Monday, March 30, 2009

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language

David Anthony's book by this title is about the search for - and ways of life of - the original speakers of Indo-European, the tongue ancestral to languages spoken by about three billion people today. Both his account of the detective work and his conclusions are highly impressive.
Anthony is unusual in that he combines his training in archeology with a great familiarity with historical linguistics, which allows him to bridge normally distinct fields and to piece together disparate clues about the original Indo-European speakers. I was continually struck by just how much work has already been accomplished in each of these disciplines. For example, historical linguists, by comparing extant Indo-European languages and relying on rules of language change, have developed a vocabulary of several thousand words (!) from the mother language, even though it was spoken between perhaps 4500 and 3500 BCE and never recorded in writing. Even more impressive in some ways was the sheer attention devoted by archeologists to these archaic cultures. Hundreds, and even thousands, of sites from each of dozens of different cultures living around the Black and Caspian Seas (and no doubt elsewhere) have been thoroughly studied and catalogued. So a basic impression for me was the same one I got when I read Stephen Pinker's book How the Mind Works: namely, astonishment at just how much we do know. It's amazing what our economic surplus and academic specialization have permitted. This may sound trivial, but it provides a useful response to a common refrain I hear: we just don't know enough about X to take a stance one way or another. My friend James resorts to this tactic whenever we discuss evolutionary psychology. Because it sounds plausible (the brain is complicated, after all, and early man did leave few traces, so how much do we really know about it anyway?), this is often an effective way not to rebut the other side, but to end the discussion nonetheless. My readings of Pinker and Anthony make me even more resistant to this response.
So what are some of Anthony's substantive conclusions? The speakers of Indo-European were foragers living in river valleys north and west of the Caspian and Black Seas. They likely adopted cattle, sheep and goat herding from peoples living on the west shores of the Black Sea circa 5000 BCE. (These latter peoples, by the way, living along the lower Danube and east of the Carpathians, had the most advanced metal-working and the largest settlements *in the world* between 4000 and 3500 BCE. It never became clear to me why this region was so advanced.) Around 4000 BCE, the Indo-Europeans probably became the first people in the world to domesticate the horse. By perhaps 2000 (or was it 3000?), they had imported the wheel from the Near East (at first a solid wheel, useful only for slow-moving, ox-drawn carts, later, modified by the Indo-Europeans to include spokes, part of the revolutionary war-chariot).
The domestication of the horse and the importation of the wheel changed everything. The former allowed much larger herds of animals to be controlled. In addition to a general increase in wealth, this led to the emergence of significant social status differences (deciphered mainly by new burial practices) and various related social and political practices. For example, contractual relations developed when more marginal herders were compelled, by bad luck or having lost parts of their herds to theft, to borrow from wealthier herders. The wheel (in the form of ox-drawn carts) allowed the Indo-Europeans now to range much more widely over the steppes, since they could bring provisions with them. This more nomadic life - along with the temptations posed by cattle-rustling - led to the development of various host-guest practices. Nomadic groups learned to distinguish between acceptable visitors passing through their land (guests) and hostile interlopers. Anthony argues that Indo-European spread - into Greece, up the Danube and Dniester, then to the east, all the way to the Altaic Mountains, and also down into Iran and India - only partly by military conquest (facilitated by horseback riding). Even more important was the economic power and status these wealthy herders enjoyed. These factors convinced neighboring peoples to convert to a new way of life and language.

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language

Thursday, March 26, 2009

cheap and easy morality

I'm trapped in Golden by a ferocious spring blizzard which seems likely to keep me here until tomorrow morning (the hilly road to Boulder is treacherous in the snow, as I discovered when I got stuck, sideways, on the road out of Boulder during the last storm) . With hours to kill in my office and only one other colleague in the building, this seems like a good opportunity to catch up on my neglected blog. Though I said I would not provide any political commentary, I think the following point, perhaps bordering on politics, but only in a general way, deserves mention and a bending of the rule.

