August 29, 2006

Smithian Optimality Plus

The previous post is a great piece - - thanks, James.

We are so accustomed to the accomplishments of the industrial era that we tend to lump all pre-industrial cultures together as primitive. But there are huge differences between the pre-industrial cultures pushing the upper ends of Smithian optimality (i.e., everything you can accomplish with market economies and specialization of labor, a la Adam Smith, but without powered machines and deposited hydrocabons) and less productive societies -- such as those of the Dark Ages.

These cultures tht achieved Smithian optimality and pushed the bounds further without mechanization are interesting cases. Based on James's review of these authors, it sounds as if Rome achieved this "Smithian optimality plus" through the scale effects of its large trade area and the long-term absence of war in its Mediterranean heartland. Macfarlane's comparison of Japan and England (The Savage Wars of Peace) came to the conclusion that both quite different societies had achieved a very high degree of pre-industrial development because their island status allowed them to avoid much of the war damage their continental neighbors suffered. Over time, that addiional capital multiplies.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 06:48 PM | Comments (4)

August 28, 2006

Ward-Perkins -- The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2005, 239pp.

In an earlier book review article on Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire, we got a chance to revisit the subject with a new generation of scholarship at hand ... to correct for the prejudices of Edward Gibbon's contemporaries, to integrate substantially more knowledge about events in the eastern Empire, and to apply more modern perspectives on economics and communication to our understanding of the "Fall."

The who, when, and where of the Fall have been known for centuries, at least in rough outline. Heather's book provided a thorough overview of the details. The how and why have also been subject to generations of debate and mountains of written scholarship. Nonetheless, it's only in the last fifty years that new perspectives on the "what" ... as in "what actually happened, where?" have been more fully addressed by archaeology. The details of settlement and material culture which can give us a physical baseline for cultural activities is only now coming into focus.

A comment by Albion's Seedlings reader "Mark" led me to an online interview with Peter Heather and Oxford colleague Bryan Ward-Perkins ... both had co-incidentally written books on the fall of the Roman Empire in the same year (2005). I'd enjoyed Heather's book so much, and found the online interview so interesting, that I was inspired to borrow Ward-Perkin's title from the local library.

This second book approaches the subject from a very different vantage point ... it reviews the latest perspectives on the why and how of the fall of the Roman Empire, and discusses the material impact of the Fall in the centuries following the abdication of the final western Emperor (476 CE). Finally, it discusses the academic "sugar-coating" of the Fall of the Empire that has taken place over the last 30 years. How did we go from centuries of "The Fall of the Roman Empire" to a "Transformation of the Classical World" in the scholarship of the 1990s? What combination of EU political requirements, post-modern post-colonial fantasy, and New Age religiosity converted the Dark Ages into "Late Antiquity"? The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization goes quite a ways to solving both the historical puzzle and the academic muddle of the 21st century.

This year, we're not celebrating the 1600th anniversary of the invasion of the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves across the Rhine river, which triggered a fatal seventy year crisis in the western empire. After reading Ward-Perkin's book, you'll only be surprised that the EU didn't commission an anthem, a logo, and a cartoon mascot! By let's first turn our attention to an outline of Professor Ward-Perkin's compact, beautifully written book.

The Fall of Rome

To recap the story, by mid-fourth century, the Roman empire stretched over most of Europe (west of the Rhine and south of the Danube), much of Asia Minor and the Levant, and across the entire coast of North Africa. It had divided into two administrative regions governed by separate emperors. Responding to a series of military disasters against the Parthians and Sassanid Persians, the imperial system had reorganized its taxation structure to increase revenues and centralize administration of the provinces. Aspiring Roman landowners no longer built local infrastructure to increase their prestige, they headed to Rome for an elite education and participation in an elaborate, extraordinarily literate, bureaucracy.

In 376CE, a first group of Goths, under dire threat from westward Hunnic migration, made application to cross the Danube and enter the eastern Roman empire for asylum. They were refused. Soon after they invaded south anyway, met and slaughtered a Roman emperor and his army at Hadrianopolis (north of modern Istanbul) and triggered decades of disorder in the Aegean and Balkans by their migrations. The Huns continued to push west and Gothic and Germanic peoples responded with increasingly desperate efforts to be anywhere the Huns weren't. By 401, the Goths were invading northern Italy, which forced the western imperial command (under a weak emperor Honorius) to strip legionary troops from Britain and northern Gaul. The Goths were beaten, just, but in the winter of 405/406, another group of Germanic peoples crossed the Rhine in mass and entered unprotected Gaul.

From that point forward, the western empire was never without tens of thousands of pre-literate peoples rampaging in some or many of its provinces. By 410, the Goths had returned to Italy, captured Rome, and triggered a massive crisis in confidence in not only the Roman, but now Catholic Christian, worldview. The tax base of Italy collapsed, never to fully recover, and the loss of Britain, Gaul, and soon much of Spain deprived the central authorities of what they most needed to reassert security -- money. As Ward-Perkins himself notes:

"In my opinion, key internal element in Rome's success or failure was the economic well-being of its taxpayers. This was because the empire relied for its security on a professional army, which in turn relied on adequate funding."
"... [The] chaos of first decade of 5th century will have caused a sudden and dramatic fall in imperial tax revenues, and hence in military spending and capability. Some of the lost territories were temporarily recovered in the second decade of the century; but much (whole of Britain, large part of Gaul and Spain) was never regained, and even reconquered provinces took many years to get back to full fiscal health"
"Military expenditure was by far the largest item in the imperial budget, and there were no massive departments of state ... whose spending could be cut when necessary in order to protect "Defence"; nor did the credit mechanisms exist in Antiquity that would have allowed the empire to borrow substantial sums of money in an emergency. Military capability relied on immediate access to taxable wealth."

Contrary to what's generally thought:

"The story of the loss of the West is not a story of great set-piece battles, like Hadrianopolis, heroically lost by the Romans in the field. ... The West was lost mainly through failure to engage the invading forces successfully and drive them back. This caution in the face of the enemy, and the ultimate failure to drive him out, are best explained by the severe problems that there were in putting together armies large enough to feel confident of victory. Avoiding battle led to a slow attrition of the Roman position, but engaging the enemy on a large scale would have risked immediate disaster on the throw of a single dice."

And here we face a key fact overlooked by most commentators ... and something of ominous import for our own day ... the Roman army was never invincible. It's advantage over most opponents was considerable but it never had absolute nor unshakeable superiority. A series of military disasters (against the Parthians in 54 BCE, against the Germans in 9CE, against the Sassanids in the 3rd century, and especially against the Goths in 378CE) had created huge fiscal and security shocks to the Roman imperial system. The Empire was always in some danger. It was never a sure thing.

In responding to Persian might in the 3rd century, the Romans had created a brittle frontier system extending for thousands of miles. All civilians behind that line were unarmed, and their towns and cities were unwalled. It was a full generation (430CE) after the initial trans-Rhine and Italian Gothic invasions that civilians were, by imperial edict, permitted to carry weapons. It's worth pointing out that the era between Pompeii's suppression of the pirates in the mid-first century BCE and the fall of Carthage to the Vandals in 439CE is the longest period of Mediterranean safety in its history. Thus professionalization of security in the empire, and its reallocation to face its most grave danger (the Sassanids), had left huge economically-productive areas to prosper ... but they were also extremely vulnerable to even casual predation.

