Archive for the ‘Cultural crossroads’ Category

Hi!  It’s me, Trivium, posting for the first time in a long while.  I tried doing the song lyrics analysis thing here last year for a while and it was fun, but I know that mostly why people still come here is for the trenchant, often economical analysis of various topics that matter.

I’ve been wanting to do something on this for a while, since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded a year or two ago, but well, a) it seems like blogs have moved on a bit, and are now a bit 2008, and b) time, time time, which they are attempting to squeeze out of even professors now more than ever.  I am resisting, but one can only resist one’s employer so much and still stay in the good books.  Basically as my professional life has taken off, it’s meant so much less mental energy for blog posts.  Today in fact, I should be organizing a conference and writing the intro to my latest edited volume, but…

So here’s a topic which interests me, the long-term economic historian, so much.  And where I think I have a genuinely useful voice to add to the din, and perhaps help people to get over their own bigotry and prejudices, and get more into actually solving today’s most serious problems.

Ok, so the world has gone a bit crazy over ‘identity politics’ in the last year or so.  This is a natural development of what has been going on in intellectual circles since about 1990, and in some ways, decades before that.  It is the trend where identifiable minorities become the darling hero of progressives.  So basically for progressives the more minority you are, the better.  So if you’re gay, great:  if you’re a gay pirate, better, if you’re a substance-abusing, sadomasochistic, gay pirate, even better~!  I know a professor who got a coveted tenure job writing about these:  no joke.  And in progressive circles, i.e., around liberal arts departments, one can hardly get a job now unless one is a minority, or ‘at least’ a woman:  a recent university of chicago ad said:  we want 3 things from candidates:  a list of publications, a list of teaching qualifications, and a statement of how you have contributed to campus diversity in the past.  Wow.  And yet, they tell you if you ask, that there is no ‘bias’ towards minority or women candidates.  In fact, while women and minority progressives harp on about how they can’t get equal pay etc., in academia, the pendulum has demonstrably turned against white male new hires, at least.  I know the old boy network is still white male, in many cases, but for new hires, you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle if you’re a white dude, who happens still to be the majority of applicants in topics like say, European philosophy.  But if you’re black and do European history or literature, you have 10 job offers in one year, while if you’re white with a much better CV of publications, you have 1 offer in 10 years if you’re lucky.  Now I exaggerate a bit, but I’ve been around and seen a lot, and this is the clear trend in academic hires.

Fine.  My point is that the conservative movement does have a bit of real ammunition, when they argue that things have moved perhaps a bit towards the hysterical regarding ‘the nightmare it is to be black in America today’ as a recent slate article about a movie about black people put it.  It assumes that at every moment, to be black in the US right now is to inhabit a special type of torture.  And I’ve been following the police brutality thing:  I am the very first to admit please note, that there are massive problems with police racism and that US cops in general are way way too aggressive:  (a lot of this has to do with the fact that guns are legal and so they are always facing death:  this might get people more on edge.) (more…)


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* “Evil” being shorthand for a combination of:  Irrational/Anti-scientific/Angry/Selfish/Cynical/and/or Bigoted.

Now we know that the South has some good qualities; politeness, manners, duty, fairness; I was born there and half my family is from there, so I’m not just “whistling Dixie” with this post.  It is meant to be a serious beginning of a scientific inquiry into the following conundrum:

When one looks at all of the societies in the ‘developed’ world, the US South stands out for routinely electing politicians who are, for lack of a better set of words:  dumb jerks.  Angry, selfish, brutal, cynical, short-sighted, anti-environmental, anti-empathetic, bigoted, irrational, anti-scientific, even anti-economic stability.  Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin (an honorary member, since it’s southerners who respond to her brand of politics, mostly).

Why, alone in the developed world, does the US South do this?  Here’s a short list of probable causes, which it will be remembered, in any social system contribute varying percentages of causality:

1.  Slavery.  People who moved to the US South originally, knew that it was a slave area.   (more…)

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So here we go again, another attack on the ‘white maleness’ of authors taught in arts and humanities university courses (this time philosophy courses), by a black woman feminist, who is touting a movement she claims is going round the US like wildfire, under the title “why is my curriculum white?”

