Saturday, December 04, 2010

Some conjectures and facts regarding the Malthusian isocline and the industrial revolution

Reader Matt comments on the Malthusian isocline here,, observing that I placed 17th century Britain a bit "higher" (presumably meaning more advanced, i.e. more "northeast") on the graph than 17th century China.

My placement in this case of one absolutely more advanced than the other is highly conjectural. It's worse than comparing apples to oranges. I had to put them somewhere on the graph and I used my best judgment. Britain was semi-pastoral (yet still stationary) while China had a much more productive climate for grain agriculture (much wetter in the summer and drier in the winter than Britain) and thus could support a far higher population density per hectare. But whether the Chinese population density per hectare adjusted for these natural advantages (presumably leaving technological and institutional differences, what I call denstiy per natural global hectare), which is what I'm trying to graph on my x-axis, was still much higher is far more conjectural. If we draw the x-axis as just population density per hectare (rather than "natural hectare", i.e. adjusted for natural advantages) the Chinese point is far higher, not just somewhat higher as I drew it, and thus China's isocline was clearly more advanced, but I argue due to natural advantages rather than technology or institutions. In terms of technology and institutions, it's worse than apples to oranges not only because of the radical difference between their basic agricultural strategy (labor-intensive grain-and-bean vs. semi-pastoral and heavy use of draft animals) but each had a number of advanced agricultural techniques the other rarely or never used.

See here and here for the background to these theories and the graph in question, as well as a very interesting film of street scenes that allow us to compare the Chinese and British street transportation in the early 20th century (largely before the IC engine replaced horses and rickshaws).

Note that in contrast to the above graph which is schematic and partially conjectural, the following, showing the relentless advanced of the isocline in England from the Late Middle Ages, is based on actual statistics of population and real agricultural labor wage income based on a food-dominated commodity basket:

This differs from the "noisy until 1800" graph of Clark because I've graphed 80-year averages rather than decadal averages to smooth out the noise of pests and short-term climate variations on the quality of harvests which dominated the position of the isocline before the 19th century. The points are from the data but the slope of the isoclines I drew threw them are still conjectural.

Much less conjectural than the relative levels of European and Asian 17th century isoclines and probably more important for the issue of how Britain escaped from the Malthusian trap is that the British laborer and peasant per capita nutrition (roughly corresponding to real income in an era where food dominated the peasant and laborer budget) was much higher than the Chinese. Britain had more and higher quality protein in the diet (partly from more dairy, which has genetic causes, but mainly from more meat, the British having a stationary yet semi-pastoral agriculture). China, having far fewer draft animals per capita, used laborers for arduous and repetitive tasks the Brits considered fit only for draft animals.

Part of Britain's better marginal standard of living can be put to disease, especially the Black Death, but by the 18th century I'd agree that Britain was as healthy as China. What we see after the Black Death is that the Brits greatly increased their meat-eating and use of draft animals, and, what is more important and seemingly unprecedented, were largely able to keep up this intensive use of livestock after their population recovered and even boomed beyond pre-Plague levels, whereas in (AFAIK all) prior agricultural eras and areas increasing human populations in recovery from plagues replaced draft animal with human labor and moved the diet towards grains and away from meat: sliding "souteast" down a static isocline. Also frequent periods of war and excess taxation had often led to the loss of draft animals and their replacement by human labor, in these cases with a regressing (moving "southwest") isocline. In both cases the capital accumulated in draft animals and meat livestock was destroyed. As Steve Sailer correctly points out, in Great Britain there has not been a major famine since before the Black Death while in China they were common until very recently. After the Black Death British agriculture went through a very long period of capital accumulation, in the form of soil conditioners (especially lime), commercial seeds and breeding, engineered water meadows that replaced phosphates and other scarce nutrients, drainage (important in the wet British winters), crops and rotations that fixed more nitrogen (at first growing beans for fodder, then replacing beans with the even better nitrogen fixer clover), and many other improvements besides the tremendous accumulation of livestock. Indeed "improvement" was the watchword of British agriculture as soon as works about it started being published.

So the Chinese peasant and laborer worked harder on a worse diet and lived much closer to starvation, whereas in hard times British peasants could go back to eating the foods that after the Black Death they considered animal fodder (beans, oats, etc.) whereas the analogous soybean was a protein staple of the Chinese peasant as much as it was animal fodder. Again this doesn't tell us whether China's isocline adjusted for its natural advantages was more or less advanced, it tells us that Britain was operating with a higher marginal and mean per capita standard of living and lower population density relative to its natural advantages than China, i.e. further "northwest" on its isocline.

Besides the Columbian Exchange, and even more important, there may have been an even greater but far less heralded exchange going on between Europe and East Asia in the centuries after Europe established regular oceanic contact between the two. Not so much in species, but in techniques and institutions, aided by cheap paper, the printing press, and the resulting expansion of literacy. As this contact increases we see both the East Asian and Western European isoclines advancing rapidly. But the British isocline was advancing faster than Asia's (regardless of which was more advanced absolutely), and probably more importantly in Britain and at least early on the Netherlands were largely maintaining the higher peasant/laborer standard of living despite population growth, whereas in East Asia until the 20th century the isocline started at an already low per-capita income yet the advance was still directly entirely rightward towards higher population growth rather than in catching up to British marginal standards of living. So Britain kept its big lead in per-capita standard of living and farm labor productivity, and thus presumably in the proportion of surplus labor that could be put to work on non-agricultural tasks. And since Britain did not need as large an army as a Continental power, nor as high taxes to support it, more of this labor could go into industry.