"For the Germanic peoples, unity or disunity was the crucial variable in military strength; while for the Romans, as we have seen, it was the abundance or shortage of cash. ... The invaders had no sense of pan-Germanic solidarity, and were happy, when it was to their own advantage, to fight other Germanic peoples in the name of Rome. But they also seem to have been well aware that to fall back into small groups that were characteristic of their life beyond the Rhine and Danube would quite simply be military and political suicide."

The Romans, when not engaged in civil war triggered by the loss of provincial security, were constantly looking for opportunities where they could meet the Germanic, Gothic, and Hunnic peoples on something approaching parity (with or without a set of Germanic and Hunnic allies). Given an even playing field, Roman military training, equipment, and logistics would slaughter opponents into oblivion. Size, to the invading peoples, was literally life. With so many domestic and security issues to address simultaneously, the western Romans simply never got the chance to apply their superiority in a way that balanced the overall risk. Attrition was the best that they could hope for.

Once the German tribes were firmly across the Roman military frontier (taking advantage of Gothic invasions in Italy proper), they began a long period of movement in Gaul and Spain. Unlike the Goths, who had been stalled at the Straits of Messina in 410 and at the Straits of Gibraltar in 415 or thereabouts, the Vandals (and their allies the Alans) were able to fight their way down from Gaul, through Spain and across the Straits to north Africa in 429CE. Over the next ten years, they were able to capture and control the richest portion of the Roman western empire. Rich because of its agricultural and industrial productivity, and rich because it had only required a single legion for protection from the Berbers to the desert south. North Africa was the western empire's "cash cow" which had been successfully milked for centuries -- grain, olive oil, high quality pottery, the list was extensive. Roman pottery from what is now Tunisia has been found as far away as Iona off the west coast of Scotland.

The overall story, then, was not of overwhelming Germanic or Gothic superiority -- a clash of titans -- but of a Roman system unable to convert its hinterland from a peace to a war footing before a welter of barbarians broke through to create utter chaos. Whatever treaties were made between Roman central authorities and invading groups were inevitably at the expense of local provincial land ownership and its prosperity. And as Ward-Perkins points out, what might have seemed like peaceable settlement of barbarians was usually matched by violent expansion from those settlements to neighbouring areas. When an armed community unified under a chieftain or king moves into an unarmed civilian population, the balance of power shifts immediately.

Was the West Doomed to Fall? Here, as in Professor Heather's book, we can identify a number of key moments and key peoples that could have had a counterfactual impact on the survival and rebuilding of the western empire. If emperor Valens had waited for reinforcements at Hadrianopolis in 378CE, if the Goths in Italy had been exterminated in 401, if the Vandals had been turned back at the Straits of Gibraltar in 429CE, much would have been different. If attempts to recapture Vandal Africa had met a little better luck and a bit better command judgment, who knows what would have changed? After all, the eastern emperor retook North Africa in 535. If, during the Ostrogothic control of Italy in the sixth century, they had been able to consolidate control over southern Gaul ... we might have seen a Gothic emperor of a reconstituted western empire centuries before Charlemagne's claims of a Holy Roman Empire.

What we can say, based on a review of all research, is that the internal structure of the eastern empire was not inherently superior to the West. The eastern army butchered in 378CE took generations to reassemble. Constantinople's reputation as the most elaborate citadel of Roman history was only gained in response to the depradations of Huns and Goths who turned the Aegean, Balkan, and Danubian areas into wastelands. The Huns even managed a raid into Armenia and Syria in 395. It wasn't eastern Roman innovation or technology or leadership that allowed it to survive and even prosper in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.

What was it? Apparently, geography and good luck. The Goths and Huns never managed to cross in large numbers into Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt. Roman naval control of the eastern Med held fast. The eastern empire's "cash cow" was to continue giving milk through the critical fourth and fifth centuries ... until Arab conquerors took it over. Here we can turn again to Ward-Perkins:

"By far the largest part of the eastern empire's tax base (probably well over two-thirds) was safe, and indeed, during the fifth century enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. ... War and devastation might of course have been carried into the heart of the eastern empire by other means, and two further factors were needed to guarantee the survival of the East: freedom from civil war ... and peace on the Persian frontier"
" ...I am very reluctant to believe that a chance geographical difference is central to explaining the remarkable situation at the end of the fifth century (undreamed of only 100 years earlier): an eastern empire, richer and more powerful than ever before; and a western empire that had entirely disappeared. However, the evidence is very strong that a thin band of water, reinforced by sea power and supported by peace on other fronts, was the eastern empire's greatest defence. Whereas, without this advantage, a series of invasions at the start of the fifth century plunged the West into a vicious spiral of devastation, loss of revenue, and bitter internecine strife - from which it never recovered."

The author concludes with a discussion of the painful adjustments that the Roman literati and land-owning class needed to make with the Ostrogothic and Visigothic overlords who were now in charge of most of the key provinces of the old western empire:

"Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage. A shy newcomer to the village, who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on. The accommodation that was reached between invaders and invaded in the fifth- and sixth- century West was very much more difficult, and more interesting, than this. The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter, and headed straight for the cake stand. Invader and invaded did eventually settle down together, and did adjust to each other's ways -- but the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time, and, as we shall see ... left the vicarage in very poor shape."

The End of Civilization

Ward-Perkin's summary of the dissolution of the western empire, and the corresponding and counterintuitive prosperity of the eastern empire takes us only part way through this book. Now the author turns to the archaeological record for the period of the Fall and, more importantly, the post-Roman period that led into what we amateurs might think of as the early medieval period.

"It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a "crisis" or a "decline" occurred at the end of the Roman Empire, let alone that "civilization" collapsed and a "dark age" ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, "transformed" into a medieval form. However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in the western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries. This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of the saints resting in their churches. It was no mere transformation -- it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as "the end of a civilization"."

To buttress his overall argument, the author takes us on a fascinating review of the material culture of the Romans in the third and fourth centuries CE. Being the son of a classical archaeologist, having spent his childhood in Italy, and continuing to excavate Roman sites in rural Italy as an adult ... his description of the material items to be found in Roman homes both rich and poor are vivid and compelling.

Who can fail to be swayed by Roman prosperity and logistical excellence when Ward-Perkins describes Mount Testaccio near the old river port of Rome ... one kilometer around and up to 45m high, containing the broken remains of 53 million amphorae, representing 6 billion liters of olive oil imported from around the Mediterranean?

Or by the ice caps of Greenland recording the pollution from Roman smelting of lead, silver, and copper at levels unmatched til the 16th and 17th century.

Or by Gaulish pottery spread across archaeological sites in the entire western end of Europe from Scotland to the Baltic to North Africa.

Using only the labour of man and beast, the energy of wind and tides, the Romans created a trading network much like that of the 13-15th centuries ... the era of the Italian trading city-republics. The Romans clothed, armed, fed, and paid a professional army of 600,000 men spread over thousands of square miles and resupplied them from a series of specialized factories located mostly in Italy. They drew agricultural and manufacturing products from North Africa at such a huge scale that returning ships were ballasted with Italian construction brick ... used in turn to create massive public works in Africa throughout the imperial era.

Of all the many thought-provoking ideas offered by the author, it is his methodical presentation of Roman economic sophistication which is probably the most surprising and important. Earlier scholars considered the Roman economy to be modest, mostly local, and where not local, overwhelmingly driven by the state and the army. The archaeological record says otherwise. The distribution of artifacts and discarded pottery and coinage establishes a massive and vital commercial economy, geared to satisfying the appetites of humble and modest customers, well away from the State and military installations of the era. And as for that, one can only wonder at what the economic impact was of the soldiers stationed in Wales and Mesopotamia, and along the thousands of miles of frontier or limes. They were paid in gold, many were literate, and in the few places where we have suitable archaeological records (Vindolanda in northern England, dry-region Egypt) it was clear that they had access to hundreds of different well-made and mass-produced items of ordinary daily use.

