February 15, 2011
December 6, 2010
The figure of $400 annually (as expressed in 1990 international dollars) is commonly is used as a measure of “bare bones subsistence” and was previously believed to be the average income in England in the middle ages.
However the University of Warwick led researchers found that English per capita incomes in the late Middle Ages were actually of the order of $1,000 (again as expressed in 1990 dollars). Even on the eve of the Black Death, which first struck in 1348/49, the researchers found per capita incomes in England of more than $800 using the same 1990 dollar measure. Their estimates for other European countries also suggest late medieval living standards well above $400.
This new figure of $1,000 is not only significantly higher than previous estimates for that period in England — it also indicates that on average medieval England was better off than some of the world’s poorest nations today including the following (again average annual income as expressed in 1990 dollars).
Here’s a chart of the wages of unskilled English workers:
The increase after 1300 is usually attributed to the population collapse induced by the Black Plague. England’s population remained stagnant until ~1500. At that point higher productivity started to get eaten up by population growth. An “iron law” of human history. Table 24 on page 61 of the working paper has estimates for various nations. I plotted them on a chart for 1300 to 1700:
I don’t have time to reading the working paper right now, but I think these results do suggest some limitations of GDP calculations. Even the poor in most nations have watched television, or known someone with access to a mobile phone. Affluence isn’t just a number. On the other hand, from what I have read the English peasant of 1450 was rather healthy and hearty because of the large surplus of land over labor. So in that way I do think the GDP measure is telling us something real. But then the translation of currency into food is more straightforward than currency into computational processing power. The latter category just didn’t exist in 1300.
November 28, 2010
I am about two-thirds of the way through Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and I have to agree with Tyler Cowen’s assessment so far. The author is an archaeologist, and though a little less shy in regards to general theory than most in his profession, he still seems to exhibit the tendency to focus on thick-detail without any elegant theoretical scaffolding. In some ways it is an inversion of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, which manifests an economist’s preference for stylized system-building at the expense of the messy residual. Why the West Rules has added almost no broad-brush theoretical returns beyond what you could find in Guns, Germs and Steel and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Though the author has a lot of scrupulously footnoted detail which probably makes Why the West Rules a worthy read.
But this post isn’t a review of Why the West Rules, rather, it’s a lament as to the total intellectual unpreparedness of the West’s intellectual class for the de facto end of the age of white supremacy,* the high tide of which is documented in the final chapters of this book (I skimmed them chapters ahead of time). The de jure end of the age of white supremacy probably spanned the victory of the allies during World War II down to desegregation in the United States in the 1960s. But despite the official end of the ideology of white racial superiority, the white-majority nations of the world were and are objectively superior in metrics such as Human Development Index. On a per capita basis they will remain so for a while longer:
And yet the trend lines are converging between East Asian and developed white Western nations. We are now moving beyond the time when we can talk about ‘the West vs. the Rest.’ There are ~1.3 billion Chinese in China itself, which is approximately the total number of people of white European descent in the world.** In much of Africa China is a rising economic and social presence. There are likely more expatriate Chinese in Africa than there are expatriate whites. Enter “China + any region of the world” into Google, and you’ll come back with plenty of interesting results.
But from what I can tell Westerners, of all colors, are totally intellectually unprepared for the radical shift in geopolitics which is occurring as we speak. Kvetching about China’s trade surplus does not intellectual preparedness make. Most white liberals have an anti-colonialist outlook, and favor the liberation of peoples of color in the face of white supremacy. But this normative framework only makes sense in light of a model whereby white domination and agency are the preeminent considerations in the lives of the people of color. In much of the world that is not necessarily the case anymore. In Australia you have an inversion of the old narrative, insofar as an commodity boom driven by Chinese demand has arguably kept that nation’s economy relatively buoyant!
The white supremacy model (WSM) isn’t only found among white people. It’s very dominant among colored people who reflect on these issues. Indians are haunted by British colonialism. Latin Americans by Yankee imperialism. Middle Eastern Muslims by the Jewish-Western condominium. The Chinese still remember the de facto colonialism which their nation was subjected to after the Opium Wars.
