Category Archives: History

The reasons (real and imaginary) of World War I

A question from Yahoo! Answers:

Why did the assassination of Franz Ferdinand lead to WW1?
or why did they assassinate him?

It didn’t. What really led to WWI was the gold standard. I’ve written about this repeatedly. See this for example…

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand was just a pretext. If it didn’t happen, another pretext would be found in a short order… Recall that ultimately, WWI was not about Austria or Serbia; it was about Germany and its ability to feed 40 million people while having population of 63 million. This was the real problem German government faced, and being comprised of military aristocracy, it knew only one way of solving it, through war. German exports had to be forced on France and Britain (and gold thus obtained used to buy food in Argentina and Australia), while German agriculture had to be expanded into the Ukraine to lessen the need for food imports. The alternatives (such as industrialization of agriculture) were far less attractive, because they would lead to the rising prominence of German commercial class and the eventual loss of political power by the military aristocracy (German aristocrats needed only to look at Britain and France to see what history has in store for them).

As to why Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, that’s a convoluted story…

…According to the provisions of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Austria-Hungary occupied and administed the former Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia, meanwhile, was recognized as a sovereign state. The problem was that this arrangement left plenty of Serbs outside Serbia. For a while, nobody did anything about it, but in 1903, King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia were killed during a palace coup. The Obrenović dynasty to which King Alexander belonged ended; the conspirators installed Peter Karađorđević (who lived in exile at the time) as the new king crowned Peter I (a side note: the blood feud between the Karađorđević and Obrenović families goes back to 1817, when Đorđe Petrović, aka Karađorđe, the founder of the Karađorđević dynasty, was killed by Miloš Obrenović).

Peter reversed pretty much every policy that Alexander had in place. His ultimate goal was to expand Serbia to its 14th century borders. In that, he got a lot of moral support from faraway Russia, whose government would gladly underwrite anything that could spite the Austrians as long as it wasn’t too expensive. France, where Peter lived most of his life (and even served in the French army during the Franco-Prussian war of 1871) also supported him, but less openly.

As a result of two Balkan wars (1912-1913), Serbia reclaimed Macedonia and Kosovo from the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Bosnia and Herzegovina were next in line. Population there was not particularly happy with the Austrian rule, which led to a series of peasant riots, the last one happening in 1910. But Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, came up with a plan than could eventually make union with Serbia unattractive to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He thought that all Slavic lands under Austrian rule could be reorganized into the third kingdom within the empire (Austria and Hungary being the first two). Had that come to pass, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims would no longer be second-class citizens, which could render Serbian unification rhetoric significantly less attractive. As a result, Serbian unionists perceived Franz Ferdinand as a threat to their agenda; eventually, colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević (aka Apis), head of Serbian military intelligence, tentatively tagged him for elimination.  A small group of (mostly Bosnian) operatives was formed to assassinate Franz Ferdinand or, failing that, general Oskar Potiorek, the Austrian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina…

Transportation costs and local manufacturing

A question from Yahoo! Answers:

Will higher fuel prices lead to more manufacturing and agriculture in the US.?

For decades cheap transportation has made globalization possible. Quality manufacturers were always global. You still have to go to Italy to get the best shoes. At one point do risk combined with fuel costs make it cheaper to have it made locally again?

You seem to be under an impression that in the recent years there has somehow been less manufacturing and agriculture in the U.S. than before. This is simply not true. There is more manufacturing and agriculture in the U.S. today than ever before. However, both manufacturing and agriculture in the U.S. are increasingly mechanized and automated, so expansion in manufacturing and agriculture is accompanied by job loss. Since early 1960s, the contribution of manufacturing to GDP remains stable (16-17%), while the percentage of workforce employed in manufacturing fell from 27.7% in 1962 to 11.5% in 2002. Agricultural employment has shrunk even more dramatically. In 1870, half of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. By 1920, the percentage dropped to a quarter. Now, it’s about 3%.

