Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Assigned reading

This blog post by Paul Campos is background to our ongoing discussion of economic and social history. The global human population grew very slowly from 8,000 BC until the 18th Century, while per capita income remained essentially stagnant. As I noted, people did not recover their pre-agricultural stature until the 20th Century. But the explosion in wealth since the 18th Century has been staggering, although we take our present circumstances for granted:

Consider that, to the extent such things can be measured, it appears that the per person economic output of the United States today is nearly sixty times greater than it was when George Washington became president. How rapid this change has been in historical terms is illustrated by the fact that John Tyler, the tenth US president, was born in the year Washington became the first president, and still has a living grandchild. I’m pretty confident that if you had told George Washington that 230 years hence Americans would on average be sixty times wealthier than they were at the moment, he would have imagined that nobody in that society would be poor. Yet here we are.

Another cognitive difficulty we face is that the human mind isn’t very good at grasping exponents. This is a thought experiment that I find useful: If an ATM machine is spitting out exactly one dollar per second, you need to stand in front of it for eleven and half days to become a millionaire. Meanwhile you would need to stand in front of it for nearly 32 years to become a billionaire, The gap between eleven and a half days and 32 years seems far far greater than our sense of the gap between a million and a billion. And here’s the kicker: you would have to stand in front of that machine for 1,743 years to become as rich as Mike Bloomberg, and 5,833 years to become as rich as Jeff Bezos.

Note that per person economic output in this case is mean income, not median. The material circumstances of the poorest among us are no doubt somewhat improved over 1789, but not by much. Keep in mind that the sorts of debates we are having now about social and economic policy would be complete inconceivable just a couple of hundred years ago. We'll go into more detail anon.




Don Quixote said...

The Campos article illustrates so well the terrible lag between human experience and human knowledge. Hence, the people who still scream "Commie!" even though communism is no threat to our way of life (and never was) ... the thinking of societies is generally far behind the pace of knowledge.

Cervantes said...

I certainly agree that the prospect that the U.S. would ever become Communist was always a bugaboo. Most people don't even know the meaning of the word. I had a student who said his father thought the Boston Globe was a Communist newspaper. I was protesting the Cambodian incursion when I was a youth and a guy came up to me and said "Do you want to be a Communist Slave?" In other words if we didn't bomb Cambodia that would be our fate.

Folks, if you ever did have reason to worry about Communism (which you didn't), you certainly don't now. The only societies on earth that are actually Communist in any meaningful sense are North Korea and Cuba, and even Cuba is gradually developing a more mixed economy. The party that rules China is called the Communist Party but the system is no longer Communist.

They screamed that Medicare and Social Security were "Communist." Ronald Reagan even made a recording threatening that if Medicare passed, people in 20 years would look back on the time when "you and I were free." Get over it folks, these are just empty words that are used to deceive you.

mojrim said...

I would argue that the only communist society we've ever seen is Cuba. The rest were nationalist, anti-colonialist, or land reform revolutions that made one or another improvement and then reverted to the government and social structure they'd had before.

Cervantes said...

Well, that's a semantic quibble. The Soviet and Maoist systems were called Communist and they're what the word Communism means to most people. But indeed, they would have absolutely appalled Karl Marx. I would not say, however, that Stalinism and Maoism were reversion to the status quo, which was feudalism. Very different.

Raymond said...

China has not been feudal for centuries, they replaced that with meritocratic bureaucracy when europe was figuring out what to without the romans. And stalinism was very much in keeping with the absolutist tradition of the tsars; they even brought the cheka along to make sure.

Cervantes said...

Well Raymond, China did have a bureaucracy that administered the Emperor's rule, but that doesn't make it not feudal. The countryside was ruled by large landowners very similar to feudal lords, and peasants were essentially serfs. The landlords were dispossessed by the Communists.

Stalinism, similarly, most certainly did not replicate the status quo. On the contrary, the aristocracy and landowners, as in China, were dispossessed.

Chucky Peirce said...

One could make a case that "communism" was on balance a boon for most Russians. Lenin did a total makeover of Russia that idealized the value of the common man; Stalin left this system pretty much in place.

Lenin's reforms, though far from perfect, made the lives of the peasants/serfs who comprised the vast majority of the Russian people much better than they were under the Tsars. Many Russians had good reasons to speak fondly of life under Stalin. They just didn't have the literary skills to explain why.

The changes Stalin made were mainly designed to maintain and expand his power. His purges were meant to eliminate any possible threats to his regime, which were most likely to come from those already with some power or from the intelligentsia, who were equipped to eloquently describe how crude and cruel those pogroms were. Common folk were not generally targeted.

History is written by the literate as well as the victors.

mojrim said...

Landlords do not feudalism make. The political economy centered on merchants and artisans, not the landed gentry. All authority resided within the imperial bureaucracy, which included provincial governors who oversaw the agricultural outputs of said landlords. Mao dispossessed and executed the hated landlords because they were both a symbol to the peasants and a threat the government, but the last emperor got reeducated because he was harmless.

The party went on to reconstruct the imperial bureaucracy and much of it's hydraulic empire policies. I recall that, during the 1998 Yangtze River floods, the PLA executed a number of factory managers for supplying them with fake flotation vests.

Was Mao ultimately good for China? Unreservedly yes. The same for the bolsheviks in Russia, but in neither did anything that could be described as communism outlast those founders.