None of these five men are active bloggers or columnists. However, I have been impressed enough with their theories, general erudition, or the sheer scope of their work to set up a Google Alert [1] on each of their names, so that I am notified if they publish a new essay or are included in a new roundtable discussion or interview. 

The five thinkers whose words I value enough to follow through Alerts:

Vaclav Smil: The word polymath was invented to describe Mr. Smil. A sampling of just some (!) of the books he has written in the past four years: Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of U.S. Manufacturing, Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, Why America is Not a New Rome, Harvesting the Biosphere, and Energy Transitions:History, Requirements, and Prospects (see the full list of books currently in print here).

 Every book Mr. Smil writes would be the product of a lifetime of work from almost any other scholar. Conversant in all fields and an expert in more than a few, Smil's work is dense, data driven, and absolutely necessary for understanding how the world works. His Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems changed how I think about human society and history--as can be seen in some of the most popular historical essays on the Stage.

Azar Gat: Mr. Gat began his scholarly career studying the evolution of European strategic thought and the connections between European intellectual history and the way war was actually waged. These works are considered classics in his field, but what sets Gat apart from other scholars is his magisterial War in Human Civilization. With War in Human Civilization Gat managed to synthesize the work of biologists, ecologists, psychologists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, economists, strategic theorists, and political scientists into one cohesive whole. He does not present a general theory of war and civilization (thank heavens!), but does touch upon almost every single aspect of human society before the work is completed.

 I do not agree with his take on everything, but I am more than willing to listen to his take on anything.  It is difficult to take seriously the work of scholars opining on human conflict or the dynamics of human civilization if they have not read anything by Azar Gat. 

Robert Putnam: Robert Putnam is best recognized for his book Bowling Alone, in which he showed how across America 'community' - or as he called it, 'social capital' - had fallen apart. The importance of social capital for the proper functioning of society is a recurring theme of this site and I have cited Bowling Alone many times here. Mr. Putnam's other work is less well known but equally illuminating. His first book, The Comparative Study of Political Elites, has been largely forgotten. This is a shame, for it offers one of the only coherent theories of elite power I've come across. His most recent book, American Grace, is the best single work on American religious practices and trends; those who write about broad social trends in American life without referencing the data inside it usually sound a little silly. 

Robert Putnam has now turned his attention to the way growing economic inequality is changing American social values, practices, and capital. I can only hope he turns this work into another book; the research studies he has produced on the topic are interesting enough to deserve one. 

Clayton ChristensenMr. Christensen is the only person on this list I have had the opportunity to meet personally. He has been hailed as the most influential business theorist writing today, and his Innovator's Dilemma has been described as one of the most important business books ever written. A lot of business literature is garbage; not so with Mr Christensen! His work is both empirically valid and theoretically sound. Most importantly for this author, his models and theories about innovation and management can be easily applied to other fields (see, for example, this post I wrote last year). His How Will You Measure Your Life? is a good crash course on the various models and theories he has developed over the last fifteen years (though there explained in simpler terms than in his more academic books and articles)

I met Mr. Christensen when serving as a missionary for the LDS Church in the New England area. It was here I came across another group of his writings on how to best strengthen LDS congregations and be an effective missionary. Many of these writings are now available on the website Missionary Leaders. Mr. Christensen's approach to gospel service and his approach to life in general has impacted me deeply. 

Like the other people on this list, he is a wide-ranging, first rate thinker. His op-ed, "The Capitalists Dilemma," is one of the most important articles published on American political economy in 2013. I eagerly await the book-length version to be published later this year. 

Siddarth Vadarajan:  I started following Mr. Vadarajan when he was the strategic affairs editor for the Hindu. This meant it was his job to write the monthly editorials on geopolitics and international affairs--he did this with an analytic clarity few Americans could equal! Mr. Vadarajan's insights were valuable on their own merits, but for Americans like myself his clear thinking and prose provides an excellent vantage point to understand how the India's policy elite perceive world affairs. For the last few years Vadarajan has been employed as the Hindu's lead editor and has thus written very sparingly (though he did manage to make it onto the list of authors for the excellent Non-Alignment 2.0). He resigned from his position at the Hindu in 2013 and it is not clear if he will be writing in the future. I can only hope that he continues to write about world affairs.

EDIT (3 April 2013): I have been informed that Siddarth Vadarajan now has a blog! It looks like he started posting new pieces during December of last year.


[1] I actually don't use Google Alerts, but Talkwalker Alerts for this purpose.