Another major factor in industrialization was urbanization, that is the proportion of this surplus labor that could be relocated where other industry or industrial resources were available rather than to where the food was grown. Urbanization (and presumably the general proportion of non-agricultural population) during the 17th-19th centuries was growing rapidly in both Western Europe, especially Britain, and Tokugawa Japan but less so in China, a phenomenon I have yet to see explained (draft animals can't explain the Japanese case as they resembled China in being relatively bereft of them). As far as agriculture and urbanization goes, contrary to myth Tokugawa Japan saw great progress, almost as much as Britain during the same period, albeit much less technological progress in industry than Britain. Urbanization depended most on water transport, i.e. the ability to transport grain to remote regions (the same thing that made ancient Rome a very large city, in her case grain imports across the Mediterranean from Sicily and Egypt). Without good water transport labor beyond that needed for agriculture had to stay in the rural areas near where the grain was grown. Japan, Britain, and the Netherlands had good water transport with many farmers near navigable water due to geography and engineering to extend the navigability of rivers and especially in the Netherlands to build canals which served a triple role of defense barrier, water control for reclamation of formerly submerged areas, and transport. Britain and the Netherlands also had an advantage in that their preferred and available source of protein, beef, could be transported over long distances over land on the hoof, whereas the pigs, fowl, and soybeans of the Chinese required water transport. Urbanization and industrialization also required transport for fuel (wood and coal: forests near navigable water were soon denuded and forests far from navigable water were generally useless. The Brits could use far more forest area per capita because their draft animals could transport more timber and fuel farther. Both the Brits and Chinese had ample and easy-to-mine coal but only in Britain were there mines within ox- or horse-transport distances of navigable water combined with a plentiful supply of these draft animals, which explains why Britain was possibly mining more coal than the rest of the world combined by the 17th century. Horse gin powered pumps also drained the British coal mines before the dawn of the Savery and Newcomen steam engines).

China had for many centuries also had good water transport due to the Grand Canal and its tributaries, but perhaps because of its artificial and inland nature it was far more bureaucratically controlled and subject to excess taxation and other institutional problems than the coastal transport in Japan and Britain. Japan, with its long and thin coastline, probably had the greatest amount of farmland next to coastline controlled by peoples speaking a single language and thus able to trade food with low transaction costs. But Britain's advantage in draft animals more than made up for having a fatter island, as their horses probably made four or more times as much farmland accessible to the navigable water than the mostly human-powered Japanese transport, and its horses also increased the efficiency of river navigations and (eventually) canals. After the railroad, and even moreso the IC engine, reached Japan it quickly caught up to and leapfrogged ahead of Britain (something Clark's theory can't explain).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Malthus and capital

Why did agricultural civilization remain mired in the Malthusian trap for over 5,000 years? And how was it possible to eventually escape from it? Recall the Malthusian isoclines and how various kinds of societies can be situated along them (click to enlarge all graphs):

Plagues move the economy “northwest” along the isoclines, as more marginal lands are abandoned leaving the fewer people to work and share the more productive lands. Births beyond replacement by contrast move the economy “southeast” towards higher population, the use of more marginal lands, and thus a lower standard of living. Here, for example, is a graph using actual statistics for English real farm labor wage income from 1260 to 1849. Even though England during this period was slowly escaping from the Malthusian trap -- note that each 80 years has advanced farther "northeast" than the previous 80 -- it still followed the basic Malthusian pattern of births and deaths. Observe how the real wage greatly increased after the Black Plague in the mid-14th century, then slowly declines thereafter:

Much less well appreciated than the effects of births and plagues with respect to the Malthusian isocline are creation and destruction of productive capital. Every act of plowing, sowing, weeding, and so on was a seasonal capital investment, and the resulting harvest (and thus the short-term isocline) depended on the qualities and quantities of these short-term investments, as well as on vagaries of pests, weather, etc. Longer-term capital investment could include conditioning, fertilizing, and draining soil, buying livestock, breeding crops and livestock, watering meadows, and so on. Long term progress towards the "northeast" depended on long-term accumulation of capital. It was exceedingly rare to maintain such progress over long periods of time, and the British capital accumulation over such a long period, leading to the breakout from the Malthusian trap, was unprecedented.

Good harvests caused progress that was temporary unless the food was stored and long-term capital investment was substituted for investment in next year’s harvest as well as other pursuits such as luxury and military buildup. Productive innovation, whether institutional or technological, also led to moving the isoclines “northeast”, as they made capital more secure or productive.

Poor harvests (from pests, poor weather, etc.) caused a setback that was temporary as long as it didn’t lead to the destruction of capital. If it resulted in starvation, the deaths boosted the economy up the isocline, so that the standard of living of the remaining population in subsequent years of better harvests was higher than with prior better harvests at higher populations.

Destruction of productive capital was for most of agricultural history as common as creation of capital. Causes included high rents and taxes that forced a choice between going hungry and consuming capital. War (quartering and foraging of troops, destruction of enemy crops and livestock, etc.) was a frequent cause of capital destruction. Some kinds of capital, e.g. livestock and the fertility of the soil, could be destroyed simply by being neglected.

