… rich countries did not develop on the basis of the policies and institutions they now recommend to developing countries. Virtually all of them used tariff protection and subsidies to develop their industries. In the earlier stages of their development, they did not even have basic institutions such as democracy, a central bank and a professional civil service.
There were exceptions, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, which always maintained free trade. But even these do not conform to today’s development orthodoxy. Above all, they did not protect patents and so freely took technologies from abroad.
Once they became rich, these countries started demanding that the poorer countries practise free trade and introduce “advanced” institutions – if necessary through colonialism and unequal treaties. Friedrich List, the leading German economist of the mid-19th century, argued that in this way the more developed countries wanted to “kick away the ladder” with which they climbed to the top and so deny poorer countries the chance to develop.
.. in the last two decades, when developed countries have exerted enormous pressures on developing countries to adopt free trade, deregulate their economies, open their capital markets, and adopt “best-practice” institutions such as strong patent laws.
During this period, a marked slowdown has occurred in the growth of the developing countries. The average annual per capita income growth rate in the developing countries has basically been halved, from 3% to 1.5% …
The Industrial Revolution is in its early stages. The most economically important industries in the US are:
– cotton, produced in the south by slaves working in plantations, and
– manufactured goods, mainly textiles (fabric, clothing, curtains and bed sheets etc) produced in factories in the north.
Trade is a divisive political issue. Politicians from the southern states want low (or no) tariffs, since this would help them sell more cotton for export. Politicians from the north want high tariff barriers to protect their manufactured products from competition with similar products made in Europe.
Over time there is a trend towards higher tariffs / more protectionism.
[SIDE NOTE: There is no general, numerical definition of ‘trade protectionism’ or ‘trade liberalization’. A 2% tariff on pickled beets could be considered ‘protectionist’ in one context and ‘liberal’ in another. AFAICT a protectionist tariff is simply one that the speaker thinks is too high.]
[SIDE NOTE PART 2: No-one who says they believe in free trade, past or present, actually wants completely free trade. What they want is for certain tariffs, selected by them, to be reduced by a particular amount. No serious political leader, expert, or pundit has ever called for all tariffs to be removed – if they did they would be laughed at and dismissed as a crank whose ridiculous ideas could not possibly be taken seriously.]
1930: Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act
A US law that set tariffs at a high level. This to some extent causes or exacerbates the Great Depression.
1934: Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act
Allows the president to make tariff-lowering trade agreements between the US and other countries.
1950s to 1980s: The Cold War
Following World War 2, US manufacturing booms. With European countries still recovering from the war and much of the rest of the world recovering from colonization, the US emerges as the world’s strongest economy.
Political elites are divided; some call for Free Trade (but see SIDE NOTES 1 and 2) and others call for protectionism. As big businesses become more international, they also become more pro-Free Trade.
[EXCEPTION: Agriculture is protected with huge subsidies and tariffs. This exception is so hugely complicated and important it needs its own blog post.]
International trade becomes a key part of the US’s strategy for winning the Cold War against Russia, China, and other communist countries. Trade agreements bind together the major free market democratic countries, making them allies.
Episodes run about 25-40 minutes, with each episode looking in depth at a particular topic in Chinese history. The topics vary widely; historical events or periods, famous and/or interesting people, religion and philosophy; and are not necessarily presented in any particular order. There is a three part series on Daoism, a nine part series on the History of Chinese Philosophy, and ten episodes on The History of Tea in China! It’s an excellent way into Chinese history for history buffs who want to go considerably deeper than, say, a History Channel documentary.
Montgomery is a US American whose native language is English, who studied Chinese language and culture in college and spent much of his life working in China. He’s aware that he’s coming at Chinese culture as an outsider, and seems fascinated and appreciative. There’s none of the condescending attitude that too often goes with westerners discussing non-western cultures.
He pronounces Chinese names the (Mandarin) Chinese way, complete with the different tones. To an English speaker the Chinese names can be hard to make out and hard to keep track of, especially since the pronunciation is often different from the (latin) spelling: Zhou sounds to my ears like ‘cho’ or ‘jo’, Tang sounds like ‘tongue’, Qin sounds like ‘sheen’ and Xia sounds like ‘sha’. That being said, I found that I gradually got better at hearing and remembering Chinese names.
Topics in Chinese history are often introduced by comparison to what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time, which helps with fitting new ideas from the podcast in with existing history knowledge.
The back catalogue is over 200 episodes and growing. If you don’t know where to start, I’d suggest just pick a topic that interests you. If you’re looking for a structured and detailed overview of Chinese History, you could start at Episode 14: The Xia Dynasty, and work your way through to Episode 41: The Qing Dynasty Part 7 and Episode 42: Review of the Overviews.
The official website is Teacup Media, which has a short blog-style entry for each episode, with an image and some additional info, and the episode as an embedded audio file which you can either stream or (sometimes, depending on the episode) download in mp3 format.
Unfortunately these sites – iTunes, Youtube, Soundcloud – often seem to provide a ‘play’ button but not a download link. If you want to save/download episodes and you’re comfortable using the command line I recommend using youtube-dl.
