Markets and American Decline

Operating from headquarters in a hilltop villa in the capital city, protected by government soldiers, a businessman with strong ties to his own government back home, a belief in his own manifest destiny, a desire to go down in history as a bringer of industrial development, and deep experience in completing hydropower and mining projects, submits a bid to the country’s leaders to build them a new oil refinery. The bid is backed by a loan guarantee from one of his country’s largest banks, provided as part of an initiative by his country’s government to win the friendship of other nations by providing development support.

Lacking an office in the country in which the refinery is to be built, a former mid-level government official with no experience building anything tries to cobble together a bid of her own from shared office space in her own country. She finds an investor — not at home but in a third country — gets an expression of interest from some executives from a firm in her own country with refinery construction experience, and places a bid in which she promises to secure the rest of the funding for the project by selling shares in the venture on capital markets. When ministers visit her country as part of consideration of her bid, they are shocked to be shown around shared office space, and insist that she line up a more secure source of financing. She begs her government to sign on, but the most she gets is a letter from a government lender saying that it would considering lending a fraction of the project cost.

Once upon a time, this would have been a tale about American power. The first person would be a TR, say, supremely confident about his place in history, carrying out a Marshall Plan (if you will forgive the anachronism) reflecting the ambition of the U.S. government to use aid to secure the allegiance of the world. The second person would be some luckless underfunded competitor operating out of a backward country with a weak state lacking the vision to promote its businesses and interests abroad.

But of course the first person in this story is Chinese and the second is American. As the article in today’s Times strongly suggests, the American won the bidding only because Uganda’s leader hopes to encourage American competition, and thereby to improve the terms he gets from the Chinese in the future. Indeed, the American project may well fall apart, as GE — the firm with expertise in refinery building that had shown interest in the bid — has started to exit that line of business.

How did we get here? The answer is our decades-long obsession with market magic. There has been much talk in some circles about the “fissured workplace,” the converting of many jobs into “independent contractor” positions that allow employers to treat their employees as temp staff with no job security and few benefits. Firms no longer have employees, but instead simply tap contractor markets, buying labor hours when they are needed and not when they are not, much the way you make a run to the supermarket for lemons when you need them and not when you don’t, instead of tending your own lemon tree.

Well, more than just labor markets have fissured. Everything has fissured, as our obsession with markets has spread to every corner of the economy since the 1970s. Just look at how the American bid for the refinery came about. Not at the instigation of our government, despite its recognition that China’s dominance in African business is putting us at a great strategic disadvantage, but because a mid-level foreign policy official, thrown out of work by the exit of the Obama Administration, saw a market opportunity. She then went into a set of different markets in order to try to cobble together a bid. She rented shared office space, tapping the fissured commercial real estate market, in which businesses no longer own their own space, let alone build their own custom spaces, as they once did. She also had no funding of her own, but promised to tap the fissured funding markets by selling shares in the project. And she had no experience building refineries, so she also promised to tap the fissured project market, potentially by bringing GE into the project. Markets, market, markets.

All these markets are supposed to make our economy and nation stronger, by ensuring that everything is allocated to the people who need the things the most. Workers can be repurposed via the market from one job to another at a moment’s notice, office space can be saved for the most important projects, cash can flow to the most important projects, and so on.

But what market excess really does is expose our economy and nation, to risk. The trouble with markets is that they are risky. At the end of the day the Ugandans got a bid that was worth little more than the paper it was written on. It was in effect a commitment from an amateur to use acceptance of the bid by the Ugandans to convince investors to invest, refinery builders to build, and so on. What the Chinese offered, by contrast, was a government-backed commitment to fund construction of the refinery by an experienced firm. The parts of the Chinese offer were so well integrated — so unfissured — that the Chinese even insisted on importing 60% of the labor and materials from China to complete the project. That’s right, the Chinese would bring in their own laborers to complete the work.

No wonder the American bid was at a severe disadvantage. If you were taking bids to have your floors redone, would you go with the man off the street with no experience, no operations, and no money — even if he offered the lower price — or the experienced flooring operation that’s ready to get to work as soon as you sign on the dotted line?

When you do business with integrated operations, instead of markets, you carry less risk, because integration reduces risk. It makes sure that the money is there, the expertise is there, the workers are there. You may still bear the risk of non-completion, but that risk is lower. And when the state gets behind its businesses in these deals, as the Chinese government has via its Belt and Road initiative, risk is reduced further. The Chinese drive a hard bargain, using the infrastructure they build to secure repayment of the loans, but they can do that because they have something credible to sell.

