Monthly Archives: January 2013

Living Without Salt

When they first got to know the geologists, the family would accept only a single gift—salt. (Living without it for four decades, Karp said, had been “true torture.”)

A Russian family lives in the wilderness for forty years.


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What’s Next in Mali?

The French military has had a great initial success in Mail. They soon chased the Tuareg rebels out of Timbuktu and the other towns. A small French force has proven itself to be nimble, aggressive, daring, and so far victorious. They should be congratulated – though their foe was little more than gunmen in pickups.

Now what? There are two main scenarios:

Scenario One: France will withdraw, the West will pay African states to send a long-term force and, the West will send trainers and equipment to build-up the Bamako government’s army.

But the Mail army already in 2012 proved itself disastrously unable to fight the few Tuareg rebels. The West will be propping up a military dictatorship in Bamako. It will mean turning a blind eye to killings and repression of Tuareg. Plus, it is unlikely to work in the long term. Eventually Tuareg rebellions will occur again.

Scenario Two: accept and recognize an independent or semi-independent Azande or Tuareg homeland. If Islamists are a threat, then the French could just as well assist nationalist Tuareg against them. It is time to question the Masonic Conspiracy of African Presidents to maintain existing boundaries at all cost. It is time to consider partition.

This is less likely to happen, but may have better long term chance of success.

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Sinocentism good, Eurocentrism bad

A new prize is being touted as a rival to the Nobels – thanks to outbidding the Nobel prize money at $1.7 million.

But note how Sinocentric it is:

Announced at a press conference today in Taipei, the Tang Prize, named after China’s Tang Dynasty, which Yin admires as a golden age for Chinese civilization, will be awarded biennially for work in sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and rule of law.

[Taiwanese businessman Samuel] Yin, who is endowing the Tang Prize Foundation with about $102 million, hopes “the prize will encourage more research that is beneficial to the world and humankind, promote Chinese culture, and make the world a better place,” according to a press release.

It is named for a Chinese dynasty; one of the four prizes will go to sinology; and it is explicitly aimed inter alia at promoting Chinese culture.

Blatant Sinocentism. But this is considered quite reasonable. A similar prize designed to “promote Western culture” would no doubt elicit a charges of “Eurocentrism.” Perhaps, though, we do need an Occident Prize.

(h/t Marginal Revolution)

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Britain’s “Historic Mistake”

Opinion in Britain is turning against immigration. David Goodhart, a London journalist and head of the leftish Demos think-tank, is for a bit more restriction.

I have recently ploughed through a lot of the economic work on recent immigration to Britain (for a book I have just written on the subject) and the conclusion of almost all the analysis on wages, employment, fiscal benefit, economic growth and so on is that despite the very large numbers the impact on the existing population has been very small, except for some negative effect for those at the bottom.

We have now had 15 years of historically unprecedented immigration and the evidence is simply not there [for any benefit]. And while there clearly have been some benefits it has also exacerbated some of Britain’s historic socio-economic weaknesses: low productivity, lack of training, high inequality.

Other costs Goodhart mentions include competition for jobs and services and rapid and unwelcome change to neighbourhoods.

Labour made

a historic mistake in opening the door so wide to large scale immigration. The party has now decisively lost the argument and half apologised. The national debate has moved on and there is a clear and settled will that immigration has been much too high in recent years and must come down.

But EU rules allow free entry from Romania and Bulgaria beginning Jan 1, 2014.

He does not have an explanation of why Labour made that “historic mistake” other than it arose from:

a certain “irrational exuberance” about large-scale immigration, a kind of middle class progressive prejudice, common in the late 20th century, that did enormous damage to Labour.

Not a very satisfactory explanation.


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Time for a New Capital City

Recent new planned capitals I can think of include ones in Burma (Naypyidaw), Nigeria (Abuja), Ivory Coast, Astana in Kazakhstan. Brasilia is probably the best known. Hitler planned to replace Berlin with Germania once he had won the war. Mostly, they seem to be associated with dictatorial rule. (Though, earlier the British empire produced New Delhi and Canberra).

Despite being linked to despots, planned capitals are fascinating as exercises in design. It would be interesting to work out which has been a success and which a failure, and why.

Now, to add to the list: thanks to oil money Equatorial Guinea is building a new capital in the middle of the tropical forest.

The library of the new International University of Central Africa resembles a space ship docked in a jungle clearing. This is only a small part of President Teodoro Obiang’s ambition to build an entirely new multi-billion-pound capital by 2020, to be called Oyala.

Down a new six-lane highway, dubbed the ‘Avenue of Justice’, Oyala’s first luxury hotel is taking shape at a cost of £250 million. A golf course has already been carved out of the virgin forest.

Mr Obiang himself is a frequent visitor to the construction sites, causing one university building to be moved because he disapproved of the view.

