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Archive for November 2014

In memory of Phillip Hughes

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Kids in Mumbai, India pay tribute to the memory of Phillip Hughes. Source.

Kids in Mumbai, India pay tribute to the memory of Phillip Hughes. Source.

The reaction to the death of Phillip Hughes this week has been nothing short of overwhelming. Hughes died tragically after being hit on the head by a bouncer playing in an Australian provincial cricket game. He lost conciousness less than 10 seconds after being hit, and never regained it. His death was announced two days later. Here is the report in Australian media showing on-field events.

Tributes to Hughes’ family and team mates have poured in from all over the world. His death has touched me and my cricket-loving friends too. Even though we are all amateur cricket players, playing at school and university and perhaps the odd club game afterwards, we share in the camaraderie of the game. As batsmen, we have had to face fast bowling too, and shared the fear and doubt of playing the short ball. There is always the risk of misjudging a pull shot or the bad luck of an uneven pitch. Hughes’ freak accident, and it is nothing more than that, has put all these doubts in perspective.

Google pay tribute too

Google pays tribute too.

How cricket is played will not change much because of this event. Bowlers will – and should – continue to bowl bouncers. If anything, I suspect more batsmen worldwide will 1) understand the importance of wearing a helmet, and 2) be more circumspect in their approach to playing the bouncer. (This includes kids: I still have the scars of a bouncer that hit my mouth in grade 11. Only then did I realise that a helmet was essential.) But I suspect the psychological and emotional scars will run much deeper. Hughes was the smile, the friendly face of the Australian team. Not only that, but he was the nexus of an Australian team that was often divided. Here are the opening lines of the obituary on Cricinfo:

Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting. David Warner and Shane Watson. Simon Katich and Justin Langer. Brad Haddin and Matthew Wade. Darren Lehmann and Brett Lee.

These strong men of Australian cricket have often had very little in common. Their competitiveness, pride and differences of opinion have caused plenty of arguments and disagreements. Apart from the baggy-green cap, there was often only one thing that they all agreed on: Phillip Hughes.

His death will make all these squabbles seem petty. The impact on the Australian team can already be seen in this touching press-conference by Australian captain Michael Clarke earlier today. Spare a moment for Sean Abbott, too, the bowler who had probably bowled hundreds of bouncers like that in his career. He will find it hard to return to the playing field.

It is often after tragic events that we re-evaluate what we do and why we do it. The next time I walk in to bat, I will do so with a smile on my face.


Written by Johan Fourie

November 29, 2014 at 07:18

The fruit of the vine

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Signatures of some of the French Huguenot migrants to South Africa. Source.

As I write this in my cozy hotel room, I hear lions growl in the background. Next to my window, guinea fowl do what they do best: squeal with a voice that evolution would find difficult to explain. Somewhere a donkey hee-haws its own contribution to the cacophony. At 5am it’s still supposed to be silent night. But not in Pretoria. The sun is rising. Welcome to Africa.

Pretoria is a different country, and so is the past. I recently read Elsa Joubert’s The Hunchback Missionary, a book of historical fiction first published in Afrikaans in 1989 about a Dutch missionary traveling to the Cape around the year 1800 with the purpose to bring Christianity to an uncivilized world. In the end, it’s Aart Anthonij van der Lingen, the hunchback missionary, whose worldview is challenged by what he sees and experiences in the wilderness of the Northern Cape and the Eastern Frontier. It’s a world we would find difficult to imagine: months of painfully  slow travel, constant threats from wild animals and unknown peoples, and utter, deadly loneliness. The Business Day reviews it here. I would recommend the book if only for one scene that is inexplicably sad and shocking and unexpected and vivid that I am unable to banish it from my memory. You’ll know which one it is when you read the book.

What historical fiction books like these do for me is to contextualize the often dry economic history I investigate. Consider the French Huguenots. When the Huguenots fled France in 1685 following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they settled across the Western world. Many moved across the English Channel and settled in London. Others moved to similarly familiar places like Switzerland and Germany. Here they continued to make telling contributions to the local economy. A recent paper by Erik Hornung published in the American Economic Review shows, for example, how Huguenot migrants stimulated textile production in German, then known as Prussia.