Mancur Olson distinguished between societies of “roving bandits”, where nomadic rulers stole the surpluses of foragers or farmers wherever they went, and “stationary bandits”, who controlled a specific area and simply taxed that area. Rational stationary bandits taxed only to the Laffer maximum, because any further taxation actually reduced their revenues. Indeed, because over-taxation resulted in the destruction of capital, a secure rational stationary bandit reduced taxes below the short-term Laffer maximum to prevent lower tax revenues in future years. Roving bandits, on the other hand, stole nearly all, resulting in destruction of nearly all capital, because anything insecure that one roving bandit didsn't steal was stolen by another.

Stationary bandits did not always confine themselves to taxation that resulted in no destruction of capital. Uncertainty over future power could cause a leader to get greedy and tax at capital-destroying levels while they were still in power. Threats of assasination, coup, or conquest could move stationary bandits closer to roving bandits, since the bandits lost their future revenues if they lost power or territory: in such cases they rationally taxed far higher than the Laffer maximum, usually destroying much capital in the process.

As a result, we can characterize societies and locate their isoclines based on their mode of banditry. This often gets confused with the mobility of production, and the two usually coincided, but they could and often were distinct. Thus most pastoral societies, based on moving livestock from pasture to pasture, also featured roving banditry. And societies based on fixed arable agriculture were generally controlled by stationary bandits. But early modern Britain was a semi-pastoral society but with stationary bandits. And Dark Ages Europe featured roving bandits from pastoral societies frequently conquering arable societies, and being conquered in turn, resulting in a move to a lower-capital society with a mix of roving and stationary banditry.

The Problem of Edible Capital

Of all the ways in which capital can be destroyed, the hardest to avoid, in a hard year, was eating it. Eating your milk cow or your draft animal was like eating your seed corn: very unwise but very likely if your alternative was imminent starvation.

The temptation to eat your capital created vicious cycles of capital destruction. Capital destruction lowered labor productivity, which meant that people produced less calories per calories consumed. This moved the Malthusian isoclines “southwest”, which meant even more people starved during the next equally bad year. War and excessive taxation could trigger or extend the vicious cycle by killing livestock, poisoning farmland, etc.– and rendering future returns insecure, rendering further destruction of capital more probable. The vicious cycle of capital consumption during times of famine may be the main factor that kept ancient agricultural civilizations mired in the Malthusian trap.

Who owned the capital mattered. Edible capital was much more likely to survive (and in the short term the starving people less likely to) if the capital was owned by people who were not themselves starving. Thus, societies living under the feudal hierarchy of long-term tenancy, where livestock was often owned by the local lord rather than a peasant, many have maintained themselves farther above subsistence levels than societies where peasants completely controlled their own livestock.

Culture was filled with warnings against “eating your seed corn.” Thus, as one example of many, Aesop’s stories of “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.” It was also filled with warnings about the importance of saving up for bad times, e.g. “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”

Conversely, capital creation that increased labor productivity increased the calories produced per calories consumed, moving the Malthusian isocline up and right. With storage of food it also freed labor for further capital creation, which in future equally good years in turn freed further labor for ancillary or non-agricultural capital investment (transportation, manufacturing, financial services, etc.). However, for nearly all of agricultural history the vast majority of this surplus went to population growth, military expenditure, and luxury display rather than capital investment.

Thus, until the British breakout, agricultural societies remained in the Malthusian trap. Prior agricultural socieities lacked an institutional ratchet that could incentivize capital creation in good harvests, but prevent too much capital destruction in bad harvests. And they generally lacked low-cost protection from foreign wars, so that stationary bandits often started to act more like roving bandits when faced with threats of conquest. To escape the trap, capital creation must exceed capital destruction to such an extent that farm labor productivity grows faster than population. How Britain did this I hope to explore in future posts.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Elements, evolution, and the nitrogen crisis

The oxygen crisis in the history of life is well known. When photosynthesis arose, cyanobacteria and later plants started dumping large amounts of oxygen into earth’s atmosphere. At first this oxygen, dissolved in the oceans, combined with metals in the oceans and “rusted out.” Eventually, however, the free metals in the oceans were largely depleted and oxygen levels increased in the atmosphere. At first this proved very poisonous, but eventually life not only adapted but took advantage of the oxygen, with some organisms evolving new high-energy respiration pathways that reacted oxygen with carbohydrates from eaten plants. Respiration fueled the Cambrian explosion of sophisticated lifeforms which in turn led to us.

Much less well known, but of similar importance, was the much earlier nitrogen crisis. This was not an overabundance of nitrogen, but the depletion of nitrogen in the readily usable forms that early life had evolved to consume. One might think that life would evolve to reflect at least roughly the same distribution of elements as are available in its environment. Let’s see if this true relative to abundance in our planet’s present oceans:

Elemental abundance in bacteria vs. in seawater (ref):

This is misleading for the metals before the oxygen crisis (i.e. for most of the history of life), when they were far more abundant in the oceans than the present levels shown. But for elements that did not “rust out” of oxygenated seawater, such as oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, the above graph is illuminating.

There is a great deal of correlation here to be sure, but there are also outliers, elements that life must concentrate by several orders of magnitude: particularly carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous, and to a lesser extent potassium. A reasonable guess is that this reflects contingency: life originated in a certain unusual environment, an environment disproportionately rich in certain chemicals, and its core functions cannot evolve to be based on any other molecules. Every known living thing requires, in its core functions, nucleic acids (which make up RNA and DNA), amino acids (which make up proteins, including the crucial proteins that catalyze chemical reactions called enzymes), and the “energy currency” though which all metabolisms consume and produce energy, the adenosine phosphates. Let’s briefly scan some core biological molecules to see how elements are distributed in them:

Adenosine phosphates:

Nucleic acid:

Amino acids:

Lots of hydrogen and oxygen in these molecules, to be sure, but those are the elements in water. So short of a drought or desert, organisms generally have plenty of readily accessible hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous – those are the elements most used by the core molecules of life out of proportion to their existence in the environment.

