Friday, May 17, 2013

The Plantation of the Atlantic, XIX: Pancakes Versus The Darkest Timeline

Two conceits here: first, that economists, or economic historians, often keep their bodies in the real world, while their minds inhabit the Darkest Timeline. For the best of intentions, of course.  Marx said something about how philosophy had hitherto misconstrued its callling as explaining the world, whereas the point of any unclouded perception of the unbearable reality of the world as it to some extent already was, and would certainly become, was to change it. Or, as a victim of anti-authoritarian personality disorder in your life has already put it to you, "Wake up sheeple!"

Second, that the details of the history of technology undermine grand theory. Engels may have said that water mills gave us feudalism, longbows gave us capitalism, but that's wrong, albeit in a productive way. Start getting detailed, and someone else will get more so. Unless I'm misconstruing Freddie, which I could be. Ed Hundert guided me through The German Ideology; Leo Frankowski through Engels.

Details, damn it! Ruminations about the epistemic limits of the historian's craft aside, we lack the necessary full understanding of the past. People keep launching grand theories without trying to first understand the everyday stuff. There's just too many details that, at the rate that academic history tackles things, will require generations to work through.

Today's grand theorist is an economist who has launched a thousand economic histories (the Reverend Thomas Malthus, Whig, Broad Churchman, ninth wrangler, and giant of economics.

Today's detail is buckwheat.

That is to say, an annual grass of family Polygonaceae, colloquially the knotweed family, which contains some 1200 species, including useful ones such as sea grape, rhubarb, sorrel, and many that are not, hence "knotweed," or "sumpweed." The two species of  genus Fagopyrum known to agronomists as buckwheat, or ble noir, were eaten like wheat before they became an adjective describing a particular kind of pancake mix, and a raw material for some delicious dark honeys.

Once upon a time, farmers planted with an eye to attracting bees, instead of just hiring an apiarist. Wikipedia

So what's pancake mix got to do with Very Serious Matters, you ask? Well, patience, I answer. I'm going to try to develop a line of thought I've been developing for a very long time, ever since I watched  Soylent Green in a community centre gym because there was no movie theatre in a region half the size of New Jersey, almost two centuries after the first "white men" over-wintered there. That was a long time ago, but the population outflow from the region that continues today was already well on. It's not that this young boy had any doubts that overpopulation was a thing: it was just that it was a higher thing, with no relationship to the reality that he saw; and that taught him to believe in higher realities all the more.

Now, I am not going to launch into some sophomore's version of logical positivism here. What I am aiming at is "the darkest timeline." When does it paint itself over our more boring reality? I have an ongoing argument with Brett Holman that it is not just fear. Hope and fantasy are bound up in it, in the same way that our emotional reaction to horror movies is more complicated than pure revulsion and fear.

In particular, when an economist triumphantly predicts disaster in the near future "if this goes on," it is very hard to tell whether the prediction comes from fear and revulsion, or from some weird transposition through the coordinates of our m-dimensional dream space into a place where people are getting what they damn well deserve.

....The Darkest Timeline. And I say, well, "pancakes." That is, account for the pancakes first, and then we can have our darkest timeline.

Malthus is important to me because I take issue with him in a productive way. He literally starts in the wrongest way possible, from the point of view of this thesis, by taking Godwin's numbers for the growth of the American population seriously. Which, I note, is a bum rap. It would be fair to say that he doesn't interrogate Godwin's numbers because he is more interested in making a "long run" argument, and, in the end, we are a great deal more interested in knowing what's going to happen next than in what is going to  happen in many years, "if this goes on."

But then we get our "Neo-Malthusians," here a codeword for "strawman," who waves at the actual Malthus to prove that,since colonial America is our model for demographic history, we can safely claim that as food supply grows arithmetically (in the long run), population grows geometrically, and, in the end, overtakes arithmetic progression to cause the final, definitive "subsistence" crisis that ends a human history already driven by, if not "subsistence crisis" than "Malthusian growth," in which economic growth has always run up against the limits of subsistence and caused greater immiseration.

