About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?

“You try to explain two broad things about sustained economic growth: why it started when it did (in the mid-18th century) and why it started where it did (England). Let’s start with the when. What took so long? Humans invented agriculture maybe 10,000 years ago. Why did it take 9,800 years or so for that to lead to real economic growth?”

“This is one of the key questions in all of economics. Its answer is central to why some countries grew rich while others have not. The simplest answer is that economic growth occurred only after the rate of technological innovation became highly sustained. Without sustained technological innovation, any one-off economic improvement will not lead to sustained growth. Incomes will rise in the short run, but over time people will have more babies and those babies will eat up all the economic surplus. This is known as the “Malthusian trap,” after Thomas Malthus, a British clergyman of the late 18th century. This Malthusian logic explains the pre-industrial world pretty well.”

“The question is why it took so long for the rate of technological innovation to grow as it did. This is one of the central questions we attempt to answer in this book. And there is not one “silver bullet” answer. For one, sustained innovation requires institutions that limit confiscation by the government (and protect other property rights more generally). But most societies in world history were weak on this dimension.
Sustained innovation also requires cultural values that support innovation and encourage understanding of how the world works. Societies in which work is looked down upon are unlikely to experience sustained innovation.

Ultimately (and this matters for the acceleration in growth we observe from the late 19th to the 20th centuries), it also helps if families limit the number of children they have. This does not necessarily contribute to innovation, but it does mean that innovation will more quickly translate into growth.

Most societies in world history had none of these features, let alone all of them. It took a while for all of these preconditions to coalesce in one nation. But once it did, economic growth took off.”

“[In our view], the decisive break responsible for industrialization rests on developments that seem to be only indirectly connected to the story of colonial exploitation. But future work might change my opinion on this subject.”

“On the one hand, the sugar economy boomed in the 17th and 18th centuries, and cotton was the major input into the textile factories at the center of Britain’s industrialization. These crops were produced with slave and coerced labor.

On the other hand, the evidence is fairly weak of a connection between the products of exploited labor and the innovations that were central to the onset of modern economic growth. This is not to deny a connection between the two, and reasonable people disagree over the relevant counterfactuals. Had there been no slave labor in the New World, would the Lancashire factories have been able to get enough cheap cotton to make innovation worthwhile? Would innovation have been possible with more expensive cotton of different quality from other parts of the world?

Our book leads to the conclusion that there is no silver bullet explanation for why the world became rich. Colonization likely played some role, and it likely played a much greater role in keeping large parts of the formerly colonized world poor. But there are many key features of the onset of growth that cannot really be accounted for by colonization. Most importantly, explaining how the world became rich requires an explanation for why the rate of technological change rose so rapidly. Colonization may have played an indirect role in this process, but there are many other causes we highlight that were much more direct and relevant.”

The long, long, twisty affair between the US military and Hollywood

“It came like a bolt from the blue, a gift from the heavens. In 1986, audiences flocked to theaters to see Tony Scott’s Top Gun, starring a fresh-faced Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a hotshot Navy aviator bent on stardom. They kept coming for seven months. When the dust settled, the film had brought in over $176 million. Unlike its protagonist, who came in second at the eponymous elite flight academy, the film ended 1986 the top earner of the year.
But for the Navy, Top Gun was more than just a movie. It was a recruitment bonanza.

Military recruiting stations were set up outside movie theaters, catching wannabe flyboys hopped up on adrenaline and vibes. Others enlisted on their own. Interest in the armed forces, primarily the Navy and the Air Force, rose that year, though it’s unclear just how much. Naval aviator applications were claimed to have increased by a staggering 500 percent.”

Jackass Embodied Gen X’s Casual Indifference to Authority

“in a recent interview with the New York Times, Wee Man noted that American culture has changed since the show first ran:

“Gender stuff and, you know, things like that….When we first started, there was never going to be a girl in it,” he said. “We didn’t think it was funny for girls to get hurt. For us, it was like, ‘That’s not funny’ — hurting a girl.” Now, paradoxically, it would be in poor taste to not hurt a girl on “Jackass” — and so they do.””

Did Christianity Cause Western Values? –Video Sources

An Eccentric Tradition: The Paradox of “Western Values” Peter Harrison. 1 17 2018. ABC Religion & Ethics. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/an-eccentric-tradition-the-paradox-of-western-values/10095044 Did Christianity Create Liberalism? Samuel Moyn. 2 9 2015. Boston Review. https://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/samuel-moyn-larry-siedentop-christianity-liberalism-history The Great Subversion: The Scandalous Origins of Human Rights Ronald Osborn. 2015.