Carbon, as carbon dioxide, is abundant in the atmosphere (and earlier in earth’s history was far more abundant still). Through the process of photosynthesis, the two double bonds in carbon dioxide can be readily cleaved in order to form other bonds with the carbon in biological molecules. Indeed, instead of storing energy directly as ATP, life can and does take advantage of the relative accessibility of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen to store energy as carbohydrates and fats, and then through respiration convert them to ATP only when needed.

Nitrogen is also abundant in earth’s atmosphere, but in the form of dinitrogen – two nitrogens superglued together with an ultra-strong triple bond. To form nucleic acids, amino acids, and ATP, something must crack apart the nitrogen. Phosphorous, to the extent it is available in the natural environment, comes in the readily incorporated form of phosphates. The trouble is, phosphorous in any form is just plain uncommon. Nevertheless, all life still relies on it at the center of the genetic code (DNA, RNA) and every metabolism (ATP).

Generally speaking, the result of the chemical contingencies of known life – which for its core functions uses molecules rich in hard-to-obtain nitrogen and phosphorous -- is that in known natural environments ecosystems are either nitrogen-limited or phosphorous-limited. In other worse, the biomass of the ecosystem is usually limited by the amount of nitrogen or phosphorous available. Liebig’s principle states that in any given environment, there is generally one nutrient that limits the growth of an organism or ecosystem. In earth environments that nutrient is usually nitrogen (as ammonia or nitrate) or phosphorous (as phosphate).

The eukaryotes (basically, complicated multi-celled life including all plants, animals and fungi) seem to lack the ability to evolve metabolisms that go beyond a certain point. Instead it’s the simpler prokaryotes -- archae and bacteria -- that have a far wider range of energy chemistry: a dizzying variety of chemosynthetic and photosynthetic metabolisms and ecosystems.

For certain crucial chemicals, the eukaryotes rely on archae and bacteria in their ecosystem. Exhibit A is nitrogen fixation. Life doubtless originated in an environment rich in ammonia and/or nitrates, molecules with only single nitrogens and thus no need to split the superglued dinitrogen bond. But these early organisms would have soon depleted the levels of nitrates and ammonia in the local environment to very low levels. Call it the nitrogen crisis.

Dinitrogen, N2, is the most abundant molecule in our atmosphere. But few things are powerful or precise enough to crack dinitrogen. Lightning can do it, converting dinitrogen and dioxygen in the earth’s atmosphere into nitrates. Lightning thus can, albeit very slowly, put usable nitrates back into sea and soil where they have been depleted by life. Trouble is (a) the resulting equilibrium level is far below the concentrations of nitrogen in organisms, and far below levels for optimum growth, and (b) the process requires an atmosphere rich in oxygen, which the earth until less than a billion years ago did not possess. (Alternatively, lightning might have made significant nitrates from reacting carbon dioxide with nitrogen, a possibility explored here. However, early life probably evolved in water so hot that it destroyed these nitrates).

Prokaryotes came to the rescue – probably very early in the history of life, when local nitrates and ammonia had been exhausted – by evolving perhaps the most important enzyme in biology, nitrogenase, “the nitrogen-splitting anvil.” Nitrogenase’s metal-sulfur core makes it precise enough a catalyst to crack the triple bond of dinitrogen.

The general reaction fixing dinitrogen to ammonia, whether with nitrogenase or artificially, is as follows:

N2 + 6 H + energy → 2 NH3

The dinitrogen is split and combined with hydrogen to form ammonia. Ammonia can then be readily used as an ingredient that ends up, via the sophisticated metabolism that exists in all life, as amino acids, nucleic acids, and adenosine phosphates. When nitrogenase fixes nitrogen it consumes a prodigious amount of energy in the form of ATP. In particular for each atom of nitrogen it consumes the energy of 8 phosphate bonds:

N2 + 8 H+ + 8 e− + 16 ATP → 2 NH3 + H2 + 16 ADP + 16 P

Nitrogenase is extremely similar all organisms known to contain it. It thus probably only ever evolved once. Given its crucial function of supplying a limiting nutrient, despite its high energy cost it proved to be so useful that it spread to many phyla of archae and bacteria. Either it evolved very early in the history of life (before the “LCA”, the Last Common Ancestor of all known life) or it spread through horizontal gene transmission:

Alternative origins and evolution of nitrogenase (click to enlarge) ( ref):

The archae and bacteria that contain nitrogenase, and can thus fix nitrogen, are called diazotrophs. One of the earliest diazotrophs may have been a critter that, like this one, lived in high pressure hot water in an undersea vent. In today’s ocean, the most common diazotroph is the phytoplankton Trichodesmium.