If the story of a businessperson trying to get along in an international deal — one that forwards the President’s own policy of going head to head with China — without government support, without expertise, without financing, without even an office, sounds the story of a failed state, that’s because a fissured economy — an economy in which everything, at every level in the supply chain, has been turned into a market — is a failed state. It’s a country that can have no vision or unity of purpose because its government is paralyzed by the need to respect market boundaries, unable to direct the economy according to any vision, and in which every individual and private firm is paralyzed too, at the mercy of markets in everything that they do. Therein lies the state of nature.

Of course it was not always this way. Until market dogma took over the country in the 1970s, American industry looked a lot more like Chinese industry does today. Long-term commitment to workers and suppliers was the norm. Indeed, in America’s many regulated industries, the government required firms to provide packages of services, instead of fissuring the services into the a la carte menus that have proliferated today. The government promoted international development as a strategic goal, most famously in the Marshall Plan.

And, perhaps most importantly, America had a taste for greatness. It would not have thought that “the threat posed by the Belt and Road Initiative to American interests is debatable.”

Competition as Tax Policy

Once upon a time, Chicago to New York was a cheap rail fare, whereas the much shorter trip from Chicago to Peoria was expensive, because in a dense rail network there were lots of ways to get from Chicago to New York, and therefore lots of competition on that route, whereas there were only a few ways to get from Chicago to Peoria, and therefore much less competition. The big city people who rode Chicago to New York had more money than the small city people who rode Peoria to Chicago, but the big city people paid lower fares, because the big city people benefited from competition.

Competition gave the big city folk alternatives, and that strengthened their bargaining power vis a vis the railroads. The lack of competition denied the small city folk alternatives, and that reduced their bargaining power vis a vis the railroads. But the changing of alternatives is taxation.

Suppose instead that rail competition were somehow equal in both markets, but the government were to tax small city riders by a certain amount and redistribute that amount of money to the big city riders. The tax would effectively drive up the fare paid by the small city riders and drive down the fare paid by the big city riders, achieving the same result as did the unequal levels of competition on the big and small city routes. Inequality in competition is tantamount to inequality in pricing, which is tantamount to tax and transfer.

Put another way, the presence of competition on the big city route and absence on the small city route caused the railroads to collect a large share of their revenues from small city riders. Small city riders subsidized big city riders, in a sense. The railroad acted as a kind of taxing authority, redistributing from small city riders to big city riders, but the railroad’s tax policy was determined by the competitive environment, not the railroad itself, by the presence of competition on the big city route and the absence of competition on the small city route.

Flip the competitive configuration — make the small city route less competitive than the big city route (perhaps by allowing cartelization of service providers on the big city route) — and now the big city riders will contribute a larger share of the railroad’s revenues. Now the big city riders might be said to pay the subsidy and the railroad to be taxing the big city riders for the benefit of the small city riders.

Depending on how antitrust divides up markets and goes about promoting competition in them — as I discuss briefly in another post — the competitive terrain created by antitrust represents a tax system and a specific set of distributive results.

From this perspective, if your goal is to redistribute wealth, you want more competition in some markets — the ones inhabited by the poor — and less competition in other markets — the ones inhabited by the rich. That’s just the kind of policy that progressives advocate: antitrust for big firms, cartelization for workers and small businesses.

Note that this is not an argument about the ability of competition to force a particular distribution of surplus within a market, between buyers and sellers. This is about the ability of antitrust to alter relative outcomes in different markets by altering relative levels of competition. This is about how antitrust makes price discrimination possible, and how that price discrimination redistributes, even when the different prices charged are charged by different firms in different markets.