I want to introduce a new term: cheap and easy morality. Now, the idea has probably been identified before, but I can at least claim independent invention since I developed this - or at least half of it, as I will shortly explain - on my own.
The part that I didn't invent is cheap morality. This idea has been brought to my attention at least three independent times: first, a few years ago at the European Forum, by Hartmut Kliemt, who used the exact term; second, by my CSM friend and colleague James Jesudason, who talks of "low cost morality;" and third, by my Harvard grad school friend, now at Stetson University, Eric Kurlander. Cheap morality means the expression of ethical views that earn social approval, but cost the person nothing. A trivial example might be all the people, especially numerous around Boulder, who have "Free Tibet" bumper stickers on their cars. Why do these people put these stickers on their cars? Is it really to free that far-off country, which they might even be hard-pressed to find on a map? What would its liberation mean? Or are they doing this to express something about themselves? Some might include in the category of cheap morality the expressed concern - and even the obsession, especially at universities - of affluent whites, with multiculturalism and race and gender equity. Being affluent and, in many cases, having job security, they devote themselves to these issues and spend little thought or effort on more challenging problems (more challenging especially to their own positions) such as, say, class inequality. I would include most pacifists in this category of cheap moralists, as well.
I recognize that there are some problems with distinguishing cheap morality from other, more legitimate kinds. Surely, we shouldn't require that somebody make a personal sacrifice in order to hold a position on some question. I find the slaughter in eastern Congo very disturbing - and would say so - even though I can't do anything about it. During the second world war, I would not have called it cheap morality if somebody had worn a button saying "Free Poland" or "Save the Jews." So why do I feel that "Free Tibet" is different? Perhaps the acid test has to be what motivates the morality, or its expression. Is the main, though perhaps subconscious, motive to appear to be caring, decent, humanitarian, etc? Here there are clearly connections to the expressive theory of voting. This is the idea that what people are doing when they are voting is not actually trying to influence the outcome - since they know, or should know, at least, that their one vote will never be decisive. The outcome of the election will happen regardless. What people are doing is expressing something about themselves, about their values. This might explain why, for example, lots of wealthy people vote for the Democrats (and why many poor vote for the Republicans): i.e. regardless of how I Wealthy Person vote, the election will have its outcome. In either case, I can feel that I Wealthy Person voted for the environment, the poor, etc.

Now I want to expand cheap morality into cheap and easy morality. Easy morality means that people evaluate situations in terms of motives and not in terms of consequences. The former is easier than the latter - and also less valuable. This became clear to me in a recent conversation with a highly intelligent woman concerned about the environment. She praised the German government's subsidies for solar panels. I pointed out that these subsidies for solar energy in perpetually cloudy Germany had dramatically raised the price of silicon (used in the panels), thus putting solar panels out of reach of many people and companies in much sunnier parts of the world than Germany. This intelligent person just huffed and refused to address my point. For her, so it seemed to me, good intentions outweighed everything, indeed, may have been the only thing. I believe this is a very common tendency in regard to all sorts of ethical and political questions. As long as the person's heart is in the right place.... I believe this is a benighted way of approaching the world because the world is a complex place involving all sorts of trade-offs (for good arguments in favor, basically, of an "ethic of responsibility," i.e. considering consequences, see Max Weber's essay Politics as a Vocation). Because it is so widespread, so easy, and perhaps even natural in some sense (i.e. it comes naturally to people, whereas considering consequences, especially when good intentions yield bad results, and especially when the consequences are far off, can be difficult, can run against our grain), I think teachers of all kinds - from parents to official pedagogues - have an obligation to encourage utilitarian, consequentialist thinking. Lessons in how good intentions can go bad, and bad intentions produce good, should be a major part of moral upbringing. This is not to say we should *only* consider consequences (no, I would not sacrifice 99 people to save 100). But since evaluating motives seems come easy to people, we need to cultivate the other form of moral judgment. It's more of a learned tendency.
The two sides - the cheapness and the easiness - go hand in hand. Both relate to motives and to the expression of ostensibly good intentions. In the first case, it's your own; in the second case, it's somebody else's.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Crone is a phone

A knowledgeable friend of mine tells me that Crone's ideas about the formation of European states (referred to in my post about steppe nomads) are horribly outdated, ignoring 50 years of scholarship. Rather than some Germanic element contributing to the unique European sequence, it was all heavily influenced by Rome. The German tribes had had hundreds of years to absorb Roman culture and institutions. Even the Germans who beat the Romans in the Teutoburg forest in 9 A.D. had been trained in the Roman army and spoke Latin.
In fact, the greater the Roman influence the happier I am since the project I mentioned about big history has to do with how the Mediterranean environment - and hence Rome - came to influence medieval and early modern Europe.
Thanks for the clarification, Robert!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The economic meltdown

Since Horse, Wheel, Language is a big, thick book and will take time to finish (and hence comment on), and since I wanted to get this blog off to an active start, I thought I would comment in the meantime on some recent books I've read about a topic on all our minds.