It is little wonder then, as the archaeological record displays the collapse of these regional economic systems during the fourth and fifth centuries, that Ward-Perkins titles his chapters and subheadings with phrases like "The Disappearance of Comfort" or "The End of Complexity." The city of Rome, and some parts of the Mediterranean with key trading locations, continued to have an economic life after the fall of the western empire but for abandoned frontier regions, the collapse of military subsidization and access to large regional trading networks were catastrophic. In England for instance:

"There is no evidence whatsoever of the continued quarrying of building stone, nor of the preparation of mortar, nor of the manufacture and use of bricks and tiles. All new buildings in the fifth and sixth centuries, whether in Anglo-Saxon or unconquered British areas, were either of wood and other perishable materials or of drystone walling, and all were roofed in wood or thatch."

Matched with this disappearance of goods, services, and skills was the collapse of coinage suitable for ordinary daily transactions. Copper coinage, in that day as well as our own, the bottom of the ladder of value, simply evaporates from all of the former western empire ... except for a handful of spots like Marseille and Rome that could support ongoing minting of coins for minor transactions. As Ward-Perkins notes, in response to claims that Britons were better off after 400AD ...

"I think this, and similar views, are mistaken. For me, what is most striking about the Roman economy is precisely the fact that it was not solely an elite phenomenon, but one that made basic good-quality pottery widely available, and in regions like Italy even the comfort of tiled roofs. I would also seriously question the romantic assumption that economic simplicity necessarily meant a freer and more equal society. There is no reason to believe that, because post-Roman Britain had no coinage, no wheel-turned pottery, and no mortared buildings, it was an egalitarian haven, spared the oppression of landlords and political masters. Tax, admittedly, could not longer be collected in coin; but its less sophisticated equivalent, "tribute", could perfectly well be extorted in the form of sheaves of corn, pigs, and even slaves."

The author makes a compelling and careful case that for much of the western empire, there was reversion to economic structures and scales that reflect pre-Roman, even pre-Greek and Etruscan times. In other words, for areas near the Mediterranean, they saw a return to Iron Age economies. For Britain, traumatized most by the removal of Roman infrastructure, there was a return to Bronze Age economic activity. Britain in 500CE was worse off economically than it was in 43CE before the Romans invaded. The coinage, pottery, and trade goods that had tied it to Celtic Europe at the beginning of the Current Era had disappeared completely ... along with the ability to maintain the Roman roads, bridges, baths, villas, and towns that had dotted the landscape for three hundred years.

"This link between economic and political decline has been explored by many historians over the years; but most have concentrated on the period before the fall of the empire, in order to explore whether declining prosperity weakened the Roman capacity to resist invasion. ... My focus here, however, will be on what happened after the invasions began. The evidence available very strongly suggests that political and military difficulties destroyed regional economies, irrespective of whether they were flourishing or already in decline."

For general readers, the author offers an excellent summary chart for the entire Roman Empire, showing the timing of breakdown of security and prosperity -- ranging from dramatic collapse by 400CE in Britain ... to a steady degradation in the western Mediterranean during the 5th century, while the Aegean and Levant actually had an uptick of prosperity during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Aegean collapsed abruptly soon after 600CE with Slav and Avar invasions while the Levant experienced a diminished but still prosperous economic base which was taken over (mosaics, public buildings, and all) by invading Arab Muslims.

It was the very elaboration of the Roman economic system that made the collapse of central authority and centrally-administered security so catastrophic for the ordinary people. Peace over centuries had allowed specialization, specialization had allowed marginal land to enter the economic system through cash exchange (e.g. a focus on olive oil production), and regional trading networks had pooled consumers for items with low overall volumes. The result, for both luxury and mundane goods, was an unprecedented variety of goods available at a range of prices. Ward-Perkins:

"Comparison with the contemporary western world is obvious and important. Admittedly, the ancient economy was nowhere near as intricate as that of the developed world in the twenty-first century. ... We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have, but it had come some way. ... The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items. ... It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication."

The author then seeks to address the obvious question. If economic sophistication and specialization collapsed, pulling marginal or low-volume resources out of production, what was the impact on human population? Here, the archaeological record becomes less conclusive. The dramatic reduction in the volume and quality of durable goods (reflected in pottery remains, and stone construction in buildings, harbours, and bridges) is a sign of reduced prosperity and permanent settlement with capital reinvestment. Unfortunately, wooden buildings and perishable consumer goods leave very little record so there is no definitive way to match the record to the population.

Nonetheless, through a methodical consideration of what archaeological record there is, Ward-Perkins makes a compelling case that populations fell substantially. For one thing, the highest status dwellings and settlements in each area became dramatically smaller. This suggests chieftains or leaders with fewer followers. Even the remains of domesticated animals found in trash pits revert from Roman period sizes back to Iron Age sizes.

"On balance, slippery and elusive though the evidence is, I believe it is much more likely than not that the post-Roman period saw a marked decline in agricultural productivity, and therefore in the number of people that the land could sustain. This was decline at the baseline of human existence."

Ward-Perkins goes out of his way to affirm that life could be pretty grim for people in the Roman world. It was a culture that was supremely self-confident and saw no contradiction between the merciless treatment of conquered peoples and slave classes, and the elaboration of foodstuffs, ornaments, and engineering. The term "blood sport" could equally well apply to the public games, the civil wars, and power struggles in the Roman political class. The Romans were no harder on their enemies than they were on themselves.

Nonetheless, the author refuses to accept that the dramatic disappearance of so many useful mundane items of value was a cultural choice by either the Germanic elites or their population. The archaeological record continues to record luxury goods for the elites of this period (such as that of seventh century Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo) but the ordinary items of the period (even for the elite) were pathetic in comparison to what was available to peasants used during the Roman period. The animals of Roman Italy slept in better buildings than the kings of post-Roman northern Europe. The gold and silver of the elite burials do not, according to Ward-Perkins, reflect some new taste in portable finery (as has been suggested by some historians) but rather reflect the fact that metal-smithing skills were able to survive while mixing mortar and cutting stone became lost arts. The Romans, too, had staggering skills in precious metals, gems, and glass. It is just that their portable precious goods were matched with grand public constructions which still stand in modern Rome and Istanbul.

Literacy is one major avenue of insight into Roman and post-Roman periods. The Roman era matched its economic sophistication with an elaborate need for record-keeping and literacy. Literacy was by no means universal but it was widespread to a degree only seen in modern times. Literacy for the elites was absolutely obligatory and basic literacy was only the first rung on the ladder for any Roman with political ambition. Ordinary citizens took pride in their literacy (as reflected in portraits preserved in Pompeii) and the military was awash in mundane paperwork that demanded that officers, and likely many soldiers, were able to read and write (as evidenced in the thin wooden notecards discovered at a Roman fort at Vindolanda, west of Newcastle, England). More strikingly, for Ward-Perkins, is the widespread presence of casual graffiti and commercial notations on items in the archaeological record. Whether whorehouse commentary at Pompeii, or commercial labels on amphorae found on the sea bottom, Romans wrote often and wrote well. At the very least, many Romans would have known enough of the alphabet to annotate their own belongings and recognize those of others. Contrast that fact with the illiteracy of kings such as Charlemagne, and the role of literacy during Roman and post-Roman periods is brought into high relief.

Was This the End of A Civilization?

