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15 March, 2013

Notes From All Over (15/03/13): Rome, Banks, and China

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

TOP BILLING

Rue the Ides
Burt Likko. League of Ordinary Gentleman. 15 March 2013.

This is one of the best treatments of Caesar and his times yet published on the blogosphere. A few money quotes:
After all nearly two centuries of history that preceded Caesar’s rise to power demonstrated that in order for the government of Rome to be effective, it took a blue-blooded strongman brushing aside the niceties of the anti-autocratic but ossified constitution to actually do something. And that same history demonstrated to him that the public admired success much more than it did formal adherence to the law – which had grown too complex, too much a creation of the elite, and too distant from the realities of daily life and popular culture, to matter all that much to the average Roman on the street. The formalities of government were for the elites to worry about, not the common man functionally unaffected by them; justice was obtained through informal means and not through the courts....

The concept of a principled government with principled parties grappling over competing visions of the best course of action for society as a whole had gone by the wayside long before Caesar’s time. A system where that sort of self-government was a practical reality turned out not to be possible once Rome grew much beyond a territory of roughly the size of the present-day state of Connecticut. The institutional momentum was, slowly perhaps but inevitably, going to the more efficient model of one-man rule and military dictatorship, both out of necessity and as an outgrowth of the intensely competitive political arena in which Roman elites wrestled with one another – eventually, there is a winner to all political battles. If it hadn’t been Caesar who won, it would have been somebody...

It would have taken someone, or a group of someones, with a substantial vision of what was going to happen after the dictator was taken out of the picture. The liberators were not those someones. Their whole plan was to put some steel in one guy as if he were the disease, and not just the symptom; once Caesar was gone, somehow things would just magically revert back to “normal,” a normal that hadn’t existed for a hundred years.

The liberators did not think about institutions. They did not think about culture. They did not think about logistics. They did not think about government. They did not think about the contradiction inherent in a lawless act done in the name of preserving the law. They did not think about the immediate political aftermath.

Read the whole thing.


CULTURE

The Bailinghou
James Palmer. Aeon Magazine. 7 March 2013.

There are a lot of cliches about Chinese society that are spread around by commentators who have not had many actual interactions with Chinese people. This essay is both a refreshing break from this tradition and a fantastic introduction to changing society of modern China.

The older generation's worries about individualism and laziness are very real. I am reminded of an experience I had serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Of the thousands of people I met over the course of those two years, one of the families I grew most attached to was a Chinese mother and daughter who had traveled to America so that the mother (who had a PHD in developmental psychology) could do some research with American colleagues. Religion in general is stamped out in mainland China, and unlike Western atheists jaded by the experiences with religion, the whole thing is rather mysterious and unknown to them. Almost all of the Chinese people I met had an insatiable curiosity as to how such an "irrational" activity could have such a hold on the Americans they interacted with every day. This mother was particularly taken by the devotion and service-driven lives of Mormon teenagers she encountered. She worried incessantly that her daughter – the only child of two only children, the sole focus of 3 generations – could not learn to serve others or think outside of her own narrow desires in China. She often admitted that much of her interest in having us visit the family was her hope that a belief in God might lead her daughter away from the selfish ethos of modern China; her first meaningful experience with prayer came when as she prayed for her daughter to have a desire to be a part of the Church.

A few other reporters have recently published articles of note on modern Chinese culture:

The Price of Marriage in China
Brook Larmer. New York Times. 8 March 2013.

China: The Orient Excess
People and Power. Al Jazeera. 21 February 2013.

The blog ChinaSmack is another good resource for those seeking a more complete view of bailinghou society.  

THE REPUBLIC

Bankistan Vanquishes America
Barry Riholtz. The Big Picture. 15 March 2013.

Profits in the New America: Lobbyists Drill From the Public Treasury
"Fabius Maximus." Fabius Maximus blog. 13 March 2013.

Both posts are jammed pack full of useful links. 

HISTORY

The Size of the Economy and Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire
Walter Schneidal and Steven Frieson. Journal of Roman Studies. vol 99. November 2009.

I tend to rely on Angus Maddison's historical statistics (see my sidebar) for historical data of this type. Mr. Schneidal and Fieson convincingly argue that Maddison and others underestimates per capita GDP of Empire, placing it at approximately $700 USD (1991). (Maddison in contrast, places it around $600). They also estimate the top 1% of Roman populace captured 16%-29% of the empire's annual income - a truly astonishing number when we realize that the resources they controlled were essentially static in nature. Unlike Maddison, they do not attempt to model the GDP per capita on a province-by-province basis.

Southeast Asian Scripts and Sanskrit
Al West. West's Meditations. 24 February 2013.

MILITARY AFFAIRS

Is The End of the Aircraft Carrier Nigh? The Rapid Decline of Carrier Navies
Sir Humprhey. Thin Pinstriped Line. 1 March 2013.

ENERGY

China's Rag-tag Shale Army a Long Way From a Revolution
Chen Aisu. Reuters. 10 March 2013.

What are you reading?

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