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be." - Ecclesiastes 1:9  [1]

Over the last few weeks the sections of the blogosphere which I frequent have been filled with predictions, advice, summaries of, and idle chatter about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.  I have refrained from commenting on these events for a fairly simple reason: I am no expert in Russian or Eastern European affairs. Any expertise that my personal experiences or formal studies allow me to claim is on the opposite side of Eurasia. Thus I am generally content to let those who, in John Schindler's words, "actually know something" take the lead in picking apart statements from the Kiev or the Kremlin. [2] My knowledge of the peoples and regions involved is limited to broad historical strokes.

But sometimes broad historical strokes breed their own special sort of insights.

I have before suggested that one of the benefits of studying history is that it allows a unique opportunity to understand reality from the "Long View." From this perspective the daily headlines do not simply record the decisions of a day, the instant reactions of one statesmen to crises caused by another, but the outcome of hundreds of choices accumulated over centuries. It allows you to rip your gaze away from the eddies swirling on the top of the water to focus on the seismic changes happening deep below.

To keep the Long View in mind, I often stop and ask myself a simple question as I read the news:  "What will a historian say about this event in 60 years? How will it fit into the narrative that the historians of the future will share?"

With these questions are considered contemporary events take on an entirely new significance.

Expansion of Russia, 1533-1894.
Credit: Wikimedia.
As I have watched affairs in Crimea from afar, my thoughts turn to one such 'Long View' narrative written by historian S.C.M. Paine. In Dr. Paine's peerless The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949 she spares a few paragraphs to explain the broad historical context in which Soviet statesmen made their decisions. She calls this traditional course of Russian statecraft the Russian "strategy for empire":

"The Communists not only held together all of the tsarist empire but greatly expanded it in World War II. They did so in part by relying on Russia's traditional and highly successful strategy for empire, which sought security through creeping buffer zones combined with astutely coordinated diplomacy and military operations against weak neighbors to ingest their territory at opportune moments. Russia surrounded itself with buffer zones and failing states. During the tsarist period, the former were called governor-generalships, jurisdictions under military authority for a period of initial colonization and stabilization. Such areas generally contained non-Russian populations and bordered on foreign lands.

Russia repeatedly applied the Polish model to its neighbors. Under Catherine the Great, Russia had partitioned Poland three times in the late eighteenth century, crating a country ever less capable of administering its affairs as Russia in combination with Prussia and Austria gradually ate it alive. Great and even middling power on the borders were dangerous. So they must be divided, a fate shared by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, China, and post World War II, Germany and Korea. It is no coincidence that so many divided states border on Russia. Nor is it coincidence that so many unstable states sit on its periphery" (emphasis added). [3]

It is difficult to read this description and not see parallels with what is happening in Ukraine now (or what happened in Georgia in 2008). Dr. Paine's description of Russian foreign policy stretches from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th. Perhaps historians writing 60 years hence will use this same narrative--but extend it well into the 21st.


[1] Authorized Version.
[2] John Schindler. "Nobody Knows Anything." XX Committee. 16 March 2014. 
[3] S.C.M. Paine. The Wars For Asia, 1911-1949. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 83-84.

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

I have been much busier these last few weeks than expected. I did not have time to compile one of these lists back in February, so a few of these readings were published all the way back in January.


"The Play is the Thing But the Blood is the Trumpet"
Lynn Rees. Zenpundit. 5 March 2013.

Lynn Rees. Zenpundit. 26 February 2013. 

"Every Mountain Dew Has Its Mellow Yellow"
22 February 2013. Zenpundit. 23 February 2013.

"Pole Position"
Lynn Rees. Zenpundit. 5 March 2013.

Lynn Rees is one of the most talented historical essayists (and one of driest wits) on the internet. He writes sparingly, but when his pen is put to paper brilliance spills forth. He has a rare skill for finding  relevant parallels to 21st century concerns in obscure historical figures and events. Two of these essays are a perfect case in point, centering on Jozef Pilduski and his attempt to create a Polish state. The third essay deals with the much better known figure of Winston Churchill, while the final essay is a discussion of America's strategic priorities in Ukraine in the year 2014. 

 In the three weeks since this essay ("Feckless") was published, I have not found a better treatment of the Crimean Crisis or a more sound set of policy prescriptions than the ones given by Mr. Rees here. As always, his writing is strongly recommended.

"Unified China and Divided Europe"
Chiu Yu Ko, Mark Koyama, and Tuan-Hwee Sng. Social Sciences Research Network. 20 January 2014.

