Life, leaving, and existentialism

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus by Andy Martin was recommended to me by somebody commenting on this blog, I remember not when. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, using the soap opera of French intellectual life in the mid-20th century to illustrate the philosophical debates.

I particularly liked the personal touch here. Andy Martin writes about his own intellectual discovery, starting out as an alienated small town teenager who happens upon a copy of Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant (in fact, he shoplifts it), and from there progresses to university, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and academic life. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a small town (Ramsbottom) in Lancashire where many people, including my dad and aunts and uncles, then worked in the cotton mills. Occasionally we visited Manchester  – once, I went to London. Our holidays were spent in Blackpool or Filey. From an early age, though, I dreamed of leaving and leading an entirely more glamorous life. Many small town young people do of course, but for in my mind glamour involved philosophy and abroad.

I particularly fixed on philosophy after our French teacher (Mme Sandler, I salute you) started us on Sartre’s Les Mains Sales and told us to read up on existentialism. My entire being came to be focused on becoming a philosopher and spending my career writing books while sitting in a Parisian café. Then I read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was an enlightenment.

Initially, Sartre and Beauvoir seemed more enticing, but before long it was obvious that Camus was more appealing as a person and as a philosopher. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper reinforces that. In particular, Sartre’s political calls post-war look highly morally dubious and I for one am all with Camus as their friendship turned to antagonism. But make your own mind up – read the book. There are some taster extracts here.

A footnote: an entirely different story about leaving behind the north of England, this column by Adnan Sarwar in this weekend’s Financial Times is absolutely beautifully written and thoughtful.

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Your economic history suggestions collated

A few days ago I asked, what economic history do economists need to know? Since then, I’ve thought of a few extra myself – although the list below barely still scratches the surface! Keep the ideas coming.

Power and Plenty, Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke

The Institutional Revolution, Douglas Allen

Against the Gods: The remarkable story of risk, Peter Bernstein

The Prize: the epic quest for power, oil and money, Daniel Yergin

Accidental Empires, Robert Cringely

Below, I’ve collated some of the additional suggestions other people have made.

Tom Clark, author of Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump, emailed: “Robert Shiller’s Irrational Exuberance. Arguably a bit old now, but still teaches you how to make sense of what’s going on in financial markets today in the light of decades of experience. Barry Eichengreen’s Globalising Capital, which does the whole history of the global monetary system v elegantly in a couple of hundred pages. The classic Marienthal study of the effect of unemployment (which I read in full for Hard Times, and is a powerful as well as a nice quick read).” He also suggested Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929.

Robotenomics: “I’d recommend considering Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction by Thomas McCraw, and Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital by Carlota Perez.”

Christopher May: Karl Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation

Brian Labatte: A. Chandler, Strategy and Structure; A. Sloan, My Years with General Motors.

Steven Clarke: “I’m currently reading David Landes The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present and would thoroughly recommend it.”

Ronald Grey: Manias, Panics, and. Crashes. A History of Financial Crises by Charles Kindleberger

Duncan Green: Anything and everything by Ha-Joon Chang (from Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective onwards) and Dani Rodrik (One Economics, Many Recipes).

Merjin Knibbe: Money, the unauthorized biography

Martin Chick tweeted:

Attlee8
@diane1859 My first year’s in British EH begin with Keynes, Essays In Persuasion; Meade Intelligent Radical’s Guide to Economy;
14/07/2014 07:52

Corruption and consumption

Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief is an absolutely terrific book – his Open City is now on my wish list. It is a portrait of Nigeria – Lagos, rather – by a returned Nigerian. One of his main preoccupations is the absolutely pervasive bribery, which he tries to resist but rarely successfully; another the texture of institutional failure and what that means for the country – and how it is linked to the absence of a sense of why history is important. Highly relevant reading for anybody interested in development economics, not to mention a wonderfully written, moving, fascinating book.

Cole writes: “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms. It is either seen as a mild irritant, or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.”  This is subtly different from Katherine Boo’s explanation for corruption in her book in life in an Indian slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, where she shows that people are too poor to give up any opportunity to make some money.

