Arnold Kling  

Notes from the Portable Bookstore

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I Kindle-bought Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China. The "Needham question" is why, if China was so advanced technologically up to 1400, was it so behind 400 years later. That is a fascinating question, but the book is all about what a quirky guy Needham was. Winchester strives hard to be entertaining, but the result is a bit lightweight.

I sampled Day of Empire, by Amy Chua.


For all their enormous differences...every society that could even arguably be described as having achieved global hegemony--was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence...tolerance was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony...the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia, and calls for racial, religious, or ethnic "purity." But here's the catch: It was also tolerance that sowed the seeds of decline. In virtually every case, tolerance eventually hit a tipping point, triggering conflict, hatred, and violence.

That paragraph sounded better the first time I read it. Now, it sort of sounds like: tolerance is great, unless you have too much tolerance, 'cause too much tolerance leads to intolerance, and that's bad

Another quote from Chua:


Many of history's past hyperpowers, including Achaemenid Persia and the Great Mongol Empire, fell because they lacked an overarching political identity capable of holding their ethnically and religiously diverse subjects together.

She thinks that America has a great inclusion story for citizens, but we don't have one for non-citizens, and that is going to cause problems in the hinterlands of our empire.

I also sampled The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.


First, it is an outlier...Second, it carries extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I love the third point. That's why every time there is a tragedy of some sort, there is a Congressional investigation. We could have known that 9/11 was coming, or the sub-prime mortgage crisis, or what have you. We cannot reach closure about an event until we reassure ourselves that it was explainable and predictable.

Another quote:


Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not...they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating--or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models.

By the way, I've completely turned around on the Kindle. The "free sample" feature is my favorite. I can do with the Kindle exactly what I do in the book store, which is sample a dozen or more books before choosing one to buy. For example, I'm not inclined to buy Taleb's book, because I fear that most of it will be reinforcement of what I already believe.

So Kindle is my portable bookstore. Will having a bookstore at my fingertips lead me to buy more books or fewer books? On the one hand, more books are available. On the other hand, at the margin it often looks like my time would be better spent sampling another book than reading an entire book (should not be true for fiction, but then I don't read so much fiction).


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
mensarefugee writes:
That paragraph sounded better the first time I read it. Now, it sort of sounds like: tolerance is great, unless you have too much tolerance, 'cause too much tolerance leads to intolerance, and that's bad

Ever heard of Sisyphus and the Mountain?
I think thats a fitting analogy.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Having read your essays from the beginning and Taleb's two popular books, yeah, I'd completely agree, Taleb's writing will be reinforcement of what you believe. Taleb's writing is laugh out loud funny if you like his style, which is simultaneously self-deprecating and mocking everyone else. If you listen to his podcast with Russ Roberts, you'd probably find him to be likable and passionate about his theses.

A common criticism of Taleb is that his point could be written in a couple paragraphs, but he goes hundreds of pages congratulating himself and calling other people stupid. I don't think it's a fair criticism, but then again, I enjoy bombastic style when it's called for (and even when it's not). Arnold's much more to-the-point, matter-of-fact, serious, sober, and scholarly in tone, which is a much better example of civility to set for others!!

But Arnold, if you liked that sample quote, man, you would have a field day reading the whole thing. He's got hundreds of zingers like that in there.

James A. Donald writes:

Europe is doomed, just as the Roman empire was doomed when it ceased to be Roman, the Chin empire doomed when it ceased to be Chin, and the Turkish empire doomed when it ceased to be Turkish, and failed to become believably sincere in its religious faith.

The military weakness and incapacity of Europe in Serbia startled the Serbs, even more than America's capacity stunned them. Since then, Europe's martial weakness has been on display in one humiliating debacle after another. Recall Britian's startling display of fear, weakness, cowardice, and dhimmitude in the Persian gulf.

All that wealth, and no capacity to defend it. The vultures are circling.

For a state to exist, it has to be able to destroy those that oppose it, or might oppose it, to inflict famine and ruin on hostile populations, has to be able burn the crops and flatten the cities, after the manner of General Sherman, and has to have confident belief, a belief shared by officers and men, that it is right to do so.

To do this, it needs some source of cohesion. It cannot provide its own cohesion. Pay and threats will not work to motivate soldiers, for when things go bad, when your soldiers most need motivation, these motivations cannot function, for nothing will motivate people impose the discipline.

