Category Archives: History

Optionality and Economic Change

The book America 3.0 (available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble) describes three long economic periods, based on agriculture, industry, and information, as driving profound social change.

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When we fought the Revolution against Britain, America’s economy was based on agriculture and the hydrological cycle. Along with the constants of soil and sun, water (where it fell, how it needed to be diverted, where it ran) determined American economic life. Know a man’s relationship to water, and you knew his realtionship to wealth.

american_rivers_map_md

Around the time of the Civil War against the southern rebels, sun, soil, and water were surprased by coal and rail as the foundation of power and privilege. The great rail network, centered around Chicago, enabled greater economies of scale than had ever been seen before in history. The story of the next century, from the racial strife of the 1860s to the racial strife of the 1960s, was the story of industrialization, scale, and how the benefits of coal would be shared.

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We’re now changing again. “Information” appears to be valuable, and the economic giants of the day are information racketeers such as Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. The world is becoming much less heavy, and manufacturing on demand (from computer-driven milling to 3D printing) may accelerate the acceleration the eclipse of coal by data.

american_cell_maps_md

We do not know what is next. The industrial age seemed to come to an apogee in the late 1940s, as economies around the world (the US, the UK, France, Germany, the USSR, China, Taiwan, both Koreas, and Japan) established bureaucratic-industrial welfare states managed by experts, with only quixotic variations based on national culture and ideology. But that was a false sunlight, as phony as the widespread popularity of the concentration camps (brought to the US by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) of the 1930s.

We know the world is changing. We know now what comes next.

In this environment, we should focus on giving learners many low cost opportunities and few high-cost high-risk paths. In other words, we should give students “optionality,” where they have many opportunities and few long-term costs. We’re not in an industrial age where we know economies of scale will rule the day, nor even in the long hydraulic age where water was the great idol. Students will have to find their own ways. We should help them.

To do this we should (except for core majors that are needed for national security — say science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) make much of the curriculum optional, and allow students “low-risk” trials in different career paths.

As Tren Griffen and Nassim Taleb posted:

If you ‘have optionality,’ you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur. (The key is that your assessment doesn’t need to be made beforehand, only after the outcome.)” Being able to make decisions which do not require correctly forecasting the future is a wonderful thing. Not one of the great value investors identified in the series of posts in this blog relies on macro forecasts of the future. Instead, value investors use the optionality of cash to buy after the outcome exists (i.e., a significant drop in intrinsic value). Regarding venture capital, Warren Buffett believes: “If significant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one of many mutually- independent commitments. Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment – one that indeed has a significant possibility of causing loss or injury – if you believe that your gain, weighted for probabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number of similar, but unrelated opportunities. Most venture capitalists employ this strategy.

It is certainly evil to trick an 18 year old into non-bankruptable loans of tens of thousands of dollars on a worthless major. A 16 year old would be better off learning a trade than learning Shakespeare, especially if that student could learn Shakespeare later. An 18 year old would surely be better off selling drugs (say from a pharmacy, an alcohol ball, a tobacconist shop, or so on) and learning that part of the economy than borrowing money to study political science.

Help our students prepare for an uncertain future, for America’s next stage of economic development. Give them low-cost opportunity and easy failures. Not non-bankruptable student loans.

Review of “The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau” by Bill Putnam and John Edwin Wood

There’s a chapter of my life, that began when I played Gabriel Knight 3 and read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that ended when I read this book. That game — and from that game, that book — were gateways too so much. My love of Dark Ages history (including great books of real history, like Before France and Germany, Mohammad and Charlemagne, and The Long-Haired Kings, an affection for the idea of the Mediterranean (I stayed in Italy for several weeks after high school), a consideration of how a conspiracy would actually have to be structured (my dream of secret war and a a book, and so on.

The part of my life ended with reading The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau.

But that’s the end. Here’s the beginning.

treasure_of_rennes_Le_chateau_book_cover

 

The facts as we know them: Around a hundred years ago, Father Berenger Sauniere in rural southern France became suspiciously wealthy, with a cumulative lifetime income estimated at a few million dollars (after accounting for inflation). He had a number of visitors at his house, was investigated by the local Bishop, and eventually lost his power to lead Mass at the local Church. He died before the ecclesiastical trial reached a resolution.

