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February 26, 2007 10:57 PM   Subscribe

Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000 B.C.? (pdf) We assemble a dataset on technology adoption in 1000 BC, 0 AD, and 1500 AD for the predecessors to today’s nation states. We find that this very old history of technology adoption is surprisingly significant for today’s national development outcomes. Although our strongest results are for 1500 A.D., we find that even technology as old as 1000 BC matters in some plausible specifications. (via)
posted by Kwantsar (53 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
(via broken due to user error)
posted by Kwantsar at 10:59 PM on February 26, 2007


Why am I not surprised to see Bill Easterly throwing his name on this? This is a mess and David Landis already hinted at with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which can trick you if you aren't paying attention.

Expect Dani Rodrik or Ha-Joon Chang to thorougly demolish this.
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:01 PM on February 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I didn't think the notion that technology shapes wealth in a historically progressive sort of way was all that contentious? Duh? Am I missing something here?
posted by Firas at 11:21 PM on February 26, 2007


It's actually a very modest and non-inflammatory sort of argument. I don't think it necessitates determinism. I'm not sure why you'd assume that Easterly has a deterministic take on this stuff.
posted by Firas at 11:25 PM on February 26, 2007


In 1500 AD there were no Europeans living in North America. In 0 AD, northern Europe was occupied by primitive warlike tribes. In 1000BC Rome was a tiny village with dirt roads (if it existed at all), the people we now think of as the "Greeks" hadn't yet arrived in Greece, the "Japanese" hadn't yet arrived in Japan, and the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, and Normans hadn't yet arrived in England. In 1000BC the highest-tech empires in the world were in Egypt, Babylonia (Iraq), and China. The only one of those which is a world power today is China, but if you looked at China in 1900 you sure wouldn't guess that it would become one.

On the face of it, their thesis looks to need a little work. Is it really worth wading through it to see how they explain the rise of Europe and the establishment and ultimate power of the United States?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:50 PM on February 26, 2007


If they claim that the US is strong because it's a European colony, then why isn't Brazil strong?

Brazil really should be strong. It's got everything going for it that the US did, yet somehow it never developed that potential.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:55 PM on February 26, 2007


"This is very likely due to the large-scale replacement of the original inhabitants with European settlers."

They propose a sort of feedback loop between technology and cultural behavior (I just skimmed it). It actually strikes me as very unremarkable in the sense that there's nothing new about this Marxist take on economic history. I don't mean Marxist in a pejorative sense, I mean it as one that's accepted in the mainstream of modern intellectual takes on the matter—that technology, culture, and economics are incestously intermixed.

Most of the paper is spent explaining what they mean by 'technology' and lots of info about the semantics and methods of the dataset. There is sparse attempt at explanation and hypothesis about why the effect occurs, they didn't expand their scope to that. And the contention itself is just that there's an effect, a significant one. Kwantsar's phrasing is way stronger than the position they take.

On preview, re: Brazil—right. The basic neo-classical take on political economy is focused on institutions of government, and I guess your take (SDB) is that it's about the institutions as well. They don't say history and culture are relevant to the exclusion of other factors. Obviously culture and political institutions are shaped by each other.

In short, this research paper is boring! :)
posted by Firas at 12:12 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Firas - it is very controversial in development circles. Asking q's about determinism is missing the point. Easterly is a vicious cold-stream type who thinks there has never been a successful instance of development that was helped from the outside and that all meddling does is make things work. This just furthers that position.

The role of original position and geography are pretty much dead-issues within progressive development circles and only the neolibs and their mouthpieces like Thomas Friedman cling to the idea. Reading this is like reading a defense of anthorpometric measurements of cranial capacity.
posted by allen.spaulding at 12:18 AM on February 27, 2007


allen.spaulding: from the way you put it, the non-neolibs are being silly. Geography OBVIOUSLY shapes technology (and thus wealth.) Hello! You surely don't consider it an accident that Siberia developed differently from the Mediterranean?
posted by Firas at 12:25 AM on February 27, 2007


I think we're on cross-purposes here, 'coz I'm on bat for Marxist dialectic and you're on bat against Easterly-ish "don't do foreign aid" agendas. Any, 'tis late. See y'all later.
posted by Firas at 12:29 AM on February 27, 2007


I suggest Buzan and Little, International Systems in World History, for a much more finely articulated version of something resembling this argument (in particular, they highlight the importance of "interaction capacity," which includes technology in a sense but also social, political, economic, and environmental processes). One of the unspoken conclusions of their book is that you need interaction capacity to improve your interaction capacity. This may explain the effect.

Warning, though: PoliSci/IR, and it's chock-full of jargon.
posted by nasreddin at 12:31 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


The big difference between Brazil and the US is Portugal and England respectively. I don't think there's a former Portugese colony anywhere in the world that's done well, nor a former Spanish colony. Former Dutch, Belgian, and Italian colonies have also done poorly overall. The only reasonably successful Francophone colony is Quebec, which despite the language was long since ceded to the British.

And in fact almost all the nations derived from European imperialism that have done well were part of the British Empire. (Not all former British colonies have done well, but nearly all former colonies that have done well were British.)

But that's not a difference that can readily be explained by differing adoption of technology. During the colonial period (16th-18th centuries) the technology used in all the European colonial powers was essentially identical.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:34 AM on February 27, 2007


Geography OBVIOUSLY shapes technology (and thus wealth.) Hello! You surely don't consider it an accident that Siberia developed differently from the Mediterranean?

Why did the north coast of the Mediterranean develop differently than the south coast? And why didn't the Caribbean develop the way the Mediterranean did?

Geography certainly matters, but clearly it's not determinative.

(And just in passing, there was a period of about a hundred years in which the largest empire in history was ruled from Mongolia, right next door to Siberia.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:44 AM on February 27, 2007


Yeah, but Genghis' troops weren't all shepherds. He went down the steppes and picked up some 'technology'. Obviously technological capacity and cultural tendencies are capable of passing from one group of people to another.

On reflection... I guess I'm more against the gist of this paper than I thought. Cultures definitely adapt quicker than millenia-term scale being discussed. I think there's a really strong relationship between technology, forms of civilization, and arrangements of wealth—I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say there's some gooish sort of way for cultural tendencies to 'stick' to inheritors of a culture. My initial assumption was that the argument being made doesn't preclude leapfrogging, but leapfrogging is probably more the norm than the exception.

(BTW for the record I definitely come down on the Sachs/UN side of the Sachs v Easterly debate.)
posted by Firas at 1:00 AM on February 27, 2007


I've been reading this which has some cogent things to say how modern nations got where they are. Not finished yet, but what I've seen so far would tend to downplay technology as a primary factor.
As for China, of course these was no such thing in 1000 BCE; the cohesive state is largely a creation of later historiography and the continuity of culture is only a little different from the survival of Graeco-Roman patterns and institutions for my money.
posted by Abiezer at 1:01 AM on February 27, 2007


Guns, Germs and Steel. 'Nuff said.
posted by frogan at 1:22 AM on February 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Certainly presence of a navigable sea doesn't predict anything. Why the Med, the Sea of Japan, and the Gulf of Arabia, but not the Caribbean, the Gulf of California, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea, or the South China Sea? Or for that matter, the Great Lakes?

Why the Gulf of Arabia a thousand years ago but not now?

As to the Med, in 0 AD the north coast of the Med ruled the south coast. In 1500 AD the south coast of the Med seriously threatened the north coast and actually owned about half of it. (The Moors had been kicked out of Andalusia by then, but the Ottomans controlled the Balkans and Greece.)

In 1800 AD the south coast of the Med was once again owned by the north coast. In 2000 AD the south coast of the Med is a 4000 kilometer long slum, which isn't owned by the north coast mainly because no one wants it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:29 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


SDB

There's a nice paper by Acemoglu et al. that approaches the question of why some post-colonial countries inherited good institutions (which help them succeed today) and others didn't. It turns out that whether the original colonists planned for Europeans to live there in the long term matters a lot, and that in turn hinged largely on how survivable (esp. in terms of disease environment) the particular location was when originally explored. If I remember right, accounting for these variables eliminates or nearly eliminates the (independent) significance of being colonized by Britain instead of someone else.
posted by grobstein at 2:05 AM on February 27, 2007


It's got everything going for it that the US did, yet somehow it never developed that potential.

