Sunday, March 6, 2016

Malthusian Delusions

Over the past few years, economists who had been busily denouncing Malthusians and hurling the term as an insult gradually came around somewhat accepting his views. He wasn't wrong, the new thinking went, just short-sighted and unlucky with his timing, for he wrote on the very eve of the human race escaping from the very dynamic he described. Innovation, technology and hard work--in short, capitalism--came along and rescued us from the Malthusian trap forever, declare Neoclassical economists. But the model is accurate for all of history prior to Malthus, which is why we should be so grateful for capitalism (in their view).

Here's Paul Krugman:
...The fact is that Malthus was right about the whole of human history up until his own era. Sumerian peasants in the 30th century BC lived on the edge of subsistence; so did French peasants in the 18th century AD. Throughout history population growth had always managed to cancel out any sustained gains in the standard of living, just as Malthus said. 
It was only with the industrial revolution that we finally escaped from the trap (if we did — for all we know, 35th-century historians will view the period 1800-2020 or so as a temporary aberration).
Was Malthus just unlucky? No. The same forces that made the industrial revolution possible — above all, the spirit of inquiry and rationality — also led to the birth of analytical economics. There probably couldn’t have been a Malthus until the world was on the verge of becoming non-Malthusian.
Malthus was Right (Paul Krugman) Kudos to Krugman BTW for that parenthetical aside--I suspect that will be exactly the case due to the finite nature of fossil fuels, but I digress...
Here he is again:
What very few people realize is that Malthus was right about most of human history — indeed, he was right about roughly 58 out of 60 centuries of civilization: living standards basically did not improve from the era of the first Pharaohs to the age of Louis XIV, because any technological gains were swallowed up by population pressure. We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work...It was only in the late 17th century that Britain began to diverge from a simple population-wages curve; other parts of the world stayed Malthusian much longer.
...over a roughly 3000 year period, during which there was obviously quite a lot of technological progress — iron plows, horse collars, mastering the cultivation of rice, the importation of potatoes into Europe, etc. — living standards basically went nowhere. Why? Because population growth always ate up the gains, pushing living standards back to roughly subsistence.

The figure I used in the previous post helps suggest why: technological change was slow — so slow that by 1600 or so, when England had finally reclaimed its population losses from the Black Death, it found real wages back to more or less 1300 levels again.

And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period.
The Malthusian insult and A bit more on Malthus (Paul Krugman)

This view became especially popular after the publication of Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms in 2007, which asserted that (emphasis mine):
The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple...Before 1800 income per person—the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.
Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen. The quality of life also failed to improve on any other observable dimension.
Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: thirty to thirty-five years. Stature, a measure both of the quality of diet and of children’s exposure to disease, was higher in the Stone Age than in 1800. And while foragers satisfy their material wants with small amounts of work, the modest comforts of the English in 1800 were purchased only through a life of unrelenting drudgery. Nor did the variety of material consumption improve. The average forager had a diet, and a work life, much more varied than the typical English worker of 1800, even though the English table by then included such exotics as tea, pepper, and sugar.
And hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian. Material consumption varies little across the members. In contrast, inequality was pervasive in the agrarian economies that dominated the world in 1800. The riches of a few dwarfed the pinched allocations of the masses. Jane Austen may have written about refined conversations over tea served in china cups. But for the majority of the English as late as 1813 conditions were no better than for their naked ancestors of the African savannah. The Darcys were few, the poor plentiful. 
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.
Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms, pp.1-3
That hunter-gathers in many ways were better off than their agricultural successors is one that is most likely true based on the evidence. This idea of all of human history over many thousands of years and among varied locations being one long undifferentiated mass of suffering, oppression and misery, regardless of time and place, however, is one that I think ignores an awful lot.

While oppression, misery and suffering were very real in ancient times in many places, to dismiss all of human history as simply this is not only ignorant, it is just plain wrong. People in ancient times were not always miserable and suffering; in many, very real areas of life, they were far better off than people today.

