Saturday, July 26, 2008

An Era of Extra-Ordinary Prosperity

So what to make of the current economic situation? What sense to take of it? Or what sense to take of it from looking at the times through a historical lens, since I imagine most readers will prefer my analysis, at least in part, because of my historical perspective rather than simply my sunny personality (although it is quite sunny).

First, let me recommend you to an excellent article that prompted me to write on this topic (and therefore certainly has some influence over the contents of this post), which has some fine points that I'll probably re-iterate to some extent. The Economist has a nice rundown of the situation in the article called "Working Man's Blues"

Now for my overview:

Well, as a historian who has studied a decent deal, although not a great deal, of material about the Great Depression, I can tell you this isn't the Great Depression. We don't have the majority of the country poor or going toward poverty, we have most of the country middle class, and some perhaps tilting toward lower middle class, with a rather small number in extreme poverty and an uncomfortably high, but not that high, a number in relative poverty. Most importantly we have not had any negative growth, thus technically we are not even in a recession (by the traditional definition, used in, for example Investor Words, a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative real GDP change).

No this is not a recession, and it is not as Paul Krugman claimed a return to the Guilded Age.

(even ignoring his arguments, he gets the periodization wrong, or at least without providing arguments sets up a different periodization than almost all major historians. The Guilded Age was roughly between the end or the faltering of the Reconstruction (around 1877 when federal troops left the South) and probably at most the assassination of McKinley (ie, the beginning of Teddy Roosevelt's term in 1901), it does not last into the 1920's as Krugman claims, and the Progressive Era is usually dated between around 1901 and around 1920, not starting in the late 1920's or early 1930's as Krugman implies.)

This is an economic downturn. We had something of a boom between say 2003-2007, not as much as say in the 1990's, where we had an extraordinary boom (one of the few eras where real median household income grew, although that measure, like most is questionable, especially given the number of poor immigrants that come to the US), and now there's a downturn. The size of this downturn is rather massive, compounded by problems in economies around the world, high oil and food prices, and the economy-distorting measures taken to reduce the last downturn in 2000 (such as Greenspan's massive intrest rate cutting.))

But that's just looking at it from a historical perspective, looking backwards many years, we can see that, you know what, even in a downturn, we are still at a level of wealth rarely seen in the life of mankind. That can be said for the world especially, but in the US we have the majority of the population with a degree of financial security, although they need to work and worry to keep it, which nowadays means the necessities are satisfied, health is alright, + (and this is actually very historically rare) we have machines and tools to make daily life easier + we have machines and tools to keep us entertained. Taking the long view from the past, that's pretty good, average man-wise.

(That's the tricky thing, because we have to remember, historically the middle class was not the average man. The average man used to be what was then called the working class, which would nowadays be considered the working poor (the current working class is more the middle class). I suppose the definition of the middle class for previous eras was financial security, having the necessities, and being able to aspire to more, or maybe it's just a semi-Marxist vision, those who are not dependent on the means of production of someone else, but who do not themselves own the means of production, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps)

Taking the view of the future though... things are a bit odd right now. Despite all the nations of the world being in essentially one global economy, each country seems to exist in a different world economically, in a way that has little to do with the economic realities of the country. But these oddities always have a bit of sense, and are generally rooted in a very specific past.

For example, why is the US so prosperous now relative to the world? Explaining fully its situation in the 19th century relative to Latin America might be a bit tough, but to a great deal it helped that the ethnic groups which did the discriminating, though the mix shifted, tended to always been a vast majority in the US, which has not been the case in much of Latin American history (the situation of the South as economically backward during this period partially backs this theory). But let's not go back that far, let's just look at the beginning of the 20th century it was on the higher end of the income scales, but similar to Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Argentina and perhaps a few other exceptional Latin American economies. However, it was not devastated by WWII, nor did it suffer from radical economic deviations, and moreover it didn't have to deal with imperialism, or major revolutions. That alone would give the US quite an edge over the rest of the world, whether it explains everything is question, but it explains a lot of the particular oddity of the massive US share of the global GDP.

Similar stories of exceptional luck history wise can be found scattered around the world. Yes, this luck was built on hard work, the US' low-revolution count was built on a strong belief in democracy in the political class and especially among some of the better of our leaders. But we got lucky with WWII, had Latin America gotten involved, as some Latin American countries wanted to, we might have been as devastated as Europe.