I had hoped to devote a post to this paper and its conclusions, but I fear I simply will not have time for it anytime soon. I am quite sure I will reference it in the future, however; Mr. Ko and company some how manage to touch on every single subject discussed here at the Stage: measuring premodern economic growth, the way China's geography has shaped its history, the relationship between nomadic societies and agrarian civilization, the causes of the 'great divergence' -- if we have blogged about it here, then it is found in this study!

(Warning: For those not mathematically inclined parts of the paper will be a bit dense, but the equations can be skipped without fear of losing their central points.)


"Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State"
Michael Lofgren. 21 February 2014.

During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there.... Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself.
See also: "Breaking up the NSA," Bruce Schneier, Schneier on Security, 25 February 2013.

H/T to Michael Kennedy at Chicago Boyz.

 "Social Liberalism as Class Warfare"
 Ross Douthat. New York Times. 29 January 2013.
… is it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart?
....But if we’re inclined to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?
....And following our hermeneutic of anti-elite suspicion, let’s ask: If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send.
Related: "The Post Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America," Joseph Bottum. The American. 22 February 2014.

Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends
Pew Research Center. 7 March 2013. 

Those pressed for time need only read the executive summary


"A Genetic Atlas of Human Admixture History"
Garrett Hellenthal1, et. al. Science. Vol. 343, no. 6172 (14 February 2014), pp. 747-751

See Also: The interactive map published with the paper, and Razib Khan's summary "Tracing Historical Genetic Leap-Frogging," Unz Review, 16 February 2014.

"Tipping Point Revolutions and State Breakdown Revolutions: Why Revolutions Succeed or Fail"
Randall Collins. The Sociological Eye. 20 June 2013

"The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs
Ethan Watters. Pacific Standard. 3 March 2014.

H/T for both of these to Isegoria

"Big Summary Post on the Hajnal Line"
"hbd*chick." hbd*chick. 10 March 2013.

"On the Ancient State: Some Hittite Legal Cases"
Al West. West's Meditations. 1 January 2013.


"Signal, Noise, and Jack Bauer."
Adam Elkus. Rethinking Security. 8 March 2013.
[This] is a perspective that leads to "incremental" and "dull" analysis and better fits the temperament of the accountant than the romantic.  When it comes to much of what we regard as politics and punditry, the lack of passion and romanticism that soberness necessitates is a feature, not a bug. Many are drawn to politics because they are romantics, full of passion and aesthetic verve rather than statistics books or “dull” and “incremental” scholarship about the stuff of both domestic and intentional affairs....

[Thus a] serious divide looms — between those who see politics in “dull” and “incremental” terms and those who view politics as a sort of literary romance. Unlike Andreesen’s divide between the technical-trusters and the people/institution-trusters, this one is harder to bridge. There isn’t necessarily an natural or obvious intersection between the two camps. There is very little romanticism in R scripts, Bayes, or prediction models. The lyrical and passionate Nassim Nicholas Taleb of “Black Swan” fame seems to be the exception to the rule, but an exception nonetheless.

 The State, The Clan, and Individual Liberty
Panel debate with Mark Weiner, Arnold Kling, Daniel McCarthy, and John Fabian Witt. Cato Unbound. March 2014.

"The Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz"
Scott Alexander. Slate Star Codex. 8 March 2013.

This is the only political quiz I will ever direct any of my readers to. This one is worth it.


"How America can Survive--Even Prosper--in the 21st Century"
"Fabius Maximus Editor." Fabius Maximus. 16 February 2014.

 "The Fight Tearing the Country in Two"
Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai. The Bangkok Post. 9 February 2014.

If you only ever read one article about the ongoing crisis in Thailand, this should be it.

"In Thailand, the Cost of Overfishing is Trafficked Human Beings"
Gwyinn Guilford. Quartz. 5 March 2014.


"A better indicator for standard of living: The Gross National Disposable Income"
Clara Capelli and Gianni Vaggi. VoxEU. 6 March 2014

"China's Credit Nightmare Explained in One Chart"
Tyler Durden. Zero Hedge. 14 March 2013.

"What Jobs Will the Robots Take?"
Yves Smith. Naked Capitalism. 30 January 2013.


"Deterring the Dragons... From (Under) The Sea"
Victor Vescovo. Proceedings Magazine. Vol. 140, No. 2. February 2014.

Related: "Clock is Ticking-Taiwan Could Resist a Chinese Invasion For Just One Month"
Kyle Mizokami. War is Boring (Medium). 15 March 2013.

"The Failed Pacific Pivot"
John Feffer. The Nation. 28 January 2013.

 "On MRAPs; or Protecting Our Troops and Eroding Local Support in Baghdad"
 John Amble. War on the Rocks. 3 March 2014.