In graphic terms what you have as a model is like so:
In the late 19th century the whole world became Greater Europe’s playground. Non-European thinkers had to respond to the European challenge. There was no other game in town. To some extent that response continued and elaborated after the collapse of European political hegemony in the 1950s and 1960s; ergo, postcolonialism.
This is probably more accurate today than the old model, and will certainly be more accurate within the next generation:
Because of its population and economic dynamism China will naturally come to rival Greater Europe in its influence and impact on the rest of the world. No other nations besides East Asian ones have shown an ability to match Greater Europe in HDI. The map to the left of literacy rates is I believe a good predictor of potential median HDI and per capita economic productivity ceilings for the next generation or two. South Asia is the world leader in absolute concentrated human misery, both in illiteracy and malnutrition. I think India will be influential and powerful because of raw numbers, but there is no worry that it will be a per capita power. Africa is prospering thanks to the Chinese fueled commodity boom, but it too is low on the human and institutional capital totem pole to leverage its demographic dynamism. Australia is too small in population to be influential. If the trends in its economy remain, that it becomes in large part a commodity source for China, then I think it will be prey to being muscled by the East Asian superpower just as Latin American nations traditionally were by the United States, even without military intervention, because of the asymmetry in economic dependency. Latin American nations like Brazil are populous and on the ‘ascension graph’, but they have problems with wide variance in human capital, just like India.
In civilizational terms we are not going from a unipolar world to a multipolar world. We’re going from a unipolar world to a bipolar world. This means that there must be a revision to our intellectual toolkit. Critics of the West, whether they’re white or colored, still have a superficial understanding of the Dead White Men and their history. Islamic revisionists who make a case for the centrality and superiority of their tradition do so with the West as an explicit or implicit counterpoint. The indigenous traditions of India, Africa, or China, were not relevant to these arguments. Europe was the sun, around with other civilizational planets circled.
Not so any longer. Consider these headlines: China workers killed in Pakistan and Algeria: Xenophobia against Chinese on the rise in Africa. Or Brazil’s huge new port highlights China’s drive into South America. China eyes rail link to Chittagong. A pushcart war in the streets of Milan’s Chinatown. ‘Too Asian’? – Worries that efforts in the U.S. to limit enrollment of Asian students in top universities may migrate to Canada.
This is a different dynamic than the rise of the one-dimensional Arab and Soviet petro-states of the 1970s in a qualitative sense. China and its Diaspora are a full-throated economic counterweight to the two century international geopolitical and cultural dominance of Greater Europe. It is also a different dynamic than the migration of various colored peoples into Western nations after World War II, where these groups are slotted into the lower social and economic rungs, and draw hostility and contempt from some whites and patronizing sympathy and self-interested bureaucratic-managerial concern from others. Japan and the “Asian Tigers” were limited by their demographic modesty when set next to Greater European nations like the United States.
How should people readjust to this world? Obviously following economic statistics and political events are essential to recalibrating with judicious perspective and caution. The world’s intellectual classes, Western and non-Western, have been conditioned to white supremacy for so long that no one remembers a time when it was any different.*** One of the ironies of WSM is that non-whites rarely know the history or culture of other non-whites to the same extent that they know that of whites. In other words, South Asians know their history and that of whites, Africans know their history and that of whites, East Asians know their history and that of whites, etc. (the main exception may be Korea, which was colonized by the Japanese). It’s ironic because the implicit inference of WSM is that non-whites have common interests against the white master race. Though this is admittedly rational because the concerns, values, and motivations of the masters are more relevant than those of other helots. The term ‘master race’ has positive connotations while a ‘the cancer of human history’ has negative ones, but no matter, both indicate that the object of concern is worthy and of note. But the blind-spot in this mode of thinking is that colored people who supposedly have solidarity are totally ignorant of each other’s respective substance.
This was all of purely academic interest until the resurgence of East Asia, and China in particular. It is for example well known that Chinese have a strong racial consciousness. During the Maoist period this was dampened by ideology. China’s objective lack of development for most of the 20th century almost certainly suppressed some of the racial disdain which is an element of Han chauvinism. But the Chinese, like East Asians in general, have a degree of race consciousness which expresses on the surface to an extent that would be surprising and alarming to most whites, excepting perhaps Afrikaners, some white American Southerners, and partisans of nationalist parties in Europe. This predates the modern era insofar as the Chinese have a long history of dehumanizing ‘barbarians’ and looking down on dark-skinned peoples (e.g., see the reports of the legation sent to the Khmer kingdom of Funan, which lingered upon their nakedness and darkness of complexion). But the real genesis of contemporary attitudes may be rooted in the synthesis of Chinese folk attitudes and early 20th century racial anthropology, already evident in the writings of principals in the May Fourth Movement.
Contrary to the Chung Kuo science fiction future history I have no expectation that Han racism will lead to a genocidal war of extermination against the black and brown peoples of the world. Rather, the attitudes in common circulation in China and other East Asian nations must be understood by any politician, diplomat or businessman, who wants to operate in that region. Any dark-skinned South Asian who expects “Asian” fellow-feeling in China may be in for a surprise. Chinese opinions of people of African descent are even more checkered. During the days of Japan Inc. cultural fluency was already seen to be critical, but because China is one order of magnitude more populous than Japan in 30-40 years it will be much more of an international social and economic presence. Interestingly 20% of individuals on the internet are already Chinese nationals, vs. 5% of Japanese (though the difference in penetration rates is 30% vs. 80%).
Where does this leave us? By the end of our lives those of us in early adulthood will live in a bipolar world. China and the West will together be drivers of consumption. When it comes to development aid or investment in poorer nations the West will have a substantive rival. These two will hold up the sky together. With this will come more prominence of Chinese culture, and a necessity for an understanding of that civilization’s history, its values. Though I’m making a pragmatic and utilitarian case for understanding and knowledge here, I do want to enter into the record than an appreciation of the history of the Chinese is an understanding of the history of a substantial proportion of humanity. It is part of our common history, just as Greece and Rome are.
With that, at the end of this post are a list of books which I’ve found useful, and obviously memorable, in trying to understand the shape of the Chinese past, and how the present came to be. Personal preference and bias is obviously operative. The fact that a standalone work on Xun Zi is listed below, and Mencius is not, says a lot about my personal evaluation of the two in relation to each other.
* I use “white” as a compound of both genetic and cultural qualities. So, Turks are not classified as white in this sense, while Ashkenazi Jews are, even though both groups are equivalently white when compared to “reference” populations which no one would deny are white, such as the English, in a genetic sense. So a person of Turkish ethnic origin who converts to Christianity, such as Boris Johnson’s ancestor (originally Bey), can generally be accepted as white because of their appearance. In contrast, someone who has noticeable non-white appearance, a South Asian for example, remains non-white despite their Christianity.
** You can do the back-of-the-envelope pretty easily. Europe, + 0.70 X USA + Canada + Australia + New Zealand + 1/3 Latin America is a good approximation. Of course a substantial proportion of the other 2/3 of Latin Americans have some white European ancestry, but whiteness a privilege which generally comes only through purity of blood, so they can be ignored.
*** I would peg the closing of the previous multipolar world to the second half of the 18th century, though the fact of European dominance did not ripen until the Opium Wars, which illustrated that even the greatest of non-Euroepan powers was ineffectual against European military mobilization.
April 29, 2010
OECD’s Gurría mourns death of economist Angus Maddison. I highly recommend his books such as Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD. I would concede that the data would sometimes be sketchy or fragmentary, but when it comes to historical models there’s a lot more jabber than legwork. It is notable how much the jabberers have citations to Maddison’s research.
January 21, 2010
Well, just the way I asked it, our gut feelings about the economically powerful are obviously not a product of hunter-gatherer life, given that such societies have minimal hierarchy, and so minimal disparities in power, material wealth, privileges of all kinds, etc. Hunter-gatherers don’t even tolerate would-be elite-strivers, so beyond a blanket condemnation of trying to be a big-shot, they don’t have the subtler attitudes that agricultural and industrial people do — these latter groups tolerate and somewhat respect elites but resent and envy them at the same time.
