20 July, 2013

Over the Great Firewall

Beginning tomorrow the author of this blog shall be traveling on the other side of the "Great Firewall." While I am sure I shall be able to leap the Firewall should desperate need arise, the occasion of my journey will allows little time for blogging. Expect e-mails sent to the Scholar's Stage account to be replied to in haphazard and sluggardly manner. Affairs shall return to normal at the end of August. Forgive me for sparse posting in the mean time.

"广北京." Taken by "Cavenli" on November 2007 from the CCTV Tower. Source.

18 July, 2013

The World, As Seen Through Contested Wikipedia Pages

The ten most controversial (i.e. most prone to edit wars) articles in the English, German, French, Spanish Czech,   Hungarian, Romanian, Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew language Wikipedias:

Source: Taha Yasseri1, Anselm Spoerri, Mark Graham1, and János Kertész. "The most controversial topics in Wikipedia: A multilingual and geographical analysis" Upcoming chapter in Global Wikipedia: International and cross-cultural issues in online collaboration. (Scarecrow Press, 2014).

Notice that half of the ten most controversial Spanish-language articles are about football!

16 July, 2013

Despots Near and Despots Far

Which is worse - the tyrant who lives afar or the tyrant who lives next door? Tyranny from local powers is often worse than the tyranny of more distant despots. Yet local tyrannies, as oppressive as they may be,  face limits to their power that larger tyrannies need not fear. 

Man will wield power. Its form may change with time and place, but power will always be sought and power will always be used. Inevitably some will wield more than others.

But how much more? The question soon forms: should we distribute power among the many? Or is it better to concentrate it at the center?

In some ages and in some places this is an academic question. Those least satisfied with current arrangements are often those least able to change it. The most dour among them will ask the question in a more cynical way. Which is worse: the tyrant afar or the tyrant next door?

Adam Elkus tweets:
 Lynn Rees wrote on a similar theme a few months ago:
Dispersal of power is often confused with localization of power. But localized power, if consolidated power, is just as oppressive as remote consolidated power. Dispersed power must be broad and deep. It must be broadly dispersed not only in the large but in the small, not only remotely but locally. 
A local monopoly of power is as dangerous as a remote monopoly on power. [1]
In a recent post he adds:
There is a tipping point between the dispersed strength that favors liberty and the consolidated strength that favors tyranny. Localizing power away from a global center is insufficient. More appeal hurt from private wrongs than public hurt from government. A consolidated local grudge is more tightly held than a dispersed global grudge. Words and activity in private law dwarf words and activity in public law. [2]
These gentlemen have a point. For all of the flak the National Security Agency has taken for violating the rights of the billions of individuals it has collected metadata on, nobody so violated can claim the NSA used explosive charges to break down their front door, stormed their house with a team of men decked out in military gear, shot and killed their dogs, then pulled them across the living room at gun point and forced them to kneel in their underwear on the floor in front of their broken door while ransacking their home. [3]

Local tyranny is tyranny indeed.

But is it the worst type of tyranny? Is systematic oppression more common or more severe when the center holds or when the center gives way?

A trip to America's past - in a day and age when the center did not hold - may help answer this question.


The deadliest spree of lynch mobbing to mar the Antebellum South occurred in 1835.  The location was Madison County, Mississippi, a county more than 70% black and only a few decades settled. A rumor spread that Madison county slaves were planning an insurrection for the 4th of July. Slaves from the plantation in question were tortured into 'revealing' additional details said that the idea sprung from traveling salesmen and preachers who visited slaves while wandering through the county. Deathly afraid of this mass insurrection, the "best" citizens of Madison county convened their own extra-legal citizen's court and posse to hunt down those responsible for stoking the fires of revolt. At least 24 men died at their hands.  Seven of these were white men, one was a slave holder. The rest were slaves. Others were "slicked" in lieu of capital punishment, "in which the prisoner is stripped naked, laid on his belly, his hands and his feet fastened to four pegs; when with a coleman, he receives the stripes from different hands." [4] Such unrestrained tyranny exemplified the Antebellum South at its worst.

But it could have been much worse. It almost was. William Freehling explains what stymied the flow of Mississippi blood:
What ultimately stopped this terroristic purification was Madison County’s attempt to purify Hinds County. Among the over 50 alleged insurgents named by Saunders and Cotton were two nortslaveholders who lived across the county line in Hinds, outside the turf Madison County mobs could “legitimately" intimidate. The Madison County Committee of the Respectable, seeking to pass respectable limits, dispatched its cavalry. Armed Madison horsemen, led by a small slaveholder named Hiram Perkins, demanded the right to extradite accused nonslaveholders over the county line. 
At stake in Madison County's demand on Hinds County was the right to terrorize beyond local limits. At stake in Hinds County's response was the southern belief that only local folk could coerce each other. Patrick Sharkey, a powerful Hinds County slaveholder and justice of the peace, moved to take care of his folk, black and white. The justice of the peace declared his neighboring whites innocent. He sent Hiram Perkins and friends emptyhanded back to their folk. 
The returning horsemen's tale enraged Madison County's Committee of the Respectable. The kangaroo court ordered a beefed-up cavalry to procure the accused "at all hazards." Patrick Sharkey also must be extradited for "trial." A man so protective of suspected insurrectionists was probably “soft on slavery" and an “enemy of Mississippi." 
Patrick Sharkey proved not soft on anything. Such incredible suspicions of such a credible Southron illustrated why democrats demanded restraints on terrorists. Justice of the Peace Patrick Sharkey's cousin was William Sharkey, chief justice of Mississippi's highest court. Both Sharkeys exemplified a ruling class determined to rule its turf. 
Patrick Sharkey placed his fight for local folks’ turf and for private dictators’ noblesse oblige in a strange garrison. Or rather, Sharkey-‘s fort was appropriate for a class sometimes equating mob justice with privies. The justice of the peace barricaded himself and his family in his Outhouse. There he waited to ambush invading horsemen. 
Hiram Perkins and his Madison County gang galloped onto Sharkey's property. Perkins trotted past an outhouse window. Sharkey fired. Perkins tumbled. The battle of the privy was on.

Madison County cavalrymen poured bullets in the offending window. The offended Hinds County patrician stuck out his gun and returned fire. A blast shattered Sharkey's gun hand. Shifting hands, he fired, fired, fired. One victim,thigh gushing, tumbled almost atop the dying Hiram Powers. Another invader, collar ripped off his coat, had reason to thank heaven for losing but a garment. Another half-inch and the chief justice's cousin's bullet would have ripped the governor's nephew's jugular.

Invaders had seen enough of the gunman of the outhouse. Picking up dying commander and wounded fellows, they retreated across the county line. Sharekey knew they would return. He rode over to his county seat to request protection from his folk.

Hinds County's own “Committee of Safety" moved to “try" Patrick Sharkey, its own alleged traitor. Madison County citizens rode over to demand extradition of the accused. Chief justice William Sharkey moved in to represent his cousin. The chief justice lamented his court's temporary powerlessness. He urged Hinds County folk to protect “citizens of their own county from trial beyond its confines," until regular courts could reconvene. Sharkey's neighborhood, rallying behind its own, armed to defend. Madison citizens armed to lynch. “A civil war must ensue," cried a handwringing observer.

The imminent showdown, no longer a pitched battle between the chief justice's and the governor's folk, would be a brothers’ war between two slaveholding communities. The contest would involve not whether one slaveholder was loyal to slavery but whether folk could violate other folk. The warfare might indicate whether violent means of social control would be narrowly confined to a neighborhood or pass beyond county lines.