 "Women Should Embrace the B's in College to Make More Later"
Catherine Rampell.  Washington Post. 11 March 2014.
...Goldin looked at how grades awarded in an introductory economics class affected the chance that a student would ultimately major in the subject. She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.
See also: "There is no Gender Gap in Tech Salaries
 Cynthia Than. Quartz. 4 March 2014.

 "The Shortage of STEM Workers: Another Bogus Crisis Crafted to Benefit the 1%."
"Fabius Maximus Editor." Fabius Maximus. 28 February 2014.


Smallpox on the Steppe  

Posted by T. Greer in , , ,

Image Source: "Chinese Smallpox Inoculation" (or. image c. 1911), The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, History of Vaccines Project (2012).

Few diseases have caused as much misery and death as smallpox. Smallpox has a 30% mortality rate in normal conditions, but in populations unexposed to the plague the death toll upon first contact is much, much higher. Originating in the urban slums of agrarian Eurasia, its presence was an accepted part of life in the great cities of Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. The peoples of the New World, Australia, and the Pacific Islands were blessed to live free of the disease for most of their histories. Contact with Europeans was first contact with their distinctive diseases; in many ways the history of European expansion across the globe is the story of one smallpox epidemic after another,  missionaries, merchants, and conquerors bringing the dreaded disease wherever they roamed.

 Resistance to the deadly maladies of the Old World has been described as one of the defining advantages of Eurasian civilization, but this tale is not unique to the European expansion. Not everyone in pre-modern Eurasia lived so intimately with illness and misery. Many peoples living in the cross roads of the Old World lived just as isolated from the filth and sickness of Eurasian urban centers as islanders living oceans away. Historian Peter Perdue explains:

Most notably, Central Asians remained nearly isolated front the European and Asian disease pools until the eighteenth century. Then smallpox, among other diseases, decimated the Mongolian population when it came into contact with Chinese settlers, just as Native American and Oceanic populations died off after the European conquests of the New World.

Mongols knew in the mid-fifteenth century that they could catch smallpox from the Chinese, and the Chinese in turn warned them not to settle too close to the border to avoid spreading it. The Ming dynasty held only sporadic horse fairs where Mongols and Chinese mingled; then Chinese bans on frontier trade in retaliation for nomadic raids had as a by-product the effect of protecting the Mongols from infection." Chinese migrants who went beyond the Great Wall, however, could also spread the disease, and there were more than 100,000 of them in southern Mongolia by 1590. Still, few Mongols caught the disease under the Ming.

The Manchus, before the founding of the Qing, also rarely encountered smallpox, but they knew of its danger. Mongols and Manchus who had not been exposed to the disease were exempted from coming to Beijing to receive titles of succession. The main response of the Mongols and Manchus to those who did fall ill was quarantine. Li Xinheng commented that if anyone in a tribe caught smallpox, his relatives abandoned him in a cave or distant grassland. Seventy to 80 percent of those infected died. The German traveler Peter Simon Pallas, who visited the Mongols three times front 1768 to I771, commented that smallpox was the only disease they greatly feared. It occurred very seldom, but spread rapidly when it struck: “If someone catches it, they abandon him in his tent; they only approach front the windward side to provide food. Children who catch it are sold to the Russians very cheaply.” The Mongols whom Pallas visited lived far from the Chinese border, but they knew well that smallpox was highly contagious and nearly fatal.

The Chinese discovery of variolation-a method of inoculation-was of great aid in reducing the severity of attacks. The Kangxi emperor himself was selected as heir in part because he had survived the disease in childhood; his father had died of it. In 1687 he inaugurated regular inoculation of the royal family, and his successor extended mandatory inoculation to all Manchu children. The Manchus adopted this Chinese medical practice in order to protect themselves against the virulent strains that were absent from the steppe. Only Manchus who had survived the disease were allowed to be sent to the Mongolian steppe. Mongols close to the Manchu and Chinese border gradually grew immune, but those farther away suffered great losses in the nineteenth century when Chinese penetration increased. [1]

As was the case with the European conquests and expansion in the new world, smallpox played an important role in the Qing Dynasty's conquest and expansion to the west:

Disease determined critical turning points in the conflict between the Manchus and Zunghars. Ligdan Khan, the first major Mongol rival to Manchu rule, died of smallpox. In 1745, when the Zunghar Khan Galdan Tsenen died, outbreaks of smallpox caused upheaval among the Zunghars; one report stated that 30 percent of them died. Another epidemic struck Zungharia in the 1750s, just as the Qianlong emperor launched his final campaign. The last rebel against Manchu domination, the young prince Amursana, died of smallpox at the age of thirty-five, opening the way to the complete conquest of Xinjiang. Wei Yuan estimated, after the Zunghars had vanished as a people, that 40 percent of them died of smaIlpox—more than lost their lives in battle or fled to Russia.