So that leaves two major eras — agricultural and industrial societies. I’m going to refer to these instead by terms that North, Wallis, & Weingast use in their excellent book Violence and Social Orders. Their framework for categorizing societies is based on how violence is controlled. In the primitive social order — hunter-gatherer life — there are no organizations that prevent violence, so homicide rates are the highest of all societies. At the next step up, limited-access social orders — or “natural states” that sprung up with agriculture — substantially reduce the level of violence by giving the violence specialists (strongmen, mafia dons, etc.) an incentive to not go to war all the time. Each strongman and his circle of cronies has a tacit agreement with the other strongmen — who all make up a dominant coalition — that I’ll leave you to exploit the peasants living on your land if you leave me to exploit the peasants on my land.
This way, the strongman doesn’t have to work very much to live a comfortable life — just steal what he wants from the peasants on his land, and protect them should violence break out. Why won’t one strongman just raid another to get his land, peasants, food, and women? Because if this type of civil war breaks out, everyone’s land gets ravaged, everyone’s peasants can’t produce much food, and so every strongman will lose their easy source of free goodies (rents).
The members of the dominant coalition also agree to limit access to their circle, to limit people’s ability to form organizations, etc. If they let anybody join their group, or form a rival coalition, their slice of the pie would shrink. And this is a Malthusian economy, so the pie isn’t going to get much bigger within their lifetimes. So by restricting (though not closing off) access to the dominant coalition, each member maintains a pretty enjoyable size of the rents that they extract from the peasants. Why wouldn’t those outside the dominant coalition not try to form their own rival group anyway? Because the strongmen of the area are already part of the dominant coalition — only the relative wimps could try to stage a rebellion, and the strongmen would immediately and violently crush such an uprising.
It’s not that one faction of the coalition will never raid another, just that this will be rare and only when the target faction has lost some of its share in the balance of power — maybe they had 5 strongmen but now only 1. Obviously the other factions aren’t going to let that 1 strongman enjoy the rents that 5 were before, while they enjoy average rents — they’re going to raid him and take enough so that he’s left with what seems his fair share. Aside from these rare instances, there will be a pretty stable peace. There may be opportunistic violence among peasants, like one drunk killing another in a tavern, but nothing like getting caught in a civil war. And they certainly won’t be subject to the constant threat of being killed and their land burned in a pre-dawn raid by the neighboring tribe, as they would face in a stateless hunter-gatherer society. As a result, homicide rates are much lower in these natural states than in stateless societies.
Above natural states are open-access orders, which characterize societies that have market economies and competitive politics. Here access to the elite is open to anyone who can prove themselves worthy — it is not artificially restricted in order to preserve large rents for the incumbents. The pie can be made bigger with more people at the top, since you only get to the top in such societies by making and selling things that people want. Elite members compete against each other based on the quality and price of the goods and services they sell — it’s a mercantile elite — rather than based on who is better at violence than the others. If the elites are flabby, upstarts can readily form their own organizations — as opposed to not having the freedom to do so — that, if better, will dethrone the incumbents. Since violence is no longer part of elite competition, homicide rates are the lowest of all types of societies.
OK, now let’s take a look at just two innate views that most people have about how the business world works or what economic elites are like, and see how these are adaptations to natural states rather than to the very new open-access orders (which have only existed in Western Europe since about 1850 or so). One is the conviction, common even among many businessmen, that market share matters more than making profits — that being more popular trumps being more profitable. The other is most people’s mistrust of companies that dominate their entire industry, like Microsoft in computers.
First, the view that capturing more of the audience — whether measured by the portion of all sales dollars that head your way or the portion of all consumers who come to you — matters more than increasing revenues and decreasing costs — boosting profits — remains incredibly common. Thus we always hear about how a start-up must offer their stuff for free or nearly free in order to attract the largest crowd, and once they’ve got them locked in, make money off of them somehow — by charging them later on, by selling the audience to advertisers, etc. This thinking was widespread during the dot-com bubble, and there was a neat management-oriented book written about it called The Myth of Market Share.