Colonies of Trichodesmium:
The biomass earth's oceans is probably limited by the population of such diazotrophs. Supplying the iron they use to make nitrogenase would increase the amount of nitrogen fixation and thus the biomass in the oceans. A larger ocean ecosystem would draw out more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and so is of great interest. This process in the ocean seems to have its limits, however: too much ocean biomass in a particular area can, when it decomposes, deplete oxygen from the ocean, suffocating animals. Oxygen replacement from the atmosphere appears to be too slow to prevent this effect when nitrogen concentrations are high enough, but nitrogen concentrations in almost all ocean areas are far lower than this and would remain lower even while drawing out substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. (Here is a nice Flash animation of the nitrogen cycle in the oceans).

On land, certain plants, especially legumes, are symbiotic with certain diazotrophs. The bugs grow in root nodules in which the legume supplies them large amounts of sugar to power the energy-greedy nitrogenase. In turn, the diazotrophs supply their legume hosts with fixed nitrogen allowing the legumes to generate more protein more quickly than other plants: but at the expense of more photosynthesis needed to feed the energy-hungry bugs.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Petrus Sabbatius comes to power

The Roman Empire was a military dictatorship. Its emperors came and went in a relentless spree of assassinations and civil wars (example) that lasted for nearly 1500 years. One and one-half millennia of violent government extended across history from the victories of Octavian (a.k.a. Caesar Augustus) over his rivals in decades before Christ to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Despite the violence, or perhaps because of it, Roman elites accumulated vast surpluses and left spectacular monuments unmatched until much later in European history.

By the opening of the 6th century the city of Rome itself was no longer a part of the Empire. Instead Italy was ruled by the Goths and the capital city of the remaining empire, “Romania”, was Constantinople. This city (in modern times called Istanbul) controlled the strategic straights linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

No topics dominated the culture of Constantinople so much as (1) the horse races, and (2) the debate over the relative contributions of the divine and the human to the nature of Christ.

The debate over the nature of Christ divided Christians into numerous sects: Orthodox Catholics, Monophysites, Arians, Manicheans, Nestorians, and many others. The Orthodox Catholics believed that Christ was both God and man, Monophysites divine only, Arians human only, and there were a dizzying number of variations on and nuances to these dogmas. Theology was the hottest topic of debate and biggest motivation for political division and persecution in Constantinople. Constantinople was dominated by Orthodox Catholics and Monophysites, while the Arian heresy held by the Goths and Vandals that had taken over the Western part of the Empire was considered a heresy beyond the pale. Other positions, such as Manicheaism, were sometimes tolerated and sometimes not.

With the coming to power of Christianity the brutal gladiatorial fights had been suppressed and horse racing was now the dominant spectator sport. The Hippodrome in Constantinople was the main place of public gathering. Spectators shouted political opinions at the emperor, who in turn used the crowd to gauge public opinion. Indeed, for the normal citizen, this was the only form of political participation.

The racing teams and their colors – Red, White, Blue, Green – dated far back to the early Empire. By the 6th century, the two dominant teams were the Blues and the Greens. The political nature of the Hippodrome had converted their fans into political factions. The Blues tended to be government types, land owners, and Orthodox Catholics (or, during the frequent schisms with Rome, Chalcedonians). Greens tended to be merchants and Monophysites.

During the reign of Anastasius, in a village in Illyria (probably in modern Macedonia just north of modern Greece), where the natives still spoke a passable Latin, lived a young peasant bachelor. Instead of taking up farming he left the village and came to Constantinople to join the army. Dropping his humble family name and styling himself “Justin” – “just man” -- he fought in several wars and was promoted through the ranks of the palace guards. Eventually he was promoted to Count (head) of the Excubitors, one of the two palace guard groups.

Justin then adopted his nephew, one Petrus Sabbatius, and brought him to Constantinople. Sabbatius too dropped his humble name and, aspiring to the achievements of his uncle and benefactor, restyled himself “Justinian”.

Justin’s master, the emperor Anastatius, was a Green and Monophysite. Justin, and to an even greater degree his nephew, were Orthodox Catholics (or during the schism of the time Chalcedonians) who supported the Blue faction.

Anastasius failed to make formal provisions for the succession. His death in 518 threw Constantiople into confusion, as none his three nephews had strong support. The Manichean eunuch Amantius, Chamberlain to Anastasius, hoped to be a power behind the throne of his chosen puppet, an obscure character named Theocritus. The palace guards had traditionally dominated the succession in Rome, so Amantius needed the support of at least one of the two palace guard groups, the Excubitors and the Scholarians.

Justin, head of the Excubitors, secretly promised to support Theocritus and took money from Amantius to bribe the support of influential fence-sitters. But instead of carrying out this secret plot, Justin lobbied and bullied the Blues, their Senate allies (most Senators were Blue), and his own soldiers. Finally winning acclamation of most of the Blues in the Hippodrome, and fearful acquiescence of the Greens, Justin assumed the purple robes of emperor.

Roman imperial successions had always been highly irregular, but the ideal of authority that other political players would most accept is suggested by Justin’s letter, upon assuming power, to the Pope in Rome: “We have been elected to the Empire by the favor of the indivisible Trinity, by the choice of the highest ministers of the sacred Palace, and of the Senate, and finally by the election of the army.”

To cover his tracks, Justin had Amantius and Theocritus executed, under the pretext that Amantius (a heretic Manichean, but tolerated under Anastatius) had insulted the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. He named his nephew Count of the Domestics. Justinian was a, or perhaps the, power behind the throne. Falling in love with a repentant prostitute, Theodora, he had Justin’s quaestor, Proclus, cleverly draft a law that allowed him to marry a former prostitute while still forbidding such a degrading marriage to other Senators.

