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What Engels’ (Least) Favorite Color Teaches about Capitalism

Blog Post | Manufacturing

What Engels’ (Least) Favorite Color Teaches about Capitalism

"Any one not Aniline"

This article was published at Matzko Minute on 8/28/2023.

Did you ever receive one of those 90s chain emails in your inbox? You know, the kind where you fill in your favorite band/animal/team/color/etc. and then send it to ten friends or else you’d have bad luck for the week?

I recently stumbled across a 19th century version, a “confession” filled out by Friedrich Engels, the original champagne socialist who is now best known for popularizing Karl Marx’s ideas.

Little on the list is truly surprising. Engels wouldn’t be the first notorious womanizer (and accused rapist) to declare his love for women even while evincing a base misogyny.

But the answer that immediately caught my eye was Engels’ favorite color: “Any one not Aniline.” Now, if you’re an ordinary, well-adjusted denizen of the 21st century, odds are that you immediately considered opening a new tab to ask Google, “What color is aniline?”

There’s no need to click away. Aniline was mauve. And it is hard to overstate the extent to which various shades of the new purple swept the world of fashion in the 1850s and 1860s.

That’s because aniline was the first commercially-scalable synthetic dye, invented at a time when chemists were unlocking the secrets of the universe by distilling, vaporizing, and generally futzing with every substance they could get their hands on.

Aniline was actually the product of a failed British attempt in 1856 to synthesize quinine in hopes of making anti-malarial treatments cheaper and easier to produce than the old way of grinding up the bark of a hard to acquire Amazonian tree. The result wouldn’t especially help imperialists expand their empires over mosquito-infested jungles, but it did produce a particularly vivid shade of purple.

The researcher, an eighteen year old college student named William Perkin, was also an amateur painter, and immediately saw the value of a cheap, easy to produce dye that was more durable than existing alternatives. Seeking capital investment, Perkin partnered with Robert Pullar, a Scottish dye entrepreneur who would later become a radical pro-free trade member of Parliament. By the end of the century, Perkin and Pullar owned a global network of synthetic dye factories that brought color to the masses.

This meant that purplish, pinkish, and reddish dyes were suddenly this cheap and widely available for the first time in human history. Tweaking the distillation process could produce mauveine, fuchsin, and safranin, which are the synthetic forerunners of the colors we call mauve, fuchsia/magenta, and saffron today. It may have been the single most significant moment in modern fashion history.

Prior to this, many of the dyes used for clothing and paint had to be ground up from natural ingredients. For instance, if you lived in 4th century Rome and wanted to wear purple clothing, you needed someone to find and grind up twelve thousand snails of a particular species that lived mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Doing so would yield 1.4 grams of dye, which was barely enough to color the trim of a single piece of clothing. The cost of purple was thus astronomical; pound for pound, “Tyrian purple” was worth three times as much as pure gold! And purple dye was so hard to acquire, at any price, that sumptuary laws often prohibited anyone except royalty from wearing purple clothing.

But after 1856, the ability to synthesize aniline meant that purple hues were suddenly everywhere. What had once cost pounds of gold now cost mere pennies. Mauve was all the rage — people were contracting “mauve measles,” as British wags put it — a fact that would not have been lost on Engels’ when he wrote out his list in 1868 since his family fortune was tied up in textiles. (He properly capitalized “Aniline” since it was then still a proprietary product.)

When you see televised depictions of Victorian era fashion, like middle class women wearing acres of brightly-colored fabric, you are looking at a byproduct of the synthetic dyes revolution.

And that wave of color cascaded step-by-step, class-by-class, down throughout society. Cheaper, more durable, and more vivid products abounded, from housepaints to wallpapers. Today, we take for granted the idea that color is near costless. It would strike a 21st century consumer as bizarre if they were told that a bright purple dress or mauve house paint would cost 10x (or 1000x) the price of one that was white.

Even so, the rise of synthetic purple sparked a sartorial reaction. Purple, as long as it was rare and inaccessible to the plebeians, was considered dignified, elegant, and noble. But once purple became commonplace, it was gauche and uncouth. A century later when cultural critic Paul Fussell summarized the ways that dress signified class status, he lumped purple in with polyester fibers and sports jerseys as markers of belonging to the grubby “proles.”

And that brings us back to Engels’ sneering response, “Any one but Aniline.” On the one hand, it’s not surprising that a textile manufacturer might be annoyed at the disruption to his existing (and profitable) supply chain. Engels was also a product of inherited wealth, and making fun of Aniline was common sport for his class at the time. A satirical Punch cartoon of 1877 featured a dilettante sniveling about a debutante, “She affects Aniline dyes, don’t you know! I weally couldn’t go down to suppah with a young Lady who wears Mauve twimmings in her skirt, and magenta wibbons in her hair!”