Of course, that hasn’t gone away since then, as everyone says that “providers of online content” can never charge their consumers. The business model must be to give away something cool for free, attract a huge group of followers, and sell this audience to advertisers. (I don’t think most people believe that charging a subset for “premium content” is going to make them rich.) For example, here is Felix Salmon’s reaction to the NYT‘s official statement that they’re going to start charging for website access starting in 2011:
Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.
Wrong. YouTube is the most popular provider of free media, but they haven’t made jackshit four years after their founding. Ditto Wikipedia. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times websites charge, and they’re incredibly profitable — and popular too (the WSJ has the highest newspaper circulation in the US, ousting USA Today). There is no such thing as “go after audiences” — they must do that in a way that’s profitable, not just in a way that makes them popular. If you could “watch revenues follow” by merely going after an audience, everyone would be billionaires.
The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.
As such, a project which was meant to bring nytimes.com into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.
This sums up the pre-industrial mindset perfectly: who cares about getting paid more and spending less, when what truly matters is owning a brand that is popular, influential, and celebrated and sucked up to? In a natural state, that is the non-violent path to success because you can only become a member of the dominant coalition by knowing the right in-members. They will require you to have a certain amount of influence, prestige, power, etc., in order to let you move up in rank. It doesn’t matter if you nearly bankrupt yourself in the process of navigating these personalized patron-client networks because once you become popular and influential enough, you stand a good chance of being allowed into the dominant coalition and then coasting on rents for the rest of your life.
Clearly that doesn’t work in an open-access, competitive market economy where interactions are impersonal rather than crony-like. If you are popular and influential while paying no attention to costs and revenues, guess what — there are more profit-focused competitors who can form rival companies and bulldoze over you right away. Again look at how spectacularly the WSJ has kicked the NYT‘s ass, not just in crude terms of circulation and dollars but also in terms of the quality of their website. They broadcast twice-daily video news summaries and a host of other briefer videos, offer thriving online forums, and on and on.
Again, in the open-access societies, those who achieve elite status do so by competing on the margins of quality and price of their products. You deliver high-quality stuff at a low price while keeping your costs down, and you scoop up a large share of the market and obtain prestige and influence — not the other way around. In fairness, not many practicing businessmen fall into this pre-industrial mindset because they won’t be practicing for very long, just as businessmen who cried for a complete end to free trade would go under. It’s mostly cultural commentators who preach the myth of market share, going with what their natural-state-adapted brain reflexively believes.
Next, take the case of how much we fear companies that comes to dominate their industry. People freak out because they think the giant, having wiped out the competitors, will enjoy a carte blanche to exploit them in all sorts of ways — higher prices, lower output, shoddier quality, etc. We demand the protector of the people to step in and do something about it — bust them up, tie them down, resurrect their dead competitors, just something!
That attitude is thoroughly irrational in an open-access society. Typically, the way you get that big is that you provided customers with stuff that they wanted at a low price and high quality. If you tried to sell people junk that they didn’t want at a high price and terrible quality, guess how much of the market you will end up commanding. That’s correct: zero. And even if such a company grew complacent and inertia set in, there’s nothing to worry about in an open-access society because anyone is free to form their own rival organization to drive the sluggish incumbent out.
The video game industry provides a clear example. Atari dominated the home system market in the late ’70s and early ’80s but couldn’t adapt to changing tastes — and were completely destroyed by newcomer Nintendo. But even Nintendo couldn’t adapt to the changing tastes of the mid-’90s and early 2000s — and were summarily dethroned by newcomer Sony. Of course, inertia set in at Sony and they have recently been displaced by — Nintendo! It doesn’t even have to be a newcomer, just someone who knows what people want and how to get it to them at a low price. There was no government intervention necessary to bust up Atari in the mid-’80s or Nintendo in the mid-90s or Sony in the mid-2000s. The open and competitive market process took care of everything.