But others, far fewer in number, decided to move to the Cape. What could they have possibly known about this small colony at the bottom tip of the massive African continent? What made them come to the Cape than to England or Europe or even America, where there were at least a large number of European settlers already? (At the Cape in 1685, there were about 400 settler families.) We don’t know, although we do know what they did when they got here: most founded farms in the Drakenstein region and began planting wheat and barley. Some planted vines. The Huguenot memorial in Franschhoek documents their arrival and early struggles and eventual contribution to South African society. (They continue to have: consider, for example, the current captain of the Proteas cricket team and Springbok rugby team.) But even though we know much about their social and cultural activities, there has been little attempt to quantify the economic impact of the 150 or so French Huguenots that arrived in the Cape Colony in 1688. In 2009 when I just started my PhD, Dieter von Fintel and I decided to see whether we could somehow find a way to identify whether the Huguenots were somehow different than their settler counterparts. We used eighteenth-century tax censuses to estimate the productivity of the French settlers and their descendants. The results of these investigations were published in the December issue of the Economic History Review. (An older working paper version is available here.)

We follow a novel approach to identify not only how much more productive French Huguenots were in making wine, but why they were so productive. We do this by tracing the origin district of each French family that arrived at the Cape, which allow them to split the sample between those that arrive from wine-producing regions and those that arrived from wheat-producing regions. We then show that those from wine-producing regions were more productive winemakers at the Cape than their counterpart Huguenots that originated from wheat-producing regions.

What is even more surprising is that this productivity bonus persisted for at least 80 years, in other words, for more than two generations. One would expect that those families with some skills in making wine would have an initial advantage, but that this would disappear as other families learn from them or intermarry. Yet we find the exact opposite result: the gap between the descendants of Huguenots who originally came from wine-producing regions and those who originally came from wheat-producing regions widened.

The reason, we suggest, is because families protected the knowledge of making good quality wine. Eighteenth century wine was typically bad tasting, so ‘good quality’ here simply refers to wine that would last several months, long enough for a ship to sail to India. OF Mentzel, a traveller in the 1730s, explained it thus: “There is no doubt that many colonists at the Cape do indeed know the secret of preparing good wine and therefore wines are made which stand the test, and grow mellower with age: but they are not such fools as to give away their secret and thus make the good wines more common.”

So what was the economic impact of the Huguenots? Their greater productivity in wine-making meant that wine production expanded significantly a few years after their arrival. Different to stock and wheat farming, though, viticulture required (and still requires, although mechanisation is finally changing this requirement) large numbers of labourers during harvest season. There was a shortage of labour at the Cape, and so the expansion in viticulture forced the Company to import more slaves from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and, later, Mozambique. The fruit of the vine, we argue, was the beginning of South African (racial) inequality.

It’s 6am. The sun is already high. For some reason the lions, guinea fowl and lone donkey have fallen silent. Time for this Huguenot-descendant and missionary of the African economic history gospel to get to work.

Lessons from a computer game

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Those who know me well, know that one of my secret indulgences is playing Civilization, a computer game that let’s you build a virtual empire. I don’t remember when and where I first encountered Civ, but I do remember spending countless hours over weekends and school holidays building my Egyptian, French or Zulu empire. I’m glad that as a student I never owned a computer with the specs necessary to play, as I’m pretty sure it would have cost me another year at varsity. I do remember playing it while writing my Masters dissertation: for a month, I would write from 5am to 9am, and then play for the rest of the day. I even mentioned Civ IV in the conclusion of my dissertation, using it as a metaphor to explain why a lack of infrastructure is holding back African development.

Why is Civ so appealing (and addictive)? I suspect there are many reasons, but for me it certainly has something to do with the ability to rewrite history. Civilization is in essence a massive simulation of counterfactual history, simplified of course to make it playable. While your aim is to found towns and cities, explore new territories, invent new technologies and conquer other nations, I am always struck by the relevance of economic theories in explaining ‘success’ in the game. Play on the world map, for example, and see how difficult it is to win when starting on the continents of America or Africa. The reason? Economic isolation. Trade and warfare between competitive civilizations benefits your civilization more than if you had developed on your own in peace. This concurs with much of what we know about trade and economic history and is summarised by Gary Fields’ classic remark that “you can’t get rich by selling to yourself”. Trade requires infrastructure, though, and here Africa is particularly problematic. The vast distances and the thick jungles of the continent (clearly visible when you play on a customized map to reflect the actual size of continents) makes it nearly impossible to build roads and railways to connect and defend your cities, and if you’re building cities on the coast of southern Africa, the harbours of other nations are simply too far to trade with. And apart from losing out on profitable trade routes, you also lose out, most critically, on gaining new technologies from your neighbours. The lesson: if you settle in southern Africa, be prepared for a tough game.

