On Defending The Soviet Union

scylla-charybdis-and-meContrary to what some might try to take from my post on the longterm failure of the Soviet economy, I am not an anti-Soviet ideologue. I loathe lies about its achievements and the blanket condemnations directed its way by moralistic poseurs every bit as much or more than I detest reality-challenged attempts to paint it off as some kind of utopia or at least superior to alternative paths of development.

After communists, most of all I hate anti-communists. – Sergei Dovlatov, Soviet dissident.

On the latter point, I especially notice a tendency to ignore wider historical and comparative context. In the crudest cases, Russian literacy rates and GDP are compared with those of the Tsarist era: Yes, of course the average Soviet citizen c.1980 lived far better than the average Russian citizen in 1913, but then again, so did the average citizen of EVERY OTHER European country. The more important question to ask: Would the average Russian have been better off had the Russian Empire continued on its natural development trajectory without the distortions of Stalinist central planning? Yes, he almost certainly would have, as per comparison with, say, Finland (the sole part of the Empire that didn’t go Communist), or even the Mediterranean periphery nations.

Alternatively, they say that the USSR nonetheless managed to be richer than the “Third World”, as if that was some kind of achievement. Of course it was not, as (1) they were much less advanced than the Russian Empire even in 1913, and (2) their low national IQ’s would have precluded, and continue to do so, convergence with the rich world anyway; a weakness that Russia *doesn’t* suffer from. But the evidence is simply too overwhelming to be deniable: China; North Korea; Cuba; to a lesser extent, the ex-Soviet countries and Eastern Europe – all these nations, which have little in common except insofar as they suffered from the scourge of Communist economics, are ALL glaring and consistent downwards exceptions to the otherwise remarkably tight correlation between levels of national IQ/human capital and GDP per capita. (Of course a further problem here is that hardcore Soviet apologists tend to be cultural Marxists and deny Human Biodiversity and intelligence theory).

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Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System?

One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

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The Century without an Indian Summer

How will the global South fare in our likely future of energy shortages, climate change and resource nationalism (and wars)? India has China’s population mass, but lacks its industrial dynamism and human capital. Africa has Russia’s energy and mineral wealth, but not the military power or social coherence to defend it. South America’s prospects appear brighter – it at least may have the crucial degree of strategic isolation, industrial infrastructure and energy and agricultural wealth to eke out a comfortable (if not luxurious) existence in the turbulent times ahead. In the next few posts, I will assess the future prospects of these three regions in the post-peak oil world, starting with India.

A 2007 Goldman Sachs report estimated India’s GDP growth potential at about 8% until 2020, reinforcing the hype of recent years over “India shining” and the vigorous IT industry springing up in oases like Bangalore. This may well be realistic, even despite India’s manifold social problems (low human capital, creaky infrastructure, caste-based inequalities, an unwieldy bureaucracy, sluggish courts, etc), under a global “business-as-usual” scenario. That however is highly unlikely, for the hard numbers suggest that India will be economically and geopolitically squeezed out of the resources it needs to prosper or even survive by its massive eastern neighbor, China. There are limits to growth on our planet and no guarantees that they will be distributed fairly or equitably in the coming age of scarcity industrialism.

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Cliodynamics: Mathematizing History

One of the most interesting emerging sciences today, in my opinion, is cliodynamics. Their practitioners attempt to come to with mathematical models of history to explain “big history” – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse. To the casual observer history may appear to be chaotic and fathomless, devoid of any overreaching pattern or logic, and consequently the future is even more so (because “the past is all we have”).

This state of affairs, however, is slowly ebbing away. Of course, from the earliest times, civilizational theorists like Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee dreamed of rationalizing history, and their efforts were expounded upon by thinkers like Nikolai Kondratiev, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Heinz von Foerster. However, it is only with the newest crop of pioneers like Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, and Peter Turchin that a true, rigorous mathematized history is coming into being – a discipline recently christened cliodynamics.

As an introduction to this fascinating area of research, I will summarize, review, and run an active commentary on one of the most comprehensive and theoretical books on cliodynamics: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Korotayev et al (it’s quite rare, as there’s only a single copy of it in the entire UC library system). The key insight is that world demographic / economic history can be modeled to a high degree of accuracy by just three basic trends: hyperbolic / exponential, cyclical, and stochastic.

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Education as the Elixir of Growth II

A while ago I wrote Education as the Elixir of Growth on DR, in which I noted that in most countries the educational profile is closely correlated to their level of productivity. The major exceptions are nations with resource windfalls (inflated productivity) and socialist legacies (deflated productivity). Furthermore, the greater the gap between the ‘potential productivity’, as suggested by the human capital level, and actual productivity, the greater will be the rate of economic convergence. This rate in turn depends on the openness of an economy (i.e. the rate at which it can absorb the latest know-how). Some countries, however, cannot converge to advanced industrial levels, since their human capital is set at a low level – they have reached an asymptote relative to the developed world and cannot converge without improving their educational profiles relative to the latter.

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