Ignorance is Strength

8 04 2014

As long-term readers of this blog know, one of my interests is the use of knowledge in society and the theories of knowledge that underpin competing normative views of public policy. I was therefore fascinated to read of some research on the MonkeyCage blog that showed that support among Americans for US military intervention in the affairs of Ukraine is negatively correlated with the ability to successfully locate Ukraine on a map of the world.  In other words, Americans who have a rough idea of where Ukraine is located are more likely to oppose military involvement that those who have absurd ideas about Ukraine’s actual location.


On March 28-31, 2014, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded via Survey Sampling International Inc. (SSI), what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: In addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, we also asked our survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. We wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S.  to intervene with military force.





Some of the guesses about where Ukraine is located are hilarious (see map).


This research is connected to Ezra Klein’s recent blog post about how politics makes people stupid (i.e., how strong political views reduce their ability to perform basic math).



Empire, Trees, and Climate: Re-Assembling Climatic Pasts in the North Atlantic

7 04 2014

My research collaborator Kirsten Greer will be presenting a paper at the Association of American Geographers Conference in Tampa on 9 April.  Her paper is called Empire, Trees, and Climate: Re-Assembling Climatic Pasts in the North Atlantic


Kirsten Greer, Dr.* – Nipissing University
Adam Csank, Dr. – Nipissing University
Kirby Calvert, Dr. – Pennsylvania State University
Margot Maddison-MacFadyen – Memorial University

How can historical geographies of British imperial expansion, trade networks, and commodity frontiers inform climate histories?  This paper contributes to mixed methods in climate change research by combining theoretical and methodological approaches in historical geography, dendrochronology, and GIS to understand how the Atlantic triangle trade in timber can inform studies on climate.  In the early to mid-nineteenth century, British North America was an integral site in Britain’s triangular trade of timber, fish, sugar, rum, and molasses with the West Indies.  Known today as eastern Canada, the region’s forests and watersheds were transformed into the “modern” world system as the Crown secured lands and timber rights during the Napoleonic Wars.  Considering that British North American timber was integral to ship-building, imperial infrastructure (dockyards, fortifications, government buildings), and maritime supremacy in the age of sail, we provide a speculative piece on how archival and museum research, dendro-provenancing (e.g. analysis of tree ring widths of historic buildings and shipwrecks), and visualizing techniques using GIS can provide important insights into climatic conditions of the past.  We also discuss the theoretical challenges of using mixed methods in climate change research, especially when bringing together different approaches from the humanities and environmental sciences, and in thinking about the role of non-human agency in climate change.


Alex Tabarrok on the Ukrainian Crisis

1 04 2014

Alex Tabarrok makes some important observations about the nature of knowledge in society and prediction in a blog post about the West’s policies towards Ukraine.  His key insight is that Western politicians and pundits have strong views about what is to be done about Ukraine despite knowing little about the country or even being able to speak its language. 

Foreign policy experts love making bold predictions.  The clearer their conclusions, the wiser they sound.  Unfortunately, as Philip Tetlock documents, their predictions about controversial topics are scarcely better than chance.  They’re all style, no substance.  

I’m reminded of F.A. Hayek’s words: 

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account. The Fatal Conceit : The Errors of Socialism (1988), p. 76

Hayek was talking about the impossibility of successful central planning: the economy is so complex that central planners wouldn’t be able to manage it even with supercomputers. However, his basic point can be applied to the making of foreign policy as well. 

The History of Melchers, 1806-2006 by Henning Melchers

31 03 2014

I would like to read The History of Melchers, 1806-2006 by Henning Melchers. (Bremen: Hauschild, 2006). Sadly, the nearest library copy of this book is in Frankfurt.  No copies of this book are available from the main used book websites, such as Alibris and Abebooks. The publisher, Hauschild Verlag, filed for bankruptcy in late 2013. 

This book is only work in any language on the history of Melchers, an important German multinational. I need to know more about this firm’s activities in China in the early twentieth century. 

Any assistance readers could give me would be appreciated! 



Doux Commerce Bleg

30 03 2014


Nicolai Foss has posted a bleg I requested on the Organizations and Markets blog. I’m very grateful to him for ensuring that it is read by as many people as possible.