The battle became the most significant war never fought in the Old South.Vigilantes never passed that county line. Madison County citizens, although bent on blood revenge, ultimately honored local limits on folk bloodletting. 
They disanned. Hysteria ended. Tyranny over whites could not be extended to other folks’ terrain.

Madison residents subsequently discovered that they had gone further than democratic despotism could sanction. Once Chief Justice William Sharley's court system resumed operations, justice of the Peace Patrick Sharkey strode inside the courthouse. The commander of the outhouse sued Madison County assailants for damages. Through the legal system, Sharkey could exert leverage across county lines, the very power extralegal mobs lacked.

Sharkey won. His assailants had to pay $10,000. Whether in Mississippi in the 1830s or Tennessee in the 1850s whether victims were disreputable grocers or respectable titans, extralegal terrorists might find violating democratic law to be very expensive. [5]

Madison County's insurrectionary panic of 1835 is a chilling example of the evils local prejudice of local power can inflict upon local inferiors. Yet it is also an example of the very real limits facing local tyrants. The Madison campaign of terror could not pass the county line. The scale of their tyranny was limited by the scale of their control. The blood shed could only ever be local. 

Economist like to talk about "economies of scale" - the factors that allow the costs of production to decrease as the scale of production increases. In most cases, the larger a business or productive enterprise becomes, the cheaper and more efficient it is. 

Despotism smiles on economies of scale. 

The first and most important  difference between the despot far and the despot near is the scale of his control. Both can perpetuate unspeakable evil and do so without facing opposition. But the consolidated power of the local tyrant can only reach so far. The consolidated power of the global tyrant knows no bounds - and is more efficient because of it. The difference between local tyranny and global tyranny is the difference between a pogram and a Holocaust. To the individuals oppressed these differences are trivial. A dead man is dead, whether he died with ten or with 5 million others. But to humanity the difference between ten men and five million matters. 


Two years before lynch mobs assembled in Madison County to put down a slave insurrection, a mob of a different type assembled in Jackson Country, Missouri. Jackson County was just as rough and just as new as Madison County, but far less black. There were not enough slaves in the county to spark fears of slave rebellion. The declared enemy of the Jackson County public were Mormons.

Mormons began streaming into the county in 1831 when the Prophet Joseph Smith announced that it was the place the Lord had chosen to gather scattered Israel. Family by family and company by company Israel gathered. Some 1,200 Mormons settled in Jackson county between 1831 and 1833. The previous settlers were a poor fit for the new-comers. Missourians were Southerners or Butternuts; the Mormons were overwhelmingly Yankee. The Missourians supported slavery; the Mormons condemned it. The Missourians gloried in the dirty, daring, and free wheeling world of a remote frontier outpost; the Mormon communities were organized under strict hierarchy and strove to hold all property in common. Few Missourians allowed religion much place in their lives; Mormons were united in their desire to build a millennial utopia on Missouri sod. And more Mormons kept on coming.

The conflict between the two cultures came to a head in July, 1833. When the Mormon newspaper Morning and Evening Star printed an editorial savaging slavery the old denizens of Jackson County decided they had had enough. 400 assembled and proceeded to burn down the Mormon printing press and general store, tar and feather the Mormon bishop who lead the community, and then threatened more violence if the Mormons did not leave Jackson County.

So they did. They fled to where their enemies would not hurt them: next door to Clay County.

 The story would repeat itself several times in the decades that followed. The Mormons would move from Clay to Caldwall County in 1836. By this time they numbered some 12,000, and that was enough to upset the balance of Missouri state politics as whole. When fighting between Mormons and Missourians broke out in nearby Davies County,  Govenor Boggs (himself an old Jackson County man) issued an order that the Mormons needed to leave not only the county, but the entire state. If they did not they would be  "exterminated."  The Mormons fled once again, finding safety on the other side of the Mississippi in the state of Illinois. Out of the swamps they built a new city, and by 1845 its size rivaled Chicago. Once again the mobs assembled, and this time they succeeded in murdering Joseph Smith. Figuring they were no longer welcome in Illinois, the saints once again left their homes, heading towards the barren and empty Great Basin. Tens of thousands made that trek West. They were glad to find that no mobs, no militias, and no governments could persecute them there. This held true until the 1880s, when the Edmunds-Tucker Act gave federal agents the power to disincorporate the LDS Church, confiscate all of its buildings and property, jail all of its leaders, fire all sitting Mormon judges and prohibit Mormons from sitting on juries, disenfranchise Utah's women voters, annul territorial inheritance laws, and end the use of Mormon books in community schools. At this point there was nowhere else to flee to.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints survived this dark trial and thrives in the present day. What concerns us here is not the Church's current state, but the primary strategy the Mormon people used when faced with oppression: escape. While the Mormons occasionally attempted to fight back or to appeal to a higher federal power, Exit was always their most secure defense. In the localized world of 19th century America it was a strategy that could succeed. If one county terrorized, then they would leave for another. If one state exterminated, then they would escape to another. If no place in the Union could promise protection, then they would leave it, tramping off into the wilds of Mexico. As long as tyranny was limited in scale, they could escape from it.

Exit has ever been the friend of liberty. Those of us born in an age where all men are born with a government number attached to their name sometimes forget this. Many immigrants and refugees from less 'developed' lands know better. Many of America's internal migrants knew the same. The most stunning response to the entrenched racial oppression of the American South was exit. When reconstruction ended and Jim Crow laws began to proliferate in the South, blacks began to leave. Their exit was not dramatic; they made this decision to one family and one person at a time. More than 6 millions left their homes for freer lands before the Civil Rights Movement swept the South.

It is easy to look at the American Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement and conclude that centralized power operating on the large scale serves as a shield for the oppressed and a hope for the under trodden. If only this was true. Power in the center can be used just as easily to defend tyrants as those tyrannized; for every Civil Rights Act and Brown vs. Board of Education of American history there is a Fugitive Slave Act or Dred Scott vs. Sanford to match it. It is much harder to escape from this kind of tyranny. Those 6 million black men and women had somewhere to exit to. The 110,000 Japanese Americans interned in the Second World War had no such asylum.  

Despotism is wicked no matter who the despot may be. Tyranny is to be fought, be it local or  from the global center. But if the choice is offered two words are worth remembering: scale and exit. When the pursuit of liberty and happiness is at stake, they can make all the difference.


[1] Lynn Rees. "Its the division of power, stupid." Committee of Public Safety. 11 April 2013.

[2] Lynn Rees. "Heavy Breathing on the Line: Wheel of the Mandala" 10 July 2013. Less I misconstrue either of these fine posts, I shall note that one of the major problems with localized power, as Mr. Ress presents it, is that it leads those weak to appeal to centralized power to defeat the local power which opposes them. The end result is only one power - at the top and center. Both posts are worth reading.

[3] This account is based off of the experience of Chaye Colvo when the [Maryland] Prince George’s County Police Department raided his home. To read a full account please see Radley Bakko. "Militarized police overreach: “Oh, God, I thought they were going to shoot me next.” Salon 10 July 2013.

[4] Edwin A Miles. "The Mississippi Insurrection Scare of 1835." Journal of Negro History, issue 42. 1957 p. 52

[5] William Freehling. The Road to Disuion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1990. p. 111-113.

[6] See "Missouri" and "Missouri Conflict" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. ed Daniel H. Ludlow. (New York: Macmillan Publishing). 1992.