Yet. History is always in the making, and contra Fukuyama, we are not at the end of it.
posted by moonbiter at 2:49 AM on February 27, 2007


Oops. Posted too fast. "It" is Brazil, as referred to in this comment.
posted by moonbiter at 2:50 AM on February 27, 2007


Grobstein, your link does not work. Want to try again?
posted by jadepearl at 5:19 AM on February 27, 2007


Guns, Germs and Steel. 'Nuff said.

Fuck all this work being done by economists and other scholars worldwide, the serious academic debate surrounding the roots and potentials of development, the careful analysis of facts and evidence. All the answers are in a popular science book published ten years ago by a biologist which I vaguely remember liking and that makes me smarter than all of you.

Where do these idiots come from? Every time someone brings up something even vaguely related, they pop out of the woodwork and pretend they're contributing.
posted by nasreddin at 6:18 AM on February 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Steven, I gotta admit "why didn't the Caribbean develop the way the Mediterranean did?" has been irritatingly sloshing around in my head. My first response would be different culture/different commerce… I was thinking of a direct line of dependencies along these lines:

(1) Technology, (2) Thereforce economic arrangement (3) Therefore culture (incl. political institutions).

(So, a tribal society would have a tribal culture, a peasant society would have a rural culture and depending on how commerce is organized a feudal one, etc.)

But a culture turned inward can have the best technology yet decline (eg. parts of Chinese history), a 19th C. guild can be more cosmopolitan in their views than a 21st C. banker... I guess it's a sort of chicken and egg problem—did the merchant class in europe come out of a culture beginning to find individualism, or did western individualism create the post-feudal/post-aristrocratic merchant class? I was thinking of culture just as an artifact of social/economic organization, but it can clearly be a driver and blocker of commerce, tech, etc. Hmmm.

I do still think that technology/organization is the key to wealth, but clearly the question of what's dependant on what is muddy.
posted by Firas at 6:26 AM on February 27, 2007


"did the merchant class in europe come out of a culture beginning to find individualism, or did western individualism create the post-feudal/post-aristrocratic merchant class?"

Er, misphrased—I meant to say, did cultural/political individualism come from an economic freedom from collective organization or did it create the environment in which people went and became economically independent. (This is very Weberian, one can of course also say that the two factors are independent.)
posted by Firas at 6:37 AM on February 27, 2007


Firas: Interesting model, but it fails to account for differences/similarities in development between European nations, for instance. Thus technological level (very similar between England and France in 1200) does not directly lead to a particular form of economic arrangement (as early as 1600, but especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, English and French economies were organized very differently), which does not lead to a particular form of culture (different between England and France in terms of political institutions, religion, and values, similar in terms of the intellectual heritage).

And these disparities did not add up to a substantial difference in wealth, but it is British merchants and British bankers and British stockbrokers (and their descendants the Americans) that control world finance and not French ones.
posted by nasreddin at 6:38 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Extraneous "for instance." Too early in the morning, sorry.
posted by nasreddin at 6:40 AM on February 27, 2007


cherry picking history to support a universal theory is a favorite pastime - it's like astrology, or generations, looking for patterns to fit a pre-conception. The hard work is looking at all the evidence and using deductive logic to figure out what it means.
posted by stbalbach at 6:43 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Marx looked at these themes, and he always said that "with the watermill you have feudalism, with the steam mill you have capitalism" was dramatically oversimplified. Technological-determinist strains of Marxist thought are known as Machism, as far as I can remember, and they have serious methodological problems.

