barbed wire

Did barbed wire put cowboys out of work?

Barbed wire itself was patented in the U.S. in 1867 and a machine for its manufacture in 1874.

EB gives the bare bones on the barbs, but Wikipedia (“barbed wire”), which is quoted below, gives the social implications.

Barbed wire played an important role in the protection of range rights in the Western U.S. It was a much better solution than wooden fences, plain wire fences and planting thorny bushes like the Osage orange.

One fan wrote the inventor Joseph Glidden:

it takes no room, exhausts no soil, shades no vegetation, is proof against high winds, makes no snowdrifts, and is both durable and cheap.

Barbed wire is often cited by historians as the invention that truly tamed the West. Herding large numbers of cattle on open terrain required significant manpower just to catch strays, but with an inexpensive method to divide, sub-divide and allocate parcels of land to control the movement of cattle, the need for a vast labor force became unnecessary. By the beginning of the 20th century the need for significant numbers of cowboys was not necessary.  Some historians have dated the end of the Old West era of American history to the invention and subsequent proliferation of barbed wire.

Weird and scary sidenote:  Barbed wire is also frequently used as a weapon in hardcore professional wrestling matches, often as a covering for another type of weapon—Mick Foley was infamous for using a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire—and infrequently as a covering of or substitute for the ring ropes.  It seems that a glut of entertainment options will inevitably lead to more and more extreme forms as entrepreneurs attempt to stand out from the noise.


American soldier being hazed (1904) by being thrown high in the air.

Have you ever been initiated or even hazed?  If so, was it a good experience, ultimately?

The Banda are an ethnic group in the Central African Republic, and I found that two aspects of their culture raised interesting questions.

Britannica states that “[t]hey used age grades and initiations called semali to assure unity in time of war.”  This made me wonder why military organizations so often have initiations or hazings.  According to Wikipedia (“Initiation”), initiations often act out a ritual death, which helps conquer the fear of a real death.  They help boys become men, and they help people accept spiritual realities.  These purposes do seem appropriate for the military.

Psychologists have this to say about initiations:

In the study of certain social forms of initiation, as hazing in college fraternities and sororities, laboratory experiments in psychology suggest that severe initiations produce cognitive dissonance [conflicting thoughts that need to be reconciled somehow].  Dissonance is then thought to produce feelings of strong group attraction among initiates after the experience, because they want to justify the effort used.  Rewards during initiations have important consequences in that initiates who feel more rewarded express stronger group identity.  As well as group attraction, initiations can also produce conformity among new members [as do uniforms and similar haircuts].  Psychology experiments have also shown that initiations increase feelings of affiliation. (Wikipedia, “Initiation”)

I was also interested in some economic aspects of Banda society.  According to Britannica,  “Marriage traditionally required bride wealth [a payment from grooms to brides’ families], often in iron implements.  Polygamy, while still practiced, has declined with the rise of a money economy.”

I wonder why the rise of a money economy (which I assume is more efficient and prosperous than a barter economy) would lead to less polygamy.  I also wondered whether polygamy is primarily an economic phenomenon or has other causes.

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Are misspelled ads an opportunity to make money on eBay?  Is there a strategy for “Rock, Paper, Scissors”?  Why do lobbyists spend so little money to influence our politics?  Why are online betting sites better at predicting election results than pollsters like Gallup?

All these and other questions were raised by the article on auctions.  The EB‘s article is fairly brief, defining English auctions (with ascending prices) and Dutch auctions (used for tulips, with descending prices), but giving little history.  Wikipedia points out that in 193 A.D. the Praetorian Guard put the entire Roman Empire up for auction in 193 A.D.  (Giving new meaning to the phrase “Winner’s Curse,” the auction winner was later beheaded after a civil war.)

I started wondering about the mathematics and strategies behind auctions.  Is one form of auction (e.g., silent, English, Dutch) always better than another, or do some auction forms suit some products better than others?  What strategies and tactics tend to produce auction wins?  Are there behaviors that harm everyone in an auction?  It turns out that economists have done a lot of work in the game theory of auctions.  Here are some fun facts about auctions, with a bit of game theory thrown in occasionally.

