Saturday, 19 July 2014

Picture Of The Month

Here is a picture I found last week of a double bicycle with a baby carrier in 1910;

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I am going away tomorrow for three weeks, so won't be able to post again until mid August now. I hope you all have a fantastic summer and enjoy the beautiful weather wherever you are!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Lessons We Have Failed To Learn From History

I'm sorry for the mass amounts of posts on this topic; it is one that has got me really interested recently and I have been researching and reading about it to my hearts content. I promise this will (probably) be the last lessons-from-history related post in a while. 

The last person to conquer and rule Afghanistan was Alexander the Great. Because Afghanistan is an area, rather than a nation, whilst it is relatively easy to conquer, it is impossible to holdIn 1839 the British forced a treaty with the titular king of Afghanistan, however the tribes outside the capital were unhappy with it and slaughtered 20,000 British soldiers and their families in response. In 1980 Russia also failed to conquer Afghanistan, entering the area with teachers, doctors, and engineers and spending lavishly on schools and hospitals, which only resulted in a genocide and failed war. However Obama’s recent announcement that American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan, mostly by the end of this year, shows that he may be learning from history. 

Often the biggest mistake governments can make in reaction to terrorists is to assist them in creating the terror and chaos they desire. For example, Gavrilo Princip, arguably the most successful terrorist in history, may not have been so successful were it not for the overreaction of European governments. Princip was a member of a small group of Serbian revolutionaries, called the Black Hand. One terrorist threw a grenade at the son of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Ferdinand, and missed. Princip lost his nerve and fled when the grenade missed, however Ferdinand’s car later stalled in front of the assassin. Even Gavrilo could not miss. He was easily caught hours laterThe Austrian reaction was an invasion of Serbia. This caused Russia to join Serbia which in turn caused Germany to side with Austria in what became World War One. It was this overreaction that allowed an incompetent to change the world.

Bursting Bubbles
A speculation bubble occurs when people buy something, just about anything, not for what it is worth but because they expect to resell it for more. Nations have been suffering from the results of speculation bubbles since tulipomania in 1593. Tulip bulbs in Holland went up in value hundreds of times in price and some sold for more than did a house in Amsterdam. Yet we haven’t learnt from this fiasco; the railroad and oil stocks spiked and then burst in the 19th century, and in the 1990s tech stocks and 2000s mortgage securities have suffered the same fate. It seems as if we find it hard to resist the easy profits from speculation buying, despite knowing the consequences, and then we all suffer in the recession that most likely occurs.

History and Economics

The first recorded national inflation occurred in Nero's Rome, when coins were made of only gold, silver, and copper. The government ran up huge debt trying to fund Nero’s spending and ran out of money. Nero simply made silver coins 20% smaller in order to ‘create’ new money, but merchants realised this and raised their prices. So Nero mixed cheaper metals into formerly pure coins, causing prices to soar again.

Henry VIII repeated this mistake with debasement of the coinage in the 1540s in order to finance his wars with France and Scotland. As coins lost their value, merchants began to trust the currency less, raising their prices, leading to inflation and causing the average income fall in value by 50% in just four years.

In the early 1930s Germany fell into the same trap. The Great Depression and restitution payments to France and England from WWI meant the government was out of money. The only way it could pay its bills was to print more, however printing money just made the the German mark worth less, forcing the government to print more and more. Eventually it took a basket full of marks to buy just a loaf of bread. With both depression and inflation running wild savings became worthless over night and unemployment soared. Even the richest industrialists began to suffer.

President Herbet Hoover, seeing these mistakes, decided that when the stock market crashed in 1929, it was not the government's job to restore the economy. His government did little and the result of this was The Great Depression. Millions of unemployed and homeless gathered in shanty towns made of cardboard and tents, and named their settlements "Hoovervilles". This relates to my last blog post; did Hoover learn the wrong lesson from history? Or, was he simply using the mistakes of previous governments in order to excuse his governments' inaction?

I recently read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, which I loved. Dead Aid is a political/economical book on why the current system of aid to Africa is not working, and what can be done to fix this. I may do another post in the future on what Moyo actually argued, but I first want to relate some of Moyo’s points to their historical context. 