If America is our model of what has been, Ireland is our model for what will be. Now, I have to dance with the strawman again, because I can't coax  "Population Malthus" out on the floor. The Reverend thinks that Ireland is fairly clearly afflicted with low morals, indolence, want of skill, want of ambition, and want of cleanliness, and that it might be possible if parish records were available, which they were not, that he could actually present evidence that population growth and the potato has caused this deplorable state of affairs, to the extent that it has not been invidious public policy.  Malthus never says that a disaster is coming in so many words, so it is left to the strawman to assert that, some day, when you least expect it, Ireland will be punished for its easy reliance on the potato with an awful Potato Famine!

What Malthus does say is that low food prices lead to low wages, which cause immiseration. I am not going to rehearse this argument: I think it was pretty much settled with that whole Corn Law Repeal thing, which you are welcome to look up the Wikipedia. You might want to sit with your feet in a bucket of ice cold water while you're reading the link, so that you can appreciate what generations of students of Nineteenth Century British history had to go through. You young folk today.

What I am going to put forward as important and relevant here is the context of the Corn Law debate that could confuse so able a man as Malthus. And that was that we need to appreciate that high corn prices were politically controversial back in the day. Why was corn expensive in some seasons, and cheap in others? It was not as obvious as you might think: as Louis Hemon says at one point in his admittedly unreliably romantic Maria Chapdelaine, in the summer through which the novel follows our heroine's family, the have a good wheat crop, one fair hay crop, an excellent berry season, and a disastrous second hay. And so they come to remember it as a "bad year." People complain.

The Corn Law Repeal debate was framed around two competing ideas: the one that won out, which favoured dropping import tariffs on foreign grain, held that this would undercut high-cost domestic producers and reduce the cost of food for the poor, especially in times of dearth, thereby relieving the poor and driving inefficient producers out of business, to the benefit of all. The opposing idea was that labour captured some component of the high domestic corn prices, and that imports would ultimately drive the domestic price up, or something. Or down. As I say, I am not giving the argument the space that it would deserve if I were doing honest intellectual history. I've got too much ground to cover.

So let's trim our sails and restrict the inquiry into a particular aspect of Repeal: the season of dearth. So let us take it as a given: the price of wheat on the local market is high this year. The poor cannot buy bread, while those who can bring grain onto the market are taking their profits and burying coins in hoards, knowing that in years when grain is cheap, so will be land.

However, there are social agencies, mainly county and parish government, and the Established Church, to the extent that they can be separated, who are charged with providing "relief." this can be done by simply distributing food to where it is needed, or, more simply still, by giving the poor some money. This is "Outdoor Relief." Malthus is not alone in being convinced that Outdoor Relief is a bad idea. He prefers bringing the poor in central places ("Poor Houses") and feeding them there. Outdoor Relief is a bad idea (in this argument), for the one very obvious reason that it leads to idleness and welfare queens driving Cadillacs. But there is a more subtle issue here. If the Poor House uses its monopsonic presence in the grain market, it can bring in grain from afar to feed the poor with an economy that individual paupers do not have.

So right at the start, we have complicating factors. In the first instance, the money supply is shrinking. There is no ready coin. As we would say now, there is deflation. Second, the issue here becomes the price of grain on the local market versus the price of grain on the distant one where the public authorities are buying their grain. This means that we are introducing the transportation of grain by entrepeneurs as a factor in what at first seemed to be a simple analysis of the simple problem of a bad local grain harvest. Take this to an extreme: what is to prevent local farmers from shipping their grain to a distant market, and thereby creating a local dearth (and high prices) that will then be ameliorated by bringing grain back from those distant markets in the farmer's own hired wagons?

Sound crazy? Of course it is: this would be your classic Early Modern conspiracy theory, the old-time counterpart to the "the gas stations are price fixing" crowd that shows up when gas prices spike nowadays. But crazy ideas can influence events. One characteristic of an old time "subsistence crisis" was freelance roadblocks trying to block inter-regional grain movements.

Now take a step in the direction of the specific, to a typical North Italian city dealing with a sudden spike in grain prices and an influx of paupers who must be fed at the public expense. Paolo Camporesi, one of the brilliantly off-kilter scholars that the University of Bologna produces now and then, studied these recurrent crises in a monograph translated into English as Strange Bread. Before wandering off to Crazytown, Camporesi makes a simple, powerful point: faced with privation and a shortage of wheat (not grain), the town council would, naturally, investigate cheaper alternatives to wheat, and the paupers did not like that at all. Camporesis focusses on the fears and fantasies of people who thought that they were being poisoned by strange and noxious weeds ground up to make their starvation bread.

Which brings me to pancakes at long last. Traditionally, the hunger of the European spring is relieved by the first crop of the year, which is the wheat crop, which is harvested in June.  (Traditional American hunger goes on into August, when the green, or milk corn is ready to harvest.) Technically, I should say "wheat and/or oats, rye, barley or some combination," but classically this complexity is ruled out of history by the assertion that for cultural or tax reasons old-time European peasants always grew wheat, except when they couldn't. I doubt this, but it is useful to keep in mind the idea that peasants might choose to/be forced to grow wheat because it will fetch a better price or satisfy their landlord better, in spite of being more vulnerable to conditions.

Whatever. The wheat crop fails. You're doomed. Right? Well, no. Here's an awesome, Minnesota-specific manual with an extended discussion of what you can do. If you have fertilised in vain, and the crop was ruined by a dry spring, you want to plant Setaria Italica, an ancient, traditional short-season grain crop much eaten by the Romans and still widely grown in inner Eurasia for its drought resistance (it is unhelpfully lumped in with a bunch of unrelated crops as "millet").

On the other hand, if the land has a depleted nitrogen load, however your traditional knowledge base articulates this possibility, you plant buckwheat. Because corn requires so much nitrogen, buckwheat is more likely to be an American salvage crop than a European. Corn needs hot, humid nights for its C4-based photosynthesis and thus favors the eastern seaboard of the United States much more than the west-facing seaboard of Europe. That being said, it was certainly widely grown in northwestern Europe during the Early Modern. Either way, "foxtail millet" or "buckwheat," or, indeed, many other options can be planted right on top of the ruined wheat or corn crop, or, more practically, sown after ploughing. Drawing very rough numbers from the Alternative Fields Crop Manual, it looks like you need 125lbs of foxtail millet seeds to sow at 25lbs/acre to produce a yield of between 1.5 and 3 tons/hectare 65 days after sowing, at the end of August, giving a digestible grain yield of, say, a third of that by mass, which, at 1500 calories/lb, yields 5 acres to feed a family of four, in the unlikely event that the pater familias can actually digest a full 2 lbs of grain to get his needed 3000 calories for heavy labour as a simple issue of intestinal wall area available. Given that you probably grow some foxtail millet, or a functional equivalent, as poultry feed, a reasonably well-off farmer will have this on hand.

Now take the Poor House's perspective, which would seem to be that unless a bad spring is followed by a bad summer, a dearth in June will be met by an abundance at the turn of September, albeit of a grain that the poor might reject as a "noxious weed." The solution, then, is the one adopted by Camporesi's self-important burghers: force the poor to eat their unpleasant but nutritious "strange bread."

Except, turn again: why, exactly, does a farmer plant buckwheat on the fields from which a wheat crop has just been taken, if it is a "strange bread," pancakes notwithstanding? The answer turns out to be more complex than it at first seems. First, you might want to retain moisture (and nitrogen) on the land and suppress pests in anticipation of the next  planting. Thus, you plant a "green cover." Foxtail millet and buckwheat are ideal green covers for a fall planting. You might, however, intend a spring planting, in which case you want a "winter cover," that is, a plant such as oats or rye, plants with strong straw that will stand in the fields through the snow and rain of winter.

In either case, your cover crop may be going to "green manure." That is, you are just going to plow it right back into the ground in the interests of enriching the next wheat crop (which makes you all of your money.) But, then, you might be interested in feeding animals, the mysterious third dimension that makes me think of too many agricultural/social historians as Flatlanders, unable to understand that "hay" has a place beside "corn." Buckwheat and millet are reasonable hays, but in the English case it is hard to beat the small-seeded legume varietal, vetch. Like all the legumes, vetch produces a bean that can be ground into a flour, if anyone wants to take the trouble, but which, as a complete diet, makes even the massive assault on our intestinal dignity inflicted by our theoretical 3000 calorie millet diet look mild. But, again, vetch does better if it has something to climb, so you  might sow vetch pods in the midst of oats or rye, even though people do not usually plant these crops in the spring. And, of course, even though poor people could eat them.