Plaque_tombe_abbe_sauniere

The story is much more interesting, because its also inarguable that there’s an actual conspiracy with actual forged documents, layered on top of this. Whether or not there is a treasure, there are documents that contain cyphers, references to ancient societies, and bizarre false clues and dead-ends.

What the world knows about Rennes le Chateau was primarily filtered thru Henry Lincoln, who encountered a real group (albeiet with a fraudulent history) that called itself the “Priory of Sion,” and which has an unusual fixation on the Merovingian Dynasty and King St. Dagobert II (feast day December 23) — a sainted boy king

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Henry Lincoln also added a new layer to the mystery, much (apparently) to the bemusement of the actual conspiracy he nearly uncovered. Dusting off his early French, he translates “Sangraal” not as “San Graal” (Holy Grail) but “Sang Raal” (Royal Blood), and from there reconstructs an improbable chronology where the Dagobert II was a blood-descendent of Jesus Chrst, and that secrets to this extent were buried in southern rural France — the discovery of which by Priest Berenger Sauniere led to his millions. Lincoln also added some geometric interpretations, which lead themselves to a reconstruction of the history of the mile (among even less probably claims)

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This stuff later spawned a pretty good video game…

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And a film series you may have heard of. (Lincoln’s co-authors lost their lawsuit on The DaVinci Code.)

Putnam’s and Wood’s book is an exhaustive, well researched, extremely well document demolition of nearly every conspiracy theory associated with Rennes le Chateau, and the persuasive presentation of evidence of a more mundane conspiracy (Sauniere was illicitly selling masses, and may have engaged in some light grave-robbing.) Even elements which struck me as probable enough (such as the location of certain church-sites) are addressed, with everything from first-person research, to cryptographic analysis, to computer simulations of the probability of certain features appearing by chance.

800px-Rennes-le-Château

The number of myths the authors systematically demolish is impressive. Rennes-le-Chateau wasn’t the Visigothic cty of Rhedae. The placing of churches around Rennes doesn’t fit any sort of pattern, mundane or not. Berenger Sauniere supported his (real) generosity by scamming those seeking prayers for the dead. The inflection point of the entire story seems to have been a small remodeling task, which made the priest as power mad as one who is content in a small, remote town can be.

The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau is certainly not the first book you should read about this maze of facts and secrets. But if you’ve encountered any of it, and you are interested in any bit of bit, The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau is a must read.

The Civil Rights Perspective on Race

The facts of the recent case are now well known. Adding some inferences to it, a reasonable reconstruction of the events is as follows:

On February 26, 2013, Trayvon Martin in walking home after buying some candy and tea. He was observed by George Zimmerman, a volunteer who had recently talked with neighbors about black youths invading neighborhood homes. Zimmerman got out of his vehicle to talk to Martin. Martin, not knowing Zimmerman, and suspicious of “creepy ass crackers” (which I belies referred to gay homosexual white men), likewise acted in a way suspicious to Zimmerman. Shortly thereafter a fight broke out, and Martin got the better of Zimmerman, bashing his head against the cement. Zimmerman then used deadly force to protect himself, killing Martin.

A tragedy, and a sad one.

But why the effort to lynch Mr. Zimmerman? Why the great emotion in the case? What is behind it?

It is impossible to understand what happened without realizing that life is far worse for African-American men than could have been expected in 1973. (By “African-American” I refer to the ethnicity that was brought in chains to British colonies south of the Mason-Dixon line from Africa,primarily remained there as slaves until the Civil War, and then following Reconstruction lived as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South until either emigrating to the north or experiencing the revolution of the Civil Rights Era).

  • There has never been an African-American President. (There is currently a President of African descent, Barack Obama, but he was born in Hawaii and on his father’s side is not a descendent of American slaves.)
  • There has been been a powerful African-American man in the Cabinet. (Secretary of State Colin Powell’s parents were from Jamaica. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is an African-American women.)
  • Structural changes in the economy have lead to a decline of marriage rates for African-American men, as their earning power has been exceeded by African-American women.
  • There has been no de facto progress on desegregation since the original Civil Rights efforts a lifetime ago.
  • The United States is engaged in a long-term project to import large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants, which not only further depresses wages of African-American men, it reduces African-Americans from being the “largest minority” to the second-largest minority.
  • The cultural battle over gay marriage reveals African-American powerless in the face of other members of the Democratic Party coalition. Not only cannot the Democratic Party realize African-American goals generally, or defend the relative position of African-Americans, it will actively work against African-American churches and social networks when white liberals disagree with African-American objectives.