In the concluding section of his book, Professor Ward-Perkins begins to address the broader question of whether the historical and archaeological record lets us answer any questions about "civilization."

The quote marks are intentional because the professor wants to distance himself from the older definition of civilization as a claim of moral superiority. The events of the 20th century, the author apparently feels, bring that definition into question.

But if civilization is used as "shorthand for complex societies and what they produce. ... [I]t is my belief that modern scholars have thrown this particular baby out with the bath-water of moral judgment. In wanting to depict the post-Roman centuries as 'equal' to those of Roman times, they have ignored the extraordinary and fascinating decline in complexity that occurred at end of the empire."

Why have scholars sought to underplay the dramatic change from Roman to post-Roman periods? For Ward-Perkins, there are several key factors:

  • The relocation of much scholarship on the subject to Germany and America (or Europeans teaching in America), where Roman imperial civilization was problematic for national narratives.
  • The post-World War 2 rehabilitation of the German people as peaceful partners in development as the European Union sought a historical basis for its existence. "... [I]t is doubtful whether the historical Franks can really live up to the projection upon them of such high ideals, though the baptism of Clovis, a powerful Germanic warrior accepted into the Catholic faith by the Gallo-Roman bishop of Reims, does fit rather well with a French vision of the respective roles of France and Germany within the European Union: German might, tamed and channeled to positive ends, by Gallic culture and civility."
  • The appearance of New Age culture in America which made the spiritual, immaterial, and small-scale religious activities of post-Roman Europe a compelling topic of study at the expense of material culture. "The only way that 'Late Antiquity' can work as a unit for the whole Roman world, and a positive one at that, is by a concentration on the one 'positive' change that did impact on the entire post-Roman world and the whole period between 250 and 800: the spread, and momentous triumph, over the older religions of Rome and Persia, of two great monotheistic cults, Christianity and Islam. ... Modern Late Antiquity is primarily a spiritual and mental world, almost to the exclusion of the secular and material one."

Matched with these trends in scholarship, many of which rightly corrected over-emphases of an earlier era, is the broader trend in modern globalized society which has reduced the importance of, and admiration for, Greco-Roman culture and language generally. The days of The Times Of London using untranslated Greek and Latin tags in its editorials are long gone. Few people learn Greek and Roman as part of an elite education. Egypt has replaced Greece and Rome in the affections of the museum-going public and the average inquisitive youngster. Now everyone has a "culture" ... none better than another ... rather than a "civilization." In this atmosphere, it is both controversial and impolite to suggest that the collapse of Roman society was any great loss at all.

"But abandoning altogether the concept of 'a civilization' risks imposing too flat a view on the world's cultures. For better or worse (and often it is worst), some cultures are more sophisticated than others. Societies with large cities, complex production- and distribution- networks, and the widespread use of writing, are markedly different from societies of villages, with essentially household production and an oral culture. The transition from Roman to post-Roman times was a dramatic move away from sophistication towards much greater simplicity."
"Rome did not fall because provincial subjects struggled to be 'free' ... Roman rule, and above all Roman peace, brought levels of comfort and sophistication to the West that had not been seen before and that were not to be seen again for many centuries."

Ward-Perkins wraps up his assessment of this recent shift in historical attitudes (barely 30 years old) with a summing up of the pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the re-evaluation of Roman history to provide a more balanced view of the eastern empire is long over-due. And the extrapolation of Late Antiquity forward from Roman times is far more useful than the retrospective (and rather parochial) sourcing of national histories back into early medieval period.

On the minus side is the apparent scholarly aversion to any sense of decline or crisis in post-Roman times. All is "transformation" and euphemisms that won't offend national or ethnic sensibilities ... the word "rise" is embraced enthusiastically on the slimmest of pretenses while its companion "decline" is avoided at all costs, irrespective of the archaeological and documentary facts.

"In my opinion, the fifth century witnessed a profound military and political crisis, caused by the violent seizure of power and much wealth by the barbarian invaders. The native population was able, to some extent, to adapt to these new conditions, but what is interesting about this adjustment is that it was achieved in very difficult circumstances. I also believe that the post-Roman centuries saw a dramatic decline in economic sophistication and prosperity, with an impact on the whole of society, from agricultural production to high culture, and from peasants to kings. It is very likely that the population fell dramatically, and certain that the widespread diffusion of well-made goods ceased. Sophisticated cultural tools, like the use of writing, disappeared altogether in some regions, and became very restricted in all others."
..."I also think there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of the past that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and all decline. ... Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency."

Anglosphere Musings

Ward-Perkins brisk corrective to pre-WW2 scholarship and post-WW2 Panglossian delusion has some immediate contributions to thinking about the Anglosphere.

  1. English history is even more distinct from the Continent than earlier supposed. The collapse of material culture on the island reduced subsistence to a level not even the pre-Roman Celts would have recognized. The Anglo-Saxons built on economic bedrock ... to an extent not seen anywhere else in the former western empire. Unlike North Africa, which eventually became Arab and Muslim, the Franks of Gaul and Visigoths of Spain eventually became Catholic (converting from Arian Christianity) and lost their Germanic languages. Meanwhile in England, we see a cultural tradition built from scratch which reintroduced literacy, Christianity, cut stone and mortar, and the use of glass. England had lost virtually everything with the departure of the legions in the early fifth century. The Romano-British who could, moved to Brittany where a semblance of an earlier era was maintained. On the island, however, a profoundly new era had begun.
  2. EU sponsorship of historical research is deeply compromised by its need to find a historical narrative that matches its modern political goals. The generation of a "Late Antiquity" out of whole cloth, to replace the "Dark Ages," should be held in deepest suspicion. The vision of Germans as harmonious partners in the building of that Late Antiquity does not, it would appear, match the historical or archaeological record. This hymn of "everything for the best" and the "rise and rise" of a transformed Classical world masks devastating reductions in material comfort ... and quite likely substantial depopulation of western Europe. With growing modern chatter about "Eurabia" and anxiety amongst the general public there, we cannot expect EU politicians or scholars to accept any hint in their sponsored historical narrative that dramatic declines in living standards or social governance are even possible. "Civilization" to whatever extent it is allowed to have existed, cannot be allowed to have perished.
  3. The tale of an unarmed civilian population ringed by a professional but underfunded army is a very unhappy tale indeed. If Ward-Perkins makes the case for the substantial sophistication of the Roman economy (based upon earlier ancient economies of Greek and Etruscan settlers) then he also makes the case that a populace stripped of its ability to defend itself, or regenerate its local or regional economies, is subject to catastrophic collapses in living standards and population. This bodes ill for modern nations which have contracted the tools of violence exclusively to professionals. The American capacity, through its vast reserve and National Guard system, to deploy force in federal structure gives it a flexibility and security that other Western nations (and other Anglosphere members) cannot match.
  4. The Fourth Generation Warfare folks probably have a much more useful historical example for their arguments than they previously realized. In this newly refurbished tale of the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans have insufficient military advantage on the battlefield to risk a substantial engagement. A professional army, without recourse to the assistance of an armed populace, must find some way to forestall the critical demographic and military pressure the Huns were placing on the Goths and Germans. Expensive, and designed for frontier warfare or engagement with another state (such as the Sassanids), the Roman legions were spread too thin and were too valuable to use in repulsing entire tribal entities entering the Roman provinces. The state was unable to financially support enough legionary troops (especially with the loss of Spain and North Africa), and unable to convert its unarmed populace for self-defense in a timely manner. The modern parallels are self-evident and will be discussed in a followup post soon.
  5. Things can go very far south, very very quickly. As Ward-Perkins notes in his closing remarks, the Romans of the western empire could not have imagined in the year 400 that their way of life would be totally lost within 75 years. Despite many opportunities for reconstitution, the western empire did not get the breaks when it needed them. Incidental events turned out to have great significance. Leadership was absent when it was most needed and the resources and economic flexibility to fund security for millions of people was unavailable at critical moments. When several tens of thousands of illiterate warriors and their families were able to roam the Roman provincial countryside for decades, they could wreak havoc bit by bit that was fatal to the political and economic system. The barbarians were able to live by destroying ... but they had no possibility of rebuilding what they had destroyed. Ward-Perkins makes a compelling case that Roman levels of prosperity and sophistication did not return to the western Mediterranean for almost a thousand years.

