Monday, November 18, 2013

European-Asian divergence predates the industrial revolution

Stephen Broadberry describes new estimates of per capita GDP which say that the economic divergence between Western Europe and other civilized parts of the world predates the industrial revolution.  (H/T Marginal Revolution).  This is more consistent with my own theories (linked below) than the idea that the Great Divergence magically appears from nowhere around the year 1800.  Nevertheless I feel compelled to point out shortcomings in these kinds of estimates, on any side of such debates.

There are the usual correctable, but sadly seldom corrected, problems with datasets comparing European economies over historical periods, for example using "Holland", and leaving out, presumably not only the rest of the modern Netherlands, but the entire area of the exceptional Low Country late medieval industry and wealth (Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, etc.), most of which migrated (along with most of the skilled craftsmen and merchants) to the Netherlands during the 16th century wars there.  The southern Low Countries, until those wars, were the leading centers of European textile manufacture and probably also had the most labor-productive agriculture.

Worse are these and all other attempts to compared historical European "wealth" or "income" to those of non-European cultures before the era of cheap global precious metals flows (initiated by the exploration explosion) allows comparison of prices.  How do you compare the “wealth” or “income” of rice-eating and cotton-wearing Chinese farmer to a milk-drinking, oat-eating, and wool-clad Scottish peasant? It it is neither very useful nor very reliable to try to reduce such cultural and even genetic differences to mere numerical estimates.

So it's no surprise to see such conjectural and subjective estimates subject to major revisions, and I'm sure we'll see many more such revisions, in both directions, in the future. That said, many of the economically important innovations in northwestern Europe long predate not only the industrial revolution, but also the Black Death (Broadberry's new date for the start of the Great Divergence), including the following biological bundle:

(1) heavy dairying

(2) Co-evolution of human lactase persistence and cow milk proteins

(2) delayed marriage

(3) hay

(4) greater use of draft animals

These innovations all long predate the Black Death, except that thereafter this biological divergence, especially in the use of draft animals, accelerated.  After a brief interruption the lactase persistent core resumed its thousand-year conversion of draft power from humans and oxen to horses, including super-horses bred to benefit from good fodder crops -- the Shire Horse, Percheron, Belgian, etc., and of course the famous Clydesdale of the beer ads.  Draft horses figured prominently in the great expansion of the English coal mines from the 14th to 18th centuries. They both pumped the mines and transported the coal to navigable water.  Due to lack of horsepower for pumping and transport, the Chinese use of coal, though already well established by the 13th century visit of Marco Polo, where both mine and consumer were within short human-porter distance to navigable water, failed to grow beyond that limit until the coming of the railroad.  Similarly draft horses, alongside the more famous water-mills, played a key role in the early (pre-steam) exponential growth of the English textile industry, the economically dominant feature of the early industrial revolution.

Greater use of draft animals led to higher labor productivity and larger markets for agricultural output, and thus to greater agricultural specialization. Higher labor productivity implies higher per capita income, even if it can’t be measured. For civilizations outside Western Europe by contrast, much less use was made of draft animals with the result that these effects were confined to within a dozen or less miles of navigable water.

Contrariwise, northern Europe has always been at a severe ecological disadvantage to warmer climates when it comes to growing rice, cotton, sugar, and most other economically important crops.  However these seem not to have had an anti-Malthusian effect in increasing labor productivity -- the increased efficiency of rice in converting solar power to consumable calories, for example, simply led to a greater population rather than a sustained increase in per capita income.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Political relationships

In most political theories and ideologies, there is a preposterous oversimplification about what kinds of political relationships are desirable, common, or even possible. Given the irreduceable complexity of society, any summary of real-world political relationships is by necessity going to be greatly oversimplified, but most such movements neglect even very broad and common kinds of political relationships.  So herein, based on my extensive study of the legal relationships between political players that have existed in a very wide variety of polities, is a classification scheme:

Let's define a "polity" as any entity with some coercive powers. Polities can range in scale from the United Nations to the jail cell at the back of your local shopping mall.  By studying polities over many years, and borrowing from previous work on law and political science, I have identified three basic kinds of legal relationships between polities. The basic legal structure, or constitution, of a polity can also be characterized by how much and in what ways it is composed of each kind of relationship. The three basic kinds of political relationships are:

(1) Delegation: This includes any kind of delegation from a principal to an agent.  The principal authorizes the agent to act for him, e.g. by making a contract or treaty with a third party to which the principal will be bound. A principal can be a boss, a contractee, or voter; the corresponding agents being employee, contractor, or representative.  We can characterize principal/agent relationships by representation distance, with each extreme common:

(A) at a very short representation distance is the master/servant (in modern parlance, employer/employee) relationship. The master gives orders to the servant who is delegated to carry them out and closely supervised. A military dictatorship, for example the Roman Empire, is or was dominated by commander-subordinate relationships.  In such a system, to paraphrase the legal code compiled for the Emperor Justinian, the emperor's will is law.

(B) at the other extreme, an extremely long representation distance, is the relationship between millions of voters and the representatives they vote for in most modern governments.  Voters do not give orders, but rather are treated as having delegated most their coercive powers to their representatives.  Representatives in modern governments usually further delegate political and legal power to unelected bureaucracies themselves dominated by type A (boss/employee) relationships.

(2) Subsidiarity: for example the relationship in the United States between counties and states, or between the states and the federal government. Often these combine supremacy clauses (when in conflict the law of the encompassing jurisdiction trumps that of its subsidiaries) with typically enumerated powers (the subject matters of the encompassing power is typically limited relative to that of the subsidiary). We can characterize subsidiarity relationships by how much and what kinds of coercive power can be exercised by the encompassing jurisdiction.