Things are bad. They are getting worse. This is real pain.

In this horrible political situations, there are probably two rational responses

  1. A Fresh Start. A complete dismantling of the political work of a lifetime, an acceptance of the basic failure of the “Civil Rights” perspective on race, and an attempt to reboot nearly everything
  2. The Civil Rights Perspective on Race. The creation of an outrage which can unify the African-American community against their enemies, including white Democrats and hispanics.

The costs of (1) are so huge, and the uncertainty so great, that it is unlikely as anything other than a last desperate measure. We’re not there yet.

Option (2), on the other hand, requires simply a reply of the Civil Rights playbook, with some hapless patsy replacing Bull Connor, George Wallace, and other actual enemies of the past. The near-term results are a relative increase in power and sympathy for African-American males.

It is hard for anyone — especially a man — to live without pride. Imitating a Martyr provides some pride. Being politically organized enough to (nearly) lynch a hispanic provides some pride. Getting media attention gets some pride.

But more pride would come from having a functioning education system that prepared African-American men for the economy. Of earning enough to attract a mate. To not lose a job to harder-working lower-paid immigrants, to not have your sacred institutions tramped on, and so on.

Without a road-map for achieving this, we’ll get another Martin case in a few years, another outrage, another attempt to win some political favors and gain some pride through some dead person.

But dismantling the Civil Rights movement, abandoning the Civil Rights perspective on race, and starting over, is the smarter way to go.

Other groups have come from behind without this focus on manufactured outrage. Irish, Koreans, Chinese, Jamaicans, and many others recognized that social hostility can be battered, not thru the “Civil Rights” perspective on race, but through wealth accumulation.

As a friend recently told me, in America there are two colors of people — “Green” and “Red” — people with money, and people struggling paycheck to paycheck. Controlling wealth and the production of wealth is more important than leadership in a group of poor people.

This harsh reality, that the economic infrastructure matter more than political superstructure — that true political success comes from economic value — is much colder than talking about dreams and ideology.

Life can be cold.

But the Civil Rights Perspective on Race is a lie.

Science and Steam

Reactions to two of my recent posts — Mark Safranki‘s excerpt of my review of America 3.0. and Phil Arena‘s comment on my post on antiscience, plus some twitter conversations with Colin Wight — got me thinking.

What is the relationship of Science to the great economic systems we’ve had — hydrological, steam-powered, and now whatever-comes-next.

Well, in a hydrological system you’re either at the Malthusian limit or quite good at killing people off through war of disease.

Science is too risky (might not work, might have bad consequences if it does work) to spend much resources on in a pre-steam, pre-industrial society. So you get a few intellectual giants shouting to each other across time — like the nameless Chinese inventors or named European ones — with relatively little utility within a human lifetime.

But once you have steam-power, and the economic system it enables, society becomes incredibly wealthy. So you get science, institution science, whether in the form of corporate labs, or academic science, or the Department of Agriculture. The methods of advancement are so different, and the pace of change is so much quicker, this Science in a modern science is a different beast from pre-steam science — natural philosoph– which was basically bored men every once in a while discovering something.

What comes after the reign of steam, and the industrial society? What does Science look like after the next transformation?

It will be exciting to find out!

Reviews of Histories of Communist Regimes

Reviews of Histories of Communist Regimes

Books reviewed:

Coat_of_arms_of_the_Soviet_Union_md

I’ve read numerous histories of the Chinese Communist Party, its leaders (Mao, Zhou, Deng, etc.) and enemies (Chiang Kaishek, Chiang Chingkuo, and Mao himself), but my knowledge of the Communist experience elsewhere has not grown much over the psat few years. Indeed, the ferocity with which Mao destroyed the Soviet system in the Cultural Revolution has left me feeling vaguely sympathetic to the Stalinist bureaucrats.

