Sunday, September 17, 2006

Kleptocracy and Mancur Olson's books

Looking for the etymology of 'kleptocracy', excessive rent-seeking by those with political power, one source said that it originated in Spain 1819, during the Napoleonic invasions?

Anyway, the growth of the idea of kleptocracy seems to be attributable to the economist Mancur Olson, especially in his last book Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships:
"A central strand is the nature of political power, and how different kinds of power promote different kinds of economic behaviour...Through history, Olson observes, it has been better to live under political tyranny than to be subject to the depredations of roving bands of warrior-thieves...Assuming that tyrants and thieves are alike, in that they are out for whatever they can extract from their subjects, why should one kind of predation be better than the other? The answer, Olson explains, is that the tyrant has a stake, an "encompassing interest", in the domain he is exploiting: if it prospers, he can extract more for himself in taxes and other ways. A roving bandit merely destroys and moves on. A stationary bandit keeps taxes low in the short term in order to spur growth and gather more revenue later; in fact he goes further, and provides growth-promoting public goods, the better to improve his take...Autocracy, then, is usually much better for the victims than anarchy."
Peaceful, settled rule by political elites, even they extract excessive economic rents, is better than a continual, endemic state of warfare and feuding.

Olson also addreses democracy, which I filed away for my work interest in FDI in emerging economies, but I write papers on early modern political history and warfare, so I found this discussion particularly interesting.

Found a reflective essay on the meaning of the term as well as the interesting, but rather pessimistic "Iron Law of Oligarchy", which "states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies."

Examples from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" chapter on "Kleptocracy" is a good intro to history of non-western political economy and the Maori invasion of Chatham Island is a memorable example of the collision of whole socio-political systems. This book was useful teaching 100 sophomore non-native English speakers in a Thai university economic history since there is a translation in Thai that can be read in parallel.

This newly coined word "Kleptocracy" seems to have been the inspiration behind Acemoglu paper: Kleptocracy and Divide-and-Rule: A Model of Personal Rule (The Alfred Marshall Lecture) Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson and Thierry Verdier April 2004, Journal of the European Economic Association Papers and Proceedings, v.2, 162-192

Brad DeLong's blog today showed how a fantastically inclusive course that includes everything an informed undergraduate should understand can be transformed by the brutish bigotry of conservative journalism. Self-reinforcing idiocy at the Weekly Standard cited the names of courses without the content of the courses to make them sound ridiculous. To anyone with some knowledge who probes a little, the conservative journalists are the ones who end up sounding completely ridiculous. William Kristol, editor and founder of the Weekly Standard, teaches a course on intellectual history at Harvard and he allows this sort of ridiculous article as editor? What a charade! Someone should call him to task on it.

Literary intellectuals and hypocrisy

From Brad DeLong's blog, nobel prize winning writer Gunter Grass is an ex-nazi and hypocrite.

Hypocrisy and self-contradiction, just another trope on the literary intellectual's palette?

Actually, distortion of historical truth, or at least the mangling of historical truth, is just another higher order truth to be untangled from the historical record. Deconstructionists will, in turn, be deconstructed. A thread of intellectual history yet to be written.

To be fair, the Gunter Grass problem is a problem with history in every culture. In post-WWII Malaysia and Singapore "the problem of 'collaboration' stood in the way of a full reckoning, and the needs of nationhood often demanded amnesia." (Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire and the War with Japan, 2004, p. 329) See 'War and Memory in Singapore and Malaysia' (2000).

More support for Rankean "what actually happened" in historiography.

Moment of self-reflective terminological angst

I can already see a problem with the dichotomisation western vs. non-western applied to warfare, politics, or economics. This distinction has a tendency to attribute suboptimal or bad features to the non-western world and optimal 'good' features like democracy, modern technology, and rationalised and fair social institutions to the western world. But that's not what I had in mind.