In medieval England, the subject matter of the encompassing jurisdiction was very small, the Crown essentially having jurisdiction only regarding procedural laws for interactions between subsidiarity jurisdictions (which like the encompassing Crown were held as property by individuals or corporations), as well as some war-making powers. Substantive law was almost entirely in the hands of the encompassed jurisdictions, including the specialized merchant courts as peers enforced an international standard of business law, the lex mercatoria.

By contrast in the modern U.S., the substantive legal jurisdiction of the encompassing power has become vast in scope.  Nevertheless one can still find many examples of fine-grained subsidiarity, down to "stand your ground" laws, citizen's arrest, and those shopping mall jail cells.

In property law (which once was also procedural law and essential to defining political relationships), the landlord/tenant relationship is a subsidiarity relationship. The landlord is generally not the master of the tenant, and cannot issue the tenant arbitrary commands, but rather their relationship is governed on both sides by the constraints imposed by the tenancy.

(3) Peer-to-peer: these include any agreements made between polities where neither is a subsidiary of the other, or a standard law arrived at in parallel, either through parallel development of precedent (as in the lex mercatoria and many other bodies of law) or codification of a standard law (e.g. the Uniform Commercial Code, which is not federal or national law, but a standard set of laws separately enacted by 50 separate jurisdictions, the states of the United States, as peers).  Peer-to-peer relationships most commonly involve maintaining distinct sets of laws adapted to local conditions along with agreements or mutually evolved practices for resolving conflicts of laws. Conflict-of-laws law itself was primarily developed through parallel development of judicial precedent, through courts respecting each other in order to maintain their reputations for enforcing the rule of law. On a larger scale wars and treaties between nations are peer-to-peer relationships. In medieval Italy, a wide variety city-states that were often at war with each other nevertheless also developed through this process most of the body of modern conflict-of-laws law.

Since political theory developed in universities out of the study of Roman imperial law, it has been dominated by imputing to polities only one of the above kinds of relationships -- namely master/servant or commander/subordinate relationships, or at best delegation in general.  This is especially apparent in the quixotic search for a "locus of sovereignty", a search that typically amounts to conspiracy theory in search of a hidden commander-of-all when in fact far more sophisticated combinations of the above kinds of relationships are at play.

For further reading:
Conflict-of-laws law
Substantive vs. procedural law
Jurisdiction as property (subsidiarity and peer-to-peer relationships via property law)
Representation distance
Liberty of house (common law origins of stand-your-ground laws)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A very underrated invention

Perhaps the most underrated invention in history is the humble hourglass.  Invented in Europe during the late 13th or early 14th century, the sand glass complemented a nearly simultaneous invention, the mechanical clock.  The mechanical clock with its bell was a centralized way of broadcasting the hours day and night; the sand glass was a portable way of measuring shorter periods of time.  These clocks were made using very different and independent techniques, but their complementarity function led to their emergence at the same time and place in history, late medieval Europe.

The sandglass was more portable than a water clock. Since its rate of flow is independent of the depth of the upper reservoir, it was also more accurate.  And, important in northern Europe, it didn't freeze in winter.
An advancing technology in 13th century western Europe very different from mechanics was glass-blowing. The origin of the sandglass is quite obscure, but its accuracy relies on a precise ratio between the neck width and the grain diameter. It thus required extensive trial and error for glass-blowers to arrive at hour glasses for sand, ground marble, eggshell, and other sized grains, and techniques for mass producing these precisely sized works of glass, besides a ready of market of users, which Europe turned out to be.

There are no demonstrated cases of sandglasses before the 14th century. Manufacture and use of the sand-glass was widespread in western Europe by the middle of the 14th century. In 1339 Ambrosio Lorenzetti painted a fresco in Siena, one of the commercial cities of northern Italy, which shows a sandglass as an allegory for temperance (self-control). Mariners in the Mediterranean were likely using sandglasses to measure time and velocity by 1313. By 1394 French housewives were using recipes to make, along with food, glue, ink, and so on, marble grains for an hour-glass:
"Take the grease which comes from the sawdust of marble when those great tombs of black marble be sawn, then boil it well in wine like a piece of meat and skim it, and then set it out to dry in the sun; and boil, skim and dry nine times; and thus it will be good."
Such a recipe presumably creates grains of a size in a precise ratio to a standard hour-glass neck size, thus producing an accurate time.

The sandglass, not the mechanical clock, became between the 13th and 16th centuries the main European timekeeper in activities as diverse as public meetings, sermons, and academic lectures. It was also the main navigational and scientific clock during that period. [*]
From the point of view of later engineers, the mechanical clock was the more important invention -- they were on the cutting edge of technology from the time of their invention until the industrial revolution.  However,
For contemporaries....the sandglass was equally or more important.   Until the widespread use of small table-top mechanical clocks, the sandglass was the primary means of fair timekeeping.    The sand glass was visible to all in a room, and it could only be dramatically and obviously “reset”, it couldn’t be fudged like a mechanical clock.   [*]
As I detail here,  the sand glass also played an essential role in the technique of dead reckoning for ocean navigation, also developed in late medieval Europe.  A strict regimen of turning the glasses was kept non-stop throughout a voyage:
During the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan around the globe, his vessels kept 18 hourglasses per ship. It was the job of a ship's page to turn the hourglasses and thus provide the times for the ship's log. Noon was the reference time for navigation, which did not depend on the glass, as the sun would be at its zenith.[8] More than one hourglass was sometimes fixed in a frame, each with a different running time, for example 1 hour, 45 minutes, 30 minutes, and 15 minutes. [*]
Arab and Chinese navigators lacked this crucial piece, and thus by the time of the exploration explosion had not developed navigation techniques that could rival those of Western Europe.