So I read three books, Iron Curtain (by the wife of a Polish Foreign Minister), The Real North Korea (by a Soviet-trained North Korea area expert), and The North Korean Revolution (by Charles Armstrong, a former student of Bruce Cummings, who has the reputation of being the most sympathetic to North Korea of any mainstream historians).

iron_curtain_crushing_eastern_europe_md

Iron Curtain is itself a comparative history of Soviet occupations of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, so The North Korean revolution allowed me to witness the post-Soviet invasion in four countries, on opposite ends of Eurasia. The political dynamics of the four countries were similar, but North Korea from the beginning was a special case:

Political Composition of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia in 1945:
1. Middle class parties associated with business
2. Populist farmer’s parties associated with the Catholic Church
3. Social Democratic parties associated with workers and intellectuals
4. The indigenous Communist Parties
5. The Soviet Occupation

Political Composition of North Korea in 1945:
1. Middle class Christian parties associated with the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches
2. Syncratic Buddhist-Farmers Party-Religion (Cheondogyo)
3. An “indigenous” Communist Party” centered around the future South Korea
4. Chinese-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea (New People’s Party)
5. Soviet-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea
6. The Soviet Occupation

When written out in a list, North Korea immediately appears more confusing. Three separate vocal religious movements, each deeply suspicious of each other but each with deep roots, are active in the country. Simultaneously, the “local” Communists find themselves under American Occupation, while the Soviet-ordained capital of North Korea (Pyongyang) is in the most heavily Christian part of the country.

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The confusion doesn’t end there. The indigenous Korean Communist Party had been eradicated by Imperial police, and the Japanese Communist Party (which absorbed its remnants) called upon Korean Communists to turn themselves in (!!!), with the reasoning that such would allow them to act as missionaries to prisoners.

The two rival groups of guerrillas, the Soviet-trained and Chinese-trained, were both survivors of the defunct Manchurian Communist Party, which in spite of its name was predominantly Korean and, (like the KCP) was obliterated by a successful Imperial counter-insurgency campaign. Those who fled to the Soviet union would largely wait in Siberia until the Empire fell. Those that fled to China likewise waited in Yenan, building up close connections to Mao, Zhou, and the rest of the Chinese Communist leadership.

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It was perhaps this confusion that allowed Kim Il Sung to pull off a trick that would prove impossible anywhere else. Elsewhere, the Communist regimes would either turn into Soviet occupation state with the indigenous Communist leaders imprisoned or killed (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc), or else as home-grown regimes which were never under Soviet occupation (Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.). In North Korea alone the Soviets came, Soviet allies were set up, and Soviet spies died as the local Communist party triumphed.

In Eastern Europe the People’s States would be “local in form, Soviet in content.” While much hay was made out of local architectural adornment, local folk art, and such, the Soviet Empire was run bureaucratically from Moscow. In North Korea, by contrast, the state was “Soviet in form, local in content.” Subsequent to North Korea, the only internationally active government that could challenge it for lack of educational attainment among its leadership was Taliban Afghanistan. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the Kim Il Sung and his acolytes would give speeches against women working outside the home, against wage leveling, and against the Communist Party serving as a vanguard.

Andrei_Lankov_The_Real_North_Korea_md

The Real North Korea updates this to the present day. While Lankov notes that North Korean, alone among Communist languages, has two different words for “comrade” depending on the relative social status of the speakers, Lankov’s book describes the implications of such a non-egalitarian “Communism.” Indeed, there are no longer references to Communism, Marx, or Lenin, in North Korea’s interpretation: it is only foreign countries that insist on treating North Korea as Communist, whether it is China (which communicates to North Korea thru Chinese Communist Party Korean Workers Party channels) or the United States (which views North Korea as the last remnant of the Soviet Empire). Rather, as B.R. Myers implied in The Cleanest Race, North Korea is a fascist, explicitly racist state that is a successor to the Empire of Japan.

All of these books are well worth written. Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is somewhat tedious, but that is because the story is tedious: the Soviet obliteration of civil society in Eastern Europe. Armstrong has fallen in love with his subject — a naive reader would believe it was “natural” for Kim Il Sung to ban all dissent, because dissenters wanted someone else to lead them. Lankov’s The Real North Korea is the best of these, the perspective of someone who feels the Soviet system to be natural, but is deeply weirded out by North Korea.

