Ask a Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert

by Ted on January 31, 2005

Since Crooked Timber’s first publication in 1953, “Ask a Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert” has consistently been one of its most popular features. We are pleased to bring you the novelist Kenneth Gardner, author of Rich Man’s Coffin.

I’m baffled at the economics of nineteenth-century whaling. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville says that a whaling expedition would be a success if a crew of 40 men captured the oil from 40 whales in 48 months. Each whale produced about 40-50 barrels of oil. Presumably this oil had to be cover the approximate costs of four years’ labor, plus the costs of operating the ship, plus a sizeable profit for the investors in these risky ventures.

How could whale-oil have been so valuable? I understand that it was scarce, that illumination is highly desirable, and apparently it smelled nice. But there were substitutes, weren’t there?

Ted B., Houston, TX

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Odds and ends

by Ted on January 31, 2005

– The biggest news today, the election in Iraq, seems to have gone better than I would have dreamed. It’s no secret that I don’t think that the Bush administration has much to be proud of. But they deserve credit, along with the courageous Iraqi voters, for the first real elections in half a century. When Bush said that the terrorist hostility to the elections showed the emptiness of their vision, he was exactly right.

Iraq isn’t out of the woods. There may come a time when we look back and see how the elections made inevitable the Iraqi civil war/ next brutal strongman/ rise of our robot overlords. However, let the record show that, as of 1/30/05, I certainly didn’t have any better ideas.

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Prospects for Iraqi Democracy

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2005

The “Iraqi elections”: have gone off successfully, in the sense that the turnout was good and the violence relatively contained. That’s very good news. Now comes the hard business of establishing a real government. I’m sympathetic with “John’s view”: that it might not be such a bad thing if the U.S. took a “Declare Victory and Go Home” attitude, even though that’s one of the scenarios people were most worried by before the invasion. Getting out would leave the government in a position to at least try to run its own country, instead of inevitably playing second-fiddle to the U.S. occupying forces. I’m not sure any more that this is likely to happen, though.

The best possible outcome of the weekend’s election is a successful completion of the present government’s term followed by another real election. It’s often said that the key moment in the growth of a democracy is not its first election but its second, because — as Adam Przeworski says somewhere — a democracy is a system where governments lose elections. The question planners need to be asking is what are the chances that Iraq will be able to do this again in four or five years without the presence of U.S. troops and with the expectation that whoever wins will get to take power. This partly depends on whether some functioning government can really be established within the country, and partly on whether the U.S. wants a working democracy in Iraq (with the risks that implies) or just a friendly puppet state.

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