Ok, so let’s unpack.

Why is she writing this?  B/c she wants to see the curriculum opened up so that we have a plethora of voices, which are representative of human diversity.  Fine.

She is also arguing that the curriculum is white because when they were set in the c19th and early c20th, all professors were white males.  Yes, ish.

She is also arguing that there are just as many non-white male philosophy masters out there who should be represented.  This might be true, in some contexts.

She is implying that resistance to this agenda is, deep down, due to racism on the part of white males or their unwitting supporters who have drunk the kool-aid.

She can partly get away with this, because the legacy of slavery in the US, coupled with Marxist and post-Marxist criticism in the mid and late c20th, has given self-identifying ‘minorities’ a way to link economic, political, racial, and sexual power, which is simple, clear cut, and, which has a lot of truth, but, which also after hardly any serious scrutiny tends to break down more than one would think.  We won’t go there now, it’s too much for one post.

But the long and short of it is, that, most cultures, when you know the history, have produced ‘sporadic’ philosophy, because they were monarchical, and there was nowhere safe for philosophical schools to hide, out from under the absolute rule of monarchs and their dogmatist enforcers.

It has only been in societies which contained a strong democratic/republican element, i.e., in the ancient Mediterranean, and in W. Europe from the high middle ages to the present, that we’ve seen ‘explosions’ of philosophy, where generation after generation, men (they were usually men, but, moreso than anywhere else, there were women trained in philosophy as well) were trained in rhetoric, so they could sit on the town councils, where a real culture of philosophy developed.

Thus, Athens, Florence, London, Germany at variuos times have produced more philosophy in one century, than any other culture apart from the others named above.  You can find Chinese philosophy:  a lot of it  but – not usually done in the same style of continuous revision, continuous dialogue, high standards of critical independent thought, free from monarchical influence, and continuous pushing of the envelope.  This becomes obvious when you compare the origins of the scientific history writing in China and Greece, as a recent book has done. (more…)

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As a PhD who graduated now 9 years ago, I know a lot of youngerish PhDs in the humanities as well; and I can state that out of 6 people I know personally who have gotten long-term/tenure track academic jobs in history or politics in the last 5 years, and who were active both on the North American and European markets, that 6 out of 6 have in fact gotten jobs in Europe.

It’s a relatively small sample, and a personal sample, and thus biased, but, it gives me pause; especially since 5 of the 6 are in fact North Americans.  The one European in the sample was looking actively in the US and Canada and had several temporary appointments there, and many connections, but still got a job in Europe rather than North America.  

So, in brief, it looks like the disintegration of the American academy, especially regarding entry-level professor jobs, is really taking its toll:  many of the best, brightest, and most motivated people in the humanities are saying sayonara to the US:  it is no longer the land of opportunity:  its managers have gone too job-cutting happy, and there is no scope to become middle class there any more, as a teacher or professor, unless you’re a mathematician, or hard scientist, in which case you have to put up with ridiculously long hours and continuous fatigue in order to pay for your middle class or upper middle class lifestyle.  

Guess what?  When you cut the professoriate into ribbons, there will be no professoriate left, and your talent will flee.  In my personal experience, this for the moment means that talent is fleeing to those more progressive parts of Europe where they still have jobs for people, and are willing to hire foreign talent in order to improve their own programmes.  And it’s working.  The programmes in the Netherlands where I am working are definitely getting better by the year, in part because they are deliberately mimicking the American system, and increasingly hiring foreigners from English-speaking universities, which have traditionally dominated the global top 100 rankings.  

