Category Archives: International

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.

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.

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.

Mary Elise Sarotte – The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

Mary Elise Sarotte – The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

One of the most important events in the 20th century almost happened on a lark—an East German official made a mistake about loosening travel restrictions during a press conference and couldn’t walk it back. At the same time, the Wall’s coming down seemed inevitable. Sarotte explores this tension in gripping fashion—I couldn’t put this book down.

Even Dan Rather’s on-site news coverage was an accident. He and his crew were there to cover a diplomatic meeting, and didn’t think anything big would come of it. Turns out it did, and how. They covered the fateful press conference, and were just able to set up in a spot near the wall when the celebrants starting tearing down the concrete. Even the floodlights they used for tv lighting were a happy accident they had on hand. In all, Sarotte has done justice to one of recent history’s most important, and happiest events. Its mix of spontaneity and inevitability is the perfect microcosm for twentieth-century socialism’s larger collapse.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Acemoglu has been on the economics Nobel shortlist for some time. Robinson is a frequent collaborator. When I was in grad school, their papers, often coauthored with Simon Johnson, were referred to in the shorthand “AJR,” especially  “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation” and the debate it set off in academic journals.

Acemoglu and Robinson (AR?)’s previous book, 2014’s Why Nations Fail, contrasts extractive versus inclusive institutions, and finds that inclusive-institution countries tend to be both freer and wealthier. Countries with predatory governments with corrupt legal systems tend to be poor and repressive, while countries with a strong rule of law that keep corruption reasonably in check tend to be wealthy and free. Think of North Korea vs. South Korea. While this should not be a controversial argument, it is one that many politicians and academics resist, so Acemoglu and Robinsons’ reminder, while not original, was welcome.

The Narrow Corridor uses a different framework with a little more nuance, and ultimately reaches a similar conclusion. It also does it in an accessible style—which is important in a time of rising populism that needs to be countered. The more ears that hear about the connection between liberalism and prosperity, the better. Instead of a dichotomy of extractive and inclusive, here Acemoglu and Robinson draw a trichotomy between Absent Leviathan, Despotic Leviathan, and Shackled Leviathan. They are the same awful creature, just put into three different situations.

Absent Leviathan is a government that doesn’t do the things governments are supposed to do. When a government does not protect property rights, provide an accessible and fair legal system, a reasonably stable currency, and on down the line—the list varies with one’s political views—that country tends to be poor and stagnant.

Despotic Leviathan is a government that is too present. Like fire, government burns everything it touches if it isn’t kept in check. The twin terrors of fascism and communism are history’s starkest examples. But other types of Despotic Leviathan have appeared everywhere from most European colonial governments, and often their independent successors, to dynastic monarchies in China, Egypt, and most everywhere else in the world through history.

The goal is some kind of Shackled Leviathan, which Acemoglu and Robinson describe on p. 27: “[R]epression and dominance are as much in its [Shackled Leviathan’s] DNA as they are in the DNA of the Despotic Leviathan. But the shackles prevent it from rearing its fearsome face. How those shackles emerge, and why only some societies have managed to develop them, is the major theme of our book.”

The cage of norms is a key concept in understanding why it is so hard to keep Leviathan in that narrow corridor where it is both present and shackled. This represents a bit of a turn for Acemoglu and Robinson. Why Nations Fail was mostly about institutions; the cage of norms is about culture. Many economists downplay or ignore cultural factors in their work because it is often difficult or impossible to measure or formally model. Deirdre McCloskey is the most prominent exception. Her name does not appear in the bibliographies, but her fellow traveler Joel Mokyr’s does, along with Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and a few other similarly minded scholars.

The cage of norms is a catch-all term for highly restrictive cultures. There are many types of cages.  Some cages confine women from public and economic life. Others place taboos against commerce. Nationalist cages engrain hostile attitudes to outsiders. Traditionalist cages can lock out progress and change. India’s caste system is one example. Honor cultures are another. Religious fundamentalism is nearly always a cage of norms. Nationalism, which is currently returning to a vogue not seen in decades, is a very risky cage at the moment in several countries, including Hungary, Italy, the UK, Mexico, and the United States.

