Thursday, May 30, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege, V: Mucking Around in Boats

Once upon a time in America, a union welding job at 1980s wages was such a horrible fate that you became a stripper to earn your way out. 


I'm going to throw it out there that there's something toxic going on here, and it is not redeemed by Jennifer Beals ending up in a corps de ballet. Because a few years earlier, welders were "building them by the mile and cutting them off by the foot at places like the Bison Shipyard of North Tonawanda, New York, the pride of the New York Barge Canal (at least in North Tonawanda), and a few years later, people would have been a great deal happier to have a few years invested in seniority in that welding job, even at the expense of happy memories of performing classical dance in front of audiences of desperately signalling would be social climbers. 

I would put up images of the Bison Shipyard in its prime here, but the New York Museum of History is uninterested in reducing its patrimony that way. The City of Buffalo is not. North Tonawanda is, well, not too far from the town that's a bit of a running joke for a certain generation of Torontonians."** 

This is not what it would look like if more people had treated unionised factory welding jobs as good jobs back when they needed to be defended. And I do not say this as a victim of nostalgia for a 1950s that never was. I have a more complicated story to tell, if I ever get it untangled.

The Landing Craft, Tanks built at the Bison Shipyard are only one of a number of wartime shipbuilding projects that featured prefabrication by unskilled ("diluted") labour taking advantage of the fact that with enough solder, you can (temporarily) stick pretty much any piece of metal to any other. And that's entirely unfair, since although it might be taken to imply (correctly) that some Liberty ships, escort carriers and landing craft were a bit of a mess, the rest of them worked just fine and won the war, and that was kind of the point of building them in the first place. The Allies raised very large armies that happened to be on the wrong shore to fight the Axis. A great many boats were needed to deposit them on a hostile shore and make it possible for them to sustain themselves there and even fight their way inland to total victory.

That does not, by even the smallest of margins, however, exhaust the interest one might take in landing craft, because there is a lot of submerged history in these little boats. Which is why I'm going to start by talking about triremes. Of course.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege, 4: The Black Gang


In a different age, boys ran away to sea to become engineers. They learned quickly, they said in boozy, expansive addresses given before meetings of shipbuilding associations in the latter half of the 1930s, because of "spanner rash."

That's a joke about child abuse, hopefully a little less offensive when told by the men who suffered it. (It made men out of them! Except for the men who didn't get invited to give plenary addresses.) (Obligatory.) Like I said, a different age.

The thing about history is that it's long. You pretty much have to skip to the good bits, and that means a good bridging story. Like I said, a good bridging story. I guess that means that someone, someday, is going to have to do a list of good narrative tropes for grand historical heuristics. It could be like TVTropes, only it would make fun of tenured academics, instead of Joss Whedon and approximately a million anime people. Maybe a graduate student could put it together?

One grand trope says that everything's getting better. That's what you call the "Whig interpretation," and you might have noticed that I go for it a lot here. You might also have noticed that I went for the Reverend Thomas Malthus's throat last time. Which is odd, because if there was ever a Whig view of history. . . .

Here's the thing, though: we can't get away with skipping to the good bits when we want to talk about what's in the hole. The "Whig view of history" we talk about tends to mean people like Macaulay and Babbage (far more successful as a publicist than a computer engineer). That was the 1820s and 1830s, though, not the 1790s. What did it mean to be a Whig in the 1790s? It meant being a member of a faction of county political families that promoted the interests of certain bishops, who promoted the interests of certain reverends, who promoted the interests of their families. It is a grand circle of self-interest that naturally accretes self-justifying ideology. In Malthus, that ideology happened to be that society, by helping the poor, bred more of them, whereas the advance of theology (no, seriously) was just bearing fruit in the form of greater morality. It is a seductive argument against raising the Poor Rates that still resonates today. The brilliance of Malthus's argument was that he made it at a time when it remained to be demonstrated that the number of poor was rising, or, indeed, could rise at all, and that greater morality (ie, more, better paid Whig reverends) was the real solution to all of human problems.

And thus we get the idea of Malthusian growth, just at the moment that it was breaking down, and the road is opened for a new kind of Whiggism, in which scientific progress was key. But note that we're still talking about an advance in human knowledge. And if theology is a true study of a true thing, shouldn't better theology rebound on better science? That's not just an implicit argument in later Nineteenth Century Whiggism. It is right there in the prospectus. Seriously: the War of Science Against Religion guy argued that the reason that pagan Greek science passed on to the Arabs instead of the Byzantines was that the Arabs weren't idolators. (Actually, the Google Book search suggests that I understate: he was obsessed with the idea. Maybe Jared Diamond can steal that idea, too, after he's done with "fat continents versus tall continents.")

Why, we ask, did science unleash non-Malthusian growth, just at this time and at this place? Because, we're told in Lives of the Engineers, just at this point a bunch of Whiggish engineers started innovating. There was a great takeoff: Britain started making cheap cottons. Because of science. Which was unleashed by proper theology.

Of course, it isn't 1830, any more, and we don't (overtly) argue that if we can just stop thinking that the Trinity and consubstantiation are things, than, voila, our minds will be liberated to invent Bessemer steel and spinning jennies.

We believe in something else: the free market! (The following ideas were discovered by me, in a pure entrepeneurial effort out of  nothing, and have been copyrighted, or patented, or whatever the technical word is.)

 Rostow's Lund's 5 Stages [of ecomic growth]:
  • Traditional society
    • characterized by subsistence agriculture or hunting & gathering; almost wholly a "primary" sector economy
    • limited technology;
    • A static or 'rigid' society: lack of class or individual economic mobility, with stability prioritized and change seen negatively
  • Pre-conditions to "take-off"
    • external demand for raw materials initiates economic change;
    • development of more productive, commercial agriculture & cash crops not consumed by producers and/or largely exported
    • widespread and enhanced investment in changes to the physical environment to expand production (i.e. irrigation, canals, ports)
    • increasing spread of technology & advances in existing technologies
    • changing social structure, with previous social equilibrium now in flux
    • individual social mobility begins
    • development of national identity and shared economic interests
  • Take off
    • manufacturing begins to rationalize and scale increases in a few leading industries, as goods are made both for export and domestic consumption
    • the "secondary" (goods-producing) sector expands and ratio of secondary vs. primary sectors in the economy shifts quickly towards secondary
    • textiles & apparel are usually the first "take-off" industry, as happened in Great Britain's classic "Industrial Revolution

See that? Textiles are first.Iron founding? Steam engines? Mass brewing? Railways? Heavy chemical industry and the spread of bleach and soap? The timing is wrong. The number series shows our takeoff happening between 1798 and 1815.

Now, admittedly, that number series has been comprehensively discredited, but only in the kind of boring, technical monographs that use databases developed in the last generation (probate inventories, if you were wondering), and which say nice things about Karl Polanyi. If we took that kind of thing seriously, we might end up throwing away the whole takeoff thesis, and replacing it with a story of Boseruppian growth. And, yes, that's a dig at the Gregory Clark school of long run economic history. I'm sorry, I can't help myself.

If you're a regular reader, you know that I have my own explanation, and that I think that there is a hidden variable here: huge, deficit-expanding wars. Lots of spending, lots of spanner rash. (There's an unavoidable amount of death and destruction, but I prefer to avert my eyes from that.) It's the navy that buys the cast iron and the mass-produced beer and the uniforms and the sailcloth and on an on....

Whereas if  you're an occasional reader, you want payoff. What the fuck does this mean for the Battle of the Atlantic?

I'm glad you asked...

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.