Early in 527 AD, Justin fell sick and named Justinian Augustus (co-ruler) and successor. A few months later, Justin died and Justinian at age 45 became emperor.

The former Petrus Sabbatius was to lavish his adoptive name and the empire's treasure on cities new and old, grand buildings, and wars of reconquest. Most importantly for our purposes, Justinian would plaster his just-sounding name on a recompilation of Roman law that has profoundly shaped the West down to our own time.

Coming: Tribonian, John of Cappadocia, revolt, massacre, prostration, and the the birth of a bloody code.


Procopius, Anecdota (Secret History)
Procopius, History of the Wars
J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire
Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Signals, gifts, and politics

(I recently rediscovered this old post of mine and thought it deserved re-posting).

Paraphrasing Robin Hanson from a recent podcast: "In gifts, it's common signals of quality that matter, not private signals of quality."

Robin Hanson has a great theory for why neoclassical economics so often fails to explain human relationships and institutions, especially personal relationships. Why, he asks for example, do guests bring wine to dinner at an acquaintance's home instead of paying cash, like they would at a restaurant? Traditional economics cannot explain such basic things.

Instead Robin posits, building on the work of previous economists and evolutionary psychologists, that signaling dominates most of our relationships and many of our institutions. In other words, much of our behavior is used to signal, or prove by our behavior, to our fellows our intelligence, empathy, status, and so on. In the hunter-gatherer environments in which our genes evolved, such relationships were far more impportant to our genetic success than any other aspects of our environment. Thus our behaviors are dominated by the signals that would have most advantageously (for our genes) developed our relationships in that environment.

The general theory is sound -- I've held a version of it for quite a long time -- but many of the conclusions he draws from this theory, such as the above quote about gifts, are quite questionable. The thoughtful gift, namely the gift that is targeted towards the recipient's unique preferences, is widely welcomed as the best kind of gift. "It's the thought that counts" may be a cliche and an exaggeration, but it nevertheless carries substantial truth. The thoughtful gift signals our intelligence, our empathy, and the fact that those skills are being used in favor of the gift recipient.

This (and a second theory described below) explains far better than Robin does why cash makes such a bad gift. A gift or exchange like bringing wine to dinner provides the opportunity to signal that one has remembered the dinner menu, and often also signals that one knows the hosts' wine preferences. Cash by sharp contrast is the most thoughtless gift. Cash is suitable only for contractual dealings with strangers; it is worse than useless for developing relationships.

Gift cards exhibit a modicum more empathy than cash (you have to know your pal likes Starbucks), but prior generations who put more effort into relationships considered gift certificates to be rather rude as a personal gift: they were only considered suitable as, for example, a substitute for a cash wage bonus. Today, like "friends" links on Facebook, gift cards signal a modicum of passing fancy which substitutes for the many closer relationships and more thoughtful gifts that most of our forebears enjoyed.

A second reason that cash makes such a poor gift is that it provides a very poor emotional and sensory experience. Most signals, as at least indirect products of evolution, are targeted at our emotions far more than they are targeted at the intellect. A good wine, for example, will be experienced far more fondly and thus remembered far longer than a dirty dollar bill. The most common signals also tend to signal emotional states or skills (e.g. empathy) far more than intellectual ones.

Per Friedrich Hayek, this emotional infrastructure breaks down when we are dealing with strangers -- in those cases contractual relationships and "filthy lucre" are far more efficient and effective ways of relating. But the cold natures of these transactions, i.e. the fact that these relationships are divorced from the emotional signals evolution has wired us to expect, explains much of the political resistance to markets with their "filthy lucre", "greed", etc. Merchants, property, contracts, and so on are crucial to our modern economy, but they send the wrong emotional signals to our hunter-gatherer brains.

Most politics, and in particular the pathologies of politics, are themselves about instinctive signaling -- for example signaling tribal loyalty on the right, or signaling altruistic natures on the left. Most political ideologies freely and fraudulently ignore the crucial distinction between friend and stranger: in the world of political signaling we are supposed to care as much about the vast anonymous "poor" as we do about our own children who we well know to be helpless, and we are supposed to be loyal to a vast country of hundreds of millions of strangers (including more than a few very strange strangers) as if they were all familiar kin. In both cases, these are largely fake signals that don't cost the fraudulent signaler very much: the right-winger does not actually have to be patriotic, and the left-winger does not actually have to be altruistic, and in both cases they usually are not. Few of the children of hawk Congressmen served in the Iraq War, and Barack Obama has given only a miniscule portion of his income to charity. But they are very good at making the politically correct noises that most humans emotionally expect to hear. Thus left-wingers can get great social mileage from calling right-wingers "greedy", meaning that right-wingers are failing to send enough altruistic signals, and right-wingers can get great social mileage from calling left-wingers "unpatriotic." People who, due to real altruism, care more about the actual consequences of political policies than about sending the proper social signals to their peers, usually end up being called both "greedy" and "unpatriotic" in the bargain.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bugs in the stack

Continuing at long last with my series on the history of Roman law, I will introduce two of the central players: the administrator and legal scholar Tribonian and his master Justinian, emperor of the late Roman ("Byzantine") empire from 527-565 A.D. Today however, a bit about the importance of their legal code.

If law shapes society’s most basic structures, as master genes -- genes that control other genes -- shape the basic form of our bodies, then Justinian's Code is the ancestral master DNA of the West. If society is a protocol stack and law is a low-level protocol governing our higher-level interactions of politics and commerce, then it's fair to say that the Justinian Code was the Internet Protocol that long governed, and still in many ways governs, the Web that is Western society.