It was surprisingly tricky to find an at-a-glance list of all the episodes; the official site only lists a few episodes per page, and the iTunes website truncates the episode titles, with the result that many are listed as The History of Chin… or something equally unhelpful. There is a useful list at podbay.fm/show/489369498, but the episodes hosted on this site have ads for another podcast inserted into them, which gets annoying. Use this site to pick out the episode you want, then search for an ad-free version of it elsewhere.
Episodes occasionally get removed when Montgomery decides to redo a particular topic, leaving some gaps in the back catalogue.
This post was updated 19/09/2018 to be more clear about how to download (as opposed to stream) episodes.
See it ain’t religious faith that’s causing these crimes
it’s losing faith in democratic free market designs.
So. All the mans that want to say
that my religion has to change
that we’re stuck in a bygone age
it’s time to set the vinyl straight.
Don’t you think it’s kind of strange
that all this terror outrage
turned up in the last decade,
when Islam has been the way for millions since back in the day?
Instead of thinking that we’re crazed investigate just what is says:
fast, help the poor and pray.
Go Mecca, be steadfast in faith.
That’s the basics, that’s the base,
so how did we get here today?
Well interpretations always change.
Today they’re read with rage.
Terrorism isn’t caused by religion or an old-school vision of Islam
it’s against the Quran
and it’s a new innovation caused by mash-up situations
that’s what makes them turn to arms.
The problem is modern and it’s all local factors.
Dictatorships, injustices and wars cause fatwas.
So in these sour times
please allow me to vouch for mine
bitter taste in my mouth spit it out with a rhyme.
Ay oh I’m losing my religion to tomorrow’s headline.
But it’s fine.
… vulnerable village girls were virtually press-ganged into the trials, their parents bullied into signing consent forms they could not read by… representatives who made false claims about the safety and efficacy of the drugs. In many cases signatures were simply forged.
An Indian Parliamentary Committee determined that the Gates-funded vaccine campaign was in fact a large-scale clinical trial conducted on behalf of the pharmaceutical firms and disguised as an ‘observational study’ in order to outflank statutory requirements.
Note: MINUSTA is the UN military mission in Haiti. Its purpose is either peace-keeping or neocolonial occupation, depending on your political views and/or level of cynicism.
During the earthquake, MINUSTAH and the Haitian police were looking [out] for each other, and they were protecting property, but not helping Haitians. They don’t like this to be said, because they like to present themselves as being these humanitarians who have been helping Haitians, but in fact that is what they did. It really showed what their priorities were. It was Haitians who actually helped each other. In fact, it is always Haitians who help each other. It was Haitians who dug each other out of the rubble. There was one kid who actually just tore a wall so that he could get his classmates out of a building that was collapsing. That was news in Haiti. In the US, you were seeing people who were covered with dust, who looked wholly catatonic and miserable. You had people like Clinton and Paul Farmer speaking for everybody and saying how much aid was needed, etc., and basically laying the ground for receiving billions of dollars, in fact in the end about $13 billion in aid that they went into Haiti to administer. In Haiti, you have a population of 10 million and $13 billion in aid that no one has actually seen, really… [Bill] Clinton and his rich friends moved in, and in a very short period, they took control of the country.
The earthquake happened in January . By March 8th, they had the Lower House in Haiti (this would be the House of Representatives) voting on a state of emergency that would allow an organization called the IHRC (Interim Haiti Recovery Commission) to run the country for 18 months, and that organization was headed by Clinton. It had 14 foreigners, headed by Clinton, all rich. The rules were that they were supposed to put down $100 million, or erase $200 million in debt, and in addition provide military. Against that, you had 7 Haitians, all of whom were supposed to be picked by the 14 foreigners. So this is how Haiti was supposed to be run during this emergency period when you would have Clinton managing all of the aid money. The Haitian parliament was supposed to dissolve itself. It fought very hard. In the senate, the vote initially didn’t go through because of the lack of quorum. They had another vote, and there was finally a quorum. At the end of that, there were rumors that at least 3 senators had probably been bribed to show up so that there would be a quorum for a vote. Now that you had Clinton and his friends administering the country, what happened next – and this is something that you never saw in the American news – is that people from the Haitian parliament went on the streets protesting with everybody else. I don’t know of any situation [in the US] where you’ve had senators and members of the House out on the street leading protests, but this is what happened, and it went on for months, through the summer of that year. These votes were in April. People were protesting that the president had forced this on them, and that the country had been sold to the international community, and they wanted it to be stopped.
And right now, for example, there is about 85 percent unemployment in Haiti, and yet the GDP has been growing by 4 percent every year. The reason the GDP is growing is because they’re destroying the informal sector, and more and more people are exchanging money for services, whereas in the past they used to trade services with each other. And, of course, everything gets added to GDP; nothing really gets subtracted. So loans are added to GDP. You get money from USAID, you borrow from the World Bank, you borrow from the IMF, and it looks like the GDP is growing. It’s magnificent! GDP is not net worth; it’s just how much money flows through a country. So Haiti is growing its GDP, and people are getting hungrier.