People were not at the mercy of the machine; they worked outdoors in line with the seasons. They were embedded in webs of relationships with other people, as opposed to the alienated, urbanized existence we experience today. Most business was conducted face-to-face. They ate fresh, locally-grown food, often cultivated themselves, instead of the highly processed, nutritionally-barren food of today. We know that today's crushing work schedules and artificial light wreak havoc on the body's circadian rhythms, leading to a whole host of maladies.

People did physical work, and yes, that could break down the body, but overall it ensured that people were healthier, both physically and mentally (no need for gyms). Chronic diseases, which are epidemic today--asthma, diabetes, autism, obesity--existed but were rather rare (yes, that includes cancer, too). People didn't get sick from breathing the air. The constant fear of your job going away, the constant jumping through educational and licensing hoops just to keep your job, and the "hustling existence" were unknown. Workers were not subject to the tyrannical "discipline" of modern labor. You generally worked alongside friends and family members with whom you broke bread, and drinking on the job was not a problem. The musical chairs game where you are constantly trying to get a leg up on the competition by working harder or trying to get more education than the next guy to get one of the constantly shrinking pool of jobs was not in evidence either.

People were not subjected to 2,000 advertisements a day preying on their insecurities just to get them to buy more. They walked everywhere instead of driving--no "commuting" to jobs, which would have made no sense (and still doesn't). They lived in large, extended families, something we know is associated with better health and well-being (The "Roseto Effect"). Children were generally cared for by their mothers and received attention from their parents unavailable to most children today.

Now, to be clear, this is not to say everything was a paradise. For many people post-Neolithic revolution, getting sufficient calories was often very difficult. Famines were horrific when they did occur; there are reliable reports of thriving markets for human flesh in ancient China, for example, just to stave off starvation. Class systems and hierarchies were unfair and rigid. War and conflict, primarily over land, was frequent post-agriculture. If you got sick, there were no antibiotics to fix you up, and many medical issues were just endured if they didn't kill you outright. It was just a sad fact of life that between a quarter and half of all children born would die before their first birthday (giving rise to the ridiculous trope that most people only lived until age 30 or so, or that a 25 year old was considered "old").

All of which is to say, it all depends on the time and place. To reduce the last ten thousand years of human existence among diverse cultures spread all over the planet in countless ecosystems and lifeways to a monochromatic monolith of Malthusian misery is aggressively stupid and ignorant.

Was there starving and misery in the ancient world? Of course! But so was there was in Russia in 1921, in Bengal 1943, in Holland in 1944, and in Ethiopia in 1984. Were those representative of the entirety of the twentieth century? Of the whole world? Of course not. It's true, without our fossil-fuel powered civilization to mitigate them, these were more common and severe in the past, but they were not the whole story.

By presenting all of human history until now as a nightmare of human suffering for everyone regardless of time and place, it sends a clear message--that any alternative to our culture of crass materialism and crushing overwork will inevitably lead to disaster. It's a common tactic--oversell our modern lives as much better than they actually are by constantly disparaging the past. Those in power simply don't want us to realize that a world centered around human well-being, rather than productivism, is possible.

And varying by time or place is just as true in today's world. We in the rich, industrialized nations are myopic. We live in a bubble. Many more people live on the edge of subsistence today, billions in fact, than ever did in the ancient world. Plus, they live on a polluted planet. Being a starving peasant in ancient Rome or medieval London was probably far better than living in a polluted Delhi or Kibera slum filled with toxic carcinogens and towering heaps of trash (despite cell phones). The density that keeps people essentially living in their own shit was exceedingly rare prior to the industrial revolution.