Originally posted on Organizations and Markets:

| Nicolai Foss |

Andrew Smith, University of Liverpool Management School asks for the help of the readers of O&M:

I’m currently exploring the literature on the theory of the capitalist peace. I’m very familiar with the vast literature by IR scholars and political economists on the theory of the capitalist peace/commercial peace (i.e., the idea that commercial interdependence among nations reduces the likelihood of warfare). This literature is dominated by works using panel data (e.g., Gartzke, 2007).

What I need to find out more about is the literature on the possible microfoundations of the capitalist peace—i.e., work by psychologists and experimental economists on whether repeated participation in inter-ethnic and international trade actually influences the cognitive processes of the individuals involved and makes them less warlike. Does experience with economic exchange with non-members of the group (family, clan, tribe, nation, etc) make people more pacific? Does it make individuals…

View original 128 more words

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality

28 03 2014

Zeta Psi Fraternity House (1909-1910) at Lafayette College is a historic fraternity house located at Easton, Northampton County, Pennsylvania.


AS: There are many problems in UK higher education, but thank goodness they don’t have fraternities here. I’ve taken this paragraph from a blog post by Harry Brighouse, who is summarizing a new academic book on the economics of fraternities on US college campuses. The book argues that university administrators are complicit in a system that destroys human capital, reduces social mobility in the United States, has contributed to the growth of income inequality, and encourages sexual assault.

Sadly,the fraternity system has crept over the border into some of the more culturally Americanized universities in Canada. Luckily they didn’t have it at Queen’s, at least when I was there.


Brighouse writes:

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).


Papers on Historical Topics at the European Public Choice Conference, 2014

26 03 2014

The European Public Choice Society Conference for 2014 will take place at Robinson College, Cambridge. Thursday April 3 to Sunday April 6 2014. 


Destined for Democracy? Labour Markets and Political Change in Colonial British America
Elena Nikolova, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, United Kingdom

This paper proposes a new explanation for the emergence of democratic institutions: elites may extend the right to vote to the masses in order to attract migrant workers. I argue that representative assemblies serve as a commitment device for any promises made to labourers by those in power, and test the argument on a new political and economic data set from the thirteen British American colonies. The results suggest that colonies that relied on white migrant labour, rather than slaves, had better representative institutions. These findings are not driven by alternative factors identified in the literature, such as inequality or initial conditions, and survive a battery of validity checks


War and the Transition Away for Absolutism
Francesco Giovannoni, University of Bristol, United Kingdom

We propose a model to explain the transition from Absolutism to rule by Parliament. The Elite faces a trade-off between the loss of a war today with the future benefits under an alternative King. The threat of losing a war and being replaced may lead the King to compromise with the Elite and hand over power. The model has two key parameters. One is the fraction of the country’s wealth that is non-verifiable (and therefore hard for the King to tax or expropriate). The second is how likely the country is to be attacked. Our model gives a rationale for historical transitions away from Absolutism such as in ancient Athens, medieval Venice, 16th century Netherlands and the Glorious Revolution in 1688 England. The model also gives a rational for why (respectively) Sparta, other Italian cities, Spain, and France did not observe a similar transition.


Rebellions, Technical Change, and the Early Development of Political Institutions in Latin America
Alvaro Aguirre, Central Bank of Chile, Chile

This paper documents that differences in the early development of institutions in Latin America explain the subsequent economic performance in the region. It develops a model with the aim of identifying the factors behind this institutional development. The model predicts that the risk of conflict, which in the model arise due to labor coercion, leads to poor restrictions on the powers of chief executives. Since elite members cannot commit to a strong response to conflicts they empower the executive so he may react forcefully to conflicts. Technical advance leads to higher constraints as expropriation becomes more costly. But this does not happen with a large fraction of coerced labor because higher returns raise labor demand and conflict risks. Finally, the paper conducts an econometric exercise which shows that the dynamics of the institutional gap can be explained to a large extent by the risk of rebellion, globalization, and their interaction.

Also, people in Quebec and Scotland will likely be interested in the following paper:

If You Want me to Stay, Pay: A model of asymmetric federalism in centralised countries
Peter Claeys, Free University of Brussels, Belgium

Highly centralised countries like Italy and Spain have devolved fiscal power to regions in an asymmetric way. Some well-off regions get transfers that turn them into net recipients of the fiscal system. We demonstrate in a political economy model of fiscal federalism that in centralised countries, side-payments are used to compensate regions that are set back by the fiscal system and can credibly threaten to secede. Compensation blocks political negotiation on alternative “more efficient” fiscal systems. We study two regions, Valle d’Aosta in Italy and Pais Vasco in Spain, as an example.


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