Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

Trump and the 1% lead America back to its past, to its dark roots

Summary: Look to the past to see the future of the Trump revolution. That means seeing through the half-truths of both the doomsters and the panglossians. Here’s a brief look at the bad news and the good news. Draw your own conclusions.

Donald Trump's Revolution

The Trump “revolution” is a moment in the wave of history carrying the US to the right. Most Americans do not understand because of their amnesia about our history. Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment. Most of American history is dark. Slavery of Africans. Treaty-breaking, enslavement, and genocide of American Indians. Colonial wars. The long destruction of the craftsman and farming classes. The centralization of power and wealth in the 1%.

Our history is too dark; we do not want to see it. So we manufactured myths to replace facts. We cheer the triumph of “John Wayne in Chisum, the opposite of actual sad events in the Lincoln County War (the cavalry arrived to help the bad guys, as it so often did).

The post-WWII era was an anomaly in our history, a new beginning created by the fires of the Great Depression and WWII. The campaign rhetoric about American exceptionalism, our role as a force for good in the world, our love of social mobility and equality — all was true (in the incomplete fashion of the real world) for a few decades after WWII. Now we have the inevitable counter-revolution, a reversion to the mean of America driven by the immeasurable power and wealth of the 1%. Beginning in the 1970’s they laid plans, which they have lavishly funded and skillfully executed.

I have written warnings about this since 2003. Commenters overwhelmingly said I was exaggerating our danger. Now my predictions appear on the front pages as generations of progress are erased. The 1% has built its political power for four decades; now they have begun to use it. Mother Nature does not care about right and wrong; the 1% deserve to win by her cold logic. Slow and stupid are sins she always punishes.

The old America is resurgent: rule by the exploitative plutocracy backed by domestic force, with an unprincipled and extractive foreign policy. They have just begun to reshape America.

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Martin van Creveld shares a lifetime of insights

Summary: Martin van Creveld is one of our generation’s leading military historians, whose insights illuminate the some of the major trends of our time. His new book sums up a lifetime of observation and thought, especially about the use of history to understand the present and future.

Clio & Me

Available at Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

 

Martin van Creveld discusses his new book:
Clio & Me: An Intellectual Autobiography.
Now a Kindle ebook; hard copy soon.
Posted from his website with permission.

Relatives, friends, students, colleagues, and journalists have often asked me what I see in the study of history, particularly military history, and how I ever got into that esoteric field. I always answered as best I could, but never thought I would try to put my answer down in writing. In my family people only write their memoirs when they are very old and ready to go, which I am not (yet).

Years ago, my stepson and best friend, Jonathan Lewy, was bitten by the scholarship bug. As an undergraduate student of history at Hebrew University, he read Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, which, as he was not slow to point out, was written when Bloch was exactly as old as I was in 2003. Jonathan has often asked me why I did not try to produce a similar work, and I have often evaded the question even in my own mind.

Jonathan, who in the meantime earned his PhD and did a post-doc at Harvard, is nothing if not persistent. But I did not want to produce yet another volume on the philosophy of history and the technique of teaching it. Instead, I decided I would try to answer the above questions, and others like them, by writing an intellectual autobiography.

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See free speech crushed at Tufts today. Remember 1964, when we were wild & untamed…

Summary: Every month brings new stories of America’s liberties eroding away, and our passive acceptance.  This Halloween brings an especially pitiful example. To understand how far we have fallen, compare the behavior of college students today to that during a famous incident fifty years ago. Sad, but we can change. We will be what we choose to be.

“Guilt only dreads Liberty of Speech, which drags it out of its lurking Holes, and exposes its Deformity and Horror to Day-light.”
— “Of Freedom of Speech, That the Same is inseparable from Publick Liberty“, one of Cato’s Letters by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, 4 February 1720.

Indian maiden costume

A criminal dressed for Halloween.

“We were Americans once…”

The first Boomers turn 70 this year; the last turn 52. What have the Boomers become? What have they done to America? What kind of children have they raised? First look at today’s news, then at what the Boomers were in the first stirrings of their strength.