But think back to life in a natural state. If one faction obtained complete control over the dominant coalition, the ever so important balance of power would be lost. You the peasant would still be just as exploited as before — same amount of food taken — but now you’re getting nothing in return. At least before, you got protection just in case the strongmen from other factions dared to invade your own master’s land. Now that master serves no protective purpose. Before, you could construe the relationship as at least somewhat fair — he benefited you and you benefited him. Now you’re entirely his slave; or equivalently, he is no longer a partial but a 100% parasite.
You can understand why minds that are adapted to natural states would find market domination by a single or even small handful of firms ominous. It is not possible to vote with your dollars and instantly boot out the market-dominator, so some other Really Strong Group must act on your behalf to do so. Why, the government is just such a group! Normal people will demand that vanquished competitors be restored, not out of compassion for those who they feel were unfairly driven out — the public shed no tears for Netscape during the Microsoft antitrust trial — but in order to restore a balance of power. That notion — the healthy effect for us normal people of there being a balance of power — is only appropriate to natural states, where one faction checks another, not to open-access societies where one firm can typically only drive another out of business by serving us better.
By the way, this shows that the public choice view of antitrust law is wrong. The facts are that antitrust law in practice goes after harmless and beneficial giants, hamstringing their ability to serve consumers. There is little to no evidence that such beatdowns have boosted output that had been falling, lowered prices that had been rising, or improved quality that had been eroding. Typically the lawsuits are brought by the loser businesses who lost fair and square, and obviously the antitrust bureaucrats enjoy full employment by regularly going after businesses.
But we live in a society with competitive politics and free elections. If voters truly did not approve of antitrust practices that beat up on corporate giants, we wouldn’t see it — the offenders would be driven out of office. And why is it that only one group of special interests gets the full support of bureaucrats — that is, the loser businesses have influence with the government, while the winner business gets no respect. How can a marginal special interest group overpower an industry giant? It must be that all this is allowed to go on because voters approve of and even demand that these things happen — we don’t want Microsoft to grow too big or they will enslave us!
This is a special case of what Bryan Caplan writes about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: where special interests succeed in buying off the government, it is only in areas where the public truly supports the special interests. For example, the public is largely in favor of steel tariffs if the American steel industry is suffering — hey, we gotta help our brothers out! They are also in favor of subsidies to agribusiness — if we didn’t subsidize them, they couldn’t provide us with any food! And those subsidies are popular even in states where farming is minimal. So, such policies are not the result of special interests hijacking the government and ramrodding through policies that citizens don’t really want. In reality, it is just the ignorant public getting what it asked for.
It seems useful when we look at the systematic biases that people have regarding economics and politics to bear in mind what political and economic life was like in the natural state stage of our history. Modern economics does not tell us about that environment but instead about the open-access environment. (Actually, there’s a decent trace of it in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which mentions cabals and factions almost as much as Machiavelli — and he meant real factions, ones that would war against each other, not the domesticated parties we have today.)
We obviously are not adapted to hunter-gatherer existence in these domains — we would cut down the status-seekers or cast them out right away, rather than tolerate them and even work for them. At the same time, we evidently haven’t had enough generations to adapt to markets and governments that are both open and competitive. That is certain to pull our intuitions in certain directions, particularly toward a distrust of market-dominating firms and toward advising businesses to pursue popularity and influence more than profitability, although I’m sure I could list others if I thought about it longer.
January 17, 2010
In the comments below I was outlining a simple model which really is easiest to communicate with a chart. I removed the labels on the Y and X axes because the details don’t matter, the X axis is simply “time,” and the Y axis simply reflects the magnitudes of the three trendlines. The key is to focus on the relationship between the three. I’ve labeled for clarity, but more verbal exposition below….
For most of the human history we’ve been hunter-gatherers. But over the past 10,000 years there was a switch in lifestyle, farming has emerged independently in several locations, and filled in all the territory in between. One truism of modern cultural anthropology is that this was a big mistake, that hunter-gatherer lifestyles were superior to those of peasant farmers, less miserable with much more free time. I think this is somewhat unsubtle, which is ironic since cultural anthropologists really love to deconstruct the errors of others which they themselves are guilty of (i.e., in this case, the normative aspect immediately jumps out in the scholarship. There’s little doubt as to who they’re “rooting” for).
