Monday, March 14, 2011

Assault of Thoughts - 3/14/2011

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- In 1993, Michael Kremer published a famous paper demonstrating that technological development increased with the size of a population, confirming some important characteristics of endogenous growth models and demonstrating that they do a great job explaining economic growth in the long sweep of human history. Gary Gunnels shares a New York Times article that describes much the same process in a more cooperative human pre-history than a lot of people expected. This line especially jumped out at me and reminded me of Kremer, with its explicit population/technology connection:

"Knowledge can in fact be lost by hunter-gatherers if a social network gets too small. One group of the Ache people of Paraguay, cut off from its home territory, had lost use of fire when first contacted. Tasmanians apparently forgot various fishing techniques after rising sea levels broke their contact with the Australian mainland 10,000 years ago."

- There's a lot of broken window fallacy talk going on in response to the Japanese earthquake, and I'd encourage people to approach with caution. A lot of what's been written is just ideologues using the tragedy of others as an opportunity to say horrible things about people they disagree with, and enlisting good thinkers like Bastiat to do their dirty work. I have a bunch of posts on how to think about the broken window fallacy here that people can review if they're interested. I don't feel like getting into specifics on this particular instance - it just turns my stomach to see how some people have been using this as an opportunity to slander others. If anyone knows any empirical studies of the impact of disasters on output/employment I'd be interested in knowing about that work.

- We had a great time in Richmond. The John Marshall House was interesting, and we had a knowledgeable and engaging guide for that. We saw the state capital and the governor's mansion. The White House of the Confederacy was kind of ugly, but it had a nice back porch. The Museum of the Confederacy was very well done. A re-enactor on hand demonstrated a lot of daily life in the army, and all the exhibits were interesting. They have an impressive collection of the effects of all the major Confederate officers, including a lot of Lee's possessions. We did not end up getting over to the Poe museum, but I had been there before. If anyone's in Richmond I recommend the Penny Lane Pub on Franklin Street. We also went to Legend Brewery, although that was more disappointing. On the way out we drove down Monument Avenue - I'm very glad we took that detour. They have some great statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Matthew Maury, and Arthur Ashe. The whole avenue is lined with some really beautiful houses as well - it reminded me of the garden district in New Orleans.

On the way out we stopped by James River Cellars, which had a lot of great wines to offer. They were all pretty dry until you got to the desert wines which seemed to overcompensate for the other offerings. We picked up a 2007 Meritage (like a Bordeaux), which was a good year in Virginia and the last year they made the Meritage. We also got a Chardonnay. The man that did our tasting was a history teacher - we were telling him about the trip and he had an interesting perspective. He said "The war started in April of 1861 and it ended in April of 1865. A lot of people down here need to remember that". I was surprised he said it - certain tasters might not have taken it as well, but I thought it was nice to hear. I've never read all that much about or engaged the Civil War for much this reason. I don't want to dump on Lee or Jackson or the Confederacy in general. I don't want to make them out to be monsters the way a lot of people do. At the same time, the deep South made a very dumb decision and it pulled a lot of the upper South with it in that decision. They lost. It's long over. I kind of like this idea of putting it to rest. But you can't really get into Civil War history with that perspective very easily. All sides are too invested. If I ever substantially got into reading and writing about Civil War history the way I do with the interwar period or the early republic, I think I'd like to stick to the facts and just not even mention causes or motivations. I'm not sure if that's possible, though.

Here is a picture of the Lee Monument on Monument Avenue being unveiled in 1890:


  1. Michael Kremer's idea sounds close to a Technology-Entertainment-Design lecture in California called "When ideas have sex".

    Much the way humans reproduce sexually, instead of asexually, and are able to integrate all genetic traits instead of cutting out genetic traits, human ideas merge and synthesize as civilization advances and the combinations of ideas brings greater protection from dangers to civilization. Man does not have to compete for food; he can cooperate and work to grow more and produce more.

    PS: Nobody has ever responded to your Inconvenient Classical Liberals posts. You think if you post them again after copy-pasting, you may get more comments from Gary, Jonathan, and company?

  2. Evan will love this I believe:

  3. "human pre-history"

    OK, this may seem like a quibble, but, in fact, the idea of "pre-history" is nonsense. RG Collingwood, our greatest philosopher of history and a accomplished archeologist as well, stressed this point because the idea of "pre-history" carries with it a disastrously wrong concept of what history is: calling certain eras "pre-historical" implies that, once writing begins, people are "writing down" "historical facts." But that idea is rubbish: what the participants in an event write down about it is merely evidence with which the historian can begin her investigation, just as are potsherds, or arrowheads, or animal bones. The category "pre-history" is empty of any content.

  4. Collingwood got eclipsed by Davidson.

  5. And AD is now CE. So? "Empty of content" is a fairly contentless concern if I'm only marking time when I use "pre-history". Pre-history is understood to mean "the time before people wrote things down". Whether it has legitimate, literal, historiagraphical import as a term is really beside the point.

  6. Daniel,

    I read Collingwood in my methods course - one of the most tiresome people I've ever read.

  7. Gary, that says way more about you than it does about Collingwood.

  8. Gene,

    You are right; I do not treat history as something a kin to a natural science (though distinct) for one thing.

  9. Prof Long thinks that Collingwood should be better known in Austrian circles, however:


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