In A Nutshell

If one wants a great historical bridge between the writings of Victor David Hanson and Robert Kaplan, few titles can beat The Fall of Rome. Throw in Alfred Crosby's The Measure of Reality for some early Renaissance insight, and you've got a solid train of interesting historical reading stretching from ancient Athens to yesterday's Baghdad.

In a few weeks, The Fall of Rome will be out in affordable paperback from Oxford University Press. Let's hope this "if you only read one book" title makes it into the hands of new generation of young historians, and onto the holiday gift list of anyone who's wondered what "the end of a civilization" really looks like. This compact summary of the fall of Rome will amaze you, maintain your interest, and cause the odd shiver.

Table of Contents

I. Did Rome Ever Fall [1]
Part One: The Fall of Rome
II. The Horrors of War [13]
III. The Road to Defeat [33]
IV. Living under the New Masters [63]

Part Two: The End of A Civilization
V. The Disappearance of Comfort [87]
VI. Why the Demise of Comfort? [123]
VII. The Death of a Civilization [138]
VIII. All for the Best in the Best of All Possible Worlds? [169]


Posted by jmccormick at 12:58 AM | Comments (1)

August 27, 2006

Buzzati -- The Tartar Steppe

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

Buzzati, Dino. The Tartar Steppe, translated from the Italian by Stuart C. Hood, and available in many inexpensive editions from 1952 to late 2005.

Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe is the story of a young man who completes his training as a military officer and is transferred as a young lieutenant to a border fortress where nothing seems to happen. Isolated from life in the city amidst mountains and set before a vast forbidding plain, the soldiers and officers of the fort live in a routine, familiar and often boring, secretly hoping that their commitment and discipline will be rewarded by some kind of engagement with an enemy over the northern horizon ... across the expanses of an empty steppe.

Apart from vignettes of garrison life that are rare, poignant and casually tragic, the book maintains an even pacing and mood that creates above all a flow of passing time. Nothing seems to change at Fort Bastiani ... except the protagonist. Slowly growing older, becoming more and more divorced from his earlier life in society, and unable to communicate even with his fellow officers about what they all feel about their "home", their "prison", and their dreams of glory sustained over a lifetime of commitment in humble circumstances, Giovanni Drogo's life passes before the reader's eyes in the space of a few hundred pages.

The book has a rather haunted feel, all the more surprising for its ability (for me) to only begin to grip the reader in the last 50 pages. Like Drogo's life, his adult youth spent in bewilderment and a desire to be somewhere else ... Buzzati's commentaries on human life begin to get real traction with this reader when he illustrates through Drogo's life much bigger themes. The Tartars are always just about to appear for the occupants of the fort. How so?

I discovered this book when checking all Amazon recommendations written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose Fooled by Randomness is probably the best narrative on probability and induction I've ever read. It was easier to borrow a copy from the local university library than steel myself to write a review of Taleb's own book.

As for making a recommendation here, the author has been widely and positively compared as a writer with Camus and Kafka. I can only speak to this book and its theme since my literary background is miniscule. I think The Tartar Steppe would be a fine gift (in used or new form) for a reflective young person (man or woman) with a blend of interests in the arts and in current events. If they were part of the reserve or military, so much the better. It offers a unique experience of a military life lead in anticipation ... a great match to the Cold War (unimagined when Buzzati wrote the book) but appropriate still in our own era when we sense that "something's going to happen."

In some ways, this is a novel of Stoicism, of a much more allegorical and literate style than gleaned from Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Life's mundane and exciting elements are blended in a literary style that evokes the experience it's trying to describe.

"Standing watch for a lifetime" isn't just the experience of our military professionals.

Posted by jmccormick at 02:49 PM | Comments (2)

August 07, 2006

Anderson -- The Long Tail

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

[based on a free review copy provided by the publisher]

Anderson, Chris, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, New York, 2006. 238pp.

In late 2004, about the time that the Anglosphere Challenge was published, WIRED magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson wrote an influential article called The Long Tail.

Looking at the sales figures of companies in a new generation of online industries (such as digital jukebox company eCast), he discovered that substantial corporate income was being made from the vast array of goods which didn't appear on anyone's "hit" list. Sales figures showed a so-called power law distribution. As one moved down the sales ranking, sales volume dropped dramatically. In the new world of online marketing and distribution however, people were responding to more choices in products (the "Long Tail" of the sales distribution curve) by purchasing a wider variety of goods. Vendors were selling less of the lower ranked items, but in aggregate were actually selling more. As Anderson puts it, "popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability." The early online success stories were companies that carried the "hits" of their industry but offered a new and efficient way to find and access older and less famous choices.


The so-called Pareto principle ... where 80% of sales come from 20% of catalog items ... was giving way to a new and more attenuated sales pattern. The Long Tail of sales persisted, in modest but significant numbers, as far down the sales ranking list as anyone wanted to measure. Whether it was ITunes, Netflix, Amazon, Rhapsody (an online music rental service), or eBay, it seemed clear that even a huge inventory of goods, if matched successfully with a large enough pool of purchasers, would attract sales of almost every item. The cleverest retailers were finding new ways to lengthen the Tail (add inventory) and fatten the Tail (increase unit sales).

At the time, Anderson proposed three rules for generating a Long Tail business.

  1. Make everything available.
  2. Cut the price in half. Now lower it.
  3. Help me find it.

Anderson's article generated plenty of "why didn't I think of that" moments and the phrase Long Tail has since become a dot-com buzzword and a handy way to encapsulate how the Internet has become a streamlined vehicle for providing, finding, and selling many kinds of goods. Some of those goods can be dropped on one's shoe (as Amazon, eBay, and prove every day) and some of those goods (like eBooks and music files) seem more like an electronic dance between your credit card, your computer screen, and perhaps a digital appliance.

Now Mr. Anderson has assembled a more thorough, more data-rich inspection of the Long Tail concept. By working closely with economists at prominent universities, and using a Long Tail weblog to engage the assistance of a community of readers, the author has evaluated a number of Long Tail industries (and actual sales data sources), to see whether his ideas about the Long Tail in his earlier article hold up under scrutiny.

The short answer, with a few modest caveats, is Yes.

The long answer, however, makes fascinating reading if you have any interest in economics, business, or civil life. The appearance of these Long Tail businesses in the last decade provide a kind of industrial watershed. A Before. And an After. For myself, exposure to the After is limited to Amazon and ITunes. But I'm also old enough to remember the Before, especially growing up in rural Nova Scotia. Young adults may take the current online commercial marketplace for granted. They shouldn't, and Anderson's book is an approachable summary of how 20th century mass marketing and distribution differs from 2006. This book will also appeal to any adult business person who is an avid reader. Like myself, they can match their personal experience against the book's description of the new Long Tail businesses ... imagining new possibilities and opportunities.