… We had for example Sir Richard Otterwy suggesting, challenging the very idea that it could be argued that the economic situation of the colonies was actually worsened by British colonialism. Well I stand to offer you the Indian example, Sir Richard. India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to below 4%. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depradations in India. In fact, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India. The hand loom weavers for example, famed across the world, whose products were exported round the world, Britain came right in, there were actually these weavers making fine muslin, light as woven air it was said, and Britain came right in, broke their thumbs, smashed their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products, and started of course, taking the raw materials from India, and shipping back manufactured cloth, flooding the world’s markets with what became the products of the dark and satanic mills of Victorian England. That meant that the weavers in India became beggars, and India went from being a world-famous exporter of finished cloth, into an importer.
– Dr Shashi Tharoor, speaking at a debate at Oxford.
Global South: What used to be called ‘developing countries’ or ‘the Third World’. Includes all of Africa and much of Asia, South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
W3C: World Wide Web Consortium. From Wikipedia: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web (abbreviated WWW or W3). Founded and currently led by Tim Berners-Lee, the consortium is made up of member organizations which maintain full-time staff for the purpose of working together in the development of standards for the World Wide Web.
All of the main web browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari) work according to W3C standards, while apps generally do not.
DRM: Digital Rights Management. Refers to software and hardware which makes sure you can only use media (like music or videos) in certain ways, and also to laws which make it illegal to circumvent the DRM software or hardware in order to use media in ways the manufacturer doesn’t want.
From the Electronic Frontier Foundation: Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies attempt to control what you can and can’t do with the media and hardware you’ve purchased.
— Bought an ebook from Amazon but can’t read it on your ebook reader of choice? That’s DRM.
— Bought a video game but can’t play it today because the manufacturer’s “authentication servers” are offline? That’s DRM.
— Bought a smartphone but can’t use the applications or the service provider you want on it? That’s DRM.
— Bought a DVD or Blu-Ray but can’t copy the video onto your portable media player? That’s DRM.
EME: Encrypted Media Extensions. It’s a potential new standard specification the W3C has been considering. If approved it would make DRM part of the W3C’s internet standards. Since all the major web browsers implement the W3C’s standards, this would mean that DRM would quickly be included in new versions of web browsers, and therefore DRM would quickly part of natural of the web itself; every website could have DRM, allowing website owners to control when and how users can or can’t watch, play, stream, or save their content. It is feared that this would fundamentally change the internet’s open and democratic character.
IP: Intellectual property; patents and/or copyrights on inventions and other creative works.
Looking to history, it is important to appreciate that things have not always been as they are today. IP rights used to be considered ‘grants of privilege’ that were explicitly recognized as exceptions to the rules against monopolies.
For much of the twentieth century patents were perceived as ‘monopolies’ in American jurisprudence. Anti-trust (anti-monopoly) legislation checked the power of patent holders in important ways. The framing of intellectual property as being ‘pro-free trade’ would not have been persuasive during earlier eras in which IP protection was seen, at best, as a necessary evil and at odds with free trade. It is only recently that the courts have ceased referring to patents as monopolies, and that anti-trust legislation has been relaxed…
When and why did intellectual property catapult to the top tier of the United States’ trade agenda? Had the two issues [international trade and IP] always been linked? Had IP protection always been so revered? How has the United States treated domestic intellectual property rights? Why did ‘it’ decide to globalize its own perspective?
– Excerpt from Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights by Susan K. Sell.
The scientific credibility of economics is itself a scientific question that can be addressed with both theoretical speculations and empirical data. In this review… We summarize and discuss the empirical evidence on the lack of a robust reproducibility culture in economics and business research, the prevalence of potential publication and other selective reporting biases, and other failures and biases in the market of scientific information. Overall, the credibility of the economics literature is likely to be modest or even low.
– From the abstract of the article What’s to know about the credibility of empirical econonmics? by John Ioannidis and Chris Doucouliagos, Journal or Economic Surveys Volume 27, Issue 5, December 2013, Pages 997–1004.
everything that happens,
happens according to natural laws
if you only knew the laws of nature,
you’d know everything.
(Perhaps not everything, just
all there is to know.)
You’d know the past:
you could trace the interwoven threads of cause and effect back, back, back
(if you were good at math, and had a fast computer)
all the way to the Big Bang.
You’d predict the future
and explain all of the present, but
everything is cause and effect
every cause of something must be an effect of something else.
Each explanation prompts again the question: why?
Why the Big Bang?
Maybe you know; perhaps
a simulation run by aliens,
or string theory,
or something weirder.
To explain something (weak): To describe it; to tell its origin, appearance and/or behaviour; to tell how it is similar to or related to other things; to tell a convincing story about it.
To explain something (strong): To be able to predict, every time and in every situation, whether and how that thing will happen, and always get it right.
Cause and effect: A thing is the cause of another thing if, every time and in every situation that the first thing happens, the second thing also happens.
Natural laws: A natural law is an explanation (of the strong kind). It links a cause to an effect.
An example of a natural law: Water boils at 100°C (at normal atmospheric pressure*). The cause is ‘water is heated to 100°C’ and the effect is ‘the water boils’.
* The reason for the ‘at normal atmospheric pressure’ caveat: if you climb to the top of a high mountain, where the atmospheric pressure is a little less, the boiling temperature of water will be a few degrees lower than usual, which is why climbers on Mount Everest have a hard time making a decent cup of tea. If you went to the bottom of a very deep cavern, where the pressure was a bit highter than at the surface, in theory you’d have to heat your water a bit higher than 100°C to get it to boil. In outer space, where there is no atmosphere and thus no atmospheric pressure, water doesn’t take liquid form at all; depending on the temperature it either freezes to form ice, or evaporates to form vapour.