Were miracles of engineering like The Parthenon, aqueducts, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Hagia Sophia, the Gothic Cathedrals, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and thousands of other examples built by people on the edge of subsistence? The ancient Babylonians used calculus to map the heavens and the Greeks managed to calculate the diameter of the earth. The Romans used concrete which was in some ways superior to our own. Ancient metallurgy has triumphs we still haven't figured out. The pyramids were the tallest structures in the world until the Eiffel tower, and we now know they were not built by slaves, but by workers who were given more generous treatment given the standards of the time than many capitalist workers today. The ancient Inca empire had essentially no poverty in a culture where people only worked about a third of the year, and did as they wished the rest of the time. Evidence of mental illness among herders and foragers is conspicuously absent.
“Even in backward mining communities, as late as the sixteenth century more than half the recorded days were holidays; while for Europe as a whole, the total number of holidays, including Sunday, came to 189, a number even greater than those enjoyed by Imperial Rome. Nothing more clearly indicates a surplus of food and human energy, if not material goods. Modern labor-saving devices have as yet done no better.”
Has There Been Progress Since 1250? (No Tech Magazine)

It was recently discovered that a medieval remedy produced MRSA-resistant antibiotics. We still don't know the extent of herbal medicine and placebo cures. The ancients produced proto-computers, steam engines and complex automata that are lost to history. We only have descriptions and a small amount of recovered items, however absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Was the Roman Empire a period of technological stagnation? (Reddit)

Nanotechnology in ancient Rome (TYWKIWDBI)

Medieval technology, indistinguishable from magic (Aeon)

Ancient Wisdom
Heron lived in Alexandria around A.D. 62, and is best known as a mathematician and geometer. He was also a visionary inventor, and his aeolopile (wind ball) was the first working steam engine. Using the same principle as jet propulsion, a steam-driven metal sphere spun around at 1,500 rpm. Unfortunately for Heron, no one was able to see its practical function, so it was considered nothing more than an amusing novelty. 
Amazingly, had Heron but known it, the railway had already been invented seven hundred years earlier by Periander, tyrant of Corinth. Called the Diolkos (slipway), it ran for four miles across the isthmus of Corinth in Greece, and consisted of a roadway paved with limestone blocks in which were cut parallel grooves five feet apart. Trolleys ran along these tracks, on to which ships were loaded. These were pushed by gangs of slaves, forming a sort of land canal that offered a shortcut between the Aegean and the Ionian seas. 
The Diolkos was in use for some fifteen hundred years until it fell into disrepair around A.D. 900. The principle of railways was then completely forgotten about for almost another five hundred years, until people had the idea of using them in mines in the fourteenth century. 
The historian Arnold Toynbee wrote a brilliant essay speculating what would have happened if the two inventions had been combined to create a global Greek empire, based on a fast rail network, Athenian democracy, and a Buddhist-style religion founded on the teaching of Pythagoras. He briefly mentions a failed prophet who lived at 4 Railway Cuttings, Nazareth. 
Heron also invented the vending machine--for four drachmas you got a shot of holy water--and a portable device to ensure that no one else could drink the wine you brought alone to a bottle party.
John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, The Book of General Ignorance, pp. 20-21
As Lewis Mumford pointed out, in many ways the Middle Ages were more "civilized," with plentiful public baths and hospitals, than later periods including early industrialism which produced toxic air, vast slums, and open sewers (e.g. The "Great Stink"). Visit Italian cities like Venice, Florence, Sienna and Assisi (mentally subtracting the tourists, of course), and imagine whether life in these places was really so nasty or brutish as all that, especially when contrasted with today's automobile-centric anonymous exurbs devoid of pedestrians.
Even as early as the thirteenth century the private bath made it appearance: sometimes with a dressing room as we learn from a sixteenth century N├╝rnberg merchant's household book. In 1417, indeed, hot baths in private houses were specially authorized by the city of London. If anything were needed to establish the medieval attitude toward cleanliness the ritual of the public bath should be sufficient. Bathhouses were characteristic institution in every city, and the could be found in every quarter...So widespread was bathing in the Middle Ages that the bath even spread as a custom back into the country districts, whose inhabitants had been reproached by the writers of the early Fabliaux as filthy swine. What is essentially the medieval bath lingers in the Russian or Finnish village today.

