In which Patrick Crozier tells me that the Americans could and should have won the Vietnam War

This was in the course of our latest recorded conversation, which we had over the phone (by which I mean my phone and his computer) last Wednesday, and which has just been posted at Croziervision, with further verbals from Patrick.

Which I recommend, even if you don’t listen to the thing itself. Patrick’s posting is even more informative and full of pertinent links than usual. In particular, I draw your attention to the link concerning the Case-Church Amendment, which Patrick identifies as the moment (it happened in June 1973) when an American victory, having been pretty much won on the battlefield, was then thrown away by the US Congress.

Another Twitter dump

I had a Twitter dump earlier. It feels so good to be getting this stuff out of my system, so here’s another. Again, in no particular order, and not chosen for bang-up-to-dateness, just funness and interestingness.

It maybe makes things a bit clearer if I indent the tweet references, and then unindent at the end, at which point I’ll be having a bit more to say:

What concrete blocks are made of in China.

Ghostbusters.

The Battle of France in 44 seconds.

This family built a hug guard.

Baihe reservoir (白河水庫) in Tainan county is at once both shockingly ugly and stunningly beautiful.

BBC’s Jeremy Bowen says there haven’t been all that many terrorist attacks in Israel.

Everyone who was worrying he was a fascist now worrying he’s not fascist enough.

150-foot iceberg passes through Iceberg Alley.

My boyfriend cheated on me, but, I love him. What should I do? A Georgist: Implement a land value tax.

James Burke had only one chance to film this scene, and the result is possibly the best timed shot in television history.

Jeremy Corbin won the argument.

The lockdown is ending because the American people say it’s ending.

I miss those carefree pre-coronavirus days when nobody died at all.

In each of the above cases, you get most of the tweet, and sometimes all of it. So, if all you want to know is what the tweet said, no need to click. But if you want to know who else besides me thought the tweets in question to be funny or interesting, click away.

And that has actually done the trick. To my great surprise I have actually cleared out all this tweetery from my hard disc and from now on my computer will surely be functioning better, until such time as I need another similar dump. There remain only a few animal-related tweets which are already scheduled to appear this coming Friday.

Just learned about the existence of …

DRACULA PARROTS. Me to. But how did he learn this? Doesn’t say. Hate that. Scroll down, scroll down. Here we go:

Despite it’s name and vulture-like visage, the Dracula Parrot is actually not bloodthirsty at all. It feeds almost exclusively on just a few species of figs, …

Could’ve googled this but I thought he made up the name “Dracula Parrot” himself and that I’d only get back to the original tweet.

Now, if you are looking to see a bird that is truly vampiric, look no further than the vampire finch, …

Pass. Had enough vampire birds for now.

Japanese report says dictator is in a vegetative state

The vegitative state in question being North Korea.

Other inevitable headlines will will be variations on the theme of “Undead”.

FIRE UP THE MEME FACTORIES.

LATER: “Is he alive? Is he dead? For the moment, I’m calling him Schrodinger’s Dictator.” Ha.

This snake ate a towel and watching it being removed is oddly mesmerising

Here.

LATER: Fox on a Russian lady’s shoulder in the underground.

EVEN LATER: Ducks v locusts. Two problems with this. First, when the ducks have killed all the locusts, would there not then be a swarm of ducks? Oh. This guy got there first.

And second, the claim was that ducks would go to Pakistan to kill Pakistani locusts, but actually, according to an “expert” that won’t work, because there isn’t enough water in Pakistan and the ducks would die.

Stephen Davies on the eflorescences that were stopped and on the eflorescence that was not stopped

I continue to struggle to find ways of communicating my enthusiasm for Stephen Davies’s new book, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity. But I now think I know one of the reasons why I am struggling.

When you want to enthuse about a book on an historical subject, you probably want also to be summarising it, so that those who read of your enthusiasm but who won’t actually be reading the book itself (what with there being so much else to read (thanks to Modernity)), at least get an idea of what the book is about and why the guy who wrote it is so worthy of praise. I have come to realise that part of the reason for my difficulty in saying how much I liked and continue to like reading The Wealth Explosion is that this book is not only itself about Modernity, but is also a heroically succinct summary, of a big clutch of debates among historians generally about Modernity. What Modernity has been and is, what made it happen when it did and where it did, whether it’s a good thing (Davies thinks it very much is a good thing (as do I)), and whether Modernity will continue. That sort of thing. Almost every paragraph of this book is quotable, because it says so much, and alludes to so much, about so much, with so few words.