Meanwhile, a growing number of highly respected figures speaking outside the Western democracies are turning their backs on theoretically scientific interpretations of global success such as trade statistics and cumulative GDPs. What they see are real people whose actual standard of living apparently has to drop for them to appear to rise in Western-style statistics. How can that be? For example, these people may have been living a life beyond such measurements – perhaps rural lives. They are therefore technically existing on zero income. Then they move to a desperate urban slum where dirty water, sewage and alienation are the norm. But in such a place, even a dollar’s worth of income can be measured. And so Western measurement systems say they have taken a step forwards and upwards.
The Jordanian intellectual Prince Hassan now calls for a redefinition of “poverty in terms of human well-being” rather than in terms of monetary wealth. Malaysia has developed a Growth With Equity model. The Bhutanese, with their hard-headed yet ironic style, work behind something called GNH – Gross National Happiness. And China is now focused on a quality-of-life approach in the place of GDP. Why?
The easy answer is that none of these nation-states sees itself as an outpost of Western economic theory. Each regards itself as a center and one with urgent needs.
And if all this sounds like an anti-Western point of view, you can listen to Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and political leader, a hero of modern democracy, strongly pro free market… “I don’t understand why the most important deity is the increase in gross domestic product. It is not about GDP. It is about the quality of life, and that is something else.”
– ‘The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the Word’ by John Ralston Saul, 2005, p23
Their ancestors had made the same discovery long before. To them the New World was so old it was the only world: a “great island,” as many called it, floating in the primordial sea. They had occupied all the habitable zones from the Arctic tundra to the Caribbean isles, from the high plateaus of the Andes to the blustery tip of Cape Horn. They had developed every kind of society: nomadic hunting groups, settled farming communities, and dazzling civilizations with cities as large as any then on earth. By 1492 there were approximately 100 million Native Americans – a fifth, more or less, of the human race.
Within decades of Columbus’s landfall, most of these people were dead and their world barbarously sacked by Europeans. The plunderers settled in America, and it was they, not the original people, who became known as Americans.
Unlike Asia and Africa, America never saw its colonizers leave. America’s ancient nations have never recovered their autonomy, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Many survive, captive within white settler states build on their lands and on their backs. In the Andes, 12 million people still speak the language of the Incas: the murder of Atawallpa in 1533 and the violence of today’s Shining Path are parts of the same story. Central America has 6 million speakers of Maya (as many as speak French in Canada): if Guatemala really had majority rule, it would be a Maya republic. In Canada, in 1990, Mohawks took up arms in the name of a sovereignty that they believe they have never ceded to Ottawa or Washington.
– From ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p3-4.
An entire vocabulary is tainted with prejudice and condescension: whites are soldiers, Indians are warriors; whites live in towns, Indians in villages; whites have kings and generals, Indians have chiefs; whites have states, Indians have tribes… In 1927 the Grand Council Fire of American Indians told the mayor of Chicago: “They call all white victories, battles, and all Indian victories, massacres… White men who rise to protect their property are called patriots – Indians who do the same are called murderers.”
– From the Author’s Note at the begining of ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright.
Brother: You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?
Brother: We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion, which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favours we receive; to love each-other and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.
Brother: the same Great Spirit made us all, but he has made a great difference between his white and his red children. He has given us different complexions and different customs… Since he has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may we not conclude that he has given us a different religion?
– Exerpt from a speech by Seneca chief Red Jacket, given at Buffalo, New York in 1805, quoted in ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p 232.
Uncontacted peoples are communities who live without significant contact with globalized civilization, most often by choice. Although we commonly call them ‘uncontacted,’ a more accurate description is probably ‘voluntarily isolated’ or ‘withdrawn’ or ‘evasive.’ They exist in the Amazon Rainforest, the island of New Guinea, and in India’s Andaman Islands. Survival International reports that about one hundred groups around the world prefer to be left alone. Knowledge of the existence of these groups comes mostly from encounters with neighboring tribes and from aerial footage. While this map shows in which states uncontacted peoples continue to exist, the tribes themselves are stateless societies. To varying extents they may be unaware of and unaffected by the states that have nominal authority over their territory.
Most people can hazily remember learning, in science class or from some nature documentary or other, that the earth travels around the sun in a nearly-circular path once per year. Without really thinking about it, it’s easy to suppose that it’s warmer in summer because in the summertime we are a bit closer to the sun than we are in winter.
If you do stop to think about this you realize it can’t be right, because the southern hemisphere has opposite seasons to the northern one; when it’s summer in Australia it’s winter in Russia, and vice versa. Whatever causes the seasons, it has nothing to do with the distance between the earth and the sun.
However it does have something to do with north and south. North and south are the directions of earth’s rotation axis; our planet’s daily rotation about this axis causes the cycle of day and night. But what do north and south have to do with the yearly cycle of the seasons? Why should the northern half of the earth have summer while the southern half has winter, and vice versa?