1)  In a form of “auction arbitrage,” some people seek out misspelled ads on eBay (e.g., labtop, saphire, or dimond), knowing that there will be fewer bidders and thus lower prices.  They buy at a low price and immediately resell at the “correct” price (

2)  Takashi Hashiyama, president of a Japanese electronics firm, couldn’t decide which auction house to use to unload the company’s art collection.  He decided to use “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”  Sotheby’s left it to chance, and Christie’s used scissors to beat their rival’s paper (  Mathematicians have suggested that if there is only one round of the game, chance is the best strategy, but if there is more than one round certain reactions to your opponent’s play will give an edge (

3)  Why do the 35,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. spend only $2 billion every year trying to influence Congress?  If government spending is $10 trillion for every 4-year election cycle, either lobbyists are getting a fabulous bargain when they “buy” our government, or our government is only .1% corrupt.  You decide (

4)  In the last four presidential contests, the Iowa Electronic Market’s market price odds on the eve of election were off by an average of just 1.37 percent — better than Gallup, which had error margins of between 1.5 and 2 percent.  It is thought that such auctions tap into a consensus of the more well-informed (

5)  If you spend much time on eBay, you’re very familiar with sniping, which is attempting to win an auction with a bid at the last possible moment.  This is a very old tactic.  In some parts of England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries auction by candle began to be used for the sale of goods.  The end of the auction was signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid.  One highly successful bidder had observed that, just before expiring, a candle-wick always flares up slightly.  On seeing this, he would shout his final — and winning — bid.  Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle. (

So, the next time you are watching the television show Storage Wars, and you see Dave Hester trying to bid up a unit and dump it on someone else, ask yourself “What does game theory have to say about this?”

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Atlanta Compromise


Are black Americans truly integrated into American culture?  If, instead, they are a separate nation within a nation, is America in trouble?

In the debate over illegal immigration,  It is a common complaint that many Mexican immigrants never truly become Americans in the “melting pot” sense.  They never adopt our language and customs and become within a few generations indistinguishable from the rest of America.

History tells me that any nation without a common culture is destined to break apart, so I share these concerns.

But what if there is a problem with the melting pot that is even more longstanding and serious than Mexican immigration, and that is black America?

It is clear that there is a cultural divide between black America and white America.  The differences are most obvious in language and music, but it is easy to think of other examples, such as names blacks give to their children (DeShawn, DeAndre, Demetrius, Jamal, Shanice, Jasmin, Aliyah, and Roshanda)( and the separate black dorms one often sees on college campuses.

Booker T. Washington was in favor of social separation.  In his Atlanta Compromise Speech of 1895, he said that “[i]n all things that are purely social we [whites and blacks] can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress (”

“Washington asserted that vocational education, which gave blacks an opportunity for economic security, was more valuable to them than social advantages, higher education, or political office….In return for African Americans remaining peaceful and socially separate from whites, the white community needed to accept responsibility for improving the social and economic conditions of all Americans regardless of skin colour (EB).”

However, even with segregation laws abolished in the 1960’s, it seems that blacks have self-segregated, freely choosing to be “separate but equal.”  Is this separation, often in the name of racial pride, really worth it if studies show, for example, that distinctively black names on resumes get fewer callbacks (  (See also this interesting Freakonomics article on distinctively black names

Another thing that struck me was Washington’s warning that blacks “shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third [of] its intelligence and progress,” depending on whether whites chose to hire blacks.  I was really struck by the sad fact that, despite educational and vocational opportunities for blacks that are far greater than those available in 1895, blacks constitute a very large percentage of people incarcerated.  (The reasons for this go far beyond the scope of this article.  Black economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have discussed this with far better skill and evidence than I could muster, and I highly recommend their writings.  Spoiler alert: It’s not racism, but failed social and economic policies that have done the most damage to black America.)

Washington also warned that blacks should not “permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”  Unfortunately, I think this is exactly what has happened today.  We have an entire industry based on grievances.   It is run by race hustlers who profit by extorting money from corporations and communities in exchange for promises not to incite boycotts or even riots.

The final thing that struck me was Washington’s comment that “[n]o race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”  This sounds very similar to the main argument for Western trade with China, wherein it was claimed that capitalism would lead to political freedom for the Chinese people.  Cuba, however, has traded with everyone in the world other than the U.S. and yet remains a Communist slave state.  This makes me wonder if free markets really are the catalyst for political freedom that people claim.  It seems to run the other way, with political freedom a necessary pre-condition for economic freedom.