A Tale of the Tail

Legal forms that were well adapted to a world in which wealth was zero sum, and borrowing against an estate could serve no purpose other than to carry out a slow transfer of it to others, were poorly adapted to a world in which wealth could be created, and borrowing against an estate could fund investment that would improve its productivity:

In Hitel Széchenyi argued that Hungary’s agriculture remained unproductive because of its reliance on the unpaid labor of serfs. If they wanted to raise production, landowners should instead employ wage labor on their estates. But in order to afford large numbers of wage laborers or the luxury of experimenting with new technologies, Hungary would also have to rid itself of the legal tradition of entailed estates. Entail prevented the estates of the magnates—the highest aristocrats—from being partitioned or sold. It required that land be passed down undivided according to specif‌ic inheritance rules. An entailed estate could not be used as collateral for raising mortgage loans, nor could any of it be sold off to raise funds. These laws made it impossible to use land as a resource for raising the money needed to invest in new technologies or to develop a system that paid wages to free peasant laborers. Széchenyi pointed out that while nobles owned more than two thirds of the arable land in Hungary, a surprisingly high percentage of that land remained uncultivated. And this in a time where 920,000 peasant families in Hungary were registered as “landless.” If nobles could sell or mortgage their lands for credit, they could invest in new technologies of production, and they could pay wages to peasant workers. If they could raise credit, nobles could also fund new manufactures that could employ landless peasants. Széchenyi criticized many other aspects of the feudal system in Hungary, especially the nobles’ continued immunity to taxation, the inability of most peasants to own land, the restrictions that the guild system placed on the free development of manufactures, and the lack of legal equality for the vast majority of the population.

Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History 111 (2016).


Hotelling on the Blessings of Bigness and Taxes

How very different were the efficiency gods of 1938! How I long to sacrifice intellectual property to those gods, as once were slain private bridges and railroads on their art deco altars.

The idea that all will be for the best if only competition exists is a heritage from the economic theory of Adam Smith, built up at a time when agriculture was still the dominant economic activity. The typical agricultural situation is one of rising marginal costs. Free competition, of the type that has usually existed in agriculture, leads to sales at marginal cost, if we now abstract the effects of weather and other uncertainty, which are irrelevant to our problem. Since we have seen that sales at marginal cost are a condition of maximum general welfare, this situation is a satisfactory one so far as it goes. But the free competition associated with agriculture, or with unorganized labor, is not characteristic of enterprises such as railroads, electric-power plants, bridges, and heavy industry. It is true that a toll bridge may be in competition with other bridges and ferries; but it is a very different kind of competition, more in the nature of duopoly. To rely on such competition for the efficient conduct of an economic system is to use a theorem without observing that its premises do not apply. Free competition among toll-bridge owners, of the kind necessary to make the conclusion applicable, would require that each bridge be parallelled by an infinite number of others immediately adjacent to it, all the owners being permanently engaged in cutthroat competition. If the marginal cost of letting a vehicle go over a bridge is neglected, it is clear that under such conditions the tolls would quickly drop to zero and the owners would retire in disgust to allow anyone who pleased to cross free.

The efficient way to operate a bridge — and the same applies to a railroad or factory, if we neglect the small cost of an additional unit of product or of transportation — is to make it free to the public, so long at least as the use of it does not increase to a state of overcrowding. A free bridge costs no more to construct than a toll bridge, and costs less to operate; but society, which must pay the cost in some way or other, gets far more benefit from the bridge if it is free, since in this case it will be more used. Charging a toll, however small, causes some people to waste time and money in going around by longer but cheaper ways, and prevents others from crossing. The higher the toll, the greater is the damage done in this way; to a first approximation, for small tolls, the damage is proportional to the square of the toll rate, as Dupuit showed. There is no such damage if the bridge is paid for by income, inheritance, and land taxes, or for example by a tax on the real estate benefited, with exemption of new improvements from taxation, so as not to interfere with the use of the land. The distribution of wealth among members of the community is affected by the mode of payment adopted for the bridge, but not the total wealth, except that it is diminished by bridge tolls and other similar forms of excise. This is such plain common sense that toll bridges have now largely disappeared from civilized communities. But New York City’s bridge and tunnels across the Hudson are still operated on a toll basis, because of the pressure of real estate interests anxious to shift the tax burden to wayfarers, and the possibility of collection considerable sums from persons who do not vote in the city.

Harold Hotelling, The General Welfare in Relation to Problems of Taxation and of Railway and Utility Rates, 6 Econometrica 260-61 (1938).

