Posts tagged ‘East Germany’

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.

Fall of the Wall

The fall of the Berlin wall is probably one of the 3-4 "Where-were-you-when..." events that I remember in my lifetime.  I remember turning on the TV and seeing people dancing on top of the wall and being struck with a strong sense of cognitive dissonance, wondering if I was watching some war-of-the-worlds style fiction.  I don't remember even today if this was a surprising event to the whole world, of if it was just I who was holed up in some ignore-the-outside-world zone, but it certainly was a stunning surprise to me.

It was truly a great day, in my mind more great than 9/11 was bad, so it is kind of amazing to me how much it is already almost forgotten.  In the late 1970's, I had the opportunity to take the East Berlin tour through Checkpoint Charlie to see the wrong side of the wall.   Many Americans I have talked to had the same reaction to this tour -- that it was meant to be one long propaganda spiel for communist East Germany but in fact was pathetically self-mocking.  The propaganda failed because even the writers of the propaganda could not conceive of how wealthy the west was compared to the East.  So when they bragged that 70% of the residents had running water or that "almost" all of the city had been rebuilt from the war 30 years later, Westerners were unimpressed.

Update: Remembering the victims of communism.

Are CO2 Initiatives Already Working?

Cameron Scott argues this when he says:

It's funny how green-haters accuse greens of being catastrophists, and then argue that cutting carbon emissions will destroy our economy and send us back to the Dark Ages. (See the trailer of Phelem McAleer's Not Evil Just Wrong for a prime example.)

Well, the last pooh-pooh is on them: It turns out we're already cutting emissions in the United States. Sure, some of that is due to a sluggish economy. But negative economic circumstances don't account for the 9 percent reduction in carbon emissions since 2007. In fact, the amount of carbon dioxide produced for every dollar of economic output declined by 3.8 percent in 2008.

I responded:

I really wish you would apply your analytical abilities to equities so I would have some way to bet against you.

Had you looked, you would see that the US has been reducing the CO2 intensity for a unit of economic output for decades. Here is the first source I found online but there are zillions.  In terms of improvement, the US has done better on this metric in the last 20 years than nearly any other country in the world, and just as well as the best (e.g. Germany)

So what you tell is not a new story, and has nothing to do with recent governmental dictats or pleas by environmentalists and everything to do with the ongoing incentives of individuals and businesses to reduce costs and be more efficient.

The reason our total Co2 output has not decreased is that while CO2 per unit of GDP (I will call this CO2 efficiency) has improved 2-4 percent per year, our GDP has grown the same rate or faster. So our overall CO2 output is flat to up (and has actually been down the last few years). One of the main reasons Europe has done better than the US in total CO2 reductions is not improvements in CO2 efficiency, but because their economies have lagged. They bent over backwards in Kyoto to make 1990 the baseline year, so they could include the horrible economies of Russia and East Germany which were in the process of crashing, thus giving them an automatic CO2 reduction for nothing.

Anyway, just look at your own numbers. In the year before, we got about 3% improvement in Co2 efficiency and had about 3% economic growth so CO2 output was flat to down. Last year we had about 3% improvement in Co2 efficiency and the economy was down a lot and thus CO2 was down a lot. When there are two variables in a function, and only one is changing, most logical people attribute the change in output of the function (ie changes in total CO2 output) to the variable that changed (ie economic growth). You, for some reason, attribute changes in the output to the variable (co2 efficiency improvements) which basically remained unchanged. Nice analysis.

You can even see it in your numbers. If CO2 efficiency is up 3.8 percent and Co2 output is down 9 percent, then that means the economic growth/size component has to be down 5.4% (.91/.962 - 1). So almost 60% of the "improvement" is due to a very bad recession and 10% unemployment, but you attribute it to the unchanging 40% piece.

Did anyone in the environmental movement study math or economics?

Is That A Gun, Or Are Your Just Happy To See Me?

I say a sign the other day at the airport that full-body millimeter-wave imaging was coming soon to the Phoenix airport.  I guess this was pretty inevitable, and has certainly been predicted in many movies, including Total Recall:

I can't really decide if this is any more invasive and humiliating than what we already do, ie get undressed, put our medications and creams in clear plastic bags for all to inspect, and subject ourselves to full-body pat downs.  For my part, based on this and numerous other humiliations, I am working as hard as I can to minimize how often I fly.  JD Tuccille has more, and observes that body cavity searches aren't just for airplanes any more:

If you think that air travel is starting to resemble a very-expensive
East Germany-nostalgia tour and you'd prefer a less-intrusive
alternative, you might consider traveling by train. Well, except, not
on Amtrak, which implemented random bag searches, armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs earlier this year.

Even local travel is iffy, since New York City has been subjecting subway passengers to annoying searches for the past three years. Los Angeles's MetroLink implemented a similar policy this week, apparently just so officials there wouldn't feel left out. Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell told the Los Angeles Times

As a postscript, I had a meeting the other day with the National Park Service in Denver.  To get inside - remember this is the park service, no other agency shares this building - I had to give up my driver's license, have all my bags searched, and go through an X-ray machine.  Does anyone think that maybe we have lost some perspective when I have to go through full-on invasive security to discuss merchandising at a gift shop?

The US Erects Its Own Version of the Berlin Wall

Though I would not want to trade my income taxes with those paid by Europeans, there is at least one area where the US has the worst tax regime in the world.  The specific area is the double standard the US applied on eligibility of income when other countries are involved.  For citizens of other countries, the US applies the standard that taxation is based on where one earns their income, so citizens of, say, France that are working in the US must pay US taxes.  However, for citizens of the US, the government reverses its standard.  In this case, the US applies the standard that taxation is based on citizenship, so US citizens must pay taxes on their income, even if it is all earned living in a foreign country.  Since most countries of the world apply the first standard  (which is also the standard individual states in the US apply), US expats find their income double taxed between the US and the country they are living in.

But now, it is just getting worse:

Queues of frustrated foreigners crowd many an American
consulate around the world hoping to get into the United States. Less
noticed are the heavily taxed American expatriates wanting to get out "”
by renouncing their citizenship. In Hong Kong just now, they cannot.
"Please note that this office cannot accept renunciation applications
at this time," the consulate's website states. Apart from sounding like
East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the closure is
unfortunately timed. Because of pending legislation on President Bush's
desk that is expected to become law by June 16th, any American who
wants to surrender his passport has only a few days to do so before
facing an enormous penalty.

"¦Congress has turned on expats, especially those who, since new tax
laws in 2006, have become increasingly eager to give up their
citizenship to escape the taxman. Under the proposed legislation,
expatriates surrendering their citizenship with a net worth of $2m or
more, or a high income, will have to act as if they have sold all their
worldwide assets at a fair market price.

"¦That expats want to leave at all is evidence of America's odd tax
system. Along with citizens of North Korea and a few other countries,
Americans are taxed based on their citizenship, rather than where they
live. So they usually pay twice "” to their host country and the
Internal Revenue Service. As this makes citizenship less palatable,
Congress has erected large barriers to stop them jumping ship. "¦[I]t
may have the opposite effect. Under the new structure, it would make
financial sense for any young American working overseas with a
promising career to renounce his citizenship as early as possible,
before his assets accumulate.

This is simply awful, and is another example of fascism in the name of egalitarianism (the fear is that a few rich people will move to tax havens to avoid US taxes).  Add up your net worth - equity in your house, retirement savings, etc - and imagine having to pay 35% of that as a big bribe tax to the US government to let you leave the country.