The Mongols for their part tried to avoid contact with Han Chinese as much as possible. Apparently they never learned the variolation techniques, so their only recourse was isolation. When negotiating licensed trade with the Qing in the 1740s, Galdan Tseren feared that his envoys would catch the disease when they passed through Chinese territory, so he asked for permission to avoid the northwestern towns of Hami and Suzhou and instead go direct to Dongkeer. Tibetans also tried to avoid traveling in the Chinese interior: the Panchen Lama used his lack of immunity to smallpox as an excuse to avoid an audience with the Kangxi emperor in Beijing. The Manchus themselves often tried to accommodate the Mongols in order to spare their lives. ‘The Kangxi emperor noted that many surrendered Mongols living in the capital were dying of diseases. He pitied them he cause “the capital’s food and drink are against their nature,‘ and they were “like caged birds and animals.” so he provided them with tents and settled them beyond the wall in Zhangjiakou and Guihua. When Mongol children flocked to Kangxi's military camp in the Ordos while he was on campaign. called in a special doctor to inoculate them.

....The vulnerability of the Mongols to smallpox is eloquent testimony to their isolation from the germ pools of dense populations. At the same time, their constant contacts with the Manchus and Chinese made them aware of the danger, even though they could not prevent its incidence. The Manchus, by contrast, could take active measures against the disease, having closer regular contact with the Chinese, greater medical knowledge, and greater acquired immunity. They in turn used this knowledge to inoculate Mongols who surrendered to them, leaving those who resisted them to face the ravages of the disease. The disease environment itself significantly affected the outcome of the conflict, but the disease vectors acted through human agency.

Dr. Perdue slightly exaggerates his case--disease has traditionally been the most frequent cause of campaign deaths for armies the world over and is hardly extraordinary here--but his description points to an unappreciated attribute of traditional nomadic societies. The Mongols and Manchus had little resistance to diseases like smallpox because they were not normally exposed to diseases like smallpox

For several millenia historians have tried to explain the generally superior strength and endurance of steppe warriors, often focusing on the demands of life in the saddle or the nomads' protein-rich diets as the explanation for their vitality. A more powerful explanation may be the absence of the debilitating and deadly diseases of settled life among the peoples of the steppe.


[1] Peter Purdue. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). p.47.

[2] ibid., pp. 47-48.

I have long been fascinated by the "deep culture" differences that distinguish humanity's numerous ethnic and cultural groups. That peoples from different continents and climes have different rules of etiquette, eat different foods, follow different schedules, and worship different gods is well known. But in many ways these differences barely scratch the surface of humanity's diversity; they are cosmetic veneers, outside expressions of much deeper distinctions. The most interesting cultural differences are found at the unconscious, cognitive level. They shape the way people perceive the world around them, what attitudes and biases they hold, and even what emotions they feel. Pin pointing these "deep culture" differences, identifying which are learned through social interaction and which are received through genetic inheritance, and discerning the way these differences affect demographic, economic, and political realities across the globe are tasks I approach with gusto.

I am quite sure that any reader who shares these interests will find this paper to be one of the most interesting studies they have come across in a long while.
The paper is an old (originally published in 1999) but fascinating one. [1] Written by a team put together by social psychologist Steven Heine, the paper summarizes and investigates dozens of studies on the differences between North American and Japanese social cognition. Nowadays all psychologists  recognize that North Americans have a unique psychological profile quite distinct from the rest of humanity. [2] In 1999 this was a much more radical proposition.  To show how thoroughly  researched  emotions and biases often attributed to "human nature" could be distinctly American affairs, Dr. Heines and company chose a perfect target: self esteem. 

Buzzword of the decade, vital to little league soccer games and business gurus alike, high self esteem is often depicted as a cornerstone for a successful life and basic psychological need we all share. This is more or less true--for Americans. The same cannot be said for the Japanese. Dr. Heine and his team present mountains of evidence to show just how small a part self esteem plays in Japanese culture and how little a high sense of self esteem matters to their happiness, productivity, or any other metric of well being.

Those interested in this topic really should read the entire paper (or at least pp. 769-779). If you have never heard of concepts like ganbaru or hansei then the essay has quite a bit to teach you. This post, however, will not summarize all of their findings. What I will focus on here are is just a subset of the paper's larger case: a set of particularly intriguing longitudinal studies designed to track levels of self esteem (as measured by the Rosenberg scale) among Japanese immigrants to Canada.   