If tech metaphors don't do it for you, let's try religion: Justinian was the Moses of the Western legal world. When the first universities, which were practically just law schools, were founded in Italy in the 11th century, the newly rediscovered Justinian Code was the main draw and the center of the curriculum.

Variations of the legal system of Justinian and Tribonian have been taught in Western universities, and often enacted into the law of Western societies, ever since. And indeed in the 19th and 20th centuries these variations were enacted into law all over the world. The only substantial exception, a partial exception, to the overwhelming influence of this code has been the English legal system and its offshoots.

Ideas derived from Justinian's Code also form many of the basic and often flawed assumptions of the political science and philosophy of law taught in universities to this day.

The Romans had a highly evolved substantive law of crime, torts (“delicts”), property, contracts, and many other commercial and personal matters. In these areas the preservation and recovery of the Roman law was indispensible. The influence of the procedural and constitutional aspects of Justinian's Code was quite another matter, as I hope to detail in future posts. The strong influence of Justinian and Tribonian over Western procedural and constitutional law started with the universities, continued in the Romanization of Continental law during and after the Renaissance, accelerated with the codifications of the Prussians and Napoleon of the 18th and 19th centuries, and reached its zenith with the totalitarian dicatorships of the 20th century. Only some of the odious influence of the procedural law that Tribonian and his crew assembled and drafted for their master has gone into perhaps temporary decline since then.

The historian Procopius, who served in Justinian's army, was a superstitious, or at least creatively metaphorical, man who thought that Justinian was a fiend sent from hell to do maximum destruction to the world. That opinion was only based on the consequences of Justinian in his own lifetime. The cumulative influence of his procedural and constitutional laws on the world since that time has been overwhelmingly more harmful.

Tribonian in the service of Justinian introduced and passed on fundamental flaws in the Western political DNA. Or, to switch back to our other tech metaphor, some severe bugs in the lowest layer of our society’s protocol stack.

Coming up: introductions to Justinian and Tribonian.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Malthusian mystery

After a long stint of research and thought I have returned to share some of the results.

In the early 19th century the Reverend Thomas Malthus, foreshadowing Charles Darwin, wrote:
Throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms Nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand but has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this earth if they could freely develop themselves would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law and man cannot by any efforts of reason escape from it ... Wherever therefore there is liberty the power of increase is exerted and the superabundant effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment.
This is the Malthusian trap: any improvements in institutions, technologies, or any other improvement in labor productivity will over the course of a few generations increase the population until it once again flirts with subsistence levels.

Delayed marriage and plagues can delay or reverse such population growth for a time and produce higher than subsistence standards of living, but, with some small variations (see diagram below), eventually our Darwinian proclivity to procreate will return our descendants back to subsistence levels.

But just as Malthus was writing, his Great Britains were becoming the first living things to ever break free of the Malthusian trap. As a result, in the 21st century the developed world has both populations and standards of living never before achieved.

We can picture the progress of civilization in Malthusian terms. Click to enlarge and examine this schematic diagram:
Click to enlarge.

In this chart, the horizontal axis represents, on a logarithmic scale, the human population per area of land adjusted for natural (but not artificial) variability in its potential to support human food production. Such an adjusted area is typically called by ecologists a "global hectare" and my phrase "natural global hectare" represents a hypothetical measure of this independent of all human labor and capital improvements.

The vertical axis represents per capita nutrition derived, via human labor and capital, from this ecology.

The slope line or "labor productivity isocline" represents, intuitively speaking, a level of civilization. In other words, a level of technological and institutional progress. More specifically, it represents food production output per worker (productivity) adjusted for the marginality of ecology being used. As the isoclines move up and right, a given unit of labor is producing more human nutrition from the same global hectare. So our own 21st century agriculture is far more productive than 19th century British agriculture, which in turn was far more productive than medieval European agricultural, which in turn was more productive than Neolithic agriculture, which in turn was more productive than hunting and gathering.

As we move along a given isocline (a given "level of civilization" as just described) we experience the Malthusian tradeoff: more population per global hectare with lower nutrition, or less population per global hectare with higher nutrition. As we escape from the Malthusian trap, nutrition itself becomes satisfied and the left axis really represents a more general per capita income. Prior to escaping from the Malthusian trap, nutrition dominated the average human budget with fuel (mostly to cook food), clothing, shelter, etc. usually less than 20% of a personal budget or the overall economy.

A number of interesting patterns emerge from this kind of analysis. First, roving bandit societies such as hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads tended to have lower population levels and higher per-capita nutrition than stationary bandit societies (settled agriculture). The Western European Dark Ages is an interesting intermediate case. This certainly suggests that most prior analyses of Malthusian tradeoffs, which have focused on pure economics, are very incomplete -- that security and politics play a crucial role, and not just in the trivial sense wars and other causes of mortality. There are good reasons of security of property and capital investments to expect this difference between roving and stationary bandits, as I hope to describe in future post(s).

The main question I hope to answer in forthcoming posts is: why did our escape from the Malthusian trap happen when and where it did, and not elsewhere? This will probably involve exploring a wide variety of technologies and institutions and especially the key factors of capital investment and security.