ImpiNot only is geography a limitation, but the lack of alternative strategies is sometimes patently obvious. This is most clearly visible in one of the scenarios in the latest Civ V version which allows you to start as the Boers or the Zulus during the period of African colonisation. There really is only one way to win as the Zulus: destroy the Boers as soon as possible and found as many cities in the ’empty’ African interior. Similarly with the Boers: destroy the Zulus and beat back (or trade with) the Portuguese (in Mozambique) or the English (in Cape Town). Was there ever really an alternative to the hundred-years war between settler farmers and the Xhosa (from 1779 to 1879)? Perhaps we will uncover different options if a larger South African map was available, and one that included more southern African tribes. I’d like to see the Tswana, for example. Their special building could be the Kgotla (which could replace the courthouse and be built in any city (not only occupied ones), reducing unhappiness) and their special unit could be the Donkey (which improves the efficiency of workers). Or the Basotho, with their special building the Mokorotlo (or hat maker, which grants one additional gold for every grassland) and their unit the War Pony (which replaces the chariot archer and allows units to cross mountains). For those who haven’t played, the Zulu’s have a special building – the Ikanda – which replaces the barracks and grants extra experience to units, and a special unit – the Impi – which replaces the pikeman.

Simulations are used in many fields to predict future events, and economics is no exception. The world is incredibly complex, and simulations (based on our theories of how the economy functions) help us to explain what the impact of some shock would be. A good macroeconomic model, for example, can explain how an increase in the interest rate should affect other economic variables. Civilization was never meant to simulate the past or the future, but it recently did exactly that: one man who goes by the name Lycerius played a single Civ II game for more than a decade. In the game, he reached the year 3991. What does the future look like? Bleak. He finds himself (playing with the Celts) in perpetual war with the Americans and Vikings, with all other populations annihilated. Communism is the only political system that allows him to constantly make war. Malnourishment and pollution is rife. Sea levels rise. CNN reports on his efforts here. The one positive about this sad state of future affairs is that the game designers did not (and could not) factor in future technological innovations that might alleviate all this misery. Which just shows us the importance of incentivising innovation if we are to survive as a species.

As computers become more powerful, our models will become more complex too. Civ V: Brave New World (the third extension of the fifth edition) does an excellent job of replicating the major historical developments, perhaps with the exception of two things. Disease has shaped (African) history far more than anything else. The black plague, some scholars argue, were the root causes of the Industrial Revolution. Smallpox killed First Nation peoples at rates that warfare could never do. The deadly disease environment in many African countries forced Europeans, according to Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, to build extractive institutions that continue to have a detrimental effect on development. The resistance of  Africans to tropical diseases was also pivotal into them being coerced into slavery. If the next Civ could add disease and slavery, history might really come alive.

Two weeks ago, Sid Meyer and his team of Firaxis designers released the latest Civilization installment: Beyond Earth. As the name suggests, it takes mankind into space after an unexplained “Great Mistake” on earth. At the start of the game, you must choose one of eight different factions that builds a space ship and leaves earth to permanently settle a distant planet. (For an explanation of why mankind needs to go into space, listen to the two designers discuss it here.) On the new planet you have to choose one of three philosophies (or affinities as they call it) about how you want to live in your new environment. The Harmony affinity allow humans to adapt to the indigenous life, developing new technologies that eventually make you a new species. Choosing the Supremacy affinity means you choose to improve the robotics that allowed you to reach the new planet. Your interaction with the new environment is limited and you rely generally on advanced technology to stay alive and conquer. Following the Purity affinity suggests you believe that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and you therefore want to recreate (through prodigious terraforming) Earth in your new environment. Which affinity you choose, I think, will determine how you interact with the new environment and alien life forms.

columbus_1772950bI wondered whether there are parallels in the process of European colonisation? Some colonisers set out to create a new society, intermixing with the indigenous population. Think of the Cape Verde islands or Mauritius or perhaps Brazil and Mexico. Others set out to create a new Europe. Here the settler societies of the US, Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa are good examples. Others, again, tried to simply extract as much as possible, not settling but simply using their superior technology to extract resources as fast as possible. These are the places AJR say have ‘extractive institutions’, places like the Congo, and Hiati and the Philippines. It’s not difficult to see which of these turned out best for the descendants of the settlers, but the same is not true when we consider the welfare of the indigenous people of course. The millions of American Indians or Aboriginal Australians or Cape Khoesan that died due to smallpox or European guns had to give way for the Europeans to create their New Europe. (New Zealand was literally renamed after the home province of the European mapmakers. Think also of New York, first named New Amsterdam.) It is also patently obvious that the indigenous populations in the ‘extractive’ colonies benefited very little, even though they generally survived. If we were to maximise the welfare of the indigenous populations, integration was evidently the better alternative.