I am willing to grant that the median hunter-gatherer exhibits somewhat less morbidity than the median farmer. They’re taller and have better teeth than farmers. Compared to modern people living in developed countries though the differences will seem trivial, so remember that we’re talking on the margins here. So why did societies transition from hunter-gathering to farming? I doubt there’s one simple answer, but there are some general facts which are obvious.
There’s plenty of evidence that farming supports many more people per unit of land, so in pure demographic terms hunter-gathering was bound to be doomed. They didn’t have the weight of numbers. But why did the initial farmers transition from being hunter-gatherers to farmers in the first place? Because I think that farming was initially the rational individual choice, and led to more potential wealth and reproductive fitness. Remember, there’s a big difference between existing in a state of land surplus and one of labor surplus. American farmers were among the healthiest and most fertile human populations which had ever lived before the modern era. Pioneers had huge families, and continued to push out to the frontier. This was not the lot of Russian serfs or Irish potato farmers. But eventually frontiers close, and Malthusian logic kicks in. The population eventually has nowhere to go, and the surplus of land disappears. At this point you reach a “stationary state,” where a peasant society oscillates around its equilibrium population.
I suspect that new farming populations which slam up against the Malthusian limit suffered even more misery than their descendants. This is because I believe that their demographic explosion had outrun their biological and cultural capacity to respond to the consequences of the changes wrought upon their environment. First and foremost, disease. During the expansionary phase densities would have risen, and infectious diseases would have begun to take hold. But only during the stationary state would they become truly endemic as populations become less physiologically fit due to nutritional deficiencies. The initial generations of farmers who reached the stationary state would have been ravaged by epidemics, to which they’d only slowly develop immunological responses (slowly on a human historical scale, though fast on a evolutionary one). This is even evident in relatively recent historical period; Italians developed biological and cultural adaptations to the emergence of malaria after the fall of Rome (in terms of culture, there was a shift toward settlement in higher locations).
But there would be more to adapt to than disease. Diet would be a major issue. During the expansionary phase it seems plausible that farmers could supplement their cereal based diet with wild game. But once they hit the stationary phase they would face the trade-off between quantity and quality in terms of their foodstuffs. Hunter-gathering is relatively inefficient, and can’t extract as many calories per unit out of an acre (at least an order of magnitude less), but the diet tends to be relatively balanced, rich in micronutrients, and often fats and protein as well. The initial shock to the physiology would be great, but over time adaptations would emerge to buffer farmers somewhat from the ill effects of their deficiencies. This is one hypothesis for the emergence of light skin, as a way to synthesize vitamin D endogenously, as well as greater production of enzymes such as amylase and persistence of lactase, which break down nutrients which dominate the diet of agriculturalists.
Once societies reached a stationary state it would take great shocks to push them to a position where becoming hunter-gatherers again might be an option. A population drop of 50%, not uncommon due to plague or political collapse, would still not be low enough so that the remaining individuals would be able to subsist upon game and non-cultivated plant material. Additionally the ecology would surely have been radically altered so that many of the large game animals which might have been the ideal sources of sustenance in the past would be locally extinct. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the highland Maya city-states seems to have resulted in lower population densities and reduced social complexity, but in both regions agriculture remained dominant. On the other hand, there is some evidence that the Mississippian societies might have experienced die offs on the order of 90% due to contact with Spanish explorers, and later ethnography by European settlers suggests much simpler tribal societies than what the Spaniards had encountered. Though these tribal groupings, such as the Creeks, still knew how to farm, it seems that judging from the conflicts which emerged due to European encroachment on hunting grounds that this population drop was great enough to allow for a greater reversion to the pre-agricultural lifestyle than was able to occur elsewhere. But then the pre-Columbian exchange and the exposure of native populations to the 10,000 years of Eurasian pathogen evolution was to some extent a sui generis event.