One obvious possible answer -- and the most likely reason humans will continue departing from the Malthusian trap for some time to come -- is birth control. But the British population up to the late 19th century was booming and seldom made effective use of birth control, so this can't explain Great Britain's initial escape from the Malthusian trap. A second answer is to invoke the industrial revolution. But this is a vague term and risks getting at least some of the causation backwards, as one of the factors enabling the industrial revolution was a large swelling of the British industrial work force because improving farm labor productivity meant that fewer farm workers could feed more people. And it neglects a third crucial factor, the transportation revolution. And it risks focusing on technology when institutional changes played a crucial role. All of which I hope to explore and to discuss with my readers.

Meanwhile, for now I leave you with the following fascinating looks at London and Beijing early in the 20th century. See if you can spot a difference between the two societies which I find crucial. Indeed it is visually obvious and is implicit in a theme of the Chinese documentary. The internal combustion engines are irrelevant for our pre-20th-century purposes. Escape from the Malthusian trap was well underway by the early 19th century and the difference I have in mind had existed to some extent at least for many centuries. But if you're into more trivial pursuits see if you can spot the two "horseless carriages" on the London streets.

London in the 1900s:

Beijing and some other Chinese locales in the 1920s:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interstellar archaeology and surface engineering

The SETI League has published a short article describing my strategy for what some have dubbed "interstellar archaeology", namely the use of astronomical instruments to look for alien artifacts in other star systems or galaxies. In contrast to SETI, which listens for radio or optical transmissions, interstellar archaeology is looking for material structures. The connection between surface engineering and strategies that look for alien constructions seems quite obvious to me, now that I have thought of it, but I've done a literature and Internet search and haven't seen the connection made by others. The discussions seem to be all about the design of these hypothetical astrostructures themselves rather than about what astronomical instruments could give us a great deal of information about, if there are any to be seen, namely their surfaces.

My strategy emphasizes that, whatever the alien structure may be, we would be looking at its surface. Artificial surfaces tend to be highly engineered for useful thermal and optical properties. The spectra of artificial satellites, painted surfaces, skyscraper windows, and so on exhibit many features which are extremely improbable in nature. For example, skyscraper windows and spacecraft surfaces often have gold at concentrations millions of times higher than stellar dust clouds, because of gold's very good thermal and optical functions. There are also many artificial molecules used in paints, again with unique spectra that would stand out from natural galactic features. Advanced ETI may have moved on to more advanced surfaces, but whatever they use, it is very likely to have highly unnatural spectra in order to optimize its function.

My surface-engineering-based search strategy has the added benefit that it doesn't matter how large any individual structure is, so long as a collection of artifacts collectively present surfaces that look artificial enough to stand out from natural galactic spectra. It also doesn't matter whether or not ETI are operating any of a number of hypothesized high-energy nuclear technologies: natural sunlight reflected off artificial surfaces is sufficient. Thus "Fermi bubbles", hypothetical regions of other galaxies to which an ETI civilization has spread, may be most readily recognized not by features recognizable to the human eye (in any nearby large galaxy, astronomers would already have discovered them), nor by determining what kinds of structures the ETI have constructed, but analyzing, often by exhaustive computer search, spectra of different regions in galaxies for the tell-tale signatures of engineered surfaces.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The basics: procedural vs. substantive law

Several readers have expressed interest in learning some law. I highly encourage this. Knowledge of legal basics is not only of great practical use in modern society, it is essential for understanding politics and history, regardless of whether you have any interest in becoming a lawyer. I will thus be making a number of posts over the next few months discussing a variety of basic legal concepts. These may include subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, the tort of trespass, contract formation, and a variety of other basic legal ideas. Today I write about the crucial distinction between procedural and substantive law.

Procedural law is about how the law gets passed and enforced: who has jurisdiction over whom, and what coercive processes they may use to bring suspected lawbreakers to justice. The famous Miranda lines "you have the right to remain silent...." generally uttered in the U.S. when you are arrested are a species of U.S. federal procedural law. Procedure usually starts in a given case with a great deal of uncertainty and tries to reduce that uncertainty by fairly gathering and evaluating evidence, interpreting the law, and applying those facts to the law to reach legal conclusions.

Substantive law involves every law that is not procedural: it is what we normally discuss when talking about law or politics, namely the laws defining and restricting rights and duties for their own sake, not primarily for the sake of enforcing other laws.

Thus for example modern property, contract, tort, family, and criminal law are substantive legal areas, as are environmental, workplace, traffic, and most other regulations. On the other hand, the laws defining who may sue whom and where, and what does and does not constitute proper arrest, interrogation, and search of criminal suspects, are procedural laws. Historically, just to confuse things a bit, property rights sometimes included rights of coercive procedure, for example the lord who had jurisdiction over his unfree tenants. This made property law in some cases part of the procedural law as well as a substantive law of economic property.

Computer protocols work in layers: wires carry bits of information, and bits of information carry text, pictures, and so on. The raw bits of information are a lower level protocol that carries the text and pictures in a higher level protocol. Language works like this too: at the lowest level, paper has letters written on it. Letters are a lower-level protocol that carries words in a higher level protocol. You can think of the distinction between substantive and procedural law in the same way: the procedural layer is a lower layer that "carries" the substantive law by specifying how it is to be enforced.

We can also think of government and government-like entities as lower levels of the legal protocol. Indeed, it is very useful to study political structures alongside procedural law. Think of coercive entities like police and courts as the paper and pencil, procedural law as the letters, and substantive law as the words and sentences we want to make out of these raw materials.