Here is a fascinatingly typical example of what I mean, which is to be found under the heading “Why the Later Eighteenth Century” (pp, 53-55):

… [T]here are two big questions that any explanatory account of modernity has to address and try to answer. The first is chronology. Why did the elements of modernity start to occur in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century and not before? One obvious argument is that the critical factor. whatever it might be. appeared just before the takeoff and so led to it directly – this might be the cultural and intellectual changes posited by Mokyr and McCloskey for example. There are however other candidates for that role. Many authors however reject this and argue that the breakthrough after 1750 had deeper roots. going back into previous history.

This is a challenging argument to make at first sight, given that what we have to explain is not a change produced by a continuous process but rather one where there is a sudden change of gear or state that took place in a relatively short pace of time by historical standards. One way is to argue that what we have is a slow, cumulative process that at a particular point in time reached a tipping point where there was a sudden shift to a different level and kind of change. An analogy would be a pot of water on a stove. The temperature of the water will rise slowly but the change from water to water to steam will happen in a matter of minutes once boiling point arrives.

An even closer analogy is that of a primitive atomic pile: as more and more blocks of fuel are added to the pile nothing much happens at first apart from a gradual rise in heat until suddenly there is a critical mass of fuel, i.e. enough material in sufficiently close proximity to sustain a continuous chain reaction. This means that the breakthrough to modernity could not happen anywhere until the various preconditions were in place (either locally or globally) and that this came about as the result of a gradual build-up. Therefore, for example, Julian Simon argues that the key factor was simply the number of people and that the population levels needed for all of the other changes were not reached
until the later eighteenth century and could not have been sustained earlier because of the inability to mechanise agriculture in any significant way.

The other approach is to argue that the breakthrough to modernity could have happened earlier and may even have started to happen, but was stopped. Eric Jones for example argues strongly for this approach. He points out that the central phenomena of intensive growth and innovation are, or should be, the natural result of economic exchange. Moreover we do indeed see them arising at various points in history before the eighteenth century. The biggest example (for which see the next chapter) was China under the Song dynasty and indeed at some other points in its history but there are other instances, such as the central Middle East under the early Abbasids in the eighth and ninth centuries, or the classical Mediterranean civilisation during both the second century AD and the Hellenic era after the death of Alexander. In addition there are also episodes throughout history of what we may call ‘ages of reason’, which see the development and articulation of materialist and sceptical thought – these can be found in the history of China, the Islamic world, India, and classical civilisation. (Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

The point here is that we have earlier episodes of many of the central features of the modern revolution, such as intensive growth, technological innovation, and the ideas of critical rationalism but that these ‘eflorescences’ (as Jack Goldstone calls them) were not sustained. Instead, something choked them off. This is of course compatible with the first approach – the fact that these episodes were not sustained would on that view show that there was, by analogy, not enough fuel in the reactor to keep the chain reaction going. The alternative is, to continue the analogy, that there was already enough ‘fuel’ in the ‘reactor’ long before the reaction finally sustained itself in the later eighteenth century but that before then there was a control mechanism (analogous to the absorbent control rods in an actual reactor) that suppressed the process and stopped it from continuing when it could have.

This explanation in turn can take two different forms. One is that the ‘controls’ that prevented such earlier episodes from sustaining themselves were features of the social, political, and economic order of traditional societies that could have been changed but were not, for various reasons. The strongest candidate is the set of institutions described in the previous chapter, which arose as a response to the Malthusian constraints facing traditional agricultural societies, along with the need to have between eighty and ninety per cent of the population engaged in agriculture. These social practices and institutions seem to have proved very resilient and they had the effect, above all, of preventing sustained innovation. The other way of explaining the termination of ‘eflorescences’ is to emphasise, in addition to wider social obstacles, deliberate policy by rulers or rather the way that the interests of certain social groups and above all ruling classes led them to follow a course that had the effect of terminating such episodes and making them less likely to start in the first place. This is the view of a number of scholars such as Goldstone himself, Eric Jones, and Mark Elvin. The key historical episode for those who take this view is that of China under the Song and it is the failure of that particular ‘efflorescence’ to sustain itself that has attracted the most attention.

The above is one of a number of passages in The Wealth Explosion where Davies is (to me) irritatingly coy about the ways these eflorescences ran out of puff. Let me give the game away. Europe, at the moment when it mattered, was politically divided, while all those other places, and China in particular, was not. China’s rulers could and did end their eflorescence. Europe’s rulers couldn’t, and because they continued competing with one they instead encouraged their eflorescence to continue. Hence the wealth explosion of the tile of this book.

I supplied another slightly longer summary, complete with the punch line that Davies keeps omitting, in this posting at Samizdata.