The author of the Maison Rustique warns his readers against the use of lead pipes: the dangers of lead poisoning have presumably been noted. As with baths, the piping of water to the fountains, whence it was distributed by hand to the houses, was not as convenient as the water supply that began to trickle in, all too literally, in the seventeenth century. But to offset this, it satisfied two important functions that tended to disappear with the reign of greater mechanical efficiency--art, in the shape of handsome fountains that decorated the squares and public places of the medieval city, and sociability, the occasion for meeting and gossiping as people waited their turn around the village pump. The pump, no less than the taproom, served as the local newspaper for the quarter. 
(compare that to Flint, Michigan, for example, or many other municipalities) 
In remedial measures for health, the Medieval town was far in advance of its contemptuous Victorian successor. The holy orders founded hospitals in almost every town: there would be at least two in most German towns, one for lepers and one for other types of disease, according to Heil; while in "big" cities, such as Breslau, with its 30,000 population in the fifteenth century, there would be as many as fifteen, or one for every two thousand inhabitants. Plainly cases that in more recent times would have been treated at home must at this earlier period have had systemic hospital care: a fact which mitigated the lack of domestic facilities. 
(compare to a lifetime of debt for a few days in the hospital today, for example) 
As for the eye and ear, there is no doubt where the balance of advantage goes: the majority of medieval towns were infinitely superior to those erected during the last century. One awoke in the medieval town to the crowing of the cock, the chirping of birds nesting in the eaves, or to the tolling of hours in the monastery on the outskirts, perhaps to the chime of bells in the new bell-tower. Song rose easily on the lips, from the plain chant of the monks to the refrain of the ballad singer in the market place, or that of the apprentice or house-maid at work...Fitz-Stephens reported in the twelfth century that the sound of the water mill was a pleasant one among the green fields of London. At night there would be complete silence, but for the stirring of animals and the calling of the hours by town watch. Deep sleep was possible in the medieval town, untainted by either human or mechanical noises. 
(compare that to the noise and grim of modern cities, where cars are bring banned in Paris and London due to smog [to say nothing of Delhi or Beijing]). 
If the ear was stirred, the eye was even more deeply delighted....the buildings, so far from being "quaint" were as bright and clean as a medieval illumination, often covered with whitewash, so that all the color of the image makers in paint or glass or polychromed wood would dance on the walls, even as the shadows quivered like sprays of lilac on the facades of the more richly carved buildings. Common men thought and felt in images, far more than the verbal abstractions used by scholars: esthetic discipline might lack a name, but its fruit were visible everywhere....Image makers carved statues, painted triptychs, decorated the walls of the cathedral, the guild hall, the town hall, the burgher's house: color and design were everywhere the normal accompaniment of the practical daily tasks. There was visual excitement in the array of goods in the open market: velvets and brocades, copper and shining steel, tooled leather and brilliant glass, to say nothing of foods arranged in their panniers under an open sky...
Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities

So this, then, is the "Malthusian" world imagined by economists.

It's clear what the agenda is here: to sell us the idea that that now is the best to be alive ever, despite the fact that we are vastly more unhealthy, have much less leisure time, and most of us live under what people in the Classical World would have regarded as slavery.

Yes, slavery, that word is not too severe. The ancients believed that doing work you don't want to do, in a place not of your own choosing, at another man's whim and by another man's command, was slavery, pure and simple, regardless of what name you attached to it. Whether you called it slavery or not was merely semantics.

That describes at least 80-90 percent of us today in modern industrial societies. Yes, it's true that the ancient world had a lot of slaves, but at least they didn't pretend that they were anything but. Today, we're constantly told that we are "free", but the ancients would surely recognize instantly that for most of us, given the conditions we live under, it's simply false. It's a distinction without a difference.*

We're sold this idea that people who didn't have our modern push-button hedonism were therefore sullen and miserable. Those poor people were unable to whip out a smart phone to consult Google, download the latest Taylor Swift album, or catch House of Cards on Netflix. How horrible their lives must have been!

