Posts tagged ‘Teaching Company’

Be Especially Careful When Media and Pundits "Teach" You the History of Nazi Germany

I once was taking a course on the history of the Roman Empire (Garrett Fagan via the Teaching Company) in which the lecturer at the end of the course engaged the ever-popular topic of "why did the Roman Empire fall?**"  He made an interesting observation that could equally well be applied to many of the great questions of history -- that many explanations said more about the time the explanations were made in than they necessarily said about the historical period being studied.  Edward Gibbon was part of an 18th century anti-religious enlightenment movement and thus concluded the Roman Empire was brought down by Christianity, which made the Romans too docile to fight back against the barbarians.  Similarly Victorians found the Romans fell due to moral dissipation, Marxists discovered it was due to class warfare, and modern academics steeped in environmental sustainability have found that the Empire collapsed due to various man-made environmental disasters (e.g. lead drinking water pipes).

I have found that a lot of what is said about Nazi Germany follows much the same rule.  Because Nazi Germany represents for most the single greatest national embodiment of evil in history, people are always looking to associate what they don't like with Nazi German and Hitler.  I am reminded of this from Tyler Cowen's article this morning about Tim Wu attempting to draw a straight line from monopolies to Hitler.  In an era where many of our public intellectuals consider Trump the reincarnation of Hitler, it is fashionable to try to find ways to connect the dots.  It is a bit odd in this case, since the monopolies that seem to have the most political power in this country (Google, Facebook) are actually arrayed pretty strongly against Trump.  Cowen does not mention it, but if one is worried about economic concentration that is closely linked to government and has long-term stability, one should look at modern France and Germany long before they look at the US.

Cowen links to a great article by Thomas Childers exploding common myths about Nazi Germany that folks like Tim Wu are working from.  I have taken all of Childers' courses at the Teaching Company, including his 12 lecture course focused narrowly on the rise of Nazi Germany and his longer course on the history of WWII, and I recommend him highly.  I have taken 75+ courses at the Teaching company and he is one of my 3-4 favorite lecturers.

If you want to avoid the inter-mediation of historians, I have read two primary source books that really tell a FAR different story about the Nazi's than is commonly understood.  The first is Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich.  While Speer seems to spare himself a lot, he spares no one else in the Nazi hierarchy and tells an interesting insider's story about a Nazi government that was astonishingly dysfunctional and inefficient.  The other is Gunter Reimann's The Vampire Economy about the insane regulation in the Nazi economy that makes even California look libertarian.  It was written before the war and the Holocaust, so it predates our current biases to project whatever economic system we don't like onto the Nazis.

The Vampire Economy is a study of the actual workings of business under National Socialism. Written in 1939, Günter Reimann's work discusses the effects of heavy regulation, inflation, price controls, trade interference, national economic planning, and attacks on private property, and their impact on human rights and economic development.

I would add that an entire book could be written on the seemingly simple question of "were the Nazi's socialist?"  Because the civics textbooks we had as kids included that stupid "heads I win, tails you lose" political spectrum from communism on the Left to Nazis on the Right, many folks think of the Nazis as "conservative."  And while they received some conservative support for their nationalism and militarism, the Nazis were not conservative -- they were revolutionaries and thought of themselves that way.  They were absolutely against the status quo.    The problem was figuring out what they were revolutionaries FOR.  One Nazi once answered that question as "we're for the opposite."  Which made sense to Germans who had lived through economic hell, but it is not very specific.

There were many socialists in the upper ranks of the Nazis.  It can be said that Hitler seemed less enthusiastic about socialism but in general Hitler was surprisingly indolent about being more specific or making decisions on any policy details.  He preferred that his folks just fight it out (again, see Speer's book).  Folks often assume Hitler hated socialism because he was outwardly so anti-communist.  But I get the impression that he hated socialists and communists, but maybe did not hate their policies -- a bit like a Republican voter might vehemently hate Obamacare but in a poll support most of its individual prescriptions.   To illustrate this, he did not rant against communism but something called judeo-bolshevism, which sounds more like a made up enemy than a description of a set of specific policies.

 

** Including arguments that it did not fall -- eg that it continued for another 1000 years as the Byzantine Empire (who called themselves Romans right to the end) or that it continued through Visigothic and Ostrogothic culture that looked a lot like Roman culture.

The Effect of the Black Death on Labor and Grain Prices

Long time readers will know that if I were asked to relive my life doing something entirely different, I would like to try studying economic history.  Today, in a bit of a coincidence, my son called me with a question about the effect of the Black Death in Europe on labor and grain prices ... just days after I had been learning about the exact same part of history in Professor Daileader's awesome Teaching Company course on the Middle Ages (actually he has three courses - early, high, late - which are all excellent).

From the beginning of the 14th century, Europe suffered a series of demographic disasters.  Climate change in the form of the end of the Medieval warm period led to failed crops and several years of famine early in the century.  Then, later in the century, the Black Death came... over and over, perhaps made worse by the fact that Europeans were weakened already from famine.  As a result, the population of Europe dropped by something like half.

It is not entirely obvious to me what such a demographic disaster would do to prices.  Panic and uncertainty usually drive them up in the near term, but what about after that?  Both the supply and demand curves for most everything will be dropping in tandem.  So what happens to prices?