Yet historical luck is not a way to build a lasting prosperity. And despite whatever good qualities of the American people might have, we are not so exceptional as to have the economic fundamentals to maintain our privileged position in the world, and thus relative to the world we are sinking. I had hoped that it might be the case that the world might be catching up fast enough that in absolute terms we would still maintain our lifestyle for the immediate future, but that may be a bit uncertain. I suppose that's not surprising, after all, when the working class caught up to and merged with the middle class, the middle class did lose a lot of their old perks, such as even the lower middle class having servants.

But let me not be too gloomy. We might be destined to sink somewhat relative to the rest of the world until we reach a point reflecting our size, resources, skills and attributes, but that place is still pretty high in the world. Moreover, even if things might even be sinking in absolute terms, the future still holds the potential to raise us up with the rest of the world, even if perhaps at a slower speed. And then once a bit of the adjusting is done for the past, perhaps then we can grow naturally, with our long-term growth being reflective of the long-term economic trends of our nation. Until then...
But as I said things aren't so bad now, and while the future might have some roughness, it is unlikely to hold a new Great Depression any time soon (although I'd advise against any predictions going to infinity). The true reality that we are going to face though, is that economic moments, like all moments, pass, and the situations change, and control of the course of events will always allude us.

But that just means that history will always be surprising.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

History keeps on moving... Into the future

Sorry about the posting irregularity, or well, not that sorry. I have had a good reason for being sporadic, since I'm searching for a job. Now a history major isn't a bad thing job-wise. It's a standard liberal arts major with a decent reputation for difficulty (on the other hand, English, unjustly so, has a reputation for being easy (although it is a plus when applying for writing related jobs), now Sociology, again, in my book, unjustly so, has a reputation for being more difficult than history). So the standard liberal arts jobs are open to me: Sales, Marketing, Teaching, Insurance, etc. + Grad School (of various sorts, not just History grad studies, but also Law School, Accounting, School of Ed., etc.). However, unfortunately, none of those appeals to me at the moment (although I'm starting to consider grad school, but not for the immediately, more for the some day).

What I'm looking for in particular is a job that combines my creativity and analytical sides (hopefully, but not necessarily, in a way that also takes advantage of my historical side), as well as utilizing my technical side. Now there are jobs out there like that, and indeed, I very much believe, there are many of those jobs that are well suited for someone like me. But the employers don't necessarily realize that! I mean, once I sell myself to a recruiter, I generally get a good feeling from them (even if that doesn't necessarily translate to a job), but when recruiters just glance at my resume, they're usually thinking to themselves "History major... hmmm... can't have any technical skills). Well, I think this blog testifies otherwise (my other blog more math and CS-centric, makes an even stronger case).

But among all these complaints, you might be asking yourself, why didn't he get a technical-oriented major. (that sentence actually does not need a question mark since it is a statement of a situation involving a question, rather that a question itself, Mr. I-Think-I-Know-Grammar Pants)

Well, I could have. Had I spent an extra year or so at Rutgers (Rutgers rules! Wooo!), I could very well have gotten a double major in History and Computer Science. However, honestly, job-wise a year of experience might be better than the promotion of a CS minor to a CS major, and I was eager to exit college, at least for a while. But more importantly, to be truthful, while technical subjects do appeal to me (and maybe after some time in the work-world I might go for a technical grad degree), they don't sing to me the same way History does.

Ah, History, the great study of all that ever was, which is the cornerstone of all that ever will be.

And yet... I do like CS and Math and other such stuff. And to continue to be truthful, I am a bit of a dabbler when it comes to History; I have yet to find a specialty, and my record shows classes whose subject matters range across the world.

In the end, at least at this moment, I remain as I have for as long as I can remember, a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.

Which isn't a bad thing necessarily, this precarious position allows me to indulge in any interest that comes my way, to soak up knowledge in any field which I happen upon, and to switch subjects with ease and pleasure. But of practical importance, being a jack-of-all-trades gives me a somewhat rare perspective on things and makes synthesizing subjects, as well as explaining one subject to another, as natural as breathing in and out the air.

Yet employability-wise, the jack-of-all-trades is not a clear classification, and is often hard for recruiters to wrap their brains around, and yet...

