Category Archives: History


The Weakonomics blog talks about how history is taught in school.

In the grade school level, the content was always about events. It was “this thing happened on this date”. We never had to explain why it was important or even where that event fits in with its past and future. High schoolers can do that, but it was never presented that way.

And shares a video he finds entertaining. We agree, although a video of course does not allow for the conversation that he seems to imply would benefit education (here, too: we agree).  In any case, a subject we enjoy as we, too, believe in the importance of delving deeper in to historical knowledge.

First Shopaholic

I learned from the podcast Good Job Brain about Mary Todd’s Lincoln incessant shopping. She was almost like an older-day’s Kardashian, with the press following her from shop to shop.

In fact, she was so addicted to going shopping that she used some of taxpayer money out to buy things with at shops. She also thought that a good use of the federal funds would to be to redecorate the White House using it. She brought the idea of redecorating forward to congress, who approved and gave a $20,000 limit.

Which she exceeded.

Apparently much of her spending was kept form her husband, and stories say she sold off White House manure – purchased as fertilizer – to help her repay some of her outstanding debts.

Technology frees us

I re-post from Ocean’s blog here, and while this topic is not strictly about economics, the subject of disruptive technology is nonetheless of interest.

Bottom line: you are either bored in a museum or you are not. It is not the phone that makes you so.

Titled I’m getting fed up with people who are fed up, Ocean points out that just because a person is looking in to his or her phone does not mean that person is playing candy crush saga.

We wasted just as much time in past years as we do now. Before smartphones we had cell phones, before those we had tamagotchis, before those we had discmans and walkmans, and before those we still had trashy magazines, as so on and so forth. We always found a reason to be “anti-social”.

He continues:

In fact, I would venture to say that a greater sign of our dumbing-down times is how we recreate the same tired arguments every time a new disruptive type of technology appears. In comparison to the Phone, Telegraph or TV, the smartphone is a rather small step, all things considered, and yet we still believe it will be the downfall of society. Well, I believe cynicism will bring our society down far sooner than any smart phone.


Questions libertarians can answer

I remember when I was in college and so many conversations revolved around appropriate ways to save the world, most of my contemporaries were so sure they were right. As sure as I was when I was seventeen years old (which at 20 seems so far behind). My thought – though I confess occasional fear at expressing it so – was always that I don’t know if I am right, I’m not sure there is a “right”; rather this is the best I can propose with the knowledge at hand. The future can not be seen (though we can indeed learn much from the past).

The Skeptical Libertarian Blog brought me back to those thoughts with they post from a few months ago: “Questions Libertarians Can’t Answer? Let Me Google That For You“.

From the post:

There’s become something of a cottage industry recently of blogs listing “questions libertarians can’t answer” or “knockdown arguments” against libertarianism … Having read an impressive fraction of these articles, I’ve concluded that most of their authors do not have a clue what libertarianism actually is.

They assume libertarians are fools, who have not bothered to think about the most basic philosophical or practical implications of their ideas (“Oh. My. God. You’re right! Who would build the roads?! Why didn’t we think of that before?”)

And the clutch:

It may well be that our answers are factually wrong, morally confused, or illogical–far be it from me to suggest we have The One True Ideology™. But answers exist. Why not deal with them? Why, if you truly wanted to disprove libertarianism, wouldn’t you try to engage with what libertarians actually believe? Serious intellectual critiques of libertarian ideas exist, so what is gained by strawmanning them, other than to have a convenient icon to torch?


Understanding communism

In the kitchen:

Setting: I am cleaning out our food shelves

Me: I’m going to put the coffee salt and pasta all on the lower shelf since it is what we use the most. I’ll put bread crumbs and flour above.

G: hmmm

Me: …?

G: flour and pasta should be kept together

Me: *sigh* this is the difference between a communist and a free marketeer. A communist rules by ideology, regardless of whether the enforcement is welcome, sensical or beneficial. A free marketeer adapts his approach to human nature and positive outcomes.

G: so I am a communist?

Me: kitchen communist

G: *starts to pour water on my head*

Me: as a free marketeer I probably believe in private gun ownership…

Oldie of the Month: Dumb History – Ricardo Was Wrong

The first name that an Economics student is likely to encounter is Adam Smith. The second name is usually David Ricardo, the proponent of Comparative Advantage.

As a quick summary, Comparative Advantage states that even if a country makes every possible good more efficiently than other countries, it should still concentrate on the goods it is best at producing and engage in trade to supply itself with the rest.

The example Ricardo gave was the trade between Portugal and England of Wine and Cloth. Ricardo said that it was easier to produce both wine and cloth in Portugal than it was in England, but it was beneficial to both countries for Portugal to concentrate on wine, while England produced cloth (due to relative costs), and they subsequently could trade with each other. The problem with this theory is that it was 100% wrong.

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Oldie of the Month: Dumb History – The Boston Tea Party

In opposition to the Stamp Act and the Townsend Acts, the American colonists decided to boycott tea from the British East India Company. This allowed merchants such as John Hancock to smuggle tea from Holland without paying taxes.

The Crown then decided, in 1773, to do away with any tax on tea and the British East India Company was able to sell tea again to the colonies at a competitive price – underpricing most of the local merchants in the process.

Of course, this removal of the Tea Tax did not benefit the local merchants, so they decided to protest. They threatened the British consignees (those receiving the British tea) through vandalism, and they organized protests when the British East India Company ships started coming into the harbor. After some weeks of a standoff, the owners of the ships agreed to sail back to Great Britain, but the mayor of Boston did not let them. So on December 16, 1773, Bostonians dressed as Narragansett Indians boarded the ships and threw around 45 tons of tea into the harbor.

The fact that this was all done in opposition to a tax removal (and the subsequent loss to local merchants), means that the Boston Tea Party was not in opposition to “Taxation without Representation”, but was actually the United States’ first instance of Anti-Free Trade protectionism.


Norman Borlaug

A few people can be happy that they have saved a life. Fewer people can boast having saved more than one. Very few indeed can say they saved not millions, but hundreds of millions of lives. With the rubbish that have become household names these days, it is truly a shame that the name Norman Borlaug isn’t more widely recognized.

In the 1950s and 60s the writings of Thomas Malthus were starting to be very very popular. This is because millions of people, in India, in Africa and in South America, were starving, and crop yields could not keep up with demand. Malthus famously said that “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, and in the late 1960′s people started thinking the unthinkable might be true: people would have to die off so other people could have enough to eat. Mass famines were deemed inevitable in certain parts of the world.

Paul Ehrlich wrote about this in his 1968 book “The population bomb”, wherein he stated that India would never be able to feed itself and: “”The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

This is when Norman Borlaug, a scientist from Ohio, developed dwarf wheat.

Wheat is a top-heavy crop, which means it folds on itself and takes up quite a bit of space. The wheat developed by Borlaug’s team had short stalks but huge heads of grain. Suddenly the yield could be tripled and sometimes even quadrupled. Later, this same idea was applied to rice, one of the main staple foods across the world*.

The numbers can obviously never be precisely predicted, but this new form of growing crops saved many millions of lives, with some estimates putting it over one billion.

Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and would have been 98 years old today. We hope he is remembered for many years to come.

*As a side note, this wheat was obviously genetically modified. This is also why we have no patience for those who want to do away with genetic modification altogether. These people should probably be reminded that wheat itself is a genetic modification that humans developed around 7,000 years ago when they starting being agricultural.