What I had in mind was drawing attention to a deficit in research and knowledge on the non-western world and the qualitative differences with the west, particularly in the pre-modern era. Whereas the classical Greek and Roman periods have been intensively studied in the west, serious attention to these periods reached a nadir in the colonial period, but this scholarship is embedded in a now discredited colonial approach to the subject matter. New work needs to be done.

In fact, I would eschew much standard terminology such as "democracy" for the idea of "participation" (participation, legality/constitutionality, transparency) because as most people point out places like South Korea or Thailand have democracy, but a home-grown democracy that differs in substantial ways from western democracy practiced in Europe, the US, and Australia. Many point out that longstanding traditional village governance, headmanship, has a high degree of participation (with varying degress of coercive consensus making that violate our notions of democracy).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Economist Avner Greif's theory of endogenous institutional change

Read "A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change" by Greif and Laitin last night.

This paper just rang with application to historical data as I read it. The self-enforcing nature of institutions, positive and negative feedback, feedback diagrams, and even human agency has a place in this model. Is it useful The question is whether the model is useful when applied without mathematics to make sense of history, of elite contention for resources. Only one example is presented in any detail. This is a dense paper that requires many readings to make sense of, but the pay-off in deeper understanding of superficial historical data promises to be great.

Other recent Stanford working papers by Greif:

Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade

Institutions and Impersonal Exchange: The European Experience

Avner Greif's personal homepage has additional texts:

Avner Greif and David D. Laitin -- A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change

1. Introduction to book on institutional economics of medieval trade

2. "Commitment, Coercion and Markets: The Nature and Dynamics of Institutions Supporting Exchange" from the "Handbook of New Institutional Economics"

Friday, September 15, 2006

Small divergences, then larger ones, then the "great divergence"

If in history the body of the dog is the facts and the tail is the generalization we reach from them, then should the tail be wagging the dog as it often does when historians jump straight into and devote inordinate amounts of time to artificially constructed "great debates".

I would argue that in a history course, and more specifically in an economic history course, large unresolved questions or issues around which debates still swirl should be avoided in favor of detailed case studies from which limited, humble yet powerful generalisations can be made. In other words, teach students the limits of analysis. How to formulate and test small hypotheses and how to, step by step, move from these to larger more inclusive hypotheses.

What I am thinking about here, is life outside of academia. Contrast, for instance, Wolfowitz's promise of quick success in the Iraq War, avoiding Colin Powell with his more experienced Edmund Burke-like "break it you buy it" pottery barn rule, and war correspondent, historian, and British conservative Sir Max Hasting's take on the Iraq war:
The madness of Bush's policy is that he has made a wilful choice to amalgamate the grossly irrational, totalitarian and homicidal objectives of al-Qaida with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis. His remarks on Saturday invite Muslims who sympathise with Hamas or reject Iraq's occupation or merely aspire to grow opium in Afghanistan to make common cause with Bin Laden.

If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy then that is what they become. The Muslim radicals' "single narrative" portrays the entire course of history as a Christian and Jewish plot against Islam.

It is widely agreed among western governments and intelligence agencies that, in order to defeat the pernicious spread of such nonsense, a convincing counter-narrative is needed. Yet it becomes a trifle difficult to compose this when the US president promulgates his own single narrative, almost as ridiculous as that of al-Qaida. (Source: Brad DeLong's Blog)
What I would not teach is the "great divergence" even though it seems to be mandatory now, namely why did the west have the "industrial revolution" while the non-western world was left to play a game of economic catch up? Comments in a Perdue paper provide a little support for this view.
"Writing and teaching world history is not easy. Unavoidably, we must simplify the story by knitting together a few strands of the voluminous historical record. Anyone who tries to draw such a grand picture deserves respect. There is nothing wrong per se with thinking big. But large-scale explanatory schemes are fraught with dangers. Too often the big thinkers merely repeat old stereotypes held by eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans about classical Asian civilizations. Tired cliches are dressed up as new theories, ignoring recent research."

