Anton Howes on the Agglomerationists

I tried picking out bits of the recently penned essay by Anton Howes entitled The Agglomerationists, but it contains nothing I am willing to omit. Almost every sentence is something I find myself wanting to think about, out loud, here. Obliged quickly to name a single summary of what this blog of mine is all about, or is trying to be, I might very well just say: that.

Just as a for-instance what Howes says fits with what Stephen Davies has been saying on similar matters like two adjacent pieces of a puzzle.

So, here is “The Agglomerationists”, all of it. I’ll surely be referring back to this and quoting bits of it for quite some while:

The other day, economic historian Tim Leunig tagged me into a comment on twitter with the line “intellectually I think the biggest change since settled agriculture was the idea that most people could live in cities and not produce food”. What’s interesting about that, I think, is the idea that this was not just an economic change, but an intellectual one. In fact, I’ve been increasingly noticing a sort of ideology, if one can call it that, which seemingly took hold in Britain in the late sixteenth century and then became increasingly influential. It was not the sort of ideology that manifested itself in elections, or even in factions, but it was certainly there. It had both vocal adherents and strenuous opponents, the adherents pushing particular policies and justifying them with reference to a common intellectual tradition. Indeed, I can think of many political and economic commentators who are its adherents today, whether or not they explicitly identify as such.

Today, the people who hold this ideology will occasionally refer to themselves as “urbanists”. They are in favour of large cities, large populations, and especially density. They believe strongly in what economists like to call “agglomeration effects” — that is, if you concentrate people more closely together, particularly in cities, then you are likely to see all sorts of benefits from their interactions. More ideas, more trade, more innovation, more growth.

Yet urbanism as a word doesn’t quite capture the full scope of the ideology. The group also heavily overlaps with natalists — people who think we should all have more babies, regardless of whether they happen to live in cities — and a whole host of other groups, from pro-immigration campaigners, to people setting up charter cities, to advocates of cheaper housing, to enthusiasts for mass transit infrastructure like buses, trams, or trains. The overall ideology is thus not just about cities per se — it seems a bit broader than that. Given the assumptions and aims that these groups hold in common, perhaps a more accurate label for their constellation of opinions and interests would be agglomerationism.

So much for today. What is the agglomerationist intellectual tradition? In the sixteenth century, one of the mantras that keeps cropping up is the idea that “the honour and strength of a prince consists in the multitude of the people” — a sentiment attributed to king Solomon. It’s a phrase that keeps cropping up in some shape or form throughout the centuries, and used to justify a whole host of agglomerationist policies. And most interestingly, it’s a phrase that begins cropping up when England was not at all urban, in the mid-sixteenth century — only about 3.5% of the English population lived in cities in 1550, far lower than the rates in the Netherlands, Italy, or Spain, each of which had urbanisation rates of over 10%. Even England’s largest city by far, London, was by European standards quite small. Both Paris and Naples were at least three times as populous (don’t even mention the vast sixteenth-century metropolises of China, or Constantinople).

Given their lack of population or density, English agglomerationists had a number of role models. One was the city of Nuremburg — through manufactures alone, it seemed, a great urban centre had emerged in a barren land. Another was France, which in the early seventeenth century seemed to draw in the riches to support itself through sheer exports. One English ambassador to France in 1609 noted that its “corn and grain alone robs all Spain of their silver and gold”, and warned that it was trying to create still new export industries like silk-making and tapestry weaving. (The English rapidly tried to do the same, though with less success.) France may not have been especially urban either, but Paris was already huge and on the rise, and the country’s massive overall population made it “the greatest united and entire force of any realm or dominion” in Christendom. Today, the population of France and Britain are about the same, but in 1600 France’s was about four times as large. Some 20 millions compared to a paltry 5. If Solomon was right, then England had a lot of catching up to do to even approach France in honour.

Most important of all the role models, however, was the Dutch Republic. Here was a nation that could not possibly feed itself using its own land, but which nonetheless was extremely populous and wealthy. It made itself, as one English admirer put it, “powerful and rich in all kinds, by merchandise, manufactory, and fullness of trade, having no commodities in their own country growing”. With low tariffs and a vast merchant fleet, Amsterdam had become the global entrepôt, sucking in commodities from all across the world and then re-exporting them to the rest of Europe. And through high-value manufactures, it paid for whatever imports of raw materials it needed to support its population. It wove and dyed English wool into expensive fine cloth, then sold it back at a profit to the very English. It built its ships from Baltic timber, then used those ships to dominate the Baltic trade. Despite having “not a timber tree growing in their country”, they somehow still were able to build and maintain the largest merchant and fishing fleet in Europe. Observers even marvelled at how a country that produced hardly any grain of its own could relieve food shortages in England, which was usually a major grain exporter.

