Douglas Irwin – Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression
A non-hyperbolic take on the most notorious tariff bill in American history. The Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 was economically harmful, made the Great Depression even worse, and soured international relations at just about the worst possible time.
But the Depression began before Smoot-Hawley passed, so the bill can’t be blamed for causing it, which is a mistake many analysts make. The main culprit was monetary policy—a one-third contraction in the money supply distorted prices, ruined the investment climate, disrupted the financial sector, created massive economic uncertainties here and abroad
Monetary contraction also made Smoot-Hawley’s tariff hikes even more severe. For example, suppose there is a $1 tariff on a good that sells for $5. A rapid deflation lowers its nominal price to, say, $3 in nominal terms, but the tariff remains at $1. What was a 20 percent tariff becomes a 33 percent tariff for reasons having nothing to do with the Smoot-Hawley bill. Outside factors made a bad bill even worse.
Adam Hochschild – To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
A superb history of World War I, from the generation-long buildup all the way through the aftermath. What sets this book apart from the standard WWI histories is the substantial attention it pays to the anti-war movement of the time.
The stakes were much higher back then—both in terms of the war’s casualties compared to today’s wars, but also in the treatment of dissidents. Britain in particular went well beyond arrests. Anti-war activists and conscientious objectors were hit with punishments ranging from censorship to imprisonment to, ironically, the death penalty.
Edward Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
It takes roughly as long to read as it did to write, yet this turns out to be a good thing. Gibbon published the first of six volumes in 1776, and the last in 1787. Factually, it holds up quite well, though it was written before archaeology revolutionized the historian’s profession.
Gibbon writes history as it should be—rather than simply reciting facts, he tells stories, has opinions, and argues a thesis. His skepticism of exaggerated claims and numbers in ancient sources is also decidedly modern; it is interesting to read this work of history as a product of its own place in history.
The Decline and Fall was written during the peak of the Enlightenment, and exemplifies its emphasis on reason and skepticism. Gibbon’s periodic prose style is superb, and his many quirks are both endearing and curmudgeonly. He openly hates superstition, is quite opinionated on various monarchs, puts naughty details in his footnotes, and really has it in for eunuchs, of all people.
Gibbon is also a true master of the art of the insult, and offers too many quality barbs to recount here. Naturally, I made highlights throughout the text.
Peter Frankopan—The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
A pan-Eurasian history. The first half is especially strong, ranging from ancient times through the fall of Rome and Byzantium, through the Renaissance. Instead of focusing just on Europe, Frankopan gives proper attention to central Asian nomads, the pre- and post-Mohammed Arab world, Russia, and India and China. Moreover, he emphasizes their interconnectedness. Each was influenced by all the others, and they all acted to enrich and impoverish each other.
The book falls apart in the second half, focusing almost exclusively on colonialism and energy geopolitics. Frankopan’s sudden switch from a pluralistic to a hyper-materialistic focus excludes the more interesting, and ultimately more important forces of culture, interconnectedness, openness versus nationalism, and peace and trade versus war and protectionism. These forces, not newspaper summaries and phone call transcripts from the Iran-Contra scandal, are what will guide Eurasia’s fortunes in the centuries to come.
The first half of this book alone is worth the price of admission, but readers are best served by putting the book down when it reaches the 19th century or so.
Chopin has long been one of my favorite composers. From Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, I learned that Chopin’s father Nicolas was a fan of Voltaire, a personal favorite of mine. One of Nicolas’ students, who later became Chopin’s godfather, was Fryderyk Skarbek, an economics professor at Warsaw University.
Later in life, Chopin would live in Paris’ Hotel Lambert, where Voltaire once lived. Designed by the same architect who remodeled Versailles under Louis XIV, the building was partially destroyed by fire in 2013.
Roger Crowley – City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
Covering roughly 1200 to the mid-15th century, Crowley covers Venice’s rise and fall as one of the world’s major maritime trading powers. He writes vividly, quotes often from primary sources, and evokes an outward-looking, freewheeling, audacious cultural attitude in Venice–very different from the rest of Europe at that time.
That culture, more than a key geographical location, is a major reason why Venice was the richest city in Europe during this period. It fought with Genoa for that honor, sometimes violently.
Crowley also develops an important East-meets-West theme. Venice was involved in the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the sacking of Constantinople in the early 1200s. To give an idea of the Crusades’ bumbling nature, Constantinople was a Christian city at the time.
Tragic comedy aside, Venetian traders were some of Europe’s only ambassadors to the Near and Far East during this time. They brought back spices, fabrics, and other goods, sadly including slaves. By the 1400s, as the neighboring Byzantines were falling to the Ottomans, Venice found itself dealing with a new commercial and political rival.
Meanwhile, as the rest of Europe cracked open the Great Chain of Being and the Renaissance encouraged more modern attitudes to commerce and progress, Venice entered a period of relative decline as other cities began to catch up and even outshine it during the Renaissance.
William J. Bernstein – A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World
Probably the best book of its kind. A global history of trade from ourearliest hunter-gatherer days until the present. Bernstein tells some good stories, and knows his economics. He calls out bad actors, such as the Spanish, Dutch, and especially the Portuguese and Belgians. Unlike some other scholars, he doesn’t obsess over them, preferring to attempt to understand than to preach.
Bernstein also highlights the importance of non-human factors such as disease in the story of trade; people have exchanged more than just goods, ideas, and soldiers over the years. Bernstein has a general ethos of kindness and openness, but doesn’t come across as particularly ideological. Pairs well with Douglas Irwin’s Against the Tide, which is an intellectual history of trade, rather than Bernstein’s cultural and narrative history.