The model I highlight above is very stylized, and I am aware that most societies go through multiple cycles of cultural, and possibly biological, adaptation. The putative massive die off of native populations of the New World may have resulted in a reversion to simpler hunter-gatherer cultural forms in many regions (North America, the Amazon), and also reduced morbidity as diets once more became diversified and indigenous infectious diseases abated due to increased physiological health and decreased population density. In China between 1400 and 1800 there was a massive expansion of population beyond the equilibrium established between the Han and Song dynasties. The reasons for this are manifold, but one was perhaps the introduction of New World crops. Clearly in Ireland the introduction of the potato initially resulted in greater health for the population of that island, as in the 18th century the Irish were taller than the English because of their enthusiastic adoption of the new crop.
Over the long term, at least from the perspective of contemporary humans, agriculture was not a disaster. Dense populations of farmers eventually gave rise to social complexity and specialization, and so greater productivity. Up until the 19th century productivity gains were invariably absorbed by population growth or abolished by natural responses (e.g., in the latter case Sumerian irrigation techniques resulted in gains in productivity, but these were eventually diminished by salinization which entailed a shift from wheat to barley, and eventually an abandonment of many fields). Additionally, the rise of mass society almost immediately birthed kleptocratic rentier classes, as well as rigid social forms which constrained human individual choice and possibilities for self-actualization. The noble savage who lives in poverty but has freedom may look ludicrous to us today, but from the perspective of an 18th century peasant who lives in poverty but has no freedom it may seem a much more appealing model (though these sorts of ideas were in any case the purview of leisure classes).* But 10,000 years of crooks who innovate so that they could continue to steal more efficiently eventually gave rise to what we call modern capitalism, which broke out of the zero-sum mentality and banished Malthusian logic, at least temporarily (remember that it is critical to note that population growth leveled off after the demographic transition, which allowed us to experience the gains in productivity as wealth and not more humans).
I should qualify this though by noting that we can’t know if the emergence of modern capitalism was inevitable in a historical sense. It happened once in Western Europe, and has spread through the rest of the world through emulation (Japan) or demographic expansion (the United States). The only possible “close call” was Song China, which had many of the institutional and technological preconditions, but never made the leap (whether that was because of the nature of the Chinese bureaucratic state or the disruption of the Song path toward capitalism by the Mongol conquest, we’ll never know). By contrast, the spread of agriculture was likely inevitable.** Agricultural emerged at least twice, in the Old and New World, and likely multiple times in the Old World. Kings, armies and literacy, and many of the accoutrements of what we would term “civilization” arose both in the Old and New World after the last Ice Age. In all likelihood a confluence of biological, cultural and ecological conditions which were necessary for the rise of agricultural civilization were all in place ten thousand years ago. This also suggests that certain biological adaptations (e.g., lactase persistence) were also inevitable.
* Though from what I have read hunter-gatherers are strongly constrained by their own mores in a manner which rivals that of traditional peasant societies; only they have no priests who have written the customs down and serve as interpreters. Rather, it is the band (mob?) which arbitrates.
** We have data on independent shifts toward agricultural lifestyles. We don’t have data on independent shifts toward modern capitalist economies. I suspect that the shift toward capitalism is probably inevitable over the long term because I don’t think pre-modern agricultural civilizations would ever have been exploitative enough of the natural resource base that they would have been subject to worldwide collapse in any normal timescale. So there would always be potential civilizations from which modern post-Malthusian technological civilization could have emerged.
November 19, 2009
This is more a question for readers who know this stuff, what do you think about Patricia Crone & company in their revision of the early history of Islam? I’m more of a Hugh Kennedy guy because I don’t know much about this field and would prefer to stick to the mainstream, but a few years ago I read a short monograph on representational art in mid-Umayyad Syria, and it just didn’t “feel right” in the context of the traditional narrative. The book didn’t really talk much about history, but rather more the Late Antique cultural influences on the Umayyad’s. But what I encountered seemed more like a conventional society of the post-Roman Near East than anything I would recognize as “Muslim.” Of course it’s all impressionistic, and I don’t have a good feel of the lay of the land, so I dismissed it. But how about those of you who know the primary sources? I can’t find Daniel Larison’s opinion on this sort of revisionism via Google, and I would be curious has to his views (since he knows Byzantine history and its sources, and had an interest in Islam at some point as well).