At the end of all of this, I hope that what I have demonstrated is that the landscape of a famine-afflicted region is, above all, in danger of becoming illegible to the authorities tasked with feeding the poor. Why, exactly, is wheat so expensive? Is it because the crop was bad, or because the price was shaping up to be disappointing, and it was ploughed back in as green manure? What are people doing in the wake of the crop failure? Are they planting buckwheat and millet as a summer famine food, or as part of a field maintenance regimen? Is that some kind of weird, desperate summer oat crop going in over there, or is it vetch to feed sheep and milch cattle in preference to the poor. Where are the wagons? Whose wheels are those, which trundle, muffled, down the country roads at night, carrying who knows what from to and from who knows where? Where has the money gone? Who is hiding it?

For a landowner/politician, it is very tempting to conclude that the famine is all a conspiracy. Of whom? How about an upstanding Tory politician, the kind whose attempt to relax restrictions on Outdoor Relief inspired Thomas Malthus to write the Essay on Population in the first place: Sir Richard Grosvenor, First Earl Grosvenor. It is a strangely transatlantic name, probably not because the Earl was a major investor in the Pulteney Purchase, whereby London investors took a huge chunk of land in upstate New York off the hands of the American speculators who began the convoluted process of clearing Indian title from the land. Like many other rich British land developers, the Earl was the saviour when early land dealings seemed to be landing speculators into inescapable debt in the early 1790s.

Come back to Malthus, arguing with the starry-eyed idealist, William Godwin, specifically about the way that in America, early marriage and, well, other things were leading to a population explosion. Here is Gordon Wood describing it for the recent, in parts critically acclaimed, 1789--1815 volume of the Oxford History of the United States: "early migrants. . . spill over the Appalachian mountains. . . [soon give way to a flood. "The carefully drawn plans of the 1780s for the orderly surveying and settlement of the West were simply overwhelmed by the massive and chaotic movement of people." [358].The migrants build a simple lean-to, then fell some trees and fire others. The women garden, cook, sew, and do housekeeping. The men plant "market crops," mainly corn and wheat in the Ohio country. With crops planted, they build log cabins, a sure sign, to Eastern observers, that the inhabitants are "not completely civilized." 'Hundreds of small towns' are soon multiplying. Backing up from this 43 page chapter on "The Jeffersonian West"  in a 600  page book to the chapter on "Republican Society," we find that the census of 1800 reports 5.297 million Americans living where fewer than 3 million did at the end of the Revolutionary War. This is the doubling-in-a-generation that enthused Godwin and alarmed Malthus. By 1810, it will be 7 million, nearly as many as in England and Wales. Where? New York's population has quadrupled: Kentucky has gone from having "containing almost no white settlers" to having 220,000. "Not a single adult Kentuckyian had been born and grown up within the state's border" in 1800." (316).

Seriously. He says that.

Wood goes on to point out that St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Erie, Cleveland, Nashville and Louisville have all been founded by 1800, many since Wayne's 1794 victory at Fallen Timbers. So, in short, the American population has tripled since 1783. The American family, Wood notes, has about 7 children, according to a definitive source on the demographic history of the United States.

This is not actually true. What we should say is that doubling in twenty-three years implies an annual growth rate net of the death rate of 3.5%. Assuming that average life expectancy does not differ from those parts of Europe where we have parish records to check them, the death rate is also about 3.5%, so that we get 140 pregnancies per thousand woman per year, which over just less than twenty years of active reproduction gets you 7 children per woman. This cannot be demonstrated from the Census, which is thought to undercount children, or by toting up averages on a genealogical site (which gets you closer to 5, for a doubling time of 45 years). These presumably have sampling issues, too. In fact, the current demographic standard argues back to the 7 children figure on the basis that the American population growth rate must be biologically feasible. Not that I am expecting Wood to check received information on such an unimportant matter.***

After all, the American population is growing. Not only that, it has spilled in a raging torrent across the mountains to occupy an Old Northwest, richer and larger than France, from one end to another. Never mind the many treaties to be made as yet: the outlines of an American Old Northwest have become clear in the course of a mere 10 years. This is worth another 3 pages out of that 600.

It's easy to be critical. Apart from the crack about "adult Kentuckyians." That really ought to have got a spit check. But here is the question that damn well needs to be asked: why? Why are people taking up this land, now?