They begin by noting that "within North American psychological literature, it has become a truism that a typical self view is a positive self view." This is certainty true for Americans and Canadians, "where the skewness is so pronounced that... most North Americans  who are classified as having 'low self esteem'  by means of median splits, a common classification scheme, actually have moderate scores in an absolute sense." [3]

Figure 1: Self Esteem scores among European Canadians.

Steven Heine, et. al. "Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?" Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  p. 776

The Japanese respondent's reported self esteem had a very different distribution:

Figure 2: Distribution of Self Esteem Scores Among Never-Been-Abroad-Japanese.

Steven Heine, et. al. "Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?" Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  p. 772

The base-line differences between Japanese and North Americans are by themselves  quite interesting. But the data becomes all the  more fascinating when the same methods are applied to Japanese immigrants and their descendents in North America:
 Heine and Lehman (1999) classified over 4,000 Canadian and Japanese students on a continuum with respect to exposure to North American culture. In an increasing order of exposure these were: (a) Japanese who had never been outside Japan (b) Japanese who had spent time in a Western country; (c) recent Asian immigrants (from a number of Asian countries); (d) Asians who immigrated to Canada several years ago; (e) second generation Asian-descent Canadians; (f) Third generation Asian-descent Canadians; (g) European descent Canadians.  This classification resulted in a remarkably clear relation between exposure to North American culture and self esteem. [4]

Here are their results presented in graph form:

Figure 3: "Self Esteem and Exposure to North American Culture."

Steven Heine, et. al. "Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?" Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  p. 776
The authors continue:
Three recent longitudinal acculturation studies provide additional evidence that engagement in North American culture fosters the development of positive self views. In the first study, self-esteem scores of visiting Japanese exchange students were compared with scores collected 7 months later. The average self-esteem scores of the visiting Japanese students increased significantly by 1.8 points over this time. A complementary longitudinal study was conducted with Canadian English teachers who went to go live in Japan. exhibited a significant decrease in self esteem f 1.0 points over this time. A third longitudinal study measured self esteem in a second group of Japanese students before they left Japan and then again 7 months after their arrival in Canada. In this study Japanese exhibited a nonsignificant increase of self esteem of 0.3 points.... however, a significant correlation (r=.32) emerged between the student's self esteem change and their acculturation attitudes. Those students who had assimilated and integrated the most into Canadian life exhibited greater self esteem increases. [5]

There are a few conclusions we can glean from all this.

First off, it seems very clear that self esteem is a fairly elastic trait. It can vary widely over the course of one's life and varies by even greater amounts from one generation to another. This has wider implications than is initially apparent: cultural psychologists have found that one of the greatest differences between peoples East and West is an interdependent vs. independent "sense of self."   Heine and company make a fairly strong case in the paper that the need for high self esteem is a product of a strong independent sense of self. This suggests that changing self esteem scores may simply be a sign post for a much larger psychological shift. [6]

This will probably not surprise anyone who has lived in or worked with Asian American immigrant communities. Anybody who thinks that the attitudes and opinions of a 3rd generation Chinese-, Japanese-, Cambodian-, or Vietnamese-American is a good proxy for said person's ancestors' has never met someone actually born in one of these countries. All who have seen firsthand the way miscommunication and cultural conflict can tear apart Asian-American families can testify that the generational gap between the attitudes of immigrants and their children or grandchildren is real. Though many 3rd generation Asian-Americans are fiercely loyal to their cultural heritage, it is often much easier for them to understand the world view and attitudes of their peers than that of their own parents and grand parents. The conflict this causes is often painful and severe.

However, even those actually born abroad are not representative of their original homeland--as Figure 3 suggests, the most dramatic difference in self esteem (and presumably independence) is not between one generation and another, but between those who have never visited North America at all and those who have lived here for a long time!

This is fairly strong evidence that most variation in self esteem--and possibly differences in independence and interdependence self esteem reflects--are not deeply rooted in history, socioeconomics, or genetics. As with violent crime rates among immigrant populations, acculturation is probably the most important factor at play. This should provide some comfort to those who worry about America's capacity to assimilate what is now the largest source of newly arriving immigrants


[1] Steven Heine, Darin Lehman, Hazel Rose Markus, and Shinobu Kitayama.  "Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?" Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  pp. 766-794.

[2] Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. "The Weirdest People in the World?" Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2010), vol 33. pp. 66-135.

[3] Steven Heine, et. al. "Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?" pp. 775-776

[4] ibid.,  p. 776.

[5] ibid.