Within a decade, Oyala will house the president, the government and – according to the master plan – up to 200,000 people. The money will come from Equatorial Guinea’s 1.7 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

Where the new capital will find its inhabitants is harder to understand. The population of the entire country is only 700,000 and the vast majority live far away on the Atlantic coast.

Stephen Sackur (BBC, Telegraph)

Wikipedia has a couple of lists of planned cities here and here.

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Two Great Divergences

Yesterday we mulled over the newest guesstimates of incomes over the past two thousand years. Let’s now look at some figures.

Table 1: GDP per capita estimates 1AD-1348

N. Italy











































The most notable feature: by 1300, incomes in Europe are ahead of elsewhere – the “great divergence” came early.

(Some notes on the table: Italian figures may be an over-estimate; Japan has the lowest; there was a peak or golden age in 700s Iraq under the Arab empire; all are higher than subsistence which is considered to be 250-300.)

Table 2: GDP per capita estimates 1348-1800

N. Italy







Cape Colony

Ottoman Empire
















































The most notable feature of this table is that there was a second great divergence within Europe: steady growth in Holland, England, and USA versus no growth in the rest of Europe (and even decline in N. Italy).

Europe had higher incomes than elsewhere, Japan and Ottoman empire incomes were growing, but Indian incomes shrank. China in 1820: 600.

The task is to explain both the medieval divergence of Europe from Asia and then the early modern divergence of Holland and England from the rest. Is there any extant theory able to do this?

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How Rich Were Countries Before the Industrial Revolution?

The late Angus Maddison undertook an heroic effort to estimate income levels in different countries over the past two millennia. Now, a team of economic historians has updated his data. What did they find?

Here is their own Conclusion:

Summing up, a substantial amount of new work has been published in the past ten years which is generally consistent with the picture Maddison put forward in his 2001/2003 framework. The most severe criticisms at his estimates by Pomeranz (2000) and other specialists on Asian economic history, that he systematically underestimated real incomes in large parts of Asia in the 18th and early 19th century, has generally been proven wrong: detailed research by scholars working on India, Indonesia, Japan and China has shown that the magnitude of the real income gap as estimated by Maddison was about right. Another important result is that Maddison might have overestimated growth in Europe between 1300 and 1800, and that levels of real income were already quite high during the late Middle Ages. We now also know much more about long term trends in real incomes in Western Europe (England, Holland, Spain, Germany etc.), in the United States, in Japan, India and South Africa than we knew ten years ago.

Two main points:

  • NW Europe was already richer than Asia before the Industrial Revolution (contrary to the revisionist or multicultural school).
  • NW Europe was growing richer already in the Middle Ages.

Together, these results mean that there was more than one Great Divergence: there was a preindustrial divergence (medieval to 1800) and then an industrial divergence as Europe shot even further ahead (after 1800). This is an additional reason to reject the revisionist or multicultural school – whom I discussed and criticized here)

Some more details:

There was an early divergence in income between Europe and Asia:

The debate on the “Great Divergence” between Europe and Asia … whether the level of economic development (in terms of GDP per capita) in China (and India and Japan) before industrialization was comparable to Western Europe (Pomeranz 2000). Maddison’s estimates for that period have been criticized because they show an already substantial gap in real incomes between the different parts of EurAsia; in Western Europe the average GDP per capita was about 1200 dollars, whereas China and India were estimated at between 500 and 600 dollars. Recent studies on this topic generally confirm Maddison’s interpretation

There was slow early modern income growth in NW Europe:

The most important finding from this new work is that probably growth in Western Europe was more gradual than was implied by the previous Maddison-synthesis. … Between 1300 and 1800 growth did occur, however, but it was mainly concentrated in the North Sea area, where England and Holland grew from about 900 dollars at about 1300 to more than double that level – 2100 (Great Britain) to 2600 (Holland) dollars – in 1800.

There was continuous income growth in NW Europe since the Middle Ages:

there is consistent growth of GDP per capita in the North Sea area from c 900 dollars before the Black Death, to more than 2000 dollars at about 1800, making it into the most prosperous part of the world economy at that time; real incomes in North America develop similarly, and show continues growth between 1650 and 1800. The Industrial Revolution that began in the UK (and quickly spread to Western Europe and North America) was therefore not a sudden break in economic performance, but a continuation of the growth record since the Late Middle Ages (Van Zanden 2009).

All this of course raises the fundamental question: why?

  • Why was NW Europe already the richest area before the Industrial Revolution?
  • Why did income growth begin in the Middle Ages and continue on thereafter?
  • What was so unusual about the North Sea area?

Jutta Bolt and Jan Luiten van Zanden, The First Update of the Maddison Project Re-Estimating Growth Before 1820 Maddison-Project Working Paper WP-4 January 2013 (pdf)

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