It’s useful to pause a moment and reflect on what the cycle of the seasons actually is:
– One-year cycle
– Summer = warmer, winter = colder
– When it’s summer in the northern hemisphere it’s winter in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa.
– Summer and winter are more pronounced near the poles; near the equator it’s more like there’s a wet season and a dry season, or no seasons at all
– Days are longer in summer and shorter in winter
– This difference in daylight time – longer in summer and shorter in winter – is most extreme near the north and south poles, and just about non-existent near the equator
Looking back at the diagram above, there’s a problem: if you mentally rotate the earth about its north-south axis, you find that every point on earth spends exactly half its time in sunlight, and half its time in darkness; days and nights are of equal length.
But most of the time that’s not how the real world works; most of the time one hemisphere is having longer days and shorter nights, while the other hemisphere is having the opposite. (The exception to this comes twice a year at the equinoxes, when it’s mid-spring on one hemisphere and mid-fall on the other; at these times every part of the earth really does have days and nights of equal length.)
Suppose I redraw the diagram like this:
In this picture the sunlight is not evenly distributed between the north and south hemispheres; the southern hemisphere gets the lion’s share of sun. And if you imagine the earth in fig. 2 rotating about its north-south axis, you can see that points near the south pole spend nearly all their time in daylight, whereas points near the north pole spend most of their time in darkness. In other words, this picture represents earth when it’s midsummer in the southern hemisphere and midwinter in the northern hemisphere.
Six months later, when earth is at the opposite end of its path around the sun, the situation is reversed: it’s midwinter in the southern hemisphere, and midsummer in the northern hemisphere.
When the earth is between these two extremes, it’s spring in one hemisphere and fall in the other. At these times the north and south hemispheres get roughly equal amounts of sunlight.
Earth’s north-south rotation axis always points the same way, it doesn’t wobble around.* But as the earth goes around the sun, the angle of earth’s north-south axis relative to the sun does change, and this is what causes the seasons.
* This is a lie: actually the earth’s rotation axis does wobble, but only very slowly. It takes 26,000 years to complete a single wobble, and the amount of wobbling that takes place within a person’s lifetime is too small to notice.
They said they cant send you to your country now because the situation is too dangerous, and I asked them- “if you know that the situation is danger in my country, why you don’t accept my asylum?”. They said- “yes the situation is too dangerous, but you don’t have a personal thing…a personal risk in your life”…what do they want, a personal thing more than “my brother is killed”?! But they don’t…they don’t care.
So I told them ok, send me to my country: I don’t want asylum, I don’t want this country. I think this country before I came- the ‘great British’ is human rights, justice, or something like that, but I’m here five months and I don’t saw anything like this. This place- like North Korea or Iran or Libya; the same situation- no nothing. You don’t have the right to express. You don’t have the right to do anything.
… to be honest I don’t… I don’t believe anyone in this country talking about the human rights. Especially the government- they talk about human rights and war on Iraq and Libya and everywhere because of the human rights, blah-blah-blah, but this thing is only talking! No justice; no human rights, nothing. Just talking.
… But I’m talking about the six hundred people who are with me in this detention. This thing is not fair.
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: Your majesty, if you will just give me a huge pile of money, I will find a new trade route to the Indies, a western route, one that is not controlled by the infidel Mohammedans.
QUEEN ISABELLA OF SPAIN: ‘The Indies’ – do you mean you’re going to India?
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: Yes, your majesty. Well, perhaps not India India, I may end up in Afghanistan or, oh I don’t know, Bangladesh. Mongolia. Somewhere, you know, Indiaish. Navigation isn’t an exact science, after all. It won’t be until someone invents the marine chronometer roughly two hundred years in the future.
QUEEN ISABELLA OF SPAIN: But you’re sure you can find a new trade route to the wealthy heathen lands to the east?
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: Oh yes. I have carefully studied Alfraganus’s calculation of the diameter of the Earth. In translation, because I obviously can’t read Arabic, haha! But I definitely didn’t make any foolish errors such as, let’s say just for example, not realising the Arabic mile is longer than the Roman mile and therefore thinking the Atlantic Ocean is much narrower than it actually is.
QUEEN ISABELLA OF SPAIN: Well, good. And you’re sure your passage won’t be blocked by any unforseen barriers? Like, say, another continent that we didn’t even know existed?
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: I am absolutely, positively, 110% sure that won’t happen, your majesty. Whatever land mass we hit, it will definitely be India.
A language should be a neutral carrier of ideas; a code that can be used to send any message. However the only language I speak really well, English, is far from being a neutral carrier of information. English contains its own built-in view of the world. It pushes certain ideas on you whether you wanted them or not, and it makes certain other ideas hard to express, or even to imagine.
English does this by bundling certain ideas together, so that English words often have multiple layers of meaning. For example, the word “civilized” means “living in urban settlements” but it also sort of means “good”. Calling someone “civilized” is a compliment (unless you are being sarcastic) and “uncivilized” is an insult. Therefore the real meaning of “civilized” is something like:
Civilized: (adj) Living in urban settlements, which is definitely a good thing.
although the dictionaries don’t usually put it like that.