The evidence is rather the opposite. It's been repeatedly shown that things like television and Facebook make us less happy, despite the billions of dollars reaped by their owners. People in the past were also were not constantly preyed upon by a rapacious capitalism designed do whatever it takes, including trickery and deceit, to get people to open their wallets on a minute-to-minute basis, whether they have the funds of not (hence the invention of universal credit). They were not monitored by their credit scores or had their every move monitored and tracked and stored in a database in a warehouse somewhere.

We don't have mental health surveys of the Middle Ages, of course, nor do we have a time machine. But we can still surmise. Helena Norberg-Hodge worked in a society where people lived a very similar, village-based agrarian life to the European Middle Ages (Ladakh in India). She reports people were invariably, open, generous, kind, gregarious, smiling and happy, despite being considered desperately "poor" by our Western standards, and working at hard, physical jobs.

What happened after the area was "developed" along Western lines? Rampant crime, drug abuse, depression, poverty and misery followed in its wake (for poverty is only relative to others). Television and advertising made people ashamed of their poverty, as well as their own bodies (people with dark skin were now considered inferior, typical wherever Western culture goes). Buying stuff was promoted as the ticket to happiness. Face-to-face relations went away in favor of impersonal exchange. People worked constantly to get enough money. Home-made food was replaced by processed food shipped in from outside. Mental illness increased, as did homelessness.

By a pure cost-accounting measure, these people were much "richer", than ever before. But Norberg-Hodge could clearly see that their "wealth" was merely a hollow facade reflected on government spreadsheets, at the cost of tearing apart what had been a functioning society. What had taken centuries in the West could be seen in sped-up motion, and the results were not good.

The point is, gradgrind economists' one-eyed view of human "wealth" as how much shit you  consume and how much money changes hands is what skewers their view of human history. It's built into their doctrine in which money flows are a proxy for all of human existence. The agenda is to make our lives appear better by making theirs appear worse.

In fact, there were many times and many places where society was quite peaceful and advanced. Classical Greece. The High Middle Ages (1000-1300). Various Islamic caliphates (Baghdad, Cordoba). China under the Tang Dynasty and India under Asoka. Tokugawa Japan. Rome under the Antonines (which Gibbon considered the time when humanity was "most happy"). The Inca empire. And that's not even taking into account places without a written historical record like the Plains Indians (whose inhabitants were healthier than European settlers), Polynesia or the Caribbean, where people lived in what we might consider paradise until relatively recent times (The crew of the Bounty certainly thought so). I'm sure proper historians could think of many more.

Yet the Malthusian Trap was very real for agrarian societies. The dynamics talked about by Colinvaux, Turchin, Clark and others were certainly at work in the past. Wealth and prosperity would indeed lead to population growth, and the surpluses would indeed shrink away, eaten up by the additional hungry mouths and diminishing returns. We can see that after the Medieval Warm period, by 1300 Europe was entering a Malthusian crisis point, dealt with by a series of devastating harvest failures and later the plague. We saw the effects of Malthusian traps in China in the previous post, including the  ones that brought down the Song Dynasty and stunted China's progress in comparison to Western Europe. There are many other examples.

So, while reducing all of human history to nothing more than a morass of misery for everyone is too short-sighted, economists are not altogether wrong here. The prosperity I talked about above often brought about its own downfall due to population growth. It's not black and white. That's why it's important to look at a multifaceted view of human history beyond just the simple models.

We see this in the anthropological records, too. I've often referred to the famous paper by J. Lawrence Angel, which was a watershed moment in anthropology. His study of skeletons in the Mediterranean area over many thousands of years revealed what we now know to be true: we were far healthier by every measure as hunter-gatherers before the advent of agriculture than after, a point Gregory Clark makes above.

However, we see that the measures of health vary considerably throughout time, rising and falling in various historical time periods, reflecting what I described above. During the Hellenic and Classical periods, for example, we see many health measures such as height nearly catch up our own in modern times. Then the Malthusian trap kicks in.

And that brings us to our next topic. A relevant question might be, given the above, how and when do we see prosperous, wealthy societies in antiquity? And how do large-scale agrarian societies living on the edge of subsistence form large empires?