"A central question for European historians is the origin of the Industrial Revolution. For China, the inverse question is often raised: why did imperial China 'stagnate', or fail to break through to sustained industrial growth by 1800, when it had led the world in economic dynamism and technological innovation at least up to 1200 CE? Both of these questions have generated a great deal
of discussion. We are plagued, however, by 'fast-food' explanations which attempt to take a shortcut through complex empirical and theoretical issues." (Source: China in the Early Modern World: Shortcuts, Myths and Realities Education About Asia, Summer, 1999. Peter C. Perdue)
How could a short survey course provide more than a 'fast food explanation' without almost exlcusively focusing on the problem to the exclusion of everything else, like the western media often does in so-called Media Circuses when it latches on to one story to the exclusion of all else. This mentality does seem to affect academia sometimes. For instance, the Anthropology of War course at MIT, instead of poking around and searching under less visited rocks to expand our corpus of historical knowledge (e.g. the Maori Musket Wars, technological transfer fuelling expansionary warfare), the course chooses to focus exclusively on the Iraq War, as if the rest of the world will not be equally as relevant one day in the future.

Perdue's paper warns us not to enter historical texts with preconceived conclusions. The late nineteenth century sugar industry is used as an example:
"Thus the technological changes in the sugar industry had little or nothing to do with the relative price of labor, but a lot to do with the action of the two states. The colonial Japanese state could enforce social changes that supported a total system of industrial production, from the field to the factory to the ports, but the weakened Qing empire, despite its efforts at self-strengthening, had the will but not the strength to direct change."
Severely dichotomized debates like the "great divergence debate" if they soak too much in the way of pedagogical and research resources can be counterproductive.

Non-western economic history I

Great thread at Brad DeLong's blog on non-western economic history. Threads like this really provide the motivation to write good economic history of Burma-Yunnan-bay of Bengal (c. 1350-1600). Couldn't resist making an obnoxiously long (but not obnoxious, I hope) comment:

>>Colin Danby: "Can anyone suggest long-scale economic histories of mainland and/or island Southeast Asia?"

Victor Lieberman (2003) Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Cambridge University Press covers 1000 years and references all relevant literature. Lieberman also employs the three way model of Smithian, Schumpeterian, and Solovian growth of Joel Mokyr, The Levers of Riches. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

>>Ari Levine; "Timothy Brook's _Confusions of Pleasure_ is more a cultural history of commercialization."

Which makes it very relevant to the Thorstein Veblen conspicuous consumption threads on professor DeLong's blog recently. Much of these luxury goods came from the Tai ethnic regions on the border of Southeast Asia in Yunnan, covered in:
Sun, Laichen. (2000) Ming-Southeast Asian overland interactions, c. 1368-1644. PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Also, the management of China's northern enemies over thousands of years has an economic dimension to it. Arthur Waldron's "The Great Wall of China from History to Myth" covers "trade or raid" and Di Cosmo's online paper below covers the public finance transition from raiding to tribute to settled taxation which leads to the issues of land settlement and peasant mobility, good focal points for cross-cultural comparison: Di Cosmo, Nicola.(1999) “State Formation and Periodization in
Inner Asian History,” Journal of World History, 10:1 (Spring, 1999): 1-40.

Personally, analyzing the dynamics of pre-modern non-western economies on their own terms like Lieberman's book above is going to do more to enlighten students about how non-western economic (and political) systems are radically different and how naive solutions (like transform Iraq into American democracy in 90 days or less) are bound to fail. Better, that is, than broad questions like the Pomeranz what caused the "great divergence" question. Anthony Reid eventually backed off trying to apply a similar broad European-derived thesis (the "17th century crisis") from insular to mainland Southeast Asian history when Lieberman challenged him, see p. 9:
IMHO the beauty of historical work lies in the details, although it would be nice to see economic theory like Avner Greif's information economics explain more history.

>>Colin Danby: "It would be great if someone could post recommended readings on East Africa's role in the Indian Ocean economy."

