Penpals: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln

I just came across this fascinating letter that Karl Marx wrote to Abraham Lincoln, following the latter’s re-election in 1864.

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

… The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

On a related note, my girlfriend and I recently watched Lincoln while on a short work/fun trip to Ghana (posts on Ghana coming soon). The controversies over the historical accuracy of parts of the film aside, Lincoln is a must-watch. The movie does a brilliant job of portraying the complexities that inhabit all humans – good or bad, or somewhere in-between.

The abolitionists in 19th century America were no altar boys. Their triumph against slavery was also a triumph against parts of themselves.

Another interesting thing about the movie is how Obama-esque the Lincoln in the movie is, or it might be that Obama has read so much Lincoln that he emulates the man from Illinois. The truth is probably a mix of both. It is almost impossible to imagine that the first black president would have no influence on the production of a movie about the president who signed into law an act abolishing slavery.

Go watch Lincoln.

And Django Unchained which is also awesome – but which I had to finish watching alone at the hotel because of a skype appointment with my adviser (and the Tarantino violence which in the end was too much for my girlfriend).

An infinitely more sophisticated review of the two films (Django Unchained and Lincoln) by a scholar of their subject matter can be found here.

Rational Impatience and marshmallows (and development)

Back in 1972 Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted experiments in which he claimed to show a correlation between patience and later success in life – in the experiment kids who could wait for 15 minutes before getting two marshmallows, instead of eating one immediately, were likely to be more successful and self-controlled later in life. Michel attributed patience and self-control to some of the kids’ innate capacities.

It turns out that that might not be the case after all. Researchers in Rochester revisited the experiment and show that kids’ choices over whether to wait or not are “moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability,” in other words, kids react rationally to the proposed deal based on prior experience.

According to Celeste Kidd (more on this here), a University of Rochester grad student and lead author on the study:

“Being able to delay gratification — in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow — not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,”

Adding that:

“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”

This reminded me of the interesting works in economic history (gated, sorry) that try to tackle issues of culture and socialization and their role in economic development. The punchline from these works is that group-specific socio-cultural values have long-lasting effects on attitudes towards investment, saving, entrepreneurship and ultimately economic development (Think of the fabled frugality and self-discipline of Weber’s protestants). Putting some of the critiques of these works aside for a moment, they are a reminder of just how COMPLEX development is.

Because material conditions both shape and are a result of prevailing cultural norms and practices (both Marx and Weber were right!) it becomes difficult to change one thing while ignoring the other (And this is even before you open the pandora’s box, viz: POLITICS). To put it simply, you cannot increase the investment rate in a society simply by throwing money at people. They will spend it on a new shrine for their god or marry a third wife.

This is not to say that it is impossible to transform entire societies in a short while, just that it is not easy, and that we should be humble enough to accept this fact when thinking about how to promote economic development in the bottom billion societies of the world.

14th of February Edition

Click to enlarge.

Source: http://benkling.tumblr.com/

H/T Paul G.