14 July, 2013

Emmanuel Todd's Theory of Modernity

In my review of Michael Lotus and James Bennett's America 3.0 I stated that French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd (whose work is cited extensively in said work) "is the most under-rated "big idea" thinker in the field of world history."

Craig Willy's most recent blog post explains why:

"Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary"
Craig Willy. 7 July 2013.

Mr. Willy's post is not something one skims through. It is 9,000 words long and chock full of all sorts of data, tables, and maps. Because L'invention de l'Europe has not been translated into English I am grateful for this level of detail.

What is this book about?
"I came, last, to his L’invention de l’Europe, which is in principle not a polemic, but rather a dispassionate book of historical anthropology and demography which is Todd’s academic magnum opus.

I say “in principle” because one is tempted to ask: What the hell is this book anyway? Over 650 pages of text, statistics, graphs, maps and bibliography on the history of Western Europe? A comprehensive look at the correlations between family structures, modernization and ideology in Western Europe? An “Introductory Illustrated Atlas of Western European Socio-Political History”? I’ve already lost you. Who cares? 
No, L’invention de l’Europe is actually about what is almost undoubtedly the most important historical development of all time: the rise of modernity since 1500, also known as the “Great Divergence” or the “European miracle.” It was European civilization, and its various extra-European and notably North American offshoots, which invented “modernity,” which sparked that fire of science and “rationality” which now dominates virtually the entire globe. Europe, as Todd notes on the first page, was “the midwife simultaneously of modernity and death.” (p.13) 
We have modernity: science, mass production, mass destruction, mass consumption, mass literacy, mass and instant telecommunication, long-life (sanitation, health, contraception), godlessness, ideology (including “totalitarianism,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” and “freedom of thought”…), and so on."

So how does Todd approach this bug-bear that haunts all aspiring world historians, the rise of the West?

"Todd attempts to systematically correlate:
  • Family systems and agrarian systems
  • Modernization phases (literacy, industrialization, dechristianization, contraception)
  • Ideology (nationalism, socialism, religious conservatism (Christianisme réactionnelle))
The correlations, though subject to interpretation, are highly interesting. In particular, he presents an extremely powerful interpretation for the rise of ideologies in the modern age."

Willy describes this interpretation well:

"But one is left with an important question: What is the content of the ideologies which resonate with the masses once they cease to be illiterate peasants? Why does this differ by country and region? Todd has an elegant and powerful answer: political ideologies in the modern age are projections of a people’s unconscious premodern family values. 
Here there is a hole in my knowledge and that of the typical layman. I knew nothing of family systems before reading Todd. But family systems exist and are incredibly diverse across human societies. Let us take two extremely divergent examples. 
So, whereas the liberal-individualism of the Anglo-nations is well-known, it has also been known since the work of Peter Laslett that England has not had extended families, but rather “nuclear” families, since the Middle Ages. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the individualistic English family is not a modern invention, the Industrial Revolution brutally breaking the “organic” extended family, but a reflection of a deep individualist tendency in English society with centuries-old roots. 
Compare this with the traditional Japanese family. There is neither individualism nor equality. A single son inherits the bulk of property and in particular “family headship,” having authority over collateral family branches (i.e. his brothers’ households). Multiple
generations of couples can live in the same household as an extended family under the authority of the eldest patriarch. 
These family structures contain deep-seated, conscious and unconscious, implicit and explicit, values and norms about an individual’s rights, responsibilities and place in the social universe. These family values and assumptions have “massive,” in the sense of existence-defining, implications. The Englishman is a “free” individual who upon adulthood leaves his parents and his responsible for himself. The Japanese is an “integrated” individual who upon adulthood remains closely bound with his family in a hierarchical system of solidarity and obedience. 

For Todd, and this seems eminently plausible and intuitive, these families values are then projected, more or less crudely rationalized, as the country’s political ideologies once it enters the modern age. People’s fantasies of their “ideal politics” are just a projection of what they unconsciously consider “normal” according to their family values. In this case these would be Anglo-liberalism vs. Japanese nationalism. Philosophers can think up the most elegant and intricate justifications for their political systems, but ultimately, their ideologies only freely succeed when they resonate with the values, conscious or not, of a people."

As said before: the most underrated big-idea thinker in world history. And this is really just the tip of the ice berg--a few paragraphs to grab your interest. If you take Todd's theories seriously this essay will provides enough food for thought to munch on for weeks. 

Put aside twenty minutes of your day and read the whole thing

07 July, 2013

The Rise of the West: Asking the Right Questions

Early last month Peter Turchin published a couple of posts on whether or not the "Great Divergence" (sometimes called the 'Rise of the West' or 'the European Miracle') can be approached scientifically. Both posts were excellent, and as is usual at Professor Turchin's place, the comment thread that followed the posts was of exceptional quality. [1] These discussions focused on how difficult it is to use the scientific method to explain an event--like the Great Divergence--that is singular and unique (as opposed to using the scientific method to explain something that has happened many times, like the rise and fall of civilizations generally).

As I reflected on these discussions it occurred to me how important questions are to both the historian's craft and the scientific method. The answers you get depend a lot on the questions you ask.  These posts ask "Why did the great divergence between the West and the rest happen?" I would start somewhere different. Before we can attempt to explain why the West diverged from the rest we must ask: which divergence are we talking about?

Most attempts to explain the European miracle start here:

GDP of Western Europe, 1-2003 AD

Between 1760 and 1820 the world changed. I have previously termed this change the "Growth Revolution." As I wrote at the time:
During this revolution human energy production and consumption, population size, wealth, technological capacity, and knowledge all began to increase at an exponential rate. This constant expansion of human resources is the defining feature of our time. Ours is an exponential age.

This transition changed the dynamics of civilization dramatically. What were once fights over static material resources became a race to see whose resource base could grow the fastest. This is the defining difference between civilizations modern and ancient – the ways war is waged, wealth is acquired, material needs are met, and societies are organized reflect this distinction. The static civilizations of times past faced limitations and challenges alien to our own. [2]
This revolution happened first in Europe, taking the better part of two centuries to spread to the rest of the globe. This time lag accounts for the diverging fates of each region; in a sense the story of the Growth Revolution is the story of the Great Divergence. As Turchin notes, there are a lot of theories explaining why this happened. Many of these run befoul the same problem mentioned in this post's introduction: they answer the wrong question. They jump so quickly to the why of the Growth Revolution that they never stop to ask what the Growth Revolution really was.

Luckily this is not a difficult question to answer. Consider the following:

Global Primary Energy Use, 1-2005 AD

Between 1760 and 1820 Europe's wealth exploded - and so did its energy use. The two trends are intimately related. I have discussed the relationship between energy use and wealth several times before [3], but to re-cap: while definitions of wealth vary with time, place, and culture, wealth is not a mere social construct. It reflects physical goods and services. These goods and services are produced by people or the machines and animals owned by people. We can measure these things in energetic terms because everything a human, animal, or machine does comes at a specific energy cost. "Wealth" is really just the word we use to name the goods created and services rendered through our energy use.

Energy is a universal that unites the natural and human sciences. Ecologists devote a great deal of their efforts to understanding how energy "flows" through an ecosystem. Adopting the same approach when studying human societies provides valuable insights. When human history is seen in energetic terms the source of the premodern world's snail-pace economic growth is immediately apparent: premodern peoples were limited by the energy they had access to. As long as they were dependent on human and animal power their ability to create new wealth would be permanently frustrated. The exponential explosion of European wealth during the 1800s was the direct result of the explosion in Europe's energy use during the same period.

With this knowledge we can amend the original question. "Why did the West diverge from the rest?" is replaced with the more focused "Why did Western nations have the technical and scientific expertise to pioneer non-animate energy sources and an economic system that allowed these new methods of production to spread across the West?"

This is where things get interesting.

The answer to this question extends far beyond 1820. Searching for the origins of 19th century Europe's unique institutions and technology leads to an interesting conclusion: the West began to diverge from the rest long before the Growth Revolution.

This fact is obscured when we look at the West and the rest by the most standard measurement of wealth and power, Gross Domestic Product:

Estimates in millions of 1991 USD. Taken from Angus Maddison's Contours of the World Economy, p. 367.

In terms of total wealth Western Europe did not break ahead of China and India until after 1820. Before then Qing dynasty had more wealth at its disposal than every country in Europe combined. From this view it seems pretty clear that the West did not pull ahead of the rest until after their epochal jump into the Growth Revolution. 

But this is not the only way to look at things. A different picture appears when we look at GDP per capita:

Estimates of GDP per capita in 1991 USD. Taken from Angus Maddison's Contours of the World Economy, p. 367 and revisions made in the January 2013 New Maddison Project Database.
Although China's total wealth quadrupled between 1500 and 1820 its per capita wealth did not budge. In contrast to the economic dynamism of China's medieval economic revolution, almost all of China's post 1400 growth was due to population growth.  Reminiscent of China's gains in in the 11th and 12th centuries, Northern Italy's GDP per capita surged between 1000 and 1500, but then afterwards stagnated. [4] India and the Ottoman Empire performed no better, never managing to pull off their own surge in productivity. 

Things were different along the North Sea. Both Great Britain and the Netherlands had sustained GDP per capita growth for more than 600 years. In Great Britain the growth never stopped. Notably, it was in these two regions the technical advances of the Growth Revolution - first with peat in the Netherlands, then with coal in Great Britain - occurred. 

This process began before the European conquest of the Americas, the invention of printing, the creation of modern finance institutions, the Atlantic slave trade, or the Protestant Reformation. None of these can be proper explanations for this "little divergence."

So what is? That is the really interesting question. Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000. 

EDIT (19/11/2013): Please see the update to this post- "Another Look at the Rise of the West--With Better Numbers."


[1] Peter Turchin. "The Rise of the West: Science and Ideology." Social Evolution Forum. 3 June 2013 and Peter Turchin. "Cliodynamics of the Great Divergence (AKA the Rise of the West)." Social Evolution Forum. 7 June 2013.

[2] T. Greer. "Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization." The Scholar's Stage. 4 August 2013. 

[3] See "Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization" and T. Greer. "Energy Use and Economic Growth: Some Basic Facts." The Scholar's Stage. 13 March 2013. Those wishing for a more technical over view are advised to consult David Stern "The Role of Energy in Economic Growth." CCEP Working Paper 3.10. October 2010.

[4] The numbers for China and Italy deserve special comment. The Maddison Project economists revised Maddison's estimates for Italy considerably. However, their estimates do not extend to 1000, so I used Maddison's existing estimate for that slot. If their other revisions are anything to go by, $500 is probably much lower than Northern Italy's true GDP per capita in 1000. Likewise, I am inclined to think that Maddison slightly under-estimates China's GDP per capita increases during 1100-1300. See Mark Elvin. Pattern of the Chinese Past: A Social and Economic Interpretation. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 1979. p. 113-203 for a good summary of the evidence that informs this inclination. 

06 July, 2013

Iran - Not as Persian as You Think

I usually label posts about Iran with the tag 'Persia.' This week it occurred to me that this label is a tad inaccurate. Iran is a lot less Persian than you may think.

Here is the CIA World Factbook's [1] break down of the Iranian population by ethnic identity:
Persian 61%
Azeri 16%
Kurd 10%
Lur 6%
Baloch 2%
Arab 2%
Turkmen and Turkic tribes 2%
other 1% 
The share of Iranians who speak Persian as their first language is even smaller. Again to the Factbook:
Persian (official) 53%
Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects 18%
Kurdish 10%
Gilaki and Mazandarani 7%
Luri 6%, Balochi 2%
Arabic 2%
other 2%
To see the same in map form:

The Linguistic Composition of Iran.
Image Source:

So what spares Iran the ethnic conflict that tears its neighbors apart?

Religion. In Iran's religious demographics we find a unity it can find nowhere else:

Shia 89%
Sunni 9%
other (includes Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i) 2%

Shi'ism is the glue what holds Iran together. Those who think of that the theocratic structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran is an anachronism in the modern world do not understand these basic demographic realities. 

Modern Iranians have this guy to thank for the current state of affairs:

Ismail, founder of the Safavid Empire.
Image source: Wiimedia. 
Shah Ismail was the founder of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736), one of the largest empires Persian history can claim to its name. Ismail decided early on that his state was to follow the Twelver school of Shi'ite Islam. Making this vision a reality was not always a pretty process:
"The promulgation of state Shi'ism was fraught with danger, and some of Isma‘il’s advisers were worried about the reaction to his announcement. “ Of the 200,000-300,000 people in Tabriz,” they said, “two-thirds are Sunnis. . .we fear that the people may say they do not want a Shfi sovereign, and if (which God forbid!) the people reject Shi‘ism, what can we do about it?" Ismi‘il's reply was uncompromising: he had been commissioned to perform this task, he said, and God and the immaculate Imiims were his companions; he feared no one. “With God’s help,” he said, “if the people utter one word of protest, I will draw the sword and leave not one of them alive. [2]
Ismail and the other early Safavids succeeded. The Safavid Empire is gone, but it boundaries can be seen in any map of showing the Near East's 21st century religious divides.

The Safavid Empire, c. 1600
Image Source: 
Major religions in the Middle East
Image Source: Columbia University's Gulf 2000 Project


[1] All statistics referenced here come from CIA World Factbook. "Iran." Accessed 6 June 2013.

[2] Roger Savory. Iran Under the Safavids. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 1980. p. 29.

04 July, 2013

Jefferson and Adams are Gone

"ADAMS and JEFFERSON, I have said, are no more. As human beings, indeed, they are no more. They are no more, as in 1776, bold and fearless advocates of independence; no more, as at subsequent periods, the head of the government; nor more, as we have recently seen them, aged and venerable objects of admiration and regard. They are no more. They are dead. But how little is there of the great and good which can die! To their country they yet live, and live for ever. They live in all that perpetuates the remembrance of men on earth; in the recorded proofs of their own great actions, in the offspring of their intellect, in the deep-engraved lines of public gratitude, and in the respect and homage of mankind. They live in their example; and they live, emphatically, and will live, in the influence which their lives and efforts, their principles and opinions, now exercise, and will continue to exercise, on the affairs of men, not only in their own country but throughout the civilized world. 
A superior and commanding human intellect, a truly great man, when Heaven vouchsafes so rare a gift, is not a temporary flame, burning brightly for a while, and then giving place to returning darkness. It is rather a spark of fervent heat, as well as radiant light, with power to enkindle the common mass of human kind; so that when it glimmers in its own decay, and finally goes out in death, no night follows, but it leaves the world all light, all on fire from the potent contact of its own spirit. Bacon died; but the human understanding, roused by the touch of his miraculous wand to a perception of the true philosophy and the just mode of inquiring after truth, has kept on its course successfully and gloriously. Newton died; yet the courses of the spheres are still known, and they yet move on by the laws which he discovered, and in the orbits which he saw, and described for them, in the infinity of space.

No two men now live, fellow-citizen, perhaps it may be doubted whether any two men have ever lived in one age, who, more than those we now commemorate, have impressed on mankind their own opinions more deeply into the opinions of others, or given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. Their work doth not perish with them. The tree which they assisted to plant will flourish, although they water it and protect it no longer; for it has struck its roots deep, it has sent them to the very centre; no storm, not of foce to burth the orb, can overturn it; its branches spread wide; they stretch their protecting arms braoder and broader, and its top is destined to reach the heavens.

We are not deceived. There is no delusion here. No age will come in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come in which it shall cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July, 1776. And no age will come, we trust, so ignorant or so unjust as not to see and acknowledge the efficient agency of those we now honor in producing that momentous event."

-Daniel Webster, "Adams and Jefferson," delivered on 2nd of August, 1826 at Faneuil Hall, in Boston, Massachusetts, the event being a commemoration of the lives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who had died earlier that year within five hours of each other. Their last day in mortality was July 4th.  

Statue of John Adams in front of the Quincy city hall.
Image source. 
            Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the national Jefferson Memorial.
Image source.  

02 July, 2013

Keeping Up With China - A Few Resources

Chinese history, politics, and strategic thought are topics regularly returned to at The Stage. I have devoted several articles on the best books and resources for learning about China's history and strategic corpus; below I provide a list of the (English language) websites that I find useful for keeping track of contemporary Chinese affairs.



Reminiscent of the now defunct Open Source Geopolitics, Bill Bishop's Sinocism Newsletter trawls through dozens of English and Chinese newspapers, reports, and blog posts so that the rest of us do not have to. Several newsletters are posted a week; each contains 20-50 links and excerpts to notable reports or commentaries on anything and everything Chinese. Easily the most important resource on this list.


chinaSMACK is a regularly updated collection of blog posts and news articles that are trending in Chinese social media. Most posts contain a brief introduction to the post written by the translator, the post or news story itself, and then a collection of influential Weibo tweets or forum comments reacting to the original article. As many of the translators are citizens of the People's Republic themselves,  chinaSmack shies away from controversial and political topics that might put them or the site at risk.

Tea Leaf Nation

Tea Leaf Nation is another website focused on exposing the world of the Chinese netizen to the West. Unlike chinaSmack, political topics are their forte, and the Tea Leaf Nation contributors excel at capturing controversial Sina Weibo posts and other social media commentary just before the censors delete them. Tea Leaf Nation straddles the line between a news/social trends aggregator and a more traditional magazine; most of their Weibo collections include significant commentary by Tea Leaf Nation writers, and the website regularly posts editorials and book reviews on topics relevant to the Tea Lead Nation project.

A note of caution on both of these websites: There is no reason to think that Weibo's CCP-criticizing twitterati reflect the majority Chinese view. Ever

Nevertheless, their debates are an accessible entry point into the Chinese world, and worth reading for that reason alone.  

Newspapers, Dailies, and Magazines


Xinhua is China's largest news agency and one of the few Chinese agencies to operate foreign bureaus across the globe. Many of China's famous papers, like the Global Times or People's Daily, rely on Xinhua press releases when covering foreign affairs. Xinhua's poor reputation in the West (seen by some as little more than a mouth piece for the CCP) is unfortunate, and in my personal opinion, grossly unfair. Xinhua often carries stories that Western outlets miss, and I consistently find its coverage of world affairs broader than its myopic American counter parts. Its bias - particularly when covering international affairs - is of a more subtle sort.  Carefully read Xinhua dispatches are a window into the assumptions and prejudices of the Chinese elite. The following post is a good example of the type of insights that can be gained from taking Xinhua seriously:

"Three Headlines and a Moral."
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 29 October 2013.


The Diplomat is a current affairs magazine focused on the Asia-Pacific. It has a fantastic line up of bloggers whose work can be aptly described as accessible and articulate expressions of establishment thinking on issues related to China and the broader Pacific region.


Like The Diplomat, Asia Times Online focus is intelligent and articulate commentary on issues important to the Asia-Pacific region. This is where the parallels end; in contrast to The Diplomat, the Asia Times' columnists are unorthodox writers who buck Washington's intellectual trends. This is probably because most of its columnists are not from Washington, being denizens of Asia itself. Don't let the website's unprofessional formatting distract from its quality content.

Professional Journals

Jamestown Foundation - THE CHINA BRIEF 

There is a lot of pop-analysis on Chinese affairs that has no basis in reality. The reasons for this are not hard to discern: the Chinese system lacks the transparency and electoral political divides of the democratic systems most Westerners are familiar with, so Western opinion-makers are tempted to invent clear cut divides where they do not exist or describe the whole country in sweeping terms that are manifestly untrue. China Brief is a wonderful antidote to all of this. China Brief can be a bit intimidating to the uninitiated.  It often delves into detailed descriptions of PLA force structure or Politburo assignments. Yet these details are what make China Brief papers important. They are doing are something no one else does. (Or at least, what no other open access source does).  



Peter Lee regularly writes columns for Asia Times Online as well as smaller pieces for his blog, China Matters. In my post "Asian Great Power Politics: Spring 2013"  I identified him as the only Western observers who caught the true dynamics of the Japanese-U.S. alliance and the havoc the "pivot to Asia" is unleashing upon it. (A few others have recognized this since I wrote the post two months ago). His work is often in this vein - usually contrarian and usually right.   


East by Southeast is written by a diverse group of individuals living in Southern China or Southeast Asia. The topic of the blog are the connections between the two. As someone who speaks Khmer and is learning Chinese, their reports are right up my alley. Their weekly "Regional Round Up" collection of links is usually worth perusing as well.

Any reader recommendations? 

01 July, 2013

Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream

Image Source 

"When one seeks imperial power, there is no mean between the heights and the abyss."
--Tacitus, The Histories, Book 2.74

The American dream is dead.  Matthew O'Brien thinks he knows why:

"RIP, American Dream? Why It's So Hard For the Poor to Get Ahead Today"
Matthew O'Brien. The Atlantic. 18 June 2013.

It is a good article, but an incomplete one. Unlike many other attempts to explain why America has separated into classes distinct and impenetrable, Mr. O'Brien does focus on the factors that matter most. What he misses is why these developments have taken place. America's poor (and their children) have little hope of becoming rich; her rich (and their children) face little fear of becoming poor. Three words missing from Mr. O'Brien's piece hep explain why this is so: economies of scale.


The article gives us the background information we need to understand why economies of scale are such a dangerous thing. O'Brien rightly begins his article by focusing on upper class marriage:
"But high-earners aren't just earning more today; they're also marrying each other more. It's what economists romantically call "assortative mating" -- and Christine Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, estimates inequality would be 25 to 30 percent lower if not for it."
Lets review why this fact is so critically important to understanding the broader story of America's class.

In America, class is a matter of education. The more education you receive, the richer you will be.

Dylan Mathews, "Research desk investigates: How does college explain unemployment numbers, but not inequality?", Washington Post, 12 August 2010.

 The world places higher emphasis on education and intelligence than it used to. The demand for brain power has increased. For this reason the instruction gained or achievements made in pursuit of a PhD or Ivy League degree are often less important than the possession of the degree itself. Regardless of what you studied, simply having a PhD from Harvard proves to employers that you are one of the few people with the intelligence and work ethic needed to get a PhD from Harvard. (The connections made in an Ivy League school are another lucrative side bonus). [1]

The story is larger than Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, but the subsequent careers of Ivy League alumni reveal a lot about the nature of America's class woes. An Ivy League education is the most direct route to the heights of American wealth and power: Wall Street firms fix hiring quotas to ensure that enough graduates from the Ivy League's most prestigious schools are hired (an offer graduates are glad to take - in 2009 40% of Princeton undergrads went to Wall Street after graduation!), while those with more ambition have access to even greater heights. 10% of U.S. Senators, 50% of all U.S. billionaires, and 60% of the President's cabinet have Ivy League alma maters to their name.   [2]

It is a narrow funnel from which to form a ruling class.

In the early days of the twentieth century, the defining characteristic of the Ivy League funnel was wealth, not brains.  As late as 1952 the mean SAT scores of the incoming Harvard freshman class was barely above the national mean.  The same cannot be said today - the average freshman who comes to the Harvard campus of 2013 rarely has an SAT score below the top 5%. [3] The story is not limited to Harvard Yard. Notes Charles Murray:
"Together, just 10 schools took 20 percent of all the students in the United States who scored in the top five centiles on the SAT or ACT. Forty one schools accounted for half of them. [The 105 most selective American colleges], which accounted for 19 percent of all freshmen in 1997, accounted for 7 percent of students with SAT or ACT scores in the top five centiles.
Murray then explains how this has changed the nature of elite "assortative mating":
"Back in the days when Harvard men and Wellesley women were more likely to be rich than to be especially smart, this meant that money was more likely to marry money. In an era when they are both almost certainty in the top centiles of the IQ distribution, it means that the very smart is more likely to marry very smart." [4]
This has serious consequences for inter-gernarational social mobility. The relationship between the IQ of parents and children has been empirically observed: smart parents create smart kids [5]. One can predict the average IQ of the children of today's college graduates by looking at their IQ today:

Taken from Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010(New York: Cox and Murray Inc). 2012. p. 54

This is not a projection of the distant future. This new world is already a generation old. The wealthy, high-IQ, elite-school alumni who marry today are, by and large, the children of wealthy, high-IQ, elite school alumni who married each other a generation ago. [6] This cognitive sorting of the American people is the root of America's current class divides.


But the cognitive sorting of the American people is not the entire tale. What about the outliers - those children of uneducated parents who have the brains to qualify for an elite education? O'Brien captures the facts:
"It's less clear why higher education isn't more of a path to prosperity for low-income children. 
Well, what kind of higher education are we talking about? As Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard show in a recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, very few high-achieving students from low-income households end up even applying to a selective college. (Here, "high-achieving" is defined as the top 10 percent of overall test-takers on the SAT I or ACT, and a "selective" college is one of the top 236 schools in the country.) This, of course, is not how high-achieving, high-income students play the college admissions game. They follow their guidance counselors' advice, and apply to a few "reach" schools, a handful of "match" schools, and a "safety" school or two.
...It's a totally different game for high-achieving, low-income students, because nobody tells them how to play it. Aside from magnet school kids, they mostly don't have parents or teachers or counselors with much experience applying to selective colleges. Nor do many know, despite the best efforts of the schools to inform them otherwise, that the most selective colleges have very generous financial aid packages that can take tuition all the way down to zero. Indeed, Harvard is pretty much free, including room and board, for students whose parents make $65,000 or less.... 
This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times points out, only 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students. This has to be the most boneheaded way we as a society perpetuate the people at the top. The deck is already more than stacked against kids growing up in low-income households -- their parents often aren't as involved or even around -- and we're not helping the ones who do succeed to succeed more."
There is a fundamental mismatch between the resources (financial and human) available to America's poor students and those available to her rich ones.  The New York Times explains:
At the college level, the divergence in per-pupil spending is staggering. Since the 1960s, annual per-pupil spending at the most selective public and private colleges has increased at twice the rate of the least selective colleges. By 2006, the funding chasm in spending per student between the most and the least selective colleges was six times larger than in the late 1960s. 
In short, more money is being spent on wealthy students who have never been more prepared to excel in college. Meanwhile, poorer students who are less prepared — those who a generation ago would not have even enrolled in college — are getting a smaller slice of higher education spending. According to a study by the demographer John Bound and his colleagues, lack of institutional resources explains up to two-thirds of the increase in dropout rates at lower-tier colleges. 
Of course, this divergence in educational investments begins long before college. Wealthy parents are piling on cognitive enrichment activities outside of school from preschool on up, and at a rate that is leaving everyone else in the dust. Schools could make up some of the difference by intensively investing in poor children, and the majority of richer countries do just that — spending more per pupil in lower-income districts than in higher-income districts. But it is the reverse in the United States, in large part because, unlike most other advanced countries, revenues for public schools continue to be raised mostly from local property taxes. [7]
As Mr. O'Brian suggests, more important than the money spent on each child is the disparity between the human resources rich and poor children have access to. [8] Here again elite sorting is at play. This culprit is not whom the elite marry, but where they choose to live once the knot is tied.

Much attention has been paid to the "big sort" of the American populace into like-minded populations of conservatives and liberals who live physically apart. Less trumpeted about has been the geographic separation by class - a big sort of rich and poor, each living in their own neighborhoods, both minutes and worlds apart. The problem has worsened considerably over the last 60 years.
Taken from Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. (New York: Cox and Murray Inc). 2012. p. 77

 The geographic isolation of America's upper crust compounds the problems of America's intelligence divide. Poor children in inner city or rural school districts do not have access to teachers, counselors, or community leaders who know how to play the elite university game because those teachers and counselors do not live in poor inner city or rural school districts. Even those from lower class backgrounds who manage to beat the odds and fight their way to the top do little for the communities they came from. Once they leave they rarely come back, settling down in rich neighborhoods with the rest of their class. Money follows the same pattern: the districts most in need of extra funds are those who lack wealthy citizens to draw these funds from from.


Patterns in settlement and marriage account for the most stunning of America's entrenched disparities. Perceptive observers like Matthew O'Brien recognize this, but they do not explain why these patterns came about. To do so requires a deeper look at the structures of American power.

Once again the Ivy League is a useful place to begin. We noted earlier that the Ivy League of the early twentieth century was dominated by the wealthy. Wealth was not the only thing that united Ivies of that day. Those who went to the elite schools in the Northeast were almost entirely from the Northeast. Elites from other regions stuck to schools within the region - why travel to the far away lands of the Ivy League when schools like Stanford, University of Chicago, Duke, or somewhere else closer to home offered the same prestige and better connections? [9] There was no single funnel through which the nation's elite were picked and primed. This reflected the realities of contemporary society. America did not have one set of elite schools for its national elite because the United States did not yet have a single national elite.

The United States was born a republic of free-holding farmers. The township was the world of the New England man; the county was the center of Southern life. Few businesses had boundaries larger than this. Government power was concentrated at the bottom. Larger government structures existed, but their impact on daily life was negligible. National hierarchy arose in times of war - but once the war ended American life scaled down to normal, decentralized and parochial as before.

This America was not an egalitarian paradise - at least not in economic terms. Early America was  highly stratified along class lines. The disparity between rich and poor was great, and the rich were overwhelmingly the children of the rich. [10] But to contemporaries, these class divisions did not matter much. Early Americans could forgive exorbitant fortunes because they had few meaningful political consequences. What a millionaire in Salem or Philadelphia did with his money did not directly effect those living in St. Louis, Savannah, or Columbus. It often had no effect on those living in the township next door. Consequently, men rich and poor met as social and political equals. As Harry L. Watson, renowned historian of antebellum America, has said, "There was a certain mediocrity of culture, tastes, and opinion that seemed universal among Americans.... Wealth in America could not put on a face of public arrogance, and poverty did not require a posture of cringing deference. Instead, all white male Americans demanded and got a certain rough equality in personal respect from other citizens of the republic." [11]  

Viewing the scene with an outsider's eye, Tocqueville quipped "The striking thing about the United States... is the rarity of lofty ambitions evident in this land where all are activley ambitious.[12] He was right. Americans spoke of their ambitions with words like "independence", "self improvement" and "obtaining a competency." [13] No one aimed to climb the social ladder and join the upper class. As far as most Americans were concerned there was no other class than that which belonged to all white men.

Alas, the system was not to last. By the late 1800s transformations in transportation, industrial methods, and communications made industrial ventures that spanned the Union possible. The rest of the nation was not eager to industrialize, throwing up cow-boys and populists to try and slow titanic industrial conglomerations down. But continuing industrialization could not be stopped, and soon the opponents of industry were organized on a similar scale as their declared enemies. The turn-of-the-century progressive reforms and the rise of massive labour unions were the first steps along this path. The full transformation came with President Franklin Roosevelt.  The fight to end the Great Depression and (more importantly) emerge victorious from the Second World War changed the face of American society. Business changed from the government's enemy to its closest friend, and both ballooned in size. During the war the entire population was mobilized and economy centralized to meet the demands of victory.

The distribution of American wealth would never be the same. Before the war America's wealthy had been concentrated in the Northeast; by 1950 America had as many millionaires in the Sunbelt and on the West Coast as on the Northern Atlantic seaboard. For the first time in its history America had a truly national economic elite. [14] Wealth was not the only realm to see radical changes; more impressive was the new distribution of American power. As anyone who experienced rationing or curfews could attest, for the first time in America's history the basics of everyday life were being dictated by generals, politicians, and businessmen far away. [15]

 The pattern proved successful. Economies of scale and a vast national hierarchy won the war. They were here to stay. Facing a cold war of global proportions, American statesmen decided to defy the usual tradition of scaling down after victory. The United States would stay on permanent war footing. The vast system of international hierarchies built up during the war would be maintained and improved; those helming these hierarchies - a strange mix of CEOs, politicians, generals, and career bureaucrats - would regularly make decisions whose impacts would resonate across the globe.

This did not go by unnoticed. C. Wright Mills wrote what may be the most famous reaction to these changes, aptly titled The Power Elite. He summarized the transformation succintly:
"The economy-once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance-has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions. 
The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, executive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every crany of the social structure. 
The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain. 
In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; their central executive powers have been enhanced; within each of them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up. 
As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corporations bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world. The decisions of the military establishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and military programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions. On each side of the world-split running through central Europe and around the Asiatic rimlands, there is an ever-increasing interlocking of economic, military, and political structures." [16]
That was in 1959. Since then the scale has only gotten larger. America's population boomed from 150 million in 1950 to 314 million today. While civic associations and smaller government structures withered away, the federal government has expanded to touch almost every aspect of daily life.  The reach of the executive branch stretches across continents, allowing officials to spy on, freeze the funds of, or assassinate  men living thousands of miles away. The scope of the market has expanded even faster. American business now pays, caters to, and collects data on billions of people.

It is a lot of power held by a small number of hands.


Whose hands should they be? Meritocracy seemed the only solution. James Bryant Conant was one of the main architects of the modern meritocratic order. President of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, Conant labored diligently to transform Harvard from a New England country club with a library to a world class university who pulled a carefully slected caste of elite scholars from across the country. Mr. Conant's ambition's were larger than Harvard Yard; he hoped his reforms might change the face of American education. His hopes were more or less realized. He played an instrumental role in elevating the Scholastic Apptitutde Test (SAT) to national prominence, and he was chair of the Harvard Comittee, whose report "Objectives of General Education in a Free Society" set forth the pattern and principles of the GE system that dominates American undergraduate education today.

Time Magazine's cover, 26 September 1943.

Conant laid out his vision for American education in a 1941 essay for The Atlantic titled, "Education for the Classless Society." Mr. Conant made Thomas Jefferson his ideal:

"In his brief autobiographical sketch Jefferson wrote that he deemed it essential to a well-ordered republic to annul hereditary privilege. He proposed 'instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions....' Elsewhere, in describing his new educational scheme for Virginia, he speaks of that part of his plan which called for 'the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor.' He declared, 'We hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.' These quotations sum up for me the second component in the Jeffersonian tradition in education—a sincere belief in the paramount importance of careers freely open to all the talented."
America had changed since Jefferson's day. After summarizing the institutional changes detailed above, Conant explained how Jefferson's vision could be adapted to 20th century realities:
"Let me pause a moment to examine the phrase 'social mobility,' for this is the heart of my argument. A high degree of social mobility is the essence of the American ideal of a classless society. If large numbers of young people can develop their own capacities irrespective of the economic status of their parents, then social mobility is high. If, on the other hand, the future of a young man or woman is determined almost entirely by inherited privilege or the lack of it, social mobility is nonexistent. You are all familiar with the old American adage, 'Three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.' This implies a high degree of social mobility, both up and down. It implies that sons and daughters must and can seek their own level, obtain their own economic rewards, engage in any occupation irrespective of what their parents might have done. 
...The distinction between a stratified class system and one with a high degree of social mobility is apparent only when at least two generations are passed in review. A class, as I am using the word, is perpetuated by virtue of inherited position. For one generation, at least and perhaps two, considerable differences in economic status as well as extreme differentiation of employment may exist without the formation of classes. Uniform distribution of the world's goods is not necessary for a classless society. If anyone doubts this statement, let him examine the social situation of many small communities in different parts of this country during the early stages of their development. Continuous perpetuation from generation to generation of even small differences, however, soon produces class consciousness. Extremes of wealth or poverty accelerate the process.... if the American ideal is not to be an illusion, the citizens of this republic must not shrink from drastic action. The requirement, however, is not a radical equalization of wealth at any given moment; it is rather a continuous process by which power and privilege may be automatically redistributed at the end of each generation. The aim is a more equitable distribution of opportunity for all the children of the land. The reality of our national life must be made a sufficiently close approximation to our ideal to vitalize a belief in the possibility of the envisaged goal. 
...Political and economic changes must go hand in hand with educational innovations—the revision of methods of perpetuating control of many large industries, the overthrow of nepotism and patronage wherever possible, the stimulation of small enterprises, the spreading of private ownership. All this and more is needed if a free classless society is to become once again an ideal which affects our lives.
...Is it too late—too late for our schools to revitalize the idea of a classless nation? Can we complete the necessary major readjustments in our educational system in time to prevent the extinction of the Jeffersonian tradition? I believe we can, if we make haste. I predict at least another century of vigor for the American ideal. I envisage a further trial on this continent for many generations of our unique type of social order. I look forward to a future American society in which social mobility is sufficient to keep the nation in essence casteless—a society in which the ideals of both personal liberty and social justice can be maintained—a society which through a system of public education resists the distorting pressures of urbanized, industrialized life." (emphasis added)
It is notable that Mr.Conant had to define "Social mobility." The term was a fairly recent phrase - invented at the turn of the twentieth century but only reaching prominence when heairachial structures of power began to solidfy in the 30s and 40s.
Google Ngram results for "Social mobility."

Conant missed the irony of his "clasless society." Classless, as he used it, did not mean the abscense of class, but an invitation to compete fairly for whatever class one desired. Compete we have. The ratio of acceptances to rejections for undergraduate applications to Harvard has climbed from 1:1.25 in Conant's day to 1:13.5 today (for the class of 2014 a staggering 33,351 people applied). [17] The average American borrows $26,000 to get a college education. An entire generation has put itself in debt to climb the social ladder. [18]

Evan Applegate. "Correlations: Student Debt Explodes." Business Insider.  27 June 2013. 

