Archives for history



Is Your City in the Right Place?

An article on VOX by Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch looks at whether towns in France and Britain are “poorly located.” The authors explain that being in the wrong place — with poor access to world markets and resources, or vulnerability to natural disasters — has dire economic and social consequences. Examining historical evidence from the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, they found that towns in France stayed put, while those in Britain moved:

Medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts (Figure 1). These differences in persistence are still visible today: only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared to 16 in France. This finding suggests that the British urban network shifted towards newly advantageous locations, while French towns remained in locations, which may have become obsolete.

They also found coastal access to be important: Read More »



Those Brutal Ballplayers

Too much cheating, substance abuse, and violence among baseball players? Absolutely — 100 years ago. A great read from Tobias Seamon* in The Morning News:

Ty Cobb had a nervous breakdown in his rookie season; Pittsburgh’s Ed Doheny was committed to an asylum in 1903, with a local paper declaring “His Mind Is Thought To Be Deranged”; in 1907, Chick Stahl borrowed from the fiendish Bowery dive McGurk’s Suicide Hall and ingested carbolic acid; Patsy Tebeau, player-manager for the hard-drinking Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s, later shot himself; in 1900 Boston’s Marty Bergen slit his throat after killing his wife and two children with an axe; Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn, who had half of his face blown off in a hunting accident, became demented from syphilis; the notorious drunk Bugs Raymond of the New York Giants once illustrated his curve by hurling a mug through a restaurant’s plate-glass window; Mike “King” Kelly drank himself into an early grave but not before creating the devil-may-care jock stereotype in America.

*He is also married to my niece.



The History of Taxes

If you’re still fuming over taxes this year, take a look at Mike Duncan and Jason Novak‘s (slightly biased) cartoon explanation of the history of taxes. The income tax really got its start in 1913:

Congress immediately passes the Revenue Act of 1913, creating the first permanent income tax.  No one really notices because the vast majority of incomes are taxed at just 1%.  The mustache twirling robber barons get pretty grumpy, though.  Then Wilson plunges us into WWI and unleashes the awesome potential of the new income tax.  The top end rate jumps to 77% and revenue increases 635%.

(HT: The Big Picture)



Who Suffers in Bad Weather?

The weather — its effects on the environment, behavior, sports, and society — has long been of interest to Freakonomics.  Now a new working paper from Warren Anderson, Noel D. Johnson, and Mark Koyama explores the effects of cold growing seasons on discrimination against Jewish communities between 1100 and 1800:

What factors caused the persecution of minorities in medieval and early modern Europe? We build a model that predicts that minority communities were more likely to be expropriated in the wake of negative income shocks. We then use panel data consisting of 785 city-level expulsions of Jews from 933 European cities between 1100 and 1800 to test the implications of the model. We use the variation in city-level temperature to test whether expulsions were associated with colder growing seasons. We find that a one standard deviation decrease in average growing season temperature in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was associated with a one to two percentage point increase in the likelihood that a Jewish community would be expelled. Drawing on our model and on additional historical evidence we argue that the rise of state capacity was one reason why this relationship between negative income shocks and expulsions weakened after 1600.



A Conservative Wishtory of the United States

My friend Jack Hitt has a funny piece in The New Yorker listing misstatements about American history by conservative politicians, beginning with these doozies: 

1500s: The American Revolutionary War begins: “The reason we fought the revolution in the sixteenth century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown.”—Rick Perry

1607: First welfare state collapses: “Jamestown colony, when it was first founded as a socialist venture, dang near failed with everybody dead and dying in the snow.”—Dick Armey

1619-1808: Africans set sail for America in search of freedom: “Other than Native Americans, who were here, all of us have the same story.”—Michele Bachmann

1775: Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure as he was riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”—Sarah Palin

1775: New Hampshire starts the American Revolution: “What I love about New Hampshire… You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world.”—Michele Bachmann

[Ed. note: One of these claims seems much closer to being true: see page 1336-38 of Property in Land].

Freakonomics Nation: can we produce an analogous list of historical misstatements by liberal pols? We’ll give out some Freakonomics swag to a clear winner or two. 



Bring Your Questions for Author Steven Pinker

With Libya finishing off a bloody revolution, the war in Afghanistan nearly a decade old, and Mexico engulfed in a savage drug war — it might not seem like it, but we’re living in the most peaceable time in history. That’s more of a commentary on just how violent our past is, rather than the tranquility of the present.

In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker lays out the difference in stark contrast, quantifying the dramatic decrease in violence over the ages, and uncovering the reasons for its decline. Pinker operates under the premise that the past is like a foreign country, and that we need to be reminded of its brutality. Starting with a tour of human history that stretches back to 8000 BCE, Pinker offers glimpses along the way, and shows how in the early going, violence persisted even as society and culture evolved. Read More »



Income Equality in Revolutionary America

A tad late for Independence Day, but interesting nevertheless: a new paper called “American Incomes Before and After the Revolution,” by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Couldn’t find an ungated copy; abstract below (emphasis is mine):

Building social tables in the tradition of Gregory King, we quantify the level and inequality of American incomes before and after the Revolutionary War. Our tentative estimates suggest that between 1774 and 1800 American incomes fell in real per capita terms. The colonial South was richer, and then suffered a greater Revolutionary decline, than suggested by previous estimates. Any rapid growth after 1790 seems to have just partially offset part of a very steep wartime decline. We also find that free American colonists had much more equal incomes than did households in England and Wales. Indeed, New England and the Middle Colonies appear to have been more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measurable world. The colonists also had greater purchasing power than their English counterparts over all of the income ranks except in the top few percent.

Read More »



The Age of Prohibition: Bring Your Questions for Daniel Okrent

The author of Last Call answers your questions. Read More »