A letter from leaders of Tufts Multicultural Greek Council, Panhellenic Council, Inter-Fraternity Council, and Inter-Greek Council warns fraternities about the penalties of wearing politically incorrect Halloween costumes. It was publicized in a post by Jake Goldberg of Students Advocating for Students. The letter quotes the Dean of Student Affairs, Mary Pat McMahon, threatening students (bold emphasis in original).

“The range of response for students whose actions make others in our community feel threatened or unsafe, or who direct conduct towards others that is offensive or discriminatory, includes OEO {Office of Equal Opportunity} and/or TUPD investigation and then disciplinary sanctions from our office that could run a wide gamut depending on what is brought to our attention and the impact of these actions on others. Any complaints will result in full investigation by University officials and could result in serious disciplinary sanctions through Judicial Affairs.”

Jake Goldberg of SAS points out the absurdity and illegality of this oppressive action.

“Given that the standard of guilt for a violation of this policy relies on an entirely subjective evaluation — was the complainant offended? — there is no way for students responding to accusations of such a violation to prove their innocence.

“This problem is even further exacerbated due to the fact that the policy itself outwardly states that whether or not a student intentionally means to offend others is meaningless. A student who wears an outfit that offends somebody, yet had zero intention to do so, is just as much in violation of this policy as a student who purposefully seeks to insult others with their costume; both students stand no chance of avoiding disciplinary sanctions.

“Wearing a costume that others do not like is not a crime in a free country, especially not on a college campus ‘where freedom of expression is cherished,’ as Tufts University President Monaco has previously stated.”

This and similar outrages at other schools probably will be met with apathetic compliance. But we were not always peons. Look to our past for inspiration, when we were a vibrant and untamed people.. For example, to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement…

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Turning points in history – are we at another?

Summary: What do turning points of history look like? To see those in the future, let’s look at those in the past. Here’s a quick look at big events of history that were not, and some that were.

Turning Points of History

The Atlantic asks “What was the worst year in history?” It’s a powerful question, offering a deeper understanding of history. Most of the answers fell into three categories.

  • Inevitable events: the Chicxulub asteroid impact 65 million years ago (disastrous, but cleared the planet for the rise of mammals), the invention of firearms.
  • Lots of people dying early: pandemics (e.g., smallpox in 1918, plague in 1347. These people were all going to die eventually.
  • One of humanity’s countless wars: Sack of Antwerp in 1576, King Philip’s War in 1675, US Civil War, WWI, WWII.

These are the normal events of history. The occurrence of these individual events was chance, but as a group they are the rhythms of life. Shifting the dates and details of these events might change history, but probably not significantly alter the course of humanity’s evolution. Consider a different and more useful perspective on this question.

What events changed the course of history for the worse?

(1) The lost computer revolution of the 19th century

My favorite candidate is 1832 — when Charles Babbage halted construction of his difference engine (a mechanical calculator) due to a dispute with his engineer, Joseph Clement. This resulted from Babbage’s great creativity and lack of focus. In 1842 the British government ended support for the project. Swedish academic and inventor Martin Wiberg build a working version in 1875, but lacked government sponsorship and was unable to sell it. Mechanical calculators became commercially available only after 1900.

Imagine a contrafactual, an alternative world in which Babbage finished his calculator and printer by 1840. His design was sound; both were built from his plans and successfully run in 2000 using tools and materials available to Babbage.

That’s the small news. With that success Babbage might have built his analytical engine — a programmable analog computer and its software (several assembly languages). He had designed most of it by his death in 1871. Better funding and more encouragement — powered by a 1842 success of his difference engine — might have produced a working model by 1871. If not, his son, Henry Prevost Babbage, might have done so (he did continue his father’s work, and produced a working component). IBM built the first modern version in 1944.

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Advice for us from the financiers who built the British Empire

Summary: Andrew Odlyzko, one of our top polymaths and futurists, gives us a new perspective on the economy and markets of our time by comparing them with those of Victorian England. We can learn a lot from this.

Leadenhall Street in the City of London

Leadenhall Street in London. Drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1837). From Wikimedia Commons.

What would surprise early Victorian market players if they came alive today?

By Andrew Odlyzko in the LSE Business Review, 30 September 2016.
Posted under their Creative Contents license.

“Perhaps the greatest surprise would be the combination of high equity prices and low long-term interest rates.”

