In 260 BC, the ancient world of the Mediterranean was split in a great power struggle of the First Punic War between the sea power of Carthage and the land based legions of Rome. The conflict erupted around the Volcanic island of Sicily where local powers enlisted the help of Rome and Carthage to settle their own disputes.
Rome and Carthage at the start of the Punic War
Realizing that victory in the Mediterranean required a powerful fleet, Rome built over 100 ships within 2 months based on the design of a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme. Seafaring expertise was came from lower ranked officers who were often Greeks. The Romans also borrowed another old Greek invention, the corvus. This was a movable bridge their legions could use to board enemy ships that got too close.
At the Battle of Mylae, Rome won its first naval victory where they boarded and captured 30 Carthaginian ships before the Carthaginians learnt to avoid the corvi. Eventually, the Roman naval tactics improved and they could dispense with the structurally destabilizing corvus and fight the Carthaginians on their own terms using battering rams on the prows of their ships.
Romans boarding a Carthaginoan ship
Rome’s eventual victory in the 23 year long war has been attributed to many things. Roman persistence in the face of heavy odds rather than suing for peace, its ability to mobilize private investment into the war effort (Carthaginian nobility were unwilling to risk their fortunes) and also their engineering innovation of the corvus.
But there is one more interesting thing. Undersea archaeologists have recovered some of the battering rams used during the war and have been able to decipher some of the inscriptions etched on them. The Carthaginian rams had grand statements invoking their gods and goddesses to destroy their enemies, the Roman rams contained the simple and prosaic information that the ram had been inspected and passed by a quality inspector. Maybe the Romans won because they were dull and methodical.
My first trip to the United States was in 2007. On the way from the airport to the hotel, I remember the cab driver overtaking an 18 wheel truck on a turn at a speed I would have considered suicidal in India. I remember the tightening in my guts as I imagined the truck moving just a few inches to the side. It was later that I realized that I had probably been safer then than I had been at any point on an Indian road. The cab driver knew exactly what to expect from the truck driver. In India, traffic is slow because we try to allow for wide margins of error from all other drivers.
US traffic (left), Indian traffic (right)
Again in a department store, I was impressed by the cashiers who seemed far more efficient and better trained than their Indian counterparts. Before I realized it, one girl scarcely out of high school had sold me a tea container I probably didn’t need and had very nearly managed to get me to buy some 30% more tea than I had intended to buy.
The secret of the American economy was not the talent in Silicon Valley (there is plenty in India), but the dull, overarching systems that make day to day living efficient and hassle free. The systems are designed to require minimal talent or interpretation on the part of the worker, just a basic adherence to simple instructions and result in smooth operation. Manufacturing production lines may be disappearing from the US, but the miracle of standardized mass production remains ingrained in the culture.
The backbone of the US economy
It is not surprising that terms like ‘creative destruction’ and ‘anti-fragile’ come from the US and not the third world. To shake up the system, you need an underlying bedrock of stability that gives you the confidence to take such risks. Even the much criticized social and medical security systems provides people the confidence to take career risks. Cultures where all safety nets are restricted to personal and family savings tend to be far more risk averse.