Finally, people who are interested in history and where our culture is heading will find this book's insight into the changing commodity markets a great tool for reflecting on the changes in our broader social and cultural worlds ... not only where we've been in the last few centuries but where we are ... as Albion's Seedlings itself illustrates. Anderson's efforts can be firmly placed with a larger group of books (James Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds, Robert Wright's Nonzero, Reynold's Army of Davids, and Moises Naim's Illicit), considering how personal freedoms and individual appetites relate to modern economic activity. Anderson's tale is upbeat, as befits a book on markets and customer interests, but the empowerment of individuals can, of course, cut both ways.

Like the aforementioned authors, Anderson makes no cultural claims for why the new mode of commerce appeared first in the Anglosphere. Nonetheless, readers are given enough information to form their own opinions, and draw their own conclusions. The metaphor of the Long Tail ... of letting the market choose rather than central planning experts ... has plenty of broader implications.

As one would hope from an editor-in-chief, Anderson writes cleanly and clearly. Pitched to a general audience, he leavens his discussion of industry changes (primarily media and entertainment) with personal anecdotes and useful illustrations. He provides some of the historical background for the industrial changes we see today, and some sense of how things might proceed in the future. The meat of the material however is a careful analysis of sales figures to confirm that there is, in fact, money to be made in the Long Tail. Anderson organizes the dynamos of the Long Tail economy into Production, Distribution, and Transaction ... companies that produce content, accelerate or reduce the cost of distributing it, and finally companies that discover new and effective ways of matching buyer and seller.

It may still be an open question whether overall commodity sales increase in response to Long Tail innovation. "Hits" in the music, TV, and movie businesses are now less dominant in their respective industries, and sales do appear to move down the Long Tail toward a wider variety of products, but exactly where the money is going in the overall economy seems a little fuzzy. Online sales are only now reaching 10% of overall product sales. Annual growth rates of 25% suggest that the impact of Long Tail enterprises will become increasingly visible. And for new companies, grabbing 10% of a very big commercial pie is still a lot of money. We'll need to watch further to see whether "creative destruction" simply shifts money from one pocket to another.

What the evidence does seem to support is that people change their buying habits in response to greater choice, and while their overall spending may not increase, their satisfaction with their purchases does. Getting more for less (through efficiencies of scale and distribution) also serve customers well. Human curiosity and delight with novelty seem timeless drivers of change. That's certainly my own experience in buying from Long Tail companies. Brand new industries (one need think no farther than ITunes) can have a dramatic impact on bricks-and-mortar company sales by offering a competing product. But it's clear that many transactions in the Long Tail are modest in scale and are "non-rivalrous." Your purchase of model train parts doesn't impede my acquisition of Pokemon memorabilia. With the innovations of the online world, these products and services no longer compete for scarce shelf space, advertising dollars, or transportation capacity. Without an effective way to set up a transaction between a small pool of buyers and a small pool of sellers, the Long Tail market would have remained potential rather than manifest.

Let's turn first to the way it was in the "bad old days." Say, 10 years ago.

20th Century Scarcities

Anderson gives us a nice capsule summary of the evolution of mass communication in the 19th and 20th centuries. With the advent of telegraphy, the railways, and newspapers, the movement of commercial and commodity information became much more affordable and rapid. Advertising had a platform to drive consumption. New printing technologies increased volume and speed, and reduced price.

Edison's invention of the phonograph was one of the innovations which preceded the development and dramatic expansion of moving pictures, radio and television. By and large, these were one-to-many or point-to-multipoint innovations. Telegraphy and telephony were influential but also remained relatively less affordable. The infrastructure necessary to build and operate a radio network, for example, meant that the large upfront investments had to be matched with an equally large audience for advertisers. The ups and downs of corporations during this era (plenty of consolidations, bankruptcies, secret trusts, and buy-outs) suggests that getting the numbers right was extremely difficult. The era suited big business and the allocation of scarce resources (air time, theatre space, records racks) to products which would provide the best return on investment.

The upshot of all this change was an American market in the fifties dominated by a small number of television networks ... where vast nightly audiences could be aggregated for particular TV programs and where advertisers could purchase access to the eyeballs of tens of millions of consumers. A similar, though less dramatic, pattern could be seen in other media and entertainment enterprises ... a handful of movie studios, goliaths in the music industry, continental networks of radio stations (often allied with TV networks). The tools of production and distribution were expensive, and very narrowly distributed. The mechanisms for linking seller and buyer were similarly set, often literally, in concrete.

As the 80s and 90s unfolded, the appearance of cable TV provided some cracks in the media markets but we still saw the blockbuster hits of music sell tens of millions of copies, and hit movies capture huge percentages of the audience. As Anderson notes in his book, it's not that a lower-ranked film of that era was particularly bad ... it's that there were no available screens to show it on. Sales figures, in this scenario, were driven by available distribution networks. Films ranked 1-50 got a shot. Films ranked 50-100 might end up in art cinemas. Films ranked below 100 simply disappeared.

How this story changed is very much a part of popular culture. The advent of the VCR (videocassette recorder) and cassette audiotape suddenly expanded the distribution pipelines for movies, TV, and music. The result was a fragmentation of the giant markets (and scarcity economics) which had dominated the media and entertainment industries through the late 19th and 20th centuries. The corporate struggles to adapt to this reality continue. The most common response has been consolidation ... if the television audiences for nightly news have dwindled, find ways to aggregate all those strange little niche programs into single packages for advertising and revenue. The rise of the cross-media giants is merely an adaptation to audiences scattering to the four winds. A great summary of Hollywood's efforts to predict hits in the current era is discussed in Epstein's 2005 The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood.

A question remains unanswered. What if the audiences can't be re-aggregated?

21st Century Abundance

In a sense, the entire Long Tail thesis is about a new era in commodity economics built around abundance. Abundance of production, abundance of distribution, and abundance of information to link buyer and seller. Abundance also usually meant a drop in price. Anderson used a vivid and very useful analogy here. Much as the shoreline of a lake or island defines its area, a dropping waterline (reduced costs, in this case) can progressively open up geography in sometimes dramatic fashion.

Every improvement in accessibility and affordability increases the potential for profitable niche markets, and every new niche market offers potential synergistic benefits for cross-marketing and aggregation (as the Food Network hopefully proves conclusively).

The appearance of the Internet was simply the most dramatic of the factors associated with these reduced costs. As Anderson carefully and rightfully points out, the e-commerce infrastructure we take for granted is based on a multitude of incremental changes and innovations which took place throughout the 20th century. Components such as credit cards, Fedex, bar codes, and ISBN numbers ... apart from any consideration of affordable PCs and broadband ... were essential for boot-strapping the current era of commodity abundance. The Long Tail is very much dependent on the infrastructure built for the "Short Head."

If anything, the most common misinterpretation of the Long Tail concept is that the niche market will destroy the "hits." Anderson explicitly, but unsuccessfully (to judge by MSM reviews) denies this. Hits are here for good, he says. It's just that they won't have the overwhelming dominance on the market that they once had. The dominance of hits will be methodically but modestly nibbled away ... but they will never disappear. Some thing is bound to strike most of us as appealing. That's a hit.

And much as online commerce will never replace bricks-and-mortar for some purposes, the nature of retailing is more likely to be a multiplication of choices rather than an abandonment of earlier choices.