To emulate the Dutch, English agglomerationists recommended introducing high-value trades, not worrying too much about growing grain or timber at home, and boosting the size of the English merchant marine — all the better, too, to support the navy in times of war. The eating of fish, for example, was in 1563 made compulsory on Wednesdays. A straightforward way to support the English fishery as the “nursery” of its sailors. By the end of the seventeenth century, it was also considered ancient and prudent policy to ban any search for coal deposits near London, so that there would continue to be a reliable trade in coal from Newcastle-upon-Tyne by sea — this colliery trade was supposed to be a reliable economic backstop for all merchant mariners, to shield them from price fluctuations in whatever other trades they might ply.

Among the other Dutch characteristics to emulate was also a subjugation of nature to suit the needs of human commerce — draining marshes, making rivers navigable, and digging canals. A way to transform the inaccessible inland towns into centres of manufacture that could be supplied with grain from somewhere else. The Dutch had somehow reclaimed their land from the sea itself, so why not apply the same expertise to England, particularly by importing skilled Dutch engineers? Indeed, the English since at least the mid-sixteenth century had pursued a proactive policy of attracting talent from abroad. In doing so, they adopted yet another foreign agglomerationist policy — the patent monopoly, as practised in Venice — which was generally used to give skilled foreigners a temporary monopoly on high-value industries that they would introduce to the country. Venice, like Nuremberg, was yet another noted case of a city that had grown large despite lacking its own barren surroundings. As the statesman Thomas Smith put it in the late 1540s, the Venetians “if they may hear of any cunning craftsman in any faculty, they will find the means to allure him to dwell in their city”.

Then, as now, agglomerationists were generally in favour of immigration. They supported the invitation of religious refugees from the Netherlands and France throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of whom introduced luxury manufactures like silk-weaving. In less obvious cases, too, when the refugees were not as skilled, nor as Protestant, they made their case. Take 1709, when residents of the County Palatinate of the Rhine fled the onslaught of the invading French, with some 13-14,000 refugees making their way to London. Some people suggested moving them on, perhaps to Ireland or to the colonies in America. But Daniel Defoe — later famous as the author of Robinson Crusoe — had a much more ambitious, agglomerationist plan. He proposed that a city be created from scratch in the New Forest, near Southampton — an eighteenth-century charter city.

As far as Defoe was concerned, the forest was unoccupied wasteland, hardly touched by human hands. Yet it was in England, and in an area that could make the Palatinate refugees productive British citizens. His idea was to mark out 4,000 acres somewhere near the village of Lyndhurst, which would then be split among twenty Palatinate farmers and their families, who would then pay no rent or taxes for the first twenty years. The farmers would then be given some startup capital with which to build the city, employing and housing the other refugees as their workers. Defoe’s plan was extremely detailed, reading a bit like a blow-by-blow account of someone playing a city simulation video game: select so many workers and get them to cut some timber, then so many workers to build some houses, and so on. Unfortunately, however, it never happened. The anti-agglomerationist arguments on this occasion won out and the refugees were dispersed.

Nonetheless, in defending the plan, Defore has left us with one of the pithiest and clearest summaries of his ideology: “The more people, the more trade; the more trade, the more money; the more money, the more strength; and the more strength, the greater a nation.” It might as well have come from the pen of any number of urbanists, natalists, or other agglomerationists today.

London Gateway sunrise

Four photos. Couldn’t decide, so …:

Here.

Hard to tell from those photos how many cranes there are yet at London Gateway. But in this photo I believe I see twelve. That being a photo of what they say is “the world’s biggest container ship” delivering its cargo of containers. It doesn’t look that big. I mean, not “world biggest” big. The fact it’s so wide is, I think, what is deceiving.

I’ll never know how these things don’t capsize when fully loaded. Presumably there is many tons of weight at the bottom of them, doing nothing but keeping them upright.

Signs in Seattle

Here:

I agree with what Matthew Continetti says in this piece, which the above photo adorns, that this is froth. History as farce, Tom Wolf style. This “Seattle Soviet” is going nowhere. It’s “signs and notices”, to quote one of my more frequent categories here, rather than revolutionary architecture of any substance. That being why the above photo is the most informative one I have seen concerning these dramas.

As Kurt Schlichter (who his now being seriously noticed by his enemies) says, the important thing about this Seattle drama is the impact it has on the forthcoming Presidential election in November. Will Trump get the blame for it? Or will the local Democrat politicians? And by extension, the Democrats nationally? Schlichter says the Democrats will get the blame for this Seattle farce, this being why Trump is leaving the local Democrats to not deal with it, until America landslides in his favour. “Silent majority” and all that.