This is a problem because it’s hard to avoid using the word “civilized”. It’s an important word! And we’re stuck with it because the English language doesn’t contain any word whose meaning is:
Hypothetical word that doesn’t actually exist: (adj) Living in urban settlements, which is maybe good or maybe bad or maybe just, you know, OK, or maybe it depends on the situation, I don’t know, I’m just a neutral descriptor that doesn’t contain any value judgements.
It is an astonishing concept to the modern mind that medieval man was surrounded by machines. The fact is, machines were not something foreign or remote to the townsman or to the peasant in his fields. The most common was the mill, converting the power of water or wind into work; grinding grain, crushing olives, fulling cloth, tanning leather, making paper… In the towns and villages the citizen could stand on a bridge over a river or canal and observe the different kinds of water mill: mills built along the banks, others floating midstream or moored to the banks, and, if he cared to look under the bridge, he might find the same machines built between the arches. If he walked upstream he would find the river dammed to provide a sufficient fall of water to drive the mills’ machinery.
– Exerpted from ‘The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middles Ages’ by Jean Gimpel.
In the automotive world, federal legislation requires auto manufacturers to provide manuals to independent shops. Some organizations, like AllData and Mitchell 1, collect manuals from every manufacturer, bundle them together, and sell subscriptions – creating jobs for their over 100,000 mechanics. Independent shops wouldn’t be able to repair modern cars without this information.
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent legislation for electronics… It’s illegal to redistribute copyrighted service manuals without manufacturer consent. Even so, a number of websites provide these critical documents to the service techs who need them.
Tim Hicks is a 25-year-old Australian with an interesting hobby: He trawls the nooks and crannies of the internet looking for manufacturer service manuals and posts the PDFs online for free. Hicks was frustrated that there wasn’t a single website out there with every laptop service manual. He started the site — aptly named “Tim’s Laptop Service Manuals” — because he fixes laptops himself.
Tim’s site now streams over 50 gigabytes of manuals every day. Or rather … it used to. In a recent strongly worded cease-and-desist letter, Toshiba’s lawyers forced Tim to remove manuals for over 300 Toshiba laptops.
Keeping manuals off the internet ensures the only path for beleaguered customers is sending broken devices back to high-priced, only-manufacturer-authorized service centers. By making it so expensive and inconvenient to repair broken electronics, this policy amounts to planned obsolescence: many people simply throw the devices away.
From 1900 to 1980, 70–80 percent of the global production of goods and services was concentrated in Europe and America, which incontestably dominated the rest of the world. By 2010, the European–American share had declined to roughly 50 percent, or approximately the same level as in 1860. In all probability, it will continue to fall and may go as low as 20–30 percent at some point in the twenty-first century. This was the level maintained up to the turn of the nineteenth century and would be consistent with the European–American share of the world’s population. In other words, the lead that Europe and America achieved during the Industrial Revolution allowed these two regions to claim a share of global output that was two to three times greater than their share of the world’s population simply because their output per capita was two to three times greater than the global average. All signs are that this phase of divergence in per capita output is over and that we have embarked on a period of convergence.
– ‘Capital in the twenty-first century’ by Thomas Piketty, p47
… the average rate of return on land in rural societies is typically on the order of 4–5 percent. In the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, the fact that land (like government bonds) yields roughly 5 percent of the amount of capital invested (or, equivalently, that the value of capital corresponds to roughly twenty years of annual rent) is so taken for granted that it often goes unmentioned. Contemporary readers were well aware that it took capital on the order of 1 million francs to produce an annual rent of 50,000 francs. For nineteenth-century novelists and their readers, the relation between capital and annual rent was self-evident, and the two measuring scales were used interchangeably, as if rent and capital were synonymous, or perfect equivalents in two different languages.
Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find roughly the same return on real estate, 4–5 percent, sometimes a little less, especially where prices have risen rapidly without dragging rents upward at the same rate. For example, in 2010, a large apartment in Paris, valued at 1 million euros, typically rents for slightly more than 2,500 euros per month, or annual rent of 30,000 euros, which corresponds to a return on capital of only 3 percent per year from the landlord’s point of view. Such a rent is nevertheless quite high for a tenant living solely on income from labor (one hopes he or she is paid well) while it represents a significant income for the landlord. The bad news (or good news, depending on your point of view) is that things have always been like this. This type of rent tends to rise until the return on capital is around 4 percent (which in this example would correspond to a rent of 3,000–3,500 euros per month, or 40,000 per year). Hence this tenant’s rent is likely to rise in the future.
‘Capital in the twenty-first century’ by Thomas Piketty, p43
You have the right to improve the things you buy. If you want to paint racing stripes on your car, go for it! Ownership means you should be able to open, hack, repair, upgrade, or tie bells on it. Once you’ve paid money for a product, the manufacturer shouldn’t be able to dictate how you use it—it’s yours.
But that’s exactly what some manufacturers intend to do. It’s common practice to refuse to make parts, tools, and repair information available to consumers and small repair shops. Apple created a special screw specifically to make it hard to repair the iPhone.
Independent repair technicians need the same information that the manufacturer repair shops have. The Ford dealership has access to diagnostic codes that your neighborhood mechanic would kill for.
Cars all have computers—and now, fixing an engine means deciphering the code the computer spits out. But those codes are often proprietary, and manufacturers limit access to the tools that can read them.