I'm not a Marxist, but the subtlety of the idea that it is ultimately men and class conflicts which make history (even if they are not under conditions of their own choosing), and not vaguely defined technologies, is extremely easy to miss. I think it is a good insight.
posted by nasreddin at 6:45 AM on February 27, 2007


Hm. I think it's possible to have a Marxist take on history (ie. that economic changes matter) without being a Marxist per se. I actually honestly find a conception that doesn't find a sort of line of progression from a low-tech nomad society to a high-tech urban society sort of denialist. There's definitely something going on in a vaguely linear fashion.
posted by Firas at 6:54 AM on February 27, 2007


I will grant you that ten thousand years ago we had nomads and now we have high-tech. Fine. But there are many different kinds of nomads, many different kinds of urban societies, and many paths of "progression." Linearism denies the complexity of history in favor of a narrow culture-specific worldview.
posted by nasreddin at 7:07 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't think you could build a turn-based game like "Civilization" on analysis this shallow: magnetic compass = +1 tech points; but hey, they've got the credentials and it's published.

I think the history of technology is extremely difficult even for cultures intensively studied like the ancient greeks: we don't really know how sophisticated their mechanical technology was. I think that is doubly true for even 'deader' civilizations like the egyptians or the aztecs. and completely impossible for the cultures completely wiped out in north america.

plus, technology can be difficult to recognize if you don't already understand it: there is a bias in this analysis towards technology europeans were familiar with. the fact is that european technology wasn't even all that well adapted to the climate in north america despite gross similiarities with northern europe. IMHO, it is difficult to abstract technology from general culture and easy to hang the anlalysis on familiar artifacts rather than whether they were able to solve specific problems.

i think the trend in recent archaeology of north america is that the level of culture and technology was grossly underestimated for pre-1492 and after really.

it's a bit like judging the state of 'Roman' civilization by a survey in 500AD.
posted by geos at 7:11 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Technological-determinist strains of Marxist thought are known as Machism, as far as I can remember, and they have serious methodological problems.

Forgive me for my naivete - I'm at least one domain of study away from my own and I'm humbled by the depth of knowledge already expressed (nasreddin, Firas, allen.spauling) - but I'd want to argue that very few people in technology studies would hew to a crudely technodeterminist line anymore in any event.

They'd be much more likely to think in terms of technosocial assemblages, or actor-networks, to ask what differential affordances are presented by a given technology and how those affordances are grasped (or fail to be grasped) by a given social grouping under a specific set of conditions.

Alternately, they might look at the specific forms generated by the flow of matter, energy and information through a human community, and how such forms evolve as that flow crosses ever-higher thresholds of intensity.

From either of these perspectives, I could see arguing that some historically-arisen technosocial patterns might function as strong enough attractors that they have become more or less metastable in a community over the long term, despite profound change in that community's constituents - but as far as I can tell, this paper isn't the one that'll convince me of it.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:12 AM on February 27, 2007 [3 favorites]


Sorry to get all delmoi rapid-posty in this thread, but I just found this quote from Marx:
He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)
I'll concede that my view is more NonZero/End of History than Marxist… I do actually think that social democracies are the endgame. (I know this puts me in a very tiny minority. I don't hold this view particularly strongly, it just currently makes the most sense to me.)
posted by Firas at 7:16 AM on February 27, 2007


The correlation for the 1000 BC dataset sucks.
posted by delmoi at 7:42 AM on February 27, 2007


SDB said: "In 0 AD, northern Europe was occupied by primitive warlike tribes."

First, there was no 0 A.D.; second, please define "primitive" for us; third, all of Europe is still full of "warlike tribes".
posted by davy at 8:19 AM on February 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


The Caribbean didn't develop in part because it didn't have some of the resources available and hurricanes probably played a roll as well. That might also explain why SE Asia didn't become a power as well.

The Brits/Americans did well by being ruthless in taking the land and killing the natives where they could and subverting them as much as possbile in other cases. The US, Canada, Austrailia, New Zealand are all "successes" in this regard. I'd say most of the rest of the British infulence was at best a source of unity (against mostly) and at worst a retardant for progress.
posted by Numenorian at 10:14 AM on February 27, 2007


Guns, Germs and Steel. 'Nuff said.