On the above matter, I wish that Davies had been less succinct. Consider the bit where he says – in brackets, like it’s just a throwaway thought – this:

(Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

These eflorescences, in other words, were a bigger deal than most people think, even quite educated people, because the memory of them was deliberately expunged. I would have liked a whole chapter about the various eflorescences he’s talking about, together with much more in the way of argument to effect that they were indeed big deals, and that lots of evidence of their bigness was indeed expunged. As it is, we have to make do with the one fascinating chapter about just one of these eflorescences, the one that efloresced in Song China. But the scale and significance of each of these eflorescences is central to what this book is all about. Modernity did not get created only in Europe. Modernity was created all over the place. Europe is merely where Modernity was not suppressed.

Read more bits from this terrific book here, here, and here.

Michael Jennings on China – as seen from Nepal and from Australia

I have one of my Last Friday of the Month talks at my home tomorrow evening. See the next posting for news about that. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts that Michael Jennings jotted down, concerning the talk he’ll be giving in the same series on October 25th. While writing this, he didn’t know he was writing a blog posting. That only happened when I asked him if I could stick it up here, and he said … okay, yes:

In April and May this year, I spent a month in Nepal. I spent a fair portion of this in very remote areas – places (such as the region of Upper Mustang) that were almost literally medieval kingdoms only 30 years ago. These places are no longer medieval and no longer kingdoms, but they are still very poor, agricultural communities. At least, the ones without roads connecting them to the outside world are very poor, agricultural communities. Communities with roads connecting them to the outside world are different. Still poor by international standards, but much richer. The roads are being built with Chinese money and expertise.

These places are also very close to the border with Tibet. These places have always been close to the border with Tibet, but of course, these days this means the border with China. As China has become economically more powerful in recent years, the Chinese influence on these places has become stronger. The locals have mixed feelings about that. The Chinese have resources and get things done, whereas governments of Nepal – and governments of their nearer and friendlier neighbour India – are not known for this. On the other hand, if you cross the border you had better not be carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama, and if a Chinese policeman tells you to do something, you had better do it. (Nepali policemen are fairly amiable, mildly corrupt, and not people to worry about that much). The Chinese are building roads and power stations, which is making people richer. This is generally considered to be good. The Chinese bring money and wealth, but they also bring an extremely authoritarian political model with it, and you can see this in one small, poor country of a very different culture to theirs

This is one relatively small, poor country case of the interactions that a rising China is having with much of Asia and much of the world. At the other end of this are things like the interactions of my native Australia with China. Australia was always rich, but is now very rich due principally to selling iron ore and coal to China for the last 20 years. Australia has a large Chinese community, that has arrived in the country mostly in the last 50 years. 30 years ago, Australia would have been unequivocal in its support for the present demonstrators in Hong Kong, if events such as that had been happening then. These days, the Australian government says nothing. Meanwhile, Chinese students in Australia are spied on by Chinese secret police, Chinese language newspapers in Australia – there are many – are intimidated into taking a pro-Beijing line, and other similar things. Do Australians like this – not much, although Australians do generally like Chinese people and Chinese immigrants individually. Australia is now in an uncomfortable position of gaining much of its prosperity from people with an extremely authoritarian political model that we don’t particularly like.

Two extreme examples, but a great many countries in Asia and Africa (and elsewhere) face the same questions, to varying degrees. I will be giving a talk in which I discuss what this means for the world and where this may all lead.

There’ll be another talk about China on the last Friday of November, which is November 28th, by Hong-Konger-now-based-in-London Katy Lau. No apologies whatever for the “duplication”. First, it won’t be. These will be two completely different takes on China. And second, could any subject in the world be more important just now, or more vast in its scope and significance?

Safety advice in Nepal

As regular readers of BMNB already know, the BMNB Senior Foreign Correspondent is currently Michael Jennings. His latest item of foreign photo-fun is this:

I know. Ho ho. Johnny Foreigner getting the English language somewhat wrong. My interest is more respectful and serious, which is that it is not just British workers who have become more expensive to kill. This is happening everywhere. Workers are everywhere becoming more skilled and more productive, and employers everywhere are becoming ever keener on them not being killed. Hence all the urging to them to take their own safety seriously.

I bet that in Nepal, scaffolding has recently been getting more abundant and better made.

Google google. Yes, here we go: Nepal Has Been Announced That the Training in the Scaffolding Industry is Showing Improvements. Look at that picture there.

Does Nepal have an edge in the scaffolding trade on account of its expertise in mountaineering? This would make sense.