I read (Iron Curtain and The Real North Korea), and The North Korea Revolution on a dead tree.

Happy 4th of July!

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Read the rest

Review of “America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century-Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come ,” by James Bennett and Michael Lotus

America 3.0, by James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus, is a description of the current problems facing America, the origin of those problems, and solutions for them. But it’s more than that. With only two references to President Obama in the work, America 3.0 focuses on the structural causes for the emergence of our current system of government, along with the cultural context in which those structural causes work.

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The Structural Causes

The “3.0″ in the title refers to an emerging system of government, but the implication of the work is that the system of government is a funciton of the economy. Unstated, the system of government appears to be a function of the material basis for the organization of the commanding heights of the economy.

The three stages that Bennett and Lotus describe, as I understand them, are:

american_rivers_map_md

    • “America 1.0.” Politically, organized around the original intent of the Constitution, with power highly distributed. This was structurally encouraged by the distributed nature of production, which was centered around many farms and small towns with a few small cities acting as trade ports. The major power source was water — rivers, rain, and the sea. While parts of the America 1.0 culture survive, America’s transition figure was Abraham Lincoln: born in a rural and isolated community, his professional life centered around doing professional work for railroads.

american_railroads_md

    • “America 2.0.” Politically, organized around militaristic police forces, professional bureaucracy, with power highly concentrated. This was structurally encouraged by the nature of steam power and the massive economies of scale that it enables. The America 2.0 political-economic, which is visibly failing in many ways, itself was the solution to the breakdown of the America 1.0 system in the face of the initial problems created by concentration and economies of scale.

american_cell_maps_md

  • “America 3.0.” An emerging political-economy system that is itself a response to economics shift, primarily (though unstated) the decrease relative importance of steam power as the ratio of GDP (as measured in pounds) to GDP (as measured in dollars) decreases through miniaturization and electronics Tom Friedman’s work The World is Flat is uncited, but this trend (“how heavy is your economy”) was, I believe, prominently noted there several years ago. The source of power is information.

The Cultural Context

What keeps America 3.0 from being simply an economic-determinist, however, is Jim Bennett’s focus on the Anglosphere, and particularly Lotus’ and Bennett’s theory of what makes English-speaking countries nearly unique in the world: the “Absolute Nuclear Family” and the Common Law. According to America 3.0, this style of family is shared between English speaking countries, and some areas of Denmark and the Netherlands where the Anglo-Saxon-Jute peoples were active fifteen centuries ago. The Common Law, a result of the eradication of Roman Law and subsequent British hostility to the re-imposition of the Roman-based Laws latter (partially as a result for how Roman Law conflicts with the Absolute Nuclear Family type), also creates a difference.

family_types_in_europe

The Absolute Nuclear Family and the Common Law acts as a superstructure, but not a superfluous one, in the Lotus-Bennett model. A transactional view of government, a focus on individual liberty, individual independence, and family mobility are all seen as effects of the Absolute Nuclear Family and the Common Law, apart from the structural causes of farm-, steam-, or information- power.

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Analysis

There’s three big questions that come to mind after reading America 3.0:

  • First, does the economic foundation of the economy actually matter?
  • Second, do the Absolute Nuclear Family and the Common Law actually matter?
  • If so, to what extents?

The standard economic-determinist answer to the important of economic foundation is “a whole lot.” This makes sense to me. We’re still a way from a scientific study of history — a cliodynamical analysis of the role of steam, say, in American history — but all-in-all I found this part of the book to be insightful and non-controversial. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy all differed on many things, but all agreed on the importance of economies of scale, which were themselves clearly enabled by steam.

The portions about the Common Law and the Absolute Nuclear Family, though, are less clear. What is the relative impact of the Common Law against, say, the influence of Christianity, of of being an England being an island, or of north-west European weather systems, or of other things? It makes sense that the Common Law and the Absolute Nuclear Family are not entirely superfluous, but it also makes sense that other things may matter as well. How might these be discovered? Or tested?

Final Thoughts

America 3.0 is an eye opening book, for explaining the rise of the bureaucratic-military state in the United States, and also for its description of the Common Law and the Absolute Nuclear Family. The former strikes me as more explanatory than the latter, but all was interesting.