Pecuniary self-interest and class snobbery aside, Engels wouldn’t be the first socialist guilty of reflexive suspicion towards technological innovation and the capitalists that had made it possible. The Luddites you will always have with you.

For whatever reason, Engels failed to see how the invention of synthetic dyes was a boon to workers and society as a whole, a future in which the rare colors of kings would become the ordinaries of proles. Capitalist incentives had once again commissioned a technological innovation that could push back against harsh, natural scarcity. Life would become a little bit brighter and bolder because of it.

Every one Aniline.

New Atlas | Manufacturing

Bionic Silkworms Spin Fibers 6X Tougher than Kevlar

“For the first time, scientists have successfully produced full-length spider silk fibers using genetically modified silkworms. With high strength and toughness, this silk has the potential to provide a scalable, sustainable and better-quality alternative to current synthetic fibers like nylon.”

From New Atlas.

Blog Post | Conservation & Biodiversity

Can Finance Save the Wolves?

Economics informs us that unsolvable societal disputes don’t have to become political wrestling matches.

Most people have quite the dire view of finance and markets. Unscrupulous bankers and pompous hedge funds place unsound bets on obscure and risky investments; greedy businessmen jack prices and fire workers at the first sight of recessions caused by their own avarice. Money rules the world, goes the trope. But that also means that financial incentives have the power to align behavior more powerfully than most appeals to morals, kindness, or the good of the community.

Yale University finance professor William Goetzmann opens his book Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible with the observation that “finance is the story of a technology: a way of doing things. Like other technologies, it developed through innovations that improved efficiency. It is not intrinsically good or bad.” Markets, especially those for financial assets and property, are a way to rearrange reality’s unavoidable risks, benefits, and payoffs; they are “by, for, and about people’s lives.”

One fascinating way that modern financial engineering helps make the world a better place is through counterintuitive payments, such as in global forestry. Making money by chopping down trees is a model that everyone understands—get chainsaws and harvesters, hire some laborers, chop trees, and sell the wood for profit.

Another way is to make money by not chopping down trees, courtesy of resourceful financiers and carbon sequestration markets. In efforts to reduce their carbon emissions, major corporations routinely pay forest owners to keep more trees in the ground for longer. This “negative logging” is made possible by financial flows from those who want more trees to those who manage them.

In 2021, the World Bank paid nine districts in Mozambique’s Zambézia province for keeping forests intact. When in power, Brazil’s ex-president Jair Bolsonaro routinely tried to shake down the international community for cash payments in exchange for not deforesting the Amazon. Think what you will of this controversial political figure and his policies, but the economic mechanism his government proposed here was sound – rich Westerners want flourishing rainforests and an end to global deforestation, and poor farmers and loggers want to use economically unproductive land to better their standards of living. A deal naturally presented itself.

Well-structured financial payments can also solve another pickle that routinely devolves into political mudslinging: wildlife. City-dwellers often have a romanticized view of nature and ecologic systems, like the idea of healthy wolf populations. Ranchers and pastoralists who bear the visible costs of livestock killed usually have a different view. Cue unsolvable political showdowns.

In Sweden, where ecological concerns usually reign supreme, rural constituents and an anti-wolf lobby have recently gotten the upper hand. This summer, the government announced that it wanted to reduce the already inbred and endangered wolf population by half. The policy is based on no scientific evidence whatsoever. It is a political measure to reduce concentrated economic damages among a loud constituency.

It seems that only one group can be satisfied. The groups who favor more wolves and those favoring fewer can’t both have their way. When management over common-pool resources devolves into political disputes, policy usually pinballs between various interests as they wrestle control over the political apparatus.

Finance and Markets Can Align Mutually Incompatible Interests

Economics informs us that unsolvable societal disputes don’t have to become political wrestling matches. Instead, we need financial instruments and payoffs that have city-dwellers paying rural communities for the unavoidable death caused by having thriving predator populations.

If city-dwellers’ desire to have large or growing wolf populations in their countries is genuine, they should be willing to pay extra for cattle meat sourced from wolf territories, the livestock most at risk for wolf attacks.

Ecologic systems, like economic systems, are dynamic – changes to them don’t impact just one thing. When wolves return to areas where they were hunted to extinction during the 20th century, they unfortunately attack livestock or domestic animals. But they also keep the population of boars, deer, or elk in check, which reduce the damage to agriculture and gardens, cars, and people. Insurance companies could play a role by supporting conservation efforts for large predators—or offer reduced premiums for customers that do—since more wolves means fewer and/or more skittish deer and elk, which dramatically reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife.