It’s not clear how humanity will react when we first discover alien life on a new planet. But let’s hope we learn from our own planet’s history – and the simulations of a computer game – about what not to do.

A renaissance reconsidered

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The 2014 African Economic History Workshop, ably organised by Leigh Gardner (centre), kicks off at the LSE.

Last week I attended the African Economic History Workshop at the London School of Economics. It was an excellent workshop, with 40 high-quality papers presented and more than 70 attendees. That is remarkable growth if you consider the previous African Economic History Workshop I attended, in Geneva in 2012, attracted around 10 papers and perhaps not more than 25 participants.

EHRAfricaThe reasons for the renewed interest in African economic history is discussed in the introduction to a new special issue of the Economic History Review entitled The Renaissance of African Economic History, incidentally the same title I used in a blog post in October last year. African economies are rising, if you haven’t heard, and with it comes greater interest in understanding the long-term determinants of this rise in prosperity. For long, much of the literature focused on the perceived persistence of poverty across the continent, but as new research reveals (some of which was presented at the workshop), not all of Africa has always been poor. The innovation of this New African Economic History School, if I can call the new approach to African economic history that, is to rely on big data. This is not the sort of Big Data that is fashionable in business intelligence or behavioural sciences, but rather a return to the historian’s own laboratory, the archives. Funding is now available to digitise and transcribe documents like historical military, missionary and marriage records which provide, often for the first time, individual-level information on the economic living standards of Africans during the colonial, post-colonial and, in rare cases, even pre-colonial period. These records often remain hidden in African archives, but as the workshop showed too, there is still much to learn from exploiting the wealth of statistical information in the colonial Blue Books, most of which is now available online. Browse through the papers presented at the workshop and you’ll see all kinds of interesting data: trade records from the Blue Books, Ugandan missionary records, tax records from Portuguese Mozambique, wage records from Senegal, household data for apartheid South Africa.

Another feature of the New School is the young age of participants, on average. A new generation of scholars, taught in the language of statistics and unburdened by the ideological struggles of the post-independence period, is coming of age, initiating their own research programmes, winning research grants, training new PhDs and opening positions for postdocs. It was difficult, for example, not to bump into one of Ewout Frankema’s PhD-students or postdocs at the conference, all doing wonderfully exciting work on a wide range of topics and (African) countries.

Yet it also struck me – and perhaps as a South African I am more sensitive to this – that there is still a long road ahead. Much of the new African Economic History is happening in Europe. Of the 56 authors (if we allow for several authors per paper), only three were from Africa. Of those three, only one was black. This echoes the fact that only one of the nine papers in the EHR’s special issue on Africa was written by a team from Africa. Of course, this is not limited to the EHR: as I’ve written recently, in the Economic History of Developing Regions special issue on the economics of apartheid which I edited with Martine Mariotti, no paper was published by a black author. This imbalance of contributions is not easy to rectify; funding lacks at many African universities to attend these workshops, and even where there is funding, there is often a disconnect between the methodologies employed by the New African Economic History School and those of an older generation of economic historians whose work remain isolated in History departments throughout the continent.

More should be done, though. The best would be to start at the bottom and train a new generation of African students in the methods and tools of the New School. The good news is that this is happening; this textbook, written by members of the New School, is available for free to anyone teaching African economic history. But intervention is required at higher levels too. We need to deliver more African Masters and PhD students that are able to use the tools of both Economics and History. We need more opportunities for the best African students to study at European and American universities. We need stronger networks and exchanges between African and European economic history research centres; networks that allow for the greater cross-fertilization of ideas, methods and data.

If we are to avoid another Scramble for Africa (this time in search of historical data) or, as has been suggested to me by local archivists, the ‘recolonization of African data’, we need to actively empower more African students, and especially black students. This is a challenge to myself and my colleagues at South African universities, but also to my European colleagues who perhaps have access to more resources. I am happy to report that there is certainly a demand from African students: at the end of November, I will run an ERSA Economic History training workshop in Pretoria. Although I had planned (and budgeted) for only 15 students, more than 30 mostly Economics students signed up. Of those, more than 70% are black. It is time to ensure that the renaissance of African economic history is not only about Africa, but also for Africa.