The point is that countries that have strong cages of norms gave a hard time keeping their Leviathans shackled in the narrow corridor, and are generally bad places to live.

The Red Queen Effect is Acemoglu and Robinson’s main metaphor for how Leviathan can stay in its proper corridor. It’s essentially competition. When church and state compete with each other, they direct their energies against each other rather than against people. And as Harold Berman pointed out in Law and Revolution, they were also competing for customers. Successful competitor states had to keep their behaviors in the corridor. Federalism, or competing levels of government, is another area for Red Queen-style running. So is separation of powers, with competing branches running as fast as they can to stay in the same place relative to the other branches. A vigorous civil society, unconfined by a cage of norms, is ultimately the most effective Red Queen racer.

In another intellectual turn, Acemoglu and Robinson rely more on history than on economic analysis to make their argument. They offer plenty of numbers and data, but little of the regression analysis or formal model-building that one associates with MIT or University of Chicago economists.

The wide-ranging first chapter alone travels from Wyoming to Ghana in the 19th and 20th centuries, among several other places. To illustrate Absent, Despotic, and Shackled Leviathans, they tell  stories about free-wheeling Siena in Italy, regimented and militaristic Prussia to its north, and Switzerland caught in the corridor between them. China and India get their own in-depth chapters, and the comparison of Costa Rica and Guatemala, and how coffee affected their different trajectories, is especially instructive.

Acemoglu and Robinson find their framework also applies in the present day. Ferguson, Missouri’s police department is simultaneously an Absent Leviathan and a Despotic Leviathan. It doesn’t do things it’s supposed to do, such as providing safety and security. And it does plenty of things it shouldn’t do, some of which became national news. To a greater degree than in wealthier communities, Ferguson’s majority-black residents are subjected to arbitrary and unpredictable fines for everything from jaywalking to the length of the grass in their yard. Residents are then fined further when they are unable to pay. The department’s 2014 murder of Michael Brown was a flashpoint incident that brought stark attention to how far outside the corridor Ferguson’s government—and governments in many other communities like it—had strayed.

The tangle of metaphors is a bit much, but Acemoglu and Robinson’s larger message is sound—the best government is limited government. They are not doctrinaire libertarians, and as Deirdre McCoskey argues in her new book Why Liberalism Works, they rely too much on the traditional, and mistaken, Marxian conception of capitalism as dependent on capital. Innovation and a can-do ethos of continual improvement are actually far more important. But their message of the need to limit political power is important, especially in the current political moment. Leviathan is an awful creature who can kill by the millions when let out of its cage. If government is a necessary evil, one must remember that both of those words are important.

Alexander Woodside – Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History

Alexander Woodside – Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History

It reads like a Ph.D thesis. Despite its dry style, trendy humanities jargon, and casual disdain for neoliberalism, which he never defines, Woodside argues that there is more than one kind of modernity. He sees it as essentially a rejection of feudalism. Europe went about it one way, on a Renaissance-Scientific Revolution-Enlightenment trajectory. East Asia went about it another way, rejecting hereditary status through a merit-based examination system for government officials.

I would define the term differently–modernity comprises roughly bourgeois popular values that favor openness and innovation. These values, when combined with roughly liberal political institutions, result in the mass prosperity we see today in Europe, America, and the Asian tiger economies–and rapidly emerging today in China and India.

But within his too-narrow confines, Woodside does well. China’s examination system was, for a long time, the world’s most thorough attempt to institute a meritocracy rather than a hereditary aristocracy. It didn’t work perfectly. But the system was far more modern, at an earlier date, than any governmental system in Europe. Neighboring countries had their own variations on examinations and their own rejections of feudalism.