Other snippets from Every Day is for the Thief: “One goes to the market to participate in the world. As with all things that concern the world, being in the market requires caution. The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger. Strangers encounter each other in the world’s infinite variety, vigilance is needed. Everyone is there not merely to buy or sell but because it is a duty.”

“The oil and gas business rakes in lurid profits, there has been a great increase in cellphone use, and the banking sector is frenetic. The newspapers are full of mergers and acquisitions. These are the limits of the boom. It is good news in the sense that increased commerce is creating jobs, that the economy is active, and certain practical needs of the people are being met. Things are not as stagnant as they were in the dark days of the early and mid-90s. But there are now mores erious discrepancies in income levels, even among people with comparable educational qualifications. There is little incentive for people to go into professions that are not lucrative. Consumption, among those who can afford it, is conspicuous.”

And you ask, as I suppose you are meant to, who are the thieves.

Technology in history

I’ll collate the economic history suggestions another time. Meanwhile, though, seeing a recommendation for David Edgerton‘s influential The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 sent me to both that – which insists that there is too much cheerleading about invention and not enough focus on the implementation of technologies in specific historical contexts – and to his subsequent book, Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War.

The latter makes some contrarian arguments about the war. Edgerton argues that (a) Britain was the richest and most powerful combatant thanks to its imperial resources – it is a mistake to think of it as a beleagured nation standing alone begging for American charity, and Germany would (and did) struggle to combat it; and (b) the ‘declinist’ histories about Britain after the war (notably Corelli Barnett in The Audit of War and  The Lost Victory etc) are mistaken, as relative decline was due largely to strong growth in other countries.

Edgerton’s argument is pinned on a materialist account of the resources and technology developed and used by Britain. Some of this evidence is very striking. One example is a graphic showing the vastly, vastly greater tonnage of bombs the UK dropped on Germany compared with German bombing of the UK – the horrors of the firestorms and mythology of the Blitz notwithstanding. It’s all very interesting. Britain’s early defeats led to a huge emphasis on increasing production, he writes, saying there was a “powerful sense that the war was a war of production,” with contemporary debate focusing on industrial efficiency, or the lack of it.

The importance of scientific advance in the conflict is obviously a well-known part of the story, from codebreaking (my favourite account is R.V Jones’s Most Secret War) to the Manhattan Project. Edgerton adds to this the sense of Imperial power and the availability of material resources.

His reinterpretation is certainly interesting, and it must always be fruitful to test received wisdom. His claim that postwar decline is misinterpreted is less convincing, however. Surely the loss of Empire is a decline, whether you think it was a good thing or not? And the transition to US superpowerdom postwar is clear.

I see from his website that Prof Edgerton is working on currently working on Capitalism, Empire and Nation: a new history of twentieth-century Britain, a forthcoming book for Penguin. That will be an essential read.

What economic history do economists need to know?

There’s an interesting VoxEU column by Coen Teulings about the economic history economics students ought to know. The list is terrific for learning about economic growth and development, including for example Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel and Paul Bairoch’s Cities and Economic Development, as well as more recent entries like Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail. However, there are some obvious omissions – David Landes’ Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Joel Mokyr’s Gifts of AthenaThe Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz, not to mention some straightforward histories of the Industrial Revolution such as Bob Allen’s The Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. There are some less obvious omissions too – James Scott’s Seeing Like A State, maybe?

Economics students certainly need to have more history included in their courses – I would favour weaving it in as well as offering separate courses, because much as students claim to want to study economic history, I’m not at all sure they walk the talk in large numbers. However, the list in the VoxEU column is only one strand of economic history. For industrial organisation courses, for example, what’s needed is business history. The Mokyr book might feature, but so also Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand, or his book about DuPont, say, or a terrific book I read recently about Bell Labs, Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory.

I’m sure there are lots of other good suggestions out there – both books, and how to weave economic history into economic teaching. This summer I’m finalising my Public Policy Economics course to teach at the University of Manchester in the autumn so econ history suggestions for that are especially welcome.