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The Arthashastra is an “important Indian manual on the art of politics (EB).”  It identifies its author by the name “Kauṭilya,” among others (Wikipedia).

As I read about it, I immediately thought of Machiavelli’s book The Prince, which for Westerners is the standard guide to political ruthlessness.  Apparently, though, Machiavelli is a bit tame.  According to Wikipedia:

Because of its harsh political pragmatism, the Arthashastra has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Is there any other book that talks so openly about when using violence is justified? When assassinating an enemy is useful? When killing domestic opponents is wise? How one uses secret agents? When one needs to sacrifice one’s own secret agent? How the king can use women and children as spies and even assassins? When a nation should violate a treaty and invade its neighbor? Kautilya — and to my knowledge only Kautilya — addresses all those questions. In what cases must a king spy on his own people? How should a king test his ministers, even his own family members, to see if they are worthy of trust? When must a king kill a prince, his own son, who is heir to the throne? How does one protect a king from poison? What precautions must a king take against assassination by one’s own wife? When is it appropriate to arrest a troublemaker on suspicion alone? When is torture justified? At some point, every reader wonders: Is there not one question that Kautilya found immoral, too terrible to ask in a book? No, not one. And this is what brings a frightful chill. But this is also why Kautilya was the first great, unrelenting political realist.

—Boesche (2002, p. 1)

Max Weber observed:

Truly radical ‘Machiavellianism’, in the popular sense of that word, is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthasastra of Kautilya (written long before the birth of Christ, ostensibly in the time of Chandragupta): compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.

—Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation (1919)

However, these aspects form just one of the 15 books that comprise the Arthaśāstra. The scope of the work is far broader than popular perceptions indicate, and in the treatise can also be found compassion for the poor, for servants and slaves, and for women. For instance, Kautilya advocates what is now known as land reform, and elsewhere ensures the protection of the chastity of female servants or prisoners.  Significant portions of the book also cover the role of dharma, welfare of a kingdom’s subjects and alleviating hardship in times of disaster, such as famine.

It would be interesting to read Arthashastra‘s advice on torture and compare it with current arguments in the age of terrorism.

armed force

Is America an empire in decline?

“The size, strength, and sophistication of an armed force is ultimately dependent on two factors: (1) a nation’s economic resources and (2) its population (more specifically, those between the ages of roughly 18 and 40.”

This is troubling on both counts.  The United States is clearly in trouble financially.  Our official debt is around 14 trillion dollars, about the same as our total economic output in one year.  If our debt were calculated using the same accounting principles that private companies are required to follow by law, it would include unfunded liabilities that are currently off the books.  Our true debt would then be at least 70 trillion, with some estimates as high as 202 trillion.  This, the largest debt in the history of the world (, is unsustainable, and it has real consequences.  Previous empires (e.g., the France of Louis XVI, the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire) have all collapsed due to excessive spending, and America is not immune to the laws of economics.

The other troubling aspect is demographics.  The United States, like Europe and Japan, has a declining birthrate.  We have more and more elderly who expect to be supported by a smaller and smaller number of young people.  The pool of native-born young people for our military to draw from is declining.  The only growth in the younger population comes from immigration, which leads to a third concern, patriotism.

After pointing out the weaknesses of an army dependent on conscription or mercenaries, the Britannica points out that “[i]t is obvious that an army of volunteers bound together by ideals such as patriotism would be an exceptional fighting force.”

The concern is this: Is there a net increase or decrease in patriotism in the long run?  In our native population the trend since the Watergate era has been toward more cynicism regarding government.  The upsurge in patriotic sentiment after 9/11 seems to have waned.  It’s hard to argue that the public schools and media are doing anything to increase patriotism.

What about our immigrants?  We have abandoned the “melting pot” model of immigration whereby immigrants give up their ethnic identities and become truly American in their language and customs.  We now have an ideal called the “tossed salad,” whereby immigrants keep their languages and customs and live near Americans but do not become Americans.  The result is Balkanization, with diversity becoming the fatal weakness it was always destined to be rather than the strength that we were always told that it is.

The future, unfortunately, portends a weaker U.S. military and hence a weaker country, I’m sad to say.  The only solutions are a reduction in government spending that would border on the miraculous and a return to sensible immigration and acculturation practices.  Brief periods of budget surpluses and Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback have shown that we can take the steps necessary, but it is unlikely that we have the political will to take such steps at the magnitude and for the duration required today.