The usual source or cohesion is ethnic identity: the nation state. Other sources of cohesion are religion, as for example the various theocratic states, such as the caliphate, and ideology, as for example the American revolution and the various communist coups.

So if your cohesion came from ethnicity, then when you go multicultural, then your soldiers are fighting for pay and pension and nothing more, and then you are doomed. Similarly, when the last shreds of liberty are crushed out in the US, when the second amendment is utterly gone, and little left of the first amendment, US troops will be fighting for pay and pension and nothing more and then the US will be doomed.

dearieme writes:

"when the last shreds of liberty are crushed out in the US": imminent, then?

bill greene writes:

The year 1400 referred to in this post marks a point in history that illustrates the impact of different levels of tolerance and national unity on the rise and decline of nations. The Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, prospered mightily under his firm but tolerant hand. He married a Christian woman, established local councils to self-administer the many lands he conquered, gave women high positions in government, established public schools for all children, advanced the use of paper currency, and allowed religious freedom to all. While his armies never reached Western Europe, his trade caravans and emissaries did, bringing a wealth of eastern knowledge to the European Kingdoms during the 14th century. It was a success story built on tolerance, an open society, and a democratic acceptance of all people from all classes. However, his Empire collapsed within a few generations. Jack Weatherford explains the forces that destroyed this world in Chapter 10 of "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World," and a major factor was the lack of a consistent faith and coherent principles among the Khan's heirs. Indeed, it was their eventual hedonistic conversion to Tibetan Buddhism that incensed their Chinese vassals. The monks urged them to seek inner peace and turn away from the outside world. This and a related religious practice of Tantric rites that proclaimed the path of enlightenment via sexual acts encouraged a debauchery the Great Khan would have never condoned. Excess tolerance and the absence of a restraining moral code contributed to their downfall. Then, with the collapse of Mongol authority, the Ming regained power in China and over-reacted the other way: They enacted two self-destructive policies that answer Needham's question--why one of the most advanced societies became stagnant.. First, the Ming reverted to the traditional Eastern institutions of bureaucratic offices and abandoned the Khan's regional and local councils in favor of rule from above. The Mongol experiment in participatory administration was not tried again in Chinese history until the 20th century. Second, the Ming scuttled the vast Mongol fleet that had the potential of dominating the world's oceans. Admiral Zheng He commanded a a navy with ships larger than their European counterparts, and had explored the coasts of India and Africa, and reportedly had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope before the Portuguese did from the opposite direction almost a hundred years later. But, the Ming had never liked such foreign ambitions, recalled the fleet, and withdrew inward. "The emperor closed the door--and the minds of his subjects." Such extraordinary shutting down of enterprise was repeated throughout Oriental history. There was little opportunity for independence, rebelliousness, and competition, there could be few men like Martin Luther or Oliver Cromwell, no women like Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, or Joan of Ark. The combination of excessive central controls and the suppression of both new ideas and the citizenry as a whole ended all the progressive policies that might have continued China's growth and prosperity. It was an intolerance and xenophobia that halted progress. In Taleb's view, the Ming might be called the "experts" who ruled from on top, and mistaknely thought they knew more than their people.

Steve Sailer writes:

And we all know that global hegemony is the only thing that makes life worth living.

Look how much Switzerland has suffered by never grabbing for global hegemony. (Same for Norway.) Imagine how horrible Germany would be like today if they'd followed Switzerland's strategy. They'd have to put up with the horrors of still having Dresden.

Marc writes:

"[T]he book is all about what a quirky guy Needham was"

If by "quirky" you mean an enthusiastic Maoist admirer of Stalin's Russia who actively shilled for the Commusint bloc, then yes, Needham was a first class British eccentric.

Winchester biography of Needham is a jarring flashback to some of the worst trends in the historiography of the Cold War while it was still a vital question. Needham had a HUGE blind spot, which Winchester seems to share (and requires a question mark over Needham's status as a scholar -- the real "Needham Question").

fundamentalist writes:

I like Taleb and think he makes some very good points. However, I think he is too quick to label some things as random. He's too much in love with randomness. It's a minor fautl, because as he writes, most people are unacquainted with randomness.

Taleb forced me to try to define randomness and I had a hard time. Is it just things for which we don't have a cause/effect relationship to explain? If so, is that getting too close to the ancient idea of blaming things we don't understand on the gods?

I think some of the phenomena he labels as random actually has an explanation, but because his economics has trapped him and won't allow him to consider explanations other than randomness.

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