Schlichter combines partisan rhetoric way beyond the point of self-parody with very shrewd observations and analysis. I read him regularly. He is like one of those crazy American lawyers, who seems insane, yet who is taken very seriously, and for good reasons, by his enemies. And as I understand him, which is only a bit, this is because Schlichter is one of those crazy American lawyers, who seems insane, yet who is taken very seriously, and for good reasons, by his enemies.

Steven Pinker: “Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity …”

See the world through Pinker-tinted spectacles than you may be inclined to:

Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas.

My sentiments exactly.

That’s to be read on page 452 of my paperback edition of Enlightenment Now, Pinker’s most recent book.

Meanwhile:

Those were a couple of the day before yesterday’s headlines. Let’s hope it soon becomes yesterday’s news. Problems are, as Pinker says, solvable, and let’s hope this one too is soon sorted.

Pinker is particularly aware of the way that the news is in the habit of putting a pessimistic spin on everything. If it bleeds it leads, and so on. Good news, meanwhile, creeps up on the world more gradually.

6 for 7

I love it when this kind of thing happens:

Except of course when it happens to one of the teams I support. Which it didn’t because this was earlier this morning in Australia’s Big Bash League, and who cares who wins that? Well, a few Australians I suppose.

I thought of calling this posting 647, but I reckon that would be one puzzle too many for non-cricket-obsessives.

In proper cricket, South Africa have followed on against England, but it’s now raining. Tune into that here. Although, if you care you’ll already know that, and if you don’t care you won’t care.

In earlier versions of this posting I counted the numbers and wickets wrongly. Sorry. But then again, not that sorry.

A sixteenth century map of the world

Via Twitter, and something called Map Porn, I found my way to this world map drawn by Ahmed Muhiddin Piri in the 16th century:

Yet I can only find one other reference to it on the www, in the form of a print of the above which is for sale, here, where it’s described as a “Fine Archival Reproduction”. So far as I can work it out, this is a bodged together guess about a map that “Ahmed Muhiddin Piri” (aka “Piri Reis”) did create, but which only survives in the form of a small fragment. We know he knew enough to have created such a map. So, hey, we did create it. But I could be completely wrong about this, because I’m still trying to get my head around it all. Perhaps this is a copy of a real map. Maybe the internet is full of descriptions of it, which I merely failed to find.

The reason I’m interested in this map, or the maps that enabled this map to be made, is that it illustrates how much more they knew about the geography of the world in other parts of the world than Europe. When Europe “discovered” the rest of the world, this wasn’t Europeans discovering a primitive and poverty-stricken place, which only started getting rich after they’d discovered it. What the Europeans discovered was lots of places far richer than Europe, like India and China. And that’s just what the Europeans were trying to do. Just because they also “discovered” such places as Australia and North America, which were poorer, doesn’t mean that their basic motive was to conquer the world. No, what the Europeans were trying to do was get connected with an already thriving world, from which they could import mystical luxuries like spice, and from which they could learn, but which they were stopped from doing, by the conquest of the Middle East by Islam. So, the Europeans decided to go round. Round Africa. Round the world, by going west. (That being why the West “Indies” got called “Indies”. And why the people we now call Native Americans were know for many decades as “Red Indians”. Still were, when I was a kid. And still are, by some.)

The European economic breakthrough that made its presence felt in the late 18th century was, globally speaking, something of an end run, as Americans would say. As I learned from that book I’ve been enthusing about by Steve Davies, Europe remained disunited, developed modern guns and never stopped developing them, starting winning wars against the likes of Indians (real ones, in India), then went from inventing and improving guns to inventing and improving everything else and thus unleashed the Industrial Revolution. Europe only got out in front rather late in the story. Oh, it was special. But so were lots of other places.

As the above map illustrates. Or, I think it does.

And maybe it also illustrates something else. Interestingly, the one big thing it gets wrong, the thing only people nearby then knew about properly, was Australasia. Rumours about northern Australia made people think that Australia was part of what we call Antarctica. New Zealand? Again, locals on boats in islands to the north presumably knew about it. But people like Ahmed Muhiddin/Piri Reis, and his various informants? They had no idea.

Bryan Caplan – Hayek Memorial Lecture – photos and an instant summary

Earlier this evening, I (and a great many other people) attended the 19th Hayek Memorial Lecture:

Photo 1: I got there very early, hence all the empty seats.

The Official Photographer was Jean-Luc Picard. Not really, but photo 3 makes him look a bit like the noted space voyager.

Photo 4: The (large) room fills up.

Photo 5: Celeb sighting. Dominic Frisby. And is that his dad Terence he’s talking with? I think it just might be.

Photo 6: Syed Kamall, a recent IEA appointment. He gave someone a prize.

Photo 7: IEA boss Mark Littlewood does the intro.