Fuck all this work being done by economists and other scholars worldwide, the serious academic debate surrounding the roots and potentials of development, the careful analysis of facts and evidence. All the answers are in a popular science book published ten years ago by a biologist which I vaguely remember liking and that makes me smarter than all of you.


You mean there's no careful and serious analysis of facts, evidence and potentials of development in "Guns, germs and steel"? If there's been any refutation of what Diamond writes I'd like to hear it.
posted by Termite at 11:23 AM on February 27, 2007


You mean there's no careful and serious analysis of facts, evidence and potentials of development in "Guns, germs and steel"? If there's been any refutation of what Diamond writes I'd like to hear it.

The main problem with it is that its analytical toolkit provides very little predictive ability, particularly within continents. European history provides tons of counterexamples to the "farmer power" thesis (the destruction of numerous agrarian empires by nomads, for instance), which Diamond brushes off as just exceptions. Diamond's conclusions essentially rest on his analysis of historical events; in many cases, these events are simply anecdotes, like Pizarro and the Incas, and he does not consider the questionable nature of his sources. Moreover, the disease portion of his model is sufficient to explain the destruction of Amerindian society, and this is not an original insight. I like his points about the Polynesians, but these are only a small part of the historical evolution he wants to explain. His book contains no economics, very little specific sociological evidence, no in-depth study of political and institutional development beyond hurf-durf "agriculture leads to complexity" generalizations.

He is a biologist, and his biogeographical method is interesting. But there is hardly "Nuff said."

(also, Collapse is much, much better, partly because it isn't as totalizing)
posted by nasreddin at 12:02 PM on February 27, 2007


History is far, far too complicated to be fit into any single easy theory.

But if you want a predictive diagnostic for which cultures will prosper and which will stagnate and die, then look to see how open they are to new ideas. Cultures which readily adopt new ideas, and readily borrow ideas from other cultures, tend to do much better than those which do not.

That's why China didn't end up doing well: it was an entire nation and culture dominated by "Not Invented Here" syndrome, and it became intellectually inbred and ossified. Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate was even worse.

Two other observations: First, historically speaking, once farming advances beyond a certain point the technologies which most affect the prosperity and political and economic power of a nation are those having to do with movement of information, people, and bulk cargo. Anything which improves capacity, reliability, or speed in those areas tends to have a substantial stimulating effect on every other aspect of that society.

Second, historically speaking there is a very close correlation between the political and economic power of a nation and the per-capita power (measured in watts) used by its citizens. I know of no nation in history which has substantially reduced energy usage without suffering a substantial reduction in wealth, influence, and power. And every nation I know of which has deliberately avoided increasing energy usage, deliberately eschewing use of technologies that permitted increased energy usage, has stagnated and been left behind by its contemporaries.

(Disclaimer: I do not make any assumptions regarding cause and effect relating to these observations, nor do I claim that these principles can necessarily be extrapolated to the future.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:36 PM on February 27, 2007


The Caribbean didn't develop in part because it didn't have some of the resources available and hurricanes probably played a roll as well.

The only problem with that observation is that once Europeans got settled on the shores of the Caribbean, they did very well. The exact same locations and conditions, but different people and different culture, led to radically different results. Clearly the environment wasn't the problem.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:41 PM on February 27, 2007


"I don't think there's a former Portugese colony anywhere in the world that's done well, nor a former Spanish colony. Former Dutch, Belgian, and Italian colonies have also done poorly overall."

Well, the Netherlands was a Spanish colony that's done OK.

Aside from that, the answer from my Dev. Countries class would be that the British generally used a system of governance based on creating infrastructure that the French and Spanish did not. The British system relied on training administrators in-country, and the French and Spanish generally imposed a government from the top (the British also tended to model themselves after the Romans in terms of co-opting local power structures in a way that the French and Spanish didn't).

But damn, this has been a great thread. I've been out all day, looking forward to reading the rest of it...
posted by klangklangston at 5:50 PM on February 27, 2007


Where do these idiots come from? Every time someone brings up something even vaguely related, they pop out of the woodwork and pretend they're contributing.