The process is global and affects both high- and low-income countries. Between 1995 and 2002, the world’s manufacturing output increased 30 percent, while the number of manufacturing jobs worldwide has decreased (the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 11% in the U.S., by 12% in both Russia and South Korea, by 15% in China, by 16% in Japan, and by 20% in Brazil).

To return to your question, to have something “made locally again” would generally require more transportation. You brought up shoes, so let’s think about shoes. Right now, shoes are transported internationally. The alternative is to transport internationally cow hides, plastics, and glue, which weigh more than shoes… In the long-run, local supply chains could re-emerge in response to rising transportation costs (beef slaughter and leather tanning could become local again, thus enabling local shoemaking), but that would be a process that can easily take decades… One thing to think about though is that the centralization of beef slaughter has occurred all the way back in mid-19th century, when transportation costs were way higher than today, so in order for the centralization to reverse, transportation costs must rise to pre-1850 levels.

Paul Krugman’s backstory of “Limits to Growth”

Paul Krugman writes:

I’ve been getting some correspondence asking me where today’s resource concerns fit with the old “Limits to growth” stuff that received a lot of publicity 30+ years ago. Actually, there’s a bit of a backstory there.

In 1973-4, my junior and senior years in college, I was Bill Nordhaus’s research assistant, working on energy issues. (This is the same Bill Nordhaus who warned back in 2002 that the cost of the Iraq war would probably be a lot higher than the Bushies were letting on.) I spent much of the summer of 1973, in particular, in Yale’s wonderful geology library — though the real import of what I learned there didn’t sink in for a while, as I’ll explain in a bit.

Nordhaus, among other things, wrote a hostile review of Jay Forrester’s World Dynamics, which led to the later Limits to Growth. The essential story there was one of hard-science arrogance: Forrester, an eminent professor of engineering, decided to try his hand at economics, and basically said, “I’m going to do economics with equations! And run them on a computer! I’m sure those stupid economists have never thought of that!” And he didn’t walk over to the east side of campus to ask whether, in fact, any economists ever had thought of that, and what they had learned. (Economists tend to do the same thing to sociologists and political scientists. The general rule to remember is that if some discipline seems less developed than your own, it’s probably not because the researchers aren’t as smart as you are, it’s because the subject is harder.)

As a result, the study was a classic case of garbage-in-garbage-out: Forrester didn’t know anything about the empirical evidence on economic growth or the history of past modeling efforts, and it showed. The insistence of his acolytes that the work must be scientific, because it came out of a computer, only made things worse.

All this is old history. But there’s something else I learned from that summer, which is important.

Much of what I did back then was look for estimates of the cost of alternative energy sources, which played a big role in Nordhaus’s big paper that year. (Readers with access to JSTOR might want to look at the acknowledgments on the first page.) And the estimates — mainly from Bureau of Mines publications — were optimistic. Shale oil, coal gasification, and eventually the breeder reactor would satisfy our energy needs at not-too-high prices when the conventional oil ran out.

None of it happened. OK, Athabasca tar sands have finally become a significant oil source, but even there it’s much more expensive — and environmentally destructive — than anyone seemed to envision in the early 70s.

You might say that this is my answer to those who cheerfully assert that human ingenuity and technological progress will solve all our problems. For the last 35 years, progress on energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations.

I’d actually suggest that this is true not just for energy but for our ability to manipulate the physical world in general: 2001 didn’t look much like 2001, and in general material life has been relatively static. (How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.)

But anyway, while the Limits to Growth stuff of the 1970s was a mess, the history of energy technology doesn’t support extreme optimism, either.

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Murat Iyigun on Luther and Suleyman

Murat Iyigun has an interesting paper forthcoming in the Quarterly Journal of Economics:

Luther and Suleyman

Various historical accounts have suggested that the Ottomans’ rise helped the Protestant Reform movement as well as its offshoots, such as Zwinglianism, Anabaptism, and Calvinism, survive their infancy and mature. Utilizing a comprehensive dataset on violent confrontations for the interval between 1401 and 1700, I show that the incidence of military engagements between the Protestant Reformers and the Counter-Reformation forces between the 1520s and 1650s depended negatively on Ottomans’ military activities in Europe. Furthermore, I document that the impact of the Ottomans on Europe went beyond suppressing ecclesiastical conflicts only: at the turn of the 16th century, Ottoman conquests lowered the number of all newly-initiated conflicts among the Europeans roughly by 25 percent, while they dampened all longer-running feuds by more than 15 percent. The Ottomans’ military activities influenced the length of intra-European feuds too, with each Ottoman-European military engagement shortening the duration of intra-European conflicts by more than 50 percent. Thus, while the Protestant Reformation might have benefitted from – and perhaps even capitalized on – the Ottoman advances in Europe, the latter seems to have played some role in reducing conflicts within Europe more generally.

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Brad DeLong on trade, inequality, and China

Brad DeLong makes some very interesting points:

One of them, however, looks debatable:

There is a good chance that China is now on the same path to world preeminence that America walked 130 years ago. Come 2047 and again in 2071 and in the years after 2075, America is going to need China.

Personally, I have serious doubts about the first part. Judging by what little is visible to an outside (and linguistically impaired to boot) observer, China expends more resources on keeping itself a single country than it does on any sort of outward expansion, and has been doing so at least since late 1970s, when its forays into Vietnam were abruptly halted. Perhaps a better way to say it would be that China is now on the same path to world preeminence that Europe walked around 1500? But China is not fragmented enough for that; it is entirely possible that Britain became the superpower only because in many places its rule was considered a lesser evil than that of France or Spain. Who would play France and Spain to China’s Britain? But then, who says there will be a China in 2047 and again in 2071?

Historically, China consolidated either in response to external threats or after losing to external threats (in which case it was the foreign invaders that did the consolidating). Let’s take a quick look on the last 1,000 years of the Chinese history:

  • Most of the 10th century was a period of what today is called Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms; the imperial (northern) China rapidly cycled through five dynasties, while the rest of China was divided into ten independent kingdoms.
  • By 1000, the Song Dynasty gained control over a large part of China, while the Liao Dynasty ruled in Manchuria and eastern Mongolia, to be supplanted by the Jin Dynasty around 1115. Around 1030, the Western Xia dynasty emerged and eventually took away much of Song Dynasty’s possessions, including their capital city of Kaifeng, so the Song (from then on referred to as Southern Song) Dynasty capital was moved to Hangzhou.
  • By 1271, after a lengthy Mongolian invasion, most of China was under the rule of the Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan.
  • By 1368, the Mongols, resented by much of Chinese population, were replaced by the Ming Dynasty, which proceeded to repair and expand the Great Wall to protect China from the northern invaders.
  • In 1616, the Manchus invaded and by 1644 completely defeated the Ming Dynasty, banned Chinese style in clothing and hair requiring Manchu styles instead, and ruled China as the Qing Dynasty until the 20th century.

I would guess that before China feels secure enough to pursue world preeminence, there will be people in China feeling secure enough to challenge Beijing’s preeminence. And when that happens, one of China’s successor states may indeed end up being preeminent through competition with the rest, just as Britain became preeminent through competition with France and Spain…

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Later same day:  In today’s issue, The New York Times reported large-scale violent protests in Tibet.



According to the report, Chinese security forces initially withdrew, letting the protesters (and looters of Chinese-owned stores) run free, but returned 24 hours later for a massive crackdown.  The Chinese news media, which initially had not been allowed to cover the Lhasa violence, began to show footage of Tibetan uprising, but, predictably, not of the subsequent crackdown…

The longest aircraft in the world?

A question from FunAdvice:

can some one tell me which is the longest aircraft in the world? is it airbus 340-600 (OR) is it boeing 777ER? or is there any other aircraft longer than these two?

Depends on how you define aircraft…

If you’re only interested in heavier-than-air, the longest aircraft is Airbus A340-600; it is 247 ft (75.3 m) long:


Boeing 777-300 and Boeing 777-300ER are slightly shorter, 242 ft 4 in (73.9 m):

Boeing 777-300

But zeppelins used to be much longer than that. The Hindenburg, for example, was 804 ft (245 m) long:

The Hindenburg