Malyn Newitt (1995) A History of Mozambique, Indiana University Press
Covers Portuguese settlement and trade plus climate constraints on ocean travel and trade.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pre-World War II immigration in the British empire

The pre-World War II Indian immigration into Burma has always perplexed me.

One the one hand I have met so many Indians who were affected by the post-war backlash against them in Burma. For example, rice mills and property seized and are not recognized as full Burmese citizens. There is a standard condemning story about chettiar money lenders that Michael Adas's book counteracts to a certain extent:

Adas, Michael. The Burma Delta: Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice. Frontier, 1852-1941. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1974. .

Wouldn't an economist argue that the Burmese as a whole benefited from flows of Indian labor and capital into Burma before the war? Reading this recent book really threw this belief into question:

Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia 1941-1945 (2004) by Christopher Bayly,Tim Harper.

This book looks like only a military history, but it is actually a panoramic social history of the pre-World War II British Empire in Southeast Asia too. It certainly sheds a different, more sinister light on the British empire than, for instance, Niall Ferguson's book.

This book is a near perfect history book. It is well written in an engaging style that has made it very popular. The book is built upon original primary archival sources such as memoirs which make it original, not just another rehash of secondary sources. It combines multiple perspectives from the high level governor or viceroy to the coolies at the waterfront. It gives you a better idea of the impact of war on society as a whole than any other book that I've read.

This book is also a sobering story of free flowing immigration in the British Empire on the eve of of World War II. It shows some of the chaos that this freedom for all to immigrate led to. Massive Indian immigration into Burma overwhelmed the local population, displacing them with cheap labor. In the agricultural sector money lenders foreclosed and seized land, the Japanese invaded, the Indians fled, and a dependence on Burmese rice to the tune of 15% in Bengal contributed to a famine, 3 million people died, who had specialized in jute production before the war. Can one fully predict exogenous shocks? The pre-empire social formations were probably more resilient to them.

The British empire seems to be a test case in many respects for all the arguments of market liberalisation that the discipline of economics presents, such as freedom of immigration.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Open Source GIS: OSGEO.ORG

Learned about new open source GIS software for map making from an IT writer at my newspaper today. Quite exciting for me since geography is essential to get a handle on the history of Burma-Yunnan-Bay of Bengal (c. 1350-1600).

1. OSGEO.ORG is offering the open source GIS software.

2. Here is the GIS blog Between the Poles of Geoff Zeiss who works for Autodesk working on the project somehow.

3. Also found this open source GIS resource list.

Anyway, one these days, soon, supporting written history with maps will be a lot easier.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Models for academic history journals (+ supporting materials)

This journal of Tibetan history, religion, and culture is a model for journals devoted to Burmese history or that of ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia like the Tai or Mon.

The format of the articles with abstract and footnotes is nice and uniform and could be easily emulated with Wikipedia fitted with appropriate templates. The site also has nice reference materials such as a primary source document collection, maps, and gazeteer.

OpenCourseWare Consortium

Free Access to Open Materials for Teaching, Learning and Research, Supported by The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation.

List of open access academic journal resources.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Mong Mao: Mandala, Galactic Polity, or Solar Polity?

One of three metaphors for political organisation, mandala, galactic polity, or solar polity, might lead to making sense of Mong Mao's history.

It always seemed to me that the use of the concept "mandala" in pre-colonial Southeast Asian history seemed to reduce the complexity of history, the interplay of strategic human agency and more fixed, long-term, deterministic structures, that one finds in well-written narrative histories, to a simple concept, a much too simple concept.

I've grown to appreciate the concept recently, and understand how some historians such as Sunait Chutintaranond, Thongchai Winichakul, and Martin Stuart-Fox have used the idea to pick apart received traditions about unified and centralized rule in their respective time periods and regions.

