Persuasion

I’ve had a quiet August, taking time off for the first time in a few years—it feels quite peculiar. At least some of my readers will agree that after you break with work for a couple of weeks, the thought of restarting strains every sinew in your body.

I think that happens because when you stop it makes you aware of how much bullshit you put up with in your working day, a fact that your mind, the great conjuror, normally hides from you. There’s the added possibility that you don’t actually like what you do; for decades I’ve used the two-thirds rule—if two-thirds of what you do pleases you, don’t change.

Of course I’ve been able to fit more work into my holiday than a good number of folk do on a regular basis, but partly it’s because I don’t call it work. A couple of research papers out of the door, a little computer programming, some writing and a decent amount of research for Clear Eyes, and this blog.

And every time I see the news, the day turns into the tragedy of August. Bombings, beheadings, and bank failures, a stream of human stupidity that reaches from Mosul to Missouri. The Iraq crisis reads more and more like Atmos Fear.

When you’re on vacation you can have digital books or the internet, but not both. I was deep in analog country when I last had spare time to read, but now I’m just a tap away from my next book—I’ve read about ten so far, and it’s turning into a costly affair.

Elmore Leonard has been a firm favorite—he was so prolific I can still find a bunch of his stuff I haven’t read. I don”t think I ever left a bookshop with more than four books in my bag,  but this tapping business is terrible. It’s unsurprising then that there are a bunch of people out there who provide hacks to break the DRM, or Digital Rights Management—that’s the protection algorithm Amazon uses to stop digital books being illegally distributed.

But my conscience has weighed on me to finish Paper Promises, a book I’ve mentioned before when writing about the economy. It’s a nice book, which clarifies a good part of our economic mess, and is not optimistic about the future—I particularly liked the chapters on demography, and on the options the world has going forward.

It is a slow book to read, and the sort of material you put down and pick up again later. In the references section, John Maynard Keynes appears several times, and in particular I was intrigued by an essay from 1925, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill.

Luckily, this is not available as a digital book, but the whole set of Keynes’ writings is collated under the Gutenberg Project, in a text called Essays in Persuasion.

I had never read Keynes before, and I read him with delight. It’s not only the clarity of thought and choice of wording, but the simplicity with which ideas come across, and the river of humor that irrigates his writing.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Following the Treaty of Versailles, he wrote the following text in 1919.

In England the outward aspect of life does not yet teach us to feel or realise in the least that an age is over. We are busy picking up the threads of our life where we dropped them, with this difference only, that many of us seem a good deal richer than we were before. Where we spent millions before the war, we have now learnt that we can spend hundreds of millions and apparently not suffer for it. Evidently we did not exploit to the utmost the possibilities of our economic life. We look, therefore, not only to a return to the comforts of 1914, but to an immense broadening and intensification of them. All classes alike thus build their plans, the rich to spend more and save less, the poor to spend more and work less.

But perhaps it is only in England (and America) that it is possible to be so unconscious. In continental Europe the earth heaves and no one but is aware of the rumblings. There it is not just a matter of extravagance or “labour troubles”; but of life and death, of starvation and existence, and of the fearful convulsions of a dying civilisation.

There’s a certain irony in how things turned out, since in many parts of Europe today the rich save more and spend less, the poor work more and spend less.

Keynes argued that the economic cost to Germany of the compensation demanded by the Allies for the First World War was unsustainable, and that it would force the country into another war. The arguments he presents are strong, and in his paper he states that it is up to those who demand the enormous sums requested for war reparation to demonstrate Germany can pay them. But my favorite is his conclusion—it’s a little longer than a tweet, but much more fulfilling.

I cannot leave this subject as though its just treatment wholly depended either on our own pledges or on economic facts. The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable,—abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe. Some preach it in the name of Justice. In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations Justice is not so simple. And if it were, nations are not authorised, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.

These are the words of a humanist, of an economist who sees well beyond the money. I like the way Keynes capitalizes Justice, but not religion or rulers. Again, the irony of the essay is that so much of the analysis that precedes his final words would apply to the austerity programs imposed on Southern Europe by er… the Germans.

Keynes wrote the following in the preface to Persuasion, which was published in 1931.

Here are collected the croakings of twelve years—the croakings of a Cassandra who could never influence the course of events in time. The volume might have been entitled “Essays in Prophecy and Persuasion,” for the Prophecy, unfortunately, has been more successful than the Persuasion. But it was in a spirit of persuasion that most of these essays were written, in an attempt to influence opinion. They were regarded at the time, many of them, as extreme and reckless utterances.

Politicians today bandy the keynesian adjective willy-nilly, but no one echoes that fusion of humanism and pragmatism. In other words, as the preface states, the great man was ignored by all for stating inconvenient and obvious truths.

Perhaps it was the proximity of the Great War, and Keynes’ conviction of the imminence of a follow-up, that helped color those words on ‘depriving a nation of happiness’, but they ring so true in a good part of Europe almost one hundred years to the day.

All we’re missing now is the next war.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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