[6] This also accords with several other studies conducted by social psychologists concluding that subtle cultural symbols can unconsciously "prime" Asian Americans to think with Western or Asian attitudes about the self . See Richard Nisbettt, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Easterners Think Differently... and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003). pp. 67-68; 118-119.

The Economics of Sex  

Posted by T. Greer in ,

Social life in 21st century America  makes a lot more sense when you think of dating as a split market with separate supply and demand curves

EDIT (18/02/2014): The Austin Institute has also published a neat list of the studies it used to make this video. Many are worth perusing.

USGS topographical map. "Japan, Korea, and Northeast China." 2006.
Image Source:

What leads men and states to the path of war?

For centuries thinkers and strategists of the Western tradition have turned to Thucydides and his history to find answers to this question. The great historian speaks of Athenian envoys rising up in hostile halls to justify their city's course:
"An empire was offered to us: can you wonder that, acting as human nature always will, we accepted it and refused to give it up again, constrained by three all powerful motives, honour, fear, interest?" [1]
Fear. Honor. Interest. 

These three terms are the cornerstone of the Western realist tradition. They are both the bedrock upon which hard-nosed theories of world politics are built and the grounds where actual realpolitick has been decided. To Thucydides's Athenians and those who have followed them these three words were not just forces "all powerful," but impulses innate to humanity, a defining feature of man and the driving cause of man's misery.

The realists of the Sinic political tradition do not have any one phrase they can point to as the foundation of their tradition. They did not leave the question unaddressed, however. One succinct summary can be found in the ancient Warring States era strategic text, the Simafa, or The Grand Marshal's Methods. The author forgoes Thucydides's tripartite division of human nature for a description in four-parts:
"Glory, profit, shame, and death are referred to as the Four Preservations." [2]
These four, it is implied, will be the force that moves men to preserve the state and assure its victory when arms are raised. Some of these match up quite closely to Thucydides's expression. "Profit" finds its way onto both lists, while the Marshall's Methods "death" states clearly what men most "fear."  It is more difficult to find Thucydides's "honor" among the Marshal's Four Preservations. Both "glory" and "shame" seem to fit the bill, and it would be easy to conclude this matching game by concluding that the Marshal's Methods simply draws attention to two different aspects of honor and leave the matter at that. 

I ask my readers not to do this. Considering each of these elements separately exposes some of the biases in the Western--and especially, American--patterns of thought. Shame, for example, a concept so central to both daily interactions and high politics across Asia, holds little sway in America. When it does register in the public consciousness it is usually in reference to some crusade to deny it any influence: thus a recent series of viral videos featuring overweight women dancing their hearts out is titled the "No Body Shame Campaign," while the word "shaming" has been largely appropriated to mean any bigoted sort of criticism you think shouldn't be tolerated (e.g. 'slut-shaming'). 

The ancient Greek sense of honor was a very public emotion. Those living in the honor culture of Thucydides's day believed that honor not earned was shame deserved. Not so for those living a Christianized, post-Enlightenment democracy! [3] Americans have a very different conception of honor than our classical forebears, and an even weaker sense sense of shame. In American discourse, shame is something you stand up against, not something expected to move or motivate you. 

Glory is much easier to understand. The desire to win, to compete, to do great deeds and be lauded for them, permeates American culture. It is such a fundamental part of our world view that we sometimes forget that this drive to be undeniably better than the rest is not a universal desire.

Writes Richard Nisbett:

"An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus "creativity" test and then gave the students "feedback" indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how log the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed." [4]

There are large parts of the world that do not think--and more importantly--do not feel like Americans do. There are places where shame moves men to do heroic things and pressures them to committ heinous acts. As the Grand Marshal suggests, shame lies at the scarred heart of as many battlefields as interest or profit. 

I do not think American statesmen are accustomed to putting the power of shame into their political calculations. This is unfortunate. Increasingly, ours is a world where the burden of shame will mean the difference between war and peace.


[1] Thucydides 1.76. Benjamin Jowett translation (1881). See also 1.74.

[2] Simafa ch. 3. In Ralph Sawyer, trans. Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993). p. 136.

[3] See James Bowman's discussion in Honor: A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), ch. 1-3.

[4] Nisbett, RIchard. The Geography of Thought: How Westerners and Asians Think Differently... and Why. (New York: Free Press, 2003). p. 56.

The actual study referenced is:  Steven J. Heine, Shinobu Kitayama, Darrin R. Lehman; Toshitake Takata,  Eugene Ide, Cecilia Leung, and Hisaya Matsumoto, "Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North America: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81, Issue 4. (Oct 2000).

