Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On nothing much at all, cross words and crosswords...

One of the little pastimes in our house is doing the daily crosswords. I get a perverse sense of enjoyment out of the frustration of taking on the cryptic – something I am not at all good at – while my wife tackles the synonym version. There is a fairly heated defence against getting involved in the other’s cross word without invitation (note, that is an acknowledged one-way street). But occasionally there will be the frustrated “What are they trying to ask for?” outburst; for my part it is usually “Bloody Tossman!!”. Anyhoos, the other evening I am greeted, not quite at the door but very soon after, with “Bloody cross word” followed by the usual “You will probably get the answer straight away.”. The clue was “understatement”, in 8 letters. Well, I confess to two things. I took until part way through CSI or whatever to work it out; and that very often I get the required answer through letter sequence recognition rather than “knowing” the answer.

So it was this time. I was confronted with an 8 letter word with “_i_o_e_”. It took about two hours, one in deep meditation (asleep in front of the box), to realise “litotes” as the answer. I confess that the “knowing” of the answer was deeply buried in an English grammer class, year 13. The teacher was a young fella rather unceremoniously nicknamed “Chook” by the class comedians because of the way that he moved his head as he walked. Had he not copped that moniker it would likely have been “gee-raff” as he was well over 6’6”. Hauling the answer from so far down in the Mires of Information Past was not a conscious act but an epiphany that might rival that of Paul’s on the road to Tire (or was it Tyre?) You could actually see the lightbulb!

But let’s ride a bit further.

I am presently reading a Victorian era novel, “Sybil”, written by one Benjamin D’Israeli. No, that is not the name he is usually known by, but his given name with his father’s family name. The book is fairly tough going, but worth it. I must make a point of going back and re-reading some of the bits that I have skimmed, along with the accompanying explanatory notes.

“Explanatory notes in a novel?” I hear? Yes, written by someone other than Benjamin D’Israeli to explain and put into historical context the very many side references to events current in the 1830’s. Someone reading the story at that time would have known immediately what those references were, common facts and names lost in the past.

It is also hard going because of D’Israeli’s style. I read one paragraph to my wife. It was the description of a ruined abbey, central to the story although not mentioned in the next 60 or 70 pages I have read. This particular paragraph is about 17 lines long, in Times 7 print, one sentence of about 120 words. And I was conscious of my own tendency to being long in the wind.

Al, I would commend it to you, as a not-so-light read. Mr D’Israeli spends at least half of his time discussing and describing the people, the living conditions, politics, economics and social attitudes of the times. It paints a very clear picture of just how he saw life in Britain in the second quarter of the 19th century.

Speaking of Al, and English history in the same breath raises the next item as well. “Standpoint” (thanks to ALD) has a review of sorts of Adam Smith which raises some very valid questions in my mind. A brief quote from the beginning sets it out very well –
…the present global financial crisis has made the godfather of classical economics [Smith] look strikingly irrelevant in comparison with Keynes, the inventor of modern disequilibrium theory. Even worse, now that bankers are being castigated as the incarnation of greed, blindness and irresponsibility, the man who wrote in his famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker" - or perhaps the banker in our day - "that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest" is again accused of being the chief advocate of heartless laissez-faire capitalism, a system that failed and had to fail. In this view, capitalism is nothing but a false religion, with Mammon as its god and Smith as its high priest.

The crux is in the criticism, and as Horn points out, its misunderstanding of a very important part of Smith’s economic.

It reflects too in my statements that Capitalism as a system is not immoral, or unworkable; nor is Socialism as a system a total failure. The innermost failings of both systems is not an inherent fault in either; other than the fact that they necessarily require the participation of humans.
Smith did not tolerate immoral behaviour. It would never have occurred to him that selfishness and greed might be viewed as being just normal - and even less that they might be morally laudable, let alone negligible. This differentiates him from Thomas Hobbes, in whose view man is a wolf to other men, and also from Bernard Mandeville, well-known for his poem "The Fable of the Bees", in which he - half satirically, half seriously - claims that private vices result in public benefits

It is this point which gets me (as Treebeard might have said) “somewhat hasty”. Very many of the people who quote the Smith mantra proceed to use it to justify the dishonesties, the selfishness, and the greed of their particular brand of capitalism. That amongst anything else was one of the main disagreements I had (have) with Ayn Rand
The Wealth of Nations is no ideological pamphlet - quite the contrary. It is an analytical treatise on the logic of the market, taking individual actions as the starting point of observation and explanation. Smith explains the workings of incentives. He differentiates between individual morality and the deontological laws applicable to complex systems. He sheds light on the rise and use of the division of labour. He justifies free trade, arguing still in terms of absolute advantage, however, not "comparative advantage". It took several decades and David Ricardo to find that out. Smith also attempts to construct a theory of value - his one big failure. Based on the cost of labour, this approach later opened an avenue for Karl Marx.

So, there goes one of my ambitions. If Smith was unable to construct a theory of value, then what hope has an average, unskilled, and untalented accountant such as myself?
I have tried, also, to argue the “sum of the parts” approach to the relationship between economic systems and markets on the one hand and society on the other; without any measure of success. Dave Justus might recognise that, as might some of the other more rabid right-whingers with whom I have attempted reasoned discourse. But enough of this histerical (intended pun) nonsense.

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