Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

Congress averted a government shutdown until December 20th by passing a continuing resolution. The Fall 2019 Unified Agenda was also released, which compiles all rulemaking agencies’ upcoming plans. Wayne Crews has more on that. Meanwhile, rulemaking agencies published new regulations ranging from college radio to redesignating unclassifiable areas.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 59 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register, after 49 the previous week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every two hours and 51 minutes.
  • Federal agencies have issued 2,665 final regulations in 2019. At that pace, there will be 2,936 new final regulations. Last year’s total was 3,367 regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 454 notices, for a total of 19,650 in 2019. At that pace, there will be 21,641 new notices this year. Last year’s total was 21,656.
  • Last week, 1,135 new pages were added to the Federal Register, after 2,680 pages the previous week.
  • The 2019 Federal Register totals 64,701 pages. It is on pace for 71,257 pages. The 2018 total was 68,302 pages. The all-time record adjusted page count (which subtracts skips, jumps, and blank pages) is 96,994, set in 2016.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. Four such rules have been published this year. Five such rules were published in 2018.
  • The running cost tally for 2019’s economically significant regulations currently ranges from savings of $4.39 billion to $4.08 billion, mostly from estimated savings on federal spending. The 2018 total ranges from net costs of $220.1 million to $2.54 billion, depending on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies have published 61 final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” so far this year. 2018’s total was 108 significant final rules.
  • So far in 2019, 444 new rules affect small businesses; 20 of them are classified as significant. 2018’s totals were 660 rules affecting small businesses, with 29 of them significant.

Highlights from last week’s new final regulations:

For more data, see “Ten Thousand Commandments” and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

Rose George – Nine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood

Rose George – Nine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood

I was expecting a science-oriented book that would also touch on history and culture. Instead, George offers mostly ideology. Different chapters go through blood donations, leech treatment, the author’s work with HIV patients in South Africa, hemophilia, plasma, and other blood -related issues. The science, history, and culture of all these has the potential to be fascinating; perhaps I’ll find a book someday that does them justice.

In some cases, George’s strident ideology is for the good. HIV/AIDS patients do not deserve the social stigma they receive. The global hush-hush attitude towards menstruation, and the awful treatment of menstruating women in the world’s more illiberal regions, are blatantly unjust. George’s attempt to shed some light on the matters and move social norms in the right direction is needed and welcome.

But her hostility to paid blood donations is literally killing people. This is an inhumane stance she should immediately take back. She should at the very least listen to Georgetown University ethical philosopher Peter Jaworski‘s arguments. George’s virtue signaling contributes to easily-solved blood shortages that deny patients life-saving care for no good reason.

There is some good content in Nine Pints, just not enough. And George deserves praise for her advocacy on behalf of HIV/AIDS patients and women’s rights. But her amount and intensity of ideological posturing off-putting, and her anti-paid donation stance hurts sick and injured people around the world.

Douglas Adams – Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams – Mostly Harmless

The fifth and final volume of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Arthur Dent is finally settling down into a stable life, and even beginning to enjoy it. But then he has to go on one last adventure to save the universe, which is every bit as farcical as one would expect from a Douglas Adams book.

Early on, Adams throws some quality barbs at New Yorkers, such as “In New York, nobody is nice to each other without a reason.” When describing a written message regarding a phone call, “It was a 212 area code number, so it was someone in New York, who was not happy. Well, that narrowed it down a bit, didn’t it?”

Adams also expands the cast. Trillian, another human who escaped Earth’s earlier demolition is joined by her interdimensional analogue Tricia, from a world where she had stayed on Earth, which wasn’t destroyed. Arthur Dent also learns he is a father. He had earlier used sperm donations to fund his interplanetary travels, and Tricia used a sample to havea daughter named Random Dent. Thanks to the vagaries of time travel and interdimensional weirdness, she isn’t quite sure about her age. But she is definitely a full-throated teenager prone to instant mood swings and outbursts, though she does have her sympathetic points.

There is noticeably less joy in this book than in the earlier volumes, something I also noticed to a lesser degree in volume four. The book, and the series, ends with the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself being obliterated, a possible indication that Adams was more than ready to move on to other pursuits.

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.

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.

Edmund Morris – Edison

Edmund Morris – Edison

This book is organized chronologically, but backwards, and for no good reason. Morris, who passed away after finishing this book but before its publication, gives no explanation for his mistaken choice. The book begins, as most biographies do, with a late-life “Exhibit A” scene with the main character in peak form. But instead of moving back to the beginning to show how the person became that way, Morris starts with Edison’s final decline, then goes back a decade at a time in each chapter. Each chapter also is roughly themed, though mostly by title only, based on what Edison was working on at the time—phonographs, electricity and lighting, war-related inventions during World War I, and so on. Edison’s approach to life was so scattershot that this approach doesn’t really work, either. The final chapter covers Edison’s formative years, with a brief epilogue returning to his death. This historiographical choice is an experiment, fitting its subject’s temperament. Also befitting many Edisonian experiments, it doesn’t work.

We meet his children when they are already fully-formed adults who have already experienced all of their major successes and mistakes. Only later do we see them falling in love and entering into marriages that we had already seen fail in earlier chapters, or begin to fight personal demons of which we had long since seen the consequences. Only after/before all that, do we finally see them as young children missing their distant father and get a sense of why they turned out as they did.

Edison seems to mostly remain the same person throughout. He had a salty temperament, but wasn’t necessarily mean. He also didn’t necessarily mind being mostly deaf. It spared him from distractions and gave him an easy out in social situations he wasn’t interested in, and gave him a running excuse to be cranky. He insisted on working long hours while barely eating, which led to numerous chronic health problems, though he still lived and worked to an advanced age. He also enjoyed being a bit of a showman, and had a keen interest in marketing his inventions and in promotional gimmicks. He had an odd way of not much caring about other people, yet having a need to be on their mind. He used an earthy, avuncular sense of humor to attempt to endear himself to people, though he could be clumsy about it.

Totally deaf in later years, even the young Edison was deaf in one ear and had limited hearing in the other, unable to hear high frequencies such as birdsongs after about age 12. It is miracle that he essentially invented recorded music. He had a surprisingly keen sense of sonic quality, though he had some odd ideas about, and a stubborn streak that limited his progress as other inventors improved on his technologies. For more on that, see

Morris also has some pretty basic misunderstandings. At the end of the book, when he fially gets to describing Edison’s father, he repeatedly describes him as “libertarian.” The elder Edison was a confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, and didn’t necessarily respect property laws. Opposition to slavery and respect for property rights are fundamental to any liberal philosophy; its is shocking that Morris doesn’t get that—enough to question his ability to interpret other matters more important to his subject.