Ignoring either is something that policymakers must be held accountable for.

Yet what strikes me more than anything else in history is the extent to which this distinction is not made.  Repeatedly, endless amounts of time and effort are squandered on trying to impact things that no human society has ever shown any appreciable ability to impact.  Also, repeatedly, great suffering is caused by inaction on issues that many human societies have shown that they can successfully grapple with.

This I find endlessly fascinating.  How frequently the same problems crop up, with virtually the same actions being used to combat them, always futilely, differing only in the dates, names, and locations (the three things which I always found high school history to focus on, despite them being the endlessly repetitive element of the story, with the real story being ignored, it's a wonder that anyone likes history after being subjected to high school).  A large part of the calling I feel to spend my time on writing about politics/economics/sociology is driven by this quest to recognize these patterns of futility, while also trying to discover why some societies have a kind of learned futility regarding issues that they do have control over.

The only thing I'd add to Krugman's column is that it extends far beyond the economic sphere into the political and social.  In the long run, things are determined almost solely by impersonal forces.  To take just one example that touches on all three, the industrial revolution would have happened no matter what individual actions were taken, the signs of it were just too many and there were too many false starts to see it as anything but inevitable.  However, in the shorter run, the policies adopted by Great Britain mattered very much.  Having their specific sets of policies undoubtedly accelerated the process by several decades (parts of Europe were showing a great deal of movement in this direction, France, and possibly Germany, would probably have been only a few decades behind, outside Europe, China would have eventually gotten there, but it could have taken another century, other places far longer than that), which meant an untold reduction in human misery simply by having that transition happen sooner.  How many millions, if not billions, of lives have been able to have been lived because of economic growth being 50 years ahead of where it would have otherwise been?  Human happiness was increased immeasurably by this acceleration, even if it would barely show up on a graph showing centuries or millenia (not to even mention the basic advantage of the industrial revolution occurring in a state with a political culture such as Britain's rather than France or Germany's).

The point being, in the long run, policies just don't really matter.  There is simply too much variety in human affairs.  Someone, someplace, will be doing things right, so if one society screws up*, it doesn't change long run trajectories much.  However, for us actual individuals, the short run matters a great deal.  It matters a great deal to me and other proponents of democracy that the industrial revolution happened where it did and not somewhere else, and it matters very much to me that the US makes the right decisions and gets its growth back on track sooner rather than later.  That in the long run we will probably make up for the lost growth doesn't matter that much, right now people are suffering, right now people need jobs, right now the economy is crap.  What we do, or do not do, will virtually certainly have little long term impact (though it may have a medium term impact in relation to the relative power positions of the US, China, India, and Europe) beyond the meaningless march of names, places, and locations with no greater meaning.  But it has very real consequences for the people that are suffering today, even if it doesn't to the poor child having to remember the names, places, and dates in a high school history textbook.

*And these long run screw ups don't always match up well with any of our grand theoretic models.  For instance, Song China focused heavily on its economic development and while it was certainly lacking in many elements necessary for a modern economy, it certainly did look a lot like it was approaching take off and probably would have solved these bottlenecks given time.  However, its focus on the economy did to some extent mean a lack of focus on its military.  Since weapons technology had not yet advanced far enough (if they had 18th century military tech, especially fortresses, things would have played out rather differently) they got their asses kicked by a bunch of dirt poor nomads* with little aside from horses and bows (and siege trains) which made all their economic advances for naught.  Their policies looked good in many ways, but being part of the exposed zone they simply couldn't cope with the military pressure.  This is what I mean by contingency, lacking sufficient military technology or a sufficient military infrastructure it was simply impossible for them to develop enough for take off.  Europe was sheltered from these influences, and in any case, had these weapons by the time that other economic and technological developments had occurred that were necessary for take off.  The Qing managed to solve the nomad problem, and fairly likely would have eventually had the economic developments necessary for take-off, though they were many decades behind Europe in some key areas (banking and firm structure in particular come to mind).

**Slight exaggeration for rhetorical purposes.  They initially got their asses kicked by partially sinicized nomads, then got finished off by the Mongols, who by that point certainly weren't poor.  The general point remains

Internet Access Restored

So, I'm all done with my move to Ohio now.  It turns out there were some snafus with getting my internet access set up (not to mention living for more than 10 days with all my stuff in the mover's truck) so I've just got back online today.  Since I finally have some spare time blogging should be more frequent for the next month or so, until I find a job here and have less spare time (my girlfriend is the one with the job, I'm pretty sure Ohio's budget situation isn't peachy and my experience is in government so I'm expecting it to take more than a week or two to find something new, though since I'm doing my PhD next year anyway it won't take that long since I'll settle for anything that doesn't involve asking "do you want fries with that?").  Well, blogging will be more frequent once I'm all caught up, just reading my regular blogs will take some time, and even more for the newspapers.

Though it's kinda scary that I've been basically out of touch for about 3 weeks and nothing at all seems to have changed, not even the debt ceiling nonsense.  Makes me wonder why I read the paper every day.