We have the right:
to open everything we own
to modify and repair our things
to unlock and jailbreak the software in our electronics
We must have access:
to repair information
to products that can be repaired
to reasonably-priced, independent repair shops
Prominent among those who seized and melted Atawallpa’s ransom was Hernando de Soto, sometimes described as the “discoverer” of the Mississippi.
… It does not matter that he was the “first”. What matters here is that he was the last outsider to see this part of North America in anything like its pre-Columbian state. By the time the British and French trod the same ground more than a century later, it had been utterly transformed by the microbes that were the true conquerors of the New World.
…There were roads and paths for them to follow, and whenever they approach a town they speak of riding for miles beside great fields of maize… [In Florida] they attacked large towns with thousands of inhabitants. They plundered elaborate temples on top of earthen pyramids. They met rulers who wore cotton and feather-mosaic tunics, traveled on splendid litters, and styled themselves children of the sun. Almost every fertile valley was intensively farmed. The only thing missing was the thing they had come for: a great empire with a hoard of gold. Since this was the sole purpose of their journey, they could never arrive.
… “About the place,” wrote one eyewitness, “were large vacant towns, grown up in grass, that appeared as if no people had lived in them for a long time. The Indians said that, two years before, there had been a pest in the land.” Garcilas adds that the capital itself was a ghost town: “The Castillians found the town of Talomeco without any people at all, because the recent pestilence had raged with more virulence and cruelty in this town than in any other of the entire province. [Near] the rich temple it is said they found four longhouses filled with bodies from the plague.”
Soto saw such places in their last days. The temples and pyramids were still in use, but the people would never again be numerous enough to build them. The plague that killed the kings of Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, and half their subjects… had struck equally hard in the unknown kingdoms of the north. More had followed. The “tribes” the English would find, though still considerable, were remnants of once-powerful states. Houses had rotted away and woods had crept back into fields. America seemed a virgin land waiting for civilization. But Europe had made the wilderness it found; America was not a virgin, she was a widow.
– Exerpted from the book “Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas” by Ronald Wright, chapter 4.
In December 1968 Science magazine published a paper by Garrett Hardin entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”… [it] became one of the most cited academic papers ever published and its title a catch phrase. It has framed the debate about common property for the last 30 years…
Hardin’s basic argument was that common property systems allow individuals to benefit at a cost to the community, and therefore are inherently prone to decay, ecological exhaustion and collapse. Hardin got the idea for his theory from the Oxford economist, the Rev William Forster Lloyd…
Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bareworn and cropped so differently from the adjoining enclosures? If a person puts more cattle into his own field, the amount of the subsistence which they consume is all deducted from that which was at the command of his original stock; and if, before, there was no more than a sufficiency of pasture, he reaps no benefit from the additional cattle, what is gained one way, being lost in another. But if he puts more cattle on a common, the food which they consume forms a deduction which is shared between all the cattle, as well that of others as his own, and only a small part of it is taken from his own cattle.
The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another . . . But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? . . . We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.
Thirty years have passed since Garrett Hardin’s influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons”. At first, many people agreed with Hardin’s metaphor that the users of a commons are caught in an inevitable process that leads to the destruction of the very resource on which they depend. The “rational” user of a commons, Hardin argued, makes demands on a resource until the expected benefits of his or her actions equal the expected costs. Because each user ignores costs imposed on others, individual decisions cumulate to a tragic overuse and the potential destruction of an open-access commons. Hardin’s proposed solution was “either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise”.
Although tragedies have undoubtedly occurred, it is also obvious that for thousands of years people have self-organized to manage common-pool resources, and users often do devise long-term, sustainable institutions for governing these resources. The prediction that resource users are led inevitably to destroy CPRs is based on a model that assumes all individuals are selfish, norm-free, and maximizers of short-run results. This model explains why market institutions facilitate an efficient allocation of private goods and services, and it is strongly supported by empirical data from open, competitive markets in industrial societies. However, predictions based on this model are not supported in field research or in laboratory experiments in which individuals face a public good or CPR problem and are able to communicate, sanction one another, or make new rules. Humans adopt a narrow, self-interested perspective in many settings, but can also use reciprocity to overcome social dilemmas.
– From ‘Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges’ by Elinor Ostrom, Joanna Burger, Christopher B. Field, Richard B. Norgaard, and David Policansky, ‘Science’, 1999. The lead author of this article, Elinor Ostrom, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.
The social sciences are basically about people. They include history, political science, anthropology, sociology, and economics.
The natural sciences include physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, climate science, genetics, and computer science. “Natural sciences” is a terrible name because it suggests that the realm of humans is somehow separate from the realm of nature. These are also sometimes called “hard sciences”, which doesn’t make much sense either.
The kind of knowledge that social sciences are
The social sciences mostly do not use the full scientific method. Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists do sometimes come up with theories about how the world works, but these theories don’t tend to be the sort of thing that you can measure, or test in an experiment. However social scientists don’t just slap knowledge together willy-nilly; they do systematic research, collect and organise information, and make careful, methodical observations, which they publish in peer-reviewed journals. A historian might spend countless hours going through all the writings, artworks, and architecture remaining from a particular time and place, and then piece all of this information together in the form of a book or journal article. An anthropologist might conduct hours and hours of interviews with a particular group of people, then write a paper describing how they live.
