Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Economic optimism

Programming note: My posting cadence will be changing to at least once per week. Some weeks, I may only manage one post, and other weeks I may be able to post more. However, I will, in sha Allah, try to make at least one post between every Monday through Sunday.

A lot of people like to talk about Ottoman decline. Whether the Ottoman empire actually declined is less clear. 

One thing is for certain though. The Ottoman empire definitely stopped growing at some point. 

Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923

Growth is important to be perceived as successful. As we have discussed before ("Racism arbitrage"), it is growth, not steady revenues, that make a company attractive for investment. For similar reasons, countries have the same attribute. From within a country as well — residents of a stagnant country will probably not think so highly of their country.

The Ottoman decline was more of an Ottoman centurial stumble. Regardless, Ottomans were not big fans of how they saw their country doing said stumble. They thought that their country was declining, which, depending on how you look at it, is true. 

I recently came across this FT article "Is the west talking itself into decline?" via Chartbook by Adam Tooze. The author, John Burn-Murdoch, explains that discussions of technological optimism came earlier in pre-industrial Britain than in pre-Industrial Spain and as a result correlated with economic growth. He is trying to say that discussions of optimism lead to economic growth.

This is obviously a controversial take. Tooze:

The claim is a heavily ideological one. It takes discourse and the cultural environment to be determinative even though the evidence presented supports no such proposition; why is it not likelier that a set of social changes in early modernity, not least the growth of urban trade, settler colonial expansion and merchant capitalism generated massive discursive change and then industrial transformation? The important thing is how this historical argument sustains a claim about the present and the future. Techno-optimists and (to my surprise) Burn-Murdoch worry that the West is not talking brightly enough about the future:

 Anyway, Burn-Murdoch says that the West is now talking more about bad things than good things:

Maybe he is right. But a responding letter disagreed with him, by Cynthia Miyashita, a reader in Spain. 

My father was born in 1912. In his lifetime, he witnessed transport by horse and buggy to seeing man land on the moon. The boundaries of his life expanded from a small town in Wyoming to the entire world. My generation has not seen nearly such significant progress.

Could it be that the west is less hopeful because our critical needs have been met, and therefore significant improvement in the quality of our lives is unlikely? What is left to invent?

Innovations such as social media, self-driving cars, apps that notify us what to do when, and artificial intelligence that does our reading, writing and thinking for us suggest that Gordon is right. I’ll take my flush toilet any day over Facebook.

Maybe Miyashita is correct. Life is so good now, that we don't want to see it go away. We have everything we need, it doesn't seem to have the potential to get better, and we want to preserve what we have. 

The elites of the Ottoman empire had it pretty good in the end of the empire. Maybe they were out of touch. I cannot explain why the Ottoman empire declined, but I think that a culture of decline contributed to the end of the empire. Existing leadership had no compelling vision for the future of the empire. Islam was not in vogue, and the rulers were not very competent. They only had the past to look back upon, and the past looked much brighter than the present. They were scared to lose what they had, which was certainly under attack. 

To many in the Ottoman empire, the writing was on the wall. Burn-Murdoch is saying that you can write on that wall.