Where do these irate, so-called intellectuals come from? Every time someone brings up something interesting, they pop out of the woodwork and insist that everything you know is wrong, that ALL the really smart cool kids in town are talking about XYZ, and that anyone still wearing ABC is just so, like, yesterday.

Yeesh.

You know, you could be right. Jared Diamond could be an ignoramus. How the hell do I know? I just read the book and thought it was useful.

But instead of, you know, helping your fellow idiot, you sound like an angry sorority chick that caught a fat girl thumbing through her encyclopedia. Toss your hair, snap your gum, strike a pose and go, "Like, where do these idiots come from? Gawwd."

Please die. Soon. Preferably as the result of a gun, some germs or some steel.
posted by frogan at 7:30 PM on February 27, 2007


Self righteous much? Your comment was not "Hey, check out this guy Jared Diamond. You may find he has some interesting things to say." It was "Guns, Germs, & Steel. 'Nuff said."

I don't know what your job is, but let's pretend it's programming. Suppose you are having a debate with your buddy about the merits of Eiffel versus LISP. Then I walk into the room and say, "I saw The Matrix, why can't you just shut up and hack that shit like Neo does?" Your natural response would be to call me an idiot.

Evidently, at this point, I would say, "Well excuuuuuuuse me for not being one of those dorky programmers. I was just making a suggestion, man. Jeeeeez, chill out."
posted by nasreddin at 7:48 PM on February 27, 2007


Self righteous much?

"Hello, pot? This is the kettle. I've got some news for you. Listen, you're not going to like this..."
posted by frogan at 7:50 PM on February 27, 2007


No sooner does Klang praise the thread than it crashes and burns. Thanks, guys!
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:16 PM on February 27, 2007


I AM THE DESTROYER!
posted by klangklangston at 9:21 AM on February 28, 2007


"But if you want a predictive diagnostic for which cultures will prosper and which will stagnate and die, then look to see how open they are to new ideas. Cultures which readily adopt new ideas, and readily borrow ideas from other cultures, tend to do much better than those which do not."

That's somewhat predictive on the Eurasian continent, but doesn't really hold when extrapolated into Africa or the Americas. And you have to realize that if I were building a predictive model of your comments, this theory would be on there (along with your other two, which I'll get to in a moment). It's also an overly-editorialized view, frankly. It's hard to argue that the Swedish Empire declined because they weren't open to adopting new technology, and likewise with Russia. The Czars were very open to new ideas (well, mostly from France) near the end, but the inefficient bureaucracy created for the administration of the huge country (even with the adoption of telegraphy) was organized in a top-down manner which made it impossible to respond effectively. That was something that both the Romans and the British did very well— decentralized decision making. But as that didn't change for either the Brits or Romans, really, it's also a poor predictor for imperial collapse. Unless, of course, you are arguing for a model that eschews nations and substitutes systems, in which case the American empire can be held as a natural outgrowth of the Brits, and Constantinople's power lasted for another, what, 500 or so years after the fall of Rome? Even the success of Germany's unification under Frederich can be seen as supportive, though I have to admit that my pre-European structural politics history is weak, so I can't speak to how well that works when applied to Mayans or Aztecs. (I will note, however, that many Native American nations readily adopted European technology and still failed).

"Two other observations: First, historically speaking, once farming advances beyond a certain point the technologies which most affect the prosperity and political and economic power of a nation are those having to do with movement of information, people, and bulk cargo. Anything which improves capacity, reliability, or speed in those areas tends to have a substantial stimulating effect on every other aspect of that society."

Well, yeah, kinda. But the "certain point" isn't certain, and advances in the movement of information, people and bulk cargo tend to benefit every nation, regardless of their state of civilization. Though advances like that do often undermine existing power structures.