Each of these different kinds of retailers, whether operating stores, online catalogs or purely digital products, will successfully make a profit from different parts of the sales ranking curve. In some cases, those retailers will be "non-rivalrous" ... their impact on each other will be modest. Wal-Mart marches on. In other cases, newly affordable tools of production and distribution will deeply affect a traditional retailer. Tower Records being a case in point.

Anderson's great image of an "infinite, non-rivalrous, shelf space" stirs the imagination for what is and what isn't possible in these new commodity markets. I certainly can't wait to convert my bookshelves to digital files stored in a really good "electronic book." As a side note, it's interesting to hear from the author that the reason why so many TV programs and movies are still unavailable for rent or purchase on DVD is the huge headache in getting music clearances. The person or company that solves that tricky problem will be hailed as a new hero of the digital age.

One of the most powerful concepts introduced in the Long Tail is the idea of "pre-filters" and "post-filters." Pre-filters are methods used by companies and institutions to identify products that will appeal, and to steer consumers to those products. This process is predictive, and as discussed in Epstein's book linked above, it leads to the hits-and-misses scenario we see in many categories of products -- movies, clothes, cars, consumer goods. At times, no one seems to know what consumers want. Post-filters, by contrast, are methods of selection which use the market itself to make selections. This may seem like a trivial insight ... haven't companies always responded to their consumers?

The surprising power of the insight comes from this new era of abundance ... what if the products that you offer don't cost $100 million and aren't take-it-or-leave-it? Rather than guess what your customers want, adjust your product or service to be demand-driven. As long as the marginal costs of maintaining inventory and distributing it are modest, you can let your customers create as many "hits", "niches" and one-off enthusiasms as they want. Each transaction makes a profit for the company.

And that's the secret of hits-and-misses (20th century) versus hits-and niches (21st century). In the old model, the "hits" had to do well to cover the losses from the "misses." In the new era, what once were "losses" can now capture less revenue but just as much profit.

In another great example, Anderson talks about the difference between the omnipresent Dewey Decimal System (for sorting books in libraries) and Amazon's organization of its books by "peer set" and consumer buying patterns. The former is a pre-filter meant to guide readers to a particular book or topic, but it's very much a reflection of the time and culture in which it was created. Amazon's mathematical method which lets readers form associations between books is far more responsive to changes in public demand and in the links that readers make between titles. To paraphrase Anderson, post-filters have less polish, but more credibility.

Of final interest in this book is the "lessons learned" that Anderson offers between this 2004 article and his 2006 book. He's uncovered a new set of rules that he offers for aspiring businesspeople.

  1. Move Inventory Way In ... or Way Out
  2. Let Customers Do the Work
  3. One Distribution Method Doesn't Fit All
  4. One Product doesn't Fit All
  5. One Price Doesn't Fit All
  6. Share Information
  7. Think "and" not "or"
  8. Trust the Market to Do Your Job
  9. Understand the Power of Free

In these rules, we can see that the goal is to accommodate and actively engage as much of your customer base as humanly possible ... to let their enthusiasm and curiosity and altruism shape the inventory that a company carries and distributes. Not so far from the modest list offered in 2004, but buttressed with a wider array of current commercial examples that would let prospective businesses identify where they fit and what their goals should be.

Long Tail 2.0? or Actually 3.0!

As a way of introducing the idea of servicing the Long Tail, Anderson has a small but great section on the creation and development of the Sears-Roebuck company in the late 19th century. It took place soon after 1886 and was based on creating large warehouses near railway junctions, initially in the Chicago area. A printed catalog, leveraging the new advances in printing and lithography, brought a huge array of new products to rural America, at affordable prices and using the railways and postal system for efficient delivery. Its system of inventory handling was unparalleled and Anderson notes that Henry Ford was reputed to have visited the Chicago operation. While Anderson moves on to discuss the later introduction of the supermarket in the 30s but I found myself returning again and again to the distinctive change which Sears-Roebuck introduced.

Obviously, one great advantage of the company was the lack of "installed base." They were selling to customers then serviced by very limited options (undercapitalized local stores with minimal, expensive inventory). New methods of transportation, communication, and finance had become available. And a rapidly expanding economy meant increased sales and profits were there for the taking. To some extent, then, Sears-Roebuck is perhaps an example of Long Tail 1.0 ... a direct reflection of the sorts of changes in the Information Economy that have been discussed by historians such as Headrick and Cortada.

But if Sears-Roebuck is a possible exemplar of Long Tail innovation, can we spot any earlier examples? Anderson pretty much begins at the Industrial Revolution but a quote from his book offers telltale signs of ahistoricity:

"Before the Industrial Revolution, most culture was local. The economy was agrarian, which distributed populations as broadly as the land, and distance divided people. Culture was fragmented, creating everything from regional accents to folk music. The lack of rapid transportation and communications limited cultural mixing and the propagation of new ideas and trends. It was an earlier era of niche culture, one determined more by geography than affinity. ...
But in the early nineteenth century, the era of modern industry and the growth of the railroad system led to massive waves of urbanization and the rise of the great cities of Europe." [p.27]

Hmm. Well, it's Anderson's bad luck that the book I reviewed just before his was Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851 because a reader would come away from any careful consideration of the 18th century with a dramatically enhanced respect for the brains and curiosity of ordinary men and women. And for the newly developed tools of information gathering and filtering (newspapers, diaries, magazines, dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks) which appeared to satisfy individual appetites. Without compromise, we can say that an "Industrial Enlightenment" (to use Prof. Joel Mokyr's phrase) preceded the appearance of the railways and steamships by many decades. And tools of production, distribution, and market-making which Anderson uses to explain the modern Long Tail were all newly in place in the first few decades of the 1700s in London ... rapidly moving to the counties, shires and Continental salons.

As for niche culture, a quick review of Maxine Berg's Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain will disabuse any reader that the English of the period were provincial in their tastes, reading, or interests. This was a populace that was uniquely literate, tied into an increasingly global trade and military network through its island geography, and (post-English Civil War) very touchy about restraints on their ability to think, say and do what they felt was right.

The birth of science as "public culture" was an 18th century event, not a 19th century event. And my nominee, therefore for the Long Tail 1.0 event best linked with our own is the appearance of "public natural philosophy" in the England of the early 1700s. Which pushes this current iteration to version 3.0 at the least, by my reckoning.

Anderson covers a lot of territory in his book and it's to his credit that he took the time to provide some historical background to the trends of the 20th and 21st centuries. Nonetheless, I think it strengthens his arguments substantially if we can place his themes and images into a much broader historical context. Our current mass-to-niche market changes aren't duplicated in the past but they are certainly mirrored there ... in exactly the areas where a sudden drop in cost (of literacy, printing, ocean transport, social convention, upward mobility) allowed people to express their individual appetites with less hindrance.

Long Tail and the Anglosphere

Quibbling over the historical anchoring of The Long Tail is, of course, my traditional bloggish way to segue into assessing the book from the perspective of Anglosphere themes and concepts. As noted above, people in the English-speaking world have been successfully curious and idiosyncratic for many centuries. And if we take Professor Alan Macfarlane's work seriously, the English have seen themselves uniquely as "individuals" for a very long time.

In this light, the strikingly rapid Anglosphere adoption of technologies allowing the expression of individuality (in production, distribution, market-making) is just one more case study of how the Anglosphere Challenge expresses itself. This doesn't imply that other peoples around the world aren't enthusiastic about the technical changes, or are unwilling to substantially add to the pool of useful goods and services available in the Long Tail. It's just to say that the watershed -- from analog to digital, from physical to virtual -- which we've seen over the last decade, fits perfectly with the predisposition of the citizens of the Anglosphere. High trust interactions between strangers is our inheritance and our great gift. We've been "niche nations" for several centuries. The challenge of exploration in the late 16th century set our culture (along with the Hispanosphere and Lusosphere) in a self-confident mode of exploration. And as Anderson so clearly illustrates, as the costs associated with niche exploitation drops ... whole new geographies of interest, enthusiasm, and opportunity appear. We're just soooooo ready.