I have good skills, a decent brain, some inspired moments, and a friendly disposition, so I imagine the job hunt will eventually end well for me. However, the hunting is likely to be long and tiresome as well, but such is the way of the world, and so I press on, armed with the knowledge of the past, into the future.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A matter of empire

What is an empire? What is an emperor? In the political and historical lexicon this is thrown around a lot, but does the word 'empire' have any real meaning? Well, no, not really, it just seems to mean nowadays very powerful state, or maybe expanding state, or maybe state with extensive influence.

But let's step back a sec and look at the older meanings. Why? Well, this isn't really a historical definition question, but it's still something fun to think about.

Well, the word 'emperor' comes from the name 'imperator' which just meant commander (although the Roman Emperor took it as his title, emphasizing his military role) and 'empire' probably just comes from 'emperor'. But if we look at emperors in other lands, a common title, used in both the ancient Persian Empire and the Ethiopian Empire in its better days is King of Kings (obviously the local language equivalent like šāhān šāh or Nəgusä Nägäst). And then if we look at the case of say the Holy Roman Emperor, he was more really the case of a king above the princes. Furthermore even the Roman Emperor ruled over semi-autonomous provinces and client kingdoms, (although the extent of his power over much of the territory matches nicely with the title of 'king', the Romans hated the idea of a king, associating it with ancient tyranny and they liked to pretend otherwise).

But in summary, what empire really seems to historically mean is a ruler who ruled over many semi-independent kingdoms and prince-ships. Which actually means that emperors, while traditionally ruling over more extensive territories than kings, were often far less powerful over the full extent of their territories.

Now using this as a political science concept might be useful, but there are so many other examples of historic kingdoms which don't match that concept of empire, so it's kind of iffy to use it for history, but... well...


And I've got the history to prove it!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Check it out now: The History's Your Brother

I've been adding some more features and a new layout. I added some links for my history professors and some history resources, as well as some random stuff and such. Hopefully it's all pumped up in coolness, but there's still extra coolness it can get, because History's just soooo awesome.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Civilized, Smivilized!

Now, in this modern world, modernity has gotten a bad name.

And the precursor to the term modern (like its successor developed is destined to), civilized, has also been criticized, both its existence as a value and its value as a virtue.

The term civilized once justified horrific, horrific acts and so it's easy to say let's throw it away... and yet civilization as a concept does have a value. There is an essential difference

(not necessarily good or bad, but which might actually be, depending on how you want to debate things, but that's a question of philosophy not necessarily history (although there are plenty of history/philosophy hybrids, and while history is never purely objective, we should recognize the difference between an effort toward an objective history and not attempting the objectivity in a history/philosophy /opinion project)

between the Roman Empire as a society or the ancient Germanic peoples as a society, and while it is different from the difference between the ancient Persians and the ancient Scythians as societies, it is related to that difference and related differences.

That's a very vague way of saying things, but my basic point is that between civilizations you can make out categories based on some quality that divides those societies traditionally called civilized and those traditionally called non-civilized.

So let us now re-take up the topic. We must be careful of the mistakes of the past such as Euro-centrism or Sino-centrism, but we can also learn from the past. The greatest problem with previous attempts was the vagueness of the term and its association with the values and virtues of the areas called civilized. Let us then explicitly say what we mean and not claim to represent the past meanings of the word but try for a new definition which while aiming for the same subject does not necessarily mean the same thing as previous usages of "civilized."

After all this you might say, well get to the heart of the matter already.

Okay, fine then, bully.

Now I am valuing civilization as a matter of society, not necessarily of economy or state-structure, although these might be a consequence.

While as I said I am not trying to define the same intuitive concept that was used before, but as I also said, I am dealing with the same essential subject. So let us examine the commonality of those societies that match fit the intuitive concept.

Rome, Persia, Han China, Maurya India, all fit a certain level in the intuitive concept of soceity, and there greatest commonality is you have there people living together in greater density and with more durable traditions of living together as well as a stronger connection with older previous worlds (this is separate from being old unto itself, after all Roman society is no where nearly as old as Persian, but it connected with Greek). Also, essential to this are traditions of cultural production, and material production, moreover even the exceptions in this regard have refined reasons for this or refined compensation methods.

So then let me try to sketch up some categories.

Most basic civilization level - familial tribes - there is a direct family or personal connection between all members of even the largest social units. There is no great tradition of people dealing with other people and so new contacts must be improvised. Basically isolated hunter-gatherers.