That's what we'll be talking about next time.

* We are told that the only valid type of slavery is chattel slavery and nothing else-human beings as private property which can be bought and sold. The ancients did not make this distinction. Slave markets were actually fairly limited - slaves were more of a social caste than anything else. Many even started their own businesses. Even by the 'property' distinction, however, there are more slaves alive today than in the ancient world. The rest of us are "free" to work or starve.


  1. This is an incredible work! Depressing but also providing a glimmer of hope that we can do better than modern civilization. I just wish there was an effective way to escape corporate slavery.

    1. I hear you. This is so often ignored. I mean, you could make the case that we "need" it this way otherwise no one will work. I don't buy that, but at least you're not selling this "everyone is free!" concept.

      And the idea that you can just work for yourself is great and all, but it's just not possible for most people. Even primitive economies need to have some division of labor. A hundred million sole proprietorships is just not feasible under an agrarian/handicraft economy, much less a high-tech industrialized one.

      And starting your own business is harder than ever thanks to competition from entrenched global corporations offering every conceivable service and technology under the sun, with the supply chains and economies of scale to back them up. The few people who can successfully do this are typically already wealthy--people from the upper-class who have the money to develop a rarefied skill set, along with the requisite social connections (certain lawyers, accountants, etc.).

      About the best we (as a society) can do under such an arrangement is to at least ensure workers get a fair deal. We in America, however, have bought the libertarian bullshit promoted by the plutocrats. In fact we're the only country on earth that doesn't guarantee vacation time off (assuming you're American here, apologies if otherwise).

      Capitalism is designed to create learned helplessness in people, take away their means of support, and then castigate them for their helplessness.

    2. I agree with you. The irony is that we could theoretically implement a basic income and shorten the workweek to 30 hours or less, but it's unlikely given the average American's worship of work and general authoritarian tendencies. That's the most frustrating part.

      I think the best we can do is begin exploring and working towards alternatives on a small-scale, while allowing the System to continue to collapse.

      Personally, I have enough saved to live away from a job for several years, but I worry that won't be enough (especially without healthcare) and I haven't worked up the courage to join an intentional community or similar arrangement.

  2. You totally need to point out that a typical foraging workday averages out to about 4 hours of work.

  3. I can't wait for your next instalment......

  4. If you had a time machine to explore both past and future, you'd find that in most times and places, most people are cheerful most of the time. E.g. if you visit a Martian arsenic mine in the year 3800 where slaves toil 80 hours a week breathing toxic dust and never seeing the Sun, they will be smiling and singing as they work.

    That's because people self-select -- those who are happy with their lives make babies, while the malcontents die childless. Since 1800 living conditions have been changing faster than our minds can evolve, but this is just a temporary blip.

    1. I'm doing my part, lol.

      It does seem like the boot-licking, eager-to-please, minivan-driving, suburban, corporate cubicle-serf, monogamous superdad is the only person bothering to have kids anymore (along with his wife who works somewhere in the medical/insurance industry).

      There are very few people who can make it in a seriously dystopian society like the United States of America. I shudder to think of what the human race will look like after another few centuries of this.

      It also assumes we have no control over our own environment. Clearly, elephant seals or Galapagos finches cannot modify the evolutionary forces at work on them. However, are we humans really so helpless as to be unable to modify the environment we ourselves have created?

  5. Yer on fire! However, examine this statement:

    It also assumes we have no control over our own environment. Clearly, elephant seals or Galapagos finches cannot modify the evolutionary forces at work on them. However, are we humans really so helpless as to be unable to modify the environment we ourselves have created?

    Actually, seals and finches (and homos) do modify their enviros, as I'm sure you know. The interesting part concerns human free will. In general, humans view animals as robots, that can never get into Heaven, whereas humans, having tremendous, even godlike minds, can choose Heaven or Hell.

  6. E.g., the population chart you so ably published. That is "differential reproductive success," the core idea of natural selection, which includes us "boomtown rats."


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