George Cooper: The Origin of Financial Crises. I recommend this book highly. Cooper writes very clearly and precisely, providing helpful examples and carefully building a powerful case. Cooper focuses on two big themes. First, he rescucitates Hyman Minsky (whose name is being bandied about more and more often these days) to explain why financial markets are inherently unstable. Unlike rising prices for consumer goods, increasing asset prices often lead to more, not less demand, and sell when prices decline (people buy in a rising market and sell in the reverse). This leads to feedback loops, boosting asset values ever higher - or ever lower. These loops are related to ideas of Frank Knight and the now-ubiquitous Nassim Taleb. Sometime in the 1920s or 1930s Knight distinguished between risk and uncertainty. Markets that tend toward equilibrium can be better characterized in terms of risk, which can be priced. Markets that tend away from equilibrium - like financial markets - fall under the much scarier uncertainty rubric. Taleb's distinction between normal and wild randomness seems similar.
The second point Cooper focuses on is that once a country's currency is no longer backed by any real value (gold, say) and it becomes "fiat currency" in the hands of the government, the temptation and ability of the government to engage in loose monetary policy grows enormously. Now if I remember correctly, Cooper doesn't advocate returning to the gold standard, for a number of reasons. In recent years, the US Fed engaged in an asymmetric policy - responding aggressively to the least sign of a recession, but refusing to prick - or even identify - asset bubbles.

The second book I can recommend, though perhaps not so strongly, is Mohammed El-Erian, When Markets Collide. El-Erian is the co-CEO of Pimco, the bond giant, and for a few years in this decade ran Harvard's wealth management outfit. He knows what he's talking about, and he especially knows global markets. The basic point of this book is that we are in the midst of a secular transition between two kinds of global system - the old system was dominated (both in terms of economic output and control of international organizations such as the IMF and World Bank) by western powers; the new one will involve a balance between the old players and new kids on the block, the emerging economic powers. Once we've gotten to this new balance, the prospects for growth - and for investors - will be tremendous (already the Economist is arguing that more than half of the world's population - 3+ billion - is middle class, with 30% disposable income). However, getting there will be a bumpy ride. The governance mechanisms are increasingly outdated - they reflect the old market, dominated by western powers. Think of the G-7 or G-8, with weakly Italy at the table. We need new governance mechanisms that reflect the new or emerging balance of power. For example, if east Asian countries are not to hoard foreign currencies - something that contributed to the glut of lending in the US and elsewhere - they must have a greater stake in the IMF and hence confidence in international interventions (the rapid outflow of foreign money from south east Asian countries helped trigger their collapses in 1997-8; one lesson learned by them (and China) was that private investors are fickle, we need to build up our war chests so this doesn't happen again). But as we've seen with institutions like the UN Security Council, old powers, even when they have lost ground, perhaps especially then, are going to be very reluctant to cede their prerogatives in these organizations. Another problem of reform has to do with coordination problems and numbers: Bretton Woods was designed by two powers, if one is kind to the British, by one if one more honest. How will the G-20 ever be able to agree on a new architecture?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Steppe nomads

I'm reading David Anthony's The Horse, The Wheel, and Language now, a book about the nomads who lived in the steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas between 4000 and 2500 BCE and spoke proto-Indo European. I stumbled across this book (actually, probably used Amazon's links to find it) after having read Patricia Crone's Slaves on Horses. This latter book, which is mainly about why Arab-Islamic societies so often were ruled by slave soldiers (Mamelukes, etc.). In her brief introduction, Crone makes fascinating comparisons between three initially nomadic, or at least non-state and often migratory, societies: the desert Arabs, the steppe Mongols, and the forest Germanic tribes. Her hypothesis, in a nutshell, is that the physical environment had significant effects on the respective social and political structures: in their very harsh environment the Arabs developed almost no structures beyond simple tribal egalitarianism (hence their unsuitability as rulers later on when they conquered developed civilizations and their need to rely on slave soldiers); the Mongols' wealth in horses and livestock actually allowed them to build up *some* patterns of rule, but not of a highly institutionalized nature; finally, the Germanic tribes lived in an underdeveloped (but ultimately developable) physical environment, where they were unmolested by outsiders (Mongols) and had the time to develop the stable structures that eventually became states.
Since these were just hints by Crone, albeit intriguing ones, I wanted to follow up on her book with something more up-to-date (Crone wrote around 1980) and more substantial. I should also say that these questions about the relationship of physical environment to culture/politics/etc interest me and may become the topic of a future project.
More updates on Anthony - and the proto-Indo Europeans - to follow.