As Lexington Green says, if you are not reading John Robb's new website, then you should be.

Mr. Robb has a unique biography. Titles like USAFA cadet, SERE school grad, Yalie, astronautical engineer, counter-terrorism operator, military theorist, tech analyst, software executive, and best selling author have been given to Mr. Robb at one point or another. While working as an analyst for Forrester Research in the early 1990s he predicted that search engines and social networks would rule the internet, a decade later he was CEO of the company that developed the first RSS feeds, and soon after that Mr. Robb coined the term 'open source warfare' (a concept expanded in his influential book, Brave New War) long before the Bush administration had begun to admit the U.S. military was facing a kind of insurgency in Iraq no one in the military was prepared for. His most famous work over the last decade has centered on the changing nature of war and terrorism n the 21st century.

 His new website is devoted to a different theme, focusing on political economy and the "future of the American Dream."

Long term readers of the Stage know I that I am quite skeptical of--if not downright hostile towards--all futurists and thinkers pretentious enough to think they can accurately forecast our future. With John Robb I make an exception. When he talks about the America soon to be, I shut up and listen.

Here are a few excerpt from some of his most recent posts:
John Robb. HomeFree America. 4 February 2014
...Technological change is rapidly killing entire industries and job categories without replacing them. Across the board, incremental productivity improvements are making it possible for employers to get by without hiring new people (even the head of the biggest employer in the World has plans to replace most of his workers with robots). However, that won’t be where we see the greatest losses. Those losses will occur in the industries that are completely gutted from the arrival of products and services that make them obsolete.

As this trend strengthens, we may see results similar to what we saw with the agrarian economy. If that occurs, the extreme endpoint of this decline may be a world where most of the commercial activity in goods and services we see today — from education to health care to manufacturing to transportation to retail to legal services — is accomplished by less than 1% of the people it used to require.

That means only 1 of the hundred jobs being done currently will be left. More strikingly, it’s very likely this won’t take the 200 years it took agriculture to go from 95% of the population to less than 1%. It’s going to be much, much faster this time due to the speed at which improvements can be distributed (software/data). Given this catalyst, we may find ourselves more than half of the way there within twenty years....

John Robb. Home Free America. 6 February 2013.

IN New York, the hotel industry is a big business. Beyond the taxes it pays to the city, both real estate taxes and by occupancy/sales taxes (~15%), it employs 30,000 unionized workers.

Airbnb arrives and gets a “toe-hold” of 1% in the hotel market and already enables 4,850 people that live in the city to host guests that provide that provide them with $7,530 a year in income. 62% of these hosts use that money to pay their rent or mortgage (much of which flows back to the city in real estate taxes). Further, over the long term it generates much, much more income to self-sufficient home owners than it does workers doing it as a full time job in the industry.....

Like most of the tech change going on in this wave, it’s going global from the start, creating It’s an ongoing reworking of the massive hotel industry on a global level.

Despite the obvious socioeconomic benefits it offers and a growing demand, it faces stiff opposition. Entrenched companies, employees and governments see it as a threat, with good reason.

It’s particularly threatening to government. All layers of government — city, state, and federal — want the old, bureaucratic economy to continue, unchanged. They can’t imagine a world without plentiful flows of taxes levied on corporate profits and withholding from personal incomes.

Without this flow of tax income, the entire edifice of the current economy falls. It is the source of the financial life-support to the increasingly obsolete bureaucracies – from the civil bureaucracy to education to national security to banking to health care — that still offer traditional jobs. The rest is spent providing services, from health care to retirement income, in an attempt to keep the existing economic system alive....

John Robb. Free Home America. 28 January 2013.
...The wealth of the West, particularly the US, is being spent on the wrong things year after year, decade after decade. We are now as fragile as the Soviet Union in the late 80′s.

What happened?

Central planning took over the decision making process in the US. This process started with an increase in government sprawl. It accelerated under the management of clueless central bankers. But it became disastrous when wealth concentration became so extreme, at the expense of the majority of citizens, that it reduced economic decision making to an elite few.

This extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to Capitalist politburo — a group that is out to lunch ideologically, protected from the real world by layers of privileged, and loyal only to their peers.

With a Capitalist politburo in place, it’s easy to see why the economy is doing so badly. It’s impossible to make good decisions when there are only a few thousand extremely wealthy people making all of the decisions over the allocation of our collective wealth....

I strongly recommend Mr. Robb's work to everyone who wants to understand how today's economic and technological trends are shaping the future, but are tired of the superficial discussions that pass for serious analysis on most editorial pages. His analysis will not dissapoint.