A History of the World in Eight Plagues

The fall of Neanderthal and the rise of homo sapiens; the fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity; the fall of Ghenghis Khan and the rise of Ming dynasty; the Age of Exploration and the splinter of the Catholic Church, the rise of capitalism, the fate of the American Revolution and where slavery took root and did not.

We only see history as a story about people, but tiny microbes are far more important. That’s the take by academic Jonathan Kennedy‘s 2023 book Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues. (After On Savage Shores, this is the second book in a row I’ve read by authors from southwest England).

For most of human history we didn’t know the microscopic level so we didn’t understand the role it played. Fewer than 1,300 of our ancestors may have lived at one time a million years ago, in part because of climate and disease, according to research released this summer. The effects of the microscopic world are bigger than we’ve yet realized.

This book picks up from an influential 1976 book called Plagues and People. It’s insightful and challenging and presents a new way to see the world. I recommend it. Below I share my notes from the book for future research.

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How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

Already hundreds of indigenous Americans lived in France before Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519.

Their stories are more complex, rich and nuanced than we typically understand. Too rarely have we followed their journey across the Atlantic to Europe, which they considered “savage,” especially because of the stark inequality they found.

That’s the focus of history professor Caroline Dodds Pennock’s 2023 book “On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe,” which she calls “a project of discovery.” Like the 2006 book 1491, this is part of an effort to add complexity to the post-contact era.

I shared notes from my reading below for future research.

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Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

If we have grown so rich so fast, why do so few of us think we’re living in utopia?

Something started during The Enlightenment, but everything really changed between 1870-2010, what has been called “the long twentieth century.” The world got richer and more technologically advanced at a rate many times faster than in any period of human history.

That’s the focus from economics historic Bradford deLong’s 2022 book “Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century.” This extends Robert Gordon’s effective 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

What happened in 1870? Well, deLong argues that we “invented invention,” with the help of the research lab and the corporation. Globalization happened too because, by 1870, “ it became more expensive to conquer than to trade.”

The book is well regarded in economics and history communities that I follow, so I eagerly read and enjoyed it. I recommend it for anyone as nerdily interested as I am. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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A history of corporations by William Magnuson

Corporations were invented in Roman times to extend the effectiveness of the government. Cicero called them “sinews of the state”

Over the next two thousand years, their form was refined but always followed the logic that they were meant to extend the common good of the nation. Queen Elizabeth didn’t charter the East India Company to make London merchants rich but to organize capital to help extend English rule; Abraham Lincoln chartered the Union Pacific railroad not for Boston capitalists but to bring a unified infrastructure. Profit wasn’t the state’s main interest but a deal was struck to allow for profit if value was created.

The Cold War turned corporations from tools to heroes, “a defining feature of western life,” to contrast with the Soviet Bloc — and that’s when we lost control of them. That’s a major theme from academic William Magnuson’s 2022 book For Profit: History of Corporations.

It’s dense but effective for anyone like myself with an interest in the foundation he provides on business, capitalism and economics. Below I’ve compiled my notes from the book for future research.

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Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Irene Vallejo sought to learn more about the women who were erased from so much of history.

The result became a far wider history, her 2022 book Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World. Her pursuit became an allegory of books themselves: so powerful they make ideas last which means they can be co opted to shape history. As she put it, books resulted in “a fantastical increase in the life expectancy of ideas”

In some sense, they are the original “Google effect,” in which “we tend to remember better where information is kept than the information itself. The book, written in Italian and then translated by Charlotte Whittle, is beautiful and thorough. It’s full of quirks of history and a broad understanding of the project that is our modern set of knowledge.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Fight Like Hell: under told stories of the union movement

What is culturally and statistically counted as work is a political battle. Housework and prison labor remain murky parts of economic records and worker rights efforts.

That’s a big theme from the 2022 book “Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor” by Kim Kelly, a progressive freelance journalist with a specialist on labor movements (and a fellow Philadelphian). Kelly has called it a “people’s history” of the labor movement. Each chapter is dedicated to a key historical period told through the narrative of lesser-known leaders, with a special focus on women, immigrants and Black and indigenous people. The book added context to my understanding of the country’s labor history.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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A list of once-great, now closed Philadelphia manufacturing giants

Philadelphia is old enough a city that its business community has lived many lifetimes.

Though its Quakerly tradition shunned ostentatious consumption, there are old roots. In 1732, The Rowland Company became one of the first incorporated businesses in the country (and it still operates in Philadelphia). 1881, Wharton became the first college-level business school. The Philadelphia Contributionship(1752) is the country’s oldest property insurance company; Rawle & Henderson (1783) is the oldest law-firm and (since relocated) D. Landreth Seed Company (1783) is the oldest seed companies (George Washington was a customer).

Philadelphia’s global clout declined in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many of its prominent manufacturing businesses did not adapt to a changing world. Out of my own curiosity I’ve started a running tab of some of the more prominent closures from that time.

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The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed or Fail

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.

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FREE SPEECH: its history and future by Jacob Mchangama

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.

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Capitalism & Freedom

Is capitalism the cause of differences or the reason why those differences are so small?

Influential Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006), who is a champion or a scourge depending on your political persuasion, long argued the latter. First published at the height of the Cold War in 1962, Friedman argued in “Capitalism and Freedom” that economic freedom is an essential component of political freedom, and that a capitalist system is the best way to promote both. This book serves as essentially the foundation of his status as a kind of public intellectual, though even his critics must acknowledge he went beyond punditry — he won the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics due to his scholarly work on monetary policy.

Attacks of capitalism often confuse what that economic system causes with what it exposes. As Adam Smith wrote and Friedman quotes: “There is much ruin in a nation.”

I read a 2002 edition, but when it was originally published the book was the beginning of a movement that led to Friedman’s bestselling Free to Choose (first published in 1980 alongside a PBS series of the same name) and is often associated with the Reagan Revolution. Friedman’s work heavily influenced conservative American politics.

In this earlier book, Friedman argues that government intervention in the economy, such as through regulation and redistribution, is detrimental to individual freedom and economic prosperity. He also advocates for the privatization of certain government services, such as education and healthcare.

The book was published during a time of Cold War tensions and the rise of socialist and interventionist economic policies in the United States and around the world. Friedman has lasting influence. For one, his description of monetary policy having “long and variable lags” has been often referenced to this pandemic era. In 1970, his ‘Friedman doctrine’ that companies existed to maximize profit for shareholders came to define the modern era, and experienced a revival 50 yers later.

Read my notes from the book below.

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