"Second, historically speaking there is a very close correlation between the political and economic power of a nation and the per-capita power (measured in watts) used by its citizens. I know of no nation in history which has substantially reduced energy usage without suffering a substantial reduction in wealth, influence, and power. And every nation I know of which has deliberately avoided increasing energy usage, deliberately eschewing use of technologies that permitted increased energy usage, has stagnated and been left behind by its contemporaries."

I would like to see some support for this, as it sounds like neo-liberal hogwash.
posted by klangklangston at 10:02 AM on February 28, 2007


I might get back to the point about openness/flexibility equals health/survivability (I rather believe in it—I think klangklangston is taking too short term/specific a view in trying to find falsifying examples), but something that strikes me is that in *biological* systems isolation between variant groups tends to lead to quicker (better?) adaptation right? Take strain A1 and A2, outgrowths of A, and drop them on different islands—unless I'm mistaken each would adapt quicker to the conditions of their particular island than if you mixed them up in both islands.

I think it's more complex with the culture issue here because I'm not just maintaining that the Japanese are great at being Japanese and that if you left them alone they'd be best adapted to dealing with running Japan but more brittle/less adapted to dealing with outside challenges—I'm saying that if they were completely shut off they'd eventually run against *internal* challenges that flexiblity/openness to outside ideas would have helped them deal with. One can easily sympathize with both views—you don't want to have a mind so open that your head falls out as they say—too much openness and decentralization just makes it easy for outside powers to prey on you and turn you against each other (eg. Britain's colonization of India.) It's a balance, there can be hypercorrection to either extreme.

klangklangston, I think my basic response would be that you need both things—cultural/idea-based openness and capable structural capacity to adapt. Furthermore I'd say that it doesn't necessarily have to be top-down, if elements in the system have enough freedom change can happen without anyone at the helm of the battleship waking up one morning and deciding they need a huge course-correction (cf. capitalist vs command economies. Globalized ways of running your economy vs. disastrous attempts at autarky.).

Methinks, were the USSR not running on empty, Gorbachev's openness *would* have made it last longer. Were GM not structurally busted in terms of the economics of manufacturing, borrowing ideas from other car makers *would* help it stay on its feet. If the Czar hadn't totally ignored the Duma, having a Duma and having more European-style socialism was definitely putting Czarist Russia on the right track. And (contrary to hyper-right-wing thought), I do think that Roosevelt's openness to government action in the economy helped the USA's robustness. It's almost a moot point isn't it? Change helps keep things alive (W. Edwards Deming: "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.") And openness to outside ideas helps us realize what changes to make, and also helps keep in place the structural capacity to change.

Getting into the realm of generic systems analysis, it's a sort of interesting question. Clearly a system that is hyperflexible and open can lose its individuality by spending so much time spinning in directions without a general philosophy due to lack of 'vitality'/purpose just as understandably as one that fades due to being rigid and unable (therefore) to survive challenges it's not designed for. In a way the "do we stick to principles or get pragmatic" permadebate in everything humans do is sort of an outgrowth of sympathizing with both these two sides of the 'system health' coin.

I wonder what parellels to this conflict between openness/isolation there are in epidemiology.
posted by Firas at 3:56 PM on February 28, 2007


In the case of the USSR, Czarist Russia, GM, Imperial Rome, &c.—it's the case of systems trying to change only when it is way past the point that they should have.

Also, there's nothing mandating that a system HAS to stay together. Maybe the British empire wilted because the time had come for it to wilt, and the Brits were more flexible than some other powers in understanding that they should let this particular thing go. Similarly centuries before that, mercantalism fell apart because the time for it had passed.
posted by Firas at 4:03 PM on February 28, 2007


What's the longest running easily-discernable entity around? Probably the Catholic Church right? Maybe management experts should be studying those guys instead of fly by night startups :)
posted by Firas at 4:06 PM on February 28, 2007



In the case of the USSR, Czarist Russia, GM, Imperial Rome, &c.—it's the case of systems trying to change only when it is way past the point that they should have.

Also, there's nothing mandating that a system HAS to stay together. Maybe the British empire wilted because the time had come for it to wilt, and the Brits were more flexible than some other powers in understanding that they should let this particular thing go. Similarly centuries before that, mercantalism fell apart because the time for it had passed.