Hotelling on the Price Rationing of Advertising

Understood in 1938:

Another thing of limited quantity for which the demand exceeds the supply is the attention of people. Attention is desired for a variety of commercial, political, and other purposes, and is obtained with the help of billboards, newspaper, radio, and other advertising. Expropriation of the attention of the general public and its commercial sale and exploitation constitute a lucrative business. From some aspects this business appears to be of a similar character to that of the medieval robber barons, and therefore to be an appropriate subject for prohibition by a state democratically controlled by those from whom their attention is stolen. But attention attracting of some kinds and in some degree is bound to persist; and where it does, it may appropriately be taxed as a utilization of a limited resource. Taxation of advertising on this basis would be in addition to any taxation imposed for the purpose of diminishing its quantity with a view to restoring the property of attention to its rightful owners.

Harold Hotelling, The General Welfare in Relation to Problems of Taxation and of Railway and Utility Rates, 6 Econometrica 257 (1938).

The Chinese Nile Part N+1

The paleontologists have noticed:

A curious correspondence between geopolitical ascendancy and palaeontological advance can be observed here. During the imperial, industrial 19th century, England was the principal scene of discoveries and advances in the field. In the 20th, the mantle was passed to the United States; so far in the 21st, the site of the most dramatic finds is China. Success in the present is reinforced and naturalised by autochthonous possession of the most important prehistoric relics.

Francis Gooding, What lives and what dies? 41 London Review of Books 12 (Jan. 3, 2019).

The Chinese Nile Part N

When you no longer react to getting beaten with shock and resolve, your days are numbered. But, hey, at least we have more media coverage:

The fear of losing face over failures, as well as the sensitivity of the technology involved, has made the Chinese government reluctant to discuss its programs in detail, compared with the relative openness of NASA and other space programs.

Our Weakness

I am struck by the extent to which American victory, at least in North Africa, was almost entirely a function of volume of materiel.

At least, that’s what Rommel thought:

“In the long run neither Libya nor Tunisia could be held, for the African war was being decided by the battle of the Atlantic. From the moment that the overwhelming industrial capacity of the United States could make itself felt in any theater of war, there was no longer any chance of ultimate victory in that theater. Even if we had overrun the whole of the African continent, with the exception of a small strip of territory providing the enemy with good operational possibilities and permitting the Americans to bring their material, we were bound to lose in the end. Tactical skill could only postpone the collapse, it could not avert the ultimate fate of the theater.”

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 153 (2002).

And indeed the Germans had better technology:

When the 9th Division men did manage to capture an enemy position, they found that during the brief time the Germans had held the hill mass, their engineers had brought up jackhammers and construction equipment to dig foxholes in the rock and construct heavily fortified machine gun positions. At this point in the war, Americans had no such help from their engineers.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 277 (2002).

As soon as it went into combat, the gasoline-powered Sherman became notorious for burning when hit.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 198 (2002).

Cochran explained the difference between the performance of the German and American planes: “People say the Germans use the sun more than we do, that they have more sense than we have, that they are better hunters. It is not true. They have an airplane that can get to the sun quicker than we can get to the sun. Therefore, who uses it? He does!”

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 125 (2002).

And the Germans were far better at collective action:

As dawn broke, the Americans saw what they later learned was the 10th Panzer Division — some 125 tanks. The German tanks, arrayed in a square box formation, came slowly forward. Infantry, interspersed among the tanks and out in front, moving just behind the rolling barrage, advanced with them. The attacking formation, seeming to react to a prearranged signal, split up into three columns, one moving northwest, one following along the road, and the third — apparently the main column with some 30 tanks — headed south of the road . . . quickly overrunning the screening force . . . . [Carter] later described the scene: “For the first hour we sat in awe watching the attack of the 10th Panzer Division. The precision and timing of the huge iron forts moving down the valley was a thing of magnificent beauty . . . .”

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 273-274 (2002).

Whereas:

[T]he Allied command structure was so confused that troops in the field had trouble finding out who they were supposed to take orders from and sometimes received conflicting orders from two or more sources. They wondered, with considerable justification and not just in that normal soldier way, if anyone was in charge up there.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 149 (2002).

And:

When I got back from patrol, I went to sleep up in the top of [the command post]. When I woke up, there were [Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa] Allen and [Brigadier General Theodore] Roosevelt [Jr., son of the former President,] directing this battle and I was very unimpressed by their conversation. Neither one of them knew what the hell they were doing.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 275-276 (2002).

Today, as then, we lack advantages over our adversaries in both technology and unity. Here is the National Defense Strategy Commission in November (via the Times):

America’s edge is diminishing or has disappeared in many key technologies that underpin U.S. military superiority.

Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission viii (Nov. 2018).