I read America 3.0 in the Nook Edition.

Escaping the Humanities Ghetto: Definitions and Paradigms

In both Political Science and the Humanities, the old boys network which prevented progress is collapsing, though it is hard for those who have lived in a field without progress to describe this.

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Earlier I criticized, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for saying that International Relations work capable of progress is “non-paradigmatic”

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

But if I am fair, I need to also mention that my friend Jason Heppler of Stanford University made a similar claim, about the Digital Humanities:

Those doing digital humanities tend to agonize over how we define the field (or is it a methodology?). Matt Gold’s edited volume Debates in Digital Humanities nicely sums up many of the ways people have tried to define digital humanities and what we mean when we say we do digital humanities. Certainly there are some common characteristics within the broad range of approaches, but the work itself is broad: it’s interpretation, coding, building, archives, theorizing.

Why define digital humanities? The enterprise is somewhat pointless. The promise and excitement of digital humanities lies with what we can do with it, not how it’s defined. But the queston is inescapable.

I don’t believe that the new International Relations work is apardigmatic, or that Digital Humanities is undefined. Rather, like other useful areas, these fields are defined by their tools and methods, not by ancient theoretical battles that can never be won. Chemistry is not the science of phlogiston, it is the science of titration and fission. Likewise, International Relations and Digital Humanities are increasingly defined by the tools they use to make progress, not connections in an old boys network.

This is a good change. Yesterday I mentioned the ghetto of the humanities, those fields whose graduates (a) can’t do math, (b) can’t conduct useful research, (c) can’t stay employed, and (d) can’t get paid.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

The adoption of useful tools and progressive science is the best way to turn this around. The emerging paradigms of International Relation are embedded within statistics and modeling. The emerging definitions of Digital Humanities are embedded within text mining, semantic networks, and big data. What do these have in common? Useful tools designed to provide answers and enable progress.

Cliometrics and Cliodynamics

A good friend (and a new PhD student) asked me today what I thought of Cliometrics and Cliodynamics. To answer this, I will briefly define these fields as I understand them, describe their substantive and methodological components, and provide advise for the study of both.

Cliometrics is a form of economic history that relies on statistical analysis and data visualization. One of my favorite books, Nature’s Metropolis, is arguably Cliometric. While the methods are relatively simple (memorably focusing heavy on geovisualization of debt records), the book is a fascinating history of the United States in which the greatest impact of the Civil War was accelerating the development of the agricultural futures markets.

Cliodynamics extends cliometrics to the entire study of history. In other words, it attempts to make history a social science, instead of a school within the humanities. For instance, Chinese historians and Chinese leaders have been deeply influenced by the “dynastic cycle” in which an honest rebel band that promises a better world seizes power, creates havoc, develops excellent leadership capabilities, descends into extracting wealth from the population, puts down rebellions, and eventually falls to an honest rebel band that promises a better world.

A cliodynamist would ask, how would you operationalize that claim? What is the null hypotheses? Where you can find a body of evidence to support or disprove such a claim? What testable predictions would it make? And so on.

All of this sounds fascinating to me.

The methods of cliometrics and cliodynamics seem useful. Not the substance, but the methods.

It strikes me a very useful skill to have is to be able to measure what is happening and what has happened. Questions like, “Will this make money?” “How well-off will this make people?” and “Are they planning to kill us?” all are being asked by data-rich organizations. The cliometric and cliodynamic approaches — which both focus on rigorously giving meaning to large amounts of data — seem like an application of the same focus on measurement as psychometrics and econometrics.

Academia runs on money, prestige, and power. In different proportions so does corporate life. And government. A good way to acquire these things to do enjoy what you do, be the best in the world at it, and make money on it. If it fits your temperament, learning the substantive of cliometrics and cliodynamics seems like a fun way to learn the more useful methods of cliometrics and cliodynamics, which certainly can help you along your path.

There’s a lot of interesting things in the world. There are some useful things in the world. I think the substance of cliometrics and cliodynamics are interesting. I think the methods of both are useful. My advise for someone thinking of studying cliometrics and cliodynamics: How many times in the world do you get to do something both interesting and useful?