I kept thinking of Lewis's book (The Power of Productivity: Wealth, Poverty, and the Threat to Global Stability) and the unique balanced dynamism in the American economy. Now The Long Tail allows more and more individuals to independently drill down into more efficient use of capital and resources. And it rewards corporations handsomely for letting those individuals do so. Anderson's great summary of this recent change bodes very well for the economy, for doing more with less ... the hallmark of productivity.

One Long Tail straw man needs to be addressed. Is too much choice a bad thing? Are the dreams of central planners everywhere going to being proven out in this new wave of the Long Tail? Maybe offering people more choice is a trivial or ultimately counterproductive market approach. Fortunately, Anderson takes the time to address the arguments put forward by Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Schwartz, as his title suggests, makes the case that when more choices are available, consumers begin to crumple into paralysis. With a bit of further research however, Anderson discovered that "[t]he paradox of choice turned out to be more about the poverty of help in making that choice than a rejection of plenty." We enjoy having more choice, especially if we have easy ways to assert our personal interests. If our purchase is trivial or routine, we can be price-sensitive or simply default to the most popular choice. If we're particularly motivated in our shopping, then we'll want as many different tools as possible to help us make our choice. Tremendous variety in products, services, and consumer tastes can co-exist successfully. The successful Long Tail businesses are proof-positive of that. It's a lot easier to measure taste than predict it.

Finally, relating back to my earlier reference to books like the Wisdom of Crowds or Army of Davids, Anderson makes a great point about the powerful marginal advantage of the Long Tail. In situations of scarcity ... where hit-and-miss predictive filters are used the resulting product or service will often shoot for "lowest common denominator" tastes. Quality will range from "mostly average to good." In a Long Tail situation, where the costs of production, storage, and delivery are more under control, and "post-filters" are used to sift content, quality ranges from "awful to great." The awful stuff would be unaffordable if the marginal costs of storing and filtering it were not close to zero. But the tremendous strategic advantages of such "great" items, speedily implemented, discovered continuously over the long term, are what can spell success for cultures and nations. And predicting what those great items will be is virtually impossible from an inductive viewpoint (ably discussed, as Anderson notes, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Fooled by Randomness). The Long Tail of great ideas is even more precious than the Long Tail of great products and services.

The Bottom Line of the Long Tail

After vainly trying to summarize a fun, varied, and rich reading experience, let me try to highlight what you should know before buying or borrowing The Long Tail:

Firstly, I can't imagine a better birthday or holiday gift book for business people ... whether established or aspiring. The writing is clear enough that even a clever junior high school student would find it inspiring. For those already in the business world, Anderson does a great job of spotting the trends, patterns and business data that will shape Long Tail business in the next five to ten years. The underlying dynamics of "selling more of less" make a lot of sense.

Secondly, the Long Tail suite of information has a great fit with other titles that demonstrate a systematic pattern of advantage to free and efficient markets. Those markets extend from commodities to those of ideas. From the Anglosphere perspective, the advantageous civic sphere (filled with "horizontal knowledge") has migrated in a dramatic new way that should be acknowledged and tracked. The rich and chaotic mix of Anglosphere political opinions, religions, and hobbies has reappeared in the world of products and services.

Posted by jmccormick at 05:42 PM | Comments (1)

August 05, 2006

Barone on Anglosphere and Abolition

Michael Barone's blog has an interesting post on several recent books on the abolition of slavery. In this he discusses in particular the role of the Anglosphere in abolition. He observes:

"This is not the lesson that today's transnational and multicultural elites in the United States and the United Kingdom like to tell. They like to portray American slavery as particularly vicious and slavery as a system imposed by evil Dead White European Males on a virtuous but unfortunately powerless Rest of the World. Davis and Temperley know better. Almost all human societies had slavery. Only one human society--the Anglosphere, starting in Britain and then in America--set out to abolish first the slave trade (enormously profitable to many Britons) and then slavery itself (enormously profitable to many Americans). "There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record." The philosophes of France, with their emphasis on pure reason, did not think to advocate the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. (See Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Road to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments on this point: The French philosophes' idea of a good society was one ruled by enlightened despots, i.e., despots governed by themselves, which their successors tried to put into place during the French Revolution.) English Evangelical Christians, like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, did--and accomplished their goal. So, in their wake, did Americans like William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Frederick Douglass. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 (much to its economic detriment) and the United States followed, at the earliest date permissible under the Constitution, in 1808 (though the economic detriment to the United States was much less)."

Of course many things were going on in the process of Abolition, some moral, some pragmatic, and many a mix of various motives. The moral Abolitionists, many of whom were technology entrepreneurs, were quite good at understanding how to create economic incentives to further their ends -- for example, the Quaker merchants of York understood that alternate economic activities would have to be created in West Africa if local people, who made their living from the slave trade, were to cooperate in abolition. To this end they created the modern chocolate industry (several key companies of which are still based in York) to increase the market for West African cacao.

One consideration that is often overlooked is that the particular outcome of the American revolution (with the southern mainland becoming part of the independent US, and the British West Indies remaining in the Empire) accelerated abolition in both parts of the Anglosphere. The declining sugar industry in the islands, which for the most part were unsuitable for the other slave-grown crops, was stuck with slaves who could no longer be exported for sale to mainland cotton plantations. The mainland cotton plantations, which were demographic sinks and could not replace their own numbers, were cut off from what would otherwise have been a fresh source of slaves. British abolition in the islands was a moral triumph, but it also had somewhat of the character of a government bailout of a declining industry, as the state compensated plantation-owners for liberated slaves that frankly could not have been sold en masse in the internal market of the Indies. This would not have been the case had the Revolution failed, or had the rebels succeeded in their ambitions of making the islands part of the USA.

Common Law played a part as well. Lexington Green made the following comment in email to me:

"Slavery -- USA and UK were not only responding to a religious revival, but harking back to their own earlier politico-legal roots. Slavery had been illegal in England itself for a long time. Slavery was always a bad fit with English law. The Anglophone slave owning communities had to adopt Spanish law, which being Roman derived, was a better fit to incorporate humans as chattels."

The key was the Mansfield Decision, in which Lord Mansfield accepted the plaintiff's argument that Common Law had never recognized the status of slave, and no English statute had ever created such. Colonial statutes had created the status in the colonies, copied from the Spanish (Roman-derived) slave codes. Roman law had of course supported the existence of slave markets in Iberia before 1492, so there never had been a legal gap there -- slavery had been part of Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, and post-Reconquista Iberian societies alike. Until the Barbadians colonized Charleston, and brought Spanish-inspired slave codes with them, Virginia and Maryland had been using cobbled-together adaptations of indentureship and apprenticeship laws to control the chattel slaves that had ended up there. It had not been clear for some decades after 1619 in Virginia whether these Africans and Afro-Latins (the first slave whose name was known was called "Antonio") were to be held for life, or whether their children would be slave or free.

Many were set free at some point in the early years. If there are any descendants of the first Africans brought over, they may well be considered white today, since many of the initial freed slaves intermarried.

You can see these Roman concepts slowly infiltrate colonial law in the Anglosphere between 1619 and 1700.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 05:20 PM | Comments (2)