What would early Victorians make of today’s markets? Such questions are more than just idle curiosities. For example, the recent wide acceptance around the world of negative interest rates was a surprise. Why didn’t the money go into cash? Yet observers should not have been startled by this development. In Britain in the early 1850s, Exchequer Bills effectively offered negative rates. The convenience of those paper instruments gave them higher value than stacks of gold coins, just as today the convenience of electronic ledger balances is worth something compared to having to handle containers full of banknotes.

The Exchequer Bills episode is just one minor finding from recent studies that integrate data from the ledgers in the Bank of England Archive with price reports, press coverage, and other sources. Previously unknown statistics about completeness of price reports, turnover rates, and dealer activity have been obtained. It has also been found that the London Stock Exchange was a key part of the “shadow banking system” of the time.

Aside from statistics, we can also obtain some qualitative insights about modern finance from these investigations.  Our basic laws and institutions are clear linear descendants of those created at that time.

If some of those early Victorians were to come alive today, they would have no difficulty recognising all the modern financial instruments and services, although they would surely marvel at such concoctions as CDO squareds. Many current concerns would be familiar to them as well. While they did not talk about climate change, they did worry about natural resource depletion, and the effects of globalisation.

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Ignore the skeptics. America can still grow.

Summary: Can America no longer grow? Have we exhausted the potential for future technological progress? Let’s look at how far we have come and ask if the engines of progress that produced these wonders can no longer work for us.

“Innovation of new forms of society and technology. It is the key to our progress. It has allowed us to evolve from naked hunter-gatherers to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking hundreds or even thousands of years. But occasionally evolution leaps forward.”
— A slight tweak of Professor Xavier’s words from the title sequence of the movie “X-men”. These events are called “singularities”.

Economic growth

 

Contents

  1. Has humanity’s growth story ended?
  2. The singularities in our past.
  3. The singularities in our future
  4. For More Information.

(1) Has humanity’s growth story ended?

“I wonder if and when the law of large numbers begins to be relevant to that growth in the same way it’s relevant to a company’s growth rate. Should we expect growth rates to decline as world GDP gets larger?”
— An important question by Jeff Harbaugh in a comment to a previous post.

One reason Trump’s campaign has surprisingly caught fire is his simple call to “Make America Great”. No matter how delusionally conceived, at least he appears to realize the importance of fighting the multi-decade long slowing of America’s economic growth. Upper middle class greens mutter about the wrongness of growth. America’s poor grow restive as they see their chances for social mobility fade away. Others just despair, believing that rapid growth lies in our past but not in our future.

(2) The singularities in our past.

Our world is the result of singularities in our past. Fire, pottery, agriculture, metals, writing — giant leaps forward in technology. Too see how far humanity has come, imagine how our society would appear to our stone-age ancestors of 40,000 years ago. For one answer see “Cro-Magnon Communication” by Brad Delong (Prof Economics, Berkeley).

“The Twelve-Year-Old is on strike. She refuses to write more than one paragraph of a letter detailing her day to our pre-Neolithic Revolution ancestors. She says the idea is stupid because it cannot be done — the Singularity is not in our future but in our past. Nevertheless it is quite a good first paragraph:

“I was jigging to my iPod when my friend Noelle rode up in the front passenger seat of her family’s minivan. ‘Will your parents let you come see “Wedding Crashers“?’ she asked.”

“She has a point. ‘Jigging’ can be gotten across. And the East African Plains Ape social dynamics can be gotten across — friends, marriage, excessive parental control of the activities of adolescent females, et cetera (although not all of them: the idea of a “wedding crasher” is a very complicated concept to get across to a hunter-gatherer who has lived in a group of 40 or so her whole life).

“But the rest? Maybe I should have reversed the assignment: What kinds of science fiction would hunter-gatherers have written?”

For another perspective, shift forward in time to ~12,000 years ago, before the Neolithic singularity (e.g., the wheel, agriculture). Here is Pat Mathews’ entry in Brad Delong’s Early Holocene Epoch science fiction contest, with our distant ancestors describing a future unimaginable to them.

Shaman:  I have foreseen a time when everybody can have all the meat, fat, and sweet stuff they can eat, and they all get fat.
Chief:        You have had a vision of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Shaman:  It is considered a great and horrible problem! People go out of their way to eat leaves and grass and grains, and work very hard to look lean and brown.
Chief:        You’ve been eating too many of those strange mushrooms, and are seeing everything backward.

Shift forward again to our most recent singularity — “the industrial revolution”. It ended in 1918. It was a singularity in ever sense, as explained in “The Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone” by Cosma Shalizi (asst prof of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon). To see its impact, consider life before it reshaped the world: in the late 14th century. Then the English pound was worth 4/5ths of a pound of silver, equivalent to roughly $175 today. When reading this, remember that the median household income in the US is now $52,000.

“What was 14th century money worth in today’s dollars? That’s tricky, because it depends on what you were buying. In the second half of the 14th century, a pound sterling would support the lifestyle of a single peasant laborer for half a year {$350/yr}, or that of a knight for a week {$9,100/yr}.

“Or it could buy three changes of clothing for a teenage page (underclothes not included), twelve pounds of sugar, a carthorse, two cows, an inexpensive bible, ten ordinary books, rent a craftsman’s townhouse for a year, or hire a servant for six months.

“It should be obvious from the above list that the conversion rate depends a great deal on what you buy. A husbandman or yeoman servant spent most of his budget on food and clothing, which have become relatively cheap since the industrial revolution. For that basket of goods, a pound sterling might buy $300 worth of goods today.

“On the other hand, a knight or noble might spend half of his income on servants, and much of the rest on handmade luxury goods, things that were relatively cheap then and expensive today. For that bundle of goods, a pound might buy $3,000 dollars worth of goods today.”

Future Industry

(3)  The singularities in our future.

We have made great progress. But as Carl Sagan said, science is just a candle in the dark. We stand in a small circle of knowledge surrounded by the greater unknown. Expanding that circle can bring wonders to our descendants as amazing to us as our lives would be to our ancestors.

Although tech progress has slowed during the past few decades, there is no reason to assume that the tools which have brought us this far will fail us in the future. The good news is that a new industrial revolution might have already begun, based on breakthroughs in smart machines, new energy sources, genetic engineering, and new materials. These could produce improvements in living standards as large as those of past revolutions.

But history shows that technological breakthroughs are not natural. The ancient world had conditions similar to those of pre-modern Europe, yet nothing came of it. To restart growth and avoid a dead end like that of the ancient world, we must re-build our social engines of scientific and technological progress. Schools, universities, the patent office, the government’s R&D agencies — it’s a long list, most of which are neglected in modern America.

Too bad such things are ignored in campaign 2016. Instead we get a circus. But we can change that, if we have the will to do so.

Yes since we found out
Since we found out
That anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen.

— A powerful insight in Ellie Goulding’s song “Anything Could Happen.”

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the singularity, about secular stagnation, about the new industrial revolution just starting, and especially these…

  1. Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future? — About the different kinds of singularities.
  2. Ben Bernanke sees the great slowdown in technological progress.
  3. Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
  4. Looking at technological singularities in our past & future.

Books about the new industrial revolution.

Sngularity sky

America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.

Summary:  Sunday’s post asked if America is like the late Roman Empire. The good news is that it’s not. The bad news is that in an important sense we’re like the last generations of the Roman Republic. Rome’s people grew weary of carrying the burden of self-government, just as we have. But we can change.

Emperor Octavian.

Emperor Octavian.

 

The original Star Trek taught us that humanity was not meant for slavery; we always rise up and fight for freedom.  Unfortunately, history shows that rebellions against internal elites are rare. Successful revolutions are still more so (even partial successes, such as France in 1789, are rare). In fact subjects in well-managed societies (e.g., tyrannies, oligarchies) wear the yoke comfortably.

Although democracies (i.e., self-government) are rare, sadly common is evolution in the other direction, the bitter one from citizen to subject. The most famous example is the fall of the Roman Republic, a history familiar to our Founders — who built America on lessons learned from it.

If lose sight of that history America might suffer the same fate. The Roman people grew weary of self-government, of carrying its burden of responsibility and self-discipline. Civil wars determined who would place the bridle on Rome’s people and rule. Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography vividly tells the story of the Republic’s last days (I strongly recommend it).

We are following that path.

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