Putin is rewriting history to justify his threats to Ukraine

“Specifically, much of Russia’s political positioning to launch an incursion into Ukrainian territory is based on Putin’s claim that Ukraine — like Russia, a former Soviet state — is an extension of Russia, the “little brother” that has been led astray by the West and must be reincorporated into the family. Thus, he sees Ukraine’s increasing westward turn as a provocation, by both Ukraine and NATO.

In reality, however, Ukraine has long been distinct from Russia, experts told Vox, and Putin’s current mythologizing of the Russia-Ukraine relationship fits a pattern of falsehoods designed to reconstitute imperial glory, and more importantly, to shield Putin from the threat of democracy in former Soviet republics — and possibly in Russia itself.

That fear informs the potential conflict brewing along the Ukrainian border, Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, told Vox via email.

“It looks like Putin is committed to preventing the deepening cooperation between Ukraine and the US/the West,” Snegovaya said, “which he views as Russia losing Ukraine.”

Snegovaya points to a 2021 essay by Putin, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” as an example of his thinking.

In the essay, Putin called the two nations “essentially the same historical and spiritual space,” tracing his notion of a shared history back more than a thousand years. That assertion, though, elides a long history of differences between the two countries, and even more significantly, flies in the face of current Ukrainian attitudes, which favor membership in both NATO and the EU, (though neither is likely in the near future).”

“Putin’s argument, as he lays it out in his 2021 essay, hinges on the idea that both nations descend from an early princedom called Kyivan Rus, which encompassed some of modern-day Ukraine and stretched north into the Baltic countries. But the historical ties between that entity and what was then Muscovy — part of modern-day Russia — aren’t particularly significant, and the idea that modern Russia evolved from Kyivan Rus doesn’t carry much weight, Jensen said.”

“Ukraine, for its part, is distinct from Russia in many ways and has been influenced by a number of different cultures, including by Central European countries in the west, and present-day Greece and Turkey in the south. Over the centuries Ukraine was also conquered by a number of different groups, including the Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, and Swedes, as well as, eventually, the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine the Great.”

“Although Ukraine had been part of the Russian empire at various points in history, Soviet propaganda cemented the idea, at least in older generations of Ukrainians, that their country was intertwined with the Soviet Union, and indeed was “Little Russia,” as Volodymyr Kravchenko explains in Harvard’s journal of Ukrainian studies, though in reality Ukrainian nationalism existed in some form throughout the 20th century.

In the present day, Putin’s insistence that Russia and Ukraine are historically and “spiritually” the same country allows him to push another narrative — that Ukraine’s openness to joining NATO and increasing alliances with the US and European countries is both a betrayal and somehow disingenuous, a sinister plot to tear the two nations apart.”

“The Budapest agreement saw Ukraine hand over its nuclear weapons to Russia for disposal in exchange for security assurances from the Kremlin, the US, and the UK. Under that agreement, the US assured Ukraine not only that it would respect the country’s borders and sovereignty, but also that it would respond should Russia not abide by the agreement.

Later, the Orange Revolution in 2004 — in which the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, lost a closely monitored election held after protests against Yanukovych’s attempt to steal the initial presidential election — marked a turning point in Ukrainian politics, away from Russia and toward democratic institutions. While Yanukovych did eventually come to power in 2010, Ukrainian society had made a decisive break with the past by that point, and pro-democracy reforms in response to the 2004 protests contributed to Yanukovych’s downfall in 2014.

Then, the Euromaidan revolution, which began after Yanukovych backed out of a trade agreement with the EU in 2013, eventually forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia the following year. According to Peter Dickinson, writing for the Atlantic Council, both the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan “underlined Ukraine’s European choice and cemented the country’s rejection of a Russian reunion.””

Meritocracy is bad

“The current system of social hierarchy in the United States is of course not a perfect meritocracy (nothing is ever perfect), but it’s genuinely pretty successful on its own meritocratic terms. The problem is that those terms are bad. American society will not get better if we try to make it more genuinely meritocratic along any dimension of possible understanding of what the term means. What we need to do is relax our level of ideological investment in the idea of meritocracy and be more chill.”

“If you want a story about the problem with meritocracy, I would read Dylan Scott’s recent article about what researchers have found about the consequences of private equity takeovers of nursing homes:
“The researchers studied patients who stayed at a skilled nursing facility after an acute episode at a hospital, looking at deaths that fell within the 90-day period after they left the nursing home. They found that going to a private equity-owned nursing home increased mortality for patients by 10 percent against the overall average.