This type of argumentation sounds plausible, but seems somewhat problematic to me. I don't think it's epistemologically possible to determine whether a system has exhausted its possibilities for change, and therefore such conclusions always have to be made in hindsight. This leads to a naive view of history, where everything is the way it is because it couldn't have been otherwise. In a sense, of course, that's true; but on the other hand it makes a number of academic disciplines irrelevant, which may or may not be a good thing.

Also, it is a tricky question whether a system has in fact exhausted itself. One would assume, for example, that Ancient Rome was a dead system after Adrianople/Teutoburg Forest--and yet the Byzantine Empire survived very successfully for another 1200 years, much longer than any currently existing European state (I recommend Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, for more on the ultimate success of the Byzantines).
posted by nasreddin at 8:52 PM on February 28, 2007


I realize things ebb and flow… the USSR could still be around, people could still put together extractive imperial empires, you can still have a feudal economic/social system running somewhere. Socialist democracies were already around when the fascists decided to came up with their brilliant reactionary ideas, etc.

Sure, alright. Any attempt at explaining why things happen in as inherently untestable a field as social history has to have a fair amount of handwaving built-in about well maybe this and well perhaps that. The (hyper)alternative is to begin with a dismissive wave and decide that nothing happens with explainable causative factors.

My basic reason for holding that there is a vaguely serial approach going on somewhere goes with what I said way above about human ideas and cultural structures going hand in hand, that you need a certain type of structural arrangement to come up with a certain type of 'paradigm shift', and some of these resulting paradigms are almost screamingly non-reversable ("hey, maybe cooperative trade gives everyone involved better returns than hoarding/mercantalism" is a theory that—when proved—puts the nail in the coffin of mercantalism.)
posted by Firas at 10:12 PM on February 28, 2007


"I rather believe in it—I think klangklangston is taking too short term/specific a view in trying to find falsifying examples"

How so? I think that relying purely on openness appeals to a liberal sensibility but is largely unsupported by history. It's the type of theory often advanced by people who wish there was more openness to change now, with kludged anecdotes from the past.

"klangklangston, I think my basic response would be that you need both things—cultural/idea-based openness and capable structural capacity to adapt."

Yes, both things are nice, but the case you have to make is that they're both predictive and more substantial than other factors. Otherwise, it's feel-good hand-waving for Glasnost.

"Methinks, were the USSR not running on empty, Gorbachev's openness *would* have made it last longer. Were GM not structurally busted in terms of the economics of manufacturing, borrowing ideas from other car makers *would* help it stay on its feet. If the Czar hadn't totally ignored the Duma, having a Duma and having more European-style socialism was definitely putting Czarist Russia on the right track."

I agree on Roosevelt, but you're wrong on Russia. The problem with Gorbachev's reforms was not that the USSR was running on empty per se, but that they were largely introduced too fast by state-trained economists who had no idea how to deal with capitalism. The reform movement that Gorby had come out of was agricultural, and his changes there made sense. But when he attempted to make similar changes to the manufacturing sector, including a disasterous policy of letting factory heads decide what and how much they were making, the "market correction" was collapse. So, no, Gorbachev's market reforms were the wrong action to take and with more moderate changes, the USSR could still be a force today (though it's arguable that it is, and that it just shed its cocoon of populism). As to the Czar and the Duma, no, the Russian economic and social system was such that the Duma was ineffective at representing the people, and unpopular. What Russia needed wasn't more Duma control, it was the return of a stronger dictator. The Russians loved Peter, despite him being a little batshit. And as a counter-example, Bismark's rejection of liberal reform kept Germany secure and powerful, perched between powerful enemies.

"Also, there's nothing mandating that a system HAS to stay together. Maybe the British empire wilted because the time had come for it to wilt, and the Brits were more flexible than some other powers in understanding that they should let this particular thing go. Similarly centuries before that, mercantalism fell apart because the time for it had passed."

Without prediction, there is no science!
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 AM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


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