The oft repeated sentiment "Inequality does not matter when there is equality of opportunity" rings hollow in face of these numbers. The greater the distance between the have and have-nots and the larger the hierarchy that divides them, the more fierce the compeition for the top spot will be. That is is the problem with all these comparisions to Sweden and Denmark. Those countries have smaller populations than the states of North Carolina and Wisconsin. Who wants to be the richest, most powerful man in Wisconsin? There are greater spoils to claim. As one Ivy League student conceded in a column for the Daily Princetononian, "We enjoy being the most elite college-aged kids in one of the most elite, unilaterally powerful nations ever to exist." [19]

Millions of parents desperatley wish their children could say the same. Thus the extreme measures America's upper class take to shape their kids into excellencce: baby Einstein, forced violin lessons, private tutors, gold medal sport teams, pre-test prep followed by pre-test tests. [20] Is it any surprise then to learn that ten times the money is spent on America's rich kids than are spent on America's poor ones? If America is to have "an aristocracy of talent" then the ruling class is going to do everything they damn well can to ensure their kids are talented enough to be a part of it. The stakes are too high to expect anything else.


The attempt to channel this fierce struggle for the heights of wealth and power through a national education system explains the concentration of America's smartest and most ambitious. But the wicked marriage of meritocracy and economies of scale bears a more subtle cost. Let us return to the essay we started with, "RIP, American Dream." Why does Mr. O'Brien say the the American Dream died?

"This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not."  (emphasis added).

James Bryant Contant's vision has become today's orthodoxy. The American dream has been reduced to a climb up the social ladder, the advance of the elect from one class to another.

What of those who cannot make the climb? What about those the elect leave behind? If the system worked as America's meritocrats pretend it does, perfectly elevating the smartest and hardest working citizens to the top, would America be any better off? As Christopher Lasch once said:

"[This is] the most important choice a democratic society has to make: whether to raise the general level of competence, energy, and devotion - 'virtue,' as it was called in an older political tradition - or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites. Our society has clearly chosen the second course. It has identified opportunity with upward mobility and made upward mobility the overriding goal of social policy. The debate about affirmative action shows how deeply this pathetically restricted notion of opportunity has entered public discourse. A policy designed to recruit minorities into the professional and managerial class is opposed not on the grounds that it strengthens the dominant position of this class but on the grounds that it weakens the principle of meritocracy. Both sides argue on the same grounds. Both see careers open to talent as the be-all and end-all of democracy when in fact, careerism tends to undermine democracy by divorcing knowledge from practical experience, devaluing the kind of knowledge that is gained from experience, and generating social conditions in which ordinary people are not expected to know anything at all. The reign of specialized expertise - the logical result of policies that equate opportunity with open access to 'places of higher consideration' - is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the 'last, best hope of earth." (Emphasis added). [21]

When we define the American Dream as "reaching the top" we restrict it to a very small number of people. The old American ideal of a free republic of self governing communities composed of self governing men fades away. American Dream? What was once a dream of democracy and improvement has degraded into a fight over who is allowed to join the governing class.

Like all phrases of its type, the "American Dream" is an idea. Ideas don't die when they are frustrated. They die when people forget what they mean. Economies of scale killed the American Dream.


[1] For an excellent example, see Karen Ho's description of the Wall Street recruitment program in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). 2009. p. 39-73, esp. p. 64.

A grad student at Harvard Business School once explained to me how important "connections" were to the students there when I asked him about the quality of the courses he took: "Pretty much everybody here acknowledges that Harvard Business School is not really about the courses, but the people we will meet when we are here."

[2] For Wall Street statistics, see Karen Ho, Liquidated, p. 44, for quotas, p. 65; for Senators, see the data collected and presented in T. Greer. "Cases in Plutarchy? U.S. Senate by Graduating Institution." 30 April 2010; for billionaires, Jonathan Wai. "The Scary Smart are the Scary Rich." Forbes. 24 September 2012; data on the cabinet was collected by myself, based on each member's wikipedia page. 

[3] Charles Murray. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. (New York: Cox and Murray Inc). 2012. p. 54

[4] Ibid. p. 57; 64.

[5] Charles Murray's own foot note is worth repeating here: "The transmission works through both genes and environment, but the distinction is blurred because cognitive ability in the parents is associated with parenting practices that promote the child's cognitive ability. In addition, it has been found that the shared environment among siblings--which includes the things that parents do to promote the child's cognitive development in their children--has a small long term role independent of genes." Ibid. p. 364 

[6] Jonathan Wai. "Investigating America's elite: Cognitive ability, education, and sex differences" Intelligence. Volume 41, Issue. July–August 2013. p. 203–211

[7] Rebecca Strauss. "Schooling Ourselves in Unequal America." New York Times. 16 June 2013. 

[8] There is a weak correlation between money spent on education and benefits reaped. See the graphs in Dan Lips, Shanea Watkins, and John Fleming. "Does Spending More on Education Improve Academic Achievement?Heritage Foundation. 8 September 2008. Even so, the way we spend our money clearly betrays our priorities. 

[9] As late as 1948 30% of the Harvard student body  "hailed from within 25 miles of the Yard." Morton and Phyllis Keller, Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). p. 34

[10] See Chart 1.2 in Kevin Phillips. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. (New York: Broadway Books). 2000.  p. 23. 

[11] Harry L. Watson. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. 2nd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang). 2006. p. 33. 

[12] Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America and Other Writings. Trans. Gerald Bevan. (New York: Penguin Books). p. 728. He continues: "There is not a single American who is not eaten up with the desire to better himself but you meet almost no one who appears to cherish very great hopes or to aim very high. All constantly wish to acquire material possessions, reputation, and power; few have a lofty conception f these things."

[13] Examples of these terms in early American discourse are too numerous to bother citing here. Those wishing to understand the gist of each term are advised to consult the following: On "independence" see Eric Foner. The Story of American Freedom. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.) 1999. p. 3-69; on "improvement" see Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press). 243-285; on "competency" see Christopher Lasch, "Opportunity in the Promised Lan: Social Mobility or the Democratization of Competence?" in The Revolt of the Elites. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company). 1995. p. 50-79.

[14] Kevin Phillips. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. (New York: Broadway Books). 2000.  p. 71-73; 81.

[15] To say nothing of  the ten million people serving in the armed forces--whose families made up 1/4th the nation--and whose entire lives were constantly subject to the direct control of bureaucrats and generals. 

[16] C. Wright Mills. The Power Elite. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1959. p. 7-8.

[17] "2014 Ivy League Admissions Statistics." The Ivy Coach. Last updated April 2013. For a comparison with non-Ivy league elite schools, see Kayla Webley. "Ivy League Schools: Acceptance Rates Decline." Time. 4 April 2013. 

[18] Hadley Malcom. "Millennial Ball and Chain: Student Debt." USA Today. 30 June 2013.

[19] Devon Peterson. "The Allure of Elite Jobs." Daily Princetonian. 16 October 2003. 

[20] Yale professor Amy Chua provides a wonderful example of just how extreme these pressures can be. "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." Wall Street Journal. 8 January 2011. Of course, the competition is even tougher for Chua and her children than for normal Americans, as the admission process has a proven bias against Asian Americans. See Robert Unz, "The Myth of American Meritocracy." American Conservative. 28 Novemeber 2012.

[21] Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company). 1995. p. 78-79.