Economics can seem like a “hard” science because economists do sometimes come up with theories about things you can measure, like a country’s unemployment rate or inflation rate or GDP. However they never seem to design and carry out experiments that would prove their theories true or false once and for all. You often hear economists say things like “free trade leads to economic growth”, but when their predictions go wrong they don’t usually say: “Oh crap, I guess our theory’s wrong after all!” There is usually some wiggle room; some space to argue about how things should be defined or measured, or how results should be interpreted.
This is not because economists are bad at science, it’s just down to the nature of the systems they study. Like other social sciences, economics is basically about how people behave; individual people, groups of people, and institutions. People are the most complicated thing there is, and our behaviour can’t be defined and measured in the way that we can define and measure the behaviour of, say, a water molecule.
On a personal level I didn’t quite believe in nations. In my lifetime they had disappeared (Czechoslovakia), appeared (Timor-Leste), failed (Somalia). My own nationality was largely an accident of history; born in London and raised in Boston, I held U.K. and U.S. passports on the basis of laws long overturned by 2002. My Ghanaian father lived in Saudi Arabia, my Nigerian mother in Ghana, both citizens of countries that hadn’t existed when they were born. That we were all somehow meant to derive our most basic sense of self from nations — these expandable, collapsible, invent-able things — struck me as absurd.
Before beginning grad school, I used the words “nation,” “state” and “country” interchangeably, e.g., the United Nations is comprised of member states, with countries elected to councils. The terms, I learned now, were discrete. A nation was a cultural and linguistic entity, a state a political and geopolitical one. The idea of the modern nation-state — a sovereign state governing a cultural nation — was just that: an idea, 350 years old and showing its age.
In a precious few states, one ethnic group still comprised more than 95 percent of the population (Iceland, Japan and Malta, to name a few). In the rest, the “nation” of nation-state fame had to be invented. To arrive at this imagined singularity in the face of the complexities of history — civil wars, shifting borders, myriad languages, varying complexions — required the privileging of the culture of certain nationals over others’.
In a way, I’d always understood this. From an early age it was clear to me that, despite the passports I held, no one using the terms “British lass” or “all-American girl” had me in mind. If history created nations, power created national cultures.
This post follows on from a previous one called Science.
It is surprising how little the scientific method has to do with science.
The scientific method goes like this:
You have a hypothesis about how the world works.
You design an experiment which will either confirm that the hypothesis is true, or show that it is false.
You carry out the experiment.
You explain in detail how you did the experiment and what the results were. You put this information in some public place so that others can repeat the experiment, or critique it.
As an example, take the hypothesis that all falling objects fall towards the ground at the same rate, regardless of how heavy they are (so long as they are heavy enough that air resistance doesn’t play much of a role). It’s pretty easy to test this: you just drop two objects, one of which is heavier than the other, at the same time, and check if they hit the ground at the same time. I did this by holding two pieces of carrot, one about three times bigger than the other, above my head and then releasing them both at the same time. It’s hard to see whether the objects hit the ground at the same time, but it’s quite easy to hear; they hit the ground with one combined thump, not two separate ones. This is not very precise, but it’s still an experiment, and it follows all the rules of the scientific method.
Of course that’s not what we expect a scientific experiment to look like; we expect it to be performed by a scientist, and it should involve precise measurements and complicated apparatus (more complicated than two pieces of carrot, anyway), and it should be published in a scientific journal, not in a blog post. This shows that there is a lot more to what we mean by the word “science” than just the scientific method.
Here are two possible definitions of scientific knowledge, for your consideration:
(a) Scientific knowledge is knowledge produced by scientists.
(b) Scientific knowledge is knowledge produced according to the scientific method.
The two definitions are very different; if definition (a) is correct, science is something done by people with PhD’s in science subjects working as academics at universities, or working in corporate laboratories, or at non-profit research institutions or thinktanks, or working as scientists in government departments. On the other hand if definition (b) is correct science can be done by anyone, as long as they follow the scientific method; it’s the process that’s important.
This is important because science plays a powerful and crucial role in how our society works – but “science” doesn’t always mean the same thing. Its meaning can shift from one moment to the next.
I experienced the American dream at the age of twenty-two, when I was hired by a university near Boston just after finishing my doctorate. It was the first time I had set foot in the United States, and it felt good to have my work recognized so quickly. Here was a country that knew how to attract immigrants when it wanted to! Yet I also realized quite soon that I wanted to return to France and Europe… I did not find the work of US economists entirely convincing. To be sure, they were all very intelligent, and I still have many friends from that period of my life. But something strange happened: I was only too aware of the fact that I knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems. My thesis consisted of several relatively abstract mathematical theorems. Yet the profession liked my work. I quickly realized that there had been no signiticant effort to collect historical data on the dynamics of inquality since [1950s economist] Kruznets, yet the profession continued to churn out purely theoretical results without even knowing what facts needed to be explained. When I returned to France, I set out to collect the missing data.
To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of gaining the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more comlex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.
– Thomas Piketty, ‘Capital in the twenty-first century’, introduction.