Category Archives: Trade

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.

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.

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.

President Trump should Walk Back New Steel, Aluminum Tariffs against Brazil, Argentina

This is a CEI press release, originally posted at CEI.org.

President Trump this morning announced via Twitter that he is imposing steel and aluminum tariffs against Brazil and Argentina. Tariffs won’t help farmers or manufacturers, warns CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young:

“President Trump wrongly believes these new steel and aluminum tariffs will help American farmers. Trump should instead remove the tariffs that sparked the trade war and shrank farmers’ export markets in the first place. Today’s new tariffs will have little effect on agriculture but will harm other industries and consumers. More than three quarters of steel goes to construction and automobiles, for example. Before Trump partially rolled back his initial steel and aluminum tariffs, steel prices had spiked enough to add $250 to the cost of most new cars. Those tariffs have so far contributed to more than 15,000 layoffs at auto and steel companies.

“Congress urgently needs to repeal Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and similar clauses that enable such irresponsible presidential tariff-making behavior. Tariffs are harming the United States both economically and diplomatically.”​

Related reports:

·       Common Myths and Facts about Trade

·       Traders of the Lost Ark

In the Media: Export-Import Bank

Over at Foreign Policy, Keith Johnson has a thorough article on the Export-Import Bank battle. The whole thing is worth reading. He also quotes me in a few places:

“It’s the ‘they do it, too’ fallacy,” said Ryan Young of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The U.S. should not copy a Chinese policy mistake.”

“There is no traction right now for any bill” in the Senate, Young said—especially one that would reauthorize the agency for 10 years, giving little chance at congressional oversight in the meantime.

“When Ex-Im went away, exports still bloomed,” Young said. Even at full capacity, the bank used to underwrite only about $20 billion worth of deals a year—a tiny fraction of overall U.S. exports. “Almost 99 percent of U.S. exports happen without Ex-Im involvement,” he said.

Read the whole thing here.

Ex-Im Reauthorization Vote Today in the House

Over in the Washington Examiner, I have a piece about the Ex-Im reauthorization bill that the House of Representatives will vote on today. I argue that even if this year’s battle ends in defeat, it has already been a significant nearly five-year-long victory, with guaranteed chances for victory in the future:

The Nobel-winning economist Ronald Coase once wrote, “An economist who, by his efforts, is able to postpone by a week a government program which wastes $100 million a year (which I would call a modest success) has, by his action, earned his salary for the whole of his life.” Over the period from 2014 to 2018, Ex-Im’s reduced activity spared taxpayers from nearly $48 billion of risk exposure, or nearly $12 billion per year. Ex-Im’s total portfolio decreased by $52 billion, or an average of $13 billion per year. This is more than a modest success.

Due to Ex-Im’s reauthorization requirement, reformers will have another opportunity in a few years — a lesson in institutional design that should be applied to other agencies.

Read the whole thing here.

USMCA North American Trade Deal Solves Few Problems

This is a CEI press release, originally posted here.

The U.S. may be on the verge of a North American trade deal, but there are bigger problems with trade that Congress should fix, says Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Ryan Young:

“The revised NAFTA/USMCA trade agreement should be less urgent for Congress than reining in the President’s out-of-control tariff-making authority. Parts of NAFTA could use an update, but Canada, Mexico, and the United States already have a mostly tariff-free trading relationship. New tariffs passed under President Trump against China, Europe, and numerous allies are a bigger problem that Congress should fix. Trump tariffs are causing thousands of layoffs and billions of dollars of economic damage, everywhere from the steel and auto industries to farm exports. They could cost the U.S. as much as a percentage point of economic growth going forward, or roughly $200 billion per year. The tariffs have also greatly increased the risk of recession. If President Trump wants to pass USMCA so badly, part of the deal should be returning his tariff-making powers to Congress where they belong.​”

Related:

Traders of the Lost Ark

Common Myths and Facts about Trade