Stephen Davies on how the New World gave the Old World food and money

For a while now, in among doing other stuff, I’ve been reading The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies. It’s very good. And, I just got emailed about an event at which Davies will be spaking about this book, at the IEA this coming Thursday. After I’ve been there and done that, I intend to do a posting about the book for Samizdata.

Meanwhile, and following on from this fascinating chunk about China, here’s another bit from this book, concerning food, and silver (pp. 133-134):

[T]he relative unimportance of trade with the New World for most of the Old World does not mean that the opening up of the Americas and of the long distance sea routes had no impact on the greater part of Eurasia. In two ways it had a great, though indirect effect. The first was through what is often called the ‘Colombian exchange’ in which all kinds of products and plants were brought from the New World and distributed around the Old, mainly by the Portuguese and the Dutch. As well as tobacco, we may also mention the potato, the sweet potato, the chilli pepper and the tomato – to give just four examples. These obviously had a major impact on diet and cuisine – it is now hard to imagine Italian cooking without the tomato or Indian without the chilli pepper (or indeed the tomato and the potato). Even more significant though was the way new food crops such as maize and the potato and sweet potato made it possible to support households on much smaller areas of land, so leading to both population growth and important changes in agricultural organisation in many parts of the world, from Ireland to Russia and Poland, to China.

The other principal impact was via the one product from the New World that the Old World had an inexhaustible demand for. This was silver. Before the sixteenth century the world’s major source of silver was Japan (which remained a significant source for a long time thereafter). In the sixteenth century, the Spanish discovered two enormous silver lodes, at Potosi in Bolivia in 1545 and at Zacatecas in Mexico in 1547. The result was a great flood of silver into the world trade system after 1550. This made it possible for the great Asian empires to create a uniform silver-based currency for their territories, particularly in the cases of the Ming and Mughal empires. The flow of silver around the world also lubricated trade and made whole economies much more liquid than had been the case before. One reason was that now trade was possible between parties where previously it had been difficult because one had nothing that the other wanted, except at a prohibitive rate of exchange. Everyone though would take silver, so now those parts of the world that ran a ‘deficit’ in primary products or manufactured goods with another part could make up the difference with silver.

This was less significant however than the basic fact of liquidity and the creation of a worldwide medium of exchange. Because silver was the monetary metal of China and India and the rest of the world wanted Chinese and Indian products, everyone would take silver. This meant that silver effectively became the world’s money and the basis for the first truly global monetary system, even if it only applied initially to long distance trade. The effect of money is of course to make trade much easier by removing the need for barter and working out through a complex exchange process the rate at which any two products will exchange (grain for porcelain for example). Instead, when the relative value of all products is expressed in terms of the rate at which they exchange for one single commodity (money), it becomes easy to exchange and trade goods by using the intermediate commodity of money. The costs of trade itself in terms of things such as the time taken to work out and make the trade (transaction costs) are hugely reduced, so again many trades become profitable when they were not before. This also generates money prices that send signals to alert entrepreneurs as to where there are shortages or mismatches of supply and demand.

So the principal impact that the European conquest of the Americas had on the rest of the world came about through the way it led to the appearance from the later sixteenth century onwards of a monetary system based on silver that made possible a much more integrated world trade system than had existed even under the Mongols. The date at which we can say that there was finally a truly global circuit of goods and money was 1571, the year when the first of the silver bearing Manila galleons sailed across the Pacific from Acapulco to the Philippines, so connecting the New World to the Asian markets and the products of China and East Asia.

I sort of knew about this already. But, because Davies explains things so clearly, now I know it better.

That bit is preceded by another bit about what the Old World gave to the New World. A lot of diseases, basically. That I definitely knew about.

Steven Pinker Galapagos photos of weird and wonderful creatures

This is the exactly kind of thing I joined Twitter to be informed of. Pinker, it seems, is a Real Photographer, or at least Real enough for me not to know the difference. I’m sure that The World has known about Pinker’s photoing for as long as he has been doing it, but The World did not include me, until a few days ago.

Also rather Real Photographer is that if you left-click on any of the photos here, you get a little dark rectangle with little blue writing in it saying this:

These photos are copyrighted by their respective owners. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.

So I hope that the small and cropped repro that I have included here, of one of the more eye-catching of these photos, of something called a frigatebird, will not incur the ire of Pinker Inc., or whatever it is that might be irate. If Pinker Inc. does demand the removal of even this little photo, that will happen straight away.

But if it does, no matter. Follow the above links and feast your eyes and your mind on the weird and wonderful creatures of the Galapagos Islands.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Complaining about the heat after complaining about the cold

Today’s weather:

Bloody hell. And I’m feeling it already.

Also, I just had an email from a Brazilian friend, who is doing a talk at my place tomorrow evening, and who has been suffering from the heat. It included this, about how she doesn’t like …:

… to complain about the heat after complaining so much about the cold …

But she does anyway, as do I.

Good to hear it from a Brazilian. Who probably came to live here partly because our weather doesn’t normally do this kind of thing. No doubt in Rio now, it is an equable 24 degrees C. Yes.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Bloody Enrique Iglesias drone drama

Incoming from Michael Jennings:

Truly, that’s a glorious headline.

Indeed it is:

Enrique Iglesias sliced his fingers on a drone during a concert

The drone was not hostile. It was part of the show, as was Iglesias attempting to handle it. It was just that it all went rather wrong:

“During the show a drone is used to get crowd shots and some nights Enrique grabs the drone to give the audience a point of view shot,” the statement read. “Something went wrong and he had an accident. He decided to go on and continued playing for 30 minutes while the bleeding continued throughout the show.”

Iglesias was semi-treated immediately after the accident.

Definitely a future trivia question in a pop quiz. But the worst that could have resulted from this would have been a couple of missing Iglesian fingers. This (“NY-bound plane nearly collides with drone, FAA says”) could have ended far more grimly.

There will be many, many more drone dramas. They are colossally useful, and accidents buzzing around begging to happen.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog