Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

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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Stratfor: Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?

Summary: People often compare today’s waves of immigration with those that played a large role in the destruction of the Roman Empire. Here Stanford Professor Ian Morris describes, the similarities, the differences, and the lessons this history holds for us. Morris focuses on the danger of migrants as organized military forces; he gives little attention to their disruptive domestic effects. For another perspective see America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.

Stratfor

Is the West Being Overrun by Migrants?
By Ian Morris at Stratfor on 7 September 2016.

Are the barbarians at the gates? Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, has no doubt that they are. “Without any action,” she told a rally at Amiens last year, “the migratory influx will be like the barbarian invasion of the fourth century, and the consequences will be the same.” That would be bad. According to St. Orientus of Auch, who lived through the original event, “Throughout villages and farms, throughout the countryside and crossroads, and through all districts, on all highways leading from this place or that, there was death, sorrow, ruin, fires, mourning.”

The Parisian political establishment turned up its collective nose at Le Pen’s analogy (being France, the newspapers concentrated on correcting her chronology: The invasions came mostly in the fifth century, not the fourth). And despite all his talk of building a wall to keep invaders out, Donald Trump has so far resisted likening himself to Emperor Hadrian. Not since Pat Buchanan, in fact, has an American presidential hopeful called Mexicans barbarians.

The internet, however, is full of comparisons between the end of ancient Rome and current events in the United States and European Union, and I find that when I give public lectures I regularly get asked how much the two periods have in common and how much we should worry about it. (Being both an immigrant and an ancient historian, I probably get this more than most people.)

The answer to both questions seems to be “not much.” But that said, they remain worth asking, because the details behind the answer are rather revealing. Just what was it about the Germanic migrations into the Roman Empire that made them so different from the contemporary Arab migration into Europe and Mexican migration into the United States?

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An anthropologist explains the disruptive politics of immigration

Summary: Immigration is one of the central political issues of our time, challenging the current ideologies and parties. It meets several needs of western elites, and so has bipartisan support. But its destabilizing effects have become obvious as the list of losers from immigration grows. Opposition to it brought Trump the nomination (before he abandoned it for sideshow comedy), and that opposition will survive his defeat. To understand why, read this brilliant essay by Professor Maximilian Forte. It’s essential reading to understand social, political, and economic developments shaping western nations.

Immigration

Immigration and Capital

By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Reposted with his generous permission.

Immigration, rightly or wrongly, has been marched to the frontline of current political struggles in Europe and North America. Whether exaggerated or accurate, the role of immigration is situated as a central factor in the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of the “America First” Trump movement in the US. It seems impossible that one can have a calm discussion about immigration today, without all sorts of agendas, assumptions, insinuations and recriminations coming into play.

Staking a claim in immigration debates are a wide range of actors and interests, with everything from national identity and national security to multiculturalism, human rights, and cosmopolitan globalism. However, what is relatively neglected in the public debates is discussion of the political economy of immigration, and especially a critique of the role of immigration in sustaining capitalism.

Before going forward, we have to first dismiss certain diversionary tactics commonly used in public debate, that unfortunately misdirect too many people. First, being “anti-immigration” does not make one a “racist”. One does not follow from the other. Being a racist means adopting a racial view of humanity as being ordered according to what are imagined to be superior and inferior, biologically-rooted differences. Preferring “one’s own kind” (whatever that means) might be the basis for ethnocentrism, but not necessarily racism as such.

It’s important not to always lunge hysterically for the most inflammatory-sounding terms, just because your rhetorical polemics demand an instant “win” (because you don’t win anything; you just sound like someone who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about). Also, xenophobia neither implies racism nor ethnocentrism, because it can exceed both by being a fear or dislike of anyone who is “foreign” or “strange”.

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An anthropologist looks at Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics

Summary: Campaign 2016 has degenerated into a circus of sound bites, ignoring the great issues facing America. To have any chance of reforming America we need a wider perspective , like that of Maximilian Forte (a professor of anthropology). This is chapter 3 in his series about Americans as the New Victorians. It’s brilliant, and getting better with each installment. Here he links together many problems — such as our imperialism, political correctness, fearfulness and tribalism.

New Victorianism

Graphic created by the author.

Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics.

New Victorianism’s Domestic Moral Code and the Political Economy of Identity Politics.
Part 3 of 4 in a series.
By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Cites at the end. Red emphasis added.
Reposted with his generous permission.

“The nation-state in its imperialist guise was the inescapable context within which all political action necessarily took place: it determined the range of possibilities against which the left as much as the right were compelled to define their positions”. (Eley, 1976, p. 269.)

“Social imperialism,” applied to German historiography, involves some interesting coincidences with Victorianism and the New Imperialism. One of the key political figures was Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor, and the eldest grandchild of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Wilhelm also presided over the expansion of the German navy in the wake of the Scramble for Africa, with some of the key ideas of the German Navy League being inspired by the US’ New Imperialism and by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of the classic The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.

“Social imperialism” is a contested concept, with Eley (1976) showing the divisions around using it to refer to socialists’ accommodation with capitalism and adhesion to imperialist practice abroad (a contemporary phenomenon that also manifested in the early 1900s) plus making concessions to reformism, versus the work of policy-makers in distracting increasingly impoverished workers from exploitation at home by diverting their energies toward external enemies, in order to negate reform and preserve the status quo. (For those who are curious, Eley largely disproves the value of the second formulation.)

There is actually more to this debate than this short sketch allows, but what I want to introduce is a third view of social imperialism, mindful of what both of the preceding conceptualizations essentially share in common: “Both are concerned with the impact of the imperialist world economy on the domestic life of the metropolis” (Eley, 1976, p. 268). “The entry of the imperialist idea into domestic politics” (Eley, 1976, p. 268) — and it is from domestic social and political conflict where the imperialist idea first emerges — should probably be rephrased as the “re-entry” of the imperialist idea into domestic politics, because what was deployed abroad produced effects and practices that later (always) come back home in new and improved form.

This is a broader concept of “blowback” which I argued for in the Force Multipliers volume (also, see “The Dismal ‘Physics’ of Blowback and Overstretch”). The third variation I propose is not better, more valid than either of the earlier two approaches — it tries to supplement them without displacing them. The third approach focuses on how imperialist principles and practices shape and take form through domestic politics. Social imperialism in this third sense is about the politics within an imperialist society, that reflect its constitution as an imperialist society.

Essentially then, what we are talking about in the current phase is liberal imperialism at home. This is a marriage of the New Victorianism and the New Imperialism in domestic matters, where politics are increasingly moralized, attention is directed towards identity issues in order to preserve basic class inequalities, reformism is limited and inexpensive (small rewards for small groups), democracy is reduced to procedures and is led by oligarchic elites, and the society is administered by a technocratic managerial class with a noteworthy penchant for ignoring criticisms, deflecting questions, and operating in secrecy.

What results, at least in the North American context, is a call for asserting certain codes of behaviour, to impose standards of proper conduct as seen through the eyes of the liberal middle class, defended with an astringent sanctimony that turns every transgression into a catastrophe. What does this have to do with imperialism? Quite a lot.

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