Photos 8 and 9: Professor Bryan Caplan gives the lecture.

Photo 10: The first questioner was Vera Kichanova, one of the very few people in the audience whom I recognised.

Photo 11: Someone else photoing from the audience.

So, what did Caplan say? Briefly: poor country governments are often to blame for their bad economic policies, rich countries are often to blame for their bad immigration policies, and poor people, especially poor people in rich countries, are often to blame because they make bad decisions, especially bad decisions which hurt their children. That last one is the one you aren’t allowed to say, but most people still think this. When questioned about this, Caplan pointed out that refusing ever to blame poor people for their poverty is often a cause of bad policies. Instead of doing nothing (because it should be up to many poor people to help themselves), governments often do bad things. To “help”.

Another interesting thing about this lecture was that big multi-national enterprises came out of the story very well, basically for doing very well in poor countries, thereby proving that lots of people in poor and otherwise badly governed and badly managed countries could be doing far better, if they got the chance. That being why restrictive immigration policies do so much harm. They are keeping people who could do far better out of well governed countries.

There was also a guy videoing everything, so you won’t have to rely for ever on me to learn what Caplan said.

Because-Now-We-Can! architecture

You can seldom tell where an item of modern architecture is in the world just by looking at a photo or fake-photo of it. But, if you know your modern architecture, you can usually date it. This is because what look-at-me architecture looks like depends on what can, at any particular moment in architectural history, be done. When a new technique is devised, this new technique is used to make a kind of architecture that has not been seen before, and which hence attracts maximum attention.

Zaha Hadid is the firm that most perfectly exemplifies this latest phase of architectural modernity, because they are the people who have taken the latest new-thing-we-can-now-do to its most extreme limits:

Picture (hard to tell if it’s fake or real – guess: bit of both) found in this dezeen report on a new mega-airport in China.

What-we-can-now-do is keep track of lots of different bits and bobs in a building, so different that almost all these bits and bobs are unique in shape, with … computers. Time was when, if the Big Boss said: I want it to look like … this (draws weird shape on back of restaurant menu) there then followed a long to-and-fro argument between Big Boss and the Underlings (speaking on behalf of what is doable as opposed to merely dreamable), until the slightly weird but usually deeply disappointing and mis-shapen object finally appeared. Occasionally, something truly weird, like the Sydney Opera House, did emerge, looking remarkably like the back-of-the-restaurant-menu original. But, mostly the fantasy-versus-actually-doable back-and-forth took all the juice out of the original. It would have been simpler to scrap it and do something a bit more creative than usual with easily drawable and trackable rectangles.

Now? Big Boss can draw the weird shape, and then the massed slaves can duly construct the Big Thing, so that it really does look like the cover of a science fiction story.

Computers can now draw, and – crucially – redraw, anything. When a curve needs to change a bit, to fit in – I don’t know – some more luggage handlers or passport inspectors or a bigger private lair for airport surveillance creeps – the computer can redraw the new design, as re-ordained by the Big Boss on the back of another restaurant menu, in seconds. That kind of rejigging used to take months and frankly, couldn’t be done without costs crashing through the weirdly but in the end rather disappointingly shaped roof.

Give it a few years, and this Because-Now-We-Can! style will look horribly passé. For many, I’m guessing it already does. But for now, we now build buildings like this … because now we can!

I love London

Another shop window photo, photoed by me on the same day as I photoed, this, this, and this:

Click on that to get it quite a bit bigger than usual. It deserves the detail.

I have long considered the stuff in tourist stuff shops to be an underrated object of photo-devotion.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

The Hundred is silly

Now that the proper cricket is over for the summer, the cricket fan’s mind turns towards silliness like The Hundred. This is the idea of having a new slam bang format, in addition to Twenty20. E(nglish) C(ricket) B(oard) Chairman Graves is now pushing this, and there is push back.

This cricket fan has two things to say about why The Hundred is so very, very silly.

Thing one. On what planet does a cricket administrator look at cricket on earth, and say: The Trouble With Cricket On Earth Is That It Doesn’t Have Enough Different Formats. There Should Be Another. ????

Thing two. The Hundred reminds me of the days when they mucked about with the limited overs format, with the result that for quite a while, or so I remember it, the English counties were playing 40/40 overs, while internationals were 50/50 overs. The heart of the problem was that the English administrators thought they ruled cricket, or behaved as if they thought this, and consequently imagined that they, on their own, could impose a new Format. But, there was a world out there.

And there is a world out there now, an even bigger one than then. Unless The World agrees that The Hundred is a good format, it will be a flop. Cricket is governed by The World (sometimes known as: India), not by England. Do the people pushing The Hundred have the Indians on board with it? I thought not.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog