Eric H. Cline – 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Eric H. Cline – 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

The Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean, roughly 1500-1200 B.C., is an under-studied period of history. Egyptians, Minoans, Myceneans, Phoenician, Hittites, Akkadians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Cypriots, and more all had thriving civilizations and a complex web of regional interconnectedness. It was, to that point, the most prosperous period in all of human history. Some of their interactions were peaceful, such as in the spread of trade, language, and writing. Other interactions, less so. The first battles with written eyewitness accounts date from this period. Ramses II of Egypt had his epic Battle of Kadesh against Muwatalli II of the Hittites around 1250 BC, of which interested readers can find a dramatic retelling in Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings. The Trojan War happened sometime around 1200 BC.

Most of Cline’s book is a narrative regional history of roughly a 300-year period ending around the time of the book’s title, 1177 B.C. Around this time, most of those civilizations collapsed. Archaeological records show most major cities were burned, and surviving written sources tell of invasions by Sea Peoples, about whom little is known beyond their ferocity and foreignness. Cline chose 1177 B.C. as a landmark date because in that year, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III fought the Sea Peoples’ second invasion, and lost. Just as historians use the sack of Rome in 476 A.D. as shorthand for a longer-term process of collapse, Cline doesn’t literally mean the Late Bronze Age ended in 1177 B.C. That invasion was simply the most visible event in a multi-generation process.

Historians have long thought these Sea Peoples were the main culprit of the rapid region-wide collapse. Cline is not so sure, and many modern scholars agree. Cline also explains recent attempts to figure out just who they were. At present, the best guess is they were not a unified civilization. They likely came from the Northern Mediterranean. One such people are the Shekelesh, who were from Sicily, and likely gave the island its name.

It takes Cline until almost the end of the book to get to the freaking point, but his thesis is essentially a “systems collapse” argument. One thing didn’t go wrong around 1177, everything did. The Late Bronze Age civilizations endured long-term drought, famine, foreign invasions, political changes that lopped off an elite class, wars with each other, and even some earthquakes, all around the same time. None of these factors on their own would have been enough to topple civilizations. Taken together, the cascade effect was fatal.

Cline also argues that the region’s cosmopolitan interconnectedness was a factor in their undoing. When one fell, the others were weakened, and on it went, in a domino effect. Here, I disagree, for much the same reason that investors diversify their portfolios.

Suppose a famine strikes one city-state. At any given time, it is unlikely that the entire region is simultaneously having poor harvests. The stricken city can reach out to others for help. By the Late Bronze Age, agriculture was already five or six millennia old. If, say, every fifth year or so would be a bad year in a given place, then every place knew to plan on growing about a fifth more than what it needs for itself. During good years, it would trade this surplus to needy neighbors. During their own bad years, neighbors in better shape would have their own surplus available for trade. This interconnectedness smooths out year-to-year volatility, making each part of the whole stronger.

The troubles of 1177 or thereabouts happened because drought and other disasters hit region-wide, instead of in select local spots. Even a diversified trading network couldn’t overcome that shock.

If anything, the limits of interconnectedness played a role. Transportation was slow and costly back then. Even though there was likely some long-distance trade with the breadbasket regions of Eastern and Northern Europe and with India, it would have been limited to durable goods such as wood and metals. Wheat and other crops would not have survived the trip—or might not have arrived in time to help. There is a reason why today’s only famines are politically created. Global interconnectedness today is stronger than even the forces of nature.

Wars and skirmishes among Bronze Age kings did not affect the vast majority of people, who were busy in the fields. The biggest battles and sieges of cities were one-time events involving tens of thousands of people. This is out of a population of millions, or perhaps tens of millions. These rare catastrophes dominate the written sources, hence why historians focus on them so heavily. But proportionally, they were often unimportant for the region’s standard of living. Written records can only be made by people who know how to write, and in the Bronze Age that was only a select few people, mostly state functionaries and merchants. This availability bias in the sources means that historians who single out war or invasion as a primary culprit for the 1177 B.C. collapse are likely overselling their case.

Cline’s wider system collapse argument has merit. But his argument that interconnectedness was a source of weakness is almost certainly in error.

Vlad Tarko – Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography

Vlad Tarko – Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography 

Tarko is quickly establishing himself as a top-notch economist. In this, his first book, he offers the best available introduction to Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s work and the concept of polycentrism. Ostrom was the first, and so far the only, woman to win the economics Nobel [Update: I wrote this review before Esther Duflo co-won the 2019 prize in October]. She and her husband Vincent, also an accomplished economist and political scientist, ran a famous Workshop at Indiana University where they paid less attention to disciplinary boundaries than they did to solid theoretical and empirical research.

Elinor Ostrom also popularized the concept of polycentrism. It’s essentially a more finely graded version of federalism. The United States’ federal system has three main levels of government—federal, state, and local, plus a few in-between grades, most commonly counties. But not all services, Ostrom argues, fit cleanly into one of those categories. Services such as parks, police, and schools, have nothing to do with each other. They may also have different optimum characteristics. So why are they often provided at the same fixed level of government? What if a school district’s optimum size extends beyond a city’s boundaries? What if a park district would be better run as multiple, hyperlocal districts? Moreover, these optimum sizes will vary from place to place. A further complication is that these optimum sizes and structures are constantly changing and evolving as culture, technology, and demographics change. Nothing else stays the same, so why should the sizes of government “firms?”

From this polycentric framework, Ostrom teases out some ground rules for institutional design. One is that smaller is usually better. Most federal issues can be more effectively handled at the state level. Many state-level issues can be handled at smaller gradients, whether regional water or irrigation authorities, transportation authorities, or neighborhood-based policing, a term which now means nearly the opposite of what it did when Ostrom began using the term. Two, because times change, institutions need to be designed with flexibility in mind. They need to be able to grow, shrink, merge, separate, and evolve as circumstances dictate. The goal is the service, not this or that corporate structure, so make change easy.

Ostrom was much more than a theorist. She placed a far greater emphasis on field research than most scholars. This empirical backing greatly improved not just her own work, but that of her many students and collaborators. Tarko shares pictures, stories, and the research she conducted across the country and abroad over her long career. For an introduction to her thought and her broader approach, Tarko is an excellent place to start.

Anna Fifield – The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

Anna Fifield – The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

The best biography of Kim Jong-un available. Fifield goes into his basketball- and 1990s Chicago Bulls-obsessed boyhood, including schooling in Sweden, to how he climbed the order of succession in time to be groomed for power beneath the scenes. He might not have been entirely ready to take over when his father Kim Jong-il died in 2011, but he did have some preparation, and learned the political game quickly.

Given his health, he may not have the longest of life expectancies. Kim is reportedly a heavy smoker and drinker, and judging by appearances, now weighs as much as 300 pounds despite his modest height. He also shows signs of gout despite being under 40, which would indicate he is quite sedentary and gets little exercise, which also bodes poorly. But he seems to have reached an equilibrium both domestically and internationally that will keep him in power for the long term.

Domestically, the elites enjoy roughly a Western middle class living standard, despite north Korea being one of the world’s poorest countries. Kim has allowed some modest market reforms that relieve, to a small degree, the worst sufferings of poverty for commoners. That eases social tension, while still making elites fear even a non-lethal fall from grace. Internationally, north Korea’s nuclear capabilities will almost certainly never be used, but occasional bellicosity and successful attempts to appear irrational are enough to keep foreign threats to the regime at bay.

Kim Jong-un remains a mystery, and his personality remains unknown. He does come across as venal and not particularly restrained in his personal life. But he also seems intelligent, and quickly learned how to play a game that can be lethal—and for many of his opponents, including close family members, has. He is not the sort of person a president of the United States should be falling in love with.

In the Media: Trade

The Washington Examiner‘s Sean Higgins quotes me in a piece looking ahead to trade policy in 2020:

Ryan Young, a trade policy expert at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, expects that Trump will ratchet up the trade wars because tariffs seem to be the only strategy he has. Pulling back from the trade war would mean not getting concessions from Beijing. “Trump is getting frustrated that he is not getting the results that he wants, but instead of trying something else, he is going to lean on tariffs, because that is his primary engine of policy,” Young said. “I don’t see him using anything else.”

Read the whole thing here.

Ruth Goodman – How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts

Ruth Goodman – How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts

This book is hilarious and edifying. Not least because it actually is a how-to guide, complete with instructions on how to cuss, insult, gesture rudely, properly bow, and more. It is also a delightful offbeat history that melds the strange and unfamiliar with the somewhat familiar.

It also provides insight on why different things are considered rude or polite in different times and places. One could take a deeper, Hayekian approach to this book, marveling at how unplanned spontaneous orders can result in ever-evolving systems of manners, language, and customs. Or, seen through the lens of Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature and declining violence over time, we can see how strict formal norms provided protection against unprovoked violence, and how looser dress and conduct codes usually correlated with peace, prosperity, and physical safety. Or one can have a hearty laugh at the truly outrageous stories Goodman shares. Better, one can do all three.

In the Media: Tariffs

I am quoted on President Trump’s new steel and aluminum tariffs against Brazil and Argentina in Politico ‘s Morning Money and The Washington Times.

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

A corporate history of Google from its founding up until 2011 or so. This book was written with the cooperation of Google’s founders, so it is not an objective history, nor should it be treated as such. It is still useful. A sequel may also be in order before too long. Since this book was published, Google has created its own parent company, Alphabet, and diversified into areas from video to maps to driverless cars. It is also undergoing multiple antitrust investigations, and growing ire from right and left populists could have massive consequences for consumer welfare, innovation, and for competition policy going forward.

Google has changed quite a bit since its early days, but anything violating the consumer welfare standard is difficult to find in here—though, again, this book is not an objective history. If anything, fear of regulatory reprisal put a damper on some of Google’s innovative ideas almost as soon as they realized the company would be a success. That, as opposed to market share for searches or advertising, is evidence of consumer harm.

Some of Google’s early mistakes and learning experiences still loom large today, such as its acquiescence to Chinese censorship.

Levy also has a forthcoming book on Facebook out in January 2020.