Just as there is more than one trajectory to modernity–Renaissance and examinations being Woodside’s two primary examples–there are significant within-system variations. For examples, Woodside turns to Vietnam and Korea’s examination systems. These were influenced by China, but evolved distinct characteristics to fit their circumstances. Other East Asian countries such as Cambodia also had their examination systems, though Woodside did not have the space to cover them in detail. All of their examination systems were vastly different than Japan, which had no examination system and maintained a strict feudal system until its own rapid embrace of modernity in the 19th century.

Walter Scheidel – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Walter ScheidelEscape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Since Rome fell, there has never been another empire so large, so dominating, and so enduring. Scheidel asks, why is that? His short answer is polycentrism. In post-Rome Europe, squabbling among kings and nobles prevented unitary states of any significant size from emerging. The rise of the Catholic church added church-vs.-state competition to the mix. The church itself had numerous internal splits leading to the Reformation, adding intra-church competition to the mix. As the economy slowly recovered from the Dark Ages, transportation and trade added economic competition to the mix.

A bit of context: Rome was founded in 753 B.C., at least according to mythical lore. Though Rome itself fell in 476 A.D., its government remained the de facto political system in much of Western Europe for another two centuries until Arab conquerors ringed three quarters of the Mediterranean and cut Europe off from long-distance trade. The Empire’s  Eastern half, the Byzantine Empire, continued until 1453 A.D. In all, the same state held sway over significant territory for more than 2,000 years—as much as a hundred generations. Nothing like that breadth or length has been approached before or since.

This is not for lack of trying. Europe alone had Merovingian and then Carolingian France; post-Columbian empires by the Netherlands, Spain, England, France, and Belgium; the Habsburgs; Napoleon; and America’s own efforts in Latin American and the Phillipines. Asia had Attila the Hun; Post-Mohammed Arab conquerors; Genghis Khan and his descendants’ four empires; Tamerlane; Imperial Russia; Chinese dynasties from the Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing; Japan’s Imperial Period; and more. None of these empires stuck around the way Rome did.

Scheidel’s answer to why Rome has never repeated is essentially a broader-ranging, but less sophisticated version of Harold J. Berman’s thesis in Law and Revolution, which applies polycentric frameworks to the evolution of law. Berman does not appear anywhere in the notes; Scheidel would likely find a lot to like in Berman. Berman also argued that his narrow polycentrism thesis applied much more widely. But as a specialist in the law, he intentionally confined himself to that, leaving a natural opening for someone like Scheidel. Nor does Scheidel cite Henri Pirenne, who not only dates the fall of Rome differently than Scheidel, but emphasized decentralized economic and political institutions as important engines of openness and progress. It would be a short step for Scheidel to add that such decentralization and polycentrism is also an important check against a re-emerging empire.

He also leans on economic historian Joel Mokyr’s arguments about a “culture of technology” leading to change and progress. Scheidel argues that dynamism prevents power concentrating in one set of hands for too long. Near the end, he also cites Deirdre McCloskey’s emphasis on values—when people hold roughly liberal cultural values, empire cannot emerge.

On the minus side, Scheidel relies too heavily on counterfactuals. Historians and social scientists use them sometimes to ask “what if?” some event or policy had turned out differently. For example, how would history have changed if the Nazis had won World War II? There is no way to know for sure. There is some value in these thought experiments, but they should not be treated as serious evidence. Initially defending them as an edgy alternative to traditional analysis, he leans on them throughout the book, shoehorning them into his narrative where they do not fit, and where they neither help nor hurt his polycentrism thesis. Most bizarre is his “what if Europe and East Asia switched places on the map?” What is London faced the Pacific, and China faced the Atlantic? It is never clear how this relates to Scheidel’s thesis about empires and polycentrism.

Escape from Rome is a good read. Scheidel’s polycentrism thesis is compelling and, in my estimation, largely correct. The best defense against a monopoly is competition. As with markets, so with geopolitics. Excising most of his counterfactual nonsense would have made this lengthy book shorter while improving its quality of argumentation.