And:

Many of the skills necessary to plan for and conduct military operations against a capable adversary, such as command and control of large forces and logistical support of large, high-intensity operations, have also deteriorated.

Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission 25 (Nov. 2018).

(In the present political climate I don’t think that even so much as that need be said regarding the insufficiency of our unity.)

Given our lack of technological or command superiority, the question whether we are capable of prevailing today, as we did in North Africa in 1943, back when we also lacked both those things, depends crucially on whether we would have an advantage in materiel.

Is that still true today? Would we be able to outproduce a Russia/China axis today?

No. America’s postwar economic story is the death of her manufacturing. Rommel’s “overwhelming industrial capacity of the United States” is a thing of the past.

The free traders didn’t just create a crisis in the distribution of wealth (and undermine national unity in the process).

They destroyed our only proven strategic advantage.

The Chain of Judicial Command

Legal education typically assumes that in a world in which laws are clear, laws must be followed. If you don’t like the law, t’row de bums out. If a judge does not like the law, the same: the judge must still obey, until the people t’row de bums out. The legislative process is the only socially healthy way to change the law.

And yet, one finds in that most authoritarian, rule-bound of all cultures, the military, an understanding of the importance of having people not follow the rules, even in combat situations in which you might think that the chain of command would be most important.

I have:

Colonel Edson D. Raff was the kind of midlevel combat commander who saw what needed to be done and went ahead and did it without waiting for orders, the kind of innovative, aggressive commander any general would give a million dollars for — if he didn’t have him court-martialed and shot.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 113 (2002).

And:

The company commander contacted the battalion commander by radio and asked for instructions. As he did so, his company spontaneously rose up, as one man, and assaulted the hill. The assault was such a surprise — as much to the American commanders as to the Italians — that the hill fell to the Americans almost immediately. The spontaneous assault was one of those rare battlefield phenomena where soldiers, acting without orders, see what needs to be done and do it.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 271 (2002).

I have never read anything like this written of a judge taking orders from a legislature. It is never said. But do judges in fact go ahead and do “it without waiting for orders?” Why, yes, they do. All the time. There is a culture of silence about this, as if judicial disobedience were a more worrisome thing than a lack of discipline on the battlefield. I would have thought, given the stakes, that it would be the other way around.

When judges do “it without waiting for orders” in the right way, and help us win the battle for justice thereby, they make a valuable contribution to our society, a contribution that makes them worth at least $900,000, if not the million that should go to the maverick who through inspired disobedience helps us to succeed on the battlefield. If we can talk about the fact and contribution of disobedience at war, we ought to be able to talk about the fact and contribution of disobedience in adjudication.

In other words, the law in action quite often fails to reflect the law on the books, not only because the law may have gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities, but because judges flout it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Horror of Anachronism

One is left, after reading Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, wondering why he bothered to write the work at all, or indeed to devote his life — as he gamely tells his readers in the book’s introduction that he has done — to the study of Ancient Egypt.

So full the book is of sneering, condescending judgments of the past that one emerges from 400 pages on 3000 years of Ancient Egyptian history feeling that one has gained insight principally into the extremity of modern liberal piety.

Scarcely a paragraph goes by without Wilkinson poking fun at one pharaoh or another in language more appropriate to an attack on Donald Trump than the presentation of history. The subject here is not ancient Egypt, at all, one realizes, but modern authoritarianism. The pyramids are “propaganda.” Egyptian religion, with its ascription of divinity to the pharaohs, is “spin.” Other scholars who marvel at the absence of evidence of popular unrest during the Old Kingdom are delusional, because Wilkinson knows — just knows — that dictatorships do not make their people happy.

I have never encountered a historian who seemed so unable to crawl out of his own contemporary moral universe and into the minds of his subjects. How different Nietzsche is as a thinker about the past! Nietzsche dares to take what the past has to tell us at face value. He teaches us that if the pharaoh declares himself a living god, it is not some cynical ploy to indoctrinate the masses, but because the pharaoh really believes that he has become a living god.

And that poses a question for Nietzsche: how is it possible that back then a person could really believe such a thing — not just that there is a god, but that someone not otherwise mentally ill could genuinely believe that he is a god — whereas today we are so incapable of believing it? How is it possible that today we insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that the denizens of the past did not really believe in god, and viewed the divine with the same cynicism with which we view the divine today? What has become of our ability to believe?

