Saturday, April 04, 2009

On First Opening Cables Storm 

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies” … well not quite a new planet, as we all knew a bit about Vince Cable’s explorations of the ‘Realms of Gold’ and ‘Many Goodly States and Kingdoms’. Or even a Browned-Out Kingdom.

First impression of ‘The Storm’ is that it is a throwback to an honoured British institution, the Penguin Specials. These were books commissioned on matters of immediate controversy in the 1930’s and 1940’s giving a serious analysis and readable guide to matters of live and desperate public concern. So intelligent citizens could make up their own minds on what was what.

And there is a lot for us to take on board as we make up our minds.

The text is militantly plain and the discussion absorbing.

This is not an academic book so there is no barrage of footnotes. While this does increase its readability for many people it also makes it more difficult to follow up some of the points Vince raises, some in striking throwaway lines. An example; after the credit crunch of the 1720 South Sea Bubble:

… the venomous political climate .. led to legislation strengthening protectionist trade restrictions against Indian calico –wearing it became crime – thus transmitting the crisis from Europe to villages in Bihar and Bengal. (Cable 2009 p110)

Yes protectionist pressures once made it a criminal offence to wear cotton underwear in England. Only wool was permitted. Now that scratchy fact is probably familiar to most economics students, but where, general reader and political, activist (or even FOCUS writer), is one to find out more? (1)

Again there is no conventional list of source books rather asset of bibliographic notes. These make in clear that Vince made good use of John Kenneth Galbraith’s work on financial crashes, something you won’t glean from the (very sparse) index, which does not mention Galbraith. (2). This respect for JKG does please me and actually, quotes from Galbraith might well have summed up much of Vince’s case:

“Speculation buys up the intelligence of those involved”

“Financial genius comes before the fall”.

One of Vince’s major concerns is to prepare us all for hard and realistic decisions on living with the growth of India and China. Gazing at the Pacific in Wild Surmise won’t keep us alive over the next half century. So again a lot of work to be done, and much further reading for the concerned citizen.

In Party terms, this book is a bit of a risk for Vince and by extension the Party – as Job said ‘wouldst that mine adversary might write a book’. (3) If the book is right, it is a goldmine to steal from and if wrong a millstone that cannot easily be discarded. But that actually is a measure of how important Vince thinks his case is. It is more important that as many people as possible take his case seriously than that we LibDems get partisan benefits in the next election.

And no I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this book. If we can get up a debate on the details of content I will have things to say.

Now back to serious Cable reading.

(1) An excellent work on the world textile trade is Pietra Rivoli (2005) ‘The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy’. See pp152-156 for an account of the British Underwear Fiasco. Whatever was being ‘protected’ in this outburst of protectionism it wasn’t the nation’s naughty bits.
(2) Galbraith has been heavily sneered at in recent decades, classified as ‘not a proper economist’ because he didn’t indulge in complex mathematical modelling. For a representative sneer see the chapter on Galbraith in Diana Coyle (2005) ‘The Soulful Science’. Incidentally, Coyle is one of the writers associated with the concept of ‘Weightless Economics’, this being apparently something ‘new’ arising from Information Technology. No direct mention of this concept in Vince’s little book. Wonder if he would approve?
(3) Look this one up yourself, the Bible is online!

Oh yes and the poetic references...

John Keats
On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft on one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

And incidentally Chapman’s translation of Homer was pretty dreadful …

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