Or to put it another way: “This estimate implies about 20,150 Medicare lives lost due to [private equity] ownership of nursing homes during our sample period” of 12 years, the authors — Atul Gupta, Sabrina Howell, Constantine Yannelis, and Abhinav Gupta — wrote. That’s more than 1,000 deaths every year, on average.”

Why do private equity takeovers kill so many people? It’s not because the Wall Street boys are dimwitted. The people who work in private equity are very smart. Their job is to look for companies that, for whatever reason, are not being managed in a way that maximizes shareholder value. Then they take them over with borrowed money and rejigger operations so as to increase profits. In the case of nursing homes, it turns out that basically, if you give patients more drugs, you can get away with lower staffing levels, and then you can drain the resources that are freed up by that in various ways”

“The healthcare sector poses these kinds of questions in droves. To become a medical doctor, you generally need to get into a good college, have decent grades there, get a good score on a pretty hard standardized test, and then put in a bunch of time into a challenging graduate education program. So doctors are quite a bit smarter than the average American, which seems reasonable. Nobody wants a dumb doctor. But you also don’t really want a shrewd doctor who is putting his smarts to use figuring out how to take advantage of his asymmetrical information vis-a-vis his patients to buy unnecessary services. You want healers who, yes, earn a comfortable living, but also comport themselves according to a code of honor and offer legitimate medical advice.
But this concept of honor and virtue is consistently at odds with the merit principle.”

“The whole point of George Washington isn’t that he had penetrating insights into public policy — it’s that he provided character and ethical leadership under circumstances that lead a lot of countries to become military dictatorships. You don’t want people who are extremely stupid running everything. But in both government and the economy, it’s just not the case that putting the “best and brightest” in charge of everything is a good idea. And crucially, that’s not because the “best and brightest” secretly aren’t really the best and brightest. It’s because just assigning all power and responsibility and economic reward to the best and brightest is a genuinely bad idea.”

“Back in 2019, Rafael Nadal earned $16 million in prize money playing tennis. Gael Monfils, in ninth place, earned $3 million.
These are the kind of sharp income disparities that lead Elizabeth Warren to say the economy is rigged. But of course pro tennis isn’t “rigged” in any normal sense. Fair, tournament-style competitions just tend to produce this kind of outcome where modest differences in ability lead to wild disparities in earnings. It’s honestly just more fun that way. We like to see high-stakes competitions, and we also like to see ability win out, and that’s what you get.

For the purposes of generating an entertaining spectacle, there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there’s a reason why pro-inequality people almost always use examples that involve rich athletes or entertainers since it helps you get around questions of system-rigging.

But the basic reality is that it is not great for material resources to be distributed so unequally. The marginal dollar taken out of Nadal’s hands and given to someone in need will greatly increase human flourishing. There are lots of valid questions to ask about the macroeconomic impact of various kinds of taxes and the optimal design of welfare state programs. But the benefits of an egalitarian economic order are clear, real, and don’t fundamentally hinge on the idea that Nadal or anyone else did anything “unfair” to get where they are.

It takes hard work to be the champion, of course, but it’s equally obvious that the vast majority of people would never be as good as Nadal no matter how hard they tried. Almost everyone who’s successful works hard to get where they are. But they have also lucked into abilities that most people don’t have. And beyond that, they have meta-lucked into being alive at a time and place where the abilities they lucked into are valuable. Apparently, the highest-earning distance runner is just the one who happens to be American. An American can get better sneaker endorsements than a Kenyan or Ethiopian whose results are as good or better.

He’s great at what he does. He’s the beneficiary of dumb luck. It’s both, not either/or, and the sooner we accept that everything is like this, the saner we can be.”

“My read on a lot of what’s happening in elite cultural institutions in the United States is that we are currently living through a desperate scramble to make certain kinds of social justice goals and egalitarian commitments fit into a fundamentally unsound meritocratic framework.
What you need to do is actually change the framework — have a society that’s less based on sorting and ranking, and more based on equality.”

“The facts are pretty clear that poor ethics can frequently be rewarded. To have a healthier society, we need more emphasis on fair play, “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” and creating an atmosphere in which people would be ashamed to tell their parents that their well-paid finance job involves identifying ways to make patient care worse. That’s not a simple switch we can flip. And while it obviously includes a regulatory component, it’s fundamentally not a regulatory issue. It’s a question of social values and getting away from celebrating tournament winners and being “the best,” and a shift to celebrating other kinds of virtues including humility, restraint, fairness, and a belief that some things just aren’t worth it.”