Wilkinson recounts the history of thirty-two dynasties marked out by incredible strength of belief in god, belief so powerful that it could ascribe divinity to living, breathing, tangible creatures — pharaohs, bulls, baboons — not just abstract ideas, and yet Wilkinson seems perfectly content to view all that religious activity, from beginning to end, as just so much propaganda.

If it were all just propaganda, then why the incredible cult of the dead, the obsessive building of tombs that seems to have consumed the entire life of every person with any resources, not just the pharaohs? A king can call himself a god without needing to say anything about the afterlife. Mao took on a divine role in mid-20th century China, for instance, without appealing to an afterlife.

And what of Akhenaten, who believed himself the sole god in the Egyptian metaphysic? Where did that belief come from, and why did Egyptian society ultimately reject it? If the purpose of Egyptian religion were mere propaganda, shouldn’t the state be indifferent between a propaganda of multiple deities and a propaganda of one? Was Akhenaten just focus group testing a new marketing pitch? Wilkinson doesn’t make that claim, but it would fit right in to his analysis.

The problem here is not just Wilkinson’s incomprehension of Ancient Egyptian religion, but his base cynicism about all things Ancient Egyptian. Toward the end of the book, Wilkinson recounts the efforts of the wife of the high priest of Ptah in Memphis to have a son. 

Taimhotep “prayed together with the High Priest to the majesty of the god great in wonders, effective in deed, who gives a son to him who has none: Imotep, son of Ptah.” Wondrously, the prayer was answered. Imhotep appeared to her in a dream, promising her a son if she would arrange for his Memphite shrine to be beautified — you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt 472 (2010).

The contrast between the directness of the ancient text excerpted in Wilkinson’s account, a directness pregnant with belief, and Wilkinson’s trashy, colloquial, and irreverent summing up of the process as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the horror of anachronism, and perhaps modernity more generally.

One wonders whether Wilkinson has ever had anyone appear to him in a dream — promising something that Wilkinson wants desperately — let alone striven to produce great art as an expression of his yearning. One wonders indeed whether Wilkinson is even aware of how impoverished a soul is that has never had such a vision.

Reading the passage excerpted above, I recall the upside down map of Ancient Egypt that Wilkinson helpfully provides at the beginning of the book, in which what we would call southern Egypt, the Nile’s origins in deep Africa, appears at the top, as Upper Egypt, and the Nile Delta at the bottom, as Lower Egypt. I imagine the silt of the Nile, all the miles of garbage that the river has drained out into the delta, and I imagine the modern age standing below that, in the depths of the waste dump, at the very bottom of Ancient Egypt, reaching up with its incomprehension and utter lowness, clawing at the country’s history, clawing at Memphis and even Thebes, trying ineffectively to pull all down.

The only bearable characteristic of the book is Wilkinson’s evident pleasure in the perspective that Ancient Egypt’s great age and longevity provides on the merely ancient history with which his readers are no doubt more familiar.

Hundreds of pages of reading and the better part of a thousand years pass before one even reaches Ancient Egypt’s second great epoch, the Middle Kingdom. Hundreds of pages and hundreds of years more pass, and one has scarcely reached 1500 years before Christ. Ramesses II is still not to be born for centuries. Homer is still nearly a thousand years in the future. The world we know as the ancient world, the world of Athens and Sparta, of Alexander and Rome, all this starts to appear only at the very end of the book, only after Egypt enters into a final thousand years of civilizational decline.

This long perspective is fresh and welcome: it reveals that our ancient world is hopelessly, depressingly, new. Reading Wilkinson’s book during a visit to Rome, your humble correspondent could not help but feel quite disappointed by the ruins of the Colloseum and Forum. Twenty-five centuries after Khufu built the Great Pyramid of Giza, all the Romans could manage was this? Wilkinson does a nice job of showing us that far from carving civilization out of nature, our ancients were operating against the backdrop of an already very ancient world.

This antiquity of antiquity brings me back to Nietzsche. For I was struck throughout Wilkinson’s book by the way Ancient Egypt seems to represent the pre-Christian ideal for which Nietzsche so often grasps. The ideal of the unabashed, guiltless embrace of power. In Zarathustra, Nietzsche associates it with one pre-Christian tradition.

But Ancient Egypt seems to epitomize it. And in Wilkinson, I suppose, one therefore has an intertemporal ressentiment.