Sometimes the best way to gain an appreciation of an idea is to go through the laborious process of solving the problem that the idea was created as a solution to. After rereading Martin Stuart-Fox's history of Laos (see bibliography below) that uses the concept of Mandala extensively, I realized that the concept probably applies to nearby Mong Mao also. Furthermore, I read Chris Baker's paper that argues that the northern provinces of Ayutthaya were largely independent of the Ayutthayan center even into the period of Burmese invasions of the 16th century, but when I read Sunait Chutintaranond's paper, I realized that Sunait had already shown how "mandala" was the solution to this problem.

The world historian and historian of Burma Victor Lieberman's rejection of the term mandala in lieu of "solar polity" , "galactic polity" being yet another possible metaphor, is particularly instructive.

I still think that narrative history that closely follows primary sources is the best way to capture the interplay between strategic human action and long-term social and environmental factors in human and plan to follow this course in future research. General models that have been highlighted by Lieberman's Strange Parallels recently, including Gerschenkron's collective problems and advantages to backwardness, O'Connor's agricultural succession in Southeast Asia, and a general political anthropology approach, can clarify and highlight important themes in this narrative (without imputing abolute causal relations of different factors where multicausal factors is the norm).

Anyway, I've been slowly revising the Wikipedia page devoted to "Mandala (Southeast Asian history)". Here are my contributions to-date:

Mandala (Southeast Asian history)

Mandala means "circle of kings". The mandala is a model for describing the patterns of diffuse political power in early Southeast Asian history. The concept of a mandala counteracts our natural tendency to look for the unified political power of later history, the power of large kingdoms and nation states, in earlier history where local power is more important. In the words of O.W. Wolters who originated the idea in 1982:
"The map of earlier Southeast Asia which evolved from the prehistoric networks of small settlements and reveals itself in historical records was a patchwork of often overlapping mandalas"[1]
In some ways similar to the feudal system of Europe, states were linked in overlord-tributary relationships. Compared to feudalism however, the system gave greater independence to the subordinate states; it emphasised personal rather than official or territorial relationships; and it was often non-exclusive. Any particular area, therefore, could be subject to several powers or none.

Intersecting mandalas circa 1360: from north to south Lan Xang, Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Angkor.


The term draws a comparison with the mandala of the Hindu and Buddhist worldview; the comparison emphasises the radiation of power from each power centre, as well as the non-physical basis of the system.

Other metaphors such as Tambiah's original idea of a "galactic polity" [2], describe similar political patterns as the mandala. The metaphor of a "solar polity" is preferred by the historian of Southeast Asia Victor Lieberman because in the solar system there is one central body, the sun, and the components or planets of the solar system can be fully enumerated, unlike galaxies. [3]


....The historian Stuart-Fox uses the term "mandala" extensively to describe the history of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang as a structure of loosely held together "meuang" that disintegrated after Lan Xang's conquest by Siam starting in the 18th century [5]

The Thai historian Sunait Chutintaranond made an important contribution to study of the mandala in Southeast Asian history by demonstrating that "three assumptions responsible for the view that Ayudhya was a strong centralized state" did not hold and that "in Ayudhya the hegemony of provincial governors was never successfully eliminated" [6]....


Chutintaranond, Sunait, "Mandala, segmentary state, and Politics of Centralization in Medieval Ayudhya," Journal of the Siam Society 78, 1, 1990, p. 1.

Lieberman, Victor Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Stuart-Fox, Martin, The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline, White Lotus, 1998.

Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer, Cambridge, 1976.
Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped. University of Hawaii Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8248-1974-8

Wolters, O.W. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982. ISBN 0-87727-725-7

Wolters, O.W. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Revised Edition, 1999.

1. O.W. Wolters, 1999, p. 27
2. Tambiah, 1976, ch. 7, cited in Lieberman, 2003, p. 33
3. Lieberman, 2003, p. 33
4. O.W. Wolters, 1999, pp. 27-40, 126-154
5. Martin-Fox, 1998, pp. 14-15
6. O.W. Wolters, pp. 142-143 citing Chutintaranond, 1990, pp. 97-98