In the Roman Empire the middle class began to diminish due to slaves doing their jobs for free, putting them out of work. At the same time, taxes paid by businessmen and farmers were constantly rising, putting more and more of the middle class out of work and into poverty. By the end of the second century thousands of farms or homes were being foreclosed on every year. These farms and businesses were resold to the rich, who also controlled the Roman Senate and paid few taxes. The rich got richer and the middle class got poorer. Wealthy Romans also used captured slaves who carried out cheap work that the middle class used to do, creating massive unemployment. But with no middle class the Roman empire inevitably declined first economically and eventually militarily, falling to the Barbarians.

One of Moyo’s arguments was that the lack of a middle class in many African states is hindering growth, with no one interested in creating transparent financial systems and upholding law and order. Corruption and a lack of capital markets drives away the middle class as bureaucracy and red tape make entrepreneurship difficult and setting up a businesses expensive. The middle class also do not save or borrow as they do not trust banks, meaning there is less investment in the economy and development falters. Corrupt governments, propped up by aid, get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class move abroad, creating a brain drain, and, despite the millions of dollars it receives in aid, keeping Africa poor. 

This shows that whilst situation, technology and circumstance all change, ultimately many of the issues we face today, or have faced in the last several centuries, still relate back to issues humans faced hundreds or thousands of years ago. This means that not only can we learn lessons from the last few decades, but reaching right back for thousands of years.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Does History Have Nothing To Teach Us?

I recently read an article by Niall Ferguson, who drew parallels between Putin today and Hitler in the 1930s. It got me thinking about whether or not we really can learn lessons from history, and if not, why? You often hear people making analogies between historical and modern events, or trying to use the build up to WWI to explain why power-blocs such as the USA, EU, Russia and China are such a bad idea. The famous quote "history is a vast early warning system", and George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" encapsulate this opinion on history; that we can look at the past and use it to help guide our future actions.

However if we look at the politicians and military leaders in Europe in the early 1900s, they all knew history well. Most had graduated university, many had studied history. I'm sure some of these leaders knew about the Peloponnesian War which began in 431 BC over a relatively insignificant event in a far off part of the Greek world, which led to an alliance of Greek states led by Athens fighting against an alliance of Greek states led by Sparta. The war could have been avoided. But it was allowed it to grow into the most destructive war in Greek history. Yet in 1914 the politicians and military leaders allowed an assassination in a far-off corner of Europe to bring the two alliances of the great powers into a war that would consume the lives of 11 million soldiers. And only twenty five years later, a new generation of politicians, just as well informed about history, would allow history to follow the same course to an even more destructive war, killing 50 million men and women.

So how can we learn lessons from history? The role historians have as window on history, and the way a historian's personality can shape their writings means that what gets written down is not necessarily 'history'; instead it is what historians are interested in or what they want the future generations to believe. But if there is a gap between 'history' (what actually happened), and historiography (what gets written down), how can we ever claim to learn from history? Should we accept that we can never really know what happened, because books may be written with an agenda, or a historian may have a political bias that clouds their judgement? If we cannot learn about history from an objective point of view, then why study history at all? 

Of course, I think the study of history is crucially important. I believe that it is necessary to understand what happened in the past and how we got to where we are today, in order to understand the present world we live in . I believe that the role of a historian is to study historiography and look at many different sources on the same topic written at different times and places, and to study primary sources and to try and decipher what really happened, from what historians may think had happened. So, we can learn lessons from history, once we actually understand what history is.

However another additional problem arises, which is that each new generation seems to think themselves to be superior from their ancestors. So the politicians of the 1930s probably looked back at the politicians of the 1910s and scoffed, declaring that they would never be so foolish. Just as we look back at people who lived in the late 20th century and think we are more knowledgeable and more unbreakable than they were. So perhaps it is not that we cannot learn lessons from the past, but rather that we choose not to. I think this does seem to ring true in many cases; history has so much to teach us, but it is our job to first understand what it is that history is teaching us, and then to actually use this to help us in our modern lives, instead of rejecting it, claiming that as no set of circumstances can ever be exactly the same, it is foolish to try and use history to guide our future actions.