So yeah, this is also helping the rest of the world to catch up, as the US crashes and burns.  Hey, don’t want any humanities faculty?  Well, you know from the rest of this site how essential this has always been (or its equivalent) to a free society, with human rights, etc.  The rest, as they say, is history…


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I think it was.  Having lived extensively in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, hopping back and forth since the early 90s, I can say that U.S. suburbia really smokes the competition.  Canada was not far behind, perhaps Australia wasn’t so bad either, but it always strikes me as being pretty far from everywhere and thus essentially a bit duller.

Let’s look at the possible competitors for ‘happiest place in history.’  Basically, it’s obvious that there is no competition between pre-WWII and post-WWII societies, since before the war in most societies the vast majority of people were miserably poor.  Even if it was happy to be a rich, or middle class, person in this or that country prior to WWII, postwar developments in medicine, (dare I say it) technology, and just general wealth and happiness have made rich and middle-class peoples’ lives much better since then.

So we can indeed restrict ourselves to post WWII, and to the post WWII west, since almost everywhere else was poor, miserable, communist, or some combo.  Japan was ok materially after the 1950s, but doesn’t strike one as being a super happy society.  Too much stricture, too much crowding, not enough space, too much patriarchy, relations between the sexes are strained, women are restricted, men are forced to play tough guy serious roles to prove machismo, not to mention workaholism.  So Japan is out too.  Which leaves us basically post-1945 U.S., Canada, western Europe, and we’re writing out Aus as a probable runner up. (more…)

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So here’s a little insight that one can only get from living in Europe after having lived in the US/Canada, which is this:  In the US/Canada, you have much more house per family; I’ve seen the statistics; it’s roughly double the square footage on average in the US.

This has a number of hidden effects that I don’t think that many economists plug into their primary equations.  In Holland, the houses are really small indeed, almost everyone lives without appreciable yards.  We stayed in the townhouse of this wealthy yuppie couple with a baby, and they had literally no garage, and one single storage closet.  The dude’s only tool area was one single toolbox stored in the cupboard where the brooms and cleaning stuff were stuffed.

So the point is that this dude cannot de facto be in the market for lots of dudely stuff, such as wheelbarrows, lumber, metal poles, chainsaws, giant tool benches, riding mowers, and a whole host of other things which for decades every middle-class American male took for granted as being part of his lifestyle.  Just think of all the things which the average American consumer buys  to fill up their garage space, their toolsheds, etc.  All of these things there is a huge market for in the U.S., and this in turn stimulates the economy.

In Europe, they literally do not  have space for more than a few smallish carpets, a few lamps, one or two framed pictures,  etc., and so there is little market for this, meaning that buying things, even for an uppery middle-class couple, is a relatively rare event.  Because normal household goods are de facto luxury items,  every single household thing is ridiculously expensive.  This is why anywhere outside of Ikea, (more…)

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A few years ago I would, like many of us, have laughed at the naievete of such a question, and said:  “well, europeans, of course!”  But now, having lived in the low countries for several years, both holland and belgium, and also having lived earlier in england and spain, and spent time in italy and germany, I am getting a pretty good sense of how people in various western european regions eat.

And I can state with confidence that until the early 1990s, europeans ate better than americans, or at least, many europeans did.  American food was fairly monolithic:  hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, spaghetti, and a bit of chinese food and some mexican thrown in to boot.

But then, the urban food revolution came to north america (both the u.s., and canada, that is), and by the mid-1990s, there was no cuisine that you couldn’t get ahold of in any urban centre or college town.  Thai was cool for a while but quickly became old hat.  Ethiopian, Kazakh, Indonesian, Yemeni, you name it, you could find a restaurant selling it.  And then, people started wanting to do this at home.

First came the garlic and spice revolution.  By the early 90s, people were using whole buds of garlic (i.e., 12 cloves) in their meals.  Through the mid 80s, all the recipies in your mom’s cookbook had the following spices:


-pinch of salt

-pinch of pre-ground pepper, 3 years old.

-1 bay leaf or 1/4 tsp dried oregano, 5 years old minimum.


Remember those days?  Vegetables were boiled until they fell apart under their own weight, (more…)

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