Empires rise and fall in predictable ways that follow long-established patterns.
An emerging power invests heavily in education, infrastructure and trade to create wealth, which it protects by strengthening its military. Elsewhere the current leading power grows decadent with rising wealth inequality, in-fighting and fading investments until the emerging power confronts it – and wins. War and revolution start the cycle anew.
That’s among the biggest themes from the high profile 2020 book from Ray Dalio, the founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds: Principles For Dealing With The Changing World Order Why Nations Succeed And Fail. It’s part of the “principles” series that includes extensive independent research that Dalio’s team maintains here. He intends to look at the longest historical period possible to find patterns that can inform what happens next.
Most pressingly, he argues we’re at the late stage of the American empire, when the United States will continue to decline from its role as the world’s global hegemony and cede that position to China. I’ve been disappointed that much of his coverage has not challenged him on what seems a very big conflict of interest: Dalio is heavily invested in China, an authoritarian country that does not protect criticism, and he has been careful to avoid criticizing the party. In short, the book’s biggest flaws may be that he pulls his punches against China. Still, by using his own determinants and data, he paints a stark picture of unassailable patterns over the last 500 years up until today that looks like this:
Below I share my notes from reading the book for my future reference.
Free speech has a long history. Long enough that we know the pitfalls so well that they have nicknames.
There’s Milton’s Curse to describe the tendency for emerging leaders to defend free speech, only to walk backward once they are in power. More recently, we added the Streisand Effect, nicknamed after Barbara Streisand’s failed 2003 attempt to keep photos of her Malibu home off the internet. Her failed resistance generated far more attention.
This long, fragile and volatile path for free speech is the focus of the new book Free Speech A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama. It is thorough, important and enjoyable. I recommend it. Below are my notes for my future research purposes.
Other big themes: early Swedish settlers remained primarily trading partners with the Lenape, which contrasted with the Dutch and the English who over time seemed more interested in colonizing, though the English Quakers were on the whole far more peaceable than the Chesapeake, New Amsterdam and New England regions. The Lenape themselves shaped this reality.
This is a rich social-political history of the earliest recorded details of Lenape life. I strongly recommend buying a copy if you love history and the details of indigenous and European engagement. As is my custom, I share notes from my reading below for my future reference but please do pick up a copy.
A book seems such a simple structure that it feels less invented than self-evident, the innovations behind it hard to see. Yet every chapter in its progress was slow, bound on either side by centuries of sluggishness. Turnable pages didn’t really arrive until the first century bc; the book form didn’t take off properly until the fourth century ad. The separating of words with spaces didn’t get going until the seventh—verylateforsomethingsouseful. Finally things accelerated: first came the index, in the 13th century, then Gutenberg, then, in 1470, the first printed page number. You can still see it in a book in the Bodleian Library.
Though it’s several years old, I appreciated listening in greater detail and with fresh eyes. It’s as timely today as ever. Here I will share notes for me to return to, but I strongly suggest you listen to the entire excellent 14-episode series on “whiteness,” the historical construct of race and its implications today.
The journey to get to professionally-verified information includes social, economic and political coursework. To share this journey, historian Andrew Pettegree focused in his 2014 book The Invention of the News heavily on the European development.
It is dense and comprehensive, at least in the continental sense. It’s been on my list for a year or so, and I finally dug into it, with pages of notes. Find reviews of the book in the Times and Guardian, and consider buying the book yourself. The book’s focus is between the years of 1400 to 1800, and it’s clearly written by a historian, rather than a contemporary media studies approach—I prefer this more dispassionate and distant view of the origins of an industry.
Knowing that printing had earlier roots in China, the book is decidedly Eurocentric. Still I would strongly recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in the foundation of media, news and journalism. Pettegree’s stance is that the industry of professionalizing information-gathering was a European concept, which is his focus. This was one of several books on early journalism foundations I’ve read in the last year.
As Mark Twain put it: “History is the pale and tranquil reflection” of news.
Before the patriotic tales of heroism, there was urgent, partisan and divided reporting about the relationship between American colonists and the British crown. In his 2012 book Reporting the Revolutionary War, Todd Andrlik gives us a chance at seeing the events when there was nothing predetermined.
The book is heavily reliant on scanned copies of original source newspapers (both from colonial and English accounts), with some contextual interpretation from 37 historians. I recommend the book for a visual look at the fast-paced beat reporting the era. Below I share just a few notes that stood out to me.
A version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.
Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.
When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.
The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.
As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.
Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.
That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.