Next - formal tribes - there might still be some uncertain kinship connections, but social ties are more based on common traditions than direct relations. Still such traditions are not widespread. While there are large cultural units based on long-standing traditions, they are mostly only between people who have networks of direct or regional contact. There is little conception of the world outside the region or lifestyle. More developed tribal units, some light farmers or rotating farmers. Early Central Asian nomads.

Next - ritualized tribes - cultural traditions reach indefinitely and widely. People know how to deal with each other and outsiders, and there are set rituals of interactions. Later Central Asian nomads.

Next - basic cities - still without deep interconnection, but there are concentrations of population that act as cultural centers of the surrounding area.

Next - developed cities - cities and small societies know how to deal with each other and have rituals of interaction and both peaceful and war-like relations within their cultural zone.

Next - political regions - societies have regular social organizations, regular distribution of assets, know how to deal with outsiders for a long while, usually some degree of literacy or something similar.

Next - high culture - There are rituals of great production and traditions of reasoning about actions and culture. Thinkers and specialized epics

Next - old culture - long tradition of cultural succession and relation. Centralized culture centers

Next - world culture - interconnected fully with their surroundings, dominating any surrounding lesser cultural areas and ritualized interaction with other equal civilizations. Interacting cultural centers.

Next - world-spanning culture - exporting culture and exchanging culture. Massive cities that act naturally as and also interact with cultural centers.

Next - integrating culture - developing not only from their own development but through the development of others. Metropolitan areas around cities.

Next - semi-globalized culture - a single culturally connected region among all people who have had some contact with others in this region, there are still barriers to full exchange, but these barriers can be transmitted. Metropolitan regions connecting many cities. Current world.

Next- fully globalized culture - all knowledge is accessible, all distance can be traveled, barriers between cultures are no greater than internal barriers, easily connected transport between continental metropolitan areas and some relatively easy transport between all metropolitan areas. Post-industrial world.

So there's some preliminary definitions, do they need adjusting? Yes. But still I think the categories are useful. They measure something very real in a society's changes. And when comparing cultures and mapping out historical changes this can be very valuable indeed.

And if you think differently say so, or be a bum. Bummmmmmmmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Happy St. Thomas' Day

Courtesy of my mother I'd like to give a quick rundown of the history of Christianity in that little SW corner of India called Kerala.

In brief, the St. Thomas Christians remained pretty much as one group until 1599 (Diampur Synod), when Portugese Bishop did a hostile takeover of Syrian Christians. But Portugese power waned and in 1653, some of the new Christians could not take the loss of traditional worship. They revolted and had a pledge to go back to Orthodox worship and tradition.Thus the Syrian Orthodox Church was formed. My family part of the church remained in Roman Catholicism and revived little bit of old tradition. They are Syro-Malabar church. Portugese missionaries also converted lot of Hindus from 1498 onwards and this group is called Latin Catholics.

The Syrian Orthodox church split into several factions. One faction under the Bishop Mar Evanios re-joined Catholic church in 1930. Achacha' family and our New Jersey church belongs to this group. This is called Malankara Syrian Catholic Church

So remember Roman Catholic Church in Kerala has three groups or independent 'rites' or form of worship. The The Latin rite, Syro-Malabar rite and Malankara Syrian catholic rite. I should say four, if I include the Kananya Church.

The Syrian Orthodox Church that remained away from the catholic church has three other famous factions: One is called the Othodox Church to which belongs Shaji Achacha's family. They have large congregations in the US and Achacha's friend Thankanchan uncle's family also belongs to this one.

Now there are 17 million Catholics in India, 7 million are Syrian Christians, about 500,000 are Malankara Syrian Catholic.

I was for years trying to figure out where these different factions arise and how they are connected. Now it is all easy to find out from Wikipedia.

And that's my mother (Thresia Thomas)!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Secrets are me-cret, I suppose

So let me let you in on a little secret (not really a secret, more of a piece of advice), universities have a lot of free info and stuff. But you might say hey I don't go to a university. Well, okay that might limit you a little, but the trick is to go to professors' pages. You can usually get a ton of free explanations and guides and history facts from professors' pages, and usually they have little to no checking. Hey, probably professors' like to have random people check out their subject-matter. You don't want to let the professors down, do you?