In the case of the 14th century, we know the answer:  the price of labor rose dramatically, while the price of grain dropped.  The combination tended to bankrupt the landholding aristocracy, who went so far as to try to reimpose serfdom to get their finances back in balance (some things never change).  The nobility pretty much failed at this in the West (England, France) and were met with a series of peasant revolts.  They generally succeeded in the East (Germany, Poland, Russia) which is why a quasi-feudal agricultural system persisted so long in those countries.

But why?  Why did grain price go down rather than up?  Why did labor go in the opposite direction?  I could look it up, but that is no fun.

A first answer, which does not satisfy

People who think of all of the middle ages as "the dark ages" miss the boom that occurred between 1000-1300.  Population increased, and technology advanced (just because this technology seems pedestrian to us, like the plow harness for horses or the stirrup, does not make it any less so).  It was the only time between about 300 and 1500 when the population was growing (a fact we climate skeptics will note coincided with the Medieval warm period).

But even without the setbacks of the 1300's, historians probably would argue that Europe was headed for a Malthusian collapse no matter what in the 14th century.   An enormous amount of forest had been cleared and new farmland created, such that by 1300 some pretty marginal land was being farmed just so Europe could barely keep up with demand.  At the margin, really low productivity land was being farmed.

So if there is a sudden 50% population cut, then that means that all that marginal farm land will be abandoned first.  While the number of farmers would be cut in half, production would be reduced by less than half because presumably the least productive farms would be abandoned first.  With demand cut by half and production cut by less than half, prices would fall for grain.

But this doesn't work for labor.  The same argument should apply.  To get everyone fed, we would actually need less than half the prior labor force because they would concentrate on the best land.  Labor prices should fall in this model as well, but in fact they went up.  A lot.  In fact, they went up not by a few percent but by multiples, enough to cause enormous social problems across Europe.

A second answer, that makes more sense

After thinking about this for a while, I came to realize that I had the wrong model for the economy in my head.  I was thinking about our modern economy.   If suddenly, say, online retailing reduces demand for physical stores dramatically, people close stores and redeploy capital and labor and assets to other investments in other industries.  That is how I was thinking about the Middle Ages.

But it may be more correct to see the Middle Ages as a one product economy.  There was agriculture, period.  Everything else was a rounding error.

So now let's think about the "farmers" in the Middle Ages.  They are primarily all the 1%, the titled nobility, who either farm big estates with peasant labor or lease large parts of their estates to peasants for farming.

OK, half the population is suddenly gone.  The Noble's family has lots of death but someone is still around to inherit.  They have a big estate where growing grain supports their lifestyle as well as any military obligations they may have to their lord (though this style of fighting with knights on horseback supported by grants of land is having its last hurrah in the 100 years war).

Then grain prices collapse.  That is a clear pricing signal.  In the modern economy, that would tell us to get out and find a new place for our capital.  So, as Lord Coyote of the Castle Aaaaargh, I am going to do what, exactly?  How can I redeploy my capital, when it is essentially illiquid?  I can't sell the family land.  And if I did, land prices, along with grain prices and the demographic collapse, are falling through the floor.  And even if I could sell for cash, what would I do for a living?  What would I reinvest the money in?  Running an estate is all I know.  It's all anyone knows.  I have to support myself and my 3 mistresses and my squires and my string of warhorses.

All I can do is try to farm the land I have always farmed.  And everyone else does the same.  The result is far more grain than anyone needs with the reduced population, so prices fall.   But I still need the same number of people to grow the food, irregardless of the price it fetches, but there are now half as many workers available so the price of labor goes through the roof.  When grain demand collapsed, there was no way to clear the excess capacity.  It turns out everyone had a nearly vertical supply curve, because irregardless of price, they had nothing else they could do with their time and money.  You can see now why they tried to solve their problem by reimposing serfdom (combined with price controls, a bad idea for Diocletian and for Nixon and everyone in between).

Of course, nothing is stuck forever.   One way capacity cleared was through the growth of the bureaucratic state over the next 2 centuries.  Nobles eventually had to find some new way to support themselves, and did so by taking jobs in growing state bureaucracies.  They became salaried ministers rather than feudal knights supported by agriculture.  At the same time, rising wealth among the 99% non-nobility allowed kings to support themselves through taxes rather than the granting of fiefs, which in turn paid for the nobility to take jobs in the bureaucracy and paid for peasant armies with guns and bows that replaced the lords fighting on horseback.  So in the long term, the price signal was inordinately powerful -- so powerful it helped reshape much of European government and society.

By the way, if you are reading this expecting some point about modern politics, sorry.  Just something I was thinking about and it helped to write it down.  Comments are appreciated.  I still have not cribbed the answer from the history texts yet.

Teaching Company Sale

I have bought numerous audio and video Teaching Company courses and have never been disappointed.  Until tomorrow they are having a 70% off sale on many of their courses.

A few I have heard and would recommend:

History of the US

History of London

Big History

American Civil War

Chinese History

Modern Western Civ (I am doing this one now)

Early Middle Ages (one of three by same professor on the Middle Ages.  All three are awesome)  here is late Middle Ages

History of Ancient Rome (not rated as well on this site but this is probably my favorite)

World War I

World War II

I am kind of amazed how long the list is, but I have actually listened to several others I would not recommend or that are not on sale.

Update: Use coupon code VFRC to get an additional $20 if you spend over $50.  By the way, I don't get any commissions.  I just believe in the product.

Awsome Idea, Even if it is Yale

Time to short those shares of the Teaching Company.  Yale is offering free videos of many of its introductory courses. HT:  Carpe Diem