Wood does not mention Vincennes in his list of early towns. We know that this old French colony has been sitting in the midst of the fertile Indiana landscape for a century by 1782. Why hasn't its population been doubling every twenty years? Why isn't the Old Northwest crammed with habitants instead of Americans?  The old answer is that the French are more interested in furs: of course. The basic question about real estate is, must be: what is the land being used for?

Why is a new use compelling? Here's a fact, beyond bizarre, that I ran into while researching Stonehenge of all places: bison antiquus is the most common species found in the La Brea tar pits. But bison americanus did not range into California at all. The Project Gutenberg salvage that I just linked to, Hornbrook on the extermination of the American buffalo, notes that at contact, a virtually phenotypically homongenous bison species extended from the Canadian Arctic to tidewater, but had abandoned much of the traditonal species range on the Pacific Slope. Hornbrook argues that the buffalo would have returned to Oregon and California in a few centuries, and also undergone speciation in response to different environments, also within a few centuries.

Hornbrook does not draw the conclusion, but I will: the range of the American bison had been artificially extended and promoted by the same agents who originally killed off the bison in marginal areas: native American hunters. The American forest is a working forest, dedicated to the production of meat, hides, buffalo furs, and such maize as is needed to feed a working population. Vincennes does not expand into the working forest because there is no reason for it to do so. The "plans for gradual expansion" do not come true because there is neither room nor reason for "gradual expansion." There is only room and reason for explosive expansion.

I talked, I suppose on reflection somewhat facetiously, about how little of Gordon Wood's book is devoted to the demographic and economic history of the early Republic. This is because so much of it is dedicated to what seems more important: the knockdown drag-out fight that extended from the end of a war fought under the Articles of Confederation to the inauguration of Jefferson under the profoundly transformed version of the 1789 Constitution that has operated since the electoral crisis of that year.

Now, Americans talk a lot about their politics in their history, even though it has been 21 years since Bernard Bailyn tried to pull a Marxian move and talk about "the ideological origins of the American revolution." I think I understand why. Most people are not very comfortable with talking about theology, and Bailyn's version of an "ideological origins" is to take arguments between Presybyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists seriously. I think that this is a mistake. Taking the established church as part of government, and assuming that the labels, which explicitly refer to church government, rather than theology, seriously, and it seems to me that any investigation that takes  the church controversies of the immediate pre-revolutionary period seriously is going to discover an ideological account that unpacks itself and moves into the historiography like a down-on-his-luck brother-in-law. (Though hopefully more welcome, as likely to be equally hard to remove, and I speak as a former DOHLBIL.)

Blah blah. One tangent too many? No, or, anyway, I hope not. I've twice emphasised the importance of parish records here, as a means of "reading" local demographics. Without knowing death rates and marriage ages, Malthus understands, we can only know that the Irish have small lots on which they grow a great many potatoes. We cannot know why, or what the consequences are. He just suspects the worst. If you do not know why farmers are planting buckwheat, you cannot know whether this is a solution to, or a cause of, high grain prices and famine.

So here's the central issue: illegibility, precisely because it provides a space within what ought to be apparatus of control, for operators to profit. I am suggesting, have suggested, that it's  high grain prices that are triggering change. The reason for the  high grain prices is clear enough: global war. The consequence is a mysterious American population explosion. Malthus reacts by putting it together in one way (poor people having lots of sex), me in another way. Ethnogenesis, although I suppose that I could be tasked with substituting (Almost as many poor people having hot interracial sex).

Honestly, I think that Malthus could have figured this out if he'd just turned away from the Darkest Timeline and looked under the green cover.

*"Annie's Got Another Gun." Because anything else makes metacommentary look too easy.
From the Community wiki.
**New Jersey: 8,721 square miles (and 8.7 million people); Vancouver Island, 12,700 square miles, so that I am rather arbitrarily defining "the North Island" as a third of the it. The key point is that its population peaked at 15,000 in the early 1980s. As for the detailed history of "Newhitty" at Winter Harbour, your guess is as good as mine. The current population of the town is 6 people, all fishing tourism employees. There are no town archives, no oral histories, and the only person who has actually done primary source research gets it unaccountably confused with Holberg.

***Wood cites Klein, Population History of the United States, and boy will my face be red if it turns out that that's not the source I am critiquing here, but I am running out of time to compose this.

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