Another way to achieve the same reshuffling of economic value is to have (generally wealthier) city-dwellers pay lavishly for ecotourism trips into areas where wolves are plentiful—like these projects in Spain’s Sierra de la Culebra. Some of the revenue streams should make it back to shepherds losing livestock to attacks or farmers who can credibly show the presence of wolves on their grounds (say, through wildlife cameras capturing their movements).

In Scandinavia, these conflicts become overwhelmingly political not only out of a lack of financial engineering but also because most compensation schemes are run by bureaucrats and financed by taxpayers. Vultures circle around political payouts as well as fresh carcasses.

Modeling by Anders Skonhoft at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology suggests that ex-ante payments for predator presence yield better outcomes than ex-post reimbursement of livestock damages. This is the animal husbandry equivalent to paying for not cutting down trees.

In the 1990s, the Swedish government introduced such an ex-ante scheme for the Sámi population and the reindeer they manage. Sámi herders routinely lose some 20 percent of their animals to carnivore attacks every year. By tying reimbursement to the presence of lynx and wolverine offspring rather than exact reindeer attacks, the scheme turns those most posed to disapprove of predators into their greatest defenders.

With the introduction of ecotourism in Africa and the Amazon, the same financial incentives have flipped loggers and poachers into guides, the enemies of predators becoming their greatest protectors. On a larger scale, the right financial structures—payouts, markets, and assets—can align the interest of unsolvable political enemies.

Curiosities | Manufacturing

In South Korea, Robots Are Taking Robots’ Jobs

“It’s a tale probably as old as labor markets: An influx of cheaper, foreign labor displaces some established workers, who seek protection from the government in the form of new restrictions on the immigrants they blame for taking their jobs.

The cycle is repeating itself right now in South Korea, with one new wrinkle: None of the workers are humans.

Executives—human ones—at some South Korean robot manufacturing firms tell the Financial Times that imported robots are starting to steal jobs from good ol’ domestic androids.”

From Reason.

Blog Post | Urbanization

Introducing Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World

“Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace,” as urban economist Edward Glaeser explains in his book The Triumph of the City.

Athens’s storied breakthroughs in philosophy are but one example of how cities have often been the sites of pivotal advances throughout history. Kyoto gave us the novel. Bologna gave us the university. Florence gave us the Renaissance. Paris gave us the Enlightenment. Manchester gave us the Industrial Revolution. Los Angeles gave us cinema. Postwar New York gave us modern finance . . . the list goes on. As Glaeser also notes, “Wandering these cities—whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid-cutting cross streets, around roundabouts or under freeways—is to study nothing less than human progress.”

If you’re not able to travel to each of these extraordinary cities, perhaps the next best thing is to embark on a virtual tour from the comfort of your home. To that end, I wrote a book surveying 40 of history’s greatest urban centers, showcasing each city at a moment in time when it notably contributed to progress.

Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World offers a fact-filled yet accessible crash course in global urban history, spanning from the agricultural revolution to the digital revolution. This book affirms the importance of cities to the story of human progress and innovation by shining a spotlight on some of the places that have helped create the modern world.

The book’s chapters can guide you through the Library of Alexandria, the stock exchange of Dutch Golden Age-era Amsterdam, and the pubs of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, all in an afternoon.

Centers of Progress “takes the reader on a time-travel cruise through the great flash points of human activity to catch innovations that have transformed human lives” at their moment of invention, according to writer Matt Ridley in the insightful foreword that he kindly provided. Come explore Agra as the Taj Mahal was erected and Cambridge as Isaac Newton penned the Principia. Meet engineers in Ancient Rome, Silk Road merchants in Tang Dynasty Chang’an, music composers in 19th-century Vienna, and Space Age flight controllers in Houston.

Learning about past achievements may even hold the secret to fostering innovation in the present.

As I note in the book, “Although there are some exceptions, most cities reach their creative peak during periods of peace. Most centers of progress also thrive during times of relative social, intellectual, and economic freedom, as well as openness to intercultural exchange and trade. And centers of progress tend to be highly populated. . . . Identifying those common denominators among the places that have produced history’s greatest achievements is one way to learn what causes progress in the first place. After all, change is a constant, but progress is not.”

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to Hong Kong’s transformation from a war-ravaged “barren island” into a prosperous metropolis, many of the stories featured in Centers of Progress hold valuable lessons about the importance of ideas, people, and freedom. I hope that you will consider joining me on a journey through the book’s pages to some of history’s greatest centers of progress.